Lilycove harbor was a beautiful sight that evening. Red, gold, purple…A hundred shades painted the sky as Ash watched the sun descend beneath the distant horizon with the Champions.
Steven and Wallace were always lovely companions, but things didn't truly ease until Fino declared that he was tired (no doubt by design) and slipped away.
Conversation was somewhat sparse for a short time, before the topic drifted to the battle between Ash and Wallace.
"Gorgeous!" Wallace declared with a toss of his turquoise hair. He bowed deeply to Ash and swept his flouncy white hat off in a grand gesture. "I can give you no higher honors!"
Ash grinned. "It was a good battle, wasn't it?"
"A wonderful battle," Steven agreed, eyes far away as he stared out to sea. Metagross, playing as Steven's seat again, paid no heed to them. "I'm so proud of you, Ash. It's been a long time since Wallace faced a challenger capable of pushing him so hard. Some Coordinators might match him in terms of technical skill, but none in power."
"Hoenn is a fine region, with many a trainer worthy of note, but Glacia makes a habit of blocking all worthy challengers!" Wallace laughed.
He stood in his stark white mantle with a brilliant smile upon his face. Lisia had been right—Wallace did need this. It had been a long, long time since Wallace could hope for a proper challenge. More than that, Ash thought it had been a long time since Wallace had fun.
He continued. "And, of course, say nothing of the bevy of dragons for those who surpass her. I've been lost in the League, trapped, and isolated from challengers atop the highest peak. Thank you for proving my belief that I might stay that way forever wrong, Ash."
"It was my team that did all the hard work," Ash said, smiling. He felt warm regardless. He'd faced Wallace! He'd challenged a Champion! Hardly the first time, but such a thrill would never get old. "And you still stopped us right in our tracks."
"Only after superb struggle," Wallace said, appearing awestruck as he recalled the battle fondly. His face paled, emphasizing his lips, and his hands trembled with every eager word. "Imagine it! The world we inhabit! Was this always our potential? A trainer with hardly two years under his belt challenging a Champion! Making a match of it! Ah!"
Metagross' eyes flashed blue.
"One year and eight months or so, according to Metagross," Steven corrected breezily. It went without saying that Metagross knew the numbers down to the day, although Steven hadn't gone quite that far.
Wallace laughed breathlessly, and turned back to Ash, eyes crinkling at the edges and face showing smile lines around his mouth, beauty marks Ash would have thought someone like Wallace would take pains to avoid. "There will be questions, naturally, although your…reputation might stop most in their tracks. I accept this. Today has proven me the fool, but I will not be proud. Truly, I've earned a bit of pressure for not treating your team with the respect they obviously warrant. In my pride, I just couldn't countenance…Ah, just superb work, Steven."
"I've only played a small part in Ash's development. I enable him. I steer him in the right direction. Temper his worst influences," Steven said, suddenly seeming as exhausted as Wallace had been, though in a way that showed his fondness and left Ash smirking. "He has the strangest inclinations to veer into the most difficult paths imaginable. Believe me, he accomplishes most of it on his own! He's run my team and I ragged these past few months."
"That's what I'm here for," Ash said with a grin. "Lance tasked me with making Steven's life more difficult. He offered to give me a big bonus."
"I wouldn't doubt it!" Wallace said with a cheerful laugh. He then shook his head, wondering, seemingly torn between amusement and exasperation. "3-6 as a relative rookie…Monstrous!" He held his hands out. "Look! I'm still shaking. I never expected to face such an opponent today! Neither did my own family. I guarantee you that."
"I was ready for you." Ash dismissed his words. "We've spent the last three days locked away preparing. I'm pretty sure even my dreams were full of plays and countermeasures."
"If only I had done the same, but time! Time!" Wallace muttered to himself. He brightened after a moment. "Well done! I must especially commend your Kingdra's training. His water manipulation is truly fantastic. I'm honored to have tested your strength, but of all of what I saw today, as a Master of Water, that most astonished me."
Ash snorted. "You wouldn't believe what we've done to get ready."
"He looked utterly mad by the time I found him," Steven whispered to Wallace, though it was intentionally loud enough for Ash to hear. "Claydol suspects he was only a day or two from gibbering insanity. Then again, we suspect that about him anyhow."
Wallace rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "Claydol would suspect someone of slipping into gibbering madness if they didn't think the sun rose and fell by its command. And then spectate the process with color commentary, concessions, and a ringside gambling racket. You're going to have to do better than that."
It was good that Claydol had been returned for this meeting. Ash had no doubt that it would have all sorts of words regarding that.
Mentor is very wise. And humble.
Ash snorted at Dazed's little comment. She'd practically worshiped the construct before they'd left for Greenfield—and still hung on Claydol's every word—but a few months in Forina, and further time on the route to Fortree, had done quite a bit to open her eyes to her teacher's character.
Proximity did a lot to erode the boundaries erected by awe.
Time drifted on for a long while. Ash and Wallace exchanged compliments left and right. He thought Wallace seemed faintly disconcerted all the while, but those feelings didn't seem to bleed into their actual debates.
They traded opinions on everything: how well Wallace's famed Luvdisc would have performed against Dazed and Sneasel, potential improvements for Torrent's water manipulation, Mathéo's sheer magnetism and strange appeal to the crowd, and a dozen and more other eventualities that might have occurred in their battle.
Ash felt more at ease over time, getting a sense of Wallace's personality as something closer to a peer—or whatever he had with the other Masters he knew—though he couldn't wait to hunt down Flannery to get her full opinion.
She might not be a Master yet, but the Gym Leader was as much of a battle fanatic as Ash was. Flannery practically lived in the League battle archives. Any input she offered would be valuable.
"We have a reservation at the Grumpy Wailmer," Wallace said after a time. He brushed a stray lock of turquoise hair from his face, then sighed when Steven nudged him with his elbow. "Ah, you don't know of it? Steven has been remiss in sharing our culture with you, I see! It's the most exquisite cuisine! You simply must try it! It's a lovely little hole-in-the-wall place with a phenomenal selection of Lilycove classics."
His stomach grumbled loudly. Dazed might feast on their wild dreams tonight, but Ash had no such ability. Food sounded lovely right now, and he didn't hesitate to make his opinion known.
"Wonderful!" Wallace clapped his hands together. "Tonight will be magnificent, of course, but I am especially excited for the Cup to continue tomorrow. What marvelous displays to see! All sorts of tongues have been wagging since our battle as well."
"The rest of the Wallace Cup will give them plenty to talk about, I'm sure," Steven said blandly. "But let's hurry. The crowds are difficult around this time on the best of days, let alone with all the other celebrations building."
Ash didn't miss Wallace's wince at hearing the full name of the Cup. Maybe Ash wasn't the only one to find it strange.
It made him like Wallace a little better. And he was already upgrading his opinion of the man as the night wore on.
Making new friends was nice? Who could've imagined such a sentiment.
And with that, they headed into the vast city of Lilycove and the enormous swathes of people within. Ash cast one last glance at the sun scattering off the waves and listened to the calls of Wailmer in the harbor, soaking in the sights and sounds of the outside world, before he followed them.
I will never succumb to such weakness again!
Dazed declared. She'd been stoic and driven around Fino, Lucille, and the Ever Grande Champions, but alone revealed the tumultuous tempest raging beneath her placid demeanor.
"You didn't succumb to weakness—" Ash tried to interrupt, but Dazed was having none of it. Fury rolled off her in thunderous waves. Psychic power bled from her, hanging above them all like a guillotine, and Ash was pleased to note that a scorching heat filled the air.
Elemental manipulation demanded superb control—at least Master-level, although it really shined brightest as pokémon touched the heavens of Champion-level—but minor manifestations could appear in times of emotional dysregulation. It was a sign of growing skill.
I was overwhelmed. It's an ignoble technique, what with forcing my interest in the direction of flippers and blowholes and all sorts of depraved extremities, but it's a weakness nonetheless! I will not fail you again, Friend-Trainer.
"We'll work on it," Ash promised. "It's just like Distortion, okay? You were caught off-guard. We'll take care of it."
We will! My pride demands it. I will strike the scoundrel down. I will appropriate Alakazam's technique and pierce its salt-stained—
She continued—for once on the delivering end of the irrational declarations of intent—and Ash hid a smirk as he politely allowed his attention to waver. She needed a listening ear more than an opinion at the moment.
Alakazam's technique was of less interest than his name. Gary might've been the only trainer in history who managed to raise an Alakazam who had no patience for esoteric names.
Alakazam had been fondly exasperated by Gary's general personality when Ash last saw the psychic, but he held the same dry, pragmatic streak of his trainer. It showed in the simple, yet effective Psyblade technique the two had developed together.
Most psychics pursued their power as a sort of enlightenment. It was a conduit to the greater universe, a way to touch upon reality in a way that feeble eyes and ears never could.
Gary's Alakazam saw it as a science.
But, while it was interesting on an intellectual level to think about what must have been several meetings between an impressive mind and Gary, it was far more entertaining to imagine the interactions Alakazam must have had over the prior months with his fellow psychics.
'And now that I have shared my own, please do me the honor of enlightening my unworthy self with your chosen name, not such a degrading nom de guerre.'
Ash stifled a chuckle and paid more attention to his friend.
They spoke for a time, but it was only a little longer before Dazed shuffled off onto the nearby battlefield to train her abilities.
He wished he could join her. Steven and Wallace's departure had left Ash itchy and restless. While there was some temptation to mingle with the crowd and enjoy the raucous festivals and new year celebrations that had begun to stir as night fell, Ash decided that he needed to channel that energy differently for now.
Ash was furiously proud of his family's performance, but he still hadn't been enough. They'd fought brilliantly, but Ash hadn't been enough to guide them to victory. That couldn't stand! He'd pushed Wallace, sure, but their battle had reminded Ash of the gap between him and a true Master.
It must be closed, even if he'd ensured that his team was treated beforehand.
They'd more than earned their celebratory dinner earlier, although he'd have to do a repeat for his teammates who were still unconscious. Ash still salivated over the dozens of tiny dishes brought to them at La Perla.
He'd been disappointed by the size at first, and expected to remain unsatisfied with the meal as he discovered new favorite after new favorite, with never enough to fully sate him, but soon enough he'd found himself completely overwhelmed. Death by a thousand puny entrees.
It was much the same for his team. Dazed hadn't indulged for obvious reasons, and Ash simply stowed away a whole heaping bag of assorted foods for Infernus to eat later, but with those obvious exceptions aside, even Nidoking had nearly stuffed himself to bursting.
He was currently passed out on his back a few feet away with Lairon snoozing on his firm belly.
Lairon had eaten so much silverware. Luckily the restaurant was a favorite of Steven's and so they kept a supply of lower-quality cutlery (alongside an assortment of various metals and alloys they'd integrate into regular food) for any hungry steel-types. It probably saved them a fortune that night alone.
They'd all indulged, but Ash had kept that furious energy.
And that had led them here.
Most of Ash's team had completely embraced their food comas, but a few were just as eager to train as he was.
Lilycove lacked a Gym Leader—a symbolic gesture of respect to their leader in the Last War, who died in the Battle of Lilycove—but acted as a major hub for the Ever Grande Rangers. The city was home to plenty of training facilities as a result.
They were empty tonight, of course. Everyone else was off enjoying the celebrations.
Except for this one.
Part of Ash wanted to go with Dazed. He was still flush with excitement from the battle and had fed off the wild energy the roaring crowd instilled, but Ash's PokéNav had been buzzing incessantly for hours, and he knew he could only put off answering those for so long before he'd be inviting the wrath of his loved ones.
It was a little nerve wracking to wonder just how many messages were waiting for him. When he'd started his journey, he could count his contacts on one hand.
So Ash gave Dazed a few pointers and thoughts as she began training her Elemental Synthesis, offered Infernus some tips on enhancing his psychic control for Plasma Blade, and released Tangrowth under a massive UV lamp maintained in the training grounds for grass-types.
He was still passed out from earlier, but this would at least speed up his healing a bit. Ash would end up leaving him in a similar facility in the Pokémon Center tonight, but this would kickstart things.
After a moment's thought, he released a bruised Sneasel right into the mess of still vines. Ash smiled at the exhausted dark-type as he was wrapped up in an unconscious hug by the suddenly twitching vines.
Sneasel was so worn out that he didn't even try to fight their embrace.
"I'm going to sit and catch up on my messages," Ash told Seeker, who was currently clinging to his back with her tiny hooks. He smiled at her. "You're welcome to sit with me if you'd like."
Seeker squeaked back happily, assuring him that there was nothing she'd like more, but reluctantly released her hold and fluttered free. She darted around Ash for a minute. "You can go!" Ash laughed. "Train for a bit. I'm not going anywhere."
She chattered at him for a moment before dashing off in a rush of wind. Ash looked fondly after her as she went on to do some training of her own. While Seeker hadn't started on a force amplifying technique like most of the team, she'd been quite aggressive in bringing her combat abilities up to par.
While the little Zubat was still far behind the rest, Ash couldn't be more proud of her dedication. Every day strengthened her a little more. Her body was still a limitation, capped without the benefits evolution conferred, but Seeker would do her best to hone every one of her techniques to perfection in the meantime.
It was terribly strange to imagine Seeker evolving into a Golbat one day. She'd been his little Zubat for so long…It was heartbreaking to imagine a day where he might not be able to hide her under her coat, akin to the loss of being able to hold Nidoking in his arms, or carry Plume on his shoulder.
And yet that was life, a sign of how far they'd come.
Ash sighed and put such thoughts out of mind as he reclined against a wall and flipped open his PokéNav. He was getting sentimental. That was Steven's job.
Anyways, training was all well and good, but he had limited time here. He planned to meet Daisy, Lisia, and Flannery to go celebrate the new year in a few hours.
"What the hell!" Ash's exclamation briefly caught the attention of Dazed, Infernus, and Seeker, but he waved them off. "I'm fine. Just…way too many messages. Don't worry about it."
Dazed was still obviously horribly frustrated, but a tiny thread of awareness connected the two of them so that she could follow along. Ash's eyes stayed wide as he skimmed dozens upon dozens of messages from family, friends, acquaintances.
And then there were even more; regarding interview requests, sponsorship deals, a million other stressful things that he didn't want to deal with.
Ash had already had to do an interview before he left the Wallace Cup earlier. He wasn't going to seek another one out!
Suspicion welled within him. Just how had so many reporters gotten his number all of a sudden? That wasn't something the League handed out like candy.
Ash scrolled back up, searching.
After seeing one message from a pharmaceutical company asking him to be the face of an advertising campaign focused around spreading support for 'X combat enhancements' and 'a new, more stable variant of the famous Rare Candy,' that suspicion turned into an overwhelming urge to throttle Gary.
Ash hoped that Clair had destroyed Gary in Viridian. The Blackthorn Gym Leader had been less than pleased to receive a message from Ash before he'd left Fortree, but she'd been all too accommodating once he outlined Gary's travel plans.
Ha! Served him right.
Smirking despite his irritation, Ash put such thoughts from his mind as he filtered out the messages that actually mattered. A big, stupid grin crossed his face as he opened up a message from his mom.
ASH KETCHUM! WHAT DID I JUST SEE? DID YOU JUST FIGHT A CHAMPION? Oh my goodness I'm so proud of you! I wish you'd given me a bit more detail than just 'watch the Wallace Cup!' We have got to work on your communication skills! I'm shaking right now!
You're so lucky! I was just going to tune in, but then Samuel swung by with a big smile on his face and teleported me, Spencer, and Molly to Pallet Town for a viewing party at his house! He must have gotten A LITTLE BIT MORE NOTICE than I did. Practically the whole town was there and we are all FREAKING OUT RIGHT NOW OH MY GOODNESS!
I'm so proud of you and your team, Ashy. I know how amazing you are, but I haven't really gotten to see you battle like that since the Indigo Conference. You and your friends were so incredible out there! I'm going to make you all your absolute favorites the next time I see you. I tried so hard to get Alakazam to teleport me down to Lilycove, but she says you're probably incredibly busy right now.
Regardless, I can't wait to see you again! We have so much to talk about…
Ash beamed to the very last word. His mom's excitement bled through every word, and he desperately wished that he could fly to Pallet Town right now to celebrate with her, even though he knew it would leave him miserable the next day.
Responsibilities and physical limitations, so inconvenient.
But it just might have been worth it.
His mom also took the time to update him on all sorts of things, ranging from the cute Rattata on the university grounds that had learned she was a reliable source of food, to the semester she was finishing up, to the very odd penpal she'd made in the form of Blaine.
…Ash was going to have to reach out to the Cinnabar Gym Leader about that one. That was just bizarre. When had they even met? It was hard to imagine his sweet, bubbly mother getting along with taciturn, acerbic Blaine, but he supposed stranger things had happened.
His own adventures over the past year or so, for one.
There were plenty of other letters to attend to, though. Ash's smile grew wider and wider as he sped through the messages, though he took care to savor every single word. Each and every one was precious.
Well done! Any words I could impart would be insufficient. It's difficult to witness such a battle and remember that small boy who stepped into my lab nearly two years ago. You walked away with a Nidoran and returned with a family.
You fought like a Master today, Ash. Please give my regards to your team. They've grown so much. You all have. Has Lairon evolved yet? I'm quite interested to see him grow!
I'm certain you've received a small novel from Delia by now. I heard about the challenge a bit earlier than you, so I hope you don't mind my taking the liberty of ensuring that your mother, Spencer, and Molly would have the chance to enjoy the battle in Pallet Town. You have quite the devoted fan club!
Please enjoy the rest of the Wallace Cup. It's quite the event! Have you encountered Daisy yet? I heard news that she's participating this year…
The letter ran on for a little longer, although Professor Oak seemed intent on keeping things compact, well aware of his mom's essay.
Ash appreciated that, although he was a little surprised by the extent of some of Professor Oak's knowledge of Infernus' Plasma Blade and the rest of his team's progression. They'd discussed it some, but not to this extent. Either the good professor had done some theorizing himself or Steven had discussed it with him.
He put that out of mind for now, happier than anything that Professor Oak seemed far more himself than he had in their last correspondence. That relieved Ash, although he knew that his heart must still be broken in two. A loss like Agatha's wouldn't mend so quickly.
Ash's heart blazed at the pride which radiated from Professor Oak's commendations. 'Like a Master,' he'd said. Professor Oak! Ash was this close to clutching the PokéNav to his chest and hugging it like the old stuffed Charizard he'd loved so much when he was younger.
It didn't take long to write out a quick reply, although Ash promised Professor Oak that he'd write more once he had time to think things over a bit. Once that was through, he was quick to leap back into the ocean of messages that awaited him.
Ash grinned when Karen's name popped up and immediately opened it. He'd missed her these past few months.
Holy crap, kid. You've become a little monster down in those muggy islands, haven't you? You should be proud. You've honed your team to a knife's edge. I can't wait to face you again.
And hey, you looked pretty good out there! Maybe not as fancy as all those prissy Coordinators, but I'm going to pat myself on the back for getting you set up with some actual clothes. They're looking a bit small, though. Have you hit a growth spurt yet? We'll have to run out to the department store again the next time you're in Indigo.
Good on you, Ash! You did us proud out there. Minus the hat. Seriously, when are you going to throw that ratty old thing out?
I don't know if this is the right time for this, but I don't want to leave you in the dark. Agatha's gone. Oak won't say a word about what happened, but that's enough in its own right. One of her Gengar made it back to the Plateau with a few of her things. Screamed right in my ear while I was sleeping and gave me and Weavile a heart attack…Stupid thing nearly got pecked to death (?) by Honchkrow.
Agatha would roast us alive for this, but we have a little place to remember her at. If you want, I can take you there next time you're at the Plateau. You know you're welcome home anytime you want to take a break from the jungle, right?
It's more than she wanted and less than she deserved, but it's all we have.
Sorry to end on such a depressing note. Congrats on your glorious loss, you little monster. You should've seen Lance. He was actually weeping.
Ash's heart twisted again.
Maybe he shouldn't read all these one after another…If this kept up, he was going to cry too. When was the last time he did that? He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and hoped that Agatha had found her rest, one way or another. It was good of Karen to reach out to let him know of her passing, even if he'd already known.
Ash read further to bury those feelings. He just didn't have the mental bandwidth to deal with that right now.
Surge was impressed by Storm Surge—I'm still flattered you named it after me, he'd said, and Ash could just imagine the giant's booming laugh—but wasted no time in telling Ash that it was still far from complete. Too slow, too imprecise, too uncontrolled. It was the mightiest electrified hammer around, but still a hammer.
Ash agreed, of course. His vision of Storm Surge was seamless, a living, breathing command over the thunder and lightning. Oz would be an avatar of the storm, a thunder god of old, and so mighty that Ash could imagine wings forged of black thunderclouds spreading wide behind her…
This was the crudest viable form, and both Ash and Oz craved more. Developing Storm Surge thus far had already led to vast leaps and strides in Oz's skill and power, and continuing to push its limits would have far-reaching ramifications throughout her entire skillset. Her electric manipulation would receive the greatest benefits, naturally, but her psychic abilities would develop as well.
Jon and Amelia sent their own rambling congratulations.
Or Jon did. Amelia's encouraging words in her parts of the message were far more succinct and left Ash feeling like quite the victor despite his loss. They were both insistent that he find his way to the Silver Conference to see them 'kicking ass,' as Jon said, which Ash fully planned on doing.
Ash barked out a laugh when he read Jon's last line.
And hey, why did you bust out FREAKING SUICUNE on US and not CHAMPION WALLACE, huh? You must have a really high opinion of us!
There was scattered congratulations from plenty of others he'd met on his journey: Will and Koga, of course, and various Gym Leaders. He smiled as he read their warm regards, and each of the little, personal touches they left that made each letter special. Ash particularly enjoyed Bruno's message, which was as to-the-point as he could've hoped for.
Well done, the Fighting Master had written, and that was all that needed to be said.
It was unreasonable, but Ash felt a little pang when he realized that out of all the hundreds of messages he'd received, Lance hadn't been one of them.
Ash felt selfish even entertaining the thought. Lance was the Indigo Champion. He had two regions scarred by the Rockets, Mewtwo, Haukea, and various catastrophes to manage. Not to mention Mamoru returning to Indigo Plateau for some reason. No doubt it would be coming shortly, but he'd expected a manic explosion in his messages.
And then he reached Gary's kind and generous message.
You did decent out there, I guess, but I don't give a shit about that. I know what you did, you smug prick! You want to ruin my little Viridian vacation by throwing that dragon-f—Ash skimmed over the next paragraph until things calmed down a little, although he was rather impressed by the sheer diversity of insults that Gary managed to synthesize—my way?
Fine, you do you, but I fight fire with fire, buddy! I hope you're ready.
Things calmed down a bit from there, but Ash savored every ounce of Gary's frustration throughout the rest of his letter. Served him right for spamming Ash's inbox by proxy, forcing him into unwanted social interactions.
He also suspected that Gary had already made his next move, so Ash was going to have to start ramping up his own efforts. Gary was his oldest friend, one that he treasured now, despite years of previous enmity, and it was for that reason (and that reason alone, truly) that Ash took great, great pleasure in making his life just a little more difficult.
They'd buried the hatchet, but that didn't mean Ash didn't have a little bit of payback to deal out.
And a little rivalry was good for him. Look where his and Ash's had led.
Maybe he'd consult Dazed on how to progress from here. Later.
She seemed to still be in a vindictive mood based on the flashing lightning bolts she was throwing around. Ash suspected she had all sorts of lovely ideas brewing around in her head. Gary would make a fine test subject.
Gary was still doing well, of course. He threw in a few probing questions regarding the Rockets in Hoenn, and Ash was able to return a somewhat-sanitized response. At least Gary would be content to know they'd been shattered beneath the fist of the League, even if he wasn't lucky enough to have felt the satisfaction of crushing them himself.
Ash was grateful for that. Gary might be an arrogant snob at times (okay, all the time), but he was still innocent in so many ways. He wouldn't see his friend's hands bloodied if he could help it.
He wondered if Gary's team knew. If they'd show their darker sides on behalf of their trainer, as Ash's had. That was another complicated burden Ash would spare his friend from for a while, if he could.
But for the most part the long letter fell into more mundane trappings—the difficulties Gary had encountered in earning Diamond's respect, a meandering tangent going on about his uncertainties of what path to take after he won the Silver Conference (if, Ash wanted to say, but asking Gary to doubt himself was a futile endeavor), and Gary's speculative intentions of taking a trip to Rota to train in the foothills of the Shield of Mew.
That last bit left Ash absolutely jealous. He'd kill to delve into the Dark World. Gary wouldn't be piercing the vast mountain range in his expedition—he was arrogant, not stupid—but Ash felt a surge of hunger at the prospect of what might be learned there. The alien nature of the Dark World seeped past the Shield, though its effects were blunted past the stone walls.
It piqued his sense of curiosity and taste for adventure at once.
What lurked in its shadows? It wasn't unheard of for explorers to step into the Dark World, although the number of them that returned could be counted on two hands. The darkest frontier called to Ash, its mysteries begging to be unveiled.
If only there wasn't so much to do…
Ash wrote a few more responses, worked with his teammates, and slowly began sorting things out for tomorrow. He browsed through a few messages as they continued coming in, though none were particularly interesting.
Gary had done quite the job of advertising Ash's apparent willingness to accept sponsorships, so random companies (some of which he was fairly sure were just Gary pretending to be a marketing agent) continued to send offer after offer.
It would explain the ones that somehow made it past the spam filters.
At last Ash sighed, stood up, and stretched. "Are you all ready?" he called out to the rest of his team.
Infernus huffed out a cloud of black smoke and turned away from Ash, still put out that Ash hadn't called on him for the battle against Wallace.
Ash rolled his eyes. It would have been Infernus's most humiliating, most one-sided matchup to date with the field as it was, but he knew he still had a lot of making up to do.
Maybe he might be able to harass one of the Ever Grande Elite Four into a fight. Phoebe would probably be up for it. If not, he might make an attempt to hunt down Bruno. That would probably earn Infernus' forgiveness.
Seeker fluttered over and landed happily upon his hat. Ash laughed and reached up to scratch her fuzzy, slightly-sweaty blue ears, when the doors to the facility suddenly came alive with a hum. He immediately straightened up, more surprised than worried. At worst it would be a Ranger coming in to check out the facility.
Who was going to be training at this hour? Ash thought he would be the only one crazy enough to be here instead of the festivals.
Well, Flannery might have, but most of her team were enjoying a well-deserved spa day back in Lavaridge.
"Ash!" A voice boomed like a thunderclap. Infernus whipped around with an eager grin on his face and flame spilling from his cannons. Dazed shuffled over to Ash as fast as she could imagine with her pendulum clutched in her yellow hands.
Ash beamed as the achingly familiar voice called out again. "It is!"
Ash's heart hammered in his chest as he turned with a giant smile on his face. He intended to yell out, but grunted instead as he was swept up in a massive hug that smelled faintly of ash and earth. Rock dust plastered to the man's shirt clogged his nostrils.
He wheezed as all the air was forced from his lungs. Strength greater than that of a normal man fueled the hug and for a moment Ash even feared that his ribs would crack beneath the strain. Thankfully the pressure eased, although before he knew it large hands hoisted him up.
"Ash!" Lance cackled madly as he lifted him up to look the Indigo Champion straight in the eye. He normally would've balked at the rough treatment, but he was too happy right now to care. "You little madman! I can't believe you, you know. You blow my mind, then a week goes by and you raise the bar again!"
Ash made an attempt to respond, but Lance seemed overcome with happiness again and wrapped him up in another dusty hug. It was like being hugged by a brick wall thanks to the mountains of muscle heaped beneath Lance's uniform. From what Ash had learned, he was the only one willing to work out with Bruno regularly.
He leaned into the hug once the surprise began to bleed away. Dazed's mind brushed against his own, her earlier scorn for her enormous foe replaced by fond warmth as she felt the joy spilling from Ash's thoughts. She shuffled closer while the others approached respectfully.
Lance gently lowered Ash back to the ground, his brilliant grin a wild thing on his face, unshackled and free.
"And you!" Lance caught Dazed's eyes and jabbed his finger at her, the flame of his Feather flickering beneath his sleeve. She averted her gaze, suddenly finding the packed earth of the training grounds to be utterly fascinating.
The Champion's expression softened, though that giddy fire never left his eyes. "Stand up straight, Dazed. Mathéo may be a ridiculous flirt, but his power is formidable."
When Dazed said nothing, Lance eased his grip on Ash and looked more pointedly at her. "Milotic may be the cornerstone, but Mathéo has her matched in raw strength, and that's not to mention his other tactics. Mathéo can fight more-or-less on par with Lev. Don't be ashamed, for you have nothing to be ashamed of. Use your loss as fuel, and one day you will stand above him."
Dazed hesitantly nodded and watched them with her luminous eyes. That seemed enough for Lance, as after he traded a few words with Infernus and Seeker (and called out a greeting for the distant, snoozing Tangrowth), before turning back to Ash.
Lance leaned in close, glee radiating out from his every motion. "What went through your head as you and your team met a Champion blow-for-blow?" Hunger filled his every word, face alight with joy as if he was imagining the fight through Ash's eyes. "Did you feel the thunder of the crowd's roars? Did your mind sharpen to a razor's edge?"
Lance had been waiting a long, long time for a moment much like this, Ash remembered.
"My blood was on fire," he said with a grin as he fed power to the Feather embedded in his chest. Golden flames licked out from his shirt, blazing brightly enough to outshine the electric lights for a moment. Lance laughed as their Feathers blazed in synchronicity, raising his hand high to let it burn. "Seriously, it was incredible! Did you see Bruiser? He was insane! I thought he was going to crush Océane with just one punch!"
"I know!" Lance egged him on. He wiped a faux tear from his eye. "The way he broke the Protect? That's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen!"
"And how she skipped across the water!" Ash cackled. Seeker chittered proudly from his shoulder as she added her own contributions. "I wish I'd seen Wallace's face, I was too busy looking to see if she was getting up."
"It was better than you could imagine," Lance said cheerfully. "Cool, professional, unflappable Champion Wallace looked like he just sucked a Nomel Berry! For a second, I thought he'd dive onto the field to check on her and ruin that expensive costume of his! Oh, I can't wait to bring this up at our next meeting! This was the best Wallace Cup in years and it technically hasn't even started yet."
They traded stories of the battle for a few minutes longer—Oz's brutal use of Storm Surge, Torrent's brutal defeat of Melody and the matching of her own specialty, and a handful of other moments that Lance was too excited to even offer words of wisdom for.
"I felt awful for Tangrowth," Lance sent the grass-type a commiserating glance. "He seemed so confused when his vines turned against him."
"I didn't know it was possible," Ash said admiringly, lost in thought as he remembered the myriad water manipulation techniques that the Milotic had demonstrated. Her experience showed in every single application. Torrent's water manipulation was powerful and a versatile tool, but it was crude compared to Melody's utter mastery. "She opened my eyes."
"It reminded me of my early battles against Drake," Lance said with a great deal of fondness. "His mastery of dragons is beyond belief. That Salamence of his could tear the Dragon Dance out of my team. There was nothing more frustrating watching my team's techniques fail, but you couldn't help but be amazed all the same."
Ash wished more than ever to earn his chance to face down the previous Dragon Master. Lance grew fierce and eager at every mention of the legendary trainer, and every tale left Ash raring to fight him with everything he had.
The brief interruption gave Ash a moment to think, though, and he peered up at Lance curiously. "Wait, what are you doing out here?"
"And here I thought you'd just be happy to see me!" Lance said with a great laugh. He shook his head as Ash stammered out affirmations. "Easy, I'm just messing with you. It's a fair question."
Lance sighed, appearing quite frustrated all of a sudden. "I couldn't make it for the actual match thanks to a grumpy old Rhydon causing heaps of trouble," he said darkly. "Mamoru decided to try tearing his way into the Plateau instead of walking to the front gate and asking to be let in like a sane creature. He showed up with a few withered flowers in his hand, started reshaping the stone to dive into Chinatsu's grotto, and took my appearance as a challenge."
Ash's eyes widened. "Is the Plateau still standing?" He really hoped that Mamoru hadn't torn a gaping hole in the side. One would think that Mamoru would be a bit more careful with the First's legacy, but he was an ancient, temperamental creature. "And how is your team?"
"We've grown a bit since we last saw Mamoru," Lance said smugly, although his face twisted for a moment. "But so has he, apparently. He only took out Dov, Mael, and Aerodactyl before we brought him to a standstill. Will couldn't penetrate his mind, but I think Mamoru realized we wouldn't let him through if he didn't stop fighting. He's a sight to behold when surrounded by rock."
Ash hummed in agreement, well-aware of Mamoru's ferocity in battle, even if the mention of Ash's months-old bouquet left him with a few lingering thoughts. The Rhydon was almost unstoppable in the mountains, especially if he fought for its own sake rather than a simple test. The memory of stone flowing like water never failed to elicit a deep hunger in Ash. That was true mastery which put even Melody to shame.
He eyed the dust on Lance's mantle curiously. How would Mamoru fare against Ash when he stripped the cape from Lance's shoulders one day?
"We had words," Lance said. "He was cagey, but descended to the grotto without destroying everything, thankfully, just had to widen the tunnels a bit. I have no clue what he wants with Chinatsu. Maybe they decided to have a thousand-year reunion or something. They're still down there together. I told Will to message me with any updates."
Lance rolled his eyes. "But at least the sight of a Dragonite doesn't fill him with quite as much murderous rage as Chinatsu. You should have seen her the first time we stepped into her home!"
Ash cracked a smile. Yes, even a Champion like Lance would find that a daunting experience.
"But enough of that!" Lance waved those thoughts away. He looked a second away from picking Ash back up and squeezing the life out of him. In fact, just a moment later, he did just that. "I am so, so proud of you, Ash. Win or lose, you faced down a Champion and brought down his greatest fighter. That's no mean feat. I couldn't have asked more of one of my Elite Four. You might have been beaten, but in my eyes this is your greatest victory yet. The true beginning of your legend."
Lance's acknowledgement filled a gaping hole in Ash's chest that he never knew he had. Ash opened his mouth to reply, found his tongue stiff and useless, and nodded. A hint of something welled up in Ash's eyes, but he blinked it away.
He was not crying today, damn it.
It wasn't long before one particular memory popped into Ash's head to save him.
"Oh, you won't believe what Steven tried on the way to Fortree!" An evil smile took over Ash's face. Lance, perhaps understanding Ash's inner conflict more than Ash would prefer, leaned forward eagerly. "See, apparently someone told him that I still needed the talk."
Lance looked utterly delighted. "He didn't! I can't believe he took the bait!"
"Oh, he did," Ash said grimly. "And it was better than you could imagine. See, Steven started off with a Beldum metaphor, then started talking about what a shame it was that humans can't reproduce by budding or fragmentation…"
The Champion looked vaguely concerned through his blatant amusement. "I need to have a long talk with that man. Maybe I was wrong and he still needs the talk. It's not so surprising that Stevagross would miss the joke, but you'd think Claydol would've picked up on it."
"Claydol absolutely did. But Claydol thought it was funnier not to say anything," Ash explained. He cocked an eyebrow. "Stevagross?"
"Good man! Or psychic construct, I suppose." Lance chuckled. "And just an old nickname Cynthia came up with when we were younger. I love Steven like a brother, I really do, but sometimes it's a little too obvious that he subleases half his brain to Metagross. Going halvsies on the names is the only logical conclusion. Then again, he was pretty much the same from the first day I met him, so it's hard to know for sure."
They talked for a while, sitting side by side on one of the field-side benches. Ash shared stories of their travels, the things that didn't quite fit into a text message of any length—Bruiser's evolution, the thrill of facing Fino Moore in the shadow of Mt. Chimney, the grueling trip to Fortree, and the sheer excitement blazing through him as he faced down hundreds of trainers in a single day.
"We were watching Dragon Trainer when I was sent your broadcast," Lance confided with a laugh. "Oh, you should've seen Karen's face! We all wanted to pop in and test you, wouldn't that have made for a show! But I didn't want to take up too much of your team's energy. You challenged the world, not us."
Lance sighed forlornly and cast his eyes upwards. "What a thrill that must've been," he said. "I wish I'd pulled something like that before I'd claimed the title. Drake would've stomped me into the ground, but he'd have gotten a kick out of it. Poor Steven would've been so stressed out."
Ash snorted. "I'm glad I waited for him to be out on a mission with Winona."
"With Winona?" Lance's eyebrows rose sharply, although he didn't say anything else. The corners of his lips twitched. "Well, I'm glad Steven is getting out a bit. Ever Grande needs him more than ever, even with Team Rocket mostly fragmented. I won't stay more than a day or two, but I might make a patrol while I'm down here. The Silver Conference has been keeping us busy."
"Who gets to organize it?" Ash inquired. While the bulk of the work was done by the League's small bureaucracy (he knew they employed a handful of Alakazam and Metagross who enjoyed the logistics and could process information faster than any human), it was necessary to have the Elite Four and Champion's approval on quite a few aspects. An Elite Four member often headed the project and ensured its spirit was kept.
"Lorelei used to head up the Indigo and Silver Conferences." Lance's smile dimmed. "We're all trying to contribute, of course, but Will's taken it upon himself to manage the project."
"Sounds like Will would enjoy that. How's he doing?"
"Back to his usual self. And if he gets gloomy, we drag him out to a bar and hang out until there's a smile on his face," Lance said with a laugh. "Managing the Conference has been very good for him. It keeps him busy, especially since I've asked Karen to step back for a week or two."
"Why?" Ash leaned forward curiously. "More criminals to deal with?"
"No, Koga has those well in hand. After Agatha—" Lance took on a pained expression. "Agatha left some big shoes to fill on that front, but Koga's begun training a new Ranger corps to address that situation. We're hoping to loan them out to other Leagues once they're properly trained up, what with all the insurgents and extremists rearing their heads. Karen helps Will out, but the problem we ran into was that a few of the civilians involved in the Silver Conference made the mistake of hitting on Karen…in a quite crude, unprofessional manner, too."
Ash's eyes widened. He felt a brief indignance on Karen's behalf, but soon realized she was the last person who needed any sort of protection. "They didn't. Are they braindead? What did she do to them?"
"Oh, they did," Lance seemed quite amused. "The dressing down she gave them is quickly becoming part of the Indigo League lore. None of the Rangers present would look her in the eye for a week. Something about vile language and a tongue sharper than a knife. I think Karen scared those poor civilians worse than Weavile did. It was him that actually had to convince her to stop."
He snorted, making sure to file this away so that he could bring it up to Karen later. Even Gary could probably learn a thing from Karen's insults.
"We've had our hands full. What I would give for a taste of your adventures!" Lance sighed. He toyed with the hem of his mantle, then his fingers drifted to the row of worn Pokéballs on his belt. "I dream of clear skies and just a simple dirt road ahead of me, you know."
And in that moment, Ash did too.
He looked at Lance properly now. The Indigo Champion looked like a new man from when Ash last left him in Indigo, though still a little exhausted. But it appeared to be the normal toll of bearing two regions' weight on his shoulders, rather than the searing flame which had been devouring him from within.
For a moment, Ash felt the yearning beast within Lance. He was a dragon shackled by the grim burdens of responsibility, duty, and legacy. He was a dragon bound and forced to watch others fly free as he struggled beneath a mantle he had chosen, dreaming of early days spent with a silver-haired boy, a blonde girl, and a wishful future where they might find themselves in that position yet again.
Lance's eagerness to hear of Ash's adventure, the glee he'd displayed hearing of the Fortree Challenge, the open awe as Ash told tales of the unnatural things lurking atop Mt. Pyre…All a symptom of a great hunger.
And that's what it was, wasn't it?
The Indigo Champion was hungry for those experiences which he'd never had. He was lonely at the top, just as he'd warned Ash of so many months ago. It reminded him of Wallace's words from earlier in the day—both men missed the challenges of those early days, the relative anonymity and freedom, but at least Wallace had been a man before he grew to the top.
It seemed so old and distant to Ash—an entire quarter of his current lifespan—but it was still so young all the same. Ash had met plenty of sixteen-year-old trainers. He'd beaten the vast majority of them, in fact. Most reminded him more of Jon or Amelia than himself.
Determination filled him like a rising tide. Ash felt Fire burn in his chest as he met Lance's eyes. The Champion looked startled at Ash's sudden intensity, but looked pleased—relieved—at what came next.
"I'm coming for you."
His team huddled around, filled with the same ferocity as Ash in that moment. Dazed eyed them both speculatively. Seeker squeaked out her challenge to Lance, flaring her little wings wide. Infernus quit pouting long enough to grin menacingly at Lance, a great belch of smoke bursting from his lips. Even Tangrowth had recovered enough to slither a vine over to hug Lance's ankle.
"It's a new millennium. Well, technically it will be next year, but the point stands. Maybe it's time for a new Champion too?" Ash finished with a barking laugh. "We might just be a speck on the horizon now, but we'll grow bigger every day. We're catching up on you, and one day you'll see us right behind you."
Some Masters (let alone Champions) might have sneered at such a proclamation. They climbed to the highest peaks and looked down upon the rest of the world, confident that none could ever match them.
Their arrogance was paid for in blood, sweat, and tears.
Lance beamed, nothing but pleased.
"You have no idea how happy I am to hear that," he said lowly, a ray of hope permeating his voice. Yet there was hesitation too,. Lance's next words came with the resigned, melancholy air of a man who was shouldering a great burden, sounding almost strangled as the Champion forced them out.
Ash respected him all the more for it.
"You'll be a wonderful Champion, Ash. A fine steward of Indigo. You're strong, and good, and stand firm in the face of the unknown. I can't think of anyone worthier to lead us into this strange new age. But…"
Here Lance struggled. "Don't come for me too quickly, okay? Enjoy your life. Love your team. Explore yourself. Meet someone you can fall in love with. Be more than a trainer: be a man. Know who you are before you take the Champion's Mantle, or else it might be all that you are."
Ash and his team were quiet for a moment, watching Lance speculatively. "You're more than the Indigo Champion, you know."
"Oh?" Lance raised an eyebrow as he surveyed them back, a slight curve to his lips. He raked long fingers through his red hair as he challenged them. "Who am I, then?"
He gave that question the deliberation it deserved and sifted through the thousand thoughts that came to mind.
"You're the Dragon Master, the Indigo Champion, a bearer of Fire, and the greatest Drake of the Wataru," Ash said with the utmost confidence. Each title left Lance standing straighter, yet Ash could sense the hollowness in him, that little crack that hid beneath veneers of glory and a true champion of righteousness. "But you aren't your titles."
Lance blinked. "Eh?"
"You're my teacher, my guide, and a good man," Ash continued. Part of him balked at baring his deepest thoughts—he didn't do this with other people—but Dazed nudged him forward. There was no weakness here. Only strength. Infernus nodded approvingly. "Someone with all the power in the world who chose to be a hero, not a villain. Someone who serves others instead of ruling over them with an iron fist. A leader, not a despot. A Champion for others, not just yourself."
Ash recalled his mother's words as she'd spoken of the previous Champion. "A man who would rather take the right path than the convenient one. A man who offered himself up to a monster to save a boy he barely knew."
A cold flame flickered in the back of Ash's mind as it always did, though some inscrutable sensation bled from it. Irritation flecked with…something else.
Lance stared at Ash as if he were seeing him for the first time.
"You were always my hero when I was little. The second I saw Magnus bathing an opponent in blue flame, I wanted a Charizard more than anything I'd ever imagined," Ash admitted with a quick laugh. "Look how thatturned out. But you're a part of my life now. You're more than the person I imagined in my head. Better. A lot better."
"You want to know why you're all those other fancy titles?" Ash questioned, but didn't give Lance an opportunity to answer. "It's because you're Lance. That comes first. The titles follow you, you don't follow them."
Lance appeared lost for words. His jaw hung loose, though not so far as to leave it hanging open, and his eyes were suspiciously misty. Ash only had a few seconds to feel the full weight of their exchange before he was swept up in another dusty hug.
I'll make certain to share this with Champion-Mentor's family. They will treasure this moment.
"I wish I had a bunch of sappy stuff to overwhelm you with, but I think you've got me beat," Lance joked from above, though sincerity bled through. A comforting warmth emanated from his skin, strong enough to pierce the layers of cloth that separated them. "My brain's not working so well right now."
Ash snorted. "No need for that." He coughed. He wasn't crying, damn it. "You being here is enough. You flew all the way down from Indigo."
"I thought about teleporting, but Dragonite needed the chance to stretch his wings. He carried me here as fast as he could, although I expect Plume might give him a run for his money now!" Lance said cheerfully, hiding thickness in his voice.
He sobered. "I—Thank you, Ash. I think I needed to hear that. I…forget. Sometimes."
The cold flame receded even further, though it was always watching. Ash did his best to ignore it.
"Any time," Ash said simply, and neither of them being eager to dwell on such heavy emotions, they chatted on for a bit longer.
It was good to see Lance again. They corresponded regularly, of course, and the Indigo Champion was always happy to spot him training tips or advice on whatever issues Ash encountered, but there was a warmth to meeting him in person that couldn't be denied. Lance was always so much more in person, and that could never be captured in his letters, as much as Ash savored them.
Lance was always eager to hear about the team's progression, and gave a few exercises for Torrent to practice in order to enhance his control of draconic power.
"You've seen Clair," he said. "Her team's draconic techniques have a bit of flair to them that my team lacks. But I learned long ago that simple mastery of dragon-type abilities would never see me to the top. They're a potent tool to keep in your arsenal, though."
"Is that what Obliterator is?" Ash inquired, eager for any scrap that Lance might offer. He was always cagey about the so-called ultimate technique. But for Lance of all people to consider it so potent spoke well of its potential.
"Somewhat," Lance said, and Ash knew he wouldn't be getting the full details just yet. "It's a work in progress. We've always reached for the sky, but there have been certain aspects of the previous Dragon Master that we could never quite match. This is just my fumbling attempt to close the gap. And all the better if it lets me slay a few monsters."
Drake. That piqued Ash's interest.
Lance clawed his victory from Drake years ago. Apparently, the battle with Champion Marcus, Lance's predecessor, had hardly been a warm-up compared to that fierce clash of the titans. No Champion-level trainer could ever be called anything resembling weak, but Lance and Drake were true monsters.
"Well, we can't wait to see it in action," Ash said. Infernus nodded eagerly along with him, already raring to go. Maybe Ash could convince Lance to release Magnus for a quick spar before he left.
Ash's eyes immediately strayed to the large digital clock which was stationed over the entrance. He exhaled in relief when he saw a few minutes to spare, but felt a surge of disappointment wash over him when he realized he'd have to leave Lance.
"You look like you have somewhere to be," Lance said knowingly. He patted Ash's shoulder. "Don't worry about me, Ash. I was hoping to bother Steven tonight anyhow. I can't wait to see the look on his face!"
"Take a picture for us," Ash said. "He's at the Contest Hall with Wallace, I think. But I'd watch out. I'm pretty sure Steven wants payback for the whole sex talk thing."
Lance let out a booming laugh. "Ha! Well, I probably deserve it. I won't make it easy on him. I'll just have to get Claydol on my side—Steven and Metagross would just take a brute force approach. Claydol? It might try to traumatize me for a good laugh."
"Good luck," Ash said, then added a touch regretfully, "I do have to get going, though. Are you going to stay for long?"
The Indigo Champion shook his head ruefully. "I'm afraid not. I'll stick around for a day or so, but I don't feel comfortable leaving for long. I know Karen, Will, and Koga have things well in hand, but we also have a thousand-year-old Rhydon who can bring down mountains sitting beneath the Plateau right now, and we still don't know whether we should be more afraid of him or Chinatsu."
"Do you really think Mamoru is going to cause trouble?"
Lance brushed a few specks of dust off his uniform. "He's already caused plenty of trouble," the Champion said. "But no, I doubt he'd do anything to harm the Plateau. Mamoru is a warrior, but from what little I know he is utterly devoted to the First. He wouldn't tarnish his legacy. Us, though? I don't know."
Ash nodded along.
"Now get going!" Lance laughed. "Go on! I've already had a chance to celebrate the new year with the Elite Four. You shouldn't be training on a night like this. Have fun! Celebrate the last hours of 999 with some friends. Like you said, it'll be a new millennium tomorrow."
"Technically, your boss is telling you to go relax for a bit!" Lance declared. The Champion waved to Ash's team as they were quickly returned, anticipation filling Ash's chest. "Go on, Ash. I'll try to see you off tomorrow. I'll probably stay for a bit of the Wallace Cup to make an appearance. We'll see each other again."
He nodded again, surprised Lance with a quick hug, and dashed out of the Ranger facility to dark skies, brilliant flashes of fireworks, raucous cheers from the revelers spilling throughout the streets, and the happy cries of pokémon and humans alike in the distance.
Brightly lit stalls had been erected everywhere the eye could see, manned by smiling workers, and the scent of the sea filled his nostrils alongside the sweet smell of candy and succulent street food. Ash's mouth watered just thinking about it, his fullness from La Perla forgotten.
Now to find his friends…
The night was no night at all. Lilycove was alive and swollen with humans and pokémon alike, all eager to share in the celebration of the new year. Battles raged in impromptu facilities on every corner, every restaurant and bar was filled to bursting, and great swarms of Illumise and Volbeat performed light shows in the sky above for everyone to admire.
Ash had been loath to leave Lance behind, but he was happy to reunite with Daisy, Lisia, Dawn, and Flannery all the same. They'd spent their afternoons watching the Wallace Cup and exploring the city (and gorging themselves on snacks and soda all the while) before meeting him, but now they were happy to show Ash around the city.
The streets were so congested with revelers that few managed to recognize any of the famous figures that walked amongst them, but every now and then they got a double-take or two.
Ash enjoyed the relative anonymity. He wouldn't mind having Bruiser out to part the thick crowds with his enormous bulk though.
Few people were outright rude about it, there were just that many people around, and Flannery was, frankly, the tallest of their little entourage by a few inches, which still wasn't saying much.
Most of his (conscious) team had elected to go explore on their own, although they all had plans to meet back up at the Pokémon Center before midnight. Ash had his own plans for what came next. He was sure that his family would be fine—Seeker had elected to ride along on his shoulder, initially quailing beneath the throngs of people but soon taking pleasure in the bustle, and Dazed was back in her Pokéball. She'd insisted on joining him in case anything…unfortunate happened.
They were only one for one with festivals, after all.
She was never one for crowds, anyway. This was probably the most people they'd been around since the Indigo Conference.
"Just remember that you owe us a Contest!" Daisy shouted into his ear. "So inconsiderate of you to dip out last time!"
Lisia nodded fervently by Daisy's side. The motion sent her turquoise curls bouncing.
Speaking with Wallace had highlighted just how similar the two of them were; those were some strong genes. Lisia's face was softer and her eyes were lighter, but beyond that, they could have been father and daughter rather than uncle and niece.
"So sorry I had to go deal with the Greenfield Disaster," Ash said, rolling his eyes. "I'll try to keep my priorities straight next time. You realize that's the tenth time today that you've reminded me of that, right?"
"You do that!" Daisy sniffed. "And I'm just making sure it makes it through that thick head of yours. Can you blame me?"
Seeker squeaked angrily at Daisy, chattering as viciously as she could at the Oak, and Ash affectionately popped her a little bite of pastry he'd been saving for her. Daisy blanched, her eyes locking on the tiny Zubat with a faraway look, and Ash sent her an odd glance.
She recovered quickly, although her mood seemed to droop like a wilting flower.
"Just battle me instead! That'll settle your debt." Flannery pumped her fist, entirely oblivious to the reaction.
Her mouth was completely filled with some horrifying mix of cotton candy, ziti noodles, chocolate, and one of her hometown's famous Lava Cookies, so every word was barely audible.
A few onlookers watched her with a mix of awe and disgust. Mostly disgust.
Ash just laughed with her, especially as Daisy and Lisia wheeled on her with affronted expressions.
"No it won't!" Lisia argued. "You two battle, like, every other day. Aren't you bored of it by now?"
"Battlers." Lisia huffed. "This might be our only chance to get Ash into a Contest. Don't you want to see it?"
Flannery took a long draw from the energy drink she carried with her. She'd expressed her determination to make it all the way until dawn. "I'd rather kick his ass."
Lisia just groaned. "Dawn, see what we have to deal with? Please follow in your mom's footsteps. Don't let this barbarian corrupt you with her ill-manners and questionable hygiene."
Flannery flicked Lisia in the back of the head. "Hey! My hygiene's just fine, thank you very much. My city is famous for its cleansing, relaxing, luxurious hot springs. Didn't Sootopolitans used to think that water was cursed and their fashion was to bathe once a year, or something?"
"That was just a phase!" Lisia retorted a little too quickly. "And one that happened more than three centuries ago, besides. They were a little…avid in their devotion to our founding myths. How did you even hear about that?"
The Gym Leader shrugged as they slipped through a big huddle of drunk trainers furiously debating over whether Ash could have won the battle against Wallace. Some of their opinions left Ash smiling, even if he was careful to avoid showing his face.
"I was flipping through some old journals from a Lavaridge general," Flannery said lightly. "He said Sootopolis reeked. The ocean smells bad enough, but apparently your ancestors were even worse."
Lisia had no clue how to respond to that, but fell into an impassioned defense of Sootopolis regardless, even if Ash knew Flannery was just having fun winding her up.
He glanced at Dawn, who was obviously flagging after the long, exciting day. He didn't hold it against her. She wasn't used to pushing past her limits like the rest of them, and unlike the likes of Flannery, she'd (mostly) shunned the sugary energy drinks and snacks.
Dawn's dark blue hair was mussed and frizzy from the humidity, falling out of the ponytail and sticking to her neck uncomfortably. Someone probably had warned her of the heat, thankfully—she'd shown them some pictures of a few other cities she'd visited with her mom, and in every one she wore a warm-looking beanie cap—but she still wore too many layers. The vest at least, while fashionable, was probably suffocating, and her shoes were obviously made for insulation, not breathability.
It must have been a nasty shock coming from frigid Sinnoh to the muggy shores of Hoenn. Ash could only sympathize and wonder how Glacia dealt with it.
She wouldn't last much longer before passing out, even if the girl was doing her best to push sleep away. Dawn was having fun, though, and he didn't want to take that from her.
Ash took advantage of Flannery and Lisia's bickering and Daisy's brief silence to offer Dawn a an extra candied fruit that an excitable shopkeeper had practically demanded Ash take. "Want this one? If I eat any more I'll explode, and this is too big for Seeker."
Seeker chattered in agreement—she'd already had a fair attempt at it, and all she'd accomplished was smearing her fur with sticky sugar. That was going to be a bitch to clean up later.
The sleepy girl blinked, then smiled at him. "Sure! Thanks, Ash."
He passed the treat over, but channeled Lightning as he did so.
Awaken, Ash urged. Invigorate. Surge.
"Ow!" Dawn yelped as she took the offering. Any trace of drowsiness was long gone thanks to Ash's 'help'. "You shocked me!"
"Oops, sorry about that." Ash tried to sound sincere. He'd just barely channeled Lightning and Dawn had no further complaints after the fact, too happy with her new source of sugar to think much of it. "Must've been standing too close to Oz earlier."
"No need to worry! I don't mind at all actually, I think it woke me up a little!" Dawn said, each word rapidly coming out faster than normal. Then she proceeded to systematically annihilate the fruit. Ash was genuinely impressed with the ferocity she displayed.
Maybe Lightning had something to do with it, but Ash suspected she was just very, very happy with the candied treat.
She blinked a few times. "Wow, that's good! Hey, could I meet your Sneasel later? He's just the cutest little fluffball I've ever seen and my mom and I think he's a precious sweet baby and I want to pet his belly—"
Ash blinked back at her, wondering if he'd overdone it. The avalanche of words spilling out of Dawn's mouth was intimidating in its simple volume, and she showed no sign of stopping soon.
Maybe he should've toned it down even further than he already had…
They all stopped as they passed by a little plaza full of partiers. Fireworks crackled overhead, casting brilliant flashes above the crowd. Seeker squeaked from atop Ash's head, full of cheer now that the explosions were little more than background noise. Anyone who trained regularly around Infernus couldn't be too afraid of a little fire.
Ash half-expected to be the one being called out (and after a moment he heard a few quiet gasps go up amongst the trainers and revelers in the little market), but this time the culprit was a tall teenage boy with a straw cap who came stumbling forward as though he'd stolen a few spirits.
It was hardly unheard of. The League did its best to educate maturing trainers about alcohol, but they didn't see much point in policing them, content to leave such issues to the local police if trainers grew rowdy.
"Hey you!" the boy repeated indignantly. "Yeah, you!"
Their group exchanged glances, well-aware that it could apply to any one of them. The boy's eyes were somewhat unfocused, and his pointing finger wavered precipitously back and forth.
Well, except Dawn, who eeped and hid behind Daisy. Naturally, Daisy stepped to the side and happily tugged Dawn forward back into the spotlight over her fervent (and energetic) protestations, although the boy paid her no heed.
One of Ash's hands drifted towards Dazed's Pokéball. She'd appreciate a good scrap right about now. All she had to do was imagine the boy as Mathéo and their accoster would soon find himself pounded into the dirt.
Ash really hoped he didn't try to bring out a Wailord or something. Aside from the obvious logistical concerns of releasing such a massive creature in a cramped space full of people, he was pretty sure Dazed would have no problem taking a bit of revenge by proxy.
It turned out that there was no need to worry.
"Not you, Ash Ketchup!" he declared. Flannery sniggered at Ash's side. "YOU!"
His bleary eyes continued to stray between their group, but eventually settled on Flannery.
This was delightful news for her. She jabbed a thumb at herself with a wide, challenging grin.
"Me?" she asked. The boy nodded ferociously. "What's up, dude?"
"You…You beat me in a battle last week!" He jabbed an accusing finger at her even more aggressively. "Ignobly!"
Flannery's eyes lit up. "Oh yeah, I did! You had the…uh, Roselia, right? The one that Piper blew up? That was a fun one! Lava is badass."
"That's right. You humiliated my team!" the boy shouted above the din of the crowd. A few of his friends shared a few words, sending nervous looks at Ash.
He smiled back easily at them. They didn't need to worry about any trouble from him.
Flannery was the one they should be concerned with. She could take care of herself, though Ash would happily throw his precious hat in the ring if the teenager tried anything untoward.
"Aww shucks, it wasn't that bad," Flannery said comfortingly. "You went 6-1, but it could've been worse. You could've faced Grandpa—uh, Leader Moore. Then it would've been 6-0. Wouldn't that have sucked?"
The boy's face twisted at Flannery's poor attempt at diplomacy. Fino had a long way to go on that front, Ash supposed.
Ash and the others all tensed as the teenager went for a Pokéball, missed once with his clumsy fingers, and then released a lanky Meditite who offered up a lazy wave. It seemed at ease with the massive crowd gathering around them.
"Uh, Angelo? I don't think this is a good idea…" A girl behind him said from behind him.
"You might've beaten my team, but I have a challenge you'll never be able to conquer!" Angelo declared. "Victory shall be ours!"
"Oh really?" Flannery's eyes blazed with excitement. Her fingers clawed at Piper's Pokéball. Ash had spent enough time with Flannery to know her team's Pokéballs just from their worn grooves and faded colors, but Flannery also made it pretty easy on him. Piper's ball was adorned with a smiling chibi Torkoal. "Bring it!"
"Oh no…" Lisia groaned while Daisy and Ash egged Flannery on.
"Meditite challenges you—" Angelo declared to the crowd, who watched on with loud anticipation, "—to an arm wrestling contest!"
Ash blinked as Meditite offered a lazy thumbs up.
"You're on!" Flannery roared without a moment's hesitation. She met the lanky Meditite's eyes and grinned radiantly, blazing like the sun. "You ready for this?"
Ash smiled at her. This sort of thing was why they were friends.
Meditite laughed silently, motioned to a nearby table, and slid into a spot that a cheering reveler happily vacated. Flannery leapt its way and took position even as Ash and the rest followed, laughing amongst each other. Seeker chattered loudly in encouragement.
A few trainers went silent as Ash passed, none daring to say a word. He did his best to keep a low profile, but the Wallace Cup had only cemented his reputation in the world's eyes. That was going to be obnoxious to deal with, even if he'd grown somewhat accustomed to the attention.
"Wow, this is so weird and I don't really know what to do when everyone is watching us—what do I do with my hands?" Dawn stammered at that same rapid-fire pace. She fidgeted with every step, twitching like Jon used to in school. "There are so many people and I know they aren't really watching me but it feels like they're watching me and wow Flannery's hair is so pretty and why am I talking so much? It feels like I just chugged a million sodas!"
Ash steadfastly ignored that last part and just silently prayed that Dawn wouldn't be up all night thanks to the little jolt he'd given her. He'd only intended it as a pick-me-up… "You get used to it," Ash said. "Your mom's a famous Coordinator, right?"
"Yes, she is, but not like this, you know? She's regular, Sinnoh famous, not internationally famous. People know her and we get swarmed on the Contest circuit, but we don't have a million people coming up or noticing us in public like you and Lisia get. Maybe when she was younger, but not now, and I hope she doesn't hear that I think she's old because that's going to make her really sad because she found a grey hair the other day and a wrinkle last week and—"
Daisy reached over and placed a steadying hand on Dawn's shoulder while Flannery and Meditite got situated. "Whoa there! Easy, girl. Your mom's gonna kill us if we bring you back like this. I might need you to run a few laps around Lilycove before we bring you back. Think you're up to the task?"
Dawn nodded excitedly. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I bet I could run so fast right now, like you wouldn't even be able to see me I'm so fast, and I could—"
'What the hell is wrong with her?' Daisy mouthed at Ash.
He did his best to look innocent, but he doubted Daisy would fall for it. Oaks were just too smart sometimes.
"I'm kind of offended that I'm not on your 'most famous' list," Daisy japed in an attempt to bring Dawn back to earth.
Dawn rolled her eyes at lightning-speed, apparently much too familiar already with Daisy's sense of humor to give her much of a reaction at this point.
"The world doesn't revolve around you, believe it or not," Ash said before Dawn could ramble on again. "But I know that must be difficult for an Oak to hear."
"As if!" Daisy turned her nose to the air and scoffed. "I'm a star and all you peasants are just little rocks orbiting my magnificent presence. You should be honored."
It was perhaps the most Gary-like thing that Daisy had ever said. Ash's lips quirked up in a smile as Lisia gagged beside him. Flannery was too busy setting herself up to arm wrestle the Meditite to pay them any attention, clasping hands with the pokémon and meeting its eyes with the kind of determination that came from extreme courage or extreme foolishness.
Ash turned his attention to her and cheered on with the rest as the struggle began. All eyes in the plaza turned towards Flannery.
Challenging a pokémon physically would've earned enough attention on its own, but plenty of people recognized Flannery's distinctive hair and hooted and hollered to support their favored battler. Flannery earned plenty of applause, but a few trainers still upset about their own losses eagerly cheered on Angelo's Meditite.
The battlers paid it no mind, eyes locked with each other. Meditite's crinkled at the edges; it was clearly enjoying itself. Occasionally, they darted over to Angelo, as though looking for something.
Despite the cheers of the onlookers and Ash's own quiet calls of encouragement, Flannery's face was almost as red as her hair, and beads of sweat dripped down her face. Unlike Meditite, she was throwing her all into the contest, encouraged by the competition and the simple heat of so many bodies pressed together in one place.
High peals of song and music filled the air as a few buskers wandered over and decided to add dramatic ambience to the scene.
"There's nothing you can do, Flannery!" Angelo laughed victoriously. He flung his arms out as if embracing the world. "It's almost over!"
Meditite held Flannery back easily, relying purely on the strength of its body rather than supplementing its might through psychic power. It didn't appear to be putting any notable effort in, content with enjoying the struggle. The creature seemed quite young, perhaps only a few weeks to a few months old.
"Meditite's power is unrivaled! The stars quake with his every thought! The earth shatters with his every step! Your noodly arms stand no chance against his might!"
"Noodly?!" Flannery squawked, huffing and puffing as she pitted every ounce of her strength against Meditite. The fighting-type smiled pleasantly at her, uncaring of his trainer's bluster. "I work hard for these cannons, dude!"
Ash slipped past the crowd and leaned forward despite Angelo's cries of interference. Flannery's face went even redder as he whispered into her ear. She was putting her heart and soul into winning this impossible battle, it was the least he could do to offer some additional incentive.
"Win this and I'll ask Infernus if he wants to fight for you in the Lavaridge Gym for a day or two. Just imagine the carnage!"
A voracious hunger like the gnawing tongues of flame filled Flannery's bearing.
"Use both hands if you wish!" Angelo cackled. Several of his friends scooted away from him as his laugh slipped into decidedly villainous territory. "Throw your whole body into it…if you dare! Nothing you do will make a—"
Flannery wasted no time and did just that. She shouted loudly enough to startle Meditite, then flung her entire weight into the table. Meditite was so strong (relative to Flannery, at any rate) that at first his thin arm barely budged, but the sheer surprise was enough to shatter his concentration.
The arm bent, then he seemed to recover, and Flannery's burst of inertia seemed to halt in its tracks.
Ash saw Meditite glance at his trainer then, however, and the pokémon appeared to come to a decision as a ghost of a smirk passed over his face.
With a last, heroic heave from Flannery, Meditite's arm slammed into the table, Flannery practically tackling the fighting-type off the bench and getting a faceful of dirt for her trouble.
She rolled herself upright and spat out a mouthful of dust to reveal her beaming face, to raucous cheering from the astonished crowd.
She offered Meditite a friendly hand up, which the bemused fighting-type took as the crowd roared their applause, with Ash, Daisy, and Dawn foremost amongst them.
Lisia politely clapped along, though she seemed utterly lost by the whole display.
"Good match! You've got a strong grip. I'm gonna bruise tomorrow!" Flannery eyed the red blotches on her hand happily. She patted Meditite on the back hard enough to make the little creature grunt.
He laughed silently alongside her, a secret joke hiding in his eyes. It seemed to note Ash's attention—psychics, for you—and winked at him.
Flannery, honor satisfied, wheeled back to look at Angelo, stuck her tongue out at him, and raised her fist to the crowd in victory.
Then she was immediately drowned as half a dozen other humans and pokémon surged forward, eager to challenge the Gym Leader in this new style of competition.
Ash laughed as Seeker fluttered over to Flannery's great mess of red hair and perched happily in her new nest, the best seat in the house.
He and Flannery had just enough time to share wild grins before Flannery met the first of her challengers.
Yes, this was a good way to spend the last night of 999.
Hours later, Ash found himself atop a hill just west of Lilycove proper.
He treasured his time with Flannery and the rest (and it had been hard to say goodbye, especially with Dawn practically quivering with pent-up energy), but there was only one group that Ash wanted to welcome the new year with.
His team lounged all over the hill, each relaxing or playing in their own way. While most clustered around Ash—particularly those who had been injured in the battle with Wallace—to receive all the adoration and attention they were due, Sneasel, Seeker, and Lairon dashed around in a game of tag.
Ash had had to run by the Pokémon Center to collect his injured teammates. While they were all beaten and bruised, none had been so badly wounded that he had to leave them. Most were heavily bandaged and feeling really, really good from the painkillers they were on, but pokémon were durable enough that they'd already managed to bounce back for the most part.
It would be a few days before most were ready to fight again, but lounging about on a hilltop snacking on the contents of four food stalls that Ash had essentially bought out and kept ready in a storage compartment wasn't too demanding.
They'd spent a few minutes celebrating their performance before they'd tired enough to relax. Ash still drowned them with lavish praise whenever a new thought crossed his mind, even despite Infernus, who turned his nose up and dove into his lava bath, watching the battlers with blatant envy.
He'd have to find Infernus a good fight soon. Melting a few skulls in the Lavaridge Gym wasn't going to do it for the Magmortar, though it might make him feel a little better.
Sneasel dashed around, cackling madly as he waved a crackling sparkler around that he'd stolen from some hapless trainer in the Pokémon Center earlier. Ash hadn't realized until they'd made it out here, but at least Sneasel hadn't tried to light it in the Pokémon Center; afterwards he'd dashed up to Infernus in a haze of swirling icy air, swiped the sparkler against his fiery skin, and gleefully ran away with his new toy.
Nurse Joy somehow managed to get a sparkling blue party hat onto Sneasel during his check-up, which he seemed to have claimed as a badge of honor. It was a worthy trophy for his efforts.
Lilycove was alive in the distance, every street glowing with lights and cheer. Endless streams of fireworks crackled overhead, spilling smoke onto the horizon. The countdown would begin soon. A thrum of excitement pounded in Ash's chest—for a moment he swore that he caught sight of a golden dragon flying over the city, a whooping rider on its back, but then it vanished into the smoke.
"To the New Year!" Ash cheered, raising his glass of water to his team. It would have been a bit boring if you asked Gary or Lance, but who cared? He was with the people who mattered most to him. Sharing this moment with his team was all Ash cared about.
A chorus of roars, grunts, growls, gurgles, and squeaks greeted him, each as excited as he was. Nidoking stretched out happily behind Ash, acting as a very firm pillow as Ash reclined to watch the fireworks. Torrent was so exhausted that he didn't even bother levitating for once, instead wrapped up in a happy hug by Tangrowth, who'd just barely managed to regain consciousness.
Torrent wasn't Tangrowth's only victim: Dazed had managed to teleport out (much to Tangrowth's distress), but an irritated Plume, weary Bruiser, and a half-snoozing Oz had all been ensnared in his vines. A few other rubbery appendages attempted to snare Lairon as he skated through the air after Sneasel, but Lairon was having too much fun to slow down.
He'd already passed out a variety of soft drinks, flavored water, and lemonade for the team according to their preferences (Infernus had declined with something resembling a pout), and they all happily sipped on the treat alongside Ash.
Except for Dazed, naturally.
I'll experience it through each dream without the need for a face-gash. I consider myself the lucky one.
Ash cracked a smile and let everyone enjoy the moment for a time. After a minute or two he rose on exhausted legs. His friends had run him dry at the festival.
"Is everyone ready?" Ash asked quietly. The team went quiet. Even the wind stilled. All Ash could hear was the steady beat of his heart and the sizzling of Infernus' lava bath. They all nodded, though a few looked nervous. "Remember—feel. Embrace the memories, good and bad. Reflect on what we were, what we've become, and what we will be. We're each other's guiding lights, aren't we?"
A chorus of agreement.
"We just have to welcome one more to the team. It's been a long time coming, don't you think?"
Nidoking grumbled nervously and Seeker squeaked as she settled down atop Tangrowth's head, but Ash smiled comfortingly at them both. He rested a gentle hand on Lairon's twitching head as the steel-type came trotting up with a bundle of copper wire he was munching on.
"You don't have to be here for this, you know. It's okay to step back."
Not one of them budged. This was to be a new member of their family, after all.
They all steeled themselves, and Ash took a deep breath, before he unleashed Lotus.
The shadows grew darker, then colorless. Apathy washed over them, but they each stood still. Ash and Bruiser whispered encouragement to the rest, far more used to the power than the rest.
They weathered it. Better than Ash expected, honestly. He wondered whether Lotus' edge might have softened ever-so-slightly over the last few months.
Then Lotus lashed out, overwhelmed by the stimuli, both environmental and emotional, but they stood strong. Oblivion battered their minds, threatening to tip them into their abyss.
The team shivered.
None were lost.
Ash rose and trailed around the team, whispering to each.
He patted Nidoking, so familiar he didn't need to look to know how to avoid the poisonous barbs. "Remember meeting me in Pallet all that time ago? We were both so small, but felt like giants…"
Stroked Plume's crest. "You carried me through Zapdos' Storm and Articuno's Blizzard. Your flying puts them both to shame."
Pressed a hand to Torrent's armored chest. "You broke a Champion's cornerstone today. Be proud."
Squeezed Dazed's shoulder. "I'd have gone mad a long time ago without you. You devoured my darkest dreams."
Met Infernus's eyes, burning through the petty emotions to see the core of fire within. "You crushed Michael's Jolteon like a Caterpie. You rode his Salamence and pounded it into the dust. You made the gods bleed."
Rubbed the hairless scar that Seeker wore as a badge of honor. "You might be the smallest on the team, but you're the strongest of us all. Indomitable."
Took Bruiser's hand, and admired the control when his friend squeezed back. "Your body is the weakest thing about you. You've mastered your body, mind, and soul."
Accepted a hug from Tangrowth. "Buddy, you're the kindest soul I've ever known. When you master Perfect Regeneration, there's nothing in the world you won't be able to hug."
Scratched Sneasel's fuzzy throat. "You grow wiser with every passing day, but you've never lost your edge. I'm proud to have you stand beside me."
"Never content to wait," Ash brushed Oz's fur with his fingers, Lightning surged within as the deadly shock filled him with pleasant tingles. Her thick fingers clasped his forearm. "Storm Surge, the Electirizer…You have ambition. You take what you want, and I love that about you."
"You've faced this darkness before, remember?" His fingers lingered against Lairon's cool chassis as his friend shuddered. "You came out stronger than ever."
All of them weathered the storm of apathy. He never believed he could be more proud of them, but every time they surpassed his expectations.
Once the team stabilized, Ash looked at Spiritomb with a smile despite the phantasmal forces crushing against his mind. He uttered the only word that mattered in that moment.
And with that, the darkness receded for just a moment. Oblivion brightened ever so slightly. The Spiritomb's gaseous form, ever frozen in stasis, flickered just so slightly. Its green cinders flickered a little less violently.
"It's the new year," Ash said softly. "A new century. A new millennium. Look."
Its awareness stretched over Lilycove, taking in the painfully vibrant life, the scalding glow of the fireworks, the blinding cheer emanating from the city. Ash could tell that the Spiritomb wanted nothing more than to shrink back within its keystone and hide away from it all, sheltered from the brightness and light and feeling, all erupting forth like a volcano.
But there was a hungriness there that slipped past its armor of apathy. A desperation. A loneliness in spite of the hundred and eight souls which had been fused to form one.
The team's breaths hitched when Ash stepped forward, but he paid them no heed.
"You'll never be alone again," Ash said. "Not while we're around."
Lotus shuddered, flickering faster than ever, and the lavender smoke curled and writhed and twisted as though set aflame. A whirlwind of emotion battered them all, but they stood strong, centered in their own feelings.
Dazed's weary voice slid into his thoughts.
Ash checked his watch. "Five. Four. Three. Two. One…!" a massive burst of fireworks exploded above Lilycove all at once, impressive enough that even Infernus eyed them eagerly. The whole city seemed ablaze for a few seconds as the cinders rained down like fiery rain.
He'd never put much stock in the whole idea of intentional memory making; life was best enjoyed spontaneously, in his opinion.
But here, with the present company?
He kinda got it.
The Wallace Cup roared as the two Master Coordinators contended with each other in the arena below.
Ash didn't know either of them, but he knew Lisia would be abandoning the VIP box shortly to go make her preparations to face the winners. He admired her confidence; she didn't betray a hint of concern ahead of the fight, happily making color commentary alongside Daisy.
Flannery, naturally, looked up at Lance adoringly. If she'd been starstruck by Steven when they'd first arrived in Lavaridge, then she was absolutely in awe of Indigo Champion Lance, the Dragon Master who had struck down the legendary Drake Teach.
He was happy to let them carry on their own conversation, it didn't really concern him.
Flannery rambled excitedly to the champion about how awesome the battle with Aron had been back in Forina—more excited than anyone had a right to be about the little Aron knocking her Camerupt out with a Headbutt—while the Champion watched the displays and listened with half an ear.
That concerned Ash a bit more, but not quite enough that he was interested in missing the action below.
The sheer control on display was mind boggling. Quite a few of the Coordinators' techniques wouldn't be practical in a real battle, but for a display like this, they were brilliant. None held a candle to Wallace's effortless theatrics, but Ash was impressed nonetheless.
"Did you see Dawn eat anything strange last night?" Joanna whispered to Daisy, who shifted guiltily in her seat as they both cast a sideways glance at Dawn, who was finally flagging from last night. She was still vibrating in her seat, but had stopped chattering a while ago. "I don't think I've ever heard that girl talk so much in my life."
Ash felt a bit guilty, but she seemed to have had a fantastic night. There were rings under her eyes like the dark patches of a Zigzagoon.
"—and you should have seen the fight with Grandpa!" Flannery exclaimed to Lance, who looked more than a little amused at her enthusiasm alongside Fino. The Indigo Champion sent Ash a smile even as he gently scratched behind Gabite's skull appendages. Gabite watched the Contest with fascination. "So many explosions! Lucille was throwing fire everywhere, and Plume was going crazy and dodging it all, and then I was freaking out because Ash actually managed to win—"
Ash flushed a little, but felt a surge of pride nonetheless. Sneasel flopped over in his lap, demanding more dangerous belly scratches. He was happy to oblige him.
As Flannery continued her epic tale, Steven and Wallace went still in their midst. Their genial conversation and commentary came to an immediate close. Ash didn't miss their earpieces flash briefly. Wallace had been using his to coordinate a few of the efforts around the Cup, but Ash grew even more concerned when Metagross' eyes flashed a violent blue.
Flannery, Fino, and Lance were quick to catch on as well. They immediately slipped into business mode, all cheer forgotten. None reacted too dramatically for fear of the cameras focused upon them catching some sign that something was wrong, but all waited for more news.
"What is it?" Ash murmured to Claydol, who spun cheerfully to Steven's left.
The construct's familiar mind brushed against his own.
It seems our vigilant security officers caught a few ne'er-do-wells up to some mischief! The little scamps were attempting to set up a Distortion Field around the stadium, and a few others were apprehended with pyrobombs in storage compartments. Presumably the last part of their plan was to be violently murdered by the three Champions lazing about.
Violently murdered? Was there any other sort? The bizarre thought ran through Ash's mind even as the logical part of him spun with possibilities.
Oh, you'd be surprised. Poison, a gentle nudge out a window…There are all sorts of creative solutions to the problem of life.
"There are concurrent attacks occurring throughout Hoenn," Steven whispered, a grim look upon his face. "No severe casualties yet, but enough to force us into action. We," he indicated Metagross, "hypothesize that they're taking advantage of the celebrations and the Wallace Cup itself. We're stretched thin, and Wallace and I are both known to be in one place."
I still have concerns about the execution, but thank goodness there's some excitement. Contests are so dreadfully dull!
"That's enough!" Steven hissed through gritted teeth, even if he did his best to appear calm. None of the League members betrayed any concern after that initial flicker, although the civilians were starting to realize something had gone wrong. "Lives are at stake. Don't make light of the situation."
For once, Claydol remained silent. To Ash, at least. Who knew what telepathic communications he maintained with the others.
Wallace shifted in his seat, one of his hands drifting down to the incomplete rows of Pokéballs on his belt. Ash felt a surge of irrational guilt for their battle yesterday—Champion Wallace was still a terrifying force in battle, but he would be far from his best with so many teammates exhausted or trapped in the League's medical facilities.
The Ever Grande Champion had handily won their battle, but Ash's team had fought brutally. They'd had to.
But their battle had exhausted a fair portion of Ever Grande's greatest protector's strength.
Claydol's eyes flashed, then Fino and Flannery bid stiff goodbyes and left for the private room behind Wallace's VIP box. Ash had no doubt that they teleported away within seconds to steward their territories.
Ash met Steven's flinty eyes. He felt the connection form, knew all of the raging emotions held in check by iron discipline and Metagross' cold logic, and pressed forward. The former Champion gasped as he felt it take shape, then blinked as Ash pressed his own tangle of thoughts and feelings forward, willing Steven to recognize his willingness to help.
"I—no," Steven shook his head. "We need you to stay here. Look at all these people, Ash. They need a protector. Lilycove hasn't reported any other attacks, but what happens when we leave? Our attackers wanted to trap us here. If there are spies present—or even watching the Cup—they'll know the moment we depart. They might take any opportunity to cause chaos. We have Rangers and ACE overseeing the security, but we need you to be their anchor should anything."
Ash hesitated as he scanned the rest of the VIPs—Daisy, who was wringing her hands, Lisia who continually glanced at Wallace with clear worry, and Joanna and Dawn who looked more confused than anything. There were a few others that Ash didn't know, primarily friends and supporters of Wallace, who shared that sentiment.
They all looked antsy as the coiled energy of the League members radiated outward, different than the vague anxiety that had been present from the very beginning when Steven released Metagross into the stands to join them in watching the Cup.
Daisy was especially pale. Her eyes tracked Ash's every movement, and though she was apparently trying to maintain appearances for the viewing cameras, Lisia had clearly picked up on her concern. The dressed-up girl kept up a stream of constant chatter and commentary to her friend in an attempt to calm her, though Ash couldn't make out anything but soothing murmurs.
It destroyed him to turn away from the fight, but he nodded. "I'll stay."
Wallace and Steven were far more powerful than he was, even with Wallace's weakened team, and he couldn't let them go into battle with a scrap of hesitation in their hearts.
By remaining here, he would unshackle the Ever Grande League's greatest protectors.
A familiar voice—Steven's voice, but bereft of warmth and cold as the steel he'd mastered—whispered into his thoughts, though he detected an undercurrent of discomfort. Fear, even, bleeding into dread at Ash's close proximity.
Metagross' red eyes flashed.
Do not hesitate. Kill any who threaten Lilycove's peace. Dead enemies will never trouble us again.
Ash nodded stiffly at the harsh words, although he was honestly just reeling at the realization that Metagross had actually talked to him for once, before Steven returned Metagross. Wallace and Steven rose elegantly as one, made a show of chatting amicably despite the tight lines on their face, and drifted away into their private room.
"Some vacation this turned out to be," Lance muttered to himself. There was death in his eyes, an indignant fury at the threat to the innocents in the stadium. He recalled Gabite, then turned to Ash. He softened a tad at the fierce energy coiled up in Ash like a rearing Arbok.
Lance set a comforting hand on Ash's shoulder and met his eyes. "You're their shield. Remember that—Metagross might be logical, but they don't have much of a heart. Let the League be the sword. Don't take that upon yourself."
"I'll protect them all," Ash swore, and Lance smiled at him. "No harm will come to anyone in this stadium, I promise."
"Just do your best. That's all we ask. You won't be alone," Lance said. A glint of Fire flickered beneath his sleeve as subdued wrath blazed in his eyes. "It's time. They know Hoenn's Dragon Master well. Let's see what they make of Indigo's!"
And with that, Lance swept away. His cape fluttered behind him as if he were some hero out of a story book. Some of the audience noticed the departures and pointed, suddenly distracted from the magnificent display of color and light put on by the Coordinators.
"What's going on?" Daisy hissed into his ear. Joanna had taken it upon herself to distract Dawn by breaking down the Master Coordinators in fantastic detail (Ash regretted not getting to listen more closely) but one of Daisy's hands reached out to cling to Ash's forearm with a death grip. "Are you leaving again?"
He shook his head and paused to bat away Sneasel's paw as he uncommittedly swiped at Daisy. "I'm staying right here," Ash assured her, and that seemed to ease Daisy's anxiety.
She looked like a scared little girl at the hard faces of the Champions, and he took a moment to wave up at the audience as if nothing in the world was wrong.
Ash dearly hoped the day would prove him right.
Hours passed in a blur.
Ash was relieved that there wasn't even a single threat to the Wallace Cup after the initial threat…minus the speeches he'd had to give in Wallace's place, anyways. It was more than a bit odd taking over for the Ever Grande Champion (and dealing with the people who recognized that something was off) but Ash couldn't help but smile at the raucous cheers he'd been greeted by.
His battle with Wallace had made quite the impression.
Giving an impromptu speech or three was absolutely dreadful, but a few nervous organizers fed him the necessary words through an earpiece and psychic connection. Quite a few of the actual Coordinators looked a bit miffed that a mere battler had taken such a prominent role in the Wallace Cup, but there was nothing he could do about that.
He'd done his best. They'd just have to deal with it.
The day had been long, full of anticipation, and dreadfully tense, but Ash had been dismissed by the local ACE lead and was now back in Steven's quarters in a League facility. The League had mobilized effectively to fight on the mainland, which was really only possible because the archipelago was left more-or-less untouched.
Lance had seen to that. He'd dispatched his team to roam the skies and maintain order. Few dragons could cover hundreds upon hundreds of square miles in a day, but thanks to the coordination and reconnaissance provided by the League, Lance's team was able to pull off the feat.
Ash adored Hoenn's vast island chains, but there was no denying that the most valuable tactical targets for any criminal laid in the great cities sequestered on the mainland. Rangers and police had picked up a few agents in Lilycove who were currently undergoing interrogation.
The fact that surveilling psychics had managed to detect their thoughts before any action could be taken was all that had spared the event, it would seem. Sheer dumb luck.
Ash turned to face the source of the clumsy teleportation, half-expecting to see Will falling flat on his face. Instead he saw Steven stumble forth with Juliet sagging behind him. She was plainly exhausted by the multitude of jumps she must've made today, and Ash was quick to pull out a cozy chair with a soft grey cushion for her spindly form to collapse into.
"Steven!" Ash cried. Bruiser moved to grab him, but thought better of it. "Are you okay?"
Steven was a wreck. His silver hair was wild, his suit jacket was disheveled, and dark rings hung suspended beneath his eyes like black sickles. The Master offered just a sparse nod before he fell face first into the couch.
It wasn't much, but over the next minute or so, Ash quickly gathered up some water, coffee, and a few bagels that he'd snagged from the cafeteria in case his team wanted a snack. Food was fuel at this point, and Steven needed a lot of it.
They were old and slightly stale after a few hours of sitting around, but Ash suspected that Steven wasn't in a position to complain. He scarfed them down with a speed that would've impressed a Snorlax. Lairon warbled happily in support, then tore into a hunk of scrap iron that Ash had tossed him earlier as if trying to support Steven in his own way.
Steven groaned loudly into a grey pillow that he pulled over his face and laid limply on the couch for a time, likely just grateful to be off his feet.
"Attacks all over Hoenn!" He exclaimed after a few seconds, muffled beneath the pillow pressed against him. Steven sounded horribly exhausted, worn down by the long day. "League outposts struck. Corporate offices pillaged! LaRousse, Rustboro, Mauville…Seemingly every prime target in Hoenn blitzed!"
"Rustboro—they hit Devon?"
Steven nodded miserably beneath his pillow. He tensed at the mention of Devon, and turned away from Ash.
"What happened? Is your family okay? Did anyone go after the colony?" Ash asked in quick succession.
"My family's fine," Steven said quietly. "Alive, at any rate. My Aunt Gloriana was injured, and two bodyguards were killed when they resisted the intruders. My father's Metagross protected the workers, but they stood no chance against Durand. We were lucky that simple destruction wasn't her goal, else she might have brought the whole office crashing down."
The Master's name struck Ash like a bolt of lightning. "Durand!"
He immediately sat up straight, but paused for a moment to let Steven know that he was glad that his family had escaped unscathed. His gut still twisted at the losses. "What was she doing in Devon?" Ash's eyes narrowed. "Did Aqua do this?"
"Corporate espionage is something of a hobby of hers," Steven sighed wearily. "Something to spice up her days. Durand struck twice: first at Devon, then in LaRousse. She was the spearhead."
"This isn't like her!" Ash growled. "Too blatant."
Steven arched an eyebrow. "I didn't realize you knew Jacqueline Durand so well, Ash. But yes, you're correct. It's not her usual modus operandi."
"I've read her file," Ash said defensively. "I've spoken with her twice now. She seems more like a knife in the shadows as opposed to a wrecking ball. I wouldn't think she'd want this sort of heat."
"We're still gathering evidence, but Metagross and I doubt that Aqua played any significant role in this affair. Durand's ideals may lie with them, but she's a free agent. From what little we know of Magma, this sort of espionage seems more in line with their philosophies."
"What was the point of all this?" Ash inquired. "It can't be simple terror. They're not Rockets."
"What is it?" Ash pressed.
"Quite a few of those we've arrested have been Rocket-affiliated," Steven said carefully. Ash's hands balled into fists as white-hot fury overtook him. They'd broken them beneath the League's fist! Why couldn't the Rockets just skulk into the shadows where they belonged? "Patsies, we think. Desperate people sent into unwinnable battles without knowing what they were running into."
"Fodder, just like they deserve."
"We don't want to leap to conclusions, but thus far it seems as if most were promised protection if they fought for a 'mysterious organization,'" Steven shook his head in disgust. "It was well done, if nothing else. All of Hoenn hates the Rockets, and that includes the underworld. The Rocket remnants might be experienced fighters, but anyone who adopted them would have a target on their back. They were desperate, and whoever was behind this attack utilized that."
No one appreciated competition, especially not the sort brought in by the Rockets. The Rockets fled to Hoenn primarily from Indigo and had been hunted relentlessly ever since. They'd taken the nastiest jobs, committed the vilest actions, and threatened anyone they had to in order to eke out an existence in this hostile new land.
Worst of all, they brought heat down onto the existing status quo; Hoenn might not have been Indigo, but it certainly learned from Indigo's failures in that regard.
It hadn't won them any friends. Ash had lost himself in enough reports to recognize that.
"So someone—presumably Magma—adopted them, then turned them loose against hardened targets. They get a disposable force, and purge their ranks of Rockets at the same time. Fine, makes sense, but they could have done that a hundred different ways. What did they gain from all this?"
Steven peeked out from beneath the grey pillow just long enough for Ash to catch his grimace. "More than I'd like. Devon's most secure projects are protected in vaults, but certain materials were stolen or sabotaged, setting them back weeks, if not months. They retrieved several Mega Stones we were studying as a method of generating energy, but Ash…" Steven hesitated, his face ashen with sorrow. "One team ransacked the cloning facilities."
Fear flooded him. Ash stood ramrod straight. "Anorith?!"
His teacher was silent for a moment. "The team stole a dozen stable cloned pokémon. But as for those who were still in their development pods…They didn't make it. I'm sorry, Ash."
It took a moment for Steven's words to reach Ash.
He gasped, then collapsed into the couch beside Steven, staring blankly at the wall. Lairon plodded over to him, warbling with concern, and forced Ash's limp hand against his domed skull. The world seemed awfully distant all of a sudden.
Awfully dull, too.
Steven awkwardly pat Ash on the head. He barely registered the contact. "They made it in too easily. They slipped right in while Durand was battling my father, going right where they needed to be."
His eyes narrowed as that white-hot anger was stoked to an all-consuming blaze. "Sabotage?"
"Perhaps," Steven hedged, clearly reticent to even consider the matter. "None of my family would have reason to be involved, but there are a handful of board members who might have…sympathies. For the Magma agenda. It's possible that some information might have been filtered. I will be investigating such matters personally. I promise you that."
None of his family except for Pierce, Ash almost snapped, but stilled his tongue. Like he was one to talk, even if Giovanni was the farthest thing from his family.
He took a long look at Steven. Ash just now realized how terribly fragile Steven looked. Ash had never even been able to meet Anorith, but Steven? He'd commissioned the creature. It was a copy of his very own Armaldo, one of his most treasured companions.
Ash couldn't even imagine what the former Champion was feeling right now. It was like seeing a shadow of his own teammate slain. All Ash could feel was horror. Sorrow for an innocent soul and the tragedy of losing what might have been.
How would Anorith have liked the team? Would it have been a battle maniac like Infernus, or would Tangrowth's affection, warm and infinite as the sun, have won it over? Ash imagined the friendships the little creature might have made. The struggles they would have overcome together. The victories that they would have clawed from the jaws of defeat.
All dust in the wind.
He felt terribly hollow.
"Anorith was still in stasis," Steven said gently, though his words were raw with subdued grief. "Still unaware. She wouldn't have felt anything."
A knot formed in Ash's throat. "It's not fair. Anorith didn't deserve that."
"It's not," Steven patted Ash's head again, painfully uncomfortable even through Ash's haze. "Such things never are. That doesn't make it any better, though. I really am sorry, Ash. Those responsible have been detained. Several have already been given orders to the Trench."
"I hope the Warden takes good care of them." Ash hissed through his teeth, a dark vengefulness rising up like a black tide. His blood burned in his veins with rage. "And the rest?"
"I dispatched Metagross to the cloning facility while I cleaned up below. Several made the mistake of resisting arrest, I'm afraid."
A terrible shame, that. The only fate they deserved was to be locked in a room with Infernus.
His voice wavered. "Steven, that boy. Silver. Was he involved with any of this?"
Steven looked surprised. "Silver? No, there's been no trace of him. There have been scattered reports over the past few months, but it seems like he's been lying low. Why do you ask?"
"Just curious," Ash said, a taste of something like relief welling up inside. He'd put Silver out of his thoughts for a time, but the boy was his brother. His responsibility now that Giovanni was gone. And the thought of him somehow taking part in these vicious attacks would have sent him into a fury.
More of a fury.
Steven sounded utterly exhausted as they discussed a few more of the raids. He'd been teleported all over Hoenn, nonstop fighting all day, after waking early after a late night.
Once other criminal groups realized the opportunity, they'd made plenty of plays themselves, further overwhelming the undermanned League. Poachers struck en masse. Shady deals took place in every alley. Old debts were settled. Blood was spilled.
The Ever Grande League was strained to the breaking point, although Lance and Drake had almost single handedly managed the archipelago with their mighty dragons. Lance's wickedly fast fliers could easily patrol vast amounts of territory for a day or two, especially when guided by a handful of League coordinators, and Lance kept Lev and Mael with him to crush anyone who started trouble on the high seas.
That enabled the League to focus their efforts on the mainland. Otherwise the situation might have devolved entirely. Bruno taking a brief break from his vacation to step in and support the Ever Grande League had been quite the boon as well.
"You said Durand struck LaRousse as well, right?" Ash questioned Steven, who nodded in response. LaRousse was a bit like Mauville in that it was essentially a playground for new technologies. Wattson had spent years developing it before he returned to his hometown, and New Mauville was essentially everything that the Mauville Gym Leader had dreamed of LaRousse becoming.
LaRousse was also fairly close to Lilycove, more of a satellite city than anything, and fell under the same Ranger protection that had managed the great coastal jewel. It maintained fierce competition with New Mauville to this day as each attempted to develop greater and greater cutting-edge tech.
"Yes," Steven said tiredly. Lairon affectionately licked Steven's bare hand, and whined sadly when Steven yelped and tugged his hand away. Only Lairon's pitiful whines convinced Steven to scratch the steel-type's smooth head. "I'm going to investigate LaRousse tomorrow to check out the aftermath. She made off with quite a few of their Block Bots, apparently."
Ash nodded, pondering the act. Block Bots were one of LaRousse's most impressive new technologies—essentially nanomachines controlled by a collective of highly advanced Porygon integrated into the foundation of LaRousse's systems.
It didn't seem like something Durand would be able to make much use out of. Magma, on the other hand…
"Seven o' clock sharp," Steven said. "I'll see you then, alright? But I desperately need sleep."
"I understand," Ash said gently. "Is there anything I can get you? I could ask Dazed to help you sleep, if you like."
Steven paused. "I—thank you, Ash, but I think I'll make do. Metagross is capable."
Ash nodded and left the room. Juliet didn't need anything either, though she accepted the offer of a blanket when he proffered one regardless, and thanked him for the concern. Lairon plodded along forlornly, and Ash knew this was going to be a rough team meeting.
They needed to know that they'd just lost a friend they'd never made.
"Good night," Ash said, and swept out of the room.
He had his own demons to deal with.
LaRousse City was a gleaming monument to mankind's advancement. The technological haven was located at the confluence of a great river which poured into the Arisen Sea east of Lilycove. It was situated upon a great island around which the two rivers flowed and converged, connected to the mainland via a series of vast bridges and a monorail that encircled the city.
While LaRousse was only home to around a hundred thousand people, it clearly prioritized quality over quantity. Beneath the blue skies shone dozens upon dozens of white, futuristic skyscrapers which pierced high into the heavens. Greatest among them was LaRousse's high-tech Battle Tower, the foremost facility of its kind in Hoenn.
Ash admired its glassy spires with the utmost fascination. He'd received a number of invites to take place in exhibition bouts at the LaRousse Battle Tower, but his own training took priority at this point. Trainers from all over the world came to compete in its vast stadiums, which were modulated by LaRousse's advanced technology and teams of support pokémon to reconstruct various landscapes, scenarios, and weather conditions on the fly.
While the Battle Tower lacked the sheer size of the Ever Grande Stadium, it had pioneered dozens of techniques that Ash hoped to see replicated in battle facilities throughout the world. Even the occasional Nomad Master ventured forth from the wilds to accept the Battle Tower's invitations.
They were still trainers, after all, and any battle institution would pay a fortune to have a Master grace their halls. Some of the sums offered to Ash had boggled his mind, quite frankly. There were a lot of zeroes.
Ash had heard rumors of a new facility being constructed in the archipelago that would put LaRousse to shame, however: the Battle Frontier. He'd only read the occasional article on it, but from what he'd heard, it was designed to be an entire city in its own right, essentially a battling theme park where several Masters and high-tier trainers would settle down and make their permanent homes.
He couldn't imagine anything lovelier, although Ash didn't even want to consider the amount of money and resources required to keep so many mighty trainers in one place. Masters historically weren't the ruliest bunch, after all, and the League tended to snatch up all they could.
Staying in one place also meant stagnation, oftentimes, even for—especially for—Masters.
Right now, though, that was far from his mind, for LaRousse was in chaos.
Much of the damage from the previous day had been restored by swarms of the strange little Block Bots (well, the Porygon that commanded them, anyways), and even now thousands of the small robots hovered around to clean up debris, usher away curious onlookers, and otherwise assist the token League force in maintaining order.
Steven's lip curled as he took in the damage done to the Block Bot holding facility. Countless robots were stored here, although the bulk of them were going through maintenance cycles or simply held in stasis. Both Steven and Ash had already been cleared by the Porygon in authority. Their League credentials were already keyed into the system, and nobody was really in the mood for waiting, so it was a short process.
A dozen Rangers poked around the ruins of several broken buildings, sifting through every pile of scrap for any evidence. Twenty psychics—Gardevoir, Medicham, Kadabra, and Grumpig making up the majority—used their psychic perception to guide the Rangers and a few Vigoroth in their hunt.
Each Ranger and their teammates snapped Steven and Ash (mostly Steven) a salute as they strode by.
"Deplorable." Steven cursed as they strode through the twisted wreckage. The great steel doors which barred the Block Bot facility had been torn apart, not with pyrobombs or Hyper Beams, but rather by brute force. Ash spied the distinct imprint of enormous, meaty fingers upon the hinges.
They looked suspiciously like a large Slaking's. Had Durand evolved Vigoroth already? Perhaps she'd realized that she needed a bit more brute force on her side. Ash could only imagine what kind of challenge a Slaking trained by Jacqueline Durand of all people would bring to the table; probably something far more dangerous than the likes of Norman could rear.
Oh, he was hungry for it, there was no doubt. Ash couldn't wait to show her just how much they had learned in the last few months. His blood burned in anticipation.
His teeth grit together. Durand might not have been the one ultimately responsible for Anorith's demise, but he had a bone to pick with her regardless. She'd overstepped. More than that, she'd betrayed him.
It was odd to consider such a train of thought, but Ash thought he'd known her ideals. Yet she'd abetted murderers. Anorith wasn't a criminal, or a poacher, or a corrupt businessman.
Anorith was innocent, and Durand had played a part (albeit indirectly) in her death.
"Stretched so thin that we can't even protect our own cities!" Steven muttered to himself furiously, just low enough that nobody but Ash might overhear. He'd been in a foul mood all morning, though he never took it out on Ash.
He was bad at dealing with crises, but Ash appreciated that.
Both wrestled with the events of the previous day in their own ways.
It had been a long, long night for Ash as he gathered the team and they mourned their lost teammate. While the worst of the sting was blunted by the simple fact that they'd never been able to visit Anorith, it still ached terribly. Several had simply heard Ash out and moved on, pragmatic to a fault, but it had taken long hours of counseling with Tangrowth to ease the grass-type's distress.
Ash had expected death to be a difficult thing for Tangrowth to understand, but judging by Tangrowth's reaction he had far too much experience with it for Ash's liking. He'd sat curled up in a shell of gripping vines for hours before Dazed had finally lulled them both to sleep with her hypnotic pendulum.
"The Rockets are gone. It's only a matter of time before Magma follows suit," Ash said. Nidoking snarled his agreement beside him. He exchanged nods with a Ranger guarding the doors. The womans' beefy Hariyama clapped its massive hands together and dipped its head to them before letting them pass. "The League grows stronger every day."
True! And if things keep up, the Ever Grande League should be ready for our friend beneath Mt. Chimney to wake up in…oh, ten thousand years or so.
Nidoking's tail swept back and forth as he bared his fangs at the construct.
"Thank you, Claydol. Your optimism always brightens my day."
I am optimistic, aren't I? I'd actually give it somewhere between infinity and infinity plus one. You are but squishy mortals, after all. Except for Ash. He's just squishy.
"Enough!" Steven snapped. He motioned to a few black-clad figures waiting within the Block Bot facility. They were engaged in deep conversation with a stressed man with stark white hair. "We have company."
"This is outrageous! Our facilities are in shambles, crackling with that disgusting ghostly energy. This criminal has been running rampant in Hoenn for over a year, and now she has the gall to strike at our most precious jewel? Why haven't you apprehended her yet?"
The lead figure, an incredibly tall woman with pale features, paler hair, and an old-fashioned trihorn struck with the feather of a Honchkrow, was utterly unintimidated by the frustrated old man's ranting. An Aegislash hung silently over the woman's shoulder, standing vigil. It was black in color, having possessed a wicked-looking blade that seemed eager to be drawn.
Two trainers flanked her. The first was a muscular blonde man with a gleaming smile and a Donphan snoozing by his feet. He beamed radiantly at Steven and Ash and offered a quick salute, though he didn't disrupt the lead trainer.
Her second companion was an aging dark-skinned woman with fierce, wrinkled eyes. She appeared slender beneath her dark uniform and was lean and deadly as garrote wire. A Honchkrow perched upon her shoulder, though it shuddered as it laid eyes on Ash.
Something about the dangerous-looking woman reminded Ash of Agatha, though this sharp trainer seemed kinder than the Revenant Crone would ever allow.
Not that that was saying much.
The lead woman dismissed the old man with a glance (despite his affronted protests) and swept her cap off as she bowed deeply to Steven, revealing that her pale hair was done up in an intricate ponytail. Her face was regal and expressionless, though respect gleamed in her eyes.
"Champion Steven," she said with a thick Kalosian accent. Her fellow trainers copied her motion and paid their own respects. The woman's eyes flickered curiously to Ash, then widened almost imperceptibly in recognition. "Elite Four Ash. A pleasure. Hunter Squad E reporting."
Diantha's little gift to Ever Grande. It turns out that allowing a Master to escape after an assassination attempt on one of your own Elite Four is only somewhat embarrassing. Only somewhat, of course, because letting her run free to wreak havoc in everyone else's backyard is even more embarrassing. She's been trying to make it up to Wallace all year, although he doesn't exploit her nearly enough for my liking.
Claydol supplied helpfully.
"Captain Maria," Steven acknowledged the leader. "ASTRE Alfred, ASTRE Eileen. Report."
Ash eyed the Kalosian trainers with genuine interest, although Nidoking glowered at them all. He seemed unimpressed, although the Donphan, Aegislash, and Honchkrow all watched him warily. They dismissed Claydol, which was their real mistake.
These were the ASTRE trainers he'd read about, then.
Each League maintained their own elite forces. These stood head and shoulders above standard Rangers and police forces. While normal forces held and managed territory, the League's special units were the fist. Most were drawn from high-level trainers, such as those who could compete in the Top 128 and above in the Conference, or those who made a name for themselves on the Gym circuits. Others were elevated from the Rangers or the ranks of Gym Trainers after distinguishing themselves in service.
The National League had ACE to secure their vast territories. Unova had SEEK to hunt the frontiers in search of holdouts and fugitives from the last regime, and whatever other nuisances popped up closer to home. Kalos had ASTRE to shine their light upon the Lumiose League's foes. Galar had NOBLE to maintain order. Paldea had DELVE, who pierced farther than any others into the depths of the Great Crater.
Orre had whatever gallant madmen Michael was able to secure beneath his banner.
It was rare to send their best and brightest to a distant region. Diantha must have REALLY wanted to take down Durand, but there was no surprise there. The Rogue was a diplomatic incident waiting to happen, and that was being generous.
Really, she was a two time diplomatic incident and looking like she'd be running up a third any day now.
"Our investigation has confirmed that Durand was present," Captain Maria said, carrying herself with all the grace of a queen. Ash had no doubt that she was a scion of one of Kalos' great houses, though he lacked the knowledge on such matters to hazard a guess as to which one she was descended from.
"Eyewitness accounts and recovered footage from the facility corroborate initial reports. She arrived under a shroud of darkness—Distortional technique—and scrambled the majority of the cameras. LaRousse's unique state of technological development played in our favor, however. The whole city is monitored."
"Her assault revealed a change in her established team—" Alfred began, raking his fingers through his golden hair, before Ash interrupted.
"She has a Slaking now, doesn't she?" Ash questioned. He hoped he managed to hide his own excitement. Now that would be a worthy foe for Bruiser! Norman's Slaking pair couldn't handle him, but Durand's…
"Indeed she does," Alfred took no offense to being interrupted, though Steven frowned at Ash momentarily. "It was largely concealed by the darkness, but all evidence points to it being quite the potent specimen. Slaking tore right through these doors."
Eileen and her Honchkrow eyed Ash speculatively. "You're the one who faced her in the Pourifalli Atoll, yes?"
Steven stiffened beside him, but didn't intervene.
"Yes," Ash said simply. Neither Alfred nor Maria looked surprised. No doubt they'd been quite interested in the news. His battle with Durand had practically doubled the length of her file. She'd done a fine job of obscuring her team's capabilities before. "She's a slippery one."
"You're telling us!" Alfred barked out a laugh. "We've been hunting her for months now. Durand is a shadow. We've engaged her once, but she was quick to flee. She's no coward, but she's no fool either."
Ash looked at the ASTRE hunters with newfound respect. Any group dispatched to hunt a Rogue Master in relatively unknown territory was assured to be competent, but to face Durand without an overwhelming advantage spoke well of their abilities.
"There are more of us," Alfred said cheerfully. His Donphan curled back into a ball on the floor and snored loudly through its trunk. "They're leading a few teams now in search of her. We've discovered a few safehouses she might have stayed in, but—"
"Quiet, Alfred," Captain Maria said easily in her deceptively soft voice. Her Aegislash turned its dark eyes upon Alfred, who immediately shut his trap. Every word she spoke seemed to have been selected after the utmost consideration. "We've swept the city with the assistance of the Rangers and have confirmed that Durand has departed the area. A Block Bot caught footage of her Shadow Sneaking away once she recovered several specimens from the facility."
Steven frowned. Metagross' eyes flashed behind him. "Was she accompanied by any accomplices?"
Maria nodded. "Durand was accompanied by a lone figure—approximately one hundred and fifty centimeters according to footage, and based on the build we suspect them to be female, although all distinguishing features were concealed. We are unsure of her objectives, but we suspect an attempt to install malware in order to hijack the city's infrastructure based on tampering with some of the terminals. The LaRousse Porygon collective have confirmed that the attempt was a failure."
The former Champion's eyebrows arched. He glanced at the old man who had been arguing with Captain Maria previously. "There are plans to test them, correct? We can't trust that they haven't been compromised."
Ash saw a bead of sweat drip down the old man's forehead. "Of course, of course, Champion Steven!" He stammered beneath the collective weight of their attention. The man seemed particularly intimidated by Metagross, whose red eyes were cold as ever. "Porygon2 have already been dispatched from Indigo under the express orders of Champion Lance."
"Good," Steven said, and that was that. He looked back to Captain Maria. "Now, please inform me of—"
Footsteps behind them. Metagross' eyes actually revealed a hint of emotion for once: annoyance. Alfred grimaced. Eileen's lip curled back in disgust. Even the dignified Maria allowed her expression to betray her dislike.
"Well lookie here! Ain't this a treat? My favorite coworkers, Pretty Boy Steven Stone, and oh my stars, is that Ash Ketchum? It's our lucky day."
Dread pooled in Ash's stomach. He knew that voice. "Grey?"
"Call me George, you've earned that much," the Unovan offered as Ash turned around.
Ash didn't feel it was a compliment.
He looked the same as he had in the Indigo Conference: dark hair hidden beneath a worn, monocolor cap, dark, shifting eyes with a distinct emptiness behind them, and an infuriatingly cocky grin like a cross between a Gengar's fanged smile and a Sharpedo's toothy maw. He was lean, and wiry enough that he reminded Ash of an Ariados stuffed into a skin suit, although corded muscle made itself known with every motion.
Grey grinned at him nastily. He wore post-battle exhaustion better than he wore his victories in the Conference. "We beat the shit out of each other. That makes us old friends, don't it? I've still been chasing that high from our last fight. Things have been boring since we went at it! Remember that time that beaut of a Magmortar roasted my Eelektross alive? What a hoot."
Ugh. He hadn't missed the Unovan.
George Grey had posed a fine challenge, but his personality was evidently still grating, to say the least. Public defeat in front of an international audience obviously hadn't humbled that ego any.
That didn't matter to him so much; he'd dealt with insufferable personalities before. Bob and Sidney came immediately to mind.
It was Grey's casual dismissal of his own team that infuriated Ash the most.
It wasn't outright abusive—not that Ash had seen, anyway, beyond keeping Eelektross in the ring far longer than he should've—but the transaction-like nature of that relationship was disturbing. It had no place in Ash's philosophy of training, nor of any other respectable trainer he'd ever met.
"Been a while, Grey." Ash grunted. "What're you doing out here?"
"Taking in the sights like a good tourist," Grey drawled. "Saw that fancy challenge of yours, got interested, and booked myself a job. Never seen ole Grimsley sign off on a request that fast! Shame I missed the main event, but I've kept myself entertained."
He stepped closer, followed through the door to LaRousse city by Beheeyem. The alien's piercing emerald eyes strayed over Ash. A faint touch brushed against his thoughts and sent the creature reeling, spasming in the air.
Ash didn't feel guilty for once. He would've drawn up Ice or Fire to send the predatory psychic reeling, but that would've drawn too much attention.
"Well isn't that interesting?" Grey leered, blinking swiftly as the psychic feedback registered with him as well. The pain didn't seem to bother him much. "Hiding some secrets, boyo?"
Grey took another step forward, close enough now that Nidoking bared his fangs. Grey just leaned closer and laughed as Nidoking lunged at him with a guttural roar, his horn dripping deadly toxins, and the Unovan didn't blink at the deadly attack.
He just smirked as Metagross and Beheeyem caught Nidoking's enormous bulk with their psychic power, although Ash suspected Metagross just didn't want to have to live in Steven's head while he filled out the following paperwork.
"Now that's what I like to see! Your Magmortar's the real prize—deal's still on, by the way, let me know if you want a dumbass Hydreigon—but I wouldn't mind taking a crack at that one!" Grey stood confidently just an inch away from Nidoking's horn. Ash was so, so close to telling Nidoking to bust out their anti-psychic strategies. It would be satisfying to see that smirk wiped from Grey's face, although he suspected that Grey would get a kick out of being gored.
"Torrent beat your Hydreigon after less than a year of training. Why would I ever make that trade?" Ash said scornfully. There were a thousand and one other reasons why he wouldn't even consider the thought of sending one of his beloved family away, but Ash doubted Grey would understand anything beyond utility. "He was just a shadow of what he is now."
Grey looked absolutely delighted. "No shit! Maybe Hoenn ain't so bad after all, eh?"
"Operative Grey has been on loan as a contractor of the Vertress League for a few weeks now," Steven said stiffly. The Hunters still looked especially displeased at his presence. Ash thought Eileen seemed an inch away from murder. He doubted anyone would stop her. "He's had unique experience against Rogue Masters and has a well-proven track record in apprehending elusive fugitives—"
"Aww shucks, you're gonna bring a tear to my eye!"
"—despite the many black marks on his record."
"Ain't you a sweet one?" Grey waggled his eyebrows at Steven, who looked as though he'd rather be anywhere but here. "You sure do know how to butter someone up. And here I thought you didn't like me."
Steven massaged his temples. Ash was a little surprised Metagross didn't do it for him.
"Operative Grey," Maria managed to say with only a hint of the distaste she clearly felt, "has assisted us with our investigation thus far, while also providing additional services to the Ever Grande League."
Any muscle went a long way out here, but Ash felt a surge of pity for whatever Ever Grande forces ended up having to work with Grey. There was no doubt he was strong, that wasn't in question, but it still surprised Ash to hear that he'd experienced battle against a fellow Rogue.
Rogue Masters were rare by design. A trainer like Grey who'd reached the Semi-Finals of a regional Conference was a force to be reckoned with, but a Master? They could cause unbelievable damage. The League would go to any lengths to bring them in before they could grow stronger or make too much of a mess…up to and including hiring distasteful characters like Grey, Ash supposed.
Quite frankly, he didn't know whether it was more surprising that Grey had survived the encounter at all, or that he'd survived after he'd presumably demonstrated his full personality. He was only alive within this very conversation because the League adhered to an ethical guideline.
"You're hunting Durand?" Ash asked doubtfully.
Grey was good, but Karen would tear him apart. A seasoned killer like Durand should make short work of him, although he doubted that Grey would go in alone. Then again, Grey was probably just some extra muscle for when the Hunters tracked him down.
"You know it!" Grey snapped a mock salute. He eyed Ash ravenously. "You're a lucky man, you know that? I've been following her work for years and never thought I'd get the chance to face her. Then you come swinging in by and get to meet her twice! She's like a blender that met a hurricane of razor blades. My heart's fluttering just thinking 'bout that fight!"
Well, that was one thing they could agree on.
"You haven't seen everything I can do either," Grey said cheerfully, stepping back as Nidoking was unfrozen. "The Conference was a pretty little diversion, but wasn't really my speed. The money sure was nice, though."
A quick word from Ash kept Nidoking from going after Grey again, but there was still fury radiating off the mighty poison-type. His enormous tail swayed dangerously behind them.
"Not your speed?" Ash questioned incredulously. "You made it to the Semi-Finals!"
Grey's grin widened. "One-on-one is a little slow for my taste. Dontcha League-types know that teamwork makes the dream work? I'd gut you like a fat Red-Striped Basculin if we went toe-to-toe out in the wilds."
Nidoking and Ash both snarled at that. His hand strayed down to Infernus' Pokéball. His blood burned hotter than a volcano. Grey had no idea how strong his family had become! The Unovan was going to lead his team to their doom against Durand.
"Bring it!" Ash hissed, heedless of their surroundings. "Let's find ourselves a stadium and Infernus will roast you alive like your Eelektross, see how it feels when—"
Steven delicately coughed.
Ash immediately shut up, ashamed of losing his temper. Even Nidoking's softened his earth-rumbling growl.
Beheeyem looked utterly terrified of Ash, but its eyes blazed bright with psychic power.
"That's enough," Steven said softly. His voice carried the weight of the Ever Grande Champion. "Captain Maria, please send me your complete report when you finish consulting with Operative Grey. Ash, come along. We have business elsewhere."
"See ya around, boyo!" Grey waved Ash away, utterly unperturbed by the threat Ash had made.
He probably saw too many to be bothered by that sort of thing, not least from a twelve-year-old, no matter the qualifications. But that just told Ash that Grey couldn't have watched the Wallace Cup…Ash doubted it would have fixed the prick's attitude, but maybe Grey wouldn't have been so insufferably confident.
Beheeyem kept a healthy distance between itself and Nidoking as they passed by. Ash scowled at its trainer, even though he knew it just delighted the prick.
Grey turned to the Hunters with that same cocky smile. "I gotta say, Hoenn's been a treat so far! Durand's out chopping heads, Ash Ketchum is making a buzz, and there's more criminals than Hydreigon can shit out. Those Rockets sound like a good time. I've heard there's some cocky little redhead running around that needs a beatin'…"
Ash gnashed his teeth at the mention of Silver but obediently followed Steven out. He'd never regretted the Fortree Challenge for a moment, but if it had brought Grey here…Well, he still wouldn't regret it, because maybe he'd end up teaching the Unovan another lesson.
Grey thought he could beat Ash? Ha! He'd barely recognize Ash's team nowadays. None of them were the same fighters they'd been in the Conference. They'd only just begun to tap into their potential back then.
Now they grew greater with every passing day.
"You lost your temper," Steven observed as Metagross slid smoothly from the massive steel doors which had been broken by Slaking's mighty fists. "Don't. You shouldn't let him get under your skin. It's what they want."
Steven spoke with weary experience. Given that he'd grown up with Pierce…
"I'd hoped to never see him again," Ash groused. Nidoking nodded emphatically in agreement. "Grey's not a good man, Steven. The League doesn't need him."
"Unfortunately, the League does. For now, anyway. I guess it's our turn to realize the cruel necessity of keeping unpleasant folk around in the name of the greater good," Steven said flatly. "We have many, many eyes on George Grey, Ash. He gets results, but he's a factor the Vertress League has long resigned themselves to eventually hunting down. It's only a matter of time. Better to keep that rabid Mightyena on a leash, rather than let it bite anyone it sees."
Ash snorted. "I wouldn't mind joining the team that brought him in."
Steven nodded. "Nor would I. But he's as aware of that as we are, and no doubt takes pleasure in antagonizing us."
That was about the most obvious thing in the world, but Ash didn't say so. "Maybe we should lock Grey and Claydol in a room together. Let survival of the fittest play out."
Steven grimaced. "I'd be more afraid of them giving each other ideas. Or vocabulary."
Ugh, that was a horrifying thought.
After they put a little bit of distance between themselves and the Block Bot facility (and the Rangers still searching the wreckage alongside their teams), Steven stopped and turned to face Ash. He had a pained expression on his face.
"What is it?" Ash asked worriedly. Nidoking grunted softly at Steven, just as concerned as Ash was. "Is everything okay?"
It was a dumb question to ask after the assaults on the League and Devon, but it was all Ash could think of. His heart panged thinking of Anorith's loss and he felt his throat clenching, but forced the thoughts down as Steven glanced to the side.
"The attacks have exposed Ever Grande's weaknesses," Steven said tightly. "Even with Lance helping for the next few days, I'm afraid that my life will be consumed with League duties. We're hanging by a thread trying to repair the damage and prevent any further gaps in our security."
Ash's eyes lit up. "We can help!" He exclaimed. "It doesn't have to be something dangerous. Just let us stand guard or something. We can—"
"No, you won't," Steven smiled fondly. He reached out to pat Ash's head again, although Ash was too bemused to do anything but blink. "Our partnership is at a temporary end, I'm afraid. At least for the next month or two. I won't be able to give you the attention you deserve, and I think you could do with a bit of fresh air anyhow."
He hesitated. "You're leaving?"
"I've put my duties off for as long as I could," Steven crouched so that he could look Ash in the eyes. Every word sounded uncomfortable, as though he'd rehearsed it a hundred times with Metagross but never got easier to say. "And it's only for a short time. But I can't let you join me for this. You've encountered enough danger at my side already."
"We can help," Ash repeated, more weakly this time. "We want to help. You've done so much for us. It's the least we can do, Steven."
"You've done more than we could ever ask, Ash. Shamouti, Greenfield, facing Durand…And now, though it didn't involve combat, standing watch over Lilycove, in case. Anyone would deserve a nice retirement after all you've accomplished," Steven said gently. "This isn't an end, just an intermission. Let me do the dirty work. You haven't really had the chance to explore Hoenn yet. You've seen the sights, but there's so much more to live."
Ash hesitated. Even Nidoking looked a little lost at the thought of venturing out on their own again. There was always a vast appeal to wandering the wilds independently, but they'd been with Steven for so long now. It wasn't a hesitance to go back to untamed nature, but a hesitance to do so without their teacher at their side.
He liked traveling with Steven. The former Champion was kind, and smart, and experienced, and so much of what Ash hoped to be. Steven had made a deep impression on Ash, shaped his journey as a trainer, and he'd miss their talks and laughs and Steven's awkward attempts at teaching him to shave or talk to girls or a dozen fond recollections.
"We can still talk, right?" Ash asked weakly, trying to overcome the lump in his throat. Every word felt strained. He felt a little trickle of nervousness.
Steven's eyebrows shot up. "Of course! I'm just a phone call away," he promised. "If you need me, I'll be there. Like I said, I'll be back in a matter of weeks and we can continue where we left off. But enjoy yourself for a while. Make some more friends. Maybe you can compete in one of those Contests that Lisia and her friend are always bugging you about."
"Maybe," Ash muttered, his mind abuzz with all the possibilities and sadness alike. Claydol, Aggron, even bloodthirsty Skarmory…
It would be strange to be away from them.
"I don't have to leave just yet," Steven patted Ash's head again. He could only imagine what Claydol would've made of the gesture. "I have an hour or two. What do you say to grabbing a quick bite to eat before duty calls? There's a street market that Wallace adores just down the road. Surely we can find something there."
Ash committed every detail of Steven to memory: silver hair, kind grey eyes, and spotless black suit. He almost wished for one of Steven's ridiculous disguises right now—the two of them would draw a lot of eyes, and Ash truly wished to keep Steven all to himself for this last lunch together.
He'd never enjoyed goodbyes.
But even so Ash couldn't help but wonder what to do next. Grey's comment lingered in his mind, filling him with worry, but a dozen other possibilities sprung to mind as well: Meteor Falls, the Sky Pillar, and other legendary sites steeped in Hoennic lore.
Friends, fights, and food. What more could he ask for?
"Yeah." Ash smiled at last. "Lead the way, Steven. Lunch sounds pretty good."
And with that, they set off into LaRousse—hopefully their food scene was just as advanced as their tech.
And after that? All of Hoenn was open to Ash. Maybe it was time to take Lance's suggestion and stretch his wings, and see where the winds took him.
The region awaited him.
A/N: Apologies for the long wait! Initially I had the chapter planned for mid-late August due to some vacations in July, but unfortunately I've had quite a bit of upheaval and some family medical emergencies that have eaten up much of my writing time. Things are finally calming down and everyone's recovering okay, thankfully, but it was quite scary for a while.
Anyways, I hope you enjoyed your semi-regular update of Traveler! Next one should be coming out in early October. Let's say…October 7. That's what I'm going to shoot for.
So, for the elephant in the room: Anorith. I know that a few certain individuals are feeling VERY validated right now lol. To be honest, I originally intended to have Ash train Anorith normally. I would've loved to have the opportunity to dive deeper into the intricacies of training a fossil.
But when I first planned Anorith, Ash was supposed to get a Duskull as his ghost. Still full of its own unique challenges, but the team's ghost was never originally supposed to take such a large role in the team. Lotus' journey is only really just beginning, and I don't think I can juggle Lotus, Lairon, Seeker, AND Anorith as sort of in-progress members of the team.
Removing Anorith wasn't always the plan, but it has been for a few years now. I'd already committed to involving it in some fashion due to foreshadowing it thirty chapters ago, but I just don't think I can juggle it. I hope no one is too disappointed…or at least can understand why I made the decision I did. With how hard the team already is to manage and treat effectively, it would have put a lot of strain on both me and the narrative to properly develop Anorith in the way it deserved.
As always, thank you for reading!