Well here it is! The last chapter of Kanto. Before you read this chapter I'd like to say to a certain someone who reviewed several chapters ago — you'll know who you are once you get into the chapter — that I hope you enjoy the surprise.

Ash handed his pokeballs — with the exception of Infernus' — to Nurse Joy silently. He did his utmost to ignore the people crowding around him, shouting excitedly and rambling on and on about the match they'd just witnessed. So far only a few had people had recognized him, primarily because he'd kept his hat over his eyes and tried to stay as inconspicuous as possible after he'd left the interview that amounted to a slight, inconsequential blur in his memory.

He sighed inwardly. Hopefully he hadn't made too much of a fool of himself in the interview. It was never a good thing if he couldn't even recall the words that had been reluctantly pried from his mouth.

"We'll have them ready in no time!" Nurse Joy flashed him a white smile as she handed the tray of precious cargo to one of her relaxed assistants. Ash nodded and smiled slightly back and turned to walk away. "Oh, and Mr. Ketchum?"

"Yes?" He stiffened and cast a wary glance around to the throngs of trainers and spectators. Thankfully nobody had heard Nurse Joy. He'd hate to be mobbed when he just wanted to go to the house and think, far away from the distractions that pervaded Indigo Plateau.

"You battled wonderfully," The pretty woman said kindly. "Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

Ash swallowed and relaxed. Unnoticed tension drained out of his shoulders.

"…Thank you."

She just smiled again and shooed him away. Ash slipped through the throngs of trainers silently, mind awash with his defeat as he unconsciously ran his fingers across his belt, right where the cold metal of his friends would normally be. Now there were only four of his eternal companions with him: Bruiser, Seeker, Oz, and Sneasel.

It felt rather empty.

He just sighed as he felt the warm afternoon air brush against his skin. The sun was partially hidden by thin wispy clouds, but just to the degree that it made the harsh rays comfortable instead of overbearing.

Ash shook himself out of his stupor and started the long trek home, although his self-control did not extend to getting the failed battle out of his mind. His mind was awash with flashes of light, flesh tearing, mistakes…

"Hey, you're Ash Ketchum!" A thoroughly unwelcome voice called out. Ash held back a frustrated scowl when he was suddenly swarmed with a small crowd of people yammering and asking questions that should have been obvious to anyone who'd actually watched the battle.

After he'd gotten over his momentary stupor as a dozen people locked him into place his eyes, shadowed by the brim of his hat, settled onto the young trainer who'd started it all. The boy, whose most distinctive feature was a smattering of light freckles across his face, smiled at him sheepishly before he pulled a marker and the same hat as the one on Ash's head out of his pocket.

"So…mind signing this for me?"

Ash stared at him for a moment before he took the marker.

He had the strange feeling that getting to the house would take a lot longer than it should.

XX

Ash stepped into the house nearly an hour later. It had taken him a good half hour to slip out of the crowd he'd attracted, although he'd ended up signing many, many more items after the hat. His hand ached slightly from the workout those little-used muscles had gotten.

He stopped suddenly when he realized that there was a new addition to his house that he hadn't expected yet.

"Yo," Gary waved at him lazily from where he casually reclined on Ash's preferred chair. "Nice show you put on out there, Ashy-boy."

"Thank you," He replied, still a little off-guard from his visitor's unexpected presence. "So…"

"Yeah, that was awesome!" Jonathan cheered once he'd finally stopped glaring uncomfortably at the utterly unaffected Gary. He sobered quickly, though. "Too bad you didn't win. That kind of sucked."

Ash just withheld a sigh at that comment, although he let a smile flash when Amelia smacked the back of Jonathan's head. Gary just sneered at it all and turned back to Ash as Amelia berated her friend.

"I'll take back that promise of not talking to you," The other boy grinned. "You did kind of beat the crap out of a Dragonite, Salamence, and Snorlax. It's kind of sad, really. I'd expected a bit more of a fight from that guy given the pokemon he had. Then again, he is just some thug from Orre."

He rolled his eyes but did smile appreciatively at his former rival's words. "Thanks."

"You might as well take a seat," Gary yawned and motioned at the recliner beside him. "Your mom and Gramps should be here soon enough."

Ash slipped into the seat and frowned at Gary, although he was grateful that thoughts of the battle had finally begun to slip from his mind. "…That's my chair."

"Yep."

His eye twitched.

"Hey, if you'd won I'd let you have it," Gary grinned. It slipped off a few moments later. "But seriously, you did alright out there. You put on a better show than that scrub from last year. What was his name…Marcus?"

Ash shrugged. He'd been so wound up about beginning his journey that he'd barely paid attention to the Final last year. "I have no idea."

"Exactly!" Gary crowed and jabbed his finger at Ash. He cocked his head to look at Gary quizzically. "See, people are going to remember you — you, not the thug. I mean, he's competed before. He was expected to do really freakin' good, if not win. You're the brat everyone expected to fizzle out around the second round and you pushed the assumed winner to his absolute limit! I doubt anybody really cares who won at this point. They think you're the next Lance and you just proved the world right!"

He just stared at Gary, who had finally fallen silent after his impassioned speech. Ash's mouth twisted up into a genuine smile once he'd gotten over his shock at Gary's impromptu reinforcement. The Oak just scowled when he realized the other two occupants of the room were staring at him.

"Huh, when you'd two get so friendly?" Jonathan asked curiously as he shifted back and forth between Ash and Gary. "I mean, you're an asshole —"

Amelia promptly smacked him on the back of the head, although given her gobsmacked expression she didn't exactly disagree. Not that Ash would have either until about a week ago.

"Thank you," He repeated, far more truthfully this time. Gary hesitantly smiled, although it slid off his face when he caught Jonathan staring at him again.

"What're ya lookin' at, scrub?" He sneered. Jonathan growled and made to stand, but calmed himself when Amelia grabbed his shoulder. "And why are you even here right now? I would have gone back to Pallet a long time ago if I were you. I mean, you lost your three strongest pokemon to one Nidoking."

Jonathan scowled back. "I don't recall you doing much better against Ash, prick."

"Meh, at least I managed to get past his first pokemon," Gary smirked. "I can't say I paid too much attention — your battle was very boring, ya know — but I don't even recall you scratching Nidoking. Not even with Blast Burn, which should really qualify you to have your license taken away now that I think about it."

The shorter boy glared at Gary and began to retaliate, but a slight frown from Ash cut the two of them off.

"Enough."

Gary just smiled nonchalantly and rhythmically tapped his fingers against the side of his chair as Jonathan seethed. It looked like he'd gotten everything he'd wanted from the exchange.

But, judging from the sudden edge to that grin, it seemed that he wasn't satisfied yet.

"So, put any thought into that offer, Ashy-boy?"

Ash scowled at his friend and let his eyes flicker over to the other two occupants. Jonathan was still too angry to focus but Amelia had let her gaze slide over to him curiously. She blushed and looked away when he noticed her, however.

At least that crisis was averted. He wanted to keep Lance's offer on the down-low. He'd come to his decision but it wasn't going to be advertised until Lance or someone from the League came to speak with him about it.

He figured that Lance would send Will or Steven to bring him to the Plateau sometime tonight. The Closing Ceremony was tomorrow and he was certain that Lance would be in a frenzy getting ready for it.

"Yes," He said finally.

"And?" Gary asked, obviously frustrated by Ash's less than satisfying reply. "Don't be a smartass."

"I'll tell you tomorrow." Ash smiled, well aware of how annoyed Gary was at the moment. Gary was inquisitive by nature, much like Ash. That natural curiosity manifested itself in nosiness, which Ash had learned to manipulate long ago.

Gary didn't react nearly as explosively as Ash had almost-hoped. He just shook his head in annoyance. "I really think I might hate you right now. Not even a hint, Ashy-boy?"

Ash shrugged. It was very satisfying to annoy Gary even after their mutual animosity had simmered away, especially since it almost felt like Gary was more interested in his decision than Ash himself.

"So, what's all this about, you —" Jonathan, who'd finally calmed somewhat, began only to be cut off by his mother and the Professor as they stepped into the League house. "Hey, Professor Oak, Ms. Ketchum!"

"Ah, hello." The Professor smiled as his mother rang out a cheery hello as well. "It's nice to see you again, Jonathan. You as well, Amelia. I haven't heard from either of you for months."

As the two subjects of his well-hidden ire picked up on the Professor's displeasure and stammered out apologies, Delia slipped over to Ash and Gary and smiled down at the boys, although she didn't take the remaining seat.

"Hello, boys!" She greeted.

Gary waved back and actually greeted her respectfully. His and Ash's little feud had never extended to Delia.

"I need to go talk to Gramps," His former rival said suddenly as he rose from his chair. "See ya, Ms. Ketchum."

With that he was off. Ash was grateful to Gary for having picked up that his presence wasn't particularly necessary at the moment, although he was surprised that he had picked an excuse that involved saving Jonathan and Amelia from his grandfather's disapproval. It wasn't as if Gary was subtle about his dislike for the other two trainers from Pallet.

"How are you?" His mother asked softly as she sat down in the vacated seat and threw a comforting arm around his shoulders. "I know you must be disappointed…"

"I'm fine," Ash replied stonily. He sighed and relaxed slightly when his mother kept looking at him patiently. "…I was so close. Victory was right there and I let it slip away. If I'd just taken more time to think during the battle I could have beaten him."

His mother was quiet for a few seconds and just gripped him a bit tighter. "You can't think about what you could have done. Believe me, I've been there. It'll eat at you until nothing's left but a bunch of doubt and bitterness. Losing yourself to your mistakes is like drinking poison and expecting it to help."

"Don't forget about your mistakes. That's how you get better," She continued. "But don't torture yourself imagining what might have been. See what you did wrong and move on and know that you won't do the same thing again."

Ash considered that. It was the sort of advice that he had heard before from several sources but it struck him far harder than ever before since it came from his mother. The conversation they'd had after he'd returned from Fuchsia shone like a beacon in his mind.

His mother was more than qualified to give him that advice. She knew far more of regret than he did.

He finally just nodded his acceptance and stared down at his hands for a while, mind flooded with thoughts. The tension that had coiled up inside of him had loosened, although he'd need more time to accept his loss and all of the emotions that came with it before it vanished completely.

"Just think on it for a while, alright?" His mother patted his arm and stood up. "Professor Oak and I will give you some time before we go out to eat. Samuel wanted to talk to Gary anyway."

Ash nodded gratefully once more. He sat there for a long while before he finally felt the need to get up and join with the others. The thoughts revolving around his defeat tried to drown him. He saw everything in clarity now: the strategies that could have ensured his victory, the different choice in pokemon that could have left Michael on the defensive rather than himself, the little missteps that had been proof of his inexperience against someone like the Champion of Orre.

He analyzed every single one of those missteps. Ash would never make the same mistakes again, just like his mother had said. He wouldn't get caught up in the importance of a battle or the anxiety it left in the pit of his stomach. He would think.

With that he moved on. Thoughts of his loss would follow him for much longer than he'd like, but he would turn them into something positive rather than the poison his mother had cautioned him against.

For now he just needed to relax. He only had one day left in Indigo Plateau, after all, and then he'd be off to Pallet and then the journey that awaited him.

XX

Ash stared up at the ceiling of his room, Sneasel curled up at his side and Bruiser, Oz, and Seeker all huddled together as they slept. Their group had gotten back from their short lunch nearly an hour ago and his mother, the Professor, and Gary left shortly thereafter.

He was still thinking about the battle. It had run through his head a dozen times and he'd realized that it was releasing Torrent when he did and Michael's Snorlax that had sealed his fate. He'd taken Dragonite and Salamence on rather evenly, especially given how powerful they were.

It had been a mistake to release Torrent against Dragonite, even if he hadn't come up with the idea of Infernus teleporting onto and in front of a flying opponent by that point. Infernus still would have been able to take it down relatively easily given its crippled state.

Of course, then it was possible that Jolteon would have been left as one of Michael's last opponent, sequestered away until the two greatest threats to it — Nidoking and Infernus — had been taken out of the picture.

If that had happened he had no doubt that Jolteon would have steamrolled its way over the entire team rather than just Torrent. While all of Michael's pokemon were very formidable, probably just under what would be considered Master-level, Jolteon stood far above even Salamence or Snorlax. Had he not had a counter as perfect as Infernus it would have been the greatest threat by far.

Still, he hadn't expected Michael to actually release his starter so quickly. He'd expected the redhead to exploit Salamence's mobility and potent attacks against Torrent, who would have difficulty fighting an opponent that fast and agile even with Ice Storm. Jolteon had been a surprise.

Torrent's loss had just been the beginning of the end. Although one of his most potent fighters had gone down without much of a fight, it was Snorlax that had ensured he was defeated. He could have made up for his loss of Torrent and Infernus if Snorlax hadn't been there. Just to defeat the thing he'd had to sacrifice both Infernus and Nidoking, who could have taken any of Michael's remaining pokemon without too much difficulty. Even Dusknoir would have fallen to their might.

It was a shame that the mental attacks Dazed employed such as Hypnosis would have been ineffective against Snorlax until it had almost been unconscious from the poison anyway. Unless the user of mental techniques was significantly stronger than the victim they tended to be unreliable.

For Hypnosis to be worth the risk of the immobility and focus required to use it the victim had to be both weakened and distracted or locked into place. A hurt pokemon had far less of the mental focus required to resist or throw the technique entirely, while the immobility was required so that the user could properly use the technique. It was the reason Dazed had to use Disable on most pokemon she hypnotized.

Even with the poison coursing through its bloodstream, Snorlax was far too physically powerful to immobilize. A simple flex could have broken Dazed's psychic prison and its single-minded desire for food would shatter her Hypnosis with hardly any effort. Michael had undoubtedly kept the Snorlax hungry for this battle so that it would be more aggressive and willing to fight.

He sighed. It had taken half of his team to bring that beast down. If it hadn't been for Snorlax he would have just needed to mop up Arcanine and Dusknoir. While powerful, neither would have been half as much trouble as Snorlax had his team not been sapped.

Honestly, now that he had considered it a hundred times a hundred different ways, there wasn't a way for him to win — not yet. If his team was adjusted to defeat Salamence and Dragonite more efficiently then Snorlax emerged and laid waste to them after Infernus and Nidoking fell and then Jolteon finished the rest with its terrible power.

It was maddening. His team was strong — spectacularly so, even — and smart and skilled. But he couldn't foresee how they could have won against the kind of overwhelming power Michael had brought upon them.

He still needed to grow. He and his family had to fight and struggle for new strength. They would grow strong enough to beat Michael no matter what he fought with, they would find the limits of their power and then shatter their way past them with their resolve.

"Ash?!" Amelia called out from downstairs, surprised by something. Ash shot up faster than one of Oz's blasts of electricity and made his way to the living room. Only Bruiser and Seeker moved to follow him. Sneasel was still asleep and Oz didn't seem to detect a threat.

"Yes?" He called out, although he went silent when he saw the reason for her and Jonathan's bemused expressions.

"Ah, there you are, Ash!" Will greeted cheerfully as he skillfully twirled his cane around. The air shimmered where the length of wood carved through it and rippled outward. Afterimages of the cane flickered seconds after it had passed. "The good Champion Lance desires to speak with you!"

Ash nodded, although he felt his mouth turn upward into a smirk as Jonathan mouthed, "Who is this weirdo?"

"I am Will, future member of the Indigo Elite Four, the apprentice of Lady Sabrina, and Champion of the One Hundred and Forty-Fifth Indigo Conference!" Will exclaimed with an imperious wave of his cane. Fiery purple energy crackled in the air where the instrument passed and Will's eyes shined with terrible power behind his mask.

Ash watched as his two housemates looked at Will with wide eyes as the masked man smiled pleasantly at them. Purple energy burned the floor underneath his feet and his features were hidden behind the arcs of lightning that danced down his body. The cane burned malevolently at the tip and Will stalked over to the two until he loomed over them as a burning purple specter.

Jonathan in particular seemed terrified as Will held the burning cane and slowly raised it until the purple fire was less than an inch away from his forehead and caused his fearful eyes to reflect the light until they seemed to glow themselves.

Will tapped the instrument to the boy's head and Jonathan squeezed his eyes shut, although they snapped open in perplexed silence when he just felt a small impact and not the lightning that would consume his mind and leave him a gibbering mess.

"Wha —" Jonathan asked dumbly as the smiling Will straightened up and pulled the instrument away. There was no fiery purple or deathly cold eyes anymore, just the amiable features of an odd man.

"It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Lindon. You as well, Ms. Franklin!" Will smiled at the duo who just watched him nervously. "Now, Ash, I fear that we must cut this delightful meeting short! The Champion Lance is most busy at the moment."

"Of course," Ash nodded and finally stepped down the stairs. "Sneasel, stay here and don't cause any trouble. Bruiser, watch Sneasel."

Sneasel whined as Bruiser nodded and picked the dark-type up by the scruff of his neck, although he knew better than to actually try to attack the fighting-type. He'd learned that lesson long ago.

"Brace yourself!" Will warned cheerfully and waved his cane. Ash squeezed his eyes shut and slammed onto the hard floor of the true Indigo Plateau the moment later. He retched and stayed on the ground for a few seconds as the contents of his stomach struggled to escape his body, although the fact that the air had been knocked out of him didn't help matters.

"Oh dear," Will frowned, obviously concerned as he channeled psychic energy through his cane and gently pulled Ash to his feet. "I must offer my apologies, my friend. That was a dreadful display of my skill. Lady Sabrina would have my head if she was aware of this!"

"It's fine," Ash coughed as he let the psychic energy that gripped him fade away. He frowned at the amused glances the ordinarily stoic ACE trainers that guarded Lance's office shared. "Thank you for your help, Will."

Will just smiled and balanced his cane on the tip of his index finger with unnatural precision as he regarded Ash from behind his mask. "Ah, you're welcome! Now, Lance is expecting you. I do hope to hear that you decide to become our future comrade!"

Ash smiled back and moved to step into the office. The ACE trainers pulled the doors open as he walked and returned his nod, their stony countenances back in place.

"There you are!" Lance greeted him warmly as he stepped into the office. His desk was relatively clear of paperwork today, which came as something of a surprise to Ash. He'd imagined that Lance would be drowning in the stuff with the end of the Conference. "Great display out there, Ash! You did me proud in that battle."

He wouldn't deny that Lance's words sent a rush of warmth through him. Lance was somebody he looked up to and hearing that the Indigo Champion was impressed by his performance — proud of it — even though he didn't win was more than he had ever imagined. His teacher's approval was something he had fought hard for, but hearing that Lance was actually proud of him was something else entirely.

"Indeed," Steven's voice rang out as he sat down in one of the cushioned chairs positioned in front of Lance's chair. His head snapped to look behind him and saw the former Champion entering through the same door he had. "Michael Braeden is well-known to those of us in the Leagues — anyone capable of bringing some semblance of law and order to Orre as a whole deserves that recognition, especially given his age. He's on the path to become a Master soon and you pushed him to his limit. That is no small feat, and you've more than earned the respect you've earned with it."

"Ah, don't be so formal. We're all friends here!" Lance grinned as he reclined back into his chair, although he had to swat at Gible when the little dragon took that as a chance to chew on some of his paperwork. "But seriously, good work out there. I couldn't have expected a better display — Blaine's face when Infernus teleported onto Salamence is something I'm going to remember for a long time."

Steven just smiled and walked around the massive desk to stand by Lance's side. The former Champion's face was one of utter satisfaction. At what Ash couldn't begin to guess.

"Well, let's get to business," Lance announced as he picked up the paper Ash recognized as the Elite Four trainee form. "I'm sure you know why you're here."

He nodded.

"We gave you two options, but we talked and have decided on a third, if you wish to take it." Steven cut in. "It's compromise."

Ash perked up. This wasn't expected.

"I'm willing to allow you to become a trainee of the Indigo Elite Four and travel to Hoenn," Lance said bluntly. "It's a temporary assignment of one year. You'll essentially be on loan to the Ever Grande League while Steven trains you to the point that you will be eligible for a real position in the Indigo Elite Four. Your main priority will be to stop the Rocket remnants gathering in Hoenn at all cost, and will be directed toward that goal by the League."

"There's more to it, of course, but that only matters if you take the deal," Lance said.

"Give me a pen," Ash replied without any hesitation. Lance just smiled and pushed it over to him.

Ash was quick to sign everywhere he needed to. There wasn't much information to fill out so it was a quick process.

His hands did shake slightly, out of the sheer excitement that came with the realization that not only would he be able to continue traveling while training under one of the greatest Masters of history, but he'd also be allowed to have access to the League's resources in the fight against Team Rocket's fragments.

As he wrote his signature one last time — he winced to see that it was somewhat illegible due to the complete lack of control over his hands the quick rush of adrenaline had left him — he dimly realized that he'd just entered a new chapter of his life.

Perhaps that wasn't entirely correct. He was just in the process of turning the page. Right now he was caught between the freedom of travel and the burden of responsibility. It was all blurred together at the moment, and would be for the next year.

He was determined to enjoy the next year as much as he could. Hoenn would be the experience of a lifetime and while training under Steven he'd get to partake in the pleasurable activity of relentlessly dismantling every part of Giovanni's most prolific legacy.

By the time he was done with them the Rockets would be nothing more than a faded nightmare, a few twisted strands of shadow waiting to be cast away by the dawn. He would never let them rebuild to even a small fraction of their former menace.

"Congratulations!" Lance grinned. "You are now the newest member of the Indigo Elite Four!"

Ash nodded dully, still a little shocked that he'd actually started this path. He'd decided on Hoenn beforehand. Along with the fact that he still wanted to travel and get to know Steven better, the attraction of fighting the Rockets was too much to resist.

Besides, Oak's words still rang in his mind. He needed to become stronger and if he didn't keep moving and fighting he'd never reach the heights he knew he could climb. Staying as an Elite Four trainee would certainly bolster his skills under the tutelage of whichever one of the most powerful Masters in Indigo took responsibility for him, but traveling and training with Steven sounded even more appealing.

"Like I said, you'll be acting as an agent on loan to the Ever Grande League," Lance began. Ash listened with rapt attention. He always focused on what Lance had to say, but he figured that he should do his best to memorize every word that came out of the Champion's mouth now that he worked for him. "Minimum contact with Indigo other than monthly reports — Steven will show you who to do those — although you can be recalled if necessary."

"That shouldn't happen now that the Rockets are fleeing Indigo, though," Lance shrugged. "The Ever Grande League only has limited authority over you. The only missions you'll really be called for will be against Rockets, although you'll be put into action should another threat make itself known. They should be on a relatively infrequent basis, as the League is still trying to analyze the location of their base."

Ash nodded. He could deal with that, much as he wanted to go after the Rocket's the second the Conference ended.

"Steven's going to be your handler and will relay whatever orders the League has for you. I'll contact you personally if Indigo requires anything of you," The Champion added as an afterthought. "He'll also be finishing your training and helping you to develop advanced techniques of you own — don't look at me like that. I'm talking about usable techniques, not Earth Burn. Creating something that powerful isn't much use when you can't use it in a regulated battle, you know. I wouldn't use it against the Rockets, either — friendly fire is a certainty with that kind of destructive power."

"Anyways," Lance continued, "I think that about covers it. If there's anything else I'll contact you. There are a few details I'm still sorting out, regardless. We'll wait on getting you a room at the Plateau since you won't be using it for the next year or so."

Ash nodded, although he frowned quizzically at Lance when the tall man suddenly grinned and held out a small piece of paper to him. "What's this?"

"Just look at it."

He followed Lance's advice and turned the piece of paper over, although his eyes practically bugged out when he realized what it was.

A check.

A check with a ludicrously large sum of money invested into it.

"Five hundred thousand?" He whispered as he stared at the precious slip of paper in his hand. That check held more money than he'd made in his entire lucrative career as a trainer, even with the huge additions Lance had given him for his work for the League.

"It's an old tradition to give new trainees the equivalent to their annual paycheck as a bonus upon being inducted," The Champion said with a massive grin at Ash's reaction. It wasn't often he showed this much of an outward reaction. "It gives them a reason to stay with us for a very, very long time."

He silently nodded and continued to stare at the check, although he didn't miss the amused glances that Steven and Lance shared. Ash couldn't bring himself to care, however. While he didn't consider himself to be a person that particularly cared about money, actually possessing so much was something entirely foreign to him.

Ash and his mother were hardly poor, but they weren't particularly well-off either. They were just comfortable. This could change that.

His focus was torn from the check in his hand when Steven gave a short cough to attract his attention.

"While we're here, I'll go ahead and tell you our arrangements," Steven said crisply as he met Ash's eyes. "As Lance said, I'll be your trainer and handler. I'll assist you and watch over you on assignments in order to ensure your safety and success. While I do have my own business to take of and it will be necessary for me to take a leave of absence on occasion, I will be with you a majority of the time."

"Lance has given me the details of what training you've gone through. It was very accelerated and skipped several parts of your development in favor of the raw power Lance favors." Steven let his lips curl up into a smirk at his jab toward Lance. "I will correct that deficiency over the next year and hone your efficiency and discipline. By the end none of your team's movements will be wasted and every attack will be used to its utmost potential. In addition to that, I will also assist you in developing your own techniques and strategies to a far deeper extent than anything you've currently created."

Steven's voice lost some of its official edge. "I'm going to be occupied with the Ever Grande Conference in a month, so I won't be able to train you until a few days after it ends. I'd suggest that you wait until the last week of the Conference to travel to Hoenn. Take the time up until that point off — you don't want to burn out. Rest might become elusive in our time together. I'll also send you an address, time, and date to meet me in Rustboro, where we'll begin traveling together."

"When we aren't occupied with our duties for the League, I'd like to keep our travels a relatively informal affair," The former Champion's voice softened. "Hoenn's a beautiful land, as you'll come to see. It's been too long since I've journeyed across it and it's an experience that will never leave you."

Ash nodded as Steven finally paused. His brain, which was still overloaded by the thoughts of his loss and Lance's outline, struggled to take all of the information dumped on him by Steven. He thought he remembered most of it and Steven would certainly send him the information over his PokeNav, but he figured he'd go ahead and write it down.

"As Lance said, there are still details being worked out," Steven nodded to the Dragon Master. "I'll contact you with the pertinent information when it's been decided, but for now you should relax. I'm sure you're feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment and you've more than earned a respite."

He nodded dully as he ran over the information he'd been given in his head. Ash was sure that he'd be interrogated by Gary, Professor Oak, and his mother when he told them of his decision and he wanted to be able to recount everything to them.

If he didn't then Gary would quite possibly kill him. His friend seemed even more invested in Ash's decision to take the trainee position than he was.

"Charles should arrive shortly," Steven spoke up quietly after a brief few seconds of comfortable silence.

"I suppose you're right," Lance sighed. The Champion squeezed his eyes shut in brief concentration. "Well, congratulations, Ash. It's nice to have you in the Family."

Ash's mouth curled up into a slight smile. "I'm happy to be in it."

"Yes!" A cheerful voice rang out from directly behind him. Ash flinched before he managed to force himself to relax. It was just Will. He really should have been used to it by now. "It is indeed wonderful that you have joined us, Ash! I am delighted to have you as a comrade-in-arms!"

"You too, Will." He smiled back. Will's exuberance was infective. It was quite possibly a side-effect of his great psychic power.

"Indeed, indeed!" Will laughed. "Well, I suppose we must be off. It is truly a shame that we won't get to speak with Sir Charles, but duty calls. Farewell, Champion Lance, Sir Stone!"

Both Champions smiled at Will's antics and waved them away, although Ash thought that Steven's seemed slightly tight.

It didn't matter, since the next second he felt himself slam down onto the hard surface of the League house's dining room table, still in a sitting position. He winced at the pain and gingerly pulled himself off of the table. Will helped him to his feet once more.

"Ah, my apologies," The masked man sighed theatrically. "I had meant to place you on the couch. It seems that my precision is still off. Lady Sabrina will be so disappointed…perhaps I should avoid her in the near-future, although my dear Lady likely knows this sad event has occurred already."

"She tends to do that," Ash grimaced as he rubbed the small of his back, which felt like it had been stabbed. That would leave a bruise tomorrow.

"Indeed, indeed," Will murmured again. He absentmindedly balanced his cane on his fingertip again before he swept the length of wood out of existence. "Hmm. It seems that both of your delightful acquaintances have vacated the premises. Unfortunate, I must say. I'd looked forward to meeting them again."

Ash snorted in amusement at that. Jonathan and Amelia were likely terrified of Will after their last encounter. They hadn't met the friendly man he had.

Will smiled at that and gave Ash a short bow. "Farewell, Comrade!"

He waved the psychic goodbye, although Will had dematerialized before the motion had even been completed.

Ash relaxed now that he was alone and headed up to his room. He'd enjoy a nap right about now, although he had to write down the information he'd been given by Lance and Steven first. He wasn't about to disappoint them or perform at anything less than excellent at his new job.

That was still a strange thought. Ash wasn't sure how long it would take him to adjust to the thought that he, Ash Ketchum of Pallet Town, was a member of the vaunted Elite Four. The youngest member ever, in fact, even if he was just a trainee.

He sighed when he realized that the nap would have to be a short one, just enough for him to recuperate somewhat. Infernus still needed to be taken out to heal in a pit of magma — Pokemon Centers were incapable of treating Magmortar without specialized equipment. Humans couldn't withstand the heat produced by a Magmortar's body for long, plus potions and other medical products would be burned away almost instantly inside a Magmortar's fiery blood.

Ash shook his head as he laid down in his bed. He just needed to calm down and let his head stay empty for a little while.

This really had been a huge day. Even if he'd lost the Conference — a twinge of bitterness ran through him at that — he'd still cemented his name in history. The world knew who he was now, and soon the Rockets would as well.

XX

Ash smiled as Infernus settled into the small pool of molten stone until only his eyes and above were visible — and even then it was a challenge to locate him thanks to his camouflage. The pit cast a warm orange glow across the small clearing he had found, even behind the earthen walls Bruiser had erected around it in order to safeguard the surrounding forest from the magma's potent heat.

He laid with his back to the tree and stared up at the stars. They glistened across the night sky in their familiar patterns, each a constant in the inky void of space.

Sneasel rested beside him, quiet and still for once. That came as something of a surprise since Sneasel was normally louder and more hyperactive than usual at night thanks to his species' nocturnal nature.

But he wasn't going to question the respite and just watched the sky contentedly as Infernus recuperated from the extensive injuries he'd taken from Salamence and Snorlax. They were barely enough to slow him down now that the Magmortar had regained consciousness, but they needed to be healed all the same.

Seeker, who had nestled into his side and underneath his light jacket for warmth, squeaked in surprise as a roll of thunder crashed throughout the forest, followed quickly by another and another.

He just stroked her soft fur to calm the spooked Zubat down. Aside from his desire to quell her fright, the hooks at the tips of her wings hurt somewhat as they stabbed through his shirt.

"It's just Bruiser," Ash comforted the meekest member of his team. "There's nothing to worry about."

She squeaked and tried to burrow closer to him, although Ash came to suspect that that was an impossibility at this point.

Ash sighed and turned his gaze to the forest in the direction the thunder of smashed trees roared from. Bruiser had decided it was time to step up his training and felt that there was no better time than the present. He couldn't help but be concerned as several more trees splintered in the distance, the crashes heralded by bright flashes of light from Focus Blast.

He was happy that Bruiser had started to train even harder, even if it was just with his energy-based techniques since he couldn't exactly grow stronger than he already was without specialized training, but he didn't feel that it would accomplish anything significant.

Bruiser needed to learn to battle. He had been taken almost as far as Ash could bring him with techniques. Ash would have to find him another teacher to help him become strong enough to evolve. All that was left was to hone Bruiser's reflexes and perfect Rampage.

While Rampage was incredibly powerful as it was, Ash knew that it wasn't complete. It was still too damaging. He needed to help Bruiser learn to master it and use a weaker version of the technique, one that could be controlled reliably and used on a more frequent basis. Right now it was only to be used if there was absolutely no other option. Otherwise the wear on his body would be too great and hinder him significantly in the long run.

He sighed and shook himself out of his thoughts. It had been long enough that most of Infernus' injuries should have healed to an acceptable degree and he was tired.

"Seeker, could you please find Bruiser?" He asked the little Zubat. She chattered happily and squeaked an affirmative before she squeezed out from under his coat and fluttered off into the black forest.

Ash stood up and stretched slightly. It would take a few minutes for Seeker and Bruiser to come back. Right now he needed to talk to Infernus. The Magmortar had been unusually sullen after hearing of their loss and hadn't even threatened Sneasel, something Ash had come to believe as an impossibility over the last few months.

"Infernus, we're about to leave," He called out to the magma pit. "Clean up."

The Magmortar rose then. He glowed cherry red from the magma that flowed down his body like burning blood and shook himself off. The little drops of molten stone caught a few small patches of grass that had survived Bruiser's safeguards on fire, but Sneasel quickly put those out with a breath of frosty air.

Infernus shut his eyes for a moment and lowered his cannon-like arm to the pool of magma that bubbled slightly as his power began to flood into it and remove all of the heat from the liquid rock until it had hardened into soft black stone.

He growled when he realized how high Bruiser's earthen walls had been raised and casually smashed it with a light blow from his fist before he stepped out and allowed the heat of his body to rush throughout the forest. Even with the solidification of the magma Infernus provided enough light to leave the woods tainted orange and cast black shadows that melted with the night sky.

Sneasel whined and climbed on top of Ash then he felt the heat and constantly emanated a comforting chill that banished the worst of Infernus' influence from the two.

"You did wonderfully out there today, you know," Ash smiled at Infernus, who had ceased moving toward him in order to avoid burning the trainer. The Magmortar just snorted smoke and let his smirking lips shift into a scowl.

"Don't be like that," Ash frowned back. "You defeated two of the greatest threats on Michael's team singlehandedly and injured a third that took both Nidoking and Tangrowth to take down afterwards. You were one of the most important fighters in that battle. I could have been defeated much sooner if you hadn't fought so well."

Infernus' scowl slipped away. He seemed somewhat mollified by Ash's praise, if still a little angry at their loss.

"If you're angry about us losing…well, I am too," Ash allowed. "It's not something I enjoy or plan for us to ever feel again. But this was just a warmup. We're just beginning to grow into what we can be, and next time we'll leave the competition nothing but ashes, right?"

The Magmortar's eyes held a dangerously gleeful glint at that and he nodded with the same mockery of a smile he always held. A corona of flame burned within his cannon and cast a warm glow that brightened the area around Infernus to be like that of the day.

"So get ready," The trainer continued. "Before we can enter another Conference we'll have an entire year to train and become stronger. By the end there won't be anyone that'll stand in our way!"

Infernus nodded and flashed Ash a genuine smile, although it was distinctly unnerving. Ash didn't think he'd ever seen Infernus look so happy outside of a brutal battle like the one he'd had with Charizard on New Island or while tearing into Salamence's hide.

Ash grinned back. He might have been exaggerating, but his words held a note of the truth he believed in. There was no way that he'd be able to take on a genuine Champion within a year, but that was like saying he wouldn't be able to stop a hurricane with his bare hands. Champions had attained their position for a reason, after all. They were the Masters amongst Masters, as far above the Elite Four as the Elite Four were to gym leaders.

In other words, he'd need time to reach that level no matter what Steven taught him. That was something he accepted and embraced. There was no need to hurry. Impatience would just hurt him in the end if he didn't develop correctly.

A flash of movement in the shadowed forest caught his eye and a smile flickered on his face as Bruiser and Seeker made themselves known.

"Did you get a good workout in?"

Bruiser nodded and pounded his fist against his muscular chest with enough force to tear a tree out of the ground. Ash let his smile grow and he recalled Infernus before he turned around to look at the beacon of light that was the Indigo Plateau.

"Let's head back. It's getting late."

XX

"So, ready for the Closing Ceremony tonight?" Jonathan said in between swallows of food. Amelia looked at him in disgust and lightly smacked him on the back when he began choking. "I can't say I'm looking forward to the rehearsal. That kind of sucks — I mean, that's pretty much our whole last day here taken up!

Ash just nodded from the sink as he washed out his bowl and stopped paying attention to his housemates as they descended into yet another argument. He absentmindedly ran his fingers across the pokeballs arrayed on his belt as he put his bowl away to soothe his annoyance with the two's squabbles. It hadn't taken the Pokemon Center too long to patch them up despite their extensive injuries.

They weren't as bad as what his friends had suffered in the battle against Gary — despite their different skill levels, that match had been absolutely brutal by regulated standards — but his team hadn't gotten off easily.

Plume had a broken wing, but that had been a relatively clean snap that was easily healed with a minimum of intrusion. Everything else had been quite easy for Joy to clean up, or so she had told him. She couldn't fly for a few days, but she'd be up and going in no time.

Torrent, as usual, hadn't suffered any serious damage. His armor had protected him from the worst of the effects of Jolteon's powerful electric blasts. He just needed a day or two for his potions to fully repair his minor wounds. All he'd have to deal with was boredom as his body finished healing.

Infernus had already recovered, of course. Even after he'd left the magma pit his wounds had healed at a highly accelerated rate. He could go into another battle right now and perform perfectly.

Nidoking was just heavily bruised and would be for the next few days. His thick hide and plates of armor had dispersed most of the force behind Snorlax's powerful blows, although it hadn't been a perfect defense. He'd be off for at least a week just to be safe.

Ash sighed at that. He couldn't wait for when Nidoking's armor finally thickened and hardened as his friend reached maturity. While he was at the final form of the Nidoran family, he was by no means finished growing. He was still very young despite his great power and skill.

Tangrowth had healed just as quickly as Infernus thanks to his extreme regenerative abilities. He'd just had to get the potions to give him a slight boost, climbed up on top of the house, and absorbed the rays of the sun until most of his vines had grown back.

Dazed was hurt badly, however. She didn't have any broken bones or bruised organs, but the sheer amount of ghost-type energy she'd been engulfed in had sent her into a catatonic state for several hours. By now she was recovered but even attempting to access her psychic powers would send spikes of pain through her entire body.

Needless to say, Ash didn't like the silence. Dazed was never particularly talkative despite her resolve to master telepathy, but he'd grown accustomed to brief conversations with the psychic. Everything was much quieter now and he felt a little bit of apprehension as he realized that she wouldn't be able to eat his dreams thanks to her abilities having been sealed for another day or two.

"Look!" Amelia's voice rang throughout the kitchen as she excitedly pointed at the small TV mounted on the wall. Jonathan grinned as he raised the volume. "They're talking about you, Ash!"

"So, Greg, what do you think of yesterday's Indigo League Final?" An attractive brunette news anchor asked a heavily built man with jet-black hair. "Personally, I thought it was the most impressive match we've seen in several years. Both competitors fought fiercely."

"Indeed, indeed!" The black haired man nodded fervently. "I must admit that I was most impressed with the Rookie, Ash Ketchum. Some of his inexperience showed through in the battle, especially against a seasoned, well-known competitor like Braeden, but the destructive power and unconventional tactics he displayed were most impressive! I daresay the League was hard pressed to make the Indigo Stadium presentable for tonight's Closing Ceremony!"

The woman nodded and looked to the camera. "Agreed. Tonight's Closing Ceremony will be taking place at seven o' clock, with performances by several well-known musicians including…"

Ash stopped paying attention at that. None of it mattered to him. All he wanted to do was go to the Ceremony, see his fellow competitors and the crowd one last time, and then return to Pallet Town for some long overdue rest.

"Looks like you've got a lot of people interested in you," Amelia commented as she returned to her own lunch. "You're going to have to watch out for watch out for fan clubs if you keep this up!"

He grimaced at the thought, which elicited a laugh from his two housemates. Ash turned away and started cleaning the last of the dishes. It was calming work, even if it was dull and monotonous.

Ash didn't have anything to do today other than finish fixing up the League house with Amelia and Jonathan. It wasn't required, but it was considered rather rude to leave a mess for the League to clean up.

Besides, he thought as he rinsed a particularly dirty bowl that had undoubtedly been used by Jonathan, it would be a bad impression on his new associates if he didn't act with the responsibility his position demanded.

"So…" Jonathan trailed off hesitantly, unsure as to how to put whatever question he'd wanted to ask.

"Yes?" Ash prompted.

"What was the deal with that weird Will guy from yesterday? He was crazy!" Amelia burst out. "And he's supposed to be in the Elite Four?!"

"A job offer. And Will's not so bad once you get to know him," Ash corrected and turned away from the sink to stare at his housemates. "As for the Elite Four…well, they have their quirks. But they're sane. For the most part, anyways."

Jonathan snorted. "Yeah, that's not really comforting, dude."

A few seconds passed before the rest of his words caught up to Jonathan.

"Wait, how do you know the Elite Four?!"

XX

Ash walked through the crowd of trainers and pokemon quietly. He was one of the few that didn't have at least one member of his team released. Most of his friends were too large or unsuitable and he didn't trust Sneasel around so many other pokemon. Dazed was still in a bad way from her encounter with Dusknoir, although she'd begun to act relatively normal again.

Besides, the emotions poured out by the excited crowd and gleeful competitors would be too much for any unprepared psychic to handle without the League's psychic barriers in place. Even with her temporarily reduced ability to sense emotions and minds it would be like hitting her with a sledgehammer.

He saw a few recognizable faces as he waded through the crowd and gave them nods of acknowledgement if they weren't otherwise occupied. The young poison-type specialist he'd beaten in the second round, Jaimie, Jonathan and Amelia, Fergus, and finally Corey and Gary all noticed him and they had a brief exchange of words before he had to move on.

Ash was a little late, after all. He'd had to spend a bit more time applying potions to Nidoking than he'd expected and had to run to the Pokemon Center beforehand. Some of his friend's bruises were lingering longer than anticipated and he'd wanted to make sure that Nurse Joy or her assistants hadn't somehow missed a torn or ruptured poison sac.

They hadn't but Nurse Joy had given him a slightly stronger variant of potion to give to Nidoking for the next few days.

That distraction had been well worth, it however. He still had several minutes to spare and he wouldn't dare place the Closing Ceremony near his friend's safety.

"Lookie here, chums! The great Ash Ketchum has graced us with his presence!" George Grey grinned as Ash walked up to the four trainers that had made it to the Semifinals and would thus be the only ones to earn a monetary reward for their efforts. "I woulda thought you'd be gettin' your own ceremony with how nobody can shut up about ya.

Ash just shrugged at the Unovan and made sure to stand between Michael and Neesha. He wasn't scared of the Unovan, but he made him very uneasy. It was hard to avoid edging away from Grey's manic grin as the older teen stared at him unblinkingly.

"What a creep," Neesha muttered under her breath, just barely audible over the chatter of the rest of the competitors organized behind them according to when they'd been knocked out of the Conference. Ash snorted at the comment and let his lips slide into a grin. "So how are you doing, Ash?"

"Good," He replied shortly. One eye was still kept on George Grey, who kept trying to drag Michael into a conversation. The Orrian didn't seem to want any part in it, however, and kept his answers terse and to the point. "A little disappointed but I've had much worse."

Neesha nodded at the reference to New Island and sighed tiredly. She joined Ash in staring out into the Indigo Stadium, which was lit solely with the Flame of Moltres' immortal blaze. He could feel the Feather burning and pulsating in tune with every motion of the Flame, the heat rather comfortable in the crisp cold of the night air.

"It was an impressive battle," She agreed. The woman shot a furtive glance at Grey, who had resumed grinning at Ash. "Watching you beat him down was a lot more satisfying, though."

Ash idly wondered if it was simply Grey's unsettling demeanor or some past experience with the Unovan that had fostered Neesha's dislike. Either one was within the realm of possibility.

Regardless, he didn't say anything. Ash wasn't much in the mood to speak at the moment. He just wanted to walk out, let the Closing Ceremony run its course, and leave for Pallet Town. Ash still needed to tell his mother about his new position as an Elite Four trainee. She'd been busy with something or another yesterday — probably related to whatever it was that had made her so happy before the Final — and he hadn't had the opportunity to talk to her about it.

"Man, I wish they'd just get this show on the road!" Grey drawled. His hands were twitchy and his wide grin had become a bit more rigid, although some of his lax attitude returned when he casually slung an arm around Michael's shoulders. "I don't know about you, Mikey, but I bet my League can't wait to have me back! Places to see, people to hunt…ya know?"

"I'm afraid I don't," Michael replied stiffly and threw the Unovan's arm off. Grey just grinned. "But I'll definitely agree that this really needs to by much, much faster."

"Knew I had a kindred spirit in ya, Mikey!" Grey clapped Michael on the shoulder. Michael just scowled and turned away from the Unovan, whose mocking smile stretched grotesquely across his tanned face.

Ash finally tired of listening to their interplay and crossed his arms. His eyes were locked onto the flickering light thrown across the roaring stadium by the eternal Flame of Moltres. The Feather bonded to his skin continued to match every crackle of flame with one of its own, allowing his frenzied mind to calm and rest.

Everything suddenly went silent at the behest of some unspoken cue. Thousands of voices that had chattered and cheered and roared quieted until only the burning of the Flame and whispers of the night's wind could be discerned.

"The Pokemon League now bids farewell to all the trainers and pokemon who participated in this year's event!" The announcer boomed throughout the stadium. "Let's show all the participants just how much we appreciate their accomplishments as they enter the stadium one last time!"

That was their cue to move. Ash found himself striding just slightly behind Michael as they walked into the Indigo Stadium and entered the scrutiny of millions. He just kept the slight frown that the crowd had come to associate with him on his face and glanced around the Stadium a few times. This was much more daunting than the short rehearsal they'd had earlier that day.

He finally remembered to force his mouth into a smile and waved a few times along with Michael, Grey, and Neesha. They were far more familiar with this much attention and seemed to soak it up like a sponge. Michael and Neesha in particular pandered to the crowd with winning smiles and cheerful waves.

Ash glanced over to Grey, who looked more dangerous than happy. The Unovan had his characteristic grin on his face as he stared up at the crowd, waving every now and then and almost daring the onlookers to stare at him.

Personally, he just tried to ignore it and keep moving. After his initial sweep of the Stadium he kept his eyes focused solely on the area he'd be standing in along with the rest of the Top 4. He did his best to keep any thoughts out of his head, lest he panic and start entertaining the odds of potentially tripping in front of millions of people.

He grit his teeth and just kept moving. The Feather flooded his every cell with comforting heat but he still felt a seed of anxiety deep in his gut, even if it had been mostly burned away.

To distract himself from the stares and cheers of so many different people — he felt a tad nauseous even as the Feather pulsed rhythmically with the Flame of Moltres that burned brightly in front of him — Ash just kept his eyes on the other competitors as they assembled in even lines in front of them with their pokemon. The Top 4 were stationed closest to the massive stage where Goodshow waited.

He caught several familiar faces as they moved into formation — Gary since he was closest to him, Jessica, Jonathan, Amelia, and the rest of those he had already noted as he made his way through the other competitors minutes before — but he also noted one teenager that he vaguely recognized as having been in Pallet Town several times before.

David, he thought his name was? He wasn't sure. He'd only seen him a handful of times and had only heard his name once while the teen was talking to Professor Oak. More than likely he was just one of the trainers that kept Oak up to date on the going-ons of the region or acted as a researcher.

Ash turned away after that and looked around the Stadium a few more times, distinctly uncomfortable.

"It's a weird feeling, isn't it?" Michael whispered to him, just loud enough to be heard over the ever-present roar. "It overwhelmed me the first time I had to stand in front of a crowd rather than just battle. Just look at the Flame and don't let your eyes wander."

"Thanks," He muttered back. Michael just clapped him on the shoulder and smiled before he held his head up high to match Ash's.

He felt the Flame crackle and the Feather burned brightly enough to cause a slight glow to emerge from beneath his shirt, which was a rarity. It normally only emanated light in the presence of Lance or when he was alone. Even Moltres understood the concept of subtlety, it seemed.

Ash surreptitiously adjusted his jacket so it would cover the bright spot before anyone noticed. Having a golden fire underneath his shirt would most likely attract attention even in a setting as bright and chaotic as the Closing Ceremony. It didn't help that plenty of people were staring directly at him rather than the rest of the competitors. He wasn't sure he liked attracting so much interest.

"League President Goodshow will now present each trainer with a special commemorative badge!" The announcer boomed. "Wear it with pride as a symbol of excellence and achievement!"

With that the League officials motioned for Michael to step forward. The Champion of Orre did so without a care in the world and sauntered up to the stage with a wide grin on his face. Ash followed seconds after and felt rather ungraceful in comparison. He was so focused on just moving that it felt as though an unskilled puppeteer was pulling him along.

"Here you are, Trainee!" The wizened face of Goodshow grinned up at him. Goodshow clapped him on the shoulder and shook his hand after he'd handed him a small, elaborate square of silk with a diamond-shaped badge filled with a golden pokeball held loosely within. "Wear it with pride, boy. If you've earned Lance's respect, you've more than earned this."

Ash nodded and flashed the short man a genuine smile before he went to stand on the podiums reserved for the Top 4. He felt his legs tremble slightly out of nervousness as he took a large step up to his stand — the podium had obviously been engineered with longer legs in mind.

He followed Michael's advice again and just stared at the Flame silently. All consideration of the crowd had slipped from his mind as he became lost in the blazing Flame. Ash half-expected the Avatar of Moltres to rise from the formless fires and sweep around the Stadium a second time, although he couldn't say he was surprised when the Bird failed to make an appearance.

Neesha strode up and took her place beside him confidently, followed by Grey moments later. It appeared that Goodshow hadn't had much to say to the Unovan.

They all stood there together, bound by silence. This was a time for reflection, although Neesha was kind enough to continue waving to the crowd as the other two hundred and fifty-two competitors passed behind them in a seemingly unending line.

He wasn't sure how much time had passed, but Lance finally came to join Goodshow on the stage as the two female attendants that had stood with Goodshow as he passed out badges left the same way the other competitors had.

Ash glanced down when he saw a sudden rush of movements below, even though he was well aware of what it was. The rest of the competitors had turned to look at the Top 4, those who had fought their way to the farthest heights of the Indigo Conference.

"And here now are the top-ranking trainers of this year's Pokemon League Conference! Please join us in saluting them alongside with their pokemon for their skill and their dedication to the ideals of the Pokemon League!"

Grey snorted at that, but didn't act out otherwise.

"Please applaud for the Champion of the One Hundred and Forty-Eighth Indigo League Conference, Michael Braeden," the announcer paused as the crowd roared in delight, "our runner-up, Ash Ketchum," another pause, "and our Semifinalists, Neesha Brady and George Grey!"

He waved to the crowd, all of the hesitance at the beginning of the Conference gone with experience and the burn of the Feather in his blood. Ash felt a smile stretch across his face as he joined the rest of the Top 4 in waving and grinning to the crowd that adored them.

That went on for nearly a minute until the last of the cheers and whistles had died down.

Lance finally stepped forward with a faint smile on his lips as his cape fluttered behind him majestically with every step. His angular face appeared particularly draconic tonight in the light of the Flame and made him look even more the legendary hero than he already was.

Ash vaguely thought that Lance had been born in the wrong century. As great a Champion as he was, he felt that the Dragon Master would be far more suited to the ancient times of Taimu than the stagnance and bureaucracy of modern life.

The two attendants finally returned to the stage with a small, expertly crafted golden trophy with a winged pokeball mounted on top placed atop a small cart. Lance casually picked the precious symbol of Michael's victory up in one hand and handed it to the redheaded teenager with a smile and nod of acknowledgement.

Now that Lance was closer he could see the glint of three medals in the Champion's hands, one silver and two bronze.

Lance smiled at him and gave him a brief nod, although he didn't give away their previous connection in anyway. He just strode up to Ash, who bowed his head, and placed the heavy weight of the silver medal around his neck.

"I'll say it again — you did very well," The Champion muttered to him before he pulled back and proceeded to place the first bronze medal around Neesha's head. Ash thought her face looked redder than usual in Lance's proximity.

Ash didn't pay attention to Grey, who he was sure would have some smart remark for the Indigo Champion. The two had never met but Lance didn't seem to have much trust for the brown-haired Unovan.

When Lance had emptied his hands of the awards he stepped back, gave the Top 4 another nod, and confidently strode off of the stage with Charles Goodshow. He was considerate enough to slow himself for the short old man, although he was still too tall for Goodshow too keep up easily.

"Now as this Pokemon League Conference draws to an end, please direct your attention to our very special celebration in the sky!" The announcer cheered as all of the lights in the stadium save for the Flame of Moltres and a handful of camera flashes shut down.

"Damn this is stupid…" Grey growled. "I just want to leave this stupid Ceremony!"

Ash couldn't find it in himself to disagree with the Unovan as he watched a truly impressive amount of fireworks explode up into the air behind the Flame, although their brief flashes of light failed to stand out against Moltres' gift. He didn't particularly care about fireworks and wanted to escape the potential stares of the crowd as soon as possible.

He did admit that the orchestra blasting out the League anthem did add for a nice effect, but he had preparations to make and not a lot of interest in this display.

"Ash?" Michael muttered to him. It was much easier to discern now that the crowd wasn't so noisy. Once Michael saw that he'd gotten the rookie's attention he continued. "Before we go our separate ways, I just wanted to tell you that you were one of the best battles I've ever had. If you'd started a year sooner there would have been no contest."

Ash smiled at that, oddly touched at Michael's words. "Thank you, Michael. That was the best match I've ever had — it's been a long time since I've been able to battle someone that could really match me, let alone beat me as an equal."

Michael grinned and clapped his shoulder in a gesture of camaraderie. "Glad you see it like that, Ash. It's too bad there's not many people like you back home. You've got a real knack for connecting with your pokemon — I could see it clear as day in our battle. They kept fighting long after most trained pokemon would have given up. That Magmortar and Nidoking…man, they took some punishment."

"You too. I can't imagine it's easy to gain a Salamence's respect, let alone keep a Snorlax willing to fight for you," Ash casually added.

A ghost of a smile passed by Michael's face in the darkness. "It wasn't easy. They're worth all the trouble, though — the two of them are incredible, and not just at battling."

"If it weren't such an awful place, I'd suggest you go to Orre sometime," Michael continued absentmindedly after a brief moment of silence. There was a note of hesitance there. "I've been trying to become strong enough to clean that wasteland up and give it a real Champion — a real League instead of a bunch of fractured city-states and a desert split up under crime lords' rule — for years now."

Ash frowned and looked up at the redheaded teenager as Michael took a short breath. For how young he looked there was an aged glint in his eyes that reminded him of Agatha's exhaustion. It just struck him how many things Michael had seen in Orre that even Ash could barely comprehend.

He wasn't sure why Michael was telling him this and it seemed that the redhead wasn't sure either.

"I just wanted to thank you. This might sound weird and kind of out-of-the-blue, but our battle yesterday made me realize just how…complacent I've gotten in pursuing my dream," Michael whispered as the last of the fireworks began to explode above them in a final salvo. "Back when I was in Orre and fighting constantly I grew so fast — I had bonds with my pokemon that remained unbroken even in death. We were a real team, but after I finished my first great fight I just left and found nothing but monotony. I'm a little stronger now, but I haven't grown in a long time."

"Yesterday I looked at you and saw just how far you'd come. In one year you've been able to grow as much as I did in six," Michael shook his head. "It's an eye-opener, you know? It got me to thinking. I'm going back to my home and I'm going to clean it up."

"By the time you're done growing out here in the civilized world, I hope that I will have lived up to my moniker and that Orre will be ready for your arrival," The Champion of Orre smiled.

Ash wasn't sure what he was supposed to say. Michael had just poured out his heart and soul to him, someone he barely knew. What was there to say back?

"You're welcome," Ash said at last. "When I'm ready — when my friends and I are as strong as we will ever be — I'll take you up on your offer and go to Orre. One last battle, you and me. Both of us at our peaks going all out. We'll see who's grown the most."

Michael grinned. "I think that's acceptable."

Ash's attention was suddenly drawn to the absolute silence that pervaded the Stadium. Michael recognized it too and fell silent.

It was time for the Champion to quench the Flame of Moltres and signify the end of this Indigo Conference and the beginning of a new season.

He stared up at Lance, who had ascended to the great brazier that held the Flame as the competitors were getting their badges from Goodshow. The Champion stood in front of the Flame confidently and looked down at the spectators, who looked on in respectful silence.

"I think most of you will agree with me when I say it's been a very long year," Lance's powerful voice, amplified with a microphone and the Stadium's acoustics, echoed as the Champion began his short address. "Many have lost their lives and for a few long months the people of Indigo lived in fear of an unseen threat. It tested us, but we emerged victorious through the hardship and have grown all the stronger for it."

Lance turned his back to the crowd and stared at the raging Flame intently. It seemed to blaze brighter in response and Ash had no doubt that Lance's arm burned bright with the power and light of his own Feather.

"I'd like to honor those sacrifices — the men, women, and pokemon that fought for our safety and paid the ultimate price. It's been said that every light casts a shadow, but thanks to them the light is bright enough now that the shadows have no room to exist."

"But we must move on and look to the future that is all the brighter for their sacrifice. So I am happy to announce the end of this year and its hardships and the beginning of a new season, one that I hope will make all previous seasons pale in comparison."

With that the Champion raised his hand and, at the cue, the Flame exploded with life and vigor one last time and rose a hundred feet higher than before in a final surge. It burned twice as bright and the Stadium seemed to be in the midst of day for a few seconds.

Then it flickered and died down to nothing but a small flicker near the base tiny enough for Lance to carefully collect onto the torch in which the Flame would be preserved for the next year's Conference.

Most people likely assumed that Lance had simply employed the League's psychics to perform the theatrical blast of flame and then cause it to dim, but Ash knew better. The ceremony didn't rely on psychic influence this year, at least.

The burn of the Feather on his chest attested to that, although it vanished quickly once the remnants of the Flame were sealed and handed to an attendant whose sole duty was to tend to the Flame until it was in a secure area.

Ash lost interest as the crowd finally burst into raucous cheers and applause that felt like thunder rushing through his bones. He glanced at Michael, who just clapped along with the rest of them and had his green eyes locked onto the torch with interest.

"Please follow me!" One of the women who had been standing with Goodshow as he handed out the commemorative badges motioned the Top 4 as the rest of the competitors began the slow process of filing out of the Stadium. "It's time to collect your rewards now! Champion Lance will be handing your checks out personally this year!"

His attention now renewed, Ash followed Michael as he walked behind the young woman. Neesha and Grey settled behind him in no particular order and were utterly silent as they made their way to receive the money that they'd earned for their efforts.

Ash glanced behind him to look at the Stadium one last time and took in everything: the light glow that still emanated from the massive silver bowl that held the quenched Flame, the audience that had cheered and roared for him, the battlefield where he and his friends had left their mark in blood and sand.

He'd return here one day, he resolved. Not as a competitor, but as one of the ancient group that had been established under the First himself. When he next walked these lands he'd be a fully trained member of the Elite Four, if only a trainee.

For now, however, he was content to collect what he'd earned. Ash had almost forgotten about it with all the excitement.

XX

"Welcome, all of you!" Lance grinned widely as the Top 4 followed the attendant into the small, luxurious area in the Indigo Stadium reserved for the gym leaders and Elite Four to watch the Conference battles. "You put up quite the show this year — I can honestly say it's a pleasure to meet each one of you."

Ash held back a snort as Lance's amused eyes fell on him, although the Champion didn't say anything.

He glanced around. There was a variety of evidence that proved the gym leaders at least had been here, although for the most part it was pristine. Ash knew several well enough to recognize signs of their presence.

The area to his left smelled heavily of the pleasant fruity perfume the Sisters wore, although it was almost overpowered by the half-full cup of Blaine's absurdly potent alcohol just a few feet away. Ash was glad that Blaine didn't seem to drink too much of the stuff when he was at Cinnabar or else Ash had no doubt that the Fire Master's liver would have failed decades ago.

Ash wrinkled his nose in distaste when he saw an empty tin of what he knew to be the Black Broth favored by Surge and Bruno on another small table. That had to be Surge's. Nobody else was quite insane enough to eat the foul substance when not in the field — even Bruno found the stuff repugnant.

Otherwise he couldn't really tell. Ash didn't actually know what scent Erika wore since it was always overpowered by her gym's stench, Brock would have been polite enough to clean up everything, and neither Sabrina nor Koga would be so careless as to leave a trace of their presence.

"I'm sure you all know your compensation, correct?" Lance spoke with an air of amusement about him. He obviously remembered being a traveling trainer all too well.

All of them nodded. While the money was hardly the reason he'd entered the Conference it was certainly a nice bonus. Not that he needed more money after the massive sign-on bonus Lance had given him. He was set for several years right now, and that was only if he went out of his way to spend whenever he could.

For second place he'd receive both a hundred thousand dollars and the silver medal that would take a place of pride in his room at Pallet Town once he returned. Neesha and Corey would each get fifty thousand dollars as well.

The Conference Champion would get the Arcanine's share, though. Along with ornate golden trophy, he would also receive a million dollars for his victory — a large enough fortune to let any trainer retire comfortably for a good few years, although few trainers with the skill and determination to win a Conference would ever leave training behind.

"Good job," Lance grinned at him as he handed him the second most valuable piece of paper he'd ever held. After handling a check of substantially larger value just the day before — which had been safely added to his trainer account right before he'd went to the practice ceremony —Ash didn't feel nearly as panicked as he would have normally.

He still couldn't help but stare at the check, however. It just felt unreal to have this much money in his hands, even after the relative wealth he'd enjoyed as a skilled trainer. This was entirely different than even the hefty bonuses Lance had given him for assisting the League with the Sevii Islands and Zapdos.

Ash winced as a cold fire spread throughout his blood at the thought of the Thunder Bird, something far more familiar and terrifying than the Feather's warmth. He felt dread bubble in the pit of his stomach even after the icy flame vanished as quickly as it came.

A sudden concerned tap from Michael snapped him out of his stupor. Ash dimly realized his hands were shaking slightly and did his best to calm them. Michael frowned at him, but Ash just shook his head to dissuade anymore questions from the teen.

" — Anyways, good luck out there. I'm sure all four of you will achieve great things!" Lance finished cheerfully. Ash noted that Grey had a look of utter boredom on his face and Neesha had latched onto Lance's every word. He hid a smirk at that.

Lance gave the four of them one last nod before he swept around and turned to look out into the Indigo Stadium, which had emptied for the most part other than for a few stragglers. His cape settled around his shoulders and hid everything but his spiky bright red hair.

"Thank you for your participation this year!" The attendant exclaimed as she lead them out of the League box and to the stairs that would take them out of the Indigo Stadium. "We hope that you return!"

She left with that and the Top 4 were left alone. Each looked around at each other silently, unsure of what to say. Michael, Ash, and Neesha subconsciously shifted away from Grey, whose expression of boredom had been replaced with his disturbingly wide grin.

"Well it's been nice playin' out here with you little Leaguers, but I think it's 'bout time I head back to Unova," Grey smirked and glanced around at each of them. "Maybe I'll get to smack the lot of you down some other time, eh?"

Ash just rolled his eyes, although he let a ghost of a smile play across his face. He didn't see how the others reacted, but judging by their previous interactions with Grey it wasn't anything friendly.

"By the way, I'm still up for trading for that Magmortar!" Grey directed at him. "Ya know, I'll give you half my team after that badass display in the Final! I'ma have to look into gettin' one of those."

His fists tightened at the thought of trading away Infernus, something that Grey duly noted and then laughed at before he swaggered down the stairs and left Ash's life.

"It was pleasurable battling with you two," Michael flashed Ash and Neesha a genuine smile. "If you come to Orre in the near-future — not that I have any idea why you would — head to the Pokemon HQ Laboratory and ask for Lily. She'll point you in the right direction."

Ash and Michael locked eyes as the Orrian left down and he nodded to the teenager. He wouldn't forget the deal they'd made, not when he wanted to rightfully beat Michael and surmount the one challenge he'd failed to defeat.

"I guess this is it," Neesha said quietly.

"Yep," Ash nodded, although he felt somewhat hesitant. He couldn't claim that he was particularly close to Neesha, but they'd gone through a lot together. She was one of the three humans who'd suffered Mewtwo's wrath and lived to tell the tale. She was one of the only people outside of the League who'd actually offered help — one of the few that had thought he'd ever need it.

He appreciated that.

"I know we don't know each other that well, but thank you," He said hesitantly. "For everything."

"You're welcome — and you too. You're the reason we're even here right now." Neesha said thoughtfully. The two of them shared a few brief moments of silence before she continued.

"Stay safe out there, alright?" She smiled down at him. "You're a stronger trainer than me, Corey, or Fergus but there's more out there other than fighting. If you need anything or think you can't talk about something with anyone just call one of us, alright? We're all here for each other."

"I will," Ash smiled. "Good luck."

And with that she left.

Ash was the last.

He sighed and absentmindedly ran his fingers over his belt, allowing himself to graze each of his team. It was comforting and helped to soothe the frenzied thoughts intent on raging in his mind.

The boy glanced back to the League box. Lance was sure to still be there, but he didn't want to interrupt the Champion. He knew that Lance didn't get much time to himself and wouldn't take that from him.

Ash finally went down the stairwell, although he didn't intend to return to the house for his last night in Indigo Plateau. Not yet, anyway.

XX

A few minutes later found him sitting in front of the massive brazier that still held the last traces of the Flame's warmth. He glanced down at his shirt, which glowed without restrain now that there weren't other people to gawk.

They'd left long ago.

He wasn't sure why he was here staring into the last traces of this last year. Ash wasn't sad at his loss, even if a faint trace of disappointment still lingered.

But it was just that. Disappointment. Not in his experiences or his career or his friends — never them. Not even in himself, really. Just at the battle, something that was ultimately trivial in regards to his life as a whole.

He'd redeem himself for that loss one day, though. Ash would find that redemption in the endless sands of Orre as he fought a foe that he had lacked the experience to truly match. They'd do battle in those war-torn deserts and finally bring some semblance of peace to the region, even if it was only to each other.

Ash let his hand touch the Feather as it seared his flesh. It wasn't painful, exactly. Just a bit stronger than normal. That was a bit odd, but nothing of his concern.

The trainer shut his eyes and sat in front of that empty torch for what felt like an eternity. He didn't stamp down on any of his trains of thought or hold it off for later consideration. Everything that ran through his mind was processed and elaborated upon.

It was peaceful. Nothing was rejected, nothing was invited.

And finally his eyes opened once more, despite the exhaustion that weighed upon him from the stress of these last two days. As much as he would like to it simply wouldn't do to fall asleep in the Indigo Stadium.

While he knew that Agatha wouldn't do anything overtly cruel, he was relatively certain that being awoken by her or one of her ghosts would not be a pleasant experience. She had her reputation for a reason, after all.

So with that, finally at a semblance of peace, he stood up.

He glanced down at the entirety of the Indigo Stadium for a few moments and crossed his arms. If the Flame was still lit he'd appear as a shade of Lance with the power of Moltres burning behind him.

A rather fanciful image, but he found that he liked the thought of it.

This was what Lance had seen about an hour before, after all. Except it had been filled with life then, vibrant and bright and colorful.

Maybe he'd get to share the same view someday.

XX

It was nice to be back in Pallet Town.

While Indigo Plateau was very nice and provided a powerful image it just didn't compare to the simple nature of his hometown. He'd had to escape to the woods to even have a semblance of the peace he lived here.

He'd only arrived here an hour ago. Professor Oak had Alakazam move him, Gary, his mother, Jonathan, and Amelia here in a single burst of teleportation. It was a rather impressive feat, especially since she had brought their luggage with them as well.

Ash himself had brought only the bare minimum of what he'd need at the Conference, but the rest had apparently decided that their every belonging would be necessary. The amount of luggage Gary, Amelia, Jonathan, and even his mother carried was somewhat awe-inspiring.

Still, he was glad he'd packed so little. He'd already put all of his belongings where they needed to be. His clothes were still in relatively neat piles, but he wouldn't be wearing his traveling clothes too frequently in Pallet Town as he rested and prepared for what was to come.

The medal had joined the Moon Stone's Shard and the Dragon Scale in their places of honor, although it would be put away once he left for Hoenn. He planned on taking both of the other items along with him since they would be particularly useful depending on what pokemon he obtained in the future.

While he wouldn't expand the team too much, he'd like to see just what Hoenn had to offer. Ash wanted to keep the team relatively small so he could focus on training each of them to their highest potential, but some additional variety would be nice too.

Besides, he sorely wanted a ghost. He didn't have a lot of experience battling them outside of Pierce's Gengar and Michael's Dusknoir, but those two battles had ensured that he knew their strength very well.

They offered so many strategic possibilities that he practically frothed at the mouth thinking of it. A ghost would round out his team in a way no other type could, although he'd have to look into asking a ghost-type specialist for tips once he obtained one.

He supposed he could always call Agatha, although he wasn't sure how amenable the Revenant Crone would be to just giving him tips. She seemed like the sort that would only train her apprentices personally and demand excellence from them in all respects.

Certainly not something he was opposed to but he wasn't sure he'd have the time while training with Steven.

"Ash?" His mother's soft voice called from behind him on the pier. Ash glanced away from the deep blue waves that gently lapped the shoreline and turned to his mother, who wordlessly sat down beside him.

"Hi, Mom."

"Do you have any plans for next year? We haven't really talked about it," She remarked as she joined him staring at the calm ocean.

Ash turned from the sea and looked at his mother's concerned face. He supposed it was finally time to tell her, although he had to admit that he was amazed that Gary hadn't spilt his secret. He'd never gotten around to telling his friend what he would do, but he had thought Gary would have told someone by now.

Gary was hardly noted for his discretion, after all.

"Lance offered me a position as an Elite Four trainee. I accepted," Ash told her.

His mother's reaction was priceless. She couldn't seem to process what he'd just said. Her mouth opened and closed a few times and her eyes had widened dramatically.

Ash honestly got concerned for a few moments before the reaction she'd been trying to express finally came out.

"WHAT?!" She shrieked, utterly flabbergasted by his words. Ash just smiled as she continued to sputter. Perhaps he'd have to break historical records like this more often if this was the reaction he received.

Of course, he didn't have too much longer to concern himself with that thought before his mother wrapped him into a bone breaking hug and practically bawled into his shoulder.

"Ashy, I'm so PROUD OF YOU!" She blubbered while still doing her best to blabber out incoherent sentences and remarks that Ash supposed were complimentary. He awkwardly patted her back while she just gripped him tighter. His shoulder was getting wet.

"I knew you were an amazing trainer but —" She got out before she happily hugged him again. Ash knew that if this went on for much longer he'd have to push her away. Lance wouldn't be happy if his newest recruit was relegated to a hospital for broken ribs before Ash had actually done anything. "Wait, how long have you known this?!"

"I got the offer around a week ago. I only decided to accept it two days ago," He shrugged. At her stormy expression he raise his hands to placate his mother. "I wanted it to be a surprise for you. Plus I wasn't sure whether I would take the offer."

His mother sighed and let some of the excitement drain out of her. She was coherent, at any rate. "Any other surprises?"

"As a matter of fact, yes!" Ash exclaimed cheerfully. He couldn't hold back an amused snort at the look his mother sported. "It's connected to my new duties, so don't worry. I'll just be traveling to Hoenn with Steven to train. I'm not quite up to Elite Four standards yet."

"Just training," His mother breathed, obviously relieved. "I can deal with that."

"Well…" He began, well-aware that his mother's glare would match a Hyper Beam in intensity if he looked into it. "I'm on loan to the Hoenn League for the duration of my stay. Team Rocket," he spat, "have begun to regroup and I'm going to help stamp them into the ground and grind them into dust."

His mother blanched. "Ashy…"

"No!" He growled. Even he was surprised by the sheer venom in his tone, although he felt a certain icy fire flood his body in approval. That shocked him out of it more than anything and he raised a hand to clench the Feather like a life-line. "I'm sorry, Mom. But I have to do this. I've hated Team Rocket more than anything else since the St. Anne, but now it's moved beyond personal."

"It's his legacy, don't you understand!" He almost shouted. Ash regained a bit more control. "Team Rocket is Giovanni's plague and I can stop it for good! It's gone from Kanto but I won't let it cause other people pain without doing something about it."

His mother remained silent with wet eyes. She knew that he had to get this out of his system.

Ash breathed. "I was once told that the sins of the father are passed onto the son. I hated that thought at first, but then I understood it for what it was. Maybe I'm not to blame for Giovanni's actions, but I do need to take responsibility for them. I have the power to stop Team Rocket for good and I will. I'll lay his legacy to rest."

He suddenly found himself engulfed in a soft hug that calmed him down for good. The last of his passion drained away and he felt very tired all of a sudden.

"I understand, Ashy…if you have to believe anything I've ever said, believe that." She held him tight. "I know how you feel and, well, I can't stop you anymore. You've grown up — you're so young, but you've already eclipsed anything your parents could have aspired to. You have the right to finish Team Rocket, more than anyone else in the world does."

"Just be careful, alright?" She smiled against his shoulder. "I know you can do it, but that doesn't mean I won't worry the whole time you're out there. That's what mothers are for."

Ash couldn't help but smile back as his mother pulled away from him, although she still kept her soft hand on his shoulder. "You don't need to worry about that. I'm not about to let the Rockets so much as scratch me or anyone else."

His mother nodded, satisfied at that.

They sat in silence for several more minutes after the impassioned exchange. Ash felt solace in the waves and dimly realized that he'd be hundreds of miles across them in a bit over a month's time.

"I can't believe I almost forgot what I came out here to do!" His mother suddenly laughed and turned to look at him again. "Do you remember that call Professor Oak was telling me about?"

Ash nodded. He'd been rather curious to know the source of his mother's happiness.

"Now that you're all grown-up," She teased him, "I've decided to go back to my studies. It was getting pretty boring out here in Pallet Town all alone, you know. Professor Oak was always busy and work was pretty slow this year."

He ignored the last bit of it and focused on what was important. "Really? Where? When?"

"Yes, really!" She practically giggled in excitement. "I'll be studying with Professor Elm in Newbark Town for about a month just to make sure I'm completely caught up with everything — plus he's the most renowned expert on evolution in the Leagues and I can't wait to see what breakthroughs he's made — and then I'll be studying in Goldenrod for a year or two before I can get my degree, depending on if I decide to change my specialty and I might end up staying for a bit longer so that I can look into any other interesting subjects —"

"Take a breath," Ash ordered after he cut his mother off. She'd been rambling happily for quite a while now and he was honestly impressed at how long she'd gone without taking in air. "Continue."

"Thank you. I know I get a little carried away!" His mother laughed. "Anyways, while I'm there I hope to check in with Spencer and Molly over in Greenfield pretty often. He's conducted fascinating research into the Unown and I'd love to see how it's coming along. Plus I'm worried about Molly."

"How so?" He prompted when his mother paused to take another breath. Ash couldn't say he honestly cared that much about Molly — the last time he'd seen her she was a squalling infant — but she seemed to make his mother happy. Uncle Spencer was rather interesting, though, and had regaled him with tales of myths and Legendaries when he was younger. His wife was kind, if a bit distant with both him and his mother.

He made a mental note to talk to Uncle Spencer again at some point. It had been several years but Ash was sure the scientist would be rather interested in his encounters with the Birds, although he wouldn't bring up his involvement with Mew or Mewtwo — that particular entity was better left hidden from prying eyes, no matter how benevolent they might be.

"Spencer's a wonderful parent, but he's always so busy with his research!" Delia lamented. "He's done very well, but I'm worried for them both. Ever since his wife — well, he's thrown himself into his research. Molly's well-taken care of, but I just want to take some stress off of them both."

Ash nodded, although he wasn't sure what his mother meant about Uncle Spencer's wife before she cut herself off. Perhaps she'd left him?

Not that it particularly mattered.

His eyes brightened suddenly. "I can help pay for your studies!"

"What?" His mother frowned, honestly confused.

"I got six hundred thousand dollars for signing onto become an Elite Four trainee and my winnings!" He grinned. "If you want, I —"

"No!" His mother cut him off quickly. He frowned at that. She seemed to realize how harsh her tone had been and her voice softened. "That's very sweet of you, Ashy, but I can't let you do that."

"Why not?" He questioned. "I can help you. I don't need this money and you raised me — I'm the reason you aren't already a League Professor in the first place. I can help you get back to your dream."

His mother shook her head and smiled. "You've already done a lot for me, Ash. Much more than you realize. And this is something I have to do on my own. I've been saving up for this for years now — and that's your money. You might not think it now, but one day you're going to want to settle down and I don't want to take away from that. It's your money, Ash, and it should only go towards your future."

"I understand," He said at last and looked back to the waves.

"I really do appreciate it, Ash. You're too good," His mother sighed and wrapped an arm around him. "But I don't need your money. Just make sure to call me every now and then and let me know you're safe. That's all I want from you, Ash."

He felt a smile flicker onto his face and he nodded silently. His mother squeezed him one more time and stood up.

"I need to go start dinner," She said quietly. "Professor Oak should be getting in soon and he and Gary will be eating with us. If you want you can go invite Jonathan and Amelia and their parents on your way home."

Ash nodded. "Bye."

With that his mother left him on the pier. Ash didn't mind the solitude and stared off at the placid movements of the waves with a small smile.

After an eternity he pulled himself to his feet and turned away from the sea. He'd be crossing it in a month, but for now he was home.

Still, he couldn't help but peer back to the sea one last time as he went to gather his team from their various resting and brawling spots around Pallet. He could put it off, but there was no escaping it.

Hoenn awaited him.

And there it is, the final chapter of Kanto. It's been a long time coming — two years, in fact, and I still can't believe it's been this long or that Traveler's become this huge — and finishing this chapter is quite possibly the most satisfying things I've ever done.

Before I end this, I have a few things I want to address.

First of all, thanks to everyone who has reviewed, followed, favorited, actually managed to read all of this 700,000 word behemoth of a story, or supported it in anyway. I know I haven't always updated when I say I will and tend to let time slip away from me, but you lot have been supporting me the whole time. There are a lot of familiar faces I see in reviews that have been here since the very beginning, or at least close to it.

Secondly, I will continue this into Hoenn. It'll be shorter than Kanto (not that that's saying much considering how long this ended up being) but will still be several times longer than the majority of the stories in this archive.

I'm taking a hiatus of indeterminate length before I begin to release the first chapter of Hoenn, however. There are a ton of things I need to get done and I hate splitting my attention between a lot of important projects.

After looking back on my past chapters several times while writing Traveler, I've decided to rework them. They'll largely be the same but I will be making a ton of adjustments to make the writing more in sync with my later chapters. As they are now a good amount of my earlier chapters make me cringe a little in regards to the writing and I'd rather not have that dissuade any new readers brave enough to tackle this giant.

I also want to take a short break from the Pokemon fandom and continue my Elder Scrolls and Fallout stories, although I don't plan on any of them being very long. Just side projects while I plan out Hoenn for good. As of now I just have a ton of plot points, info, and ideas I want to include but they aren't even remotely close to being pieced together.

Since, unlike Kanto, Hoenn will actually be planned out beforehand it will take a bit longer than normal to prepare.

In addition to my Fallout and Elder Scrolls stories, I will also be occupying my time with a prequel to Traveler. It should be a pretty short 100k word story, though, so I should finish it very quickly. I honestly plan on it being a good bit shorter — hopefully it won't be shorter than Chapter 13, though. That would be kind of strange and make me doubt my own sanity.

Before Hoenn, I also plan on writing one last chapter of Traveler to fill in one adventure Ash won't be able to have once he leaves Kanto. Hoenn's a little too far away to make it work.

Anyways, thanks again!

By the way, please don't leave questions if you review as a guest! Take the time to sign in, please. I've gotten a lot of very good guest reviews that ask a lot of questions I'd love to answer but can't respond — and I'm not going to clutter up the chapter with an AN with responses to guest reviews.

As always, make sure to review!