I'm very sorry this has taken so long.

I could give you a lot of excuses, from work to writer's block, but the simple truth is I goofed up, and I'm sorry for keeping all of you waiting for so long.

I can't guarantee this will never happen again, but I will try my best to make sure the next chapter arrives in a timely manner, and that it is, hopefully, shorter than this one. (Though I know better than to make a definitive promise on that.)

In any event, you are all invited to attend an event that's been a long, long, long time coming: the marriage of Leo and Lily.

I hope you'll all find it worth the wait. I think it was.

Disclaimer: I don't own anything that doesn't belong to me.

One week after the events of the 97,547th session of the Grand Council of Fichina…

As a mystical land steeped in enchantment and wonder, every landmark and piece of land in Fichina had something magical about it. Twisting Mountain, located in the Everfreeze region that, as the name implied, was perpetually in wintry conditions, was no different. The mountain had been carved by wind spirits so that it was shaped like a spiral, with a wide, twisting path leading all the way from its narrow base to its broad peak. (Yes, you read that correctly. The mountain was actually upside-down due to some frost giants playing toss with it a while back, so the original pinnacle was buried in the ground while the broad base was sticking straight up in the air. And if you're wondering why it wasn't named 'Spiral Mountain,' they'd tried to, but some other mountain already had that name, so they stuck with Twisting Mountain instead.)

Atop this sprawling plateau at the mountain's peak peak was a massive monastery and dojo dedicated to teaching Fighting skills to those who sought mastery of magical martial arts, with a special focus on the power of Aura. It had been established centuries ago when an Aura Master, concerned with how his kind were starting to dwindle, asked the then-leader of the Yukihimi family-to whom Everfreeze belonged-for permission to build a facility in her domain which could be used to train future Aura Guardians as well as hopefully raising the numbers of Aura-users who already existed, a sadly diminishing number. The Duchess of that age, Lily Yukihimi's great-grandmother, granted his request, allowing the Master to build a monastery atop Winding Mountain, since everyone knew all the best dojos had to be on top of icy mountains. It was the rule.

It was in this monastery that Master Brysen and Fichina's other Aura Guardians had trained, and it was to the masked Beartic that the monastery had been left to when his own master became one with Aura. (You know…died.) And it was also in a secluded room inside this monastery that we find our hero, the Lucario Ash, sitting with crossed legs before a burning candle, hands folded in his lap and eyes closed as he meditated, attempting, as he had tried to every day for the last week, to conquer his demons.

"Inner peace…inner peace…" he chanted, trying to focus on something calm and peaceful. A waterfall pouring down into a shimmering reflective pool, rainbows arching through the air as light refracted through the drops of water. An endless meadow full of beautiful flowers. His children, smiling and laughing as they played in the backyard. Her body falling to the ground, a gaping hole in her chest from where Lord Null had torn out her heart-

He flinched. The candle's flame, as blue as Aura, flickered. He took a deep breath, tried to slow down his rapid heartbeat, and started again. "Inner peace…inner peace…" As his pulse decreased, more calming images filled his mind. The icy beauty of Lily's manor. The city of New Avalon at night, lit up so brightly it was almost impossible to tell that the sun had set. The surreal wonder and complexity of the Fantasma estate. Pokétropolis burning to the ground-

No. He clenched his paws for a moment, suppressing a tremor. The flame flickered again. He took a deep, slightly shuddering breath, and began once more. "Inner peace…inner peace…" Firefly Bay back home lit up at night by the strange wisps that darted across the surface of the water. Another delicious home-cooked dinner at the Thunderblade household with all his extended family. His mother's face as she died in his arms-

No. He ground his teeth, the shaking a little harder to stop this time. The flame wavered wildly, coming close to going out. He took a ragged breath as he tried to stabilize his emotions. "Inner peace…inner peace…" He thought of Pikachu sparring with Dawn, the look of mutual love and respect in their eyes as they shared entire conversations in each clash of their blades. Leo expositing on some obscure piece of trivia that only he seemed to understand to a rapt Lily, who had no idea what he was talking about but was enthralled by the sound of his voice, pure love shining on her face. Tiny playing and frolicking like the child he should be, the ghosts of his rather traumatic past far behind him. Sasha and Briney watching in amusement from afar as their younger teammates relaxed after a long day of traveling towards whatever their next destination was, the weight of the world on their shoulders forgotten at the moment as they took this time to enjoy themselves and strengthen the bonds connecting them together. In the vision, he smiled and leaned against Misty as they watched their friends laughing and having a good time, while Tiny floated around playing with his older siblings. Feeling utterly content and at peace, he turned towards the Vaporeon beside him and bent down to kiss her…

Until her face melted off to reveal the visage of the guilt-ghost, who whispered, "This never happened, and it never will," her teeth locked in a rictus grin.

And just like that, all the darkness he'd been trying so hard to keep at bay rushed in as the mental dams holding them back shattered, the imaginary idyll he'd been constructing vanishing as far more nightmarish images took their place. Ash's teeth chattered and his body shook like a leaf as he struggled to get himself back under control, the candle flame flickering more and more as his emotional state destabilized. "I-inner peace…inner p-peace…"

Against his will, he saw things that were not even remotely conducive to inner peace. The remains of settlements and groups of wild Pokémon they'd been too late to save from barbarians. The rampant squalor and corruption of Treasure Town. The gallery of horrors that had been Doctor Tarantulas' laboratory in the Tree of Beginning. The abomination that Michael's sister had been turned into. The gruesome slaughter of Michael's grandmother. The horrific destruction of the Tree of Beginning. His brutal beating at Paul's claws. Ford's…trophy hall, which he had come far too close to becoming a part of.

He trembled. The flame wavered more and more. He continued his chant. "Inner peace…inner peace…"

Brodie stealing his identity and face and the souls of Twilight's Edge. The ravenous, spirit-slurping monster that the Ditto had turned into when desperation struck. The twisted, hateful thing Manaphy had become. The welcome Bellum had laid out for them when they'd arrived at Dusty Ditch. Denchu's brood crawling all over him, and the awful nightmare he'd had while he was her captive. Lugia, killing himself over and over. The blasphemy that had been Maelstrom.

His trembling worsened. The flame began to change color. "Inner peace…inner peace…"

He could hear them. The voices of the victims of the Nihilators, screaming in agony, begging for mercy, cursing his name for his failure to rescue them. Their screams turned into the laughs of Tarantulas, Chobin, Bellum, the birds and Oblivion's Shadow, mocking him for his failures and inadequacies and all the lives they'd taken because he'd been too weak to stop them. And then those laughs changed again, into that of Lord Null and that ghoul that masqueraded as Misty, taunting him for the horrors he'd committed in the past. And then they morphed one last time…to become his own laughter, reveling in the blood he had spilled and the lives he had ended both as a hero and as a monster, gleefully looking forward to killing again, to making the whole world burn…

"I-inner…inner…inner peace…inner p-peace…" he whispered, the chant turning into a desperate mantra, a plea for salvation, one that would not be answered. The room began to shake as well, dust falling from the rafters and rolling across the floor. The candle's flame grew steadier, but its color darkened.

He saw the destruction of Pokétropolis. Paul's horrific death. The birds cruelly murdering his friends. His mother dying in his arms. His…his transformation into his worst nightmare…that embodiment of darkness and destruction, desiring nothing more than the end of all things, not out of hatred or disdain but simply because it was there.

His mouth opened. Nothing but a strangled, pathetic squeak emanated from his lips. Dust swirled in the air around him, forming strange patterns. The flame was standing unnaturally still, its hue turning darker and darker.

He saw her death, over and over again. He saw him cradle her body to his chest, weeping as the life fled from her and blood stained his clothes and face and hands. He saw his transformation once again into that most monstrous of monsters.

He saw…he saw…

He saw the world end.

The flame turned pitch black.

Ash's eyes shot open. He was no longer alone in the room. Sitting in front of him on the opposite side of the candle, its posture matching his exactly, was what looked like a mirror image of himself…one made completely of black fire, empty white eyes staring out at him from a mass of flames darker than the darkest night. Ash stared in horror at the other Lucario, his breath catching in his throat.

"Boo," Misty's voice whispered into his ear, her rancid breath brushing the side of his face.

Ash jumped, screaming. The candle flared and went out, throwing the room into darkness, filled only by the ghoul's laughter.

The flame relit a second later, brighter than before, revealing that Ash was alone in the room. Also, there was a very large pile of dust sitting on the other side of the candle from him that looked disturbingly like some kind of sculpture of himself. As he panted, trying to catch his breath, the dust collapsed on itself and rose into the air, flying down his throat. Coughing as it started to choke him; Ash staggered to his feet and stumbled towards the door, desperately pounding on it as he struggled to expel the foreign substance from his lungs. The door opened abruptly, and he nearly fell out, stumbling across the floor as he tried to gain control of his coughing. A thick paw extended a glass of water to him. The Lucario gratefully snatched the glass from the paw and drank its contents in one gulp, sighing in relief as the dust was cleared from his throat. Panting, he wiped his mouth and handed the glass back to Master Brycen. "Thanks."

"You're most welcome," the masked Beartic said as he took back the glass, which disappeared in a burst of Aura. He frowned as he looked over Ash. The Lucario's fur was covered in dust and sticky from sweat, there were dark circles under his eyes (well, darker than usual), his breathing was ragged, and he was shaking slightly. "From your condition, I take it that you have failed to obtain inner peace."

"Wow, observant, isn't he?" Misty snarked.

Biting back a similar comment, Ash nodded miserably. "I couldn't do it. I…I tried as hard as I could, but…I just couldn't."

Brycen nodded, not looking surprised. "Inner peace is a difficult state to attain. It took me many years to reach that feeling of oneness with myself. You cannot expect to achieve the same in only a few days."

"A few days are all I have," Ash said bitterly. "I don't have years to put my heart back in balance. I need to purify myself as soon as possible. I can't…I can't possibly fight Oblivion's Shadow like this. He'll destroy me. Or worse…I'll destroy him, and everything else. Including my friends."

"I'm hoping for either outcome," Misty said cheerfully. "Though personally I'd prefer the first, but you know why."

Brycen shook his head apologetically. "I am sorry; Ash, but I do not know what else I can do for you. My attempts at Purging you or Diving into your heart have only met with failure, the knot of darkness inside you repelling all my attempts to dispel it. I have studied my own copy of Secrets of an Aura Master, but if it holds the answers, it will not reveal them to me. The Life Equation is the only sure-fire thing I can think of that could destroy the darkness within you instantly, but there are none in Fichina who know it…or if there are, none of them will tell it. After all, it is theorized the Equation is different for every person, just as life itself holds a different meaning for every creature. I am afraid that only you can save yourself…which means that the only thing holding you back is also, well, yourself."

"Considering how the other attempts to 'fix' me over the past week have gone, I think you're right," Ash said unhappily. After the rather disastrous flashback triggered by the Fantasma's Star Badge, Ash had been desperately searching for any method, be it magical or scientific or mundane, to cure himself of his inner darkness. Fantina had pulled every string she knew of and had him examined by countless doctors and mystics and psychologists. None of them had been able to yield any positive results. Any mage or Psychic who delved too deeply into his heart or mind found themselves repulsed, just as Brycen had been…and if they tried too hard to peer into the abyss inside him, found their minds shattered and their magic destroyed…or worse. Innumerable artifacts and spells designed to destroy evil had been used on him. Every artifact had shattered and every spell backfired, some so badly they nearly killed the casters. He had bathed in several sacred springs, only for the springs to become unbearably foul and needed to be drained…or worse, condemned. He'd even tried gazing into the Mirror of Truth in Reshiram's temple in hopes that the spirit of the mirror could help him confront the truth he was apparently hiding from himself, since general consensus from everyone who'd examined him was that part of the reason the darkness was so strong was because he was still suppressing something about how it had come into being from himself…and paradoxically, that same suppression might have been the only reason that darkness hadn't overwhelmed him just yet.

The Mirror had shattered. Needless to say, he wasn't welcome back in the temple anymore. That, and he'd apparently been cursed with 7,777,777 years of bad luck, assuming Leo wasn't kidding around.

So far, training with Brycen in the monastery alongside other Aura Guardians, something he'd never had the privilege of back in Pokémon Square since he'd been the only Aura wielder around what with Aaron out on his journey of self-improvement, had been the only thing that brought some measure of peace to the turmoil of emotions inside of him and made the voice of the guilt-ghost, who had been pestering him worse than ever since he had seen the latest vision of the past, stay quiet for more than a little while. Unfortunately, while training in the monastery made him feel a little better, it didn't bring him any closer to being cured, and if this latest exercise, an attempt to balance himself and achieve inner peace through meditation and quiet contemplation, was anything to go by, he was not going to find a solution to his dilemma here.

"You're not going to find a solution anywhere, because there is none," Misty said cruelly. "All you're doing is putting off the inevitable, Ash. If you don't admit the truth, the darkness will eventually consume you. And if you do admit the truth, it'll also consume you, but much faster. Damned if you do, damned if you don't, huh? Serves you right for everything you've done."

"How can I stop myself from making things that much more difficult for myself?" a frustrated Ash asked Brycen. "And should I, if forcing my subconscious to finally reveal whatever it's hiding from me only drives me insane rather than helping me deal with…with this?"

The Beartic shrugged apologetically. "I'm sorry, Ash, but I don't know. I've done all that I could think of to help you. I'd really thought this exercise might work. I'm just as disappointed and frustrated as you are that it failed."

"Ha, I doubt that," Misty said. "After all, it's not him who's slowly turning into an avatar of destruction, now is he?"

"All I know is that what you're doing to yourself isn't healthy, and is only leading to your own destruction," Brycen said. "Stopping it might achieve the same thing, yes, but it may also lead to your salvation. That is my hope, anyway."

"It's a false one," Misty said.

Ash nodded. "I guess that's as good as it's gonna get, huh?" He sighed in frustration, clenching his fists. "It's just…"

"Yes?" Brycen asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I…it's nothing," Ash lied.

Brycen frowned. "Ash, have you forgotten? You are not supposed to be bottling up your emotions anymore. That will only make things worse."

"I thought I was also supposed to keep my emotions under control," Ash questioned.

"There's a difference between keeping them under control and pretending they aren't there," Brycen pointed out. "What is…no, I shouldn't ask what the problem is, that's a stupid question. What I mean is…what did you want to say?"

Ash's shoulders slumped. He sighed, took a deep breath, and started talking. "I'm just…frustrated. Really, really frustrated. I mean…I mean, look at all the resources I have. I'm in possibly the most magical place on Earth, surrounded by all kinds of incredible wizards and witches and sorcerers and mages and warlocks and whatever other synonyms for people who use magic are called. I'm sure Leo could think of a few dozen more if I asked him. I'm surrounded by tons of incredibly powerful individuals who are willing to help me, even actual gods, and yet, for some reason, absolutely none of them are able to do a thing about this…this thing inside of me! It's not just frustrating, it's exasperating! Seriously, so much magic and power and other stuff, and not a one of them, not even you, can find a way to help me! It just…it just makes me want to…"

"Destroy the world? Kill yourself?" Misty suggested perkily.

"Ash…" Brycen said quietly.

"And on top of all that, I've got this tremendous responsibility looming over me! I'm apparently supposed to not only defeat Oblivion's Shadow and save the world, but I'm going to have to somehow beat the Ruler of Evil, the greatest evil there ever was, and save all of reality. Don't you think that's an awful lot of pressure to put on one person?!" Ash asked, looking upset and despondent.

"Yes," Brycen agreed. "It is."

Ash put his face in his hands. "I'm…I'm sorry, I don't want to rant or sound selfish, but…I don't…I don't want to be the Chosen One anymore. I know I have to do it. I know I don't have a choice. But that doesn't change how I feel about it. Is that selfish of me?"

Brycen put a paw on the Lucario's shoulder. Ash looked up at him. "Not in the slightest," the Beartic said calmly. "It is completely and totally understandable that you would feel this way, Ash. You're right. An awful lot is being asked of you, and the fact that you already have so many other problems, problems that are apparently so great and deep-rooted that nobody but yourself can conquer them, isn't helping. Any person would feel scared and hurt and unhappy with such an arrangement, not just you. In fact, if you didn't feel all those things, I'd think something was wrong with you."

"Maybe it would be better if that was how I felt," Ash said unhappily. "Without all these emotions in the way, I'd probably be a much better weapon against evil."

"On the contrary, your ability to feel is one of your greatest assets. After all, Aura is powered by the heart, and the heart is nothing without emotions to fill it," Brycen said. "And while not all those emotions are necessarily positive—Shadow Aura has to come from somewhere, after all, something you know all too well—the fact that you can feel them just makes you that much more Pokémon. Nobody is perfect. Even the gods are flawed, something more of them could stand to acknowledge."

"It's my flaws that are causing this problem, though," Ash pointed out.

"Then it is those flaws you must resolve, one way or another," Brycen said. "Arceus made us all flawed, after all. Nobody's really sure why, but the prevailing theory is so that we have something to work against to prove the worth of our existence. Some of us…just have to work a little harder than others."

"Wow, that's uplifting," Misty said.

"That's not exactly the best motivational line I've heard," Ash said.

Brycen smiled apologetically. "There's a reason we don't have elevators or allow teleportation in this place. Walking up and down all the stairs cut into the mountainside whenever you're coming and going is strenuous and time-consuming, but ultimately worth it, just as the best things in life are. If you were not capable of conquering your demons, you wouldn't have made it past the first hundred steps the first time you climbed up here. I know it is hard, but I believe you have the capability to overcome. Everyone does. All of us are putting our hopes and faith in you, Ash, and I'm well aware that that's a pretty heavy burden on its own…but we wouldn't be laying all this on your shoulders if we didn't absolutely believe that you're capable of carrying it. We know you are strong enough to prevail, Ash. Even if you doubt your own strength, always remember that we believe you can do it."

"That's supposed to make you feel better?" Misty sneered. "He's just putting that much more weight on you! Now you've gotta keep from letting all these people who believe in you down! Some motivation!"

"I'm not sure I can live up to all the expectations everyone has in me," Ash confessed, knowing he was supposed to be honest about his feelings.

Brycen smirked. "Oh really? Ash, tell me, how many Pokémon's lives have you saved?"

Ash frowned at this. "Uh…I dunno. I haven't exactly kept track. Pikachu had more of a head for numbers, and we usually let Scotty tally up points for that sort of thing."

"A rough guess, then," the Beartic said.

"Well…um…" Ash frowned in thought. Just how many Rescue missions had he been on, anyway? "Gosh, I don't know. A…a lot, I guess."

"And how many times have you saved the world?" Brycen pressed.

Ash blushed at this. "I've lost track of that, too. Over a dozen times, maybe? Maybe more?"

"You can do all that, and you still don't think we're right to believe in you?" Brycen asked with a grin.

Ash blinked. Slowly, a smile came to his face. "Well…when you put it that way…"

"And even if it still feels like too much, remember this: where was it ever said that only you could bear this burden?" Brycen asked.

"Huh? What are you talking about?" Ash asked in confusion. "I'm the Chosen One. Doesn't that mean it's all on me?"

"When you saved all those Pokémon's lives, and even the world, how often did you do it all by yourself?" Brycen asked.

Ash considered this. "Well…not that often, I guess. Every time I got involved in something big, I was only able to succeed with the help of my friends."

"And that's exactly what you'll do this time, too," Brycen said confidently. "Your friends will stand beside you no matter what happens. They will help shoulder the weight destiny has laid upon you, as they have in the past. And remember that they are not the only ones supporting you. Or do you think that you are the only ones who will be fighting the Nihilators in the days to come? All of Fichina, nay, the entire world has agreed to come together against this great threat. This is not just your fight anymore, Ash. All of us are involved. And all of us will work together to save our world." He smiled. "You are not the only one who has to be the hero, after all."

"I…yeah. Yeah, I guess that's true," Ash realized. "I'm not the only one fighting, am I? But…in the end, won't it still come down to me to take down the Shadow and the Ruler of Evil?"

"Perhaps, but do you really think your friends will let you fight those fiends on your own?" Brycen asked.

"No," Ash admitted. "But if they try to stand beside me, they might get killed."

"And that's stopped them before?" Brycen asked dismissively.

Ash found himself smiling again. "Heh. No, I guess not."

"And that's going to make you feel better when they all get killed because they chose to get involved in a fight beyond their abilities to handle?" Misty snarled.

"They could still die, though," Ash said uneasily.

"That still won't stop them. And if they die…well…then at least they made sure that you weren't alone, when you needed them most," Brycen said.

"Some reassurance," Misty grunted.

"And Ash…think on this. Being the Chosen One is not easy, I understand that. But…would you really allow yourself to give the mantle, and the responsibility that comes with it, to another?" Brycen asked.

"The thought is tempting," Ash said honestly. "I mean, there've been plenty of people who've said that I'm not fit to have the title."

"Yes, but if you had the chance to give it up, would you actually do it?" Brycen asked. Ash started to open his mouth. "And before you say anything, remember this: whoever becomes the Chosen One instead will have to deal with everything you are right now."

"What, even the darkness within?" Ash asked skeptically.

"Well…maybe not that," Brycen admitted. "But remember, you are not the only hero who has had to wrestle with his demons. You know far better than I that being the Chosen One does not make you exempt from that. So, with that in mind: if you could give up being the Chosen One, knowing that somebody else would have to take up the title, and all the terrible responsibility and expectations that come with it, would you?"

Ash thought about this. He thought long and hard for several minutes, while Brycen waited patiently and Misty whispered insults and lies in his ear. Finally, he sighed and said, "There's a part of me—a really big part of me—that wants to. That wants to let someone else have to deal with all this shit, so I can have something approximating a normal life, or at least one without so many people counting on me. That wants to give the job to someone more balanced and well-adjusted, someone who's way more qualified and suited for the position than me."

Brycen nodded. "But?"

"But…I can't," Ash admitted. "It's the irresponsible thing to do. All my life, day in and day out, I've run into people who needed help, people who needed a hero. For whatever reason, I was the one they found, and the one who gave them the assistance they needed. There was no way of knowing if someone else would come along to help them out if I ignored them and kept on going, and no way to tell if that someone, whoever it was, would not only help them rather than doing the same thing I did but would even be capable of giving them the kind of help they needed. I know now this is because a lot of my childhood was set up by the powers that be to put me in this mindset, to make me incapable of turning my back on anyone. But even knowing that…even knowing I'm like this because they made me this way…I could never forgive myself if I refused to help the people who need it, the people who are counting on me, just because I'm having some issues of my own at the moment. I made that mistake once, back in the past…and even now, I still think that I might have been able to keep the world from ending if I had just gone to train with the Aura Guardians, rather than going to some stupid tournament. The world is more important than my dreams…no matter how painful it might be to turn my back on those dreams, at least I'm the only person who'd be hurt by doing that, which is more than could be said if I turned my back on the world." He shook his head. "I just…can't. I can't let someone else do this, because there's no way to know if they can do it in my place, or even if they'll succeed. I don't know if I will, either, but…if I do it, then at least I know I'll be doing my best to make sure it gets done right, which is something I can't be positive will happen if I let someone else take a whack at it."

"Not even Ritchie? He seems like a pretty capable fellow, and there are more than a few people who seem to think that he might make a better Chosen One than you are," Brycen said. "Especially since he lacks your…baggage."

"Ha! So not even he believes you can do it!" Misty Murkrowed.

Ash ignored her. "Ritchie's a great guy. And you're right, he doesn't have my baggage, and with that armor of his, he may actually be a more powerful hero than I am. But he has his own path to follow. And aside from that…" Ash shook his head. "He doesn't know the evil of the Nihilators. Not really. He's seen what they're capable of, heard what they've been doing…but he doesn't have the same experience with them that I do. Until last week, the worst kinds of people he's had to fight were religious zealots who, while willing to kill hundreds of people to achieve their goals, are at least willing to minimize collateral damage and threats to civilians, and believe in some twisted way that they're doing the right thing. The Nihilators aren't like that. They're evil, pure and simple. They don't care who gets hurt, or how, so long as they have fun doing it. He's not ready to face something like that, not really. Against Oblivion's Shadow…I don't think he'd last for more than a minute. And while I'm not sure I'm quite ready, either, I think I might be more qualified to handle it than him…I've had more experience fighting the Nihilators. I know what they're like. I know what they can do. This is also why I know that I can't risk letting him fight them, because while he's heard what they can do, he doesn't really understand it…and that lack of comprehension could get him killed."

Brycen nodded, looking pleased. "And that is why you are the Chosen One. Because you are willing to take on the impossible burden, to face an unimaginable foe, because you cannot allow anyone else to risk themselves in your place."

Ash smirked ruefully. "Well, that's one way of putting it. It could also just be my Lucario genetics talking. There's a reason pretty much none of my species has ever been evil or were even just a bystander during a fight, as far as I know."

"I'm sure that has a part in it too," Brycen agreed. He reached out and gently touched a claw to Ash's chest, right over his heart. "But there is more to a Pokémon than just their DNA, Ash. You are not a hero because you are a Lucario. You're a hero because you're you."

"…Thank you, Master," Ash said quietly.

"Oh please, what a load of Tauroscrap," Misty said derisively. "You know what I think? What I know? That you're going to fail. That you're going to let everyone down, just like you let me down. Because you're you, Ash Ketchum, and ultimately, all you are is nothing more than a giant failure!"

"Well, enough of that philosophizing and soul-searching for one day," the Beartic said, clapping a paw on Ash's shoulder and guiding him down the hall past other meditation chambers, some occupied, some not. "We need to get you to the Draconian Embassy. General Shinobu of the Draconian Empire should be arriving shortly so he can meet you and your friends, as well as see his daughter in the ectoplasm for the first time in their unlives. And on the day before her wedding, too! That should certainly be quite the event, don't you think?"

Ash nodded. "It's certainly shaping up to be, Master. When my mom heard, she was rather disappointed we hadn't asked her to help set it up."

"Ah, that's right, your family is coming too, along with young DeKappa's, correct?" Brycen recalled.

Ash nodded. "That's the plan, Master. It'll…it'll be nice to see them all again."

Brycen smirked. "And who knows? Perhaps they'll help you find the peace you've been lacking so far."

"Or maybe they'll push you over the edge, once they realize just how much of a monster you really are," Misty hissed.

"One can only hope," Ash said wistfully.

"Anyway, let's pick up your son. I don't think he'd be happy if he missed the chance to meet his other siblings and uncles and grandparents because he got too caught up in his training!" Brycen said, stopping at one of the doors lining the hallway. "I haven't checked on him recently, but he seemed to be doing pretty well on his meditation the last time I saw him," the Beartic commented as he started undoing the locks on the chamber door. "The boy has really flourished since he started training here. He seems to have the makings of a true prodigy. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if he'd managed to achieve inner peace already!"

"Heh, that would be something, wouldn't it?" Ash chuckled.

"Not bloody likely," Misty said.

Brycen gently opened the door…

Revealing Tiny, lying on his side, fast asleep, the flame of his candle flickering as each of his mighty snores blew air on it. Ash and Brycen sweatdropped. Misty burst into laughter. "Called it!" she said.

"Well, that's one form of peace…" Brycen muttered as Ash shook his head in amusement.

"That's my boy," Ash said with a grin. "Come on, let's wake him up, I don't want to miss the arrival! Mom'll never let me hear the end of it if I'm late…"

Meanwhile, in New Avalon…

Floating high above the Bay of Enchantment and the Royal Palace taking up the central stretch of Fichina's capital city, the gravity-defying land mass known as the Holy Isle was one of the most eye-catching sights in the magical metropolis, and considering how many eye-catching sights were to be found in New Avalon, that was saying something. Its stunning giant statue of the Original One could be seen from just about everywhere in the city, casting its shadow over all below it and reminding everyone that Arceus was always watching. Connected to the temples on the mountains ringing New Avalon by rainbow bridges, the Holy Isle was both the headquarters of Fichina's local branch of the Arcean Order as well as a common ground where clergy from each faith could gather to have religious debates and discuss nation-wide matters of philosophy and faith and throw wild and crazy parties which they justified as being 'worship' to their respective gods.

Much like the other giant statues of legendary Pokémon, the massive sculpture of Arceus was hollow inside and served as the city's temple to venerate the Creator. A plaza covered in a magnificent glittering mosaic depicting Arceus creating the Omniverse out of nothingness was placed at the base of the statue's feet, with a great white flame burning in a brazier in the center of the plaza. This holy flame was one of the most sacred artifacts of the Arcean Order, said to be burning with a tiny fragment of the fires of Creation themselves. (It also served as a great campfire for pilgrims, acolytes, and members of the Magic Scouts who wanted to camp out at the base of the statue, and marshmallows toasted in the flame were said to have a taste that left those who consumed them feeling saintly and devoted to goodness and purity for days after the fact.) The plaza was usually filled with crowds of pilgrims and priests going to and from the temple, but today the plaza was almost unnaturally free of Pokémon…

The four gods who had booked the plaza and the sacred flame for their own purposes that morning might have had something to do with it. A great many Pokémon were looking on in wonder at the living deities from inside the temple of Arceus, from the Holy Isle proper, or from the skies and outlying floating islands around them, but aside from the gods and the select individuals who had been chosen to join them that day, the plaza was bare, making the mosaic covering it more visible than it usually was.

Pikachu shook his head in amazement as he stared up at the statue looming over them. "This has to be one of the most spectacular temples to Arceus I've ever seen…from what I've heard, second only to the Arcean Order's central compound in the holy city of Yeshuva."

Mirami, who was floating next to him, nodded. "We are very proud of zis temple. It took quite some time to construct and shape to perfection, even wiz magic to aid ze builders." She smiled fondly. "I 'ave loved coming 'ere ever since I was a little girl. My mozzer and sisters 'ave always been faizful devotees of Mew, which I respect, but…for some reason I've always felt a stronger connection to ze Arceans. It makes me feel like I'm a little closer to my fazzer, wherever 'e is."

Pikachu fidgeted, wondering again if he should mention he had a strong suspicion as to who her father was. "I'm sure you'll meet him someday, Mirami. Maybe even sooner than you think."

"I certainly 'ope so," the Sableye said sadly. "And maybe I can finally learn more about what 'appened between 'im and my mozzer…she's razzer tight-lipped about ze subject, somezing which 'asn't been a problem wiz ze fazzers of my siblings."

"Well, from what we've heard so far, she really loved him," Leo, who was also present, said. "Someone like that walking out of your life can leave more of an impact on you than some guy you were just shagging for fun. Er, or so I've heard. Not that I'd know much more than that on the subject."

Mirami nodded. "Zank you, I zink so too." She smiled and turned to Lily. "Speaking of fazzers…after we're done 'ere, you're going to meet yours! 'ow exciting! I envy you. 'ow do you feel about it?"

"Utterly terrified," Lily said morbidly, the Yukihimi wand turning over and over in the air before her as she telekinetically fidgeted with it.

"Really? Why is that?" asked Princess Boa, who was accompanying the heroes along with some of the children of the major dignitaries they had met on their first day in Fichina. After the tumultuous events of the 97,54th session of the Grand Council, It had been strongly recommended Team Aurabolt allow the Princess and some of her friends to tag along with the heroes as they experienced what Fichina had to offer, allegedly to serve as tour guides and to learn more about heroics and fighting evil from those who'd gotten some real field experience doing it, but also for political purposes, to show that their families—some of the most powerful in Fichina—were throwing their support behind the anti-Nihilator venture they had ignited by coming to Fichina just a week ago. Their children making friends with the heroes would reflect well on them, and make it look like they were that much more committed to the cause of ridding the world of the Nihilators once and for all. Pikachu detested that kind of power play, being more suited to a battle of swords rather than the drawn-out and messy business of politics, but understood the necessity, given that they weren't fighting the Nihilators on their own anymore but had an entire nation—possibly several—working with them, which had both its benefits and drawbacks. Putting up with some irritating privileged brats was one of them.

Well, that was a little unfair. Pikachu hadn't been happy about their new hangers-on at first, but had gradually grown to like most of them and enjoy their company, much as he'd grown to like and enjoy…well, tolerate Leo's company. Princess Boa was elegant, clever, not at all spoiled or entitled, and quite good with a sword, as their sparring sessions indicated. Ambassador Stoutroot's daughter, Melanie the Bulbasaur, was very kind and considerate, and more than a little shy, which Leo said made her 'moe' and that much more adorable. (None of them knew what he was talking about, and none of them cared to.) Don George's daughter, Bianca the Pignite, was a bit of an airhead, kind of clumsy and disorganized, and maybe a little impatient and obsessed with cuteness, but was otherwise fun to be around.

Dealing with the last two children, the offspring of Daimyo Leeku and Lord Drayden, was a bit more trying, however. Jujimaru the Oshawott, Leeku's son, was clingy; always trying to be the center of attention, rather boastful, and also an utter coward who couldn't even swing a sword with his eyes open. The reasoning behind the rather disparaging comment the Daimyo had made about his son soon became evident to Pikachu after only spending a few minutes with the wannabe samurai, who was constantly invading Pikachu's personal space and begging him to make him his apprentice, which Pikachu had refused to do on the rather reasonable grounds that 1) he didn't have time, 2) the kid was so sloppy with his sword it was a wonder he hadn't killed himself or anyone else by now and Pikachu honestly didn't think anything could be done for him, and 3) he really, really, really, really didn't like him. Dawn had started dropping hints lately that she could arrange for something (hopefully) nonlethal to happen to Jujimaru that could never be traced back to them that might make him a little more inclined to leave Pikachu alone in the future. Pikachu was strongly considering taking her up on her offer.

Iris the Axew, daughter of Lord Drayden, wasn't much better. She was hyper and bold, which normally wouldn't be that big a deal since those terms could be used to describe most of Team Aurabolt, but she was also kind of obnoxious and seemed to have allowed the position of being daughter of the leader of all of Fichina's dragons go somewhat to her head. She also seemed to think of herself as some kind of battle prodigy since she'd built up a 99-win streak against other, much bigger and stronger Dragon-types, and seemed oblivious to the fact that they let her win because they were afraid of the tantrums she might throw if she lost or what she might say to her father about them 'beating her up.' As a result, she seemed to think of herself as being equal to, if not superior, to the heroes in combat, and for some bizarre reason kept calling Ash a 'kid'-even though she was much younger than him-due to his utter lack of knowledge about how anything in Fichina worked and some of the goofy and embarrassing mistakes he'd made during her time following them around the city. The only reason they hadn't told her off yet was because of the political issues that required her to hang out with them and were afraid of what the repercussions of rejecting her might do to the war effort, and even then it was getting harder to hold their tongues and tell her what they really thought of her. It was astonishing that Briney had held out for as long as he had so far, but then again, maybe that's why he'd started drinking so heavily again…as had Tiny…

"I've never met my father before now except over a computer, and those little interactions, along with everything I've heard about him, don't paint a pretty picture of him," Lily said unhappily.

Leo nodded. "If half the stories I've read about him online are true, he's technically killed just almost as many people as Bellum has, sometimes in bloodier and much more violent ways."

Those stories are all true, Dawn clicked. Er…or so I've heard, she added quickly, recalling that nobody outside their group knew she was actually technically still an agent of the Draconian Empire.

"My dad fought alongside him one time a couple hundred years ago, back when he was still in the army," Iris bragged. "He said watching Shinobu in action was one of the most horrifying and awe-inspiring things he'd ever seen! He slaughtered at least two hundred enemy soldiers single-talonedly! Literally, it's amazing the things you can do to a person with just one claw. Strangely enough, after that battle Dad quit the army and signed on for a diplomatic position all the way out here. I never quite understood why…"

They stared at her blankly. "…Yeah, I think I have an idea why," Leo said flatly as Melanie whimpered in fright and had to be comforted by Boa.

Iris blinked. "Really? Why?" They sweatdropped.

"That's…not making me feel any better," Lily said unhappily.

"Me neither," Jujimaru whimpered, quivering. "I, uh, don't suppose I could just go home early and skip out on meeting him?"

Iris grabbed the cowardly Oshawott before he could step away. "No! General Shinobu is going to see the both of us together, and he is going to see that we are a worthy and powerful couple and that the future of the Draconian Empire can be trusted in our hands, and you are not going to screw this chance for me to impress him and show him what a strong and capable womon I am, do you hear me?!"

Jujimaru cowered beneath the Axew's wrath. "Y-yes, dear."

"Mon, am I glad that's not us," Leo muttered to Lily.

Lily nodded. "Are all arranged marriages like that?"

"It 'as nozing to do wiz zem being affianced by zeir families, and everyzing to do wiz zem being…well, zemselves," Mirami murmured.

Princess Boa nodded. "There's a reason Jujimaru is the best match Drayden could find for his daughter. He's the only one spineless enough to be able to spend an extended amount of time around her without wanting to kill her. Or himself."

"Heh, yeah, I can see that," Leo snickered.

"I've…um…I've met your father, Lily," Melanie said quietly. "He's…well…he is pretty scary…"

"Oh…" Lily said, her face falling.

"But, um, but he's not like Bellum!" the Bulbasaur said quickly. "Not…not really."

Boa nodded. "Unlike Bellum, he's able to show restraint and has a measure of control over his killing edge. He also only directs it against those he considers to be enemies of the Empire, never those under his command…though he can be very harsh to them, I'll admit. However, he is extremely loyal to Rayquaza and lives…er…unlives only to serve him and the Empire as a whole. He has no interest in accruing power for himself; he just wants what's best for the Empire. He just, ah, thinks that's sometimes easier with a little violence applied in the right place."

"Ah," Lily said, not entirely reassured.

"Plus, he's got a wife, which means he has a heart, which is more than can be said of your mom, right?" Bianca suggested.

Leo nodded. "Yeah, I mean, come on, I'm pretty sure he loves you! I know he also scares the heck out of you, but the fact that he actually cares about you, unlike your mom, has gotta be good for something, right? Plus, he actually approves of our marriage! I think. I mean, he hasn't forbidden it in so many words, though I'm not one hundred percent sure he thinks I'm the best match for you, but the fact that he's letting us go through with it means he must want you to be happy, since if he didn't want us to be together, he'd have had me assassinated or something, and that hasn't happened, so it's all good!" There was a pause. He glanced at Dawn. "Um, he's not going to have me assassinated, is he?"

Not to my knowledge, Dawn said. Er, because I'm a ninja, and know how that sort of thing works. And you're not dead yet, so he probably won't have you killed.

"Good enough for me!" Leo said cheerfully.

"But not for me," Lily said anxiously.

"Ah, relax Lily, it'll be fine!" Leo assured her. "Look, I know you're a bit freaked out about meeting your dad, but I'm gonna be with you, just like all of us are, so you can count on all of us to give you the support you need! Not that you'll need it because he's totally not going to try anything. Probably."

Lily grimaced. Pikachu facepalmed. "Leo…"

"And besides," Leo continued. "Even if you're not too keen on your dad, I'm sure you'll love your stepmom, she seems pretty cool. I mean, she goes around wearing cat ears all the time! That practically makes her a neko girl, and neko girls are awesome and cute, and someone who gets married to a neko girl can't be all bad, right?"

Everyone stared at him in confusion. "I…what?" asked the confused Lily.

"I don't get it," said the confused Bianca, scratching her head.

"I'm starting to think that's a common thing when around Leo…" Boa murmured.

"You would be absolutely right to think that," Pikachu said flatly.

"And aside from that," Leo continued boldly. "You've also got my parents, who are absolutely gonna love you!"

"I…am looking forward to meeting your parents," Lily admitted, a ghost (ha!) of a smile forming on her face. "Th-they seem like perfectly nice Pokémon, and those new…er…siblings of yours seem likable, if a bit…ah…excitable."

That's one word for incredibly rambunctious giant baby Gibles, Dawn clicked.

"Heck yeah, it's gonna be an awesome reunion, what with my folks, your folks—sans your mom—and Ash and Pikachu's folks all showing up to celebrate our big fat Fichina wedding!" Leo whooped. "This wedding is gonna be OFF! THE! HOOK!"

"…Our wedding was hanging from a hook?" asked a confused Lily.

Jujimaru gasped in alarm. "Oh no! If it falls off, won't it break?! We can't let that happen! Quick, let's find a stronger hook to hang it from!" Everyone stared at him. "What?"

Iris facepalmed. "When we meet General Shinobu, you are not to open your mouth. At all."

"Why?" the Oshawott asked.

"Because whenever you do, something stupid comes out," she said.

"But I need to open my mouth, how else am I supposed to breathe?" Jujimaru asked.

"…Through your nose?" Bianca suggested.

"I can't, I've got a cold, it's all stuffed up," the Oshawott said, sniffling.

"Oh," Bianca said.

"You guys have tons of magic but no cure for the common cold?" Leo asked incredulously.

"It's not the common cold," Boa said. "Diseases here lean more towards the magical. Our variation of the cold actually freezes someone solid. The medication he's taking for it is the only thing keeping him from being a block of ice at the moment."

"Oh," Leo said.

"Magic illnesses? That doesn't sound pleasant," Pikachu said in concern.

"Especially for guys like us, who are distinctly not-magical and haven't been vaccinated for that sort of thing," Leo said nervously, taking a few steps away from the sniffling Oshawott. "There wouldn't happen to be much of the vaporizing flu going around, would there?"

"Nah, we eradicated that centuries ago," Bianca said confidently.

"Ah. That's a relief," Leo said.

"Actually, zere 'ave been new cases reported lately. It seems to be springing up again," Mirami said.

"Oh," Bianca said in alarm. "Well, that's not good."

"Ah, crap," Leo moaned.

"…I'm guessing from the name and your reactions that vaporizing flu is bad news?" Pikachu asked.

"There are two variants of it: one that causes everything you sneeze at to get vaporized, and one that causes the person who's infected to gradually vaporize," Lily explained. "Naturally, Mother's tried to weaponize it. It didn't work."

"Zank goodness for zat," Mirami said.

"So, uh, are we at any risk of catching…" Pikachu asked.

"No, it only can be caught by Pokémon who have magic," Iris said, rolling her eyes. "Obviously. What a kid."

"It didn't seem that obvious to me, but that's a relief," Pikachu said, rather annoyed by Iris's condescension.

"Except that Lily can use magic," Leo said in concern. "And we're kinda in a country full of magicians, so if we run into someone who's got the sneezy variant, we might be in trouble."

"…Ah. That's a good point," Pikachu said with a frown as Lily paled.

"Don't worry, it's pretty easy to prevent. You just need a shot and you should be fine," Boa assured the worried Misdreavus.

"A shot? But…I…I don't like needles…" Lily said, growing more nervous.

Pikachu sighed. "Let me guess, because your mother stuck you with them all the time to inject horrible things into your body?"

"And impaled you with non-medical needles for shits and giggles?" Leo guessted.

Lily blinked in surprise. "Yes, how did you know?"

"It's your mother. Of course she's going to do something like that," Pikachu said wearily. Lily flushed, admitting this was the truth.

"Weren't we just talking about Lily's father a minute ago?" asked the confused Melanie. "How'd we get on the subject of magical diseases?"

This thing tends to happen a lot around us, trust me, Dawn said.

Leo nodded. "Yeah, like the time we let Ash drown for several minutes so Pikachu and I could have a discussion about condoms and the responsible use of them!"

All the native Fichinans stared at him in incredulity. "I…what?" asked the dumbfounded Iris.

"It's not worth getting into, trust me," Pikachu said deadpan.

"…Why would you let your friend drown so you could talk about condoms?!" asked the shocked Boa.

"Oh, he was never in any danger," Leo said cheerfully. "Talking is a Free Action, after all."

"…What?!" Boa asked in disbelief.

"I repeat: it's not worth getting into," Pikachu groaned.

Thankfully, before the members of Team Aurabolt could be questioned further, Lugia, who was one of the four gods who had reserved the use of the plaza, approached them. "We have finished our preparations," the sea god informed them. "Pikachu, Lily, and Dawn, we are ready to infuse your weapons with the powers of the elemental trio."

"Which elemental trio?" Jujimaru asked. "I mean, there's kind of a lot of them."

"Why is that, anyway? Isn't one trio enough to handle the forces of nature?" Bianca wondered.

"Actually, no," Lugia said. "Not on this world, anyway. The primordial forces of fire, ice, and lightning are immense, nearly infinite in their power. Here on Earth, multiple deities are required to properly keep that force under control so it doesn't cause devastating disasters and imbalances in nature."

"Then why did the elements seem to go out of control whenever the birds got agitated?" Pikachu asked.

"Because they were terrible at their jobs," Lugia said flatly.

"Oh," Pikachu said. "That…yeah, that makes a lot of sense."

"So, it's the bird trio's powers we're talking about here?" Jujimaru asked.

"Well, yeah, weren't you listening? Geez!" Iris said in annoyance.

"I was," the Oshawott lied. "I just thought those powers were going to go to new gods or something, since the last ones that had them were so lousy." He gasped, eyes widening as he turned towards Pikachu, Lily, and Dawn. "Unless…that means you three are going to become a new elemental trio?! Oh! Oh, that is so cool!"

"No, no! We're not going to become gods!" Pikachu protested quickly. "Er…right, Lugia?"

Lugia shook his head. "No, we are infusing your weapons with a fraction of the power of the birds, rather than giving it to you in its entirety. As you are now, that much raw elemental power would destroy your mortal bodies in an instant."

"And instead of turning them into gods, that'd just kill them, which is totally lame," Leo complained.

"I don't mind not being a god," Lily said. "I mean, I'm still not completely comfortable suddenly becoming a wealthy heiress with an estate and servants and more money than I know what to do with. Being a deity on top of all that would be far too much for my liking."

"Not for mine…" Leo muttered.

"So…why are they using the bird's powers rather than our own elemental trio?" Jujimaru asked.

Iris frowned at this. "Hey yeah, why is that? Our dragons are much better than some lame-o birds!"

"Since the birds are dead and their power is unattached, it would be easier to impart some of it into weapons," Lugia said. "The dragons certainly could use their own power—and they will, although to a lesser extent—but I believe they will soon need as much strength as they can possibly muster to deal with the coming battle, so it would be a good idea not for them to drain themselves too much powering up some weapons."

"Oh. I guess that makes sense…" Iris said reluctantly.

"I shall grant you three a blessing of my own, although it will not be as fundamental as the one the trio shall bestow upon you," Lugia continued. "But when we are finished here, you will be stronger than ever before…and the sacred sword Thunder Fang will be greater than it has ever been!"

"Heh. My Dad'll love to hear that," Pikachu commented. "When he heard the sword had lost some of its power due to our killing Zapdos, he nearly had a heart attack and passed out right on the spot, and was in mourning until I told him we'd restore it to its original glory, if not surpassing it."

"That sword means a lot to your family, doesn't it?" Boa asked.

Pikachu nodded. "It's the symbol of my bloodline, the thing that gave us our name and elevated us to prominence. It's as much a member of our family as I am. The Thunderblades would not exist without Thunder Fang. This blade defines us and represents all the honor and ideals we strive to uphold."

"What happened to 'a sword is just a sword?'" Leo snarked.

"I'm not saying we wouldn't still be Thunderblades without the sword," Pikachu said. "It just means a lot to us, is all. It's symbolic of everything we stand for as samurai."

"And soon, it shall be strong enough to uphold those virtues once more…strength that you will need in the days to come," Lugia said.

"Ooh! Ooh! Can you bless my sword too?!" Jujimaru asked excitedly, drawing his sword in a wild swing that nearly took Iris's head off.

"Ack! Watch what you do with that thing!" the Axew shrieked, scurrying back in alarm.

"No," Lugia said flatly.

"Awww, but why not?" the Oshawott whined.

"Because you are not worthy," Lugia said, with the implication that the Oshawott might never be going unspoken. Naturally, this went straight over Jujimaru's head.

"Why does everyone keep saying that about me?" the Oshawott complained as he put his hands on his hips, seeming to forget he was still holding a sword in the process and nearly cutting his leg off.

"Put that thing away!" Pikachu hissed angrily. "Before you hurt someone or yourself! You call yourself a samurai, flailing that thing around so casually?! A samurai should only draw his sword in battle!"

"Really? But haven't you drawn your sword lots of times outside of battle, too?" Leo asked.

"…No," Pikachu said after a moment.

"You sure about that? Because I could have sworn-" Leo started.

"ANYWAY," Pikachu shouted. "Let's do this, shall we?"

Very well, Dawn said.

"Um…just to be clear…the fact that my wand is already ice-themed won't be a problem, will it? I mean, since it's going to be attuned to fire now?" Lily asked nervously.

"It will be fine, Lily. Your wand is actually elementally neutral, it just looks like its ice-themed since it was crafted and wielded by your family, who were traditionally cryomancers," Lugia assured her. "However, you, ah, may want to be careful using it around your manor. Don't want to go around melting it or anything by mistake."

"Yeah, that would be pretty embarrassing," Leo commented as Lily blushed. "Still, you can always rebuild it pretty easily, right?"

"Well, yes, but that wouldn't make it any less humiliating…" Lily said, her face still red.

"You're a fire witch living in a house of ice, it's to be expected," Leo said. "Good thing that's not a problem for the rest of us, right?"

"Actually, we regularly need to have electricians come over to our house due to our ambient Electrical powers short-circuiting the power or frying our machines despite our best efforts at shock-proofing them, hence why we don't have many electronics and why we tend to go through televisions so fast, especially when it's sports season," Pikachu said.

"…Oh. Huh," Leo said, looking awkward. "I did not know that." He gasped. "Wait a minute, this explains everything! You grew up without Internet access! You poor thing, no wonder you're always so uptight and culturally unaware!" Pikachu facepalmed, Lily blinked and Dawn shook her head in bemusement.

Lugia chuckled. "Entertaining as always, Leo…shall we? I think the others will get impatient if we keep them waiting much longer."

Pikachu nodded. "Okay. Enough goofing around, guys, let's do this."

"Sweet!" Leo said as Lugia started leading the members of Team Aurabolt towards the sacred flame. "Good thing I have my camera ready! I bet this is gonna make for some awesome footage for the documentary I've been making on our adventures!"

You've been making a documentary about us? Dawn asked.

"Well, yeah. After this is all over, we're gonna be ultra-famous world-class heroes! Everyone's gonna want to know how we did it! Our story has to be recorded for posterity, so future generations will know what really happened when we set out to save the world!"

"And this documentary is completely accurate, I take it?" Pikachu asked skeptically.

Leo fidgeted. "Wellll…there may be a little creative editing involved…"

Pikachu's eye twitched. "…Leo, what kind of edits did you make?"

"Uh, well, you see…hey look, it's Reshiram, Zekrom, and Kyurem! Let's go say hi to them!" Leo said loudly, rushing ahead of Lugia towards the three dragons gathered around the sacred flame.

"Leo! What kind of edits did you make?!" Pikachu shouted as he chased after the Squirtle.

You are marrying a madmon, Dawn commented to a sweatdropping Lily.

"Yes…well…at least he's using his madness for good…most of the time…" Lily said.

"Ash, where did you find these companions of yours?" Lugia murmured incredulously.

"Oh, Ash met Pikachu in Pokémon Square, and they ran into Leo at Turtle Town, and they first met Dawn in the castle just outside of-" Lily started.

"It was a rhetorical question," Lugia said.

"Oh. Right," Lily said in embarrassment.

"Quite the motley crew there," Boa commented as Pikachu chased Leo in circles around the sacred flame while the three dragons stared on in bewilderment. "Not my first pick to save the world, but I suppose they could be worse…though I'm having a hard time figuring out how."

"We're really going to let Lily make such a major change to one of Fichina's founding artifacts like that?" Iris asked with a frown as the heroes approached the flame. "I can't imagine her ancestors would be happy about that…"

"How would you know, they're all dead," Melanie pointed out.

"They were traditionally cryomancers! Of course they'd be annoyed that their family wand was being transformed into a weapon of the opposing element!" the Axew snapped.

"Zey were probably also annoyed zat Bellum went insane and murdered all of zem, causing zeir estate and legacy to fall into ruin," Mirami pointed out. "Compared to zat, what Lily's doing isn't zat big a deal."

"I'm not entirely happy with one of the founding artifacts being altered like this either," Boa admitted. "But…it's for a worthy cause, and there isn't exactly anyone else on Team Aurabolt who could receive a Fire-based upgrade. I personally think she'd be better off getting the power of ice to be more like her lineage, but she's already attuned to fire and Dawn is more in touch with ice herself, so…I guess it's a necessary sacrifice."

"I guess so…though I don't really see why they couldn't both get an ice blessing…" Iris muttered.

"Then nobody would get fire, and that would cause one of those elemental imbalance things we're trying to avoid," Melanie pointed out.

"Why not give fire to someone who's not part of Team Aurabolt, then? Like…I dunno, Bianca?" Iris suggested.

Bianca blinked. "Who, me?"

"Yeah, why not? You're a Fire-type, aren't you?" Iris said.

Bianca scratched the back of her head uneasily. "Well, yeah, but…"

"It can't be Bianca," Boa said.

Both Iris and Bianca blinked. "Huh? Why not?" Iris asked.

"Yeah, why not?" Bianca asked, hurt.

"Because it's highly unlikely she's going to be on the front lines battling against the Nihilators, like Team Aurabolt is going to be," Boa said.

Melanie nodded. "Since they have the most experience fighting the Nihilators, when the Mars initiative is launched they'll be sent along with the rest of our forces to take out the Nihilators' central base. And since they're going right into enemy territory, they'll need as much power as they can get. Bianca, on the other hand, is going to stay here in Fichina, so there's no reason for her to receive that power if she isn't going to be able to do anything with it."

"Oh…yeah, I guess that makes sense," Bianca said, feeling both relieved and slightly disappointed.

"…I guess so…but then, why not give the power to a Fire-type who is going to Mars instead?" Iris pressed.

"Since two warriors from Team Aurabolt are already receiving elemental power, it would make sense for a zird to as well," Mirami pointed out. "It's one of zose balance zings."

"Oh," Iris said, looking disgruntled.

"Why are you making such a big deal about this, anyway?" Jujimaru asked. "I thought you hated Ice-types."

"I don't hate Ice-types! Don't make me sound racist!" Iris said angrily. "I just…don't like them very much. At all. Dragon-types are weak against Ice-types, after all."

"Boa and I are weak against Fire-types, but we're still friends with Bianca," Melanie pointed out.

"And I'm weak against Water-types, but I'm frie…er…tolerate Jujimaru…" Bianca said.

"And I'm weak against Electric-types but that doesn't stop me from thinking Pikachu-Sensei-sama-chan is incredibly amazingly awesome!" Jujimaru gushed.

Iris's eye twitched. She folded her arms and grumbled, "You're all so childish…"

"Aren't we all older than her?" Melanie asked. Absolutely everyone except Iris nodded, causing the Axew to fume more.

"So…you never answered the question of why you're so certain Lily should receive ice power," Bianca said.

"Didn't I say it earlier? She's disgracing her heritage by choosing the opposite element!" Iris said.

"Well, that's not her fault, her mother engineered her to have fire as her main element," Melanie pointed out.

"Which is something that could be fixed now! Instead, she's going to turn her back on almost nine hundred years of Yukihimi tradition, and desecrate her family's heirloom while she's at it!" Iris said.

"Well, I think 'desecrate' is a bit of a strong word," Jujimaru said.

"Didn't you use your family's 'eirloom to pick your teez?" Mirami asked.

The Oshawott's eyes darted back and forth. "…That was never proven."

"As I said before, I'm not entirely happy with what Lily intends to do with that wand…" Boa admitted. "But as the Yukihimi heir, it's her prerogative to do whatever she wishes with it. And it's not like the wand will cease to exist, it'll just be a little…different, is all. And she'll still wield the power over ice being the Yukihimi heir grants her, it'll just be…secondary for her, I suppose."

"It still doesn't seem right," Iris grumbled. "It flies right in the face of some of Fichina's oldest customs!"

"And why should that matter so much to you? Your father is the first of your family to establish himself here, isn't he? Those customs don't affect you," Bianca said.

"I'm marrying into a founding family, so I'd say it will affect me eventually," Iris said.

"What?! I thought you were marrying me!" Jujimaru cried in horror.

Iris gave him a confused look. "…I am."

"But you said you were marrying into a founding family," said the puzzled Oshawott.

"…I am! Your family is descended from the founders!" Iris yelled angrily.

Jujimaru's eyes widened. "Ohhhh yeah…I forgot." Everyone facefaulted.

Meanwhile, Pikachu had gotten tired of chasing Leo around (When had the Squirtle learned how to run so fast?) so decided to leave the questions about the documentary for later and prepare himself to receive the blessings of the gods. "Before me I see three heroes," Reshiram said calmly as she regarded the members of Team Aurabolt. "One who is striving to remain true to herself." Lily blushed.

"One who is strong in his convictions and ideals," Zekrom rumbled. Pikachu bowed.

"And one who has established strong boundaries within herself, to govern her actions and guide her path in life," Kyurem rasped. Dawn nodded at the ice dragon.

"Uh, what about me? I'm a hero too," Leo said.

"Yes, but you're not receiving a blessing," Lugia said.

"Awww, c'mon! I've earned some divine mojo too after all the stuff I've done, haven't I?" Leo begged.

"You might have," Lugia admitted. "But if so, it is not our place to grant them to you."

"Why not? You're a sea god, and I'm a Water-type! That's gotta count for something!" Leo protested.

"Aren't you a Shayminite nun?" Pikachu asked.

Leo sweatdropped. "I…well…oh, fine, go ahead and get your stupidly awesome magical power-ups, I'll satisfy myself by building a giant robot battlesuit or something."

"You do that," Pikachu said dryly.

"Sorry, Leo," Lily said apologetically. "I'm sure you'll get a blessing the next time!"

Assuming there is a next time, Dawn clicked.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Leo grumbled. "I'll just stand out of the way so you don't get your divine awesomeness which I'm totally not jealous of on me. Since I don't need it. Because I'm awesome already. And will edit my documentary like crazy to make it look like I'm the main character and all the girls are madly in love with me and you're insane."

Pikachu blinked. "Wait, what was that last part?"

"OKAY, TAKE IT AWAY, BOYS!" Leo shouted. "AND GIRL! AND GENDER-NEUTRAL ENTITY! Hey, Kyurem, are you actually genderless, or can you switch whenever you feel like it?" he asked Kyurem. The ice dragon snarled, its breath causing frost to form on the tiles under it. "Right. Don't wanna talk about it. I can respect that. Shutting up now."

"Somehow, I doubt that'll last for long," Pikachu muttered.

"Yeah, it probably won't," Leo admitted. Pikachu sweatdropped.

"Are the three of you prepared to receive our blessings?" Lugia asked. "They come with great power, but with it grave responsibility. You must use these powers only to fight the evil which threatens our world, and not abuse it for your own purposes. This power is a gift, and like all gifts, it can be taken back if you prove yourselves unworthy of it."

"I solemnly swear on my father's sword and my family's honor to only use this power to smite the wicked and save the righteous," Pikachu vowed. "That is the way of the samurai, and the code by which I live and die."

"You should probably be taking notes on that," Bianca commented to Jujimaru.

"Shut up! I know what being a samurai's all about!" the Oshawott said indignantly, which was so blatantly false it was all everyone else could do to keep from bursting into laughter.

Lily swallowed. "Um…I-I'm still new to being good, but I also promise I won't misuse these powers. I don't want to be anything like my mother, and while I don't really care about restoring honor to my family's name…I've read up on what some of my ancestors were like, and will do my best to emulate them, so as to become a better person than my mother ever was."

"You tell 'em, Lily!" Leo shouted encouragingly.

I will do what I have always done: my duty. If my Master gives me an order, I shall obey it with all the power at my disposal, Dawn said. He is the only authority I answer to. Well, aside from Nuken, and Palmer, and probably Rayquaza, but she wasn't going to say that out loud.

Lugia frowned. "That's…not the answer I was looking for."

"She'll only use this new power if I tell her to, and if I'm using it responsibly, then it's a sure bet that she will too," Pikachu said. "Because I'll tell her to."

Lugia exchanged glances with Kyurem, who shrugged indifferently. "Well, I suppose that's good enough for us."

"Wow, you guys sure are relaxing your standards," Leo joked. The dragon gods glared at him. "Right. Shutting up again."

"But not for long," Pikachu grumbled.

"Nope! Oh, hey, that wasn't very long at all, was it? Oops," Leo said in amusement. Pikachu sighed.

"Very well," Lugia said, drawing everyone's attention back to him. "The three of you have been deemed worthy of receiving this power. Do not make us regret giving it to you."

"We won't," Pikachu promised. "I swear."

"Yeah, you know, now that I think about it, it's probably for the best that you guys aren't giving me anything, I'd probably make you regret it in no time," Leo commented. The others nodded in agreement. Leo frowned. "You could at least pretend that I'm being too hard on myself…"

"Why?" Lily asked in confusion. "What you said was true, wasn't it?"

Leo facepalmed. "Part of being my fiancé means you're supposed to support me, Lily."

"Oh. Sorry," she said apologetically.

Abruptly, Lugia threw back his head and roared, eyes glowing white. The three dragons reared back and bellowed as well, their sonorous cries ringing throughout the skies of New Avalon and sending shivers down the spines of numerous Pokémon. As if responding to their howls, the holy flame erupted, surging into the air in a seething tower of white fire, causing all gathered in the plaza to flinch and take a few steps back, startled by the intensity of the light being emitted by the sacred beacon. Oddly, it didn't feel that hot…or at least, not the kind of heat that most flames emitted, but something else, something more…spiritual, somehow.

As the flame subsided, the four deities spread their wings and took to the air, the three dragons flying in a circle around the statue island while Lugia hovered just beneath the face of Arceus. All their eyes were glowing, and energy from their respective elements was crackling around them. With a rumble, dark clouds formed in the sky above the floating island, swirling ominously over the plaza as bolts of lightning, snowflakes and hailstones, and embers danced across its surface. "Am I the only one here who's getting a serious case of déjà vu?" Leo asked in alarm as he looked up at the gathering storm.

"No…it's like the storm that formed when we fought the elemental birds…" Pikachu said in concern.

"No, it's not," Lily said suddenly, much to their surprise. "That storm was volatile…hostile…filled with evil intent. This one is…different, somehow. I can't quite explain how, but it feels more…benign, or at the very least neutral towards us."

She's right. I can feel it too, Dawn agreed.

"Hmm…well, considering the energy readings I'm getting…yeah, it only looks like the last storm in appearance only," Leo commented as he scanned the climactic disturbance with his sunglasses. "Whereas that one was all evil and stuff and charged with Shadow, this one's giving off waves of untainted divine power, which I'm guessing is a good thing."

"In this case? Yeah, a very good thing," Pikachu agreed, a smile coming to his face.

Iris was underwhelmed. "So they're making a big storm? Big deal, any meteomancer can do that."

"Huh? What are you talking about? I don't see any meteors," Jujimaru said, looking at the skies in alarm. "Is something going to fall on us?!"

Iris blinked. "Huh? What do you-" she facepalmed. "No, you idiot! Meteomancy is weather magic!"

"Oh. I knew that," Jujimaru lied.

"Ugh, you are such a kid!" Iris whined.

"It's not just a storm," Mirami said. "It's a manifestation of elemental power, tempered and shaped by divine will. Truly a force of incredible might…"

"If they wanted to, they could make a much bigger storm…" Boa murmured. "One powerful enough to overwhelm even our best defense wards, and damage a significant portion of the city. Instead, they're channeling all this power just to strengthen some weapons…the gods are mighty indeed. I shudder to think what they'd be capable of using their full might…and they may very well be doing just that soon enough…"

Iris rolled her eyes. "Now you're just being melodramatic."

"No, I'm pretty sure that's the guys up there," Bianca commented. "Gods always like putting on a good show, don't they?"

Mirami nodded in agreement. "Yes, so let's enjoy zis one while it lasts."

"Chosen heroes!" Lugia shouted over the storm. "Raise your weapons, and prepare yourselves!"

"All right. Everyone, get ready!" Pikachu said, drawing Thunder Fang and raising it into the air.

"Right!" Lily said, holding up her wand.

I am ready, Dawn clicked, raising her metal claws into the air.

"I thought you were just supposed to draw that during battle!" Leo yelled at Pikachu.

"Shut up, Leo!" Pikachu shouted back.

The storm cloud churned above them and spat three bursts of power from its depths. A fire stream lanced through the air and was caught in Reshiram's claws, swirling and coalescing into a crystalline crimson sphere. A lightning bolt split the skies and was caught in Zekrom's claws, swirling and coalescing into a crystalline yellow sphere. A gust of wind laden with snowflakes blew through the air and was caught in Kyruem's claws, swirling and coalescing into a crystalline blue sphere. The three dragon gods stopped in their orbiting of the island, raised the familiar-looking orbs of condensed elemental power above their heads, and with a mighty roar simultaneously threw them into the sacred flame.

Again, the flame erupted skywards, but this time it was swirling with red, blue, and yellow, rather than the uniform white from before. "Brace yourselves! It's coming!" Pikachu cried, although what, precisely, it was that was coming he wasn't quite sure of just yet.

"Sooooo cool! I don't think I'm even gonna need to edit this part!" Leo shouted as he eagerly caught everything on his camera. "Much!"

"Okay, this is pretty impressive!" Iris admitted in a panic.

"Waaaaahhhh! Make it stop! Make it stop!" Jujimaru squealed as he hid behind his betrothed.

"Wooooww…look at the colors…" said the awestruck Bianca.

Mirami nodded in wonder. "As my mozzer would say, tres magnifique!"

"Warriors!" Lugia bellowed as the three dragons flew down to join him before the Arceus statue. "Receive the power we have bestowed upon you! And rejoice, for you have earned it!" Again, the deities roared to the heavens.

The swirling pillar of multicolored flame roiled, and suddenly three flaming balls of energy shot out from its sides; one blue, one red, and one yellow. The balls rocketed away from the flame and zigzagged wildly around the holy island, driving everyone dizzy as they kept turning and turning to try and keep track of their motions. Without warning, they stopped their erratic motions and shot back towards the plaza, converging on the center and smashing into the ground just behind Pikachu, Lily, and Dawn.

"Aha! There really are meteors after all!" Jujimaru declared triumphantly. "And you said there wouldn't be any!"

"What? What are you…ugh. Never mind," Iris groaned in exasperation.

Before they could do more than stare at the energy spheres in alarm, the orbs pulsed and fired bolts of their respective elements at the three heroes. Instinctively, they raised their weapons to defend themselves. The bolts struck the sword, wand, and claws, the force of the impact pushing the heroes a few feet back and nearly slamming them into the side of the brazier containing the sacred flame. They ground their teeth, muscles tensing as they struggled to hold their ground against the raw elemental power pushing against them, sweat running down their faces as they tried their hardest to keep from being overwhelmed. As lightning, fire, and ice continued throwing itself at them, the three weapons started glowing, seeming to somehow be absorbing the elemental energy from the spheres, their radiance intensifying as the spheres began to shrink, pouring more and more of their mass into the attack until finally, there was nothing left of them.

The weapons continued to glow, however, and the heroes looked at their instruments in alarm, sensing this wasn't over just yet. Yellow electricity blasted to life around Thunder Fang and engulfed both the sword and Pikachu, the samurai disappearing in the electrical storm. Crimson flames ignited around the Yukihimi wand and consumed Lily, who cried out as she vanished in the blaze. Ice formed on Dawn's claws and started spreading up her arms, her eyes widening in horror as she swiftly found herself encased in an icy prison.

Leo gasped, the camera slipping from his hands and falling to the ground, where it fortunately failed to break because he'd reinforced its casing long ago to make sure it wouldn't break easily. "LILY! AND EVERYONE ELSE!"

"Um…is that supposed to happen?!" Bianca said incredulously.

"Ohnoohnoohnoohnoohno!" Melanie whimpered.

"PIKACHU-SAMA-SENSEI-SENPAI-SAN-SAMA!" Jujimaru screamed.

"…Seriously, what is wrong with you?!" Boa demanded.

"Waaaahhh! This is why I don't like ice!" Iris whined, cowering behind her fiancé.

"Do not fear!" Lugia called to the mortals below. "This is how it is meant to happen!" He paused, and then glanced at his colleagues. "Er, this is how it's supposed to happen, right?" The dragons glanced at each other and shrugged. Lugia facewinged.

Gradually, the elemental nimbuses around the three heroes died down—or in Dawn's case, shattered-revealing that the weapons had transformed as promised…and they weren't the only ones.

Pikachu was now clad in samurai armor that looked as if it were made from lightning made solid, arcs and spikes of electricity crackling across its otherwise solid form. A dou with the images of Raikou and Zekrom engraved into it dancing around lightning bolts covered his front. Jagged-edged kusazuri with lightning bolts engraved into each plate hung from the front and back to protect his upper legs. Haidate made of cloth that looked to be electricity turned into woven thread covered his thighs, small metal lightning bolt-shaped plates connected by chain lightning sewn into it. Suneate made of splints of metal crackling with electricity linked by chain lightning wrapped around his calves and shins, right above kogake covering his hindpaws. Sode resembling his kusazuris with large glowing spikes resembling lightning bolts growing from the tops covered his shoulders. Han kote made of lightning cloth covered in plates of solidified electricity linked by chain lightning covered his forearms. A helmet with the Thunderblade family crest on the forehead, lightning bolt horns, and a faceplate resembling a snarling Raikou covered his head, his now-yellow eyes visible through eyeholes. His tail was unarmored, but looked like it had turned into an actual lightning bolt, rather than just being shaped like one. Similarly, Thunder Fang too looked as if it were now made of pure electrical energy, crackling yellow and white rather than blue, with several glowing black runes written somehow into its side. It was also a couple of inches longer. The sword's scabbard, slung on Pikachu's back, had changed as well, lengthening to accommodate the sword's growth and turned black with gold leaf lightning bolts looking like they were actual lightning bolts rather than just designs.

Pikachu blinked and looked down at his armored form in amazement. "Huh. Well, guess I have one less thing to envy Sparky for now."

"Eeeeee!" Jujimaru squealed as he spontaneously developed a nosebleed, much to Iris's displeasure. "Pikachu-sempai-dono-chan-hime-san-sama is s-s-s-so COOL!"

"Cooler than you," Bianca commented.

"Yeah, totally!" Jujimaru said without skipping a beat, causing Iris to facepalm.

"That's…an impressive suit of armor," Boa commented, impressed. "Not that there's anything wrong with mine, of course…" She frowned and self-consciously gripped the hilt of her blade. "That sword, on the other hand…"

Lily's bluish-green skin had turned red and yellow, her long hair waving wildly behind her and looking very much like flames, though it was hard to tell if it was actual fire or just colored to look that way. Her engagement ring, which she had taken to wearing around one of her locks of hair since she didn't exactly have a finger to put it on, had somehow stayed unchanged and was still wrapped around that fiery lock, a strange glow surrounding it that seemed like a different kind of fire from the ones her body was generating. The chain-shaped scars crisscrossing her face were glowing and writhing with a fiery light. Her lower body had grown longer, taking on some of the cloak-like properties of her evolved form, with dancing flames flickering at the 'hems.' The pearls on her necklace had transformed into flaming balls of molten rock, with burning sigils carved into their surfaces. Her hat, amazingly, wasn't on fire, but had turned orange with a yellow tip, had a circlet that looked as if it were made of crystallized fire with glittering rubies set into its frozen surface ringing the central part, and was embroidered with actually burning flames and images of Reshiram. Her pupils had vanished, leaving her with yellow eyes and creepy large red irises. Her wand had changed radically as well, becoming red with gold filigree resembling Reshiram, white runes etched into its side, and a glowing crystal shaped like a five-pointed tongue of flame at the top, embers swirling around it. Similarly, embers and a few balls of fire were orbiting her body now.

"O-oh my…" she whispered in astonishment and a little fear. "What…what has happened to me?!"

"Soooo…HOT!" Leo gasped, jaw dropping. "And I mean that in both the figurative and literal sense, since she's gorgeous, and because her body temperature is now over three hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Which, unfortunately, means we can't make out while she's like this. Unless I'm wearing a heat-protective hood. But then she couldn't exactly kiss my face, which would sort of defeat the purpose, though we could still hug and cuddle and stuff. Hmm, unless…"

"Phew! Nice heat she's putting off there!" Bianca said, impressed.

"Maybe a little too hot," Melanie panted. "Am I wilting? Is the bulb on my back drying out?"

"No, it's fine," Boa said.

"'eh. Leo is one lucky mon," Mirami said appraisingly.

"Wow! She's too hot for me to handle!" Jujimaru said.

"Hey!" Iris shouted angrily.

"What? I think she's too hot for my Water attacks to cool off," the Oshawott said in confusion.

"…Oh. I, uh, thought you meant you thought she was attractive," Iris said.

"Oh. Well, she is smoking…" Jujimaru observed.

"HEY!" Iris shouted.

"What? She is! There's smoke coming off of her, see?" Jujimaru said, pointing to the plumes of smoke rising off of the distressed Lily's fiery form.

"Oh. Never mind…" Iris said.

Finally, Dawn was wearing armor made of ice similar to the Slicer armor she'd worn when she'd been forcibly transformed into a Shadow Pokémon. However, the ice used to make this armor was blue-white, rather than black. A pair of plaques with curved blades resembling some of Kyurem's icy protrusions formed on her shoulders. Gauntlets with three curved blades each formed around her wrists. A pair of large blue-white three-clawed talons formed over each of her paws that looked like they were made of a mixture of metal and ice, with gray runes and engravings of Kyurem spiraling up the sides. Ice plates covered the fleece on the lower half of her body and ice boots with three curved blades each on the greaves formed on her feet. An ice helmet formed of layered plates with a trident-shaped ornament on the forehead and curved icy horn-like 'sheaths' for her ears formed over her head, a pair of ice plates snapping into place over her face and hiding all of it except for her glowing white eyes. Similar engravings as the ones on her talons covered most of her blades and the plates making up her armor, giving her suit a rather ornate and beautiful appearance, without letting one forget that every inch of it could probably be used to kill something.

She looked at her armor admiringly and clicked, This will suffice.

"AAAAHHH! THE SLICER!" Jujimaru screamed, hiding behind Iris.

"AAAAHHH! ICE MONSTER, WHO ALSO HAPPENS TO BE THE SLICER!" Iris screamed, hiding behind Jujimaru. The Oshawott blinked, realized he was exposed, panicked, and hid behind Iris, who blanched and ran behind Jujimaru, who ran behind her, and so on in a comedic dance of cowardice.

"That's some pretty nice armor!" Bianca said. "…But why does she look like a comic book villain?"

"Comic book? The Slicer is a real historical figure, the leader of the Toe clan of ninjas," Boa said.

"…Wait, the Slicer was real?! And so were the Toe?!" Bianca asked incredulously. "I thought that was just something made up for Teenage Mutant Ninja Squirtles!"

"Mutant what now?" asked the confused Boa.

"Mon, I wish I were a Teenage Mutant Ninja Squirtle…" Leo said longingly.

"Well, you're a teenager, and you're a Squirtle, so you're halfway there already," Melanie pointed out.

Leo perked up at this. "Hey, yeah, that's right! Not to mention that once I become immortal, I'll probably qualify for the 'mutant' angle…and since I'll be immortal, I'll have all the time in the world to train to be a ninja! Ha, maybe one of my childhood dreams won't turn out to be a longshot after all!"

I shudder at the thought of you as an immortal ninja, Dawn said in disgust. Not to mention being immortal is contrary to what ninjas represent. Or have you forgotten what immortality did to Paul?

"Yeah, but Paul was a jerk. There's no way that's happening to me!" Leo said confidently. Dawn sighed and shook her head in exasperation.

The sacred flame subsided, returning to its original color and size, as the four gods gracefully landed around it. "It is done. We have granted you our blessing," Lugia said.

"Well, more like we granted them our blessing. You didn't actually do much," Zekrom pointed out. Lugia steadfastly ignored him.

"What do you think?" Reshiram asked with a wry grin.

"This power…it…it's incredible!" said an astonished Lily. "I feel as if I could take on my mother again…and defeat her on my own!"

"Not to mention you look pretty damn sexy, too," Leo leered. Lily flushed and laughed nervously at this.

"My sword has certainly undergone quite the transformation…as have I," Pikachu noted as he ran his eyes over Thunder Fang. "Hmm, guess this makes the armor I picked up on Zero Isle useless, now…well, I'll give it to Pichu, I'm sure he'll find some use for it when he's older."

I thank you for your gracious gift. With this new strength, we will be able to defeat our enemies with greater ease, Dawn said, already thinking of how it would feel to rip Paul's throat out with her new and improved blades.

"You are most welcome," Kyurem hissed.

"Not to complain, but why did you give us this armor? I thought you were just improving our weapons, not giving us new clothing," Pikachu said.

"We were," Zekrom said.

"The power we gave you was too much to be contained solely within your weapons," Reshiram explained. "The excess elemental energies they absorbed manifested in the garments you wear. On their own, your new weapons are formidable…but in conjunction with your new Forms, you will be almost unstoppable."

"Oh," Lily said nervously. "Um…good?"

I'm certainly not complaining, Dawn said.

"Neither am I!" said Leo. "Well, no, that's not entirely true, I'm kind of wondering why the heck you guys not only got rad new and improved weapons but sweet suits of armor like Team Getem gets, but I didn't get anything?! I mean, seriously, what the heck?! Since we got to Fichina, everyone's been taking levels in badass but me! Ash and Tiny have been getting proper Aura training from a real Master, Sasha's been spending all her time at Darkrai's temple, Pikachu's been training with Leeku, Lily with Fantina and her daughters, Dawn with Kairyu for some reason, and now you three get a Super Mode but I don't! Not that I'm not happy for you guys and everything, but seriously, what gives?"

"You forgot Briney," Pikachu said.

"No I didn't, he's Briney. How's he supposed to get more badass, short of evolving?" Leo asked. Pikachu reluctantly admitted he had a point.

Leo, haven't you managed to acquire several new gadgets as well as upgrade most of your existing gear using magitechnology with help from Professor Fennel, along with unlocking a few new abilities for your sunglasses? Dawn asked.

"Well, yeah," Leo admitted. "And that's cool and all…but it's no magic suit of armor. I don't think I'm any stronger really than I was when we first got here. How'm I supposed to keep up with you guys now that you've all gotten such sweet new stuff?"

"You've kept up before," Pikachu pointed out.

"Yes, but it's gonna be even harder now!" Leo said. "Especially since I haven't figured out how to be immortal yet!"

I thought Darkrai gave you some advice on that, Dawn said.

"He did. I'm working on it," Leo said. "But I'm exploring other options in the meantime."

Lily floated closer to the Squirtle. He tried not to flinch back from the incredible heat washing off of her, causing him to sweat and begin to develop a slight tan. "Leo," she said, regarding her betrothed with as much love and affection as she could convey in her (literally) smoldering gaze. "Tomorrow, we're getting married, which is something that would never have happened if it weren't for you. If anything, you're the one I feel like I constantly have to keep up with, because even if I am stronger, wealthier, and more magical than you…I'm not even half as smart as you are, or anywhere near as good at understanding myself or the world around me."

Leo's eyes widened in surprise. "Lily…"

"Where the rest of us already had powers that made us special, for the most part you've always been able to get by on your ingenuity and by utilizing whatever you can get your hands on," Lily continued. "Which in many ways makes you a cleverer, and maybe even more dangerous, Pokémon than any of us. You don't know how honored I am to have you as a friend…and more."

"And how relieved we are that you're on our side," Pikachu muttered under his breath.

"I promise you, we will never leave you behind, no matter how strong we get," Lily assured the Squirtle. "And we'll find a way for you to reach our level…assuming you don't find your own way there first, or surpass us, which I know you are more than capable of doing, if you really set your mind to it."

Slowly, a smile formed on Leo's face. "Babe, if you weren't so hot I'd literally burn myself, I'd be kissing the hell out of you right about now." Lily flushed, somehow turning redder than she already was.

"Awwww," Bianca and Melanie cooed, eyes sparkling.

"Why don't you ever talk to me like that?" Jujimaru complained to Iris.

"Because I don't like you," she replied flatly.

"Oh," the Oshawott said. "Yeah, that would explain it."

"Actually, that brings up a good point," Pikachu said, glancing down at his armor. "How do we get this stuff off? I mean, it's not permanent, is it?"

"I certainly hope not," Lily said in alarm. "I can't possibly enter my new house like this, let alone get married tomorrow!"

"Yeah, how exactly are we supposed to, you know, consummate our union if I can't touch her without possibly bursting into flames?" Leo asked. Lily's face turned even redder at that comment. Somehow.

I suppose it would be inconvenient to wear this all the time… Dawn admitted reluctantly.

"Especially in bed! Ba-dum-ching!" Leo cried. Nobody laughed. Pikachu and Dawn glared at him. He laughed nervously. "Yeah, that was terrible…never mind."

"You need not worry, the elemental armor can be removed with but a thought," Lugia assured them. "It would be impractical for you to have wear it twenty-four seven, after all."

"With a thought? You mean…like…" Lily screwed up her face in concentration. A conflagration erupted around her, and when the fire died down, she was back to normal. Her wand still retained its new shape, though. "Oh! It worked!" she said in delight.

"Yes, and the temperature's dropped…which I am very thankful for," Melanie said in relief.

"Actually, I was getting kind of used to it, now I'm feeling a little chilly," Bianca said, hugging herself.

"Well, I think she's still plenty hot, no matter what form she's in!" Leo said as he hugged Lily, relieved that he could actually touch her again. She was pleasantly warm now from the lingering heat, and it felt good to hold her. He reveled in the sensation, as he always did whenever he touched her.

She blushed. "Oh, Leo…you always say the sweetest things!"

"Why don't you ever say things like that to me?" Iris complained to Jujimaru.

"Oh. Uh…I dunno," the Oshawott said.

"Ugh! You're such a kid," she whined.

"Why would you want him to say stuff like that to you? I thought you didn't like him," Boa said.

"I don't! But maybe if he did, I'd like him more," the Axew said.

"Really?" Jujimaru asked in surprise.

"Well, probably not," Iris admitted. The Oshawott facefaulted.

Seeing Lily's success, Pikachu and Dawn followed the Misdreavus's example, concentrating and causing their armor to dissipate in a flash of lightning and shattering ice, returning them to their original forms. Dawn's claws kept their new and improved looks, while Thunder Fang had become solid again, the blade now made of some strange metal as black as Zekrom, the markings on its side now yellow rather than black. Pikachu examined the sword for a moment, intrigued by its new appearance. "Well, I can't say for sure how my Dad will react to this. He'll either say its sacrilege and desecration of our most sacred family heirloom, or he'll think it's the coolest thing ever."

"I certainly know which way I lean!" Leo said, admiring the sword.

"It is a weapon of great power, with an equally great history," Boa said. "I wouldn't mind getting a chance to test my own blade against it some time, and see how much this new power has enhanced it."

"I would be happy to spar with you again, Your Majesty," Pikachu said respectfully.

"You know, some could call what's happened to that wand sacrilege and a desecration of one of our most sacred heirlooms," Iris said darkly to Lily, who flinched.

"And others might say it's the coolest thing ever!" Leo argued. "And again, I know which way I lean!"

"I zink it looks razzer nice as well," Mirami said, floating over to examine the transformed wand. "It suits 'er better."

"Th-thank you," Lily said with a nervous blush. Iris grunted in annoyance.

While it's nice to be back to normal, how do we regain that powered-up state? Dawn inquired.

"The same way you shed yourself of it: focus on your weapon and will your armor into being," Lugia said.

Ah. So…like…this? Dawn closed her eyes and concentrated. Her claws glowed blue, and once again ice formed over her body, shattering to reveal her Slicer armor. Perfect, she said, admiring herself.

"And relatively quick, too, which is always a good thing for a transformation sequence," Leo commented. "If it takes too long, there's a chance the bad guy can attack you while you're changing. Funny, they almost never seem to do that for some reason…"

This new power will come in very handy in the trials to come. Thank you for your generous gift, Dawn said, reverting to normal again.

"You are most welcome," Kyurem hissed.

"Is there anything we can do for you in return?" Pikachu asked.

"Yes," Zekrom said. "Destroy the Nihilators. All of them."

Reshiram nodded. "Ride their evil from the world."

"And bring justice to all their victims…including my wife and son," Lugia said.

Leo blinked. "Oh yeah, they've got your family, don't they? Kinda forgot about that…"

"We may have to fight against your wife, considering they've made a Shadow out of her too," Pikachu said. "Will you be okay fighting her?"

"…I wish I did not have to," Lugia admitted sadly, closing his eyes for a moment. "But I know that I must. When you ride out to fight the Nihilators, I shall be there to help you against all of them…and against her."

"Um…speaking of which, do we know how we're getting there yet?" Lily asked. "I mean…Mars is a very, very long way away from here."

"Well, didn't your mother go there regularly to meet with Oblivion's Shadow?" Boa asked. "How did she get there and back?"

"I'm not really sure," Lily admitted. "Mother's private quarters were always sealed off to Marianne and I, and she wouldn't always tell us when she was going off to the Nihilator base. She might have had a portal or some kind of teleporter that transported her to and from Mars."

"I guess we'll have to wait for the teams that were sent out to try and locate her hideout to find that out…" Pikachu said. "Speaking of which, I don't suppose there's been any luck on that front?"

Boa shook her head apologetically. "Not that I've heard, no."

Lily sighed. "Well, it is a mobile iceberg…Mother might have moved it away from the investigators, or even submerged it. It will be very difficult for them to locate…"

"You lived there. You really mean you can't tell us how to find it?" Iris complained.

Lily shook her head. "Only Mother was able to control it or tell where it might appear. Marianne and I always had to be either with her when we were coming or going, or make sure to show up at a predetermined rendezvous point or we'd be left to fend for ourselves until she got bored of watching us struggle on our own and came to get us."

"Wow. Your mom's really not very nice," Jujimaru said.

Everyone stared at him like he was an idiot, which he was. "That's an understatement," Leo said dryly.

"Okay, well, what about the Nihilators? How exactly have they been getting from Mars to Earth and back?" Bianca asked.

"Well, according to Dean and Bob's intel and examinations of the ships we captured, their vessels aren't equipped with FTL drives-" Leo started

"What drives?" Melanie interrupted.

"Faster than light," Lily clarified. Leo grinned, glad to see she'd been paying attention.

"Oh," Melanie said.

"Anyway," Leo started again. "Their ships don't have FTL drives. Don't know why. Maybe since their ships are based at least partly off of Martian tech, and so far there's no sign those guys ever had FTL either, did they? But I'm pretty sure Clefairies do…eh, anyway, their ships lack FTL, which means they can't just zip from one end of the solar system to the other lickety-split. Instead, they have to use these orbital contraptions called 'jump gates' which, when turned on, basically creates a super-accelerated gravity field that acts as a slingshot flinging anything that flies through it at whatever it's pointed at at velocities faster than the speed of light and you have no idea what I'm talking about, do you?"

"No," nearly everyone (including, embarrassingly enough, the deities) said. Leo facepalmed.

"It's a big ring floating in space a ship can fly into that flings it across the solar system faster than it could fly under its own power," Lily translated. "And the ships are equipped with some sort of super-strong braking system-"

"Retrorockets," Leo said.

"Yes, those, that slows it down as it reaches its target so it doesn't crash into it and destroy itself," Lily explained.

"Ohhhh," everyone said, finally understanding.

"You've been spending a little too much time with Leo if you can actually understand what he's saying," Pikachu joked.

Lily gave him a puzzled look. "Well of course I am, I'm marrying him, aren't I?"

"…Ah. Yes. That," Pikachu admitted.

"So they're getting to Mars and back using these 'jump gates?' Why don't we just use the one they have here?" Melanie asked. "Er, they do have one here, don't they?"

"They do, but they moved it very far out of Earth's orbit once its location was revealed by Dean and Bob," Leo explained. "And since we don't exactly have particularly good ships ourselves, we can't really fly out there until we finish retrofitting our pre-existing battleships with the Nihilator tech we've managed to salvage from the wreckage outside Fichina's borders and the bases we've managed to raid. And even then, they've probably got the thing rigged to blow up if we try to take it for ourselves."

"Won't that make it impossible for them to get here, though?" asked the confused Jujimaru.

"No, they still have their jump gate, which means they can still throw stuff and ships at us, but those things have no way of getting back," Leo said.

"But considering the suicidal tendencies of most Nihilators, that's probably not that big a deal for them," Pikachu pointed out.

"So they can launch stuff at us but we can't hit them back? How are we supposed to attack them, then?" asked the puzzled Bianca.

Dawn shrugged. We're still working on that.

"Mozzer 'as been deliberating wiz several ozzer experts from all over Fichina and around ze world ever since ze dilemma became clear to us," Mirami reported. "She says zey are on ze verge of a breakzrough zat may solve all our problems. It should only be a matter of days until zey are ready to announce it to ze public and begin ze invasion of Mars."

"Sweet!" Leo said.

"Not sweet," Lily said in alarm. "That means we won't have much time for a honeymoon, or to…how did you put it earlier…'bask in our newly wedded bliss?'"

"All honeymoons have to end sooner or later, Lily," Leo said sadly. "Vacations, too. And while this break from all the action has been nice and relaxing…we both knew sooner or later we were going to have to go back to work saving the world."

Lugia nodded solemnly. "It is your destiny, and destiny cannot be delayed for long."

"I thought it was Ash's destiny to fight the Nihilators," Iris said.

"It is. But you don't think his friends would let him go off and fight them on his own, do you?" Lugia pointed out.

"Oh," the Axew said, seeing his point.

Lily sighed unhappily. "I know, you're right. It's just…the past week here in Fichina has been possibly the happiest of my life. I didn't have to worry about fighting or my Mother or anything else; I just got to hang out with my friends and with Fantina and learn more about magic and my heritage and this wonderful land I wish I could have been born in rather than growing up with Mother. Is it wrong that a part of me hoped that someone else would take care of the Nihilators now that we've made the rest of the world aware of them, so that I could focus on my estate and on Leo and on being able to simply enjoy life, without having to constantly worry about the fate of the world?"

Leo shook his head. "Nah, it's perfectly understandable, Lily. I can't blame you for feeling that way…heck, I bet Ash wishes he didn't have to deal with all this crap too, you know? But somebody's gotta do it, and like it or not, we're the best ones suited for the job."

"Which is why we must go," Lily said sadly. "And leave this happiness behind."

"Afraid so," Leo said quietly.

There was an uncomfortable silence as all gathered tried to think of something to say to lighten the mood. Finally, Boa cleared her throat and said, "Well…you may have to go, but…remember, until we actually find a way to get to Mars, there isn't really anything you can do about the Nihilators."

Mirami nodded in agreement. "So you might as well just relax and leave ze worrying until later. You still 'ave some time left before you will be called upon to fight once more, so until zen…"

"We might as well enjoy the time that is left to us," Lily finished, nodding in understanding. "I know. And I will try my best to do that…and to not let my worries of what lies ahead of us ruin what will happen tomorrow. If everything all my female friends have told me is correct, my wedding day should be among the happiest in my entire unlife…so I should not allow my fears of the future to mar it."

"Especially since it represents hope for a future after this conflict…a happier world where we need never fear your mother or the Nihilators or the Ruler of Evil ever again," Melanie said. "Where you and Leo and your friends and even the rest of us may settle down and live out the rest of our lives in peace, free of the shadows of evil."

"Or of our own demons…" Pikachu murmured, thinking of Ash.

"You've got demons?" Bianca asked in confusion. "Where?"

"I think he was referring to inner demons," Melanie said.

"How'd he get inner demons? Is he possessed or something?" Bianca asked cluelessly, causing everyone to facepalm.

"No way!" Jujimaru cried, further misunderstanding. "Pikachu-sama-domo-sempai-chan's willpower is way too strong to get possessed! He probably means he's got tons of evil demons that he's locked up in a box somewhere. Ooh! Or maybe his sword feasts on the souls of its victims, so the spirit of every demon he's slain is in it!"

"…Um, actually-" Pikachu started, sweatdropping.

"Don't be ridiculous, it's a holy sword, holy swords don't devour souls!" Iris argued, cutting Pikachu off.

"They don't devour innocent souls, there's no reason it can't devour evil souls!" Jujimaru said stubbornly.

"It doesn't work like that!" Pikachu yelled.

"Are you sure? I mean, your sword is incapable of killing anything that's not evil…maybe it does swallow their souls or something! Oh wow, that'd be so cool!" Leo said eagerly.

Pikachu facepawed. "Leo, my sword does not work that way! Dawn, back me up on this, will you?"

Why are you asking me? It's not my sword. I don't know how it works, the Buneary said.

"What are you talking about? I must've explained it at least a dozen times!" Pikachu said.

To be honest, I wasn't paying attention, Dawn said.

Pikachu's eye twitched. "You…you weren't…you weren't paying attention?!"

No, Dawn said.

"That's not very nice," Lily said.

"Yeah, you're his vassal, aren't you supposed to listen faithfully to everything he says or something?" Leo asked.

Not if I don't deem it pertinent. Which it wasn't in this case, Dawn said. Pikachu growled.

"Oh," Leo said. He frowned in concern, and then shot Lily a suspicious look. "Waaaaiiit a minute…then does that mean all the times I was telling you about stuff, you were actually zoning out on me?!"

"Wh-what? No, of course not!" Lily protested.

"Prove it!" Leo challenged.

"Gligarman and Taillow is considered by all true Gligarman fans to be the worst Gligarman film ever due to its rushed script and production, excessive toy-friendly promotional tie-ins, confusing plot, blatant fanservice, ridiculous costumes, and the infamous 'Gligar Credit Card' scene which drove Internet celebrity Nostalgia Critique into a frothing rage when he gave a review of the movie," Lily said.

"I love this womon," Leo said, hugging the Misdreavus.

"…Well, I guess somebody had to actually pay attention to all the stuff that comes out of your mouth…" Pikachu said. He glared at Dawn. "If only all of us could have a partner so devoted."

Master, I love swords as much as the next ninja, but hearing you talk about yours in such adoring tones that it makes me wonder if you might like it more than me gets rather tiresome, Dawn said flatly.

Pikachu scowled. "What happened to you hanging on every word I say and never talking back to me and being an eerily devoted servant?"

Lily invited me to watch chick flicks with her and Leo and Sasha had a frank talk with me about how a mon and a womon should behave around one another, Dawn said.

"Did she now," Pikachu said flatly, understandably concerned given that Sasha's idea of courtship was to drag whatever male looked the most appealing back to her lair, mate with him, and not bother to learn much about him—even his name!—until afterwards. "I think I might need to have a talk with her."

Dawn nodded. Yes, she said you'd say that.

Pikachu sighed. "Of course she did."

"…You watch chick flicks?" Boa asked Leo.

"Yeah, why?" Leo asked.

"There aren't many guys I know who'd admit to something like that so freely," the Servine said.

"I'm secure enough in my masculinity to not care very much about what people might think about the things I watch," Leo said.

"That's very brave of you," Melanie said, impressed.

"Yeah, if only more guys could be as courageous and open as you…" Iris said, glaring at Jujimaru.

"Yeah, if only," the Oshawott agreed obliviously. Iris rolled her eyes.

"…What does any of this have to do with demons again?" asked a very confused Melanie, wondering how they'd gotten so far off-topic.

"Nothing, we just went off on a tangent because…that's what we do," Leo said.

"Ah," Melanie said.

"So, wait, if your sword doesn't have demon souls in it, where do you keep your demons?" asked the confused Bianca.

"Mon, that's a good game," Leo commented.

"Huh?" said the confused Pikachu.

"Demon's Souls," Leo said. "As is its spiritual sequel, Dark Souls."

"I…whatever, I don't care," Pikachu said in exasperation. "I don't have any demons…that I know of. I was referring to Ash."

"Ash has a demon inside him?!" Bianca gasped in horror.

"Well, yeah, he's got that horrible Shadow Pokémon thing inside of him, doesn't he? And that hallucination of his zombie girlfriend?" Iris said.

"I thought she was a vampire, not a zombie," said the confused Jujimaru.

"Aren't vampires a kind of zombie?" Bianca asked.

"BLASPHEMY!" Leo bellowed, causing the Pignite to wince.

"Zey're bozh undead, zat's about it," Mirami said.

"Oh. Then why did Iris confuse a vampire with a zombie?" Jujimaru asked.

"I didn't! Misty's not a zombie or a vampire, she's a Vaporeon! It's that Gardevoir who's a vampire! And she and Ash aren't dating!" Iris said in exasperation.

"Although more than a few people back home did think they should get together," Pikachu commented.

"Never out loud, I take it?" Leo asked.

"Certainly not in earshot of Misty, anyway," Pikachu said.

"If Misty's not a vampire or a zombie, then how is Ash having hallucinations of a zombie girlfriend?" the ever-clueless Jujimaru asked. "Or…" He gasped. "Is he cheating on Misty with a zombie?!"

"Why would anyone want to date a zombie, anyway? Zombies are gross," Bianca said.

"I've dated zombies. Zey were some of ze sweetest gentlePokémon I've known," Mirami said coldly.

"Oh," Bianca said awkwardly. "Um…sorry."

"Wait, you dated zombies? But they're all…I mean…how did the two of you, um, you know…" Leo started, face scrunched up in a grimace.

"WE DON'T NEED TO KNOW THAT," Pikachu said loudly. "And Ash doesn't have a zombie girlfriend, he's having hallucinations of Misty as a zombie. And when I was talking about demons, I was referring to metaphorical demons, though since those things you mentioned are actually manifestations of those metaphorical demons, I guess they count too."

"Ohhhhh," Jujimaru and Bianca said.

"Well why didn't you say so in the first place?" the Pignite complained. Pikachu facepawed.

"Oh! That reminds me…" Lily turned to the gods and respectfully bowed her head. "Um…if I might ask…have you made any progress on finding a way to cure Ash?"

There was a pause, one that was rather too lengthy for any of their liking. "Not…so much, no," Lugia admitted unhappily.

"We're working on it, though," Zekrom promised when everyone's faces fell.

"I don't have much hope, though. I mean, my Mirror of Truth shattered rather than give Ash a chance to heal himself! When something like that happens, you know it's practically a lost cause…" Reshiram paused when she noticed her colleagues glaring at her and the mortals looking at her in horror. "What?"

"You didn't have to tell them that," Kyurem hissed.

"I'm a goddess of truth. I can't lie," Reshiram said bluntly.

"You don't have to lie, you could just, I don't know, not tell them that part?" Zekrom said wearily, a roll of his eyes indicating this was a conversation they'd had before many times in the past.

"A lie is a lie, even if only one of omission," Reshiram said stubbornly, refusing to yield.

"You know, there are at least half a dozen civilizations we've overseen that might not have fallen if you'd shown a little more tact," Zekrom said in exasperation.

"If a tiny truth is enough to destroy that civilization, then it was already nearing its end and probably didn't deserve to exist much longer in the first place," Reshiram said.

"Oh for the love of-" Zekrom started.

"Can we discuss this later? In private? Do they really need to hear this?" Lugia growled at the dragons, gesturing at the mortals with his head.

"No," Zekrom admitted, looking ashamed.

"I don't see why not," Reshiram said. Zekrom and Lugia facepalmed. Kyurem did nothing.

"Anyway," Lugia said. "I believe the matter of Ash can wait for another day. After all…tomorrow is Lily and Leo's wedding, and the focus of this occasion should be on them, not on Ash's lingering psychoses, should it not?"

"Oh yeah! That's what I'm talking about!" Leo whooped.

"W-well, we can keep focusing on Ash, if you want…" Lily said, flushing nervously.

"No, he's right, this is your day. Well, tomorrow is, but now that we've finished up our business here, we can focus on preparing you and Leo for your big day," Pikachu said.

And speaking of which…I do believe that now that we are finished here, we should head to the Draconian Embassy. Your father will be arriving shortly, Dawn said.

Lily's face creased in concern. "Oh, that's right. My father. We…haven't resolved what we're going to do about him, are we?"

"Be yourselves," Boa suggested. "That usually works."

"But who I am is terrified of him," Lily pointed out.

"With good reason," Jujimaru added helpfully. Everyone glared at him. "What?"

"As we 'ave said before, Lily…Nuken Shinobu is far from ze best of mons," Mirami reminded her friend. "But 'e is still capable of love, and 'e loves you, which already makes 'im a better mon zan Bellum ever was or will be. Always keep zat in mind."

"I'll…I'll try to," Lily said, still looking nervous.

"And keep in mind that we'll be right here, babe," Leo said, putting an arm over Lily's back. "You aren't facing him alone. Heck, if anything, I'm the one who should be scared of the guy, seeing as how I'm marrying you, his only daughter!"

"Speaking of which, why aren't you scared of him?" Melanie asked.

"Because I've seen worse things than him," Leo said. "Though not by much. Plus, if he decides he doesn't want me to marry Lily after all and does try anything…well, let's just say I have a few surprises ready for him. "

"Why am I not surprised?" Pikachu asked in bemusement.

"So, how are we gonna get to the Embassy?" Bianca asked.

"We can either teleport or take a transport," Boa said.

"I don't mind taking the scenic route," Lily said. "I love being able to see more of this city…and besides, it'll give me more time to steel myself to deal with…him."

Leo kissed her on the cheek. "Relax, Lily, it'll be fine. And if he really starts creeping you out, picture him in a string bikini."

"…Why would I want to do that?" asked the confused Lily.

"Because it's frigging hilarious!" Leo said with a grin.

"…I don't get it," Lily said.

Neither do I, Dawn said.

"I think it's more weird than funny, myself," Pikachu said.

Leo's face fell. "My humor is wasted on you people."

"I thought it was funny!" Jujimaru said.

"You would," Iris grumbled.

"That's right, and I did!" Jujimaru said obliviously. Iris sighed in frustration.

"Will you be coming with us?" Pikachu asked the four gods.

Lugia glanced at the three dragons, which shook their heads. "Apparently not," the sea god said apologetically. "We have more business to attend to. I promise that we shall join you later, though."

"Are you coming to our rehearsal dinner?" Leo asked hopefully. "Because it's gonna be off the hook! I wanted a bachelor party, but the others shouted me down for some reason…"

"Gee, I wonder why," Pikachu said sardonically.

"Why do you keep saying that part about a hook?" asked the confused Lily.

"And why am I the only one concerned with keeping it from falling and breaking?!" Jujimaru cried. Everyone ignored him.

"I will see what I can do," Lugia said in amusement.

"I'm afraid I cannot attend," Reshiram said. "I'm still trying to repair that mirror Ash broke."

"It was an accident," Pikachu said.

"That doesn't stop my mirror from being broken," Reshiram said.

"I can't go either. I promised to help her," Zekrom said apologetically.

"I'll come," Kyurem said.

"Really? I was expecting you to say you had to stay with the other two to help them achieve 'balance' or something like that," Leo said. Kyurem grunted but did not reply.

"Leo, now is not the time to be antagonizing the giant ice dragon," Pikachu muttered to his teammate.

"What? It's not like Lily can't thaw me out or anything," Leo muttered back.

"I thought you of all people would know better than to tempt fate," Pikachu pointed out.

"…Eh, that's true," Leo admitted.

"Good luck with whatever it is you're doing," Lily said.

"And good luck meeting your violent and incredibly feared father," Reshiram said.

Lily gulped. The other gods glared at Reshiram. "Was that really necessary?" Lugia asked wearily.

"What? He's violent and incredibly feared. That's the truth, isn't it?" Reshiram asked. The others sighed in frustration.

"Right, uh, we'll just be going then. We'll see you later," Pikachu said, herding the others towards the stairs, sensing there was an argument of some sort brewing. "And once more, thank you for your gift."

"You are most welcome," Lugia commented without looking away from the unrepentant Reshiram.

"Okay, Reshiram," Zekrom's voice could be heard as the heroes started down the stairs towards the main part of the Holy Isle. "It's high time we taught you about a little something called 'restraint…'"

Meanwhile…

For generations, New Avalon's Temple of Darkrai was a poorly-frequented place of ill repute, located in an out-of-the-way part of the city far from the major veins of commerce and residency. It wasn't hidden or anything, and it's not like the city was ashamed of it—there was plenty of advertising for it in their tourism guides and brochures, and it could easily be found on a map—but few people went to it. This had nothing to do with fear of Darkrai's primary domain of death or nightmares, since those were all things easily conquered and manipulated by magic, to the point where few if any of Fichina's citizens were afraid of them to any great extent.

No, the reason few if any Pokémon visited Darkrai's temple was because of the rather…unorthodox behavior of its acolytes and what they'd done to its décor. The acolytes, after reading a few too many teen fantasy novels, had taken to growing out their hair and dying it black (and if they didn't have hair, making it grow through spells), wore black make-up, practiced self-mutilation, listened to horrible depressing music, performed blood sacrifices and wrote bad poetry while whining about darkness and pain and how their parents didn't understand them. As for the temple itself, they'd decided that to make it a true 'den of darkness' worthy of their Dark Master (caps intended), they intentionally let the place fall to shambles (and actually did a little creative demolition to make it look more ruined), let the banners fade so that Darkrai's holy symbols were no longer visible, the sacred lamps had been removed because the acolytes now regarded light as evil and antithetical to their master (plus, it hurt their eyes and gave them headaches after long nights of drinking and doing drugs to be 'edgy'), the wood was rotting, dust was everywhere, all the sacred wine had been drunken, the only bones were set up tastelessly, dried blood was everywhere, the few paintings they made were gory and vulgar, the altar to Cresselia had been defaced and was used to have sex on to 'initiate' new acolytes into the fold, the tapestry depicting Darkrai's rise to power had been used to create Fichina's largest joint, and the temple's resident spirits and spooks and dark fairies had resigned in disgust after being sent on one too many booze runs or summoned to perform 'acts of dark worship (i.e., sex)' even though that was more of a Mewrian thing. Darkrai had, quite understandably, been outraged by this blasphemy and sent horrific nightmares and monsters from the darkest corners of the night to punish them for defiling his temple and mangling their duties to him. Unfortunately, the clueless worshippers thought the nightmares were rewards for their loyal service, and the monsters were so weirded out by the wannabe Goths that they'd scurried back to the dark side of the Moon. This made Darkrai very cross.

Which was why, when Team Aurabolt arrived in New Avalon, he took great pleasure in sending Sasha to his temple to sort things out. The acolytes hadn't known what hit them.

She hadn't wanted to go to the temple, at first. "I don't see why it's necessary for me to make an appearance," she had grumbled as she self-consciously strode through the city streets towards the temple a few days ago, wishing all the people and things that didn't look like people but Darkrai insisted were would stop staring at her. Whether it was because she was a celebrated hero responsible for helping save Fichina and perhaps the world or because she was (unwillingly) wearing her high priestess robes she wasn't sure, and didn't particularly care, all she knew was that there were far too many eyes on her for her liking. She didn't like cities, with all these narrow streets and tall buildings blocking out the sky, hemming in on her from all sides, forcing her to get too close to the astonishingly high number of Pokémon who were somehow sharing space without killing each other that she had to constantly struggle to keep her survival instincts in check so she didn't lash out at a harmless pedestrian just for walking a little too close to her. It felt claustrophobic and unnatural, absolutely nothing like the snowfields and icy forests of her homeland, where you could go for days without seeing another Pokémon that wasn't family or prey, and see a sky uncluttered by flying machines or Pokémon or skyscrapers or floating islands and mansions. There was a reason she found herself so enamored with Lily's new estate; it reminded her of home, even if all the strange ice creatures and monsters were somewhat unfamiliar to her.

You're my High Priestess, and this is—or rather, was—one of my major centers of worship in Fichina, Darkrai explained to her. It's expected of you to visit while you're in the city, to pay respects and give blessings and all that.

"I have no idea how to do all that," she muttered under her breath in frustration. "You know as well as I do that I'm High Priestess in name only. You never taught me how to do any of the rites or ceremonies or, or other things a Pokémon of my position is supposed to know!"

I seem to recall my offering to teach you years ago. You turned me down, Darkrai pointed out.

"Because I didn't think I'd ever need to know!" she growled.

Well, you were wrong, and now you've got to face the consequences of your willful ignorance, Darkrai said. When she sagged in dismay at this, he took pity on her and said, Don't worry, just follow my lead and do whatever I tell you and you'll do fine.

"Well, all right," she said reluctantly. She turned a corner and paused, getting her first look at her master's temple.

She didn't like what she saw. "Is this the right place?" she asked somewhat dubiously as she stared at the giant structure made of crumbling black stone with towering statues of Darkrai and nightmarish creatures along with great jutting spikes reaching towards the heavens, ghoulish friezes covering the walls, stained glass windows depicting horrific creatures and vistas, and bowls of black fire burning along a winding path zigzagging across a garden of withered flowers and plants with gruesome sculptures and fountains pouring what looked an awful lot like blood from the mouths and wounds of Pokémon twisted in agony interspersed across the yard. Lots of bones haphazardly littered the ground, with whole skeletons of beasts Sasha had never seen before and hoped she'd never have to lying all over the place. The entrance to the temple was made up to look like the jaws of a huge monster, with a pair of massive pitch-black wrought-iron doors placed just inside the fanged maw of the beast. Smoke and flames rose from the twisted and broken spires growing from the top of the temple, and the flyers filling the city's skies steered far away from the dark cloud that seemed to be perpetually hanging over the building.

Are you questioning my sense of direction? Darkrai asked.

"No, it's just…this looks more like the lair of an evil sorcerer than a place of worship," Sasha said. "And I should know, since we passed several lairs of evil sorcerers on our way here. They really let so many live inside the city? Is that safe?"

Sure, why wouldn't it be? They're certified card-carrying members of the Evil Wizards' Union, one of Fichina's oldest and most respected non-profit organizations. They pay their taxes in full on time and everything. They even have fund-raisers and bake sales and their own float in parades, Darkrai said.

"…But…they're evil!" Sasha protested.

More as a hobby than an actual profession. They're regular law-abiding citizens most of the time, though which laws they follow vary. They're really mostly harmless, or as harmless as any Pokémon wielding enough magical power to wipe out small towns can be, Darkrai said.

"I do not understand," said the very confused Sasha.

There are many degrees of evil, Sasha. Some are more acceptable than others, Darkrai said. And if you get too evil, not even the other bad guys will want to hang out with you, hence why Bellum's been permanently blackballed from any Union events ever since she got booted from the country. I myself am a proud member and sponsor of the Union, and have been for centuries!

"What?! But you're not evil!" Sasha protested.

My job involves making people die and scaring the heck out of them for shits and giggles. Some people could call that evil, Darkrai pointed out.

"Well…yes, but-"

And there are lots of people who call your species evil because of that whole disaster thing you've got going on, Darkrai added.

"I don't cause disasters, I just predict them!" Sasha said angrily.

And I don't kill people, but that doesn't stop them from blaming me for their deaths, Darkrai said. The nightmare thing is my fault, though; I'll cop to that much. Not like I'm going to apologize for it, though.

"What purpose do nightmares even serve, anyway, other than scaring decent Pokémon?" Sasha complained.

Other than occasionally giving them prophetic omens? Abyss if I know. I think it might somehow build character, guilt people into staying the right and proper, and punish the wicked, but I'm not actually sure how. It's my job, though, and I enjoy doing it, and that's enough for me, Dakrai said cheerfully. Which might be cause enough for some to call me evil, though I don't really look at it that way myself. Still, it makes me eligible for the Union, and I'm never one to turn down an invitation to join an exclusive club. It's not like I get many of those as is.

"Ah," Sasha said, still not really understanding. "And…is that why your temple looks that way?"

What? Heck no! That thing's a disgrace! Darkrai said angrily. Ever since those emo punks joined the clergy, they've completely ruined it and turned it into some kind of ridiculous fantasy right out of one of those stupid teen vampire novels! I mean, seriously, just look at the thing! A temple to me is supposed to be imposing, awe-inspiring, capable of eliciting fear and respect from those who stand in its shadow. But this? This is just tacky. I mean, come on, fountains of blood? Really now? Do you have any idea how clichéd that is? Plus, look at those statues and the artwork on the walls and windows!

"It is very…grotesque," Sasha said charitably.

Yeah, because it's ugly and amateurish! It doesn't frighten you, it disgusts you by over-emphasizing the gore and horror and shock factor. That's completely missing the point! It's supposed to be scary, not vulgar! Plus, look at how downhill the upkeep has gotten. Those plants in the garden are supposed to be alive and healthy. Those broken statues and pieces of stone should be whole and in one piece. And those bones definitely do not belong there, or at least not lying all over the place in pieces!

"I suppose they could do a better job of keeping the place neat," Sasha admitted, surveying the temple grounds with a fresher perspective. Now that she looked at it, the arrangement of statues and bones and landscaping, which she had initially thought to be intentional, now looked rather slapdash and unplanned. The stones making up the temple itself were scuffed and scratched and worn, and looked more old and poorly-maintained than genuinely intimidating, the spikes and spires looked like they might topple over if struck by the slightest breeze or flying object—perhaps that was really why the airspace over the temple was so clear?—and the artwork, on closer examination, looked more like it belonged in a modern art gallery than a holy ground. And were those markings on the walls that she had initially taken to be holy icons graffiti? How sacrilegious!

Ya think?! Darkrai said angrily. And if that's not bad enough, they're polluting too!

Sasha glanced at the dark cloud hovering over the temple. "That cloud is not supposed to be there?"

Oh no, it is, but all that smoke and stuff rising from the roof isn't. Do they have any idea what kind of damage they could do to the environment, especially in an ecosystem as rigidly structured as Fichina's? All the weather here is controlled by magic, and dumping pollution into the mix can cause very bad storms if the city meteomancers aren't on the ball!

"What do meteors have to do with the weather?" Sasha asked.

Huh? Meteors? What do you…oh, I get it! Heheh, very funny! You might be developing a sense of humor after all! Darkrai said proudly.

"I do not understand," Sasha said.

You know, because of the joke? Darkrai said.

"What joke?" Sasha asked.

Ugh. Never mind, Darkrai said wearily.

"So…what am I doing here?" Sasha asked.

As you may have gathered from my ranting, this place has fallen on fairly bad times due to the grotesque mismanagement of its priesthood, Darkrai said. As my High Priestess, I want you to get in there and whip them into shape! Get this temple back in working order!

"And how am I supposed to do that?" Sasha asked with a frown.

Just be your usual self and follow my instructions. Not that I'm sure you'll need to. You were able to browbeat that Lobo guy into submission pretty easily, weren't you? Darkrai asked.

"I suppose," Sasha admitted.

Then get in there and do it again! Darkrai said.

She frowned. "May I ask why you can't do this yourself?"

I tried. They didn't get the point. Now it's time for me to pull out the big guns…namely, you, Darkrai said.

"Well, all right…I suppose I don't have anything better to do at the moment," Sasha said reluctantly, giving in.

You certainly don't, Darkrai agreed, causing her to roll her eyes.

She started walking up the long, zigzagging walkway towards the temple's entrance, Darkrai keeping up a running commentary in the back of her head about how much he hated the current state of the temple and what colossal idiots its current management were and how much better it had been back in the day and all the changes he'd have Sasha implement once she'd laid down the law and all sorts of other things she didn't pay very much attention to since she was too busy keeping her eyes and ears and nose open for any threats. Her disaster-sense for the surrounding area was surprisingly low, indicating that despite the rather grisly and gruesome appearance of the temple environs almost nothing here was actually a threat, something Darkrai admitted was true as well in the old days but the place had actually been scary then to compensate for it rather than just looking overwrought and melodramatic like it was now. Even so, she didn't like or trust this city, despite frequent assurances that it was perfectly safe and that nobody would hurt her (not that they could, what with the robes she was wearing). She was a predator out of her natural habitat, and she'd never be able to fully relax so long as she was in this strange land full of magic and mystery and things she had no idea how to deal with.

She paused briefly when she came to the jaws before the temple door, but after the great set of teeth failed to set off her disaster-sense, she shrugged and walked between two of the overlarge fangs. This set Darkrai off again. Oh, come on! They can't even be bothered to keep the thing rigged so it would start closing the instant you passed through it, only to stop just inches from crushing you, giving you a big fright but not harming you in the slightest?!

"Couldn't that give those with a weak heart some difficulty?" Sasha asked.

If you have a weak heart, what business do you have here? Darkrai asked. And besides, the temple has—or rather, had —pretty good medical facilities on hand just in case someone got a heart attack from all the scares.

"Why would a temple for the god of death have good health care?" Sasha asked.

Everyone dies eventually, but there's no reason for a life to end sooner rather than later, Darkrai said. I'm the god of death, yeah, but I'm actually happier if someone dies after a long and storied life than if they do it before they reach the end of their natural lifespan. It's less emotional that way, and it doesn't feel like they left quite as much unfinished. It also means less work for me, which is always a plus.

"That's a rather lazy attitude to have," she said with a frown.

Less work means I get to spend more time with my wife, who you know as well as I do that I don't get to see nearly as often as I would like, even before she got kidnapped by Oblivion's Shadow, Darkrai said bitterly. Can you really begrudge me that?

"…No, I suppose I cannot," Sasha admitted, thinking of her own mate, who she'd left to guard their home near the Frosty Forest so she could run off and save the world. A pang of sadness and regret rang through her as she thought of him, all alone in their cave, waiting and wondering when, if ever, his beloved wife would come home.

Don't worry, Darkrai said, sensing her mood. He's fine. So are your kids. I told some of my guys to keep an eye on them while you were gone, make sure nothing bad happened to them. It's the least I could do, since I had to drag you away from them and all.

Sasha released a breath she hadn't been aware she'd been holding. "Thank you. That is…very good to hear." She smiled sadly. "I am sorry that the same assurances could not be made for your own mate."

Yeah…well…her situation's not ideal, but Oblivion's Shadow is bound by the contract between us just as much as I am, so he can't do anything too bad to her, Darkrai said, though he didn't sound as if he entirely believed it. And I can pop in every now and then to check up on her. But yeah, I worry for her. A lot. What kind of husband would I be if I didn't?

"We will rescue her soon," Sasha promised.

Yeah, I know, Darkrai said, cheering up. And once you do, I won't have to hold back any longer…and boy, will the Shadow wish he'd never tried to mess with me.

"I look forward to seeing that," Sasha said.

Heh, me too, Darkrai said. But that's for another day. Right now, we need to get you inside.

Sasha frowned as she stared at the giant imposing doors looming above her. "Should I knock? I believe that is the custom in cities and other populated areas, although Leo says that in video games heroes are able to enter any domicile they wish and break everything in sight looking for treasure without suffering any repercussions whatsoever, something that greatly perplexes me, since anyone who tried something like that in my home would quickly find their life at an end."

Most video game heroes are scary-looking dudes with really big and dangerous-looking weapons, and smart people don't want to mess with a guy like that, Darkrai said. In this instance, though, I doubt knocking will do you any good, considering how lax this place has gotten. Doubt there's even anyone on duty to answer the door.

"Then how am I to get inside?" Sasha asked.

You're my High Priestess, wearing the robes of office. Nothing which serves me can refuse you so long as my blessing is with you, including the temple itself. You want in? Tell it to let you in, Darkrai said.

"Tell it? It's a building. It's not alive," Sasha protested.

After everything you've seen so far in Fichina, you really think a flimsy distinction like that is a problem? Darkrai asked.

"Noted. Very well." She took a few steps back, stood up straight, and glared at the door. "I am the High Priestess of Darkrai. May I enter, please?"

Nothing happened. Darkrai snorted. Come on, Sasha, don't be a namby-pamby. It's not going to listen to you if you act all polite. You're its superior. It has to answer to you. Make it do what you want!

Sasha nodded. "Understood." She took a deep breath and narrowed her eyes, intensifying her glare. "I am the High Priestess of Darkrai. I command you to let me in!"

Again, nothing happened. Sasha frowned. "Was I not forceful enough?"

Darkrai growled in annoyance. No, that should have worked. To think those idiots have let it get this bad! Fine, looks like we're going to have to do this the hard way. Sasha, do you mind if I borrow your body for a second?

Sasha blinked in surprise. "Borrow my body?"

Yeah, you know, take control of it for a little while so I can get the door open for you, Darkrai said.

"I'm not letting you take control of my body!" Sasha protested in horror.

Come on, I'll give it right back! Darkrai said.

"No!" she said.

Look, do you want to get inside or not?! Darkrai asked.

"Not really, no, I'm only here because you told me to," Sasha snarled.

That's right, and you have to do what I say because I'm the boss. Which also means that I can possess you by force if I want to, Darkrai warned her. I don't want to do that if I don't have to—it's unpleasant for both of us, and especially unfair to you—but this is something that needs to get taken care of, and I'm going to make sure it's done one way or another. So, are you going to let me in, or do I have to take your body by force?

Sasha clenched her teeth, body shaking in anger. "I've already given you my life and my soul. Now you want my body, too?! What's next, my children? My mate? My friends?!"

I'm going to get all of those sooner or later anyway. God of death and all, Darkrai pointed out. Look, I can understand where you're coming from, and I'm sorry if I'm being a little too heavy-handed here. But this is something which means a lot to me, and if there were anyone else I could rely on to take care of it I would, but I don't. All I have is you. Which is good, because you're the best Pokémon for the job in my opinion.

She closed her eyes, struggling to get her temper back in check. "Why is this so important to you?"

How would you feel if you and your mate went out for a walk and came back to find a bunch of squatters in your cave, who'd trashed all your stuff and defecated all over the place? Darkrai asked.

Sasha grimaced. "I would be very upset."

Well, that's pretty much how I feel here, except I can't come in person to deal with it so I need to send in a proxy. Namely, you, Darkrai said.

"Why is it you can't come in person, anyway?" Sasha asked.

Er…I'm not allowed in Fichina for another two hundred and seventy four years, Darkrai admitted embarrassedly. Long story. Short of it is, don't piss of Kyurem. Ever. You'll regret it. Oh, and Victini might look like a pushover, but when she really gets going, not even I can beat her.

"Ah," Sasha said.

Anyway, I can't come down there, but you can. And since you're there, I can use your body to…take care of business, Darkrai explained. Which in this case means opening the door.

Sasha frowned. "You really don't think knocking will work?"

If telling the darn thing to open doesn't do the trick, then what makes you think knocking will?

Sasha sighed reluctantly. "I suppose that's true."

So…you gonna let me in, or what? Darkrai asked.

Sasha ground her teeth in thought for a moment. "…You promise you'll give it back?"

Of course I will. I'm insulted you'd even ask me that, Darkrai said, offended.

"I apologize. I just…wanted to be sure," Sasha said. She sighed, giving in. "All right. But just for a moment, all right?"

Sure thing. Unless you want me to take care of the layabouts inside, too?

"I am confident I can handle them on my own," Sasha said.

Heh, yeah, you probably will at that, Darkrai said. So, you ready?

"As ready as I'll ever be, I suppose," Sasha said uneasily.

Okay, just close your eyes and relax, Darkrai said.

Sasha closed her eyes, but she did not relax. How could she, knowing she was about to lose control of her body, even if it was only for a short time?

Despite her misgivings, she found her tension easing as a strange coolness seemed to creep into the corners of her subconscious. Slowly, gently, she found herself drifting off into a half-slumber, a state not unlike dreaming while still being awake.

And while Sasha dozed off, her eyes slowly closing, something else woke in her place.

Her head snapped up. Some of her white fur had fallen over the right side of her face, covering the eye there, while her left eye was now an eerie blue rather than its usual red. She stretched out her limbs and rolled her head about, working out some kinks in the neck. "Hmm. So this is what it feels like to be Sasha. She keeps in very good shape. A bit too small for my liking, though. I won't stay in this form for long," she said in a voice that did not sound entirely like herself.

She fixed the door with a glare. "Okay, listen up, because I'm only going to say this once. I am Sasha, High Priestess of Darkrai, god of darkness, death, nightmares, deserts, desserts, cigarettes, and as of last Wednesday, independent films. I am the arbiter of his will and the champion of his dark realm. I command you to open and allow me entrance into my dominion, or suffer the wrath of the Dark Lord's chosen emissary and representative."

Obstinately, the door remained shut. The wind stopped blowing. The blood in the fountains stopped flowing. The Pokémon in the air got a vague feeling that they should not be anywhere in the vicinity and quickly rushed off. As silence fell on the temple grounds, Sasha narrowed her visible eye. "You dare to refuse me entry?!" she snarled furiously as her fur stood on end and her cloak began to shimmer and ripple in an absent breeze. The door didn't answer, naturally, since it was a door, but its stubborn silence couldn't help but feel like an insult. "So be it, then. You have brought this upon yourself." Crouching low to the ground, she braced herself, dug her claws into the stone steps, and howled.

Her cloak turned darker than darkness and flowed upwards, turning from fabric into a mass of living shadow, rising and growing until it took on the shape of a big black silhouette shaped like Dakrai growing out of her back. The silhouette's arms bulged and shot forwards, digging its huge amorphous claws into the surface of the door and pulling. With a screech of ripping metal that sounded rather similar to an agonized scream, the giant shadow tore the door off its hinges and flung it over its shoulders, the two huge metal slabs shattering several of the teeth in the big jaws framing the entrance and dislodging the stuck joints in the giant mouthpiece, causing it to slam down just behind Sasha with a terrifying thud like the strike of doom. The two door panels tumbled through the air and came to ground some distance away, smashing some of the ugly statues and crushing dead flowers and breaking some of the gauche fountains as they hit the ground, causing blood to splatter all over the place and ooze out across the ground from beneath the panels, making it look as if the broken doors were bleeding.

Sasha smirked as she looked into the gaping black void which was all that remained of the gateway into the temple. "Well, that was satisfying." She closed her eyes. The shadow growing out of her back shuddered and sunk back into her body, solidifying into her priestly robes.

She stumbled, gasping as her eyes shot open, back to their usual red hue. "What…wh-what just…" Blinking, she stared at the open entryway before her, and then slowly turned to take in the fallen jaws, the wrecked garden, and the broken door panels lying in the yard. "Did…did I do that?"

No, I did. Well, your body did it, but I was in control, so…yeah, Darkrai said.

"I…did not realize these garments carried such power," said the stunned Absol.

Rethinking your desire never to use them in battle? Darkrai asked.

"…Possibly. It still feels like cheating, and I'm not comfortable wielding such power, but…I suppose I could see the advantages to using it in certain situations…" she admitted slowly.

Cool. Too bad it's going to be a while until you actually get a chance to use that power, since you're not allowed to wield it against the Nihilators…yet. Rescue Cresselia, then we'll talk, Darkrai said.

"We certainly shall," Sasha agreed, still slightly dazed.

And speaking of talking, right now I think you have some layabout priests to see to, Darkrai said.

Sasha nodded. "Right. Let's get this over with."

She entered the temple. The interior was not much better than the outside. If anything, it was worse, since the sunlight shining in from behind Sasha was able to illuminate the dim passage stretching out before her and expose the filth covering almost every surface to the piercing light of day. Scraps of food, bone, and bits of clothing littered the floor. More graffiti covered the walls, seemingly glorifying Darkrai, but if the growls in the back of Sasha's mind were anything to go by, he did not like the way he was portrayed, especially the ones where he was rather violently…er, mating…with Cresselia, and several other goddesses. Rusty bloodstained chains with spiked apparatuses and cages containing emaciated skeletons dangling from them hung from the ceiling and were wrapped around several of the twisted black pillars rising to the ceiling far above, which may have once had a mosaic depicting the night sky on it but was now so dirty it was hard to say for certain. Statues of horrific creatures were perched high on the walls, made even more horrifying due to someone deciding it would be a bright idea to paint them in gaudy colors and decorate them in chains and spikes and sunglasses and facial studs and gang signs. A few banners depicting Dakrai's glory still hung between the pillars, but most of them were tattered and full of holes, and the more recent posters of rock bands (none of which were the Pokérockers, strangely enough) and singers and horror stars, all of whom looked rather pale and emaciated and shared the same (bad) sense of fashion were in much better upkeep. Several large cobwebs were strung across the hallway, large enough to trap a Pokémon twice Sasha's size, but if the carapaces dangling from them were anything to go by it didn't look like their makers had been fed in a very long time. No! My demonweb Spinarak! Darkrai cried in horror when he saw the overlarge husks, which looked much larger than any Spinarak—or Ariados, for that matter!—that Sasha had ever seen. They even looked like they might have given Doctor Tarantulas a fright had they still been alive. Those bastards let them die! Do you have any idea how much trouble I had to go through to get them?! There's a reason Lolth doesn't invite me to her parties anymore!

"Who is Lolth?" Sasha asked.

Queen of Spiders. Nasty bitch. You wouldn't like her, Darkrai said offhandedly.

"There seem to be a lot of people you know that you say I wouldn't like," Sasha said.

I'm the god of nightmares. You expect a lot of the people I associate with to be sociable?

"Good point," Sasha said. She frowned. "That's strange. There's nobody here."

They didn't even come running when you ripped the doors open?! What, did they even let the security spells go?! You know, I'm wondering if maybe I should—with your permission, of course—take over your body again, because I have quite a few things to say to these jackasses! Darkrai said angrily.

"No," Sasha said.

Aw, come on, not even for a little while? Darkrai pleaded.

"Once is enough, thank you very much. I'll take care of this myself," Sasha said.

Oh, fine, Darkrai relented, grumbling. But if you change your mind, you know where to find me.

"Noted," Sasha said, trotting down the hallway leading deeper into the temple, careful to avoid the cobwebs and bones as she went. She could smell other Pokémon—along with a number of other things she could not quite identify, and wasn't sure she wanted to—further in. She could also hear something that sounded faintly like music, but nothing she'd heard before, and nothing Leo'd forced her to listen to either. It vibrated through the floor and into her bones, setting her teeth on edge as she drew closer to its source and it got louder and louder. She frowned as she examined her surroundings. "I mean no offense, my lord, but I find myself somewhat…disappointed."

Yeah, so am I, Darkrai said.

"No, that's not what I mean," Sasha said. "What I mean is, what I've seen so far of this temple is kind of…conventional."

Conventional? How do you mean? Darkrai asked.

"Well, look at all the other buildings I've seen in Fichina. Most of them have completely fantastic styles and interiors due to their builders and owners not being bound by the same restrictions which architects in the outside world have to go by," Sasha said. "This temple, however, looks like it could be your average abandoned dungeon anywhere else in the world. I was just expecting a little…more, I guess."

Ah, I see what you mean. Hmm…now that you mention it…yeah, it is a bit plain and uninspired, isn't it? Darkrai admitted. It looked much better back in the day, trust me. I bet it's those damn acolytes to blame. Most of them are whiny teenagers trying to rebel against their parents and society, so are trying to defy convention by making their hangout look different from the mainstream.

"How is making something look like your average dungeon from anywhere else in the world defying convention?" asked the confused Absol.

When you live in a country where the fantastic is the norm, making something simple and fairly unimaginative is defying convention, Darkrai explained. It's all about perspective. You live in a cave, so think houses and palaces are strange and out of the ordinary, while the people who live in those houses and palaces would think the same of your cave, isn't that true?

"Hmm. I suppose it is," Sasha admitted in surprise. "Still, I think I prefer my cave to all the ostentatiousness I've been exposed to since leaving."

What, you don't like getting pampered or sleeping in a soft bed? Darkrai asked.

"I am a simple womon with simple needs. The myriad material goods and comforts the civilized world has to offer are irrelevant to me. All I need is a warm place to rest my head beside my loved ones, and I am content," Sasha said.

Heh. Yet another reason I like you so much, Sasha. You desire so little, there's almost nothing that can be used to bribe or corrupt you. That's another reason you make such a good high priestess, Darkrai said in amusement.

"Thank you, my lord," she said.

Shortly after that exchange, Sasha found herself standing before a pair of large doors at the far end of the hallway engraved with an image of Darkrai floating beneath a full moon, tendrils of darkness reaching out from his lower half. Flashing lights could be seen through the crack down the center of the door, and the music from the other side was so loud that even through the door it was nearly deafening. She looked at it somewhat dubiously. "Should I try commanding it to open again?" she asked.

Nah, it's unlocked, Darkrai said.

Seeing no reason to doubt him, Sasha pushed at the door with her nose. To her relief, it swung open with a very loud creak, which Darkrai complained about, saying that the hinges used to have been calibrated just right to emit a particularly creepy creak, but this one was much too loud to be effective as a fright, especially since it could barely even be heard over the sound of the music.

Once through the door, Sasha was able to see what was causing the music, as well as the latest depravity the fallen worshippers had visited upon her master's temple. She now found herself in a huge rectangular chamber big enough to fit a cave ten times as large as her home back in Kanjohenn, with twisting pillars reaching up to a domed ceiling overhead that had once had an enchanted mural of the night sky overhead, but was now completely painted over in black with lots of weird glow-in-the-dark sigils covering up all the constellations. A large crystal sphere resembling the Moon hung down from the center of the ceiling, but rather than radiating light it emitted beams of blackness which danced across the room, briefly engulfing everything they passed over in darkness. Sasha started when one of the beams flashed over her face, causing her to see nothing but pitch blackness for a moment until it thankfully moved on. More bones and debris and trash littered the floor, but it was swept away from the center of the room, which had been sunken a few inches into the ground and covered in a grid of crystal tiles that flashed with fluorescent and black lights, weird symbols flickering across their surfaces as what looked like an army of zombies flailed and writhed violently on it and above it, since gravity didn't mean much to Pokémon capable of flying or at the very least levitating themselves through magical or other means. At first Sasha thought they were in agony from the very loud and not-too-pleasant music filling the room, but then realized that they actually seemed to be dancing to it, and only a quarter of the dancers were zombies, the rest were just Pokémon so pale and thin and malnourished-looking that they just resembled the undead. Surprisingly, only a few of them were Dark and Ghost-types, the rest were an odd mishmash of Pokémon from various different species that had used various types of cosmetics and props to make themselves look like they were either 'dark' variants of their species or completely different Pokémon altogether, much in the same way Dawn was able to make herself look like a Sneasel, except that Dawn's disguise actually made her look a fair bit like a Sneasel from a distance, whereas these Pokémon just looked like they were wearing cheap Halloween costumes they'd made themselves, which wasn't far off the mark. All of them were dressed in black, and wearing too much black makeup and eyeliner and lipstick, with hair done in spikes, lots of body piercings covering their forms, and tattoos of obscene and arcane sigils flashing on their exposed flesh or scales or fur or carapaces.

Chains and torture devices hung from the ceiling and leaned against walls and pillars, and several large cages containing dancing skeletons and zombies and Pokémon looking like they were trying too hard to look like skeletons and zombies levitated through the air alongside gravity-defying rivers of blood much like the rivers flowing through the air above the Fichinan countryside and pulsating dark crystals throwing out more of the black lights as glyphs that it hurt Sasha's head to look at flickered across their surfaces. These crystals also seemed to be the source of the 'music' filling the sanctuary, although whether it could be called that since it seemed to largely consist of lots of screaming of both the agonized and ecstatic kind with lots of ranting about blood and death and darkness and how their parents didn't understand them was debatable. These crystals were being manipulated by a DJ wizard Tympole standing at the edge of the pit, using a wand to direct the gems around the room while using a magitech keyboard to control the sounds and images while raw, unfiltered noise boomed from loudspeakers fashioned from monstrous skulls floating on either side of him.

Tables and couches and other furniture that had been badly torn up was pushed back away from the center of the room, and would-be acolytes like the ones on the dance floor were chatting it up and drinking blood and smoking and doing magical narcotics or fornicating without caring that they were in public, in a supposedly sacred place, or that they were using very old and valuable tapestries and banners and pages from holy books as bedding. If the groups of giggling Pokémon running off together—and emerging, sometime later, with very disappointed and embarrassed looks on their faces—into the passages leading off from the sanctuary were anything to go by, it seemed like no part of this establishment was safe from 'acts of dark worship.' If this were a Mewrian temple, that kind of promiscuity would be encouraged and accepted, but it wasn't, so it was just sort of appalling and sad instead.

The back wall of the room, directly across from where Sasha was standing, was taken up by a massive statue of Darkrai with a claw raised dramatically towards the heavens; one of the few things in the temple that looked like it was receiving proper care. The altar at its base was also receiving proper care, though in a different sense, in that it was being used by senior acolytes in black robes to welcome a new initiate into their circle by strapping her down on the altar and whipping her while one of them—probably the leader due to the fact that he had dyed his hair white and was wearing a necklace of angular red stones around his neck to try and look more like his god—was, ah…consecrating her from the rear, if you get my meaning. As Sasha stared at this obscene ritual in disbelief, she noticed that the initiate was wearing a headdress and ribbons reminiscent of Cresselia's crescents, and not much else. This, along with the other vulgar graffiti and burning effigies depicting the lunar goddess being killed in horrific and brutal ways, indicated that these Pokémon did not think highly of Darkrai's wife.

Sasha and Darkrai, in turn, did not think very highly of what they had done with the place. "This…this is…vile beyond all my expectations…" said a shocked Sasha, her eyes watering and her head pounding from the sheer amount of sensory overload she was getting from all the flashing lights and loud noises and horrible smells filling the former sanctuary. She was beginning to understand some of Darkrai's revulsion for the defilement of his temple.

A rave? A RAVE?! THOSE BASTARDS TURNED MY SANCTUARY INTO A FUCKING RAVE?! Darkrai bellowed furiously. And…and the decorations…and Cressy…on my altar, even! I…those…those horrible little… He degenerated into enraged stammers and curses, so angry he was unable to properly articulate himself.

"…Master, would you like to take control of my body again?" Sasha asked.

I'm STRONGLY considering it! Darkrai shouted.

"As am I," Sasha admitted reluctantly. "These…creatures need a strong talking-to, if nothing else. I can't believe their parents allow this! What kind of example are they setting for their offspring if they allow them to behave like this?!"

Typical teenage punks rebelling against authority because they think their parents are oppressing them and don't have a clue as to what life in the real world is like, Darkrai said with a sneer. Most of them are probably rich kids with mommy or daddy issues acting out to get attention or to make themselves look cool by going against mainstream society, uncaring that in doing so they're simply conforming to a new paradigm rather than demonstrating real independence. Seriously, do any of those outfits look original to you? I can see the same exact tattoos and piercings and trashy outfits on several dozen of them!

"So they are trying show that they're different from everyone else by all acting the same? That is, obscene?" Sasha asked in puzzlement.

Yep, Darkrai said.

"…That makes no sense, especially if so many of them do the exact same thing," Sasha said.

That's teenagers for you. Not a bright bulb in the lot of them, Darkrai said.

"My children were all fine, well-behaved hunters when they were this age!" Sasha protested.

Sasha, your definition of 'well-behaved' isn't necessarily the same as most people's, Darkrai pointed out. Plus, I doubt any of these spoiled brats have ever had to kill for their food.

"I doubt any of them would last very long where I come from, magic or no magic," Sasha agreed.

Then go over there and show them who's boss! Put a stop to this vulgarity! Darkrai said. A cry of joy and pain from the initiate on the altar rang throughout the room, only barely able to be heard over the bass. …And do it before I snap and do something I'll regret later!

Sasha nodded in agreement. "I agree. This needs to stop now." She trotted from the doorway into the room and started rounding the dance pit towards the altar, figuring it would be the best place for her to be seen and heard by everyone in the room. Most of the would-be acolytes were too deep into their partying and reveling to notice her as she walked past them, but a few of the slightly less inebriated individuals blinked in confusion as she went by, briefly wondering if they were hallucinating…and if they weren't hallucinating, then what was an adult doing in their 'holy' temple?

Sasha wrinkled her nose in disgust, the noxious odors of the narcotics and perfumes and fornication and other bodily functions filling her nostrils and making her feel like retching. Darkrai reminded her that her robe's power allowed her not to breathe if she didn't want to, but she didn't like being cut off from one of her fundamental senses, so tolerated the foul scents filling the air while suffering in silence. It wasn't the worst mixture of odors she'd ever had to endure, but it came pretty close.

Blood added itself to that cocktail as she reached the altar, where the initiate, a rather fat Minccino wearing too much makeup along with her ugly adornments reminiscent of Cresselia, was leaking vital crimson fluids from the oozing strips on her back that had been made by the black-garbed Ferrothorn hovering around the chinchilla flagellating her with their thorny vines. The blood stained her fur as it ran down her body and off the altar, where it collected in bowls placed around its rim for just that purpose, fresh bowls being swapped in whenever the ones on the ground were full and passed around to other acolytes who drank from it, apparently deluded into thinking they were vampires. (The fake plastic fangs they'd put in their mouths wasn't helping this impression.) Sasha was disgusted by this practice, and didn't understand why the Minccino was allowing this to be done to her…or why she seemed to be enjoying it, if her shrieks of ecstasy from the lashes of the tendrils as well as the…ministrations from the morbidly obese Lickilicky dressed up as Darkrai behind her was anything to go by. Stomach clenching and teeth clenched in rage, she flicked her head, sending Razor Winds flying through the air and into the Ferrothorns, knocking them away from the Pidgeot with anguished cries. The Lickilicky looked up in surprise. "Hey, what the-"

He cried out when Sasha leaped over the altar, pouncing on the overweight long-tongued Pokémon—who'd died his skin black to make himself look more like Darkrai, but only succeeded in making himself look even more like an idiot—and pushing him to the floor with a thud that shook the sanctuary and knocked the dancers off-balance enough to make them realize something was wrong. A few idiots screamed that there was an earthquake and a full-blown panic nearly started, but then others noticed that an adult had somehow made it into their inner sanctum and froze right in their tracks, realizing that something even worse than a seismic disturbance might be at hand. The DJ, terrified that this was a police raid—or worse, a parental intervention!—switched off his equipment in fright and teleported away, taking the music with him and making everyone in the room who had not yet gotten the memo aware from the abrupt absence of their favorite tunes that something was very, very wrong. Within minutes (it would have taken seconds, but too many of the acolytes were inebriated or high to be fully aware of what was going on around them) all eyes were focused on Sasha, which was pretty much exactly what she had wanted to happen.

Nice way to draw attention to yourself, Darkrai said approvingly.

"I try," she growled under her breath, eyes focused on the terrified Lickilicky pinned underneath her.

The Minccino's head shot up and she angrily looked over her shoulder at Sasha. "Hey, what are you doing?! It's my turn! You can have a go when I'm finished being initiated!"

"Y-yeah, what she said," the Lickilicky said nervously. "I mean, you look pretty good and all—for an old lady—but if you want a turn with me, you kind of have to wait until-"

"Be silent," Sasha said harshly to the would-be priest, shutting him up. "Get out of here," the Absol said to the Minccino through gritted teeth without looking at the foolish chinchilla.

"Hey, don't boss me around lady, you're not my mom!" the Minccino squeaked angrily.

"No, and I'm very glad I'm not, as should you, because if I were your mother I would punish you severely for even thinking that something like this was a good idea. I am tempted to do so regardless, which is why I suggest you get out of here, now, before I change my mind," Sasha said coldly.

The Mincinno blinked, a shiver running down her spine. "F-fine! But I'm going because I want to, n-not because I'm scared of you o-or anything like that!" she stammered, scurrying away from the altar, her bloodstained paws slipping across the floor and forcing her to frantically flail her arms to maintain her balance.

"Uh, hey, leave those ceremonial ornaments when you go, the next initiate will need them-" the Lickilicky started to say, only for Sasha to cut him off.

"You are a vile, disgusting creature, and you are extremely lucky I do not rip out your tongue and devour it for what you were doing to that poor misguided girl, and all the others you have exploited," Sasha said angrily, her robe starting to shimmer and turn into liquid shadow in reaction to her fury.

"H-hey, you can't talk to me like that! Do you have any idea who I am?!" the Lickilicky said angrily.

"No, and I don't care," Sasha said bluntly before her prey could explain that he was Baron Alberto, a wealthy and influential noble most Pokémon didn't want to cross.

"Y-you don't care?!" Alberto stammered in disbelief. "Old womon, who the hell do you think you are?!"

"I am Sasha, High Priestess of Darkrai," Sasha proclaimed.

The acolytes gasped, hushed whispers filling the room as they reacted to this startling news.

"No way! She's the High Priestess?!"

"I didn't think she'd be so…old…"

"For an old lady, she looks pretty hot…rowr!"

"I thought I recognized her from TV…isn't she one of those heroes fighting to save the world from the Nihilators?"

"Oooh, she came to Fichina with vampires! Do you think she could hook us up?! Dean looks sooooo cute!"

"Dean? Forget him, Bob's where it's at! He's such a sexy mutt…woof!"

"I wonder where I can get robes like those? They look pretty sweet…"

Alberto's small beady eyes lit up in delight. "You are Darkrai's High Priestess?! Oh, happy night! Ever since we heard you were in the city, we hoped you'd pay us a visit! In fact, we sent messages to your current lodging, but kept getting turned away…the Fantasmas don't like us for some reason…"

Gee, I wonder why, Darkrai said sarcastically.

"But now that you are here, we may celebrate!" Alberto declared. "There shall be a great feast, and dancing and rejoicing, and drinking, and a great orgy! I would be delighted if you gave me the honor of being your host and consort for this evening—even if you are a little too old for my tastes—and-"

"No," Sasha said.

Alberto blinked in surprise and disappointment. "Huh? You don't…oh. Well, um, I suppose I could find someone else for you, if your tastes run that-"

"You misunderstand," Sasha said coldly. "There will be no celebration. There will be no feasting or dancing or rejoicing or drinking, and certainly no orgy. There is nothing to celebrate. I am here to deliver a message from Darkrai himself."

The acolytes, whose faces had been falling in shock and confusion when Sasha declared there wouldn't be a party, perked up at this. "A message from the Master? Wonderful! What is it? Does he wish to congratulate us for our service? Does he wish to grant us an honorary place at his side in the hereafter? Does he wish us to help him to usher in an eternal night-" Alberto started.

"Darkrai hates you," Sasha said plainly.

"And free him from his sham marriage to the Moon-bitch Cresselia forev—wait, what?" Alberto said.

"Darkrai hates you," Sasha repeated, pure contempt dripping from her voice. Her robes grew more agitated as they reacted to her mood, and tendrils of shadow began wriggling out from it, causing the acolytes nearby to draw back in alarm. "You have made a mockery of his name and his sacred darkness. You have defiled his temple and allowed it to fall into ruin and depravity. You have not only turned your backs on his precepts and laws, but completely made a sham of them. You have transformed a place of holiness into a den of sin. You have defaced his monuments, destroyed and abused his relics and treasures, driven his truly faithful servants from here in disgust at what you have done to their home. Your acts of 'worship' profane and sicken him. And most importantly, you have grievously insulted his wife in your defacement and desecration of her chapel and images here, in your filthy graffiti and artwork, and in turning initiation into your ranks into a sex game that's a twisted allegory for divine rape." The tendrils grew thicker and flailed more violently, twisting in the air above her. "You have shamed my Master, his wife, and yourselves. You are extremely lucky Darkrai has not tasked me to kill all of you for your disgraceful misconduct, but if you do not change your ways, and change them quickly, he may reconsider his leniency."

The acolytes stared at her in horror. This was most certainly not what they had been expecting. "Darkrai…hates us?" a Bibarel trying to pass himself off as a Scrafty asked.

"He does," Sasha repeated.

"But…but we thought…we thought this was what he wanted…" said a Geodude who'd tried to make himself look like a Spiritomb.

"You thought wrong," Sasha said flatly. A heavy sense of despondency filled the room. Sasha narrowed her eyes, the volatile actions of her cloak settling down slowly as she saw the would-be acolytes begin to realize the immensity of their mistake. "All is not lost. Darkrai, in his infinite mercy-"

Heheheheh. 'Mercy.' If that's what you want to call me giving them nightmares so horrible they won't be able to sleep for the rest of their lives, go right ahead, Darkrai said.

"Will give you one last chance to prove yourselves worthy of serving him," Sasha continued.

"What…what do we have to do?" a black-wooled Flaaffy asked timidly.

"Clean up this temple and restore it to a place of worship and divinity, even better than it was in days long past, rather than a cliched house of horrors. Clean up your acts and stop dressing like horror movie rejects and emos. Get rid of all the zombies, they stink up the joint and drive people away. Stay true to Darkrai's true precepts and wishes, because you certainly aren't following them now. No more drugs or booze or other addictive substances. And most importantly, stop demonizing Cresselia, restore her place of honor in this temple, and make reparations to Cresselia's temple to apologize for the disgraceful behavior you have exhibited towards their goddess and for all the times you've covered the building in flaming toilet paper or other vulgarities," Sasha said.

I actually don't mind the pranking so much—some of what they did is pretty innovative, which I applaud—but my wife's temple is off-limits, Darkrai said. Don't tell them that, though. That I don't mind the pranking, I mean, I don't want them to think there's ANYTHING I admire about them.

The acolytes exchanged nervous and alarmed looks. "That…sounds like a lot of work," said a Venonat masquerading as a Gastly.

"It will be a lot of work," Sasha agreed.

"But-but that's not fun at all!" protested a Scolipede trying to look like a Drapion.

"You're right, it's not," Sasha said.

Everyone groaned in dismay at this. "But I thought Darkrai's religion was the fun one!" a Hoothoot squawked.

"Religion and service to the gods is serious business," Sasha said seriously. "There's a time and a place for fun, but right now none of you have earned that right. If you want fun so badly, you can join the Mewrians, though I can tell you now they aren't nearly as easygoing or laid-back as you might think. It's not all about wanton sex, after all."

Which was news to me when I first heard about it, I'll tell you that much, Darkrai commented.

There was more groaning at this, and some of the acolytes who'd been heading towards the exit, thinking to get out and join the Mewrians while they still could, hesitated in uncertainty. A lot still left, especially upon realizing that they probably weren't going to be having any more raves or orgies or drugs in the near future, but not everyone did, which Sasha took as a sign that there might be hope for some of these lost souls yet.

And then Alberto—who would normally enjoy being pinned under a womon for a lengthy period of time, but usually not one this scary…or old…had to open his big fat mouth again. "Y-you can't do that to us!" the Lickilicky protested.

Sasha glared at him, her dark tendrils flaring up again. "Oh really? And why can't I? I am the High Priestess of Darkrai! As a servant of our Lord, that means you must abide by my orders, which are none other than his delivered from on high!"

"We joined Darkrai's cult because we thought it would mean getting away from all the rules and restrictions our parents and society put on us!" Alberto shouted angrily. "And now you're telling us we just have to follow even more crap like that?! No way, mon! Youth culture forever!"

"YEAH!" the crowd of acolytes cheered, invigorated by their leader's example. "YOOOOOOUTH!"

Emboldened by the support of his peers, the fat Lickilicky kept on going…and digging his grave deeper. "How do we even know you're really speaking for Darkrai, anyway? You're just another adult from the establishment trying to make us do what you want! Psh, like Darkrai would ever really talk to an old hag like you! Heck, I bet that cloak of yours isn't even real!"

As the crowd cheered Alberto for his bravery and refusal to back down to authority, Sasha narrowed her eyes and started growling angrily, her cloak's tendrils flailing agitatedly as her disaster-sense began to tingle, indicating the acolytes were on the verge of a riot. Permission to kill him, Master?

No, that'll just convince the others he's right and turn him into a martyr. I have a better idea, but it's going to involve me temporarily taking control of your body again, Darkrai said.

Will it put this brat and the others in their place? Sasha asked.

Yep.

Fine. But remember, it's only for a little while! Sasha said.

Duly noted, Darkrai said eagerly.

Once again, Sasha felt herself starting to drowse off, a comforting blanket of darkness wrapping itself around her mind. Her eyes slowly shut as the jeers from Alberto and the acolytes faded away and turned into harmless white noise as she drifted off into slumber.

And once again, something else awoke in her place.

As some of her hair fell over the right side of her face, her left eye opened, now blue rather than red. Alberto froze in mid-taunt as that eye fixed him with its cold gaze, and he suddenly realized that he'd made a terrible, terrible mistake. "What was that about me being a fake and an old hag?" Sasha asked calmly in a voice that was, and at the same time was not, her voice.

"Oh no," the Lickilicky whispered.

"Oh yes," Sasha snarled with a fanged grin.

All the lights in the room flickered and went out, throwing the already very dim chamber into darkness, a darkness so thick that even those Pokémon who had night vision or knew spells to give them that ability found themselves unable to see anything even an inch away from their face. A few Pokémon started crying out in fear, and those cries turned into screams as the acolytes panicked and tried to make a break for it, only to crash into each other and tumble to the ground in a jumbled heap of bodies. As they realized they were not only blind but surrounded by countless others they couldn't see that they had no way of knowing were friends or foes, they started screaming more, which set everyone else off into an even greater panic, frenziedly thrashing about and yelling in terror as fear and darkness set in and began to drive them all mad.

"Hmmph. Putzes. They're scared of the dark but they call themselves my servants? Pathetic," the Sasha-that-was-not-Sasha sneered.

"Wh-what are you?" Alberto whispered in terror.

"I told you the first time, but you didn't believe me," the Sasha-that-was-not-Sasha said. "And now you'll pay the price for it." She hopped backwards, off of Alberto and onto the bloodstained altar, invisible like everything else in this unnatural darkness…invisible to everyone but her, that was. Her blue eye, the only point of light in the endless darkness, glowed, and her cloak writhed and came to life, its blackness deepening and darkening until it was so dark that the absence of light surrounding it was practically as bright as day. The darkness of her cloak shot upwards and spread out, manifesting in the form of a torso, head, and two arms, with long streamer-like shapes flowing from its shoulders and the top of its head. Much like Sasha, it had only one blue eye visible in its head, but this eye was the size of Sasha's own head and glowed like an otherworldly moon, bathing everyone in its malefic light while at the same time failing to make the darkness any less, well, dark.

"D-D-DARKRAI!" someone shouted, and everyone started screaming again.

"Ah, are those cries of devotion I hear? Or terror? Eh, same difference to me. Still, it's good to get something out of you failures at last," Sasha and the construct growing out of her back said simultaneously, the Darkrai avatar speaking a fraction of a second before its Absol host did, their voices overlapping eerily. It turned its eye away from the acolyes and focused its gaze on Alberto, who screamed and wept and soiled himself as that full baleful glare was fixated on him. "Now…what do I do with you?"

"P-please…don't kill me…" the Lickilicky sobbed pathetically.

"Kill you? Now there's an idea…after all, you insulted my High Priestess, are the leader of this place but have done an absolutely shitty job of maintaining it or doing the job your duties require of you, and have been initiating Pokémon into your ranks by performing a twisted initiation ritual that involves you dressing them up as my beloved wife and banging and torturing them while dressed up as me! Do you have any idea how grave an offense of that magnitude is, kid? Why shouldn't I kill you? It's well within my right, and the world would certainly be a better place without you!" Darkrai said.

"I-I'm sorry! I won't do it again! I promise!" Alberto wailed, tears and snot running down his face.

"I believe you. Especially since I'm going to make sure you never get the chance to," Darkrai said, reaching towards the Lickilicky with a massive claw.

"No! NO! DON'T! PLEASE! I'LL DO ANYTHING!" Alberto screamed desperately, trying to stagger to his feet and run only to stumble and fall down again due to his inability to see anything besides that horrifying figure reaching for him.

"Sorry, but you've got nothing I'm interested in," Darkrai said as he wrapped his claws around Alberto and raised him into the air. "Don't worry, though…I'm not going to kill you. You might wish I had by the time we're through, though." He squeezed the Lickilicky, and tendrils of darkness snaked out from his fingers and wrapped themselves around Alberto. The fat priest screamed in terror and desperately struggled to free himself as the dark mist wound itself around his rotund form, but it was to no avail. The darkness enveloped him, and he screamed and screamed and screamed…

And then Darkrai opened his claw, and he was gone. "Let that be a lesson to you all," he said to the horrified acolytes. "Most of the time, I'm a pretty nice guy, even if I do have a slightly twisted sense of humor. But piss me or my girl Sasha off, and death is going to be the least of your worries. You got that?" There were a few mumbles and squeaks from the acolytes. Darkrai put a hand to the side of his head. "I can't hear you. What was that?"

"YES, LORD DARKRAI!" the acolytes all shrieked in unison.

"Good! Then I think we're through here," Darkrai said cheerfully as his projection started shrinking back into Sasha's cloak. "So, just do whatever Sasha tells you and everything should be fine. Oh, and don't worry about that fatass, I'll return him in a couple of days, though he might not be…quite the same as he was the last time you saw him. And on that enigmatic and ominous note, I'm out. Toodles!"

He disappeared, the lights turned back on, and the cloak was just a cloak once again. Sasha blinked and shook her head, her eyes back to their original color as return of her body was controlled to her. There we go. All taken care of, Darkrai said as she tried to regain her bearings. They're all yours!

That was a little…excessive, don't you think? Sasha asked blearily as she stared at the acolytes, who were all regarding her with looks of utter horror…and awe, and a little arousal in a few instances.

Sometimes a strong show of force is necessary to win someone over, Darkrai said. Isn't that what you were doing before?

Well, yes, I suppose, Sasha admitted.

There you go, then, Darkrai said cheerfully. I just gave you a helping hand. You're welcome, by the way.

Thank you, Master, she said quickly. But, if I might ask…what did you do to that Lickilicky?

Weeeeelll…you know how I live on the dark side of the Moon, a nightmarish landscape inhabited by monsters that shun the light spawned from the deepest, most twisted corners of the subconscious dreaming mind and given life by my imagination and dark power, a land of horrors that would drive anyone not born there or not under my protection to utter gibbering madness if they spent even a few minutes there, gazing upon its abominations?

Yes?

Let's just say our little friend will be the first visitor to my side of the Moon from Fichina in quite some time… Darkrai said malevolently.

You know, its times like this I have some difficulty convincing myself you're not evil, Sasha said flatly.

Hey, I never said I was a nice guy. Besides, he had it coming. I'm not gonna torment him too much, just scare him straight. And make his skin as white as your fur.

You're going to paint him white? Sasha asked in confusion.

What? No, I'm going to terrify him so much that his skin turns white, Darkrai said.

That can happen? Sasha asked in bewilderment.

Yeah. What, you've never heard that expression? Darkrai asked.

Expression? Sasha asked cluelessly.

Darkrai sighed. Oh, never mind…anyway, go and commune with your adoring public. You've got a lot of work ahead of you.

As I can see quite well. What would you have me do first, Master? Sasha asked, gazing out across the defiled sanctuary, and the acolytes trembling before her, desperate for orders.

Well, for starters…

The next few days were some of the longest in Sasha's life, especially since she didn't stop to eat or sleep. (One of the benefits of her cloak, though Darkrai warned her that when she took it off she was going to crash, hence why she had resolved to keep wearing it until just after the wedding, so that she didn't have to worry about sleeping through Leo and Lily's union.) Following her master's will, she led the humbled acolytes in purifying the temple of their sins and depravities, using the power of her garments and title as High Priestess to force the often-recalcitrant structure to obey her wishes and remind it just who it belonged to, and that it couldn't be a rogue and lawless building anymore. Thanks to the tireless and exhaustive efforts of Sasha and her new minions (who she didn't let sleep either, Darkrai reasoning that if she had to stay up at all hours to work on fixing their mess, so should they), the temple and its priests were cleansed, reconstructed, and ready for business just before noon on the day before Leo and Lily's wedding.

The temple bore almost no resemblance whatsoever to its original form, due to having been reconfigured completely from the ground up through the power of magic and the authority granted to Sasha by her divine master. The temple grounds were no longer a barren and disordered garden of dead plants and fountains of blood with vulgar broken statues littering the place, instead it bore a more ordered layout with flower plots and paths laid out so they looked like disconcerting and somewhat frightening symbols from above psychologically designed to press several of the fear centers in an observer's mind to make them sweat and shiver. The plants were in full bloom, massive nests of brambles with eerily beautiful dark purple, black, and white flowers blossoming from their thorns, beds of beautiful and potentially poisonous flowers colored like stars in a night sky, roses with petals and stamen colored and shaped to look somewhat like Darkrai himself, and giant Pokémon-eating plants that were primordial throwbacks of carnivorous Grass-types like Victreebel, Carnivine, and Cradily sprouting here and there, bound by invisible wards that kept them from devouring passersby…not that Pokémon unfamiliar with them would know on first encounter that their frenzied snapping lunges were perfectly harmless jests. Dark Clefairies and other spirits and creatures of darkness and nightmares tended this garden, called back from their retirement by their master's will. Statues of Darkrai, Cresselia, former High Priests and Priestesses, and horrors and monsters (including weeping angels, since Darkrai was a fan of that show) were placed here and there. Some of them were animate and occasionally roamed the garden's obsidian paths, just to creep people out.

At the center of this garden was the temple itself, no longer a crumbling classical ruin but a completely reimagined structure capable of eliciting awe and wonder. The entire building was built from the finest black onyx, possibly all one piece even, and shaped like a huge black diamond balanced on its tip, with runic red lines zigzagging across its surface in fear-inducing patterns. Its top was a large white crystal ringed by jagged crimson crystals shining a beam of light into the center of the purple-black cloud of darkness always ominously hovering overhead. Identical but smaller diamonds orbited the structure, along with statues of Darkrai, Cresselia, and other monsters. There was no visible door or window leading into this awe-inspiring building, but teleport pads ringing its base allowed entry inside.

Stepping onto one of these pads would cause visitors to find themselves—after a far-too-long trip through hyperspace, where they would be forced to see all sorts of mind-numbing horrors while being completely paralyzed for a few seconds that would feel like hours—inside a courtyard beneath a starlit sky with a blood-red Moon floating overhead, even though there was no open-roofed area visible anywhere on the temple's exterior and the night sky was still present no matter what time of day it was. In contrast to the somewhat scary garden outside, the garden in this courtyard was actually somewhat nice. Several large sakura trees were sparsely planted here and there, and bushes of black orchids and white roses traced a path to the doors at the edge of the courtyard. Climbing vines covered the outer wall and out of reach of most people on either corner of the building sat large Pokémon-eating plants. A small river of red water ran all around the courtyard, but it was just colored water and not blood.

The largest door in this courtyard was made entirely of black volcanic glass with a silver knocker in the center with a ruby set in it. Through this door was a large chamber with several rows of tables made of volcanic glass. Platters made of ebony and silver adorned the tables, all laden with baked goods and cakes and such. From this lobby there were two paths. One was a set of stairs leading to a basement where children were taken to learn the temple craft in the service of Darkrai and how to best scare their friends and parents. The other was a hall leading to the main sanctuary. At the forefront was an altar to Darkrai, a large imposing slab cast out of silver beneath a huge and intimidating statue of Darkrai. Random bones littered the ground around it, as well as a small basin. Devoted patrons might offer something in this bowl, but Darkrai would not allow self-mutilation. Blood was acceptable as long as it was no more than a thimble full. Here was where Sasha or a direct underling would read from the Big Black Book, maybe speak in the old tongue, and pass around the thrice-damned wine. Near the wall also sat a smaller altar to Cresselia made of white gold, w ith a dignified and very beautiful statue of the lunar swan just behind it, framed by images of her and Darkrai's courtship and their love and duties performed together. There was also a skylight (again, despite being impossible for one to be there) usually enchanted to appear black, though it cleared on nights of the new moon.

Behind the main altar was a door that leads to the more restricted areas, places that only those who followed Darkrai might go. Behind this door were two staircases as well as a hidden one leading to personal quarters accessible only to the high priest or priestess. Out of the two visible staircases, one led down to the stores, the cellar and the dormitories, while upwards led to the poisonary (which was pretty much exactly what it sounded like), the crematorium, and the kitchens. The cellars were filled with the finest of the thrice-damned wine. The stores obviously held food supplies. The dormitory held rows of fire-blackened wood beds, none of which were currently being used. The room was enchanted to force nightmares from the sleepers, thus feeding Darkrai, which might be part of the reason for that.

As she prepared to depart to meet up with her friends at the Draconian Embassy, Sasha issued some last-minute orders to her underlings to keep them occupied in her absence. "I'm only going to be gone until the day after tomorrow at the latest, unless something else comes up," she informed the acolytes as she stood before them in the main sanctuary, the statue of Darkrai at her back and lending authority to her words. The Pokémon in front of her bore almost no resemblance to the ones she'd found when she'd stormed into their dance hall just a few days ago and turned their world upside-down. All of them were clad in black robes, with higher-ranked priests—of which there were only a very small handful, since only a couple had proven themselves worthy of that rank—wearing red collars to resemble their master. There wasn't a single trace of tattoos, piercings, makeup, hair dye, or ridiculous-looking cosmetics to be seen among their ranks, Sasha having confiscated all of them—forcefully, in some cases—and thrown them into a fire along with all their posters and music and trashy vampire romance novels. Their faces were sober, their eyes slightly deadened and hardened from the horrors they'd born witness to since the High Priestess had entered their lives, most of which had required almost no backing from Darkrai to make them that much more terrifying. "So unless something really important or significant happens, I am not to be bothered. Is that understood?"

"Yes, High Priestess," they all chanted in unison, sounding like a dirge.

"While I'm gone, I expect you to be on your best behavior," she continued sternly. "That means no parties, no drunken orgies, and definitely not any poetry recitals. Despite what you might think, absolutely nobody cares to hear whatever you have tosayregarding your parents or how the 'Mon'—or rather, 'Womon' now—is 'getting you down.' You are all to demonstrate the proper conduct and gravitas that is to be expected from a member of Darkrai's clergy. The dark creatures and nightmares and spirits that have recently returned to the temple will be monitoring you and will report to me on your actions while I was away once I return, so don't bother trying to keep anything a secret or hidden from them, they will know and they will tell me. They're beings of dreams and shadow, and there is nothing they cannot find out if they put their minds to it. Also, don't try to get around them by ordering them to leave you alone; while they are technically bound to obey the priests of this temple, you have yet to prove yourselves truly worthy of that status, and until you have demonstrated that you deserve the power and responsibility of being one of Darkrai's chosen, they will be your superiors answerable only to me, rather than the other way around." Said servants of darkness, who had been lounging against the walls, grinned and rubbed their claws or tendrils or other appendages gleefully as they heard this, while the acolytes exchanged nervous glances. "However, they are forbidden to abuse this power, since many of them are still under probation seeing as how they're partly to blame for letting things get this bad by not stopping it when they still had a chance." The dark creatures grimaced at this, and a few of the acolytes sighed in relief.

"If you do well in my absence, and I am convinced you have truly learned something of what it means to be a servant of Darkrai, I will consider easing up on some of the more stringent restrictions I've laid upon you," Sasha continued. "That is not a promise, however, so don't think you can get off that easily. You still have several years of sin and depravity to make up for, a few days of good behavior won't be enough to change that so quickly." The acolytes almost groaned in disappointment at this, but managed to stifle themselves just in time. Sasha nodded, hiding a smile at this. She had trained them well. "Oh, and I believe Baron Alberto should be returning from the Moon some time tomorrow, so make sure to have a room ready for him, as well as a certified psychiatrist. He's going to need it." Their eyes widened at this, but again the acolytes said nothing. "I believe that's everything. If I think of something else, I'll send you a message, though I probably won't need to, so don't wait up for me. The next time you see me, two of my best friends will be married. We can have a celebration, I suppose, but nothing as…gaudy as the parties you used to throw. If you behave, I might consent to use of the thrice-damned wine…but don't count on it." The disappointed looks on their faces entertained her more than she'd thought they would. She idly wondered if the power of her position was starting to go to her head. All the more reason for her to take off her robes at her first opportunity, she supposed. "And with that, we're through. I will depart now. Bad dreams to all of you, and praise Darkrai."

"Praise Darkrai," the acolytes chanted fearfully, glancing at the big statue behind Sasha with worry on their faces. Which was silly, because if Darkrai was angry at them he wasn't going to animate the statue and have it attack them. No, he'd do something much scarier.

You've done a pretty good job whipping them into shape, Darkrai complimented Sasha as she trotted out of the sanctuary, several shadows unattached to any visible Pokémon trailing behind her.

"I've raised my children and helped to raise theirs. Disciplining immature and poorly-behaved youths is something I'm intimately familiar with," Sasha said.

Heh, so I see. I'm starting to wonder if maybe I should have you posted here permanently once this is all over, Darkrai said.

Sasha frowned. "I thought that you'd promised I could go home once this is all over."

I did. Of course, if I arranged for your family to be moved here, then Fichina would be your home, wouldn't it?

"Master…" Sasha growled.

Just joshing you. I'm not gonna tear you from your harsh, merciless wintry home for a life of luxury and privilege if that's not what you want, Darkrai assured her.

"Thank you, Master. I appreciate it," Sasha said.

Yeah, I know, Darkrai said in amusement.

Sasha stepped out into a long, hollow chamber terminating in an opening staring out at New Avalon. It looked like some sort of hangar, or launch bay, except there was nothing present to fly out of it. That changed when the air just to Sasha's right rippled and tore open, a swirling portal of darkness appearing that discharged an ominous chariot black as night with spiked wheels and Zubat wings growing from the back, pulled by a pair of fanged gray Rapidash with yellow eyes, pitch-black armor, Golbat wings, and manes and tail made of purple-black flames of darkness. Sasha made a face as the (literal) nightmares snorted and whinnied and pawed the ground, flames billowing from their nostrils. "Is it really necessary I ride in this conveyance? I could just as easily walk. Or take a cab."

You're my High Priestess, which means you've got a certain image to cultivate, Darkrai said.

"And that includes me being carted around in a transport that looks like it's fresh from one of Leo's video games or fantasy novels?" Sasha asked skeptically.

Yep.

Sasha sighed, reluctantly giving in. "Oh, very well. If I must." She walked over to the chariot and hopped inside. Despite herself, she had to admit it was actually quite comfortable, the interior was plush and felt wonderful to lie down in and give her poor legs, which had been carrying her all over the place without stop for the last several days, a much-needed rest. "So, what now?"

Tell Sunshine Smiles and Frolicsome Meadowlark where to go, and they'll take you there, Darkrai said.

There was a long, long pause. "Did…did you just say their names were-" Sasha started.

It was Cressy's idea, okay?! Darkrai snapped, clearly embarrassed. Thought it would be ironic, and make them seem less intimidating…ugh, I swear, that womon…

"Right," Sasha said, knowing by now not to get involved in her master's…unusual relationship with his wife. She certainly didn't understand it; her marriage was much simpler than Darkrai's. She told her mate they were going to do something, and that's exactly what happened, with no fuss or arguing. She wondered how Cresselia tolerated this constant talking back from her husband. She should have laid down the law and made it clear who was really in charge millennia ago. (Not that she'd ever say as much to Darkrai, of course. She wasn't stupid.) "Well, um…Sunshine Smiles and Frolicsome Meadowlark, take me to the Draconian Embassy, I'm due to meet my friends."

"As you wish, Mistress!" the Rapidash boomed in unison. They reared back and howled like Mightyena, spreading their wings and flailing their forelegs in the air, before slamming their hooves back onto the ground hard enough to crack it and started running down the long corridor, sparks flying from their hooves and from the wheels of the chariot as it clattered against the floor.

Sasha could hear chittering and the rustling of wings behind her, and glanced over her shoulder to see that a flock of nightgaunts was flying in her wake, their membranous wings propelling them gracefully through the air. She wondered briefly what they were doing, but didn't have time to verbalize it before her escort leaped through the opening at the end of the hall and into the air, flapping their wings and continuing to move their legs in a running motion as they charged through the skies as easily as if they were still on the ground, effortlessly pulling Sasha behind them. Behind Sasha, the nightgaunts exploded from the hangar and swarmed through the air, rising above the temple and circling the beacon of light rising into the dark cloud in a howling, shrieking mass of horns and barbs and wings. "Are they out for a flight, or is this more of that 'image' thing?" Sasha asked as her chariot flew away from the temple.

A little of column A, a little of column B, Darkrai said.

"Hmm. I thought as much," Sasha commented. "Well, at least I don't have to deal with a cloak made of Swoobats or anything like that."

Actually, you could probably make your robes do that if you wanted- Darkrai started.

"No," Sasha said.

All right, just a thought, Darkrai said.

Rolling her eyes, Sasha turned forwards so she could look out at the city as they galloped through the skyways winding their way through New Avalon's towering skyscrapers, other vehicles and flyers weaving out of the way to stay as far from her or her monstrous steeds-which didn't seem particularly keen on following traffic regulations-as possible.

Sasha didn't care much. She had more important things to look forward to. Her friends, their families, and the wedding tomorrow, awaited her.

Elsewhere in New Avalon…

If you didn't know where it was, one could easily be mistaken for thinking the Temple of Heatran didn't exist. Considering it wasn't quite as ostentatious or easily visible as the great temples on the mountains surrounding New Avalon, the temple of Arceus floating in the sky, or even the newly refurbished Temple of Darkrai, this wasn't too hard to imagine. Nevertheless, in spite of its unobtrusive nature, the god of the Earth and metal and blacksmithing had a temple in New Avalon like most of the other legendary deities, it was just a little trickier to locate than most of the others.

The reason for this was simple: it was located underground, and the entrance wasn't much more than an ornate archway with a metal relief of Heatran's face above it planted in the side of one of the mountains the city of New Avalon was nestled between. Beyond this archway was a rather small antechamber with a circular stone platform covered in a metal lattice with various runes engraved into its surface. All a Pokémon had to do was step (or float, in Briney's case) onto the platform and, with a slightly ominous rumble, it would descend into the Earth, passing through a vertical shaft whose walls were covered in elaborate and beautiful metal statues, carvings, and reliefs depicting the history of New Avalon, Fichina, the world, and the Omniverse itself, with more recent events being placed further down the shaft. These metal works of art were constantly being tended to by Magnemites, Durants, Ferroseeds, Beldums, Bronzors, and Klinks. As Briney descended the shaft, he noted, with some pride, that the recent exploits of he and his friends was being added to a new panel very close to the top of the shaft. "Keep up the good work, lads," the Metang called to the acolytes, who paused in their work to turn and bow reverently to him. "And just so you know, my mustache is nicer than that."

"Oh, we know, Most Honored Captain," one of the Bronzors spoke up as the other hovering Steel-types regarded Briney's mustache in awe. "But your facial hair is so magnificent that even our best attempts to recreate it through magic and metalwork fall flat to its sheer perfection."

"Yeah, it is pretty damn fine, isn't it?" Briney said in amusement, stroking his mustache and causing some of the acolytes to sigh in wonder and envy. "Eh, keep at it, lads, I have every confidence you can make a reasonably good facsimile if you really work at it."

"Oh, we will, Captain, you can be most assured of that!" the Bronzor said fervently.

"Heh, I'm sure you will. I look forward to seeing it once this is all done," Briney said.

"We promise you, it will be the best work we have ever crafted!" the Bronzor promised.

"I'll keep you to it," Briney said as he continued down the shaft, leaving the acolytes to get back to work, murmuring excitedly to themselves about how awesome the legendary Captain was and how desperately they wished they could have facial hair even half as lustrous as Briney's. There was no way the girls would turn down someone with a mustache like that!

After traveling for what seemed like miles beneath the surface of New Avalon (hey, they had a lot of history to cover, they needed a lot of space to store it all in!) but actually was only a few hundred feet due to the shaft really being another example of the Fichinan's remarkable ability to cram ridiculous amounts of space into relatively small areas, Briney's platform emerged from the ceiling of a massive subterranean chamber that looked as if it were big enough to comfortably fit the Arachnoblast or even one of those Colossi at the country's borders, though it might have to bend down a little to keep from hitting its head on the ceiling. It had been carved into a great hall, with metal pillars the size of skyscrapers supporting the arched ceiling, flying buttresses and Meowthwalks and gratings of immaculate metal filigree crisscrossing the giant columns and adding artistry to their great dark bulk. The pillars arose from a great roiling sea of molten lava covering the floor of the chamber, the heat emanating from the liquid rock so great that even with numerous incredibly thick force fields layered over the surface the cavern was still swelteringly hot. Channels spiraled up the exteriors of the giant pillars, and lava was being pumped up these channels through magical means, defying gravity as it flowed up the sides of the columns and through the ceiling, where it was used to provide geothermal power to some portions of the city. Numerous aqueducts, pipes, and even free-floating lava rivers branched off from various parts of the great lava channels, diverting lava from the main flows to various parts of the temple to provide power and material for many of the fantastic contraptions that were constructed here, for this temple was as much a place of worship as it was a foundry used to create some of the most remarkable works of art, the most spectacular and imaginative vehicles, and the deadliest weapons of war in the history of Fichina. Quite a few of the Colossi, or parts of them, had been constructed in this temple and others like it all over Fichina, and now that Fichina was going to war the old furnaces and engines of destruction were being fired up again in preparation for the campaign against the Nihilators.

Briney looked on in awe, and a little trepidation, as his platform moved past aqueducts and conveyor belts holding huge buckets of molten metal funneling lava and other raw materials into giant molds hanging from great cranes jutting from the sides of the pillars and the chamber's stone walls, where the various acolytes and smiths who worked in the temple would enchant the magical metal as it cooled and hardened so that when it was safe to remove from the mold, whatever warship or weapon they had created would be fully operational and ready for battle. As he watched, one such mold split open to reveal a fully-formed battleship a little over twice the size of the Peeko XII resembling a long, sleek giant sword with glowing horn-shaped wings forming the 'hilt' and an ominous giant red gem for a command center looking out across the flat rune-engraved surface of its blade. Energy coursing through the runic lines carved into its surface, the sword-ship floated away from the mold and inverted itself to hang from a rack running along one of the walls by its pommel-shaped engine right next to several dozen nearly identical sword-ships, while the mold that had birthed it closed back up, more molten metal being poured into it as the acolytes prepared it for use once again.

A veritable city of multi-leveled metal rafts and walkways and platforms wound its way around the circumferences of the pillars and just above the surface of the lava, hundreds of Fire and Steel-type Pokémon running about working on forges and furnaces, the deafening ring of metal on metal and the roar of flames filling the cavern as the metalworkers poured their considerable skill into constructing and assembling weapons of war. Countless smaller battleships and automata and golems resembling miniature Colossi or giant robots of the kind that Leo would gush over were already taking form on the factory floor, numerous gantries and Meowthwalks and scaffolds winding their way around their exterior and allowing the acolytes to scurry back and forth across their surfaces, sparks flying as they used their magic and metalworking tools to bring their mighty creation to completion. The eyes of one of these mechanical monsters flickered to life as it came online prematurely and it lurched to life, shattering the framework surrounding it and sending several of the screaming workers falling towards the metal floor below. Briney clenched his fists, preparing to leap in and help out, but when several mages wearing the robes of senior acolytes ran up and started blasting the rogue golem with lightning bolts and smaller automata rushed over to restrain their larger kin, the Metang relaxed, figuring they had everything under control. He glanced down at the floor around the machine, and was relieved to see that the workers all seemed to be okay; most of them were Steel-types, so knew how to take a fall.

As he passed over this workplace tableau, he witnessed more and more warships being produced from molds and other automata being brought to life and marching over to stand to attention in ranks with dozens of identical golems, mages on walkways levitating massive weapons into their grips and arming them for battle. He grimaced briefly, finding himself glad that Fichina wasn't interested in taking over the world, or else the Nihilators might have some competition on their hands. This notion was reinforced as he left the factory floor behind him and passed between the ranks of a half-dozen or so metal automata so massive that they could destroy entire cities on their own sunk up to their waists in the lava, pounding and chiseling great slabs of metal on massive anvils with instruments and tools about the size of the Peeko XII and creating such a clamor that he was starting to get a headache. He wondered how the metalworkers here could stand all the noise. Maybe they had some sound-dampening magic? Or maybe they'd just gone deaf long ago and didn't even notice. He'd never worked in a smithy when he was younger—he'd been a sailor born and true since he'd been a pair of Beldum—and while he respected and was fascinated by the work being done here, he had no wish to participate in it.

That didn't mean he didn't have reason to come here, however…

As his platform passed between the ranks of the giant golem smiths, Briney reached his destination: a gargantuan metal statue of Heatran so big it towered over even the great automata before it, its crest scraping the ceiling. Briney had inquired as to whether or not this thing could be animated too the first time he'd come down here, and had been told that if it couldn't now, it soon would be, something he was not entirely reassured by. The statue's mouth was open, revealing a huge pool of lava boiling inside of it, causing an eerie orange glow to emanate from it as well as from its eyes due to more gravity-defying channels transporting lava throughout the great sculpture's interior.

As Briney's platform flew into the mouth of the giant Heatran, more details of its interior could be seen despite the way the air shimmered due to the intense heat, heat so great that Briney was starting to worry he might start melting despite the safety enchantments surrounding the platform. The roof of the statue's mouth was covered in lava channels and carvings depicting great events in the life of the Lava Dome Pokémon, including his birth, his marriage to Shaymin, and his taking the role of god of the land from Groudon after that great beast proved himself no longer worthy of the title. Beneath these carvings were two islands rising from the surface of the lava, connected by a bridge made of metal grating. One was made of metal and stone with a large altar shaped like an anvil set in its middle. The other…didn't look like it belonged here at all. It was a beautiful verdant land mass covered in flowers and trees of many vibrant colors surrounding a small shrine with a statue of Shaymin in its center, the statue's back an actual bush covered in Gracidea flowers. This incongruous landscape in a place of fire and steel was possible only through the miracle of magic and the power of Shaymin's love for her husband, a love strong enough to allow her flowers to bloom even in this infernal cavern.

The platform lowered itself to the edge of the island of metal and stone, and Briney hovered off of it. Here, the cacophony from the main part of the temple was drowned out by the thick metal walls of Heatran's mouth, but this sanctuary was far from silent. There was still the ever-present roar of fire from the lava bubbling around them, and the ringing of metal against metal as the chamber's sole occupant other than Briney hammered the metal it had placed atop the anvil-shaped altar. It was this figure that Briney had traveled to see. "Ahoy, Smithy," the Metang called to the other Pokémon. "How goes it?"

The other Pokémon, Smithy, slammed his hammer against the metal he was working on one last time then laid it down for a rest, wiping oily sweat from his brow. "Ahoy, Briney. As good as it can be, with all these constant interruptions from whippersnappers like you," he said good-naturedly, offering Briney a smirk as he floated away from his anvil to greet the other Metang.

That's right, Smithy was a Metang. He was slightly bigger and much older than Briney, his body covered with so many nicks and scratches and dents and scars that he put Briney's own proud trophies of battle to shame. He wore a pair of fingerless red gloves on his claws with studded metal bracers to protect his hands when he was working with the often dangerous materials his duties as Chief Smith and High Priest of Heatran's temple required him to deal with. In fact, he'd lost almost his entire left arm once in an accident a few centuries ago back when he was still a novice, but had been made to build himself a new arm from scratch rather than finding another Beldum to bond with. Much like Briney, he had facial hair made from finely polished metal, but where Briney had focused on growing an impressive mustache, Smithy had been content instead to make a thick beard with so many sleek curls and pleats it could easily be mistaken for actual hair at first glance, reminiscent of Santa Christ's famous beard. A yellow star had been welded to his forehead, between a pair of bladed eyebrows that would have been considered bushy if they weren't made of metal rather than hair, and he wore a six-pointed gold crown on his head, since everyone knew if you were the leader and most important individual of a group you had to have the nicest hat to prove it, something Briney thoroughly agreed with although he privately felt his own hat was better. So was his mustache, of course, though he had to admit Smithy's beard was pretty nice, but he didn't think it would be very good in a fight, hence why he hadn't bothered to grow his own out very much. Much like Briney, Smithy was also missing an eye and wore an eye patch over it, but unlike Briney it was his right eye that was missing, not his left. He could have replaced it long ago much like his arm, but chose not to because he thought he looked more badass this way, something else that Briney could respect.

He respected a lot of things about Smithy, actually, which was fairly new for him. Most Pokémon that were physically stronger than him Briney considered as rivals or annoyances. Smithy, on the other hand, he didn't mind so much. He wasn't sure why. Maybe it was because Smithy seemed a lot like Briney himself, albeit several hundred years older, old enough for him to actually call Briney a 'whippersnapper,' a term Briney usually found insulting but again didn't mind so much from this older, wiser, more grizzled and experienced reflection of himself. The elder Metang had been in Heatran's temple for most of his prolonged life, and spent most of it that didn't involve metalwork and blacksmithing going out into the more dangerous reaches of Fichina looking for rare minerals and materials to use in his craft, fighting all sorts of monsters and legendary creatures the likes of which might even give Briney a pause, but not a very long one.

They'd first met a few days ago while Briney was wandering New Avalon looking for something to do with himself. For his part in fighting the Nihilator battle fleet and testifying in the 97,547th session of the Fichinan Grand Council, he and the others had become instant celebrities, invited to major parties and social events all over the city and out in the countryside. Briney had attended a few of them at first, only to find himself feeling woefully out of place in the finery and fancy halls, mansions, and art galleries the get-togethers had taken place in. The Captain was a rough-and-tumble sort, who didn't really have much of a place in high society. He'd enjoyed telling stories of his exploits to the aristocratic guests of these parties, but they always seemed to be somewhat put off by the relish he took in describing how he violently dispatched his foes, and slowly his listeners had started peeling off to find someone less unsavory to fawn over, leaving Briney alone to nurse his drink, which was admittedly excellent, if a little too rich for his taste.

It hadn't helped that almost none of his friends had been able to attend these parties—or spend much time with him at all, really-what with Ash and Tiny doing Aura training, Leo and Lily planning their wedding at the Yukihimi estate, Pikachu and Dawn training with Daimyo Leeku and Kairyu, and Sasha doing Arceus-knew-what at Darkrai's temple. Most of the friends he'd made on the Enchanted Express weren't really available to hang out with, either. Team Getem had departed soon after the big council meeting so they could continue their fight against Judgment, the vampires were constantly being mobbed by screaming teenage fangirls, Looker had left to report to his superiors in the International Police, Cherry and Rebecca had gone off to do spiritual oracular stuff he didn't pretend to understand, Sam and Outlaw had driven off to start pursuing Max, George had up and left for some reason, and Bruno had decided to go out into the countryside to beat up monsters. The Goldorringtons, whom Briney had admittedly gotten somewhat close to, had invited him to Buck's grandparents', where they were currently staying, and while it was nice to see some familiar and relatively friendly faces, he hadn't felt much more comfortable at the Goldorrington family estate than he had at the fine banquets and parties in the city, though he'd surprised himself by retaining enough tact not to say as much to their faces. The Fantasmas were nice to hang out with but most of them were busy helping Fichina gear up for the invasion of Mars to spend much time with him, and most of the events they invited him to, while being admittedly somewhat more in the vein of the parties Briney preferred, were uncomfortable to him for…other reasons. There was only room in his heart for one womon, and while Mewrian celebrations offered plenty of no-strings-attached 'rendezvouses,' Briney couldn't in good faith accept any of the offers he received there, since it felt like it would be betraying Peeko. And so, as a result, while most of his friends were out there having all sorts of interesting adventures and getting stronger, Briney found himself almost completely alone.

He was aware that part of his feeling lonely and discontent was his own fault, and that if he voiced his feelings to his friends they'd make more of an effort to include him in what they were doing, but Briney was a stubborn old cuss and never one to burden his problems on anyone else, preferring to deal with it himself if at all possible. He'd spent too long relying on nobody other than himself, and the idea of going to others for help still rankled him a little. So, with that in mind, he'd done his best to occupy himself in other ways. He'd wandered around New Avalon and the surrounding countryside, seeing the sights and visiting all the big landmarks and parks and museums and palaces and other scenic and historic vistas he'd read about before they'd left Treasure Town. He'd taken boats out to sea to see what the waters around Fichina were like, going as far as the marine Colossi before coming back, even going underwater at some points to visit the seafloor villages and settlements built beneath the surface of the ocean. But while those were all fun times, and he'd felt somewhat more at home going out on a ship again even if it wasn't his own, it hadn't made him any less lonely. If anything, it'd only made him feel worse, since it reminded him of how he had planned to take Peeko and their child here one day, and it wasn't nearly as much fun exploring this magical land by himself, without the Pokemon he loved at his side. He'd chided himself angrily at this, frustrated with his inability to enjoy himself while surrounded by paradise, a wonderland of fantasy and enchantment beyond his wildest dreams…yet still not enough to fill the hole in his heart.

And then he'd met Smithy.

After a magnificent but ultimately disappointing excursion to some of the islands near New Avalon, where he'd been treated to an admittedly splendid feast and eye-catching dancing from the natives, he'd gone to a pub near the docks—familiar territory for a sailor like himself—to see if he couldn't drink himself into a stupor and forget his sorrows, when he'd encountered the elder Metang, also drinking after a long day of hard work in the temple foundry. Naturally, the two hard-edged veterans took an immediate disliking to each other due to their similar personalities and temperaments, and had a drinking contest. Briney lost. Then they had an arm-wrestling match. Briney lost that, too. Then they had a knock-down beat-up brawl out back. Briney lost that as well.

After that, naturally, they became the best of friends. New Avalon was a beautiful city, but not really a place where ugly mons with ugly insides and as much blood on their hands as either of the two Metang did really felt like they belonged. In each other they found a kindred spirit, and over the next few days grew closer as they drank and caroused and regaled each other with stories of past exploits into the early hours of the morning, venting their frustrations and bonding and all in all having a good time with each other. Such a good time together, in fact, that Briney had eventually felt comfortable asking the other Metang for a favor…

"So, what've you come down here to bother me with today? There's only so many hours in the day for me to work, and I'll need all of them if I'm going to get all the commissions the city's demanded from me done in time, on top of the little…project you convinced me to waste some of my talents on," Smithy groused as he and Briney clasped hands.

As always, they squeezed their fists, fighting for dominance. As always, Briney found himself losing the fight, the elder Metang's strength overwhelming his own. I'll get him one day, Briney thought through gritted teeth as he drew back his hand, doing his best not to shake it in pain. "That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about, old-timer," Briney said. "How much longer until you'll be done with it?"

"Hmm…tomorrow or the day after, I should think," Smithy said, shooting a glance at the object he'd been working with on the nearby altar.

Briney's eye widened in disbelief. "What?! That's too late! The wedding's tomorrow! You can't give someone their wedding present a day after they get married, it's impolite, and makes it seem like you couldn't be bothered to give it to them on time like everyone else!"

Smithy shrugged apathetically. "Well, that's your problem, not mine."

"My problem?! You're the one making the present!" Briney protested.

"And you're the one who's giving it to them, and was insistent it had to be something I made rather than just going out to a store and doing the sensible thing of buying a wedding present like everyone else," Smithy pointed out.

"Captain Thaddeus Irving Briney does not simply purchase wedding presents like everyone else!" Briney scoffed. "He goes out of his way to get something truly unique and special for the occasion…and you're the best craftsmon in the entire city, if not all of Fichina. If I'm going to get these two a present that shows just how much they….how much they mean to me, it can't be something you just get from a store. It has to be something they'll appreciate for the rest of their lives…something that tells them the good old Captain treats his shipmates right, and that they can always count on him…"

Smithy regarded Briney for a long moment, eyebrow raised. "…You really care about those two kids, don't you?"

"If I didn't, I wouldn't be having you do this, would I?" Briney grunted.

"You tell them that?" Smithy asked.

"No," Briney grunted. "It's not something I should need to tell them. It's something that should be self-evident…and if it's not already, it will be after tomorrow."

Smithy chuckled. "Heheheh. You're too much like me for your own good, junior."

"Yeah, yeah…" Briney grumbled.

Smithy sighed and glanced at the anvil again. "…It'll be tight, but if I work through the night and delegate some of my other jobs to my apprentices, I should have it ready by tomorrow morning. I can bring it by the Fantasma estate if you like, or meet you at the Yukihimi place just before the wedding. Which would you prefer?"

Briney frowned in thought. "The Yukihimi place. That'll also give you as much time as you need to finish it, since the wedding won't start until…about noon, which'll give you another few hours in case you need them."

"I won't, but I'll take them anyway," Smithy said. "A mon's got to sleep sometime, after all."

"Just so long as you don't oversleep, old-timer," Briney said.

"Ha! I've never been late to work a day in my life," Smithy bragged.

"This isn't work, this is a wedding. Set your alarm clock," Briney said.

Smithy rolled his eye. "Fine, fine…not even sure I have an alarm clock…"

"What's keeping you so busy that you haven't had this thing finished already, anyway?" Briney asked. "I thought you promised me this would take top priority."

Smithy gave Briney an incredulous look and pointed outside Heatran's mouth. "Did you not see what's going on outside? All our production lines have been turned over to building weapons and ships for the war effort. Our furnaces are burning twenty-four seven, and we're churning out a new weapon every ten minutes, and we may have to double that if we're going to meet the quota General Victini issued us in time for the invasion. Not that I really understand why we need it all, given that Victini's the Goddess of Victory, meaning we're pretty much guaranteed a win so long as she's on our side, so what's the point in building such a massive army in the first place?"

Briney shrugged. "Better safe than sorry, I suppose. Besides, as Leo would say—and I concur—you can never have too many weapons."

"Ha! Got that right," Smithy chortled in amusement. "After all, a significant portion of my revenue comes from making weapons. I must have helped forge at least an eighth of the legendary weapons currently in use by heroes of Fichina, and it looks like by the time this war is over I'll have upped that fraction to at least a fourth, if not a third!"

"Does it bother you much that so many of the things you create are used to kill?" Briney asked.

"No. Why, should it?" Smithy asked in puzzlement.

"I dunno. Some people might think so. Not me, though," Briney said.

Smithy shrugged. "Pokemon are going to fight each other no matter what we do. It's in our nature. Sometimes we kill each other, sometimes we don't, but one way or another fighting's in our blood. Even if I didn't make weapons, they'd still find ways to fight each other, so I might as well make a profit off of their conflict since it's inevitable."

"Heh. Rather opportunistic of you," Briney commented.

"A mon's gotta feed himself somehow," Smithy said.

"And you don't get enough already from being head honcho of the temple?" Briney asked.

"A little extra cash on the side never hurts," Smithy said. Briney, currently in the possession of a massive horde of pirate booty himself, could see the logic in this. "So, seeing as how you've actually fought a Nihilator fleet, tell me: do you think our boys stand a chance with what we're whipping up down here?"

Briney snorted. "I've been blowing up Nihilator bases single-handed for over a decade, and my pals and I wiped out that fleet with no backup and no fancy weapons other than the Enchanted Express and that transforming car of Sam's. If anything, I think we're more than ready."

"Didn't an army from another evil organization show up to lend a hand?" Smithy asked skeptically.

"Bah, we didn't need their help," Briney said dismissively. "We'd have taken care of the Nihilators without them, especially given their proclivity for friendly fire. The idiots were more of a danger to themselves than they ever were to us. The fact that we only suffered one real casualty while they lost…hell, I don't even know how many just goes to show they don't stand a chance."

"Well, that's good to hear," Smithy said. "So, anything else you wanted to see me about, or did you just come here to waste more of my precious time?"

"Get back to work, old-timer. I'm going to need that wedding present in time for tomorrow, and at your age you need all the sleep you can get, so you should see to finishing it as soon as possible," Briney said.

Smithy laughed as he floated back to the anvil and picked up his hammer. Briney'd once tried to lift it, only to find it so heavy that he couldn't even raise it off the floor. He'd tried to salvage his ego by deciding it was one of those mystical artifacts that 'only the chosen could wield' like Pikachu's sword, only for an amused Smithy to tell him that no, it really was that heavy and Briney just wasn't strong enough to pick it up. Briney had not been happy to hear this. He didn't like anyone telling him he was weaker than he should be. "You've got a way with words, young'un. If I didn't like you so much, I'd probably have ripped your arm off and beaten you half to death with it by now."

"Wouldn't be the first time," Briney said wryly.

"Heheh, same here," Smithy chuckled as he started pounding on the metal he was working with again. "Well, I'm sure they'll appreciate it…though I'm not quite sure I see the necessity of it, myself."

Briney bristled. "And just what's that supposed to mean?"

"Well, do you really need to give them a present? I mean, you're the one who's officiating the wedding and marrying the two of them! Don't you think that's good enough?" Smithy asked.

Briney glanced away, abashed. When Lily and Leo had announced their engagement, every religious institution in Fichina had been clambering to provide wedding services for the couple, the prospect of hosting the union between two of Fichina's currently most-talked about heroic celebrities and the new head of the restored Yukihimi house too big for them to resist. Even Fantina, who respected Lily's choice and freedom, had been hinting a little too strongly that she would really enjoy a good old-fashioned Mewrian wedding. Similarly, Nuken had been strongly implying that a Dragonian wedding might be in their best interests. Somewhat desperate to cut through the political hullaballoo, the young couple had asked (begged, really) for Briney to perform the wedding instead. As a ship's captain, he had the authority to marry anyone he wished, and he wasn't technically part of any religious institution so he didn't have to worry about stepping on any priestly toes. None of the temples of New Avalon had been pleased with this, but since it meant none of their rivals were going to get to host the wedding either, they'd reluctantly acquiesced. Fantina had been disappointed she couldn't show Lily a 'really good time' but gave the Misdreavus her blessings and started sneaking aphrodisiacs into the room where they'd be having their first night as a married couple together. Nuken had been rather frustrated his daughter wasn't going to be married in the Dragonian way, but reluctantly acknowledged (after several hours of arguing with Missy) that she had the right to choose how she went about getting married, something Lily had been very relieved to hear. And Briney…

Briney was flabbergasted. Out of everyone in New Avalon, heck, all of Fichina, they could have gone to to get married, they came to him? Ol' Captain Briney? He had been shocked, confused, alarmed, and more than a little touched. While he knew that at least part of the reason they'd picked him was to expedite the wedding and get the temples off their backs, the fact that they'd chosen him of all Pokemon to cement the bond of love between the two of them had been one of the most astounding and heartwarming signs of trust and respect he'd ever experienced. It had taken a great deal of effort not to cry when they told him just how much they wanted him, one of their closest and most trusted friends, to bring them together as husband and wife. After several hard drinks and taking a long, steady look in the mirror he'd resolved to make this the best damn wedding his shipmates would ever have, and had spent the last few days leading up to the big occasion sobering up, reading up on his rites, and pestering Smithy to make the perfect wedding gift for the couple.

"For anyone else, perhaps," Briney said. "But not me. And not Leo and Lily. I hadn't realized just how much I meant to those kids until they asked me to officiate their wedding. And while marrying them will be the perfect way for me to reward their faith in me, faith I'm not entirely certain I deserve given how much I belittle Leo or Ash and keep snooping in everyone's minds, I want to give them something special to show them just how much they mean to me…something it's taken longer for me to realize than it should have."

"You can say that again," Smithy commented, earning him a glare from the younger Metang. "A fair enough answer. Don't worry, I promise this'll be something they deserve."

"Thanks," Briney said. "I appreciate that."

"And I appreciate how much you're paying me to get this done!" Smithy said seriously. "Though it'll be harder for me to get it finished in time with all these distractions…"

Briney rolled his eye. "Fine, fine, I get the hint. I'll leave you to it." He turned to leave…

"Wait," Smithy said, pausing in his work. "Before you go, I need to ask: have you given my offer any further thought?"

Briney froze. "Your offer?"

"Yes, you know, my offer for the two of us to fuse together into a Metagross?" Smithy asked.

Briney fidgeted, not meeting the other Metang's eye. Just as it took two Beldum combining to create a Metang, two Metang were necessary to create a Metagross, the peak of that evolutionary line. Metagross possessed nearly impervious metal skin and almost unstoppable mental powers. They were incredibly difficult to defeat, and if a Metang as strong as Briney were to evolve into one, there was no telling what limits his newfound powers would be able to reach…

But this power came with a price. He couldn't evolve on his own. As previously noted, he would need another Metang to fuse with to become a Metagross. And that would mean the resulting super-Pokemon wouldn't really be Briney at all, but a new Pokemon with the combined memories of himself and whoever he'd fused with. Briney as he knew himself might very well cease to exist. He'd be dead, and someone else would wake up in his body, and while it might still be him, it wouldn't really be…well, him. It'd be the other guy, too. And that wasn't something Briney felt completely comfortable with, for while he wasn't afraid of dying and fully expected to lose his life at some point after this adventure—or even during it—he didn't really want to end his life this way. It disturbed him, least of all because it meant he'd have to open his mind up completely to someone else to accommodate the physical and mental meld…and while Briney had no compunctions with poking around in other Pokemon's heads, he did not like anyone else inside his own mind, as hypocritical as that sounded. His mind and his body were two of the only things left that he felt he could absolutely rely on, and fusing into a Metagross would mean having to give up both of those…and while he liked and respected Smithy a lot, he wasn't sure if he trusted the other Metang, or anyone else for that matter, enough to do something like that.

On the other hand…the power was tempting. Very tempting. Briney's pride didn't really allow for others to be stronger than himself, so naturally he found the concept of Smithy being that much more powerful than him more than a little frustrating. To take that strength and make it his own…not only would it go a long way towards salvaging his ego, but it would certainly come in handy against the Nihilators. He hated to admit it, but he wasn't as strong as he wanted to be. It had taken a lot of effort to defeat the frost giant in Dusty Ditch, and he'd only been able to manage it with help from a lot of other Pokemon. Additionally, he'd been able to do jack-all to Lugia. Even throwing his strongest moves at the corrupted god, with the help of the Goldorringtons and Bow, they'd still been unable to even scratch him. Smithy, on the other hand, claimed he'd once gotten into an argument with Kyurem and actually managed to deal the ice dragon a blow so strong it broke its jaw. It had also broken his own fist, but he'd just built another replacement. The point was, Briney wasn't certain he could manage such a feat on his own, but with Smithy's strength backing up his fists…then even Oblivion's Shadow might have trouble facing off against him. It would certainly be a big asset to Ash when they inevitably fought the diabolical mastermind once they got to Mars, whenever that was. And while Briney valued his individuality and his life, he valued his friends as well…and he was not the kind of mon to leave his shipmates hanging. It was poor conduct for a captain of his stature.

"I'm…not too keen on it," he muttered after a moment.

Smithy grunted. "Scares you that much, does it?"

"I'm scared of nothing!" Briney snapped, which was a bald-faced lie. "I just…I don't know."

"What's not to know? You need to be stronger if you're going to beat the Nihilators, and evolving with me will make you stronger. Seems simple enough to me," Smithy said.

"And who's to say I need your help? There are other ways I can get stronger…" Briney growled.

"Not as fast or as effectively as if we combined. You know that as well as I do," Smithy said.

"Well, what if I don't need to get stronger? We've done a pretty good job fighting the Nihilators as we are now, and the next time we run into them we'll have a huge army backing us," Briney pointed out.

"So what? You know as well as I do it doesn't hurt to be overwhelmingly stronger than your enemy. Doesn't matter what kind of fancy tactics you're using, if you've got enough raw power behind you, in the end that's all you need to win," Smithy said, which was another philosophy Briney could get behind.

"I guess, but…is it worth it?" Briney wondered.

"Worth what?" Smithy asked.

Briney sighed. "If the two of us were to…you know, do it…we'd pretty much die. Yeah, the resulting Metagross would have our memories and technically all of our brains would be a part of it, but…would either of us really be us anymore? Would we still exist as individuals, or even as consciousnesses, or just be part of some new kid who hasn't done anything to earn all the power we're handing to him right off the Zubat, the ungrateful brat…"

Smithy raised an eyebrow. "That really bothers you, doesn't it?"

"And it doesn't bother you at all? Not in the slightest?" Briney accused.

"Oh, it does, actually. Quite a lot," Smithy said.

Briney was rather surprised to hear this. "What? But…then why are you so supportive of this procedure?"

"Briney, did you have any of these fears back when you were a Beldum? Or Beldums, rather?" Smithy asked the younger Metang.

"No, but that's because as Beldums I was pretty darn stupid. You know as well as I do that individual Beldum aren't too bright, and it's only when we combine into our higher-level forms we get a true taste of intellect," Briney said.

"Are both of those Beldum you used to be still inside of you, or are you, Briney, a completely new individual born when they combined to evolve?" Smithy asked.

"…Not too sure," Briney said. "I have memories of my childhood—both of them—but it's kind of hazy, and it's not until after I evolved that I really felt, well alive. Which is why I'm worried the same thing will happen if we turn into a Metagross. I'm not afraid of dying, but…going like this, being assimilated, gives me the shivers."

"Are you the same Pokémon that you were five minutes ago?" Smithy asked.

"Yes," Briney said flatly.

"Wrong answer. Every experience you have changes you on a minute level, even if it's something as simple as the passage of time second by second. You claim you're worried about losing who you are by joining with me and becoming a Metagross. But that's already happened to you with every moment that passes by as you age and move forward through time, and is in fact happening to you right now, as we speak. The you of the past is already dead and has been assimilated into the you of the present, just like the you of the future will assimilate the you of the now," Smithy said. "One way or another, the you of now will die and be incorporated into the future you. Whether that future you is a Metang or a Metagross makes little difference; it's still going to happen. All you can do right now is choose what you'll be when that happens."

Briney stared at him blankly. "…I think I only understood like half of that."

Smithy sighed. "My point is that change is inevitable, and it seems to me like that's what you're really afraid of. Changing from what you are, what you're familiar with and used to, into something new and strange and unfamiliar."

"I think I kind of have reason to be afraid, especially a change of this magnitude" Briney said.

"So does everyone. It still happens any way, whether we like it or not. All we can do is stop fighting it and suck up and take it like a mon," Smithy said.

"Well, technically, I can fight it. You know, by not evolving with you," Briney said petulantly.

Smithy rolled his eye. "Not the point, kiddo."

"No, the point is that the mon I'll be tomorrow will be different from the mon I am now," Briney said. "But that mon doesn't have to be a Metagross. He can be a Metang. And right now I would be much more comfortable staying a Metang."

"Even though it means giving up all the power you'd get if you joined with me?" Smithy asked.

Briney hesitated for a moment. "…Power's nice, but I'm not sure I want it that badly."

"Even though it means you might be making things harder for your friends further down the line? Sounds pretty selfish to me," Smithy commented.

Briney snarled and clenched his fists. "I've killed mons for less than that, old-timer."

"Me too, but now isn't the time for that," Smithy said. He rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "I didn't answer your question, did I? About why I'm so fixated on evolution, even though I know what it could mean for me. For both of us."

Briney frowned. "No, you didn't. Why are you so fixated on evolution?"

"What would you say if I told you I'm dying, Briney?" Smithy asked plainly.

Briney blinked in surprise. "Taurosshit. In a place as full of magic as this?"

Smithy shrugged. "Magic's nice, but it can't fix everything. I have a fatal case of cancerust."

Briney's eye widened in alarm at this. Cancerust was an illness unique to Steel-type Pokémon. As the name implied, it was a variety of cancer that only affected Pokémon with high levels of metal in their bodies and was essentially a form of living rust that oxidized and ate away at a Steel-type Pokémon's body and bones from within until they were a corroded pile of scrap. It could be treated with galvanization, electroplating, and oil, but just like organic cancer the cure wasn't always completely effective and had a nasty habit of creeping back once it had gotten a foothold in a Pokémon's metal. Thankfully, it wasn't contagious, otherwise Briney would have gotten the heck out of dodge then and there. "…I'm sorry," he said quietly. "That's a pretty terrible way to go."

Smithy nodded sadly. "Don't I know it. My family has a hereditary predisposition for it…I lost my father, most of my siblings, and even a few of my kids and grandkids to it. Now it's my turn."

"You don't look very rusty. I'm guessing it's internal?" Briney asked as he looked the elder Metang over.

Smithy nodded. "Yep, which makes it that much more difficult to get at. I've been doing everything I can to keep it in check, but sooner or later it'll consume me, even with the best treatment and magic money can buy."

"Can't you go to…uh, what do they call it…a Glowdrop fountain? Thought I heard somewhere that might work…" Briney murmured.

Smithy sighed. "Those only exist in the world of Toy Pokémon. Regular Pokémon like us can't go there because we aren't toys."

"Well, there goes that idea…" Briney grumbled.

"There's only one real cure, and you know as good as I do what that is: evolution," Smithy said.

Briney nodded. The energies released by evolution had a tendency to heal injuries inflicted to a Pokémon ahead of time, as well as curing certain illnesses and diseases that even Joys had trouble handling, hence why most Pokémon Centers made sure to have evolutionary items or other evolution-inducing equipment on hand in case of emergencies. "But to evolve, you need a second Metang. Which is where I come in?"

"Pretty much," Smithy said.

"So what, you just want me to fuse with you to fix your illness?! Yeah, that's not making me feel any more inclined to help you!" Briney said angrily.

Smithy snorted. "Please. If that's all I wanted, I could just grab one of my apprentices or kids and have them do it with me. No, it has to be you, and only you."

"And why's that?" Briney asked warily.

"Because you're almost as much of a hardass as I am," Smithy said flatly. In any other circumstance Briney might have been flattered. Actually, he was, but he didn't want Smithy to know that. "We're a lot alike, you and I. If I were to fuse with anyone, it would be with you. I like and respect you, and while I love my descendants, none of them have the same…edge that you and I have. You know what I'm talking about, don't you?"

Briney nodded, his thoughts flashing back to the mess he had made of Archie. "The willingness to do whatever is necessary to survive. The understanding that victory is worth any sacrifice…even if that sacrifice is your own life."

"Precisely," said Smithy. "Most of the other Metang I know, even my own kin, haven't gone through the same kinds of experiences you and I have. They don't get it, the way you or I do. That's why it has to be you. You're the only mon I know who's so much like, well, me…and if I have to fuse with someone, I'd rather it be someone like myself."

"…Yeah, I guess I can see that," Briney admitted reluctantly. He supposed that if he absolutely had to fuse with someone, it wouldn't be so bad doing it with Smithy…aside from the fact that he still didn't want to fuse with anyone, that is. "But even so, I still don't think I want to do it."

"What, not even to save my life?" Smithy asked.

Briney fidgeted. "I…well…it sounds a lot worse when you put it that way!"

"That's because it is, you're denying me a chance at life!" Smithy said.

"The only one doing that is you, since you could just as easily evolve by using someone else! It doesn't have to be me!" Briney pointed out.

"True, but I want it to be you, and not just because of what I already said about the similarities between you and me," Smithy said.

"Oh? Then why? What else is there?" asked the perplexed Briney.

"I want to fight the Nihilators," Smithy said plainly.

Briney blinked in surprise. "You do? Why?"

"Because they're evil bastards who need to be stopped before they destroy the world. Isn't that reason enough?" Smithy pointed out.

"True enough," Briney admitted. "But aren't you already helping to fight them by building all this weaponry and stuff?"

Smithy snorted. "Oh come on, you know as well as I do that doesn't really count! Yeah, my work is helping take them down, but it's not like I'm out there actually fighting them!"

"Okay, yeah, that's true," Briney admitted. "But why don't you just volunteer to join the army for the invasion of Mars?"

"I tried that," Smithy grunted. "They won't let me in because of my condition."

"And to cure your illness, you need to evolve," Briney said.

"And to evolve, I need another Metang. And I want that Metang to be you," Smithy said.

Briney considered this for a few minutes. "…I…guess I see where you're coming from," he said finally. "And now that I understand your reasons, I guess I'm flattered you want me of all Pokémon to evolve with. But…"

"But you still have misgivings," Smithy finished his sentence.

"Yeah. Pretty much," Briney said.

"What if I said there were another reason I wanted to fight the Nihilators?" Smithy asked.

"What, did they kill your wife too?" Briney half-joked.

"No, but…" Smithy sighed. "I'm an old mon, Briney, and it's been a long time since I've ever had to fight for anything, not like when I was younger. Thanks to my illness, I'm dying, and…even if evolving is just another kind of death, like you seem to be afraid of, I think it'd be preferable than having to go out like this, slowly and painfully being killed from within. And aside from that…at least this way I'd get one last chance to fight for what I believe in before Darkrai comes to pay me a visit. That's an opportunity I won't get if I have to stay here, building weapons and ships and watching them get sent out to a big battle to save the world that I can't be a part of myself. You know as well as I do that for a mon with fighting in his blood, there's few things worse than having to watch a brawl from the sidelines."

"…" Briney closed his eye and sighed. "I'll…give it some more thought, okay? I'm still doubtful, but…"

"But?" Smithy asked.

"…We'll see, okay?" Briney said curtly.

"Heh. All right. Sounds good to me," Smithy said.

"That doesn't mean I've decided we'll do it!" Briney snapped.

"I know it doesn't," Smithy said innocently.

Grumbling under his breath, Briney turned his back on the other Metang. "Just get that project finished, okay? Right now that's all that matters. We can discuss evolution some more another time."

"Fine with me," Smithy said. "You're taking up too much of my time already. Get on out of here. I have more important things to do than jabber on with a rookie like you."

"I'll show you who's a rookie…" Briney grumbled as he floated towards the waiting elevator platform. "Where does he get off, calling me that? Hmmph!" He hovered onto the platform, which shook slightly and raised itself out of the lava and into the air. "…I wonder if this is how the others feel when they deal with me. Hmm. Strange to be on the other side of it for a change…"

"Briney!" Smithy called up to the younger Metang, causing the platform to stop.

Briney rolled his eye in frustration. "Yeah? What now?"

"There's one more reason I want to do this," Smithy said.

Briney threw up his hands in exasperation. "Of course there is! What is it now? You think it'll be an easy way to get out of a marriage you hate? To quit being High Priest? To get a taste of youth again and extend your already prolonged life so you don't have to up and die already?!"

"Nobody needs me anymore," Smithy said.

"Eh?" said the confused Briney.

"I'm the High Priest of Heatran and allegedly the greatest smith in all the land, but the truth is there just isn't that much anyone needs me for any longer," Smithy said. "All of my apprentices and underlings have gotten good enough to carry out pretty much any of my duties on their own, and there's no shortage of worthy successors waiting to take over if I were to step down. I'm one of the best at making weapons and other craft in all of Fichina, but I already have a few Pokémon under me who've already reached my level, if not surpassed it, not that I'd ever tell them that to their faces. Most of my best and closest friends died long ago, and while I've got a pretty big family by now, few of them really know me or see me as anything other than the big scary Metang with the cool beard that always smells of sulfur. My family's outgrown me, my students have exceeded me, and while I'm happy to serve Heatran and my country, I'm old enough now that most of the services I can render to them are no longer as useful or necessary as they used to be. Even if it weren't for the Cancerust killing me, I don't have much of a life left here. I've got little, if anything, to strive for or look forward to. Until you lot came along, and told everyone about the Nihilators, and got the ball rolling on one of the biggest military ventures I've seen in all my years. And I want a part of it, because right now, it's all I've got left to hope for. So…" He fidgeted awkwardly, and wouldn't meet Briney's eye. "Would you give me something to hope for? A reason for me to look forward to living again?"

Briney stared at the Metang for a long moment, torn between pity and understanding and frustration at how he was probably being emotionally manipulated. Finally, he said, "Talk to me again after the wedding. I'll have my mind made up then."

Smithy smirked. "I'll hold you to that, bucko."

The elevator began to move again, and Briney turned away as the master smith set to work again, the ringing of metal against metal fading behind him and getting swallowed up by the much louder row filling the main temple. Briney heard none of it, though, too focused was he on the storm roiling inside his head…and the great decision that he would soon have to make.

In the skies above New Avalon…

The Draconian Embassy in New Avalon had been designed by the same architects as Rayquaza's mighty mobile fortress, the Sky Tower, so it came as no surprise that the building representing the Draconian Empire's might in the magical land of Fichina was also a floating structure comprised of clouds. The cloudsculptors had spent months painstakingly crafting the Embassy to Nuken's exacting specifications, designed to instill upon everyone who looked upon it a sense of awe and reverence for the might of one of the greatest nations on Earth, a country that had no borders and could quite easily conquer the world if they so choose.

"Why does it look like a dragon?" Tiny asked as he and Ash got off the chariot they'd taken from the base of Twisting Mountain to return to the city.

"Because the Draconians have an almost unhealthy obsession with dragons. Then again, given that most of them are dragons, I suppose that's to be expected," Ash admitted as he tipped the charioteer and sent him on his way. "Come on, the others are waiting for us inside. I don't want to be late for when our guests arrive."

"Neither do I! I'll finally get to meet Grandma and Grandpa and my other siblings in the flesh for the first time!" Tiny said excitedly. "And not only that, but I'll finally see Mommy again! For the first time! Since I've never actually met her before, being in an egg and all…"

"How were you able to remember all that stuff that happened when you were in an egg, anyway?" Ash asked as they walked up the steps from the skydock to the Embassy's entrance.

Tiny would have shrugged, but he was a Pupitar, so he couldn't. "I dunno. Aura magic or something?"

"Yeah, I guess that's as good an explanation as any," Ash admitted as they crested the top of the steps and found themselves before the Embassy's entrance. As Tiny had previously noted, it was indeed made to look like a dragon, with a pair of wings (both literally and architecturally speaking) spreading out to either side and circling around to touch at the tips, a long spiraling tail winding down from the body anchoring the floating building to one of the mountains surrounding New Avalon, a pair of claws outstretched before it holding ever-burning emerald flames in its upturned palms with banners denoting the Draconian insignia dangling from each digit, and a fearsome head somewhat resembling Rayquaza with a gaping tooth-filled mouth right in front of them, the tongue extending out to form the stairway and skydock they'd just climbed up from. A pair of giant emeralds was set in the dragon head's eyesockets, shining green beams of light outwards like beacons. Dragon and Ghost-type Pokémon were flying all over the place on Embassy business or sunning themselves on roosts protruding from the wings and the side of the main building.

"Why'd they make the main entrance a mouth?" Tiny complained as he looked up at the toothy maw looming before them.

"To intimidate and impress, probably," Ash said. "Come on, the others are waiting for us."

After passing through the jaws and into the building's 'throat,' some of the Embassy staff, who were running about like crazy trying to get everything prepared for the incoming dignitaries, directed them to the roof on the dragon's 'back,' which served as a larger dock and parking space for aerial vehicles that couldn't weigh anchor at the skydock at the front of the Embassy. There they found the rest of Team Aurabolt waiting for them, along with the Queen, Princess Boa, Ambassador Stoutroot, Daimyo Leeku, Jujimaru, Iris, Lord Drayden, Kairyu, Atlametheus, Fantina, and Butler and Diane. Fantina's daughters were there as well, fussing over Lily and applying makeup so she looked her best for her father's arrival. There were also several dozen Fichinan knights and samurai, and soldiers wearing the Draconian livery lined up in rows down the middle of the large square courtyard, trying not to look too nervous about shortly being in the presence of one of the highest-ranking and deadliest individuals of their Empire.

"Hey guys," Ash said as they walked over. Lily smiled and shooed her would-be handmaidens away, waving to her friends as they approached.

"Hey yourself! About time you got here!" Pikachu scolded him. "They'll be here any minute! And why aren't you wearing anything?!"

Ash blinked in surprise. "I was supposed to wear something?"

"Uh, yeah, to make a good impression on Lily's dad, duh!" Leo said, rolling his eyes. "I mean, do the rest of us look like we're wearing our skivvies?"

"Your what?" Tiny asked.

"Underwear," Ash explained. "And Leo, you are wearing underwear."

"Well, yeah, because it's the uniform of my station as Lily's soon-to-be-husband!" Leo said, indicating his thong. "But you don't see the rest of us like that, do you?"

Ash frowned as he took another look at his friends, realizing to his slowly dawning horror that Leo was right. Pikachu was wearing very ornate and fancy samurai armor, Dawn was wearing a freshly cleaned and pressed shinobi shozoko with shiny new jewels and glossy feathers, Sasha was wearing her High Priestess Robes, Lily was wearing her full ice-white regalia as head of the Yukihimi house with her hair done in a very elaborate and beautiful style, and even Briney had buffed his metal skin to a fine polish, shaved his 'beard,' and was wearing a mariner's jacket. Compared to all of them (except Leo) Ash and Tiny were severely underdressed, which wasn't hard since they weren't dressed at all, save for Tiny's iconic monocle and top hat, which he never went anywhere without. "…Aw, crap."

"Not to worry!" Fantina said as she floated over. "Fortunately, I zought somezing like zis might 'appen. It's a good zing I invented zat instant-clozes spell four 'undred years ago! CLOZE BEAM!" Her eyes flashed and suddenly fired very large and powerful-looking energy beams at Ash and Tiny, who naturally enough screamed in alarm.

Much to their surprise, however, rather than being incinerated, the beams just left a strange tingling sensation…and when the light died down, both of them found themselves completely dressed to the nines. Ash was wearing a stylish light-weight tux and suit that didn't restrict his movements at all and would probably allow him to fight at full strength with a complete range of motion should the situation require it. Tiny, on the other hand, was dressed in a somewhat ridiculous-looking blue and white sailor outfit with a cap that had a blue ribbon on it dangling in front of his face. Combined with his monocle and top hat, which the sailor's cap was hanging from the top of, he looked rather silly.

Dawn blinked. …That is…a not entirely useless technique…

"Don't you dare cast that on me," Briney said warily.

"Or I," Sasha said glumly. "It's bad enough I have to wear these robes so often these days, I'd rather not have any more clothes than I can handle. Which is any. At all."

There's nothing wrong with clothes, you know, Darkrai said, conveniently forgetting that he almost never wore any himself.

I live in a cave. Where exactly am I supposed to put clothes if I had any? Sasha pointed out.

Hmm, true. Well, you could always move- Darkrai started.

No, Sasha said flatly.

Just a suggestion, Darkrai said.

"Heh, looking good, Ash," Pikachu complimented as his brother looked over his new outfit in surprise. "And Tiny…uh…"

"I look ridiculous!" the Pupitar wailed in alarm.

"Yes, you do!" Leo agreed with a laugh as he took a picture. Everyone glared at him. "What? He totally does! Way more goofy-looking than me!"

"I thought you liked your…regalia," Lily said uncomfortably.

"I do! Which is why his is more goofy-looking than mine, because it looks terrible!" Leo explained.

"No it does not, 'e looks absolutely adorable!" Fantina cooed, pinching Tiny's cheek with a spectral tendril. "And so distinguished, wiz zat monocle and top 'at! 'ere, 'ave a lollipop!"

"You're not going to be able to bribe me into liking this with some candy-" Tiny started, only for Fantina to conjure and shove a lollipop into his mouth. He paused when he got a taste of it, and then contentedly began sucking on it, his previous objections forgotten.

Lily frowned. "Fantina, if you can generate clothes like that right onto a Pokémon magically, why did I have to spend so long getting dressed up in this?" she asked, referring to her elaborate and beautiful but somewhat cumbersome garments.

"Because it's no fun if you do it instantly, of course!" Bow said cheerily. Fantina smiled and nodded in agreement, while her other children tittered. Lily sighed.

"Well, uh, thank you very much for the outfit, Fantina," Ash said as he rubbed one of his sleeves, amazed at how smooth the fabric felt against his fur. "My mom'll be grateful for this; you have no idea how long she's been trying to stuff me into a suit."

Mirami frowned disapprovingly. "You mean you wouldn't indulge your dear old Muzzer and dress up for nice occasions?"

"Oh no, I did," Ash assured the enchantress. "It's just that she didn't really have any clothes in my size."

"And whenever we went to the store to get any, they tended not to last very long due to most fabric not being particularly resilient to overexposure to Aura," Pikachu said.

"My book says there are certain ways to treat fabric so it can withstand Aura, but I didn't have it at the time, so we didn't know about it until after we started this adventure," Ash said.

Dawn frowned. Wait…wasn't that book in the possession of a friend of yours? Why did he not tell you of this before?

"Well, partly because he couldn't read the book so probably didn't know there was such a technique, and partly because Chuck hates wearing suits himself and probably didn't want me to have to wear one any more than I had to," Ash said.

Ah, said Dawn.

Tiny perked up when he heard this, spitting out his lollipop, which he'd already finished. "Clothes don't stand up to Aura well? Oh! I, uh, think I feel an Aura surge coming on now! Haaaaaaaaaaaaa!" Blue Aura blazed up around him…and had absolutely no effect on his adorable sailor outfit. "Huh?"

"I made zose clozes wiz magic, dear, it'll take a lot more zan zat to destroy zem," Fantina said smugly.

"Awwww…" Tiny whined.

"'ere, 'ave anozzer lollipop," Fantina said, conjuring another piece of candy.

"Yay!" Tiny said, sucking happily on his new treat.

Leo snapped a picture. "That's another one for the scrapbook. Hey, do you suppose I could-"

"No," Pikachu said flatly.

"Aw, come on, why not?!" Leo complained.

"Your future father-in-law will be showing up any minute, do you want to make a bad impression by snacking when he gets here?" Pikachu pointed out.

"…Yeah, I guess not," the Squirtle admitted reluctantly. "But I'm kinda hungry…"

"You ate on the way here!" Pikachu said incredulously.

"I'm a growing boy, I need my calories!" Leo said defensively.

If you ask me, you already have more than you could possibly need, Dawn said, staring at Leo's waistline.

"Yeah, well, we didn't ask you, so there," Leo said, sticking his tongue out.

You do remember I work for your future father-in-law as well as my Master, don't you? Dawn asked coldly, narrowing her eyes. You might want to think twice about angering me.

Leo's face turned a shade paler. "…Ah. Good point. Forget I said anything, then."

I will endeavor to do just that, Dawn said, planning to do no such thing.

"So, what have I missed?" Ash asked as he tugged on his black bow tie, which to his surprise was not nearly as tight as he would have expected. "Tiny and I were training all morning-"

"How's that going, anyway?" Pikachu asked.

"Could be better," Ash said with a grimace.

"That's an understatement," Misty hissed into his ear.

"Shut up zombie Misty," Ash muttered under his breath.

"What?" Pikachu asked.

"Nothing. Er…" Ash paused, remembering how he was supposed to be letting his friends know how he was feeling these days rather than just bottling it up. "Just…my Misty hallucination continuing to taunt and belittle me."

"It's what I do," Misty said proudly. "Nice suit, by the way. You almost look like you're going to a funeral rather than a wedding. Probably Leo's, given how Nuken's probably going to kill him. A shame it's not yours." Ash frowned but refused to rise to her bait. This time.

"Oh," Pikachu said, disconcerted.

"You poor boy," Fantina said sympathetically.

"That's really freaky, you know," Leo commented.

"I hadn't noticed," Ash said dryly. "Anyway, enough about me and my repeated failures to tame the darkness raging inside of me and Tiny's falling asleep during training-"

"Hey! I only did that the one time!" Tiny said indignantly, spitting out his second finished lollipop. Ash looked at him. "…Okay, two. Er…three. No greater than five times, honest! Or…maybe seven…um, can I get another lollipop, please?"

"Certainly," Fantina said, conjuring another lollipop for the Pupitar, who quickly started sucking on it before he could dig himself any deeper.

"Well, Dawn, Lily, and myself received that mystical power-up we were promised by Lugia and the legendary dragons," Pikachu said. "We'd show you, but now's probably not the best time."

"Yeah, probably not," Ash agreed.

"Also, Leo complained about being left behind and being weaker than us despite the fact he's going to marry the love of his life, who's also a wealthy and extremely powerful sorceress and heiress, is probably smarter than all of us combined, and has so many weird things in those sunglasses and shell of his that I can't even keep track, so he's far from deficient compared to the rest of us," Pikachu said.

Leo flushed and rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment. "You know, it does sound kind of silly when you put it like that."

You think? Dawn asked dryly.

"Heh, yeah…Wait, did you just say I was smarter than all of you combined?" Leo asked, perking up.

"No," Pikachu said.

"Really? Because I could have sworn I heard-" Leo started.

"You were wrong. Sasha, what were you doing?" Pikachu asked loudly.

"I was tending to some last-minute details at Darkrai's temple," Sasha said.

"And Briney…was off doing whatever it is he's doing when he's not with us," Pikachu said.

"And what is that, precisely?" Ash asked.

"Don't wanna talk about it," Briney said, crossing his arms.

"You know, it's kinda hypocritical of you to always be prying into our minds and personal lives while never uttering a peep about your own," Leo complained.

"I'm older than you, so I can do whatever I want," Briney said flatly.

"…Eh, I guess that's a good point…" Leo admitted unhappily. Tiny nodded in agreement. Older people always got to do whatever they wanted and boss younger mons around.

"But I'm older than you," Lily pointed out. "And I don't believe I have that privilege."

"That's because you aren't older than me. Not where it counts, kiddo," Briney said.

"…I don't get it," said a confused Lily.

"Well, I do, and I most certainly am older where it counts," Fantina said pointedly. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to tell me, zen, would you?"

Briney folded his arms and gave her a long, grudging look. Finally, reluctantly, he said, "I'm working on a little something for the wedding okay? There, I said it, quit pestering me."

"Oh, you were practicing for the ceremony? Why didn't you say so, then?" Ash asked.

"…Practicing. Right. That's what I was doing," Briney said shiftily.

"By the way, thanks again for agreeing to officiate it for us," Leo said. "We really appreciate it."

Briney scoffed and waved him off. "Save your apologies, I'm just doing a seamon's duty. And besides, you lot'd probably screw the whole thing up if I weren't doing it for you."

"We love you too, Briney," Lily said, kissing Briney on the cheek and causing the old Metang to flush and stammer in surprise. The others chuckled.

"So, that's you guys. What's…uh, going on there?" Ash asked, nodding to Drayden, Leeku, Iris, and Jujimaru. Drayden, wearing some highly polished ceremonial armor with dragon motifs (naturally) was fussing over Iris, who was wearing a dress with a white blouse, long sleeves with wide openings rimmed in pink, a big pink bow around her waist, a pink skirt cut open in the front with lighter pink frills on the edges, a translucent pink ribbon boa winding around her neck and arms, and a small gold tiara with green gems set in it. Leeku, wearing very fancy ceremonial samurai armor with lots of motifs of tidal waves and roaring Water Pokémon, was sternly lecturing a very nervous Jujimaru, who was wearing an elaborate blue and white gi with a sheathed sword hanging from his waist. (The sword couldn't be removed from the sheath, they'd made very sure of that. Didn't want the Oshawott to put anyone's eyes out, after all.)

"Oh, just some last-minute preparations," Fantina said in amusement, discretely casting a spell that allowed them to hear what the two fathers were saying to their children.

"-Make eye contact, but don't look like you're challenging him. Yes, the way you're looking at me right now. That's not what you should be doing around him. Be as quiet and nonthreatening as possible. Don't even breathe out of place. Keep your heart rate under control, he can smell fear, and he likes it-" Drayden instructed his daughter.

"Daaaaad, come on, don't you think you're making a big deal out of this?" Iris whined. "I mean, yeah, I get that General Shinobu's a really, really big deal and all, but there's no way he's really scary as all the stories say, is he?"

Drayden paled and stared off into the distance, a faded horror in his eyes. "You're right. He's far worse. Worse than you can possibly imagine."

"I can imagine pretty bad," Iris said skeptically.

"Not as bad as this," Drayden said with a shiver.

"Don't talk. Don't open your mouth, not even to breathe. Not a single word is to go past those lips. You are extremely lucky to be getting married to Iris, since nobody else was willing to get engaged to you, no matter how low we set the dowry, and General Shinobu is well within his rights to revoke your privilege of marrying a high-ranking member of the Draconian Empire's aristocracy if he considers you inadequate. Of course, if any of the stories Drayden's told me about him—and there are many—are true, he might decide you're thoroughly inadequate the second he lays eyes on you, but we might as well hedge our bets and keep you silent so you don't say anything stupid that might ruin your future," Leeku sternly lectured his son while making sure his gi was on right.

"You know, Dad, your lack of confidence in me might be at least part of the reason I'm such a screw-up," Jujimaru complained.

Leeku considered this for a moment. "No. No, I really don't think that's it at all. After all, I have lots of confidence in you, son."

Jujimaru perked up at this. "Really?"

"Yes," Leeku said curtly, deciding not to mention he had every confidence his son would find greater and lower depths in which to utterly disappoint him. It wasn't that he didn't love his son—he had to, after all, he was his father—but he didn't really like him that much.

"…Remind me why those two are here again?" Ash asked as Fantina canceled her spell.

"A lot of reasons, but mainly it's for ze sake of politics," the Mismagius explained.

"Is that why your daughters are here?" Tiny asked.

"No, we're 'ere for moral support for Lily," Shauntal said, causing the Misdreavus to blush and smile in gratitude.

"Oh. That's nice of you," Tiny said. "Can I have another lollipop?"

"Don't you think two's enough?" Ash asked.

"No," Tiny said as he started sucking on the third sweet Fantina conjured for him.

"Heh, you tell 'im, Tiny!" Leo said. Ash and Pikachu rolled their eyes.

Queen Ninianne approached the group, Princess Boa following a couple of steps behind. "Ash. Tiny. I am gratified you could make it," the regal Gothitelle said as everyone bowed to her.

"We wouldn't miss this for the world, your Magisty," Ash assured her as he stood back up.

"Especially with my Mom and Grandma and Grandpa and brothers and uncles and nieces and nephew and…uh…whoever else we have in our big, confusing family coming to see me!" Tiny said happily around his lollipop.

Ash winced, realizing too late one should probably not be talking with their mouth open in the presence of royalty. If it bothered the Queen, however, she didn't show any sign of it. Instead, she smiled and said, "Family is a wonderful thing. You are fortunate to have one as large and diverse as yours. I know from experience."

Ash blinked in surprise. "You do?"

"Her Magisty has a family numbering in the hundreds, including consorts, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, great-great-great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and others which there aren't any words in your language to describe, both by blood and by adoption," Princess Boa spoke up, causing Team Aurabolt to stare the Queen in amazement.

The Gothitelle smiled lightly. "When one lives as long as I have, one has a lot of time on their hands for certain…pursuits."

Fantina smirked knowingly at that. "Yes, we certainly do, don't we?" Her daughters giggled, and Lily looked mortified.

"That's definitely one thing to put on my list of things I'm gonna do when I become immortal," Leo murmured.

"Have a large family?" Lily asked.

Leo hesitated. "…Well, that's one way of putting it."

"I hope that you, too, will have a chance to expand your family further once this business with the Nihilators is settled and your mate returns from space," Ninianne said, causing Ash to flush and his friends to snicker.

"W-well, she's not my mate…yet," Ash stammered.

"And she never will be," Misty hissed. Ash ignored her.

"And that's not something we've really discussed…you know, what with us not actually being together and all. Yet," Ash said. "And we already have a bunch of kids already…plus Tiny…so I don't think we're in a hurry to…you know…" He flushed. "Of course, that's something I actually have to talk to her about first…but I can't say the thought doesn't appeal to me…"

"I'll bet it does," Misty snarled.

"Of course, at the rate our parents are adopting everyone that shows up at their doorstep, you and Misty are going to have some serious competition on your hands when you guys do decide to settle down and start a family for real," Pikachu commented.

"It's not a competition to see who can adopt the most kids!" Ash said indignantly.

"Tell that to Dad…" Pikachu grunted.

"Well, you'll all have to catch up to my parents, what with them adopting Tiama's kids…including those two new eggs they found in the castle recently that apparently weren't ready to hatch at the same time as the rest of the clutch due to Dragon biology being weird or something," Leo commented smugly. "They hatched a couple of weeks ago…I can't wait to meet my new little siblings! I've been an only child all my life, so I'm gonna have a lot of fun being a big brother!"

"Aren't all of your new siblings several times larger than you are?" Lily asked.

"Large enough to eat you, even?" Sasha asked.

Leo considered this. His face paled. "I had forgotten that."

"Well, it's a good thing we reminded you when we did, because now you won't be so surprised when you see them again," Briney said, pointing up at the sky. "Because unless I miss my guess, I think that's them now."

They glanced up. Sure enough, they could see a speck in the distance, growing larger as it came closer. And while there were lots of distant specks growing larger as they approached the Embassy, something told them that this was not like those other specks. Mainly because Briney said it wasn't, and as a sailor his eyesight was something that could generally be relied upon, even though he only had one of them.

"He's coming…" Drayden whispered in horror. Standing up straight, he bellowed, "EVERYONE INTO POSITION! CLEAR THE LANDING AREA!"

"All right, this is it," Leeku murmured as the military and Embassy personnel quickly scurried out of the way of the center of the courtyard and lined up in near formation along the sides, standing at attention. "Remember what I said, son."

"Not to mess things up by opening my mouth?" Jujimaru asked morosely.

"That's my boy," Leeku said, patting his son's head absent-mindedly.

The speck grew and grew until it was no longer a speck at all but a green and gold airship shaped like a dragon, with two curving wings stretching out to either side, a long neck ending in a cockpit painted to resemble a dragon head, and a thick tail-like thruster emerging from the rear. A number of Dragon Pokémon and Fichinan vessels surrounded the Draconian ship as escort, peeling off one by one as the ship approached until finally it was all by itself, the glowing exhaust plume from its tail shrinking as it decelerated and angled towards them for a landing.

"He's coming…he's almost here…" Lily whispered, starting to tremble. She started when Leo touched her side. "L-Leo?"

"Babe, relax," He said. "I know this is kinda scaring you and all…but remember, I'm here, and so long as I am, nothing bad's gonna happen, you hear?"

Her eyes moistened, and she extended an ectoplasmic tendril to brush his cheek. "Oh, Leo…you have no idea how happy I am to have you by my side. Every minute I thank the gods for delivering me to someone as wonderful as you."

And they hear your gratitude, and are thankful for it, and are happy that you are happy, B said.

Hmm? Lily thought.

Nothing, B said quickly.

Leo smiled. "I think the same thing, every time I see your face. Don't worry, so long as we're together, nothing, not even your dad, is gonna pull us apart. We're going to get married together, and take our first steps towards giving you the happy ending you deserve, okay?"

Lily's only response was to kiss him on the lips. Fantina and her daughters squealed happily. Tiny made a face and stuck out his tongue, nearly losing his lollipop in the process. Briney looked at the soon-to-be-weds and sighed wistfully. Remember when we were like that, Peeko? It feels like it was so long ago…mainly because it was, but still. He shook his head. Even now, even with the promise that I'll see you again, I still miss you so much. Is it any wonder I'm all messed up, since I've never really stopped mourning your death?

Yeah, just like Gligarman, Darkrai commented. Except you don't run around in a silly costume.

Shut up, Darkrai, Briney grumbled.

No, Darkrai said.

That…will be us, someday, won't it? Dawn asked Pikachu tentatively.

"Yeah," Pikachu said. "Looking forward to it?"

Dawn stared at Leo and Lily, who were still kissing. More and more with every day that passes.

Pikachu smiled faintly. "Yeah…so am I."

"Remember when we were like that, Ash? Too bad it was all ruined by my horrible death BECAUSE OF YOU," Misty screamed in Ash's ear, causing him to flinch. "And I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the same exact thing happens when I…or the other me, anyway…gets back from space. But enough about your horrible love life for now. Your family is on that ship," she commented, leaning on his shoulder. "Your parents and adopted siblings and our kids. I wonder what they'll think of you, Ash? I wonder what they'll think of what you're becoming?"

"They'll be proud of me for trying the best I can," Ash murmured.

She laughed mockingly. "I rather doubt that. Oh, they'll say they're proud, but we both know they're really disappointed at what a failure and headcase you're turning out to be. What parent wouldn't be, with you for a son? After all, look at Leeku and his kid. You don't think he really loves that irritating retard, do you?"

"Leeku loves Jujimaru," Ash said.

"Sure he does. And that talk about how he should keep his mouth shut so as not to screw things up for himself is just dripping with parental affection," Misty said sarcastically. "And Jujimaru's just incompetent. You're a monster. What Mommy and Daddy must think of you…"

"Shut up!" Ash hissed.

"Ash?" Pikachu asked in concern.

Ash squeezed his eyes shut and took a few deep breaths. "Pikachu…Mom and Dad, and the kids…they love me, right?"

Pikachu did an alarmed double-take. "Wh-what? Of course they do, Ash! What would make you think…oh." He narrowed his eyes. "Don't listen to her, Ash. She's only speaking lies."

"No, I'm speaking truth," Misty said. "You just don't want to hear it. You never do." She sighed. "And things might be so much easier for yourself if you did…"

Ash's reply, if there was any, was drowned out by the roar of the VTOL jets on the undersides of the Draconian ship's wings as it lowered itself into the courtyard, briefly blocking out the sun and casting a shadow on them as it descended. With a pneumatic hiss, landing gear unfolded from the underbelly of the ship seconds before it could touch down on the floor, the magical clouds making up the building bearing the weight of the vessel without the slightest hint of strain. At a bellow from Boa, Leeku, and Drayden, the soldiers in the courtyard quickly stood ramrod straight and saluted as the bottom of the cockpit pod opened like a dragon's jaw and a ramp slid down to the ground like a tongue. There was a very quick flicker around the boarding ramp that only those with extremely honed senses (which included most of the cast, actually) would have noticed as the accompaniment of Dragon's Head ninjas attached to Nuken sprung out and spread themselves all over the courtyard, taking defensive positions so that they could strike to protect their principal if there were the slightest hint of treachery or assassination, which there wouldn't be of course, but hey, you could never be too careful, right?

There was a ghost of a smile on Kairyu (Palmer's) face as he counted all the ninjas he could detect, amused that there was one right behind him with a no-doubt poisoned dagger ready should he make any unwelcome moves. He wondered how experienced the ninja was, and if it knew that he knew it was there. His eyes darted briefly over to Dawn, proud to see that she was similarly appraising the nearly-invisible ninjas…and hadn't even tensed up to alert their watchers that she was aware of their presence, or that she could move just as quickly to counter them if they made any moves on her or her friends. She's been trained well, he thought a little sadly. It's such a shame that I couldn't have helped her hone her skills until recently…yet another thing to take out on that wretched traitorous Weavile's hide.

A small contingent of Draconian soldiers in armor that looked far more usable than the ceremonial stuff most of the other military personnel in the courtyard were wearing (which was a misconception, the enchantments in the so-called 'ceremonial' garments made them just as good in battle as any regular combat armor, if not better) marched down the boarding ramp in single file and split to form two columns creating an aisle leading away from the ship. One of the soldiers, bearing the marks and insignia of a herald, stepped forth, bowed to Queen Ninianne, and loudly announced, "Presenting His Eminence Lord General Nuken Shinobu of the Draconian Empire and guests!"

There was a trumpeting sound, and the Draconian national anthem began blaring across the courtyard as a small, seemingly innocuous figure appeared at the top of the ramp. It was a Shedinja, wearing the ornate dragon-themed robes and emerald jewelry of office with barely noticeable bulges indicative of several dozen hidden weapons sewn into its lining. He looked harmless at first glance, but one look at the cold dark void visible in his eye slits and the way he carried himself were indicative of a mon that was not to be trifled with or crossed.

Ash shuddered briefly as he remembered the first time they had met the apparently harmless Bug-type that was one of the deadliest Pokémon on the planet. He and Pikachu had stormed the Sky Tower in an attempt to convince Rayquaza to help them stop the falling star that was about to destroy Pokémon Square, when Nuken had intercepted them. The resulting battle had been one of the worst he'd ever engaged in, only overshadowed by some of the ones he'd taken part in on this current adventure and even then not by much, and the only reason he hadn't killed them was because he realized their concerns about the falling star were valid and was somewhat suspicious of Rayquaza's unusual behavior as of late as well. The following battle with Rayquaza, in which they'd managed to snap him out of the conditioning the meteor had put him under, had been a cakewalk in comparison. It was a good thing Nuken was on their side…he didn't envy Leo for having him as a father-in-law, though.

Nuken stared out at the courtyard, appraising the worth of everyone assembled before him. He hesitated when he locked eyes with Lily, seeing her face in person for the first time in both their lives. She stiffened, and Leo squeezed one of her ectoplasmic tendrils to remind her of his support, while the rest of her friends and Fantina's daughters closed ranks around her to show her they were there for her. She relaxed slightly, but continued staring at the mon who was her father. Nuken shifted uneasily, and it looked as if he were about to say something…

"BROTHER LEO!"

"BROTHER LEO!"

"BROTHER LEO!"

"BROTHER LEO!"

"BROTHER LEO!"

"BROTHER LEO!"

"BROTHER LEO!"

"BROTHER LEO!"

When he was abruptly knocked over and trampled on by eight incredibly enthusiastic and oversized Gibles that stampeded down the boarding ramp and across the courtyard on a Combeeline towards Leo, not seeming to notice or care that they'd just flattened one of the most important and dangerous Pokémon alive in their rush to get off the ship. Everyone's jaws dropped. Drayden looked like he was on the verge of a heart attack. The Queen blinked. Fantina was biting her lip to keep from laughing while Diane and Butler facepalmed. The ninjas and Draconian soldiers either stared in horror or exchanged confused looks, not sure what they were supposed to do about this. Ambassador Stoutroot facepawed and groaned. "Well, looks like we're going to war."

The herald blinked and amended his previous statement. "Uh, now presenting the DeKappa children: Ludwig, Larry, Morton, Wendy, Iggy, Roy, Lemmy, and Drakor Junior!"

The Gibles stormed over to Leo, shoving everyone else out of the way, and grabbed hold of him, shaking him wildly while shouting, "BROTHER LEO! BROTHER LEO! BROTHER LEO!"

"…Huh. That's not something you see every day," Briney said.

"I…did not think Gibles could get so large," a stunned Sasha commented. Most of the Dragon-types were at least as tall as Ash, if not bigger.

"Leo!" Lily cried in alarm.

"H-hey, don't worry babe, I'm fine! Just getting a bit of an—oof—overzealous welcome! Gah! Guys, quit tugging, you're gonna tear me apart!" Leo cried as the Gibles pulled him to and fro, struggling to yank him from each other so they could have him all to themselves.

Unceremoniously and without warning, they dropped him to the floor. Fortunately he landed on his shell, rather than his head.

"Sorry, Brother Leo."

"Sorry, Brother Leo."

"Sorry, Brother Leo."

"Sorry, Brother Leo."

"Sorry, Brother Leo."

"Sorry, Brother Leo."

"Sorry, Brother Leo."

"Sorry, Brother Leo."

"Eh, it's okay guys. You're young and don't know your own strength, I can dig it," Leo said as he pulled himself to his feet and brushed himself off. "Though I gotta wonder just how much property damage you guys have caused in town since I left…" The Gibles exchanged guilty looks, but said nothing.

Dawn looked at the Gibles in puzzlement. They…do not look quite the way I remember them.

"Yeah, that's because they all looked pretty much completely identical at first so they had to give each other distinguishing features so everyone could tell them apart," Leo explained. "Everyone, allow me to introduce you to my little brothers and one sister!"

"Why is there only one girl?" Tiny asked, still sucking on his lollipop as he stared in awe at the enormous Gibles. And they were Leo's little siblings? Come to think of it, was he bigger than the rest of his siblings that he had yet to properly meet?

Leo shrugged. "Heck if I know. Anyway, we got Larry…"

"Hi!" said a Gible who'd dyed his head fin electric blue.

"Morton…"

"Hi!" said a rather butch Gible with spiked wristbands.

"Wendy…"

"Hi!" said a Gible wearing a pink bow, red bead necklace, and hoop bracelets. Otherwise, it would be virtually impossible to know she was a girl.

"Iggy…"

"Hi!" said a Gible wearing very large, thick glasses and a green-dyed head fin.

"Roy…"

"Hi!" said another butch Gible with pink sunglasses and a pink-dyed head fin. He wasn't a girl, he just liked pink, and there was nothing unmonly about that.

"Lemmy…"

"Hi!" said a silly-looking Gible with a rainbow-dyed head fin.

"Ludwig…"

"Greetings," said a Gible with a dark blue-dyed head fin.

"And Drakor Junior," Leo finished.

"Hi!" said a…completely normal-sized Gible wearing a white bib with drawn-on fangs. He looked positively puny compared to the others.

"Why isn't he as big as the others?" Lily whispered to him.

"He was the last to hatch. Runt of the litter. He doesn't like it being brought up," Leo muttered out of the corner of his mouth. Lily nodded in understanding and kept silent.

"It's good to see you guys are doing all right," Ash said.

Roy squinted at the Lucario through his sunglasses. "Hey…didn't you kill Mama?"

"…No?" Ash said awkwardly. Technically, that wasn't a lie.

"No, you didn't kill her, but you're still the reason she's dead," Misty hissed.

"Oh, okay," Roy said.

"Wow, they sure grow 'em big where you come from," Briney commented. "What're they feeding you?"

Iggy furrowed his brow in deep thought for several minutes. From the way his face was turning red and his teeth were clenching, it was clear it was taking a lot of effort. Finally, with great difficulty and satisfaction, he said, "Food!"

"…Fair enough," Briney said.

"Sibs, I'd like to introduce you all to my friends in Team Aurabolt," Leo said, gesturing to his teammates. "And of course, to the love of my life, and your soon-to-be sister-in-law, Lily Yukihimi."

"Finally! A new sister!" Wendy proclaimed.

"It is a pleasure to meet you all. Leo has told me quite a lot about you," Lily said, bowing in greeting.

"Why do you have chains on your face?" Larry asked.

Lily flinched. "It's…an unpleasant story."

"And one that's about to come to a happy resolution," Leo said, as much for Lily as for his siblings.

"Oh, good. We like happy endings!" Drakor Junior said.

"Happy endings! Happy endings! Happy endings!" the others chanted.

Leo was about to continue introducing his friends to his siblings when Sasha nudged him. "Leo, I hate to interrupt this reunion, but…don't you think we're forgetting something?"

"Huh?" Leo asked blankly. Sasha gestured with her head towards the boarding ramp, where some Draconian soldiers and a pretty Misdreavus with a green and yellow dress, a flower in her hair, and a headband with Meowth ears for some reason were helping a dazed Nuken back in the air. "Oh. That." He cleared his throat awkwardly. "Uh, guys, it's great to see you and all, but in your rush to say hi you kinda trampled my future father-in-law, which I don't think is gonna help endear him to me very much."

"Oooooops," the Gibles said, looking very embarrassed.

"It was all Drakor Junior's fault!" Ludwig shouted, quick to pass the blame.

"What? No it wasn't!" the runt protested.

"Your fault! Your fault! Your fault!" the others chanted, ignoring his spluttering.

"Guys, it doesn't matter whose fault it is, you all did it, and you need to take responsibility for it before he decides to call the wedding off and kills me or something," Leo said. "Apologize, now!"

"Sorry, Brother Leo's future father-in-law!"

"Sorry, Brother Leo's future father-in-law!"

"Sorry, Brother Leo's future father-in-law!"

"Sorry, Brother Leo's future father-in-law!"

"Sorry, Brother Leo's future father-in-law!"

"Sorry, Brother Leo's future father-in-law!"

"Sorry, Brother Leo's future father-in-law!"

"Sorry, Brother Leo's future father-in-law!"

"No…problem," Nuken wheezed as Missy brushed off his robes, thinking to himself, I don't kill children, I don't kill children, I don't kill children… "Let's…just try that again, shall we?"

"Uh…okay…er…from the top…" the herald coughed and started again. "Now presenting His Eminence Lord General Nuken Shinobu of the Draconian Empire, Her Eminence Lady Mysteriu Shinobu of the Draconian Empire, and guests!...Again!"

Ash blinked. "Her real name is Mysteriu? I did not know that."

"Why is she wearing Meowth ears?" Lily asked, puzzled by the attire of her mother-in-law.

"Because she's weird like that," Pikachu said.

"Ah," said Lily.

Nuken and Missy started down the ramp…

"DADDY/UNCLE PIKACHU/BIG BROTHER/GUYS!"

Only to be interrupted when Pichu, Matthias, Mizula, Junior, Collette, and Sapphire rushed out of the ship and down the ramp. Missy managed to get out of the way in time, but Nuken was not so lucky and so once more was knocked to the ground and trampled over in the children's hurry to get to Ash and Pikachu. The Draconian soldiers gawked again. The ninjas scratched their heads. Ambassador Stoutroot started banging his head against a wall. Drayden fainted, much to Iris's dismay. The Queen shook her head. Fantina accidentally let out a snicker while her servants facepalmed again. Horrified looks were on Ash and Pikachu's faces, while Briney didn't even try to hold back his laughter.

"Er…now presenting the Thunderblade children; Pichu, Matthias, Mizula, Ash Junior, Collette, and Sapphire," the herald said a few seconds too late.

"Hooray, we're not the only ones who screwed up!" Iggy cheered.

"That's not really something to be proud of," Leo said.

"I don't care!" Iggy cheered.

"Daddy!" Junior, Collette, and Sapphire cried as they tackled Ash to the ground and started hugging him and crushing his lungs.

"Can't…breathe…" he gasped.

"Good. Maybe you'll die and put us all out of our misery," Misty sneered.

"Big brother!" Pichu cried, glomping Pikachu, who angrily shoved him off. "Hey, what gives? Aren't you happy to see me?" he asked, ears sagging in disappointment.

Grimacing, Pikachu relented and hugged him. "I am…but you just trampled Leo's future father-in-law—for the second time today—and may have created a serious diplomatic incident."

Pichu glanced back at the ship, where Missy and some soldiers were trying to peel Nuken off the ramp. He sweatdropped. "Oh…uh…oops?" Pikachu facepalmed.

"Well, uh, I'm happy to see you two as well, but I don't really feel like hugging anyone, if that's okay," Matthias said.

"Awwww," Mizula, who'd been about to hug him, said in disappointment as it lowered its arms.

"Kids, kids! I'm happy to see you too, but could you please get off me before I die of asphyxiation?" Ash rasped in between the kisses his children were smothering him with.

"As-what?" Junior asked.

"He means you're crushing his lungs," Sapphire said.

"Huh?" Tiny glanced down and realized he was standing on Ash's chest. "Oops." He promptly got off.

Sapphire bounced off and Collette fluttered out of the way, allowing Ash to sit up. Much to his surprise, his suit wasn't even scuffed. Fantina really knows her spellcraft, he thought to himself. As his gaze fell upon his children, a true smile graced his face for the first time since the disastrous excursion into his own psyche earlier this week, and a joy unlike any he'd experienced in quite some time welled up inside him, filling him with elation and light. "Kids…I'm so happy to see you. I hadn't even realized how much I missed you until just now…"

They hugged him again, more carefully this time. "We missed you too, Daddy!" Junior said.

"We're so happy you're okay! We were really worried about you, after we heard about everything you've been going through!" Collette said.

Ash stiffened at that. "How…much do you know?"

"Well…Grandma and Grandpa wouldn't tell us everything, which means it must be something really bad!" Sapphire said in concern.

Ash winced. "It…kinda is. But…you know what? That doesn't matter right now, because you three are here, and that's far more important than what's going on with me." He pressed his face into his children's fur, inhaling their scents. It seemed so long ago since the last time he'd seen them, he'd almost forgotten what they smelled like. He chided himself angrily for letting himself get so caught up in his own issues, he'd barely spared any thought for his beloved children. "If only your mother were here…then everything would be perfect…"

Misty bit her lip and looked away. "I am here…but not really…and not the way you want me to be." She sighed unhappily. "Damn you, Ash…when you do something like this, it becomes really hard to despise you, you know that?"

"Um…can…c-can I join, too?" Tiny asked timidly, floating over.

Ash blinked and looked at his son in surprise. "How? Of course you can! Kids, I want you to officially meet your newest sibling, Tiny. Tiny, this is Collette, Junior, and Sapphire. They're your brother and sister."

"H-hello," Tiny said anxiously.

Much to his surprise and delight, they instantly leaped off of Ash and started hugging him. "Hi, little brother! Welcome to the family!" Collette said.

"At last, I'm not the only boy!" Junior cried triumphantly.

"We're so happy to meet you at last!" Sapphire squeaked, rubbing her cheek against Tiny's carapace. "You're so much bigger and stronger than I expected…ow! And a little sharper, too," she complained when she accidentally pricked herself on one of the Pupitar's spines.

"Oh, I'm sorry," he said in alarm.

"It's no problem, I've had worse from when Junior accidentally almost gored me on his tusks," Sapphire said.

"Hey! I only did that the one time!" Junior said indignantly. Sapphire looked at him. "…Okay, two. Er…three. No greater than five times, honest! Or…maybe seven…"

"You're not helping your case," Collette said flatly.

"'ere, 'ave a lollipop," Fantina said, conjuring a lollipop and offering it to Junior.

"Oh, sweet!" Junior said, grabbing the lollipop in his trunk and stuffing it in his mouth.

"Junior!" Ash snapped. "What did your mother and I tell you about that?!"

"Oh, uh, right. Thanks," Junior mumbled around his lollipop.

"You're most welcome, darling," Fantina said sweetly.

Ash sighed. "I was referring more to not taking candy from strangers, but I guess that works too…"

As Junior contentedly continued sucking on his lollipop and Fantina distributed more candies to the rest of the kids, Tiny smiled and had to restrain himself from crying with joy, realizing that his new siblings were awesome, and he was going to love not being an only child anymore.

"They're so adorable…" Lily commented, blushing.

"Wow, and I thought Tiny was cute as he is…hey, you look kinda familiar. Do I know you?" Leo asked Mizula.

"You beat me and my siblings up and helped feed my father to Grandmother Kyogre a couple of weeks ago," Mizula said.

"Ah," Leo said. There was an awkward pause. "Er…sorry?"

Mizula shrugged. "Water under the bridge," it said.

"Ah. Okay," Leo said in relief.

Matthias fidgeted. "So…is anyone going to say hello to me, or…"

"It's great to see you, Matthias," Pikachu said, putting a paw on the Rattata's shoulder. "You look so much stronger and healthier since the last time we saw you…you carry yourself with much more courage and inner strength than I remember. Dad's been training you well."

Matthias smiled abashedly and looked down. "Yeah…though not everyone would seem to agree with that being a good thing…" Like my Aunt Mollie…

Pikachu frowned in puzzlement. "Who would possibly think bettering yourself would be a bad thing?"

"Matthias's crazy Aunt Mollie," Pichu spoke up.

"She is not crazy!...Well, okay, I guess she's kind of crazy due to all the horrific tortures she suffered in Mount Blaze," Matthias admitted. "But she deserves our love and care, not scorn."

"Which she's not getting, since she keeps running away from the Pokémon Center where they're trying to treat her, screaming that they're trying to brainwash her," Pichu said.

Matthias sighed. "Yeah…that's a bit of a problem…" Pikachu frowned in concern.

Were she a member of my clan, we would just lock her in a sensory deprivation tank until she'd achieved inner peace, Dawn said.

"Wouldn't that just drive her crazier?" Pikachu asked.

The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, Dawn admitted.

"Why is your girlfriend clicking her totally wicked awesome talons like that?" Pichu asked.

"It's how she communicates. She can't speak," Pikachu explained.

"What, they can't just cast some magic spell to fix her or something?" Pichu asked.

Pikachu paused, a surprised look on his face. "…You know, that never occurred to me…"

It might not work, Dawn said. Darkrai did something to my vocal cords that won't trigger until I evolve. Any spell cast might not have an effect due to his dark magic.

"Yeah, that might be the case," Pikachu agreed.

"You know, a conversation is much easier to take part in if you know what both parties are saying," Pichu said dryly.

Pikachu and Dawn flushed. "Oh yeah…sorry…we're so used to everyone we know understanding clickspeak, we kinda forgot that not everyone can…"

"A problem easily remedied! Here you go, kids," Briney said, grabbing the children's skulls from behind and focusing his Psychic power, implanting an understanding of clickspeak into their brains.

"Aaaaahhhh, my head!" Pichu screamed.

"My brain feels like it's trying to crawl out of my ear, which actually happened to my fifth cousin seven times removed Jerry because he pissed off a Psychic!" Matthias wailed.

"You're welcome," Briney said cheerfully.

"Briney!" Pikachu yelled furiously.

"What? Now they can understand Dawn! A win-win situation for everyone," the Metang said.

"You didn't ask if they wanted you to mind-rape them first!" Pikachu said angrily as Matthias and Pichu rolled on the ground in agony while Mizula stared in curiosity.

"I find it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission," Briney said. Pikachu facepalmed.

Sasha smiled sadly as she looked at Ash playing with his children, thinking of her own family. I miss them so much… she thought to herself.

You'll be back with them soon enough, Darkrai said.

When? She asked.

Heck if I know. Just soon…ish, Darkrai said unhelpfully. Sasha sighed. You know, in retrospect, you should have asked if the gang at Pokémon Square could have found your family and brought 'em over to visit.

Sasha stiffened. What?! Why didn't you mention this before now?!

I only just thought of it now. Sorry. Hindsight's twenty-twenty, huh? Darkrai said. Sasha groaned.

She frowned, a thought occurring to her. Speaking of hindsight…why hasn't my disaster-sense warned me about Nuken getting run over twice now?

Oh, that's because I'm suppressing it, Darkrai said.

You can do that?! Sasha asked in astonishment.

Yep, he said.

WHY?!

Shits and giggles, mainly. I like Nuken and all, but he could stand to be taken down a notch now and then and you warning him of danger would kinda ruin my fun, Darkrai explained. Don't worry; I'll turn it back on after this is over.

But what if something bad is coming DURING this and I don't have my disaster-sense to warn me about it?! Sasha protested in alarm.

If something really bad were going to happen, I would know about it waaaaaay before you would, trust me on this, Darkrai assured her. And nothing bad's going to happen, so everything'll be fine, I promise. Just relax and enjoy yourself. Besides, don't you find it a little bit of a relief not to have that little feeling constantly nagging you that something bad might happen?

Actually, that feeling has saved my life on countless occasions, and its absence leaves me disconcerted, confused, and afraid, Sasha said.

Darkrai sighed. Typical, I try and do something nice and it gets thrown in my face. No good deed goes unpunished and all that rot…

I thought you were doing this for your own amusement, Sasha pointed out. Not to do me any favors.

What, I can't do both? Darkrai asked. She sighed and said no more.

Lily stared at Ash and his children, an uncertain expression on her face. "Children are wonderful, aren't zey?" Fantina said right behind her, startling her.

"Wh-what?!" Lily stammered. "Oh…uh…yes, I suppose so."

"Sort of makes you want to 'ave some of your own, doesn't it?" Fantina asked slyly.

Lily looked away uncertainly. "…Would any child that comes from my family be anything more than a monster?"

"Wiz you as a mozzer? Yes. I can guarantee it," Fantina said, without a shadow of a doubt. "You are good, Lily, unlike your mozzer…and wiz parents as fine as you and Leo raising zem, your children will be just as good, I am certain of it."

"…Thank you," Lily said. "That…thanks."

"Of course, first you 'ave to get around to making ze babies," Fantina said cheerfully. "I know some tricks, if you want to 'ear-"

"Ah, no, I'd rather not," Lily said, flushing.

"Oh, come on! Your wedding night is tomorrow, and if you're not ready, you won't be able to properly satisfy your 'usband!" Fantina protested.

"We'll work something out on our own!" Lily cried shrilly.

Fantina shook her head. "Darling, trust me on zis: you should never leave zese zings to chance."

Lily moaned and pulled down her hat to cover her face. "Can we not talk about this right now? Especially with my father right over-" She gasped. "My father!"

Leo blinked. "Huh? Oh snap, that's right, he just got trampled again! Ash, your kids done goofed!"

"Which means we're no longer solely to blame! Yay!" Drakor Junior cheered.

Ash blinked in surprise and glanced up from his children to look at Nuken, who was struggling to control his temper while Missy whispered kind words into his earholes. "Oh crap…kids, you trampled Leo's future father-in-law. Apologize before he loses it and kills someone."

The children looked at each other in embarrassment. "Er, I guess we didn't exactly look where we were going, did we?" Collette asked.

"I blame Junior, he was the one leading the charge," Sapphire said. "And he hit Nuken first!"

"Hey! I…did exactly that," Junior admitted miserably.

"Well, he certainly is your son, Ash," Misty said dryly. "Takes more after you than me, I'd say."

"Apologize. Now," Ash said sternly.

"We're sorry, Mister Nuken!" Junior, Collette, Sapphire, and Tiny cried.

"Wait, why are you apologizing? You didn't do anything," Collette asked their newest sibling.

"Oh, I wanted to show sibling solidarity," Tiny said.

Collette blinked in surprise, then burst into a sunny grin and hugged him. "You know what, if it weren't for the fact that you're on Team Aurabolt-"

"Which we're totally jealous of, by the way!" Junior interjected.

"We'd welcome you onto Team GX in a heartbeat," Collette said.

Tiny blushed. "Awww, thanks…sis," he said, reveling in how wonderful it felt to call someone his sister.

"My siblings are in horrible pain, so it seems I must apologize for them," Mizula commented as he glanced at Matthias and Pichu, who were still clutching their heads on the floor. "We are sorry for trampling you, Lord Nuken."

"No…problem. Just an accident. Perfectly…understandable…" Nuken said, one eye twitching. If he had teeth, he'd probably be grinding them. I don't kill kids, I don't kill kids, I don't kill kids…though I'm strongly considering making an exception…

"Are you okay, honey? I think you're okay. Everyone, we're okay!" Missy shouted, not bothering to wait to hear Nuken's response, if any. "Let's take it from the top again, okay? One last time?"

"Um…right. Sure thing." The herald cleared his throat and shouted, yet again, "Now announcing His Eminence Lord General Nuken Shinobu of the Draconian Empire, Her Eminence Lady Mysteriu Shinobu of the Draconian Empire, and guests!…Once more…"

"I hope nothing goes wrong this time…" Ambassador Stoutroot murmured as Nuken and Missy started down the ramp again. "I'm not sure my heart—or our country's peace treaty—can handle another start like that."

"Your heart? You should be more worried about Drayden," Princess Boa commented, pointing at Drayden, who was sweating heavily and leaning on his daughter, much to her chagrin. "He looks like he'll drop dead any second now."

"Considering how his position here could easily be destroyed with a word from Nuken, who can blame him?" Leeku said sympathetically. Jujimaru opened his mouth, and the Daimyo sharply said, "That was a rhetorical question, son. It didn't need to be answered. And even if it did need answering, it wouldn't be by you, since your mouth is to be closed at all times, remember?" The Oshawott scowled and closed his mouth, a deep sulk creasing his features. Nobody really cared.

Nuken and Missy reached the bottom of the ramp, and it looked as if it would be smooth sailing from then on.

"SOOOOOOOOOOON!"

And naturally, that's when everything went Aspear-shaped again.

Tiny stiffened. He knew that voice. He'd heard it in his dreams. "M-mommy?"

The ship started shaking violently as very LOUD footsteps could be heard stomping through it. Before anyone could react beyond pale faces and looks of horror and resignation, a humongous Tyranitar burst through the hatch—literally, she was so big and moving so fast she smashed right through it and sent bits of metal flying all over the place—and stampeded down the ramp. Missy and Nuken immediately tried to dive out of the way. However, Missy had been holding Nuken's appendage when they had been drifting down the ramp, and panic caused her ectoplasmic tendril to tighten its hold, so when she dove to the side she wound up dragging Nuken, who'd been trying to go the other way, in her wake…

And right into the path of the Tyranitar, who smashed into him and kept on going without even noticing his presence. The impact tore Nuken from Missy's grasp and sent him flying across the courtyard, where he crashed into the startled Queen Ninianne and knocked her to the ground, face buried in her chest.

Everyone's jaws dropped, even more than before. A couple of the soldiers fainted. Others started forwards, only to run into each other, leading to a confused standoff, since they weren't quite sure who exactly they were supposed to be helping here and how they could do it without pissing off the ones from other regiments or countries. Ambassador Stoutroot cheerfully conjured a bottle of extremely heavy liquor and said, "Well, there goes my career and centuries of peace. Cheers!" He started chugging down the booze as fast as he could. The herald was too shocked to announce the Tyranitar's entrance, leaving her name a mystery for the moment.

Leeku was doing the same with a bottle of sake. Jujimaru opened his mouth, but his father pulled away from the bottle long enough to say, "No son, you're not old enough for this stuff yet. You probably never will be, as a matter of fact. It's better this way." He went back to drinking, and the Oshawott crossed his arms and fumed.

Drayden's eyes rolled back in his head and he keeled over, crushing Iris. "Help! Help! Someone get him off of me!" the Axew screamed. "Jujimaru, do something!"

The Oshawott opened his mouth to say he didn't think he could possibly lift the massive Haxorus off of his daughter, and then recalled that he wasn't supposed to be talking, so kept his mouth shut and did nothing. Seeing this, Leeku stopped drinking again for a moment and frowned at his son, saying, "What are you doing, boy? Get over there and help her!" With a weary sigh and sunken shoulders, Jujimaru resignedly obeyed, thinking to himself that he just couldn't win.

"Mother!" Princess Boa cried, starting forward.

"Get your no-doubt magically enlarged boobs off of my husband's face, you two-Poké floozy!" Missy shrieked as she surged forward and struggled to get past the confused soldiers, not seeming to care that she'd just insulted one of the most powerful Pokémon in the world and made an already awkward situation even worse.

Palmer facepalmed. "You guys have really let yourselves go if you let something like that happen three times in a row," He muttered to the ninja behind him, who blinked in surprise, not having been aware that the Dragonite had known she was there before now.

Fantina could hold it in no longer and burst into raucous laughter, much to the shame of her servants. Her daughters would probably have been embarrassed if they weren't laughing as well. The giant Gabites looked at each other in confusion and asked Leo in unison, "Brother Leo, what's so funny?"

"Uh…I'll explain later…much later…" the Squirtle said, flushing a bright red and privately envying Nuken. Why couldn't his fiancé have a rack like that?...or a rack at all, for that matter?

"Leo?" Lily said quietly.

"Yes?" Leo said.

"I'm…not quite as scared of my father anymore," she said, staring straight ahead at where her father was still lying on top of the Queen.

He looked at her in surprise, raising an eyebrow. "And why is that?"

"It's…a bit difficult to be afraid of someone after they get caught in something as completely and utterly humiliating as that," Lily said faintly.

"Heh. Yeah, totally," he agreed. He frowned in thought. "You know, if I didn't know better, I'd say your Dad had planned that stunt to make you less intimidated of him."

Lily perked up at this. "Oh! Do you think he did?"

"Ha, not a chance! A guy with a reputation and ego like that? No way he'd ever do something like that on purpose!" Leo snorted.

"Oh," Lily said in disappointment. It would have been nice if her father had cared enough about her to humiliate himself just to show her he was just another Pokémon…

"That lucky bastard…" Briney muttered to himself in amusement and slight envy.

That is one of the most horrifying things I have ever seen, Dawn said faintly. And I have seen a LOT of horrifying things.

"So have I," Matthias said, not impressed. "I've seen worse."

Dawn frowned. As bad as- she started.

"Let's not traumatize Matthias any more than he already has been by the awful childhood he's had," Pikachu interjected quickly.

"Whatever she thinks is so awful, I'm pretty sure I can take it after some of the things I've seen," Matthias said deadpan.

Dawn described one of the things Chobin had done to her when she had been a captive of the Nihilators. As Pichu turned green and struggled not to throw up, Matthias's expression of disinterest didn't change in the slightest. "Meh, I've seen worse."

Dawn's eyebrows raised in surprise. This I very much doubt.

Matthias smiled grimly. "Oh yeah? Let me tell you about the time-"

"Ah, there's no need to traumatize Dawn any more than she already has been by the awful life she's had," Pichu said quickly. "Or me, since I haven't had much of an awful life up to this point. Or Mizula."

"Actually, my life hasn't been all that-" the Phione started.

"Shut up Mizula, nobody asked you," Pichu snapped, causing Mizula's antenna to droop.

"Dad, why are you covering my eyes?" Junior complained.

"Because this isn't something you need to see, son," Ash said.

"Then why aren't you covering any of our eyes?" Collette asked, gesturing to herself and Sapphire.

"Because you're much more mature than your brother," Ash said. The girls smiled at that.

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh…oh man…gahahahahaha! That…that's…that's so…hahahahaha! That's even better than I imagined! I couldn't have done better if I'd planned that myself! Bwahahahahaha! Darkrai boomed in Sasha's head.

I do not especially see the comedy in this, Sasha said grimly.

Bah, you've got no sense of humor, Darkrai said with a sulk. My best material is wasted on you.

I fail to see what's funny about two people crashing into each other. Which may cause a war for some reason, if everyone else's reaction is anything to go by. I don't understand why that is, it was just an accident, Sasha said.

It's politics, Sasha. They don't believe in accidents, there's ALWAYS someone to blame, Darkrai said.

Then why not blame that Tyranitar and declare war on her? Sasha asked.

Because she's not the one who landed in Queen Ninianne's breasts, Darkrai said in amusement.

I do not understand, the Absol complained.

I know. That innocence of yours is so adorable, Darkrai cooed.

I am NOT adorable! Sasha said angrily.

You are when you get angry like that, Darkrai said in amusement. Sasha growled. Darkrai chuckled. Not helping your case any, girl.

Oh, forget it… she grumbled while Darkrai laughed again.

Tiny paid no attention to the diplomatic nightmare going on around him; he only had eyes for one Pokémon: the Tyranitar stomping towards him, seemingly unaware of the various kunai and shuriken being flung at her by some of the ninjas who were more on the ball that plinked harmlessly off her nearly impenetrable hide. "MOMMY!" he cried, flying towards her.

"SON!" the Tyranitar bellowed, spreading her arms wide to receive him.

The two collided, their armor resonating with a thunderclap that shook the clouds and caused everyone to flinch as the Tyranitar wrapped her arms around her child, both of them bawling for sheer joy. Then the Tyranitar frowned and stared at her son's choice of clothing. "…What are you wearing?"

"They made me wear it," Tiny said, shooting a smug look at Fantina, who pouted.

"Well, they made the right choice, because you look ADORABLE!" the Tyranitar squealed, much to Tiny's dismay and Fantina's triumphant elation as she started rubbing her cheek against the Pupitar. "And distinguished, with that monocle and top hat!"

"M-Moooooom!" Tiny gibbered as his new siblings snickered at him. Great, he'd only met his long-lost mother for five seconds and already she was embarrassing him in front of his friends! Were all mothers like this?

"Oh, my baby boy!" the Tyranitar said, hugging Tiny harder. Had he been any other Pokémon, every bone in his body would have been shattered in his grip. Since he was encased in an extremely durable armor shell, however, he barely felt a thing other than his mother's warm affections. "You've grown so big and strong…without me…" She looked down at him sadly. "You've grown up so fast…and I've missed every bit of it. Your hatching…your evolution…every part of your childhood. I couldn't be there for any of it." She started crying again. "And if everything the nice people who rescued me have told me is true…you've suffered for it."

Tiny found himself at a loss for words as his mother started tearing up again. This shouldn't be a time for tears, this was a happy occasion, their long-awaited reunion! But what could he say to make her happier again?

Thankfully, as always, his father came through for him. "It wasn't as bad as all that, ma'am," Ash said respectfully as he stepped forward. "Tiny could have been turned into a hot dog, or hatched all alone…but he wasn't. We found him. And we worked our damned hardest to make sure to raise him as best we could."

"Though that period where he didn't talk and screamed whenever anyone other than Ash touched him made things a little tricky," Leo muttered, causing Pikachu to nudge him.

"I know you probably wouldn't approve of us taking him into battle alongside us all the time, but trust me when I say he can hold his own, and has saved us just as often as we've saved him," Pikachu said. "I couldn't be prouder to have him on our team."

"Yeah, he destroyed a centuries-old cursed bell and freed over a hundred trapped spirits just by punching it! It was so hardcore!" Leo gushed.

"He bravely rode into battle beside Ash to fight an evil legendary bird not once, but twice…and both times, they won!" Lily said.

"He has fought Nihilators, hired thugs, zombies, shapeshifters, and all sorts of other creatures without flinching in the slightest," Sasha said.

"I was one of them," Mizula added. He frowned. "At least, I think I was. Everyone's bodies were swapped at that point, so things got a little confusing…"

"And he helped us get a treasure we were looking for and win custody of a pirate ship and crew by outdrinking the captain," Briney said proudly. "He even evolved from it, too!" The others gave him dirty looks. "What? If my son had done something like that, I'd damn well be proud of him for it!" He sighed. "Not that I have a son, though…" Oh, Peeko…

The Tyranitar blinked in confusion. "Wait, what was that last part?"

"It's not important," Ash said quickly. "What is important is that…your son didn't have it easy, I'll be the first to admit that much. However, we tried our hardest to give him the support and care he needed to keep from developing into something…dark." He stared at Tiny, and a slow smile crept onto his face. "And…in doing so, I'd like to think he helped to keep our own darkness at bay, as well."

"…Uh, is he speaking metaphorically or talking about that super-evil thing inside of him?" Pichu whispered to his brother.

"Shh!" Pikachu hissed. "And you're not supposed to know about that! How do you know about that?!"

"Overheard Mom and Dad talking about it when they thought I wasn't in earshot. Don't worry, I didn't tell them," Pichu muttered jerking his head at Ash's other children, who were looking at their father with naked awe and admiration on their faces. "I've got that much tact, anyway."

"Oh. Good," Pikachu said with a sigh of relief. He was somewhat impressed, he hadn't known his little brother even knew the meaning of the word 'tact.' "Um…about Ash's problem…how are Mom and Dad taking it?"

"Oh, they aren't worried in the slightest," Pichu said.

Pikachu gave him a surprised look. "What, really?"

"Nope! They have every confidence you guys will figure out a way to save him!" Pichu said.

Pikachu's ears flattened against his skull. "Wow, that's…that's really touching." Pikachu sighed. "I just wish Ash could be as certain…" Along with the rest of us… Dawn put a paw on his shoulder, sensing his inner turmoil and doubt.

"I'm sure you could've done a better job of raising him than we could," Ash continued, as the Tyranitar stared at him and the others in amazement. "But we did our best to raise him to be the kind of mon you'd be proud of when the two of you were inevitably reunited."

Tiny's eyes were wide and glistening. "D-Daddy…" he whispered.

"…You…truly care about my son, don't you?" the Tyranitar said in wonder. "I had heard as much from the glowing recommendations he gave of you all in our far-too-brief chats over those magic windows of yours…but only now do I understand just what he was talking about." She bent over until she was at eye level with Ash. "You are the one called 'Ash,' right?"

Ash nodded. "Yeah. Uh, sorry about Tiny calling me 'Daddy' and all, but I'm the first thing he saw when he hatched and imprinting and all and-"

"It is fine," the Tyranitar cut him off. "If even half the things I have heard about you are true, then you are more than deserving of that title. Perhaps even more than my ex-mate ever was."

"R-really?" Ash asked, face coloring. "I…th-that's…I mean, that's flattering and all, but surely you're exaggerating a little!" I mean, yeah, her husband turned out to be a mole for Team Rocket, but I'm the one who's got a world-destroying monster inside of me!

"Eh, I'd say it's a fair toss-up," Misty said acerbically.

"You are too modest," the Tyranitar said. "You are more than worthy of being the mon my son calls 'father.' After all, you are the Chosen One. How can you not be?"

Ash winced. "Ah. You heard about that."

"Your parents will not stop talking about it," the Tyranitar said in amusement.

"Yeah, that sounds like Mom and Dad all right," Pikachu said wryly.

"You said it! I'm starting to wonder if they even care about me anymore…" Pichu fumed. "I mean, seriously, how am I supposed to measure up to something like that? Or whatever latest accomplishment you've picked up when I wasn't looking?"

"I received a blessing from Zekrom and got a set of magical lightning armor earlier this morning," Pikachu admitted.

"What?! Seriously?! Oh, come on!" Pichu screamed. "How do I compete with that?!"

"It's not about competing, it's about forging your own story," Pikachu said.

"Yeah, a story that'll be completely overshadowed by your accomplishments until I'm just a footnote in the history books, just like Great-Uncle Alfie!" Pichu accused, causing Pikachu to wince at the potential truth in that statement.

"Great-Uncle who?" Matthias asked.

"Exactly! Nobody remembers him, even though he did lots of cool and heroic stuff, because he wasn't the samurai of his generation to wield Thunder Fang!" Pichu complained. "And now I'm going to be forgotten, just like he was!"

Pikachu put a paw on his little brother's shoulder. Pichu tried to shake him off, but Pikachu's grip tightened its hold. "Little brother, you still have a lot of growing up to do and many more adventures to take part in," Pikachu told him sternly. "Just because you aren't this generation's chosen wielder of Thunder Fang doesn't mean you can't be a legend in your own right. After all, it takes more than a magic sword to make someone a hero."

"Yeah, like weird spinning top things," Matthias commented. "Like the ones we used to save Tiny's mom."

Pichu perked up at that. "Hey yeah, we did, didn't we? I wonder if we can swipe some more of those off those Rocket guys…"

Pikachu sweatdropped as Pichu started spouting out a number of ridiculous plans to hunt down Team Rocket and get more of those Styler things that Leo would have been proud of. "That's…not exactly what I was trying to tell him."

Dawn shook her head. They're young. Let them figure it out for themselves.

"And then, after I get a Styler, maybe I can get a ninja girlfriend of my own!" Pichu proclaimed, finishing detailing his latest scheme to an unimpressed Matthias and a confused Mizula. "Hopefully one who's not hideously disfigured and can actually talk."

Dawn's eye twitched. "They're young. Let them figure it out for themselves," Pikachu said in amusement.

"I can think of no mon more worthy of being my son's father than you," the Tyranitar said to Ash while Pichu's little tantrum had been going on in the background. "Or my husband."

Tiny blinked. "Wait, what?"

Ash's face paled as Pikachu snorted, Leo and Briney burst into laughter, Lily looked confused, and Sasha growled. "Uh…"

"Ooh, so now you're going to cheat on me? You bad boy!" Misty teased. "You're even more despicable than I thought!"

"Hey, stay away from Daddy, you homewrecker!" Junior shouted, causing Collette to facepalm.

"Yeah, Daddy already has a Mommy—by which I mean our Mommy, not Grandma—so you can't be his, too!" Sapphire agreed.

"Well, technically she can, polygamy's legal in Pokémon Square—just look at that confusing mess Team AWD, Team Raider, and Team Charm has going for them—but I agree that I'm not entirely comfortable with our father taking a second wife, even though technically he's not married to our mother in the first place, something which I hope he will remedy in the near future," Collette said.

The Tyranitar gave Collette a confused look. "Second wife? I thought he was single."

"Well, ah, that is, uh, I kind of am, but, er, I'm also not, that is, I mean, ah…" Ash stammered.

"Ash and Misty are in love with each other but were too dense to admit it, even though they've already had three—adopted—children together," Pikachu said. "But once she returns, Ash fully intends to at last make his intentions and feelings clear to her."

The Tyranitar gave Pikachu a baffled look. "Re…turns? I thought she was dead."

Ash started. "Huh? Where did you hear that?!"

"Well, everyone told me she was among the stars," the Tyranitar said.

"Yeah, because that nutjob Doctor Tarantulas used some weird gadget to transport her waaaaaayyyy out into space," Leo said.

Ash nodded. "But she's okay, managed to hitch a ride, and is currently on her way home now…though we're not exactly sure when she'll get back."

"I miss her…" Junior said sadly.

"We all do, little brother," Collette said, putting a limb on his back.

The Tyranitar's eyes bulged. "Oh. OH. When…when I was told she was among the stars…I thought that was just a euphemism for death. Not that she was actually out…you know, there!"

"That was our first impression too, to be honest," Ash admitted. "We got clarification later that that wasn't the case, though."

"Thank goodness for that," Sapphire agreed.

The Tyranitar blushed and stood back up. "Well…ah…this is embarrassing. I apologize for the misunderstanding. I had thought you were a widower, and in search of a new mate. But I see that is clearly not the case."

"No, it's not," Ash said.

"Well, technically he doesn't have any mate, but-" Leo started, only for Pikachu to glare at him. "Er, never mind."

The Tyranitar bowed her head in shame. "I did not mean to come between you and your mate…or almost-mate, as the case may be. Please forgive me for my transgressions."

"It's okay. Honest mistake," Ash said somewhat anxiously, hoping to just put this embarrassing incident behind them. And for Leo to stop laughing… "So, uh, does that mean you and I…?"

"No, we do not have to mate. Well…not if you don't want to, anyway," the Tyranitar said.

"NO, HE DOESN'T!" Junior shouted. Collette facepalmed. Sapphire stuck her tail ball in his mouth to keep him from saying anything else stupid.

Ash blushed. "I'm flattered, but like my son over there said, my heart's kind of set on Misty. Sorry."

"Very well. I understand," the Tyranitar said, sounding only slightly disappointed.

"So, uh…what does this mean for you, me and Tiny?" Ash asked uncertainly.

Tiny started, a horrifying thought occurring to him. "M-Mommy…he can still be my Daddy, can't he?! I mean, even if you two don't get together—which I was kind of hoping might happen, I guess—h-he can still be my Daddy, right?"

"Of course, son. He hatched you and raised you. He will always be your father," the Tyranitar said, much to Tiny's relief.

"Awww," Fantina and her daughters cooed.

Lily frowned and looked away. "…Mother would never treat me like that…"

"That's because she's a horrible evil bitch," Leo said bluntly.

"So, uh, if you two aren't getting together, how exactly are you going to raise Tiny?" Pikachu asked.

"Joint custody?" Leo suggested.

"Doesn't that usually lead to the kids having strained relationships with their parents and unhappy childhoods?" Briney asked.

"Not always," Leo said. "I mean, it's not like Ash and Tiny's mom are divorced. Heck, they aren't even together in the first place!"

"I'm not sure that'll help matters," Briney said.

"Your parents have generously agreed to allow me to move into your household," the Tyranitar explained. "Since Tiny is, according to them, part of the family now, by extension so am I, and therefore am welcome to live with them until I can find a place of my own in Pokémon Square."

"And yet another honorary Thunderblade joins the family…" Pikachu murmured. "Where are Mom and Dad finding room to put them all?!"

"We're having extensions added to the house, and got a permit from the Mayor allowing us to dig deeper and expand our property so there's room for everyone," Pichu explained. "Dad's excited because he'll finally get to build that new training room he's always wanted, and Mom's getting a bigger kitchen, and Team GX will get rooms of their own."

"And are you going to get your own room too?" Pikachu asked.

Pichu scowled. "No, Mom and Dad still want me to bunk with Matthias and Mizula to help them get accustomed to living with the family."

"I'm fine with it," Mattias said. "Certainly more comfortable than the sleeping arrangement I had back in the wild, namely, being crushed beneath the weight of all my family members."

"And it reminds me of our quarters back in Samiya…" Mizula said. "Only not underwater, and there aren't Nihilators constantly trying to sneak in at night to rape us."

Pikachu stared at him for a moment. "…Yeah, that's not exactly a problem in Pokémon Square, either."

"It wasn't a problem in Samiya, either...for us," Mizula said, causing Pikachu to shudder as he remembered just what sorts of tricks the Phione could do with its ability to turn into water.

"So we'll all get to live under one roof together!" Tiny said excitedly.

The Tyranitar nodded. "So both your father and I can raise you. It seemed the most ideal solution."

"And…can I still go on adventures with Daddy?" Tiny asked, shooting a glance at Ash.

The Tyranitar hesitated. "I…am not comfortable with you going out on such dangerous adventures all the time," she admitted. "Nor am I entirely happy with Ash forcing a Pokémon as young as you into such frightening and deadly confrontations as the ones I've heard you've embarked on."

Ash blinked in confusion. "Why, is there something wrong with that?"

The Tyranitar gave him a baffled look. "You see nothing wrong with taking an infant into situations where they could possibly die?"

"I took my kids on dangerous and risky adventures when they were barely out of the egg and they turned out just fine," Ash said.

Junior mumbled something that might have been, "That's right, we did!" but it was hard to tell given that Sapphire's tail was still lodged in his mouth.

The Azurill squealed in disgust. "Ew, Junior, you're getting slobber all over my tail!"

"Sorry," he probably mumbled, getting more saliva over Sapphire's tail, much to her distaste.

"Our Father of the Year, everyone!" Misty said sarcastically, slow-clapping.

"Mommy, a lot of the things I've done with Daddy and the others have been pretty dangerous and scary and stuff," Tiny admitted. "But I've always been able to hold my own pretty well, and Daddy and the others have always held my back. Besides, it's not exactly like there was a place they could leave me behind most of the times they had to go out and fight the bad guys where I'd be safe."

"Well, actually-" Leo started, only to realize it was probably not a good idea to bring up that he could theoretically have stayed behind in Treasure Town with Tracey and Professor Oak. And besides, he admitted. It's not like Treasure Town is any less dangerous than the places we've been to. Heck, it's probably worse than all of them put together!

"And aside from that, they need my help! Like they said before, they wouldn't have been able to defeat Yamatorochi or Captain Barbedo without me!" Tiny pointed out. "What if they run into another foe in the near future that they can't defeat without me?"

"And what if you die, Tiny?" the Tyranitar asked angrily. "I just found you again! Do you really expect me to let you go and do something that could kill you?"

"Yes," Tiny said, much to her astonishment. "Because I have Daddy and Uncle Pikachu and Aunt Dawn and all my other friends to help me and watch my back."

Pikachu started. "Did…did he just call me Uncle? I don't think he's done that in quite a while."

And me Aunt? Dawn asked, finding herself oddly delighted. Has he ever done that before? I can't recall. Either way, it feels…nice.

"He's right, Mrs. Tiny's Mom," Leo said. "We've got Tiny's back! We always have!"

"We love Tiny dearly, and will do our best to make sure he stays safe," Lily said fervently.

Sasha nodded in agreement. "No harm shall come to your son if we can help it."

"And when it does—because, let's face it, he's gonna get hurt in our line of work—we'll not only patch him up, we'll rip whoever laid a finger on him a new one," Briney promised.

We shall kill any who harm Tiny in the most painful and agonizing ways imaginable, Dawn vowed.

Ash bit his lip. "If…you don't want him to come with us on the next leg of our adventure, we…we'll understand. We'll be disappointed—he's one of us, after all—but as his mother, the decision is yours."

"What? No!" Tiny cried in alarm as his mother considered this. "You're my parent too, the decision is yours!"

Ash shook his head. "Tiny, you've spent your entire life with me…which hasn't been very long, granted. This is the first time your mother's held you in her arms since you were an egg. If she wants to take you out of danger, isn't it her right to?"

"I…I guess…" Tiny admitted. "But…but I wanna go with you!"

Ash smiled sadly. "I want you to come with us too, Tiny…but if your mother thinks it'd be safer for you in the long run not to, then we'll abide by her decision."

"Of course, if he does come back to Pokémon Square with us—which'd be totally awesome, by the way, since it means we can get another member of Team GX—it's not exactly like it'd be less dangerous for him, what with the upcoming war with the barbarians and all," Collette pointed out.

"Oh yeah…that's true, isn't it?" Pikachu murmured.

"'e could stay 'ere," Fantina suggested. "We would be 'appy to accommodate you and your son, mademoiselle. Fichina is…probably a lot different from anywhere you've ever been before, but it is unlikely you will be troubled much by ze battles to come if you were to stay 'ere for a spell."

"And it'd be fun 'aving a boy closer to my age around ze 'ouse for a change…" Nefertari said.

"Sister, you're at least two decades older zan 'im," Shauntel said.

"Shhh! Don't ruin my chances to get a boyfriend!" the Yamask hissed.

The Tyranitar looked around at everyone's hopeful and concerned faces uncertainly, and then stared down at her son's desperate and pleading expression. She sighed and closed her eyes. "…You have a great many Pokémon who truly care about you, don't you, my son? You are…incredibly fortunate. I do not think you could have fallen in with a better group of friends." She grimaced. "I shall…think on the matter. While it is true that if Tiny were to come back with me to Pokémon Square, he would probably still be in danger…but I'm not sure if letting him go with the rest of you to Mars would be much of a better option. And while your offer is very generous, Lady Fantina, I am not sure how comfortable I would be in a land such as this." She frowned and looked down at the floor, prodding the clouds with a toe. "As it is, I'm having a hard time restraining my fear that I'll fall to my death…even my armor would probably not withstand a fall from this height."

"Gee, thanks for reminding me I'm afraid of heights," Matthias said sardonically.

"You are?" Pichu asked.

"I learned to be scared of many, many things in the wild," Matthias said. "Since just about anything could kill me. And while training with my new father has helped me get over a lot of them, I'm not quite over that one yet."

"Ah," Pichu said.

"I'm afraid of extremely high temperatures, if that helps," Mizula said.

"Really? Why?" Pichu asked.

"I'm worried I'll evaporate. I'm not entirely positive I could reconstitute myself if I were turned into a gas," Mizula explained.

"Oh. I guess that makes sense," Pichu said.

"That doesn't really help, but thanks anyway," Matthias said.

"Give me some time. I want to spend time with my son and find out more about what he has done from his own mouth. After that…I shall give you my decision," the Tyranitar told the group.

Ash nodded. "Fair enough. Whatever decision you make, we'll abide by. Right, guys?"

"Right," they said a little reluctantly.

"And that means no sneaking away to come with us at the last second, or any of you kidnapping him to take him with us, is that clear?" Ash said sternly.

"Yes, Ash/Daddy," Tiny, Team GX, Leo, Briney, Sasha, and Dawn said resignedly.

"Huh. That's surprisingly mature of you," Misty commented. "Unless, of course, you're trying to keep him away from you so that when you inevitably turn into a monster you won't kill him. Right away, at least, since you'll get to him eventually while pursuing your drive to destroy all life on Earth."

"Good," Ash said, ignoring Misty. "Now that that's settled…I don't think we ever got your name, Mrs.…?"

"I am called She Who Makes the Earth Tremble in her Anger Which Vexes Cartographers Due to Her Rage Reshaping the Landscape and Destroys All Who Oppose Her or Harms Her Loved Ones in Her Fury," the Tyranitar said.

They stared at her blankly. "That's…a bit of a mouthful," Pikachu said.

"Wild Tyranitars have a tendency to give themselves very descriptive names," Briney commented. "I should know, I wrestled a few for fun in my spare time. Always won, of course."

"Of course," Sasha said.

"My…new family seemed to think that was too long to remember, so now I am apparently called Kageie," the Tyranitar said.

Pikachu's ears perked up at this. "Kageie? That was the name of a Tyranitar who was one of Warlord Kenshin's Four Heavenly Generals that one of my distant relatives, Akizane, fought against during the Sengoku wars in Ransei a few hundred years ago."

"Another Thunderblade nobody remembers…" Pichu grumbled.

"We remember him," Pikachu said.

"Akizane never did anything, though! He was just a soldier!" Pichu protested.

"Not all heroes have to do big and great and glorious things. To his family, the small part he played in that conflict was enough to make him a hero in their eyes," Pikachu lectured. Pichu rolled his eyes.

"Kageie, huh? Sounds like a fittingly badass name to me," Leo quipped.

"Kageie was a guy," Pikachu said.

"…Ah," Leo said. "Eh, good enough."

"Out of curiosity, what exactly were you going to name Tiny before you were…separated?" Lily asked.

"He Who Devours Mountains to Satiate His Unending Hunger and Whose Wails Shatter the Bones of Those Who Arouse His Ire," Kageie said.

"Ah," Lily said.

"Yep, that pretty much describes Tiny to a T, especially when he was a Larvitar," Leo said.

"Except for the alcoholism," Briney said.

"Yeah, except that," Leo agreed.

"Hey! I don't drink anymore…much…" Tiny muttered. "And I like that name."

"I thought you liked Tiny," Ash said, hurt.

"I like that, too!" Tiny said quickly.

"It's an all right name, though I'm not certain how appropriate it will be for much longer," Kageie said.

"Well, it's not like Daddy has ever been very creative with names," Collette said said.

Sapphire nodded. "There's a reason Junior's the only one of us Mom allowed him to name."

"Hey!" both Ash and Junior shouted, though the latter only did so around Sapphire's tail.

"Tiny and his Mama reuniting are really sweet," Lemmy, who hadn't said anything in a while, commented.

"I wish we could have a chance to see our Mama again…" Ludwig said solemnly.

"I wish I could have had a chance to see our Mama, period, since I never met her," Drakor Junior said sadly.

"Still, at least we have New Mama and New Papa and all our other New Mamas and New Papas back home," Wendy said.

"Speaking of which, where are New Mama and New Papa?" Iggy asked.

"Hey-O!" someone called from the top of the boarding ramp into the Draconian ship.

Leo gasped and whipped his head around. "Mom! Dad!"

"New Mama! New Papa!" the Gibles cheered.

The herald, who'd been too busy staring (along with pretty much else) at the tableau developing around Nuken and Queen Ninianne as Draconian and Fichinan soldiers were trying to pull them apart but kept getting in each other's ways and stepping on each other's toes to the point that some of them were shouting and yelling at each other and it looked as if a fight was about to break out and they had completely forgotten the predicament their lieges were in, and those who hadn't forgottenwere having a profound lack of coordination and kept pushing the Queen and Nuken back together every time it looked like they were about to be properly separated, so desperate to prove themselves they were ignoring the Queen's screaming protests that she could fix this herself and Nuken's bellowing that he'd kill them all as soon as he got out of there while Ambassador Stoutroot and Daimyo Leeku just kept drinking and Drayden kept waking up only to pass out again every time he saw the debacle and Kairyu was perpetually facepalming, started when he realized he was neglecting his duty and quickly announced the entrance of the two shelled reptiles walking down the ramp. "N-now presenting Brad and Judy DeKappa!"

Leo's parents didn't bare much of a resemblance to their children, adopted or biological. This was because Judy was a perfectly ordinary-looking Torkoal while Brad was an eight-foot tall metallic titan with a shell made of some of the hardest alloys on Earth with lots of flashing lights and glowing lines running between the scutes. His fully articulated metal limbs ended in massive claws that could crush stone and rend metal. A tail made of a number of very thin cables woven together to make it look thick and furry grew out from the bottom of the shell. His head was a transparent dome on top of the shell with an animated Wartortle skull wearing a pair of rad sunglasses placed inside with a number of cables running to and from it. The mechanical horror raised a massive arm and waved cheerfully as they walked over. "Hey, Leo!"

"Hi, Dad!" Leo cried, waving back along with his siblings while nearly everyone else (except for Team GX, Team Awesome, and Kageie, who'd ridden on the flight over with him) stared in disbelief.

"Leo, why is your father a robot?!" Sasha asked in incredulity.

"He's not a robot, Sasha, he's a talking skull animated by necromancy generated by one of the Star Badges that's using neural impulses to pilot a robot battle suit. They're completely different things! You should know that by now" Leo lectured her.

"Why is your father a talking skull animated by necromancy generated by one of the Star Badges that's using neural impulses to pilot a robot battle suit?" Pikachu asked, stunned.

"I used some of my share of all the loot we've picked up over our many adventures to buy him a top-of-the-line robotic exo-suit so he doesn't have to sit in one place or be carried around all day. I told you weeks ago I was going to do that, didn't I?" Leo reminded him.

"Yes, but I didn't think you were actually going to…" Pikachu facepalmed. "Wait, what was I thinking? Of COURSE you were going to do that. How could I have ever believed otherwise?"

"Yeah, how could you doubt me like that?" Leo agreed. "You should know by now that I do this sort of thing every chance I get!"

"Does it have drill hands and laser-firing kneecaps and missile launchers in its butt?" Tiny asked.

"And more!" Leo said enthusiastically. Pikachu groaned.

"Meh, I could beat that," Briney said.

"I'm sure you could," Sasha said.

Briney frowned. "I'm getting a little tired of your sarcasm, missy."

Sasha gave him a confused look. "What sarcasm? I honestly believe you could beat him, just like you defeated those Tyranitar. I know how strong you are."

"…Ah. Okay then," Briney said, nonplussed.

"New Mama! New Papa!" the Gibles cheered, crowding around Leo's parents.

"Hey, kids, good to see you again! I mean, it's only been, what, five minutes?" Brad said.

"Well, you know what Leo says, dear…Talking is a Free Action and all," Judy said. They both chuckled, and Pikachu twitched.

"Mom, Dad! It's great to see you again!" Leo cried, squeezing between the Gibles and hugging his parents as best he could given that his mother was close to his size and his father was much, much bigger.

"Leo! There's my boy!" Brad laughed, reaching down and picking up Leo so he could look him in the eye. "You're looking great, son! Though I would've thought you'd have lost more weight by now given all the adventures you've been having…"

"Daaaaad!" Leo whined, kicking his legs and tail in the air ineffectually.

"Well, dear, it's probably all the rich food they've been feeding him here. Goes right to the hips, it does," Judy said.

"Ah, that must be it," Brad concluded, much to Leo's embarrassment. He sighed. "Ah, food…one of the few things this wonderful new exo-suit Leo so kindly purchased for me can't allow me to experience. I miss being able to eat…"

"Well, dear, our other children more than make up for your lack of an appetite," Judy pointed out.

"Feed us! Feed us! Feed us!" the Gibles chanted. Fantina conjured extra-large lollipops for all of them. They greedily started sucking on them.

"Hey, can I have another one?" Tiny asked.

"Certainly-" Fantina started.

"Wait, how many has he had already?" Kageie asked suspiciously.

"Uh, well…" Fantina said.

"Yeah, that's what I thought," Kageie said. "No more snacks for you until after dinner, young Pupitar."

"Aw, mooooom!" Tiny whined.

"And there's your old friends, Ash and Pikachu! Good to see them again!" Brad said, waving to Ash and Pikachu. "Your parents wouldn't stop raving about you guys on the ride over, they'll be elated to see you!"

Ash and Pikachu perked up at this. "They are?" Ash asked hopefully.

"Gee, I wonder why…" Misty grumbled.

"Yeah, it was getting kind of old…" Pichu grunted.

"Why haven't they come out yet?" Pikachu asked.

Brad shrugged. "Search me. They were right behind us…eh, it's probably not a big deal, I'm sure they'll be out soon enough."

"Yes…and then they'll see how awful you've become…" Misty hissed. Ash ignored her.

"Leo, what on Earth are you wearing?" Judy asked, staring at Leo's thong in horror.

"Traditional Yukihimi consort's uniform," Leo explained.

"I hope you're wearing more than that to your wedding, young mon! It's positively indecent!" Judy said.

"Don't worry, they have a big fancy outfit for me to wear tomorrow…right, Atlametheus?" Leo asked Lily's Golurk servitor.

The ancient servant hesitated. "What? Er, yes, yes of course. You'll look positively dashing, young Master," he said, glancing at Fantina, who nodded slightly, indicating she would have a proper suit for Leo to wear by the morrow rather than the rather…risque dress tradition for marrying into the Yukihimi family usually entailed.

"See? Nothing to worry about!" Leo assured his parents.

"Well, that's a relief," Judy said with a grateful sigh. "Oh, this is so exciting!" she squealed. "My baby boy is getting married tomorrow! Oh, and that must be Lily over there, along with all your other new and exciting friends!"

Sasha raised an eyebrow. "Did she just call us 'new and exciting?' I'm not sure how to feel about that."

"You could be completely indifferent, like me," Briney suggested.

"I suppose that works," Sasha relented

"Lily, come over here, would you? Don't be shy, dear, we just want to look at you, it'll be our first time meeting you in the ectoplasm!" Judy said excitedly.

"Um, h-hello, Leo's parents," Lily said shyly as she floated over. She had spoken to them over the Internet a few times with Leo, but while they seemed pleasant enough she was still somewhat anxious about meeting her in-laws, much like any bride-to-be. "It's a pleasure to meet you. For real, I mean."

Brad whistled as he put his son down and leaned over to get a better look at his future daughter-in-law. "Well, son, you really lucked out! You've got a real looker here! All that adventuring and getting out from under her mother's thumb and taking in the magic of this place has certainly done wonders for bringing out her inner beauty!" Lily blushed at that.

"Well, our ministrations certainly didn't 'urt, eizer," Phoebe said in amusement.

"Yes, but those chains on her face don't look quite right," Judy complained, causing Lily to flinch. "What sort of makeup is that? Or is it a tattoo?"

"It's a curse mark," Leo said curtly.

"…Ah. Right. I remember now," Judy said, looking aghast. "I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to-"

"It's fine," Lily said. "I'm…used to it by now."

"Not for much longer, you won't be!" Leo said. "By this time tomorrow, they'll be gone for good!"

Lily started and gave Leo an astonished look. "Wait, really? How?!"

Leo chuckled. "Whoops, didn't mean to tip my hand so soon. Just consider it a wedding present from me to you."

"But…but how!" Lily stammered. "I've been researching almost nonstop since we got here, and even Fantina said she couldn't-"

"Babe, I promised you a while back that I would find a way to break your curse, didn't I?" Leo said.

"Well, yes, but-" Lily started.

"And a DeKappa does not break his promises!" Leo cut her off. "I've figured out how to break your curse, and I fully intend to do it tomorrow."

"Wh-why not now?" Lily asked, shocked. For so long she'd been utterly resigned to her curse, and while she'd been somewhat hopeful when Leo promised her he'd break it, she hadn't entirely believed he would manage to find a way, thinking something like this was beyond even his capabilities. Clearly she had been wrong, something she was most ashamed of. She should have known by now that nothing was beyond Leo's mind.

Leo shook his head. "Can't do it now. It's a magic thing, you understand."

"Oh, of course," Lily said, actually understanding for a change, unlike most times Leo was trying to explain something to her on the first try. The most powerful of curses often required a variety of somewhat complex and arbitrary circumstances to break, and time of day or the date itself were quite often necessary components for the curse-breaking. If Leo said it would be tomorrow—and she saw no reason to doubt him, he would never lie about something like this; heck, he wouldn't lie to her at all—than tomorrow it would be.

And with that, a sudden thrill of shock and joy ran through her. Tomorrow, if Leo was correct, she would finally be free, free of her mother's last lingering hold over her and the terrible fate that had been planned for her ever since she was unborn. Before she could think about what she was doing, she grabbed Leo and kissed him full on the lips with all the passion and gratitude and pure love she could muster, causing him to go limp in surprise and pleasure while everyone else stared and most of the kids made disgusted faces and looked elsewhere. Lily probably would have maintained the kiss for several minutes if her fiancé's flailing about and muffled cries hadn't reminded her that, unlike her, he actually needed to breathe, so reluctantly broke away from him, causing him to stagger back, gasping for breath, a dazed look in his eyes.

Brad raised an eyebrow. "Oh yeah, she's a keeper." Judy kicked him, but he didn't feel it since his foot was made of metal.

Lily turned to her future in-laws and said quite truthfully, "Mr. and Mrs. DeKappa, your son is the most wonderful Pokémon alive and I can honestly say that marrying him will make me happier than I've ever been in my entire unlife."

"And we'll be just as happy to have you marry him, dear! Why, for the longest time I was worried Leo would never find a girlfriend, or that he'd order one through the mail!" Judy said.

"Mooooooom!" Leo moaned.

"But we're so relieved that he found someone…especially a girl as lovely as yourself! We're overjoyed to have you become a part of the DeKappa family!" Judy said.

"Actually, it's a little more like I'm becoming part of the Yukihimi family," Leo corrected her.

"Whatever," Judy said, not caring.

"Welcome to the family, girl! Come 'ere!" Brad said, grabbing Lily in a big hug. Her eyes widened in surprise, and then she leaned against his warm metal chassis, tearing up in joy at the feelings of familial love she could practically feel bombarding her from all directions. Is this…what it's like to have a parent who loves me?

It is, B said. And your father loves you too, Lily…though don't expect him to give you a hug like Leo's dad.

That sobered Lily up. My father…

"Well, it's good to see all these family reunions," Pikachu commented. "Although I can't help but feel like we're missing one…"

"I have arrived!" Raiki declared as he stood dramatically at the top of the boarding ramp, an amused Delia standing beside him. "Sorry I'm late, had a bit of a bathroom emergency; some of the in-flight food didn't quite agree with me-"

"Honey, they don't need to know about that," Delia chided him.

"Right, sorry dear," Raiki said.

Pikachu gasped in delight. "Mom! Dad!"

"They're here!" Ash said excitedly.

"Yeah. Probably to tell you in person how disappointed they are," Misty sneered.

A guard elbowed the herald, who was once more distracted by the increasingly absurd struggle surrounding Nuken and Queen Ninianne and hindering rather than helping them break free from each other (he was lodged in deeeeeep). Missy struggling to break free of the soldiers holding her while screaming that she would murder the succubus who was trying to steal her husband from her wasn't helping. Realizing he had a duty to fulfill, he reluctantly turned away from the spectacle and declared, "Now presenting Raiki and Delia Thunderblade!" He paused, and then frowned when he noticed nobody was paying attention to him. Sulking, he turned away to watch some of the finest military forces in the world continue to make utter fools of themselves.

Daimyo Leeku paused in his drinking. "So that is the great Thunder Warrior…he truly looks the part of a warrior of legend…I wonder if he would be willing to spar with me before he must return to his home?" Jujimaru had opened his mouth, not to speak, but to gape in awe. Pikachu-domo-sempai-sensei-chan-kun-sama-ore-hime-tachi's father looked so badass.

"Ash, my boy! You're looking good!" Raiki commented as he and Delia reached their two eldest sons, hugging the both of them.

"Yeah, and not at all like a horrible world-ending monster," Misty said.

"You're looking good too, Dad," Ash said, ignoring Misty. "Hey, are those new scars?"

"Yep, earned 'em in the fight for Mount Blaze!" Raiki said proudly, spreading his arms to show off the numerous battle scars covering his form. Briney frowned briefly and looked over his own body. Surely he had more scars than that… "Quite a few are from Gal himself…but don't worry, we more than returned the favor!"

"And is that our new sibling?" Pikachu asked, glancing at the yellow and black egg strapped in a pouch on Delia's belly.

"That's right!" the Raichu said, nuzzling her egg affectionately. "I couldn't bear to leave the little one at home, so I decided to bring it with us so it could meet its big brothers! Say hi!"

"Hi," Ash and Pikachu said, waving to the egg. Pichu scowled, still upset that soon he'd probably be Pichu One or A rather than having a proper name.

"We're sorry Aaron couldn't make it, Ash," Raiki said apologetically. "We know how much you two were looking forward to meeting each other, but he's still on his honeymoon and I don't think Zorra is willing to let him get away for any reason short of the end of the world…and maybe not even for that, either."

Ash winced. "It's okay," Ash lied. He'd known it was a long shot, but he'd been hoping Aaron might have been able to provide him some help with his current…condition.

"He probably wanted to avoid you out of fear of the MONSTER you're becoming," Misty said. Ash clenched his fist but said nothing.

Delia noticed and frowned. "Ash, is it…?"

"Yeah. It's her," he said curtly. They knew about his current harasser, naturally. "I'm ignoring her."

"It won't do you any good. The less you listen to me, the LOUDER I'LL GET!" she screamed in his ear, causing him to flinch.

"You leave my son alone!" Delia cried angrily, seeing the look on Ash's face.

"Thanks, Mom," Ash said, not having the heart to tell Delia she'd been yelling into thin air.

"There are so many people who care about you, Ash. They're all such idiots, especially since you'll kill everyone, no matter HOW you feel about them," Misty said.

"Hey, how'd you like to meet your newest grandson?" Ash said loudly.

"Ooh, that'd be lovely!" Delia said excitedly.

"Tiny, come over here!" Ash called.

Tiny glanced up at his mother, who reluctantly let him go. He flew over to join his father. "Hi, Grandma and Grandpa!"

"Hi, Tiny!" Raiki said. He frowned at Tiny's sailor outfit. "What on Earth are you wearing?"

Tiny sighed. "Fantina made me wear it."

"Well I'm glad she did, because you look adorable!" Raiki said boisterously, causing Tiny to groan and Fantina to titter. "And distinguished with that monocle and top hat! C'mere!" He hugged the embarrassed Pupitar.

"And I suppose she made you wear that suit, too? My, my, you look so handsome!" Delia gushed over Ash, causing him to blush. "And now that we've finally found a way to actually get you into a suit, maybe we won't have so much trouble dressing you up for nice occasions, now will we?"

Ash sighed wearily while Pikachu smirked in amusement. "No, mom…"

"Wonderful! I've never understood why you always had so much trouble dressing up, your brothers never gave us as much of a hassle," Delia complained.

"That's because they like wearing that kind of stuff for some reason," Ash complained.

"A samurai must be willing to wear the right attire for any occasion," Pikachu said solemnly. "Social occasions can be just as treacherous a battlefield as the plains of war, and it pays to have the proper weapons and armor to defend yourself from cutting barbs, be they from arrows or thinly-veiled insults."

"Haha, that's my boy!" Raiki said proudly while Ash and Pichu rolled their eyes.

"Tiny, it's good to see you in the flesh at long last. My, you're even bigger and stronger than I thought!" Delia said as she hugged the Pupitar, causing Tiny to blush.

"Awww, thanks Grandma," he said. "And you look much prettier than I imagined, too!"

"Oho, you're such a charmer!" Delia giggled. "Ash, you've done a good job raising him!"

"Thanks, Mom," Ash said, puffing out his chest.

"Actually, Uncle Pikachu told me to say-" Tiny started.

"Fantina, another lollipop!" Ash shouted.

"Okay!" Fantina said, conjuring another lollipop.

"No more lollipops!" Kageie growled, swiping the lollipop out of the air before it could float over to Tiny.

"Awwww!" Tiny whined.

"Can we have it? Can we have it? Can we have it?" the Gibles chanted.

"I think you've probably had enough," Judy said.

"Awwww!" the Gibles whined.

"I'll take it, then," Briney said, snatching the lollipop from the Tyranitar. "What?" he asked when everyone stared at him. "An old mon can't have some candy every now and then?" He promptly started licking it.

"Uh, right…so, Tiny! When do you think you'll have arms again?" Raiki asked.

Tiny blinked, confused by the bizarre question. "Arms? Uh…I dunno. When I evolve again?"

"Right, and when will that be?" Raiki pressed.

Tiny would have shrugged if he had shoulders. "Beats me. The last time I involved it was by drinking lots of hard alcohol, but Nurse Joy said if I try that again I might suffer permanent brain damage."

"Ah," Raiki said, disappointed.

"Ash! How could you let your son drink himself half to death like that! He's just a baby!" Delia chided the Lucario.

"It wasn't my idea…" Ash muttered.

Tiny nodded. "Yeah, it was mine."

"And you didn't stop him from going through with it?! You're his father, you're supposed to keep your children from doing stupid things!" Delia said, upset.

"Didn't seem to work with Junior…" Sapphire muttered.

"Hey!" Junior cried around the ball in his mouth.

"To be perfectly fair, Mom, he was probably about to evolve anyway," Pikachu interjected. "And Larvitars devour mountains just before evolving, so…"

"What does alcohol have to do with mountains?!" Delia cried.

"Actually, that's something I'd like to know as well," Kageie asked with a frown.

"By the time he was finished drinking, there were a mountain of empty mugs and casks," Ash said.

"…I don't think that counts," Delia said incredulously.

"Well, he evolved, so clearly it did," Pikachu pointed out. "And yes, I know it makes absolutely no sense and makes your head hurt, Mom. This sort of stuff happens all. The damn. Time."

"Well, look on the bright side, dear, at least he didn't evolve the way Bruce did," Raiki pointed out.

"That's true," Delia admitted.

"What, by eating a lot?" Tiny asked.

There was an awkward pause. "Ah, yes…eating a lot…of course…" Delia said nervously.

"That's certainly one way of putting it…" Raiki muttered. "In any case, hurry up and grow some arms already, boy! I've almost finished that sword I promised I'd make for you, but it won't be any use to you until you have something to hold it with!"

"Um, I'll do my best," Tiny said uncertainly.

"You do that," Raiki said.

"I'm still not certain I want Tiny to have a sword, you know," Kageie pointed out.

"Pish-posh, Tiny's a Thunderblade!" Raiki said dismissively. "And what's a Thunderblade without a sword?"

"It's no use arguing, miss," Matthias said resignedly. "I didn't want to use a sword at first either…or walk on my hind legs…and look at me now." The Tyranitar frowned but said no more.

"Ash, Pikachu, introduce us to your friends!" Delia commanded. "I want to meet my future daughter-in-law in person!"

I'm right here, Mrs. Ketchum, Dawn said from right next to Pikachu. I've been here for the last five minutes, actually.

"Oh! I'm sorry, dear," Delia apologized. "I didn't notice you. You know, ninja and all."

But I wasn't even trying to conceal myself… Dawn muttered.

"Well, she certainly looks interesting," Raiki commented, extending a paw. Dawn looked at it for a moment uncertainly before shaking it. "Welcome to the family, Dawn! You'll be the first ninja ever to be a member of the Thunderblades due to our tendency to kill most of the ones we encounter."

"Dear!" Delia hissed, elbowing her husband.

"What? We do! Samurai and ninjas don't usually get along," Raiki said.

Delia rolled her eyes. "Is that why you spent most of the flight arguing with one of Nuken's minions?"

"We couldn't agree on what movie to watch," Raiki said. "And he stole my peanuts."

"Nobody likes in-flight peanuts," Delia pointed out.

"It's the principle of the matter!" Raiki insisted, causing his family to sweatdrop.

Dawn bowed graciously. I am honored to be welcomed into your family. I shall endeavor to bring honor and dignity to the Thunderblade name and serve my husband and in-laws to the best of my ability.

"See that you do," Raiki said.

"Oh, it'll be so nice to have a girl your age around the house," Delia said, hugging the surprised Buneary. "As well as one who was finally able to catch my son's eye! I'm so happy for both of you!"

I…am happy as well, Dawn said, glancing at Pikachu, who smiled at her. More so than I have been in many years.

"Yeah, joining our family tends to do that to people," Raiki said. "Just look at Matthias! Before he met us, he was a spineless coward who was afraid of everything! Now he's got muscle, a backbone, can swing a sword with the best of them, and I'm pretty sure Collette has a thing for him."

"Wait, what?!" Ash and Matthias said.

Collette turned red. "Grandpa! I-I do not!"

"Uh-huh, sure you don't," Raiki said, clearly not believing it. Collette turned redder.

"…Collette has a crush on me?" an astonished Matthias whispered.

"It would explain a lot…like why she was so clingy during the slumber party the other night…" Pichu mused. "Heh, lucky you."

"Lucky?! She's my niece! I think…and a lot younger than me…" Matthias said.

"She's only your niece by adoption," Pichu pointed out. "And I don't think there's that big an age difference between you…then again, I'm not actually sure how old you are to begin with…"

"She's not even a year old!" Matthias protested.

"And way more mature and intelligent than that, which counts more than biological age…I think…we have kinda loose laws for that sort of thing back home," Pichu said.

"I've noticed," Matthias said.

"And it wouldn't be the weirdest intra-familial couplings in this family…heck one of my distant cousins actually got married to himself!" Pichu said. "Literally…there was a magic mirror and an opposite-sex clone involved…long story."

"I'll bet," Matthias said dryly.

"Anyway, you could do worse than Collette," Pichu continued. "I mean, it's not like she's crazy like Kira or anything."

"That's true," Matthias admitted, rubbing his chin in thought. He glanced at Collette, who blushed and looked away. "…Hmm…."

Collette has a 'crush' on Matthias? Hmm…could that be why Mimi has been acting so strangely around me lately? Their behavior has been similar. This Beartics further study, Mizula thought to itself.

"So, now you know Dawn and Tiny," Ash said. "Let me introduce you to the others. Guys, come over here and say hi to my parents!"

"Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Thunderblade! Leo DeKappa. It's an honor to meet you at last. You've done a great job raising Ash and Pikachu into being utter badasses, and I'm kind of a fan of some of your adventures, Mr. Thunderblade!" Leo said as he and the others came over.

"Aw, thanks, kid! Want an autograph?" Raiki asked.

"Do I!" Leo said eagerly as he whipped out his autograph book.

Delia frowned as Raiki started writing his signature in Leo's book. "Why are you wearing that?"

"Traditional Yukihimi consort outfit," Atlametheus said for what felt like the millionth time.

"Yeah, what the big guy said. Don't worry, I'm wearing something else for the big day tomorrow," Leo promised.

"That's right, it's your wedding we're all here to see, isn't it?" Raiki recalled as he handed Leo back his autograph book. "Congratulations, kiddo!"

"Heh, thanks!" Leo said.

"I wish I could have planned the wedding…oh well, I have Dawn and Pikachu's and Ash and Misty's to look forward to," Delia said cheerfully. "And I'm sure you and Lily's wedding will be quite lovely regardless. And this must be the bride-to-be?"

Lily nodded. "Yes. It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Thunderblade."

"The pleasure's all ours! Congratulations on your big day!" Raiki said. "Especially since it gave us an excuse to come over and get the family back together again! Thanks for that!"

"Yeah, thanks for giving us the chance to see Daddy again!" Sapphire said.

Lily turned redder. "I-I am happy I was able to facilitate your reunion," she said.

"And you got my family over here, too!" Leo said, nodding at his parents and siblings. "Which just makes this occasion even greater! And it couldn't have happened without you, babe!" He kissed her on the cheek, causing her to blush so hard she pulled her hat over her face in embarrassment.

"And who's the big guy behind you?" Raiki asked.

"Who, my dad? I'd have thought you'd know him from the flight over," Leo said.

"We do, we had a very nice talk about heroic legacies and our sons following in our footsteps," Brad said.

"No, I meant the Golurk," Raiki said.

"Oh! That's Atlametheus," Leo said. "He's an old retainer for the Yukihimis. He works for Lily now. And for me, once I'm officially part of the family!"

Atlamethus nodded. "That is correct."

"Neat, a butler! I've always wanted one of those…" Raiki said.

"What makes you think I'm a butler?" Atlametheus asked.

"Well, aren't you?" Delia asked.

"Well, yes, I'm just wondering where he got that conclusion from," Atlametheus said.

"You just seem like the butlering type, is all," Raiki said.

"Hrmm," Atlamethus said, not sure what to make of that.

"I'm a butler too," Butler said helpfully. "And my name is Butler."

"That's not very original," Raiki complained.

"It's a family name, and I wouldn't exactly call naming your children by their species original either," Butler said.

"You're telling me," Pichu grumbled.

"Touché," Raiki admitted grudgingly.

"And is your maid friend there named Maid?" Delia asked.

"No, I'm named Diane," Diane said wearily, with the long-suffering air of someone who'd been asked that question far, far too many times.

"Oh. Sorry," Delia said apologetically.

"You already know Sasha, but this is Captain Briney," Ash said as the Absol and Metang came over.

"It is good to see you again, Mr. and Mrs. Ketchum," Sasha said, bowing her head.

"Nice to meet you," Briney said.

Raiki looked Briney up and down appraisingly. "Heh, you're a tough nut, aren't you?"

"You have no idea," Briney said. "Just last week I punched out evil gods and ice giants. What've you done lately?"

"Helped slay an insane avatar of Groudon," Raiki said.

Briney considered this for a moment. "Eh, I guess that's something."

"And this is Fantina Fantasma and her daughters Mirami, Bow, Agatha, Morticia, Phoebe, Shauntel, and Nefertari," Ash said, gesturing to Fantina. She and each of her daughters curtsied in turn as Ash said their names. "They've been a great help getting us settled here in Fichina,"

"Greetings, Mr. and Mrs. Ketchum. Welcome to our fair land of Fichina. I trust you 'ad a pleasant flight?" Fantina asked.

"Yes, except for those Arceusdamned ninjas stealing my peanuts," Raiki said. Delia rolled her eyes.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, and everyone else. We're happy to be here," Delia said.

"Yeah…and speaking of which, where's Nuken?" Raiki said.

There was a long, long pause. "Nuken?" Pikachu asked finally

Raiki nodded. "Yeah, he spent most of the flight a nervous wreck while Missy tried to help him figure out what he was going to say to Lily when he saw her."

Their eyes widened and everyone exchanged shocked glances. "…Oh, SHIT! WE FORGOT ABOUT NUKEN!" Leo shouted in horror.

They whirled around just in time to see Kairyu, exasperated at everyone else's incompetence, finally shove his way past the bickering soldiers, grab Nuken, and pluck the Shedinja from his extremely cozy prison. "THERE," he shouted. "I JUST DID YOUR JOBS FOR YOU. YOU'RE ALL SORRY EXCUSES FOR SOLDIERS AND DESERVE TO BE STRIPPED OF YOUR RANKS AND WORSE!"

"Thank you, strange Dragonite wizard I have never met before!" Nuken said, so furious that his shell looked like it was about to explode. All the Draconian soldiers quivered and backed away from him in terror. "EVERYONE HERE WHO WORKS FOR ME AND DID NOTHING TO HELP ME IS TO BE STRIPPED OF THEIR COMMISSION, DISHONORABLY DISCHARGED, EXCOMMUNICATED, AND BANISHED FROM DRACONIAN TERRITORY FOREVER!"

"No they won't, dear," Missy said, floating up beside him and setting herself between Nuken and the Queen, whom she shot a look of pure venom and jealousy at.

"YOU'LL ALL BE DEMOTED SEVERAL RANKS, YOUR PAY CUT SEVERELY, AND YOU SHALL BE PERMANENTLY BLOCKED FROM FURTHER CAREER ADVANCEMENT!" Nuken said without a moment's hesitation.

"No they won't, dear," Missy said.

"YOU WILL RECEIVE A SEVERE TALKING-TO FROM BOTH HIS EXCELLENCY AND MYSELF AND PUT ON THREE WEEKS' SUSPENSION WITHOUT PAY!" Nuken amended again.

"No they won't, dear," Missy said.

"Dearest, stop undermining me in front of the rank and file, you're making me look bad!" Nuken hissed.

"Nukie-nuk, we've talked about this," Missy said.

"Yes, and I've said, repeatedly, that I am not going to stop being terrifying towards my subordinates! A good portion of my reputation is built on intimidation and fear, it makes it easier to convince people to do what I say without my having to get my claws bloody!" he hissed.

"Rayquaza doesn't need to rely on fear and intimidation," Missy pointed out.

"That's because he is universally beloved and has me to enforce his will!" Nuken retorted.

"Nuken…" Missy said warningly.

"Fine! FINE! YOU WIN AGAIN, ALL RIGHT?!" He shouted in frustration. Whirling to face the befuddled Draconian forces again, he said, "YOU ARE ALL TO DO EXTRA DRILLS, WRITE TEN-THOUSAND WORD ESSAYS ON EXACTLY WHAT YOU DID WRONG AND HOW YOU WILL AVOID IT IN THE FUTURE, ARE FORBIDDEN FROM LEAVING THIS EMBASSY UNTIL MY DAUGHTER'S MARRIAGE TOMORROW, AND ARE TO GO TO BED WITHOUT SUPPER! ARE WE CLEAR?!"

"Yes, General!" the soldiers shouted.

"GOOD! NOW GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!" The soldiers and ninjas all rushed away as fast as they could, not wanting to be around if he changed his mind. "THERE! ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?!" Nuken bellowed at Missy.

"Much!" The Misdreavus kissed him on the cheek. "Good job, Nuky-Nuk!"

The Shedinja twitched and had to restrain himself from cursing up a storm. "I've told you not to call me that in public."

"You're my husband, I can call you whatever I want," she said cheerfully, kissing him again and causing him to sigh wearily.

"Anyway, thank you wizard Kairyu," Nuken said, turning to Palmer. "For helping me where my own soldiers would not. Speak to me in private later and we will discuss your reward…among other things."

Kairyu bowed slowly, his eyes never leaving Nuken's as an Understanding passed between them. "I would be honored, my Lord."

In the meantime, Queen Ninianne was dressing down her own forces, though she was less loud about it as Nuken had been. "I am very disappointed in all of you," she said sternly to her soldiers, servants, and Princess Boa. "Your conduct was unbecoming of members of my armed forces. You should all be ashamed of yourselves."

"We're sorry, Mother," Princess Boa said quietly, chastened and shamefaced. "I allowed things to escalate far past the point where I should have put a stop to it. Lay the blame on me."

"I fully intend to," Ninianne said coldly. "Although I can't say I'm exactly pleased with the behavior of some of my other most trusted vassals. Ambassador Stoutroot, Daimyo Leeku, Lord Drayden, dare I ask why neither of you lifted a finger to help out?"
The two Pokémon froze with the look of a Deerling caught in the headlights on their face. "I was afraid that, due to my size and strength, if I came into contact with the Draconians and accidentally hurt any of them while trying to extricate Nuken from your…ahem, person, it might trigger an international incident," Stoutroot said, quickly throwing his bottle away.

"And I was worried that, as densely packed as things were around you, if I attempted to come in and help you, it might only make things worse," Leeku said.

"And I was too busy being unconscious," Drayden said wearily.

"Right on top of me," Iris complained, trying to straighten out her dress, which had been rather badly wrinkled and crumpled beneath her father's weight.

"…I suppose that is acceptable," the Queen said, much to their relief. "However, I am still disappointed in all of you, and we will talk more of this later."

"Yes, your Magisty," the three vassals said miserably.

"I wish to be there when you speak with Drayden," Nuken said sinisterly. "He is a citizen of my government, as well, and his conduct was most unbecoming of one of our regional governors." Drayden swallowed nervously.

"Very well, but that can wait until later," the Queen said. "For now, I believe it is time for us to at last reunite you with your daughter."

Nuken blinked. "My daughter? What about-" It was then, and only then, he remembered why he had come here in the first place, and realized that Lily and her friends were standing only a few meters away, and had witnessed his explosive temper firsthand. Not the best first impression to make, if her rigidity and the look of horror on her face were anything to go by. "Oh. Yes. My daughter," he said weakly.

"Don't worry, Nuky-nuk," Missy whispered, leaning close to him. "Just do everything we talked about on the flight and everything will be fine."

"I can't remember anything we talked about on the flight," he said numbly.

"Oh," Missy said, looking rather cross. She'd spent hours working with him on what he could do and say to win Lily over. "Then we may have a problem."

Queen Ninianne beckoned, and Nuken stiffly followed as she and the rest of the Fichinan contingent led himself, Missy, and Kairyu towards the cautious-looking Team Aurabolt and their allies. The Queen glanced around, looked momentarily annoyed when she realized the herald had fled as well, then shrugged and decided to just do it herself. "Lady Yukihimi, Team Aurabolt, and esteemed members of the DeKappa and Thunderblade families, allow me to introduce His Eminence Lord General Nuken Shinobu of the Draconian Empire and Her Eminence Lady Mysteriu Shinobu of the Draconian Empire. They have come a long way to meet you." She stepped aside, so that nothing stood between Lily and her father.

Neither of them moved. They stared at each other, each stricken with terror and doubt and uncertainty.

For Nuken, he was confronted with the daughter he'd spent centuries searching for, a Pokémon who'd spent her entire unlife under the thumb of the evilest witch undead, a girl he knew next to nothing about other than what Dawn had reported to him and had little, if anything, in common with him. Someone who was terrified of him, just like everyone else on Earth, rather than loving him.

For Lily, she was confronted with the father she had never known, the paternal figure that had been absent her entire unlife, a Pokémon she had absolutely nothing in common with who shared far too many characteristics with her mother for her liking, a mon she could not comprehend or relate to. Someone who claimed to love her, but hadn't done much to show it.

Missy prodded Nuken, causing him to start. He was so high-strung that his combat reflexes nearly kicked in, and he only barely managed to stop himself from decapitating her. Voice cracking, something that hadn't happened to him in…well, ever, he managed to say, "L-Lily!"

Lily swallowed. Leo squeezed a tendril to remind her he was there. Mustering her courage, she managed to say, "Yes?"

Nuken started to say something, and then paused, his mind completely blank. "I…I am your father!" he finally managed to spurt out, causing a great many Pokémon to wince at how awkward and pointless that statement was.

"Y-yes," Lily stammered, equally at a loss for words. "And I am your daughter."

"Good!" Nuken said. He kicked himself for that. Seriously? 'Good?' That was the best he could do?

Another long, tense silence passed. Everyone fidgeted, feeling more and more anxious the more seconds passed. Straining his mind for conversation starters, Nuken finally came up with something simple and non-confrontational. "Y-you look very nice!"

Lily blinked, momentarily taken aback. "Um…th-thank you. You…do not look half-bad yourself."

This was a lie, of course. His robes were pretty much completely ruined from all the stampedes and collisions and people trying to pull him out of Ninianne's…tracts of land and he looked terrible and they both knew it. He appreciated the gesture, though. Somewhat encouraged, he said, "You look even lovelier than your Mother did when we first-"

He knew the second the words left his mouth that had been the wrong move, especially when her face darkened and her body stiffened. "Don't talk about my mother."

Right. Right. Of course she wouldn't want to talk about Bellum. Abyss, he didn't want to talk about her either. Who would? "Uh…" His mind, usually capable of formulating and executing brilliant tactics and strategies within seconds, was now struggling pathetically to think of something to say. "Uh…this is…my wife, Missy!" he said, pushing Missy forward, much to her surprise. "Say hello, Missy!"

Missy blinked, shot her husband an annoyed look, and then gave Lily a reassuring smile. "Hello, Lily. I'm Missy, your stepmother. I'm overjoyed to meet you at last. My husband never gave up looking for you, you know, and I'd always hoped you two would see each other someday…and that day is today, and I'm here for our first true family reunion! Isn't it wonderful?"

Lily was far from calmed down by the other Misdreavus's nonthreatening smile. She seemed normal, but how could anyone sane possibly want to get married to someone as horrifying as her father was said to be? The Meowth-ear accessories didn't strike her as a strong indicator of normality. And besides, hadn't Leo said that most stepmothers were evil? (Although, compared to her biological mother, she couldn't possibly be more evil…) "Um. Yes. I suppose."

"She's pregnant!" Nuken blurted out somewhat desperately. "With your little half-brother. Or half-sister. I'm not actually sure which yet."

"Okay," Lily said, having absolutely no idea whatsoever how to feel about that. She already had one sibling. She didn't like her very much. She wasn't sure she wanted another.

Missy's smile started fading. Close to panicking, Nuken looked around for something to talk about, and then his eyes fell upon Leo. "Ah! Leo!"

Leo stiffened. "Y-yeah?" Lily hovered protectively close to him.

"It's…good…to see you…" Nuken said slowly, finding the words incredibly difficult to say. "Your parents wouldn't stop talking about you on the flight. Or your siblings."

Leo raised an eyebrow. "Yeah?"

"Yes. It was quite annoy—er, interesting!" Nuken said quickly starting to sweat. How odd. He couldn't remember the last time he'd sweated. "That's…an interesting outfit you're wearing," he said, casting about for another conversation starter.

"It's a traditional Yukihimi consort's uniform," Leo said.

"Ah. Good. Observing tradition. Very good. Yes," Nuken said. "Of course, the traditional Draconian consort's uniform is completely different."

"Yes, it's even more revealing. I looked it up," Leo said. He frowned. "Which doesn't make much sense since most of us don't wear clothes anyway, so what's the big deal?"

"…I have no idea," Nuken admitted.

"Well, I like my clothes," Missy said. "They make me feel pretty."

"You look pretty all the time, dear," Nuken said automatically.

"Yes, but now I feel even prettier," Missy said happily.

"Well, I think Lily looks smokin' in her outfit," Leo commented.

"What did you just call my daughter?!" Nuken snarled reflexively, snapping under the tension, the awkwardness, and long-dormant paternal instinct.

"Waaahh! Nothing, nothing! I-I didn't mean that-" Leo stammered.

"Oh, so she's not attractive enough for your twisted lusts? Is that what you're saying?!" Nuken asked furiously, his temper, still simmering from the various indignities he'd already suffered, burning out of control from this perceived slight. "That my daughter's not good enough for you because of those scars on her face?!"

"What? No! Dude, chill, that's not what I was-" Leo started.

"Chill? CHILL? You tell me to chill?! I'LL CHILL YOU-" Nuken roared.

"Nuken, stop!" Missy cried, only to be drowned out by Lily's screaming, "DON'T YOU DARE TOUCH HIM!" followed by her spontaneously bursting into flame, her blessing from Reshiram manifesting around her.

Nuken started backwards in surprise. "Wh-what?!"

"YOU WILL NOT HURT LEO!" Lily screamed, flames billowing off of her in his direction. Nuken had to quickly float back to keep from being burnt. "HE IS MINE, AND I WON'T LET YOU, OR MOTHER, OR ANYONE ELSE TAKE HIM FROM ME!"

"T-take him from you?" he stammered. "I…I wasn't…I…" He paused, reassessing the last few moments. Realizing what he had said. How he had let his temper get the best of him. "I…I didn't…I didn't mean…" He stopped. Everyone was staring at him, with a look of shock and horror he knew all too well. A look he usually reveled in, but, for once, did not find quite as enjoyable as he usually did.

They were looking at him as if he were a monster.

Which was exactly what he was.

"I…" He shook his head slowly, despair washing over him. "I'm sorry. This was a mistake. I should never have come here."

And then he vanished, as only a ninja could.

For a moment, everyone was silent from shock. Then, Missy screamed, "Nuken? Nuky-nuk? Where are you?!" and frantically flew away, desperately searching the courtyard for any sign of her husband. Nobody noticed Kairyu step away and disappear as well.

The flames surrounding Lily dissipated, revealing that her fine garments, designed for ice sorceresses, had not survived the intense magical heat she'd generated and had turned to ash, coating her skin and falling to the ground, turning the clouds a dark gray. Sobbing, her makeup ran down her face and her hair fell out of its carefully arranged style as she collapsed into Leo's waiting arms. One by one, her friends in Team Aurabolt and among Fantina's children solemnly surrounded her and joined in on the embrace. They were followed by Leo's siblings, who wanted to comfort their sister-in-law-to-be, and Teams Awesome and GX, who wanted to join their brothers and father, and then the Thunderblade and DeKappa adults added their hugs as well, Brad looming over them in his mechanical body as they all showered the despondent Lily with their love and compassion.

I…I do not understand, B whispered. That…that is not how it was supposed to happen. That is not how it was supposed to happen at all.

"Zat…zat did not go at all 'ow I 'ad 'oped," Fantina whispered.

"That's an understatement," Diane said softly.

"Oh, Mistress…" Atlametheus said sadly.

Queen Ninianne closed her eyes and shook her head sadly. Drayden sighed. "That could probably have gone better…"

"Dad?" Iris said quietly.

"Yes, honey?" the Haxorus asked.

"I think I finally understand why everyone's so scared of Nuken Shinobu," the Axew said.

Drayden said nothing, staring at where his superior had just been. "I think he might be as well…and I'm not sure he's as happy with the knowledge as he thought he would be."

"I can negotiate peace treaties between feuding tribes and nations easily…but fixing the rift between father and daughter? That's beyond my expertise…" Stoutroot said sadly.

"Don't you have a daughter?" Leeku asked.

"Yes, and I have a great relationship with her. I have no idea where to even start with the gulf between Nuken and Lily," Stoutroot said. Leeku nodded in somber understanding, wishing there were a way to improve things with his son…namely, to improve his son, period.

For a time, there was no sound across the courtyard save for Lily's weeping and Missy's increasingly desperate cries for Nuken…

Until abruptly, Jujimaru asked, "So, am I allowed to talk yet? And can I have one of those lollipops the other kids kept eating?" Everyone stared at him incredulously. "What?"

Leeku facepalmed.

Some time later…

After that rather disastrous event, the rest of the day had gone fairly smoothly. Team Aurabolt took their family and friends on a tour of New Avalon, narrated by Briney of all people, who wanted to put all that information on Fichina he'd read up on back in Oak's library to good use. Several of their Fichinan friends came with them to provide more up-to-date information and put a local spin on the places they saw and the people they met, and by and large they had a good time and even managed to forget about Lily and Nuken's horrible reunion for a little while.

Speaking of which, nobody had seen shell or claw of the Shedinja since he had disappeared. The Draconian soldiers and ninjas were scouring the city with the help of Fichinan law enforcement, but even with the best scryers and seers and trackers in town on the case, nobody could find any trace of the missing Nuken…or Kairyu, for some reason, but it took quite some time before anyone realized he was missing as well. Missy had excused herself from the rest of the party to help search for her husband (Which mainly consisted of her floating down the streets shouting "NUKY-NUK! WHERE ARE YOU?" at the top of her lungs), and Lily could not honestly say she was sad to see her go. The not-quite-right-in-the-head Misdreavus made her uncomfortable, and not just due to her being her stepmother, though that probably played a large part in it. In any event, with Missy gone, Lily was able to relax and get to know her soon-to-be-in-laws better…though in the back of her mind, she was still hurting badly from the way her fateful meeting with her father had gone. She'd expected it to be bad. She hadn't expected it to be that bad, however.

When the Sun finally went down and they all started to get tired of their sightseeing, they adjourned to the Yukihimi estate out in the countryside for the requisite rehearsal dinner. I shan't bore you with the details of the rehearsal—especially since the events of the big day will be occurring shortly—so we shall instead skip ahead to the dinner itself, taking place in one of the estate's absolutely lavish dining halls. It was a vaulted high-ceilinged chamber so tall that a few of the Enchanted Express's cars could probably have fit inside stacked on top of each other. It was made completely of ice, naturally, along with every other room in the manor, and sparkled like diamonds. (And the actual diamonds set here and there sparkled as well.) Ice sculptures of members of Team Aurabolt, Lily herself, and several esteemed members of the Yukihimi family—not Bellum, thankfully—gracefully levitated around the room, with the most important figures receiving the largest statues. Naturally, Lily herself and her friends all got the biggest sculptures. The floor of the chamber was a frigid lake with icebergs and ice floes bobbing about with runes, friezes, frescoes, and all sorts of magnificent iconography not only depicting scenes from the Yukihimi family history but important events in Lily's life—almost none taken from the three hundred years previous to the last few weeks, naturally-carved or hollowed out into their sides. Chandeliers carved from giant icicles dangled from the ceiling, glittering diamonds and ice crystals catching the light and refracting it around the room. The ceiling was covered in clear crystalline windows allowing a spectacular view of the night sky, and one of the walls was covered in floor-to-ceiling windows showing the gorgeous glacial mountainside just outside, with Ice-type Pokémon and magical creatures occasionally walking by, taking a brief look inside at the dinner, and proceeding on their way. An ice giant had peeked in at one point out of curiosity, but scurried away when Briney glared at it.

The guests; Team Aurabolt, the Fantasmas, the DeKappas, the Thunderblades, Bianca and her father Don George, Melanie, Dean and Bob, Bruno, Brycen, the Goldorringtons, Cherry, Rebecca, Todd, Leeku, Jujimaru, Iris, Lugia, Kyurem, Princess Boa, the Queen, Mr. Sukizo, the crew of the Enchanted Express, and a bunch of nobles and aristocrats and other creatures loyal to the Yukihimi family were all seated on tables carved, naturally, out of ice and placed on some of the aforementioned icebergs and floes so that they could peacefully drift around the room and occasionaly bump into each other, leading to rather amusing arguments whenever they got too close to each other. Ambassador Stoutroot could not attend because he was still trying to smooth things over at the Draconian Embassy, and Drayden and Missy were out looking for Nuken, so could not attend. Pretty much all of the aforementioned named Pokémon were on an exclusive table perched atop a towering ice pillar rising from the center of the room, mere meters beneath the largest chandelier. Everyone was bundled up in fashionable warm clothing or heated by magical flames so as to withstand the chill and treated to an assortment of fantastic and exotic meals served by an endless procession of ice elementals, Snorunts, Spheals, Swinubs, Sealeos, Prinplups, Empoleons, Delibirds, Abomasnows, Glaceons, Beartics, Jynxes, Lapras, Cryogonals and ice trolls in very stylish tuxedos. (There were Froslasses working at the estate too, but they were forbidden from coming anywhere near Lily, for obvious reasons.) As mistress of the house, Lily sat at the head of the table, with Leo at her right side and Atlametheus standing right behind her chair, her friends and family spread out all around her as they ate and chatted and laughed and by and large had a simply wonderful evening.

A wonderful evening that came to a halt when Atlametheus tapped Lily on the shoulder and whispered, "My apologies, Mistress, but there is someone here to see you."

Lily, looking resplendent once more and every inch the wealthy heiress thanks to a touch-up from Fantina and her daughters just before dinner, reluctantly glanced away from Leo, who she'd been having more and more difficulty taking her eyes off of as their wedding approached. "Who is it?"

"A Ninjask," Atlametheus said, stepping aside and nodding towards a Ninjask standing a respectful distance away from the table clad in a black shinobi shozoko with a long red scarf. "His name is Koga. Does that name mean anything to you?"

Lily frowned and stared at the Ninjask in puzzlement. "I…do not believe so. May I help you?"

The Ninjask glided forward as silently as only a ninja could, and was hovering right next to her in mere seconds. "I apologize for interrupting your lovely dinner, milady, but I have an urgent matter to speak to you about. It regards…your father."

Lily stiffened. Shock rushed through her, followed by a rage that burned so strongly the chair she was in started melting. "I want nothing to do with that mon."

"He did not send me," Koga said quickly. "Although he is nearby, he has no intention of approaching you tonight. I am here of my own volition. There is something important about him you have to know. Something that only I can tell you."

"And what would that something be?" Lily asked skeptically.

"The reason for his behavior today. The reason he is the way he is," Koga said.

"I already know what the reason is," Lily said bitterly. "He's a monster. Just like my mother."

"He is a monster," Koga agreed. "But not like your mother, and not for the same reasons."

"What are you talking about?" Lily asked in confusion.

"Come with me, and I will explain," Koga said.

"That seems incredibly suspicious," Lily said skeptically.

"This is a matter of utmost secrecy. I cannot divulge it in front of so many Pokémon," the Ninjask said, gesturing at the rest of the table, who by now had noticed him and were peering at him curiously, wondering what he wanted with Lily. "And in any event, if this were a trap—which it is not—I would be unable to kill you even if I had you to myself, not here, where your family's magic is strongest and protects you from virtually all assailants."

Lily's eyes narrowed in suspicion, still not buying it. "And how do I know you're not just leading me straight to my father so he can try and give me some half-assed apology?"

"As I said before, he has no intention of approaching you, out of guilt for his actions earlier. In fact, he is strongly considering leaving and never seeing you again," Koga said.

"Good," Lily said sharply, though a part of her felt profoundly saddened and disappointed at this.

"Not good. It will devastate him and break his heart…and while some could say that's impossible because he has no heart to break, or that he deserves it for the things he has done…I know otherwise. Just as I know it will hurt you as well," Koga said. Lily frowned at this, an uncertain look on her face. "I will take you to your father if you wish after I give you an explanation, but only if that is your choice. If, even after hearing my story, you still want nothing to do with him, I shall leave you be…and you shall never see me or your father again. All I ask is that you hear me out first. Will you at least grant me that?"

Lily chewed her lip in thought. "I…"

"Hey, Lily, what's going on here? This guy giving you trouble?" Leo asked in concern.

"'Cause if he is, we've got no problem taking care of him," Briney said, cracking his knuckles, overjoyed at the prospect of a fight and a chance to get away from this rather dull (to him) dinner. This sentiment seemed to be echoed by most of the other guests, as they started pushing their chairs away from the table, reaching for their weapons, or glaring warningly at the Ninjask at Lily's side, who didn't seem particularly perturbed by the hostility directed at him.

Lily smiled, her spirits rising and her heart warming at the knowledge that all these people were so ready and willing to defend her honor at the drop of a hat. She was truly blessed to have such good friends and family as these. I've come a long way, haven't I? she realized.

You certainly have. I'm not your only friend anymore, Lily…and I'm happy for both of us that that's no longer the case, B said joyfully.

Lily glanced at Koga, frowning again. But…I don't know. Should I do this?

His intentions feel honest. He cares for you, as well as for Nuken. I think you should at least listen to him, Lily. Whatever happens after that is up to you, B said.

Lily sighed, making her decision. Very well. "All right," Lily said reluctantly. "I will come with you."

"Thank you, milady," Koga said, bowing.

"On one condition," Lily said. "I want my fiancé to come with me."

Leo blinked in surprise. "Huh? Really? Sweet!"

"What, just him?" Briney complained.

"This is a private matter, Briney," Lily said. "And if there's one person I can share secrets with, it's my husband-to-be."

"You realize I can just poke around in your brains later and find it out for myself, right?" the Metang asked.

"Not anymore, thanks to the mental shielding techniques Fantina's been teaching me," Lily said, causing Fantina to smile proudly.

"And the magitech I've installed into my shell since we got here will also keep my mind from being read if I don't want it to be," Leo said smugly. "So our minds are off-limits from now on, Briney!"

Pikachu looked intrigued at this. "Hmm…is that so? That actually sounds pretty useful. I don't suppose you could make something like that for the rest of us?"

"Sure, no probs," Leo assured him.

Briney fumed. "Wonderful. Now I actually have to respect people's privacy for a change. That's no fun."

"Think of it as a learning experience," Sasha said. "Now maybe you won't be so quick to poke your nose into other people's business."

"Have you seen the size of my nose, woman?" Briney asked, pointing at the prodigious spike growing from his face. "This thing is made for poking!" Many of the others laughed at that. Briney did not. He hadn't been joking.

Koga scratched his chin as he regarded Leo somewhat doubtfully for a moment. "…Very well. I suppose he might as well know as well, especially considering he's marrying into the family."

Leo blinked. "Huh? What do you mean?"

"Come with me, and I shall explain," Koga said cryptically.

Leo rolled his eyes. "Typical."

Lily floated out of her chair. "Everyone, I beg your pardon but it looks like something important has come up. Leo and I will be back shortly."

"It's no problem. Take your time," Ash said.

"Yeah, especially since it means more food for us!" Junior said eagerly, stuffing his mouth with the contents of what had to be his twenty-sixth helping, much to the disgust of his siblings, and the amusement of Leo's brothers and sister, who were doing their best to match him in an impromptu eating contest.

"Except for me…" Brad said wistfully, staring at his plate, which still had the same exact amount of food it had from when it had been placed in front of him about an hour ago.

"Chin up, Dad, I'm sure I'll figure out a way to make it possible for you to eat again someday," Leo said.

Brad smiled at that. "I'll hold you to that promise. If anyone can do it, it's you, son."

"Heh, yeah, I certainly could," Leo boasted.

"Leo…" Lily prompted.

"Huh? Oh, right, let's go," Leo said, hopping out of his chair. He paused, then whirled around and shot a look at Ludwig, who'd been surreptitiously reaching for his plate while the Squirtle's back was turned. "And nobody touch my food while I'm gone, okay?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," the Gible said, snatching his hand back and trying and failing to look completely innocent. Leo glared at him, pointed two fingers at his eyes then back at Ludwig, and turned and walked after Lily and Koga as they floated towards the edge of the ice pillar. Ludwig waited until he was sure nobody was looking, then snatched the plate, stuffed the whole thing in his mouth (yes, the plate too), chewed, swallowed, belched loudly and sat there with a beatific look on his face. Everyone stared at him. "What? I didn't do anything!" he claimed. He burped, and a piece of the plate he'd just eaten flew out and landed on Junior's plate. The Donphan grabbed it without looking and shoved it in his mouth. He paused, then turned blue and started choking. Collette gasped in horror. Ash lunged across the table, knocking over several ice sculptures and artfully arranged food platters in the process, grabbed his son, and frantically started performing the Heimlich maneuver…incorrectly, causing Junior to choke even more while everyone else started frantically yelling confusing and contradictory instructions to him which only served to make things worse. The glares on Ludwig intensified. He laughed nervously. "Uh…it was Drakor Junior!"

"No it wasn't!" Drakor Junior protested.

His siblings ignored him and chanted, "Drakor Junior! Drakor Junior! Drakor Junior!"

"New Mommy! New Daddy!" the runt whined.

"Kids, stop blaming your littlest brother for something that was obviously Ludwig's fault," Judy said without looking up from her plate.

"Yes, New Mommy," the other Gibles groaned.

"Darn it!" Ludwig cursed.

Unaware of the drama unfolding behind them, Leo, Lily, and Koga left the platform; the two flyers floating out across the indoor lake while Leo trotted across a bridge of ice pillars that rose out of the water one after another to allow him to follow in his fiance's wake. Koga led them to one of several doors fashioned into the panes of the floor-to-celing windows that opened onto exterior balconies overlooking the glacial tundra. The doors automatically swung open at Lily's approach, allowing them to exit the dining hall.

Leo shuddered slightly as they stepped out; it was even colder outside than it was inside the ice palace, weirdly enough. Lily extended an ectoplasmic tendril and touched his shoulder, casting a heating spell that warmed him up. He sighed in relief and shot her a look of gratitude. She returned the smile with a loving look of her own, which vanished as she turned to Koga. "All right. We're out here. Say your peace and leave us be. Tomorrow is my wedding, and I don't want to ruin it by getting anymore upset than I already was today."

"Yeah, you tell him, Lily!" Leo said.

"First, dismiss the ice spirits and servants nearby and disable any listening spells that might be recording what we're saying," Koga said. He glanced at Leo. "And you, Leonardo, shut off the recorders you've started playing in your shell to try and catch what I say for use as potential blackmail material later."

Leo didn't bat an eye. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Leo, turn off the recorders," Lily said.

"Babe, I don't have any-" Leo started.

"Leo," Lily implored him.

Leo looked at her, sighed, and shrugged in defeat. "Okay, okay." He retracted an arm into his shell for a moment. "There, they're off."

"All of them?" Koga asked.

"Yes," Leo said. Koga stared at him. "Really. They're all off." Koga continued staring at him. "Honest to Arceus, I'm not recording anything."

"Leo…" Lily said.

"Oh, fine," Leo said in exasperation, retracting an arm again. "There, now they're all off. For real. Satisfied?"

"Not yet. Lady Yukihimi?" Koga asked, glancing at Lily.

Her eyes flickered briefly. "I've disabled the estate's listening spells around this spot and cast a privacy spell so that none of my friends back inside can hear what we're talking about, no matter how hard they try to eavesdrop, which they're currently trying very hard to do right now." She turned around and looked pointedly through the window at everyone seated at the big dining table, who were indeed all watching the three of them with profound interest. When the Misdreavus caught them staring, they quickly went back to their meals and conversations, pretending they hadn't been trying to spy on her.

"That probably won't stop Cherry, though," Leo pointed out. "She probably already knows whatever you're about to say to us."

Back inside…

"Say, Cherry, I don't suppose you know what they're-" Rebecca started conversationally.

"Not telling," the oracle said flatly.

Rebecca shrugged apologetically to the others, who sighed in disappointment. "Well, I tried."

Back outside…

"I'll deal with that problem when it comes up," Koga said. "Anyway, I brought you out here for a reason. First things first: Lily, I am your uncle."

"Say WHA?!" Leo cried at the same time Lily stammered. "Wh-what?!"

Koga nodded. "Yes, I suppose it must come as a shock."

"M-my uncle?!" Lily gasped. "How is that possible?!"

"I am your father's brother," Koga explained.

Lily blinked. "…My father has a brother?!"

"I did not know that," Leo said in astonishment. "And I thought I knew almost everything!"

I knew it, B said.

Why didn't you mention it sooner?! Lily demanded.

It didn't seem important at the time, B said.

"Is this really that much of a surprise?" Koga asked, bemused. "Nuken is a Shedinja. All Shedinja have Ninjask twins."

Leo stopped to consider this for a moment. "…You know, that's actually a good point."

"But…then why didn't anyone tell me about this?" Lily asked.

"My existence is not public knowledge. In fact, officially speaking, I don't even exist," Koga said. "That makes it easier for me to do my job. Also, Nuken does such a good job of drawing attention to himself that few if any people ever spare a thought as to who or where his Ninjask twin is, or even realize that one must exist. A rather impressive act of misdirection if I do say so myself."

Leo whistled. "Yeah, really."

"Then…you are…family?" Lily asked softly.

Koga nodded. "I am. And that is why I wish to intercede on my brother's behalf, though not with his knowledge or blessing…because I fear that if he is unable to reconcile with you, then he may not have much of a future ahead of him."

Lily gave him a confused look. "What are you talking about?"

"Yeah, start making some sense already!" Leo said.

"My brother is a monster. I would be the first to acknowledge it, next to Nuken himself. Do you know why he is one, however?" Koga asked.

"I don't really care," Lily huffed, although that wasn't entirely true.

"Uh…Training from Hell? Bad genetics?" Leo posited.

"That's part of it," Koga admitted. "There is a recurring strain of madness and sociopathy in our family line…"

Leo stiffened. "Wait, really? Then…hold on…does that mean when Lily and I have kids, they might…"

Leo turned red, both from embarrassment…and horror at what her fiancé was suggesting. "L-Leo!"

"I cannot say," Koga said apologetically. "Lily herself seems free of the taint of our bloodline, but that does not necessarily mean it won't manifest in any of your offspring."

"Oh no…" Lily whispered, turning pale.

"However, there are…methods to suppress those traits in a Pokémon of our family while they are still in the egg so they does not emerge later in life," Koga assured them. "It's not something we do regularly, since those traits are often a great asset in our line of work, but I rather doubt any children of yours will be doing quite the same thing mine do."

"No, they most certainly will not!" Lily said sharply…surprising herself a minute later, because she realized that, for the first time, this meant she one hundred percent actually wanted children. It was rather exhilarating, and from the giddy look on Leo's face, it was clear he had realized and was experiencing the same thing.

Koga nodded. "Then when the time comes, I shall make those methods known to you. However, that has little to do with our current subject."

"My father," Lily said.

"And why we should give a damn about why he's such a jerk," Leo said angrily.

"You should," Koga said. "Because he made himself that way out of an act of love, something which I will always be grateful for and regretful of."

They gave him confused looks. "Huh? What're you talking about?"

"I do not understand," said the perplexed Lily.

"When a Nincada evolves, it splits into two beings…a Ninjask and a Shedinja," Koga explained.

"Well, duh, everyone knows that," Leo snorted, rolling his eyes.

"And did you know that when the Nincada evolves, its personality traits are divided between its two offshoots?" Koga asked.

Leo paused. "…Okay, that's new."

"What do you mean?" asked the confused Lily.

"I mean that when a Nincada evolves, the Ninjask and Shedinja are not necessarily the exact same Pokémon they were before," Koga explained. "While they share the same memories pre-evolution, afterwards they can be completely different Pokémon. Some aspects of the Nincada's personality may be dominant in the Ninjask, while other traits might be dominant in the Shedinja. Sometimes traits will even be unique to one of the two rather than being shared between them, making them completely different and unique individuals."

"Cool…" Leo said, intrigued.

Lily frowned in concern. "But…if that's the case…then doesn't that mean when you evolve, the original you…dies?"

Koga shrugged. "Well, considering a Ghost is spawned by our evolution, that's a fair way of looking at it. That's not the way our kind sees it, though. We consider it as less of a death and more of a…metamorphosis, into a new form. Then again, an argument can be made saying that that's all death itself is, really…and as ninjas, we are trained from birth not to fear death, so it doesn't really bother us much. And besides, we still have the memories of our original self even after our divergent evolution, so it's not as if that Nincada is really gone, is it?"

"I suppose not," Lily admitted uncertainly.

"Huh, so it's kind of like when the Doctor regenerates?" Leo asked.

"I suppose that's one way of looking at it," Koga admitted, and Leo's esteem of him rose immensely for getting the reference at once without him having to explain it. His excitement rose when he saw the instant look of comprehension on Lily's face indicating she knew exactly what he was talking about as well. She really did listen when he rambled, didn't he? She really is the perfect girl for me…damn, I'm one lucky son of a mother…by which I mean my mother, who's pretty awesome.

"Sometimes when we evolve, the personality traits are divided evenly between the two of us so that we are both almost exact clones of the original Nincada, practically one Pokémon in two bodies, which is furthered by the empathic link we share with our twins. That is not always the case, however, and it certainly wasn't with my brother and I," Koga said.

"We can see that, you're having a way easier time talking to us than he did," Leo observed.

"Thank you," Koga said, sounding a little sad. "But…that is not how it was intended to be."

Lily frowned. "What do you mean?"

"When I was a Nincada, I was basically a fusion of Nuken and my current self," Koga said. "However, that meant that while I possessed the skills, cunning, and fighting ability both of us currently do-though in somewhat lesser degrees since I was still a Trainee-I also possessed Nuken's temper and bloodlust, untempered by discipline and control due to my youth. I was a danger to everyone around me, even my own friends and family, and certainly unfit to complete my training and fulfill my duties as a servant to His Excellency, the Holy Dragon God King Rayquaza. I spent far more time than I care to remember being punished, locked in isolation, or reprimanded for my failure to properly tame my fury…which only made it that much stronger and volatile."

"Ouch," Leo said with a wince.

"But…you aren't like that now. What happened?" Lily asked.

"I evolved," Koga said simply. "The Elders believed that by evolving me, the rage festering within me would be evenly split between my Ninjask and Shedinja selves, reducing it to more manageable levels and allowing both of us to properly finish our training and take our place among our brethren in the Dragon's Head clan, loyally serving our exalted master from the shadows. And while I was filled with anger, I also wanted to serve my king and country, so I agreed to the somewhat…unorthodox training program they proscribed in hopes it would allow me to finally be somewhat…normal, something I had secretly craved ever since I was aware of just how different I was from everyone else."

"…Oh my," Lily said quietly.

"That sucks, dude. I've been there," Leo said sadly. "Well, not exactly there, but I know what it's like to be different and wish you could fit in…but then I realized being different is AWESOME and there's no reason for me to conform like the rest of those Mareep and decided to love me for who I was, which, uh, wasn't exactly an option for you, was it?"

Koga shook his head. "No, it wasn't."

Lily frowned. "When you say…'unorthodox training,' what do you mean?"

"My anger issues and violent outbursts made me a threat to myself and my brethren, so they put me on an accelerated—and extremely dangerous—training regimen to fast-track me to evolution as quickly as possible," Koga explained. "I also attended frequent therapy sessions—not that those helped me any—and volunteered to take part in a series of experiments to try and enhance my characteristics and abilities to create an 'ultimate ninja,' so that once I evolved both myselves would be capable of surpassing the limits of our kind and becoming among the greatest warriors in the history of the Draconian Empire. As my brother's infamy demonstrates, it worked. Well, that part did, anyway."

"It certainly didn't, not if he's still such an angry jerk," Leo complained.

"What happened? Did something go wrong with the experiments? Leo told me that sort of thing happens all the time," Lily asked in concern. She frowned. "Which begs the question of why they do those experiments in the first place…"

Koga shook his head. "No, the experiments worked perfectly. I became one of the strongest and deadliest Nincadas to ever live, and thanks to the accelerated training I was on the verge of evolution, which would cause the abilities of both my Ninjask and Shedinja selves to exceed the wildest expectations of our teachers and peers. However, when I evolved, something…happened."

"What?" Leo and Lily asked.

"As I started to split in two, I could feel my personality beginning to divide. However, rather than my traits being evenly shared between the two of us as had been hoped, they were almost randomly scattered between us, despite the training we'd performed to try and keep that from happening," Koga said.

"And let me guess, all the bad stuff you were trying to mitigate between you instead consolidated in one big lump and went into Nuken?" Leo guessed.

"No, it went into me," Koga said.

"Bwah?!" Leo bwahed.

Lily started. "Wh-what?! But…but you seem so…"

"Calm? In control?" Koga said. "I am…because of my brother's sacrifice."

"What do you mean?" Lily asked.

"When my brother developed enough of a consciousness to become at least partially self-aware in mid-evolution, he realized what was happening to me, and was horrified. When we were one, all we had ever wanted was to be closer to normal, and now it looked as if one of us was going to be denied that chance permanently. So, he did possibly the most selfless act he would ever commit: he used the link between us, still very strong due to the fact that we hadn't fully separated yet, to instead draw as much of the rage and bloodlust beginning to fill me into himself as he could, sending as many of the more positive traits he'd already absorbed to fill the void the anger had left and keep me from being empty. By the time I realized what he was doing, it was too late to reverse the process and the evolutionary separation was complete. I became Koga…and he became Nuken," Koga said quietly. "He made himself into a monster to give me a chance at normality, while he…he condemned himself to spend the rest of his days as remorseless killing machine, feared and hated by nearly the entire world."

They stared at him in astonishment. "Dude," Leo said finally. "That's…that's heavy, mon. I didn't think him capable of something like that!"

"He isn't, now," Koga said sadly. "At least, I don't think he is. But once, he was…and now, he never will be again."

"My…my father…did that?" Lily whispered in astonishment.

"He did," Koga said with a nod. "He sacrificed himself to keep me from becoming like what he is now…something for which I am eternally grateful, and eternally sorry."

"…Damn," Leo said, scratching his head.

Lily's face twisted in anguish and uncertainty. "But why…why did he act that way to Leo before, then?"

Koga sighed. "My brother is a brilliant tactician and politician, an exceptional warrior and advisor…but a terrible ninja, and not…good with people, though I suppose that's a bit of an understatement."

"Ya think?" Leo asked sardonically.

Lily frowned in puzzlement. "What do you mean, he's a lousy ninja?"

"He lacks the proper emotional restraint, which I possess," Koga explained. "His fury burns hot and passionate…which is rather ironic, considering he's weak against fire. A ninja must be swift, silent, stealthy, and discrete. While Nuken can be swift, silent, and stealthy when he really wants to be, discrete isn't something he does very well."

"Yeah, I got that," Leo said.

"He is a terror on the battlefield, but has difficulty mustering the proper patience and control for assassinations or stealth ops missions, which is why he usually delegates those to me, though he leads from afar and gets official recognition for successful assignments…or as much recognition as can be given for things that the record states the Draconian Empire was never technically involved in, anyway," Koga explained.

"And that is why he's a bad ninja," Lily said.

Koga nodded. "Precisely. As for interpersonal relations…I got the majority of our empathy, so while Nuken can relate to other Pokémon, he finds it difficult, and it's easier just to intimidate them into doing what he wants rather than fostering friendships with his subordinates and colleagues. That's not to say he has no close relationships, just not many, and the ones he does have he cherishes deeply. Even so, he's aware that such relations are fragile, and it's a constant struggle for him to keep his emotions and other issues under control to maintain such ties. The fact that just about everyone's afraid of and dislikes him and his contempt for nearly everyone else don't help matters. It was as much a surprise to him as to everyone else that Missy doesn't seem to care about how horrible a Pokémon he is and loves him anyway…although she may be at least borderline insane and is definitely suffering from some kind of denial and possibly some delusions as to what kind of person Nuken really is. He once told me, 'I have known many deranged people in my life, myself included, but never encountered the kind of profound, mental instability that Missy possesses in anyone other than Bellum or, again, me. Missy is a psychopath. She may have everyone else fooled, but I know the truth. Why else would the kindest, most beautiful, generous, and intelligent woman in the world, love someone like me?'"

"…That is extremely depressing," Leo said after a moment of stunned silence.

"That he thinks his wife is insane or that he considers himself so bad that she must be insane to want him?" Lily asked.

"Both," Leo said.

"To be fair, the last woman who claimed to love him was Bellum, so he has a pretty good reason to believe only insanely evil Pokémon could ever see anything appealing in him," Koga pointed out.

"That's true," Lily admitted.

"Does…he really hate himself that much?" Lily asked.

"…It's not hatred so much as profound awareness of his own flaws," Koga said after a moment. "He knows he's a monster, but for the longest time believed that it was…well, all right for him to be that way. He saw it as a necessary quality for him to have so that he could better serve his King and country, and, while he was aware that he was driving others away and making himself feared by just about everyone, even the very few people he was able to feel the slightest bit of compassion towards, he believed his lack of empathy a necessary sacrifice to be the kind of Pokémon the Draconian Empire needed to continue to be one of the greatest powers in the world. And to an extent, he's correct; if Nuken were not exactly the kind of person he was, we might not have managed to prosper as we have. But now…for the first time in his unlife, he's starting to wonder, if maybe, just maybe, he was wrong."

"…Why?" Lily asked quietly.

"Because of you," Koga said.

Lily started. "M-me? What do you mean?"

"Lily, he has been searching for you for centuries. You are his firstborn child and, for a while, the only child he thought he would ever have. He loves you. He wants to love you. He wants to be with you and for you to love him. And yet, the first time you and he at last met face to face…he had no idea what to do. He has forsaken healthy social ties and compassion for so long that he has no idea how to behave in any manner that isn't frightening or intimidating towards someone, and even less of a clue how to express his affections. He is suddenly realizing that maybe being a monster isn't the solution to all his problems, and may, instead, just drive away those few people he is capable of caring about…something he hasn't even realized might actually happen until just now, which is why he is currently in hiding, and won't appear even to his wife, who is wandering the streets of New Avalon screaming his name. He is afraid, Lily…something that I can count on my digits ever having happened before."

"You only have two claws," Leo pointed out.

"Exactly," Koga said.

"…He…he is…afraid?" Lily whispered.

"Very much so. He has become a slave to his anger, much as your curse enslaved you to Bellum, and continues to bind you to Giratina…and, just like you, he's not sure he can ever be free of it," Koga said. Lily grimaced, both at the comparison and at the reminder of her curse.

"I'm going to free Lily from her curse," Leo said determinedly.

"And are you going to free Nuken from his, as well?" Koga asked skeptically.

Leo's face fell. "Well, uh…no, I guess not. I mean, can't he take anger management or…"

"Didn't help," Koga said.

Leo sighed. "Typical."

"He's afraid…of himself…" Lily murmured.

Koga nodded. "Indeed. Especially because…he has a new child on the way. Your half-daughter or brother, Lily. And he fears for that child's future, and is he own…for if he cannot make peace with you, Lily, how can he ever hope to be a good father to that child, or a husband to Missy?"

"Good question," Leo muttered.

"…Why are you telling us all this?" Lily asked.

"Because Nuken is my brother, and I love him, and I am worried he is going to make a terrible mistake," Koga said. "Right now he is contemplating leaving Fichina and staying out of your life forever for fear that he will destroy what little happiness you've finally been able to find just by being his ordinary horrible self…and while I can't say there's not a chance he's right, that does not mean he should give up so quickly, for if he does, who's to say he might not decide Missy and their child would be better off without him either, and cuts himself out of their lives as well? And again, while he may not be wrong, should he not at least try first before simply abandoning them?" He shook his head. "And aside from that…I fear that if he does this, if he casts everyone away for their own 'protection,' without their love and guidance he may descend into a darkness from which he may never emerge…for it is his loyalty and ability to feel compassion, no matter how slim it may be, that keeps him from being someone as evil as your mother."

Lily's face scrunched up in disgust at the mention of Bellum. "And…what do you want me to do about this?"

"What I want doesn't matter. What do you want, Lily?" Koga asked.

Lily blinked. "Me?"

"After learning about your father, the choice is up to you. Do you wish to do anything in the first place, or do you wish to leave him be?" Koga asked.

Lily looked uncertain. "I…don't know," she admitted. "I'm afraid of him, and still a bit angry for what he did before, but…I don't hate him, and I don't want him to do what you're describing. I don't want him to throw away possibly his last chance of being loved or having a family."

"Not hating him is a good start," Koga said. "If you wish to see your father and try to talk him out of this, I can take you to him, though that is not what he wishes…but sometimes, the most important things in life aren't the ones you want to happen."

"And what if I choose to ignore this?" Lily asked.

Leo gave her a shocked look. "Lily!"

"Then you shall never see me or your father ever again," Koga said. "And again, I cannot say this is necessarily a bad thing. However…ultimately, it is up to you. What will you do, Lily?"

"Lily-" Leo started.

"Give me a moment to think," Lily interrupted, much to Leo's surprise. Chastened, he remained silent. …What should I do?

I would think the choice is obvious, B said.

I know what the right thing to do is, but…is it what I want? Lily asked.

I'm surprised you're even considering not going, actually. It doesn't seem like you, B commented.

If I were given a chance to never see my mother again, I would take it, Lily said.

Nuken isn't your mother, though, B pointed out.

I'm aware of that, but even knowing that, and the reason why he is the way he is, it's difficult for me to just…forget what he might have done to Leo if he'd truly lost his temper, and if I hadn't been there! Lily said.

That's true, B admitted. But there's one thing you're forgetting.

And that is? Lily asked.

What's the significance of the badge you're wearing? B asked.

My badge? What do you- Lily glanced down at the badge pinned to her ice-colored gown and froze. The Rescue Team Badge, a bejeweled egg-shaped piece of metal with wings spreading from the sides, glittered in the light shining through the windows from the dining hall. While Fantina and Atlametheus had convinced her that as the new head of the Yukihimi household she needed to dress the part in formal occasions, she refused to go anywhere without the badge, just as she didn't go anywhere without Leo's engagement ring in her hair, or her Rescue Team scarf wrapped around her neck under her pearls, or her old worn witch's hat which she used magic to transfigure into whatever chapeau the occasion called for rather than replace with a new one.

What is the significance of that Badge? B repeated when Lily didn't respond after staring at the badge for a few moments.

It's…a Rescue Team badge, Lily said.

Which means? B prompted.

That…I am a member of a Rescue Team, Lily said slowly.

And what is it that Rescue Teams do? B asked gently.

Lily closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and looked up, her face set in a resolute expression.We help those in need, no matter what. "Take me to my father."

If Koga felt any relief, he didn't show it. "Very well. Please come with me."

"Yatta! I knew you'd make the right choice, Lily!" Leo said excitedly.

Lily smiled in self-deprecation. "I suppose it was inevitable, wasn't it? Come on, let's go see my father."

"Right!" Leo paused. "…Wait. Actually…no. No, I don't think I will."

Lily did a double-take. "Wh-what?! But…but Leo…"

"Lily, this is between you and your dad," Leo said calmly. "Whatever it is you two need to talk about, you don't really need me for it. This is something you've gotta do on your own."

"But I thought you said that whenever it's something someone has to do on their own, that means their friends should and do follow to help them out!" Lily protested.

Leo smiled sadly and shook his head. "Not always, babe. Not always."

"But Leo-" Lily protested.

"Lily, this is a family matter…and I'm not family yet, not until tomorrow, anyway," Leo continued. "We both know I'd only get in the way and probably say something stupid that will set your Dad off like I did earlier today—tell him I'm sorry about that when you see him, by the way—and that you'll probably have an easier time getting through to him on your own."

"But Leo, I need you!" Lily said desperately. "I know I've changed a lot and grown stronger since leaving Mother, but I wouldn't have become the Pokémon I am now without you and the others…especially you! You're my inspiration, my rock, my source of strength, the Pokémon I love more than anyone else and the embodiment of all my hopes for a future free of the curse of my past! I can't do this on my own, not without you!"

"Lily, look at me," Leo said sternly. "Calm down and look me in the eye."

"But Leo-" Lily started.

"Look at me, Lily!" Leo ordered, whipping off his sunglasses and glaring at her.

Lily quieted and looked into her fiance's deep red eyes. As always, she couldn't help thinking how beautiful they looked. Was that weird of her? She wasn't certain. "Now," Leo said softly. "Do you have the ring I made you?"

"Of course I do," Lily said.

"Show me," Leo told her. Lily turned around to show him that she was using the ring to help fasten her hair up in the elaborate arrangement Fantina's daughters had put it in earlier. Leo nodded in satisfaction. "Okay, now look at me again."

"All right," Lily said, turning around to face Leo again. "But what are you-"

"That ring is a piece of me," Leo said. "Both literally as well as symbolically, I think I may have cut or burned myself a few times while making it so I wouldn't be surprised if some of my blood or skin cells got mixed up with the other materials I used to craft it."

"Oh my," Lily said in alarm.

"Don't worry, it didn't hurt…much…" Leo lied. "Anyway, my point is, that ring is a piece of me. I gave it to you as a gift from my heart. It's a symbol of our relationship and our bond with each other, which will be everlasting as soon as I figure out how to live forever, which I'm definitely gonna do sooner rather than later, I promise, since I don't want you to have to live forever with a broken heart due to me dying of old age or something because that would really suck and I'd never want to hurt you like that, Lily, not even indirectly."

Lily's eyes moistened. "Oh, Leo…"

He reached out a hand and touched her on the shoulder. "What I'm saying is…as long as you have that ring with you, a piece of me, that means I'm always with you, even when I'm not physically with you, you get what I mean?" He moved his hand to rest just above where her heart would have been, if she had one. "If I'm in your heart—or in your hair, I guess—then it's like I've never left your side, and you can't be missed if you've never left, right?"

Lily stared at him wordlessly for the longest time before leaning forward and kissing him with all the passion and love she could muster, which was quite a lot. When she finally broke away, disappointed as always that it never seemed to be long enough due to that pesky problem of Leo needing to breathe occasionally, she said, "Leonardo DeKappa, the day I met you is the day my unlife really began."

"Y-yeah," Leo stammered, his face extremely red both from the kiss and his lungs being mostly empty of air. "Me too, babe. Well, not my unlife since I'm not dead, but you know what I mean."

Lily laughed and kissed him again, softer this time. "I love you," she said.

"I love you too," he said with a smile.

Smiling back, Lily turned to face Koga, who'd been silently watching the whole thing with no expression on his face. (Could they tell if he had, though? Ninjasks were pretty hard to read.) "I'm ready."

"Come with me," Koga said, floating to the edge of the balcony, snow swirling around him as he left the protected environs of the manor.

Lily started after him, but turned back to glance at Leo. "Tell everyone I'll be back soon. I had a…family emergency to take care of."

"Heh, you can count on me, Lily," Leo said.

Lily smiled. "I know." She blew a kiss at him. Literally. Using magic she caused a small light construct shaped like her lips to fly through the air and grace Leo's mouth. Leo giddily noted that it tasted just like her. Giggling at how the kiss seemed to have sent him into a stupor, she flew off with Koga into the glacial wastes, vanishing in the white fog of the snow.

Leo sighed happily as he watched her go. "I love that womon. I am the luckiest guy alive." He pulled out a handheld device and flipped it open to reveal a screen displaying an overhead view of the manor and the surrounding estate, with a flashing dot slowly moving away. "And when I said I'd always be with you, I meant it. Just because I don't think anything bad's gonna happen between you and your Dad doesn't mean the tracking device I installed in your ring in case the tracker in your Badge stops working won't come in handy if I need to know where you are in a hurry. Hmm, should probably suggest she put some sort of tracking rune on me for the same purpose…wanting to know where your spouse is at all times isn't creepy, is it? I mean, we live a dangerous lifestyle, so it's probably a good idea to always know how to keep tabs on each other." He paused. "…I should probably stop talking out loud to myself, huh?" He shuddered as a gust of wind blew over the balcony. "I should probably get back inside. Kinda weird that it's actually warmer in a freaking ice palace than out in a frozen glacier. Here I thought we were through with this kinda weather after Dusty Ditch…"

He went back inside and returned to the table. "I'm back," he announced to his friends and family, who were doing their best to pretend they'd been eating and talking all along and that they hadn't been doing their best to spy on him, Lily and Koga in their absence. "What'd I miss?"

"Your friends were telling us all about how you and Lily first got together," Brad said.

"Did you really temporarily go insane due to not having any Internet reception and think you were a pirate from one of your computer games?" Judy asked.

"Yep," Leo said without the slightest hint of shame. "Not one of my proudest moments, I'll admit."

"And neither was your getting drunk after drinking a single coconut-cup's worth of non-alcoholic fruit punch," Briney said dryly.

"Hey, those pirates had to have slipped something in there," Leo said defensively. "They're pirates after all, they do dirty tricks like that all the time."

"Uh huh, just keep telling yourself that, boy," Briney said.

"It's all right, Leo, not everyone can hold their licquor like Tiny here!" Raiki said proudly, gesturing at Tiny, who was eyeing some of the wine the adults were drinking with mixed feelings of desire and uneasiness.

"That's not really something to be proud of," Kageie commented.

"Hey, it helped my sons and their friends win the loyalty of an entire ship's worth of undead pirates, and evolve, so I'd say it's definitely something to be proud of!" Raiki said as Delia sighed in exasperation. Pikachu gave her a sympathetic look.

"Aw, thanks Grandpa!" Tiny said happily. "Say, I don't suppose I could have some of-"

"Tiny!" Ash hissed. "I thought you were through with alcohol!"

"So did I, but I still want some!" Tiny said longingly.

"Nurse Joy said you could have permanent brain damage!" Ash protested.

"And she can fix me up! She's Nurse Joy, that's what she does!" Tiny said desperately.

"Tiny, no! No more drinking, ever! Unless it's a life or death emergency," Ash said. Kageie frowned. "What? I'm not exactly endorsing his behavior either, but it did save us from getting killed and turned into undead pirates." The Tyranitar grumbled but said nothing.

"So, 'ow did your little talk with zat 'andsome ninja fellow go?" Fantina asked nonchalantly.

"And where is Lily, anyway?" Bow asked in concern.

"Oh, she had to step out for a minute. Family emergency," Leo said.

Everyone looked at him for a moment, waiting for him to elaborate. He did not. "Well?" Pikachu asked.

"Well what?" Leo asked.

"What kind of family emergency?" Pikachu asked.

"Oh. Can't tell. It's private," Leo said.

Pikachu blinked in surprise. "Huh. Never thought I'd hear those words from you of all Pokémon."

"Hey, I can be discrete!...sometimes," Leo said.

"You told the entire Internet when Dawn and I slept together for the first time on your blog only minutes after you found out about it," Pikachu said flatly.

"How did you know that? You don't even read my blog!" Leo said in surprise.

"No, but my little brother does. And my father," Pikachu said wearily.

"That we do. Great stuff, Leo!" Raiki said.

"Yeah, it's always hilarious to read about how my brother's growing closer and closer to losing his mind on a daily basis!" Pichu said.

"Heh, thaks to oblige!" Leo said.

"Thank you so much for letting my family know about the private details of my interpersonal relationships," Pikachu said coldly.

"You're welcome!" Leo said cheerfully.

I can still assassinate him, you know, Dawn tapped out on Pikachu's leg under the table so nobody noticed. I could make it look like an accident. And with all the magic here, it's not like he'd stay dead for long…

"…Let's wait until after the wedding. Don't want to ruin his and Lily's big day," Pikachu muttered, strongly considering it.

"So, you're not going to tell us anything about what happened out there?" Rebecca prompted desperately. "Because this one over here's not saying anything."

"No, I'm not," Cherry said.

Leo shook his head. "Sorry, my lips are sealed."

Everyone sighed in disappointment. "I don't suppose Lily will be willing to tell us what happened when she gets back?" Delia asked.

"Doubt it," Leo said.

When will she be back? Dawn asked.

"When she's good and ready," Leo said dismissively, much to their continued frustration. "Now, let's forget all this and get back to business, namely, eating, shall we?" He got back in his seat, reached for his silverware, and blinked in surprise when he noticed his plate was empty. In fact, his plate was gone altogether. "Hey, I thought I said nobody was to touch my food while I was gone! Who ate my dinner?!"

"It was-" Ludwig started.

"Ludwig!" Drakor Junior cried, beating him to the punch.

"Ludwig! Ludwig! Ludwig!" the other Gibles chanted.

"Darn it!" Ludwig cursed.

"Shame on you, stealing your brother's food!" Junior said while reaching over to Sapphire's plate with his trunk. Collette glared at him. "What?"

"Bad Ludwig!" Leo shouted, smacking him with a rolled-up newspaper he produced from his shell. "No more dinner for you!"

"You can't actually enforce that, honey," Judy said.

"Okay, you do it!" Leo said.

Judy gave him an incredulous look. "Honey, nobody can tell them not to eat. You know how voracious their appetite is."

"Heck, the others are trying to eat the table while we're talking!" Brad pointed out. "Good thing it's made of ice, or else we'd have to pay for furniture damage, which I'm pretty sure we don't have the budget for, especially not furniture in a place this fancy."

"S-s-s-so cold," Lemmy shuddered, suffering the ill effects of eating ice, which wasn't particularly healthy to a Dragon-type.

"Brain freeze! Brain freeze!" Morton moaned, cradling his head.

"Mah tug! Ah cat feel mah tug!" Wendy yelped, trying to pull her stuck tongue off the side of the table.

"More stomach than brains, I see," Matthias commented.

"Just like Junior. And Ash," Pichu commented.

"Hey!" Junior and Ash cried.

"Fine, I can't stop you from eating, but don't eat any more of my food or I'll squirt you with this," Leo said, pulling out a spray bottle.

"Eep! Not the face, not the face!" Ludwig squealed in terror, covering his face with his grubby claws.

"Why did we agree to come here again, when the last thing we wanted is to be surrounded by these weirdos again?" Coil muttered to Sparkler as Leo tormented the Gible with his spray bottle.

"Because the bosses told us to, and you do not turn down an invitation from one of the biggest up-and-coming aristos and heroes the whole country is talking about without serious repercussions," the Ampharos replied.

"True," the Magneton admitted. "Oh well, at least the food's good. And it could be worse. We could be like Rono."

"I wonder how the poor guy is making out, anyway?" Sparkler wondered.

Elsewhere…

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUUUU GHHHHHHHHHHHHH! AAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUUGGG GGGGGGGGHHHHHHH! AAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUUUUG GGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!" Rono the former Enchanted Express engineer screamed as he thrashed about in horrible agony, straining the heavy-duty Rheanium chains bolting him to the ground as glowing circuit patterns etched their way into his armor, spikes slowly started extruding their way from his body mass, which was growing less rounded and more boxy and angular as time went on, his organs were violently melted down and completely reconfigured,his bones restructured themselves and grew circuitry connecting them to other parts of the body, his blood was transformed into caustic liquid Energon burning him up from within, his DNA was being rewritten from a double helix into the standard five-stranded Cybertroniasknucleic acid (CNA), and his body was irreversibly transformed on a cellular, if not molecular level. As a Steel-type, he had always been more metal than organic matter, but now he was being turned completely into a machine, a process which wasn't in the least bit pleasant. Neither was his forced evolution into a Lairon, for that matter.

Outlaw cackled malevolently and rubbed her claws together with glee. "Yes…yeeeessss…it won't be much longer, my pet. Soon, you will leave that inferior frame behind and obtain the perfect Cybertronian form that is your right as my slave! Gwahahahahaha!"

"AAAAUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGGH! AAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUUGHHHH !" Rono screamed.

"Finished that Energon goodie cake you wanted," Sam said, carting over a violently glowing cake several heads taller than he was made of a variety of pink rods fused together that looked extremely radioactive and he probably shouldn't have been anywhere within several miles of it without wearing a lead suit, which he certainly wasn't.

"Oooh, excellent, I was getting hungry," the Decepticon said, ripping off a chunk of the cake and shoving it in her mandibles.

Sam frowned and put his hands on his hips. "And what do we say?"

Outlaw grunted, causing hot pink droplets to dribble down her chin and sizzle when they hit the ground. "It's adequate."

"Thanks," Sam said. He frowned at Rono, who was still writhing and screaming. "He's still not done?"

"Cyber-conversion is a lengthy process. It's a good thing he's already made of metal, or else this would be taking even longer," Outlaw said through another chunk of Energon goodie cake.

"Ah," Sam said. "Should he be screaming like that?"

"Yes," Outlaw said. "It's how you know it's working. Now, if he weren't screaming, that's when we should be concerned."

"All right," Sam said. "But…I thought you were going to give him anesthetic?"

"He is on anesthetic," Outlaw said.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU UUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!" Rono screamed.

"Doesn't sound like it," Sam said.

"Well, it's not my fault his inferior Pokémon constitution requires more anesthetic than I have on hand, now is it?!" she snapped.

"I suppose not," Sam said, not really caring.

Outlaw glanced at a purple-pink fire blazing nearby in a pit made from dumping and igniting several Energon cubes. It was probably extremely toxic to the soil, but neither of them cared very much. "Hmm…according to my chronometer, it should be ready…" She reached into the fire and pulled out a very long Cybertronian-sized branding iron with the Decepticon emblem at its end, blazing with an evil glow. "I was going to wait until he was fully converted to do this, but I suppose now is as good a time as any to perform the Rite of the Deceptibrand."

"Doesn't that hurt?" Sam asked.

"He's already in so much pain now, he'll never notice," Outlaw said.

"Good point. By that reasoning, now is the perfect time, rather than hurting him more later," Sam agreed.

"…Great, now you're giving me a good reason not to do it this instant…eh, I've already got the Brand ready, we might as well," Outlaw said.

"Fair enough," Sam said, sitting down to watch.

Outlaw stood up so that she loomed over Rono…more than she already did, anyway. "Rono, in honor of your impending successful Cyber-conversion, the time has come to officially initiate you into the ranks of the Decepticons. Now, repeat after me: I pledge my unquestioning loyalty to Megatron and the Decepticon cause."

"AAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGG GGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" Rono screamed.

"I shall devote my spark to achieving our goal of a Decepticon-controlled Cybertron, by any means necessary."

"AAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGG GGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" Rono screamed.

"And annihilate all who stand in our way!"

"AAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGG GGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" Rono screamed.

"Surrender is not an option."

"AAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGG GGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" Rono screamed.

Outlaw shrugged. "Eh, close enough. Welcome, brave Decepticon. Your destiny awaits!" With that, she pressed the bond into Rono's forehead.

If they'd though the Lairon's screaming was loud before, now it was almost ear-splitting and deafening in its volume. Fortunately, both Outlaw and Sam were used to screaming so didn't bat an eye. "Well, that was exciting," Sam said as Outlaw pulled the branding iron away, revealing that the Decepticon emblem had been branded into the Lairon's cranium. Additionally, his eyes had turned red, and his colors had gotten several shades darker.

"It was, wasn't it? Brings back fond memories of my own branding," Outlaw said wistfully.

"Didn't you scream like the dickens and cry for several hours afterwards?" Sam asked.

"NO!" the Decepticon DeSoto bellowed.

"Really? Huh, I guess I remembered wrong," Sam said. He scratched his chin. "Say, weren't we supposed to be doing something? Something important?"

Outlaw frowned in thought. "Hmm. I don't remember. Maybe Max does. Max? Is there something we're supposed to be doing right now?" There was no response. "Hey, where'd he go?"

Sam snapped his fingers. "Oh, that's right, Max was kidnapped by the Nihilators. We really should get on that, shouldn't we?"

"Yes, we should," Outlaw agreed.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGG GGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" Rono screamed.

"Right after we're done here,"Outlaw said.

Back in Fichina…

"I pray for his soul," Sparkler said.

"Yeah, me too. Hey, pass the iron filings, I could use more of that in my diet," Coil said. The Ampharos complied.

"Leo, stop tormenting your brother, no matter how much he deserves it," Brad said.

"Yeah, Brother Leo, stop tormenting me no matter how much I…waaaaaiiiiit…" Ludwig said, a confused look on his face.

"Eh, fine, " Leo said, putting the bottle away. "I'll just get some more chow to replace the stuff SOMEBODY took without permission." He clapped his hands as an ice troll passed by with a platter laden with more foodstuff. "Yo, Akita Neru! Get me some more vittles chop-chop before I do to you what I do to your Internet counterparts! Oh, and those cousins of yours from Niflheim."

"Yes, milord," the troll growled as it stomped over and unceremoniously gave Leo a new plate and dumped several helpings of food on it, grumbling to itself that its name wasn't Akita Neru.

"Sweet!" Leo said eagerly, grabbing his silverware. "Oh mon, being the husband of a super-rich super-hot super-magical babe with servants at my beck and call and access to almost unlimited wealth is gonna be so awesome! I can't wait to go mad with power and lord it over everyone else!" Everyone exchanaged worried and horrified looks at this proclamation.

Despite their reluctance to drop the subject of Lily's absence, slowly conversation around the table resumed to talking about Team Aurabolt's exploits, discussing what everyone had been up to back in their hometowns or how they'd been dealing with recent events, and the wedding the next day. It wasn't until much later in the evening that Lily reappeared, looking exhausted but with a smile on her face so radiant it lit up the room. When pressed, she would only say that 'everything had been taken care of' and that it was 'all right now,' but wouldn't go into details.

Much to everyone's surprise, Leo seemed to have no interest in finding out what Lily had been up to, saying, 'Some things are a lady's business and no interest of mine. Like what they do in the bathroom once a month when they start bleeding-'

They'd shut him up after that, thankfully, though the kids were very curious as to what he was talking about, to which their parents explained to the boys, 'We'll tell you when you're older,' and to the girls 'You'll find out for yourself soon enough, you poor things.' And that was the end of that.

The next night, after all the hullaballoo of the wedding reception was over and they had consummated their union, quite vigorously, several times in a row, it occurred to Lily to offer to tell her new husband what had passed between her and her father the previous night out in the cold atop one of the mountains overlooking the Yukihimi estate, with nobody but her uncle as a witness (although Kairyu had been there too for some reason, but claimed he'd just been taking a walk and made a wrong turn somewhere and went down to the mansion to join the others for dinner, which Lily thought a bit odd since there was no reason a Dragon-type would be out wandering in the cold, but attributed it to another of the wizard's many eccentricities), reasoning that now that they were married there should be no secrets between them. Leo, sweaty and practically glowing, smiled and told her, "If you want to tell me, that's all right with me. If you don't feel comfortable with it, I won't push you. What happened between you and your father doesn't matter to me, so long as it made you happy. And the two of you are happy, right Lily?"

"Oh yes, very much so," she said, brushing some of her hair out of her eyes.

"Then that's all I care about, and that's all I need to know," Leo said. "Especially since the less I know, the smaller my chances of accidentally saying something that'll force your father to assassinate me in the interests of national security."

Lily had laughed at that, since both of them knew Nuken would (probably) never do that, and kissed him, and then they consummated their union several more times, knowing in her heart she had the best husband in the world.

The next day (as in, the day of the wedding, not the day after the wedding, that would be silly)…

"Looking good, Leo," Leo said to his reflection in the large ice sheet mirror taking up a sizable portion of the wall in the bathroom of the private suite he'd been given to prepare for his big day. Fantina had delivered as promised, and now he had the perfect suit to wear for this special occasion: a white tuxedo jacket and pants perfectly proportioned to fit around his shell that, through the power of fashion magic (as well as actual magic), made him look slimmer worn over a blue-white vest; sparkling diamond cufflinks in the shape of the Yukihimi family crest; a blue necktie with a crystal pin in the shape of a snowflake; no doubt very expensive orthopedic shoes made from ice dragonskin (he tried not to think too hard about how, precisely, they had been made) that were also extremely comfortable, a rarity for fancy dress shoes; a blue satin cumberbund with snowflake motifs; a white silk pocket square; his Shayminite rosary wrapped around a wrist, a rose-hued Gracidea made of never-melting ice pinned to his breast with his badge pinned on the other side, his scarf wrapped unobtrusively around his neck, and a blue cloak bearing the Yukihimi crest with Dire wolf fur trim draped over his back. He frowned and rubbed his shiny bald dome sadly. "Too bad they wouldn't let me wear a wig…or use hair-growth magic…or wear a hat…"

There was a banging on the ice slab of a door. "Leo, hurry up in there! You need to be walking down the aisle in fifteen minutes!" Pikachu, who naturally enough was one of his grooms, shouted from outside.

"I'll be out in a second!" Leo shouted to the door before turning back to the mirror and adjusting his tie. "Hmm, yeah, that should do it…" He paused, suddenly noticing that his was not the only reflection in the mirror. "I was wondering when you'd get around to talking to me," he said slowly to Nuken, without turning around or making any sudden movements.

The Shedinja, who was of course hovering right behind Leo while wearing a military dress uniform similar to what he'd worn to his own wedding but slightly less ostentatious, said, "Helping Lily get ready took a bit longer than I anticipated. Perhaps…mainly due to my fussing, which is perhaps why Missy and Fantina threw me out of the room."

"Heh. I can just picture that," Leo said with a smirk.

"Yes, I just bet you can," Nuken said dryly. "You can turn around now; I'm not going to hurt you."

"I know you won't," Leo said as he slowly turned around to face his soon-to-be father-in-law. "Because if you do, Lily will never forgive you, and whatever steps you've taken towards establishing a real father-daughter relationship will disappear."

"Very confident, aren't you?" Nuken said, bemused. "You didn't seem the slightest bit surprised that I'm here."

"I knew you'd come see me in private sooner or later," Leo said. "You're cutting it a little close though, aren't you?"

"Well, my aforementioned difficulties aside, I also needed some time to…figure out what exactly I was going to say to you," Nuken said uncomfortably. "As my brother no doubt told you, I'm not…good at these sorts of things; regular conversations with other Pokémon. You are aware that you aren't to tell anyone what you heard last night, correct?"

Leo waved him off. "Yeah, yeah, I know when to keep my mouth shut, as hard as it may be to believe."

"All right then," Nuken said, though it was clear he did not entirely believe this. "In any event, I'm here to…to…"

"Warn me if I ever do anything to hurt your daughter you'll make sure I never see the light of day again?" Leo guessed.

"What? No!" Nuken said in surprise. "Well…okay, yes, but that sort of goes without saying, doesn't it?"

"I suppose so," Leo said. "And speaking of which, sir, I think I should have you know that if you ever do anything to hurt your daughter I'll make sure you regret it."

Nuken stared at him in astonishment. "Are you…are you threatening me? Me?"

"I am," Leo said coldly. "Lily was really upset after you blew up at me yesterday—not cool, by the way—and even if you two have squared things away, I haven't forgotten that you made her cry, and we both know that, hard as you might try to stay civil and be a good father, there's a good chance you'll make her cry again. And if you do hurt her, I'll make you pay."

"And how exactly do you intend to do that?" Nuken sneered incredulously.

"When we first met I was wearing my sunglasses, so I was able to instantly scan your body and learn all your weaknesses," Leo said flatly. "Like the fact that you can't see as well out of your right eye as you can with your left due to an old injury, that you're a fraction of a second slower to strike with your left claw than you are with your right, that you have a big weak spot between your wings which is why you've focused your speed and attack skills so that you can strike an attacker before they get a chance to hit you from behind…need I go on?"

"…No. No, you don't," Nuken said, actually rather shaken despite himself. He hadn't been aware of any deficiencies in his left arm. This bore…further investigation.

"Needless to say, after you made Lily cry and ran off, I used the data I gathered from my initial scan to come up with at least two dozen ways to incapacitate and/or kill you in the time it would take for you to try to attack me, even taking into account your impressive speed and defense," Leo said.

"…That…that many?!" Nuken cried in astonishment.

"I can be very thorough when I want to be," Leo said. "So let me just say that if you did have any intention of attacking me now, even with my best buds right outside waiting for me-"

"Leo, hurry up!" Ash shouted from outside.

"Just a minute, jeez!" Leo shouted. "Anyway, if you did try to attack me, the countermeasures I've installed in my shell will kick in and make you wish you hadn't."

"…Impressive," Nuken said grudgingly. "And here I thought you were feeling like you couldn't keep up with your companions in the combat field."

"Oh, I know my brain, shades, and gear are probably my biggest weapons, and that with enough prep time I can defend against just about any opponent," Leo said. "But I'm still only mortal, and I need an extra edge if I'm going to be able to stand toe-to-toe against some of the Big Bads without being just a support guy."

"You sell yourself short. You are quite the strategist," Nuken said.

"I know that, but that's not gonna save me from the likes of Oblivion's Shadow or the Ruler of Evil," Leo said. "Don't get me wrong, I know I can hold my own against your average bunch of mooks to some extent…but against villains of higher caliber, I'm gonna need something a bit more than my standard bag of tricks to prevail and protect my friends…and Lily."

Nuken nodded slowly. "An impressive and commendable sentiment. Most admirable. But like I said, I'm not here to threaten you."

Leo raised an eyebrow. "Okay…then why are you here?"

"To…" Nuken hesitated, visibly struggling with these words. He'd probably never said them before to anybody. "To give…to give you my…my…" He took a deep breath. "Blessing."

Leo's eyes bulged. "Say what?!"

"Don't make me say it again," Nuken growled.

"Uh, okay. But, gosh, I mean…your blessing? Seriously?" Leo said in disbelief.

Nuken sighed. "Yes. Seriously."

"Wow. Just…wow. That's…that's really…" Leo paused and frowned. "Wait…you already gave us permission to get married. How is this different?"

"When I gave you my permission, I said it was fine for you to get married," Nuken explained. "But when I'm giving you my blessing, it means I…I…" He took a deep breath. "Approve of you as a Pokémon and recognize you as a worthy mate for my daughter."

Leo's jaw dropped. "Holy shit. Could you say that again? I want to record that for posterity-"

"Leo," Nuken hissed.

"Okay, okay, I get it," Leo said. "So…you really approve of me? Wow. I did not see that coming. How'd that come up?"

"When I first heard about your relationship with my daughter, I was…very upset," Nuken admitted. "You are a middle-class Pokémon with no noble blood from a town that, frankly, I'd almost barely heard of before that point. While you have a heroic lineage, it's not as particularly notable as, say, the Thunderblades. You are not a member of the Dragonian religion or a citizen of the Draconian Empire—you're not even a Dragon, or the Ghost of one—and are short, overweight, not the best at fighting, somewhat obnoxious, and your Internet record shows you frequent various websites of questionable content and ill repute."

"Hey! I don't look at those sites anymore…much," Leo protested, turning red. "Not that all that other stuff is particularly nice, either…my Dad wouldn't like to hear what you just said about our family, and he's got a giant robot body, so you'd better watch out!"

"I'm not finished," Nuken said. "Even though my daughter convinced me that your love for each other was genuine and that you had absolutely no interest whatsoever in the rather sizable power and prestige you would obtain from marrying into one of the most powerful and desirable families in the Empire-"

"Oh yeah, I forgot about that," Leo interrupted. "Hey, that means I'm gonna be one of the biggest and most well-connected guys in two countries! Yatta!"

"Let me finish before I change my mind," Nuken growled.

"Oh. Sorry," Leo said, hushing up.

"Anyway," Nuken continued. "Even after you assured me that marrying Lily would be the best way to break her curse, and I gave you my permission to wed, I still was not convinced that you were worthy of her and was certain that I could find someone among the higher ranks of the Empire who would be a better match for her." He sighed. "And then…yesterday happened, and I realized that I was looking at it the wrong way."

Leo frowned. "What do you mean?"

"The…incident yesterday at the Embassy has forced me to revaluate a lot of things about my life and my relationships with others," Nuken said quietly. "And I came to the conclusion that, in the end, it wasn't you who were unworthy of my daughter…it was myself."

"…Ah," Leo said.

"I have spent over three hundred years desperately searching for her," Nuken said. "I had so many plans for what I would do for her once I found her, what our unlifes would be like together. All of those plans fell apart the first time I really, truly met her and understood that the Misdreavus in my fantasies and the one in real life are…completely different from each other. At no point did it ever occur to me that the things that I wanted for her might not, in fact, be the best things for her. I had so many ideas for what and who she should be that I gave no consideration to who she actually was, or to her true wants and desires. I failed to realize that the reason she loved you wasn't because you were trying to seduce her or because you were one of the first Pokémon she's ever met outside of her mother who weren't immediately cruel to her, but because you're nice to her and considerate and you…you actually, truly, care about her," he said helplessly. "You knew more about my daughter from spending just a few days with her than I have in my entire unlife, her centuries of captivity with Bellum notwithstanding. You won her heart, something I should have been trying to do from day one rather than…than trying to force my own views on her, and only begrudgingly respecting her own desires and wants and needs. She loves you, Leo…and it is for that reason, front and center, that you are worthy of my daughter, and why you have my blessing."

"…I…dude. That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me," Leo said in awe.

"Yes, well, don't get used to it. I don't say things like this often," Nuken said brusquely.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Leo said with a smirk.

"Of course, that's not the only reason I've acknowledged your worthiness," Nuken continued. "I've been looking back over the records of your adventures, and I must say I'm rather impressed. Your quick-thinking, ingenuity, and almost disturbing tendency to overprepare for situations have saved the lives of you and your friends more times than I can count. You managed to outwit a powerful and dangerous demon and convince the dragon who's been terrorizing your town for years to resolve matters peacefully, give back your father, and bolster your town's defenses with a small army of the undead. You figured out, all on your own, how to free the Nihilator slaves in the Tree of Beginning and plant the seeds of my daughter's redemption. You managed to fight adequately in one of the most respected arenas in the world without needing your teammates to constantly bail you out, and bested the demon from before in a children's card game of all things, which I don't quite understand but am assured was a fairly impressive feat at the time. You figured out a way to defeat the monstrous Yamatorochi and ended the curse over Twilight's Edge once and for all. You fought alongside undead pirates to defeat Manaphy and free the seas from his iron flipper. You came up with a clever plan to sneak onto a train to Fichina, invented a device that took down a frost giant, and commandeered at least half a dozen battleships and used them to not only help neutralize an entire Nihilator fleet, but took down their flagship. And thanks to your capture of those ships, the world now understands Nihilator technology a lot more than we might have otherwise! And on top of all that, you won my daughter's heart and are on the brink of breaking her curse once and for all! Leo, some of my own soldiers would never dream of accomplishing some of the feats you've pulled off! You've honestly impressed me, and there aren't many people I would say that to, let me tell you!"

"Aw, shucks…" Leo said, blushing. "There's no need to flatter me…okay, I'm lying, keep flattering me."

"No," Nuken said flatly.

"Oh well," Leo said, unsurprised.

"My point is…if there is anyone my daughter deserves to spend the rest of her unlife with, it's…you, Leo," Nuken said, with only a moment's hesitation before saying this.

Leo's eyes widened in amazement. "…Can I hug you, father-in-law?"

"No!" Nuken said sharply.

"Aw, come on, just one hug-" Leo started.

"If you hug me, I will take back my blessing!" Nuken screeched.

"No take-backs!" Leo cried, wrapping his arms around the desperately protesting Shedinja.

"Get off me! I'll eviscerate you!" Nuken screamed, struggling to break free from Leo's grasp.

"No you won't, you promised!" Leo said, rubbing his head against Nuken's shell.

"Something I am seriously regretting!" Nuken screamed.

"Leo, what on Earth are you DOING in there?!" an incredulous Pikachu shouted from the other side of the door.

"Dropping a biiiiiiiiiiiiig log!" Leo shouted, much to Nuken's sort of relief.

"…Yeah, I really didn't need to know that…" Pikachu muttered.

"I should probably let you go now, huh?" Leo asked reluctantly.

"Yes. You should," Nuken said stiffly.

The Shedinja flew to the other side of the room the instant Leo let go of him. Leo raised an eyebrow. "Don't like to be touched, huh?"

"If someone is close enough to touch you, they're close enough to stab a weapon into your side," Nuken said.

Leo whistled. "Yeesh. How the heck do you get intimate with Missy with an attitude like that?"

"With great difficulty," Nuken said. "Now, get going. Lily will be waiting for you at the altar…and for me, I suppose."

Leo nodded. "Right. See you out there in a few minutes, father-in-law." Nuken nodded and vanished.

There was a knock on the door. "Leo! Are you, uh, finished with your business yet?" Ash asked awkwardly.

Leo rolled his eyes and slid the ice slab to the side to come face-to-face with the concerned Lucario, wearing a suit similar to the one he had been wearing yesterday only in colors matching Leo's own wedding wear. He was also wearing his badge and scarf. "Yeah, though you might not want to go in there for a while, if you know what I mean."

"Ew," Ash said, wrinkling his nose in disgust. He paused and sniffed the air. "Doesn't smell that bad, though."

"It's worse than it smells, trust me," Leo said.

"Speaking of which, why does it smell sort of like dead skin-" Ash started.

"Okay, let's do this!" Leo said loudly, stepping past Ash and closing the door behind him. "Pikachu, we all good?"

"We've been ready for the last several minutes, we were waiting for you," Pikachu, wearing a formal blue and white kimono with wintry scenes woven into it, said flatly. Like the other two, his scarf and badge were visible on his outfit. They had decided to wear their Rescue Team 'uniforms' to demonstrate team solidarity and show their support for their friends getting married, something Leo and Lily were very touched by.

"Well, a guy has to look his best when he's getting married," Leo pointed out. "I'm sure you'll spend inordinate amounts of time in the bathroom too when it's your turn to marry Dawn."

Pikachu sighed. "Don't remind me. My mom's been nagging me constantly to set a date, because she thinks 'after this whole mess is over' isn't specific enough."

"She kinda has a point," Ash said.

"Oh, like you're one to talk, what with your wedding date being even more nebulous than mine," Pikachu said.

"I haven't even asked Misty to marry me yet…what with her being out in space and all…" Ash said.

"She wouldn't marry you anyway. Why would she? She died because of you!" Misty hissed. Ash ignored her.

"Well, that's off in the future. Right now is my wedding day, so let's get this show on the road!" Leo said, putting on his shades.

"I've been saying that for the last ten minutes," Pikachu complained. Leo ignored him.

"Come on, guys! My bride awaits!" Leo declared.

The wedding was to take place outside, in a courtyard specifically constructed to hold the ceremony. (Literally. Using her power over the estate, Lily had imagined what the perfect place for her and Leo to get married at would look like, and the entire structure had reshaped itself to suit her will.) Snow constantly drifted down from the skies, but thanks to magic (the solution to everything in Fichina, as you've no doubt guessed by now), it didn't land on anyone and ruin their clothes, nor was anyone particularly cold. That didn't stop a few of the invited nobles and vassals from dressing in warm yet very fashionable clothes just so they could be seen wearing them, of course.

The courtyard was hemmed in on three sides by manor walls, with the fourth side opening out into a panoramic view of some of the picturesque wintry countryside surrounding the mansion. The wall opposite this view housed a pair of giant doors made, surprisingly enough, out of ice, covered in panels of stained ice depicting little scenes from Leo and Lily's times together. These scenes were replicated on a much larger scale by towering stained ice windows covering the faces of the other two walls, interspersed between ice statues of the two of them dancing and kissing placed in recessed alcoves. Flying buttresses extended from the roofs over the courtyard to make contact with their opposite numbers on the other side, creating glittering arches of ice with braziers burning with magical flames placed at the height of their arcs. Banners made of a shimmering fabric with the Yukihimi crest with a pair of totally rad sunglasses laid over it emblazoned on them dangled from the arches, flowing and waving in the breeze. Beneath the arches were what had to be a hundred very comfortable seats made of ice blocks rising out of the ground, split into two sections by a blue carpet running right down the middle. Leo's parents and siblings sat at the front of one section while the Thunderblades sat at the front of the other section with Missy. The remainder of the seats were filled by friends Leo and Lily had made since arriving in Fichina, several of the other allies they'd made on the Enchanted Express, a number of Pokémon who were either beholden to the Yukihimi family and had been called back into service now that Lily had been reinstated as head of house or were just there to be seen being there, several members of the press (including Todd), and a few people that had won invitations to the wedding in a contest held to promote publicity for the occasion and increase Lily's standing among her peers and make everyone forget the numerous crimes againt Pokémonity she'd (unwillingly) committed and the rather nasty stain her mother had left on the family's name.

At the front of the courtyard, framed by the mountains in the background, was a beautiful stage made of ice, with monolithic crystals spreading out from the sides and back and an incredibly delicate-looking heart-shaped frame made of ice with the snowflake and sunglasses crest depicted on the banners sculpted from brilliantly-glowing ice at its peak looming over the whole thing. A winding crystal staircase zigzagged up from the end of the carpet to the top of the stage, where Briney, Lily, Sasha, Dawn, Fantina and her daughters, Atlametheus, and Nuken were waiting. Briney had dressed for the occasion by wearing magnetic snowflake cufflinks, a glass eye rather than his customary eyepatch, a white mariner's jacket, and a skullcap, and his scard and badge pinned on him was floating behind a small ice pillar quickly thumbing through a Herdier-eared book for last-minute instructions on what exactly he was supposed to be doing. The bridesmaids were all wearing identical dresses made from ice crystals interwoven into fabric with snowflakes dotting them that sparkled beautifully in the light emanating from the giant ice crest. They had tried to force Sasha to wear a dress like theirs, but she'd pointed out that her priestess robes were all that were keeping her from passing out and spending the next eighteen or so hours in a deep sleep, so they'd reluctantly allowed her to wear her priestly vestments (and scarf and badge, of course) instead. Atlametheus was just wearing a bow tie and cufflinks, and looked fine in it.

And as for Lily…

She looked absolutely beautiful in her wedding dress, which, rather than being something Fantina had crafted for her, apparently belonged to her grandmother, according to Atlametheus. It was made from an icy blue-white fabric created from ice and diamonds that had been transmuted into thread with woven snowflakes literally dancing across the flowing skirt, so it looked as if she was wearing a piece of the winter sky. A snow-white crystalline flower was pinned to her bodice, with her badge pinned right next to it. A number of magical snowflake-shaped crystals floated around her, reflecting ambient light so it would always cast her features in the most attractive light, even making her curse scars not look quite so bad, though the makeup she'd applied before to accentuate her eyes and mouth had probably helped quite a bit in drawing attention away from the chains. She had replaced her customary pearl necklace with one made of diamonds worn over her freshly pressed scarf, and it sparkled dazzlingly in the refracted light from the floating mirrors. A long train made of a sheet of snow magically pressed into cloth flowed behind her, ice sprites holding onto its edges to keep it floating off of the ground. Her hat had changed colors to match her dress, with a diadem wrapped around its crown and a veil made of tiny translucent interlocking ice crystals hanging in her face from the front brim. Her long hair had been tamed with careful application of conditioner so that it flowed down the back of her dress in one thick braid rather than constantly weaving and twitching every which way, bound into a knot at the bottom by her engagement ring. Diamond dust had been sprinkled across the lengths of her locks to give them an extra-lustrous sheen.

"She's so pretty," said an astonished Nefertari.

"I'm so jealous…I wish I were getting married!" Phoebe said unhappily. Some of her sisters nodded in agreement.

Dawn raised an eyebrow. Why? I thought you liked your…'swinging' lifestyle.

"Oh, we do," Shauntel said.

"Very much so," Morticia said, licking her lips.

"But zat doesn't mean now and zen we don't fantasize about our perfect wedding…or settling down wiz ze mon of our dreams," Mirami said wistfully.

"Or zree," Agatha said.

"Or ten!" Bow giggled.

I do not understand Mewrians at all… the Buneary thought to herself as the Fantasma girls started gushing about who they'd want to marry and what kind of honeymoon they would have with their spouse…or spouses.

"I still do not understand the fuss," Sasha complained. "The union of two Pokémon for life is important, but does it really need all this…over-the-top frillery and ceremony?"

Many Pokémon like all this 'over-the-top frillery and ceremony,' Dawn said. I wouldn't mind a little extravagance myself at my wedding.

Sasha raised an eyebrow. "Truly? I thought you would be fine with more utilitarian fare."

I would, Dawn said. But just because I'm a ninja doesn't mean I can't dream about a magnificent wedding…and thanks to my future mother-in-law, it looks like I'm going to get one.

"Hmm," Sasha said doubtfully.

What was your wedding like? Dawn asked.

"I walked up to my future husband, told him we were a couple now, he said 'Okay,' and then we mated," Sasha said.

That's it? Dawn asked.

"That's it," Sasha said.

Even I think that's a bit minimalist and unromantic, Dawn said.

"It worked well enough for our purposes," Sasha said. "It's not like we exactly have access to all this…excess, out where I come from."

"You poor zing!" Bow cooed.

"If you want, we could 'elp arrange a much more lavish second wedding for you and your mate to renew your vows," Mirami said.

"No," Sasha said.

"…Just like zat?" Bow asked in disappointment.

"Yes. Just like zat, I mean that," Sasha said.

The Fantasmas pouted at her. "You 'ave no sense of romance," Shauntel sniffed.

"I manage to get by," Sasha said.

It's a wonder your boytoy hasn't run out on you with an attitude like that, Darkrai said.

If he tried, I would eviscerate him, Sasha said.

Ah. Yeah, that would do it, Darkrai said. He sighed. Reminds me of Cressy. Oh, Cressy…

"She looks marvelous, doesn't she?" Fantina whispered proudly to Nuken, who was staring at his daughter as if he had never seen her before in his unlife.

"Yes, she does," the Shedinja said. "Although…all of this ice surrounding her makes me think of…"

"Don't say it," Fantina said sharply. "Zat name is not to be uttered anywhere wizin ten miles of zis special day."

"I wasn't going to say her name," Nuken said, offended. "But…looking at her, wearing that…one can't help seeing the family resemblance."

"When I look at 'er wearing zat, I zink of 'er sainted grandmozzer," Fantina said. "Zat…witch who 'appened to unbirz 'er doesn't fit into ze equation at all."

"No, I suppose not," Nuken agreed. He sighed. "How is this possible, Fantina? How could two of the world's greatest monsters spawn something so…sweet and kind and as completely unlike her mother or myself as possible?"

"Genetics are a funny zing," Fantina said in amusement.

"I don't deserve a child as good as her," Nuken said.

"No, you don't," Fantina said bluntly. When he shot a look at her, she said, "Which is why you must prove you are worzy of 'er. What you did last night—whatever it was-was a good first step, but if you want to build a positive relationship wiz 'er, you've got to work for it."

"I am aware," Nuken said with a sigh. "It's going to probably be the hardest thing I've ever done…but I'll do it anyway, because I want to be a part of her unlife. I've wanted it for three hundred years…" He paused, then looked at Fantina and said, "Fantina, I…know we've rarely seen eye to eye…"

"Zat's one way of putting it," the sorceress said with a sniff.

"However, I…wanted to…thank you," Nuken said hesitantly. "For giving my Lily a positive female role model and mother figure, and helping her find a home and friends here in Fichina. I…would have preferred for her to come live with me in the Empire, but I see now that's not really an option, so…thank you for helping her to settle in, and being a…better mother to her than, well, her actual mother was."

Fantina laughed. "Not like zat would be 'ard. And you know what? If you keep up zat attitude, you just might be a good fazzer after all…not just for Lily, but for ze little one yet to be unborn."

"…Thank you, Fantina. That means a lot to me," Nuken said.

"Of course, don't zink zis means I like you. I still zink you're an 'orrible person and want to see you as little as possible," Fantina said.

"Oh, likewise. I absolutely despise you, your daughters, and your way of life," Nuken said. "Especially your promiscuity, which I don't think is the best example to set for my daughter, let alone yours."

Fantina smirked. "I figured. But…we can 'ate each ozzer on amicable terms, yes? For Lily's sake?"

Nuken glanced at his daughter again, so happy and beautiful. He nodded, finding himself making yet another concession he never, ever, ever thought he'd make. "Yes. For Lily's sake."

In the front row, Missy, wearing a lovely gown (with Meowth ears, of course) was sobbing into her handkerchief. "Oh! Oh, this is so beautiful! My stepdaughter's going to be married! I always cry at weddings, even my own!"

"Why is she crying? The wedding hasn't even started yet," the unnerved Raiki muttered to Delia.

"She's just very excited, is all," Delia said, appraising their surroundings with a frown on their face. "Hmm…I suppose it's a good setting. I could probably have done just as well, if not better, if they'd come to me first, but for whatever reason they didn't, so I suppose they'll have to be satisfied with this."

"…Are you serious? Are you actually upset that we're going to a wedding that you didn't plan?!" Raiki asked incredulously.

"I plan all the weddings back home," Delia sniffed. "Going to one somebody else made doesn't feel right."

Raiki rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Unbelievable…can't you just enjoy this? These are two of our sons' best friends getting married here, and this is the wedding they wanted! Quit nitpicking and let them get married on their own terms!"

Delia sighed. "Oh, very well…" She sat in silence for a few minutes, arms crossed, before saying, "You know, they could have given us actual chairs rather than blocks of-"

"DELIA!" Raiki bellowed, shutting her up.

Kageie shifted uncertainly on her seat, unnerved by the massive crowd and lavish settings. She wondered if all 'civilized' weddings were like this. Hers certainly hadn't been… "All we did is promise ourselves to each other, and that was that," she murmured. Her face darkened. "Then again…considering what's happened between us…perhaps these folk have the right idea?"

"I don't get it. We're sitting on blocks of ice, and yet now only am I not cold, it feels like I'm sitting in a very comfortable chair," Matthias said, shifting about in his seat in confusion. "How can this be?"

"It's magic, bro, don't think too hard about it," Pichu said, lounging back in his seat with a relaxed look on his face.

"I can't help it. I'm not entirely fond of magic, ever since we ran into that shaman who used my fifth great uncle twice-removed on my second grandfather's side to channel a bunch of evil spirits who massacred a quarter of my family. Or the magician who needed some of our whiskers for one of his spells and cut the noses off of twenty of my cousins, causing them to lose their sense of smell and die due to not being able to scent danger. Or the evil sorcerer pretending to be a hobo who turned my sister-in-law inside out when she foolishly offered him a berry, and turned some of my other relatives into giant body parts. Or the ancestral curse which is the reason our tails are short, which has a story so horrible behind it it'd turn your fur white-" Matthias listed.

"Okay, okay, that's enough, mon," Pichu said.

"I quite like this place," Mizula commented. "It is a fascinating environment, and the waters of New Avalon look like they might have made a good home for my family and I had we not wound up in Pokémon Square instead."

"Why didn't you try coming here instead of crossing the ocean all the way to Kanjohenn?" Matthias asked.

"We did. We were turned away at the border," Mizula said sadly. "The Colossi wouldn't let us through because of the crimes we had committed under our father's command."

"Oh," Pichu said. "That sucks."

"And they let Lily through, even though she's probably done more evil stuff for longer? That doesn't seem fair!" Matthias said.

"Well, they'd called ahead so the higher-ups at the border were probably told to let 'em all through," Pichu said. "But Mizula and the others didn't have the advantage of connections on the inside."

"That's really not fair…" Matthias said. "The Phione were sorry and repentant, too. They shouldn't have been turned away."

"It's all right," Mizula assured them. "We are happy in Pokémon Square. If we had been allowed into Fichina, I would not have met you, or Raiki or Delia, or Mimi, or all the other friends I have made. While it was…inconvenient to have to travel all that way, I am pleased that we did, because otherwise we might not have found a new home."

"Awww, we're happy we met you too, Mizula!" Pichu said.

"Sorry again for beating you up the first time we met," Matthias apologized.

"Water under the bridge," Mizula assured them.

Across the aisle, Judy was being pestered by her Gible children, much to the irritation of the other guests nearby. "New Mama, when's the wedding going to start?" Ludwig whined.

"Soon, dear," the Torkoal said.

"I'm hungry! I wanna eat!" Iggy complained.

"You can eat as soon as the wedding's over, dear," Judy said.

"Will there be cake? I like cake!" Larry said.

"Yes, a big one, but you can't eat all of it, there are other hungry people here, too," Judy said.

"S-s-s-so cold," Lemmy shuddered.

"Brain freeze! Brain freeze!" Morton moaned, cradling his head.

"Mah tug! Ah cat feel mah tug!" Wendy yelped, trying to pull her stuck tongue off the side of her chair.

Judy sighed wearily. "Kids, what did I tell you about not eating the ice around here?"

Roy, who had been about to shove a chunk of his chair in his mouth, hesitated. "Uh…not to?"

"Precisely. Put that down, please," Judy said sternly.

Reluctantly, Roy complied. Just as reluctantly, so did the other Gibles.

"This is incredible! I can't believe we're actually attending a wedding at the Yukihimi estate!" Silvia gushed.

"We were here yesterday for dinner. What's the big deal?" Buck complained.

"Dinner is very different from attending a wedding, dear. Do you know what this means? We're going up in the world!" the silver Claydol squealed.

"Silvia, we were invited because we're friends of the bride and groom," Goldor pointed out.

"Which is even better! We're known acquaintances of the newest celebrity couple in Fichina! Oh, the invitations for us to attend all the best high society functions will just come rolling in! We might even be asked to come to *gasp* the Royal Palace!"

"We've been there recently, too," Buck pointed out.

"But not on a regular basis!" Silvia wailed, much to her family's embarrassment.

"I don't know her. Honest," Goldor said to the well-dressed Pokémon sitting next to him, who sniffed and turned away. The golden Claydol growled. "Snob."

"Thanks for coming as my plus-one, George," Bruno said to the mercenary Mightyena.

"No problem," George said. "We both got invitations, so it only seemed right we come together."

"Yeah," the Machamp said. "But…I figured you'd be coming with that Sam guy. Didn't you have a crush on him?"

"No," George said bitterly.

Bruno blinked. "Really? Because I thought-"

"I never want to see him again," George said coldly, pointedly not looking in the direction of where Sam was sitting, obvious due to the towering Decepticon seated right next to him.

"Ah," Bruno said. "Say no more." Inside, he thought, Yes! Score! Now I've got a chance with her! Thanks for being such a…weirdo, Sam!

Looker was perched behind one of the gargoyles on the icy rooftops overlooking the wedding. He was peering at all the guests and the environs through a set of very high-tech binoculars. "What are you doing up here?" Kairyu asked, crouching down next to the Croagunk.

"The same could be said of you, Palmer of the Dragon's Claw ninja clan," Looker said, not seeming remotely surprised by the Dragonite's presence.

Similarly, Palmer did not seem surprised that Looker had figured out his identity. "What gave me away?"

"I'm a detective," Looker said, and that was that.

Palmer nodded. "Any reason you're up here rather than down there? I would've thought you'd have gotten an invitation too, even if you were planning on arresting Lily to get to Bellum. Not that you'd have succeeded, by the way."

"Just wanted to make sure nobody tried anything," Looker said, not taking his eyes off his binoculars. "While sentiment towards Lily is generally positive, there are quite a few people out there who want to punish her for her mother's sins."

"You realize it's unlikely for anything bad to actually happen, given the very strong defensive enchantments designed to protect Lily and her friends, as well as the security guards all over the place, and the Draconian ninjas doing the exact same thing you're doing right now?" Palmer asked.

"Speaking of which, could you get another hiding place? There's not enough room for both of us behind here," a Ninjask right next to Looker asked.

"No," the Croagunk said. The Ninjask sighed in frustration and flew off to find somewhere else to hide.

"Well?" Palmer pressed after Looker didn't say anything for a while.

"I prefer not to leave anything to chance," the Croagunk said.

Palmer nodded. "Sensible. Is that why you were looting through the trash cans earlier today?"

"I go through everyone's garbage," Looker said with a note of pride.

"Heh. Mind if I join you?" Palmer asked.

Looker shrugged indifferently. "Suit yourself."

Palmer sat down next to him. They said nothing for a while as both of them scanned the scenery for any signs of trouble. After a minute, Looker, still not taking his eyes off his binoculars, said, "You're looking for the Dragon's Wing clan?"

"Yes," Palmer said, not bothering to ask how Looker knew that.

Looker reached into his trenchcoat and pulled out a folder, which he handed to the Dragonite, again without looking away from the crowd. "This might help."

Palmer flipped open the folder. His eyes flickered as he quickly looked over the contents. He closed it and stuffed it in his robes. "Thank you. That's exactly what I was looking for."

"I thought so," Looker said. "You going to head out to follow those leads?"

"After the wedding," Palmer said. Looker nodded. Silence between them resumed once again.

Silence which was broken when, without warning, Todd landed right next to them. "Hey, guys! What are you doing up here? I was up in the air taking some overhead photos for my paper when I spotted you two down here! Shouldn't you be down in the courtyard with everyone else?"

"Less crowded up here," Palmer said, trying to hide his annoyance at the intrusion.

"Ah, that makes sense. Oh, wow, this is a great vantage point for some prime pics! Mind if I join you?" the Aerodactyl asked.

"Well, actually, we-" Looker started.

"Really? Thanks! Don't worry, I won't bother you guys one bit!" Todd said as his eyes flashed repeatedly and photo after photo slid off his tongue.

Palmer and Looker shared frustrated looks. "If you kill him, I'm going to have to arrest you," the Croagunk said.

"I wasn't going to kill him," Kairyu said, though he had been considering it. "However…" He coughed. "Look, over there, an assassin!"

Looker raised an eyebrow. "Seriously?"

"Oh gosh, an assassin?! Where?!" Todd asked, looking around frantically.

"Assassins?! Where?!" some of the hidden ninjas cried, poking their heads up and looking around frantically.

Palmer facepalmed. Looker chuckled in amusement. "Oh, very well." He made a big show of turning around so his back was to the Dragonite.

Sighing in relief, Palmer pinched the frantic Aerodactyl's shoulder. "Huh? Hey, what are you-" Todd immediately passed out, faceplanting in the snow.

"Oh look, he fell asleep!" Palmer said as Looker turned back around. "I guess he's been spending too many nights staying up late developing photographs for his own good, the poor thing."

"Sleeping on the job? How unprofessional," Looker said in amusement.

"I won't tell if you won't tell," Palmer said.

"Deal," Looker said. They shook on it, and then resumed their vigil in amiable silence, while snow gently started covering the snoring Aerodactyl beside them.

"When's this going to start? I'm hungry!" Bitey whined.

"In a few minutes," Cherry said. "And don't eat your chair; you'll get a brain freeze."

"I wasn't going to eat my chair!" Bitey protested.

"Yes you were," Cherry said.

"…Yeah, I was," Bitey admitted. He looked up at the altar. "So…are they gonna make it?"

"Hmm?" Cherry asked.

"Leo and Lily. Are they going to be all right?" Bitey asked.

"Huh? Oh, yeah, definitely," Cherry said. "They're going to live happily ever after."

Bitey sighed in relief. "That's good to hear."

Cherry smirked. "Yeah…it is, isn't it?"

"So…does this mean we're dating now?" Coil asked Sparkler.

Sparkler glanced at him in surprise. "What? What are you talking about?"

"Well, we both got invited, we came together, we're sitting next to each other, just like we did last night-" Coil started.

"No," Sparkler said. "We are not dating."

"Oh," the Magneton said in disappointment. He sighed. "Shot down again…"

"Why did we come to this again?" Outlaw complained, looking positively comedic trying to squeeze into a chair built for a Pokémon about a fifth her size. "I hate weddings."

"We were invited, and there's going to be free food, and I'm never one to turn down free food," Sam said.

"But I can't eat anything here!" Outlaw whined.

"I'm sure there'll be something you can eat," Sam said. "And if not, I brought some Energon goodies."

"Well, I suppose it's better than nothing," Outlaw grumbled. "Are you sure I can't blow anything up or kill anyone?"

"If you do, we'll get thrown out, which means no food," Sam pointed out.

"Eh, true," Outlaw grunted. "Oh well, at least I won't be used as a honeymoon vehicle like the time Sibyl and Abraham Lincoln were married. Or have a pair of organics…well, one organic and one living statue head…going at it in my back seat."

"How exactly did they manage that, anyway?" Sam asked.

"I purged the memory from my databanks, so neither of us will ever know, which is as it should be," Outlaw said solemnly.

Sam nodded. "That's true. So, do you think that pet of yours will be okay on his own?"

"Oh, he'll be fine," Outlaw said dismissively. "He should be okay on his own for a few hours."

Elsewhere…

"I PRAY FOR DEATH'S SWEET EMBRACE!" Rono screamed in unfathomable agony.

Back in Fichina…

Sam glanced over his shoulder. "I think his friends are a few rows behind us. They're glaring at you."

"Is that so?" Outlaw stood up and turned around, much to the protests of the other guests. "HEY, MEATBAGS!" she bellowed at Coil and Sparkler. "Well, meatbag and inferior silicon-based lifeform, anyway. AS WE SPEAK, YOUR FRIEND IS BEING SLOWLY CONVERTED INTO A SUPERIOR MECHANICAL BEING LIKE MYSELF IN A PROCESS WHICH IS EXCRUCIATINGLY PAINFUL AND WILL NO DOUBT DRIVE HIM COMPLETELY INSANE, LEAVING HIM A DROOLING WRECK PERFECT FOR HIS PURPOSES AS MY PET! THAT'S WHAT YOU GET FOR CHALLENGING A MIGHTY DECEPTICON TO A RACE, YOU PATHETIC TROGLODYTE EVOLUTIONARY THROWBACKS! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"

"I'LL KILL HER!" Coil shrieked, flying out of his seat and lunging at the Decepticon. Outlaw flicked him away with a finger, causing him to smash through one of the stained-ice windows surrounding the courtyard. "Or not…"

"Ah, that felt good," Outlaw said, chuckling as she sat back down, ignoring the glares from the other guests as some of the servants frantically tried to repair the window she'd just broken. "It's always fun to belittle someone who's smaller and weaker than you and has no power to stop you whatsoever. It's practically the Decepticon credo!"

"Yes, Max would say the same thing," Sam agreed. He sighed. "I miss him."

"Shouldn't we be out looking for him?" Outlaw asked.

"Eh, we'll get to it," Sam said.

Outlaw raised an eyebrow. "You seem a lot calmer about his absence than you were a week ago."

"Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm actually a frothing mass of rage and hard-boiled violence seething just beneath the surface waiting to do absolutely horrible things to the people responsible for taking my little buddy away that's getting worse and worse every second Max isn't here. However, it gets exhausting acting all that way all the time, and it wouldn't be very polite to behave like that at a wedding of one of me and Max's biggest fans who's not trying to kill us or kidnap us or write twisted male-on-male fanfiction about us, so I'm repressing my unbridled wrath and fury until after the wedding and we resume our search in earnest, unless I go completely insane and turn into a rabid dog first," Sam said.

"You don't have rabies," Outlaw pointed out.

"I have a can of shaving cream, that'll do," Sam said.

"…Heh. Maybe this wedding won't be so bad after all," Outlaw said in amusement, getting a positively malicious idea.

"What a lovely wedding!" Dean commented, looking around the courtyard in awe. "And it was so nice of the weather Pokémon to keep the skies nice and cloudy so we didn't have to worry about sunburn."

"I thought we'd seen the last of the ice and snow after Dusty Ditch," Bob said with a sigh. "I suppose not."

Thinking of Dusty Ditch made Dean think of Dominick, and thinking of Dominick made him sad. "…Should we really be doing this right now? The Nihilators are still out there, and they have the Mistress. Why aren't we taking the fight to them already? With all the intel we've provided, they should be toast by now!"

"They are toast," Bob said. "On Earth, anyway. However, they're still deeply entrenched on Mars, and that's not exactly an easy place to get to, even with our information."

Dean sighed. "No, I suppose not…it just feels wrong for us to be having something as cheery as a wedding while our Mistress and brethren are even now being tortured and abused by the Nihilators."

"We will rescue them soon, I promise," Bob said. "And then…" He closed his eyes. "The Count's last request will finally be fulfilled."

Dean nodded. "The Mistress will never forget his sacrifice…and neither will we."

"A lovely day for a wedding, isn't it daughter?" Queen Ninianne idly asked Princess Boa.

The armored Servine nodded. "Yes. I don't suppose we'll be getting you to have one of these one day?"

The avatar of magic laughed. "Not a chance." Mr. Sukizo, who'd been sitting nearby and had been harboring a crush on the Queen for quite some time now (as had pretty much everyone in the country, at one point or another) crused angrily, trying not to cry as he realized his dreams were shattered.

"Oooh, I love weddings! Don't you. Mr. Sukizo?" Joy Prime, who'd been sitting next to the Abra asked. When he burst into tears, she smiled sympathetically and patted him on the back, saying, "There, there, I cry at weddings too!"

Lady Caitlin frowned at Lily's wedding dress. "That train she's wearing looks rather reminiscent of my hairstyle."

"Would you like me to do anything about it, Mistress?" Darach asked.

"No, it's probably a coincidence, it's just somewhat vexing, is all," the Gothitelle said with a frown. "I do not like my style being copied without permission."

"Dad, is my wedding going to be as nice as this one?" Juijmaru asked his father.

"One can only hope, son," Leeku said, privately thinking that it probably wouldn't be.

"Omigosh! This is so great! Isn't this great? Lily and Leo are getting married! And we're here! Are you excited? I'm excited! I'm sooooo excited!" Bianca squealed excitedly, wriggling about so much she was having trouble staying in her seat.

Don George laughed and put a hand on his daughter's head to keep her in place. "Yes dear, I'm excited too, though not nearly as much as you are, I'll bet."

"I love weddings! Dad, can I get married soon? Please please please can I?!" Bianca asked giddily.

The burly Emboar hesitated. "We'll…talk about it later, okay?"

"Okay!" the Pignite chirped eagerly.

"You know, this wedding reminds me of a movie I was in once," Brycen commented to Don George.

"Yeah?" the Emboar asked, worried about his daughter's future.

The Beartic nodded. "Yes, only that one got attacked by aliens, whom I promptly defeated."

"…Ah. Yeah, I don't think that's going to happen here," Don George said.

"You never know," Brycen said, looking up into the sky. Don George gave him a weird look. Aura Guardians could be so strange sometimes…

"Well, it's a relief to know that this marriage is going to go off without a hitch, we aren't going to war, and neither of us have lost our jobs," Stoutroot said to Drayden.

The Haxorus nodded in relief. "Yeah, though it looked a little touch and go for a minute. Good thing Nuken seems to have forgotten he and I were supposed to have a 'talk' after whatever happened between now and when he disappeared yesterday." One of the ninjas patrolling nearby heard this and made a note to remind Nuken of this later.

"Dad, is my marriage gonna be as nice as this one?" Iris asked her father.

Drayden paused. "Yes, honey, of course it is."

"It's not, is it Dad?" Melanie murmured to her father.

The Venusaur shook his head. "No dear, but there's no reason to tell her that. Let her hang onto her delusions for a little longer, it's the diplomatic thing to do."

"Ugh, do we gotta do this?" Victini complained to her fellow Legendaries, somewhat amusingly seated in regular chairs like everyone else. "We should be out kicking Nihilator butts, not wasting our time with this wedding!"

"This wedding is an important milestone in the lives of two of the heroes who will help us to put an end to the Nihilator scourge once and for all," Lugia said.

"Plus, it'll help Lily become more powerful, which will make the impending battle weigh that much more heavily in our favor," Reshiram said.

Victini perked up at this. "You don't say? Well then, let's get it over with!"

"These things can't be rushed, you know," Zekrom said.

Victini groaned. "Yeah, I know…but couldn't they go a little faster? Kyurem, couldn't you, like, I dunno, threaten to eat them if they don't hurry up and get things started already?"

"It will begin when it begins, and not a minute before," the ice dragon rasped.

"Psht. Lame," Victini grumbled.

Up on the altar, Lily looked at Briney in concern. "Are you all right?" she asked as Briney flipped through his book for the dozenth time. "You seem nervous."

"Nervous?!" Briney snapped, looking up and accidentally ripped out several pages from the book. "I don't get nervous!" he said, throwing the pages away. "I'm Captain Thaddeus Irving Briney! If anything, you should be nervous! This is the biggest day in your life! Aren't you the least bit anxious?"

"No," Lily said truthfully.

Briney gave her a surprised look. "Really? Because I—I-I mean, most Pokémon are right before their weddings. Some of them even get second thoughts…not that I ever did, of course!"

Lily shook her head. "I have no second thoughts. I've known for a while now that Leo is the Pokémon I want to spend the rest of eternity with…I think I've always known, really, but only recently realized it. Why should I be nervous when this is the culimation of all our hopes and dreams? The first steps towards starting a life together beyond just being teammates who happen to be dating each other?"

I'm so proud of you, Lily, B said.

I'm proud of myself, too…for one of the first times ever, Lily said. I really have come a long way, haven't I?

And you're a far, FAR better person for it, B said sweetly.

"…Heh. When you put it like that…" Briney chuckled. "You know, Leo's a very lucky mon. I can't think of anyone who wouldn't want a girl like you for their bride."

Lily blushed. "Thank you, Briney."

Briney sighed. "All right, full disclosure, I guess I am a little…nervous. I haven't been at a wedding since, well…my own."

Lily gave him a surprised look. "Oh! Really? But I thought-"

"Just because I'm licensed to perform a wedding doesn't mean I've actually done one before," Briney said. "It's not exactly like I've been around anyone long enough to marry them since…well…"

"Peeko," Lily said softly.

"Yeah," Briney said quietly. "Her." There was a pause, and then the Metang looked up at Lily, his eye softening. "You know…back before the…the incident, I'd always figured that when my kid finally got married to someone I approved of, I'd perform the wedding. Wanted to make sure it was legit and all. Seemed like the right thing to do for any child of my mine. You know why that idea didn't quite work out, though."

"Briney…" Lily said in concern.

"And then, when…when you and Leo came to me and asked me to-" Briney choked up for a moment, looking away. He rubbed his good eye on his arm and caught his breath before turning around. "When you asked me to marry the two of you, I felt…I felt like the kid Peeko and I never got to have was asking me to wed them."

Lily's eyes widened in astonishment. "I…r-really?!"

"Yeah…I…I care about the two of you a lot, okay? Not that you can tell the Squirtle or anything, he'd never let me hear the end of it," Briney said in embarrassment. "If I'm nervous, it's because…it's because I'm honored and grateful beyond words that the two of you asked me of all Pokémon to do this for you. I've watched your relationship grow from the very beginning, and to be here to help you move on to the next stage of your lives together, it's…it's kind of overwhelming. I…I want to make sure your trust in me is repaid in full, and that you and Leo get the chance for happiness my unborn kid never got, okay?"

Much to his surprise, Lily hugged him. "I understand. We love you and are eternally grateful, Briney. We know you'll make this the best wedding we could ever imagine."

To Briney's further surprise, he didn't shake her off immediately. "I…thank you, Lily. That…that means a lot to me. More than you can ever imagine." Smiling, he gently brushed her off. "Now…where's that husband of yours? We can't get started without him, and if he doesn't get here soon, I'm not sure this old sailor's heart can take much more of this waiting!"

Fortunately for Briney's nerves, the big doors at the back of the courtyard slowly creaked open, and Rebecca started conducting her chorus of elementals, who began to sing a beautifully ethereal rendition of a classic Fichinan wedding march. "All right, it's about time!" Victini said eagerly, only to be shushed by her elders.

Leo's wedding procession began walking up the aisle as Rebecca's spirit friends, with some help from Bow's own elemental colleagues, sung in the background. Team GX and Drakor Junior preceded the party, wearing adorable little dresses and scattering handfuls of snow from baskets they were carrying. Leo, resplendent in his wedding suit and cloak and badass in his shades, proudly marched behind the children, leaving footprints in the snow they were scattering. His father, a bowtie magnetically pinned to the front of his suit with a new paint job to make it look like a tuxedo, escorted him, while Ash and Pikachu walked on his other side, looking very handsome in their formal wear. Tiny hovered behind them, a cushion impaled on his horns with a pair of rings resting on it. More groomsmon, ushers, and the like followed in their wake, but nobody ever cares about those people anyway so we won't even dignify their presence.

As Leo walked towards the altar, he looked up towards his destination, and for the first time since last night he saw his bride. His heart skipped a beat, and he almost forgot to breathe for a moment. "Duuuuuude…"

"Congratulations, son," Brad said proudly.

"You really lucked out with this one, Leo," Pikachu said. "Good job."

Ash looked up at the altar, a sad smile on his face. For a moment, he could picture himself up there, standing opposite Misty…

"It'll never happen," his tormentor's voice acerbically cut through his fantasy. "She will never marry you. She died because of you and you haven't exactly done the best job of making her current life pleasant either. And even if she does, somehow, return your affections…you'll kill her, just like you kill everyone."

"You're wrong," Ash said under his breath.

"Am I? We'll see…" she said. "We'll see…" Ash frowned. Was it just him, or had that last part sounded almost…hopeful?

Leo and Lily locked eyes, and it was a good thing for the Squirtle that his father and Ash were on either side of him to make sure he didn't trip, because there was no way he could look where he was going without taking his eyes off his bride. She's so beautiful, he thought.

He's so handsome, Lily thought, which wasn't something most people would ever think of Leo.

This is really happening, Leo thought as the snow kids scattered out of the way and he, his father, and his friends started ascending the staircase.

This is really happening, Lily thought as she watched Leo come closer and closer.

Leo crested the staircase, not even slightly out of breath from the climb for a change, and moved to stand opposite Lily before Briney's podium, while Brad, Ash, Pikachu, and Tiny stood off to the side. I am the luckiest wo/mon in the world, they thought at the same time.

As the music died down, Briney, enraptured by the sight of Leo and Lily staring at each other with so much love he could practically taste it, suddenly realized that was his cue to begin. He glanced again at his book before shutting it, rising above the podium, and spreading his arms. "Dearly beloved," he began. "Friends and family and Pokémon from all across the land. We are gathered here today to witness the union of this fine young mon, Leonardo DeKappa, and this lovely womon, Lily Yukihimi. The journey that brought these two to this moment was long and fraught with danger…identity-stealing Dittos. Eight-headed monsters. Bounty hunters. Undead pirates. Temporary insanity. A battle in the depths of the ocean. A war with forces from an icy other dimension. Lily's incredibly evil mother. A fight against an entire airship armada, a giant robot spider, and a number of evil gods. Let nobody say the path these two took to realize their love for each other, and that they wanted to spend their lives together, was anything like easy.

"And now that path leads them to their greatest challenge yet: marriage, for as all we married mons know, marriage is not the end-all be-all of any relationship, or an excuse to slack off, and like anything in life you have to keep working at it to make sure it's still working properly. But with enough love—which, I assure you, these two have in spades—things have a tendency to work out for the better, and I have every confidence that the same thing will happen to these two. They have what it takes to go the distance, and there aren't a lot of people I'd say that about."

He reached under his skullcap and pulled out several sheets of paper. "Now, I was given these custom wedding vows ahead of time, but since Leo's are apparently written in a language I highly doubt anyone here understands-"

"Exilic Quenyan, from Lady of the Rings," Leo said proudly.

"And Lily's were written with far too much help from the Fantasma girls and so are not only filled with an appalling amount of sentimental gibberish but a number of glaring innuendos that Lily can only be excused from not noticing due to her intense naivete about such matters…" Briney continued.

"Wait, what?!" Lily started.

"Whoops, busted," Bow hissed.

"So I'll spare everyone by getting rid of these and relying on something more traditional," Briney said, ripping the papers to shreds. Leo and Lily were too lost in each other's eyes to really notice or care. "So…do you, Leo, take Lily to be your wife, your partner in life and one true love?"

"I do," Leo said.

"Will you cherish your union and love her more each day than you did the day before?" Briney asked.

"I will," Leo said.

"Will you trust her and respect her, laugh with her and cry with her, love her faithfully through good times and bad, regardless of the obstacles you may face together?" Briney asked.

"I will," Leo said.

"Will you give her your hand, your heart, and your love, from this day forward as long as you both shall live?" Briney asked.

"I will," Leo said.

"Good," Briney said. He turned to Lily. "Now it's your turn. Do you, Lily, take Leo to be your husband, your partner in life and one true love?"

"I do," Lily said.

"Will you cherish your union and love him more each day than you did the day before?" Briney asked.

"I will," Lily said.

"Will you trust him and respect him, laugh with him and cry with him, love him faithfully through good times and bad, regardless of the obstacles you may face together?" Briney asked.

"I will," Lily said.

"Will you give him your hand, your heart, and your love, from this day forward as long as you both shall live?" Briney asked.

"I will," Lily said.

Briney cracked a smile. "That's what I thought." He gestured to Tiny. "The rings, please?" Tiny floated over and presented the cushion atop his head to the two lovers. Briney's eye glowed, and the two rings levitated into the air, where they were snatched up by Leo's hand and Lily's own telekinetic grip. "Now, exchange the rings, if you please."

Leo raised his ring. He hadn't made it himself, sadly—he hadn't had time—but it was his grandmother's, and so was still very special. It was a simple gold band with a ruby carved to look like a Squirtle shell held in a setting vaguely resembling a Squirtle's legs. As Lily maneuvered her hair around so it floated in front of her in one thick plait rather than hanging down her back, Leo said, "This ring is a token of my love. I marry you with this ring, with all that I have and all that I am."

Lily reached out and slipped the end of her hair through the ring until the band clicked against her engagement ring. "I will forever wear this ring as a sign of my commitment and the desire of my heart." She flicked her head, sending her hair back in its proper place, and floated up the ring meant for Leo. It was also a Yukhimi keepsake, her grandmother's, a band of deep blue never-melting ice with runes promising longevity and happiness and love inscribed on its insides, with a diamond shaped like a snowflake set in it. "This ring is a token of my love. I marry you with this ring, with all that I have and all that I am."

Leo held out his finger, and Lily slid it on. "I will forever wear this ring as a sign of my commitment and the desire of my heart," he vowed.

Hiding a smile, Briney addressed the guests. "Do you who are assembled here support this union and affirm that these two should be married today?"

"WE DO!" was the enthusiastic response from nearly everyone gathered in the courtyard, including the ninjas, and, much to his own surprise and delight, Nuken.

"Good," Briney said, glad he'd chosen that phrase rather than asking if anyone had any reason why Leo and Lily should not be married, because that might invite conflict and drama they didn't really need at that point. "Then I grant these two my blessing…but since I'm aware that might not be good enough for some people, I managed to get a Shaymin to bless this union as well, what with Leo being a Shayminite and all. Come on up here, Ms. Marley."

What at first appeared to be a sentient mass of blankets, scarves, jackets, coats, parkas, mittens, and boots but on closer examination was a Shaymin wearing a great deal of winter gear waddled onto the stage, stood between Leo and Lily, and announced, "I give my blessing to this union." She then waddled off the stage, in search of somewhere warmer.

Briney blinked. "…Huh. For some reason I thought that would take a bit longer." There were a few laughs from the audience. "In any event, with the vows sworn, the rings exchanged, and the blessing given, I hereby proclaim Leo and Lily to be husband and wife. You may now kiss each other."

The newlyweds didn't need to be told, and lunged at each other hungrily the instant Briney finished his sentence, fervently kissing each other as the guests cheered and applauded and many burst into tears and some of the children made faces and turned away while others stared in fascination.

"Oh, my little boy is all grown up and married…I'm so proud of him!" Judy sobbed.

"Why is he eating her face?" Iggy asked.

"Maybe she tastes good?" Morton suggested.

Wendy licked her lips. "Mmm, I wonder what she tastes like…" Judy snorted and struggled not to laugh. None of them understood why.

Collette, who had rejoined her family after marching up the aisle, sighed wistfully and shot Matthias a look. The Rattata paled and nudged Pichu. "She's giving me that look, mon…"

"Heh! See, I told you she had a crush on you!" Pichu laughed.

"What do I do?!" Matthias hissed.

Pichu shrugged. "Heck if I know. Girls are a complete mystery to me."

"Intriguing. Mimi gives me a similar look when she thinks I am not looking," Mizula observed. His brothers stared at him. "What?"

All of a sudden, some of the chains on Lily's face started glowing. Lily gasped and broke off her kiss. "O-oh! My face! It's burning up!"

There were alarmed murmurs among the guests…and looks of hope and elation on the faces of Lily's friends. "Yatta…" Leo whispered. "Yatta…yatta, yatta yatta yatta YATTA YATTA YATTA YAAAAAAAAAATTAAAAAAAAA!"

"Leo! What's happening?!" Lily cried in alarm as the glow intensified. "Ahhhh…it hurts!"

"I was right! It's happening just as I predicted it would!" Leo said excitedly.

"Wh-what is?!" Lily asked in confusion and fear and alarm.

"Lily…I'VE BROKEN YOUR CURSE!" Leo shouted.

"WHAT?!" Lily, and most of the guests, cried in astonishment.

"This was his plan all along, Lily," Nuken said, floating next to Leo and finding an odd desire to hug the Squirtle. He quickly quashed it down.

Fantina nodded as she joined them. "Leo believed zat ze curse tying you to Giratina could be broken if you could achieve a stronger bond wiz someone else."

"But there is no stronger bond!" Lily protested in confusion.

"Wrong," Briney said. "There's the bond between husband and wife."

Lily's eyes widened. "Then…you mean…"

"That's right!" Leo said triumphantly. "By marrying me, we were able to create a bond strong enough to override Giratina's! As a result, her claim on you is disappearing!"

"But…but then does that mean…you only married me because…" Lily asked, looking uncertain and scared.

Leo blinked in surprise. "What? No! Nonononono! Don't you ever think that, Lily! Yeah, I married you because I thought it'd break the curse…but I also married you because I LOVE you, Lily, and I want to be with you! Compared to that, freeing your soul from Giratina is just a side benefit."

Lily's eyes widened. "Then…this marriage is for real?"

"Of course it is! As real as anything is! As if I'd ever marry someone if I didn't love them!" Leo said.

Lily started tearing up. "Oh, Leo…once again, you've proven to me just why I wanted to marry you…" She squeezed her eyes shut and cried out in pain as the chain mark started writhing. "Aaahhh…AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!"

"LILY!" Leo, Fantina, and Nuken cried in alarm.

"Was it like this the last time?!" Pikachu asked in concern.

"N-no, it didn't look nearly this painful!" Ash cried.

"Lily!" Tiny cried worriedly.

Lily's face ripped itself apart as a writhing, flailing mass of chains burst out of her skin, the barbed links forged from a material that looked like darkness made solid, blacker than the darkest night. Their very presence caused everyone to flinch in pain and recoil, the lights seemed to dim several degrees, an unearthly chill that had nothing to do with the weather formed in their bones, and they could hear a voice reverberating through their minds that shook them down to their very souls, a voice of pure evil and hatred that triggered all the nerve endings in their bodies that managed pain and made them feel like it was slicing through them as sharply as a Scyther's blades. "THIS. IS. NOT. OVER."

"Yes," Leo said weakly as shafts of light started emanating from cracks forming in the black chains. "It is. You will never have Lily. Her soul is her own now. She's free…and now, you never will be."

The chain exploded in a brilliant flash of light, with a sound akin to the enraged screams of a million damned souls. "GRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH HHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

The light returned. The feeling of pain and oppression lifted. There was no trace of the cursed chain remaining.

And Lily…

Lily was free. Truly, finally free.

Elsewhere…

"BELLUM!"

Bellum cried in alarm as the familiar voice rang through her mind, causing pain almost as bad as what Oblivion's Shadow had done to her for failing to kill the vampires to course through her body. "M-mistress! What-"

"THE CURSE HAS BEEN BROKEN. LILY IS FREE."

Bellum gawked. "Wh-what?! That's…that's not possible! I know the spell I had controlling her had a weak link, but there's no way they could have broken yours! You're practically the inventor of dark magic, after all! Your curses have no weaknesses whatsoever!"

"THERE IS ONE."

"What?!" Bellum cried incredulously.

"LOVE."

"Love?! What does that have to do with anything?" Bellum asked in confusion and disbelief.

There was a frustrated growl that made Bellum feel like her head was about to rip open and spill her ectoplasmic innards across the walls. "OF COURSE YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND. YOU NEVER COULD. ANOTHER REASON YOU CONTINUE TO FAIL ME."

"M-mistress, I-" Bellum started.

"SILENCE," Giratina said, and Bellum was quite certain if she weren't made of stronger stuff she would have disintegrated from primal terror. "YET AGAIN, MEW HAS DEFEATED ME. YET AGAIN, HER PRECIOUS 'LOVE' HAS RUINED MY PLANS. AND NOW BECAUSE OF IT, AND BECAUSE YOU COULD NOT CONTROL YOUR DAUGHTER BETTER, I AM TRAPPED HERE…FOREVER!"

Bellum cringed, getting the feeling she was on very thin ice. "S-surely it's not as bad as all that! I-I mean, Lord Shadow is on the brink of finding a way to open the Door to the Abyss without all the Star Badges, and once we do-"

"ONCE YOU DO, NOTHING WILL CHANGE!"Giratina roared in fury, slamming Bellum against a wall. "EVEN IF YOU WERE TO WALTZ RIGHT INTO MY PRISON, EVEN IF YOU WERE ABLE TO REVIVE THE RULER OF EVIL ITSELF, WITHOUT A SAMPLE OF THE POWER OF THE DRAGON GOD KING, WHO DEFEATED AND ENCHAINED ME SO MANY EONS AGO, NO POWER IN ANY WORLD CAN FREE ME FROM MY BONDS!"

"Oh," Bellum said weakly.

"AND NONE OF THIS WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF YOU HAD DONE A BETTER JOB OF KEEPING YOUR PATHETIC DAUGHTER IN LINE!" Giratina shouted angrily. One of Bellum's arms gave up the ghost (ha) and dissolved into ectoplasm which splattered the floor, much to her alarm. "GIVE ME ONE GOOD REASON WHY I SHOULD NOT PUNISH YOU FOR FAILING IN THIS ONE SIMPLE TASK AND SQUANDERING WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN MY ONLY CHANCE OF EVER BEING FREE!"

"B-because…ah…" Bellum's mind raced quickly. "Because…because Lily still has that power inside of her, yes?"

"YES, AND FOREVER OUT OF MY REACH!"Giratina snarled.

"Wrong!" Bellum said, only realizing a second later it might not be the best idea to try and correct her infernal mistress. "I mean…Oblivion's Shadow will soon have the Door open, yes?"

"SO YOU KEEP SAYING," Giratina growled.

"Well, once that happens, naturally Team Aurabolt will chase after him once he passes through to seek out and resurrect the Ruler of Evil, right? To try and stop him?" Bellum continued. "And they'll no doubt have to pass through your prison on the way there…perhaps you could arrange to somehow take Lily back and drain the power from her you need to free yourself?"

Giratina considered this. "YOUR IDEA HAS…MERIT," she said grudgingly. "SINCE MY HOLD ON LILY HAS BEEN BROKEN, I CANNOT SIMPLY CLAIM HER SOUL THE INSTANT SHE ENTERS MY PRESENCE…HOWEVER…THERE MIGHT BE ANOTHER WAY…YES…YES, THAT JUST MIGHT WORK…"Giratina chuckled, and Bellum winced, feeling like her eyeballs and eardrums were going to explode and her stomach was about to claw its way out of her belly. "WELL DONE, BELLUM. I KNEW THERE WAS A REASON I HAVE NOT YET DEVOURED YOUR SOUL."

"I unlive to serve you, Mistress," Bellum said with a bow.

"YES, YOU DO," Giratina said. "VERY WELL, BELLUM, YOU HAVE ONE MORE CHANCE TO MAKE THIS IDEA OF YOURS WORK. BUT BE WARNED…IF YOU FAIL…"

Bellum swallowed. "Yes?"

"THEN WHAT OBLIVION'S SHADOW DID TO YOU EARLIER THIS WEEK WILL FEEL LIKE A PLEASANT 'HAPPY ENDING' MASSAGE COMPARED TO WHAT I WILL DO TO YOU."

Bellum gulped. "I-I would expect nothing less, Mistress."

"GOOD. I'M GLAD WE UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER."

Giratina's presence receded from Bellum's mind, much to her relief. She slumped against the wall, gasping for breath…

And then, with a scream of fury, she punched the wall hard enough to break a hole in it. "RRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA AAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! Can that daughter of mine do nothing without disappointing me in some manner?!"

Chobin poked his head through the wall. "Hey, could you be the keeping quiet of it silently and quietly without noise or interference that is loud and noisome and disruptively bad for concentration? Chobin is the sexing of making hate to your daughter with the screaming and the penetrating and ejaculation and bodily fluids and plasma and thrusting and sucking and electrocution and ejaculation and blood and semen and plasma and ejaculation and sucking and piercing and penetrating and penetrating and penetrating and bodily fluids and oral and anal and penal and electrical and other -als and-"

Bellum drove an icicle through his face, killing him, before storming off to regrow her arm, muttering furiously. Marianne's head popped up briefly on the other side of the hole. She frowned briefly at what her mother had done, then shrugged, pulled her boyfriend's corpse back into her room, and proceeded to violate it in all the ways Chobin had taught her to molest dead bodies after calling Tarantulas to request he send down the next clone so they could hump it together.

Back in Fichina…

"Well, that was utterly terrifying," Pikachu said after a moment.

"Daddy, I think I soiled myself," Tiny said.

"There's no shame in that, son," Ash said.

"Yes there is," Briney said.

"Not now, Briney," Ash said.

"…Peculiar. Is what I just experienced…true fear? I can't recall the last time I've experienced it. How novel," Nuken commented.

"Novel is not ze term I would use," Fantina said dryly as she went to comfort her frightened and weeping daughters.

Was…was that… Sasha inquired.

My predecessor? Yeah. Nasty bitch, isn't she? Darkrai said.

That is an understatement, Sasha said.

There's a reason I don't talk about her much, Darkrai said with a touch of sadness. None of us do. You know how the legendary birds used to be good guys once? Well, so was she. Among the best, even. Her betrayal hurt us all…especially me, since she was like a mother to me. Not my actual mother—that's Mew—but…it hurt all the same.

Angels fall furthest, Sasha mused.

Yes, Darkrai said quietly.They certainly do.

"Giratina…" Lugia growled while the other mortal guests tried to pull themselves together from the brief intrusion of the veritable goddess of evil. Some of them were crying or in hysterics, and needed to be briefly removed from the proceedings to calm them down.

"It seems her lengthy imprisonment has not diminished her hatred much, nor shown her the error of her ways," Zekrom noted.

"Damn! I was born after her time, so I didn't know she was…like that," said a disturbed Victini.

"She was one of our greatest champions…until she allowed hatred and jealousy to consume her heart," Kyurem hissed. "This is why balance is important…to keep one from turning into a monster." Reshiram fidgeted slightly, but oddly had no comment to make on their fallen colleague.

Outlaw shuddered. "That was like…the voice of Unicron," she commented to Sam. "I had not thought that anything could equal the Chaos-Bringer in making me feel…like that."

"Scared?" Sam asked.

"No!" Outlaw said sharply. "Just…a bit unsettled, is all."

Leo didn't care about anyone else's reactions to encountering the voice of the Ruler of Evil's second-in-command. He'd told her off, after all. No, what mattered most to him was his bride, lying on the ground before him. "Lily!" he cried, running over to her.

Lily grunted as her face finished growing back together. "L-Leo!" she gasped. She hugged the Squirtle, catching him off-guard. "You did it! You really did it! I had not believed it possible, but you actually did it! I'm free, Leo, free at last!"

"Heh, I told you I'd do it, didn't I?" Leo said, hugging her back.

Tears of joy ran down her cheeks. "I cannot even begin to describe how I feel right now…it's like a shadow that has been hanging over me my entire unlife, one I had become so used to I had forgotten it was there, is gone…and now my soul is mine, my unlife is mine, and I am finally free of the last of my mother's dreadful machinations! And none of it would have been possible without you, my wonderful, brilliant, unparalleledly nerdy champion, the best husband in all of creation!"

"Heck yeah! Wait, did you call me nerd-" Leo was cut off when Lily kissed him full on the lips, causing him to forget what he was saying. It caused the guests to forget the psychological trauma and lingering terror from hearing Giratina's voice as well, and they started cheering again.

"My little boy's broken the curse binding his wife's soul to the Abyss…I'm so proud!" Judy sobbed.

"What just happened?" asked a confused Ludwig.

"I have no idea," Drakor Junior said. "It was scary, though."

"I wasn't scared!" said Roy, which was a baldfaced lie.

Suddenly, Tiny realized something was wrong. "Wait a minute…there's still a chain on her face!"

Ash started, as did everyone else as they did a double-take and realized that yes, Lily did indeed still have one last chain-shaped scar on her face. "Wh-what?!"

"But…I thought the curse was broken!" Pikachu protested. "What's that doing there?!"

"Oh no…did it not work completely after all?" Fantina asked in alarm.

"Hmm? Oh! I completely forgot about that!" Lily said as she broke off her kiss and realized what everyone was staring at. "This last curse is my own. I cast it on myself centuries ago when Mother tried to force my evolution by feeding me a Dusk Stone in an attempt to prematurely activate Giratina's claim on my soul. It's suppressing the Dusk Stone's power and keeping me as a Misdreavus."

"But now that Giratina no longer has any claim on you…that means you can release this last spell, can't you?" Leo asked.

Lily hesitated. "I…suppose I could, yes. That hadn't occurred to me, to be honest. I've been trying so long not to evolve that the idea of doing so upon achieving freedom—which I'd long given up hope of ever gaining-has never crossed my mind."

"But now that you can do it without any negative consequences, what's keeping you from doing it?" Nuken asked.

Lily considered this for a moment. "…Nothing, I suppose. If I evolve, I will be able to access my full magical potential, increased even further by the blessing I received from Reshiram and the power from Rayquaza that was infused into me on my unbirth. I will become one of the most powerful sorceresses on Earth."

"I'm liking the sound of this," Leo said eagerly.

Lily frowned. "But…is that a good thing? Power can change a person. And…I like who I am now, something it's taken me a long time to realize and come to terms with. If I evolve…will I become someone else?"

"No," Leo said.

"No way," Ash said.

"Not happening!" Tiny agreed.

"A preposterous notion," Nuken said.

"Not a chance," said Brad.

"Never," said Briney.

"Non!" the Fantasmas all said in unison.

"It will never happen," Atlametheus agreed.

"Highly implausible," Sasha said.

Ridiculous! Darkrai said.

Impossible, Dawn said.

No way, no how! B said.

"NO!" almost everyone in attendance declared.

Lily's eyes widened in disbelief. "Wh-what?"

"Lily, come on, do you really think achieving ultimate arcane power's going to change who you are?" Ash asked.

"You're you, and after all the progress you've made to become you, I highly doubt something as superficial as an evolution will make you any different," Pikachu said.

"You're Lily, whether you're a Misdreavus, or a Mismagius, or even a Stunfisk!" Tiny said.

"You are my daughter, and always will be," Nuken said.

"And you're my daughter-in-law, and always will be!" Brad said.

"You're made of too strong stuff to be changed by evolution," Briney said, deciding at that moment what he was going to tell Smithy the next time he saw him. Which should be soon, since he was in the audience with everyone else.

"You are far too pure of heart to be tainted by power!" Fantina said.

"You are a far better womon than your mother ever was, and shall never become like her," Atlametheus assured her.

"You are our friend," Sasha said.

Our teammate, Dawn said.

Our hope, B and Darkrai said.

"You're the womon I love. The womon I married," Leo said. "No matter what you look like, or what you become, or what powers you gain…you'll still be you, and we'll still love you."

"All of us will," Ash said firmly. Everyone on the altar, and just about everyone in the seats, nodded in agreement.

Misty opened her mouth to challenge that assertion, to ask if Ash's friends would say the same thing of him when he had turned into an omnicidal monster and was brutally massacring them…and found that she couldn't. Try as she might, she couldn't bring herself to say it. Not this time. "What…what's happening to me?" she whispered. "I hate Ash. Tormenting him is the only reason I exist. So why can't I do it now? What…what's happening to me?"

Lily stared at her friends, her family, with wide, wet eyes. "Atlametheus?" she said finally.

"Yes, Mistress?" the Golurk asked.

"Please hold onto these for me," Lily said, magically removing her wedding dress and veil and train and jewelry and putting it in the servitor's hands.

"Mistress?" Atlametheus asked in confusion.

"Lily, what are you doing?" Leo asked in concern.

"Evolving," Lily said. "The power of evolution has been building up inside of me for hundreds of years, so it's probably going to come out in a pretty big burst. I'm not sure my dress would survive it, no matter how many enchantments are on it, and I don't want to ruin something that belonged to my grandmother. That seems like something my mother would do."

Atlametheus stared at her wordlessly for a moment, before bowing. "She would have loved you, you know. You are a worthy successor to her title, far more than your mother ever was."

"Like that's hard," Briney snarked, earning him some glares from the others.

"Do you want me to hold onto your hat?" Leo asked, giddy with excitement at the thought of Lily evolving. From the eager looks on the faces of the others, it was clear he wasn't the only one.

Lily shook her head. "No. This hat's been with me for as long as I can remember, so long it's practically a part of me. It's survived everything I've ever gone through so far, and I'm confident it'll survive this as well. You may hold onto these, though," she said, offering him her scarf and badge. "These are too precious to me to risk in such a manner."

"And the rings?" Leo asked, glancing at her wedding and engagement rings, which were still in her hair. "Aren't those too precious to risk, too?"

Lily glanced at them for a moment before smiling. "What was it you said last night…that as long as I have these, you will always be with me?"

Leo grinned. "Something like that, yeah."

"Then I can't imagine possibly doing something as big as this without my husband by my side," Lily said.

Leo sniffed and shook his head as some of the others started tearing up. "I've made you into a romantic. I'm so proud."

"There is one other thing you can do for me, though," Lily said.

Leo raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

Without warning, she kissed him. This one was, sadly, far shorter than some of the previous ones, but no less enjoyable for either of them. When Lily regretfully pulled away, she said, "That was for good luck."

"Ah," Leo said. "You, uh, wanna try for some more luck?"

She laughed. "If I did, we'd be here all day, and I don't think that's fair to everyone else, do you?"

"Screw 'em," Leo said. "You're my wife and I can kiss you as much as I want."

"And you will," Lily said, kissing him on the cheek and causing him to blush. "Soon enough." She floated away from him. "The amount of power that's going to be unleashed when I break the spell will be considerable, so I'll fly up a safe distance to make sure nobody gets hurt by the backlash."

"Very considerate of you," Briney said.

"It's necessary; I can sense the power inside of her…it would be in all of our best interests not to be standing right next to her when she evolves," Sasha said.

"Zis is going to be magnifique…I'm so excited!" Fantina said eagerly.

"Me too!" Bow said.

"Go on, Lily. We'll wait for you right here," Ash said.

"Go, Lily!" Tiny cried. "Lily, Lily, Lily!"

Taking up the Pupitar's cry, one by one the guests began chanting the Misdreavus's name. Her eyes wide and her heart warming as virtually everyone in the courtyard started cheering her on, including and especially Leo, Lily smiled. "Thank you…all of you…my dear friends…"

Abruptly, she shot into the sky, the rapid displacement of air sending some of the snow on the altar billowing away and spraying it into the faces of her friends. Nobody cared; they just kept on chanting her name. Lily rose higher and higher into the air until she judged herself at a safe enough distance to evolve. She looked down…and for a moment, forgot how to breathe. (Not that she needed to, but you know what I mean.)

Spread out beneath her was the entirety of her estate; not just the manor, but the forests and mountains and glaciers and tundra and snow-covered fields of the Everfreeze spreading out for miles and miles. She could see Ice Pokémon frolicking through the woods and icy lakes, ice elementals and other mystical creatures stalking about the glaciers, and even a frost giant or two lumbering through the mountains while ice trolls scurried to get out of their way and ice dragons flew around their heads. It's so beautiful, she realized. I've never seen it from this angle before. And it's all mine…

It's your heritage, Lily, B said. Your birthright.

Mother squandered and ruined all this, Lily said. Before, I didn't care that much about the Yukihimi name and what it meant, but now…now I'm starting to see. It's not just a title with lots of wealth and a fancy house attached to it, is it? It's all this…and more. This is my responsibility. This is where I belong. She looked down at the courtyard far below her, and was certain she could make out one blue speck cheering her name. She smiled. With him.

Are you ready? B asked.

Lily unraveled her braid so that her hair was flowing freely behind her, and brought two of the strands forward so she could stare at the rings wrapped around their ends. She kissed both rings, smiled, and nodded. Yes. I'm ready. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and released her spell.

The last chain on her face started to glow.

From the ground, Lily was almost invisible, a bluish-green dot lost amidst the white and gray of the swirling snow. That didn't stop everyone from chanting and continuing to stare up at the skies to try and catch a glimpse of her, though. Their task became a lot easier when that little bluish-green speck began to glow a brilliant white…a white which flared outwards like a star being born, causing everyone to cry out and shield their eyes as they were temporarily blinded by the flash. A shockwave of raw, unadulterated power blasted outwards, shaking the manor and causing several decorative icicles to fall and nearly skewer some unfortunate Pokémon who'd been sitting underneath them. Ice covering nearby lakes violently cracked and started splitting, causing the Pokémon who'd been skating on top of it to frantically scramble to get off before they fell into the water. The mountains trembled and groaned, and several sheets of glacial ice cracked off and tumbled downwards in impressive avalanches.

In her iceberg lair, Bellum screamed in agony as Giratina roared in fury inside her head, causing the latest Chobin clone to yell at her to shut up because she was making it harder for him to have sex with her daughter.

Deep beneath Wyvern Hill in Kanjohenn, something stirred. The temple priestess started as she sensed this. This power…so soon?! The Dragon Star hasn't even reached its zenith yet! She raced towards her quarters, where she kept her communicator. I must alert His Excellency at once!

In Pokémon Square, Rayquaza, who'd been having a lovely luncheon with Latias at one of the town's nicest cafes, started. "D-did you just feel that?"

Latias nodded, a gentle smile on her face as she levitated a cup of tea to her mouth. "I did."

"What…what just happened?!" Rayquaza demanded.

Latias chuckled, blew on her tea, and took a sip. "Something wonderful."

Back in Fichina, everyone looked on in awe at the shining nova high above them. "Zis power…tres magnifique! It's unbelievable!" Fantina gasped.

"Her Aura's increased immensely!" Ash said in astonishment.

"I didn't even know it came in those colors!" Tiny said.

"This…this power…Your Excellency?!" Nuken cried incredulously.

"Lily…" Leo whispered, eyes glistening in awe.

Above them, the light compacted and elongated, twisting and turning about to create a massive serpentine form. With a spectacular roar, the light faded, revealing what looked to everyone below like nothing less than a purple Rayquaza…

But no, it must have been a trick of the light, because there was no Rayquaza, but something else, something rapidly descending towards the altar. The Pokémon gathered on the stage quickly backed out of the way as the object, which was clearly Lily, gradually slowed its descent and gently drifted down towards them. Everyone except Leo, who just stared at what his wife had become in awe and wonder.

Lily's 'skirt' had now become a long, flowing purple cloak of ectoplasm with yellow ring-like symbols covering it rippling in an ethereal breeze with what looked sort of like a finned tail emerging from the bottom. Three emerald elliptical spheres formed a necklace wrapped around a long, vaguely serpentine neck with a pair of small rudder-like fins on the back. Both of her rings were embedded in the central, largest gemstone. Her hat had gained a much wider and thicker brim, dwarfing her head, with several tufts growing from the sides, crown, and peak somewhat resembling Rayquaza's horns. Her head was round, but had a slight bulge in the front almost like a reptilian muzzle, with a thin red mouth and a few tiny but sharp fangs. Four small horns resembling Rayquaza's framed her face, which had a glowing tattoo looking like Rayquaza where her old curse scar used to be. Her eyes, rather than being yellow with red irises, were instead black with yellow irises. She was unlike any Mismagius any of them had ever seen before…and devastatingly beautiful at that, with an aura of unmistakable power but also benevolence surrounding her vaguely reminiscent of Queen Ninianne's.

"Mistress…" Atlametheus said in awe.

"Sacre bleu…" Fantina whispered.

"Mama, she…she's almost as pretty as you!" Mirami said.

"No," Fantina said. "Not 'almost.'"

"My…my daughter…" Nuken whispered in awe. She looks like…an avatar of the Dragon God King himself!

"Wow," Tiny said.

"Huh. Not bad," Briney said dazedly.

"What the…why does she look like that?! That's not what Mismagiuses look like!" Pikachu said.

Dawn frowned. Is there something wrong with the way she looks?

"Wh-what? No, of course not! It's just…she doesn't look like most Mismagiuses, is all," Pikachu said.

"The power of Rayquaza sealed inside her all this time has fused with her DNA, causing an altered evolution," Sasha said.

"How do you know that?" asked an amazed Ash.

Sasha shrugged. "Darkrai said so."

"Oh," Ash said.

Dawn frowned in thought. Does that mean…I will look different too, when I evolve, for I have Darkrai's blessing? She clenched a paw into a fist. And…when will I evolve, anyway? Darkrai said it would happen when I know true happiness…but…aren't I already happy? I have friends. I have a loving master whom I shall soon wed. What more do I need to be happy? Unless…would killing Paul do it? She nodded to herself. Yes…that must be it. When I kill Paul, I will finally evolve. My revenge will be complete…and I shall be born anew, and at last able to speak, and tell Master how much I love him with my own voice. All I have to do…is kill Paul…

Unbeknownst to her, Darkrai was listening in on her thoughts, and shook his head, amused by just how wrong she was. She'll figure it out eventually, he thought to himself.

Well done, Lily…I'm so proud of you… B whispered.

Lily smiled tentatively at Leo, who was just staring at her with his jaw hanging open. She didn't think he was shocked or horrified by her appearance—not if the way everyone else was looking at her was anything to go by—but why wouldn't he say anything? Struggling to think of something to break the ice, an idea occurred to her that she was absolutely certain Leo would appreciate. Her smile broadening, she said, "Am I so beautiful that you've no words left?"

Leo closed his mouth, and blinked, and burst into laughter. "You remembered one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite games…"

"I remember all your favorite lines from your favorite games," Lily said with a giggle.

Leo shook his head. "Lily, you look…wow. Just…wow. I mean, you were hot stuff before, but now? Damn!"

Lily smiled. "I take it you approve?"

"And HOW! I've got the most beautiful wife in the world! Uh, not to say I don't appreciate all of your many, many other qualities, of course…" Leo said quickly.

Lily laughed. "Oh, Leo." She levitated him into the air and kissed him full on the lips.

"My little boy's wife has evolved into a beautiful womon…I'm so proud!" Judy sobbed.

"Why does she look like that?" Wendy asked.

"Heck if I know," Roy said.

"She's so pretty…why can't I look that good?!" Missy sobbed, much to the embarrassment of the Thunderblades sitting next to her.

"Why do they keep kissing?!" Tiny whined.

"They're newlyweds, it's what they do," Ash said.

"So Uncle Pikachu and Aunt Dawn will be kissing each other a lot after they get married?" Tiny asked.

Pikachu and Dawn glanced at each other, blushed, and looked away. "I…yeah. Maybe," Pikachu said sheepishly.

I-if that is what my Master wishes, Dawn clicked.

"Well, it's not what I wish," Tiny muttered.

Brad chuckled. "You'll change your tune when you find a girl you like, kiddo."

"Ew, yuck," Tiny said in disgust.

Briney sighed and looked away from Leo and Lily's embrace, memories of his own wedding overwhelming him. "Oh, Peeko…" he whispered. "We were that happy once too, weren't we?"

"Impressive…" Lugia murmured. "I had sensed the power of Rayquaza within her, but I had not thought it would have such an effect on her appearance."

"She's been suppressing it her entire unlife," Zekrom said. "It only makes sense it would have some kind of effect on her once she finally unleashed it."

"Is that why she didn't change when Reshiram blessed her?" Victini asked.

Reshiram nodded. "That, and my blessing was not as great as the power she had within her. After all, I am but a goddess of truth…while Rayquaza…is the King of all Dragons."

Victini frowned. "Then that purple Rayquaza we saw…it wasn't just a trick of the light, was it?"

"No," Kyurem hissed. "It was not."

"Heh. Interesting," Victini said. "Think we should tell her?"

"She will figure it out for herself soon enough…if she hasn't already," Lugia said with a smile as he watched the couple kiss, reminded of his own union to his mate. "Let them have this moment now. The weightier matters can wait until tomorrow."

"This is, without a doubt, the best day of my life," Leo said the next time Lily let him get some air as he helped her put her scarf and badge back on. "Nearly all my friends and family were ab le to make it; I'm married to the best girl in the world; I managed to save her from an eternity of damnation, and got to see her turn into some kinda demi-god thing. How could this day get any better?"

Lily stiffened and turned to look off into the distance. "The estate's defenses are picking up something incoming! Something powerful…and big!"

"Yes!" Leo whooped. "I knew something awesome would happen if I said that!"

"I'll activate the defenses. Everyone, prepare yourselves-" Lily started.

"Wait!" Rebecca cried, floating onto the stage. "The spirits say it's not hostile! It's a friend…one who wants to talk to Leo!"

"Me?" Leo asked in surprise.

"Him?!" Pikachu and Nuken asked at the same time. They looked at each other in surprise.

"What does it want with Leo?!" Lily asked, floating protectively in front of her husband, something he admired greatly.

"It needs to talk to you. Something about…Mewgle," Rebecca said.

Everyone stiffened. Pikachu groaned. "Oh, not him again…"

"Lily, let whoever it is in. This is important," Leo said.

Lily nodded, eyes glowing. "I'm lowering the defenses as we speak."

"Hohoho, this should be interesting," Cherry chortled to herself among the other guests, already knowing what was coming.

A speck appeared on the horizon, one that grew at a steady rate and resolved itself into a great, glowing figure. It approached at an astonishing rate, reaching them within seconds of its first appearance and leaving everyone gaping in awe as it hovered over the courtyard, bathing all below in its light as its massive wingspan filled their entire field of vision. It was a phoenix much like Ho-Oh. Unlike the legendary Rainbow Bird, however, this firebird's plumage was solid gold, its tail feathers were shorter and not quite as impressive, its neck was thicker, its head was larger and rounder, its beak was short and closer in resemblance to that of a Blaziken's, and its crest went straight back rather than sticking up. In addition, its legs were much longer, somewhat like a Doduo's, ending in impressively sharp talons.

"Well, that's not something you see every day," Looker commented.

"You know, I almost feel bad about knocking out Todd now, he'll probably get in a lot of trouble for not getting a picture of some of the things that have happened so far," Palmer said.

"Eh," Looker said, not really caring.

"Choc-Oboh! I have not seen her in ages!" said a surprised Lugia. "I had not known she was free…"

"We had heard rumors of her revival recently, as well as a great battle between her and Mewgle out by Aegis Cave," Zekrom said.

Reshiram nodded. "Nobody's seen either of them since, though…although I did hear something about her flying to the east for some reason, carrying a Wobbuffet and Cacturne."

"I see…" Lugia murmured. "But if she is here then…there can only be one reason."

Kyurem nodded. "It is time for Leonardo to take the next step towards fulfilling his destiny."

"What…what is that?! Is that Ho-Oh?!" Pikachu asked.

"I don't remember her being that golden…" Ash said.

"It's not Ho-Oh," Leo said, scanning the phoenix with his sunglasses. "It's Choc-Oboh…a spirit of gaming who's been sealed away for millennia but was recently freed."

"Spirit of…there's another one?!" Pikachu asked incredulously. He groaned. "As if Mewgle wasn't bad enough…"

"Funny you should mention him," Leo said. "According to this, Choc-Oboh is Mewgle's good counterpart as well as his…ex-wife. Huh. That's…an image I did not need in my head."

"Mewgle was married?!" Pikachu asked in disbelief.

"Well, this just gets weirder and weirder…" Briney commented.

"I have no idea what's going on anymore. Does that happen a lot around you guys?" Brad asked.

"Yes," everyone on Team Aurabolt said.

"What…what does she want?" Lily asked, pressing close to Leo.

"Heck if I know. Rebecca?" Leo asked the spiritualist.

"Um…let's see if I can talk to her…great Choc-Oboh! Why have you graced us with your presence?" the Frillish asked.

Choc-Oboh's eyes glowed, and so did Rebecca's. She stiffened, and turned to Leo. "I am here to speak with Leo," she said in a voice not her own.

"Oh great, now she's possessed," Pikachu groaned.

Ash frowned. "I feel like I've seen lots of Pokémon speak to people through other mediums like this for some reason…usually a Meowth…even if the Pokémon communicating has no actual Psychic powers…"

"Actually, zat's not possession, per se," Agatha interrupted.

Morticia nodded. "As a spiritualist, Rebecca can channel spirits from ozzer planes and serve as a mouzpiece for zeir grievances wiz ze people of our world. Sometimes quite literally, as you can see 'ere."

"Will she be all right?" Sasha asked.

"Assuming zis spirit is indeed benign, zan yes," Mirami said.

"If not…zan we might 'ave a problem," Bow said.

Nuken floated in front of Leo and Lily. "Leonardo is my son-in-law. If you mean him any harm…"

"I wish no harm on your son-in-law," Choc-Oboh said through Rebecca. "If anything, I wish to help him…and perhaps be helped in return."

"This is about Mewgle, isn't it?" Leo said, moving past Lily and Nuken's protection, to their dismay. "What's he done now?"

"Mewgle has managed to awaken and bind himself to an ancient evil called Leviathan, a weapon created long ago by the Ruler of Evil that feasts upon souls and spirits alike. With its power added to his own, Mewgle is stronger than ever before…and that much closer to accomplishing his dream of becoming Game Master of all reality," Choc-Oboh said. "I battled him recently near Aegis Cave, but, although I was able to drive him off, I could not defeat him. Only you, Leo, Mewgle's destined archnemesis, who has battled him again and again throughout history, can truly vanquish him."

Leo frowned. "And let me guess, you need me to put him down once again?"

"Not just once again…for all time. The final battle between the two of you, foreordained ages ago, is swiftly approaching…and with Leviathan on his side, Mewgle has a very good chance of winning," Choc-Oboh said. "However, if we were to join forces, our combined power might be enough to tip the scales back in our favor and enable us to defeat Mewgle once and for all."

"…Yeah, I could see that working," Leo admitted. "How exactly would we go about doing that, though?"

"Leo-" Lily said in concern.

"Don't worry, Lily, she's on the level. I can tell," Leo said, tapping his shades.

"Heh, that's my boy!" Brad said approvingly.

"We would have to become pact partners, just as Mewgle and Leviathan are," Choc-Oboh said. "I would grant you my power and dwell within you, and you can call upon that power—and even summon me—when necessary."

Leo raised an eyebrow. "Now that sounds interesting. Could I do this whenever I want, or only against Mewgle?"

"As a spirit of gaming, my power is at its strongest when used in a game, especially against Mewgle, but you can still call upon it in other circumstances, though it won't be as strong," Choc-Oboh said.

"Hmm. I can live with that," Leo said, his interest growing. "And what kind of powers are you going to grant me, exactly?"

"A form of probability alteration similar to Mewgle's to increase the chances of your winning in any conflict, advice and guidance in a variety of situations, as well as the ability to manifest certain objects or characters from games just like Mewgle can…though again, only in certain circumstances," Choc-Oboh said.

Leo's eyebrows rose at this. "Really? Now, that could come in all sorts of handy…"

"Oh Arceus, why am I getting a very bad feeling about this?" Pikachu moaned.

"I don't suppose you could also give me…immortality?" Leo asked hopefully.

"Leo!" Lily gasped in alarm.

"Come on Lily, we've talked about this, we both agreed it was okay for me to try to live forever, especially since it means we can stay together, right? So I should pursue every opportunity when it's open to me, shouldn't I?" Leo asked, to which Lily reluctantly agreed.

Choc-Oboh considered this. "I am afraid I cannot grant you true immortality-"

"Awww," Leo said in disappointment.

"However, as a phoenix and a spirit of gaming, I can give you a form of resurrective immortality," Choc-Oboh said. "If you are to fall in battle, I can revive you almost instantaneously."

Leo perked up at this. "You mean I get infinite lives?!"

"Well, I wouldn't say infinite, but something like that," Choc-Oboh said.

"Yatta!" Leo cheered. "I will be INVINCIBLE!"

"Well, no, you can still die," Choc-Oboh said.

"But then I'll get back up a second later with no penalties! Uh, wait, am I gonna lose some of my cash and goodies and only respawn with a fraction of my health at the last checkpoint?" Leo asked.

"No," Choc-Oboh said.

"Yattaaaaaaaaaa!" Leo cheered.

"Aaaand that bad feeling's getting worse," Pikachu groaned.

"Wait, Leo won't be able to die in battle? Does that mean he can get killed as much as he wants and be okay?" Tiny asked.

"I…think so," Ash said.

"That does not seem quite fair," Sasha said with a frown. "A person should only get one life…well, two if they're Ghosts." Master, surely you're not allowing this?

Hey, I told you immortality's going to be in vogue sooner or later, Darkrai said. Plus, I told Leo a while back something like this might be a good possibility for him to gain eternal life, so if he wants it, I see no reason he shouldn't go for it.

Look on the bright side, Master, if he gets on your nerves I can kill him as much as you want and he'll be fine, Dawn said. Albeit a bit annoyed at you.

Pikachu perked up at this. "There is that."

"Leo, is this really a good idea?" Lily asked in concern.

"Why not? I mean, it's not like I'm the only person here sharing space with someone in their heads," Leo pointed out. "You've got B, Sasha has Darkrai, Ash has that creepy zombie Misty-"

"Hey!" Ash said.

"He's right, I am a creepy zombie," Misty admitted.

"And Briney is pretty much the voice in everyone's heads," Leo continued.

"That's right, I am," Briney said smugly.

"So really, I get some kickass new powers and something like immortality, what are the drawbacks of this?" Leo asked.

"The fact that if you agree to this pact, you're going to have to face off against Mewgle again?" Pikachu pointed out. And may get even more on our nerves than you already do?

"We all knew it was inevitable I'd run into him again anyway, didn't we?" Leo pointed out. "Considering that he's gunning for me, and it's apparently our destiny to fight again, right? So, if it's gonna happen anyway, I might as well be as prepared as possible and have as many aces up my sleeve as I can, right?"

"…I suppose so," Pikachu admitted. "I am a believer in destiny, and if this is yours, then I guess there's nothing we can do about it but help you to reach it." Even if it sounds like a pretty stupid destiny to me…

Plus, if I do this, maybe I won't feel like I'm being left behind, no matter what everyone else says, Leo thought to himself. "So, how do we do this?" Leo asked out loud.

"Then you agree to form a pact?" Choc-Oboh asked.

"Pshyeah, why wouldn't I?" Leo asked.

"Very well. Do you have a blank card?" Choc-Oboh asked.

"Of course, never leave home without one," Leo said, reaching into his shell and pulling out what looked like a Lu-Gi-Oh card, but the picture and text box were both blank.

Nuken gave the card a confused look. "Why were you carrying that around?"

"Just in case of a situation like this," Leo said.

"…Why…why would you have ever thought you would-" Nuken started.

"Sir? It's Leo. Don't ask," Ash said. Nuken sighed and relented.

"Now raise the card towards me," Choc-Oboh said.

"Okay," Leo said, lifting the card and pointing it as Rebecca.

There was a pause. "The actual me, not the spiritualist," Choc-Oboh said.

"Huh? Oh! Right. Silly me," Leo said, laughing Mareepishly, quickly changing directions. "Now what?"

"Now you must-" Choc-Oboh started.

"Leo, wait!" Lily started.

Leo paused. "Huh? What is it, babe?" He stiffened, a thought occurring to him. "Oh…oh, I'm sorry, I should have talked to you first before agreeing to do something this big, didn't I? Oh gosh, I'm sorry…are you not on board with this? If you're not, then-"

"It-it's not that," Lily said quickly. "Though I would have liked it if we talked about this first." Leo winced at that. "I'm…just a little concerned, is all. I want you to live forever, too, but…that's not the only reason you're doing this, right? Because you want to fulfill your dream, and because you want to feel like you can keep up with the rest of us?"

"What? No, of course not!" Leo said. "I mean, that's part of it, yeah, but…look, Mewgle's out there, and Because Destiny Said So I'm the only guy who can stop him. If he's gotten stronger, then so can I, and if Choc-Oboh is Mewgle's biggest enemy aside from myself, it only makes sense for us to partner up, doesn't it?"

"I…suppose so," Lily admitted reluctantly. "I'm just…worried it'll change you."

"Like you were worried evolving would change you?" Leo said in bemusement.

"This is different!" Lily insisted. "You'll be letting another entity into your body. I've read about possessions, Leo. I know how they can change people."

"I've read about possession too, Lily, and I'm fairly certain letting Choc-Oboh in isn't going to alter me to the point where I'm no longer the mon you love," Leo said. He paused, and then glanced at Choc-Oboh. "Um, it's not, is it?"

"No, it's not," the phoenix said in bemusement.

"There, you see?" Leo said brightly.

"Leo…" Lily said, not convinced.

"Look, Lily, I'm not just doing this for me. This is for us, okay?" Leo said. "Mewgle hates me. Really, truly, utterly hates me, just like your mom hates you. Except maybe worse, as hard as that may be to believe. He'll do everything he can to destroy not just me, but you, and everything else I care about. If I'm going to stop him, and protect the people I care about…protect you…then I need to be as strong as I possibly can be, and right now making this pact looks like the best way to go about doing that." He touched her cheek. "This is for our future…because if I can't stop Mewgle now, we won't have any, and neither will our children, if and when we decide to have some."

"…" Lily chuckled and shook her head resignedly. "You always know exactly what to say, don't you?"

"I've played enough dating sims to figure out how to talk to ladies," Leo said.

Brad laughed at that. "He wasn't joking," Pikachu said.

Brad blinked. "Wait, really?" Pikachu nodded. "…Oh dear…"

He'll be okay, won't he? Lily asked B.

Definitely. You can trust Choc-Oboh, B promised. She's nothing like Mewgle.

Very well. "All right then. Do it. For our future," Lily said.

"For our future," Leo repeated. He kissed her, then turned back to Choc-Oboh and raised his card. "Okay, what now?"

"Do you promise to use the power I will bestow upon you responsibly and only use it to fight the forces of evil…and Mewgle?" Choc-Oboh asked.

"Yes," Leo said.

"Let's see how long it takes him to abuse that power for shits and giggles," Pikachu muttered.

"Care to lay money on it?" Ash asked.

Pikachu shook his head. "No, it's a sucker's bet."

"Then the pact is formed," Choc-Oboh said. Rebecca gasped and stumbled, her eyes going back to normal as the spirit severed their connection. Choc-Oboh spread her wings and shrieked, then dove down towards Leo. The others flinched back in alarm, but as she approached she elongated and narrowed, her form dissolving into a golden stream of fire which struck the card in Leo's hand, creating a shockwave that buffeted everyone back, blew Leo's lips back to show his gums, and ripped his suit and cloak off of him.

"My clozes!" Fantina cried in alarm.

"Guess you forgot to proof zem against possession," Bow commented as Fantina raced to collect the pieces of the suit before they could fly too far away.

The last of the flames entered the card, which flashed and changed to show a holographic image of Choc-Oboh herself, with text appearing in the box under the image to describe the phoenix's level, type, and abilities. Leo stumbled back in amazement as power unlike anything he'd ever felt before surged through him, and an emblem resembling a stylized outline of Choc-Oboh with wings outsretched on either side of her appeared on the back of his shell. It is done, Choc-Oboh's voice echoed in Leo's head.

"Yatta," he whispered.

"Leo, there's something on your back!" Lily said in alarm.

"Huh? What?! Oh no!" Leo cried in horror. "Did I turn right when I was supposed to turn left?! Did I just kill the Doctor?! Am I going to have to throw myself in front of a truck to change the past and save the Doctor from drowning and the Delaks from putting out every star in the sky?!"

"…What?!" Nuken said.

"He does that sometimes," Sasha said deadpan.

"…Oh my," Brad said.

"I am starting to reconsider giving them my blessing," Nuken said.

Lily sighed. "No Leo, it's not a member of the Trickster's Brigade, it's some sort of a magical marking."

"Huh? A marking? Wait…could it be?" Leo retracted into his shell and popped back out a second later, except now he was facing the opposite direction, wearing his shell backwards. He looked down at his shell and squealed excitedly. "Oh, sweet! I'm a Marker!"

"A what?" Ash asked in confusion.

"He doesn't look like a marker to me," Tiny said. "Aren't they small and made of plastic and I'm not supposed to put them in my mouth for some reason?"

"No, no, no," Leo said. "In Lu-Gi-Oh 6Ds, the main characters are 'Markers,' Duelists chosen by the almighty Crimson Dragon to fight evil in its name. They're called that because each of them has a birthmark of a different part of the Crimson Dragon's body and can summon the legendary dragons that are the Crimson Dragon's servants, and when they're all together they can call upon its power in times of need to save the world!" He frowned. "Hmm, I guess that would make Mewgle a Dark Marker, then…"

Essentially, yes, Choc-Oboh said, amused that Leo had said pretty much the exact same thing Mondo had when she'd temporarily granted Mie her powers.

Which would be Duelists chosen by an evil force to fight the heroic Markers, I take it? Dawn guessed. With birthmarks of their own representing that malevolent power?

"Yeah, that's it exactly!" Leo said excitedly.

Okay, now that's getting kind of spooky, Choc-Oboh said.

"This is so awesome! I wanna try out my new powers!" Leo said giddily. "Let's see…quick, somebody kill me so I can respawn!" Nuken's claw twitched as he strongly fought down the desire to grant his son-in-law's request.

"Ah, let's not," Pikachu said, laughing nervously, much to Dawn's disappointment. "You dying would sort of ruin the wedding, wouldn't it?"

"But I'd come back!" Leo said.

"It would still ruin the mood, dear," Lily said.

"Oh," Leo said in disappointment. "Yeah, I guess it would, wouldn't it?" He cheered up. "Well, maybe I could summon one of my monster cards into real life without using my Duel Disk-"

"That would also ruin the mood," Lily said quickly.

Brad nodded. "Yeah, I don't think summoning a monster is exactly appropriate for a wedding."

Leo scowled. "Oh, fine, party poopers."

"Leo, you can test your new powers out another time," Pikachu said. Like never. "Besides, don't you think we've all had enough excitement for one day?"

"Yeah, I wouldn't mind ending this and going to the reception to get something to eat," Ash commented.

"Ooh, like wedding cake?" Tiny asked hopefully.

Ash chuckled. "Sure, why not?"

"Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake!" the Gibles chanted in the front row.

"New Mama, when can I get married so I can have some cake?" Roy asked Judy.

Judy laughed. "Honey, weddings are about more than getting cake!"

The Gible gave her a dumbfounded look. "Huh? What else is there?" She sweatdropped.

"Not so fast, boys…this unscheduled little happenstance is extremely convenient, and I think it's the perfect time for me to give the newlyweds my wedding gift," Briney announced, much to everyone's surprise.

"He got them a gift?" Pikachu murmured.

"I did not see that coming," Ash said.

"Briney, you didn't need to get us anything," Lily said gently. "Your officiating our wedding was present enough for both of us!"

"Yeah…well…I felt like getting you something, okay? So you've gotta take it, and that's that!" Briney said gruffly, trying to hide a blush.

"Awww, you big softie," Leo said in amusement.

"I am not soft! I'm one hundred percent hard core!" Briney bellowed.

"Yeah, we know," Leo said with a grin, causing Briney to grate his teeth in frustration.

If you're trying to goad him into killing you to test my resurrective powers, it's working, Choc-Oboh said.

That actually hadn't occurred to me. A good idea, though the others were right, it's probably not the best time for it, Leo thought. Out loud he said, "So what's the gift? A honeymoon cruise on your ship?"

"What?! The Peeko XII is no luxury ship!" Briney snarled in outrage.

"Really? That's funny, because I remember Fat Pete telling me it was available for couples…" Leo said.

"Not anymore it's not," Briney growled, making a note to keelhaul the skeleton. "But no, that's not my present. This is." He stretched out a hand, and one of the windows shattered as a crudely-wrapped gift box smashed through it and flew into his hand.

Atlametheus winced as some of the servants frantically started patching up the broken window. "You could have just sent someone to get it, you know."

"I prefer a hands-on approach. Here," Briney said, thrusting the box into Leo's hands.

The Squirtle raised an eyebrow at the very shoddy wrapping job and very convoluted and haphazard knot the ribbon was tied up in. "Wrapped it yourself, di d you?"

"Just open the damn thing already!" Briney snapped.

"Wait, there isn't anything lewd in here, is there?" Lily asked in concern as Leo eagerly started tearing the wrapping paper off like a kid opening their Christmas present.

"No, zat's my gift," Fantina said.

"Oh," Lily said. "Wait, what?"

Leo finished getting the wrapping off, flung the lid off the box, and gasped in disbelief when he saw what was inside. "No way… is this…?!" He pulled out what looked like a belt with a rather large buckle with a rectangular slot in the middle it looked like you could fit a standard card deck into.

"It's…a belt?" Lily said in confusion.

"Well, it's a nice belt," Brad said, also confused.

"Does that even fit Leo?" Pikachu wondered.

"Yes, I made sure to get the measurements right," Briney said.

"This isn't just any belt…it's a replica AdventDriver from Masked Rider Ryuki!" Leo said excitedly. He glanced back in the box, realizing it wasn't empty. "Oh, and a new set of tonfas. That's nice too."

Pikachu started. "Tonfas? I thought we agreed to keep those away from Leo for his own safety!"

"I never agreed to that," Briney said smugly. "And that belt's not a replica…it's fully functioning."

Leo stared at the Metang. "…Say what?"

"Well, I knew you'd been complaining a bit about how you didn't feel like you were quite as strong as the rest of us, what with Ash and Tiny getting intensive Aura training, Sasha receiving those death-preventing robes, Pikachu and Dawn and Lily all getting new elemental powers—and your wife getting even stronger than that, now—and me being, well, me," Briney said. "I mean, sure, you've got the smartest mind out of all of us, tons of crazy gadgets in that shell of yours, and too many functions in your shades for me to keep track of, but since you still feel inadequate despite all of that-"

"Okay Briney, I get it, I'm selling myself too short, I know," Leo muttered, rolling his eyes.

"Well, to be fair, if you didn't have any of those going for you you'd be crushed easily in a fight," Briney said. "Your combat skills are adequate, but they're not as good as they could be."

"I've been training," Leo said defensively.

"Not hard enough," Briney said. "The tonfas have been enchanted so that when you wield them, you actually know how to use them rather than just flailing them around willy-nilly or mimicking whatever you think you've learned from the Internet. They also come with a nifty electroshock feature, since apparently hitting someone with a stick isn't enough for some people these days."

"Sweet!" Leo said giddily, picking up one of the tonfas and admiring it with a grin on his face.

"Oh, lord…" Pikachu moaned.

"What was that about the belt, though?" Lily asked.

"Hmm? Oh, right," Briney said. "Since your boy there's been complaining like Tiny does when Ash won't give him candy-"

"Hey!" Tiny and Leo cried.

"I decided to do something about it," Briney said. "I sifted through the sea of useless trivia I absorbed from Leo's head from all the times I've read his mind—seriously, how do you remember all this stuff?—and thought it might be funny if I turned him into one of those superheroes he's so in love with, so I went to the best blacksmith in the land and asked him to make me a doohickey that would allow Leo to transform into one."

"Hey, that's actually kinda neat," Brad said.

"…I love you," Leo whispered, tears in his eyes.

"You what?!" Pikachu screamed in horror. "Why would you do something like that?!"

Briney shrugged. "Thought it'd be nice. And it amused me at the time." Pikachu facepalmed.

"Wait…ze best blacksmiz…you mean Smizzy?!" Nefertari cried.

"Yeah, that's the one. Nice guy. We have a lot in common," Briney said, while the rest of the Fantasma gawked at him incredulously.

"You bet we do," Smithy said to himself from among the guests, some of whom stared at him in astonishment as they suddenly realized who he was. "Let's see my craftsmonship in action, shall we?"

"This thing…will make me a real-life Masked Rider?!" Leo asked excitedly.

"If Smithy made it right, and I'm fairly certain he did," Briney said. "Since you like card games so much, I thought the transformation thing should be based off a series that also relied on cards, and I figured that Ryuki show would suit you."

"Masked Rider Ryuki is one of the darkest and grimmest series in the entire Masked Rider franchise," Leo said.

"Yes, but they use nice cards," Briney said.

"That they do," Leo admitted. "And I use nice cards, so I guess it makes perfect sense after all."

"…No it doesn't," said a perplexed Nuken.

"Just go with it. It's not worth arguing," Sasha said wearily.

I do not understand. How could anyone make a working device that can turn people into superheroes based off of a TV show? Dawn asked.

"Magic," Briney said.

Dawn sighed. Ah. Of course.

"Also, ze mon who made it, Smizzy, is one of ze best craftsPokémon in ze world," Shauntel said.

Agatha nodded. "He once made a chain to bind ze dread Fenrir out of ze sound of a Skitty's footfall, ze beard of a Chansey, ze roots of a mountain, ze sinews of an Ursaring, ze breazh of a Magikarp, and ze spittle of a Spearow."

Ash frowned. "I'm…not sure some of those things exist."

"Let alone can be used to make a chain," Pikachu said.

"Around 'ere, zey can and do," Fantina said.

Pikachu sighed. "Right. Fichina doesn't operate based on logic. Silly me for forgetting that."

"One of my finest pieces," Smithy bragged to any who would listen to him. "Took some doing, I'll tell you that much. Of course, I've done even better than that since then, seeing as how I was just a journeymon at the time…"

"How does it work?!" Leo asked as he eagerly strapped the belt on. Much to his surprise, the same emblem that was on his back appeared on the buckle. "Oooooh."

"Since it was designed off the belt things in that show of yours, to transform you need to form a pact with a magical creature, which I figured wouldn't be a problem since there's tons of those all over Fichina," Briney said. "However, you went and got the pact thing over with by partnering up with Choc-Oboh, so that's that part taken care of. Now all you have to do is put your card deck in and it should activate."

Fascinating…I had not considered this application for my power… Choc-Oboh said.

Will it work? Leo asked.

It should, Choc-Oboh said. Why not try it out and see?

"Awesome!" Leo took out his deck…then paused and glanced at Lily. "Uh, this is okay, isn't it? I mean, I can wait until later to try this out if it's a problem…"

Lily shook her head. "No, I must admit I'm somewhat curious too. And…I'm also a bit curious as to how this is supposed to be a present for the both of us, if this is mainly for Leo…um, not to sound ungrateful or anything…"

"It's a present for Leo because it'll make him strong enough to keep up with us and get over his feelings of inadequacy which he's doing a terrible job of hiding, and it's a present for you because him getting stronger means you're less likely to lose your husband on the battlefield," Briney said.

"Oh," Lily said, seeing the logic in that. "Well, in that case…thank you, Briney. You've done so much for us today, and we've done so little for you in return…"

Briney gave Lily a strong, serious look. "Lily…trust me when I say the two of you have done for me already than you'll ever know." Lily blushed at that.

Leo grinned at Lily and raised his deck. "Well, if I have your permission, milady…here we go! HENSHIN!" He slid his deck into his belt buckle. It clicked into place, and then the buckle began to glow. A golden energy sphere formed around him, causing everyone to back away as two rings started rotating around its circumference. As the rings passed over Leo's body, armor materialized over it, and by the time the rings finished a full rotation and vanished along with the sphere in an explosive burst of air, Leo was now completely clad in an armored suit. Most of his body was covered in tight black form-fitting spandex with boots going up to his knees with large round gold studs over the kneecaps and bronze greaves with black circles on the sides. His torso and shoulders were covered by a black metal cuirass with a large bronze crest taking up the front vaguely resembling a bird with a gold diamond for a head and golden talons growing from the bottom sides of the cuirass. His badge, pinned just above one side of the crest, had transformed, now looking like it was made of the same bronze and gold metal as the crest, with wings resembling Choc-Oboh's mark spreading to either side of it. His shoulders were covered by gold ailettes resembling flared-out feathers with bronze pauldrons with more large round gold studs underneath them. He had bronze vambraces with round gold couters. His scarf had turned red and elongated significantly, so its ends hung down over his back, partially covering the Choc-Oboh marking, now a blazing gold. His head was covered in a gold helmet with a number of V-shaped ridges with a vague feather motif covering the upper half of his face, and a crest somewhat looking like a feather rising from the peak. The lower half of his face was covered by a faceplate with several horizontal slits running across its surface. To absolutely nobody's surprise, he was still wearing his sunglasses, and they in fact seemed to have been incorporated into his helmet. His new tonfas seemed to have changed as well, and now had phoenix motifs in gold inlay down their lengths with little talons at one end.

Lily's eyes widened in amazement. "Oh my."

Huh. That's interesting, B commented.

"Well, Smithy sure does good work, doesn't he?" Briney said in amusement.

"You bet I do!" Smithy said proudly.

"Oh, Arceus…" Pikachu moaned.

"Oh, Rayquaza…" Nuken groaned.

"Wow…not bad, son!" Brad said.

Tiny blinked. "You know, that'd probably look a lot more impressive if he weren't still the same exact size and build."

This was indeed true, for while Leo was now wearing a somewhat spiffy outfit, he was still about as short and…well, rouind as ever. He was too excited to notice, though. "Oh…oh, wow…this…this is so awesome! Yat…no, no, this is beyond yatta, this is…this is…BOOYAKASHA!"

Everyone stared at him. "What," Pikachu said.

"Booyakasha! I was getting worried Yatta was getting tired as a catchphrase, so I thought I'd try something else," Leo said.

"No," Pikachu said.

"Huh?" said Leo.

"No," Pikachu said. "You are not using 'booyakasha' as a catchphrase. If you must use a catchphrase, which I still don't understand, stick to 'yatta.' But no 'booyakasha.' Never booyakasha. EVER. Do I make myself clear?"

Leo recoiled…then stood up straight. "I don't have to take that from you anymore, you know! I have rad powers too!"

"Yes, and so do I," Pikachu said, reaching for his sword. "Do you really want to see which of us is stronger right now?"

Leo considered this for a minute. "…My sunglasses are telling me that, even with my new powers and my knowledge of all your weak points, it would probably be a stupid idea for me to challenge you right now."

"And are you going to listen to them?" Pikachu asked.

"…Yeah. Yeah, I am. No more 'booyakasha.' Got it," Leo said.

"Good. I'm glad we could get that settled," Pikachu said, moving his hand from his sword.

"Uh, yeah, me too. So…Lily! How do I look?" Leo asked his wife.

"You look amazing!" Lily said. "Although…I'm not exactly sure how to kiss you while you're wearing that."

"What? Oh, uh…" His faceplate split apart, revealing his mouth. "How's that?"

"There," she said, leaning in to kiss him. "Much better."

"My son's become a superhero from a television show! I'm so happy!" Judy sobbed.

"I have no idea what's going on anymore," Lemmy complained.

"Does this count as 'jumping the Sharpedo?'" Larry asked.

"I could go for a Sharpedo right about now," Morton commented.

"When are we going to eat?" Ludwig whined.

"Briney, thanks so much," Leo said after he and Lily had broken away again. "You have no idea how happy this makes me!"

"Well, I would if I could read your mind here, but I can't, so I'm just going to guess you're very, ver happy," Briney said. "And you're welcome."

"C'mere, give me a hug!" Leo said, spreading his arms.

"No," Briney said.

"Aw, come on!" Leo said.

"I don't do hugs," Briney said.

"Please, Briney?" Lily begged.

"…Oh, fine. Here." Briney hugged Leo and Lily, doing his best to ignore the snickers and sighs of joy the others were making. "There. You happy?"

"Yes, very much so," Lily said.

Leo, I believe this transformation may do more than just amplify your physical capabilities and allow you to get more use out of your sunglasses' powers, Choc-Oboh said.

Let me guess, it'll allow me to use my cards outside of a Duel and summon items and stuff as weapons and monsters as allies? Leo asked.

Precisely! While my power would have allowed you to do that anyway, when you're transformed it'll be much easier and less taxing on your body, Choc-Oboh said. And they'll be effective against enemies other than creatures summoned by Mewgle, as well.

Sweet! This day just keeps getting better and better! Leo said.

However, while wearing that suit, you will only be able to utilize the full power of ONE card at a time outside of a Duel, Choc-Oboh warned him.

What? Only one? Awww mon…oh well, not that big a deal. Kamen Riders in Ryuki made do with just one card at a time, after all, and even in a Duel, it can only take a single card to turn things around…yeah, I can work around this no problem! Piece of cake! Leo said.

That's the spirit. I'm glad you're taking this so well, Choc-Oboh said in relief.

Hey, you gotta take whatever hand's dealt to you, you know? Even if that hand's just one card at a time, Leo said.

Heh, too true, Choc-Oboh said in amusement.

"Briney, remind me to write a thank-you-note to that smith guy later to thank him for such a wicked awesome present! I'd love to test this thing out and maybe Rider Kick someone, but now is probably not the best time for that, huh?" Leo asked out loud.

"No, it most certainly isn't," Pikachu said.

"I'll give him your regards…" Briney said. "Then again, you may be thanking him sooner than you might think."

"Why, is he here?" Lily asked.

Briney nodded and pointed at Smithy among the guests. "Yeah, he's right over there."

"Hi," the older Metang said with a wave.

"Thank you very much!" Lily shouted to him.

"Yeah, really! We owe you big time for allowing me to become…Masked Rider Phoenix!" Leo declared.

"Masked Rider Phoenix?" Ash asked.

"I have a phoenix spirit partner and phoenix-like resurrective powers, so it's as good a name as any, isn't it?" Leo asked, to which Ash had no real argument.

"A dragon marrying a phoenix…" Fantina murmured. "It seems symbolic somehow, zough I'm not sure 'ow."

"I believe it represents a fruitful marriage blessed wiz prosperity and success," Shauntel said.

Fantina smiled. "Well, zat's certainly good news, isn't it?"

"There's probably something symbolic in my daughter marrying a masked superhero, too, but I'm not sure what that is either," Nuken deadpanned.

"Well, I'm glad we're all grateful for Leo's new toy which I'm totally not jealous of in the slightest," Tiny said. "But you know what I would be grateful for right about now? Some food! I'm hungry!"

"Tiny!" Ash hissed.

"Actually, we probably should start the reception…this ceremony has dragged on long enough, and I'm sure some of our guests would like something to eat," Lily said, glancing at the guests, who did indeed look very hungry.

"I wish I could eat…" Brad muttered.

"Sounds good to me! In that case…iiiiiiiiiiiit's receptiooooooooon tiiiiiiiiiime!" Leo screamed, crouching down then springing up with his fists pointed into the air.

Everyone stared at him. "What?" Sasha asked.

"Uh, sorry, it seemed fitting. Never mind," Leo said. "Um...anyway, let's eat!"

"FINALLY!" the Gibles cheered.

As everyone started filing out of the courtyard to attend the reception (and eat), Raiki asked Kageie, "So, what did you think of your first wedding?"

"I've already had a wedding," the Tyranitar pointed out.

"Was it like this?" Delia asked.

"No," Kageie said.

"Then it doesn't count," Delia said.

Kageie frowned, somewhat offended at this. "It was…interesting," she said finally. "Are all 'civilized' Pokémon weddings like this?"

"If all weddings are like the last two I've been to, then yes," Matthias said dryly.

"I can't wait to see what Mommy and Daddy's wedding will be like at this rate!" Junior said eagerly.

"Or my Big Brother and Dawn's!" Pichu agreed.

Matthias groaned. "I shudder to even imagine it…"

"So, Delia, what did you think of this wedding?" Raiki asked his wife pointedly.

She sighed. "All right, I'll admit, it wasn't half bad."

"And?" Raiki pressed.

"…And I probably couldn't have done a better job of designing it if they'd asked me to do it instead," the female Raichu said grudgingly.

"Good! I'm glad you learned a valuable lesson!" Raiki said cheerfully.

They walked in silence for a few minutes as they slowly shuffled their way towards the entrance back into the manor. Finally, Delia said, "Although personally, I would have picked a different shade of-"

"DELIA!" Raiki bellowed.

And all was right in the world…for now.

Meanwhile, in the lair of Oblivion's Shadow…

Oblivion's Shadow stared intently at the purple crystalline mass suspended in the center of the room, pulsating with the energy it was absorbing from the blue rocks placed around it. "Just a few more minutes…" he murmured to himself.

"You do realize that this plan still has a very high chance of failing, don't you?" Mesprit asked.

"It has more of a chance than my previous plan, according to you," the Shadow said.

"Still not as high a chance if you had just done what I originally told you to do," Mesprit said crossly. "As in, give up and cease this foolishness."

"If you're really connected to Uxie, then you know I will never do that," the Shadow said.

Mesprit sighed. "It would be so much easier for everyone if you did…"

"Oh, give up on it Mesprit, you and I both know he'll never change his ways. He's too stubborn. Why should he do the sensible thing and turn himself in when he can keep doing what he's doing and fail spectacularly and potentially end all of creation because he'd rather do things his own way than listen to anyone else," Cresselia sneered.

"If I am to fail, it will be on my own terms, and nobody else's," the Shadow said.

Cresselia snorted. "Listen to yourself. Do you have any idea how full of yourself you sound? It's a wonder your mother took so long to abandon you, considering what an obstinate, colossal jackass you-"

She was cut off when, without even looking at her, Oblivion's Shadow triggered her neural inhibitor, causing her to writhe on the floor, screaming in agony. "You know, that's only going to make Darkrai come down all the harder on you once he's free of his contract," Mesprit said.

"I will deal with him when the time comes," the Shadow said.

"No," Mesprit said. "You won't." Oblivion's Shadow ignored her. Nothing new there. The Being of Emotion's eyes narrowed. "Your mother hasn't spoken to you in the last week, has she?" There was no response, other than a tightening of a fist. "Now, why do you suppose that is-"

Oblivion's Shadow triggered her neural inhibitor. Nothing happened. Mesprit sighed. "I can scream if you want, but I'm not in the mood right now. If I must, though…aaaaaaahhhhh." The Shadow glared at her. She shrugged. "I told you I wasn't in the mood. Sorry, but I don't really feel like indulging your fantasy that you're actually in control right now."

Shaking with anger, the Shadow took a step towards her…and suddenly, the crystal started emitting a blinding light. "You might want to check on that," Mesprit commented as the Shadow whirled about, cape flaring out behind him.

The light from the crystal grew and grew until it filled the whole room with its radiance…

And when it faded, the crystal was no more, and in its place was an adorable figure; a diminutive white-skinned Pokémon with a disproportionately large head clad in a three-pointed yellow hat larger than its body with three turquoise tags attached to each point. Turquoise triangles resembling tears were under each of its eyes. The Pokémon yawned, and the yellow cocoon wrapped around its lower body unraveled to reveal it was actually a pair of long streamers, and its body had short stubby limbs with flaps like sleeves under its arms and a curved seam on its belly. The Pokémon opened its eyes, blinked them a few times blearily, and rubbed the sleep out of them with its arm. "Uhhh…need coffee…it can't have been a thousand years already, can it?"

"No, it hasn't," Mesprit said.

"Huh?" The Pokémon looked around for a moment in confusion. Its face lit up when it saw Mesprit. "Oh, hi Mesprit! What are you doing in that…cell…and why is Cresselia screaming in agony…and why is Ho-Oh being killed over and over…oh." The Pokémon's face fell. "I've been woken up by another villain, haven't I?"

"I'm afraid so, Jirachi," Mesprit said apologetically.

Jirachi sighed. "It never fails…I hide myself in the furthest, most obscure corner of the world I can get to whenever it's time to go back to sleep and some madmon or madman with a wish finds me and tries to use me for nefarious ends." Jirachi folded her arms and glared at Oblivion's Shadow. "All right, let's get this over with. Since you're the person who woke me up, you get three wishes. However, there are some limits: you can't wish for anyone to die, you can't wish for anyone to come back from the dead, and you can't wish for love. Just about anything else is fair game, unless you make a wish so big my power isn't great enough to grant it. So, what'll it be? The standard immortality/world domination package?"

"I am already immortal, and have no desire for world conquest," the Shadow said.

Jirachi raised an eyebrow, somewhat disturbed by how her face was being reflected back at her and the Shadow was speaking with her voice. Creepy. "Really? Well then, I guess you'll be wishing to destroy the world then, which, as I pointed out, I can't do, because that would kill lots of people and all."

"I don't want that wish either. I am already close to doing that on my own," the Shadow said.

Jirachi frowned. "Then…what do you want?"

Beneath his mask, the Shadow smiled. The reflection on his mask smiled too, which unnerved Jirachi all the further. Mesprit sighed and shook her head. "This is not going to end well."

Cresselia continued screaming. So did Ho-Oh. And if the Shadow had his way, many more would be before this was all over…

Meanwhile, in Doctor Tarantulas' laboratory…

Tarantulas, still nothing more than a disembodied head, albeit one equipped with mechanical legs and thrusters so he could get around, stared at the screen on his monitor for a long time, his reflection looking back at him with a forlorn expression on his face. Finally, he sighed, knowing there was no point in prolonging the inevitable any further than he already had. With a wireless signal, he activated the device and called Bellum.

After a moment, the screen flickered on to show the interior of Bellum's iceberg lair. The Froslass in question, looking somewhat worse for wear and missing most of an arm for some reason, gave Tarantulas a weary and frustrated look. "What is it, Tarantulas? I'm in the middle of a rather pressing personal matter at the moment and have an evil god screaming in my head so I don't have time for any of your taunts or frivialities. Oh, and thanks for continuing to send Chobin down here despite my express request for you to keep him away from my daughter, by the way."

"You're welcome," Tarantulas said. "I'm sorry if I interrupted somezing—okay, zat's a lie, I'm actually ecstatic if I did—but zere's somezing very important I need to tell you."

Bellum sighed. "Fine, but make it quick, Giratina's having a bit of a breakdown at the moment and let me tell you, trying to comfort an evil deity whose every spoken syllable makes you feel like you're dying a horrible agonizing death isn't very pleasant."

"In zat case, I'll make zis drag on for as long as I can," Tarantulas said, causing Bellum's eye to twitch. "Anyvay, here's vat I need to say. Zere's somezing you need to know…about us."

Bellum raised an eyebrow. "Go on."

Tarantulas took a deep breath, and said, "Bellum, I-I hate you."

Bellum's twitch worsened and she started grinding her teeth. "…That's it? That's what you called me to say?! You wanted to tell me something I already knew?!"

"No Bellum, you don't get it. I don't just hate you. I hate you. I really, really really hate you," Tarantulas said.

Bellum was not impressed. "Oh?"

"Bellum, I hate you viz all my heart," Tarantulas said, determined to make the ice witch understand what he was saying. "I hate you more zan I've ever hated anybody. I hate you so much zat I can barely take it. In fact, I vant to go on hating you for ze rest of my life. My primary regret about vat's going to happen to me soon—besides ze obvious—is zat I von't be able to hate you anymore."

Bellum blinked, her expression softening. "Oh, Tomaru…I had no idea you felt that way about me. If…if it makes you feel any better, I hate you too. I think I've hated you from the moment I first met you. "

"I'm…I'm happy to hear zat," Tarantulas said.

"Perhaps later we could…" Bellum paused. "Wait. Something's going to happen to you soon? What are you talking about?"

"…You are not ze only one who failed Oblivion's Shadow and were punished for it," Tarantulas said.

"Yes, and he denied you from using a body again," Bellum said.

Tarantulas shook his head—or whole body, rather—sadly. "No. My punishment has not yet begun."

Bellum frowned. "What are you-"

"Goodbye, Bellum. If ve meet again, it vill be in ze Abyss. If not…zen I'm glad I vas finally able to tell you how I feel," Tarantulas said sadly.

"Tomaru, wait-" Bellum started, only to be cut off when Tarantulas hung up.

Tomaru stared at the blank screen for a few minutes. Finally, he sighed and turned to face Viers, who was picking his nose behind him. "It's done," he said.

"Is there anything else, Lord Doctor Tarantulas?" Viers asked, removing his finger and staring at the snot at the end. He licked it.

"No, no, I zink zat's everyzing. Ve've made all ze preparations ve need, now ve just need to vait for Chobin to get back—or die again—grab ze beasts, and zen ve can go," Tarantulas said.

"Okay," Viers said. He paused. "Lord Doctor Tarantulas…it has been an honor serving you."

"Ze feeling is not mutual," Tarantulas said flatly. "However, I do appreciate it, so zanks, I guess."

"You are most welcome," Viers said.

Tarantulas looked around his lab wistfully and sighed. "I'm going to miss zis place…" he murmured. "I'm going to miss a lot of zings…well, zem's ze breaks, I guess." He hopped off the computer and started off across the floor. "Come on, Viers. Let's get ready to go…for my final mission…"

Meanwhile, in Pokémon Square…

Goku, Ete, and the grumbling Ignik Firebottom entered the mayoral residence (the pond at the center of town) and walked to the end of the stone pier extending out towards the center of the pool. The valiant Monferno knelt at the edge of the pier. "Mayor Mayur, I have come at your request. You wanted to see me?"

The water rippled and the mighty Whiscash arose from the depths, perching his chin on the edge of the pier just in front of Goku. "Ah, Goku! Glad you could make it! And you brought the wife, I see…and your brother."

"Ete insisted on coming with me because she rarely leaves my side…and my brother just wanted to complain, I think," Goku said.

"I have every reason to complain!" Ignik complained. "I got a commendation and medal and everything for capturing that evil sorcerer they've got locked up in that spook Yamiri's temple, and you're still giving me all the shitty jobs!"

The Mayor shrugged. "Someone has to do them. And you're still serving community service, last time I checked. But if you really want a new job, I suppose I can send you along with Goku on this mission I have planned for him."

"Yes! Finally!" Ignik cheered…only to hesitate, realizing what had just been said. "Wait…mission? Why do I get the sudden horrible feeling I should have kept my mouth shut and whatever you have planned is infinitely worse than my needing to sweep up hair at the barber shop or muck out the toilets or mow people's lawns or serve as a training dummy and moving target for the military?"

"Because it is," the Mayor said smugly, causing Ignik to groan. "Goku, while your defection to our side, the recent wedding, and your return of the Rescue Teams from Vientown and Seasonburg have done wonders for your reputation here, a number of townsPokémon—along with several of our new allies—are not entirely at ease with harboring so many ex-barbarians within our walls, including one as high-ranking in Gal's army as yourself."

Goku frowned at this but was not surprised. After the big reveal of the Nihilators, all the world's governments had been tripping all over themselves to make up for scoffing at the Draconian Empire's claims about the Nihilators' existence for so long. Several nations had dispatched divisons of their military to help Pokémon Square defend against the impending barbarian invasion (Which, according to Sabrina's latest predictions and corroborated by a number of other seers, should be any day now) to save face, although they still did not have nearly as large a presence as the Empire, who had gotten there first, built up the strongest rapport with the locals for believing in them and coming to their aid when nobody else would, and still had their capital city parked right over the town, much to those other countries' shame. While they were seen by the townspeople as welcome allies, there was quite a lot of simmering resentment against them for taking so long to believe that they were worth protecting. In a desperate attempt to build up support from the locals (and the media, and the people of their own countries) the foreign military divisions had made a big show of cooperating with the Imperials and Rescue Teams and had helped them scour Kanjohenn to clear out the barbarian menace once and for all and make the continent a safer place in the future. They'd already managed to defeat a number of barbarian tribes and clans that had been a thorn in the side of the peace-hungry Pokémon of Kanjohenn for many years, clearing the way to reclaim many of the settlements and towns those barbarians had destroyed. Already a number of them had been rebuilt and several of the refugees from Mt. Blaze were being settled there, both to give them a new home and to ease up the space and resource issues the town had been having from needing to house so many Pokémon. The twin cities of Seasonburg and Vientown were being rebuilt as well, and the Rescue Teams from those towns had left Pokémon Square to help in the reconstruction efforts, although they promised they'd come running when the big day came. The Hive Queen's armies were unaccounted for, however, and the Amber Palace had been completely deserted when they'd finally managed to break through the barrier surrounding it with help from Latias, with all signs indicating the Bugs had gone underground, so deep even the best burrowers couldn't find them. A large number of survivors from the Burning Horde were missing as well, and not even Latias's extremely powerful telepathy could pick up where they, or the Bugs, had gone to, leading many to believe that when they eventually resurfaced, they would be their primary enemy.

That wasn't to say all of the Horde's survivors had gone missing, however. Several groups of barbarians who'd managed to escape the battle at Mt. Blaze had formed pockets of resistance around the continent and were hindering the military's efforts to restore order to Kanjohenn through messy and exhausting guerilla warfare. Due to his past with the Horde, Goku and his followers had been called upon a number of times to help defeat these remnants wherever they cropped up, but it was clear that those he was helping still viewed him with distrust, which was not unwarranted…after all, he'd been on the same side as their enemies once, and even if he had defected, that just meant he did not hold a strong sense of loyalty to any one side…so who's to say he might not betray his current allies as well?

"Hasn't he done enough for them?!" Ete asked angrily while Goku mulled this over. "What more does he need to do to earn their trust?!"

"See, this is why we should have just destroyed them all rather than joining sides with them," Ignik said.

"Ignik, if Goku hadn't switched sides you would both be dead," Ete pointed out.

"…Touche," Ignik admitted reluctantly.

"I have an assignment for you that may help turn opinions around," the Mayor said, much to their surprise. "We've recently received a message from one General Pokong. Does the name sound familiar to you?"

Goku started at this. "Pokong?!"

"He was one of Gal's most feared and loyal supporters!" Ignik cried.

"He's also the leader of one of the most dangerous bunch of remnants from the Horde that's causing the most damage to our efforts to reclaim the continent and prepare for the invasion," the Mayor said.

Goku sighed. "And you want me and my mons to defeat his forces?"

"Not quite," the Mayor said. "The message he sent was to discuss terms of surrender."

There was a stunned silence at this. "Wait, what?!" Ete asked finally.

"Impossible! Pokong was one of the most fervent believers in Gal's ideals! He'd never surrender, especially not to the likes of you!" Ignik said incredulously.

"Well, apparently he's had a change of heart," Mayor said. "According to the emissary he dispatched, he's beginning to see the futility in his current actions. While many of the other Horde holdouts have somehow convinced themselves that Gal will one day return to lead them to glory and burn the world to ashes, Pokong doesn't really think that'll ever happen, and while he's loath to give in to civilization, which he's opposed all his life, he's not sure he wants to stick to his beliefs strongly enough to die for them. Also, as a follower of Gal he bought into the whole 'might is right' philosophy, and since we beat Gal, maybe that means we were the ones who right all along."

"I see…" Goku murmured in amazement. "He truly wishes to surrender?"

"Well…sort of," the Mayor said. "Actually, he's more interested in defecting, if at all possible. He heard you did, and that you seem to be doing pretty well, so figures that maybe he can get himself and his mons off easier than they would if they kept fighting to the very end."

"Didn't work out so well for me," Ignik complained.

"Will the joint forces accept his defection?" Goku asked, excited by this news. Perhaps he was not the only barbarian leader of the Horde who had seen reason, after all…

"While many of them aren't happy letting another bunch of ex-barbarians and war criminals into their ranks, we've agreed that it's a politically and strategically sound move," the Mayor said. "Pokong was, as you said, one of Gal's most loyal followers and leads one of the most dangerous resistance groups on the continent. If even he's willing to parley with us, that might send a message to the other remaining members of the Horde that they have no hope of winning against us and convince them to surrender as well, bringing this war of attrition to a close and allowing us to focus our resources on resettling the continent and defending Pokémon Square. As such, they've decided to grant his request and pardon his crimes if he can convince the rest of his mons to stand down and join us."

"That's wonderful!" Goku said.

"Oh come on! They'll pardon Pokong his crimes, but not mine?! Pokong's done way worse stuff than I ever did!" Ignik screamed in disbelief. "Do you know how many villages he's burned down? How many people he's killed? How many womon he's-"

"Look, I'm the first to admit that such crimes should not be so easily forgiven, but this is a matter of politics and war," the Mayor interrupted. "It's not very pleasant or savory, but it'll save lives and make things easier for us in the long run."

"Yeah, but not for me…" Ignik growled.

"While this is interesting news, where do I fit into it?" Goku asked.

The Mayor hesitated. "Ah. Well…you see, while Pokong is willing to talk peace, there's a catch."

Ete sighed. "Of course there is."

"Pokong is willing to defect, but he doesn't entirely trust us. He's been fighting and killing people like us all his life, so he's not one hundred percent certain we won't doublecross him," the Mayor said.

"Will you?" Ignik asked.

"What? No, of course not!" the Mayor said. Well, not unless he becomes a problem, anyway. "In any event, he says he'll only discuss his terms of surrender with one mon: you, Goku."

"Me?" Goku asked in surprise.

"Him?" Ignik asked in surprise.

"Who else?" Ete asked, not surprised.

"Pokong knows you're a trustworthy and honorable mon…your betrayal of Gal notwithstanding," the Mayor said uncomfortably. "If you tell him we'll keep our side of the bargain, he'll believe it. Besides, since you were the first of the Horde to defect, he wants to hear from you what it's like on our side, how he can expect he and his mons to be treated, what will be expected of him, that sort of thing. Also, he wants to understand what, exactly, convinced you to turn against Gal and your own kind."

"…I see. I will do my best to make him understand my reasons, and convince him that while I did break my word in turning against Gal…it was, in the end, the honorable thing to do," Goku said.

"Yeah, because breaking your word is sooooooo honorable," Ignik said sarcastically. Ete smacked him.

"There is one other thing his emissary told us," the Mayor said. "Pokong claims he has found the Staff of Sun Wukong."

Goku shot up in astonishment. "What?!"

"It cannot be!" Ete gasped.

"Our legendary ancestor's iconic weapon?!" Ignik asked in disbelief.

"It is said that whoever wields that staff is the rightful ruler of the monkey Pokémon of Kanjohenn…" Goku whispered in awe. "But…if Pokong has it…"

"Then its all the more imperative that you convince him to defect," the Mayor said. "He's said that he knows it doesn't belong to him, and will give it to you once you've managed to settle things…but, if for any reason he decides we can't be trusted, he could use the staff's legend to rally the monkeys in the other rebel groups across Kanjohenn to his banner and start a new crusade against the civilized world. He'll lose—our united army is too strong—but there will be massive casualties, and it will only inspire future groups of barbarians to rise up against us, ruining our chances at peace after the war is over."

Goku nodded gravely. "I understand. I will not fail in this mission. I will make him see the light, as did I."

"And with that staff…you can finally fulfill your ancestor's dream, and unite the monkey tribes of Kanjohenn," Ete said. "We could form our own nation!"

"Or an army," Ignik suggested. They glared at him. "Just a thought."

The Mayor nodded. "He has a point. When word spreads that you have the staff, along with Pokong's loyalty, it may convince countless Pokémon, both barbarian and wild, to join us in the coming battle. We could use allies like that, Goku."

Goku frowned. "I am hesitant to use such power, such responsibility, for war…but I know that the wasy of Pokémon Square are the only way to fulfill Sun Wukong's ambition, and that ambition will never be realized if we cannot secure a future for all of Kanjohenn, no, the world. You can count on me, Mayor."

"And me!" Ete said. "I have believed in the dream of Wukong all my life. I shall be there to witness it finally come true!"

"And I'll come since it's still better than what I'm doing now," Ignik said. "Seeing some of my old 'friends' is waaaaayyyy better than dealing with those bratty kids."

"Speaking of which," the Mayor said, hiding a grin. "You won't be going alone. It would be suicide to just send the three of you, after all, no matter how friendly Pokong's missive sounded! Since most of our senior Rescue Teams are too busy helping resettle, hunting down barbarians, or off on a honeymoon, Master Yamiri and Wes's team will be accompanying you, along with a media team, a small contingent of Draconian soldiers, and some bigwigs from Fichina due to arrive sometime in the near future. A lot of the other countries wanted to send delegates too so the Empire and Fichina wouldn't get an 'unfair advantage,' but we managed to convince them that sending a small party would probably be best."

Goku nodded. "That would probably be a good idea; it would have less of a chance of making him fear we're going to attack him. I'd like to bring a few of my mons along as well, though. They probably have acquaintances among Pokon's ranks, and can help convince them of the benefits of joining our side while I'm working on Pokong, to quell any dissent that might flare up. I can't imagine all of his soldiers are willing to follow their leader into surrender, after all."

The Mayor nodded. "A splendid idea, Goku. Oh, and one other thing: Team Go-Getter and Team Poképals will also be joining you."

Ignik's eyes bulged in horror. "Whaaaaaaaaaaat?! I thought I was going to get away from those brats for a little while!"

"Team Poképals were the ones who first encountered Pokong's emissary," the Mayor explained. "Hubie, the team leader, possesses a form of precognition called 'Dimensional Scream,' which he claims he has because he's a human from the distant future, which we all know to be completely ridiculous. He had a vision upon running into the emissary of his team and Team Go-Getters accompanying you on your mission, which pretty much means we have to let them go or it could cause some horrible disturbance in the space-time continuum or something like that."

"…Seriously? You're going to believe an excuse that preposterous?!" Ignik asked in disbelief.

"It's not an excuse," the Mayor said. "Hubie's Dimensional Scream is a reliable and tried-and-tested power. Sabrina has stated it's a true ability, which is good enough for the rest of us."

"Hmm," Ignik said, still not buying it.

"Hubie's Scream is also the reason we knew exactly which Pokémon to put on this mission, aside from yourselves, of course," the Mayor said. "It may prove to be a valuable asset on your journey, so you'd do well to heed it."

Goku nodded. "I will be sure to do just that."

"Great…now I've gotta take orders from those brats too…" Ignik whined.

"When do we depart?" Ete asked.

"We need to wait for the diplomats from Fichina arrive," the Mayor said. "After that, you should be good to go. I suggest that you start making preparations while we wait for them to get here. Normally I'd tell you to carefully select which of your mons to take with you, but Hubie already told us which ones you're going to bring."

Goku frowned, but nodded. "All right."

"Out of curiosity, what exactly would happen if Goku chose a completely different bunch of soldiers than the ones recommended by a Piplup that may or may not be able to see the future?" Ignik asked.

"A series of remarkable and eerily convenient coincidences would result in the ones he says will be there joining you anyway," the Mayor said.

"Ah," Ignik said unhappily.

"Why are you so skeptical? I thought you were as superstitious as the rest of us," Ete said.

"I am, I just hate the idea of having to heed the words of one of those stupid kids," Ignik grumbled.

"They're not that bad," Goku said.

"You're not the one getting pummeled by them day in and day out…" Ignik growled. A sinister grin formed on his face. "Still, maybe this will give me a chance to return the favor…"

"No," Goku said.

"Oh, come on!" Ignik yelled.

"Good luck to the three of you," the Mayor said. "You're going to need it."

"Don't worry, Your Eminence. We will not let Pokémon Square down," Goku said.

"See that you don't," the Mayor said solemnly as they departed. "See that you don't."

Meanwhile, in Almiore…

"Well, gang, we're finally here!" Gary said triumphantly. "After almost a week of traveling, we've made it our final destination, the lair of the Berry King and Princess Sara's prison: Altru Tower!"

"Why did you say all that just now?" Callista asked. "We all know that already. Why did you feel the need to say it?"

"…Because shut up," Gary grumbled.

"Ssso thisss isss the Berry Kingdom?" Evan asked skeptically. "Kinda looksss like a dump."

Mary nodded in agreement. "I was expecting a land of milk and honey, not…this."

Team Nightshade was standing at the edge of a vast and inhospitable wasteland stretching as far as the eye could see. Ominous clouds swirled overhead, and lightning bolts occasionally struck down, leaving char marks on the already blasted and pitted landscape. Steam wafted up from fumaroles and vents in the earth, fissures zigzagging the ground seemed to indicate the terrain was extremely unstable and could crumble at any moment, and a foul, noxious odor filled the air. Far, far off in the distance, right on the horizon, they could see a tall, dark tower stretching up to the heavens. Pretty much every trope or cliché that could be expected from an evil tower of ominousness seemed to be in play, although there wasn't that much they could make out of it from this distance. An aura of dread hung in the air, pushing at them and whispering in their ears that they should turn back now, before it was too late.

"Maybe we have the wrong place?" Maren said uncertainly.

Gary checked the Compass. "The needle's pointing right to the tower. That's where we have to go."

"This can't be the Berry Kingdom, though…it's supposed to be a paradise, not…this…" Jerry said.

"Well, we know the Berry King abducted Princess Sara, and he's the ruler of the Berry Kingdom," Mary said, counting off on her fingers. "Princess Sara has the last Compass Piece in her crown, which according to Maren and Janine can't be removed easily, and even if he got it off he probably wouldn't just leave it out in the middle of nowhere, although I admit a place like this would be a good place to hide it, since I can't imagine many people would want to come looking here."

"Maybe that's it?" Maren suggested. "Maybe this isn't the Berry Kingdom at all, but the King put Sara—or the Compass Piece, which would not be a good thing, because it means they're already married—here for safekeeping?"

"It doesn't matter if this is the Berry Kingdom or not," Janine said. "If the Compass points to Altru Tower, that is where we must go."

Gary nodded. "Yeah, the prophecy said as much. At least, I'm pretty sure it did."

"It did," Callista said.

"Good!" Gary said. "And, uh, did it say what's actually there?"

The Riolu shook her head. "I'm afraid not, no."

"Oh well, there goesss the mossst ussseful and ssspecific prophecccy in hissstory," Evan muttered.

"Well…it doesn't matter if we don't know that lies ahead, what matters is that the final Compass Piece—and possibly Princess Sara, although we can't be completely certain—is there, which means that's where we have to be too," Gary said, finding some resolve. "So, let's cross that extremely inhospitable and dangerous-looking wasteland that apparently nobody's ever managed to cross before in one piece without losing their sanity, enter that spooky and seriously evil-looking tower, and rescue a Princess who's hopefully but might not actually be there!"

"Yeah!" Evan cheered enthusiastically.

"And I volunteer Callista to go first!" Gary said.

The Riolu blinked in surprise. "Wait, what?"

Mary nodded in agreement. "That's a brilliant idea."

"Yeah, by sssending in the newessst and mossst expendable party member, we can judge whether it'sss sssafe to go in or not!" Evan said eagerly.

"Isn't she the Princess of Lemewria, making her the least expendable member of our party?" Jerry asked.

"Good point! You go inssstead!" Evan said, pushing Jerry towards the wasteland.

The Cherubi sighed. "Me and my big mouth."

"Gary, didn't you promise you'd try to be more heroic and less of a jerk from now on?" Maren asked sternly.

Gary fidgeted. "Well…yeah…but that place looks really scary!"

"Gary!" Maren said angrily.

"No, seriously! Just look at that place! Doesn't something feel really, really wrong about it? Like stepping foot in there would be the absolute worst idea you could ever have?" Gary asked. "Some kind of primal terror, chilling your spine and filling your heart with dread?"

Maren hesitated. "I…yeah…I do feel scared…" She frowned. "More scared than I usually would be. I mean, yeah, it looks pretty bad, but…scary? I dunno…"

"It's a terror field," Janine announced suddenly.

Everyone looked at her in confusion. "Huh? What are you talking about?" Mary asked.

"And does it mean I don't have to be the first to step in there?" Jerry asked hopefully.

"I learned about this sort of thing in training," the Ninjask said. "Some powerful Psychics or mystics or Ghost-types can generate an aura of terror that causes Pokémon who walk into its area of effect to be filled with an uncontrollable sense of fear and instinctively shy away from the area. Whether anything that can actually back up that fear exists depends on who's generating it. For the most part the field is created by someone who wants very much to be left alone."

They considered this. "So the reason I'm feeling really, really uneasy about going in there isn't due to cowardice but because somebody's messing with my head?" Gary asked, face darkening.

"Well, I wouldn't go that far," Janine said dryly.

Callista closed her eyes and concentrated. "Yes…I can see it now. There is a strange energy filling the air. A lot of it, actually…" She frowned in puzzlement. "That's strange. I'm having trouble even perceiving the wasteland with my Aura-sight. Either the terror field is so strong it's blotting out my vision, or…"

"Or what?" Maren asked.

"…I am not certain," the Riolu said, perplexed.

"If someone wants us to stay away, then…maybe this is where we're supposed to be?" Jerry murmured.

"Makesss sssenssse to me," Evan said.

Jerry sweatdropped. "That's not the best vote of confidence…"

"What'sss that sssupposssed to mean?" Evan asked in confusion.

Gary's expression hardened. "I'm sick of people screwing with my head. Paradox has apparently been doing it for most of my life, and now some chump in a spooky tower is trying to scare me off? Fuck him. I'm a Ghost-type. We LIVE to scare people."

"Actually, you don't live, sssinccce you're undead-" Evan started.

"Shut up, Evan!" Gary shouted.

With that, he stormed towards the wasteland. He set one foot over the edge of the boundary separating the dead lands from the normal space outside…

And, much to everyone's shock, vanished completely. "Where did he go?!" Mary cried.

"M-maybe he just became invisible?" Jerry suggested nervously.

"The Berry King usssed hisss dark magic to vaporizzze him! He'sss dead! He'sss dead! He'sss dead!" Evan screamed.

"He was already dead, he's a Gengar," Maren pointed out.

"He'sss deader than dead! He'sss deader than dead! He'sss deader than dead!" Evan wailed.

"Callista, do you sense him?!" Mary asked.

Callista closed her eyes and shook her head. "No. Again, I can't see anything past the terror field. I have no idea what-"

Suddenly, Gary reappeared right in front of him, a stunned look on his face. "Gary!" Mary cried in relief, wrapping her arms around him. His expression didn't change one bit. He didn't even seem to notice her.

"G-Gary? What happened?" Jerry asked in concern as the rest of the team crowded around the Gengar.

Gary slowly shook his head in bewilderment. "Guys…you will not believe what I just saw."

"What did you just see?" Janine asked.

"Follow me, and I'll show you." Gary turned and walked back towards the wasteland. Again, he disappeared the instant he crossed the boundary.

The others exchanged uncertain looks. A moment later, Gary reappeared again, this time with an annoyed expression on his face. "Are you guys coming or not?"

"O-oh! Right!" Jerry said, starting.

"Yeah, we're coming," Mary said.

"But…what exactly-" Janine started.

"Look, there's no time, you have to see this!" Gary insisted.

"Gary, don't you think you could stop a minute to tell us what, exactly, we're going to see first?" Maren asked.

"And why exxxactly isss there no time? It ssshould just take a sssecond," Evan said.

Gary facepalmed. "Oh for the love of…FINE! I saw the Berry Kingdom, okay? Are you happy?!"

Everyone exchanged astonished looks. "The Berry Kingdom?!" Mary cried.

"This I must see," Callista said, walking towards the wasteland.

"FINALLY! Somebody gets it! Come on already!" Gary said, beckoning to the others as he walked back to the wasteland with Callista. Both of them vanished this time.

The others exchanged uneasy looks one last time, then sighed and went after their leader and newest recruit. They crossed the boundary…

And found themselves somewhere else completely, somewhere that had absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to the blasted plains they had thought they were about to enter. Their jaws dropped in disbelief. "See?" Gary said eagerly. "I told ya!"

The group found themselves standing at the edge of a vast field filled with acres and acres of two-foot tall berry trees stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction, split by rivers and roads and irrigation ditches. Interspersed between the trees were forests, lakes, protruding outcroppings and buttes made of rock interspersed with immense crystals, enormous statues of gods and heroic Pokémon, and sprawling towns of beautiful white-walled buildings covered in magnificent tile mosaics with roofs made of thatch and red shingles. Off in the distance was a majestic range of towering snow-capped mountains that seemed to reach up into the stars. Set among their foothills was an enormous and incredibly beautiful palace built in a style reminiscent of medieval Japunese fortresses that seemed to stretch from one end of the mountain range to another, with countless tiered towers and spires rising over the formidable walls. The grounds just outside the palace walls were beaten flat and devoid of berry trees, and had the look of some kind of massive training field. The palace's central keep was at least ten stories tall with a majestic winged statue of Mew placed on its front that seemed to stare protectively and lovingly at the towns and berry fields surrounding it. A pair of immense statues of vaguely humanoid androgynous figures with small wings and blank features stood protectively on either side of the keep. A cylindrical tower rose another six stories from the top of the keep, red, yellow, and blue stones set into its walls with what looked to be a pair of actual wings extending out from the sides, spreading over the heads of the giants and stretching several dozen meters in either direction. Nestled in an elegant framework at the top of the tower was a tremendous crystal that radiated a glorious white light so bright it could be felt even from where Team Nightshade were standing countless miles away. Just looking at it made them feel peaceful, rested, and happy. Three smaller lights, one blue, one red, and one yellow, floated around the giant crystal in a small orbit, training light of their own on the immense radiant jewel.

"Unbelievable…" Janine whispered.

"It's even more beautiful than the stories told…" Maren said, tearing up.

"It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," Jerry said.

"Sssweet," Evan hissed. "Yeah, thisss isss definitely the Berry Kingdom, all right."

"What was your first clue?" Janine asked.

"All the berriesss?" Evan said, not picking up on her sarcasm. She sighed.

"Oh, Gary…it's beautiful…" Mary whispered.

"I know, right?" Gary said.

"Look!" Callista cried, pointing at the top of the distant tower. "That's the Luminous Crystal! My destiny!"

"Huh! Guess we don't have to go out of our way to find that thing after all!" Gary said, squinting at the bright light. "Well, that's another quest objective to check off on our list."

"So the Berry King has both Princess Sara and the Luminous Crystal?!" Maren said in alarm. "He really must be trying to revive Lemewria!"

"We have to stop him!" Mary said.

"Why? I thought we wanted that to happen," Evan said.

"…Er…because…we're the ones who are supposed to do it, not him!" Mary said awkwardly.

"Oh, okay," Evan said.

"Well then, let's get going! The Berry King's gotta be in that ginormous castle, so if we're gonna beat him and save the Princess, we have to get moving!" Gary declared.

"That will not be necessary!" a deep voice boomed across the field as the skies above them darkened ominously.

Without warning, tornados and lightning bolts shot down from the heavens and struck the ground on either side of the group, causing them to jump in surprise. Three Pokémon descended from the skies to surround them on all sides. One was a green muscular humanoid Pokémon covered in irregularly shaped purple spots with two purple horns on its forehead, white wavy and billowy styled hair, a spiky white mustache and two pointed green ears on either side of its head, yellow eyes with beady white irises and no visible pupils, a broad purple chest consisting of two joined, partially diamond shaped pecs and shoulders, elbows and navel adorned with raindrop like designs, two spotted muscular arms with five fingers on each hand, and a lower body consisting of a trailing cloud, with a purple long, curling tail, tipped with a whirl with khaki whorled structures spanning the length of the tail. One was a blue muscular humanoid Pokémon covered in various irregularly shaped purple spots with a single long sharp, purple horn on its head, white zigzagging and jutting styled hair, a spiky white mustache and two pointed blue ears on either side of his head, yellow eyes with beady white irises and no visible pupils, a broad chest consisting of two joined, purple, rounded-diamond shaped pecs and shoulders, elbows and navel adorned with raindrop like designs, two spotted muscular arms with five fingers on each hand, and a lower body consisting of a trailing cloud, with a thick long curling purple cable-like tail with several dark grey ball-like structures spanning the length of the tail with a long sharp spike on each side. The last one was an orange muscular humanoid Pokémon covered in dark pink spots shaped like diamonds, pebbles and raindrops, with three sharp pink horns arranged in a slight upwards arch on its forehead, a white protrusion shaped like a short log on top of its head, a jagged white mustache and two pointed orange ears on either side of its head, yellow eyes with beady white irises and no visible pupils, a broad chest consisting of two joined dark pink diamond shaped pecs and shoulders, elbows and navel adorned with raindrop like designs, two spotted muscular arms with five fingers on each hand, and a lower body consisting of a trailing cloud with a long curling brown branch or root-like tail with various flat protrusions running its span, each spotted in dark pink on their surface.

"Who the heck are they?!" asked an astonished Gary.

Maren gasped. "It's the Kami Trio!"

"The who now?" Gary asked.

"A trio of legendary Pokémon who are the gods of wind, lightning, and fertility!" Maren said.

"Never heard of them," Gary said.

Mary blinked. "Wait, what was that last one? Fertility? That…doesn't quite fit the pattern of the other two…"

"Fertility of soil, not what you're thinking," Maren said in annoyance.

"Oh," Mary said, blushing. "Still doesn't quite fit, though…"

"Actually, I'm that kind of fertility deity too, if you know what I mean," the orange god, Landorus, said, waggling his eyebrows and doing a pelvic thrust.

All the female Pokémon's eyes bulged and their faces turned red, and the green god, Tornadus, facepalmed. "Every single time…" he muttered.

"Aren't most Trio Masters supposed to be more responsible than the other two members?" the blue god, Thundurus, grumbled.

"Oh! Oh! Are you guysss geniesss? You look like geniesss. Do you grant wissshesss?" Evan asked hopefully.

"No, we aren't genies," Thundurus said in annoyance.

"Why does everyone always ask us that?" Tornadus complained.

"Well, there's one wish I can grant," Landorus said, waggling his eyebrows and doing a pelvic thrust. His brothers facepalmed.

"Why have you appeared before us, honored ones?" Callista asked.

"Good idea, butter 'em up ssso we can run away when their guard isss down!" Evan hissed.

"We heard that," Tornadus said.

"Heard what?" Evan asked.

"Heard you talking about buttering us up so you can run away when our guard is down," Thundurus said.

"What are you talking about?" Evan asked. "I never sssaid that."

"Yes you did, just a second ago!" Landorus said.

"No I didn't," Evan said.

"Yes, you did! Just now! To the Riolu wearing a skull…which is kind of creepy, by the way," Landorus said. Callista just stared at him, causing him to shudder.

"I don't remember doing that," Evan said in confusion.

"How can you not remember?!" Tornadus asked incredulously.

"Because he's an idiot," Mary said flatly.

"That'sss right, I am!" Evan said, nodding happily. The three legendaries stared at him in disbelief and disgust.

"…Right. Anyway," Landorus said. "You have trespassed in the sovereign domain of the Berry King! As such, you are to be detained and taken to His Majesty immediately!"

"Wait, you guys are working for the Berry King?" Maren asked in surprise.

"Most certainly!" Thundurus said.

"We even have these little badges showing we're his vassals. See?" Tornadus said, pointing to a berry-shaped badge pinned to his chest. His siblings had similar badges; each colored the same as their bodies.

"But…he's just a king, and you're gods!" said the astonished Jerry.

"Well, lesser gods, actually," Landorus said.

Tornadus nodded. "If we were stronger and higher up the celestial hierarchy, we wouldn't take orders from him, but we're just guardian deities."

"Also, the Berry King has the divine right to rule granted by the Holy Mother Mew, so we pretty much have to obey him," Thundurus added.

"A king so powerful even the gods bow to him…" Mary murmured in alarm.

"I don't care how powerful he is! We aren't going anywhere with you!" Gary said.

"Um, I thought we wanted to see the King," Jerry said.

"Well, actually, it would probably have been better if we could have snuck past him without drawing his attention so we could rescue Princess Sara and get out of here, but realistically I suppose that was never an option," Janine admitted.

"We do want to see the King, but not as prisoners!" Gary said.

"Who said anything about being prisoners? You're guests!" Thundurus said.

"Oh, that'sss good, then!" Evan said.

"Evan, that's just another term for 'prisoner.' They're not going to let us walk away from here," Mary pointed out.

"That's right, we're not," Tornadus admitted.

"Oh yeah?! Well…screw you guys!" Gary said angrily. "We've fought a Devil Golem, romanced a giant snake, lost a race, starred in a play, fought demons, and faced our darkest secrets to get this far! We're not gonna go with a bunch of redundant wannabe gods just because your precious King said so!"

"Redundant?!" Landorus demanded furiously.

"Yeah, you heard me! There's already at least three lightning gods and another wind god and two land gods and one fertility god I can think of off the top of my head! Who needs you?!" Gary shouted.

"Gary, I don't think antagonizing deities is the best way to go about making us out of this in one piece," Mary said in concern as the legendaries turned red with anger.

"Ah, but don't you remember, Mary? There's a prophecy saying we're going to revive Lemewria, which means we have to make it out of this in one piece!" Gary said.

"The prophecy didn't say we'd make it out of this without severe bodily harm," Callista pointed out.

Gary paused. "…This is true! However, we've come this far on our quest, and we will not be detained by a bunch of threshold guardians! We'll see the Berry King, all right…when we bust down the door to his throne room and knock him off his throne!"

"You dare to threaten the Bery King?!" Thundurus shouted furiously.

"You bet I do! We're heroes, and overthrowing evil dictators is the sort of thing heroes do!" Gary said.

"Oh, lord…" Maren moaned, facepalming.

"What makes you think the Berry King is evil? This place looks pretty nice, and don't all the legends say he was a good guy?" Mary asked skeptically.

"Not every evil overlord rulesss a barren land of death and decay. Thisss placcce might look niccce, but I bet under the sssurfaccce isss a land of oppresssion and misssery crying out desssperately for a hero to sssave them!" Evan said.

"And we will be those heroes!" Gary declared. "We're not just a bunch of screw-ups and misfits anymore, we're Team Nightshade, and we're going to liberate the people of the Berry Kingdom from that despot who thought calling himself 'the Berry King' would make him seem less threatening and figured having goons called 'Poffin Mon' was a good idea!"

"…You're insane," said a stunned Tornadus.

"We've known that since day one," Mary said dryly while Maren banged her head against a nearby Berry Tree.

Evan nodded. "Nothing new there."

"…I am seriously wondering why on Earth destiny chose you all…" Callista said, disturbed.

"All right, fine!" Landorus snarled. "We were going to be civil, but then you started insulting us and the Berry King's honor!"

"And he called us redundant, brother! That hurt!" Thundurus said, looking upset.

"And you called us redundant! If you're that determined to make things difficult for yourselves, we'll be happy to oblige you!" Landrous growled.

"Fine! We'll take you all on!" Gary said. "After all the crap we've been through, you'd need an-"

"Gary, ssstop!" Evan hissed in alarm.

"Huh? What's wrong?" Gary asked.

"You were going to sssay sssomething like how if they wanted to beat usss, they'd need an army or sssomething, right?" Evan asked.

"Well, yeah…" Gary said.

"Don't sssay it! If you do, an army will pop up and clobber usss! That'sss how thessse thingsss alwaysss go, essspecially for usss!" Evan hissed.

Gary nodded, seeing the sense in this. "Oh yeah, good point. Nice save, Evan!"

"Yeah, I know," Evan said smugly.

"But wait…Evan, didn't you just say they'd need an army to beat us?" Jerry asked.

Evan's eyes bulged. "Aw, crap."

The Berry Trees rustled, and suddenly they were surrounded by an army made up of several very strong-looking Pokémon from a variety of different species wearing colorful armor with Poffin-shaped studs covering their service as well as a number of Ghosts and black-clad ninjas. Landorus grinned triumphantly and crossed his arms. "Still want to make a scene?"

Gary facepalmed. "Nice going, Evan."

"Whoopsss," the Ekans said, laughing nervously.

Janine's eyes widened in astonishment as she recognized the insignias each of the ninjas were wearing, aside from the ubiquitous berry symbol all of the soldiers had on them somewhere: a pair of dragon wings spread in flight. It cannot be…the fabled Wing clan truly does still exist, and serves the Berry King?! Then my brother's suspicions were correct…but why are they here? Why did they betray the Dragon God King for a new master? What is going on?!

"I don't suppose it's too late for us to surrender peacefully?" Maren asked.

"Certainly you can surrender," Thundurus said, leering at them. "Because if there's one thing we're big on here in the Berry Kingdom, it's mercy and forgiveness."

"And not being an asshole," Tornadus said.

"And not being an asshole," Thundurus agreed.

"And making love," Landorus said. Team Nightshade stared at him. "What? We're a nation that worships Mew as our central deity. What do you expect?"

"He has a point there," Gary admitted.

"I have been feeling a slight rise in my hormonal levels since we stepped in here and an increasing urge to ravish Maren," Janine said out of the blue.

Maren blushed. "J-Janine!" she stammered.

"Wow, it'll be jussst like home then, Mary!" Evan said excitedly.

Mary groaned. "Wonderful."

"Right," Thundurus said. "Mercy, forgiveness, not being an asshole, and making love. That's what we're big on here in the Berry Kingdom."

"Wait, then doesss that mean you're going to ravisssh all of usss?" Evan asked.

"What? No!" Tornadus said in alarm.

"Well, not without your permission, anyway," Landorus said. His brothers glared at him. "What? Fertility god. Of course I'd be thinking it."

"Oh," Evan said, looking disappointed, earning him weird looks from the others.

Gary sighed. "Well, I guess we could fight as hard as we could and inevitably get beaten and dragged to the court of the Berry King in a humiliating manner because that's pretty much our lot in life, or we could surrender and preserve some measure of dignity. What do you all say?"

"I say we surrender, since it's the least likely option that'll result in me getting covered in bruises," Jerry said. The others nodded in agreement, although Janine, as a member of the Shinobu family, found surrender somewhat distasteful and Callista didn't think there was much honor in it.

"All right, we surrender," Gary said once the group had come to a consensus.

"And?" Landorus asked, raising an eyebrow.

"…And what?" Gary asked.

"And you said some pretty hurtful things just a minute ago. Insulted us and the honor of the Berry King," Thundurus said.

"That wasn't very nice," Tornadus agreed.

Gary rolled his eyes. "Ugh, fine. Sorry for being a jerk earlier. It's been a rough few weeks."

"Apology accepted," Landorus said with a nod. "As is your surrender."

"And a good thing too," a new voice said. "I would have hated to use force against guests we've been waiting so long for."

The ranks of the soldiers surrounding the team parted to allow five figures to approach them. In the lead was a very handsome Gallade that immediately reminded Mary and Evan of one of their fathers (or uncles?) Gallant. He was wearing yellow armor similar to that of the other Poffin Mons, only it was shinier, a bit more ornate, and he wore a red cape with the image of a cluster of different types of Berries encircling a stylized image of Mew emblazoned on the back. On his brow he wore a diadem, but he managed to pull off the look without seeming too effeminate. Walking on either side of him were four quadrapedal Pokémon. Standing closest on his right side was a goat-like quadruped, aqua-blue in coloration, with yellow horns somewhat resembling thunderbolts, a snout a little lighter blue than its fur, gray spots on its long neck and hind legs, a white tuft of fur under its neck, yellow shoulderblades that resembled fins, a tail the same color as its snout looking similar to a a fin as well, and legs with black bands with dark and light blue fur and large black feet. Next to the goat-like Pokémon was a Pokémon with a bear-like body with gray coloring, a stubby tail, a black rounded forehead and two sharp brown horns that came forward from its back, a beige face with orange irises, claws under bands on its legs that were the same color as its face, and an underside that was also beige with stripes. Closest to the Gallade on his left side was a deer or antelope-like Pokémon, green in color, with horns that ended in dull points, a pink-tipped leaf on each side of its neck, pointed ends of fur on its back, a medium-length tail, legs resembling pointed knee-high boots with pointed hooves and pink highlights at the joint of its knees. Next to this green Pokémon was one smaller than the others. It was pony-like, with a large red mane with three blue, orange and green feathers sticking out of the front, fins for eyebrows, a single long blue-ridged horn, light blue-and-white-spotted coloration with spiky edges at the lower portion on the back of its head and neck, a cream-colored body with blue hooves, and a blue-and-white-spotted lifted and feathery tail comparable to an elaborate feather in a cap.

Maren gasped. "It's the Swords of Justice!"

"Let me guess, another group of legendaries I've never heard of?" Gary asked.

"They're heroes who, according to legend, used to travel the land and protect other Pokémon from oppression and evil," Jerry said.

"Yep, never heard of them," Gary said.

"…I find myself rather offended by that," the green Sword of Justice, Virizion, said, somewhat miffed.

"Want me to pound him?" the brown one, Terrakion, said a little too eagerly.

"He surrendered, and it's dishonorable to attack someone who's already put their life in your hooves," the blue one, Coballion, said.

"Eh, I suppose so," Terrakion grunted.

"So that makes what, seven gods working for the Berry King? Is he seriously that powerful?" asked an amazed Mary.

"Eight, actually," the smallest Sword, Keldeo, said.

Thundurus nodded. "We have a Meloetta as the court musician. She's quite pretty."

"Very pretty," Landorus said dreamily.

"And we've also got a bunch of Shaymin running around, so that makes…uh…" Tornadus started counting fingers.

"Okay, we get the picture," Mary said.

"Wait, ssso if you guysss are heroesss, why are you working for the evil Berry King?" Evan asked.

"HE'S NOT EVIL!" all the Berry Kingdom Pokémon and legendaries except for the armored Gallade shouted.

"Ah," Evan said, cowering. "My mistake."

"He does bring up a good point, though. Why are you here serving the King rather than…I dunno, righting wrongs out in the wider world?" Gary asked, waving in the vague direction of the world beyond the Berry Kingdom.

"We swore an oath to serve the Berry Kingdom and protect its people long ago, after the King saved us from a great evil," Virizion said.

"We now guard this land to make sure that same evil does not return…for if it does, this realm will not be the only one that will suffer," Coballion said. Maren frowned at this. Were they talking about the Nihilators? The prophecy in Chroma Ruins seemed to imply their leader, the Faceless One, would be a grave threat to the world at large…

"Fair enough, I guess," Gary admitted. He frowned at the armored Gallade. "And I'm guessing you're this King we've been hearing about? Because if so, you and I have some serious words to discuss, what with you kidnapping Princess Sara and forcing us to run around the continent trying to catch up to you."

The Gallade smiled, and even Gary couldn't help but be charmed by it. "I'm flattered that you believe me to be my father, but no. I am not the Berry King, but his eldest son, Prince Caspen."

"Eldest? So there are more of you?" Jerry asked.

"Quite a few, actually. It's hard to keep track, sometimes, what with all the wives and consorts my father has," Caspen said jokingly. "He takes Mew's mandate to spread love and life very seriously."

"Hey, hey, maybe you can have a ssshot with one of them!" Evan said, nudging the annoyed Callista. "After all, you're the future Queen of Lemewria, so it'd probably look good for you to get a husssband of royal blood. Or wife, if you're ssso inclined."

"Get off!" she growled in disgust, shoving him off. "As I already told you, I refuse to mate with one of the living!"

"A few of my siblings and cousins are Ghosts," Caspen said helpfully.

Callista perked up at this. "You don't say…"

Gary sighed. "Really? We're really discussing marrying the enemy here?"

"I'd hardly call us 'enemies,' Gary," Caspen said.

"Considering you've got us surrounded and are holding us prisoner, oh wait, that's right, we're your 'guests,' I hardly think-" Gary paused. "Wait, how do you know my name? Did you read my mind?! Because if you did, then surrender or not, Prince or not, I'm gonna-"

"I did not read your mind," Caspen said firmly. "It would be extremely rude and disrespectful to do such a thing to an outsider without their permission."

"Oh," Gary said, mollified. "All right then."

"But then how did he know your name?" Mary asked.

"He probably heard it when one of us was yelling at Gary at some point," Janine said.

"Actually, no," Caspen said. "I knew your names because we've been expecting you for quite some time."

Team Nightshade exchanged surprised looks. "Wait, what?" Maren said.

"Maybe they have a ssscarily accurate prophecccy about usss too?" Evan suggested.

"No, although we do have some very perceptive seers," Caspen said. "We knew you were coming because we've been watching you ever since you set foot in Almiore and began your journey to collect the pieces of the Lemewrian Royal Seal, or as you would call it, the Magnificent Compass."

They were startled by this. "You've been watching us?!" Mary shouted in alarm. "All along?!"

"Impossible! I would have noticed-" Janine paused, looking at the Wing ninjas. Her eyes narrowed. "Ah. Of course."

"You've been spying on us?! Why?!" Gary asked, furious. It was bad enough that those Team Quantum jerks were probably always watching them, but now these jokers were too?! Couldn't they ever get a break?! (He knew the answer was no, but the question still had to be asked.)

"Because the pieces of the Compass are of great interest to us as well," Caspen said. "And to our Kingdom's greatest enemy, whom we fear you have inadvertently been serving, by gathering the lost pieces of the Compass together."

"…Your greatest enemy?" Jerry asked in confusion.

"That evil thossse Sssword dudesss were talking about, maybe?" Evan guessed.

Virizion nodded. "Yes…it is he."

Gary blinked. "He? Wait…you're not talking about Team Quantum, then?"

"Who?" Caspen asked in confusion.

Gary frowned. "I guess not." His blood-if he had any that is-was seething. It had been bad enough when he'd found out Team Quantum had been manipulating him his entire life…and now there was some other guy who was apparently using him and the others by letting them collect the Compass Pieces too? Would he ever stop being someone else's pawn? (Again, he knew the answer was no, but the question still had to be asked.)

"We have known of the locations of the other Compass Pieces for quite some time," Caspen continued. "But left them where they were so as not to reveal their hiding places to our enemy, who desires them as well. But now that you have found them, and brought them all together…we fear he will come here soon, not just for the Compass, but for the Luminous Crystal atop Altru Tower."

Callista stiffened at this. "What?! But we need that to restore Lemewria!"

"Does this bad guy, whoever he is, want to raise Lemewria as well?" Jerry asked.

Caspen nodded. "He does indeed…but for far less altruistic reasons than your uncrowned Queen."

"We cannot allow that to happen…" Callista growled.

"Who is the enemy?" Maren asked in concern.

"Is it the Nihilators?" Janine asked, although she had some suspicions of her own as to who their foe might be…but dared not voice them, for fear they might be true.

Caspen shook his head. "He is in league with them, but no, it is not the Nihilators."

"Then who is it?!" Gary demanded.

"The King of Pokélantis," Caspen said.

"What?!" Callista cried.

"Wait, that can't be! I thought he died when Ho-Oh destroyed Pokélantis!" Maren said.

"Which wasss, like, thousssandsss of yearsss ago! How can he ssstill be around?!" Evan asked.

"While Ho-Oh did in fact destroy his kingdom, the evil king managed to seal his spirit inside a stone orb," Coballion said.

"After the great disaster, however, the orb shattered, releasing his spirit onto the world again," Landorus said. "And he desires the power he was denied all those millennia ago…"

"Ho-Oh?" Evan asked.

"No, the Luminous Crystal," Keldeo said.

"Oh yeah, that thing," Evan said.

"Wait, he wants to restore Lemewria? Why? I thought his kingdom was enemies with Lemewria," Jerry said in confusion.

"He wants to restore Lemewria so that he may conquer the land he failed to destroy thousands of years ago, creating a new Pokélantis and using its power to take over the world," Caspen said.

"Ssso, you know, ssstandard evil villain plot," Evan said.

Gary frowned. "And…you're saying he's been using us to collect the Compass pieces and lead him to the Crystal? But how? We've never even met the guy!" He paused. "…Have we?"

"…Perhaps we have…" Janine murmured.

Maren frowned. "Huh? What are you saying?"

"If the King of Pokélantis is a spirit…then that means he can possess the living, can he not?" Janine asked.

Callista nodded. "That sounds about right, given what I know about spirits, which is quite a lot. You know, what with having been raised by them all my life and all."

Caspen nodded. "Indeed, which is part of the reason he is so dangerous, aside from the dark powers he has amassed from stewing in his hatred for so many centuries."

"Then…has he possessed the Mirage King?" Janine asked.

"WHAT?!" the rest of the team asked incredulously.

Caspen nodded sadly. "I'm afraid so."

"That-that can't be right!" Maren stammered in disbelief. "The King, evil?!"

"Not evil, posssesssed," Evan said. "There'sss a difference."

"You're telling me we've been working for a bad guy all this time?!" Gary asked in shock.

Mary sighed. "Somehow I'm not surprised."

"No, it's not possible! We-we would have known if the King were possessed!" Maren protested, although suddenly she wasn't so sure. She remembered the warning Colonel Hansen had received prior to Princess Sara's abduction. She remembered Janine's suspicions that someone within the upper echelons of the Mirage Kingdom's government might be working for the mysterious Nihilators. And while she had believed her lover's suspicions might be accurate…for the Mirage King, of all Pokémon, to be the traitor?! It was inconceivable!

"By possessing a Pokémon, the King of Pokélantis has access to all his host's memories, allowing him to mimic their mannerisms and make it difficult for others to realize he is there," Caspen said. "We have ways of telling when he has possessed someone, however, due to our many years of trying to keep him from gaining access to our kingdom, which is how we knew the Mirage King had fallen to his power."

"But…the King…it's unthinkable!" Maren stammered, having a great difficulty reconciling what she was being told with what she knew of her royal master. He couldn't be possessed. Surely, someone, anyone would have noticed if he had been, wouldn't they? Wouldn't they?

And he hadn't been acting any differently in recent times, so…

But wait. Hadn't he been building up their military, putting more of the kingdom's budget into weapons development and holding more recruitment drives in the last few months, even before Princess Sara's abduction? There had been an increase in barbarian and monster attacks out at the fringes of the kingdom, so it was perfectly understandable that he would give more funding to the nation's defenses, but…what if that weren't his only reason for strengthening their army? What if he was gearing up for…war?

"No…" she whispered, though in her heart of hearts, she already knew it had to be so. Janine quietly put a claw on her shoulder.

"The guy who hired you was evil? But why would he-" Jerry started.

"He wanted the Compass Pieces, but since his own goons weren't doing a good enough job of finding them…" Gary paused, eyes narrowing. "I don't suppose you had something to do with why some of the Mirage Kingdom soldiers weren't able to come back with the pieces they were sent to find out?"

Caspen nodded. "We did our best to…dissuade them without their noticing us."

"And before you ask, yes, the soldiers sent to our realm are safe and sound and under our protection," Virizion assured Maren and Janine.

The Ninjask nodded while Maren continued to suffer a breakdown at the realization that her king was evil and she had been a puppet all along. "That is good news, I suppose."

"And since his soldiers weren't working, he heard about the up-and-coming heroes Team Aurabolt, figured they might be able to do the job where his guys couldn't, and sent for them," Gary continued. "But he got us instead." More of Team Quantum's meddling, to make sure we followed the prophecy?

"So why didn't you 'dissuade' us from finding the Compass Pieces as well?" Mary asked Caspen.

"We tried, actually," the Prince admitted. "But whenever our agents were about to act, an odd series of coincidences resulted in them being incapacitated and you succeeding despite our best efforts and your own shortcomings. Your many, many shortcomings."

"Team Quantum…" Gary hissed.

"Who?" Caspen asked.

"You keep mentioning that name…" Terrakion noted.

"I'll explain later," Gary said, furious that the time travelers had interfered again and were continuing to guide them towards their preordained fate…one which seemed to be benefiting an ancient evil, as well. "So thanks to us, this evil King now knows where your Kingdom, the last Compass Piece, and the Luminous Crystal are, and now all he has to do is come here and he'll have everything he needs to resurrect Lemewria."

"I'm afraid so," Caspen said.

"Wonderful," Gary growled.

"But even if he acquires those items, he will still require me to activate them," Callista pointed out. "As the last of the Lemewrian royal bloodline, only I can reawaken the power of the sunken continent."

"Then what's to stop him from taking you, as well?" Mary asked darkly.

"Us," Gary said, surprising his friends. "This guy's been jerking us around for way too long. If he wants to take Callista and use all our hard work and effort to take over the world, he's got another thing coming."

"He will have us to deal with as well," Caspen said.

Coballion nodded. "Even if he comes at us with the entire Mirage Kingdom army and whatever power his Nihilator allies can supply him with, he will still need to defeat the Berry army."

"The Mirage Kingdom army? Then…you'd go to war with the Mirage Kingdom?!" Maren asked in horror. "No, you can't! They probably have no idea the King's evil, he'll probably feed them a lie about how they're marching here to liberate Princess Sara from your king's evil clutches!"

"THE BERRY KING ISN'T EVIL!" the Berry Kingdom soldiers shouted.

"We know that, but they don't!" Maren pointed out.

"Another message has been sent to your brother, Colonel Hansen, warning him of the evil lurking within his liege," Caspen said. "Perhaps he can stop a war before it happens."

"Even if he suspects, he may not be entirely willing to trust you," Janine said. "Let me send him a message. He'll believe it if it's from me."

"We will give you everything you need to send a message once we return to the castle," Caspen promised.

"That reminds me," Mary said. "Where does Princess Sara come into this? Why'd you kidnap her?"

"Since her father was possessed, that meant that her piece of the Compass was in danger," Caspen explained. "Even though he couldn't remove her crown due to the enchantment placed on it, if he had enough time he could arrange for her to marry someone, then arrange for Princess Salvia, the Queen, and his current host to die in a tragic 'accident,' possess Sara's husband, and not only gain access to the Compass piece but still retain control of the Kingdom since all the others ahead of him would have been removed from line."

"Geez…looksss like your ruling family sssure dodged a bullet there, huh Maren?" Evan asked.

"Y-yes…so it would seem," Maren said, shocked to realize just how close her kingdom had been to ruin.

"We tried to take the Compass Base as well to prevent the King from using it to track us or the other Compass pieces, but failed," Caspen continued.

"Well, obviously, or else we wouldn't be here," Mary said.

"Does Sara still wear her crown?" Gary asked.

"At the moment, she does," Caspen said, much to their relief. "She might not for much longer, though."

They exchanged worried looks. "…What are you talking about?" Janine asked.

Caspen looked somewhat embarrassed. "She…has fallen for one of my brothers."

"Ohhhhh," they all said knowingly.

"What?!" Maren screamed.

"However, the wedding is on hold until the current crisis is over, so as to keep her piece of the compass safe," Caspen continued. "After the King is defeated once again, she and my brother will be wed, and the Compass will be complete at last."

"Good," Jerry said.

"Wait, we're allowing this?!" Maren asked.

"Why not?" Mary asked.

"Because…because they kidnapped her!" Maren protested.

"For a good reason," Janine pointed out.

"Well yeah, but…still!" Maren said.

"Look, she needs to get married for her to take off that crown, and we need her to take off that crown to get that Compass Piece, so unless anyone else wants to volunteer to marry her, I don't really see much of another option, especially if she loves the guy," Gary said.

"Well, I'd do it but I have that thing with Hisssssssssa, so maybe Callisssta could marry her instead," Evan suggested.

"I already told you, I won't mate with a mortal!" Callista said.

"Oh, right. Maren?" Evan asked.

"I'm with Janine," Maren said. "And it's not an open relationship."

"Janine?" Evan asked.

"I'm with Maren," Janine said. "And it's not an open relationship."

"Gary?" Evan asked.

"I'm with Mary but also holding out for Gardevoir," Gary said.

"Mary?" Evan asked.

"I'm with Gary, even though he's also holding out for Gardevoir," Mary said.

"Well…uh…Jerry?" Evan said.

"I'm gay," Jerry said.

Everyone looked at the Cherubi in surprise. "You are?" Mary asked.

"Yeah, wasn't it obvious?" Jerry asked.

"Uh…" Evan said.

"So! Once Sara's married and gets her crown off, can we use her Compass Piece and your Crystal to restore Lemewria?" Gary asked loudly.

There was an awkward pause. "That…is something you must discuss with my father," the Gallade said after a moment. "It is not within my power to grant such a request."

"In other words, no, he's not giving us the Crystal," Mary translated.

"WHAT?!" Callista demanded.

"We need the Crystal too, you know," Thundurus said.

Tornadus nodded. "It provides power to the entire Berry Kingdom and generates a barrier of positive energy that's the only thing keeping creatures of pure evil such as the King of Pokélantis from setting foot on our soil."

"And brainwassshing your citizzzensss to be loyal and obedient?" Evan asked.

"What? No!" Tornadus said.

"Well, it does radiate love and happiness across the kingdom to keep anyone from becoming evil…er, does that count?" Thundurus asked.

Landorus smacked him. "Don't mention that!"

"Aha! Ssso it isss brainwassshing!" Evan said triumphantly. "…I think…"

"It's a wonder it didn't keep us out, then," Janine half-joked.

"I suppose that explains why I'm feeling slightly less homicidal than usual," Janine mused.

"And why I'm finding my tolerance for Evan's stupidity gradually growing," Mary said uncomfortably.

"Awww, thanksss!" Evan said stupidly.

"You're messing with our heads?!" Gary screamed furiously.

"No, your hearts," Keldeo said.

"That's...! You…!" Gary spluttered incoherently for a moment, before looking confused. "I'm…not sure whether or not to feel angry about that, and I can't tell if that's because I'm confused or because that Crystal thing is affecting me too."

"Could be both," Jerry suggested.

"Yeah, that's possible," Gary agreed.

"I don't care if your Kingdom requires that Crystal! My kingdom needs it too!" Callista said angrily. "And as the last heir of Lemewria, it is mine by birthright!"

"It's mine, too," Caspen said with a frown. "Mew bequeathed it to the Berry King centuries ago, so it's my birthright as well."

Callista faltered. "W-well, yes, but…we had it first!"

"And lost it," Terrakion pointed out.

Keldeo nodded. "Last time I checked, Lemewria was at the bottom of the sea, while the Berry Kingdom is still here…it doesn't look like you did a very good job of using Mew's gift properly, did you?"

Callista snarled and clenched her fists, Aura igniting around them. "You…!"

"Okay, let's cut this out before somebody starts something they'll regret," Gary said loudly. "Callista, we've surrendered, which means we can't attack them or they'll beat us to a pulp, okay?"

"But…the Crystal! My heritage! My destiny!" Callista protested.

"Callista, the prophecy said we're going to raise Lemewria from the ocean floor, which means we're going to do it no matter what these guys say about the matter, especially since a trio of evil time travelers are fucking up our lives and the lives of everyone around us to make sure their nefarious agenda stays on track."

Caspen blinked. "Wait, what?"

"We'll explain later," Gary said. It was refreshing to keep someone else in the dark for a change.

"…All right," Caspen said, looking confused.

"Your Majesty, we've been standing around talking for what feels like hours-" Landorus started.

"Standing? The three of you are floating," Coballion pointed out.

Landorus ignored him. "Weren't we supposed to be taking them to the palace? Why'd we spend the last several minutes telling them all this rather than doing this in a much more luxurious setting, with food, drinks, and plenty of courtesans?"

Evan perked up at this. "Courtesssansss?! Why didn't you sssay ssso sssooner! Gary, I can't believe they denied usss the chanccce to hang out with courtesssansss!"

Gary raised an eyebrow. "What was that about you being faithful to Hisssssa?"

"I am! There'sss no reassson I can't look at other womon though, isss there?" Evan asked. "Essspecccially if they're sssexxxy courtesssansss!"

"I guess not," Gary admitted.

Caspen smirked. "It's funny you should mention Hissssa, actually…"

"Hey, handsssome. Misss usss?" eight familiar voices spoke in unison.

Evan's head shot up, and everyone gasped in disbelief. "Hisssssssa?!"

Again, the soldiers parted to allow a gargantuan multi-headed Seviper through. It was their old friend Hissssa, all right, but she looked…different. For one thing, she now had a tail, ending in a long, viciously barbed blade with eight colored bells wrapped in a ring around its base. For another, she now had eight heads rather than two, each of which was wearing a golden headdress with a colored crest in a different shape with a kanji inscribed on each one: a red flame with the symbol for fire, a blue drop with the symbol for water, a green cyclone with the symbol for wind, a brown rock with the symbol for earth, a purple skull and crossbones with the symbol for poison, a yellow lightning bolt with the symbol for electricity, a white sunburst with the symbol for light, and a black spike with the symbol for darkness. Gold plates ran down the backs of her eight necks and along the length of her tail. Her scales had grown somewhat blacker as well, creating a sharp contrast to her shining armor.

"HISSSSSSSA!" Evan cried in delight.

"EVAN!" the eight heads of the giant snake cried at once. They slithered towards each other, forcing everyone to scatter out of Hissssa's way as she surged through them and wrapped her massive coils around Evan's considerably smaller form, her eight heads darting down and smothering him with kisses that left bruises but also had the Ekans laughing in joy.

"Uh, wow. I don't remember her looking quite like that," Maren said, eyes bulging.

"She's even bigger than before…and has more heads…and armor!" Jerry stammered.

"She is truly the heir to Yamatorochi's power…" Callista murmured. "I pray she does not use her ancestor's legacy for evil, like that legendary fiend did…"

"Holy crud, what happened to her?!" Gary gawked.

"Ever since she arrived here, she has been training in an attempt to hone the power of her bloodline, to keep from being consumed by darkness and using it for evil like Yamatorochi did, and to help protect her beloved Evan from those who would do him harm," Caspen explained.

"Which means the lot of you might want to start treating him a little nicer if you don't want to call down the wrath of Hissssa on your heads," Terrakion said in amusement.

"…We'll keep that in strong consideration," Mary said.

"But how did she even get here? The last time we saw here was in Pueltown, way to the south!" Gary said. "Where she disappeared in a giant explosion along with Nando and Team Perdition when the Selene Theater blew up!"

"I believe I can explain that, my friends," a familiar Clefable said as he approached, wearing a wide-brimmed dark green hat and cape, carrying a Mew-shaped harp.

Gary's eyes lit up. "Nando! You're here too?!" he asked, elated to see his friend and singing tutor.

The Spirit of Pueltown laughed musically. "I am indeed, my friend. While Hissssa has been training to make herself stronger, I have been wandering the countryside of the Berry Kingdom, taking in the sights, hearing the stories of the people, and finding inspiration around every corner. Oh, the wonders I have seen! This land is almost as beautiful as my homeland of Feymarche on the bright side of the Moon, ruled over by Her Moonjesty Lady Cresselia! I have so many ideas for what I'll do when I return to Pueltown…I will revolutionize the city and bring in a new golden age of art and culture! My fair lady of the lunar seas will be most pleased by my endeavors in Her name!"

"Nice to see you've been having a good time," Jerry commented.

"But Nando, how did you survive the explosion of Selene Theater?" Gary asked.

"The power granted to me by my Lunar mistress and Hissssa's dark powers turned out to be enough to keep us from being destroyed after all," Nando said. "Not enough to keep us from being flung hundreds of miles away from Pueltown and all of you, though. We crash-landed here in the Berry Kingdom, and the people here were nice enough to help us recover and tend to our needs while we awaited you, for they assured us you would one day come here. And lo and behold, they were right! How fortuitous that we would have landed here rather than in the ocean or some other faraway place, or else this reunion might have been an even longer time coming!"

Gary frowned. "Yes…how 'fortuitous…'" Somehow he didn't think luck had anything to do with it. Another thing to blame on Team Quantum. While I'm happy to see Nando and Hissssa too, there must be a reason they were put here…what is it?

"And now we are together once again…and it seems you have made a new ally!" Smiling, Nando got down on one knee and kissed Callista's paw. "It is an honor to meet you, milady. Despite the misgivings of my hosts, I fully applaud your dream to restore Lemewria and will support you in any way I can!"

"Th-thank you," Callista said with a blush, pulling her paw away reflexively. "I…your help would be most appreciated."

"Aren't you going to yell at him for touching you with his disgusting, mortal lips?" Mary asked wryly.

"He's a fairy!" Callista hissed. "And thereby immortal, and while not as appealing as the undead, he's still a more attractive creature than most living Pokémon."

"Nando…" Gary said, tearing up. "I'm…I'm really glad to see you again. I was so worried when that theater blew up…and even though I found out later we'd probably see each other again, I still…"

"It is all right, my friend," Nando said kindly. "I am honored that you were so concerned for me. But as you can see, I am alive and well, and so are you. Well, undead and well, anyway." He smiled. "And now we have plenty of time to catch up with each other, and tell stories of what we have done since last we met."

Gary sobered at that. "Yeah…and mon, do I have one heck of a tale for you!"

"Then let us adjourn to the palace, where we may exchange our stories in a more comfortable setting," Nando said. He smirked. "Plus, it'll give me a chance to catch up with the court musician again…"

Gary grinned and nudged Nando. "Oho, has someone found a certain special somePokémon?"

Nando blinked in surprise. "Hmm? Oh, no…Euterpe is a good friend and occasional…dalliance…but my heart only beats for one lady."

"Cresselia?" Janine asked.

"What? No, my wife, Bridget," Nando said.

They all stared at him. "You're married?!" Gary asked incredulously.

"And here I thought he was gay…you know, fairy and all…" Mary said.

"Mary!" Maren said, shocked.

"What? He is a fairy!" Mary pointed out. "And not an especially masculine one, either!"

"Darn…" Jerry said in disappointment.

"You're married? To whom?" Callista asked, trying to hide her disappointment.

"A lovely Dark Clefairy by the name of Bridget," Nando said dreamily.

"Dark Clefairy?" Mary asked.

"They're a subspecies of Clefairy that live on the dark side of the moon and serve Darkrai," Callista said.

Nando nodded. "While Clefairies who serve Cresselia like myself craft good dreams and spread peace and light, those who serve Darkrai create nightmares and try to spread fear and darkness…which is only fitting, since their master is the god of death and shadows and bad dreams and whatever new title he's picked up in the last few weeks."

"So…she's evil?" Gary asked.

"What? No!" Nando said, offended. "Perhaps she could be construed as such by your standards, but not by ours. While the two breeds of Clefairy tend to spend most of their time on their separate dominions on the Moon, we travel between the two hemispheres frequently and have a great rapport with our opposites. For us, the difference between our kinds is only skin-deep, though it might not seem that way to you Earthlings. I have loved my wife for centuries, and even though our masters, homelands, and hobbies seem completely different on the surface, in reality we are not that dissimilar. Even if our rulers bicker constantly, they love each other dearly…and so too do we Clefairies love each other, no matter which side of the Moon we're from…which is why the constant wars and artificial divisions you Pokémon of Earth inflict on each other confuses and fascinates us so."

"It confuses us too, to be honest," Maren admitted.

"Well, perhaps by your actions, you will change them," Nando said. "I am in the process of writing a ballad dedicated to your adventures, and hope that it will have a happy ending."

"Really?" Gary asked in surprise. "That's…wow. Um, thanks. I never thought anyone would ever do anything like that for us."

"Except for a song cursing our names," Mary said.

"We hope our story has a happy ending as well," Janine said.

"Although I'm fairly sure the prophecy said it will," Callista pointed out.

"Prophecy? This I must hear," Nando said, intrigued. "But we have dallied here long enough. Why don't you tell me when we get back to the palace? I am eager to hear it."

"We'd be happy to tell you," Gary said. "Um…but, uh, when you finish that song, how…honest is it going to be, exactly?"

"Completely. While some artists prefer to glorify the subjects of their works, I find it better to instead describe Pokémon as they really were, so history may remember them for the brilliant but flawed individuals they truly were, warts and all," Nando said.

Gary grimaced. "I was afraid of that."

"Are you ready to depart, then?" Prince Caspen asked Gary.

The Gengar nodded. "Yeah, I think so."

The Gallade smiled. "Very well. Then I would be happy to escort you and your friends to my father's palace. He has been curious to meet you for quite some time…as has my sister-in-law-to-be, who wants to know just what sorts of mons her father has sent to 'rescue' her."

"Whatever she's expecting, I'm sure she'll be woefully disappointed," Mary muttered.

"Evan! Stop kissing your girlfriend, we're leaving!" Maren shouted at Evan.

"Okay!" Evan said dizzily, deliriously happy and covered in very large and painful-looking hickeys.

"No! Evan'sss not going anywhere!" Hissssa…hissed, tightening her coils around Evan protectively and causing him to start turning blue from lack of oxygen. "We've waited thisss long for him, we're not letting go of him again! EVER!"

"Okay, fine, you can take him with you," Maren said, compromising.

"Oh, good!" the lightning head said eagerly.

"That meansss we get more make-out time…" the poison head said, licking the side of Evan's face and covering it in venomous saliva.

"I am the luckiest mon in the world," Evan said dreamily just before the water head gave him a kiss that nearly enveloped his entire head.

His friends turned their backs on the kissing snakes, lest they be completely horrified and disgusted by what they were doing. "So, you'd better get us to the palace before they forget we're supposed to be going somewhere and have sex where they're standing," Gary said to the prince.

Caspen stared at him blankly. "…Why would that be a bad thing?"

"Buh?" Gary asked, dumbfounded.

"Because it's really, really not something any of us ever want to see, ever?" Mary said.

"Why not?" Caspen asked.

"What?! Because…we…uh…" Mary spluttered incredulously.

"They're devout Mewrians," Nando whispered to them. "Public displays of…well, you know…are acceptable in the Berry Kingdom. It is on the Moon too, frankly—we fairies have somewhat looser standards than you Earthlings-but they're a little more, ah…enthusiastic about it here."

"Ah," Mary said, eyes widening. Great, it really is like home…

"I'm beginning to get similar urges too," Janine admitted.

Maren turned bright red, trying to deny that she had been feeling the same thing. "J-Janine!"

Before things could spiral even further out of control, Gary quickly said, "I'm sure that would be lovely, but we need to go meet your father, and if Evan and Hissssa were to…make up for lost time here, we'd be late, now wouldn't we?"

The prince considered this. "My father would understand, but I suppose you have a point. Hissssa, I'm afraid you'll have to wait until later to fully celebrate your reunion with your beloved. You can do whatever you want with him on the way, though."

"Oh, I fully intend to," the fire head promised as the other heads took turns kissing Evan.

"With pleasssure," the wind head hissed as she nuzzled the dazed Evan.

"OKAY, LET'S GO LET'S GO LET'S GO!" Gary shouted, desperate to get moving before things got too hot and heavy.

"Move out!" Caspen ordered. "We return to the palace!"

The ninjas disappeared, while the other soldiers closed ranks around Team Nightshade as Caspen and the Swords of Justice led them in the direction of the distant palace, with the Kami Trio floating overhead. Hissssa slithered alongside them, constantly swapping out heads to look where she was going while the rest showered Evan with affection. Landorus kept slowing down to stare, causing his brothers to bump into him. "Will you stop it, already?! You're slowing us down!" Tornadus snapped.

"I can't help it," Landorus said in a daze as the earth head tickled Evan with her tongue. "It's so hypnotic…and arousing..."

His brothers groaned. "And he's supposed to be the responsible one," Thundurus complained.

"This is why I should have been Trio Master instead," Tornadus said. Thundurus gave him an incredulous look, and then burst into laughter. Snarling, Tornadus punched him. Incensed, Thundurus punched him back. The duo proceeded to start trying to beat the crap out of each other as only brothers can while Landorus, who would normally be the one to pull them apart, continued staring at Evan and Hissssa.

Coballion shook his head in disgust. "He needs to run a tighter ship than that…Terrakion, don't even think of tripping Keldeo."

"Wh-what?!" Terrakion said in surprise as Keldeo glared at him and took a few steps away. "But I wasn't-"

"Terrakion!" Coballion said.

"Okay, okay!" Terrakion said, cowering. "I won't trip him!"

"See that you don't," Coballion said.

"…How does he always know?!" Terrakion wondered in bewilderment.

"This is all too convenient, Mary. You realize that, right?" Gary muttered to the Medicham.

She nodded. "Yeah. Team Quantum?"

"It has to be," he said.

"What're you going to do about it?" Mary asked.

"Right now, I don't think there's anything we can do. But if they show themselves…" Gary narrowed his eyes. "Then we'll see. Then we'll see."

"See what?" Jerry asked.

"…Not sure. Just felt dramatic to say that," Gary admitted. Mary facepalmed.

And so they continued on their way to the palace of the Berry King…and, at long last, the objective of their quest: Princess Sara.

Meanwhile, in Kanjohenn…

Wabbaku's village was a simple one, built near the shores of Waterfall Lake, which, as the name implied, had a really big waterfall feeding into it. The buildings were simple constructs, huts and yurts and tents and the like made of whatever they could scrounge from the land. It wasn't quite as impressive as the village Michael's tribe had managed to build in Treeshroud Forest, but Gardenia liked it all the same. She'd have to, since she was going to be living here from now on.

She was standing besides Wabbaku, with a Kirlia named Alicia from another local tribe standing on his other side. Both of them were wearing flowing white gowns, heavy makeup and paint all over their bodies in patterns Wabbaku assured her were both traditional and mystical, wearing a variety of necklaces, bracelets, and rings made out of an assortment of rare and valuable and somewhat eclectic materials, and headdresses with bits of bone and Ho-Oh Downs in them. Wabbaku was wearing robes, jewelry and makeup to match their own, with a much more fancy headdress with many colorful feathers glistening in all the colors of the rainbow spreading out like a fan around his head.

The three of them were standing on the shore of Waterfall Lake, facing the water, with an elderly Wobbuffet wearing ceremonial robes and a many-feathered headdress with markings similar to the ones they were all wearing while carrying a staff with a variety of beads and feathers and bits of stone dangling from its end. Standing in a loose semicircle behind them were the members of Wabbaku's and Alicia's tribes. The former were mostly Wynauts and Wobbuffets with a few other Pokémon for variety, while Alicia's tribe was primarily made up of Psychic-types. Standing near the front of the crowd was Wabbaku's first wife, Lucy, a Milotic that was the most beautiful Pokémon Gardenia had ever met who she couldn't help but feel inferior to whenever she was around her but she was so nice that she couldn't find herself doing anything but loving her, along with her Wabbaku's children: a couple of Wobbuffets, three Feebases, and a Wynaut. A number of Lucy's tribesmates and relatives were either scattered among the guests or bobbing in the water, watching from the lake. Gardenia's family was there as well, though the Cacturne had been somewhat reluctant to invite them, since they weren't exactly on the best of terms, but Wabbaku had convinced her that they should be present for something as important as this. All these Pokémon had come together for one reason and one reason only…

The marriage between her and Wabbaku. (And Alicia, she supposed.) She was so happy she was surprised she wasn't squealing with joy every other minute, and instead managed to keep silent while the village headmon performed the rites. Normally this task would fall to Wabbaku, as the tribe's shaman, but since he was the one getting married and his son was not yet experienced enough to take up the role, the headmon had to do it in his place. "The union between a mon and a womon is not something to be taken lightly," the old mon said gravely. "Marriage is a sacred bond, blessed by the spirits and nourished by love, which must be worked at constantly by all parties to remain as whole and healthy as the day it is first formed. All unions are different, just as all Pokémon are different, and so different methods are necessary for each party involved to keep the love between them and their spouses true and pure. Marriage is a mountain that can only be scaled by trusting in your partner, and without that trust, both of you will fall." He gave the three of them a solemn look, and said, "This is especially the case with the marriage of a shaman.

"The shaman is a bridge between the world of mortals and spirits, a mon with one pseudopod in each plane but not fully belonging in either. A shaman's duty is to his people, to keep good relations with the spirits of nature and the ancestors, so that we in this world may prosper and those beyond may know peace. The shaman enriches the lives of those closest to him, granting them the blessings of the spirits and ensuring them long life and happiness so long as he is steadfast and true in his task." He frowned. "But marriage is a two-way path, and while the shaman's wives need their husband, so too does he need his wives, and not just for comfort and to ensure his future lineage.

"A shaman's task is hard and lonely, for few can truly comprehend the burden he carries; having to live up to the expectations of people in two worlds. Few can understand the trials he must pass, the voices he must listen to, and the prices he must pay for his power and the prosperity he brings to his people. As time goes on, the allure from the spirit world may grow stronger than his ties to our own, and he may find it more and more difficult to remain balanced between the two." The headmon gave Gardenia and Alicia a serious look. "That is where you come in.

"You are his rock, his anchors in our world. Your love will remind him of how the physical plane still holds wonders, and give him a reason to return from the realms beyond our own each day. You will give him something to come back to, a hearth and a home and a family, a reason to continue his duties, for he will not just be serving his people…but the ones he loves most, as well. However, this is by no means an easy task, nor one that can be entered into lightly. Once you commit to being the wife of a shaman, you cannot break that union, not without potentially driving him into the spirit realm forever. This is a great responsibility, and must be treated as such…but with great responsibility comes great rewards, and while the path may be long and hard, there will be many incentives to keep you going, not the least of which is the love of your husband and the gratitude and respect of his people, whom you will be serving in your own way just as the shaman does. So, if either of you are having second thoughts, I suggest you say so now, because after this there is no turning back."

Neither Alicia nor Gardenia said a thing. Nobody in the crowd stirred or said a word…but Lucy smiled. So did the headmon. "Very well. I see you have made your decision. Do you both wish to marry this shaman, then, knowing the lifelong duty that awaits you?"

"I do," Alicia said.

"Without a doubt," Gardenia said.

The headmon nodded. "Good, good. And shaman, what of you? Will you accept these young ladies as your rock, your anchors in our world?"

"I do," Wabbaku said. "I cannot think of any I would rather have for this task…save one." He glanced over his shoulder and smiled at Lucy, who bowed her head and smiled demurely.

The old Wobbuffet pounded his staff on the ground. "Then as village headmon, I grant you my permission to marry…however, my authority alone is not enough. You must seek the approval of the ancestors as well." He stood aside, clearing the path to the waters of the lake. "Immerse yourselves in the sacred waters of Waterfall Lake, the source of our people's life and health. Commune with the ancestors. If they give you their permission—and I see no reason why they should not—then you will truly be as one. Go forth, shaman and brides, and receive the judgment of those who came before."

Gardenia glanced at Wabbaku, who nodded subtly. They'd talked about this beforehand. She'd been warned that they'd have to do this at the end of the ceremony, and it was more than just a formality. They would have to enter the water, and stay there, until the ancestors decided whether or not she and Alicia were worthy of marrying Wabbaku. The necklaces they wore bore charms that would allow them to breathe underwater, much like the spells Wabbaku had used to help them get to Hyperbeamorea. There was no guarantee, however, of just how long they'd be down there. According to Wabbaku, one shaman in the past had been forced to wait for days underwater until the ancestors finally passed judgment. He was fairly certain it wouldn't last that long this time, but…you never knew. Swallowing her insecurities, she nodded back, and then strode towards the water's edge, one appendage locked in Wabbaku's flipper. The waters of the lake lapped around their ankles as they waded in, and then rose to their thighs, past their waists, their chests, and finally their necks as they walked further and further down the surprisingly steep slope leading into the lake. Gardenia had to struggle to keep down her instinct to hold her breath as the water finally went over her head and they were fully submerged.

None of them said anything as they walked down the slope, the water around them slowing their movements and making Gardenia feel like she was walking on the Moon. However, she'd walked underwater in deeper depths and with greater pressure, so this wasn't quite as bad…

Although…

She felt something bearing down on her. A presence, an intelligence, something watching her. She couldn't see any Pokémon nearby—which was odd, because according to Wabbaku, this lake was the home of Lucy's tribe and many other Water Pokémon—and yet she was still certain she was being observed. It didn't feel malicious, but nor did it feel benevolent, it just…was.

Equally strange was how the water around her didn't seem entirely like…well, water. She didn't see any bubbles rising up from their motions or stirred up by the dirt they displaced in their footsteps, and the water seemed almost as clear to see through as air…and somehow, she didn't think it was just because of the charms they were wearing. It was almost as if they had entered another world rather than just immersing themselves in the lake.

Maybe they had. It would certainly explain why she felt as if they should have hit the lake bottom by now, and yet they just kept on walking downwards, ever downwards.

Gradually, it became darker and darker, as they left the light of the surface behind and ventured deeper into the depths. Eventually, it became so dark that Gardenia couldn't even see Wabbaku or Alicia, or the way they'd came, but she could still feel the shaman's flipper in her appendage, which was probably the only reason she hadn't completely freaked out already.

And then, suddenly, she couldn't feel even that. "Wabbaku?!" she asked frantically, looking around, not that she could really see anything in this darkness. "Wabbaku? Alicia? Where'd you go?!"

There was no response. Nothing but darkness in every direction.

She started hyperventilating. She must have done something wrong, broken some mystical law, accidentally taken a wrong turn or something like they had been warned not to do while wandering the otherdimensional labyrinth of Aegis Cave, and now she was lost, lost forever in some strange spirit realm with nothing to keep her company but the darkness and her own thoughts until she was driven insane or took off her charm and drowned to death…assuming she could even die in this place, which was and yet was not Waterfall Lake. "Please," she whispered. "Is…is anyone there?"

WE ARE HERE.

A light appeared. Tiny, ephemeral, and yet so welcome in this blackness it might as well have been the Sun for all Gardenia had cared. Another light winked to life a second later, and and another, and another, and within moments there was light all around her, what had to be hundreds of points of light, all staring at her impassively and without bias. "The ancestors…" the Cacturne whispered.

WE SEE YOU, the lights said.

"And…a-and I see you," Gardenia stammered, remembering at the last minute the protocol that had been hammered into her in the days leading up to this. "H-honored spirits, guardians of the Wobberkin and voices of the ancient world, I-I humbly beg your permission to marry the shaman Wabbaku."

WHY SHOULD WE GIVE YOU OUR BLESSING? The ancestors asked.

Gardenia opened her mouth…and froze. She'd spent the last few days memorizing a ritualistic speech prospective shaman's wives were supposed to deliver to the spirits of the ancestors on their wedding day as proof of their commitment to their tribe, their husband, and the spirit world, a speech that was almost poetic in its cadence and choice of words, something the spirits apparently appreciated. However, beneath the unblinking stares of all those spirits, the former shamans and leaders and members of the Wobberkin tribe in their hundreds if not thousands, all silently passing judgment on her, she found, much to her horror, that she could not even remember the first word of that speech. "I-I…"

WHY SHOULD WE GIVE YOU OUR BLESSING? The ancestors asked again.

Gardenia's mind raced. What could she say to them? For that matter, why should they give her their blessing? She wasn't as beautiful and kind as Lucy, or as clever and strong as Alicia, or as wise and magical as Wabbaku. What did she possibly have to offer that Wabbaku could not get from his other wives, or any other womon, for that matter?

As she pondered this, she noticed that some of the lights were dimming, and realized to her horror that the ancestors were losing her patience. If she didn't come up with an answer quickly, they might deem her completely unworthy of Wabbaku's flipper, and leave her here.

And so, in her desperation, she blurted out the first thing that came to her…the only thing that mattered. "Because I love him."

There was a pause. The lights gradually brightened. A humming filled the air, and the lights changed colors rapidly, no doubt deliberating in the strange language of the spirit world, a language Wabbaku could no doubt understand but she could not…not now, anyway. Finally, they regarded her once more and said THAT IS ACCEPTABLE.

And then, they all went dark.

The next thing Gardenia knew, she was bursting from the surface of the lake, gasping for breath and floundering about and squinting due to the brightness of the Sun, so harsh after spending what felt like an eternity in the darkness of that otherworld. As the water drained from her ears, gradually she realized she could hear cheering, and saw that the Pokémon gathered at the shore—so close, it seemed! Surely they'd walked further than that on the lakebed?—were shouting and rejoicing. Even her family was getting into it, though she was sure Cheryl was probably just happy because she'd seen a pretty flower or a leaf had blown by her face in the breeze, she was weird like that. "Did…did I do it?"

"You did," Wabbaku's voice said. She started, nearly going back under in a big splash as she realized that Wobbuffet and Alicia were bobbing in the water next to her, looking very wet and a little tired but with big smiles on their faces. "You earned their blessing."

"We all did," Alicia said.

A smile came to Gardenia's face as well. "I was worried for a minute I wouldn't make it."

"Clearly you did, or else you wouldn't be my wife right now," Wabbaku said in amusement.

"Heh. I guess so," Gardenia admitted. "So…um, what now?"

"Now?" Wabbaku asked as Lucy and a few other members of her tribe dove into the water to swim out to them and help them back to dry land. "Now we feast and celebrate and consummate our union-"

"That'll be fun," Alicia said with a sultry smile that caused Gardenia to blush and splutter.

"And after that…we begin our lives together," the shaman continued.

"…I think I'd like that," Gardenia said. "I'd like that a lot."

As Lucy wrapped her coils around them and started dragging her husband and sister-wives back to shore, escorted by some of her tribesmates, Gardenia reflected that it was highly unlikely her life would ever be the same after this. Why, she might never go back to her old home in Pokémon Square again!

And it didn't bother her one bit. This was her home now, among the Wobberkin. This was where she belonged, with Wabbaku and the rest of his family.

She thanked the spirits for bringing Wabbaku into her life, for, in spite of all the horrible things and near-death experiences they'd had since they met, it had all been worth it for this day. In return, the spirits thanked her for being a loyal companion to Wabbaku on his long and perilous journey far from home, and for helping to bring him back to his people in one piece. They knew she would be a good wife to him, and the tribe's future would be that much brighter thanks to her presence.

And so, as the Sun shone down on the Wobberkin and their allies and relations, we may close the book on the tale of Wabbaku and Gardenia for now. They have earned their happy ending. Perhaps we shall reopen their book another day, or perhaps not. They have already been through enough adventure for one lifetime, so the more mundane adventures of everyday married life will probably be more than enough excitement for them, don't you think? Well, as mundane as being married to a tribal shaman can ever be.

A new day brings new adventure. But for now…

Rest easy, heroes. You have earned it.

And it's done. After maybe eight months of work—well, actually four or five, since I spent a whole stretch of time doing nothing—this chapter's finally over, and what a chapter it is.

I'm sorry I took so long, and will try not to do it again. And maybe make shorter chapters, but we all know how unlikely that is, right?

Anyway, if any of you are still reading this after such a long hiatus, thank you for sticking with me, and I hope you can forgive me for taking so long. I want to finish this story, and I'll try my best to see that that happens, no matter how long it takes.

See you next time…whenever that is.