WARNING! If you haven't read Of Creation and Destruction, you might not enjoy this story as much. I tried very hard to make it accessible even if you didn't read my novel, but it still won't mean as much if you haven't read that first. Sorry about that. And for those of you who did read OCAD, I apologize for the repeated back stories that you already know. I tried to keep them short and sweet.

This is a wrap-up of Brian's story that didn't really fit in OCAD, but I really wanted to write it because I love the character. I meant to fit it in the epilogue somewhere, but it's simply too long and too Brian-and-Natty-centric, and that's not how I wanted to end that story. So, instead, I made it a one-shot.

The following is that one-shot.

I'd like to note that I plan to put this story on my URPG game in an attempt to catch a Pokémon, and my name on that site is also FTEcho 4. So if you came here from there, yes, I know about it and did not steal it from here.

This one-shot is dedicated to one of my favorite artists, the beautiful and talented Warlordess, because once upon a time she told me one of the best things about OCAD was how well the original characters Brian and Natty were done. In that light, I figured that it would be the most appropriate story to dedicate to her. I also wanted to do one for her, because I admire her as a writer and personally like her as a friend (and I told her I would do one for her birthday… which has since come and gone). If you haven't read her work yet, get to it; I promise that a lot of it is better than this.

Oh, and one more thing: get ready for a metric crapload of battles. Seriously. Well, really only two, but boy, is one a doozy.


A Tale from the Spiritverse

In every life, there is one defining moment.

For a doctor, that may be the moment he gets his Doctorate, or perhaps discovering some new illness. For a lawyer, winning an impossible case by discovering some crucial evidence at exactly the right time. For a police officer, breaking up some major crime and saving countless lives.

For some, it might simply be meeting the person they loved.

Whatever that moment might be, it is a moment of absolute importance, the consequences of which are felt throughout the entire life. Success may bring glory, prosperity, happiness; failure could mean depression, loss, perhaps even death. Not all moments are so important, and conversely there could be many important moments, but there is always at least one.

For a Pokémon trainer named Brian Edwards, such a moment had come.

Head high, back straight, and mind set, he walked out of the long tunnel to face the most important battle of his life.

Two Days Earlier

"Come on, while they're distracted!"

"Lead on, then!"

Brian and Natty whispered to each other as Master Drake came through the Ever Grande Conference Center, finally pulling the crowd of Trainers away from the now two-time Hoenn League Champion. Brian followed Natty quietly away, determined to beat the crowds and find a quiet place for a while.

They made quite a pair as they crept away, almost a perfect match. They both had brown eyes and hair (although Natty's was long and straight while Brian's was short and wavy). The black jacket Brian wore over a plain white T-shirt looked much like the black and white top Natty wore, and they wore exactly the same blue jeans and tennis shoes. If Brian hadn't been a few inches taller than his female companion, one might have mistaken them for twins… from a distance, at least.

"I hate this part," Brian murmured as they snuck into a stairwell. "I don't mind being recognized too much, but I hate being mobbed by… well, mobs."

Natty jumped up, taking the stairs three at a time. "You should buy a mask!" She suggested. "At least until you start battling the Elite Four."

"You know, that's not a terrible idea," Brian said, nodding thoughtfully.

Once free of the crowds, the pair ran to their room above the Conference Hall. Natty laughed as Brian sprinted in after her. She slammed the door and stood against it for a moment, then slid slowly down to the floor.

"Whoo!" Brian leapt onto his bed happily. "That was spectacular!"

"I know!" Natty mimicked him by jumping onto the room's other bed, her brown hair flying around wildly as she bounced. "I can't believe it's over already. The conference was so… quick!"

Brian rolled over and stared at her, eyebrows raised in amazement. "What do you mean? The tournament took two weeks!"

"Well… yeah," Natty acquiesced. "But it flew by for me! I guess it just wasn't that tense until the very end."

"Tense? Tense?" Brian threw up his hands. "I've been on edge the whole time!"

"You haven't acted very worried," Natty noted. She tilted her head in thought. "In fact, you've seemed almost bored through the whole thing."

"No, not about the conference." He shook his head as he spoke. "I always figured I'd win that unless I got very unlucky."

He had good reason to have felt that way. He had come in as the obvious favorite to win (a no-brainer, really, considering he had already won it once before) and he had exceeded all expectations. He dominated the opening, not losing a single Pokémon from the first three double matches of the qualifying rounds to the quarterfinals, and only losing two in his semifinal match.

The final match was the only one with any sort of drama, as his opponent, a blue-haired beauty named Katie, used her immensely powerful Walrein to obliterate his Dragonite and Roserade right off the bat. With Slifer, his Dragonite and his most powerful Pokémon, down so early, it was looking like Brian might actually be defeated for a moment. Then Komodo, Brian's Charizard, came out and singlehandedly demolished more than half her team, burning through Walrein, Mismagius, Venomoth, and a very short-lived Scizor before Katie's Golduck finally took him down. Then it was a relatively simple matter for Brian's newly evolved Gengar to defeat the weakened Golduck, leaving only Katie's Dugtrio to be pounded into the ground (both literally and figuratively) by Steelix. With that final win, Brian became the Hoenn League Champion once again.

"Yeah, a lot of people expected that," Natty agreed. "So what's the deal? I know today's battle started rough, but other than that you've been amazing."

"I know!" Brian realized he was shouting and lowered his voice. "Sorry. It's just… This is it. I've reached here before and lost. What if I lose again?" Brian fell back onto his bed, staring at the ceiling. "I mean, I'm not sure how much better I can get. I'm hitting a plateau. I can only think of so many strategies. I can only catch so many powerful Pokémon. I can only train them so hard. I can change how I battle a little, but I don't do much better by it. I think I'm reaching my limit, Natty." He paused, as though mentally dredging up some great personal secret. "What if my best just isn't good enough?"

"Move about a foot to the right."

"Huh?" He rolled onto the right side of the bed; at this point, he had learned that when Natalia Brown asked you to do something, it was better to just do it and ask questions afterwards. Once he was clear, Natty leapt across the room, landing back first and flopping down beside him like a landed Magikarp. They bounced around for a second, then settled back down, lying together. Natty leaned up and looked at him resolutely, dark brown hair hanging over her soft eyes.

"Listen, Brian. I've followed you for a year now, so I think I'm best qualified to judge whether you're good enough or not. What have you done for the past year?"

Brian shuffled over a little more, breaking the hip-to-hip contact with the girl that was draining all of his concentration. It didn't work very well. "I've… uh… trained? Redoing gyms and stuff? And I've rewritten my strategy notebook. Um… I said trained, right?"

Natty smirked. "Yeah, you got that one. Brian, you've worked constantly while we've been in Hoenn. You're almost annoying about it sometimes. I don't think staying up until three in the morning every other night just so you could memorize your number system… again… was really that necessary after the seventh time. But that just shows how hard you've worked to prepare for this. If it's possible to be completely ready to defeat the Elite Four, you're ready."

"Yeah. That's right. Yeah." Brian spoke softly, speaking more to himself than to her.

"And don't you forget it." Natty let her head fall back to the bed.

"But…" he continued, a tinge of sorrow creeping into his voice. "I… I wish my parents could see. And… Diana…" He stopped there, but the thought hung in the air like a black cloud.

"Oh… Brian…" Natty was lost for words.

Before Natty, Brian had travelled with a girl named Diana. It was her that had been with him when he won the Ever Grande Conference for the first time, but his parents never got to see their son become a Champion; they had died at sea the year before. And worse still, he lost Diana just as he realized he loved her, a few months after the Conference. She perished in a rock slide in Sinnoh, on the slopes of Mount Coronet.

Those losses had robbed Brian of his drive and confidence, and he had languished for a brace of years in his hometown of Cerulean City. Even after three and a half years, the losses still pained him sometimes. Brian often wondered if he would have made it through those dark times had it not been for his friends, Natty chief among them. And it was the moments like this one, when he needed a friend the most, that Natty showed Brian how much he needed her.

"The past is the past, Brian. I know they would have wanted to see you win, too... but it wasn't to be. It's cruel, but that's how it is. All you can do is accept the bad stuff, and be happy for the good stuff life gives you. For example… I'll be here for you, all the way, win or lose. And you know as well as I do all our friends are going to be watching you and cheering from home. And… I bet, wherever they are, the people you've lost are watching you too. I can't prove it, but… it's just a feeling I have."

"A feeling?" Brian asked.

"Well…" Natty said hesitantly. "We both know that spirits are real… and that there's something beyond this life… so is it really so hard to believe that they can see us?"

"No," Brian agreed. "It isn't." He paused. "Although now that you've said that, I don't know how I'm ever going to feel comfortable taking a shower again."

A second went by in silence, and then the bed shook as both of them started laughing at the joke.

"Okay, I take it back," Natty slipped through her giggles. "Maybe they can't see us."

"Nope, too late," he replied with a chuckle. "I'm still wearing a swimsuit in the tub from now on."

The laughter slowly wound down, but the job was done: Brian's black cloud had lifted. A few moments went by as they lay together peacefully.

The young Champion sighed. "You know, Natty, sometimes I wonder how I would get by without you."

She smiled to herself. "Everybody needs someone, Brian. And for what it's worth, I don't know how I would live without you anymore, either. And I really don't want to find out."

That thought echoed around their heads for a moment.

Brian thought about the past year with the girl next to him. He hadn't thought about it much, but it was true. He depended on her in a way he had never expected to need anyone else again. And as strange as it was, he knew why. Brian was always a logical thinker, and he knew enough of his own mind and heart to deduce what was going through both of them when he thought of Natalia now.

Natty hadn't had many friends growing up. She travelled for two years with her old friends Joey and Stephanie, but when those two ended up together, all too often she had been pushed to the side. In Brian she had found the best friend she had ever known. And after a year of late nights talking to him, of the two of them fighting through forests and caverns, saving each other from injury or death many a time, they'd become even closer than that.

Brian came to the sudden realization that some things needed to be cleared up.

"Natty… Natalia," Brian began nervously. "Why did you come with me?"

"You mean to Hoenn, right?" She asked.

Brian sat up, setting his chin on his hands in a thinking pose. "Yeah. I mean, you didn't need to come. You had your job in Pewter at the Breeding Center, and you didn't get badges with me or anything. I guess there's been a few times when you've got to talk to other Breeders along the way, but I don't know if I'd say that those few tips were worth walking through Hoenn for a year. So why did you want to go?"

The bed shook as Natty giggled. "Brian, if I had wanted to learn to be a Breeder, I would have stayed with Brock. That's not why I came at all. I came because…" For once, her voice failed her. Natty sat for a few seconds, mouth open but unable to finish the sentence. "I… just wanted to be with you. That's all."

"Ah." Natty couldn't see his eyes, but he sounded disappointed. "That's all?"

They didn't speak for a long time. Then Natty sat up again and put a hand on his shoulder. "Brian…" He looked back at her, and they spent a long second gazing into each other's eyes.

She started again. "No, that's not all. That's not even half of it. Really…"

Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap!

A loud noise came from the door.

Brian grit his teeth. "Just a second!" He yelled. Before breaking eye contact with Natty, he added, "Hold that thought."

He headed towards the door. Please be someone I can kill, please be someone I can kill, he thought furiously.

As he opened the door, a flash of yellow flew past his legs and headed towards Natty.


"Hey!" Natty opened her arms and hugged the ball of fur. "Pikachu, where did you come from?"

"Oh… then that means…" Brian turned back to the door. "Hey! Good to see you," he said weakly

Standing at the door were Brian's and Natty's old friends, Ash and Misty.

Unfortunately, they were not people he could kill.

"Brian!" Misty hugged him quickly, then jumped back next to Ash.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

"Well, we didn't want to miss you battling the Elite Four!" Misty replied. "We were watching you on TV in Johto. After you did so well in the beginning of the tournament, I knew you were going to win. So we flew over here to cheer you on in person!"

"Wow… thank you so much!" Brian smiled. "So how are you doing in Johto, Ash?"

Ash stood like a statue, appearing incapable of speech or motion.

"What's wrong with him?" Brian asked. "Did you break him?"

"Uh…" Misty glanced at him. "I don't know. He was working a minute ago."

Ash opened his mouth and moaned. "No sleep. No food. Twelve hours."

"Ah." Brian gestured for them to follow him inside. He pointed around the room. "Stocked fridge, bathroom, bed. Have at it."

Ash sprang instantly to life, scurrying around the room so fast that he was almost a blur. By the time he settled on Natty's unoccupied bed, he was already...

"Sleep-eating?" Natty gazed at Ash in wonder as he alternated between snoring and stuffing his face with potato chips. "Is that even possible?"

"Ash tends to defy what's normally possible," Misty replied. "Especially when he's hungry."

Considering that Ash had already died once, been a ghost for six years, and been brought back to life after a combined effort on all of their parts, that was a surprisingly believable statement to both Brian and Natty.

"Twelve hours?" Brian said, cocking an eyebrow at Misty.

"Heh heh… yeah…" Misty rubbed her neck sheepishly. "We were in Cianwood when the conference started. Ash just got his fifth badge there. So then we, or at least I, decided to come. So we flew here on Ash's Charizard."

"He caught a Charizard?" Brian said, sparing a glance at Ash. "Or evolved it, more likely. Impressive… but still, you flew all the way from Johto to here on a Charizard? An eleven hour flight over the ocean? Charizard don't usually have that kind of endurance. That was stupid, Misty."

"I know, I know," she replied. "But I had it covered! I've got enough water Pokémon for me and Ash, so if anything had happened I would have saved us! And we made it just in time for your last match, so it was worth it."

"Okay, then…" Brian shook his head. "Thanks for coming, but I kind of need quiet time… can you go out with Natty for a while? I need to strategize. What with the winner's ceremony and the inevitable party tonight, I won't have time later."

"Sure!" Natty sprung up with Pikachu. "I'll show her the town!"

"Pika chu pikapi!" Pikachu followed Misty out the door, leaving Brian one moment alone with Natty.

He walked by her, and as he did, he murmured, "Just… keep holding that thought."

"Right." And she was gone.

Brian sighed into the suddenly empty room. He spent a few moments watching Ash vacantly, thinking of what Natty had been about to say. Then he walked to the bed, pulled out his notebook of strategies, and got to work.

The next day went by quickly.

Slifer the Dragonite, Komodo the Charizard, Magmortar, Gengar, Machamp, and Froslass. After many countless hours of training, planning, more training, strategizing, even more training, and thinking, that was the team Brian had finally chosen to take down the Elite Four. Once he began, he would be unable to change that list in any way. The rules also stated that those Pokémon could be healed at any point between battles, but if one of Brian's Pokemon was eliminated, it could not be used against any other Elite Four member. Once a Pokémon was out, it was out until he beat all four of the Elites, although he would get them all back in the fight with Wallace if he got that far (the idea being that the Champion and Challenger should go into the final battle on equal terms). His singular advantage over the Four was the fact that each Elite would use only five Pokémon to his six. But that would only stay an advantage until one of Brian's Pokémon fell in battle.

After a tense goodbye to his three friends the next morning, Brian went to face his first opponent: the Dark-type Master Sidney. Brian had demolished him the first time around, and this one was no different; there was a reason Sidney was the first Elite. Machamp sent Absol and Mightyena packing, Komodo took down Cacturne, and Magmortar felled Shiftry with a single Fire Blast. But Brian's luck turned south when Crawdaunt came out. One Water Pulse and two Surfs later, Magmortar hit the floor and Brian was down to five Pokémon. The weakened Crawdaunt was soon destroyed by Slifer's Thunder, but the damage was done.

Brian was sequestered from all contact as his Pokémon were being healed that afternoon, as the League didn't want to go through the trouble of checking him for weapons or tricks more than necessary; they were very careful with the safety of their Elites.

In the evening came Phoebe, Brian's first real challenge. It took careful work to out-think and out-fight Phoebe with Gengar and Froslass, since the things that made them perfect for fighting her (the fact that Ghost attacks were the best against Ghost types) also made them horrible at defending against her. But Brian hadn't spent the last year training to lose half of his Pokémon here like he had last time. He sent out Froslass first, and allowed her to take down the first of Phoebe's Dusclops, but soon he had to recall her or risk her fainting. And if he lost Froslass here, he would certainly defeat Phoebe, but he could never beat the rest of the Four. So he recalled her and sent out Gengar, one of his favorite and strongest Pokémon. The announcer had screamed in shock as Gengar took down three of Phoebe's four remaining Pokémon. But that run had cost him much, for as the last Dusclops fell, Gengar fell with it, leaving Brian with four Pokémon left.

The last Pokémon the Ghost Master had sent out was Sableye. She taunted Brian with the fact that Sableye had no type weaknesses. She reminded him that it had been Sableye that had taken out two of his Pokémon on his last bout with the Elite Four. And she laughed in his face when he sent out Machamp to deal with Sableye, reminding him that Ghosts would always avoid Fighting-type moves.

Then Machamp used Foresight and knocked Sableye into the air so high that it had taken him a full 30 seconds to fall back down. Sableye didn't get back up.

Phoebe was rather quiet after that.

Brian slept hard that night alone in the Challenger's Suite, a very special, very lavish room reserved for those battling the Elite Four and Champion. By nature, Brian was a lonely person, and he had never minded being alone before today. But after a year spent with Natty, it was grating on him. His head, which usually was and should have been filled with plans for the next day, was filled that evening with nothing but one thought:

What had Natty been about to say?

The next morning brought the battle against Glacia, the Ice Master and the first match Brian didn't think he had a sure chance of winning. He had planned to take her out primarily with Magmortar and Komodo, but with Magmortar out he would have to do some quick thinking to carry this day. And possibly get a little lucky.

Komodo opened strong with another three Pokémon sweep, taking down Glalie, a Sealeo, and another Glalie before he tired to the point that Brian had to recall him or risk him fainting of exhaustion at this critical point. So he sent out Machamp and hoped for the best. Machamp easily dismantled Glacia's second Sealeo, but Walrein proved to be the toughest Pokémon battle so far. Even stronger than Katie's Walrein, Brian might have lost Machamp and his hopes of winning if not that, luckily, he remembered his fight against Katie's Walrein and knew exactly how to counter it. Walrein's thick blubber protected it from attacks, but also made it incredibly slow and unwieldy. Machamp was just barely faster than his opponent, and that made all the difference. Many careful dodges later, Machamp was able to get under Walrein and Seismic Toss the heavy Pokémon high into the air, just as Charizard had done to finish off Katie's Walrein in the final match. That much mass gave Walrein enormous momentum, and so when he came crashing back down to earth, the force was just too much for him to take. Walrein fainted, Machamp managed to stay on his feet, and Brian advanced to the last Elite Four match.

Brian was no fool. He knew his chances of beating the Dragon Master were close to even, no matter how good he was. He still had the Pokémon he had initially planned to fight Drake with, but there was no telling what would happen. He had lost at this stage once before. Admittedly, he was better off this time, owing to the changes he had made and his much better performance against Phoebe compared to his last attempt to fight the Elite Four, but Drake was in another league altogether from his fellow Masters. Even with all six Pokémon at his disposal, Drake would have been a formidable opponent.

The only good thing was that if Brian beat Drake, he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he could take Wallace. He had been Misty Waterflower's assistant at Cerulean Gym for over a year, and that had involved a lot of battles against her. He was probably one of the most practiced trainers in the world when it came to fighting Water-type Pokémon, and he would have his whole team at his disposal. If Drake fell to him, Wallace would as well.

The problem, of course, was taking out Drake.

Which takes us back to the tunnel.

Brian stood in the tunnel and looked into the light at the end. While he waited for his cue to go out into the sun, he spoke to himself.

"This… this is my endgame. My moment of truth. The pieces are all in place, exactly as I had planned. The path was a bit different, but the end result was the same. I could not hope for better circumstances. I will never have a chance as good as this again. Every Badge… every battle… every moment of training… all the work I've put into my Pokémon and myself…" He clenched his fists at his sides. "None of it matters if I don't win this one battle!"

The noise of the crowd outside washed over him. There hadn't been many people there for the first match (not many people rushed to see the Champion get destroyed by the first Elite, as happened most years) but now there was a throng, the stadium almost completely packed with the competitors, their families, fans, and friends of the Conference.

"There is no crowd. There are no distractions. It is only him and me."

The stadium shook as the crowd noise increased. Obviously, Drake had taken the field.

"And I will win."

Brian heard the high female voice of the announcer call out his cue. "And now, our challenger! From Cerulean City in Kanto, the two-time Hoenn League Champion! He's made it this far before, but can he overcome his past loss and finally defeat our own Dragon Master? It's all up to him now! Here he is… Brian Edwards!"

Brian braced himself. Head high, back straight, and mind set, he walked out of the long tunnel to face the most important battle of his life: his rematch with Drake, the Dragon Master!

Brian was silent as he emerged onto the field, his jacket open and fluttering in the light wind.

The roar of the crowd was even higher for him than it had been for Drake. He glanced around until he spotted Natty, Ash, and Misty on the front row to his left. He smiled at them and gave them a thumbs-up, just as he had before every other match. Then he grew serious as he faced his opponent, taking quick note of the field: mostly normal, but with a small circular pool in the center.

Drake was dressed all in black and gold, with a white captain's hat. His black coat was draped like a cape over his shoulders, and under it he wore no shirt. He wore loose jeans with a black belt and boots that seemed almost too big for him. One would imagine he thought himself a ship's captain, and one would be right: he was a captain, and he spent each year traversing the seas in search of new Dragon Pokémon and new places to train.

The noise in the stadium lessened as Drake held up his hands. He wanted the crowd to hear him speak. "Ah, Brian," he said casually. "I still remember our last battle. Gave me quite a run for my money, if I recall correctly."

Brian nodded silently. Last time he had laughed at Drake's bushy white mustache and compared him to Dr. Wily, but he was more mature now. He wouldn't taunt, and he wouldn't talk. He just wanted to battle while he still held his resolve.

"No banter today?" Drake stroked his chin. "I respect that. Well, I'll get right to the battle at hand then. Are you prepared, Brian? No, don't answer that. It is my duty to ensure that only the most worthy trainers in the world pass on to challenge the League Master. We will determine together whether you are truly prepared!"

Brian nodded again. "So be it."

On a platform above the crowd, the referee raised two flags in the air, one red and one blue. "This is the final Elite Four match! Each trainer will battle until one of them has no remaining Pokémon. Substitutions are allowed. The trainer with the last Pokémon standing will be declared the victor! The match begins… now!"

Drake reached into his coat for a Pokéball and pulled it free. "Then we begin. Shelgon!"

"Shel!" The light from Drake's Pokéball materialized into the squat Pokémon, which was hidden within a thick shell.

Shelgon. Dragon type. Powerful, slow, and very heavy: much like a Dragon-type Walrein.

Brian was familiar with this opening, and he knew what he had to do to counter it. "Machamp!" He called out the four-armed fighter.

Brian quickly flipped through all the strategies Machamp knew. His unique battle style was to set up each Pokémon with several tactics beforehand, so that in battle he could call out a number or phrase instead of an attack name, and his Pokémon would know what to do without having to alert his opponent until the attack was in progress. But he hadn't worked as much with Machamp on that as on the Pokémon he usually carried, so Machamp didn't have a very diverse strategy pool. But he knew a few, and that might be enough.

"Machamp, begin eight!"

Brian saw Drake frown as he watched Machamp, trying to figure out the move early enough to give him some warning. Machamp flexed his four arms in different directions, and his muscles glowed and bulged as he performed Focus Energy. Afterwards, he would move into a Low Kick, but Drake didn't know that yet.

"Ah," Drake said as he recognized the first attack. "Shelgon, Dragon Dance!" Shelgon began to hop left and right, and was soon enveloped by a red glow.

Brian smiled as he saw his plan fall into place. While Shelgon was still Dancing, Machamp ran at him, sliding in and flipping Shelgon through the air with his Low Kick. Like the fight with Walrein, Machamp used Shelgon's heavy shell against it by throwing him around and letting gravity do the damage. But Shelgon was stronger than his previous opponent, and as it hit the ground, Shelgon rolled to stand upright, mostly unfazed by the fall.

"Keep it up, Machamp! You're doing great!" Brian cheered.

"Dragon Claw!" Shelgon sprang into action, its front legs glowing with energy as it lumbered forward.

"You can take it, Machamp! Keep it simple with three!"

Machamp stood motionless and waited for the tiny Dragon to attack. Shelgon leaped at him, and he still wouldn't move. But as the attack hit, Machamp grabbed the two front claws with his lower arms, taking the blow. Then he used his top arms to grab Shelgon's shell and threw it into the air with Vital Throw. Machamp's incredible strength sent the Dragon flying high before it crashed into the ground before Drake once again. This time it was slow to get up, but still able to stand.

"I see," Drake said. "I underestimated Machamp's defensive ability. But not again. Shelgon, Dragonbreath!"

Brian nodded at his Pokémon. "Machamp, you know what to do. I believe in you. Believe in yourself, and you can't lose!"

"Cha!" Machamp flexed at his opponent. Then Shelgon began its attack, spitting a green blast of air at Machamp.

"Go, Machamp!" Machamp jumped into the air and spun, keeping just ahead of the stream of attack. Shelgon tried to get ahead of him, but Machamp changed direction, jumping over the advancing blast, and landed behind Shelgon. Once more, Machamp picked up his opponent. He Seismic Tossed Shelgon into the air, spinning it end-over-end while he charged up a Focus Punch. When Shelgon came down, Machamp let it have it right in the weakest point: its unprotected eyes. Shelgon tumbled across the stadium, slamming into the wall behind Drake.

"Shelgon! Stand up!" Drake cried. But Shelgon was down. The Pokemon lay on its back, unable to move after that onslaught.

Above the stadium, the referee raised the blue flag. "Shelgon is unable to battle! This battle goes to Challenger Brian!"

"Whoo!" From the sidelines, Brian could just barely hear Natty over the rest of the crowd. "Go Brian! Drake sucks!" He chuckled to himself at the outburst.

"Astounding!" The announcer yelled. "Machamp has given a great start to our challenger, and both trainers now have four Pokémon remaining! What will Master Drake pull to counter this?"

"You did well, Shelgon." Drake recalled the fallen Dragon. "Now, Altaria!" The beautiful Dragon/Flying Pokémon emerged, floating gracefully above the stadium like a patch of sky come down to earth. It sang a high, happy song as it emerged.

Machamp faced Brian, breathing heavily: the strain of dodging and throwing the heavy Shelgon twice had tired him. Brian wanted to recall him, but couldn't afford to do it so early. Substitutions might be allowed, but for Brian they wouldn't help him any. With Shelgon down, Machamp's usefulness in this battle was mostly over, but he had one thing left to throw, and Altaria was exactly the Pokémon that he needed to hit with it.

Brian took a deep breath. "Okay, Machamp. You've got at least one more attack in you! So throw it! Stone Edge at Altaria!"

"Ma…cha!" Machamp held all four arms out at Altaria, and rings of light formed around the wrists, spinning faster and faster.

"Altaria, into the air! Start getting ready!" With a cry, Altaria flew up and up, out of range. In the air, it started to glow a bright white.

"Come on, Machamp…" Brian whispered to himself. The lights on Machamp solidified into several flying stones, and as they stopped glowing Machamp thrust his arms forward and hurled the rocks towards Altaria. The rocks flew swiftly through the sky, but Altaria was too fast and too far away. It dodged with ease, the many stones flying far left of their target.

"Excellent! Now, Sky Attack!" Drake cheered. Altaria swooped down towards Machamp, its beak aglow with the focused energy.

Brian lowered his head, sensing his opponent's victory approach. "Machamp… I know you're tired. I know you're probably done. But if you can just pull out one more attack… use Vital Throw!"

Machamp held out his arms, ready to take Altaria's strike. The bird rushed at him, and Machamp just barely got his arms around it before the Sky Attack hit. With the last of his strength, Machamp lifted Altaria above his head and hurled it across the field. Altaria bounced twice on the stone floor before crashing to a halt. But Machamp, completely spent, fell forward and was still.

The referee waited a moment, watching the two Pokémon. Slowly Altaria rose, and as it did the referee's red flag went up. "Machamp is unable to battle! This battle goes to Master Drake!"

"Machamp… you did so well. I can't believe you were strong enough to pull out that last attack… Rest." Brian returned Machamp to a Pokéball. The roar of the crowd and announcer barely registered in his ears as he analyzed his situation.

Altaria. Flying/Dragon type. Weaknesses: Ice, Dragon, Rock. But especially Ice. Slightly weakened by Vital Throw. Odds of surviving an Ice-type attack stand at roughly one hundred and fifty to one.


Brian reached into his jacket, replacing Machamp's ball and pulling out another."Froslass!" He held out the ball and released the frozen ghost onto the field. "Let's end this quick! Strategy one, Dragon variant!"

Immediately Froslass disappeared, her icy garb flowing around her as she vanished. Then two of her appeared near Altaria. Then two more. Soon Altaria was on the ground, surrounded by airborne illusory copies of its foe.

"Up, Altaria!" Drake commanded. "What are you sitting there for? Into the air and sweep the copies with Air Cutter!"

"Tari!" Altaria leaped off the ground, flapping its wings to take flight. The wings started to glow as it prepared to unleash the attack.

Then the copies of Froslass opened their mouths, and all but two vanished, one in front of Altaria and one behind. Altaria turned to attack the revealed target, oblivious to the last image behind it.

And the forgotten image began to use Blizzard.

The icy wind and snow struck Altaria from behind, blowing it through the last copy. The powerful Ice attack ravaged Altaria, freezing its wings and bringing it down. Very soon, Froslass ended the attack, as her opponent was down and out.

"Wow!" The announcer said after the referee's declaration of victory. "Once again, we have a shining example of the kind of well-planned tactics our challenger is known for, and Froslass has won this round without taking a single hit! What else do you have up your sleeves, Mr. Edwards?"

"Way to go, Froslass!" Brian shouted across the field. "Just a little more!"

Drake took a minute to consider his next move. Eventually the referee looked at Drake expectantly, and stated "Master Drake? You are running out of time. Choose a Pokémon or I'll be forced to disqualify you."

"Aye…" Drake nodded. "That won't be necessary." He tossed a Pokéball onto the field, revealing his Flygon. The insectile Dragon buzzed its wings expectantly.

"Hmm…" Brian said thoughtfully, running through his options. Weaknesses: Ice, Dragon. So…

Rather than giving him time to think, Drake ordered an attack immediately. "Flygon, Flamethrower!"

Forced out of his thoughts, Brian had to act fast. "Dodge! Then use a Hail Combo!"

As the flames advanced towards Froslass, the ghost vanished again, appearing a few feet to the left and floating quickly away. Flygon turned, trying to catch its opponent in the Flamethrower. Froslass gave a spirited attempt, but eventually Flygon got the upper hand. After a double fake-out with the flames, Froslass was tricked into flying right into the stream's path, and the fire burned her.

"Frost!" Froslass threw up a cry as the fire pushed her away.

"Froslass!" Brian yelled to her. "Hold on!"

Finally spent, Flygon let the flames subside, breathing heavily from the exertion.

"Are you okay, girl?" Brian asked. Froslass floated up slowly. Part of her snow cloak was melted, revealing the violet specter within. But Froslass turned and nodded to him resolutely, silently repairing the damage to her cover. "Good! Hail Combo!"

"Laaaaa…" Froslass glowed blue for an instant, then vanished. An icy wind blew through the stadium, making the crowd shiver. A blue mist descended onto the field.

"Watch yourself, Flygon!" Drake ordered. He shuddered. "Argh… should have worn a shirt."

"Gone!" Flygon watched the sky closely. Then it reared back as Froslass appeared right in his face, but before it had even moved she was already gone, waving at Flygon from across the field before disappearing again. Flygon's head whipped back and forth as Froslass kept it up, appearing and disappearing with her Snow Cloak again and again. It was so intent on keeping her in its sights, it failed to notice when the chunks of ice from Hail started to fall. One of them struck it right in the head, knocking it into the dirt. As soon as the opportunity came, Froslass was right in front of Flygon again, quickly releasing another Blizzard. The ice and wind and snow, mixing with all of the falling hail, were too much for it to take.

Brian watched the motionless Dragon with concern. "That's enough, Froslass!" Froslass stopped the attack, and as she turned quizzically to Brian, the hailstorm lifted as well, the latent heat of Hoenn quickly ending the ice storm once Froslass stopped powering it.

"Frost?" she asked.

Brian shook his head. "Flygon's done. I don't want you to really hurt him."

The referee agreed, and after a few moments of Flygon lying motionless, he raised the blue flag high. "Flygon is unable to battle! Froslass is the victor!"

The announcer spoke again as the crowd roared to life. "I can't believe it myself, folks, but it appears that Brian has taken the lead! With only two Pokémon remaining, Drake is running out of options. Can he still pull out a victory?"'

"No!" Brian heard Natty scream. "Because he sucks!" He glanced over to her. Ash and Misty were both covering their eyes and trying to avoid being seen with her as she leaned over the barricade and yelled at Drake.

What the hell do I see in her? Brian thought. He started thinking about that… all the times they'd shared… and what was she going to say?

"Kingdra!" Brian snapped back to the battle as Drake threw out his next Pokémon. Keep your head in the game! He chastised himself.

Kingdra took a position in the pool, the only place he could comfortably battle from.

"Dive under, Kingdra!" Drake ordered. A grin flickered across his face for a moment as Kingdra obeyed, his eyes flashing up to watch Brian.

Brian gave a short laugh at his opponent's mistake. "Freeze the surface of the pool and let him stay under." Froslass ran an Ice Beam across the shimmering water, freezing it solid, then floated silently above it watching Kingdra race around under the ice. Brian smiled and nodded at her work. For a moment, he realized that with Kingdra trapped and out of the battle, he would have three Pokémon to take out Drake's last. His eyes drifted to settle on Drake as he started working on a plan to take down Salamence.

Then a thought struck him:

Why is he still smiling?

Brian's eyes shot wide. "Move! Now!"

"Fross?" Froslass turned to face him.

At exactly that moment, a resounding crack came from the ice. A section of it shattered and flew apart, a yellow beam flashing through it and striking Froslass in the back.

A trick!

"Froslass!" Brian cried. The ghost spun through the air, spinning wildly until she hit the surrounding wall. Ice broke away from her frosty cloak as she fell to the ground. "Damn it!" It was a trap, and I walked right into it!

The Pokémon that could survive a Hyper Beam from one of Drake's Dragons were few and far between, and an already-weakened Froslass certainly did not belong on that list. Brian knew she was done, and even before the referee declared Kingdra's victory he had already recalled the Pokémon.

Brian absentmindedly ran a hand through his hair, his mouth half-open in shock. He had been tricked. Duped. Outthought! Drake had laid a trap, and he had danced his merry way right into it. Brian was completely unaccustomed to being defeated in this way. When a power struggle fell to his foes, that was acceptable. But being outwitted was something that simply did not happen!

"Remember, Brian," Drake said across the field, breaking his reverie. "Remember what you have learned."

And he did remember.

The lessons he had learned four years ago…

"Had enough yet?" Brian taunted.

Brian had gone in with only Slifer remaining in the fight against Drake, but so far it was going well. Slifer had already taken down Shelgon and Altaria with ease. It appeared that Brian would pull through after all, and he had taken a moment to mock his opponent.

Drake was infuriated at Brian's arrogance. "You need a lesson in respect," Drake said harshly. "We will make you regret your insolence!"

And did he ever give a lesson out. Throwing aside his usual strategy of keeping the best until the end, Drake tossed out Salamence, his most powerful Pokémon. And with a blinding flurry of attacks, Salamence took Slifer down hard. It was superior in every way: fast enough to out-fly the Dragonite, strong enough to tear him apart, and resilient enough to take his strongest attacks without losing stride.

Brian sank to his knees as Slifer fell for the last time. So close… and he had lost. The roar of the crowd and the referee's declaration flew by him, almost around him, without notice. But Drake's last words to him did not.

"Beware overconfidence," Drake said sagely, and a little sadly. "Remember that you are neither infallible nor perfect. The seeds of greatness lie within you, Brian, but it is on your head to ensure that they bear fruit. I must say I'm a bit disappointed in you. You are strong enough to defeat me... but not until you learn to respect your opponent as you do yourself."

Brian nodded miserably, unwilling to look his better in the eyes. Instead, he looked to the right, where Diana sat. In her eyes, he saw several things. Support and consolation were there… but also was disappointment, and that tore at him.

"I will do better," he whispered, both to himself and to her. "I swear it."

Even over the noise of the packed stadium, he heard the light footsteps as Drake turned and walked away.

For the most part, Brian had learned. He kept a healthy respect for his foes, whether they deserved it or not. But sometime during this battle he had fallen back, and forgotten who he was fighting: a Master, a genius of Pokémon training. And he had forgotten that his plans could fall astray.

Beware overconfidence…

"Thank you… Master Drake," Brian said reverently. He bowed, displaying his renewed respect.

"Aye." Drake nodded. "Now…"

"Hey!" Brian heard the familiar cry of Natty to his left. "What are you waiting for, Brian? Get back out there and kick his ass!"

"I've seen you come back from worse than this, Bry!" Misty cheered with her. "We know you can do it!"

"Go, Brian!" Ash finished.

And together, his friends led the crowd in a chant that soon echoed around him. "Bri-an! Bri-an! Bri-an!"

For a moment, Brian stood silently, his eyes closed, letting the supporting cries wash over him, filling him with warmth and strength. "Thanks, guys," he murmured with a small smile. "I needed that." Then he threw a Pokéball, and the crowd fell silent as they waited for what would come out.

"Komodo!" Brian's Charizard erupted onto the field, stomping the earth heavily. He bent forward and roared defiantly at Kingdra.

I never planned for Komodo to have to fight Kingdra, but Slifer needs to be fresh for the last battle… Brian thought. Looks like I'll be playing this one by ear.

"Okay, Komodo, let's fire it up! Start off with a Dragon Pulse!"

"Meet it with the same!" Drake ordered.

Two Pokémon rose up, and two Pokémon charged two balls of shimmering turquoise energy. Kingdra and Komodo threw their heads forward together, and the two orbs rushed towards each other. They met in a burst of power, a rush of wind and light blowing through the arena away from the point of contact.

Drake pushed forward. "Now, Hydro Pump!"

"Take to the sky!" Brian retaliated.

Komodo leapt into the air, rising above the stream of Kingdra's Hydro Pump. Steam rose from his tail as the water just barely brushed the flaming tip, and then he was too high to reach.

Brian cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled. "Okay! Now, fly down straight towards Kingdra!" He barely heard the answering roar as Komodo pulled in his wings and fell into a dive.

Kingdra knew what to do without orders, and a Water Pulse raced towards the falling Pokémon.

"Disrupt the attack and head through into a Seismic Toss!"

Komodo launched another Dragon Pulse, which met the rising ring of water. The two attacks destroyed each other, the water forming a neat ring for Komodo to fly through. He rushed towards the rough hole Kingdra had blown in the ice.

At the last moment, Drake cried "Dive, Kingdra!" But too late. Kingdra flipped in the pool, but an instant before he dove under, Komodo reached out and pulled Kingdra out of the water by his tail. He struggled into the air, the added burden almost too much. And indeed, it was too much. The Charizard flew fifty feet up, but that was all he could do.

After watching him struggle a moment, Brian ordered "That's good enough! Fly him into the ice!"

Komodo pulled Kingdra close, and they fell together.

Drake, sensing that Kingdra might not survive the hit, pulled out one last trick. "Quickly, Kingdra! Ice Beam!"

What? But all that will do is… "Komodo, let go!" Brian said, eyes wide with near-panic.

Komodo released his prey, but before he pulled away Kingdra fired the beam. A solid pillar of ice formed between them, holding them together from Komodo's belly to Kingdra's snout.

"Break free, break free!" Brian urged. But it wasn't to be. The ice was too strong, and Kingdra and Komodo were stuck together as they plummeted into the frozen water below. There was a sickening crack as the pair broke through the ice.

Brian tore at his hair in anguish. "No, no, no, no, no! Komodo!" he cried. "Get out of there!"

With a rush of steam and a mighty roar, the Charizard erupted out of the frozen water. All thought of flight abandoned, he tore up the earth as he clawed his way onto the surface. He took a few stumbling steps, his tail flame weak and flickering, before he collapsed to the ground. Brian recalled him as fast as he could, knowing the stasis nature of the Pokéball would protect him and keep his tail flame from going out until he could get Komodo healed.

"Charizard is… huh?" The referee started to declare Drake's victory, but he stopped. Kingdra had floated to the surface, and it wasn't moving. A gasp of shock went through the stadium, and Drake looked surprised as well. The referee raised both flags. "Neither Charizard nor Kingdra is able to battle. The battle is a tie!"

"Incredible!" The announcer shouted. "A double KO! Now the stakes are even, as both Brian and Drake have only one Pokémon remaining! This is it, folks: the final battle! It all comes down to this!"

Geez, could you maybe lay on the pressure a bit thicker? Brian glanced at the announcer's booth with disdain.

The Dragon Master regarded his opponent evenly. "So here we are again, Brian." He pulled out the Pokéball containing his last Pokémon. Brian nodded. "Do you know when the last time I had to bring out Salamence on this field was?" Drake asked.

"Four years ago…" Brian answered. "Against me."

Drake smiled. "And you've come so far since then," he said. The smile flitted off his face. "But I'm afraid your journey ends here."

"We will see," Brian replied. He pulled out his final Pokéball as well.

They threw out the two Dragons as one.

"Roar, Salamence!"

"Slifer, move out!"

Slifer and Salamence exploded onto the field. Salamence really did roar, but Brian's Dragonite remained silent. Of all Brian's Pokémon, Slifer had picked up on his trainer's personality the most, and just as Brian respected the man who had mastered him, Slifer held an abiding reverence for the Dragon which had once proven his better.

"Yes, you remember him, don't you?" Brian murmured to Slifer. "But we're better now. Slifer, I know you have what it takes to beat him. He's still faster, but you're stronger than him now. Don't try to outrun him; just overpower him." Then, raising his voice, he shouted, "Okay, Slifer, let's begin! Stratagem Three!"

Slifer flew back, behind and above Brian, watching Salamence carefully. Drake took a moment to figure out what Slifer was doing, wary of falling into a trap. What he failed to realize until too late was that that was the trap. As Salamence waited impatiently for orders, Slifer used the time to get a head start by using Dragon Dance. He spun in midair and was soon surrounded by a red glow.

Drake cursed as he recognized the technique. He pointed towards Slifer. "Get up there and hit him with Dragon Claw!"

Salamence flapped its wings once to get off the ground, and then once more to rocket towards Slifer. Its front claws glowed bright as it approached.

Brian watched Salamence fly for a moment. When it was close enough, Brian cried, "Now, Slifer!" Slifer flew back once more, then pulled into a tight loop and flew at Salamence. A blue light erupted from his horn and surrounded him.

At the last moment, Slifer dipped and rose, slamming into Salamence's underside with Dragon Rush. Salamence roared its displeasure and raked its claws over Slifer's back before the force of the blow pushed them apart. Slifer and Salamence faced each other in the air.

"Eight!" Brian ordered. Instantly, Slifer reared his head back, then threw it forward. Two thin bolts of lightning flew from his antennae. Before Salamence could dodge, the twin charges struck it, sending electricity pulsing through its muscles. The light charge from Thunder Wave didn't hurt much, but now Salamence was contending with paralysis as it tried to stay in the air. A few moments later its wings failed, and Salamence dropped out of the sky. It landed on its legs, but the impact still hurt, and now flight was denied to it.

"Excellent, Slifer!" Brian grinned. With Salamence on the ground, Drake had lost the advantage of speed. "Now, use a Hyper Beam!"

Drake scowled. "Match him, Salamence!"

Two dragons opened their mouths, and each launched the golden energy towards the other. The two Hyper Beams met above the center of the battlefield, but something unusual happened. The usual explosion of force occurred, but neither Pokémon gave ground or stopped their attack. The Beams kept on, even as gale-force winds racked the stadium and the two competitors.

Both Brian and Drake were surprised; neither of them had ever witnessed this before. Most Pokémon gave up an attack like Hyper Beam when they met one of equal strength, but Slifer and Salamence were giving their all in the attempt to prove which was truly stronger.

At length, the battle started to turn. The point of contact began to move towards Slifer as his energy began to give out.

"Come on, Slifer!" Brian yelled. "Just a little more!"

But Slifer couldn't keep up. A moment later, his strength failed, and Salamence's Hyper Beam won through. Slifer was struck in the head by the remnants of Salamence's energy, but even that was incredibly strong. The attack sent Slifer spiraling out of the air. A thick cloud of dust billowed up as Slifer landed on his back.

The stadium was silent.

For once, Brian didn't yell or scream when his Pokémon hit the ground. He breathed deep and stayed calm. "Slifer…" he said. "Old friend." The dust settled, revealing Slifer's exhausted form. "I know you're still awake in there. We've come so far, you and I…" Brian looked across the battlefield, where Salamence was breathing heavily. "He's tired. You're tired. Hell, I'm even tired. I know what you're going through, and I'm so, so proud of you for coming so far. I want to let you rest. But I know you've got a bit more, so I have to ask… please. Stand up, just one more time." Brian grit his teeth, and he cried, "Please, Slifer! It's all been for nothing if you don't stand up!"

A few seconds passed without any movement. Brian's hopes started to fall. The referee began to raise Drake's flag…

And Slifer moved.

Weak and dazed, he pulled himself to his feet. He shook his head once and roared at the sky.

"Yes!" Brian crowed with him. He let out a shaky breath. "Okay, Slifer, let's go! Give Salamence everything you've got left!" Brian pointed across the field at the opposing Dragon. "The End of All and Nothing!"

Drake looked almost panicked. "Stop him! Dragonbreath!"

Slifer rose slowly into the air, bathed once again in the blue light of Dragon Rush. He flew at Salamence. Salamence opened his mouth to attack, but nothing came out but a light green mist; after pouring energy into Hyper Beam for so long, he was utterly spent, and couldn't fight the paralysis in his muscles. All that was keeping him on his feet was sheer willpower.

Slifer collided with Salamence, and with a heave the pair flew into the air. Slifer pulled away, letting Salamence fall under him before he hit his opponent with a mighty Slam. The two smashed to the ground, Slifer pinning Salamence under his bulk. Salamence craned his head around wildly, snapping at Slifer, but without effect. And then, still sitting on his opponent's back, Slifer let loose with one last burst of Hyper Beam right to the back of Salamence's head. Salamence's neck flattened against the ground, then his head slammed into it as well. The force of the attack wasn't as much as Slifer could usually muster, but still enough to blow him right off of Salamence. Slifer spun once in the air before righting himself.

Salamence stayed down.

At the very end, Slifer flew slowly across the field, landing wearily in front of his trainer. It took all he had to stay standing, every ounce of energy he had left.

But it was enough.

Yelling over the soundless arena, the referee gave the last call. "Salamence is unable to battle! The winner of the match is Challenger Brian Edwards!"

Drake clapped twice, breaking through the stunned calm that followed this declaration. "Well done, Brian… well done indeed." He turned and walked away.

And then the stadium exploded.

A cheer like no other before went up as Brian walked, then ran laughing onto the field. He leaped up and hugged Slifer. "You did it!" he cheered. "You are the best Pokémon in the world!" Slifer roared happily, but still seemed ready to collapse. Brian noticed his weak stance and wobbling legs, and he let go. "Now rest," he said quietly, meeting Slifer's eyes. "We'll celebrate after we beat Wallace tomorrow." He pulled Slifer back into his Pokéball.

As he started to turn to walk off the field, Brian heard quick footsteps from behind. He faced them to see Natalia sprinting over to him, her having jumped the wall to get to him faster. Though the battle had left him physically tired, mentally exhausted and emotionally drained, Brian delved deep and found the strength to run to her.

"That was amazing!" she exclaimed as they met. She jumped at him, arms open wide, and he lifted her in his arms. They laughed together in giddiness and relief as he spun her around once.

It was sometime during the second spin that Brian made the rather shocking discovery that her lips were on his.

In the back of his head, he faintly registered that the crowd had become quite a bit quieter and the announcer's frantic recounting of the battle had slowed and stopped. But most of his mind was taken up by surprise, joy, and a very small portion reserved for making sure he didn't drop Natty in shock.

Their heads bent together, keeping contact as he lowered her to the ground. They broke apart as her feet touched. Brian found himself looking into her eyes, which shone with happiness.

He wondered for a moment how he had never noticed what a beautiful caramel color they were.

"I love you," she said simply. "Since before we even came to Hoenn, I loved you. That's really why I wanted to come. I just couldn't bear to see you go without me."

"Yes, I suspected that," Brian replied with a smile. "But it's very nice to hear you say it."

"Bry!" She hit his back in exasperation, though he noticed that her eyes didn't lose their luster, nor did she let him go.

Brian laughed. "Sorry… you know me: I joke when I'm happy. And I haven't been this happy in a long, long time." He quickly kissed her again, this time on purpose. Somehow it was even better when he knew it was coming. And apparently the crowd agreed, as a storm of hooting and applause erupted at this act.

He broke away first, but even then he kept their foreheads together. He looked into her eyes as he continued, making sure she saw how much he meant every word. "I love you, Natty. I don't know when it started, I don't know how, and I really don't know what I'm going to do now that I've told you. And I don't give a damn if I ever learn any of them. I love you. That's all I ever need to know."

"Very nice," Natty said brightly.

"Thank you," he said with a chuckle. "I practiced."

"You…" Her eyes narrowed, and she finally pulled away from him, cocking her head. "You really knew?"

He held up a hand and wavered it in a 'kinda' motion. "Eh, I had my suspicions. And come on, how often is there a situation I'm not prepared for? But…" He grew a bit red. "Maybe… a bit of it was wishful thinking."

"I think it only counts as wishful thinking if you're wrong," Natty corrected. "But I'm glad you were wishing for me."

"That's…" Brian looked around, realizing that they still had an audience, and interrupted himself. "Hey, let's go. I think I'd rather have the rest of this conversation in private… not to mention our friends are going to kill us if we don't give them details posthaste."

Taking his hand, Natty replied, "Lead on. I don't even know how to get out of here."

And they walked off the field together.


"Calm, calm, Misty!" Brian protected his face with his hands.

Ash and Misty were waiting quite anxiously for them the instant that Brian and Natty walked (or more appropriately fled, considering the crowds hunting for the almost-Master) into their room. Misty half-ran and half-leapt at Brian, ordering him to tell her the exact date that he and Natty had become an item.

"I've got a lot riding on this, Brian!" she yelled in excitement. "Now tell me!"

"What could you possibly have riding on when we admitted how we felt?" Brian asked.

"About fifty bucks," Ash replied, rolling his eyes. "Well, that and a bottle of ketchup, though I don't know if she'll actually ever get that if she wins, since Pikachu has no money."

"Pichi pikachu," the Pokémon in question noted. (Something along the lines of "I'll find a way.")

"Fine, just don't jump me, okay?" Brian said. "If you have to know, that was it out there. So, today."

"Yes!" Misty pumped a fist. "I win!" She turned towards her boyfriend expectantly.

Grumbling, Ash pulled out his wallet and produced a twenty and a ten. "By about a month…" He held out the money, and Misty snatched it up.

Then, to Brian's surprise, he gave thirty more to Natty.

"What is wrong with you people?" Brian said in distaste. "Must you bet on every relationship you know about? And Ash, why would you bet against us?"

"First off, yes, we must," Misty declared. "And second, nobody bet against you two."

"I bet Misty and Natty each thirty dollars that it would take less than a year for you to get together before you left for Hoenn and we left for Johto," Ash explained. "I think Brock owes Misty twenty on the same terms. And Pikachu owes her ketchup, since that's the only thing he believes has value."

Pikachu shook his head. "Ka, pika picha pikachu."

"Oh. Okay, it's the only thing he wants, so he won't bet anything else."

"Natty?" Brian turned to her. "What about you? It's kind of weird for you to bet on your own love life."

"I…" She blushed. "I said I loved you before we came to Hoenn. But I was afraid to say anything and drive you away. Ash and Misty nagged me to tell them I liked you before we left, and after they finally got me to crack Ash made the bet that you would admit you felt the same to me before a year had passed. Two days ago I decided to tell you anyway and damn the consequences, but they," and here she jerked a thumb at the other couple and Pikachu, "interrupted me. I've been dying to tell you for the past two days, but I didn't want to distract you during the Challenge."

Brian pinched the bridge of his nose in annoyance. "A, I still have to beat Wallace, so it's not as though I'm done. And B, do you realize how many times I've been distracted during my battles because I was trying to figure out what you were going to say?"

"You were?" Natty appeared stricken. "I hadn't thought of that… I'm sorry."

Brian chuckled. "It's okay. I still won, didn't I?"

"Oh, that's right! Congratulations, Brian!" Misty said brightly. "In everything that happened after, I almost forgot that you finally beat Drake!"

"And I was hoping that I would become a Master first…" Ash grumbled.

"You'll get there, Ash," Brian assured him. "I remember how well you handled Pikachu when you were still a spirit, and that was after six years without training. Plus I've got six years of experience on you, so you can still be faster than me in relative terms."

"And, hey, you've still got 'til the end of the day to do it!" Natty joked, pulling a laugh from the group.

"By the way, we have got to battle before you leave," Brian added. "I want to see how much stronger you've become."

"Great!" Ash agreed. "I've caught a lot of new Pokémon in Johto that you should see. I'm pretty sure I could beat you!"

Brian erupted into laughter at that. Wiping away a mirthful tear, he added, "Yeah, you just keep on dreaming, Ash. Maybe someday."

Ash, Pikachu, and Misty all took affront to that. "Hey!" Ash complained. "You haven't seen me battle!"

"Pikapi pi Pikachu pika pichu pika!" Pikachu yelled, taking personal offense. (He was the Pokémon present in many of Ash's battles.)

"And nobody's allowed to insult Ash but me!" Misty said. Ash shot her a glare, but apparently he either agreed or had already learned not to argue this point with her. "In fact, since you're so confident, I think you should battle both of us!"

"Oh, okay," Brian agreed. "So that'll be one certain victory, and one near-certain victory. I can handle that."

Misty smirked. "I meant together," she clarified. "You and your team versus me and Ash and both of our teams. Each team has two Pokémon out at the same time."

"But… but that puts me at a huge disadvantage!" Brian protested. "I'll have to coordinate two Pokémon simultaneously against both of you and beat two teams at once!"

"Oh. Okay, then," Ash said. "If you aren't brave enough to handle us both, then I guess…"

"Very well, I accept your challenge!" Brian exclaimed, protecting his wounded pride. "Tomorrow afternoon, after I battle Wallace!"

"And what about me? What am I, chopped liver?" Natty grumbled.

"We'll need a referee," Misty said. "And what would you do, help him or us?"

"Him, of course," she replied cattily. She grabbed Brian's hand and planted a kiss on his cheek before continuing. "I'm aware that he's being an arrogant ass, but he's still my boyfriend."

Brian was honestly touched. "Awww… thanks, Natty." His eyes misted over and he gazed blankly at the wall, struck for a moment. Then he turned towards her. "Boyfriend… huh… I guess that's right, isn't it?"

"You bet." Natty smiled.

They moved closer, leaning into one another…

"Ugh, gag me," Misty said, rupturing the perfect moment. In reply, she received a silent middle finger from Natty as she and Brian kissed.

"Come on, Ash, I can see this is going to take a while. Let's leave them to their make out session."

All four middle fingers on the entwined couple came up now, before they latched back onto the object of their respective affections.

"Fantastic response," Ash noted. With Pikachu on his head, he followed Misty out of Brian's and Natty's room.

"I don't get you," Ash said to her as they walked across to their room. "You love that mushy romance stuff. And you've been waiting for those two to get together for over a year."

"Which is why I'm giving them alone time," Misty replied with a mischievous smirk. "I think you'll remember that they extended the same courtesy to us right after you got your body back."

"Yeah…" Ash said, smiling dreamily. "That was a good day…"

"Another thing…" Misty added coyly. "Watching them kiss like that reminded me of… well, when we first were like that. It made me jealous. But I figure we could always relive some of those old moments, right?" And with that she ran ahead, disappearing into their room down the hall.

"Hey… hey!" Ash started running after her. "Don't start without me!"

The smell of her soft hair…

The gentle caress of her hands on his back…

The hushed murmurs of affection that kept escaping her…

And above all the wonderful, wonderful feeling of their lips, moving together…

Brian was making a fantastic effort to impress this moment into his memory. It was one he never wanted to forget.

"Tell me about tomorrow…" Natty murmured. Somehow, this unusually clear statement broke through to Brian's brain.

"Huh… what?" Brian asked, unwilling to part from her.

But she pulled away from him. "What happens next? After you win, and you're the Master… what then?"

Brian frowned. "Where did this come from?"

She looked away from him for a moment. "I… I guess I've been looking forward to this moment for so long, it's been everything to me. But now that it's finally here, now that I have you, I don't know what to do next. I want to know…" She turned back. "I want to know our future!"

Brian thought about this for a minute. "Well… if I win tomorrow, and I certainly could, I'll be the League Master of Hoenn. But the only thing that title requires of me is my presence here for the Ever Grande Conference every year, at least until I'm defeated or I retire. Other than that… really, it's up to me. I can travel, I could stay here, I could really stay anywhere. I can accept offers to appear at tournaments and events and whatnot for money, which is why some Masters are rich as hell, like Wallace with his Wallace Cup; I think he makes like three million a year. And those opportunities will almost certainly be available if I want them, but none of that is required. The League pays a pretty good salary on its own, enough to live comfortably, if not opulently."

"And if you don't win?" Natty asked.

"If I don't win… I don't know for sure yet. I'm so close now that I don't think I could give it up. How many people can say they've beaten the Elite Four of anywhere? So I think that I'll go to a new region and try at least one more time. I hear good things about Isshu…"

"But… that's so far away!" Natty exclaimed. "You're willing to go that far?" Brian glanced at her, one eyebrow raised, and she laughed. "Yeah, that was a stupid question. Of course you are."

He nodded. "But a better question is… are you willing to come?"

Her eyes fell. "I don't know… That's so far away from my friends, my home…"

He moved to her and took her hands. She looked back up to him as he spoke. "I won't leave you, you know. If you don't want to go. I have to pursue my dreams, but I can make compromises. If you want to go back to Pewter, or even start somewhere new, I'll find a way. If that means taking on a League I've already done so I can stay close to you, or even if I take a year to just train, I'll figure out a way." Natty found a spot for her head on his shoulder, and they nestled into each other. "I was alone, once… for too long. Never again."

"Well," Natty said, "Let's not worry about it now. There'll be time to worry tomorrow. I mean, if we have to."

"But it was your idea to talk…" Brian laughed and shook his head. "Natty, I love you, but you're confusing as all hell."

She kissed him again. "Yeah, I know. I try." He laughed and kissed her back.

And then they moved back to that place where words have no meaning.

As it turned out, they needn't have worried.

The next day at noon, Wallace gave Brian the second best battle he had ever fought (the first, obviously, belonging to Drake). Because for all of Brian's confidence in his abilities, Wallace was still the League Master of Hoenn. He was a wizard with Water Pokémon, and his battle style was planned so thoroughly as to rival even Brian's tactical prowess. His Milotic alone could take down any run-of-the-mill trainer's whole team, and his other Pokémon were not far behind; a team of Water-type powerhouses. Truly, he was one of the finest trainers the world had ever seen.

He never stood a chance.

Wallace won by barely shifting the flow of battle, waiting to see his opponents' offence, then forcing their attacks back on them with a little something extra to boot. He had honed the defensive nature of Water Pokémon to a razor's edge, and with his iron-clad defense in place, no one could touch him.

Not without the proper preparations, at least.

Brian walked on that field knowing exactly how Wallace battled, and a considerable chunk of his time had been spent devising the strategy to defeat him. Brian had watched Wallace battle every chance there was, searching archives of video to find even the smallest clip of the Master. And with that knowledge he found a weakness. By forcing Wallace to attack, refusing to attack except in response, Brian found (in theory, at least) a way to wrest command of the battle out of Wallace's hands, forcing his Pokémon to expose weak points he could exploit. So, when at last the moment to fight came, Brian Edwards walked out, called out Machamp, and sat. For a few minutes, both he and Wallace waited for the other to fight, both believing that only by attacking first could they lose. But eventually Wallace broke, deciding that Brian was experiencing a decline of nerve, and ordered Ludicolo to attack. He never controlled the battle again.

No one could say that Brian didn't earn the title. Every victory was hard-won, every attack calculated to wring out the maximum potential, and every single one of his Pokémon gave their absolute best to win. And in the end, it was just enough. It took every Pokémon he had to defeat Wallace, the two trading off almost one-for-one, battle-for-battle. But the match turned when Gengar was finally able to take out two Pokémon, even if it took a last-second Destiny Bond to make sure he took the mighty Wailord with him, and after that it was only a matter of time before Brian came out on top. When the final bout began with a full-power Slifer fighting against a weakened Milotic, everyone knew how it was going to turn out.

And as the final echoes of Slifer's Thunder resounded in the completely packed stadium, Wallace's last, best Pokémon, his beloved Milotic, finally fell.

The flag went up.

"Milotic is unable to battle! The winner of the battle is Dragonite, and so the match and the title of Hoenn League Master go to Mr. Brian Edwards!"

Amazing how such a simple statement can change so many things.

Of course, the crowd cheered madly, and Slifer roared with joy, knowing that he had just achieved every Pokémon's and every trainer's dream.

And Brian… Brian just stood there, completely and utterly dazed.

After all, it's not every day that a man finds himself suddenly in possession of everything he's ever wanted.

"I… We did it," he mumbled to himself in shock. "Everything… everything worked out. All I've done… All we've worked for… I'm… I'm…"

Brian's eyes lit up, and a smile twitched at the corners of his mouth.

"I'm a Pokémon Master!"

Unlike the Elites he had fought before, Wallace did not immediately retreat from the arena when he was defeated. Instead, he walked to Milotic, thanked her for her effort, and then proceeded around the pool that dominated the middle of the field (for blindingly obvious reasons, Wallace chose a water arena) to Brian. Catching the gist, Brian and Slifer moved to meet him in the center.

"You are astounding!" Wallace declared as they met. "That was the most satisfying battle I have ever participated in. The way you mesh completely with your Pokémon speaks volumes of the love, respect, and devotion that you share with them. You guide them as though they were your very limbs!"

"Thank you, Master Wallace," Brian replied, inclining his head.

The Water Master shook his head. "Wallace will do, Brian. I think you've earned it." Brian smiled and nodded his assent. "Now, I will tell you what the man I took this title from told me when I defeated him, just as it was told to that man when he became League Master, and so on. Heed these words well." Wallace gained an air of importance and dignity as he spoke. "I cannot and will not make you a Pokémon Master."

Brian instantly lost his smile. Surely he wasn't serious?

"The reason for that," Wallace continued, "is that you were a Master long before this day. It is not a position or a title that makes you a Master, but the bond you share with your Pokémon. Without that bond, there is no man in the world who could call you that and speak the truth. But today you have shown that you are truly worthy to carry the title of Pokémon Master, and so!" Wallace's voice rose to a shout. "I am proud to declare you the new League Master of the Hoenn Region!" And with that, Wallace lifted Brian's hand high and presented the crowd their new Master.

And the crowd cheered their acceptance.

After Brian and Wallace had finally dropped their hands a few minutes later, Charles Goodshow, the President of the Pokémon League, appeared on the field to congratulate Brian and thank Wallace for his work as the (now former) League Master. He invited Brian to visit him later in the day so that they could discuss his new title and all that came with it. Then he left, Wallace following him.

Before Wallace and Mr. Goodshow had even made their way off the field, an entourage jumped on to meet Brian. Natty, Ash, Misty, and Pikachu all jumped from the stands, and the whole group converged onto Brian.

"Now that's how you win a battle!"



"Pika pika!"

These were some of the words of praise he heard as they surrounded him. Misty and Natty hugged him (Natty for a good while longer), Ash gave him a high five, and Pikachu did some sort of peace-sign thing from atop Ash's hat.

"Thanks, you guys," Brian replied. His eyes glistened as he looked around at them. He choked up a bit as he continued. "I never could have got here without all of you."

They shared a silent smile as each of them accepted that praise, and took in the moment.

"Well, you're a Master now," Misty said, breaking the silence. "Which means…"

"Party at Cerulean Gym!" Natty interrupted.

"What? No!" Misty yelped. "And why there?"

"Because it's a big place, and everybody except Ash is from Cerulean," Natty explained.

"She has a point," Ash agreed.

Misty put her foot down, literally, on Natty's shoes. "No! It's my family's gym, and I say no!" She turned back to Brian. "Anyway, what I was going to say is that it'll be even sweeter when Ash and I beat you later!"

Brian grinned. "Bring it. As soon as we get outside, I'll…"

Natty tapped his shoulder and looked at Slifer pointedly. "Ah… Brian…"

"What?" He followed her eyes and looked to the Dragonite, who was looking more than a little wobbly from the strain of battle. "Oh. Oh! Shit! Slifer, return!" He shuffled around under his jacket for Slifer's Pokéball and quickly recalled him. "Okay, we'll battle after I go to the Pokémon Center. Come on!" Brian took off at a run, and the rest of the group followed him off the field.

Brian took a step back, disbelief and fear etched on his face. "Misty, where the hell did you get a Gyarados?"

"Found it," she replied nonchalantly, lazily glancing at her nails as the giant Water serpent coiled on the field. "In Johto. Nice, isn't he?"

"Not when you have to fight him!" Brian cried. "I guess I'll call… Steelix!"

"Well, duh," Ash agreed as the light from the Pokéball coalesced next to Brian's Espeon. "That's the only Pokémon you have left."

Brian growled. "Shut up and call your attacks."

Obviously, the battle wasn't going well for Brian. Both Misty and Ash had definitely improved in the year since he had last seen them. Misty was almost on Wallace's level, and probably above most of the Elite Four, and Ash was one of the best Trainer-class trainers he had ever fought. He was happy that they had allowed him to trade out his team again so he could battle with the Pokémon he usually carried, but that wasn't making things much easier for him. His two remaining Pokémon still faced two of Ash's and three of Misty's; at this point it was clear that he wasn't going to win.

Also, despite their attempts to hide Brian by finding a clear park on the outskirts of Ever Grande City, a small crowd had gathered around once someone recognized Brian and the group that had celebrated with him earlier. Brian had quickly discovered that losing his first match since becoming a Master felt worse with a live audience, even if it was less than a hundredth the size of the one in the stadium earlier against completely uneven odds.

"Okay!" Ash yelled. He held out a Pokéball. "Just so you can see my whole team… Charizard, return!"

"I've already seen Pikachu," Brian said cautiously. "I've battled him before. A lot."

Ash grinned. "Then you know exactly what he can do. Pikachu, I choose you!"

"Pika!" Pikachu ran onto the field from his place next to Ash, and stood with his paws raised in a battle stance.

"Ash!" Misty grabbed his attention. "Let's go together and try to confuse him!"

"Right!" Ash agreed.

As Misty cried for a Flamethrower, Ash ordered Pikachu to use Iron Tail on Espeon. Their Pokémon sprang into action.

Brian tried to think fast but got jumbled up, so he threw aside his strategies and decided to just call attacks. "Steelix, Dig, Espeon, Psybeam, let's go!"

Steelix dug underground just before the flames from Gyarados reached him, but Espeon was doubly unlucky. She fired the Psybeam, but Pikachu jumped over the shot and slammed his tail into her head. Then, as she was knocked back by the attack, Gyarados turned his Flamethrower towards the flying Psychic, roasting her and finishing her off.

"I think Espeon's done, Brian," Natty called from the sidelines as the flames subsided and Espeon stayed down. "Battle to Ash and Misty."

"Good try, Espeon," Brian said as she was recalled.

"Yes!" Ash said. He and Misty shared a high five.

"Five down, one to go!" She exclaimed.

"Up!" Brian cried, surprising the pair.

The momentarily forgotten Steelix erupted from the ground under Pikachu, knocking him through the air. Steelix continued up and flew in an arc at Gyarados.

"Crunch, and make it count!" Brian ordered. The teeth came out on Steelix, and he bit down as he collided with Gyarados.

Before Ash and Misty could do more than gape in shock, he finished, "And back under with Dig!" Steelix disengaged from his foe and tunneled once more.

"Pikachu! Gyarados! You guys okay?" Ash asked. The two slowly rose up and shook themselves off.

"Good!" Misty cheered. "Okay, you two, get moving!"

"Try not to move in any pattern that Steelix can get at! The crazier, the better!" Ash added.

Pikachu and Gyarados began to race around, turning and looping their paths madly.

Brian nodded in approval. That was exactly what he would have done, because it would work. He couldn't hope to hit them with Dig except with a lucky strike.

"Hit it, Steelix!"

Steelix flew out of the ground right in front of Pikachu, but barely missed as the mouse chose the moment before to turn.

"Get him quick with Thunder Wave, Pikachu!" Ash said. Pikachu leapt into the air and fired a thin bolt of electricity at Steelix, which coursed through him and paralyzed his muscles.

"Damn it," Brian cursed quietly. If Misty played right…

And so she did. "Thanks, Ash! Gyarados, hit him with Flamethrower!"

"No problem, Misty! Pikachu, add in a Thunderbolt!"

"Pi-ka-chuuuuu!" Pikachu's lightning and Gyarados' fire converged on Steelix, bathing him in heat and power. Steelix roared in pain, and that was the end. The attacks ceased and he fell.

Natty cheered them on with the gathered spectators. "Steelix is down, so Pikachu and Gyarados and Ash and Misty win the match!"

"Awesome work, Pikachu!" Ash exclaimed. Pikachu jumped into his arms for a hug, then climbed into his normal spot perched on Ash's hat.

"You were great, too, Gyarados. Return!" After he was recalled, Misty turned to Ash. "Excellent work, Ash. You're improving faster than I thought you could."

"Thanks," Ash said with a grin. "I've got a great coach." Misty smiled at the comment, which was enough to earn him a kiss. The dissipating crowd mustered a couple of hoots and whistles at them, which they successfully ignored.

Natty walked over to Brian. "It was a good try," she consoled. She spared a glance at the other couple. "And really, against the two of them, I don't think anybody would have much of a chance."

"Yeah, that's true," Brian noted. "They flow with each other. Together, they coordinate two Pokémon even better than one person could alone. And considering how good the two of them are alone, it's no surprise that they're nearly unstoppable together."

Natty smirked. "How good they both are alone? Brian, did you just give Ash a compliment?"

"Yeah." His voice lowered to a whisper as he spoke. "Don't tell him I said this, but… when he said he could beat me yesterday, he was closer to the truth than I thought."

Natty was surprised. "You really think he could have done it?"

"Oh, heavens no," Brian replied. "But he would give me a better run than most, and that's after training for, what, two years? And only one in the last seven? He's got something… something even I don't. His Pokémon pull off things that they shouldn't do at his level, and he forms strategies so quickly and effortlessly that he doesn't even know he's doing it. I don't know if he sees it, or even if Misty does, but he's really going to go far. He couldn't beat me today, but in a year he'd be close, and in two I bet I'd struggle to keep up. He'll be a Master, and soon. I have no doubt of that."

"Wow..." Natty said. "You felt all of that after just one battle?"

Brian let his voice rise to an audible level again. "Well, yeah. You train as long as I have, you learn a few things. And I really did want to know what Ash could do." He crossed the field.

"Still think I couldn't beat you?" Ash gloated as he approached.

"Without Misty's help? Heh. You would have about as much chance as Natty!" Brian retorted.

"I really should be insulted, but when he's right, he's right," Natty noted.

"Hey!" Ash exclaimed. "You can't boast at me! I won!"

"Actually, it's more like Misty won, and you stood very close to her," Brian corrected.

"You… I…" Ash sputtered. "Pikachu, Thundershock him!"

Just as angry as Ash, Pikachu started to spark. "Pika…"

"Oh no, you don't!" Brian yelled, grabbing Ash's arm. Not that that stopped Pikachu from shocking Brian one bit, but at least Ash got shocked with him.

"Ha!" Ash laughed as the attack ended. "Like I don't get Thundershocked at least twice a day as it is! I'm immune!"

"Hate… you…" Brian coughed out before falling over.

Misty and Natty joined Ash's laughter.

"So… what's next for you?" Misty asked, once Brian had picked himself up. "You're a Master, so you can hardly go around collecting badges somewhere."

"Well, right now, I'm going back to the Pokémon Center so I can re-heal the team you just demolished." He started walking, and his friends stepped into line beside him.

"You know that's not what I meant!" Misty yelled.

"Well, I don't quite know yet," he said seriously. He held out a hand to Natty, who graciously took it. "And I have another person to consider as well, so I'll have to talk to her about it."

"You could come with us," Ash offered.

"That's a great idea!" Misty agreed. "We'd love to have you travelling with us again!"

Pikachu nodded. "Pika, pika chu pika cha!"

"No," Brian said, shaking his head. "Maybe if I had lost here, but not as a Pokémon Master. I'm interested in seeing you develop, Ash, but I'd rather carve my own path, and I'd rather you carve your own as well. That being said…" Brian looked up, engrossed in thought. "It might not be such a terrible idea to see Johto. I've never been there, it's a lot closer to home, and you two will be nearby... yeah. What do you think, Natty?"

"I'm up for it," she replied. "Right now, I'm just seeing the world, and learning all I can about Pokémon so I can become a better Breeder. A trip through Johto couldn't hurt."

"Well, that's that, then. Johto it is!"

"So you're just going to go back with us, and then immediately split up?" Ash asked skeptically. "Because I get what you mean about not wanting to go the whole way together, but that's no reason to break apart every chance we get. We're friends."

"Yeah, Brian," Natty added as she stepped carefully over cracks in the pavement. "Why not spend a few days with them?"

"Well, when you put it that way…" He nodded. "I guess a few days together wouldn't kill anybody."

"Great!" Misty cheered.

Thinking about travelling with them again, Brian found himself looking forward to those days more than he had expected to. I've changed, he realized. He looked at the people around him. From the solitary person I've been since I lost everyone. Once I would have wanted to take off alone after this victory, but now… well, now I don't even know if I could. I don't even know if I could have achieved that victory without them. These people… Natty, Misty, and Ash… they're a part of me. I wonder… is that a change for the better, or for the worse?

"Brian?" Natty asked, concerned by the troubled look on his face. "What's up?"

"Oh, nothing," he replied. "Just thinking about…" He struggled for something to say. "Johto."

"Well, don't keep it to yourself, then!" Natty said with a smile. "Say what you're thinking?"

"Well…" he searched for something to say. "I'm a bit worried about food. Does Misty cook?"

"Oh, hell no!" Ash laughed. "She tried for a while, but eventually I took over. She's…"

"What am I, Ash?" Misty asked ominously.

Without missing a beat, he continued, "She's so good at so many other things that I guess she just doesn't have any skill left to waste on cooking."

Brian and Natty laughed and applauded. "Good save!" Natty commented.

Brian just grinned. Definitely for the better.

They crested a hill, and the Conference Center came into view. And, more importantly, the crowds outside came into view. And then a single voice spoke the most horrible words Brian had ever heard.

"There he is!"

Brian sighed. "Oh, hell."

A surge of fans and reporters ballooned out and ran towards Brian, and he prepared for the onslaught.

To his surprise, his friends moved in front of him, their hands out towards the mob.

"Don't worry, Brian!" Natty exclaimed.

Misty looked back and gave him a thumbs up. "We've always got your back!"

"Even against the world!" Ash laughed.

"Pika, pika chu!" Pikachu agreed.

Brian smiled sincerely, then held out a hand. "Okay! The sooner we get through this crowd, the sooner we can get to Johto! So let's do it together!"

They cheered and laughed, and then the group ran at the crowd.

And as the four people and Pikachu jostled and poked and laughed their way through the masses together, Brian thought one more time:

Yeah. Definitely for the better.

The End

Well, that's all I've got. I feel like the ending was a bit weak, but I just couldn't figure out where to end it. Please write a review, unless you don't want to. But it would make me happy if you would.

What's next? I don't know. I've got another Spiritverse short story in mind, this one about Ash's and Misty's day-to-day life. Don't know if I'll write it before or after Basic. I'm also plotting out both Resurgence and the true sequel to OCAD, which I will start publishing in that order around March. But whatever the case, wherever I'll crop up next, this has been your author, James, aka FTEcho 4, and this is me signing off! Catch you on the next story!