A/N: Well, here it is. The Conference. It's been a long journey, but I hope the payoff is worth it. This is a very short chapter – by my standards, at least – but I feel like it serves its purpose. Sorry for the long wait, but during the last month I had tests, a week of vacation, and a lot of other stuff going on. The Conference chapters will be pretty short, so they'll be out faster.

Enjoy! By the way, the League anthem is the main theme of the series.

"How can I – oh, it's you!" Janine said cheerfully as Ash walked into the gym. Ash just stared at her. The older girl was hanging from some of the low rafters without any visible strain, casually spinning a long, wickedly curved knife that gleamed in the dim torchlight of the gym.

Janine elegantly spun the knife into a sheath and dropped from the long wooden beam and landed nimbly on her feet, just like Sneasel. He'd known that the members of the Fuchsia gym trained their bodies and minds alongside their pokemon, but seeing just a small demonstration was far more impressive than simply hearing about it.

"Did you find it?" She asked eagerly. Janine crossed her arms and leaned heavily on one leg as she regarded him with barely restrained anticipation.

"I did." Ash smiled lightly. His mind flashed back to the events earlier in the day. He'd only just gotten back and dropped his friends off at the Center. If everything went according to plan he'd leave Fuchsia tomorrow and return to Pallet until the Conference. "You didn't give it justice."

Janine gave him a wry grin. "Hey, I've only actually seen it once. All most people need to know is to stay away from that thing. Most people who think they can take it don't come back."

He thought back to Rhydon's absolute power over rock, honed over a millennium of travels and combat. Combined with its overwhelming physical strength he could believe that the foolhardy that didn't take Rhydon seriously would be killed by the creature. A sad, rare truth but a truth nonetheless.

"Ah, so you found the Old One and presumably defeated it. An impressive feat, particularly for one so young." A deep, raspy voice said into his ear. Ash reflexively leapt and turned around. He wasn't surprised to see the lithe, powerfully built form of Koga.

"You have grown much since I last met you, Ash Ketchum." Koga greeted with a dip of his head. Interest twinkled in his dark eyes. "Would you care for a brief spar? I have not had an entertaining battle for a month now."

Ash frowned and shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I can't. My friends are still recovering from their battle with Rhydon. They're in no condition to battle at the moment."

"Of course, of course." Koga allowed. He gracefully walked around Ash to stand by Janine, who stared up at her father with adoring eyes. "Will you stay in the Fuchsia territories long?"

"I have to leave for home. The Conference is too close for me to go around adventuring." Ash said with a half-smile.

"Two weeks." Koga murmured as he ponderingly stroked his chin. He eyed Ash with his perceptive gaze. "I trust you will give the people of the League a good show? They enjoy grandiose displays of power, as does the Champion Lance."

Ash smiled. "That he does." His expression turned more serious. "If that's what my friends want to do. I'd prefer to only use what I have to, though."

"Wise." Koga commented. He gave Janine a glance that sent her away. Once she was out of sight he analyzed Ash and stalked closer, although it seemed to be more of a result of his training than an attempt at intimidation. Ash gazed up at the taller man, whose face was cast in the shadows he called home thanks to the dim torchlight. "The Champion has spoken to the gym leaders of what occurred two weeks ago."

His blood froze for the briefest instant. All he could think of for several seconds were the azure suns that regarded him with baleful malevolence and the brief glimpse of vibrant pink before darkness consumed him.

"My apologies. I forget that your mind has not been trained to weather traumatizing situations." The ninja said softly. It created an unsettling effect when combined with his harsh, raspy voice. "Are you alright?"

"Yes." Ash sucked in a mouthful of oxygen to heat his blood once more. "I'm fine, sorry."

"Do not apologize." Koga said sharply. When Ash looked at him strangely his features relaxed. "Fear is not shameful. You are experienced and strong, but you are yet a child. The body may heal, but the mind is not always so resilient. It is such in your situation."

Koga sighed and looked weary. "Your mind will heal, given time. I advise that you speak to Sabrina, however. She may assist you with your mental ills."

"Thank you." Ash whispered, very tired all of a sudden. He had gotten over New Island for the most part. His memories weren't explicit enough for him to truly hold onto it, although he still remembered most of it quite clearly. But Koga had given him good advice. He was tired of his mind, which should have been his sanctum, leading him into horrors at the mere mention of Giovanni or Mewtwo. Perhaps Sabrina would be able to help him.

The gym leader smiled, which looked rather out of place on his stoic face. "You are welcome. However, it was my original intention to thank you. I do not know the full extent of your involvement, but Lance was adamant that you played a role in the neutralization of the Creature."

Ash made out to protest, but Koga raised a calloused hand. Perhaps Mewtwo's attempt to utterly destroy his mind had crippled the Creature, but Mew was the one that had fought Mewtwo to a standstill even before the merge. Ash had only been of assistance through a miraculous stroke of luck and Mewtwo's own arrogance.

"I do not know what occurred and you do not need to tell me." Koga said firmly. "What's done is done and I do not seek to reopen scabbing wounds. I simply desire to thank you for whatever role you played, no matter how small. My people suffered greatly under the Creature's wrath and you helped to stop it."

Koga somberly bowed his head in respect. "Hundreds died and many more were made homeless, but it could have been many times worse. Thank you for your assistance. Fuchsia and the clan of Koga is in your debt. Should you ever require aid we will be waiting."

Ash nodded gratefully, a little stunned. Not many people could claim to have Koga owe them favors. It wasn't as though he often gave them out. Koga was highly self-sufficient. His small force was enough to police his entire territory, so long as there were a few Rangers wandering around to supplement it. Few people even had the opportunity to assist the Fuchsia gym.

"Thank you." He said calmly, not quite sure how one was supposed to respond to such a statement. "I hope you don't take offence if I say that I hope I never need it."

"Of course not!" Koga laughed, a sound Ash never expected to hear from the stoic gym leader. He crossed his arms and cocked his head. His eyes glittered with keen intelligence in their shadowed position as he sobered. "Regardless, we are here."

Koga turned and almost began to move away in his graceful manner when he suddenly looked back at Ash. "I'm afraid that I have many duties to attend to. Progress has been made, but my people still need me. I will be available to battle after the Conference, should you so desire."

Ash just nodded, which seemed to be enough for Koga to be satisfied. The edges of the lithe man's mouth curled up before he walked away. He watched for a few moments before he shrugged off the abrupt end to their conversation and left the gym. His friends would probably want to see him.

XX

Ash felt a little queasy as he put in Professor Oak's number. He didn't exactly enjoy being in trouble. It had been a rare occurrence thanks to the watchful eyes of Arcanine whenever he and Gary had played around the Corral so he hadn't had to worry about it too much.

That didn't mean he didn't know the feeling. And it certainly didn't mean that he was unaware of the consequences of his actions. He had made a grave mistake in avoiding his mother for so long and he was about to reap the results. It was not a good feeling.

He steeled himself for the Professor's anger. The last few times he had spoken to Oak the older man had been stressed and on edge. Knowing that Ash had broken a promise to him wouldn't help his attitude.

The phone picked up almost immediately and Ash unconsciously pulled back when he saw Professor Oak's stern countenance that was filled to the brim with frozen anger.

"Ash. It's been awhile since you called." Oak said calmly. Several empty mugs of coffee were on the table beside him and his face was taught with stress. His eyes were red and it looked like he hadn't slept for several nights. "You're well, I presume?"

"Yes sir." Ash said hesitantly. Oak watched him with his stern gaze that betrayed nothing. The man absentmindedly tinkered with a strange purple pokeball that Ash vaguely remembered seeing him with before. This time, however, he didn't bother hiding it. Oak's hands shook a little but continued to work with the incredible precision one would expect from the Professor.

"Your mother has been worried about you." The Professor said icily. Ash uncomfortably pulled at the neckline of his shirt, which was freshly cleaned in the Pokemon Center's facilities. It seemed far too tight all of a sudden. Oak leaned forward and fixed his bright eyes on Ash's. "Please tell me why she never received your call? I distinctly remember you promising to make one to her. My mind's not so far gone that I can't recall that."

He looked away. Professor Oak finally wore his scowl openly. It wasn't a pleasant sight and reminded Ash why so many respected the Professor. Oak would never lose his steel. No matter how genuinely pleasant he was, he was still the man who had trained a Charizard to the point where it could easily battle a Champion-level Dragonite.

That reminded Ash to look deeper into Professor Oak's history. Whenever he had looked through the Pokedex archives or in the Pokemon Centers' computers he could never find any sort of official rank the Professor had held, which was an impossibility considering how powerful his pokemon were. All the archives had mentioned was that he was a notable trainer in his younger years before he had abandoned training in favor of academic pursuits.

"Well?" The Professor's harsh inquest snapped Ash back into reality. He sheepishly rubbed the back of his head and looked away again, mind racing. "Care to give me an explanation?"

"Mewtwo told me something." Ash unwillingly admitted. It just slipped out. There was none of the familiar pressure he felt that kept him from speaking freely, so he assumed that it was safe. Unfortunately he wasn't quite sure how to continue.

Some of the anger drifted away from Oak's expression and was replaced with concern. That wasn't to say that he wasn't still angry. Far from it.

"What did it say?" The older man asked urgently, apparently worried about the glazed look Ash's eyes had taken on for a moment. Judging from his lack of outward surprise he assumed that Lance had informed him of the situation with Mewtwo.

"He – he said I was Giovanni's spawn." Ash spat out, uncharacteristically vehement. His fists tightened and he wanted to punch something until it broke. "That his sins passed onto me!"

Ash looked up at Professor Oak with desperate, haunted eyes. "It was lying, right? Do you know?" He asked of the Professor, who had frozen as if in shock. Oak shut his mouth and looked drained. "Please, tell me!"

"You need to come home right now." Oak said quietly, voice soft for the first time since he answered Ash's call. His eyes flitted to the side of the screen, presumably where it listed Ash's location. "Alakazam will be waiting outside."

He opened his mouth confusedly to ask some more questions, but Oak just shushed him and cut off the call. Ash sighed and let all of the tension flow out with it. He had to remain calm, even though Professor Oak's reaction was as good as an admission.

Ash fought the thoughts away and resolved not to think of that unthinkable truth until he could get solid answers. Ignoring his problem hadn't worked well when he hadn't spoken to his mother for nearly two weeks when she was worried sick about him, but this was different. This would be resolved.

His friends were arrayed on his belt. Three pokeball slots were still empty. Ash lightly let his hand brush over all of his friends in turn, letting their indirect contact comfort him. He took one more deep breath and turned from the black screen of the Pokemon Center's video phone. After a few moments he turned and in no time at all found himself outside the Pokemon Center.

As usual Alakazam waited outside for him. She stood a little out of the way of the sluggish stream of people walking through Fuchsia. Very few noticed her, so she was probably projecting an illusion of some sort.

Her wise eyes regarded him before he could even begin to call out to the psychic. Ash flinched as he felt a soothing mental pressure, although it flitted away almost instantly. Alakazam's eyes glowed luminously in the daylight, although not in the icy blue that he had come to despise. It was her own power that flooded through her body, soft and bright.

You have suffered, little human. I am sorry.

The same gentle voice as when she'd teleported him to the wharf spoke. Unlike Dazed her smooth voice was clear and distinct. It didn't echo in the least. She sounded like she was communicating with him verbally.

Now that he'd gotten over his shock he could analyze her voice more. Although it was gentle and almost maternal when she spoke to him it held the hint of power. The tone sounded almost false, although the core was true. It felt like her normal voice was harsh and direct. She was taking care for him, it seemed.

If she noted his mental ruminations she did not comment on them. Alakazam simply stared at him and he felt compelled to come closer. She watched him carefully and did not teleport him immediately as he had expected her to.

It is a shame that you were forced into contact with the Blight. The young should never have to suffer for the mistakes of the old.

Ash uncomfortably kicked the ground with his worn shoes. He idly noted that he'd need to obtain new ones soon. This was the fourth pair he'd gone through since he began traveling.

Alakazam's weary eyes crinkled at the edges. They still burned with power rivalled only by Sabrina's famed partner.

But I thank you, child. The world was twisted by the Blight's rage. Corruption writhed around it as tendrils of chaotic emotion. Through your sacrifice balance has been restored.

He nodded numbly, still uneasy with Alakazam's words. She must have been more powerful than he thought if she had been capable of feeling Mewtwo's presence as it stretched across Kanto. Perhaps that had been why she had been even more irritable than normal over the last few months. Ash remembered Professor Oak commenting on it at some point or another.

"Thank you." Ash replied after a few moments of terse silence. Alakazam nodded and shut her eyes. He saw a flash of bright light before he seamlessly appeared outside of his home hundreds of miles away from the ancient buildings of Fuchsia.

Live well.

Alakazam murmured into his mind before she warped away, probably to her lonely meditation chamber in the Professor's home. Ash took a deep breath and glanced around. Pallet was gray and dull. A light flurry of snowflakes danced and leapt in the air around him, a veil of tiny white crystals. It was late for snow. This would probably be the last time the frozen water fell from the sky until next year.

He assumed that it was probably due to Mewtwo's storm so violently disrupting natural weather patterns. The League would probably step in with those Castform from Hoenn to resolve any oddities and set the original path of nature back on track. It was their responsibility to maintain balance.

The trainer stood silently, a lone figure in the swirling snow that blanketed Pallet in pure white. He stared at his door, uncertainty fighting him with passion he rarely felt. Ash wanted to see his mother again, but he was afraid of what her reaction to seeing him would be. Anger? Sorrow? Concern? All three were more than possible.

Ash grit his teeth and steeled himself. He stepped forward and knocked on the door. The cold and wind gnawed at him hungrily as he waited on the doorstep, a dusting of snowflakes slowly gathering atop his shoulders.

He took his hat off and felt the freezing air bite at his scalp and the wind blow his long hair. Ash needed to get it cut sometime soon. It had been an afterthought for a very long time, but he'd like to look his best for the Conference.

His thoughts, meant to take his mind off of the judgment that would soon come, were reduced to nothing when the door creaked open. Ash stared at his mother, who stared intently at him for a moment before she rushed forward and wrapped him up in a crushing hug. He briefly wondered how such a slim woman could be so strong, but the struggle for precious oxygen soon overcame those mutterings of the mind.

"Ash!" She laughed into his ear and crushed him tighter. His smile became genuine and he hugged her back. Soon enough she pulled back and her glee shifted to anger. "What did you think you were doing, not calling me for so long?! I was worried sick!"

"Sorry." He whispered. His voice didn't seem to want to obey his commands. Ash felt his mother's hands grab his shoulders and he was forced to stare into her warm brown eyes that were lit up with concern.

"Is that all? No explanation? Nothing?" His mother asked with a sad frown. Her eyes flashed. "What happened? I know there's a reason you didn't call."

So Professor Oak hadn't told her. Ash figured that the good Professor wanted Ash to be the one to explain everything. He made to speak, but his tongue refused him. Frustrated, the boy changed subjects. This could come later, when the psychic presence would loosen the mental chains that bound him.

"I promise I'll tell you." Ash said seriously, a bit of a waver in his voice. He hadn't had to really talk about everything before. Lance had heard an abridged version of the tale, but to actually explain the full events that happened at New Island would be difficult. "I just need some time."

"You've had two weeks!" His mother exploded, pulling him inside with a surprisingly strong grip. Her eyes blazed with the fire that so few realized and he quickly seated himself beside the battered wooden table they ate at. As he tried to make himself comfortable and glanced away from her fury she sat down across from him.

Her anger was already blunted. His mother was terrifying when she was furious but she'd always had difficulty actually staying angry.

"Please tell me what happened. I'm here for you, Ash. You can talk to me!" She said pleadingly. Ash glanced away from her brown eyes again, regret bubbling in his stomach. This was difficult. He'd never really been good at emotional discussions. Battling was easy. Feelings? Feelings were hard.

"I want to, but I can't." He said. It even sounded unconvincing to his own ears. Ash cursed Mewtwo for taking his body's freedom away. There was nothing he could do to fight it. Not yet, anyway.

His mother's eyes narrowed dangerously at that declaration and she started, but Ash cut her off. If he couldn't tell her of the events that transpired at New Island he could get his own answers.

"Who was my father?"

Whatever words were on his mother's lips died. Her face was ashen as she took a deep breath and leaned away from him.

"Why do you ask that?" She said slowly, voice bereft of anger. It just sounded afraid now; hesitant.

"Something that was said to me." Ash replied quietly. He awkwardly ran a hand through his black hair. This wasn't a situation he liked. It looked like his mother was in pain from his question, which was unacceptable in his eyes. He felt guilt bubble up in his stomach from hurting her.

Ash watched his mother raptly. He'd thought of his father, of course, but it had never been a big deal. It was his mother that was always there for him. She had taken care of him and given up everything for him. She had been studying under Professor Oak and was on a fast track to being a notable figure in the academic community before she'd had to drop it all for him.

Since he'd been content with just his mother he'd never thought too much of his father. Sure he'd been curious but as he grew older that faded away. All his mother had told him that his father was a trainer still on his journey. From the sad, wistful look in her eyes whenever she spoke of him Ash had figured that he was dead or had left them.

His nostrils flared slightly. If what Mewtwo said was true then it meant that his mother hadn't been lying. Not completely. But his father's "journey" was very different than anything he could have envisioned.

"What did they tell you?" She asked, tired. His mother didn't bother asking who. Perhaps she assumed that he wouldn't tell her. In that case she would be right. Ash probably wouldn't be able to tell her thanks to his mental bonds.

"That Giovanni," he spat the name and saw Delia's eyes widen, "is my father."

She buried her face in her hands. "Oh no…"

Ash squeezed his eyes shut at his mother's expression of pain and tentatively stretched out his hand to squeeze her shoulder. His mother raised her head and brushed a few stray hairs back into position. She smiled tearfully at him and squeezed his hand in return, thankful for the comfort.

"I'm sorry." She wiped her eyes. "I'd wanted to wait a long time before I talked to you about this. But now you know and I can't hide you from the truth anymore."

"I can handle it." Ash promised. Any anger or that horrible fear he had felt was replaced with the need to comfort his mother. He hated seeing her like this.

She nodded again and kept a tight grip on his hand. His mother stared at him but it seemed as though she were gazing far into the past. Ash just patiently waited for her to speak. He wouldn't rush her.

"I met him while we were attending a conference in Viridan. Spencer and I went up with Professor Oak so that we could intern in some of the labs he had contacts in." She recalled, face tight. "Professor Oak took us to a banquet so we could meet some of his old friends. While I was talking to Professor Blaine Giovanni came up."

A nostalgic look flashed across her expressive features before she scowled. "You met Giovanni. You know what he's like. I was just a girl. I didn't know how to react to him."

"What was so special about him?" Ash asked. He kept any scorn for Giovanni out of his voice. This legitimately interested him. His mother was a good person. Why would she ever fall for someone like the former gym leader?

"So, so much." She sighed. "He was handsome, charismatic, and intelligent. I didn't even know that he was the Viridian gym leader back then, but he just stood out. There was a light in him that couldn't be quenched. Everybody knew that he was born to be great."

Ash held back a snort of disgust at the comment. Greatness came in many forms. Giovanni had picked the lowest of them.

His mother raised her head and frowned at him. "I know it's hard for you to understand now that you know what he is. But nobody who met him back then could imagine that he could fall as far as he has. Back then he was a rising star, somebody you wanted to know."

He nodded sourly.

"He was good at keeping people at his beck and call, too." She recalled. "Giovanni was more charismatic than almost anyone else I've ever met. There was just something about him that could draw everyone in. Maybe it was his mind, maybe his looks, or maybe it was just how passionate he was about everything."

Ash's right eyebrow raised in surprise. Passionate? He'd only met Giovanni once, but the man had been frozen. Polite and cold. He couldn't even comprehend Giovanni expressing emotion.

His mother shook her head after he verbally expressed his thoughts. "He's changed. The Giovanni I knew was a fire that couldn't be quenched. He was composed, but he was always fierce and firm in his beliefs."

All that garnered was another thoughtful frown from Ash. His mother painted a far different picture of Giovanni than what he had built in his mind.

"Anyways, where was I?" She asked rhetorically. It didn't take her long to remember. "We talked for a little while and he ended up asking me to dinner the next night. I was too infatuated with him to refuse, so I went along with it."

A slightly pained look came over her face as his mother recalled old memories. "I was drawn into his web almost immediately. You won't really understand it until you meet that special someone and fall in love."

Her hands shook a little. Ash waited patiently and squeezed her hand tighter, although he tried not to show that he'd noticed. It was hard to know what he was really supposed to do. His mother didn't often show this side of her. Most of the time she was so cheerful that he'd never needed to comfort her.

"We dated for about a year and a half. We couldn't always be together since I had my studies and he had his responsibilities as a gym leader, but I was with him whenever I could spare the time." She said bitterly. "I was in love. I thought he was the sun and the moon and everything in between. Giovanni could do no wrong. He was brilliant, kind, and strong."

"And then?" Ash prompted after his mother lapsed into a long silence. She recollected herself and continued, her voice hard as the steel that hid within her.

"Then we got engaged. It caused quite an uproar, I'll tell you." She said with a bit of acidic humor. "The poor girl from Pallet and Viridian's prince. Some people were less than supportive."

His mother's face was thoughtful for a few moments as she decided how to continue. Her fingers nervously tapped the couch's armrest, one of the more blatant signs of her discomfort. Ash could tell that she didn't think she would have had to have this talk with him for a long time yet.

She finally continued. Ash was surprised at how anxious he was to actually hear about Giovanni. It wasn't that he wanted to understand the traitor. He wanted to understand his mother.

"I'd never been in Giovanni's personal life. It was a consequence of our mutual responsibilities." She sighed, wistfulness painted over her. "We were close, sure, but I had never been around him for more than a week or so. When I moved in with him things fell apart."

"Whenever I was with him we'd never been around people. I'd met a few of his friends and associates, but most of the time we were alone. He was always very polite to waiters and workers." She smiled, although it twisted into one of her rare scowls. "It wasn't until we'd been living together for about a month that his façade started to crack and I found out who he really was."

"First and foremost, Giovanni is an actor. Or he was. I don't know anymore." She said with a shake of her head. "He knew how to pull everybody's strings. He could mold himself to be what anybody wanted. If there was something he wanted he would get it. I learned that the hard way."

Ash listened and let his mother continue in silence. She was spilling her deepest thoughts to him now. To interrupt would be a terrible offense.

"He'd been playing me." She sighed, a bit of the heartbreak she must have suffered infused into her words. "Once I moved in he couldn't keep it up. He was still affectionate and I'd like to think he really did love me, but to everyone but me and his Persian he was cruel."

"Things fell apart. He became less and less human. It didn't take long for him to try and control everything I did and he was rather…unkind…when I didn't put up with it. I only rarely left the house and I fell behind in my studies." She said with a low growl. "I'm afraid to say that it took me a long time to decide enough was enough."

Delia picked up a glass of water that sat on the table. Condensation dripped down it in a liquid layer as she took a sip and returned it to the table. The drink seemed to refresh her and her eyes lost some of the glaze that had covered them as she told her story.

"I came back to Pallet to pick up my things and tell Professor Oak that I'd be taking an indefinite leave from my education. Giovanni had fallen off of his pedestal but I was still in love. It makes you do stupid things." She said with a wistful shake of her head. "But Professor Oak knew me well enough to tell that something was wrong. He sat me down and got everything from me."

"Professor Oak made me promise to come back to Pallet if I ever got scared or if Giovanni hurt me. I didn't want to believe that it would ever come to that, but I could finally see clearly again after knowing Giovanni for what he was." His mother reminisced with a dark look that twisted her face with malice. "The part of me that could actually think kept it in the back of my mind, though. I never forgot Professor Oak or what he was willing to do for me."

Her small fists clenched. "When I went back to Viridian everything calmed down. Giovanni was polite and perfect again, just like he was when we'd just been waiting. I was a bit worried, but I was just too happy to think much of it."

"The calm lasted until a month before we were supposed to get married, which is when I found out I was pregnant with you." She said, finally giving him a true smile. Ash hesitantly returned it. "Giovanni wasn't happy. It threw a wrench in whatever plans he had, and he hated that. He hated having his clear, direct course thrown into chaos by a new variable."

"He was many things," his mother mused, "but adaptive wasn't one of them. If something went wrong he'd always make stupid mistakes, even though he was smart enough to work around it. It was his only great failing – outside of being a decent human being, anyway."

"That was the last straw for me. He finally lost control at the news. He never hit me, but he said things that I won't repeat about you." Her eyes blazed with righteous anger. "I left. I took my few possessions and ran. That was the first time I'd ever been really scared of him. Giovanni had been annoyed and cruel before, but he'd never lost control. I didn't think him capable of it. He was terrifying, and I realized that I couldn't go on living a half-life hidden in the shadow of a man who was willing to speak of his own child like that."

"I wasn't thinking when I ran away." She admitted. "Giovanni had too much power in Viridian for me to stay, so I started walking back to Pallet. It wouldn't be too hard for him to track me, but I knew that he wouldn't actually believe I'd left him for another few hours."

She shook her head at her own rashness. "There are much more dangerous places in Kanto than the route between Pallet Town and Viridian, but without a pokemon it was still terrifying. I couldn't have protected myself against anything – and it wasn't the wild pokemon that I was worried about. The pokemon here are newly hatched for the most part."

"I was never a trainer. I had no idea how to survive out there. It was a miracle that I escaped from the gym trainers Giovanni sent after me." His mother mused. "But I did. Eventually I wound up at Pallet Town dirty, sweaty, and exhausted. Professor Oak took me in and gave me a place to stay for a while."

"Giovanni knew where I went." Her fists clenched. "It was pretty obvious, especially to someone as cunning as he was. He knew how I thought better than I did. He showed up a few days later. He wasn't anything like he had been before. He was polite and charming as he asked Professor Oak to give his bride-to-be back."

"Professor Oak trusted my word and sent him away with a promise that he wouldn't let Giovanni near me if I didn't allow it – and that he would keep that promise with force if it was required." Delia said with a soft smile. "Giovanni was one of the strongest trainers in the League, but even he knew that he wouldn't be able to fight Professor Oak. He left and didn't return."

"After he left I started to reclaim my life. I had been addicted to him and it ruined any judgment I had." She said, disappointed in herself. "I renewed my studies and kept close to Professor Oak and Spencer. That whole time I was worried, though. Giovanni was a relentless man. If he wanted something he would get it. If he thought something was his he wouldn't let it escape his grasp."

"He thought that I belonged to him." She hissed, soft brown eyes hardened into shards of discolored ice. "I knew he would try something eventually, though, so Professor Oak took it to the upper echelons of the League. He hadn't actually done anything illegal, but gym leaders are expected to be paragons of their community. Any serious concerns about their moral fiber is taken to the top."

Ash couldn't stop himself from interrupting. "The Elite Four…"

"Not quite." His mother smiled at him. It was disturbingly vindictive. Her eyes gleamed with malice hidden deep inside of her for far too long. "The Champion."

She unconsciously squeezed his hand. Ash just watched her attentively. His mother had stopped looking like she was about to break down a long time ago. The tears were gone. All that remained was steel and fire.

"Normally a concern addressed by Professor Oak would be enough to have any member of the League outside of the Elite Four stripped of their title. Gym leaders are too important for there to be any worries about their character. Champion Lance would come down on them in a storm of fire, ice, and lightning." Delia smiled, although it twisted into a frown almost immediately. "But it wasn't Champion Lance that Professor Oak spoke to. It was still another four years before he would ascend to the Champion's throne."

"Lance is like a hero out of a story book. He holds himself and the League he commands to very high standards. He would sacrifice everything to make a wrong right and protect the weak." His mother reminisced fondly. "Champion Marcus was very different. Much more political."

She took another sip of water. "There wasn't really enough evidence to get Giovanni thrown out of his gym, anyways. Professor Oak just wanted to raise some suspicions about Giovanni. But even if there were I doubt that Marcus would have done it. Giovanni was too good at his job to let go. He was willing to overlook a few indiscretions if it meant Viridian's criminals stayed quiet."

"It didn't matter in the end. Marcus was dethroned a year later, even though Lance didn't become Champion for another three. But it kept everyone's eyes on Viridian. Lance didn't trust Giovanni. That's what Professor Oak told me, at any rate." She smiled softly. It looked like some of the hate had seeped out of her. "I guess it paid off in the end."

Ash just sat there as he processed everything. It was a lot of information to take in, but he felt like he could already recall the entire conversation word for word. He couldn't have forgotten it even if he wanted to.

He ceased his thoughts when it seemed that his mother wasn't quite done.

"Everything was quiet for the next few months. I stopped studying and focused on the restaurant my mother left me." Delia sniffed. "By the time you were born it was running pretty smoothly again. Professor Oak's influence and threats protected us from anything Giovanni might try to pull. The rest is history."

A thought seemed to pass through her sharp mind.

"I never knew anything about his involvement in Team Rocket, if you were wondering." She sighed. "I'd suspected he had a few shady dealings thanks to some of his behavior while we were engaged, but I never even suspected he was involved with them. I'm just glad that's over and done with – Giovanni and Team Rocket are gone. They can't hurt anyone anymore."

She crinkled her eyes at him as a smile spread across her face, a true one that banished the darkness that had consumed her visage for the last few minutes. Ash smiled back. It wasn't hesitant this time.

"Thanks for telling me." He said quietly, not really sure what else he could possibly say. Was there anything else he could communicate to his mother?

"You're welcome. I'm so sorry you had to find out like this. I'd always wanted you to have more time." His mother said softly. She looked at him, a hint of worry in her brown eyes. "You don't…?"

He shook his head frantically at the question his mother couldn't even finish. "Of course not!"

Relief passed over her features and she seemed to sag down into the chair. She looked exhausted, completely drained emotionally from the long sealed memories that had been crudely yanked up from their deep-seated roots.

"Do you have any questions? You deserve the truth and I won't hide anything from you. Not anymore." Her voice washed over his ears. He sat back against the soft cushion of the sofa and thought.

"I won't end up like him, will I?" The question slipped out of his lips. Ash looked away the moment he asked it, aware and ashamed of how childish it was the second he'd said it. "Sorry."

Before he knew it he was wrapped up in the warm arms of his mother. It wasn't meant to crush every bone in his body and make him squirm and gasp for air, but to reassure and comfort. Ash returned it as best he could, although he still mentally scolded himself for letting that stupid question get out in the first place.

His mother pulled back and looked him firmly in the eyes. She held a tight grip on his shoulders, her strength more than a match for any that he might muster.

"You are not Giovanni!" She said firmly, fiery eyes blazing with life. "You're similar…so, so similar. You have his intelligence, his will, even his looks. But you are not him." His mother stressed.

She tucked an errant lock of hair away from his face. "You have the same fire as he does. You were born to be great, Ash. You were born to change the world. In that way you're the same.

"Giovanni's missing something. He can act like a normal person, but his true self is harsh, cruel and manipulative. You have a good heart. You're what he could have been, in a better world."

Ash nodded slowly, still embarrassed at the question he'd asked. His mother's answer was almost exactly as he'd expected. He knew that he wouldn't end up like Giovanni. The traitor might be his father, but he had no part in his upbringing. It was his mother that had raised him and shaped him into who he was.

"Thank you." He mumbled. His mother's tight grip on him relaxed.

He had a slight frown as he continued to think over everything he learned. Ash needed some time to himself.

"I'm going to my room for a while. If you need anything…" He trailed off, the rest of the sentence clear. His mother smiled softly and waved him off. Ash stood up from the couch, his legs moving in an almost awkward manner as they were commanded by his dazed mind, and walked up the stairs.

"I'll call you down for dinner!" His mother shouted up to him when he stepped into his room. A smile played across his lips at the return to normalcy, although it faded as he looked into his mirror. Ash pulled out his pokedex and quickly searched the database for Giovanni's League profile. It was still up, although edits had been made since he openly betrayed the League and returned to Team Rocket's fold.

Ash glanced down at Giovanni's picture. The man's features were just as he remembered them: Sharp and somewhat aristocratic. His eyes were dark and had a keen intelligence evident even in the static shadow of him captured in the picture.

There were similarities, now that he looked. Ash had the same sort of bone structure and facial shape, although it looked to have been softened by his mother's influence. His hair was about the same shade of black, a tad darker if one looked carefully. He hadn't inherited the traitor's dark, cold eyes, though. Those were much more similar to his mother's, although a soft brown rather than her amber.

He sighed and sat down on his bed, which bent under his light weight. Ash idly noted that his room looked to have been freshly cleaned. His mother had been getting everything ready for his visit, it seemed.

Another flash of guilt. He hadn't made the best decision, although it looked like everything had worked out in the end. Ash had learned the truth and his mother seemed relieved at finally telling her story. He couldn't imagine having to keep that knowledge secure for years on end, just waiting for the right opportunity to try and explain everything.

Ash idly noted his own dull acceptance of the knowledge. Some people probably would have been furious or railed on about the injustice. Some people probably would have been sad.

He was neither. Ash just felt sort of tired. Giovanni was his father. There was nothing he could do to change that. All he could do was try to right the wrongs that Giovanni had left in his wake. His mother said that he and Giovanni had the same light in them, the same potential for greatness.

The father had used that potential in all the wrong ways. If what Petrel had implied was correct than Giovanni was Team Rocket's leader. He'd conquered Kanto's underworld and united it in ruthless progress. For a decade it had been the one threat to the League, although Giovanni had been intelligent enough to keep it at the point to where the League didn't feel the need to directly oppose it.

Great wrongs had been done by Giovanni. Innocents had been killed on his orders. Pokemon and trainers alike killed or enslaved. Terror had been spread. Pokemon were forced to undergo sick experiments that twisted them into faded mockeries of their former selves, fit only for battle and savagery. He had even defiled Mew's essence and corrupted the Guardian of Life's DNA into a monster.

The son would do his best to make the world a better place in turn. Mewtwo had said that the sins of the father passed onto the son. Ash didn't believe that, but he'd do his best to do penance for Giovanni's atrocities. He could do so much. It was time to get started.

On that note he laid back in his bed and closed his eyes. He didn't sleep, however. There were far too many errant thoughts floating around in his brain for him to even consider taking a nap.

Just because he'd accepted that Giovanni was his father didn't mean that he was done thinking about it. There was so much to think over now…

XX

"Ash?" The firm, steady voice of Professor Oak asked quietly as he came up behind the lazily reclining boy. Arcanine followed behind him, his huge tongue lolling out happily as he pranced through the fields of the Corral with nimbleness unexpected for such an old specimen. Several Growlithe, now almost fully grown, raced behind him and playfully spat small sprays of sparks and embers at each other.

"Hey, Professor!" He greeted cheerfully from where he laid on the exposed, scorched layer of soil that Infernus had blasted for him several hours ago. It was rather comfortable once Dazed had drained some of the heat out. The grass around him was still dead for the most part, although some of the innumerable blades had early green threaded throughout.

Sneasel, who was curled up on his chest, opened one eye and hissed in annoyance as he saw the Growlithe. During their last stay at the Corral they had learned that Sneasel was a great toy. He was fast and had great endurance that let them chase after the spitting, puffed up Sneasel for hours on end, but more importantly he could do little to harm them. His ice was practically useless against the small pack while their flames would send him scurrying for cover.

His claws would have been deadly if he'd ever had the opportunity to use them. Unfortunately for Sneasel, however, Arcanine always kept a watchful eye over them. Sneasel was fast. Arcanine was exponentially faster. Sneasel's Quick Attack would be enough to get one good shot in, but Arcanine had been a master of Extreme Speed for decades. He'd have knocked Sneasel out before the ice-type had even begun his attack.

As such, the Growlithe pack so no harm in endlessly tormenting Sneasel, only dissuaded when Tangrowth, their object of affection second only to Arcanine, whined and gurgled for them to stop. Few of Ash's friends were willing to step in aside from the grass-type. Sneasel hadn't done much to make friends.

"Your mother spoke to me this morning. You know everything now." He said quietly. "Delia said that you were handling it well. I just wanted to speak with you."

Ash sat up. Sneasel hissed angrily at the unexpected movement, although a quick scratch behind his feather placated the snarling dark-type.

"What about?" Ash inquired with a frown. His jovial mood from earlier shifted to a more serious one. It looked like his one day of vacation would have a brief interruption.

"The Conference." Professor Oak stepped forward and took a seat next to Ash. He grunted softly as his back bent, although he straightened up quickly. "It's just around the corner. I just wanted to make sure you weren't worrying over it."

Ash smiled up at the Professor, any stress he might have had leaking away. "No, I'm fine."

"Really?" The Professor raised an eyebrow. "I must say that I'm surprised. Gary's having some anxiety regarding it. I tried to help him with it when he was here last month."

He let the mention of Gary go. Ash couldn't help but hope that he'd get to battle Gary. They'd never gotten to truly test each other's skills. All of their matches had been unsatisfactory, to say the least. He was confident that he was superior to his rival, but he'd like to force Gary into a match that he couldn't run away from. That was when their true colors would be revealed and the better would be crowned.

"I'm confident in our strength. We're ready." Ash said without hesitation. "We'll fight our hardest. However far we get, we've earned it."

"True, true." Oak agreed. His eyes watched Ash carefully. "As soon as I heard about your progress I was sure you would go far in the Conference, just like Gary. You share a rare bond with your team that will serve you very well. Now that Lance has taken you under his wing I can only imagine what kind of tricks you'll pull."

Ash met the Professor's dark eyes, surprised at the statement. "Thank you."

"Your mother and I will both be at the Conference to support you and Gary, you know. If you and Gary are paired up I hope you don't mind if I root for him." Oak smiled. Ash cracked a small grin back, although he didn't say anything. "He is my grandson, after all.

Professor Oak was silent again as he gathered his thoughts.

"I don't think you have to be told that Delia is proud of you. She can't go a moment without mentioning you and everything you've accomplished." The Professor remarked with a wry grin. Ash smiled to himself but didn't let anything slip. "But you should know that I am too."

Ash started and looked up at the Professor with wide eyes. His look of surprise faded slightly and was covered with an uncontrollable grin that split his face until his cheeks hurt as Professor Oak laid a rough, calloused hand on his shoulder and met his eyes.

"You've grown up a lot since you left with that little Nidoran. You two were a perfect match." Oak recalled fondly as he shifted his vision to look into the soft blue sky that stretched over the endless fields and forests of the Corral. "One with dreams of greatness and one who was willing to give up anything to fulfill those fantasies."

"You recall that day well, I'm sure. It's impossible to forget the day you venture out into the world with nothing but a lifelong partner and youthful curiosity." Oak reminisced nostalgically. He shook his head and cracked a grin. "Ah, I'm sorry. I've picked up a tendency to ramble in my old age."

The younger trainer just snorted in dry amusement. Professor Oak's mind was just as sharp as ever. He couldn't believe that the Professor would ever let his train of thought slip away.

"I know you're ready for the Conference, but what will you do afterwards?" The Professor inquired. He sounded genuinely curious. "You've grown strong, but you're still inexperienced."

Ash opened his mouth to protest that statement, but Professor Oak raised a hand. The stern command imparted by his dark eyes kept Ash quiet.

"You're still young." Oak explained. When Ash's face revealed that he wasn't satisfied, the older man elaborated. "How do I say this?" He pondered. "You've experienced a lot, Ash. You've seen and done more in your first year than many trainers do in their lifetimes. But you've only scratched the surface. No matter how strong you and your team are now, you can only become greater. Time isn't your ally yet. I know that you've experimented with new techniques, but you need time to reach your full potential. Time to grow, time to learn, and time to train."

"When you look at yourself in a year or two you'll understand." Oak smiled, as though he had just told a joke that only he understood. "Trust me. You won't recognize your own strength."

He nodded slowly, finally understanding. It was no wonder that so many institutes wanted Professor Oak to teach. Not only was he one of the most knowledgeable individuals in the entire world, he was a born teacher as well. When he said something it made sense.

"So, what will you do?" The Professor continued. "Will you stay in Kanto and train in the wilds? Will you travel to other regions and challenge their Leagues? There's an entire world out there."

Ash held his chin in errant thought. He looked up at the sun, which was hidden behind a wispy white cloud. He honestly wasn't sure. As much thought as he'd put into preparing for the Conference he'd never truly considered what to do afterwards. The Conference had been a final destination of sorts for nearly a year now.

He didn't want to stay in Kanto unless he was able to train under one of the Elite Four. As appealing as the thought of existing far away from civilization in the peace and harmony of the wilderness with his team was, he felt like there were more efficient uses of his time. That was a dream that would be realized a long way in the future. There was too much to do right now.

"I want to travel." He decided. Oak didn't seem surprised. The confident smile had never wavered.

"Good, good." Oak commented. He winced as he shifted and looked over at Ash seriously. Although his eyes were still warm they had become serious. This was a matter of importance for him. "I believe that it is through new experiences that we grow as trainers and as a person. To remain in one place is to become stagnant."

"Look at me!" The older man laughed. It made him look young again. "I dare say that I could still give any of the Elite Four outside of Lance a run for their money, but I'm weaker than I once was. Some of our atrophied skill is lack of dedicated training, but I haven't grown much since I settled in Pallet."

"It applies to the Elite Four as well, actually." Oak added. "They are still the strongest trainers in Indigo by far, but they are far more complacent than when they were developing their strength and skill. Members like Bruno and Lance train, but they are often too busy dealing with other issues to continue improving. What battles they face are rarely enough of a challenge to make them stronger."

"Conflict, experience, hardship…those are our teachers. They are the catalysts of our own strength." Oak mused and glanced over to Ash again. The boy paid rapt attention, hung on the Professor's every word. Ash knew that Oak was intelligent, but he'd never taken him as much of a philosopher. Now the assumption seemed foolish. Every great trainer seemed to have given quite a bit of thought to the concept of training and power.

A few moments of silence.

"I suppose that's enough education for one day." The Professor said. He still had a slight smile on his face, which continued to look years younger. Oak never really looked old since he was only about fifty, but these brief shadows of youth seemed to open a gateway in time. Ash felt like he had an idea of what Oak looked like in his prime.

The Professor looked out over the beautiful landscape and took a breath of the fresh air. Kanto was on the cusp of spring. There was still the slight nip of winter, but heat had seeped back into the world after a long absence.

"Enjoy your break but don't forget to train." Oak told Ash, who nodded. "If you need anything, come on up to the lab. I finished the commission for Silph yesterday and could use a break."

"I will, Professor. Thanks." Ash tipped his hat to the older man, who smiled back and started the long walk back to his lab. Arcanine trotted after him, followed by the Growlithe that nipped at the great canine's feet.

The trainer fell back and let Sneasel clamber back onto his chest. All of the others had gone their own way for the day. Nidoking was spending time with Gary's Nidoqueen and the Nidoran herd, Dazed had managed to tell him that she was going to commune with Alakazam, Plume had flown off somewhere, and Torrent had left for the lake.

Ash wasn't quite sure where the rest of his friends were. He was more than a bit surprised that Infernus wasn't chasing after Arcanine trying to start a fight. After his increase in strength he'd expected the fire-type would challenge the canine at the soonest opportunity. Maybe Infernus had matured a bit.

Bruiser and Seeker were probably out in the forest somewhere. They liked it there, hidden away in the deepest parts of the wilderness. It was dark enough for Seeker to be comfortable and similar to the harsh environment Bruiser had lived in before he'd joined the team.

Tangrowth could be anywhere. He might have stayed at home to help his mother, gone out with Bruiser and Seeker, or be in the fields playing with some of the younger pokemon. When he wasn't with Ash he had a tendency to flit from place to place.

Ash didn't know Oz's habits well enough to know where she would be. The obvious answer was that she would be tagging along with Infernus, looking for any opportunity to brawl with the Magmortar and probably cause an ecological catastrophe. She could also have gone to the lab to feed. Oak had set up quite a few generators specifically for that purpose.

He shrugged it off and pulled his cap over his eyes and relaxed in the soft, loamy soil. This was his one day of serious vacation. A simple nap felt like the best way to spend this early part of it. He could muse over Oak's words and what had happened with his mother later.

XX

"Well, here we are." Professor Oak remarked with a sense of finality. He was still just as casual and relaxed as he had been when he had visited Ash in the Corral a week ago. It was as though all the stress that had left him grim and terse had drained out of him. "It feels like just a moment ago you were here with Gary and the others receiving your starter."

Nidoking, who stood behind Ash protectively, snorted and tapped Ash's shoulder with a dull claw. Ash smiled back at his friend's hulking form and patted his shoulder to appreciatively return the familiar gesture.

Return your ally to its storage device. I did not agree to teleport two individuals to the Indigo Plateau.

Alakazam commanded in her crisp, clear tone. Ash still marveled at just how advanced she was. Her telepathy didn't echo or sound distorted in the least. It was in stark contrast to Dazed, who he could barely understand at times. He couldn't wait until his friend learned to apply more advanced forms of the techniques.

He tore himself from his thoughts and returned Nidoking. Once he placed the pokeball back on his belt he looked over to Professor Oak and his mother, who had come to watch his departure.

"Good luck, sweetie!" His mother said cheerfully, although she wiped a stray tear from her shiny eyes. "We'll be there tomorrow, don't worry!"

Ash just flashed a quick grin at his mother. Whatever awkwardness had been caused by her story had been short-lived. It still gnawed on him at times, but he'd put it behind him. His mother was a strong woman and had moved past the darkness. He should too.

"Try to stay focused. Don't accept any challenges after the Opening Ceremony – you'll be disqualified." Professor Oak lectured. Ash could tell that he had suffered a bit of grief over the past week. Gary was supposed to come home for the days before the Conference but had apparently chosen to forego that course of action. "Everything will be fine. Just keep your head straight and don't get caught up in the excitement."

"Thank you." Ash said. The gratitude wasn't just to Professor Oak for the information. It was directed just as much to his mother as the Professor. Both of them had gotten him to where he was now. "I'll see you soon."

"Bye, Ash!" His mother bade him farewell. She gave him a bright smile as Alakazam's spoons began to glow with ethereal blue light. A flicker of mischief was in her eyes. "Don't forget to change your –"

Her statement was cut off by the teleportation, thankfully enough. When Ash appeared outside a massive building with a few different lanes sparsely populated with trainer he rolled his eyes, although the anxiety that had begun to writhe in his stomach since the night before forced him to focus on the situation at hand.

He glanced up at a sign that stood in front of the building.

"Competitor Registration." He muttered to himself. Ash went ahead and walked over to the lines. He wanted a chance to relax and get ready for the Conference. This would be one of the greatest experiences of his life, no doubt. Ash was confident in his abilities, but he wanted to be ready for anything. Relaxation was necessary if he wanted to be prepared.

It was a fast line. The officials in charge of registration were very efficient. Ash was at the very front in what felt like no time at all.

"Trainer Card?" The no-nonsense tone of the woman manning the desk demanded. Ash handed over his PokeNav, which he had already flipped open and directed to the identification page.

She started a bit at the rare device but didn't let that hinder her. The woman quickly placed the PokeNav into a small machine that glowed briefly. Ash took his PokeNav when it was offered and waited as the woman read information off of a small monitor in front of her.

"You're in…Section A, House 12. It looks like there's two other competitors that'll be staying with you." The woman noted and handed him a key. "Jonathan Lindon and Amelia Franklin will be your housemates."

An involuntary smile graced Ash's face. That was a pleasant surprise. He'd suspected that he'd see them sometime during the Conference but he hadn't thought that he'd actually be staying with them. It looked like the housing was assigned by geographic proximity. Of course, that begged the question of where Gary was staying.

Ash snorted as he nodded gratefully at the woman and moved out of the line. Gary probably had his own house. Thanks to his relationship with Professor Oak he had some friends in high places, or at least plenty of people trying to curry favor with the Professor.

He finally made his way out of the building. There weren't many people lounging about. Ash couldn't say he was surprised. It was two days before the Opening Ceremony and there would only be two hundred and fifty six permanent inhabitants of the Pokemon League Village, although it would have a regular influx of reporters and family members during the actual Conference.

It took a moment for him to take in the sights.

The Pokemon League Village was enormous. It was composed of dozens of rows of magnificent houses, each probably twice the size of his house in Pallet, each for just three or four competitors. They stretched endlessly, nearly identical save for crisp, clear numbers.

Aside from the houses there was an innumerable assortment of restaurants, movie theaters, and other places of entertainment for visitors. Those parts were sectioned off from the League Village proper with the noticeable exception of a few very high-class restaurants that looked like they'd clean out even Ash's deep pockets without too much trouble. It was a good thing competitors received practically everything for free.

Not free, he reflected. Perhaps free in regard to money. But everybody that would inhabit these houses would have paid to be here through blood, sweat, and raw determination. Their toil for the rest of the year had earned this for them.

They had suffered for this brief period of luxury.

Ash saw the five dark, massive shapes of the stadiums more than a mile away. They loomed over the horizon, dwarfing even the largest of the Village buildings. Each would be of great import in the days to come.

Rock, Grass, Water, and Ice. Those were what the lesser four stadiums were modelled around. Not just anyone got to battle in the ancient Indigo Stadium, where untold generations of trainers had battled for fame, glory, and the right to call themselves the strongest.

He'd thought long about what he would use in each one as he prepared for the Conference for the past week. Between battles and training sessions he'd planned it all out. It had been a restless week.

The Rock Stadium would favor almost all of his teammates. Torrent would have a difficult time, as would Dazed thanks to their relative lack of maneuverability. Teleportation was best suited for open areas where one didn't have to worry about rocky outcroppings or other obstacles. Nidoking would likely have difficulty on that battlefield as well, come to think of it. He needed clear lines of sight for his Ice Beam and Thunderbolt, not to mention his charges.

Grass would also favor his friends. Torrent wouldn't have any particular advantage in it, but at least he wouldn't be crippled when facing a faster or more maneuverable opponent. Ash felt that he'd use Torrent a lot. His raw power and discipline unmatched by any of his friends would let him end battles without any trouble.

Besides, he wanted attention drawn to Torrent. Infernus was his other trump card, but he wanted to keep him unknown. Torrent, as a dragon-type, was flashy and would have the focus of all the observers. If he played his cards right he wouldn't have to use Infernus at all until the final rounds, which was when every advantage would be vital to his victory.

He'd only seen a few battles with the Water Stadium on TV, but he knew the basic layout. It was similar to the Cerulean gym's battlefield but with much more land available. To unfairly favor one side beyond random chance was unacceptable. The Stadium was based around a pool of water large enough to give even a Gyarados comfortable space but there was more than enough land to give any trainer a fighting chance.

It was the Ice Stadium that gave him a few concerns. His most powerful fighters would be fine, but the cold temperatures would cripple Tangrowth. Although it was unlikely that Tangrowth would be needed against any opponents released in the Ice Stadium he had seen enough battles in the Stadium to know that people didn't always adhere to logic in their choices.

But it was the Indigo Stadium that he dreamed of. He'd seen it countless times in battles on the TV. Ash hadn't missed a Finals battle since he was a toddler. They always promised to present an awesome spectacle of skill and power since only the most elite trainers managed to make it to the Top 32.

By this point he felt as though he could recall every pebble that was scattered across the Indigo Stadium's rugged surface. He'd watched dozens of battles from previous Conferences on it to try and search out common strategies and teams.

What he found was expected. There were plenty of trainers that did nothing but prepare for the Conference. They tended to be…unimaginative. They always had powerful teams. Alakazam, evolutions of Eevee, Tauros, Starmie, and Rhydon were common. The raw power such pokemon possessed enabled their trainers to advance into the competition, although more skilled competitors swept them away in the later rounds.

Ash knew what to look out for. Those standard fighters were certainly dangerous even in unskilled hands, but they also marked out fairly standard, dull trainers that relied far too much on power. They tended not to have any tricks.

He wouldn't dismiss those trainers, but he would pay more attention to the real threats. Trainers like that tended to gun for powerful pokemon that were agreeable and relatively easy to get if one had deep enough pockets. Ash knew he wouldn't see those trainers using wickedly cunning and wild pokemon like Gengar.

Somebody who could command the respect of a Gengar or dragon-type would be somebody to watch out for. They had real experience and imagination to get that far and survive whatever encounters had left them with such a fantastically rare and dangerous pokemon.

Ash was torn from his thoughts as he walked out of the shadows of the city built to contain the massive influx of humans and pokemon and into a brief patch of open sun. He looked to the west and found what he knew he would see.

This was Indigo Plateau, the place where hundreds of thousands swarmed annually. This was where legends were born.

What he saw to the west, built in the mountain pass that separated Kanto and Johto and united Indigo, was the true Indigo Plateau. It was not for entertainment or glory. It was the seat of the Indigo Pokemon League. Four of the most powerful trainers in the world called that massive citadel their home.

He wondered if he would ever stand within its ancient halls. Lance certainly wanted him to. Ash couldn't even imagine what it would be like. Few people were ever allowed admittance to the Plateau outside of the League's best military forces and upper echelons. Cameras weren't admitted and any attempts to enter were repelled with extreme, unmitigated force.

Before he'd come here he had thought about the security of the true Plateau. The Conference would bring countless visitors, any one of whom could try and use the tournament as a cover to try and enter the League's center. It was a fairly major concern, he imagined.

But he could see now that he didn't need to worry. The skies above the citadel were full of Skarmory, Pidgeot, and even the odd Charizard. There were probably Alakazam stationed around to detect any intruders and countless other precautions. Infiltrating it would be a suicide mission.

If Giovanni – Ash's face twisted into an ugly sneer that would have attracted some attention if the streets weren't completely empty – had wanted to attack Indigo Plateau it was no wonder he wanted something as powerful as Mewtwo. The League would brush off anything less, especially if one of the Elite Four decided to rise off of their thrones and deal with the invaders personally.

He forced the dark thoughts from his head and looked at the house he'd walked to. It was plain but was in perfect condition. There was something about its elegant simplicity that he found rather pleasing. Ash had half-expected the Village houses to be ornate and ostentatious. This was a nice surprise.

Ash headed up to the door and opened it with his key. It swung open easily and he stepped in.

It was nice, he decided. There was a staircase near the door that would take him up to the second floor. If he remembered right that was where the bedrooms were. Each competitor had their own. Ash wondered just how similar this would be to the St. Anne's luxury rooms. The League boats he'd ridden in certainly hadn't spared any expense for comfort.

He looked around the rest of the house very briefly. Everything was much bigger than he'd dreamed. Even the kitchen was gigantic and came with just about every type of food imaginable. They probably wouldn't have to restock for the entire month the Conference went on and still have a comfortable amount left over.

Aside from the kitchen there was a laundry room, a dining room that could easily fit twenty people, and a smaller room clearly meant for the competitors' use. It had a few small, comfortable sofas and four computers. Ash would definitely be using those to look up on future competition.

Once he'd finished his initial explorations he got ready to let all of his friends except for Infernus out. The house was so huge that his team would have no trouble at all fitting. There was more than enough room for Jonathan and Amelia's teams. Well, as long as Jonathan didn't try and release that Gyarados Ash had heard about.

Ash gave a dangerous grin at that. He really hoped that he'd get to battle them. They had to be strong to get into the Conference and he would be glad to test how much they'd grown.

If he didn't get to face them in the Conference he'd just have to seek them out afterward. It had been too long since they'd seen each other, although Ash knew he hadn't done anything to seek them out.

His grin faded. He didn't really know how he'd react to Jonathan and Amelia. It had been around nine months since he'd last seen them, way back on the St. Anne. He'd grown a lot during that time. So had they, hopefully.

It would probably be awkward meeting them again. Ash would just have to hope that they could get over that hurdle without too much trouble. He really did want to talk to them again. They'd been friends, even if Ash had felt like a bit of an outsider to the duo's close relationship.

Ash decided to put that out of his mind for now. He'd deal with that issue when it came up. For now he'd just release his friends and be buried underneath a few hundred pounds of happy pokemon.

He could think of worse ways to spend the next day.

XX

"Ash, are you here?" A voice called out as the door opened and crashed closed. The familiar sound rang throughout the house. Ash closed the video of last year's championship battle and smiled as he felt a bit of nervousness bubble up in his stomach. Since he'd arrived yesterday he'd been wondering constantly about the meeting between him and his old travelling companions. A lot of scenarios had played out in his mind. It looked like it was time to see which one would prove correct.

"I'm in here!" He shouted, his voice a little rough. The fumes from Mt. Ember hadn't left his throat completely unscathed. Sneasel turned and hissed from where he was perched on Ash's head, but he pet his friend soothingly to calm him down.

Most of his friends had been returned for the day. Ash knew that Jonathan and Amelia would be arriving sometime today. He knew that almost all of his team wouldn't mind them being here, although they might be leery at first. Sneasel, on the other hand, would probably try to attack them thanks to his paranoia and untrusting nature.

Footsteps.

"Man, this place is awesome!" Jonathan exclaimed loudly. It looked like he hadn't gotten any quieter over the last few months. Ash looked back to see Jonathan enter. Sneasel hissed and extended his claws, but a sharp glance from Ash cowed the dark-type. "Oh, hey! Long time no see, eh?"

"It's been a while." Ash smiled stiffly. It would take him a while to get used to their presence. "How have you two been?"

Amelia stepped in next and smiled brightly at him. "Pretty good! We got in kind of a rush to get our last badge since someone," she glared at Jonathan, who just rolled his eyes, "decided to wait around until the last minute."

"Oh, shut up." He laughed. It didn't have any bite. "You're just jealous because I caught Pinsir and you didn't. Get over it already. At least we made it into the Conference. Both of us got into a few tough spots in the Admission Rounds."

The girl's face grew red with anger. Ash just watched from his chair, already feeling like an outsider.

"Just because I didn't hide and wait for you to weaken it or…" She growled. Amelia suddenly blushed and stopped their argument. "Sorry, Ash. We probably aren't giving the best impression right now."

"No, please continue." He smiled. The other two rolled their eyes. Ash looked at them critically and got to business. At least this gave him something to say. "What teams do you have?"

"Checking out the competition, eh?" Jonathan snorted. He puffed out his chest. Ash really hoped that he wasn't being serious. If so he would have to knock him down a few pegs. "Well, I've got Charizard, Rhydon, Kingler, Magneton, Gyarados, and Pinsir. Those are the ones I battle with, anyway. Aside from that I've got a Spearow and Spinarak I'm training up."

Ash nodded. That was a pretty solid team. It was very focused on strength and aggression. Charizard, Kingler, Gyarados, and Pinsir were all noted for their monstrous aggression and ability to deal damage. Jonathan could definitely hurt some other competitors with it.

He turned his eyes to Amelia, who was looking at Sneasel. She didn't give him her team yet, but just asked, "Can I pet it?"

"That's probably not the best idea." He said. It was an understatement, as Amelia realized. She had already begun to stretch out her fingers to pat the dark-type before she actually comprehended what Ash was saying. As compensation for her rashness, Sneasel snarled and slashed at her fingers. She recoiled and looked at the dark-type distrustfully.

"He's not very friendly, is he?" She said rhetorically. Amelia shrugged Sneasel's attack off and looked over at Ash. "I guess you want my team too?"

Ash nodded.

"I've got Ivysaur, Raticate, Tentacruel, Dewgong, Kangaskhan, Raichu, Aipom, Bellossom, and Politoed." She told him. "I don't have anyone that doesn't battle."

He raised an eyebrow at that. Ash had no idea where she'd gotten a Kangaskhan or Politoed. Kangaskhan were almost fantastically rare. The League had a squad of Rangers around every herd in the wild to protect from poachers to keep them from getting wiped out. Only a few could be captured each year, although there was a small population that were hatched for trainers. Politoed were just uncommon.

When Ash voiced those thoughts, Amelia just smiled. "Jessica's got a friend that's a breeder. She managed to call in a few favors and got me hooked up with Kangaskhan. I bought a King's Rock for Politoed."

Jonathan had enough and impatiently cut in. "So, what kind of pokemon do you have? I know you haven't been screwing around for the last nine months."

Ash gave the shorter boy a wide grin that seemed to make him a little uncomfortable. "Nidoking, Pidgeot, Kingdra, Hypno, Magmortar, Machoke, Zubat, Tangrowth, Sneasel, and Electabuzz."

His friend blinked and let a feral grin spread over his face. "Wow, I really hope I battle you. That'll be awesome!" Jonathan lifted his chin up arrogantly and met Ash's eyes. "Who knows, maybe you might give me a challenge."

He just rolled his eyes at that. Ash wasn't sure if Jonathan was being serious or not.

"You're team's pretty awesome and all, but a Zubat…really? Why would you keep something like that around? They're useless." Jonathan cocked his head and snorted. Sneasel bared his teeth, half angry at an outsider insulting one of his pack and half-amused at the jab at Seeker.

Ash's eyes went cold. "Shut up." His mind flashed forward to Seeker's small, soft body flying in between him and certain death. The wounds she had suffered just to save him, someone she barely knew at that point. "She's better than you could imagine."

"Woah, calm down there!" Jonathan held up his hands to placate Ash. "I was just messing with you, ya know? Don't take it so serious."

When Ash didn't lose his harsh scowl Amelia cut in. "Hey, could you show us around the house real quick? We just need to get our rooms set up and then we can go out to lunch or something. We've been wondering what you've been doing for a long time. There's a lot to catch up on."

"That'll be fine." He exhaled. Ash relaxed a little. He needed to loosen up. There was no point in taking offense to anything right now. He'd just get Jonathan back in the Conference, hopefully. "The bedrooms are upstairs. Do you need any help getting it up?"

"Nah." Amelia waved him off. "Just wait down here. We'll only take a minute."

He nodded his assent and watched as the two walked off. They closed their heads together and whispered something that he couldn't decipher as the duo headed up the stairs with their bags, which they'd left beside the door.

"Do you want to come with us?" He asked Sneasel. The dark-type thought it over for a moment and nodded. Sneasel gave a short, happy growl as Ash stroked his feather in thanks. He'd feel better if he was around one of his friends during lunch. At least he wouldn't be quite as uncomfortable with Jonathan and Amelia. "Thanks, buddy. Behave yourself, alright?"

Sneasel hissed, as though he were insulted. Ash rolled his eyes but pet his friend some more. "I know, I know. You'd never do anything wrong. You're a little paragon of innocence."

Ash ignored Sneasel's annoyed growl and crossed his arms. He stared up at the stairs, waiting for the other two to come down. Living with them might prove to be very interesting.

Hopefully they'd stop bickering, though. That had already gotten old.

XX

There were plenty of familiar faces in the horde of two hundred and fifty six trainers that had proven themselves worthy of entering the Conference. They were arrayed underneath the massive Indigo Stadium, grouped together in no particular order. Even when he wasn't crowded into a huge group of people it was burning up, as though summer had come many months early. It was very uncomfortable, to say the least.

He'd seen Gary in the crowd, but his rival didn't notice him. Jonathan and Amelia were somewhere else. Ash didn't exactly mind them since he'd spent some time with them yesterday but he didn't want to spend the next hour or so listening to their arguments.

Ash never got to talk to anyone, but he'd seen Dan White, Ryan Dillard, and Jack Conolley from the Dandra Tournament. He wouldn't mind facing any of them again. They were all strong, even though Jack was probably the only one that would give him a real challenge at this point. Training with the strongest trainer in the world would do that.

He had also seen Corey and Neesha. They were walking with Michael and Jessica, who glared halfheartedly at each other now and then but appeared to have gotten over whatever grudge they'd had. Ash had almost forgotten about the two. They'd fallen out of his thoughts during all the commotion.

Corey met his eyes and nodded. Ash paled and returned it hesitantly. When Corey tapped Neesha's shoulder and pointed him out they repeated the cycle.

They remembered.

Ash hadn't been sure if Mewtwo would allow the others to retain their memory of that awful night. They had a sort of history together, as disgusting a thought as that was. He'd thought that he might have been an exception to the Creature's dulling of memories. Hoped, even. Nobody should have had to remember those events, least of all those who had blundered into it.

He looked straight ahead and tried not to think about that. Ash didn't want to let the dark emotions that writhed around the subject of Mewtwo to ensnare him in their tempting hands. He needed to rise above it all. Revenge would come one day. For now he just needed to live his life.

Somebody tapped his shoulder. Ash's head snapped over in surprise, although he relaxed when he saw that it was Jaimie. He returned the cheerful smile his partner in the Dandra Tournament flashed him.

"How's it going, Ash? Had a good few months?" She asked as everyone milled around, bored and ready for the Opening Ceremony to begin. Her cheerful demeanor was in stark contrast to the unsettled Ash.

He wondered if his definition of good was the same as hers. Since he had last seen her Ash had endured harsh, unyielding training underneath two legendary trainers, one of whom had held the title of Champion over not one, but two regions for nearly a decade. He had seen Legends, forces of nature made manifest. He had witnessed the awful power of Team Rocket's most twisted experiment and saw the Guardian of Life nearly struck down by its limitless rage.

He had died and been brought back by the Protector of Life.

"Yes. Yes I have."

"Glad to hear it!" She chirped. Jaimie looked down at him and adjusted her red-rimmed glasses. "How's that little egg you won? What did it hatch into?"

"A Sneasel." Ash smiled at the thought of his friend. "He's a bit of a handful, but he's learned to behave himself. I'm going to try and enter him into at least one of my matches. Sneasel's earned that much."

"Wish I'd won that." The teenager said wistfully. She twirled a finger through her short hair. "I could use a dark-type. Starmie and Kadabra need some practice against them. Nobody I've battled has one, not even in Johto."

Ash hummed in response, not really sure what to say. Jaimie shook herself out of her thoughts but furrowed her brow. "Hey, who's that?"

He frowned and looked to whoever she was pointing out, only to grin when it was Fergus. The older boy was headed right towards him with the same goofy grin Ash had come to associate with him in the brief time they'd known each other.

An image flashed through his mind of Fergus surrounded in a nimbus of icy blue energy, forced to bow in a mockery of fealty to Mewtwo. Another raced by, showing Fergus charging the Creature in a futile attempt to punch it – and the aftermath of the teenager suffering agony no other human could sympathize with. And then Fergus trying to protect him as the Legends clashed, putting himself in harm's way despite the pain he'd suffered.

"Fergus." He greeted weakly, pale as the memories appeared in sharp perfection. They weren't fuzzy like the others.

"Yo, Ash!" Fergus said with his normal cheerfulness. "You ready for this? I told you the Conference is awesome!"

"Yeah…I'm ready." Ash said, a note of strength entering his raspy voice.

Fergus grinned widely and clapped him on the shoulder. "That's what I'm talking about! There's no pressure at all. Just a few million people watching your battles. No biggie."

Ash glared at Fergus half-heartedly. He met the older boy's eyes and leaned closer to him so that the confused Jaimie couldn't hear what they were saying.

"Do you remember?"

Fergus glanced away. His face tightened and his hands shook a little. That was all Ash needed. Out of the small group that had braved Mewtwo's storm and watched events that could shatter the world unfold it was Fergus who had suffered the most, at least physically. He was the one who Mewtwo had crushed for his defiance.

"I remember." Fergus confirmed. He looked away for a moment. "Can we not talk about this?" He pleaded. "It's in the past. Let's just look forward."

Ash nodded and all of a sudden Fergus was back. The large teen glanced up and smiled at Jaimie. "Hey, what's your name? I'm Fergus."

"Jaimie." His former partner replied as she took his offered hand. "How do you know Ash?"

"A tournament we went to a while back. We talked for a while." Fergus said easily. "How about you?"

"The same." Jaimie laughed. "We were partners in a tournament a few months ago. He ended up beating me, though."

Fergus grinned and started to say something else, but was cut off as silence engulfed the stadium above. There had been constant background noise since the competitors had entered: The thunder of hundreds of thousands of feet stamping, the triumphant music that blared from the speakers, the words of a few groups brought in to entertain the crowds.

Now there was nothing. Everyone turned serious and faced forward as the sound of fireworks blared throughout the Indigo Stadium and raucous cheers shook the earth. Ash felt his bones shake and his stomach turn as countless people shouted and hollered for the Conference's beginning.

The Opening Ceremony was about to begin.

A speaker echoed throughout the stadium, so loud that they could hear it in their sheltered catacombs.

"And the Opening Ceremony for the Pokemon League Competition is officially underway!" A man announced, barely restrained excitement obvious in his tone. "This is where the top trainers and their pokemon come to prove their skill, their strength, and their spirit! These hopeful competitors will battle one another as they strive always for excellence and victory! Their victory will lead into the ranks of the Pokemon Masters. And here they come!"

Ash felt a little sick as the horde of trainers started moving. The Opening Ceremony was something he simultaneously dreaded and loved. It was the culmination of his friends' work. Their chance at glory. But it also subjected him to the gaze of millions.

He was confident in his abilities, but there would always be anxiety biting at him when he felt this small. All of his strength and accomplishments counted for nothing in the face of the sheer scope of this competition. Until he proved himself he'd just be another hopeful.

By the end of this Conference that would change. He would make it so, no matter what.

The announcer continued to speak as Ash stepped forward with Fergus and Jaimie and stepped into the light. He couldn't find it in him to care, though.

As magnificent as it was to see the Indigo Stadium full of screaming fans over the TV it was completely different to be subject to it in person. Everything was magnified. Ash could feel their roars, he felt like he could see every individual face, he could taste the dry, hot air and breathe in the dust that permeated the stadium.

He wondered if his mother could see him. She wasn't at the Conference yet but she would definitely be watching. It would have to be hard to find him in this sea of trainers. Almost everyone was at least six or seven years older than he was. Fergus was one of the youngest aside from the rare exceptions like Ash, Gary, Jonathan, Amelia, or one or two other young trainers. Pallet had a good showing this year.

Ash realized that he was slightly slouched, as though he were trying to hide from the attention of the masses. He scowled and straightened up and made sure to wipe any trace of apprehension from his face. He was proud to be here. It was time to act like it.

"Good." Fergus said approvingly as he waved, that same wild grin still painted on. "You've earned your place here, Ash. Be friendly. Look like you don't want to punch somebody out! Just loosen up and wave at the people. They're here for you."

He nodded slowly and hesitantly waved at the crowd. It was like reliving the Dandra Tournament but on a scale about a thousand times larger. The dread in his gut was still there but it was slowly starting to dissipate.

Ash spied out some of the others that he knew. Gary was eating the attention up. He was waving and laughing to everybody, especially those that seemed to know who he was. His rival had a confident smirk on his face that seemed a tad bit less unpleasant than when Ash had last seen him.

Jonathan and Amelia were waving halfheartedly, but on the whole looked like they were about to throw up. Ash could sympathize. Jessica looked to have fallen back from her group to help her sister, but she spent most of the time with a wild smile on her face. She looked like she was coming back to an old friend.

Corey and Neesha were hidden from him by the crowd, but he could still spot Michael and his red hair. The older trainer's eyes were determined but he had a lighthearted grin on his face as he enthusiastically yelled and waved back to the crowd.

Ash squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and looked up to the massive brazier that would hold the Flame of Moltres as the group came to a stop and met the other half of the competitors. The vessel was of a monstrous size and dwarfed almost anything Ash had seen before. It shined brightly in the harsh sunlight and almost forced him to look away.

The League anthem, its triumphant tune proud and strong, exploded from the speakers and forced the crowd into silence. Ash felt the earth tremble as thousands of people fell to their seats.

Silence suddenly prevailed as the bearer of the Flame of Moltres ran through the two groups of competitors. It was so stark that Ash felt like he could hear her panting in the vastness of the stadium.

When she finally reached the top of the seemingly endless flight of stairs the bearer turned to the crowd and raised the Flame of Moltres high in a gesture of triumph. Cheers greeted her, but Ash didn't care about that.

He took the time to examine the Flame. As he looked at it his body tingled and a comforting warmth swept through him, gentle but with the hint of immeasurable power. Ash gasped and held his chest, which heated up until it felt like an inferno would race through his blood.

It eased up but didn't disappear. Any doubts Ash had were gone. That was a true flame from Moltres, not just a symbolic torch. Moltres' power was omnipresent in that tiny example of the Legend's generosity.

The girl finally brought the torch down and touched the Flame of Moltres to the brazier, which instantly ignited in a raging inferno that only intensified the pounding heat. Ash wiped a few beads of sweat off of his brow. It was a mistake to wear his jacket today.

"And now from the League President, Charles –"

The announcer was struck just as silent as the rest of the crowd as the living flames that writhed in the brazier suddenly exploded, greatly expanding in both size and intensity. Nobody could move a muscle as they felt a presence descend upon them.

Power rang throughout the air as heat poured from the Flames and made the air twist and distort around them. Most people were confused, but Ash somehow knew what was coming. The heat within him pulsed, as though it were pleased at his knowledge.

Some people screamed as the flames shifted seamlessly into the form of a great Bird that sat in the brazier as though it were a nest of stainless steel. The flames crackled and roared as it shifted underneath the Bird's command until its great wings, easily hundreds of feet in diameter, were outstretched to encompass almost all of Indigo Stadium.

Its beak, a spear-like formation of fire that was at least thirty feet long, opened into two halves and it sang. Ash's blood seemed to boil as it let more and more of its power enter the area, but it didn't hurt. He wasn't afraid. The power was overwhelming and his lungs were almost scorched by the heat within him, but he was comforted. It was as though he were being embraced.

As the stunned silence of millions greeted the Bird, it shrank to a much more manageable size and shot from its nest. The Fire Bird did not release any more power as it circled over the stadium lest the inhabitants be seared to nothing, but it did not need to. The humans were spellbound.

The inner fire pulsed within Ash and he felt himself look up as the Avatar of Moltres circled overhead, a shadow of the Bird that could force a volcano to erupt with a single cry. Commanded by a presence infinitely greater than his own he reached up and snatched a single burning Feather that drifted down from the heavens.

He did not fear pain as he touched one of the feathers of Moltres, a piece of living fire. It would not hurt him.

Nobody seemed to notice as he grasped the Feather and pulled it down to him. The fires were similar to a Ponyta's. They were warm but did not burn him. Ash felt his hand pass through the fire, which sang as it touched the warmth within him in communion, and wrapped his fingers around the thin stem of obsidian that served as the fires' frame.

Guided by the unseen will of Moltres, Ash put the feather inside his shirt, close to his heart. It seemed to meld with him and pressed itself to his skin. He wouldn't have to worry about it falling off. The Feather was a gift, a token that would never be lost.

He felt similar fire to his own pulse one last time before the Avatar of Moltres completed its circle and landed gracefully in its brazier. The onlookers watched with awe as it dissolved into a mass of formless flames once more, although no one could forget the Fire Bird that had sprung forth.

Silence pervaded the stadium for what felt like an eternity as everyone watched the brazier. Ash felt the inner fire slowly leave him and return to whence it came, although the Feather's comforting warmth was a constant presence. He felt another remnant of Moltres somewhere else in the stadium, away from the brazier.

It pulsed in recognition and warmth flooded him.

"Remember that display, my friends. Few have seen the form of Moltres." An old, wizened voice whispered into the microphone. Ash found his attention drawn to the oddly compelling voice – or, rather, its source. "We are truly blessed this day."

He saw the short form of Charles Goodshow. The man's appearance was odd and looked out of place on such a powerful figure, but his voice and mind held all the power one would expect from the League President.

"Now, welcome, everyone, to the Indigo Conference!" Goodshow cried into the microphone, unaffected by the eyes of millions. "We have had a difficult year, full of sorrow and suffering, but we have risen above these trials! The shadow is passed and it is time to celebrate!"

Goodshow, lit from behind by the Flame of Moltres, motioned to the hundreds of trainers arrayed before him. "And what better way than to watch these strong men and women show the love and respect that has developed between them and their pokemon? This is a place for those who truly love pokemon and we are here to exult in it! The Flame of Moltres burns bright here and in our hearts!"

A wide smile made its way across the old, wizened face as he raised his hand to salute the crowd.

"Let the Indigo Conference begin!"

And there it is. A true miracle: A chapter of Traveler that doesn't have a single battle in it.

Anyways, make sure to review!