A/N: Sorry for the long wait. I've been stretched for time lately thanks to school. I won't give an estimate on the next chapter, but it should be done faster than this one.

"Ash Ketchum!" An excited reporter ran up to him, eyes bright with the opportunity to interview him after the exciting match. A cameraman lagged behind her, obviously tired. "I'm Jane Faust, Viridian City News. How do you feel about your victory? Gary Oak was a friend of yours, was he not?"

"He was. But we've been competing for a long time – ever since we first decided we wanted to be trainers." He replied as he looked at the pretty woman, no real interest in his tone. He didn't feel like speaking with the media right now. "We both knew that this was our chance to show who was stronger, and it turned out to be me. I'll miss battling him, but I'm glad it's over."

Ash hoped he hadn't come across as arrogant, but he couldn't find it in him to care too much. He was tired and needed to get his friends to the Pokemon Center. His answer didn't seem to displease the reporter, however, and he resigned himself to more questions when her mouth opened once more.

This would be a long night.

XX

"We'll have them up and ready to go in no time, Mr. Ketchum!" The nurse exclaimed cheerfully as Ash finished loading his pokeballs onto a tray. She took it and handed it to a beleaguered assistant, who quickly ran it to the back room. The Conference was winding to a close, but many defeated competitors continued to battle amongst themselves. They were no longer constrained by the restrictions placed upon them by the League.

Ash smiled gratefully at the woman. "Thank you."

"It's no problem at all!" Nurse Joy smiled. "Come back tomorrow morning. Have a nice night!"

"You too." He nodded before he turned to leave. There were some people crowding around him curiously, having recognized his name. Ash pulled his hat down a bit and slipped through the crowd with practiced ease. A few people looked as though they wanted to say something to him but he didn't stop moving.

He didn't feel like staying with the meandering throngs of humanity at the moment. Perhaps he'd stick around and talk to those who recognized him some other time, but right now he just wanted to be away. Gary was the only one he felt like seeing – and that was only to settle their rivalry beyond a doubt.

Ash took a deep breath as he reached the crisp night air. He'd gotten out just before the spectators began to exit, so the streets were packed full of thousands of loud and laughing humans. He stood back a bit as several large groups passed and frowned.

It looked like he'd have to wander for a bit if he wanted to find somewhere peaceful. Jonathan and Amelia had said they would be busy training tonight, so the house would be empty.

He smiled at that. Jonathan was actually taking his pledge to work harder seriously. Ash had seen him trying to find a Master several times, although he didn't think the other boy was having any luck. Masters were rare and generally valued their privacy. It would be difficult to find them on a computer.

Perhaps he would battle Jonathan once more before they left. At the very least he could help him develop a few ways to train while he sought out a teacher.

Ash was lost in his thoughts as he aimlessly wandered through the streets. Everybody was too busy and distracted by their own lives to recognize him. He didn't mind.

He frowned and glanced into an alleyway as a pair of luminous round eyes stared at him disconcertingly. His hand twitched toward Sneasel's pokeball, the natural paranoia that came with being a wilderness trainer rearing up in his mind.

The creature stepped into the artificial light that bathed the streets and Ash relaxed somewhat, although he kept his hand on the pokeball just in case.

It was a Clefable. A Clefable, one of the most elusive pokemon in the world, waving at him with one of its stubby arms from a grimy alley.

His eyes narrowed. It seemed familiar – it was Gary's. He vaguely remembered his rival using it to teleport after their battle at the Oak Corral.

"What does Gary want?" Ash asked with a raised eyebrow. Clefable smiled up at him and waggled its short fingers at him. He nodded as he recalled the way it had teleported. "He wants you to take me to him?"

A massive smile split the short creature's face and it hopped up and down on its legs, its wings held aloft by the wind. When it had gotten over its impromptu dance of excitement it held out a hand to Ash.

He didn't hesitate in taking the hand. He'd wanted to speak to Gary anyway. If his rival wanted to speed up the process then he was fine with it.

"Teleport me." Ash told the Clefable, which gleefully waggled its fingers and sparked a flash of light. He squeezed his eyes shut and stumbled about as his legs were jolted by a sudden impact. Clefable obviously hadn't mastered the art of teleportation.

At least it was better than Will's attempts. The contents of his stomach weren't strewn about on the grass which was certainly a positive change.

He looked around. Stars still covered his vision thanks to the annoyingly bright light Clefable produced when it teleported but he was able to make out some details at this point. Clefable had taken him outside of Indigo Plateau, although the bright flames of a patrolling Charizard and the immense glow of the League capital in the background meant that he hadn't gone too far.

They stood in a silent clearing. Trees surrounded it, shadowed sentinels in the night. He doubted there were any wild pokemon here except for the small lake the dark figure of a boy stood in front of. The hulking Golem that stood beside Gary would most likely scare indigenous pokemon away.

"Took you long enough." Gary grumbled as he turned to face Ash with crossed arms. His face was devoid of any expression other than annoyance. Not even his familiar smirk was in place. "Thanks for the help, Clefable."

The fairy flashed Gary a bright grin as it danced over to his side, a small orb of white light tossed between its small hands as it bounced up and down constantly. It giggled a few times as it played its game and tried to get Golem's attention, although the huge rock-type steadfastly ignored the creature.

"Gary." He acknowledged with a tight nod.

"Ash." Gary retorted mockingly. His features smoothed themselves out an instant later as he looked Ash over. "The hat's back on, I see. You do realize it's night, right?"

He raised an eyebrow and a little bit of the petty childishness that defined his relationship with Gary bled out. "You do realize I don't care, right?"

Gary snorted. "Sure, whatever. If you want to make a bad fashion statement go right ahead. I'm sure your adoring fans will love to follow suit."

The trainer grimaced and shook that thought away. "What do you want, Gary?"

"Not much. Just to talk." Gary shrugged as he turned around to stare out over the smooth surface of the lake. "It feels like it's been forever since we've done anything but insult each other, ya know?"

"I can't imagine why." Ash replied drily as he stepped up beside Gary. He paid close attention to his rival. This was the first time they'd had a civil conversation in years. He had to admit that it was oddly pleasant. "Who could be to blame for that, I wonder?"

Gary rolled his eyes. "Shut up, Ash."

When the other boy began to continue, Ash interrupted. "Is there a reason you're being so…"

"Nice? An utter delight to be around? A charming young man whose light you can bask in?" Gary asked pleasantly with only the hint of the sneer Ash had come to expect from him. "Gramps had a few long talks with me. He's done a lot for me. Figured I should at least try and return the favor, you know?"

Ash sighed. With the exception of Gary's more advanced vocabulary these words seemed far too familiar. He'd always been somewhat arrogant, if not unpleasant.

"Believe me when I say I know the feeling." He muttered. "The Professor knows how our minds work, doesn't he?"

"Yep. Annoying old geezer." Gary smirked. "Anyways, he wanted us to bury the hatchet after our battle was over and done with. Don't get me wrong, though. I'm pretty pissed about how that battle ended." His expression twisted into another annoyed scowl. "You made me look like an idiot in front of the whole region, you know. I'd at least expected a close match!"

He shrugged and a slight smile tore at him. "To be fair, you were more of a challenge than any of my other opponents. You took down Nidoking and Oz. Tangrowth might as well have been unconscious for all the good he would have done after Alakazam got him. Jonathan couldn't even take down Nidoking."

"Don't compare me to that punk." Gary scoffed. "You and I both know that we're on a whole other level than those two losers! How pathetic do you have to be to lose to a Nidoking with a Charizard, Gyarados, and Rhydon? He's a disgrace to the name of Pallet!"

Ash grunted noncommittally. It wouldn't be worth it to dispute the matter with Gary. That wasn't what he came here for.

"Whatever." Gary sneered before the unpleasant expression slipped away. "I'd rather not think about that loser anyway. Our battle was much more interesting, don't ya think?"

He hummed in agreement and waited for Gary to continue. The more talkative boy seemed to have a plan for this conversation.

"I know I can be a little cocky," Gary began, only to glare at Ash in annoyance as he snorted loudly, "but I know when I've been beaten for good. Maybe I can catch up to where you are now, given time, but you're just gonna keep jumping ahead. I'd have to find a Champion of my own willing to donate some of their time to me – one who hasn't been retired for about thirty years. I don't see that happening anytime soon."

"So our rivalry is over, I guess." Gary sighed, almost looking disappointed at his own admission. "You won. I lost. Woopty-freakin'-doo."

Ash didn't say anything.

"I figured you should have this." Gary actually grinned as he dug around in one of his pockets for a few moments before he pulled out half of a broken pokeball. Ash's eyes widened in surprise that his rival had actually kept it. He'd never figured Gary for the sentimental type. "To the victor goes the spoils. End it with the way it began, right?"

"Right." Ash grinned back as he pulled out his own broken half of the old pokeball.

Gary's eyes widened. "No way! You actually kept that?"

"I did. Why'd you think I wouldn't? I wanted to remember our rivalry." Ash raised an eyebrow as he took the second half to complete the pokeball. For just a moment he held the two halves together, taking note of the shards missing from both sides. He supposed that it had been broken beyond completion when he and Gary had found the whole pokeball so many years ago and tore it apart in their struggle to take it for their own.

"I figured you'd be a brat and throw it away just to spite me." Gary smirked nastily. Ash frowned. He hadn't thought he'd ever been that immature. "Oh, and if you don't remember being that stupid, think again. We're the elite now, but even you used to an annoying, snot-nosed brat. Get over yourself."

"Fine." Ash admitted with a roll of his eyes. "I just hope that you don't fall into the misconception that you were perfect either. Or are now, even if you aren't quite as antagonistic as usual."

"I don't know." Gary yawned and met Ash's brown eyes with his cocky gaze. "Aside from losing to you, I think I'm pretty perfect. Maybe something'll happen later to convince me otherwise, but I doubt it. Things are working out for me pretty well so far."

He rolled his eyes again, although another smile nudged at his lips. As strange as having a relatively civil conversation with Gary was it was nice. They'd been friends once. It was nice to see that they could still repair that lost friendship.

"So, now that you've won the grand prize for beating me what are you gonna do with it?" Gary glanced pointedly at the pokeball. "It's kind of useless."

"Probably leave it in my room to gather dust." Ash admitted. "Like you said, it's useless. It still has sentimental value but it's not something I need to carry with me."

There were far more valuable treasures he would take with him, as the slight heat of the Feather pouring through his chest would attest. Wherever he went after the Conference, he wouldn't feel right if he didn't take the Shard of the Moon Stone or the Dragon Scale with him.

They weren't just sentimental, of course. If he caught any new teammates that required them to evolve they would serve their practical purpose once more. But they would most likely remain as simple treasures, memento of his battles in the Sevii Islands.

"A good choice." Gary gave a grudging nod of approval. He turned back to face the lake, which continued to reflect the silvery moon that hung suspended in the infinite void of space. Clefable stared at it, enraptured, from its position nearby Golem. "So what do you think you're going to do after all this? You could win the Conference, you know. I know that the Final Four are pretty tough – you, that Unovan prick, and that guy from Orre more so than Neesha or whatever her name is – but I didn't watch too many of the others' fights. You might be able to pull it off."

"Maybe." Ash admitted hesitantly. He'd thought of winning his first Conference, dreamed of it, but he had never been able to actually visualize it happening. He was a rookie. Rookies weren't supposed to win Conferences. "I would like to. I –"

"You'd like to win the Conference?" Gary scoffed with a derisive snort. Ash scowled at him in annoyance. "You're going to have to give it a bit more spirit than that, Ashy-boy. You don't become a Conference Champion by liking victory. You become one by demanding it and tearing everyone that stands in your way down!"

Gary rolled his eyes and raised a hand to shut Ash up. "Not that I'm speaking from personal experience or anything, mind you. You made sure of that tonight."

"Fine." Ash sighed. "I'll dominate the competition from here on out and have my Magmortar burn the ashes. Is that enough for you?"

"Barely." The Oak laughed.

"Anyways, after the Conference I'd like to travel somewhere." Ash told him, continuing their original conversation. "I think I've seen what Kanto has to offer. I want to go somewhere new. The Professor told me that strength withers in stagnancy and I believe him."

"Wow. Deep." Gary mocked. "I thought the legendary Professor Oak reserved such wise words for his humble grandson. I'm hurt."

Ash sighed.

"But it sounds like you have the right idea." His rival admitted as he lightly kicked an errant pebble into the lake, disturbing the tranquility that loomed over the scene. "I'm thinking of going to Johto. If I keep up my training I have a decent shot at the Silver Conference next year. Maybe it won't be as amazing than if I were a rookie, but it should set me up for life."

He nodded again and remained silent for several minutes. There wasn't much to say.

"Hey, as enjoyable as this was, I think it's about time to wrap it up." Gary said finally, breaking the comfortable silence that had persisted far longer than expected. "It's late. Gramps and your mom are probably getting a bit concerned."

"Yeah." Ash murmured in response.

Gary recalled Golem and beckoned Clefable over. He hesitated and glanced over at Ash. "Hey, you want to come back with me? I know you probably have your own way to get back, but –"

"Yeah." Ash repeated, a genuine smile on his face at Gary's offer. "That sounds good."

They shared one last slightly uncomfortable smile before Clefable cheerfully waggled its fingers and they disappeared to Professor Oak's home in a flash of light.

XX

He stared at the computer screen intently as he typed in "Michael". Ash didn't actually know the red-haired trainer's surname, but that proved to be irrelevant. All other competitors named Michael had been eliminated from the Conference, so the only profile pulled up was the one he wanted.

Michael Braeden.

Ash clicked on the portrait and began to analyze his potential foe.

His personal profile was oddly sparse. It didn't mention where or when he had started training, his birthplace, or anything other than his age, full name, eye color, and height. Most competitors at least had a short list of information available to both the public and their fellow challengers.

It seemed that Michael had something to hide.

He waived that concern and continued reading the profile. It wasn't Michael's personal life that interested him. It was the team he had built over the many years he had obviously been training.

His eyes widened slightly at the sheer array of pokemon Michael had listed under his ownership. The other trainer would have no fear of being unable to combat a threat. There were dozens.

The most obviously threatening members were a Dragonite, Salamence – he had no idea where Michael had gotten that considering that it had taken quite a while for even the legendary Dragon Master Lance to get his hands on one – a Snorlax, and a Lapras. All three were exceptionally rare and powerful pokemon. The latter two members weren't impossible to obtain, but they were difficult to procure and maintain.

Snorlax ate a stunningly huge amount of food and were extremely difficult to maintain. They were also somewhat unreliable, although the amount of noise a Conference crowd produced could rouse one of the fantastically lazy creatures from its deepest slumber.

Lapras were simply incredibly endangered and regulated. Although they were recovering after the Indigo League stepped in the conservation efforts once it became clear that the Sevii Islands and the Orange League were incapable of protecting the dwindling species they still had a long way to go before they had recovered to their former grandeur.

Michael must have obtained the Lapras under special circumstances. The League had sent Elite Ranger teams out after individuals who had stolen even one from their herd. If an organization infringed upon the Lapras herds the League crushed them immediately with lethal force. Even Team Rocket had rarely gone to the trouble of taking them for fear of the League's retribution.

Perhaps he had taken it from a poacher or saved it. He was a League contractor, after all. Indigo didn't make great use of independent agents since it was by far the largest and most powerful of the three united Leagues but those it did put to work were some of the most powerful and trusted trainers Kanto and Johto had to offer.

He recognized several of his other pokemon. Jolteon, Arcanine, and Steelix he had seen before. He'd heard of Michael's Alakazam, Machamp, and several others.

Curious now and frustrated at the lack of information available, Ash searched the publically assessable databases. They were networked between the primary League made up of united Indigo, Hoenn, and Sinnoh as well as the scant few other stable, civilized regions. Unova and Kalos were participants, along with the Ranger Union and several other minor areas.

"Young hero Michael Braeden faces Cipher Admin Snattle on live TV." He muttered to himself, interested. Ash clicked on the link. It seemed to be dated, but it would hopefully give him a better insight to Michael's battling style. The matches he'd managed to catch were always ended in a one-sided manner similar to Ash's own.

The screen blackened before it cut to action in a beautiful arena of flowing water and meticulously carved white stone. It was breathtaking.

A young woman's face filled the screen briefly. Her face was nervous but the girl's eyes shined with excitement. "Hello, Orre! I'm Marcia from ONBS reporting live from the Phenac Stadium, where Cipher is leading a secret invasion!"

Ash grinned when the camera turned from her and focused in on Michael, who was probably in his early teens and flanked by Jolteon and a Claydol. He had a scowl on his face as he glared at an exceptionally strange man whose ridiculous hairstyle was almost hypnotic to look at. The tall man released an odd pokemon that looked like a crescent moon and a Quagsire as he ranted about something Ash couldn't make out, to which Michael and Jolteon just stayed silent.

"Miraculously, a young trainer has appeared and somehow defeated all of the Cipher agents in the area!" Marcia exclaimed as the camera remained trained on the two. "As you can see, he just beat this Cipher leader's bodyguards with no trouble at all. Let's – oh!"

The battle had just begun. An odd, shadowy energy covered the field as Lunatone attacked mercilessly, using some sort of technique Ash had never seen before. He watched closer.

Even in this video, most likely recorded four or five years ago, Jolteon was incredibly powerful. It and Michael seemed to know each other's thoughts and complemented each other perfectly. Even as Michael barked out orders Jolteon was able to get the gist of them before the teen was half-finished.

Michael was very good. Probably on Ash's level when he'd first faced Giovanni. Several more of his pokemon were released and he was fully capable of keeping control of the battle and managing them to press on his older foe's defenses.

In little time at all he'd cut down the man's team with the exception of the Lunatone, which he'd…caught? That was worse than illegal, although Michael didn't seem bothered. He supposed it wasn't too bad, since the man – Snattle, he thought his name was – seemed to be a major criminal of some sort. It wasn't easy to assault a city, even in the lawless wasteland of Orre.

Ash frowned as the anchor squealed happily and went to interview Michael. He cut off the feed. He'd seen everything he needed.

He wasn't helped very much. Michael fought very efficiently. That was all he could mirror to the older trainer's present tactics. His potential foe hadn't given him long enough to analyze his techniques and strategies in battles to actually compare anything.

It didn't help that Michael had used his entire team at once in the battle. Several of the pokemon he'd seen weren't listed anywhere on Michael's entered teams. Ash didn't know what to make of that.

But one thing stuck out to him: Michael had captured another trainer's pokemon. Ethical quandaries aside, that wasn't supposed to be possible. You could steal the pokeball but you couldn't catch a pokemon when it was already tied to a pokeball. The mechanics weren't well-known since Silph Co. suppressed that information quite effectively but it was one of the major guarantees when catching a pokemon.

Maybe Michael would tell him later.

Ash sighed and shut off the monitor. It seemed that Michael was the trainer from Orre Gary had mentioned. That was actually something of a surprise. Michael must have left a long time ago. He didn't have much of an accent from what Ash remembered.

He wasn't surprised that somebody as strong as Michael would have left Orre. Ash couldn't claim to be an expert, but he'd heard terrible things about the desolate region. What few cities it could support were ridden with crime with the exception of a few lonely gems. Poverty was the norm and the strongest trainers and crime gangs claimed vast swathes of desert and small towns.

It was practically quarantined. Orre was on a small continent too isolated and barren for any but the toughest and most rugged of pokemon to survive. There were two regions on the ocean to its west and south, but otherwise there was little to no human civilization on the continent.

None that he knew of, anyway.

The trainer sighed again and checked the time. He stood up and adjusted his sleeves. It was time for him to pick up his team.

"Sneasel!" He shouted throughout the empty confines of the house. Jonathan and Amelia were out training in the forest so he didn't have to worry about the volume. Ash exhaled in annoyance when Sneasel rushed into the room, one of Jonathan's hats engulfing his head and several pieces of Amelia's charms and jewelry placed onto his claws.

Sneasel rolled his head back and bared his fangs happily at Ash. The trainer rubbed his temples. This had happened far too many times for his taste.

"Put those back." He said firmly. Sneasel whined and played with some of the bright jewelry, entranced by the shiny objects. "You know you aren't supposed to be in their rooms."

The dark-type growled and crossed his arms. Obstinant little creature.

Ash's eyes hardened. It seemed that Sneasel was starting to give into his instincts again and challenge the pack hierarchy. "Now."

Sneasel whined again but broke under Ash's firm gaze and scampered away to replace the items. Ash just let out a breath. He couldn't wait for the Conference to be over.

His team was becoming wound-up. They needed to be free. Free to fight, free to explore. The team could not flourish cooped up around so many humans, unable to fight and release their energy except once every few days. It was a very good thing that the Conference was nearing its close.

As for himself? He longed for sun and dirt and wind on his face. He longed to be away from humanity and free to explore the world on his own terms. The Conference had been an interesting change but it was dragging on for too long. Ash enjoyed testing his friends' strength and skill against the best Kanto and Johto had to offer but he was eager to break away from society's chains.

"Do you mind staying here while I head to the Pokemon Center?" He asked Bruiser as Seeker fluttered over and latched onto his shoulder. Ash smiled and lightly scratched behind her ears as he Bruiser shook his head and beat a powerful fist against his muscular chest. "Thanks. I'd rather not leave the house empty."

Bruiser nodded again understandingly.

"I should be back soon." Ash told his friend as he gently pried Seeker off of his jacket and handed her back to Bruiser, whispering a few goodbyes to the Zubat as he did so. "Bye, Bruiser."

The Machoke dipped his head in respect to Ash as the group left the room. Ash crossed his arms and waited impatiently for Sneasel to come back. He wanted to reclaim the rest of his friends as quickly as possible. He wouldn't be happy if Sneasel delayed that.

Finally, just as his patience neared its breaking point, Sneasel blurred down onto his shoulder from the balcony above. Ash started a bit at the unexpected weight but almost instantly relaxed. He'd gotten used to Sneasel's little tricks by this point.

"Come on, Sneasel." He murmured as the dark-type adjusted to a more comfortable position around his neck. "We've got a lot to do."

XX

"This place has the best food." Jonathan sighed as he lurched over and collapsed onto the couch. He contentedly closed his eyes and stretched lazily, taking up the entirety of the massive piece of furniture. "G'night, guys. I'm out."

Ash and Nidoking, the only member of his team in the room, looked at him oddly. Amelia, who trailed in behind Jonathan, sighed resignedly. She was far more used to Jonathan's antics than he was. Even her team was, judging by her Raichu's utterly uncaring expression.

"…It's three in the afternoon." He finally spoke up. Jonathan just grunted at him and laid a hand on his full stomach. Ash shrugged uncaringly and turned back to his conversation with Nidoking. "Is your back completely healed? I don't want to enter you in this battle, but if I win it I'll make sure you fight in the Championship."

Nidoking grunted an affirmative and turned around so that Ash could examine his back closer. Thanks to the miraculous restorative abilities of implanted Ditto cells what was left of his ruined hide had been masterfully repaired. It wasn't even scar tissue, just exceptionally fresh hide and armor that perfectly mimicked what had been there before the Hydro Cannon had stripped the thick skin and muscle away from bone.

His friend would have to do some exercises in order to work the muscle and regain its former flexibility and strength but for the most part it was completely healed. Medicine's capabilities were closer to miracles than mere healing.

The poison-type's tail had also been repaired. Bone damage was easy to repair for such durable pokemon, especially when enhanced by Potions. He'd be a little weak and sensitive but it wouldn't be debilitating. Nidoking just needed a few days rest for it to finish healing.

"Teeth?" He asked. Nidoking turned around gingerly and bared his teeth. Nurse Joy had told him that most of Nidoking's teeth had been cracked at the least from Blastoise's Shell Slide. Nearly half had been knocked out, although they seemed to be growing back in. Nidoking were able to grow in teeth naturally from some genetic quirk, although they didn't have rows upon rows of back-up teeth like Sharpedo.

"I think you'll be fine to battle, then." Ash smiled. Nidoking snorted happily and carefully lowered himself to the ground. Nurse Joy had advised that he keep all activity other than his stretches to a minimum. His wounds had been healed but she wanted to make sure. "Just take it easy for a few days, alright?"

His best friend snorted again and lightly tapped Ash's leg with a massive dull claw to assuage his worries. Ash smiled and sat down on the floor next to him, uncaring of the slightly awkward position.

He spotted Amelia heading upstairs out of the corner of his eye. She'd been quiet lately, thoughtful. Jonathan had said something about her thinking of what she would do after she was done traveling.

Ash frowned as he leaned against Nidoking's unscathed shoulder. It was hard and cool like most of Nidoking's armored parts but it was still warm with NIdoking's life and rose with every breath.

It was strange to see one of his friends considering what to do when they had completed their journeys. He didn't plan to cease his wanderings for a long time to come. Human cities were nice for a quick stop or two, but he couldn't imagine actually living in one again.

He shut his eyes as he rested on Nidoking's shoulder. Ash wasn't sure when a League representative would come to take him to Indigo Plateau but he wanted to be well-rested. He'd stayed up late last night talking to his mother and Professor Oak. It wasn't anything particularly important, just inane rambling from all parties.

"Yo, Ash." Jonathan's voice snapped him out of his daze. He slit his eyes open and looked over to the couch. The other boy was still sprawled haphazardly across it but had abandoned his previous lazy look. "Have you seen Gary since you beat his ass?"

"Yes."

"Was he mad?" The other boy inquired gleefully, his eyes alit with curiosity. "Please tell me he was mad! Or crying. Either or, really."

Ash rolled his eyes. "No. We had a perfectly reasonable discussion afterwards. He wasn't even that annoying."

Jonathan pulled himself up. "Are we talking about the same Gary? Kinda tall, smart, huge jerk?"

"Definitely. He just decided to not be particularly obnoxious last night." Ash frowned. "It was strange."

The other trainer shuddered. "I can imagine. Do you think a psychic was controlling him or something?"

"…No."

"Huh." Jonathan considered as he looked at Ash. "That's disappointing."

"Very." Ash pulled his cap over his eyes, trying to give Jonathan a hint. He didn't want to talk right now. All he wanted to do was take a nap and catch up on his sleep. This must be what Tangrowth felt like when he didn't get enough sun.

Jonathan just continued to stare at him lazily. It was getting to be disconcerting. "So…know any Masters that might train me?"

He sighed and shook his head. This was somewhat interesting, at least. "No luck?"

"What do you expect?" Jonathan scoffed. "It's not like Masters are common! How often do you see someone on the level of the Elite Four running around that's not getting paid by the League? And I'm definitely not going out to look for one of those crazies that go and hide in the wilderness. I'd rather not get killed by some loon during training."

Ash raised an eyebrow. "Your standards are too high."

Jonathan growled and turned away with a thoughtful scowl. "Maybe. I guess I'll just go find the craziest Master I can find. If I get lucky they won't be some creepy guy wanted by the League for snapping."

"There's the spirit." He smirked. Ash stayed quiet after that. Maybe Jonathan would wait until later to keep up this conversation. Such as after his nap. He wouldn't want to keep Nidoking up with the noise.

The silence persisted for several wonderful minutes. Then…

"Hey, Ash?"

He sighed and temporarily abandoned his pursuit of a nap.

XX

A deep growl from Nidoking woke him up. Ash was immediately on alert and snapped up, conditioned by his time in the wilderness. His eyes warily took in his surroundings as Nidoking's great head rose and focused on the door.

Ash relaxed. Nobody was in the room. Bruiser and Seeker were probably asleep in his room. He hadn't released the rest of his friends. Jonathan and Amelia could be anywhere. They came and went as they pleased.

Several seconds later the doorbell rang loudly, the tone echoing throughout the house. Ash wearily pulled himself up. Nidoking started to follow but a look from Ash kept the exhausted poison-type on the ground. He didn't need to move if he didn't have to.

He opened the door quickly. It was most likely Gary or someone from the League. Gary had mentioned coming by his house sometime soon, so it was most likely him. The League would probably send Will.

"Steven?" He grinned up at the man, who was dressed in his usual suit. The former Champion smiled back down at him and stepped in after Ash, who moved aside. "Are you here for the League function?"

"Indeed." Steven smiled. "I'm to be your guide to Indigo Plaeau. It works out quite well, I think. I wanted to talk to you anyways and this way we're away from attentive ears."

Ash glanced at Steven. "What is it?"

"I'll tell you on the road." Steven replied vaguely, waving the question away. "It's nothing dangerous. Just something I'd like to talk about."

"We aren't teleporting?" He asked. Ash trusted Steven. He was willing to allow Steven to raise whatever issue he wanted to discuss at a time of his choosing but he had to admit that he was curious.

Steven shook his head. "No. There's still a good bit of time until it begins. We'll get there early even if we walk. I just thought it would be good for you to see Indigo Plateau – the real Indigo Plateau, not this resort town – with your own eyes. It's the center of the Indigo League and the focus of a thousand years of history. This is where true civilization was built."

Ash nodded. "I've been there before, actually. Will teleported me."

"Ah, Will." Steven smiled lightly. "He'll be a credit to the Indigo Elite Four when it goes through its structural change. Not to mention that it'll be nice to have another member besides Lance that can actually talk to the media since Lorelei is leaving."

That peaked his interest. "She's leaving? Why?"

"She's served her time and believes that her people are in need of her skills." The Steel Master explained. He absentmindedly rapped his knuckles again the chair he had sat down in as he continued. "The fact that Team Rocket very nearly conquered the Sevii Islands disturbed her greatly. I believe she seeks to reunify them and protect them from outside threats, if not outright lead the Islands."

"Lorelei would take over a region?" Ash frowned. That didn't seem like the woman he had met before the battle with Mewtwo.

"Perhaps if it came to that." Steven shrugged. "I don't believe it will, though. The Sevii Islands are splintered and divided. They want a unifier. Lorelei is one of the few with the potential to lead them out of their poor situation at the moment. She's the Islands' greatest child and highly respected by the inhabitants. Lorelei wants to bring peace, not war."

Ash nodded. He was slightly perturbed at how casually Steven treated Lorelei's quest. He couldn't claim to know enough about the situation to make an informed judgment, but it seemed like the Ice Queen's efforts could backfire if she didn't go about it properly.

He had no doubt that Lorelei could conquer the small, isolated Sevii Islands. Knot Island was one of the smallest of the islands but even the largest populations were scarcely inhabited. A Master like her would steamroll her way through any resistance.

But he couldn't see the friendly, intelligent woman doing such a thing. Ash hadn't had too much interaction with Lorelei, but from what he'd heard she was much too rational to act without a plan.

"It's a risky path, but I believe she will make the right choices." Steven said firmly, perhaps hoping to assuage Ash's concerns. He glanced down at his watch. It was a strange contraption and likely more expensive than anything Ash owned. "Are you able to leave now? I'd like to head out soon."

Ash started and nodded. He glanced over to Nidoking. "I'm going to recall you now, alright?"

Nidoking, who had been watching the proceedings with a single eye open, grunted in understanding. He disappeared in a flash of bright light.

He knew Nidoking needed to rest a bit, but he'd have time later. Ash didn't feel comfortable leaving Nidoking anywhere unless it was a medical necessity. Nidoking had been with him for nearly a year now and he didn't see that changing anytime soon.

"Ready." Ash announced. Steven smiled and rose from his chosen chair.

"Delightful. Let's head out then. It's not too far of a walk, but we aren't in a rush."

With that the two stepped out of the League home and set off to the League citadel that loomed comfortingly over the village of Indigo Plateau.

XX

"I'd like for you to come to Hoenn with me." Steven announced as they walked through the thick forest that separated the true Indigo Plateau from the Conference grounds.

Ash glanced at him with wide eyes. "What?"

"Come to Hoenn." Steven repeated with a half-smile. He gave Ash a moment to digest his words. "It's a beautiful land with rich history and a wide range of both people and pokemon. Kanto is wonderful, but Hoenn is something else. It's a home for anyone willing to accept it. If you come you will find whatever you seek."

"I don't know. Give me some time to think about it." Ash trailed off uncertainly. What was he supposed to say? He was certainly interested in Hoenn – it was where Steven had become a Champion, after all – but he still hadn't solidified his plans. It was a possibility but he couldn't just confirm it.

Steven seemed to have expected that response. "Of course. Whatever you choose, just tell me."

Ash nodded and said nothing as he glanced around the forest. A Caterpie looked at him with its huge, curious eyes and the green body wriggled slightly as it climbed up the tree. Several Pidgey stared at it hungrily, although the presence of a few Metapod hanging in the trees kept them at bay. Metapod meant Butterfree, who would be more than a match for the little flying-types.

He tore his attention away from the handful of wild pokemon that remained in the humans' presence and turned back to Steven, whose face was marked with a thoughtful expression.

"Would I be traveling with you?"

"Some of the time." Steven shrugged. "I'll certainly be around but one of the integral parts of a journey is personal growth. I'd rather not stunt that. I'll help train you since Lance won't have the time next year, but there are situations of my own I need to resolve that I'd prefer not to drag you into."

Ash nodded again. "Are you going back to Hoenn for the Ever Grande Conference?"

The Master nodded. "I'm no longer the Champion of Hoenn but I still have an obligation. Wallace wants me there to provide additional security. The Rocket remnants that persisted have been bolstered by Indigo Rockets fleeing from the League. We're afraid they might try something to project strength."

"Rockets?" He hissed, eyes narrowed. The Feather, fueled by his righteous anger, blazed and heated his blood. "What –"

"They aren't a true threat." Steven raised a hand to placate him. His voice was calm and steady as ever. "The Hoenn Rockets are a bunch of yipping Poochyena. They're still teething. I don't plan on allowing them to grow up."

That tempted Ash. If Steven was trying to convince him to go to Hoenn that was the way to go.

He was strong enough to fight Team Rocket now. He could stop the foul organization from rising ever again. And with Steven he would stamp them down until not even traces were left.

"Just keep my offer in mind." The former Champion smiled. His slate eyes met Ash's brown ones. "Lance has his own suggestion. Think them both over. This is your future."

"Thank you." Ash dipped his head. "Would you mind telling me what Lance wants?"

"That's something only he can tell you." Steven replied, amused. "It isn't my place to interfere with his plans – just to offer an alternative."

"Doesn't that count as interference?"

Steven shrugged. "Perhaps. Lance didn't seem to think so, however."

Ash hummed in response, not sure what to say. As the League citadel loomed ever closer peaceful silence reigned.

The two introverted trainers were content with the quiet atmosphere. Both were used to it after so long in the wilderness and were happy to find it again after nearly a month in the bustling Indigo Plateau.

"Will any of the gym leaders or Elite Four be absent?" Ash inquired. He'd been looking forward to meeting them again.

"Lance strongly suggested that they be present." A ghost of a smile tugged at Steven's face. "They will be there. It's a rare chance for the gym trainers to show that they can be trusted with authority so Lance all but demands them to remain at the Conference. Gym leaders are normally separated from their territory once a year at the most."

Ash supposed this year was the exception. With Team Rocket's aggressive movements and the sudden resurgence of Zapdos the gym leaders had been forced to move far beyond their borders.

He dimly realized that it might be years before he saw most of the gym leaders after the Conference. Ash planned on leaving for one of the other Leagues, after all, and the only gym leader not too busy to keep in contact would be Blaine. The others had tons of work to do even if they delegated gym battles to their trainers.

As much as he liked the asocial genius, he couldn't imagine calling Blaine to chat. The old man would likely berate him about something or another and show off the personality that left him as the only hermit gym leader.

"By the way, don't be too surprised when you see what the ACE trainers are wearing. After our last discussion I decided to arrange a surprise for Lance." Steven gave him a genuine grin that worked muscles that were often tense on the former Champion's stoic face. "I do hope that he'll love it."

Ash just raised an eyebrow and shrugged as they wandered down the path. He had a suspicion about what Steven had done, but he'd just wait before thinking further. It would be confirmed in a few minutes anyway.

XX

He looked down with interested eyes as they emerged from the forest onto a path of gold and silver bricks. Each had letters etched deep into them and a small symbol above the words.

"Each holds the name of an Indigo League member who has died in its service." Steven said gravely as they strode across the memorial. Statues of the giant Rhydon Ash had seen firsthand guarded the pathway with their hard slate eyes, perfect replicas of the titan. "The gold bricks are the fallen trainers. The symbol above their name, birth, and death are the territories in which they were born. The silver bricks are their teams arrayed around them."

Ash nodded and dipped his head in acknowledgement to the names immortalized in gold and silver. These were the last remnants of many of the pokemon, men, and women that had died in the League's service in all of its different incarnations throughout the last millennium. They were worthy of more than respect.

"How many have been added in the last year?"

"Three hundred and forty-three gold bricks and five hundred and sixteen silver." Steven grimaced. His aristocratic features twisted in grief. "It's the most fatalities any of the Leagues have suffered since the last war. Team Rocket is defeated but they have ensured that they will not be forgotten for many years to come."

He sent a sideways glance at the former Champion. Steven seemed to have taken the loss of so many League forces more severely than he would have thought. Ash would have expected Steven to be angry at their deaths but the Steel Master was an outsider to Indigo. They shared Leagues but he did not have the investment in the Indigo League a native did.

Pierce's haughty, caustic countenance flashed to the forefront of his mind. Ash's fists clenched momentarily at the memory. He suspected that Steven's failure to apprehend his traitorous cousin before Pierce could cause significant damage to the Indigo League played a major role in his feelings.

"Halt." A stern voice commanded as they passed underneath the massive Rhydon statues that guarded the gates to Indigo Plateau. Two ACE trainers materialized from the shadows, melting into existence alongside two Gengar that leered at Ash and Steven with bloody eyes and mouths of knives. "Before you enter you must submit to a scan. Identities?"

"Go ahead." Steven replied with a nod, face blank and hard as his namesake. He was all business. "I'm Steven Stone and he's Ash Ketchum. We're expected."

The lead ACE trainer nodded and jerked her head toward the two. One of the Gengar reappeared in a whirl of darkness an inch in front of Steven, who met its hungry gaze unflinchingly. It hissed in disappointment and collapsed into a cloud of gas and blackness before it washed over the former Champion and enveloped his body, careful to avoid actually touching the tall man. Steven didn't breathe, well aware of the dangers.

Ash barely held back a flinch as the other Gengar rushed at him from the shadows, maw agape and full of eerily white fangs. It stopped an instant before its mouth would have engulfed Ash's head, leaving his heart pounding and blood frozen.

"Enough, Gengar." Its trainer frowned. "Scan him. Please hold your breath, Mr. Ketchum."

Gengar's malevolent red eyes vanished into its barely corporeal body as it dissolved into a writhing mass of hungry shadows and toxic smoke. Ash didn't breathe in or out as it washed over him and left the scent of noxious poison in his nostrils and bloody iron in his mouth.

It was this ability that made Gengar so feared. Many ghosts could dissolve their corporeal presence and reform elsewhere, but Gengar had mastered the ability and turned it into a deadly weapon. In their corporeal form they were terribly fast, incredibly powerful, and resistant to most any physical attack, but when they dissolved into shadow and poison they were at their most powerful.

He had seen the natural ability referred to as Miasma many times, although no single name was entirely used. It allowed a Gengar to move about freely, fearless of any attack other than that of psychic power, dark-type moves, and elemental or energy-based attacks powerful enough to force Gengar to reform.

They could move quickly, jumping from shadow to shadow with a minimum of effort. They could envelop psychics and allow the strange, alien energy that suffused their form to drown their natural enemies in their terrible power and others in the toxic gas that made up their physical body.

And, although it wasn't allowed in regulated battles since it invariably lead to death or permanent harm on the victim's part, they could rush in through the nostrils or mouth and destroy their unfortunate quarry from the inside.

He saw a flash of manic scarlet eyes before Gengar's body rushed away from him and reformed into the mischievous creature he'd seen before. It waggled its fingers and grinned at him before its trainer snapped its fingers and Gengar dissolved back into the trainer's shadow.

Ash shuddered as he took in a deep breath. The air around him was cold from the unnatural energy held within Gengar's form. Its presence had left his mouth tasting of old blood – an obvious illusion or prank on the ghost's part and one that Ash didn't appreciate.

The trainer felt the uncomfortable atmosphere left by the Gengar burn away as the Feather shined bright, bringing fire into his veins and banishing the ghost's effects. Twin sets of red eyes appeared in the darkness and stared at him unnervingly, although the Feather pulsed again as Ash met the ghosts' gazes unflinchingly.

He felt no fear for them.

"Your identities have been confirmed and it's been determined that you are under no psychic compulsions." The lead ACE trainer announced. She did not move as the doors to the Indigo Plateau opened, heavy wood and solid brass moved effortlessly by an unseen presence. "Please enjoy your stay at Indigo Plateau."

He felt a pressure in his mind grow and rush in amusement at the ACE trainer's confident words, an icy fire that vanished moments later.

Ash froze at that, but did not say anything as he and Lance stepped into the hallowed halls.

The interior of Indigo Plateau was nothing like the short glimpse he'd seen of the halls outside of Lance's office. It was open and airy, although the three pairs of ACE trainers stationed throughout the lobby refused to let it feel like anything other than the citadel that it was.

Steven checked his own PokeNav and frowned. "Our little jaunt through the Indigo Forest took a little longer than I expected. The gym leaders should be getting here soon. I'll go ahead and take you to where we need to be. I'd meant to take you to Lance first, but it seems that you'll have to speak with him afterwards."

He nodded but remained silent. Steven placed his PokeNav back into one of his suit's surprisingly deep pockets and smiled lightly. "Well, let's get a move on. I like being early."

With that they set off, confidently passing the ACE trainers that spared them a single glance as they walked through the doors. When they left the atrium the architecture shifted to the rich, albeit simple and elegant, style and tones of the area outside Lance's office.

Steven led him through a labyrinth. Ash lost track of his location almost instantly as they headed through seemingly infinite hallways and past innumerable twists and turns. He could have sworn that they were going in circles but Steven never seemed worried in the least.

"Here we are." The man announced as they came to a stop in front of two large doors of polished mahogany. He easily spied the League symbol etched into the wood, the stylized Rhydon prominent amongst the halved circle. "This is the Indigo Ballroom, mostly used to host formal and not-so-formal functions. It had a lot more use before Lance took over."

"I can imagine." Ash snorted. Lance loved being the center of attention but he couldn't see the Champion being particularly happy at a formal event. For all his legendary lineage – the great heroes and conquerors that made up the ancient Wataru clan's history were renowned even in Kanto considering their importance to the history of Indigo – Lance was a simple man.

Something he'd been meaning to ask Steven about sprung into his mind. "Do ACE trainers usually wear capes? Or, more specifically, exact replicas of Lance's cape?"

"They do not." The former Champion half-smiled. "Today's the exception. Will was more than willing to speak with the ACE Commander in my stead and managed to convince the man to give a little tweak to the uniform. Being an Elite Four trainee has its perks, I suppose."

"Indeed it does!" A loud, obnoxiously cheerful voice exclaimed from inches behind Ash. He flinched and glared back at Will, who appeared as if from nowhere. "Ah, my apologies! I did not mean to startle you, my friend."

"It's fine." He grumbled and felt his paranoia fade away. Will just gave him another dazzling smile from behind the mask and casually balanced his cane on the tip of one of his fingers. Steven just smirked. "It's nice to see you again, Will."

"And you as well, Ash!" Will said, dipping into a slight bow. He swept his hand and caused his cane to vanish from existence, replaced by an expertly folded white cape. "Would you care for your own? With the good Steven's aid I have procured several dozen! Capes are the height of fashion at the moment, you know."

Ash raked his eyes over Will's formal clothing and black mask. Perhaps he shouldn't be surprised that the future member of the Elite Four thought so highly of capes.

Capes worked on Lance. Something about him made the great lengths of fabric meld into Lance and augment both his powerful physique and the legendary strength he embodied. It made him into a figure more than human, a hero from the old stories.

On anyone else they looked ridiculous. The legions of trainers seeking to emulate Lance attested to that. Ash had encountered enough of the Champion's devoted fans to know that for himself.

"I'm afraid I'll have to pass." Ash said, forcing a note of disappointment into his voice. "I don't think I would wear it very well."

"Champion Steven?" Will hopefully offered the cape to the Steel Master.

Steven shook his head. "I'm afraid not. I have my own image, after all. I'd hate to tarnish Lance's."

"Of course, of course!" Will smiled, not bothered at all by the refusal. He snapped his fingers and the cape suddenly appeared around his shoulders completely unruffled. The psychic checked the cape for any signs of lines. When nothing appeared to be wrong he flourished his arm dramatically, causing his cane to materialize instantly. "Well, shall we go in? It has been much too long since the Indigo leaders have been in one place!"

Ash nodded and tried to let his face relax. He liked the gym leaders. There was no reason to be nervous.

XX

He sent a quick glance about the room. It was just as massive as he'd expected, albeit simpler. From Steven's description he'd thought it would be ridiculously opulent, but instead it bore signs of the League and its Champion's focus on practicality over aesthetics. Lance wasn't one for garish ceremony.

Gym leaders were arrayed all throughout the area, mostly next to several tables full of food and drink. Ash took quick note of their positions. Agatha, Surge, Blaine, and Sabrina stood together by one, largely avoided by the rest of the gym leaders. He suspected that they were talking of serious matters that the others had no desire to interrupt.

The Sisters, Karen, and Erika were gathered around a small water-type pokemon in a small, portable aquarium carried by an oddly exuberant Machoke that had a wide grin on its reptilian face. It was about the same size as a Magikarp and had just as much expression. The grey creature stared dully at the curious females before it tried to turn around in its small enclosure.

His lips curled into a smirk when he saw Brock standing a short distance away from the group and staring at Karen with star-struck eyes. Brock was a mature, responsible gym leader most of the time but he turned into an idiot when he was around attractive girls.

Ash was actually surprised that Surge hadn't managed to beat and shock it out of the younger gym leader yet. The electric-type specialist was rather brutal at the best of times. When he was defending the honor of the Nurse Joys and Officer Jenny's that operated under his authority he was absolutely merciless.

It didn't help Brock's case that Raichu took a gleeful satisfaction in sending a few hundred volts through him every now and then.

"Isn't it wonderful?" Will sighed as he clasped a hand over his heart and pretended to swoon. "The entire family gathered in one place! Simply fabulous!"

"It is." Ash nodded in agreement as he continued to pick out familiar faces. Bruno and Koga were speaking together animatedly far from the others, demonstrating flurries of punches and kicks that would have most fighting-types on edge. His face was split by a grin as he saw his old teacher, who caught his eye and responded in kind with a nod and reserved smile.

He noted that neither Misty nor Janine were present. It seemed that only the leaders were here to represent their gym. A gathering of the best.

"Has anyone replaced Giovanni?" Ash asked absently as he realized that the roster would be one short for an indeterminate amount of time. "Viridian can't have been without a gym leader for six months."

"Karen and I have been filling in!" Will grinned as he balanced the cane onto the tip of his pointer finger with perfect precision. "Lance believed it would be a wonderful way to gain experience. There was an unfortunate shortage of challengers, however. It seems that the former proprietor's tarnished reputation still hangs over the place."

"I can only imagine why." Ash scowled at the mention of Giovanni. He kept his fists from reflexively clenching at the traitor's name, which was an accomplishment. He just wanted to forget the man.

A cold presence pulsed in his mind in response to his thoughts, balanced out by the Feather's warmth.

He squeezed his eyes shut at the unexpected pressure and frowned, a little fear bubbling in his stomach. That presence was not something he had ever wanted to feel again.

"Is something wrong?" Will asked, his eyes a fiery purple behind his mask as he stared at Ash with a knowing look. Steven's concerned countenance locked onto him as well, to which Ash shook his head.

"I'm fine." He said firmly. "Just a headache. Let's go join the crowd."

Steven nodded and headed off through the sparsely occupied ballroom, presumably to find Lance. Will hung by Ash's side with a blinding grin, eyes still alit with psychic power as he trailed behind the younger trainer.

"Ash Ketchum." A warm monotone greeted him. His neck snapped to the source and he found himself staring into the kind scarlet eyes of Sabrina less than a foot away. She must have teleported. The strongest human psychic had been over with Surge, Blaine, and Agatha mere moments ago.

"Sabrina." He inclined his head in respect and flashed the woman a genuine smile. "You look much better than when I last saw you."

"Indeed. Mewtwo's malevolence has not touched me for a month." Sabrina stated calmly, seemingly unperturbed by the mention of the Creature that had broken her mind and left her nothing more than a pale lying helpless in a bed. "Thank you. Had you not been present our world would be irrevocably altered. It was a fortuitous series of events that led you to your fate."

Ash nodded but didn't say anything as his mind flashed back to the events at New Island.

A soothing hand broke him out of his stupor even as the Feather pulsed with its comforting heat. Sabrina watched him unblinkingly with her scarlet eyes as she retracted her frozen hand.

"You burn brightly now. The Brand you bear has no place within you in the present." She observed. Her eyes flashed and he felt twin forces rise up within him. "Carry your torch well, Ash Ketchum. It will guide you through the coming times."

"Thank you for your advice, Sabrina." He dipped his head again, grateful to the psychic for what she had told him. It was cryptic, but at least she was warning him. Something would happen in the future. If Sabrina felt the need to warn him then he should begin his preparations at once.

The woman's mouth pulled itself into a wan smile at his thoughts but did not comment further. Ash knew that she had said enough. Sabrina rarely dispensed advice concerning the future's winding path, so he would take what he could get.

"Lady Sabrina! It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance once more!" Will bowed graciously, his cane immaterial as he swept his arm forward in a needlessly dramatic manner. His eyes shone brightly from behind his mask as he looked up and met his mentor's eyes. "I can see that your beauty has only grown in the time we have been apart!"

Sabrina gazed at him blankly. "Agatha tells me you have been lax in your training."

Will smiled and bowed once more. "I would never be so remiss in my duties, Lady Sabrina. I have simply –"

A chill ran down Ash's spine as Agatha drew near, tapping her gnarled cane of ancient wood against the hard floor as she hobbled over. The Revenant Crone leered at Will, ghostly lights dancing in her mismatched eyes amidst the shadows that surrounded her aged form.

"Don't even try it, you charming little brat." The Crone bared her oddly sharp teeth in a mockery of a grin as she finally came to a stop near Ash. "I've had enough of your honeyed words and endearing little quirks. You've spent enough time dawdling with that magic wand of yours!"

The Crone's multicolored eyes latched onto Ash as he silently watched the scene. "Run along, Ketchum. I'm sure that brute Surge has been itching to speak with you. Perhaps you two can save that little fool Brock from Karen if you have the inclination."

Ash nodded and did his best to ignore Will, who seemed slightly nervous under the scrutiny of his elders. The Elite Four trainee tried to catch Ash's eye but he didn't fall for it. He'd rather avoid this situation.

He liked Will, but this was none of his concern.

The young trainer could feel Sabrina's scarlet eyes tracing him as he stepped away from the impromptu gathering but she didn't say anything. He made a note to seek her out again before he left.

Of course, if there were anything important to discuss it would be Sabrina who sought him out. Her clairvoyance enabled her to follow whatever path led to the best possible outcome – or so he assumed. The workings of powerful psychics had always been strange and indecipherable, their abilities elevating them to a level beyond what most humans could understand. They were agents of fate, as the saying went. Nothing concrete could be known about them.

"Well look who it is! It's been a long time, runt." Surge boomed, attracting the attention of almost everyone else in the room for a few brief seconds. Raichu chattered in agreement, eyes narrowed fiercely as she whipped her tail around. "You feeling up for a battle after this tournament comes to a close?"

"Definitely." Ash agreed without a second thought, a mad glint in his eye at the thought of battling Surge again. He'd love to see how Infernus would measure up to Electivire in his new form. Electivire was one of the strongest pokemon he'd ever had the pleasure of facing. Not many opponents had ever outmatched Infernus the way Electivire had, although that had been before Infernus had undergone Lance's brutal training. "I've needed a punching bag to test some new techniques on. I guess you'll do a half-decent job of it."

Surge just grinned with Raichu, whose tail flung sparks as she became evermore excited at the prospect of battle. She probably hadn't had a good fight in ages.

"You're giving Surge too much credit." Blaine sneered before downing a small bottle of alcohol in a single chug. He absentmindedly tossed the bottle into a nearby bin, where it shattered. "After learning my technique you'll carve through his overgrown power outlets like a Flamethrower through a Rocket Grunt. I wouldn't bother."

"You want to go, old geezer?" Surge grinned broadly, cracking his knuckled. He towered over Blaine, who just snorted and glared up at the giant through his sunglasses – Ash wasn't actually sure why he kept them on in the ballroom. "We haven't gone at it in ages. Not since you went senile and hid under that volcano, if I remember it right."

Blaine glowered at his fellow gym leader. "Bah! You just can't appreciate the beauty of my arena! Its construction took precision and delicate handling an idiot like you couldn't even begin to understand. I doubt you understand anything about technology other than how to blow it up."

"I know enough to do my job." The giant retorted with a vicious snort. "Unlike you. How long has it been since you left that hotel and did something useful?"

The Fire Master just sneered again and finished off his drink with a quick motion. "I never had anything to do. Cinnabar was purged of any Rocket scum long ago."

"Whatever helps you sleep at night." Surge chuckled darkly. "Can't fault an old man like you for trying, I guess."

Blaine just scowled and returned to yet another drink. Ash idly wondered how his liver could still function after years of similar abuse. "Let's not get into your own failures, boy. I'd rather not get to the point where our little spat is bad enough to remember through the alcohol."

"Let's." Surge said tightly. Raichu chittered and pat his cheek affectionately with one of her soft paws, the cord-like tail finally calm.

"Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to start drinking." Blaine grouched. Ash could see his beady eyes glance around at the other inhabitants of the room as he sneered. "Hilarious as it is, I'd rather not see that idiot from Pewter get shot down again. Must be a masochist if he's chasing after Karen."

Ash snorted and Surge let out a booming laugh, the hostility he'd been radiating toward Blaine vanishing in an instant. Everybody else ignored it this time, used to the loud gym leader.

"You'd better let that Magmortar of yours fight seriously next time it's out. I expect the world to be in awe." Blaine growled to Ash. "That last showing was boring. Leave the battlefield in ashes."

He just nodded in response at the gruff Master, who snorted again and took a drink.

Seeing that Blaine wasn't interested in further conversation he turned to Surge. "Agatha suggested that we go help Brock."

Surge eyed the dark-skinned gym leader with a brutal grin. Brock had edged slightly closer to the girls with a disturbing smile on his face. Not quite lecherous but decidedly idiotic.

"I think it's time he learned his lesson. Let Karen sort him out. He's needed a good kick in the ass for a long time." The electric-type specialist growled as he regarded his protégé.

Ash shrugged. So be it.

"How's that Electabuzz of yours doing?" Surge grunted as he looked down at the short trainer. "She didn't get a good matchup in your last battle. That Confuse Ray wrecked her chances."

"She's fine. I'm planning on using her again in my next battle. She deserves a chance to have a fair fight." Ash responded after a moment of hesitance. He needed to talk to Oz about the battle. Being so easily dispatched couldn't have been easy for her. He resolved to do it as soon as he had the chance.

"Damn right she does. I hate Confuse Ray." The giant grumbled. Raichu hissed in agreement, sparks escaping from her yellow electric sacs as she thought of the ghostly technique. "Doesn't even give you a chance to fight back. Just screws with your head until you don't know what pain is real and what's a hallucination."

Ash nodded his agreement. He appreciated the technique for its unique effectiveness, but it wasn't something to use casually. Infernus could technically use it, although his version was a bastardized version that didn't even near the potency of the true Confuse Ray wielded by ghosts and dark-types.

He was silent for a few moments before he finally decided to speak up. "Could you help me train Oz?"

It was as if he had flipped a switch in Surge. The giant's eyes lit up and an absolutely massive grin exploded on his face. "Damn right I can! And here was me thinking you'd never ask."

A similar smile split Ash's countenance. "Thank you. Do you want –"

"I'm all tied up tomorrow, but I'll send you a time and place." Surge told him. His grin grew savage even as his eyes took on a manic gleam. "I think Lightning Bolt will be included in this package. It's probably the best time for you to learn it."

Ash's eyes widened. "Really?"

Surge just grinned. Raichu crossed her paws – a distinctly human gesture that she had undoubtedly picked up from Surge – and seemed to smile at Ash as well. He remembered the power of Lightning Bolt well, as the hidden glee in his eyes suggested.

"Yeah. Shouldn't take too long to teach if she's got the juice for it. Lightning Bolt is all about power." Surge elaborated. "You've just got to have enough control to guide the electricity out and focus it. Any experienced Electabuzz can do that without much effort."

He nodded. Oz was certainly strong enough to generate Lightning Bolt, although Ash wasn't confident in her ability to use the electric-type variant of Hyper Beam multiple times. She was powerful, but Lightning Bolt consumed vast amounts of energy for an incredible payoff. Until she evolved it wouldn't be a technique to use frivolously.

"Don't have anything else planned that day." Surge said with a nasty grin. "You aren't leaving until your Electabuzz has mastered Lightning Bolt to an acceptable degree. If you have to sleep in the training grounds you will. I don't let my students half-ass it."

"I wouldn't dream of it." Ash rolled his eyes. He locked eyes with the giant man. "Just wait. She'll master it in no time at all."

"Sure she will, runt." Surge snorted. "Don't get too cocky. Just because you're hot stuff right now doesn't mean you can mouth off and get away with it."

Ash smiled. "Maybe not, but I can try."

Their conversation was cut short by a tap on Ash's shoulder. He reflexively pulled away and snapped his head to the side, only to relax when he realized it was Steven.

"Lance wants to see you." The Master said quietly with an incline of his head to the entrance of the room. The Indigo Champion stood there casually, making idle conversation with Lorelei as he awaited the trainer's approach. "It shouldn't take too long. He just wants to have a quick chat."

"Thank you." Ash said quietly. He nodded to Surge. "I'll be seeing you in a few days, I guess."

"Yeah." Surge grunted noncommittally. "Try not to lose this next battle. I want to see how you react when you find an opponent that makes you squirm. There's some bets riding on you."

Ash arched an eyebrow. "Really?"

"That's enough." Steven rebuked Surge. He glanced over to Lance again. Ash understood his message and shrugged before he headed across the ballroom, thankfully avoiding the attention of the Sisters and Karen as he did so.

He liked the Sisters, but he wasn't used to people being so affectionate. His bubble of personal space was only breached by his friends most of the time. He didn't interact with most people he met long enough to establish that kind of connection.

Not that he had with the Sisters either, now that he thought about it. They'd just taken a liking to him after his actions in Viridian and had little to no regard for others' boundaries.

Karen was Karen. He blushed faintly at the memory of her quick kiss to the cheek. He didn't have much experience getting close to most other trainers. He had zero experience with that kind of thing.

"I'm afraid we'll have to part ways for now, Lorelei." Ash overheard Lance say to the redhead as he neared the two. "But please reconsider my offer. As much as I'd like to see Will and Karen step up, I'd prefer to keep more than just Bruno in the Elite Four. I don't know if Koga will be able to commit. Fuchsia –"

"Will be fine." Lorelei replied. She adjusted her glasses, which had slipped slightly. "It's already recovered from the hurricane. The villages are cleaned up and inhabitable. Janine is well-trained. There is no need to fret."

Lance sighed. "Just think on it. Indigo can always use your skills."

"Not as much as my home can." Lorelei frowned. She sent a considering glance and friendly nod to Ash as he finally came to a stop. "We will speak of this later. Goodbye, Lance."

The Champion just shook his head before he shrugged it off and smiled at Ash. "Hey, Ash."

"Lance." Ash grinned, glad to see the Champion again. He'd miss talking to him next year. "Steven said you wanted to talk to me?"

"I figured now would be the best time to catch up and discuss a few things." Lance said as he stepped out of the ballroom. Ash followed silently, just listening to the Dragon Master. "I won't have very much free time coming up, what with the Conference's end and the preparations for the Silver Conference."

Ash nodded as they exited the massive room and passed two ACE trainers guarding the door.

"Champion Lance." The tall man to the left acknowledged. His partner echoed the statement moments later.

Lance gave the elite League guards a quick nod of respect as he swept by, cape fluttering out behind him as he took his long strides. Ash struggled to keep up, barely holding a smile back at Lance's twitch of annoyance at the ACE trainers' capes.

"I'm going to kill Steven." The Champion growled as he led Ash through the twisting halls, unfazed by the circles and loops they traveled. "Where did he even get those capes, anyway?"

"Celadon Department Store." Ash replied. Lance raised an eyebrow, curious as to how he knew that. "I remember that they had a sale on replicas of your cape when I was there last."

"Huh." Lance frowned, anger forgotten. "I should probably demand royalties for that. It's not as if they could say no."

His eyes regained their normal fierceness a few moments later, though. "I'll definitely have to get Steven back at some point or another. My cape isn't just an accessory, you know. It's a symbol of the most powerful warrior of the Wataru clan, the Drake. That position has been mine since I was fourteen years old."

"There is no single cape passed down my line, but we are expected to wear a traditional mantle whenever possible and a more practical one in battle." Lance continued. His angular features pulled up into a smile. "Thanks to the number of Wataru Champions over the years it's come to be associated with the position as a whole – a nice little reminder of our legacy."

"For some reason I doubt you mind following that tradition." Ash commented drily.

Lance smiled as they came to a stop in front of his office, which seemed to appear in a random wall. "It does make me look rather dashing, doesn't it?"

"That's a question to ask the Sisters, not me." Ash snorted as he followed Lance into the office, curiously noting that the Champion didn't stop as they walked past his desk and the piles of sleeping dragon-types. Dragonite and Dov opened their weary eyes to watch them go but didn't move.

"I suppose it is." Lance chuckled. He came to a stop in front of an empty expanse of rich wall, although a large door of polished mahogany and brass rippled into existence as he waved a hand in front of it.

Ash eyed Lance curiously. Did he have some sort of psychic power that he didn't know about? He couldn't imagine Lance not telling him about an ability like that or actively using it to enhance his efficiency in battle.

"No psychic powers." Lance told him, correctly guessing his thoughts. "Just the privileges of being the Champion coming into play."

Lance stepped past the door as an invisible force opened it. Ash followed the Champion and found himself in a dark passageway, expertly cut into perfect angles and lines. It travelled far, lowering into the heart of Mt. Silver, which Indigo Plateau was built on.

Ash's eyes flared in recognition as he glanced at the sides of the passageway, which were alit with ghostly blue flares of fire. Ancient symbols had been painstakingly etched into the stone walls with the utmost precision. The first on his left was the emerald plant of Viridian, followed by Fuchsia's heart, the golden star of Vermillion, and the rainbow flower of Celadon.

He looked to the left to see what order the symbols were arranged in but Lance's words yanked him away as they continued to walk briskly through the passageway.

"Indigo Plateau is just one big illusion to the uninitiated." Lance explained, features cast in shadow by the ghostly flame. "Ghosts and psychics constantly shift the perceptions of those who have not had their minds given special access by our own psychics. The Plateau was built as a fortress, after all, and such a defense makes it almost impossible to infiltrate. When you see loops I see a straight line."

His eyes widened and he gave Lance a slow nod. It was an ingenious defense, a second layer of protections against anyone daring and able enough to enter the League citadel in the first place. He'd wondered why Indigo Plateau was a maze. Now he had his answer.

"Where are we going?" He asked as the end of the tunnel became visible. A strange symbol he had never seen before jutted out from the stone directly above the exit. It was an indigo plant, polished to perfection. It almost glowed from the pale light.

"To an area long forgotten by all but the Champions and most knowledgeable of the League." Lance answered cryptically. A harmless golden flame licked out from under the sleeve of his formal attire, holding the pale light at bay. Ash felt his own Feather burn in tune, increasing as they neared a great pressure that sent a constant flush of heat through Ash's blood.

"Koga told me that you hunted down the First's Rhydon." Lance smiled as they neared the end. "That you defeated it speaks volumes of your skill and strength. The Rhydon was renowned as the most powerful of the First's team a millennium ago. It's strength has only grown in that time, to the point where it is far past the power of any individual pokemon constrained by mortality."

A feral grin slashed Lance's features in half. "It's actually a trial for new Champions, you know. The Rhydon is the ultimate test of strength. To defeat a team must trust absolutely in their trainer and that trust must be returned tenfold. Resolve in fighting its overwhelming strength is as important as the power to match it."

Ash's mind flashed back to the battle with the ancient Rhydon, the struggle against its nigh invulnerable armor and absolute mastery of stone and earth. Had it been a mere fraction as powerful in the days of the First as it was now it would have been almost unstoppable.

"It is normally a volatile creature." Lance commented as they finally stepped under the indigo plant. "We do our best to keep trainers away from it, although some individuals lacking in the common sense department seek it out anyway. They don't usually come back."

"It didn't try to kill me." Ash pointed out as he looked around at their new surroundings. They had entered a grotto of sorts. Pools of water spread out around them, only a perfectly preserved bridge of arching stone bare of the icy water that poured from high above and left clouds of mist spread throughout the sanctum.

"You didn't try to hurt it or its herd." The Champion smiled slightly as he came to a stop and waited. "Reports say that it usually challenges those humans it meets to a battle. If they are weak then it chases them off or kills them. We aren't too happy about that part, but it is both far too important and powerful to try to restrain it. It would require at least two of the Elite Four and myself to subdue in a serious fight and even then I would fear for our teams. All in all, it's best to have Rangers follow it and warn surrounding trainers away."

Ash nodded slowly, slightly stunned at the threat Lance accorded the giant Rhydon. He could only imagine how the Champion would react if the cornerstone of the First's team managed to evolve into its vastly more powerful form.

"What is this place?" He asked as he stared across the stone bridge to a large slab of marble. Two familiar statues stood proudly on their pedestals, their features untarnished by the ravages of time.

Taimu and his Tauros rose side by side, high above the water that pooled around them. The First's eyes were twin sapphires that stared sharply at Ash and Lance as they stood at the entrance of the room, dead stone but with an intensity that didn't belong with unfeeling gems.

He could see the First more clearly than he could in Rhydon's monument. The man was obviously not created to scale considering that he was ten feet tall and with the proportions to match, but that was only a bonus in this case. Taimu had high cheekbones and an angular face much like Lance, but markedly different enough to the point that he didn't seem to be of the relatively insular Wataru clan. They were from Johto, anyway.

The crown of ethereal icy blue flames wreathed around his head gave him the appearance of one of the noble Wataru, perfectly matching the stern sapphires as it flickered and roared amidst the grotto.

Taimu was still portrayed as young, which made Ash wonder just how old he had been when he died in the Fuchsia wilds. It was a sad fate for one of the greatest figures of history.

The trainer also noted a scabbard tied to the statue's back, which meant he must have been of relatively high birth. Ash knew that swords were rather rare back in that time period considering their great cost and the difficulty in creating it.

Steelix carcasses and meteorites were the best options for finding metal strong enough for a blade back then. Considering that Steelix were biologically immortal and ventured to the surface only in the most desperate of times the falling stars were much more common.

He fixed his gaze on the form of Tauros next. Every muscle had been expertly sculpted by masterful hands, the thick layer of fur clearly defined and its horns curled in a way that made it seem almost alive. It looked as though it would charge him any minute if the statue of Taimu could give it an order.

More of the ghostly blue flames flitted about the area, slowly surrounding Ash and Lance. He felt discomfort as he stared into the ghostly fire and felt the chill heat held within. The Will-O-Wisps hovered in a circle and seemed to summon more of their kind as they pulled from the grotto, although Taimu's crown of flames was never disturbed.

"Be still." Lance murmured to Ash as the fires pulsed in tune with their Feathers. A core of gold became visible in the flames, growing more prominent as the Will-O-Wisps came together and melded into the form of a lithe, golden Ninetales.

The image of a Ninetales with ruby eyes preserved in weathered stone flashed through his mind, although the replica paled to the creature that gazed at him with eyes of scarlet flame.

"Bearers of Fire, why do you come?" The stern, wise voice of a young woman echoed into his mind. Ash flinched, but did not feel the terrible pain that accompanied Mewtwo's telepathy. He felt his Feather blaze to the point of slight pain, although the power with which it invigorated his body far outstripped the discomfort. The golden flames of Moltres burned around the molten obsidian frame, leaving his chest a rich fiery yellow.

Lance's own Feather left his arm ablaze as he lifted his head, although he did not meet the Ninetales' eyes directly. He kept his fierce, challenging eyes directed just below the fire-type's scarlet orbs. It seemed that even the mighty Champion Lance could be cowed.

"I beg your forgiveness for intruding upon your sanctum, noble ally of the First." The Champion said respectfully. He inclined his head to Ash, who took his hint and kept his eyes away from those of the resplendent golden Ninetales. "I believed it would be prudent for my student to meet you and pay respects to the First's memory. He has encountered your brethren and looked upon the resting place of the Champion Taimu, Uniter of Indigo. He possesses the right to see this secret unveiled, as befitted to a bearer of the Feather of Moltres."

The Ninetales, golden as Moltres' flames, stalked in front of Ash. Her voice caressed his mind once more. "Look into my eyes, little human. The Golden Fire in your heart demands my respect, but I would know your being. Look into my eyes."

Ash felt a powerful influence rush against his will, but he fought it off. It could not compare to the oppressive weight of Mewtwo's dominative presence.

Instead he met the Ninetales' rubies on his own terms. Brown met scarlet for mere moments before he found himself locked in the Guardian's hypnotic gaze.

His eyes squeezed shut as a millennium of memories rushed through his mind in an instant, the great torrent enough to leave his mind a gibbering wreck had he actually been able to comprehend the river of experiences as anything other than a few distant images and a beautiful warmth that suffused his being.

When the contact ended Ash found himself on the ground, his physical body exhausted. Ninetales seemed none the worse for wear, having only received a trickle of earthly experiences compared to her own waterfall.

"You are a strange one, but you have served the Golden Fires' purposes well." Ninetales murmured gently. She stopped in front of him and fanned out her tails, golden with age to the point that the tips were indistinguishable from the rest. "My name is Chinatsu, Ash Ketchum. Remember it, for it shall never be heard upon this base earth again."

"Thank you." He gasped as he pulled himself up on dead limbs. The Feather restored his vitality several seconds later, but the deep ache of fatigue still burned. "I will never forget you or Taimu. Your memory will live on."

The smooth female voice chuckled, a delightful sound akin to the chiming of bells. "Oh, I have many years yet before I am reduced to a memory. My fire still burns bright so long as the Golden Flame demands it."

Ash felt his Feather pulse and found himself staring at the base of Ninetales' neck. Flickering amongst the golden fur, indistinguishable but for the comforting heat, laid a Feather of her own. It roared from her skin, the obsidian frame having bonded with her fur and skin and bone many centuries ago.

"Yes." The legendary Ninetales preened under Ash's astonished stare. Her fur rippled as flames passed over it and seemed to revitalize her vibrant fur to an even brighter gold. "I, named Chinatsu by the Champion of Champions, am a bearer of the Golden Fire and the instrument of its will. The current Champion and yourself are merely temporary vessels. I am eternal, it's chosen."

Ninetales melted back into the ethereal blue flames and was left nothing but a coalescing mass of swirling fire with a core of gold and eyes of blood. The blazing figure cocked its serene head and stared at him for a few brief seconds.

"You have seen the resting place of the paragon of your kind, He whose will carved a future for humanity." Her voice echoed throughout his mind and throughout the grotto as blue fires danced through the mists. "My ancient partner's monument is sacred ground. It is where His bones lay entombed in the stone when life fled His weary body."

A Will-O-Wisp appeared next to Ash's head and it felt as if Chinatsu's voice spoke to him from within.

"To see such a sight is an honor none deserve. But you have." The flame crackled. "You are not an inheritor of His mantle, but my own monument is no holy place. Here I protect the legacy of mighty Taimu and forgotten Shinobu and ensure that the future bearers of His office have not forgotten. The eyes of a bearer of the Golden Flame will not tarnish its purpose."

"Thank you for allowing me to remain." Ash bowed his head, grateful to Chinatsu. He glanced up at the sapphire eyes of Taimu and then to the hulking form of the Tauros. "Shinobu is the Tauros?"

The flames dissipated, but the Will-O-Wisp remained near him.

"Yes." The Ninetales replied curtly. Lance opened and shut his mouth, opting to remain silent as the ancient fire-type responded to Ash's query. "He was a valiant comrade that fell in service to Taimu at the Battle of Mt. Silver, when the armies of united Kanto met Johto in war to determine the course of your kind's history. The Champion of Champions emerged victorious, but Shinobu's life was the price paid to strike down the Drake of Blackthorn, who led our foes."

Ash turned to Lance in surprise at the statement. "I didn't know your clan was that old."

"The Wataru have been an integral piece of Johto for many, many centuries. When my forefathers saved the life of a Dragonite and were rewarded with several eggs we have built our legacy." Lance said proudly. "The Drake of that time was one of our most prominent members, although history has all but forgotten him."

He nodded, although he didn't spare Lance an odd look. Ash knew that Lance took pride in his heritage – and for good reason, considering the innumerable renowned warriors and leaders it had produced – but he'd never said much about it. He'd just assumed that Lance preferred to make his own name legendary rather than rely on his clan's fame.

"Speak not of the Drake." Chinatsu hissed, cold fires flaring. "Not in the presence of my fallen brother."

Ash dipped his head to the Ninetales. "I apologize for my disrespect. It was not my intention to dishonor Shinobu's memory."

The Will-O-Wisp calmed but remained colder than before. It seemed that the golden Ninetales held her memories of the fallen Tauros close to her heart. "Pay your respects, bearer of the Golden Flame, and take your leave from my shrine. I seek a return to my lonely vigil."

With that the Will-O-Wisp fled and took its place on Taimu's fiery crown, just above the idol's sapphire eyes. Ash stared at it for a few brief moments before he took a deep breath and stepped onto the thin stone bridge.

"Aren't you coming?" He asked Lance when he realized that the Champion wasn't following.

"No." Lance shook his head. "This is for you. I paid my respects long ago and my line is not favored by the Guardian."

Ash nodded in understanding and walked slowly up to the massive monument. He stared up at the First's proud face briefly before he focused on the true subject of the memorial: Shinobu.

He saw a small plaque of gold soldered to the marble with etchings similar to those on Taimu's grave. They were rough, seared into the metal by an untrained hand. It stood in stark contrast to the utter perfection and clarity of the immortalized images held in the smooth stone, but Ash thought the effect was stronger for it.

"Interred here are the remains of Shinobu, Greatest of his kind and Terror to the Unjust. He died in my service in the Battle of Mt. Silver. Mighty Shinobu died to the Drake of Blackthorn's partner, but with his sacrifice slew the Beast of Blackthorn and brought victory to the Brothers and Sisters of Kanto. May his name live forever in the stars."

"He carved those words with his own hands." Chinatsu sighed, lost in memories a millennium old. "They were bloody from the heat of battle, still stained with the essence of Shinobu's life. His mind was vacant with grief."

Ash could sympathize. His brown eyes squeezed shut as he remembered the heart-clenching grief that had stabbed and twisted into his chest when Moltres had killed Infernus. It had been the worst feeling he had ever experienced.

The First might have lived in a harsher age, but he could only imagine how terrible it would be to watch one of his friends torn apart by what was most likely a Dragonite. Infernus' first death had been quick and far away from Ash. It was clean.

Shinobu's death could not have been so gentle. Dragonite were naturally even-tempered, but they were amongst the most fearsome creatures on the planet. Their partnership with the Wataru had left the Blackthorn natives the most powerful force in Johto for centuries, despite their small numbers.

And when pushed to the limits of desperation the wrath of a Dragonite was a terrible thing indeed. Mighty Shinobu had managed to slay it if Chinatsu's words were anything to go by. It would have fought with all of its fearsome power to survive and protect its partner. It was no wonder the Tauros had fallen, although it managed to become one of the few throughout history to kill a Dragonite in the process.

He bowed his head to the monument to the great Tauros. It would be the only one of the First's legendary team that he wouldn't meet. If it possessed the same sort of longevity gifted to Rhydon by its biology or Chinatsu by her Feather and the strange powers of the Ninetales and had managed to survive its last battle it would be an incredible foe indeed.

Ash wondered how it could have measured up to its comrades. Rhydon was a veritable force of nature given its size and natural power, a beast that could have been seen as a minor god in ancient times. Ninetales had always been mysterious and legendary figures, heralded as agents of fate and movers of the world.

In comparison Shinobu was somewhat mundane, although certainly one of the strongest of his kind to have existed. Tauros were incredible fighters, their muscle almost dense enough to match that of a Machoke and bones hard enough to weather the most powerful of strikes without breaking. While a rare and notably effective fighter even in the modern world, a Tauros didn't have the same mystique and elemental abilities that a Rhydon or Ninetales possessed.

But it was strong enough to survive the First's brutal battles in the reunification of Kanto and emerge relatively unscathed until the most pivotal moment in human history. Although Ash knew the Tauros had to be overwhelmingly powerful to do so, he wondered just how much of its ability to survive came down to raw determination and the will to fight for its team.

A Will-O-Wisp danced down from Taimu's fiery crown and landed on the tip of Shinobu's sculpted horns, ending his contemplations. "Your time here is at an end, bearer of the Golden Flame. I grow weary of your presence."

Ash nodded and stood up, casting one last glance at the plaque before he turned to the ghostly flame. "Thank you for giving me this opportunity. Shinobu will not be forgotten."

"Be sure that is the case." The Ninetales' avatar responded, satisfaction evident in her cold tone. "Keep this place in your heart. Shinobu was never immortal in body, but his spirit burned brighter than mine ever did. Its light is not yet ready to be quenched by humanity's ignorance."

He gave the ancient Ninetales one last nod of understanding before he turned his back to her and headed to Lance, who stood patiently as Ash returned.

"Feel enlightened?" Lance asked with a flippant grin on his face as he looked down at the younger trainer. "I remember when my predecessor showed me this place. The Guardian wasn't too pleased at seeing another Wataru take on the Champion's mantle, but the memorial made up for it. The First is an enigmatic figure. To learn more of my peoples' legacy was worth any amount of scorn."

"I know what you mean." He replied slowly before giving Lance a quick shake of his head. "But I don't feel any different. All I did was pay my respects and learn of another name to honor."

"I don't know about you, but I think that's all the wisdom anybody needs." The Champion grinned as he clapped Ash on the shoulder. "Come on, I think the Guardian wants us to leave. There's still some stuff we need to talk about, anyways."

With that they set off, Ash curious as to just what it was Lance was going to tell him. He assumed it had something to do with his future after the Conference – Steven had said he was going to make his own offer, after all.

By the time they ascended from Mt. Silver's heart to the Champion's office he was slightly winded. He'd gotten soft from sitting around his house for the last month. Adjusting to intense travel again would take a few days before he was comfortable with the pleasant soreness.

"Take a seat." Lance motioned to the chair in front of his massive desk. The dragons laying throughout the room didn't even acknowledge their presence. "I'll try to keep this quick. I'm sure there are plenty of people in the ballroom you'd like to catch up with."

"Here." The Champion handed him a small packet of papers after a few moments of digging through the numerous piles sitting on his desk.

Ash glanced down at the first page curiously, only for his eyes to bug out when he actually read it. "You want me to –"

"Be an Elite Four trainee? Yes." Lance responded with a wild grin. He idly brushed through his red hair with a calloused hand. "I don't think you're quite at the level to actually become a member of the Elite Four – and I wouldn't take a position away from Will or Karen, either – but you will be soon. Very soon, in fact. I just want to help you get to that point as quickly as possible."

He was silent as he stared at the paper, numb. This was an honor. More than an honor – this showed the complete and utter faith Lance put in him, his team, and their abilities. As far as he knew nobody had been offered a position on the Elite Four in their first year of training, not even as a trainee.

This was history.

But…

"Don't make a decision yet." Lance said quickly, having anticipated Ash's concerns. "This isn't a decision to take lightly and I know Steven's already put his own offer on the table. Think on it. It's a standing offer that you can take up whenever you want. I just wanted to give you the option."

"Thank you." He said quietly, dumbstruck. "What exactly does being an Elite Four trainee entail?"

"It means you're essentially an unofficial member of the Elite Four. A bit weaker and inexperienced, but fully qualified to handle any situation and well on your way to becoming a Master – if you aren't one already, that is." Lance replied. He continued his explanation once he saw that Ash had absorbed the information. "You will be sent on missions, usually under the supervision of a senior member of the Elite Four. The rest of your time will be spent training and learning the duties that come with becoming a full member."

Ash stayed silent as he considered the offer. He knew Lance was right. He couldn't give an answer right now. There was too much riding on this for him to act rashly. So many consequences.

"…I'll have an answer by the end of the Conference." The trainer said finally. "I'm going to have to spend a long time thinking about it."

"Of course." Lance nodded and motioned for Ash to hand him the Elite Four trainee registration form. When he received it he placed it at the top of one of his mountainous piles of paper. "It will be waiting for you, whatever your decision is."

"Thank you." Ash smiled. "Speaking of the Conference, what can you tell me about the Unovan?"

"George Grey?" The Champion asked distastefully. "He's powerful, somewhere around your level of strength. I don't know that much about him, other than that he worked as a contractor for the Unovan League and built himself something of a reputation there. I doubt you have much information on his Hydreigon, but you should have picked up that it's dangerous. It has a reputation similar to Tyranitar's. Anyone who can control such a creature is no joke."

Ash nodded as he considered the information. Grey certainly wouldn't be a pushover. He'd have to try and familiarize himself with the foreign pokemon he used in case he had to battle him. Michael and Neesha didn't have anything too exotic in their repertoire.

"Thanks for the information." He grinned.

"It's nothing you couldn't find out if you scoured the databases." Lance waved his thanks off. "I just shortened the process. I've had eyes on him, anyway. The Unovan League is notably lax when it comes to the ethics of their contractors and he was well-paid while he worked for them – and nobody working for the Unovan League makes that much unless they are willing to do things most trainers would shy away from."

That didn't bode well, but Ash figured he wouldn't have to worry about it. There were always the trainers that let their strength go to their head and leave them unstable. Grey couldn't pull anything in the Indigo Stadium, not with the eyes of millions on him.

His attention was grabbed by Lance's computer when it suddenly began to blink and ring brightly, obviously an alert of some kind. Lance frowned and glanced at it.

"I'm afraid we'll have to part ways for now, Ash." He sighed as he registered whatever was on the screen. "Business is calling."

"I'll see you later." He nodded, to which Lance grinned.

"Just keep going for the victory. I'd hate for you to be bored watching the last battle of the Conference." The Champion said with a slight smile. He suddenly seemed to remember something. "Could you point Steven this way if you see him? We have some issues to discuss."

"Of course." Ash replied. A sudden thought struck him. "How am I supposed to get back?"

Lance ignored the beeping of his computer for a moment as he quickly tapped a button on the side of his desk. "Will is –"

"Right here!" The flamboyant man exclaimed mere inches from behind Ash. "You have need of me, Champion Lance?"

"Take Ash back to the ballroom." The Champion said with a half-smile. His expression turned stern as he looked to the computer. "Goodbye, Ash."

He nodded again as Will led him out of the Champion's office, idly playing with his cane as it vanished and materialized several times in quick succession.

"Thank you for the distraction, my friend." Will grinned good-naturedly. "Lady Sabrina was most displeased with me and I was afraid I'd have to rely on Karen to save me – a most disagreeable situation. Do you mind if I walk you back?"

"Not at all." Ash grimaced as he remembered Will's attempts at teleportation. Just the thought made him slightly queasy.

"Fantastic!" Will cheered. "Let us move on, then. Perhaps Lady Sabrina will have forgotten her anger by the time we return."

Ash doubted that Sabrina would be so absentminded but shrugged it off. Will would be the one paying for this, not him. He'd just watch the show.

XX

"You've grown since I last saw you." A deep voice that held nothing but serenity in its timbres spoke to him as he stepped into the room behind Will, who had already rushed off to find Karen. She seemed to have disappeared with the Sisters. "It is a change for the better."

Ash's eyes lit up as he turned to regard the giant of a man that stepped to him from the side. "Bruno!"

"Ash." The Black Belt acknowledged with a wide smile. "I must say, you learned your lessons well. With Lance's additional training you have become strong. A fighter, rather than a mere brute bludgeoning away with raw strength."

"Thank you." He replied, grateful for Bruno's compliment. Ash had only spent a week with Bruno, but that had been one of the best and most productive weeks of his life. Bruno was wise and strong, everything that he aspired to be as a Master. "What all have you done since we last met? I know you had a lot to do during the war with Team Rocket."

Bruno's broad face twisted in distaste at the mention of the Rockets. "I did many things and performed actions that I would prefer not to speak of. This was a dark year for the League. Hopefully you will not be exposed to such things. Peace has reigned for many years now, and hopefully for many to come."

"You have spoken to Lance?" The Black Belt asked after a short silence. His wise eyes locked onto Ash curiously, assessing him. "You know his offer?"

"I do." Ash said quietly. "I haven't made a decision. If there's one thing you taught me it's to never act rashly."

The Master smiled slightly. "Good. Ponder this option for a long time. It would be an honor to have you serving at our side, but you must determine your own path. Follow your heart. Allow the universe to guide you."

Ash raised an eyebrow. "That seems a little contradictory."

"You will find that the universe and your heart are often one and the same." Bruno said mysteriously. "Open your mind to the world and the world will open itself to you. Your path will be illuminated, ready to be walked. It is up to you to follow that course."

He nodded slowly, taking a few moments to comprehend Bruno's philosophical mutterings. It had been a long time since he'd had to decipher such words. Lance had waxed philosophy every now and then during their month together, but for the most part he was blunt and direct with his advice. Bruno was similarly direct, but he wove intricate mazes with his words that entranced him.

Silence reigned again for a few more seconds.

"I was impressed by the technique Bruiser used." Bruno said finally. "It showed a deep understanding of his physiology and skills, although I don't believe that it is practical outside of regulated tournaments. Has he healed yet?"

"It's only used as a last resort." Ash agreed. "He's been active for several days now. I'm planning on having him fight in my next match – I'll try to avoid Rampage, but I might need it since Nidoking is wounded."

"Of course." The Black Belt murmured. "Rampage. It is a fitting name."

Bruno suddenly stared at Ash with his warm brown eyes. "But I must ask about your friend. Why does he not wear the belt? I saw It tied around his neck."

"He doesn't think he's worthy of it yet." Ash shrugged. "I think he wants to evolve first or find some way to prove his strength beyond a doubt."

"I am not surprised." Bruno confessed. "A desire to prove oneself is a common trait amongst fighting-types. Their level of strength is never enough. They possess a lust for power, one they accomplish through harsh training and an iron will. It might be years before Bruiser finds that he has surpassed his own expectations, although I suspect such an event will come to pass significantly sooner provided that you assist him."

"Of course I will." Ash replied with a fire in his eyes. "He's my friend."

A smile crossed Bruno's tan face. "Good. The cooperation between allies is the source of our greatest strength. For Bruiser to reach his potential he must have staunch supporters behind him. It pleases me to see that his trainer will be one of them. Too many lack the will to aid their brothers and sisters succeed."

"My friend, I must speak with you." Koga said as he emerged as if from nowhere. He gave Ash a brief nod of respect before he addressed Bruno, who eyed him with a curious gaze. "In private, I am afraid. I have news of the boy and Domino."

Bruno's eyes flickered to Ash's face for the briefest of moments. "Very well. Ash, I am afraid I must take my leave. Open yourself. Allow yourself to be a conduit of the energy that shapes our lives and follow the path placed before you."

"I will." Ash dipped his head. "Thank you, Bruno."

With that the two men were gone. His sharp ears didn't leave him with nothing of what they spoke, however. It didn't actually answer his questions, unfortunately, and left him with a burning curiosity of what was so secretive that they had to hide it from him.

"…spotted near New Bark Town, although that was several days ago. She seems to be harboring him, possibly training…"

He sighed as his ears finally failed him. It seemed that he wouldn't have his answers today. Perhaps Lance would be willing to tell him.

Since his conversational partner had been dragged away he looked around the room for someone else to catch up with. Steven was nowhere to be found. He'd most likely found his way to Lance's office already.

Fortunately for Ash, he didn't have long to wait before someone found him instead.

"Ash! I didn't know you would be here." Brock grinned down at him. "I'm glad I came, then. We never really got to catch up after we split up after the mission, did we?"

"I suppose we didn't." He laughed. "What have you been doing?"

"Not much." Brock shrugged. "There have been a few Rocket remnants holed up in Pewter's territory but for the most part it's been quiet. My father's been taking care of gym battles, so I've just been training and focusing on keeping the Rockets beaten down." He finished, a sneer on his face as he mentioned his father.

"But what about you?" Brock continued with a knowing look in his squinted eyes. "Apparently you've had a pretty exciting time – training with Lance, helping to save Kanto from that abomination. It's getting hard to separate the fact from the fiction nowadays."

Ash shrugged as his lips quirked up. "It hasn't been particularly normal."

"You're really good at understatements, aren't you?" Brock sighed as they fell into the camaraderie they'd built up during the long trek to the power plant. "Eleven-year-olds aren't supposed to be as quiet as you, you know. They're supposed to be obnoxious brats that can't shut up to save their life. Forrest certainly is."

"One of the litter?" Ash asked with a wide grin as he stole Surge's term for Brock's incredibly large family.

Brock rolled his eyes. "Yeah. He's the oldest, right behind me. A chip off the old block." He swelled up proudly. Ash had the feeling the rock-type specialist wasn't talking about his father.

"Where'd Surge go?" He questioned, dragging Brock out of his happy stupor.

The older boy blinked. "I'm not quite sure. I think he left with Blaine. They've been getting after each other for a while now. I wouldn't be surprised if they decided to have an impromptu battle just to make sure there aren't any hard feelings."

"Should we be worried?" Ash raised an eyebrow. Surge and Blaine were two of the most destructive fighters he knew of. Both of their teams were centered around incredibly powerful pokemon, each capable of wrecking a battlefield with a single attack. The results of a battle between the two gym leaders wouldn't be pretty.

Brock shrugged off his concern. "Nah. The closest battlefield is Bruno's training ground. It's reinforced to the point that Steelix couldn't break out of it. They might leave some marks but they can't cause serious damage."

Ash nodded. He shouldn't have been surprised. The Elite Four would utterly destroy the areas around them during training if they didn't have sufficiently powerful psychic barriers and reinforced training grounds. Otherwise they'd have to leave and head miles into the forest before it would be safe to push their teams to the fullest, something the busy Masters had no time for.

"Have you heard –" Brock began, only to freeze and stare as he looked past Ash. The younger trainer frowned curiously before he glanced behind himself and immediately understood the source of the utterly disturbing expression on the ordinarily level-headed Brock's face: Karen.

"There you are, oh Great Protector of Kanto." Karen drawled as she drew near, her beautiful face twisted into a smirk as she regarded the boy. "I hope you haven't gotten a big head after all of your heroics. That would be ever so disappointing to the good Champion."

"It still wouldn't be as big as yours." Ash shrugged, the Feather's heat in his blood pushing him on.

Karen just smiled. "Probably not. I suppose you wouldn't be talking with lover boy here if you'd gotten caught up in some misguided sense of arrogance."

"Hey!" Brock interjected, obviously annoyed at the implication in Karen's words. She just waved his complaint away with a flippant toss of her silvery hair.

"Quiet down." The beautiful girl said condescendingly before she looked down on Ash. "You, Ketchum, come with me. The Sisters want to talk to you for whatever reason."

"Why didn't they come over themselves?" He asked, sending a surreptitious glance over at the Sisters. They were still crowded around the small aquarium fawning over the dull-looking water-type that floated idly in the clear liquid.

Karen rolled her pale silvery eyes. "They're too obsessed with their new pet to even consider leaving it. I have no doubt that Feebas evolve in no time with all of the attention they're drowning it in."

"Feebas…" He murmured to himself, rolling the name over his tongue. Was that the creature Captain Stewart had spoken of on their way to Cinnabar? It was so long ago…

"Focus." Karen snapped. She turned around and began to walk off. Ash sighed and followed her, although Karen suddenly wheeled around and glared at Brock. "You can come if you behave. Just try not to embarrass yourself."

Brock had a wide, silly grin on his face as he nodded vigorously, eyes locked onto Karen as he and Ash followed her to the Sisters.

He found himself edging away from the rock-type specialist. He liked Brock, but the changes he underwent around girls were rather disturbing. Ash could certainly see why Surge had resorted to having Raichu shock Brock if he had to deal with this every day.

"Here he is, ladies. The great Shield of Kanto. Try to ignore his height. It makes his image a lot more believable." Karen said flippantly as she slinked over to the Sisters and crossed her arms over her chest, expression incredibly bored.

Ash blinked in surprise as he was suddenly wrapped up in a huge by the Sisters. He didn't think he'd ever get used to that.

"Hi." He said, voice muffled. The Sisters finally pulled back and gave him the brilliant smiles that had earned them thousands of adoring male fans. From the way Brock was staring at them he certainly wasn't an exception.

He really hoped that he didn't act like that when he was older. Hopefully Surge would be there to set him straight if his hormones ever took over.

"It's been, like, forever!" Violet gushed, accentuating her words with erratic hand motions. "Is it true that you –"

"Wait, I get to go first!" Daisy interjected. She smiled sweetly at Ash. "So, is it true that you're going to be an Elite Four trainee?"

Ash nodded hesitantly. "Lance offered me the position, but I haven't committed."

"That's so cool!" The quietest of the three, Lily, exclaimed. She glanced around conspiratorially at her siblings. "We're so going to set him up with Misty!"

He blinked as Brock and Karen snorted. "What?"

"Oh, nothing." Daisy waved his concerns away. "You don't have to worry about that just yet. Runt would probably get mad at us anyway."

Ash looked to Brock for help, hoping against hope that he'd somehow know how to handle this. Brock seemed to be rather distracted, however. Lily had gone to talk to him and it didn't look like he'd be thinking anytime soon.

"You haven't been over to see Feebas yet, have you?" Violet asked. She stared lovingly at the creature whose glazed eyes were locked onto a rather uninteresting segment of the wall. "Isn't she just amazing? We've been trying to get one from Wallace for years!"

He looked at the rather uninspiring water-type. Its fins twitched slightly. "Yes. She's stunning."

"I know, right?!" Violet gushed. She was certainly a passionate person. "Do you even know –"

Ash resigned himself to his fate. He didn't mind being around the Sisters, but he could think of better things to talk about than Feebas, no matter how impressive she would be once she evolved.

It wasn't as if he would be here too much longer. Sabrina looked to have already left, although she might be presiding over the battle between Surge and Blaine. Her talents might be necessary to limit their destruction if they got too deep into the fight.

At least the view was nice.

A/N: Not the best ending, I know, but I ended up splitting this chapter into two. I have some of the battle written out, but I'll have even less writing time over the next month than I did for this chapter. With any luck it won't take as long, but I'd rather get an update out for everyone.

And again, I'm sorry for the late update. I can tell you now that I'm not about to abandon Traveler, not after the amount of time and effort I've put into writing it. I just don't always have as much time to write as I'd like. If there's a hiatus I'll let everyone know.

Anyways, thanks for reading!