Goldenrod City, Johto

Day 43 – June 19th

Ash tried his hardest not to burst through the doors of the Pokémon Center, knowing that it wouldn't do anyone any good to act rashly. That didn't prevent his pace from being hurried as he yanked open the glass door and rushed inside, Misty on his heels. Brock was waiting in the lobby with Nurse Joy and Officer Jenny, Pikachu on his shoulder and a troubled expression on his face. "Brock!" called the Frontier Brain. He placed his hands on his knees as he tried to recover his breath, Misty coming over and using his shoulder as a support while she did the same. "What happened?"

Brock's frown turned towards his friend; Pikachu took the opportunity to leap from the taller male's shoulder to Ash's, licking his trainer on the cheek. "Apparently, a bunch of Team Rocket members attacked Nurse Joy while she was working in the back. They snuck into the care rooms and left not long after. By the time I got down here, they were already gone." He shook his head regretfully. "I'm sorry, Ash…if I'd been a little bit faster, maybe I could've stopped them."

"Nothing you could've done, Brock," Ash assured him, straightening up. "They were fully prepared for us."

"Us?" questioned the breeder. He looked between his two friends. "Did they attack you, too?"

"Yeah, but I'll explain later. Nurse Joy?" he probed. "Sorry to interrupt, but I was the one Team Rocket stole from. If I could see…"

"Oh, yes, of course," nodded the pink-haired woman. "Please, right this way."

Ash, Misty, and Brock followed the nurse into the corridor of back rooms. "This is where we keep the Pokémon belonging to some of the more influential people who come by," Nurse Joy explained, gesturing towards one of the doors. When they passed through it, she walked over to a case and stood over it, expression mournful. "This is where your Pokémon were being kept…it's horrible, what Team Rocket did. Your poor Pokémon…"

The Frontier Brain nodded distractedly, looking over the assembled spheres still in the case. "Thanks, Nurse Joy," Misty murmured, "I think we can handle it from here." After the older woman left, Misty approached Ash and placed a hand on his shoulder, uttering his name in a quiet voice. When he indicated that he was listening, the redhead prompted, "What're you thinking?"

He picked up one of the Pokéballs and opened it, revealing the sleeping form of his Noctowl. As the bird was returned to his capsule, Ash murmured, "Don't wanna jump to conclusions." Cycling through the remaining spheres, he released, recalled, and clipped to his belt Heracross, Pidgeot, Typhlosion, and Meganium, mouth creasing further down into a frown with each one. The last ball contained Feraligatr, and after going through the same motions with him, Ash turned to his two friends and let out a despondent sigh. "They took Celebi. I figured that was what happened, but…"

There was a moment of silence – a period that could almost be considered mourning – as the three tried not to imagine the horrors a Pokémon as rare and gentle as Celebi would experience in Team Rocket's clutches.

It was interrupted by the sudden appearance of Mewtwo. [How fortunate that you're all here. Come, we must hurry back]

"Hurry back?" Brock repeated.

"What about our stuff?" Misty protested.

[It will come along] Mewtwo assured them. His eyes glowed a luminescent blue, and then the quartet were back on the Battle Island, their belongings on the ground beside them.

Ash shot the Psychic-type a concerned look. "Are you okay?"

Mewtwo was hunched over slightly, in a position that, if he were human, would've imitated someone trying to catch his breath. [Fine, thank you]

"Oi, twerp, you're back!"

The three adults looked over to find Jessie and James running up to them, Ash's Bulbasaur and Wartortle not far behind. "What happened?" Ash prompted when they were within normal speaking distance.

"Team Rocket came," Jessie explained, fiddling with her long magenta hair. "We tried to hold them off, but there were just too many."

James took over. "A couple of them got past us and snuck into your lab. When they came back out, everyone just left. We haven't been inside yet."

Ash turned to glare at Mewtwo. "Why didn't you help them?"

[Contrary to popular belief, I am not omnipotent] retorted the Psychic-type. His telepathic voice carried a slight tinge of defensiveness. [I was not in the immediate vicinity at the time, and thus was not available to assist. However, I doubt my intervention would have changed much…Team Rocket created me, and it is entirely possible that their members are aware of our collusion, and thus have devised a method to…incapacitate me. I would prefer to not take that risk]

The Frontier Brain buried his forehead in the palm of his hand, frustration evident in his posture. "…You're right," he breathed at length. "I shouldn't blame you…sorry."

[Apology accepted]

"It's just…so frustrating!" he growled. "That they can just come here while we're away and do what they want!" Misty placed a soothing hand on his shoulder, and the raven-haired trainer took another deep breath to calm himself. He tossed her a grateful twitch of his lips; the action didn't go unnoticed, provoking Jessie and James to exchange glances and enter into a whispered conversation with Brock. "Alright…let's see what damage they did."

Everyone followed Ash towards the Battle Island's living quarters, through the doors and down to the basement, where Team Rocket had apparently infiltrated.

The laboratory was a mess. Ash's desk had been overturned, spewing office supplies and his desk lamp onto the floor. The bookshelves where he and Brock kept their notes and various tomes relevant to the Legendary Pokémon, breeding, and Pokémon care were still standing, though papers were strewn everywhere. Surprisingly enough, most of the Pokéballs remained untouched, though the healing pod that they used only had one sphere settled in its grooves instead of the two the Frontier Brain had expected. Ash picked it up and gripped it, sheer instinct telling him that it was Charizard's. So…Ho-oh, too…

That was a truly unfortunate occurrence. Ho-oh hadn't revealed itself to humanity because it had never seen true understanding between Pokémon and humans. Now that the Guardian of the Skies was within Team Rocket's grasp…

Ash was afraid to consider the possible ramifications.

His eyes moved over to find James gripping a fistful of paperwork. "Stop!" he snapped, and when the purple-haired man froze with a guilty expression, he sighed. "Sorry. It's just…everything's organized in a very specific way. Kinda. Look, if you guys could just work on the other stuff, I'll take care of this."

James and Brock moved to fix up the desks, but a blue glow encased them. [Perhaps you're better off helping elsewhere] Mewtwo suggested, maneuvering the workstations with telekinesis. Both men nodded and left, Jessie not far behind.

Only Misty remained to help Ash, bending down on hands and knees and silently taking papers from him as he collected and organized them into the appropriate stacks. They worked quietly for over an hour, not even noticing when Mewtwo left, the silence only broken by Ash's occasional murmuring of 'okay' or 'done' as he finished putting together specific documents.

By the end of it all, Misty was rather impressed with the collection of data Ash had. For being as impetuous and excitable as he had been in their youth, it was rather surprising to see that her friend had matured enough to be able to read and write so extensively. Most of the shelves were filled with paperwork, books, and maps, organized almost meticulously by region and Pokémon type. "Wow…" she breathed, taking it all in.

Ash was busy muttering to himself, running his fingers through and along the spines of binders, books, and leaflets. "Damn…"

"What is it?"

He sighed, scratching the back of his head with one hand unsurely. "They took a bunch of my research notes. Everything I had on Celebi, Ho-oh, Groudon, Kyogre, Dialga, Palkia, and…Jirachi?"

"That's…a lot."

Ash shook his head. "Not really. Well, I mean, yeah, but…" He turned back to the bookshelves. "Despite everything, I don't really have a lot of information about a lot of the Legendary Pokémon. A lot of it is just speculation – mythology, accounts of some friend of a friend…guesswork based on what I could remember of our travels. Well, my travels, anyway," he amended, thinking back to how Misty hadn't been around for Hoenn or Sinnoh. "And then…it just doesn't make sense.

"Team Rocket's always operated in Kanto and Johto. Their interest in Celebi and Ho-oh isn't too unusual. But Groudon and Kyogre…Dialga and Palkia…the only people interested in them would be…" Brown eyes went wide as the idea hit him, his mouth morphing into an 'o' of horror. "…We gotta go. Now."

"Where?" Misty asked, following him as he rushed upstairs and outside.

"Hoenn," he responded, calling for Mewtwo before he had even exited the lab. "I've got a bad feeling about this."

-l-l-l-

Route 124, Hoenn

Day 50 – June 26th

It took a week to get from Vermillion City – where Mewtwo had said he could manage to teleport them – to Lilycove City, simply because of the distance between Kanto and Hoenn, even going on a high-speed ship. Ash had remained tense throughout the majority of the journey, and Misty and Brock were both smart enough to not bother him more than necessary. The idea that Team Rocket was working with or for Teams Magma, Aqua, and/or Galactic – or, potentially even worse, expanding their territory into Hoenn and Sinnoh of their own accord – was enough to keep all three adults wary of what lay ahead.

And right now, what laid ahead of them was a growing storm front, great grey clouds looming overhead like the sea's personal umbrella.

It was what had made finding a ride out onto the sea routes that comprised the area between the cities of Lilycove, Mossdeep, and Sootopolis so difficult. Few captains were willing to brave a brewing storm the likes of the one they were riding into.

Fortunately, they had come across an adventurous helmswoman by the name of Isabel who had been willing to take them out on the waters. Misty had originally suggested taking Gyarados out, as they had on the journey to get to the Whirl Islands, but Ash had shot that down, stating that they needed the appropriate equipment.

A navy blue head of hair poked out from the cabin of the craft they were on. "Better hurry up!" Isabel announced. "Gear's below deck, we're almost there!"

Ash turned to give his two companions a reassuring grin, though it appeared somewhat sickly. "You know, you guys can stay up here if you want."

Misty huffed indignantly. "And let you go down there on your own? Are you crazy?"

Brock clapped him on the shoulder. "We're not going anywhere, man."

Ash's grin adopted a bit more gratitude. "Thanks, guys… Well, guess we better suit up, then."

After twenty minutes, all three of them were back on the top deck, outfitted in wetsuits and scuba gear. Ash found his eyes wandering over Misty's body, the skintight suit accenting her swimmer's build. It wasn't the first time during their journey he'd found himself focusing on his best friend's physique, though now that he and Misty were…well, something, he guessed…it felt less indecent to be doing so.

Then again, it was possible that Misty wouldn't see it that way – women were strange creatures, the redhead especially so at times – and with a confrontation upcoming, the Frontier Brain couldn't afford to be distracted. Tearing his gaze away, he tried to review all he could remember from his research notes as they approached their destination.

Kyogre was one of Hoenn's creators, in a sense; the Sea Basin Pokémon had risen from the ocean thousands of years ago and served as a counterbalance to Groudon's expansion of the lands. Eventually, the push and pull between the two Legendary Pokémon had reached a climax, causing a cataclysmic battle that had lasted for days. It was rumored that the battle had ended only when Rayquaza had descended from the ozone layer and interfered. After that, all three Legendaries had gone their separate ways, practically fading into mythology as the years passed.

Ash, however, knew that they existed, if only because he'd been witness to separate battles involving all three super-ancient Pokémon at different points in time.

All other things aside, though, the history of Hoenn's weather trio was intriguing…perhaps a bit prone to fallacies, but intriguing nonetheless. Ash didn't quite believe that Groudon and Kyogre had created Hoenn; both land and water had to exist in order for the Continent and Sea Basin Pokémon to have places to live, after all. But it was entirely possible that the battle between the two Legendaries had altered the landscape of Hoenn, either by shifting the mainland's coastline and landmass, or by creating and/or destroying the sea routes and islands that were between and comprised of Sootopolis, Mossdeep, and Ever Grande City.

According to legend, the Red and Blue Orbs had come into existence around the end of Groudon and Kyogre's battle. They had been collected and protected by an unknown family throughout the generations, artifacts rumored to be able to tame the two mighty Pokémon.

Ash had seen the two orbs in action in his previous confrontation with Teams Aqua and Magma, and the amount of control their wielders had over their respective Pokémon was debatable. The point was moot, however, in that both treasures had disappeared shortly after the confrontation had ended, leaving no trace behind.

But if Teams Rocket, Aqua, and/or Magma were truly after Kyogre and Groudon, Ash didn't have the slightest clue what they were planning to do, especially without the orbs.

"This is as close as I can get!" Isabel shouted. "I'll idle around here for a bit, but if it gets too bad, I might have to turn back!"

"We'll be fine, thanks for the lift!" Ash called back. He looked over at his friends. "Ready?" When both nodded, he settled the breathing apparatus of his scuba gear over his mouth and gave them a thumbs-up. Then they all tumbled backwards over the boat, landing with a splash in the frigid water.

The cold seeped through his wetsuit and into his bones; it was a bad omen of things to come, though Ash tried to retain an optimistic outlook. Moving sluggishly in the water, his hand grappled for the belt of Pokéballs tied around his waist, noticing Misty and Brock doing the same.

Since Kyogre's lair was most likely to be deep in the ocean, all three trainers had decided to bring along only Water-types. Misty, unsurprisingly, didn't have an issue with it, but Ash felt woefully underprepared for anything and everything that could happen. Trainers who specialized had one or two glaring weaknesses, and the Frontier Brain missed having Pikachu by his side; due to the potential danger, not to mention that mixing electricity and water was a bad idea, the yellow rodent had been left on the boat with Isabel.

In a flash, Wartortle was bobbing beside him in the water; next to him, he could see the forms of Swampert and Staryu appear beside their trainers. Grabbing ahold of the Turtle Pokémon's shell, Ash signaled for them to go down.

All three Water-type Pokémon dove deep, their trainers all latched tightly on and kicking their flippers to assist in the swim. With the growing storm clouds overhead and the pressure of the ocean's darkness surrounding them, it was hard to believe that it was actually the middle of the afternoon.

Ash felt like the silence was even more foreboding, the calm before the (literal) storm.

The problem was that the ocean was so vast that Kyogre could be virtually anywhere. Searching Routes 124 through 130 seemed the most likely maneuver to get results, but that was still a lot of territory to cover, not to mention the fact that he was probably racing against Team Aqua (or Team Rocket), who already had a head-start. Truthfully, Ash was banking on the fact that the challenge the Legendary Pokémon had presented him would be enough motivation for Kyogre to appear before him, rather than searching the seven seas for the Sea Basin Pokémon. There was honestly no telling how long that expedition could take.

Ash, Misty, and Brock put a bit of distance between them, expanding their range to better scan their surroundings for any inkling of Kyogre. The Sea Basin Pokémon's girth was large enough that it could travel to great depths and make a home in some deep grotto that would require extensive searching to find. If any of them found an opening large enough to potentially fit the Water-type Legendary, they'd explore it.

They moved slowly through the underwater for what Ash guessed to be an hour, only a couple of Water-type Pokémon breaking the monotony of their exploration. The Frontier Brain was beginning to wonder if their exercise wasn't a futile one, despite knowing how long the expedition could take. Pods of Wailord were known for being able to dive 10,000 feet in one breath; Kyogre could probably accomplish at least the same feat, and there was a limit to how far the three humans and their Pokémon could go with scuba equipment. Granted, it hadn't been all that long, but they could waste days trying to find a creature that might not even want to be found.

He wasn't sure if it was impatience or worry that had him so riled up, but he tried to calm himself; neither was conducive to the task at hand.

Wartortle's fluffy white ears twitched, and suddenly there was a massive rush of water and noise. Schools of aquatic Pokémon – Carvanha, Sharpedo, Luvdisc, Remoraid, Mantine – swam past the trio, heading for the direction opposite of their swim path.

A feeling of trepidation passed through Ash as he realized the Water-types were moving away from the growing storm front. He waved his arm at his friends to hurry forward, kicking his flippers harder to help propel Wartortle through the water.

It didn't take too long to find the disturbance, though maneuvering around a bloom of Tentacool and Tentacruel held them up slightly. All three trainers stopped short at the sight before them, Ash's hands clenching into fists.

A gigantic metal submarine was idling underwater, a veritable wall of Water-type Pokémon – Sharpedo and Walrein, mostly, with a handful of others interspersed throughout – both protecting the vessel and attacking Kyogre at the behest of a platoon of Team Aqua members. The Sea Basin Pokémon was moving sluggishly in the water, and Ash wasn't sure whether it was from the Walreins' ice attacks or the Tentacruels' poison.

Ash gestured for Wartortle to enter the fray, and the Turtle Pokémon sped forward with a Skull Bash. One of the grunts apparently noticed him, for he pointed in the trio's general direction, and a Wailmer intercepted Wartortle's attack. Both Misty and Brock sent their Pokémon into battle, but several more opponents stood against them, and Ash noticed that they were vastly outnumbered.

He opened up the Pokéballs containing Feraligatr and Crawdaunt, hoping that additional forces would give either them or Kyogre some leverage, but the effort was for naught. Lacking the ability to command his Pokémon underwater, as well as being numerically disadvantaged, had left the trio on the wrong side of the fight. More Team Aqua grunts exited the submersible and brought out their own Pokémon, while several more proceeded to cast nets out over the Sea Basin Pokémon, tangling its fins and tail. In short order, the Legendary Pokémon was subdued and hooked up to the submarine, and Ash could only watch helplessly as Team Aqua towed it away.

A hand on his arm jerked him out of his melancholy, and Ash snapped back to see Misty pointing to the surface, where Brock was already heading. The Frontier Brain started kicking upwards, Feraligatr coming up beneath him and helping him out. He broke the surface and whipped off his goggles and breather, allowing the torrential rain to pelt his face. Wartortle and Crawdaunt popped up a moment later. "Damn it! We were too late!"

Misty and Brock exchanged worried glances before the redhead prompted, "What do you think their plan is? They didn't even capture Kyogre in a Pokéball, just…took it away…"

Ash looked up at the sky, which was now an ominous black. There was a flash of lightning, and the trainer thought he caught a brief glimpse of a thin, green…something…before it was swallowed up by the darkness. The rain that poured down from above began to cease, and the blanket of angry clouds started to thin out. "Dunno," he responded, recalling Crawdaunt and Wartortle before locking his arms under Feraligatr's trademark maw, "but it can't be anything good." He turned his gaze to his friends. "Let's get back to the ship and have Isabel take us back to the mainland. We've got a long ways to go."

-l-l-l-

Jagged Pass, Hoenn

Day 65 – July 10th

Handkerchief tied around his mouth to filter out the soot that fell persistently from Mt. Chimney's peak, Ash tried to find purchase against the rocks and boulders that littered the aptly-named Jagged Pass. Due to the steepness of the trail, the climb was far more treacherous than the one they'd taken from Kindle Road to Mt. Ember in Kanto, and while Mt. Chimney was considered a dormant volcano by scientists, the rough hike combined with the heat pooled in the volcano's core made the trek an uncomfortable one.

Not to mention the constant tremors that threatened to send the trio tumbling down the mountain.

Pikachu's paws dug into his shoulder as another quake shook the volcano. Ash spread his legs apart to better retain his equilibrium, turning his head just slightly to peek behind him. Both Misty and Brock – also sporting makeshift cloth masks – were stabilizing themselves against nearby boulders, waiting for the tremors to pass. Ash couldn't say with certainty what was causing the convulsions, but he had a good guess.

Team Magma had gotten to Groudon before he could, and it was fighting back against its would-be captors.

It made the necessity of reaching the Continent Pokémon all the greater; the Frontier Brain refused to fail Groudon like he had its water-based counterpart.

When the tremors faded away, Ash asked his friends, "Everyone okay?"

"I think we're good," Brock assured him.

"It feels like they're getting worse," Misty commented.

Privately, Ash agreed, though he didn't want to admit as such out loud. He made a noncommittal sound, choosing to return to the task of ascending Jagged Pass.

In truth, searching for Groudon was only slightly less tasking than trying to find Kyogre. While the area the Continent Pokémon was likely to live in promoted comparably less seeking – a volcano simply seemed to be the most obvious choice in comparison to other regions of Hoenn – the interior of Mt. Chimney wasn't exactly accessible from the outside by conventional means.

What they were looking for, Ash had no idea, but he figured he'd know it once he saw it. If Team Magma could get to where the Legendary Pokémon was hiding, than he could, too.

The Frontier Brain hoisted himself up onto the next ledge, Pikachu jumping off his shoulder and staring down the side of the mountain at their progress. Straightening up, Ash heaved a sigh of exertion and used his forearm to wipe the sweat from his forehead. He reached into his pocket and opened a Pokéball, revealing Sceptile, chewing on his ever-present twig. "Make sure I don't fall, alright?" When the Forest Pokémon nodded, Ash turned to stare down the cliff face, extending a hand down as the Grass-type's tri-clawed hand gripped at his belt. "Need a hand?"

Misty looked up and smiled at him, clasping at his arm. "If you're offering."

With some effort, he managed to pull the redhead up to his ledge. He considered cracking a joke about how much work it took, but then decided against it; friend-Misty wouldn't take an underhanded comment about her weight lightly, so girlfriend-Misty – or whatever they were – would probably appreciate it even less. Even without any experience in the field of romance, Ash knew instinctively that there were some lines he just wasn't supposed to cross.

I wonder if there's a book of guidelines somewhere…?

Brock handed him a water bottle, advising, "We need to stay hydrated." Ash took it with a nod of thanks, unscrewing the cap and drinking his fill. "Not for nothing, Ash, but do you know what we're looking for?"

The Frontier Brain gulped down a swig of liquid and released an 'ah' of satisfaction. "An entrance," he said, "some sort of opening or path that'll lead to the inside." He looked at his Pokémon. "Can you two scout ahead a bit?"

Both creatures took off with a nod, Sceptile leaping to the higher ledges as Pikachu began to explore the closer areas. Ash sighed, an expression of worry overcoming his features. "We really need to hurry…I'm afraid of what these tremors mean."

Misty and Brock shot each other glances, their faces mirroring his own troubled visage. "You think Groudon's in trouble?" probed the redhead.

Ash hesitated before shrugging. "It's possible. But," he continued, "if it is, then that must mean there's a way inside that we're missing."

"Pikapi!"

Three heads turned to where the yellow rodent was sniffing around some bushes on a ledge above them, his ears pricked. "Found something?" Ash called to his friend. At the Electric-type's affirming cry, the Frontier Brain grinned. "Great. Sceptile!" The Forest Pokémon returned from scouting out the heights of Mt. Chimney, grabbing his trainer's extended hand and pulling him up to Pikachu's level with ease.

As Sceptile helped Misty and Brock up, Ash stepped through the bushes Pikachu was guarding and found a hole almost ten feet in diameter staring him in the face; a flat trail curving down and away from their position led to the entrance. "Well, that's gotta be it," he muttered. "You guys ready?"

"Mm-hm."

"Yep."

The raven-haired trainer thanked Sceptile and returned him to his Pokéball. "Then let's go."

They took off down the tunnel at a brisk pace, Pikachu's red cheeks sparking slightly to produce a luminescent glow to see by. The path sloped gently downwards, and twice the trio was forced to stop and regain their equilibrium against the walls as quakes shook the mountain. "It definitely feels like the tremors are getting stronger," Misty murmured, waiting for the shaking to pass.

"We've gotta be getting closer," Ash agreed. "I just don't understand why it would take so long for Team Magma to get to Groudon…they've had at least a couple weeks' head start on us…"

"This rock isn't natural," Brock stated. His hands were splayed against the carved out surface of the tunnel, examining it with critical eyes. "At least, in the sense that it doesn't belong here. Normal volcanic rock isn't this roughly-grained…and it feels pretty tightly packed, almost like it's been set up as a defensive measure. Even modern-day technology would have a tough time digging through rock formed in this manner."

"Brock…you think that Groudon…created this place?"

Ash nodded his own agreement with the breeder's assessment. "Groudon was rumored to have created Hoenn's continent, it wouldn't surprise me too much to find out it created Mt. Chimney as a place to hide away over the years. One of many," he corrected, thinking about the first time the Continent Pokémon had been captured by Team Aqua. Groudon could probably move through the world's crust and mantle – slowly, perhaps – and thus could resituate itself among different hiding spots throughout Hoenn. "C'mon," he suggested when the quaking stopped, "let's keep moving."

As they descended further down the tunnel, washes of heat accompanied the tremors that unbalanced the trio. Ash blinked sweat out of his eyes and braced himself as another quake hit, a thunderous roar echoing around them. Behind him, Misty gave a short yelp, and the Frontier Brain turned around in time to catch the redhead as she tumbled forward. Quietly, he asked, "You okay?" At her affirming nod, he helped her with her balance and graced her with a half-grin. Then they were off again.

It only took another minute for them to reach a large chamber filled with the cries of battle. Multitudes of Team Magma members surrounded a lava pit that Groudon sat in, a plethora of Pokémon standing obediently by their sides. To Ash's eyes, it looked like they had prepared for the battle against the Continent Pokémon, foregoing most of their usual Fire-types and training up groups of Cacturne, Claydol, and Vibrava, though a number of Houndoom and Magcargo littered the area.

Leading the charge was a man with a familiar head of red hair. "Do it now," Maxie ordered his men in a raspy voice. "Camerupt, use Yawn!"

The Eruption Pokémon beside him opened its maw wide, releasing a number of pink bubbles at Groudon. Around the cavern, the echoes of Team Magma members ordering their Magcargo and Slugma to do the same resounded.

Ash saw red. "Pikachu, Thunderbolt!" he shouted.

The Electric-type complied eagerly, jumping from his shoulder and unleashing a torrent of electricity that destroyed a vast cloud of bubbles. "Chaaaa…" he whined, landing on his hind legs and immediately slumping over.

"Pikachu, what's wrong?!"

"Ash, it's the heat!" Brock called out. He had already jumped on the serpentine form of his Steelix, his Graveler rolling out towards a group of Team Magma grunts that had turned their way. "Not all Pokémon can stand being in the heart of a volcano!"

Duh, he thought with a scowl. He was the one who touted the title of Island Expert; knowing the strengths and weaknesses of different types in different habitats was what he was supposed to be good at. It seemed that his anger at how Maxie and his minions were treating Groudon had shortsighted his common sense, a trait he thought he'd left behind in his youth. "Misty, take Pikachu back up the tunnel," he said.

"But –"

"Water Pokémon aren't gonna be good here, Mist," he snapped. Gentling his voice, he continued, "Please…take Pikachu out of here. Go back to the Lavaridge Pokémon Center…we'll meet you there." There was a moment's hesitation before the redhead took the proffered Mouse Pokémon, hugging him to her chest and then heading back up the way they'd came. "Wish I'd thought ahead a bit more," he muttered, mildly regretful of the haste and lack of preparedness he'd journeyed up and into Mt. Chimney with. "Torkoal, Charizard, come on out! Overheat!"

Upon their release, both Fire-types blasted out streams of white-hot flames that took out a number of Cacturne and Vibrava, but more Team Magma members filled the gap. Ash wasn't even sure how they'd all gotten into the cavern, let alone why so much of the criminal syndicate was still at-large.

"It's too late, Ketchum!" Maxie cackled. His arm moved in a pitching motion towards a now-asleep Groudon, and in a flash, the gigantic Legendary Pokémon was gone, the Pokéball containing it sailing back to Maxie's outstretched hand. "Disperse!" called out Team Magma's leader, opening a Pokéball to reveal the majestic form of a Flygon. As he climbed upon the Mystic Pokémon's back, the revving of engines echoed around the cavern; Ash looked around to see that most of Team Magma's grunts had jumped into jeeps that were spaced throughout the area.

Flygon zipped upwards toward the mouth of the volcano, and Ash scowled at the thought of another Legendary Pokémon being controlled by more people bent on evil intentions. "Charizard!" He recalled Torkoal and jumped on the Flame Pokémon's back as the fiery dragon glided forward. With a roar, Charizard took off after the Ground/Dragon hybrid, flapping his leathery wings to regain and increase his momentum.

Unfortunately, Charizard's bulk make him a slightly slower flyer than Flygon, and by the time trainer and Pokémon ascended to above Mt. Chimney, Maxie was already a speck in the distance. Ash cursed aloud at the loss of the Continent Pokémon, wiping sweat from his brow as he wondered what Team Magma's intention was.

He looked up, shielding his eyes from the intensity of the sun's rays. Groudon's expansion of the lands wasn't so much an increase in landmass as it was a decrease in the water level by drought and evaporation. Now that he was experiencing it, Ash guessed that Groudon's appearance simply created more intense and lasting conditions than the move Sunny Day; the same could be true of Kyogre and Rain Dance, as they'd witnessed on the sea routes south of Lilycove.

White clouds began to roll over Mt. Chimney, their purity creating a stark contrast to Ash's sour mood. The Frontier Brain released a heavy sigh, looking down into the mouth of the volcano and wondering how Brock was doing. Contrary to popular belief, the cable car that granted access to the summit of Mt. Chimney didn't lead to the mountain's actual opening, but a flat strip of land that enabled tourists to get the view they wanted. It was probably how Groudon had managed to remain hidden from view for so long, not to mention how the battle inside the volcano had gone unnoticed.

Squinting, the raven-haired trainer could barely make out a couple of people looking skyward and pointing up. A rumble from Charizard caused him to return his gaze to the sky, his mouth dropping in awe at the sight before him.

An emerald green, serpentine body twisted among the clouds, its immeasurable length marked by yellow lines connecting ovals together. Sections containing finned plates that jutted out like a turbine gave the creature a segmented look, its body ending in a pointed tail with angular fins. Spindly arms ending in three claws contrasted the Pokémon's snake-like appearance, long horns protruding from its head in a poor parody of a frill. Beady yellow eyes staring at Ash from within black sockets, the Pokémon's large maw opened to reveal a handful of sharp fangs.

Ash gulped in a mixture of fear and uncertainty. This was Rayquaza, the legendary Sky High Pokémon, the creature rumored to have ended the cataclysmic battle between Groudon and Kyogre millennia ago.

The two stared at each other for a long moment, each gauging the other. Ash was trying to decide whether or not he was supposed to challenge Rayquaza to a battle – it was a Legendary Pokémon, after all, and he was still questing to capture them – when the Sky High Pokémon released a bellowing shriek.

Ash was forced to cover his ears at the sound, and Charizard lost his midair equilibrium in his attempt to stick his claws in his own ears. "Charizard!" he shouted, opening his eyes to better assess the situation; at the moment, they were spiraling towards the center of Mt. Chimney. "You gotta work through this!" The Flame Pokémon's blue eyes snapped open, and he flared his wings to halt their descent. Then, with impressive aerial dexterity, he turned around so they were facing the serpentine Legendary.

Unfortunately, Rayquaza had already been in the process of charging up a Hyper Beam, and as the Fire/Flying hybrid righted himself and turned, the Sky High Pokémon launched its attack. Charizard took the assault to his belly, roaring in pain and returning to an out-of-control spiral towards the ground.

Reacting quickly, Ash reached around his belt and grabbed Swellow's Pokéball, summoning the Flying-type and grabbing onto his leg. The Swallow Pokémon released a squawk of surprise, but Ash only had the opportunity to murmur a brief apology as he grabbed Charizard's Pokéball and recalled the fiery dragon in a beam of light. He stared mournfully at his longtime friend's sphere, remembering the battle against Ho-oh, before telling Swellow, "Just make sure we don't crash."

The bird cawed in understanding, allowing them to descend at a brisk but slightly controlled pace. When they hit the ground minutes later, Ash felt his teeth clack together from the impact; he rubbed the soreness from his knees and graced Swellow with a slight smile. "Thanks, buddy. Can you find Brock and bring him here?" Swellow offered a departing caw before wheeling around and heading towards Mt. Chimney.

Ash looked skyward, unable to see Rayquaza, who was most likely hiding in or above the clouds; the serpentine creature wasn't renowned as the Sky High Pokémon for nothing. Still, Rayquaza's presence worried him.

Rayquaza was supposed to be a mediating presence, a means to keep the balance between the forces of land and sea – between Groudon and Kyogre. There was no doubt in the raven-haired trainer's mind now that he had glimpsed the Sky High Pokémon after Team Aqua had gotten away with Kyogre; the loss of the Sea Basin Pokémon was a sure disruption to the order of nature. And now, with Groudon in the hands of Team Magma, a balance had been reached, but only because it didn't exist; the lack of both Legendary Pokémon had left a void in Hoenn, one which had clearly upset Rayquaza.

Ash recalled Mewtwo's words when they had met on New Island, about the hierarchy of the Legendaries and their respective support…or, in Rayquaza's case, a lack thereof. If he was supposed to win over the Sky High Pokémon, allowing Groudon and Kyogre to be kidnapped was surely not the way to do it.

Not to mention that the Legendary Pokémon had just toasted his strongest Pokémon with one hit. Even considering that Charizard had been slightly disadvantaged, it probably wouldn't have made much of a difference; Rayquaza was clearly on a completely different level from Ho-oh, and the Rainbow Pokémon had bested Charizard at his prime.

He caught the barest flicker of a finned, green tail below the line of clouds, and then it was gone. There was a burst of wind and a shift in the clouds that seemed to indicate Rayquaza taking off for the south; Ash filed the information away for future reference before attempting to focus on what lay ahead.

-l-l-l-

Ash and Brock made it back to the Pokémon Center in Lavaridge Town almost an hour later. Misty stood inside the hospital's lobby with Pikachu lying on the cool tile at her feet. When the two men walked through the entrance, the Mouse Pokémon jumped towards his trainer with a cry, the redhead rushing to them alongside him. "Well?" she probed tentatively. Ash shook his head somberly, and Misty's expression immediately crumpled into one of guilt. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't've left, I should've helped –"

"There wasn't anything you could've done, Mist," Ash reassured her. "They were better prepared and had too much of a head start, and we just…weren't." He sighed, running a hand through messy black hair unsurely. "I just wish I knew what they wanted…but hey," he continued, offering her a grateful grin, "thanks for taking care of Pikachu." Misty nodded in acceptance, though she still looked troubled.

Brock broke the unsettling quiet. "So…what's our next move?"

Ash hummed thoughtfully. "Not sure," he frowned. "Based on everything that Team Rocket stole from the lab, their other targets are Dialga and Palkia, but they're all the way in Sinnoh, and I haven't finished the challenge in Hoenn yet. And they took info on Jirachi…not that I have any idea where to find it…" He sighed. "I guess we can go to the desert on Route 111, follow up on that message Brandon sent me about some recently discovered ruins that are similar to where he found his Regice. It's the best idea I've got, anyway." He scratched his head and turned to his red-haired companion. "What do you think, Mist?"

She visibly hesitated before responding. "Ash…I can't go with you anymore."

The Frontier Brain blinked. "…What?"

Brock tactfully chose to step away to give the couple some privacy. Misty took a deep breath, her expression carrying a mixture of sadness and resolution. "The gyms are going to reopen soon, Ash. The Pokémon League Summit is in a couple of weeks, and it'll take that long to get back and get ready for it."

"But…I don't want you to go," Ash admitted, and even as he words exited his mouth, he knew that they sounded way too cheesy, even if they were true.

Misty smiled at him, reaching out for his hand and intertwining their fingers together. Ash looked down at them before returning his gaze to the redhead's face. "I appreciate that…but you have to finish your journey, and I have to go back and run the gym. Don't worry, I'm sure we'll see each other soon, okay? There's no way I'd let you go so easily after everything we've been through." Then she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, just as she had after their first date. "I'll miss you," she whispered in his ear.

"…Yeah," he replied quietly, "I'll miss you, too."

"Take care of him, Brock," she told the breeder, walking over to him and giving him a hug.

"Will do."

"Bye, guys."

Both men waved at her as she left the Pokémon Center, though Ash's motion was a bit more mechanical than Brock's. As he walked up to Nurse Joy and handed her his Pokémon for healing, Ash wondered what else wouldn't go according to plan, and what other trials lay ahead of him in Hoenn.

He could only hope that things would go much smoother in the future.

-l-l-l-

Author's Note: Funnily enough, Charizard and Flygon have the same base Speed stat, but for the sake of plot, pretend they don't. Also, I still won't promise an update schedule, but I hope to be able to update every month to two months; trying to keep my other story on a consistent update pattern so I can finish it and move my attention back here. Please bear with me, and I'm so sorry for the ridiculous wait on this chapter. Hopefully it didn't disappoint.