Verdanturf was rather pleasing as far as towns went. It was no Fortree which had enmeshed its human-built structures in perfectly with the great trees in which humans had made their homes, but the verdant plains of central Hoenn flowed almost seamlessly into the humble buildings and broad construction of Verdanturf.

Mountains rose up around it, the beginnings of the great chains which rose up around Mt. Chimney like enormous vertebrae, and the town looked as if it were happily cradled in their midst.

Rustboro's territory was separated from Verdanturf by just a few mountain tunnels. Verdanturf was as far as Mauville's claim reached. Ash wouldn't have minded stopping by Mauville to see cheerful old Wattson, but Daisy and Lisia were expecting him.

As were a few others who'd been particularly interested in hearing about this little venture.

Ash clung happily to Saph's golden scales as they flitted above Hoenn's central plains at incredible speed. Even Plume would find herself pressed in a race with the slender Dragonite! Saph's scales had finally bled the last of the lingering blue from her time as a Dragonair.

She'd truly grown up.

Her membranous wings propelled them forth with enormous power. Every beat would leave trees trembling if they coasted above the forests.

"...spent a few weeks in Forina training with Steven when we first got here—that was around a week after we left the Plateau—and I even got to fight Fino Moore!" Ash said cheerfully as they grew nearer and nearer to Verdanturf. It was a relatively short flight (only a few hours) but he'd taken it upon himself to catch Saph up on their time in Hoenn so far. "He's going to meet us in Verdanturf with Flannery. They're going to be my security for the Contest."

Saph turned her head and whined as they began their descent.

Ash patted her mighty shoulder. "I know, I know. I wish you and Lance could watch too, but I know you two have your responsibilities."

It was a shame that she wouldn't get a chance to relax, but Hoenn needed every scrap of strength they could get right now. Especially with Ash more or less removed from missions for the foreseeable future.

The Dragonite turned her head to pick out Lance upon Dragonite's back a few hundred feet away. Both had kept pace with Saph and Ash for the entire ride, although Dragonite looked a little strained, but it seemed that the end of the journey called for that to change.

Saph's antennae twitched, her eyes lit up with a competitive flare, and she sang to Dragonite and Lance as she burst forward with incredible speed.

"Oh no you don't!" Ash heard Lance bellow from a great distance away, Fire propelling his words farther than they should have reached, and Dragonite groaned as his mighty wings beat with bone-breaking force.

Plume would be so, so jealous when she heard that Ash had flown here on another's back.

But with the competition on, Ash cheered Saph on as she took them across the last few miles to Verdanturf. It had been visible for a long while now as a speck in the distance, but now they finally began to leave the plains behind. The mountains grew tall and proud.

While Ash hadn't spent much time in the plains of Mauville's territory, there was no denying that it was some of the most valuable land in Hoenn. Much of Hoenn's land was hostile and inhospitable, untamed since the days of the Volumo—Petalburg Forest, Route 119, the Piede, the harsh lands of the Draconids…none were easy to manage.

Let alone the archipelago.

The plains were Hoenn's saving grace. Whereas many city-states had long struggled with their demanding expanse of territory, Mauville had perhaps the best reign on their land. Farms, breeding centers, and countless small towns and markets sprawled out across the flat expanse.

That made Mauville historically valuable, naturally, and it had exchanged hands many times.

At least Mauville proper had been revolutionized by Wattson after the war, and with the Ever Grande League's dominion it was unlikely to see such hardship at human hands again. Civilization thrived here.

For now.

Ash turned those grim thoughts away and exulted in Saph's speed and grace as she descended into Verdanturf's landing plaza nearly fifteen seconds before a panting Dragonite and Lance came crashing in behind them onto the expanse of grass and stone.

And that was with Saph pulling a few aerial maneuvers that would've sent Steven into a panic attack! She really was a fantastic flier.

Dozens of people turned as they went about their business to regard the glory of the twin Dragonite, but their jaws truly dropped as Lance hopped off Dragonite's back with his hair windswept and his cape fluttering with the motion.

It wasn't every day one saw the Indigo Champion himself, after all. Lance's star shone throughout the world, but he'd spent long enough in Hoenn that he was almost as well-regarded as the Ever Grande Champions themselves.

Better, depending on who you asked. Rawiri certainly would've preferred Lance the Dragon Master to Champion Wallace.

"She beat us pretty badly. It might be time to let off the treats, buddy. That cake's finally getting to you," Lance said, poking at Dragonite's belly. The great dragon huffed a cloud of smoke tinged with blue-green dragonfire and smacked Lance's hand away. He laughed. "I'm kidding, I'm kidding. She definitely had a lighter load to carry!"

Saph turned her snout up at Lance.

"Don't diminish her accomplishment," Ash said as he slid down. He scratched beneath the creamy scales of Saph's chin. "She worked hard. She earned that win."

"Of course!" Lance said loudly enough that even some of the star-struck fans winced. There was already a crowd gathering, although Ash only had eyes for the group of four who approached. "Saph's the best flier I know. She's spent her life working for that skill!"

"Oh, I know someone who would argue with you about that," Ash laughed. He ran his fingers through his wild black hair (made worse by the flight) and was quick to tug his cap on as he turned to the newcomers. "That was fast!"

"We've been waiting for you!" Lisia clapped her hands together. She was in downright mundane attire compared to her usual garb: black running pants, a teal hoodie that matched her hair, and a simple necklace with a sapphire set into its center. The girl beamed at them. "Lance, I didn't realize you were coming!"

Lance grinned and poked Ash in the shoulder. "Well, we had a change of plans. Ash's teleporter is his archenemy and Plume is out of commission, so I generously stepped up to the task. It's good to see you, Lisia. It's been ages!"

"Since Uncle Wallace's celebration party for becoming Champion!" Lisia sighed. "Wow, has it really been that long?"

A shadow flickered across Lance's angular face. "Time flies when you're having fun," he said, but quickly brightened. "I won't be able to stay for the Contest, unfortunately, although I know Ash has mentioned a few other guests who might be on their way."

"We have them all sorted out," Lisia said. "Are you sure you don't want to stay? We have so many snacks. Dragonite and Saph must be so tired after their flight. They've been working hard!"

Dragonite whined at Lance, but the Indigo Champion shook his head. Ash knew this would have just been a light workout for the two mighty dragons, especially since they couldn't reach their max speeds with the fragile humans upon their backs.

"Oh, we've already discussed that matter thoroughly. We have a schedule to meet, I'm afraid. Perhaps another time."

Lisia nodded understandingly, no doubt well-aware of the sacrifices demanded of a League Champion. Ash had to wonder how much her relationship with Wallace changed once he ascended to the highest position in the League. They still seemed close, but there was no way he could spend the same time as he once had with his family.

But Lisia wasn't the only one here. Fino and Flannery stood just behind her, and the Lavaridge Gym Leader grinned madly at Lance as she skipped forward and gave him a fist bump. She'd treated him like the living legend he was when they first interacted in Ash's hospital room, but it hadn't taken long for Lance and Ash to break her out of that.

"What's up, dude?"

Fino arched a grey eyebrow, but sighed fondly when Lance fistbumped her right back with a booming laugh. "What's up, Flannery? And Fino! It's always lovely to see you," he said, then turned back to Flannery with genuine curiosity. "Did you get a chance to try out that trick for Caldera that I suggested?"

Flannery's eyes lit up. "Yeah! It was tough, but we managed to mix in a little bit of—"

Her grandfather politely coughed and Flannery's cheeks flushed red.

"I don't think you've met Daisy Oak yet," Ash took the chance to nudge Lance's attention Daisy's way, although that might not have been the best idea—Daisy was deathly pale and her cheeks were tinged a fascinating mix of red and green.

He was pretty sure she was five seconds from hyperventilating as she looked at Lance like she'd never seen a human before.

Ash waited several seconds but Daisy still seemed practically catatonic. Lisia was too polite to groan, but Ash didn't miss the exasperated look in her eye.

"Sorry," Ash said pleasantly. "She's usually much more normal than this. Actually, scratch that. She's never been normal."

"Hey!" Daisy finally reacted to that. She shot Ash a glare and huffed, recovering at long last. "Hi," she croaked as she looked up to Lance, who towered above her. "I'm Daisy."

"Jerry's sister, right?" Lance asked pleasantly, smiling down at the starstruck girl. "He's been to the Plateau a few times to visit Ash. He's such a pleasant, easygoing boy. My cousin Clair only has the most glowing things to share about him! She says he's quite determined and never, ever gives up."

"Jerry?" Daisy mouthed. Lance winked at Ash when Daisy wasn't looking. "Oh, uh, Gary. And yes…that is a description. Are you certain she's talking about my brother?"

"Deadly so, I'm afraid. But I'd best be off!" Lance sighed, checking the time on his watch. He rather looked as if he'd prefer to stick around and watch Ash's first attempt at a Contest, but Ash knew that duty called. To be honest, he preferred as few witnesses to this as possible. "Ash, stick close to Fino and Flannery. No adventures, please."

Ash nodded sagely. "I'll do my best."

"And that's what worries us," Lance said, but grinned again and waved them off before Dragonite exploded into motion. Saph saluted and then followed quickly behind. "See you around! Oh, and Steven wanted me to remind you…don't forget about the 17th!"

With that Lance vanished into the bright blue sky. Daisy looked after him longingly, then shook it off and turned to Ash.

"What was all that about?" Ash poked at Daisy, hiding his smirk. "You looked like Sneasel when he finds something shiny."

She ignored that, and Ash found himself wheezing as he was practically tackled by the Oak.

"Flannery, help!"

"I'm so glad you're safe!" Daisy squeezed tighter, reminding him very much of his mother's rib-breaking hugs as her arms wrapped around him like a coiling Arbok. He winced. "When I first saw the news stories I thought they were just full of crap, but then you sent that message letting me know it was true and I've been so worried!"

Ash patted her back awkwardly as best he could with his injured arm. She'd at least avoided tangling that up in her crushing hug. Her lavender perfume—Ash thought Agatha would've gotten a kick out of that—practically smothered him, but he was able to respond back.

"Still in one piece."

She let him go. For a moment her worried eyes and the way her mouth twisted in worry reminded Ash of his mother. Daisy looked ready to squeeze him again the moment she thought back to what had happened, so he aimed to distract her.

Her worry was appreciated, but Ash needed his bones to remain unbroken. And it looked like Flannery was too busy watching with a shit-eating grin to fulfill her bodyguard duties.

"Mom is here in Hoenn," Ash wheezed, still trying to catch his breath. "Have you heard?"

"She is?" Daisy's eyes lit up. "Where is she? I'd love to meet her for dinner. It's been ages since I've seen her! We talk all the time, but I'd love to catch her for dinner or something before she leaves."

Lisia perked right up. "She'll be in the VIP box today! Ash and I planned it as a surprise."

"Really?" Daisy's eyes watered. She looked between them and bit her lower lip. "I…thank you. I can't wait to see her! Have you met her, Lisia? Ms. Ketchum is the best."

"She won't be in Hoenn for long now that I'm all patched up," Ash said. Not for lack of trying on her part. It'd taken Ash and his team the better part of three days to convince her to go back to her studies, although she'd wanted to stay at least another week. "She'll be headed off to Lavaridge after the Contest, though. I'm sure she'd be happy to set something up."

"And we're very eager to host her at the Lavaridge Gym!" Fino said brightly. "Why, Flannery has been talking about it the last two days! We'll be showing her around the city in our spare time."

Flannery leaned in close to Lisia. "She really is the best," the Gym Leader said in her best whisper. That is to say, she practically shouted. Ash hid a smile. "And let me tell you, she makes some awesome cookies! I might have found a good use for all the extra money in the Lavaridge budget."

"They're way better than Lava Cookies, right?" Ash couldn't help chiming in.

His friend glowered at him. One of her hands went to Caldera's pokeball. "Let's not be crazy!"

Ash reached for Infernus' pokeball. "It's not crazy if it's the truth."

"There's only one way to settle this!" Flannery roared, causing several people strolling by to jump with the intensity of her outburst. A Geodude glared at her before curling back up to sleep in a nearby garden. She held Caldera's pokeball high and made to release her. "Ash Ketchum, I—"

Fino grasped her wrist and gently lowered it. "Flannery, perhaps now isn't the best time to be drawing attention to ourselves."

She grinned sheepishly as she clipped Caldera back to her belt. Ash let his fingers drift away from Infernus' pokeball, although the container trembled as if desperate to unleash its inhabitant. "Yeah, you're right. I might have gotten a little carried away."

"A little?" Daisy mumbled, looking at Flannery as if she were some strange alien creature.

Ash frowned at the Oak.

"Come!" Fino clapped his hands together. "I know we're on a time table, but Lucille and I discovered this lovely little diner the last time we spent a day in Verdanturf. It would be a shame to miss out on it."

Lisia happily agreed, as did Flannery, and the group trod through the milling crowds of Verdanturf. It was a sleepy town on most days, but the Normal-rank Contest had sparked it to life.

XX

Ash hadn't taken long to devour his food. The flight hadn't exactly sapped his energy, but his stomach had started rumbling about halfway through. He'd have preferred to sit next to Flannery and Fino in their booth, but had found himself plopped next to Daisy as she picked at her meal.

His half-baked plan popped into his mind. Part of Ash wanted to wait, but every other part realized this was going to be weird and awkward no matter how he tried to pull it off. And the sooner the ball got rolling the better.

So Ash waited for Flannery to drag Fino and Lisia into a story about one of the poaching rings she'd broken up in Lavaridge's territory and then leaned in to whisper to Daisy.

"I invited Professor Oak to the Contest. Told him it was conditional on you accepting. Promised to tell him the plan as soon as I could. If you're not up for it, I'll just tell him to skip. But he's close, and he'd love to see you. Just let me know."

Daisy blanched at the sudden flood of information. Her eyes flickered to the diner's door and she looked ready to bolt.

Thank goodness Gardevoir wasn't here or she'd probably be halfway across Hoenn right now.

"Think about it," Ash said, pulling back. "That's all I ask."

Daisy nodded rigidly, looking halfway to fainting.

Flannery ended her story to the giggles from Lisia and a twinkle in Fino's eyes—all Ash had caught at the end was Caldera sitting on three trainers to keep them confined, but knew there must have been more to it—and frowned at Daisy.

"Wow, you look kinda sick," Flannery commented, then leaned across the table to inspect Daisy up close. The Oak pulled back at the sudden invasion of her personal bubble even as Flannery waved the brown bag her food had come in at Daisy. "Don't worry! Just let me know if you need to puke. I'll keep this handy!"

"Thank you, Flannery," Lisia sighed once she realized Daisy seemed to be in no place to respond. The Oak still looked like a Skitty ready to bolt at a passing Swellow. "That's very nice of you. I'm sure Daisy appreciates the gesture."

"Yes," Daisy said quietly. "Thanks."

"I've got you, dude!" Flannery garbled out through a mouthful of curry. Lisia's nose wrinkled at the sight, even if Ash just wanted to laugh. The Lavaridge Gym Leader sent Daisy a big thumbs up. "Us girls have to watch out for each other, right? And hey, it'll be a lot better than when one of my team gets sick. At least yours won't start a forest fire. Let me tell you, that was a hard one to explain!"

"Flannery, mind your manners," Fino said mildly. A few onlookers who had been watching their table for some time now didn't seem too impressed by her table manners either. It was bound to happen, Ash supposed, given that they had five famous figures all crammed together at one table with their pokémon. Their waitress tripped over every word each time she worked up the courage to return to their table. "You'll cause a scene."

Flannery's pale face turned the same color as her hair as she took a massive swallow to clear her mouth. "Sorry, sorry! But it's so good! I bet Glacia would love this place, even if it might not be spicy enough for her…"

"Glacia? Just 'Glacia'?" Fino smiled. "Imagine what she would say if she heard that."

"Well, she's busy doing Elite Four stuff! And you're my favorite grandpa. You'd never sell me out, right?" Flannery looked up at Fino with big, pitiful eyes. The effect was somewhat ruined when she immediately took a massive bite that would've made a Snorlax envious…and then proceeded to choke on it.

"Of course I wouldn't tell her," Fino said. He passed Flannery a few napkins as he regarded her affectionately. "You're hazardous enough to yourself without adding a peeved Elite Four Glacia into the mix. "

"I might," Ash chimed in.

Flannery looked stricken as she jabbed her chopsticks his way. Little speckles of sauce spackled the table. Lisia looked as if she wanted to bury her head in her hands and collapse into a singularity of embarrassment. "Traitor!"

"Anyways!" Lisia interjected before Ash and Flannery could descend into more good-natured bickering, "Are you ready for your first Contest, Ash? Daisy and I are both so excited!"

"It's been a long time coming," Daisy added. She looked to have recovered somewhat from Ash's words. "And here was me worried I'd have to go to Ever Grande City to drag you here kicking and squealing!"

"No need for that," Ash said. "You might've run into a few obstacles on your way."

"Like Champion Lance?" Daisy scoffed, turning her nose up at the thought. "Please! My feminine wiles would see me through."

"Your feminine wiles?" Lisia looked unimpressed. "Girl, you were about to pass out the second he looked at you. I'm pretty sure you forgot your own brother's name!"

"I like Jerry more, personally," Flannery said. Both Lisia and Daisy ignored her as they squabbled, although both were too conscientious of the curious onlookers seated nearby to do much more than trade light verbal jabs. "Gary is a pretty punchable name, don't you think? But Ash says he has a pretty punchable personality too, so I guess it fits."

Daisy blinked. She once again regarded Flannery as if the grinning girl were from a different planet. "Uh, I see."

"I wouldn't mind having a brother, though," Flannery continued. "Like, it would be nice to have someone you can always depend on, wouldn't it? And then I could amaze him with Piper's skills and give him his starter. We could have such incredible battles…!"

Ash stared pointedly at Daisy the whole time Flannery was rambling, but the teenager refused to make eye contact with him.

"Which partners will enter the Contest with you?" Lisia smiled at Ash, her turquoise hair bouncing as she sat up in her chair. The color reminded Ash of dragonfire. Her hair wasn't in her usual intricate style today given that she was trying to be somewhat incognito before the Contest. "I know you can't have too much time to plan things out, but we're happy to help however we can!"

"Two of the best Coordinators in Hoenn helping to give me a leg up? I almost feel like I'm cheating. But you're right, I haven't had much time to put things together—I know who I'm going to enter, but haven't come up with more than the basics for the Contest. To be honest, I've only watched a few Contests. Mostly your uncle's."

"Blasphemy!" Daisy cried out. "And I bet those were just to help you get ready for that crazy battle, too."

Guilty as charged. Well, mostly. He'd caught several performances before to get a feel for techniques and to see the boundaries of what Coordinators had deemed possible, but they were generally just for inspiration and curiosity's sake.

"Champion Wallace is really good, not that that's any surprise," Flannery said. She'd finally devoured her entire bowl of ramen in the meantime, and she looked longingly at the empty container. "Oops, I promised Caldera I'd save some for her. I'll have to place a few more orders. But anyways, his control is crazy! I've been trying to adapt some of his techniques for fire-types, but the complexity is out of this world."

Lisia looked pleased at the praise. "Uncle Wallace really is amazing! I can't match his abilities just yet, but he's taught me so very much…but we keep getting sidetracked! Why don't you run your plans by us? Maybe we can help."

Ash nodded and glanced around. Daisy and Lisia were master Coordinators with years of experience under their belts (and a natural affinity for the crowd), while Fino had told Ash that he'd been in quite a few Contests himself as a hobby during his time as Elite Four.

Given the sheer artistry behind many of Fino's techniques, it wasn't particularly surprising. While Fino was a monstrous battler—as anyone who boasted the title of Master must be—he had a particular love for the softer sides of training. He didn't just adore the power training cultivated, but the countless applications and beautiful ways in which that power could be expressed.

More than that, he was a creator. Poetry, statues of superheated rock, techniques…Fino just wasn't content to be a destroyer. Perhaps he had seen enough of that in the battles of his youth.

Ash resolved to learn from that wisdom.

"Well, I could use your help with a few things if you're interested…" If Ash was going to do this, he was going to do this right. His competitive streak, that burning desire for victory in all aspects, wouldn't allow for anything less.

Lisia's eyes gleamed.

XX

Despite their best attempts to avoid attention, a group like theirs could only fly under the radar for so long. Fino was one of the most famous Masters in all of Hoenn, Daisy and Lisia were veritable superstars, Flannery was a popular Gym Leader with a bombastic personality and hardly a filter to speak of, and Ash was Ash.

They'd evaded too many gawking eyes for a while by keeping their teams safely stowed away in the diner (loath as Ash was to agree) but the time for subtlety had come to an end.

A craggy mountain of a fire-breathing beast stalked by Fino's side, though its gentle eyes soothed those who might've shied away from its immense bulk otherwise. Black smoke billowed from the collar of red-hot coals around its neck and the same igneous light spilled from its harsh maw.

Coalossal was a mighty pokémon and a particularly ancient species—it was a cousin of the Geodude line, a relic of the primordial landscape of the earth's youngest days. But those times had prepared its line for whatever may come next. The modern era might very well be a cake walk after its species' truly ancient history.

Fino had named the soft-hearted behemoth Winston. He was quite the gentleman, although Ash had no doubt that would change if Infernus ever met him.

Lisia was accompanied by her well-groomed Altaria, of course. Ali was a far cry from Zinnia's battle-hardened warrior who had nearly brought them low with Perish Song, but Ash's eyes twitched the moment the dragon materialized.

Could anyone blame him for being a little on edge?

Gardevoir escorted Daisy across the crowded plaza, though the spindly creature constantly tried to keep her own slender frame between Ash and Daisy. She refused to look properly at Ash, but the tumult within Daisy's thoughts no doubt soured her even further against Ash.

Well, sucked to be her. Gardevoir would just have to get over it.

Ash was done coddling the both of them.

Brick pranced with Flannery atop his creamy back, tossing his glorious fiery mane which blazed brightly even beneath the glare of the sun. While Winston the Coalossal dragged every eye to him, Brick seemed determined to share in the glory. Flannery grinned madly as she rode among them like a warrior queen.

As for Ash, he was in their center with the grandest escort of them all. It had taken a bit of time hidden away in the Verdanturf Ranger Outpost (who had been all too eager to host them), but Oz had emerged with a veritable jacket of yellow mimosas, the snowy white astral petals of the Tiare flower native to Sudmauna and its neighboring isles, and brilliant red Higanbana from Kanto.

She bore all of their greatest influences upon her majestic coat, though her black-and-gold fur was almost buried beneath the sheer weight of the flowers which draped over her muscular form. Braiding them all would've taken ages had Gardevoir not deigned to assist at Daisy's request.

And if Ash hadn't spent the last few days since Daisy had invited him here braiding them in whenever he could.

Lisia had been rather impressed. "You're good at this!" She had cried out in delight upon seeing Oz's pleased expression at the final reveal. "I hope it won't go to waste in the Battle Round! It would be a shame to see all this hard work thrown away. She's stunning!"

Plume clacked by his side as well. She looked displeased with the touch of her talons upon the hard stone leading up to the immense Contest Hall ahead of them, but took solace in the admiration and adoration in the eyes of all who saw her. Even the refined Coordinators couldn't pass by without a word of praise or look of awe.

While Plume had declined the adornments Oz had taken to with glee, she deigned to bear a single accessory into the Contest: her brace. The dark material bound her broken wing as if in a net. It couldn't be considered broken any longer, but she needed to keep it restrained for a few days more.

Most would've seen it as a weakness or an eyesore. Plume wore it like a badge of honor. She had earned it in defense of her team. Her family. There was no greater boast than her own life and those that she had saved.

"You both look lovely," Ash said to Oz and Plume. The Electivire whirred happily, although she kept her electricity at its lowest to avoid frying her coat of flowers. That would come later. Plume just nipped at Ash's shoulder and chirped at him. "Sure you don't want the hat before we go in?"

Plume squawked indignantly at that, pausing to look at him like a crazy person.

"Oh, you're right. They wouldn't even recognize me without it."

"Every great trainer seems to find something to be emblematic of themselves," Fino said by Ash's side. Winston nodded steadfastly alongside him. The blazing creature perked up every time they saw a Coordinator in full garb or a happy pokémon decked out in enough accessories to fund a shop for a year. He waved happily at any children passing by with fearful looks, earning hesitant smiles. "Your mentor has his cape. Dear Steven has his suits. Wallace has his…"

"Everything?" Lisia giggled. "Uncle Wallace is many things, but subtle is not one of them."

Ash cracked a smile at that. Those came easier these days.

"Do you really want that scruffy hat to be what you're known for?" Flannery wrinkled her nose. "I'd have burnt it while you were knocked out in the hospital if I didn't think you'd have a heart attack when you woke up and found it missing."

He growled at that, but was soon lost as more and more of the crowd seemed to have realized who was among them.

"Ash Ketchum, you're the man! Good job showing those dirty Aquas who's boss!"

"I'm so glad you're safe now. Keep him under guard, Master Fino!"

"Is that Ash Ketchum! Mom, mom! Oh, and Leader Flannery. She's awesome too!"

"Lisia, will you sign my cast? I broke my leg trying to hop the gate during your last performance."

"Wow, I thought the papers said Ketchum lost an arm. I didn't know the League could grow them back that fast. Who attacks a twelve-year-old, honestly? What a bunch of freaks!"

"Ash, Ash! Remember me? You made me cry when you beat my Plusle in the Fortree Challenge. It was awesome!"

"Daisy Oak! I asked her out once and got shot down. That Gardevoir of hers looked at me like I was dirt, but at least Daisy was nice about it. Isn't her hair fabulous? I tried to find a few strands online, but all I could find was counterfeits."

Most of the attention was overwhelming, but that last one left them all looking rather disturbed. He was happy enough to wave back or say hello to the young trainers he vaguely recognized from Fortree (or didn't), and the others were largely heartwarming. Those railing against Aqua worried him, though.

"Is that what most of your fans are like?" Ash felt rather perturbed at the thought as the one boy goggled at Daisy. If only Plume could fly! He could have her drop the creepy guy a few miles away. How far away was Mt. Chimney, actually?

The Oak might have only reentered his life in the last eight months or so, but she'd been like a big sister to him once upon a time. Those were fuzzy days when he was too young to really note much of significance, but family was family.

Daisy shivered. "Thankfully not. But there are always weirdos—I bet I could make millions if I stole that hat off you."

"Of course you could." Ash sniffed. Plume hovered nearby HER hat protectively. "It's very nice. Worth every second I put into it."

Gardevoir's eyes flashed and the smiling boy was quick to flee with his group of friends. Brick reared up, whinnying like the bellows of a furnace, and the heatless flames pouring from his gorgeous fur exploded with indignance.

At least the boy's friends all looked almost as disturbed as Ash's group did.

But there was one last member of Ash's merry entourage who hovered disconcertingly close to Ash's neck. He would've felt its breath upon the nape of his neck if it even possessed such basic biological functions.

"If that one comes back, I want you to give him a nightmare."

Wouldn't that be more Dazed's shtick?

"I'm hoping you're bad enough at it to traumatize him some. Just a little bit."

'Just a little bit of trauma' says Ash Ketchum. Whose standards am I going by? Yours or Steven's? Or a normal human being's?

"Surprise me."

Oz whirred at that, although was careful not to let her power surge lest her coat be ruined.

"Wow, they must really have somewhere to be," Flannery commented as an elderly gentleman and his Electrike practically sprinted away. "I didn't know old guys could move like that!"

Fino looked affronted.

Then a gaggle of giggling girls who had been approaching with autograph books ready froze, looked as if a ghost had just popped up in front of them, and scurried away as well with high-pitched squeals that felt like knives digging into Ash's ears.

Daisy frowned. "What's wrong with them? I would've been happy to sign!"

Ash wrinkled his nose. "When in doubt, blame Claydol."

The construct spun mockingly.

Steven's favorite saying, no doubt. But don't worry, dear friend Daisy! It's true. They aren't harmed. It was just a little practice with a skill that Dazed learned from a dear friend at the bottom of the sea. Did you know you can press directly on the amygdala if you're precise enough? It's like a fun button! Panic attack for you, dopamine for me.

The Oak sidled away from Claydol—she'd been a little (read: extremely) on edge from the moment the construct was released.

"You're animated clay. You don't have any dopamine. Also, stop that! You shouldn't toy with emotions like that. They're not a game. Unless they deserve it," Ash finished. "Like that one guy."

Daisy and Lisia regarded Ash like they were considering putting a few extra feet between them.

Unfortunately, my favorite game quit me. Me! I'm having to exercise my creativity now to keep myself entertained. Be afraid.

"I've been afraid since you told me so matter-of-factly that I had some Ariados on my face," Ash said, barely paying heed to the disturbed looks his companions sent his way. At least Claydol had attracted just as many.

It's far from the worst thing you could have on your face. Have I told you about the time—

"Enough!"

Fino raised his wrinkled hand. Winston cracked his craggy knuckles, which shone red for a moment as heat flooded his carapace. Red veins like magma pumping beneath the thin membranous crust of the earth glowed all over his body.

Oh, Infernus would love this! He'd have to introduce them later. It was too bad Fino hadn't chosen Winston for their duel in Forina.

"Claydol, you are in public and around children. I won't have you speaking like this, is that understood? You are better than this. Be the man—construct—you are meant to be. Lift others up rather than tearing them down. Silence might not be golden, but it shouldn't be shunned either. Learn to listen. Please."

"I kinda wanted to hear more," Lisia muttered to Daisy, who grimaced.

Claydol went silent.

Ash wisely chose to say nothing.

They chattered amongst themselves for a time as the tension vanished, and Fino was happy to regale them all with stories of his own travels in Verdanturf once upon a time. He'd acted as an ambassador on Drake's behalf to Mauville during the Unovan invasion, apparently, and had managed to secure their favor by negotiating the deal with Rustboro to open up several subterranean cave passages to allow for easier travel between the two territories.

"If you think things are tense now, you should have seen us then!" Fino chortled. Winston nodded fervently in agreement, scattering red-hot coals across the plaza. The Coalossal winced and leaned over to pluck them up, although Claydol was considerate enough to scoop them all into one place. "Forget the invaders at our doors! Half the councils and regents and nobles would have tossed one another into the forefront if it meant that they could scavenge the leftovers."

"Did anyone rise to the bait? Divide and conquer is a tried and true strategy."

Ash already knew part of the answer—a few high-ranking merchant families of Lilycove and Mossdeep had been eager to trade loyalty and their relationships for power, though it hadn't come to fruition. Several of Drake's students and a coalition of local powers had picked apart the conspiracy and dragged its architects to light.

Such had been the final straw for the beginning of the Battle of Lilycove where Drake and his students had turned the tide of the war.

But what secrets might Fino know? Few he'd be willing to divulge in public, Ash wagered. He couldn't stop himself from trying, though.

Fino gravened. "Some. But Drake…ah, let's not darken the day. Come! Let us celebrate."

"Yes!" Daisy blurted out. The others turned to her, surprised at the eager reaction to Fino's proclamation. "I'm so tired of all the gloominess. Let's have some fun!"

"Gotcha, Daisy." Lisia leaned in close to Ash. "Is she okay? She doesn't seem okay."

"Just being brave," Ash said, refusing to elaborate forward, suspecting that Daisy was hinting towards a 'yes' in regards to something else, although he didn't send word to Professor Oak just yet.

It was time for Daisy to stop running. He couldn't help but look at her fondly, though. While he wished this would've happened ages ago, it was nice to see her willing to take that step forward.

Gardevoir looked as if she had just sucked a sour candy, though.

Good.

Oh dear, this seems devastatingly familiar. I do hope this goes better than the last time you stepped foot in a Contest Hall, Ash.

"Fingers crossed."

Great doors swung open to allow them entrance as Fino regretfully returned Winston. The Verdanturf Contest Hall was humble enough compared to the great Lilycove Contest Hall which had hosted the Wallace Cup, but it was still opulent by battler standards.

Ribbons and streamers of countless garish colors hung from every surface. Enormous screens pounded with light as they portrayed various contestants—there was a roar from the bustling crowd choking the interior as Ash's simple portrait picture from the Indigo Conference appeared, even though it was downright boring compared to the stylish shots of the Coordinators.

Highlights from previous Contests and the Coordinators who had performed brilliantly in them flickered across separate screens. A Vigoroth demonstrated true mastery of elemental techniques, weaving flickering flame and frosted ice between its claws, while a Breloom dashed in a graceful dance that left Ash hungry for more as it took on its opponent.

Coordinators dressed in their flashy outfits mingled with the crowd, although most would be situated in the dressing rooms that Ash and his group were currently angling toward. They soaked up the adoration of their fans like a plant absorbed the sun's rays, turning to face each and every newcomer with their white smiles and pretty words.

"This is insane!" Daisy cried as they forced their way through the crowd. "I've never seen a Normal Rank Contest this stuffed before. I love it!"

Lisia had pulled her hood up to avoid attracting attention with her bright hair. She laughed as she nudged Ash with her covered elbow. "I think we know whose fault that is."

Flannery was clearly familiar with the Contest scene. While she didn't seem bothered by the press of humanity around them (although Ash was grateful that Oz and Plume were there to buy them some personal space) she did ooh and ahh at the various outfits she saw.

"Nice boots, pardner!" She cheered at a young boy dressed up like one of those ranchers from the Unovan frontiers. The boy flushed at the praise and his own Ponyta's flames brightened at the sight of Brick's magnificence. "Where can I get a pair?"

"Leader Flannery!" His eyes bulged. His fingers toyed with the brim of his white hat as he quaked in his chaps. "It's supposed to be a replica of some Unovan Gym Leader's outfit. Clay, I think! There's a magazine that I ordered it from, Driftveil Apparel, but I lost it!"

"No worries, dude!" Flannery laughed. "I'll check it out! I bet Brick would love the hat. Think how cool you'd look!"

Brick neighed his agreement at that, rearing up on his hind legs and scattering the crowd. The boy watched, starstruck, as the great Rapidash's heatless flames billowed out like a geyser to attract the attention of the crowds in one fell swoop.

Oz and Plume had already attracted some attention, but that sealed the deal. A great clamor rose as people realized exactly who had just entered the hall, and Ash felt his senses go haywire as the pandemonium spread and spread—so many people shouting his and Daisy's and Flannery's names, so many people wishing him well and cheering him, so many people.

A gentle hand guided him forward.

"Easy," Fino whispered, his robes fluttering as he pressed forward. "You are the rock. They are the river. Nothing more."

Ash breathed deeply. Oz stepped closer, and he walked with his head held high between FIno and Oz. Plume shrieked as she clacked on the tile behind them, nearly slipping on her sharp talons. It wasn't the most graceful display, Ash had to admit.

People were considerate enough thanks to Plume and Oz's presence, not to mention Claydol gently shoving people out of the way with its psychic powers, and Fino didn't have to say a word. Crowds seemed to part before his dignified bearing.

Ash didn't ignore the crowd. While it wasn't the most natural thing in the world, Ash smiled and nodded at those he could. Most faces blurred by, but one struck a familiar chord and he focused on them.

"Captain Renato?" Ash blinked. The Ranger Captain had led the team that Ash had assisted in clearing out a fortified bunch of poachers going after criminals a few weeks ago. He was a large man, easygoing with a kind smile, and he looked right at home with two young boys hanging off him while a woman with chocolate brown eyes accentuated by laugh lines clung close. "You're not who I was expecting to see here."

Their group stopped for a brief moment, although Ash knew they'd have to keep moving before long.

"Just Renato when I'm not on duty!" The man expertly balanced both of the brown-haired boys currently squirming on his shoulders. "We came to cheer you on! My boys wouldn't take no for an answer when they heard you'd be in the Contest."

Ash's gut clenched. Some of the tension slipped away. "I…thank you, Renato. It means a lot."

"Any time! After all you've done, we'll always be in your corner. Good luck out there, Ash!"

"Thanks, Captain!"

Ash felt lighter than he had since he'd descended from Saph's back—he dreaded telling Plume he'd flown while she was earthbound—and felt the press of the crowd.

Their energy. Their hope.

It was powerful. A tangible force when one knew where to look.

His lips quirked as he heard Renato's booming voice above the crowd. "See? I told you I met him! And you thought your old man was a liar…"

"What a difference you've made, Ash. See what one life can accomplish?" Fino's eyes glistened as he regarded the cheering crowd. "Listen! Listen to the difference you've made in so many lives."

Oz whirred beside him. Plume spread her wings, even if she winced as she stretched her wounded wing a little too far. The roars of the crowd washed over them. A few rose above the rest.

"You saved my brother! That idiot would've been robbed of his whole team if it weren't for you."

"A bunch of thugs stole my Delcatty. You returned her to me!"

"My sister Hannah and her Pichu got wrecked by Leader Flannery. She said you stopped to help her when no one else would! Her Pichu evolved because of you!"

"Is it true you've been microdosing your team with X enhancements before matches? Reclusive biochemist Gerald Akagashi has made startling claims to the press, claiming personal experience—"

Loud boos greeted the last voice, which was snide and high-pitched as it rose above the din of the eager onlookers. Daisy's eyes narrowed and she looked as if she were about to tear the man a new one, but he wisely fled as about a hundred judgmental stares came to Ash's defense.

Well, at least one good thing came out of the last month. Maybe people had finally lost patience with Gary's stupid rumors.

It wasn't long before they made it to the dressing rooms. The world seemed strangely quiet when the roaring crowds cut off and silent. Coordinators and their teams practiced and warmed up in a small arena, though all were hesitant to show their full capabilities in front of the competition.

Smaller chambers reserved for each competitor circled it. They allowed for a measure of privacy and peace before the excitement of the Contest.

"Oh, I love this feeling," Daisy said, shivering happily. Gardevoir brightened immediately and clasped her hands together. "So many hopeful young trainers are ready to make their mark on the world. Those were the days! Isn't it just wonderful?"

"Hey, I think I beat that kid the other day!" Flannery pointed out a young teenager who blanched at the sight of her. "She was pretty tough! I feel bad, though. That was when you were in the hospital and I wasn't feeling very gentle."

"We won't be able to stay for long, but maybe we can do a check over your routine," Lisia interrupted. "There's a private room in the back, although if it's reserved we're out of luck."

"Thanks," Ash said, but his next words died on his tongue as a familiar mop of green hair caught his eye. "Sorry, I need a second. I'll be right back."

Oz accompanied him as he dashed forward to meet Wally, who was off near one of the dressing rooms practicing a few psychic techniques with Ralts. He blanched as Ash appeared, looking as if he were torn between a tired grin and wanting to run away to avoid the attention no doubt coming his way, but Ash grabbed Wally's thin arm to make the choice for him.

"Wally, how are you doing?" Ash asked, measuring him up. Wally still appeared rather sickly, but his skin was a touch less pale than it had appeared in Petalburg. He was stronger, too. Now it only looked like a moderately strong breeze would send him flying. Best to keep him away from Plume regardless. "You look good! Verdanturf agrees with you."

Ralts growled the tiniest growl that Ash could imagine. A psychic grip coalesced around Ash's hand and tried to wrench him away from Wally, but Ash smiled pleasantly at the psychic and put an end to that before Oz could.

He let Wally's arm go regardless and took a step back. Ralts shuddered at the sight of him, fighting the urge to simply fall into a catatonic state, and Daisy's Gardevoir nodded sympathetically.

Several of the other Coordinators' psychics trembled and quaked at Ash's presence, but Ralts was made of sterner stuff. He shied away but still stood strong, drawing fortitude from his trainer to bolster his own.

Verdanturf had done Wally some good, but it might be some time before he fully recovered. "So how is it here in Verdanturf? It seems like a nice place."

At least he was better off than Tobias. According to a message he'd received during his time in the hospital, the rotting man had actually taken Ash up on his advice. Ash didn't know whether to be relieved or horrified. The correct answer was probably both.

But Ash would spare no expense for the rotten human's treatment, even if it sounded like the hospital was fascinated enough by the case to cover the case pro bono.

Good luck trying to keep Tobias in the hospital, though, given that he'd somehow made it from Indigo to the island nation of Hoenn on foot. Would sedatives even be able to persist in his Distorted frame?

"My aunt and uncle are really nice," Wally said hesitantly. He shouldered a heavy pack that was halfway to dragging him to the floor. "I feel so much better already! I never knew what it was like to feel normal. I can run! Not far, though."

"It's a start. Every journey begins with that first step forward. Ralts, you've come a long way since Petalburg. You've mastered Calm Mind, haven't you?"

The shy creature hid its face behind its tiny hands.

"Ralts has been amazing! That moment you helped us in Petalburg was like a wake-up call," Wally gushed, gesticulating frantically toward the creature. "We've been working so hard, and Ralts is absolutely crazy! You should see how good he's gotten at stunning fighters with his Confusion, and he can pick up intention from a mile away now! We're going to master it fully, I just know it."

Was this what the Indigo Gym Leaders felt like when they first saw a tiny black-haired trainer with a very nice cap running through the Gym Circuit? Wally might be frail and sickly, but there was a blazing fire in those dark-ringed eyes that Ash found himself fascinated by.

This was a boy who would never let anything hold him back. He would challenge the world one day.

Ash smiled down at Wally. "Keep it up. And let me know when you master Confusion. Keep advancing like this and I'll have something special for you."

"Really! You promise?" Wally's green eyes were absolutely massive. Ralts shyly smiled at Ash, even if Daisy's Gardevoir looked on as if she'd just sucked a sour candy. "We…we can't take on the Gym challenge yet, so I don't know if I'll get stronger for a while. My family's still worried, especially with how scary things have been lately."

"I promise."

Wally peered at Ash hesitantly, clearly recalling the stories peddled by the newspapers for the last few days. "Is…is it true? What happened to you, I mean."

Ash was silent for a moment. Wally began to backpedal, but Ash shook his head. "It's true," he said softly. "And my team came out safe and sound. That's all that matters in the end."

The boy looked close to hyperventilating. "Really? I'm so glad they're okay…and that you are too!"

He could tell Wally had absolutely no clue what to say in this situation (and to be fair, Ash didn't either) so he gently walked them back to more familiar territory. "Not everyone takes the Gym Challenge, you know. It might even be better for you to wait a bit. That way you'll make the most of the lessons each Gym teaches you."

Wally nodded fervently. Ash could tell with a glance that he was burning every word into his memory. It might have made Ash uncomfortable from most, but he didn't mind so much when it was younger trainers. He was just glad to help them.

"What are you doing at the Contest Hall?" Ash questioned as curiosity struck him. He took a brief glance at the outfit Wally was wearing—a bright white suit with a green tie that matched both his hair and Ralts' own coloration—and already knew the answer.

"I'm entering the Contest!" Wally puffed his chest out proudly. "We heard this was great for beginners, and we couldn't stay away! There are lots of battlers around here we've been challenging, but a Coordinator kicked our butts the other day! They said this would be a great way to explore a new side of training"

Ash's lips curled up into a smile. THAT was why he liked Wally. He might've been trapped in Verdanturf for a while (and Ash was glad for it given how dangerous the wilderness had been lately) but he didn't let that stop him. Wally was hungry and ready to leverage every opportunity that came his way.

He hoped to make sure that plenty did.

Wally peered up at Ash. "What are you doing here? Are you here to watch?"

"Here to participate, actually. I owed a friend a favor."

The boy's eyes bulged. "You…you're entering?"

"Yep," Ash said. Had Wally missed all the screens outside? Perhaps he'd come early to beat the crowds and get some extra training in. "It's my first Contest too."

"You're entering?"

A few people stared. More whispers as newcomers realized exactly who had stepped into their world.

Ash extended a callused hand which Wally hesitantly took. The boy's skin was soft and nearly paper-thin, although Ash knew from experience that a few months on the road would toughen him right up.

"I'm looking forward to competing with you out there, Wally. You're going to do great."

"Thanks," Wally said faintly. "Uh, I'd better go prepare!"

Ash waved him off and stepped back to the group, who all watched with little smiles. Lisia and Fino had been pulled away by another Coordinator and one of the showrunners, but even she managed to spare Ash a thumbs up.

Flannery gave him a radiant smile once he returned. It warmed him.

"That was really sweet of you, Ash. I think you just made that guy's whole decade. Look! He's about to faint. Oh, wait, he just did. Good thing Ralts was there to catch him. But Nurse Joy's got him. Hope he's okay."

He colored, then briefly checked to make sure Wally was okay. Nurse Joy already had him back on his feet, even if the poor boy looked terribly red.

"Wally's a good kid. I was just helping him out."

"A good kid! Says the twelve-year-old." Daisy chuckled, folding her arms. But Ash could tell her heart wasn't really in the playful jab. She looked torn, lost, and before Flannery or Ash could poke back she took Ash's shoulder in her slim grip. Gardevoir quivered. "I—you—yes. My answer is yes, Ash."

Yet another weight lifted off of him. Ash nodded back, then surreptitiously shot Professor Oak a message as his friend looked at Daisy oddly.

Flannery wrinkled her nose. "Did he slip you a marriage proposal when I wasn't listening or something? You're being weird today!"

Daisy's jaw dropped and she looked like she wanted to gag. "I'm being weird? Who says something like that? He's like my baby brother. Emphasis on the baby."

"Someone who's onto you!" Flannery pointed at her eyes and back to Daisy before letting out a bellow of a laugh that earned even more attention from the competitors and their assistants. "Nah, I'm just kidding! But you're being weirder than usual. You can't argue that!"

"Than usual?" Daisy half-shrieked, half-growled. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Ash wisely shut his mouth before he could say anything smart. Flannery winked at him.

"Well, you've been all flighty today. And have said some weird things. And keep looking at Claydol like it's a monster. Which, fair, but still!"

Gardevoir sniffed.

They bickered for a time, even if it was mostly heatless and meant to pass the time, but the moment finally arrived.

Ash grimaced as Lisia came flouncing back with a package clutched tightly between her fingers. Her turquoise eyes practically glowed as she thrust it towards Ash. "Your outfit!"

"Wonderful," Ash grumbled before forcing himself to cheer up. She didn't have to help him like this, after all. His eyes narrowed suspiciously at the package. He held it as if it contained a bomb. "This isn't the same one from Slateport, is it?"

He remembered a flashy abomination of tight black pants, a tight red jacket with an asymmetrical furred shoulder, and more straps and loops than he knew what to do with.

A smile curled onto Lisia's lips. Daisy had a shit-eating grin. "You didn't think we'd let it go to waste, would you?"

Ash snatched the package and debated feeding it to Plume, but she'd probably love the damn outfit. He gave his blue shirt and black shorts a mournful look, then sighed as he located his personal dressing room.

"I'll be back."

With that, he set off like a man walking to his execution.

XX

"Why's everything so…tight?" Flannery questioned. Ash nodded in agreement. He'd been wondering the same thing! "How did you even squeeze into that thing, Ash? Did they throw in a bucket of grease with it?"

"Something like that." Ash wasn't a fan of the outfit. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't his style. Too much in every possible way. But at least he was able to laugh with Flannery when she guffawed at the first sight of him, even if she'd clapped her hands over her mouth an instant later.

"It's fabulous!" Daisy squealed, clapping happily as she made Ash awkwardly shuffle around so they could see it from all angles. "...I guess it is a little small. Did you go through a growth spurt?"

"What do you think?" Ash asked. "It's been over six months since Slateport! I can barely breathe."

"Eh, it looks good. That's all that matters."

"That's pretty shallow of you," Ash prodded Daisy, who was in much too good of a mood to let him bother her. What a shame. "Beauty's only skin deep."

"Not if you're Daisy Oak!"

Ash laughed at that. That might have been the most Gary thing she'd ever said.

His attention was drawn as an announcement informing the Coordinators that the Contest would soon begin to fill the dressing rooms. There was a momentary pause followed by a buzz of excitement as every participant frantically tried to get their last minute preparations out of the way.

"Well," Ash said to Plume. She preened beneath his gaze, and her magnificent plumage even snagged the attention of the frenzied Coordinators. Several watched her assessingly with their critical, experienced eyes "Ready to impress?"

She sang out her agreement, then punctuated it with a sharp shriek.

"What a ghastly sound!" Another Coordinator cried, although most were just content to hold their hands to their ears and look annoyed. The girl scrunched her nose as she caught sight of Plume. "Is that drab Pidgeot the one who made it?"

Plume's eyes widened and Ash had to lay a calming hand on her good wing and pour Ice and the North Wind's soothing power into her mind to keep her from doing something…regrettable. He JUST felt the beginnings of a great gale birthed in her throat before she cut it off at his insistence.

Her beak still snapped furiously, her eyes locked upon the poor fool who had made the worst decision of her life.

"Oh, you're gonna regret that," Flannery wheezed. She whistled for Plume and started fanning herself with her hands. "You're a beaut, girl! Don't let anyone tell you otherwise!"

Based on the fearful reactions of the Coordinators and their partners as they skirted around a VERY upset Plume, who looked as though she were about to tear the frame of the building down with a great wind, they were just as willing to agree if it kept her from showing off her power.

She could tear this building apart if she wanted.

Ash glared right at the offending Coordinator with Plume, indignation rising in him. Did she not see the sparkle of Plume's fierce eyes? The shine of her perfectly groomed feathers? The impeccable curve of her tearing beak and vicious talons?

"I'll pay any amount of money if it gets us facing her in the battle round," Ash said, glowering at the girl and her terrified partner, a sleek Swellow with a build suited for agility rather than raw power. The girl seemed oblivious to his wrath. "We're going to destroy her."

XX

"...and last, but certainly not least, it is our great pleasure to introduce our final competitor: Ash Ketchum and his partners Oz and Plume!"

Ash would have wilted beneath the raucous cheers were it not for his time in the Indigo Conference and the press meetings he'd been a part of. The crowd roared as one in support, and he felt his cheeks go hot as he heard praise and shouts and gratitude mingling within.

There were even banners! Some had pictures of his face or members of his team emblazoned upon them—Nidoking was quite prominent, as was Infernus—while others had cheesy slogans.

Some were in rather poor taste: "Aqua Can't Bash the Ash" made him cringe for a dozen reasons, but most were made with good intentions. He still flushed red at the sight of them though.

Plume spread her wings wide and shrieked while Oz whirred loudly enough to match the crowd.

Ash hated that he was upstaging some of the other Coordinators (who looked rather overwhelmed at the turnout for a simple Normal Rank Contest) and he offered Wally and a few of the other nervous trainers a thumbs up and whispered words of advice to help them focus.

Michael had once done the same for him.

All the while Plume shot glares at the girl who'd insulted them. Macy, Ash had learned. Her poor Swellow looked about ready to pass out.

Their plans were a little thrown off now that Plume (despite her injuries) would be entering the Battle Rounds, but Ash was going to roll with it. She was pissed, and the tentative framework they'd built up with Lisia, Daisy, and Fino were off, but Ash rolled with it.

This was supposed to be fun, after all.

Besides, he couldn't wait to rub the girl's face in Plume's inexorable superiority. She would learn soon!

"Whoo!" Flannery whistled from the sidelines, a goofy smile on her face as Piper belched black smoke. "Looking good, Ketchum!"

Ash snorted and did his best to forget the silly outfit he was in. But everyone was dressed just as bizarrely, so he supposed it canceled out. No doubt Karen was going to make all kinds of fun later, although she might just be pleased that he'd temporarily parted with his frayed hat.

He'd be lying if he said he didn't feel a little naked without it.

"You go, honey!" His mother cried from the VIP box alongside Professor Oak, who looked rather fascinated with the proceedings. He still clapped politely for Ash, though. "Go Plume! Go Oz!"

They all beamed at her cheers, even if they were soon drowned out by the roar of the crowd.

Ash wanted to bury his face in his hands as a few more cheers and whistles sounded from the crowd. Plume spread her wings wide, whistled a single glorious note of Lugia's Song, and the onlookers went silent as the serenity and majesty of the Legend washed over them.

"Maybe don't use that too much," Ash whispered to Plume, who squawked indignantly. He supposed that was fair (even if not to the other competitors). She was the one who'd put the hard work into mastering those little windows into the Song and the nature of the Birds, after all.

Fino and Lucille cheered, Professor Oak and his mother shouted above the crowd, and Lisia practically squealed with excitement as the announcer declared the beginning of the Appeals Round.

Neither Lisia nor Daisy had an official part to play in the Contest, but they'd been kind enough to step up at the organizer's request to assist and give a few announcements, although they'd declined judging for obvious reasons.

Ash and the other competitors were hurried away to the sidelines by a harried-looking judge. It wasn't long before the first Coordinator was called, the green-faced boy dressed up in the Unovan frontiersman outfit alongside his trusty Ponyta, who put on a dazzling display of rainbow fire for its appeal.

The other twenty competitors went quickly—to be honest, most were still fairly new trainers. Ash was impressed again and again by the control their partner's demonstrated and the complex interplay of technique, movement, and power, but they just didn't have the stamina or capacity to put on a show like Daisy, Lisia, or the masterful Wallace.

But they had potential. That was what Normal Rank Contests were, really. They were scouting.

While Ash eyed most performances with only a critical eye and light curiosity, he straightened as Wally stepped forward. The green-haired boy was white as snow and shaking like a leaf, but he forced himself into the spotlight nonetheless as Ralts held his hand.

Ash smiled. Good.

Quite a few of the crowd—Ash was pretty sure his mother was amongst them—squealed in delight as Ralts and Wally stepped into the spotlight. Wally looked even more ghostly as the harsh lights struck him, and for a moment Ash feared he lost his nerve.

But Wally didn't disappoint.

"Shining Flurry!" Wally shouted, though his thin voice cracked. It only seemed to endear him further to the crowd, who shouted encouragement. Ralts' eyes shone as a new sense of focus filled him over the course of several moments.

Ash felt the power grow. It was meager, and Ralts wasted a fair bit of the energy in the form of dazzling lights and flickering aura, but he nodded approvingly nonetheless. Ralts was young. To have advanced so far with Calm Mind was an impressive feat.

The additional focus offered by Calm Mind enabled Ralts to conjure up several brilliant blue psychic spheres in a technique not unlike Dazed's Multiball, which the diminutive psychic soon juggled in a dizzying array of patterns. Such a technique was far beyond Ralts ordinarily, but Calm Mind would let him hold it for a few moments.

While the technique was impressive, Ash's eyes were quick to pick out faults: the edges of the spheres wavered, its energies barely contained by Ralts' will, and the spheres were uneven and oddly sized. Power leaked from them like water through a sieve. They faded before Ash's eyes.

Yet Ralts moved them quickly enough that most wouldn't catch a hint of that.

As the Shining Flurry failed, Ralts used the last of his ability to converge the dying orbs into one great globe that surged anew like a cerulean star, which exploded into wisps of fading light like a shadow of a supernova.

Ash cheered alongside the crowd. They were impressed with Wally and his tiny partner, who bowed to the crowd and urged Wally to do the same. While a few of the other Appeals had upstaged it in complexity and grandeur, Ash thought Wally should be very proud.

He continued to clap for the next few competitors, forgetting his troubles and the fading stiffness of his arm, and then found it was Oz's turn.

Despite himself, he almost laughed as nerves reared up. What was there to be afraid of?

"Let's go, Oz. Dazzle 'em."

They'd only had a moment to discuss this, but Ash was willing to trust in his friend's enormous power and skill. She could work a little improvisation, and that's just what she did.

"Ash Ketchum and Oz, please step forward for your Appeal!"

Ash felt absurd in the strange Coordinator outfit, but did his best to portray the same confidence he felt upon a battlefield. While he didn't smile, he softened his dour look just a tad.

"That's my son! Go Ash!"

He flushed beneath the spotlight. Rather than give an oral order, Ash whistled.

Oz whirred to life, radiant in her lavish garment of flowers and petals. The crowd watched with blatant admiration as she flung her fist to the sky and brought down a light sheet of rain. While Rain Dance and similar techniques were common in Super Rank Contests and above (since stamina wasn't quite as big of a concern as in a proper battle) it was a bit overkill for a Normal Rank.

But that was the name of the game for Coordinators, wasn't it?

Rain Dance on its own wasn't anything special, but the haze of mist surrounding Oz's lightly crackling body attracted attention—as the water droplets struck her charged form, they rose up again as grey fog which shrouded her flowery coat.

It rose up like a cloak for a moment, briefly reminding Ash of the storm clouds which made up Zapdos' black wings, and all at once electricity surged around her in a blaze of diffuse light. Oz's body appeared a black shadow within the misty cloak punctuated by jolts of lightning. Her tails thrashed out to cast wave after wave of golden sparks.

She stepped forward.

A thunderclap rang throughout the stadium.

The crowd was silent.

Oz rose her fist high as the Rain Dance came to an end. Ash's hair stood up as Oz's electric power concentrated upon the end of her five large fingers, blazing with light. The electricity surged over her form, searing the white flowers braided through Oz's shaggy fur black as they crinkled and twisted beneath the heat and charge.

Yet even as the beautiful raiment was ruined beyond repair, the crinkling flowers created a dizzying pattern upon her coat that boggled the mind and obscured her true appearance.

All that could be seen of Oz's face was her bright white grin as she unleashed a Thunderbolt. The shadow of a proper battle technique, it was still enough to irritate a number of Coordinators and their partners as their intricate hairdos were ruined. An already fluffy Skitty practically tripled in size.

It meowed pitifully as it pawed at its poofy fur.

Oz held the electricity concentrated within her fingers for a single second. It shone blindingly bright, thrumming with power, and the audience admired it for that brief instant before Oz splayed her fingers wide.

Rather than the efficient single bolt that Ash and Oz normally favored, this Thunderbolt split into five that angled out in different directions, surging out in a blazing arc that brushed the psychic barriers, setting them alight with the blue power of those maintaining them, before dancing between five points of positive charge created by her psychic abilities.

Oz's grin widened, pleased with the alteration of the technique. It was building off of a control exercise that they'd attempted previously, although ordinarily her bolts were too powerful for Oz to handle splitting them into more than two or three.

Ash's instincts screamed at how wasteful the flashy technique was—better to cast a wide Shock Wave if you're trying to strike multiple opponents at once—but he turned them aside. If this brought him closer to victory, it was worth it.

And as the lightning streamed from point to point, Oz's eyes flashed blue.

For a moment a dozen arcs seemed to splinter off, creating the lingering impression of a golden flower in bloom for the briefest of instants before it faded away with a rolling boom of thunder.

The silence was broken as the crowd roared.

Both were pleased, and he grinned at Oz as she exulted in the spectacle (and Plume would too, given how she watched Oz enviously whenever she wasn't glaring daggers at Macy and her Swellow).

Yet his mind turned with potential. He cataloged a few points they could strengthen to improve their performances in the future, as well as a few potential uses for the principles of the flashy technique in the future.

Perhaps they'd need to spend a few hours here and there preparing.

"That's what I'm talking about!" Ash laughed as Flannery, Lisia, Daisy, his mother, and Professor Oak all called out encouragements. Little could be heard over the din of the crowd as the announcers tried to regain control, but he glimpsed them all shouting and waving.

Ash beamed.

This couldn't compare to the adrenaline of a battle, but Ash decided Contests weren't so bad after all.

XX

Perhaps it was fate.

Perhaps it was the universe attempting to balance the cosmic scales after the assassination attempt.

But Ash ended up against the girl—Macy, he'd learned—in the Battle Round and all was right in the world.

He smiled like an idiot even as Plume kicked at the ground, her talons scraping the earth as she watched Swellow like a Wurmple. The poor bird was busy looking helplessly back at its trainer.

"Marvelous Macy of Fallarbor," the announcer cried. "A familiar sight this season! She hasn't missed a Contest yet, and is expected to reach the Hoenn Grand Festival based on her stunning performances these past few months!"

Ash stepped forward, the familiar battle-lust filling his veins. He felt no ill will toward Swellow, but he'd take pleasure in helping Plume avenge her pride.

"Remember, it's not the Swellow's fault," Ash murmured to Plume as he reached out to stroke her glossy feathers. He wasn't eager about her fighting while she still had her brace on, but Plume would trade a little pain for this. Flight was still beyond her (which no doubt stung her pride even further) but she didn't need to fly for this.

Even if it was a missed opportunity to show off for the crowd.

Ash would've nixed it if permanent damage was a risk here. But Plume's wing was mostly healed now. She needed to work back up to full flight over the next week or two, but straining it here would only cost her a day or so.

Well worth it in both their books.

"You will be a grand opponent, Ash Ketchum!" Macy flung her hand out towards him with a determined expression. "Even grounded, your shrieking beast will be the most formidable opponent we have ever fought, but we will express our skill and elegance with the tempered ferocity of a true Coordinator!"

Ash smiled back even as his mother shouted at Macy, aghast at her insult to Plume. His smile was all teeth.

"Begin!"

Swellow immediately took to the skies. Its trainer sang out order after order in a way that would've made Ash's eye twitch if this were the Conference, but it was fine for a Contest. This was part of playing to the crowd.

The flying-type darted forward in a blur…and then flickered away from its formidable target in the split-second before it struck.

Plume never twitched.

"What is this?" The announcer cried. "Is Sweepy unwilling to leverage its advantages? What an honorable display!"

Yeah, right!

No, Sweepy simply knew better.

Had Sweepy struck, Plume's command of the air would have snared the Swellow and wrenched it beneath her wicked beak. Not a flashy end, but Plume wasn't feeling particularly merciful after that second insult from Macy.

Plume's eyes were used to far faster opponents. They easily tracked Swellow as it darted to and fro with incredible speed while it fruitlessly sought an opening. It was difficult to judge its overall level, but Ash suspected it would have kept up with Winona's own team on that front, although they were far more battle-hardened and likely capable of bringing far more power to bear.

The crowd was taken in, however. Macy knew how to appeal to them. The waxing and waning of the crowd was what Coordinators lived and breathed, after all.

Ash only wished they could've seen Plume in flight! A sweep of her wings and the pesky flying-type would be cast adrift in a gale.

Macy sang further commands, but every time Swellow made a move it swiftly recognized that only death—well, unconsciousness and defeat—awaited it. The flying-type was forced to contest a true master of its craft, and it wouldn't fare well.

But Ash had his own way of appealing to the crowd.

Wallace had taught him plenty during their battle, after all.

He cast aside the front of his coat in a way that must've looked absolutely ridiculous to reveal the gleaming pearlescent sheen of the Flute. No doubt Flannery would poke fun at him for it later, but all those thoughts faded away as his rough fingers closed around the smooth length of the instrument.

Ash brought it to his lips and played.

Plume shivered as the Song swept through the arena. She sang in tune with it, drowning out Macy's own musical expression. It was unfair to compare the two, but Macy shut her trap quickly the moment she realized she would only sound like clanging cymbals in the face of such a beautiful melody.

Swellow shot forth once more, daring to extend its talons in an attempt to mar Plume's serenity, and she allowed it to come close.

And yet as Swellow neared, she whipped her head toward the poor bird with nothing but satisfaction in her eyes. Plume's beak snapped open, a whirling Hurricane enclosed in a fragile psychic shell exploded forth, and a faint semblance of her half-finished copy of Lugia's magnificent technique burst from her throat.

Ash caught sight of Swellow's fear as it was engulfed in the amplified Hurricane and THROWN away like a leaden weight. It landed heavily upon the ground, rolled, and laid stunned for a moment.

Then Plume leapt forward, dared to flap her great wings once to carry her the thirty feet to her fallen foe, and shrieked Ice into the world—for a moment her wingtips were tinged with frost, and a cold gale swept beneath her as the world grew cold and grey.

And then Plume stared directly at a pale Macy as her enormous talons closed around Swellow's head. She didn't squeeze, but there was no doubt as to the outcome. Sweepy went limp and submissive.

It was over.

XX

"Too brutal? What kind of crap is that?" Ash complained to Daisy as the radiant teenager dragged him through the crowds by his hand. "It was effective! And she looked good doing it."

"Oh Ash," Daisy tutted as Gardevoir looked at him, insufferably smug. She turned around to wag a finger at him as he clutched his silver medal. Damn it! Oz and Plume deserved gold. Or platinum. "We went over this, remember? You're not supposed to scare the audience…or the judges. Almost killing the opponent's beloved pokémon tends to do that."

"Almost killing?" Ash scoffed. He rolled his eyes, although he plastered on a smile as he recognized a few trainers from the Fortree Challenge waving frantically at him. It was difficult thanks to his frustration, but he managed to wave back and felt his irritation ebb as bright expressions broke across their excited faces. "Please, that was a love tap. Swellow was still conscious!"

If Plume wanted to traumatize Sweepy, she would have done so. All she'd done was end the fight.

"You just don't get it, poor thing. But not all of us can be paragons of excellence and grace such as myself," Daisy said forlornly. "It's your fate to be a knuckle-dragging brute. The flute was a nice touch, though! It's pretty. Where'd you get it?"

"Orange Islands," Ash said, opting not to go into the full story. Would Daisy even believe him? He allowed one hand to drift back to the smooth surface. So delicate, so beautiful, yet so strong. "It's something of a souvenir."

Daisy hummed back, leading him further through the crowd. "A souvenir, huh? I wouldn't mind getting my own hands on one like it! You'll have to tell me who crafted it."

"They're…difficult to reach. Maybe if you're lucky."

She frowned at that, but accepted his answer.

Ash's eyes lit up as he caught sight of a beleaguered Professor Oak waiting on the fringes of the crowd, waving and laughing as he and Arcanine tried to catch Ash's attention. He was famous in Hoenn as well, but he wasn't the shining star he was in Indigo.

While there were doubtless plenty in the crowd who would recognize him given the chance, Professor Oak seemed quite happy to escape the usual attention.

But his simple joy faded in place of hesitance at the sight of smiling Daisy at Ash's side. She didn't miss her grandfather either, and Ash felt her go rigid as her fingers clenched tightly around his own.

She swiftly dragged Ash away. "Let's go."

Daisy practically tore through the crowd as if Ash had sent a bolt of Lightning through her nervous system. It was all Ash could do to stumble besides her, even if Plume and Oz sidled happily along, content to soak up the adoration. Countless fans wished him well and had words of kindness that stabbed him right in the heart, but all he could do was smile and shout out his thanks as Daisy dragged him along to the safety of the private rooms assigned to her and Lisia.

"Whoo, that crowd was something," Daisy said with a strained smile. She took a deep breath as she clapped her hands together. "You all did beautifully! Ignoring the catatonic Swellow and your emphasis on brute force, I think you have the skill and aptitude to thrive in the Contest circuit. You're a bit unbalanced, but your techniques are incredible!"

She seemed lost in her vision for a moment, no doubt imagining Ash taking Hoenn by storm as she cackled in the corner.

Daisy was an Oak, alright.

"You don't have that much style—" Plume glared at her "—but your simple ability is easily enough to compete in Master Ranks! I think you'd have an awful time at that level with your lack of finesse, but we could make a showman out of you. I think it's only Master Rank and above that you'd run into stiff competition. You'd sweep Super if you had a bit of preparation."

He ignored the negatives. "What can I say? These two are naturals," Ash said, inclining his head toward joyful Oz and sour Plume, who had plenty of fun but seemed appalled by the silver ribbon pinned to her brace.

But she'd had a wonderful time nonetheless. Ash suspected this wouldn't be the last Contest they partook in.

"Keep it up and you'll be champions in no time!" Daisy glowed at the thought. She winked at Ash. "And don't forget to remember your Coordinator inspiration! She deserves at least a few mentions on the news."

"I'm sure Lisia will appreciate the shout-out."

Daisy pouted. "Brat."

"Have you even met your brother?" Ash rolled his eyes, although hid a wince as Daisy looked stricken. "Sorry."

"No, no, it's my own fault, isn't it? You'd know better than I do."

That brought to mind all sorts of things that had been rolling around in his thoughts. Ash hesitated, but Oz caught his eye and gave him a firm nod. It was her counsel he'd sought in this regard; Oz loved her second life, but she still bore the experience of managing her herd—a strike of Electabuzz, as many called it.

Oz had dealt with more interpersonal issues in her past life than the rest of the team combined. And it was her who had given him the courage to say what had been building up like magma beneath a volcano.

"The Silver Conference."

"Yes?"

"Are you going?"

Daisy toyed with the ends of her long brown hair. Gardevoir drifted at her side, ethereal and aloof as ever. The psychic hovered over Daisy like a protective parent. "Gary asked me a few months ago. I've been thinking about it, but, well, there's still so much to do here…"

"Are you joking?" Ash exploded. Fire blazed in his blood like lava. Scorn dripped from his tongue. "You're freaking kidding me, right? You can't be serious! You Oaks are supposed to be smart, so how are you this stupid? How could you not go?"

Daisy reared back, stricken, and seemed ready to run away like she always did. Gardevoir moved to step in front of her, the psychic's eyes shining purple as if ready to teleport Daisy away from all conflict, until Ash looked at her.

There was a connection there, after all. Gardevoir had made it herself.

Gardevoir seized and fell away, eyes squeezed shut as Ash poured things into her brain. Dazed's little trick at the Sky Pillar was worth replicating, even if anyone prepared or determined enough would be able to bear it after a struggle.

But all he needed was a brief break.

"I was thinking about it!" Daisy defended. She looked very much like that little girl from Pallet he remembered. She had followed his mother around like a lost young Farfetch'd then. How cool she had seemed, so mature! "It's just…"

"Just what? Stop running. Do you know what Gary would've done to have you there with him at the Indigo Conference last year?"

Daisy scowled. "Then he could have asked!"

"He was a grade-A jackass then, but even I got to see a glimpse. He misses you, Daisy. He needed you for a long time. Maybe he doesn't anymore—he's grown without you for years—but I know he sure as hell wants you there, even if he's never going to expose himself like that. Not to you."

"Stop it," Daisy growled. Her eyes glistened, but Ash was more concerned with the fact that they strayed to the doorway. He nodded at Oz and she inched a bit closer, although she didn't quite block the doorway. "He's my brother. Do you even know what you're asking me to do? If you did, you'd never ask me to go back there—"

"He's more my brother than yours," Ash rasped. Daisy looked as if he'd just struck her. Her normal composure was compromised. "And I do know, Daisy. So does Gary."

"What. What?"

"I gave him the report. We've both read it."

"Why would you do that?" Daisy raged, taking a step forward. Plume watched her raptly. "Gary's just a baby, he shouldn't have to—"

"If you knew Gary at all, you'd know he wasn't about to rest until he dug up the secret!" Ash spat. "And you know what? I take it back. Gary does need you. And you're nowhere to be found. I can't believe you're having to hear it from me, but grow up."

Ash cut Daisy off before she could shout something back.

"I don't know exactly what you saw. I can't even imagine it," Ash said, his voice softening a tad before hardening once again. "But you're not that little girl anymore! Go home. See Gary. If you don't, you'll never speak to him again. Hell, don't go home. Don't go to Pallet. Don't even see your grandpa if you can't do that, but you'd better be at the Silver Conference cheering Gary on!"

Daisy made to say something else, but Ash had enough. He'd said his share. Ash ignored every word out of her mouth and stalked out of the dressing room. He yanked the door open long enough for Oz and Plume to leave, then slammed the door so hard that the frame rattled.

He seethed, but forced himself to regain his calm before anyone could see him. Or at least put the mask back on.

Ash needed to find Professor Oak and his mother.

Scratch that, he needed to find Flannery. She was always up for a battle, and that was what Ash needed before he talked to anyone else. There was a storm brewing in him, and it had to be released one way or another.

Battles were easier than people.

XX

"Well done," Fino says earnestly, and Infernus actually grinned at the praise. Most would wash off, but anyone who managed to raise a team like Fino's had earned the Magmortar's respect. "I had faith in the both of you, but still…"

"Infernus is the one who put in the hard work," Ash said. Infernus sent Ash a stubborn look, as if reprimanding him for not valuing his own role. "But we need more. We almost took that Mega Salamence's wing off, but the Plasma Blade wasn't able to pierce the Protect."

Fino rested upon a bench on the outside of the training field where Ash's team worked diligently. It was light work thanks to their various wounds still needing a little more time to be fully restored, but it was more than sufficient to prime them for their work.

They might not be able to push their physical limits, but that was no excuse for not bettering themselves in any way that they could. It was why Ash was working with Fino even now.

The Fire Master chuckled with Plinia at that, although the half-blind Typhlosion's sound was more of a wracking wheeze. He held her claws in his own old hand. "You've set your aims high, haven't you?"

Ash thought of all that was to come. "We must."

Infernus snarled in agreement.

"Your skills are well-honed," Fino said, admiring the seared dirt where Plinia and Infernus had tested one another. While Plinia was a deadly opponent in her old age, Infernus had been happy to showcase every additional scrap of skill and strength he'd pursued in the months since their initial battle. "Your strength is extraordinary. Steven is terribly proud of you."

Ash smiled even as he recalled the battle.

His Tephra traps exploded wherever and whenever he willed to spill ash and lava over the arena. Toxic black smoke spilled from his maw to choke Plinia and dull her senses and exploit her inability to easily capture the sight of his glowing form, even if the Typhlosion possessed adaptations that mitigated its advantages somewhat.

Both were the perfect opponents for the other. Their inborn advantages meant that their greatest techniques lacked their usual sting, and both fought with a ferocity that would leave lesser warriors quaking in their nonexistent boots.

As Plinia stalked the Smokescreen, Infernus teleported to and fro to release great roars and confuse the elderly Typhlosion, moving so swiftly that it seemed half a dozen Infernus' leapt through the inky cloud. He burned his stamina as precious fuel, yet it was done with deliberation and intent.

Psychic shells had guided his flames in impossible directions and breakneck twists to pursue Plinia when she fled. The earth quaked beneath his feet when she tunneled beneath the battlefield's crust, and when she'd exploded outward in a geyser of heavy molten lava he had met her challenge as she curled into a Rollout and slammed into his heavy body.

Vicious blows. Bites. Spectral fire met Infernus' blue. Thunder Claws and Brick Breaks and Throat Chops and every dirty trick either of them could pull. Plinia was quicksilver, weaving in and out, slipping away from blows, and attacking from impossible angles, but Infernus took inspiration from Steven and was a wall to meet her.

When she attacked, he defended or accepted the blow if he could hurt her worse. When she evaded, he struck with the least amount of energy necessary. His normal overkill was forgotten in the pursuit of victory above all other considerations.

And after four minutes of brutal fighting just as intense as when they clashed in Forina, it had ended with Infernus a bloody, beaten mess and a humming blue Plasma Blade at Plinia's throat.

Infernus and Ash roared his victory to the sky, exultant, as Plinia and Fino stared in stunned disbelief. Her coat would dampen explosions and absorb a fire's gnawing heat, but it would do nothing to protect her from the sting of Infernus' swirling plasma.

Then Infernus offered a clawed hand, which she took after covering her own paws in a protective veil of psychic power, and hauled her to her feet.

"Time has amplified your talents," Fino praised Infernus, who literally glowed. He finally allowed the blazing Plasma Blade to disperse into wisps of superheated air. Ash felt his Feather flare. "And yet it's not your skills that I'm most impressed with!"

The Magmortar cocked his head at Fino. There was an uncertain look on his face.

"It's you," Fino said, meeting Infernus' eyes. "You are not the same Magmortar we faced all those months ago. Battle still sings in your heart. Your blood still burns with delight at the prospect of a worthy foe! Your spirit is still unbreakable, every wound strengthening you rather than bringing you low. But where you burned like a wildfire before, out of control and slave to your lusts, you have reigned in your impulses. You have mastered yourself, and thus the battlefield."

Ash smiled at Infernus even as his friend blazed bright as a star. The burning air twisted and danced.

"Well done," Fino said. "Well done."

"This is only the beginning," Ash swore, and Infernus roared his agreement. He met Fino's eyes. "Will you help us?"

Fino smiled slyly. "I'd be a poor excuse for a bodyguard if I didn't."

Ash and Infernus smiled as one.

"Plasma Blade is still unstable. It is a fearsome weapon, but I expect that practice and training will mitigate its current weaknesses and allow you to wield it longer and hotter without allowing the technique itself to deteriorate," Fino said. "Yet there is another technique whose principles overlap. If you master them both, you will drive each to new heights."

"What is it?" Ash couldn't restrain his eagerness. "We're ready for anything!"

Fino and Plinia assessed them both, then smiled at one another. "Yes, Ash, I believe you and Infernus are. Your strength of will, your devotion to training, your character…yes, you are worthy, although I fear Flannery will never forgive me for this."

The old Master muttered to Plinia for a moment as Ash's curiosity grew greater and greater, then he gestured for Ash to come nearer.

"It's a technique every Fire Master must know," Fino said, and Ash's hopes surged. "Tell me, Ash, Infernus, are you ready to take your first steps down the road to Blast Burn?"

Their gleeful nods came so fast that Ash feared their heads might just fly off. He and Infernus both made a noise dangerously close to squealing.

"Good, good. Then let us begin."

XX

The Lavaridge Gym had become a second home to Ash over the past week or so. It was a familiar sight already, but Flannery and Fino had welcomed Ash and his mother with open arms. Even the Gym Trainers greeted him by his first name now, although a stubborn few had kept to his title despite his protests.

They'd been very fond of his mother as well, who somehow grew to be best friends with the small army moving in and out of the Gym. Ash was pretty sure she'd been invited to half-a-dozen birthdays, parties, and other social events that Ash hoped to avoid like the plague. She'd left the day before (although not after cracking Ash's ribs and letting him know to come to Goldenrod soon) but had gained plenty of penpals in the process.

While most trainers were familiar with the grand sight of the Lavaridge's Gym primary battlefield, the facility also had several other training fields for private use by the Gym Leader and their subordinates. Thankfully, Ash was in quite good standing.

This was where he'd done most of his training alongside Fino, Flannery, and (once) a grumpy Sidney when his normal companions were busy, but Fino had also been kind enough to teach Ash a few tricks with the Flute here while they were taking a break from Blast Burn training.

It was…less explosive than Ash had predicted. Infernus would have been terribly disappointed if it weren't for the sheer potential that came ahead of him. The initial stages were slow going, largely based around maximizing control and timing, but Infernus' skills had progressed far enough from his training for Plasma Blade that this stage would be over within a few weeks at the max.

But at least it kept Infernus focused. Ash worked with him as often as he could, but between Nidoking's multiple projects in attempting to reverse engineer principles from the rest of the team (not to mention the exploration into the Moon Stone), Sneasel's Dispel technique which was leaping forward by leaps and bounds, and the rest of the team's advanced techniques, Ash needed all the time he could spare.

Of particular interest was Dazed, who had sufficiently mastered Remote Teleportation to an extent that she felt more comfortable investing more of her time into Elemental Synthesis. And with Claydol along for the ride, it was the perfect opportunity to develop it into its full potential.

Or at least a mimicry of it.

Claydol levitated at eye level with Ash as the construct delivered crisp, clear instructions to Dazed. It was considerate enough to broadcast them into Ash's mind as well so he could follow along. Much of it was review, but the foundational principles were important enough that Claydol hammered them in whenever possible.

Imagine yourself at the Indigo Conference, Dazed. You were powerful by most measures. A formidable warrior. But even then you realized that you had only seen the shallowest depths of possibility.

Dazed watched Claydol raptly. She was always well-focused, yet now she seemed ravenous for knowledge. While Claydol was a menace at the best of times, the construct had always taken its teaching duties very seriously.

You have mastered your core abilities. Your foundation is sturdy, and you have progressed beyond my expectations in Remote Teleportation. And don't think I've seen you experimenting with other spatial abilities as well, alongside its sister techniques. Sneaky!

The Hypno would have coughed if she had a mouth. As it was she refused to look Ash's way, although he could easily put Claydol's not-so-subtle hints together.

So Dazed had been playing with time, huh?

Temporal abilities were famously obscure, generally only practiced by the most advanced psychics and developed by the elusive Alakazam conclaves, and often an enrapturing mix of deadly and difficult. Yet if there was anyone who could do it, it was Dazed.

He'd have to check in with her later. Had she been trying to surprise him?

Dazed remained steadfastly silent as she clutched at her jeweled pendulum.

You understand the nature of your power well. We do not flagrantly break the laws of the universe like Ash here. No, we aren't so blessed. Reality is our sandbox, however. We manipulate what is already present. It follows the natural laws until we decide to spit on them.

Ash decided not to mention that spitting would be rather difficult given that neither psychic had a mouth.

Stop thinking so loudly or you'll start looking like a natural law. Then you'll get to see me spit in person! But back to the topic at hand. Those fleshy humans like to brag about their crude opposable thumbs, yet it is we psychics which possess the most versatile tool in existence: our thoughts.

Humans and others are limited by fleshy meat and strings of tendon. Pesky biomechanics! It is we who twist reality with a thought just as the Alpha did so long ago. We are stars in a sea of mundanity.

"And humble, too."

Hush. It's not as cute when you do it, although I'm flattered that I've become a role model. Let me teach!

Ash zipped his mouth shut, although his face twisted at the thought of Claydol as a role model.

Dazed listened just as eagerly as she always did. Claydol couldn't have imagined a better student.

Immerse yourself in the truest perception of the world. See the truth of energy, matter, motion, and the unity of it all.

The Hypno's large eyes lit up with a luminous fire. Blue beacons hummed with power as Dazed cast her perception across the world, perceiving it not with her frail eyes but the utter clarity of her mind.

Claydol flashed azure. Ash watched with the same fascination he always did as Claydol condensed a small globe of water which hung suspended just a few feet above Dazed, although Ash helpfully placed a small bowl from his lunch earlier beneath it to catch the water as it dribbled down in a smooth line.

He knew this was nowhere near as easy of a task as Claydol made it look.

Such was the way of Masters, let alone Champions.

Dazed demonstrated the least of her skills then. Her pendulum leapt as if tossed by a windstorm as it shone brightly. Ash watched hungrily as she drained the heat from the water and vented it away, calming the molecules and freezing them at her command.

Most psychics content themselves with crude telekinesis and barriers. Metagross favors them, the bore, despite being capable of so much more. But why bludgeon your enemies when you can turn the universe against them instead?

There's nothing more satisfying than the sight of their techniques unraveling before their eyes. Or better yet, twisting their own abilities against them with more skill than they can imagine.

"Bludgeoning can be fun," Ash suggested. Infernus and Lairon roared their agreement from their own training.

Yes, Metagross would agree with that. It turns out that the quickest option is usually 'through' when you're cheating by using four brains and a small army's worth of psychic power.

Despite it all, Ash frowned. While Claydol was always a little more serious when it trained Dazed or Nidoking in their psychic powers, its usual flippancy was…softened. Claydol was always one to have a joke ready, but it didn't seem like its figurative heart was really in it.

The sensation of dealing with a bored Persian playing with a Rattata was absent.

"You're remarkably…not yourself."

Claydol spun lazily.

It's just not the same without Steven here.

"I miss him too. We'll see him again soon!"

Claydol gave the telepathic equivalent of a haughty sniff in Ash's brain.

"Hey! Do you guys need a minute?" Flannery burst in, a bundle of energy and fervor as she always was. She was worn, though. Ash got to see just how hard she pushed herself now that he'd been staying at the Gym, and based on the worried looks Fino and the Gym Trainers had sent her it was more severe than usual.

It was a mania he knew all too well, and he'd loved training with her when she wasn't running missions, facing challengers, or learning at Fino's feet.

That was a scant amount of time. Whatever precious minutes weren't spent fulfilling her duties were often spent training with Ash.

"You look exhausted. Sure you shouldn't take a rest?"

"No way! Caldera and I are ready to rumble," Flannery said, grinning. Claydol shaped two eyes of shining blue power just to roll them at the Gym Leader. "Hey!"

Ash eyed Flannery speculatively, noting the tremble of her hands and the pallor of exhaustion. "You're practically shaking. How much coffee have you had today?"

"Coffee? I stopped drinking that ages ago. Too slow! I've been taking caffeine pills instead. And then I top it off with a little preworkout! It's great," Flannery said cheerfully. Caldera stumbled into the training room after her, half-dead after their long day. She dutifully prepared for training, though, never the one to let Flannery down. Nidoking nodded with respect as he took a break from peering into the Moon Stone.

Flannery sighed. "Honestly, I've just been trying to get my hands on whatever Dawn had New Year's Eve! I keep asking her and she pretends like she has no idea what I'm talking about, but I know she had some good stuff. That girl was wired!"

"Uh, yeah," Ash coughed in a way he hoped wasn't too suspicious. Giving Flannery access to the ultimate stimulant might turn out badly. The adrenaline pulling her through her exhaustion already made her a force to be reckoned with.

Anything extra might actually make her combust. Or have a heart attack.

"It's okay to rest," Ash said. "You know that, right?"

Dazed looked at him.

You realize the irony, yes?

"Yeah, yeah," Ash grumbled. "I know."

Dazed was told she was right often enough already, and she'd already plucked the answer from his head before he spoke. Her eyes twisted up in one of her smiles, though she soon returned to her taks of melting the ice and stirring it into scalding steam which burst upwards from the bowl's silver rim.

"I'm good, promise." Flannery offered up a crooked grin. "I'm getting my eight hours every night! But there's so much to do. Lavaridge has rough days ahead of it, you know. I can't be anything but my best! Lavaridge and her people deserve nothing less."

She blazed with determination and the will to protect her people. Ash watched her, a little awed, and nodded.

Ash wanted to tell her about the purple chrysalis buried deep beneath Forina by the Draconids, but found his tongue frozen. It wasn't Mewtwo, for once, but his own hesitance.

"There's hope," Ash settled on at last. "Hope for Lavaridge. Hope for Hoenn. We won't falter."

"You're dang right there is!" Flannery practically roared, pumping her fist. "It doesn't matter what comes. We'll be there giving it our all, and I know you'll be right there standing next to us!"

"We'll be here," Ash swore. "Rain or drought, clouds or sun, at the earth or sea…we're at Hoenn's service."

They smiled at one another.

"And you're going to wear your Contest outfit when it happens, right?"

Ash barked out a laugh. "How much are you willing to pay to make it happen?"

Flannery wilted. "Probably not enough," she confessed. "But think how happy Daisy would be!"

"Too happy, probably."

He did his best to hide the flicker of frustration at the thought of Daisy. Flannery, blissfully oblivious, missed it. Caldera eyed Ash curiously, however.

"But seriously, don't let yourself wither. I saw Lance break. I saw his passion burn into ash as he gave everything to Indigo. I love him for it, but he was one bad day from snapping. Don't do that to yourself or you won't have anything left to give. Take it as someone who knows."

She stared at him for a moment as if he'd sprouted a second head, but Ash held firm. "I don't want to see you like that."

Flannery was quiet for a moment, measuring him up as if she'd never seen him before, then chuckled. "Sure, sure. That means I get to tell you when to chill out too. You know that, right?"

"I think I'm pretty safe," Ash said drily. "The only time I can imagine you telling me to chill out is when I'm already one foot in the grave."

"You've got me there."

Companionable silence fell over them as they watched over their teams. Flannery's partners, including her antisocial Flareon and the teetering Torchic she'd begun training just a few weeks ago, picked a few fights here and there—nothing brought them more joy than challenging Infernus in groups of three or four—and Ash chimed in a few times whenever Dazed or another of his teammates needed a bit of assistance.

Flannery lit up out of nowhere. "Oh! I almost forgot. That kid you keep asking about, remember? That's actually what I came to talk to you about."

"I thought you came here to train." Ash laughed, though he sobered at the thought of Silver. "But I guess that's just a given with you, isn't it?"

"Yeah it is!" Flannery cheered. "Anyways, one of my Gym Trainers was reading through reports. An unregistered trainer matching his description was sighted in one of the mountain villages a few days ago and got into a scuffle with some rough-looking character. In the report it said his Weavile stunned the guy, then the kid grabbed his wallet and everything of value and dipped."

Ash's eyes lit up, even if his lip curled at the thought of Silver remaining a ruffian. "Did they catch him?"

He already knew the answer, but his mood still sank when Flannery shook her head. "Nope, sorry. They knew his threat level and didn't want to engage without back up. They were on their own."

"I get it. I hate it, but I get it," Ash sighed. "I'd trust you and Fino to bring him in, but that's about it."

"I'll keep my ears open," Flannery promised. "Things are calming down a lot. People are angry about what happened to you, but it's not so bad here. Everyone's pulling together."

Ash scratched his chin. "I'm a little worried," he admitted as Claydol and Dazed continued their exercises in the background. No doubt they were poring over every spoken word.

Not that Ash had any secrets from Dazed regardless.

"At least we had a real enemy before. There's Magma, sure, and it sounds like Steven is unraveling more of their web by the day, but the people don't know that. Aqua doesn't deserve their hate."

Flannery sent him a look. "They're not innocent, you know. They've done a lot of good for their own, but they can be rough. And their message has done as much to shake faith in Ever Grande as our actual problems."

"They can be reasoned with," Ash said, recalling his conversations with Rawiri and Arnold. "They want to protect their land and people. I wish they'd work with the League more rather than in parallel, but at least they aren't butchers like the Rockets or pulling strings everywhere they can like Magma."

"I'd almost rather deal with that," Flannery sighed. "Grandpa thinks like you do. So does Champion Drake. And we've failed in the archipelago, I won't deny that. We should've been able to do more!"

Flannery's eyes set ablaze as she grew more impassioned.

"Yeah, we failed. We couldn't protect them like we should've, but the Ever Grande League does its best! It's good. What happens when Aqua gets what they want and break off on their own? They don't have infrastructure. Any manufacturing out in the archipelago is because of the League's efforts. And their best hope, the Battle Frontier, would pull out in a second if they seceded."

She sighed. "They don't have any answers, but they sure are good at letting everyone know what the problems are."

"Yeah, you're not wrong. I just don't want to fight them," Ash admitted. "There's hope for them, and I don't want more suffering to come to the islands either. They've struggled enough."

Flannery looked at him sympathetically. Then she slugged him gently in the shoulder.

"Ow! That's my bad arm," Ash complained. It was a sign of his team's trust in Flannery that they didn't much more than side eye her, even if Nidoking spared their friend a glare. "What was that for?"

"Just bringing you back down to earth!" Flannery laughed. "You were looking pretty gloomy there for a second. It's hard thinking of the big picture, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Ash grumbled. His heart warmed as he looked over his team as they went about their work. "I miss just being a wanderer sometimes. It was simple. Just me and my team out in the wilderness. I'm glad to be a part of the League, but things are so complicated. I just want problems I can punch through."

"I wish I had that time on the road," Flannery said wistfully. She raised her hands up as Ash looked over. "Uh, don't get me wrong! I'm so happy to be the Gym Leader. Lavaridge is the best! Way better than Sootopolis—way too much water for me—and Rustboro which is all boring and mechanical. Um, don't tell Roxanne I said that."

"My lips are sealed."

Flannery grinned. "Thanks, dude. But yeah! This is what I've always dreamed of, and Grandpa's made these the best days of my life. I've learned so much, and I better myself every day. I wouldn't be who I am without being Gym Leader! Every day I get to serve my people is a good one."

"But?"

"Lavaridge is all I've really ever known. I get jealous when I hear you talking about all those amazing places you've been. I'd take a vacation, but…"

There was the whole 'giant monster sleeping under your city' to think of. Ash nodded. Would he even be sane if he was shackled to one place the majority of the time? That itch beneath his skin would drive him crazy!

Oh Ash, you're so funny. 'Sane' is a strong word, don't you think?

"Not helping, Claydol," Ash muttered, and Flannery lit up.

"Ooh, ooh, what did Claydol say this time? Claydol barely talks to me anymore. And I know it's on purpose!" Flannery complained, waving her arms in the air. "All I get now are calming rivers, gentle waterfalls, and trickling water shoved into my head. All that stupid water makes me so mad! At least show a nice hot spring or something!"

Well, she had her reason there.

Ash grinned, recounted what Claydol had said, and relaxed as they settled in for a long night of training.

Life was good.

XX

One of Ash's favorite spots in Lavaridge (aside from the training field, of course) was the private hot springs reserved for the Gym Leader and those they allowed entry. There was enough space closed off from the other hot springs that it doubled as a training ground.

While some of his team were a little uncomfortable in the heat and humidity of the hot springs, but Tangrowth and Torrent were having a ball. It was warm enough that Torrent could actually feel the pleasant heat through his scales, although he winced whenever it brushed his sensitive patch that had been scorched off by Zinnia's dragonfire.

Infernus just looked hopelessly confused by the whole affair…Ash hoped Flannery wouldn't be too miffed when she found the glass he'd twisted a patch of sand into, although there were remnants of similar markings scattered around the sandy area.

That was the hazard of being a town full of fire specialists, Ash supposed.

Ash breathed deeply. Past the moisture, past the heat, past the relaxation was power. The same power he'd inhaled with every waking moment spent by the Sky Pillar, although here it was thin and sparse, barely detectable if he hadn't grown so familiar with it.

Without the perceptions he'd gained it might have been nearly impossible. But he had allowed himself to become one with the world, and now he knew what to look for. Even then it was faint and difficult to discern.

"Feel," Ash instructed Torrent, who listened intently. The steaming water roiled. It felt like an hour passed before Torrent's eyes snapped open in surprise. "You found it?"

Torrent nodded. His expressions were inscrutable most of the time, but even someone unfamiliar with the regal dragon would pick up on the sheer wonder filling him. It sang to Ash through their bond.

"That power is concentrated around the Sky Pillar, but it's everywhere. The highest mountains, the clouds, even the deepest caverns…if there's air, that power is invested in it. Waiting to be tapped. Waiting to be collected and wielded just like you rule the water."

The dragon's scarlet eyes shimmered. For a moment he looked like a scrappy young Horsea eager for a fight again.

Ash smiled. "Remember that feeling? Your power was ready to ignite near the Sky Pillar. If we learn to use this, it'll never leave you again. Zinnia's dragons weaponized it. They were familiar. They focused it further than we could, even if you gave just as good as you got."

The water raged. Tangrowth yelped as some splashed him in the face, although Torrent animated a little whip of water to keep the grass-type entertained in apology.

"That'sour path forward. Let Zinnia do what she will! When we meet her again, we'll greet her with water and dragonfire. She'll learn what a real dragon is. We'll bring the Sky Pillar with us."

That earned a nod of agreement from Torrent, whose noble bearing nearly came undone with his hunger for more. Infernus' eyes lit up like a lazy Meowth who had just spotted a new playmate.

Oh yes, Infernus would have quite the matchup on his hands if Ash had anything to say about it. Plasma Blade gave Infernus a new offensive tool to test Torrent with, but Ash could only dream of the potential they'd unleash if Torrent could truly learn to master the power permeating the air itself.

Let Zinnia see what they could accomplish! Torrent would turn the might of their own myths against them.

And he'd do it better than the Draconids ever could.

He exhaled as Torrent meditated further and began to familiarize him with those little flecks of omnipresent power. While Ash had adored his time in Lavaridge and the opportunities he'd had to share meals and outings with Flannery and Fino (on top of their training, of course) it was nice to get a rare bit of true privacy with his team.

Even Claydol was still contained within the pokéball. The construct had been in a dour mood without Steven around.

There were certain aspects of their training he didn't plan on sharing with anyone just yet, and Fino wasn't willing to let Ash wander off.

No, the depths of the Lavaridge Gym were the only place he could truly be alone right now. If anyone was brave enough to come after it, then they'd have a lot more to worry about than Ash himself.

Ash had seen some of the counter techniques that Fino had developed since their battle. They were beautifully nasty. The things Winston could pull off with animated coal were simply delightful…although not so much for his opponents.

So he set about guiding the rest of the team as well.

Dazed continued her work with Elemental Synthesis, though she was careful to avoid any electricity generation. Ash might not be bothered by it, but they'd both feel terrible if she accidentally zapped Tangrowth while he played and splashed in the water with Lairon.

She'd been relentless about mastering her skills as of late, although Ash caught her exploring new aspects of her powers—she'd been very, very interested in catching the drops of water sent her way by Tangrowth and Lairon's play as they splashed. Perhaps Lotus had given her some inspiration.

Ash would have to make sure they spent plenty of time reading together the following weeks. It wouldn't do for her to lose herself in her quest for mastery.

Lairon was more or less back to normal now and his armor could take a few hits once again. He was still happy to take advantage of the Ever Grande medical staff's very generous allocations of snacks. Ash had taken a storage compartment practically stuffed to the brim with the things; Lairon was munching on a cube of steel even as he evaded Tangrowth's lazy swipes by skating over the surface of the hot spring, although he had no interest in taking a dip.

Hmm, if the motivation was already there…

"Tangrowth, if you catch Lairon you can give him a bath!"

Lairon's baby blue eyes widened in horror as Tangrowth let out an eager gurgle and recruited another bundle of rubbery vines to chase after him, putting the steel-type's magnetic flight to the test and pushing him to his utmost limits. The water tentacle animated by Torrent even while he meditated immediately fell away when it was no longer needed.

Ash leaned back over to Torrent, who appeared to be matching Bruiser's meditative state. "Keep him from accidentally drowning Lairon, please."

One ruby eye opened as Torrent's equivalent of an amused snort thundered out. Ash patted his plated chest (careful to avoid the sensitive areas that hadn't fully healed) and stepped over to Nidoking, who was lost in thought as he stared into the depths of the Moon Stone splinter.

"Any insights?"

Nidoking's nostrils flared. His bandaged tail swayed in the warm sand that clung to Ash's feet. He shook his head, careful to keep his horn away from Ash.

"They'll come," Ash reassured him. He couldn't imagine how hard it was to be in Nidoking's shoes—not only had he begun a half dozen side projects in attempting to master the foundational concepts behind the rest of the team's specialties, but now they were adding another one on top of that. "But we need to have patience. This is something new. Something different! It's going to take a bit of time to unlock its secrets."

His friend's black eyes flickered to the sand. A brief flex of will later and a crude rendition of a Salamence appeared in the grains, though it was noticeably wingless.

"Oh, we'll get them," Ash said with the same voracious hunger that consumed him whenever he thought of the duel beneath the Sky Pillar. "They sealed their fate the moment Lotus stopped that Draco Meteor in its tracks. Survival is one hell of a motivator, don't you think? We owe them plenty of interest."

Nidoking grunted. His claws tightened as if carving into an invisible neck, but the determination welling up from within only redoubled.

Ash took one of his enormous claws within his own two hands. Nidoking's gaze softened even as Ash glanced at the void-filled stone.

"The Moon Stone is sacred to you. Its order is a reminder of times more primordial than burning stars and cosmic winds," Ash said, recalling the way its mere presence had banished the motes of turquoise flame drifting around the Sky Pillar like wayward embers. "Its power remade you from a brave Nidorino into what you are now. It'll come to you again."

Nidoking squeezed back, then set his eyes upon the Moon Stone's inky blackness. The warm light of the hot springs seemed to vanish into it. For a moment Ash shared his own recollections of what it felt like to brush the stone's nature with Nidoking—a rigid, unbending lattice. A memory in physical form, a sliver of an infinity.

Perhaps that would give Nidoking the anchor he needed to dive deep once more. His perception was more limited than Ash's, although he had the advantage of psychic powers. They were simpler and far more accessible than Ash's own insights, but Nidoking could only see the surface of a thing.

Ash perceived it all, beautiful and terrible at once. That wasn't always a good thing, as peering into Suicune's nature had shown him. But he'd been made all the stronger for it. More resilient.

He spent a few more minutes chattering and sharing ideas with Nidoking, smiling each time that tangle of Nidoking's raw emotion and impressions flickered against his own mind, but finally left with one last promise.

"We'll unlock it together," Ash said, releasing Nidoking's claws as he nodded toward the Moon Stone. Nidoking's hand clenched as if missing Ash's tough, and he pat his friend on the cheek. "Next time we see Zinnia, she won't even be able to touch us."

Nidoking bared his teeth in one of his dangerous smiles that matched Ash's own at that, then went back to his attempts.

Plume snoozed on a massive perch constructed in the corner. She had no interest in the hot springs aside from an initial bath—she'd hopped around like a little Pidgey, rushed back to the perch, and happily preened herself until it was time to take a nap.

That was fine. This wasn't necessarily training time, it was just that his family was just as devoted and obsessed with the idea of growing strong as Ash himself was. Plume would best achieve that by resting and getting to the point of managing flight once more.

While there was plenty she could do in the meantime, Ash needed her to fly him to Forina for the next step of her training.

The Sky Pillar had given them plenty to think about, after all.

As for the rest, Seeker had trained against Piper the Torkoal earlier in the day and was utterly exhausted as she hung her tiny body around Bruiser's shoulders. Infernus was content to sit away from the rest and hone his control over Plasma Blade by maintaining it for longer and longer periods of time.

Oz had actually joined Flannery for the day—apparently a few rings of trainers had been helping one another prepare for Flannery's Gym by selectively targeting down her teammates in especially fierce ways. There was nothing wrong with that other than lessening their own challenge, but Ash would have paid to see their faces when they got Oz instead of Caldera.

As for the last…

Lotus rested on a warm rock a distance away. Only a few trickles of lavender gas spilled forth, but that still released enough of its apathetic pressure to crush the wills of most. His team continued on as they ever did. They'd grown more-or-less immune to Lotus' passive influence, although the Spiritomb's full power was still terrible.

It was content to observe on those rare occasions it left its keystone. Ash didn't miss the fact that Lotus normally hid when others came near—he couldn't pin down its exact motivations without deeper contact (which was a draining task even now).

Yet he thought Lotus seemed nervous.

If someone told Ash that a few months ago he might've laughed in their face. A dread creature like Spiritomb, a storm of apathy and misery and turmoil sealed beneath that armor, nervous? He'd treated Spiritomb with all the compassion he could, but simply sitting near it had scraped his soul bare.

Cynthia's words had proven prophetic. He was more prepared than most to embrace this sort of challenge, but there were countless times where he'd just been exhausted by the effort. No doubt part of that was Lotus' own twisted nature influencing him.

But as he watched Lotus' gaseous form occasionally coalescing to peek out at the team with one emerald cinder acting as an eye, Ash knew it was all worth it.

That feeling only solidified when he caught sight of a black ball of fluff curled not too far from the Spiritomb. Lotus was most content around Ash and Bruiser thanks to their long hours of coexistence, although even then it rarely interacted with them, but Sneasel had quickly joined that exclusive club.

Sneasel was uniquely suited to deal with the claws of Lotus' apathy. He was resistant to Distortion by nature, and his extensive training with Mind Breaker had only amplified that. Lotus' power did not scar him as deeply as others.

As a result, Sneasel had been particularly willing to make an effort with Lotus, especially since they had embraced Lotus as one of the team back in Drake's Grotto. Or Lotus had embraced them.

So it wasn't such a surprise to see Sneasel curled up relatively close to Lotus. Ash wasn't sure they were having any deep conversations over there, but at the very least it was a ray of hope for Lotus' future place in the team.

He had seen Sneasel hissing something at Lotus occasionally, though, and even the softened burst of a Mind Breaker released as demonstration. Perhaps Sneasel was hoping for some collaboration in the future.

Ash still hadn't made any further overtures for fear of spooking the hesitant Spiritomb, but he continued to sit and share stories and feelings and everything he could think of with Lotus. All Lotus needed was their company.

More would come later.

Lotus fled back into the keystone as Ash approached, although he still had the curious sensation of being watched. But it was familiar by now.

"Working hard, huh?" Ash teased as he stepped forward and raked his fingers through Sneasel's thick fur. While Hoenn as a whole was too hot for him, he seemed to enjoy basking atop the heated stone. Every now and then a frigid exhale would bring it back to tolerable temperatures. "I'm glad you're resting. It's important not to push yourself too hard."

Sneasel whined and lazily leaned into Ash's hand, earning a smile from the trainer.

"You've come a long way from that little Sneasel who crawled out of the egg in Viridian Forest," Ash said. Sneasel stilled. "You stand as tall as any member of this team. You're a warrior now, you have been for a long while, and I'm proud to call you friend."

Lotus' keystone twitched. Sneasel buried his face between his soft black paws.

Ash laughed.

"Sorry, sorry, I know I'm being sappy," he said. "I've just been thinking, is all."

One eye opened to peek up at Ash. Curiosity.

"Have you put any thought into using the Razor Claw?" Ash asked, suddenly serious. He pulled the Razor Claw from his pocket. Karen had given it to him all those months ago just before they'd come back to Hoenn. Once upon a time Sneasel would've lunged for it.

Now he eyed it like a hot plate. There was doubt in his narrowed eyes.

"It's your choice," Ash said. "You know I'll never pressure you one way or another. You've been ready for evolution for a long while now, but I just wanted you to know that I think you're ready. You're strong enough. Wise enough. Brave enough. When you're ready, let me know. It's waiting for you."

Sneasel hissed something, but didn't reach for it. When it was clear that Sneasel wasn't ready today, Ash stowed the Razor Claw back in his pocket and reached forward to pet the little dark-type.

There was no doubt he was ready physically, but perhaps Sneasel had taken more from his musclebound teacher than simple conditioning.

"You faced down a Master with your own two claws," Ash murmured, luxuriating in the feel of Sneasel's soft fur. "I trust your judgment no matter what. Just think about it, okay?"

Sneasel nodded silently, peered up at Ash's smiling face, and shut his eyes. Best to return to his nap.

Would he have struck down Zinnia with Weavile at his side? It was impossible to say. Sneasel's raw power would explode in leaps and bounds upon evolution thanks to the great heights he'd already achieved in his first stage of development.

When he evolved, his power, stamina, strength…all would be amplified. Everything Sneasel had fought for would become more.

It wouldn't be long now. Sneasel might not be ready today, but he just needed a little time to think about it. While Bruiser's self-doubt and fear of his own terrible power had acted as chains restricting the natural evolution of his mighty body, Sneasel had the luxury of requiring the Razor Claw.

Sneasel didn't have to fear his own power in the meantime. He simply had to deem himself ready.

With that, Ash slipped away and left Sneasel to his slumber.

He'd more than earned it.

XX

The next week saw steady progress for Ash's team, but also frustratingly little in terms of finding the wayward Silver.

Ash kept busy, naturally. His arm was fully healed, marred by little more than a faint scar that Flannery had fun poking at to annoy him, and Plume was a mere day or two away from taking her first flight.

With Fino and Flannery busy and his mother absent, Dazed, Nidoking, Torrent, and Ash spent hours each day poring over reports when they weren't training.

While there was little of Silver beyond out-of-date reports and rumors, it was at least gratifying to see the changes in Hoenn day by day. Ash kept a steady thumb on the League's pulse.

Internal divisions were still a major issue thanks to Magma's little bait and switch with Zinnia and the accusations of her representing Aqua, naturally. The League and Aqua itself, which had begun to take on a more and more public presence these last few months, both denied the identity of Ash's attacker, but there were always those who wouldn't listen.

Aqua hadn't exactly made itself popular amongst the mainlanders, and many were happy enough to throw more mud at the organization's name. While Aqua was hardly without its own sins, Ash himself did all he could to expunge the rumors in that respect.

He hoped it helped.

But as worrying as those mounting tides seemed, Ash couldn't help but be relieved by the simple fact that it seemed Hoenn was finally calming down. The League could deal with the problems stirred up by Magma, but not if scavengers gnawed at them from a hundred different angles.

Zinnia's absence struck the agitators hard—the number of attacks on League bases and civilian areas had plummeted practically overnight now that Rangers could work without fear. The League could finally be the predator again without the chance of leaving vulnerable outposts exposed.

Dozens of the more skilled and experienced poachers and criminal syndicates had been swept up. Lance scoured Route 119 while Karen and Will had essentially taken up a role similar to Ash while they were here last week. Ever Grande was eager to throw a few extra Masters at their problems.

While the Rangers, Elite Four, and Indigo forces helped extinguish the fire, Steven and Metagross proved even more terrifyingly effective in mundane settings as they were in the battlefield.

Much of the communication regarding Steven's investigations were top secret for fear of the sensitive news leaking to the powerful people he had set his eyes upon, but Ash was able to glean enough details from the short messages Steven sent him and Claydol to pick up on just how much progress had been made.

A dozen corporations and discrete organizations had been surveyed and audited. Over two hundred people interviewed, analyzed, and scanned by Steven. Links and relationships and whispers established, cross-examined, and assembled into a cohesive trail of the corruption and dirty deals ensnaring Hoenn's highest powers.

Most would've been exhausted by the minutiae.

Most would've been overwhelmed by the volume of information and the monumental weight of the task.

Steven and Metagross fed off of it. His teacher sounded happier and happier with every message. While Steven was no doubt exhausted, this must have been so much more up his alley than nonstop combat—with all that had been happening in Hoenn for nearly a year now, it was the first time that Steven could really relax and pursue a task like this with anything nearing his full attention.

Such would have been truly impossible if Zinnia were still around nipping at the League's heels and terrorizing their trainers. Her sheer power had emboldened all those drawn here by Magma's call, and the knowledge that a Dragon Master could strike at any moment had played a major role in leaving the League thin and bare.

Was this what Drake had hoped for when Steven first claimed the Ever Grande throne? Champion Drake was many things, but Ash had a hard time imagining him trapped in meetings and diving deep into contracts, surveys, and the sheer torrent of data required to run a region.

Drake had been the only one capable of uniting the warring city-states of Hoenn and directing that bitter anger to a new target. He had gathered their armies, been the mighty fist of Charles Goodshow and the National League, and forged a new future for the island nation.

But Champion Drake wasn't one to be chained to a desk, even if it seemed he'd done his duty well enough in his decades as Ever Grande's Champion. Perhaps Drake had seen in Steven a leader who could clean up the interior and organize all the thousand forces hewn together beneath Drake's impossible strength.

Ash knew he wouldn't have taken that task on in a hundred years. But it seemed to make Steven happy, so…

He took pleasure in his reading and exulted in Steven's victories. He smiled as news of Blaine burning a smuggling outpost to the ground reached his ears. He reveled in the slow healing of Hoenn as the forces which had sought to destabilize the young League were beaten back.

But he wanted to scream every day he couldn't find Silver!

Daily visits with Ranger outposts. Several strolls through cities with Fino, Flannery, or the local Gym Leader at his side. Surveying every scrap and hint from sympathetic League personnel he possibly could.

"It's not impossible!" Ash despaired as he walked furrows in the floor of his very nice room in Lavaridge.

It felt like a warmer version of his quarters in Ever Grande City, both literally and figuratively. The blues and greens which softened the brightness in the League's center of power were nowhere to be found here, but Ash found he quite liked that particular imbalance.

"It's not impossible," Ash repeated to himself, cooling his hot emotions. Flannery had been rubbing off on him, although the cold flame which watched from the back of his head whenever he went through this routine wasn't helping matters. "Just difficult."

Nidoking chuffed his agreement, although he looked ready to unleash a Flamethrower on the ever-growing stack of paperwork that Ash had piled his desk down with. They only did this after long hours of training (or during their lunch breaks) and if it weren't for their exhaustion it would've been much more tempting to just burn it all and forget the boy.

Would Silver even appreciate it if Ash found him?

No, Ash didn't think he would. But he was far from giving a damn about what Silver thought. He was here to bring him in one way or another.

Sure, Silver might not like it. But Ash would be damned if he was going to leave the boy roaming the streets or wilderness or whatever hole he'd found for himself. He would drag him out one way or another.

He couldn't allow Silver to roam free. Not when he might get himself hurt…or worse, hurt someone else in his frantic struggle to remain free and alive.

Nidoking laid a clawed hand upon Ash's forearm, stilling him.

"I know this isn't good for me," Ash admitted. "But what else am I supposed to do? If I'd been a bit more careful, he never would've escaped at all!"

His friend shook his head. A mental tendril brushed Ash's thoughts—denial, refusal, hope.

"I might be a bit hard on myself," Ash said grudgingly. He shook his head. "Sure, I couldn't have known Durand was right around the corner. But who knows what Silver's been up to? I know he's robbed people, gotten into a few scrapes, had to run away from pursuers…he's a dumb kid! He shouldn't have to worry about surviving, and other people shouldn't have to worry about getting on his bad side."

Nidoking nodded along. His ears twitched with every word.

Ash took a deep breath. "It's just frustrating, you know? I hate this chase. Normally problems come to me. Us. We can fight them, we can plan for them…but right now we're just chasing ghosts. And not even the fun kind that will fight back!"

What was Silver doing now? For a long time Ash had been a bit worried about the boy, but mostly just focused on how to find him. But as he spoke more and more often with his mother regarding Silver, things grew hazy.

It was easy to focus on problems and solutions. It was easy to think of fixing things. It was easy to think of winning. Victory was a tangible goal.

But worrying about an idiot kid who was too talented at getting into trouble for his own good?

That was tough.

What was even worse is that there was no end in sight! The League mopping up resistance and pursuing the threads left to them by the mysterious Magma's mistakes might allow them to allocate more resources to the hunt for Silver, but Hoenn was undermanned at the best of times.

Months upon months of conflict had drained their resources dry. Things might be more manageable now, but Hoenn had a long and difficult road ahead of it before the healing could be complete.

And knowing what was to come…

Ash shook those thoughts off. They would help no one. The future was the future. They could prepare, they could plan, but it wouldn't help anyone to become lost in the dread of the world's end.

All he could do was focus on those things he could control.

That was all there was to it.

Ash's PokéNav dinged. While he didn't have the time to read it at the moment, he smiled as Gary's name popped up on the screen. He hadn't told Gary about his 'conversation' with Daisy, but they'd had a steady stream of conversation the past few days.

The Silver Conference was only six weeks away, and Gary was still frantic in attempting to beat Clair. She wasn't making things easy—for every tactic, trick, and technique that Gary developed, Clair had one to match it.

Apparently Lance was rather pleased, although a bit frustrated that it just took an annoying twelve-year-old to bust Clair out of her years of stagnancy. She might even reach that exalted threshold of Master at this rate. Maybe Morma would be up for a bout to let her prove it.

Morma, Lance, Drake, Clair…what was it with dragon specialists having five letter names? Was it some sort of conspiracy?

Zinnia disproved that, Ash supposed. And he'd really thought he was onto something!

Ash refocused. At least he'd been there to assure Lance that Gary was a very annoying twelve-year-old. Jon might be obstinate, but he didn't have it in him to spew out the sheer venom and hatred that Gary had for Clair.

No one did.

Yet he couldn't help the surge of fondness for Gary (acerbic prick that he was) and mentally carved out time to reach out later.

Silence filled the room as Ash stewed on those thoughts.

"I always wanted a sibling, you know," Ash said to Nidoking, who was still staring daggers at the mounds of paperwork. If only Gabite were here now! He flung himself onto his bed and stared up at the fan as it spun to dispel the Lavaridge heat. "Gary might as well have been mine. I swear he spent more days at my house than he did with Professor Oak. At least until he turned into a prick."

Nidoking snorted and curled up in a very large cushion that Ash had set up near his bed for his team to take advantage of. Most were resting in their pokeballs now, although Dazed had ventured off with Lucille and Claydol for a bit to hone a few more of her skills.

"Then there was you!" Nidoking's heavy tail thumped against the floor, although he winced when the bandaged tip struck a little too painfully. "And you're the best I could've ever hoped for. Little me couldn't have imagined how lucky I'd be."

He stared up at the ceiling.

"I guess that's part of what's bothering me about the whole Silver situation," Ash admitted. Nidoking reached up to leave his claws resting atop Ash's bed, which he was happy to take. "I've heard plenty of people say that blood is thicker than water. And you know what? That's a load of crap."

Nidoking snorted. The icy fire burned in the back of his head.

"You're my family. Our team…each and everyone of you belong to me just as I belong to you. My mom? She raised me. She taught me right from wrong. She made me who I am, same as Professor Oak. Gary's an ass, but he's my brother all the same. Lance, Steven, Karen—I guess when you look at it, I have a pretty big family after all. And only one of them's related through blood."

Some might have said Giovanni was family. And depending on the definition, that statement might be true. But not for Ash. There was a difference between a sperm donor and a parent.

No, the DNA one was born with wasn't what defined family. Actions did. Love did.

In the end, family was chosen, not inherited.

And in some strange way, Ash had chosen Silver. Whether he liked it or not.

The icy flame roared. Ash hissed, jerking up as a brief twinge of pain shot through his nervous system. He clutched his head for a moment and waved Nidoking's concerned look away.

"Just a headache. I think."

And then that terrible baritone filled his ears, mind, and soul. Ash shuddered as power filled him. It was cold and vast as a stormy sea, yet all he could feel was the barest drop as it suffused him in its fist.

But it was not as all-consuming as it once was. Not so impossibly heavy.

It reminded him of that piercing pain through his heart. It reminded him of the void.

Yet all he could focus on was what Mewtwo said.

Would you like to know where your brother is?

Nidoking rose. Dark power flickered around his claws.

Ash's jaw tightened.

"Tell me."

XX

It was just Ash's luck that Drake was the one assigned to accompany him.

While Ash had been eager to move on the moment Mewtwo had deigned to speak with him, there were still protocols to be followed. He'd sought out Dazed and Claydol, found that Fino wouldn't be able to chaperone him, and began to put the beginnings of his plan together.

"I need an hour alone," Ash said bluntly as they strolled Rustboro's streets. There was no point trying to play coy with Drake, and that wasn't really something Ash was interested in trying in the first place.

Better to come out swinging.

"Can't," Drake grumbled. He cut an odd sight in Rustboro's grey streets with his long coat, worn captain's hat, and intimidating figure. Drake wasn't an especially large man, but he seemed a giant for all the folks gawking and stopping at his passing. It was rare to see the former Champion on the mainland, let alone in Rustboro. "Wouldn't hear the end of it."

"Then not alone. But I need some space. Could you hang back a few hundred feet and just follow? I need to do something."

Claydol spun at Ash's shoulder.

As amusing as this is certain to be, I'm really not comfortable with getting dragged into messy family issues. Steven's are enough for me, thank you very much.

To be honest, Ash very much doubted that. Claydol seemed exactly the sort to indulge in family drama. He'd come back to the TV in the Lavaridge Gym's lounge flipped onto reality TV shows and sloppy tabloid channels full of paternity tests, disputes, and other tedious affairs to know that Claydol absolutely adored it.

But he took the offering for what it was and nodded gratefully at Claydol.

"You could keep an eye on me," Ash suggested. "Stick with Drake, keep an eye out for trouble, and sound the alarm if anything unfortunate happens."

This waterlogged Rattata of a boy is certain to be a grave threat. Good luck!

Ash rolled his eyes as Claydol manifested psychic power in the form of a salute.

Drake squinted down at him. "Lance said you like to get into trouble."

Well, that wasn't untrue.

"Funny," Ash said. "He said the same thing about you."

Smoke billowed out from Drake's nostrils as he took a puff of his cigar. One hung from one of Claydol's faces as well—Claydol claimed it was for style points, whatever those were.

"Steven's going to whine."

"Steven doesn't have to know."

And if that doesn't describe your general attitude since you returned to Hoenn, I don't know what does.

"You've survived a Dragon Master at the Sky Pillar with just a little scratch," Drake said after a moment. "Not too worried about you getting killed in this smelly city. Tell me what you're doing and we have a deal."

"I've been tracking a kid. Silver. Red hair, Rocket, bad attitude. You know of him?"

Drake grunted. Ash thought that might be a 'yes'.

"He's here. I have it on good authority. I'm going to find him, grab him, and bring him in one way or another. He's no threat to me."

A cornered beast would fight like nothing else, but Silver couldn't be in the best shape after months on the run. Sneasel alone had brought half his team to his knees, and he'd grown by leaps and bounds since the duel with Durand.

The sight of Bruiser might just give Silver's team heart attacks.

"Glacia'll have my hide if you get a scratch on you," Drake said. "So don't."

"I don't plan on turning it into a fight."

Ash had the sneaking suspicion that he'd just uttered Drake's least favorite sentence in existence, but at least the threat of Glacia seemed to mollify Drake somewhat.

"I'll follow. Claydol can keep me updated," Drake said, taking another puff. Claydol mimicked him, although the sight of a Claydol using its psychic powers to smoke of all things attracted almost as much attention as Drake himself. "Got a bribe?"

He dutifully tapped a storage compartment to materialize a box of Alolan cigars that Claydol had bought for him. They were technically just an offshoot of a few Hoennic styles (according to Claydol) but Ash thought the variety might be nice.

But what did he know?

Hell, he didn't even know if Claydol had actually bought them or just stolen them. What Ash could be certain of was that he gave Claydol a wad of cash, sent him off into Lavaridge, and that the construct eventually came back with the contraband.

Perhaps it was silly, but trying to keep it hidden from his mother, Fino, and Flannery (who would probably get a kick out of it, but she had a big mouth) was more nerve wracking than some of the missions he'd been on in the last few months.

Drake didn't even bother to ask where Ash had gotten it. He just snatched the box, eyed it critically, and stowed it away with a 'hrmph' before any do-gooder could catch sight of the exchange.

"You have two hours."

Ash didn't bother thanking Drake, knowing the nicety would be wasted on a man with even fewer social graces than Ash himself. He dashed off, releasing Sneasel and Dazed, and followed the direction of the cold hand guiding his mind.

He tried not to think about it too much.

Rustboro passed around them in a blur. Sneasel sprinted ahead, climbing lampposts and generally making a minor nuisance of himself as he dashed through the city and explored, although Ash was proud that he never had to properly ask Sneasel to stop.

Sneasel understood boundaries now. Unfortunately, that meant he was fantastic at skirting the edges of what was acceptable.

He is not what he was. Perhaps I will have to determine a new moniker for the Brat.

Ash's lips twitched as he led them through the iron jungle of Rustboro. The glitz and glamor of the central areas at the city's shining heart slowly faded as they entered the industrial side. While there were no truly rundown areas, the people who lived here were more concerned with efficiency and getting their job done than keeping everything nice and shiny.

He respected that.

There were still plenty strolling the streets, although most were at work this time of the day. Plenty of Zigzagoon burrowing through dumpsters eyed him curiously, though, and Sneasel delighted in chasing them until he sensed that Ash was about to intervene, at which point he scurried back to loop around Ash's shoulders and purr into his ear.

"Yeah, yeah, you're very innocent."

Sneasel hissed in agreement.

Just a few weeks ago he'd been here in all the high society nonsense of the Stone's gala. Had Silver hidden away on these streets then, or had he only recently found his way here?

Such thoughts troubled Ash as the nudge took him down an intricate networks of dark alleys. A few Tailow and Wingull chirped down at him and Ash spared smiles for them. There were a few tattered bedrolls tucked away in the odd corner or alcove and Ash's heart twinged.

All were empty, although there was a chubby Poochyena snoozing in a veritable mountain of dirty blankets and surprisingly organized living supplies. It looked quite content with its dark belly exposed to the air and its little legs kicking as it dreamed.

Dazed seemed right at home walking the alley, and they spared a Grumpig a wave. It shuddered as it saw Ash, but smiled back. While Grumpig were most at home on mountainsides, it was quite common for them to congregate in cities as well. They didn't feast on dreams, but they filled a similar niche as Hypno did back in Indigo.

They adapted well to the urban environments favored by humans, and it wasn't uncommon for them to play vital roles in the wild pokémon communities as translators and mediaries between their groups and humans.

Ash knew where to go. The city unfolded before him. Yet he still hesitated before Grumpig. He felt a surge of sympathy as it quivered.

"I won't be long," Ash promised. He kept his voice as gentle as possible. Most of the League psychics he was around were at least powerful enough to tolerate his presence, but it was easy to forget just how traumatic of an experience he could be for the average psychic. "There's a boy I'm looking for. Red hair. A little younger than me. Can you tell me about him?"

The Grumpig refused to look directly at Ash, but its black pearls shone brightly with its luminous eyes as it connected with Dazed.

She relayed the information swiftly.

Anger. Loss. Desperation. Hunger. Protector.

Ash sighed at the first impressions, but paused at the last. "Yeah, that's what I was afraid of. Thank you, Grumpig."

He materialized a bit of food from a storage compartment—a bundle of Sitrus Berries, plus the lunch he'd packed for himself—and passed it to the psychic, who squealed happily as it eagerly took the snacks.

The last few months of missions had taught Ash that it always paid to have food ready. Wild pokémon were just as eager for training supplies and medicine, but a free meal or two always went a long way in establishing trust.

With that done, they followed Ash's gut further into the depths of the industrial district. The sheer wealth and opportunity provided by modern technology and matter-energy conversion ensured that few areas were properly bad. The League had seen fit to spread its bounty.

Pockets remained, of course, but even these areas were relatively clean and organized. Just not sparkling like Rustboro proper.

Yet Ash saw hunger. Defeat. The lost.

It gnawed at him, yet all he could do now was to follow the mental nudge.

And at last he slipped through a few shabby wooden outposts, Dazed's glare and Sneasel's claws enough to turn a few dark gazes on the street corners and in alleys away, and Ash strode fearlessly forward.

No doubt Drake wasn't too far back. There was nothing for Ash to fear regardless, but he knew that Steven would be sweating right now.

Ash took a deep breath as he approached a shabby one-story building with peeling paint and cracked windows. It was functional enough, but the shelter's best days were long behind it.

"Sneasel, Dazed, make sure he can't teleport."

He knocked on the once-red door, but released Nidoking just to be safe.

The cold presence watched through his eyes.

Nidoking's ears twitched, and he stepped in front of Ash just as the door clicked due to being locked. Ash heard a shuffle, nodded to Dazed, and her eyes flashed. While they could have simply teleported inside, instead her delicate powers suffused the lock and caused the door to swing open as the mechanisms flipped in their favor.

"Get out! Get out or Feraligatr is going to bite your head off!"

Ash strode fearlessly through the doorway. The bulky Feraligatr attempting to block it opened its enormous jaws, eyes fearful at the sight of Ash, but Dazed's pendulum twitched. Psychic power encased its head and locked its jaws close as she Disabled it.

"Silver? I'm here to talk."

White claws flashed. Sneasel appeared in a blur to smack Silver's Weavile with the flat of his claws, striking it down and hissing as his own claws rested at the evolved pokémon's throat. It went limp.

There was an Absol to the side, but it had already seized and fallen unconscious. Oops.

Silver eyes shadowed with exhaustion flashed as Ash caught sight of the skinny boy in dirty, ragged clothes. His red hair was greasy and unwashed, tangled and mussed, and the boy's skin was ghostly pale.

He looked like a discount Tobias.

Pity filled him.

"You!" Silver snarled, pressed back against the wall. The small pink blob at his side Transformed into a copy of Dazed even as Gallade materialized and attempted to warp them all away in a flash of light, but Dazed's power was overwhelming.

They went nowhere.

"Me," Ash acknowledged. He narrowed his eyes at Silver. "You look like crap."

"Screw you!" Silver growled. "Get out of here! Leave me alone. I haven't done anything."

Ash stared at Gallade as the psychic tried to teleport them once again to the same result.

Stop. We're here to help you.

Gallade's eyes rolled up in the back of his head and the guardian fell to his knees, although he recovered after a few seconds of focus. The psychic had about as good of a time around Ash as Daisy's Gardevoir did. At least Wally's Ralts seemed to like him well enough.

"What did you to him?" Silver hissed, moving to stand in front of the staggering psychic. Ash's eyes widened by a fraction at the protective gesture. Hope. "Back away!"

"Tell your team to stand down," Ash said, raising his hands in a placating gesture as Sneasel eyed Gallade for any further teleportation attempts. "I'm not here to fight. I'm not here to arrest you. I'm here to help."

Silver stared at Ash as he would a particularly dangerous Tyranitar, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. Ash's expression was even, but inside he was marveling at just how small the boy was. He wasn't quite skin-and-bones, but Silver was wiry and lean from hard living.

His eyes were dark. His hair was lank. His cheekbones poked out from beneath his white cheeks.

Ash's mom's heart would've broken at the sight of him, and even Ash felt the stirring of pity. This was what he'd been chasing for all these months.

"I'm not hurting anyone. Just go!"

"You're hurting yourself," Ash said. Banking off the way Silver was standing in front of Gallade, who was also a fair bit leaner than the last time he'd seen the psychic, Ash knew just what button to press next. "It looks like you're hurting your team as well."

Silver scowled, but there was no arguing that: Gallade was stripped of everything but corded muscle, Feraligatr's thick hide hung loose, and…well, Ditto was Ditto. You could throw garbage on the things and they'd just digest it. Or they could Transform into a grass-type to photosynthesize.

He'd have loved to get his hands on one.

"You couldn't beat me at the atoll, and you definitely can't beat me after you've been on the run the last few months," Ash said. He'd spent so long imagining what he'd say to Silver, and now he'd already gone off the rails. "Even if you could, I have backup if I need it."

What would Silver say if he heard Champion Drake the Dragon Master was Ash's back up? Oh, Ash would kill to see the look on the petulant boy's face.

"The League never stands alone," Silver said bitterly, as if quoting someone. "Weak."

"Strong," Ash corrected. "If working together makes you weak, why don't you just send your team off? You should be better on your own."

"That's different and you know it!" At least Silver's annoyance at Ash kept things moving. Maybe he'd have to keep poking at the boy to keep him from bottling it all up. "How did you even find me? I've been careful! We haven't left a trace!"

How to explain that one when Ash could barely understand Mewtwo's act of charity himself? No, Ash wasn't even going to bother.

Besides, he felt a little surge of amusement at Silver's fuming when Ash just shrugged noncommittally. This was just payback for the wild hunt Ash been sent on since he'd dueled Durand. "Guess you weren't as careful as you thought."

"I was!" Silver snapped. He looked helpless with his team broken down in mere seconds by just a handful of Ash's own partners. No doubt he wanted anything but to have (somewhat) polite conversation with Ash, but Ash had left him no other option. Oh well, sucked to be Silver. "Just arrest me. I'll do anything as long as it means I don't have to look at your stupid face!"

"Sneasel, is my face stupid?"

Sneasel waved his claw as if to say, 'eh'. Ash snorted.

"Well, if you want to remain a free man and be left alone, you have one option."

Suspicion marred Silver's exhausted face. "What?"

"Come get lunch with me."

XX

They must've made for an odd sight as a stunned hostess ushered them into a private room at one of Rustboro's nicest restaurants. She'd almost waved them off in irritation before she recognized Ash and immediately changed her tune.

Silver was a mess, naturally, and looked as if he hadn't showered in days. Smelled like it too. Ash would've wrinkled his nose if he weren't used to traveling on the road for days upon days, although at least they took care of themselves.

He doubted the other boy had that luxury.

Ash wasn't exactly dressed to the nines either. He was in a pair of the navy athletic shorts that Karen had bought for him, which managed to strike a nice balance between practical and dressy. If it weren't for his station he'd be laughed out of a place like this, although Dazed at his side might have had something to telepathically say about that.

This wasn't the sort of place to cater to people like Ash and Silver, but Steven had mentioned it fondly in passing once—Ash had later seen a picture of an awkwardly smiling Steven, Skarmory, and Claydol plastered up on the wall in a place of honor—and Ash hoped that some proper food would buy him a bit of favor with the prickly boy.

At least Gallade seemed a proper fit in the dim lighting provided by the candles flickering throughout the private room. It was spacious, clearly meant for business parties rather than two scruffy boys with scowls on their faces, and it felt a little awkward to sit across from Silver with space for twenty other diners on their left and right.

But Silver had acted just as Ash hoped when the bread and olive oil was brought in. He'd immediately turned to look at it with ravenous eyes, then caught Ash looking at him and scowled. Gallade was quick to snag a thick slice of bread when Silver passed it over to him instead and seemed happy to crunch on it.

"I don't need your pity!"

Silver's stomach growled loudly.

"It's not pity. It's a peace offering."

"Same difference."

"Just eat the damn bread, Silver," Ash said, rolling his eyes. It was like talking to Gary without the sass. He'd never have thought he'd miss it. How the hell had Silver survived so long with this obstinate attitude?

Stupid question. That bad attitude was probably what had kept him pushing forward.

It took a moment, but Silver immediately stuffed his face as Ash deliberately looked away to whisper nonsense to Dazed. He'd just have to allow the boy his pride.

A small sacrifice.

Silver acted like someone who hadn't eaten in days. That likely wasn't true, but it was genuinely impressive to watch him devour half the basket of deliciously warm bread in what seemed just a few seconds.

"My name's Ash."

The other boy scoffed. "I know who you are! And you clearly know who I am."

"Yeah, I do."

Silver wiped a smear of olive oil from his face and glared.

"Why aren't you arresting me? Don't you know what I've done? I've beaten your Rangers. I've robbed people. I'm a filthy Rocket, aren't I? One of the Rockets you broke."

So Silver had seen the broadcast he'd made to all of Hoenn. Good. But also awkward.

"You're a bit more than that."

"You're right. I'm not just a Rocket, I led them. So why are we talking?" Silver demanded. "Get it over with! Let's fight this out, then you can toss me into the Trench or Roost or whatever dark pit the League has ready. Stop bullshitting me."

"Didn't seem like you were leading much of anyone. Domino seemed to—"

"Don't you dare say her name!" Silver roared loudly enough that Ash feared a waiter would poke their heads in to check out the commotion. Gallade tensed, psychic power ready to flare to life, but Dazed's swinging pendulum quickly dispelled that notion. "It's your fault she's gone! If you hadn't been there—!"

"If I wasn't there you'd probably have been killed by Durand," Ash snapped back. "And shut up, won't you? You're going to get us kicked out before we even get the main course."

That shut Silver up, although the crimson-haired boy stewed as he watched Ash with a dozen different emotions swirling inside.

Food definitely seemed like the best motivator. Ash would have to keep that in mind.

"How'd you evade the League so long?" Ash asked once things had cooled off a bit. Silver vengefully tore off a hunk of bread. "I've been looking for you for a long time."

"I know how to hide," Silver said. He swallowed the bread without more than a cursory chew. "Ranger outposts are easy to evade if you know where they're being kept busy, and Gallade got me out whenever those idiots came too close. The cities are even easier. Too busy. And there's always people willing to pay for a fight."

Silver likely meant underground fighting rings by that. They were extremely rare, but they were known to exist in secretive areas hidden from the League's surveying eyes. Some were more or less harmless, just a place for unofficial tournaments to take place. Others were more illicit, although battles to the death were practically unheard of.

For one, it was stupid. Ash would be lying if he tried to say it never happened, but it was a waste of a good fighter. Few pokémon were willing to allow something like that to occur either. Worst of all, if a pokémon down in the pits knew they had nothing to lose, they'd likely just go on a rampage and do their utmost to kill as many humans as possible.

Metal cages couldn't hold any but the weakest pokémon. Mundane materials paled in comparison to their strength and abilities.

No, Silver had probably just gotten involved in the more harmless ones. Ash would have to check that later. They didn't exactly care for registration, and a trainer of Silver's caliber would've been a true monster.

To be honest, Ash was more surprised that none of the League's agents had reported the anomaly, although they'd certainly had much bigger problems on their hands in the last few months than the fighting rings.

"I was about to move on from Rustboro," Silver hissed. "But just my luck, you found me."

"Funny, I was about to say the same thing. I'm the best person who could have found you, you know."

"Screw you."

Silver's eyes squeezed shut, but his stomach growled loudly again as their smiling waiter came in, said a few complimentary words, and set down a steaming meal of delicious food that Ash didn't even know the names of. It was proper mainland cuisine, but Ash wasn't exactly familiar with the world of fine dining.

He'd just picked a few items off the menu at random. Dazed had suggested a few.

I am well known for my interest in the culinary arts.

Ash hid a smile at that.

"So what comes next?" Silver didn't bother with his utensils, diving in with just his hands until he was wrist deep in some strange dish full of synthetic meat and vegetables. His mom would've been appalled at his table manners. "Don't think for a second I believe you! Who'd go to the trouble of tracking me down just to feed me lunch?"

He hesitated, but Dazed's mental nudge and the flush of comfort she offered gave him the strength to go through with it.

"Your brother."

Silver stopped chewing. He didn't look at Ash. "Shut the hell up. You're not my brother. I'm leaving."

He rose (but not before he grabbed the entire dish) but Ash raised his hand. Gallade didn't try to teleport him, well-aware that Dazed would've dismantled his efforts immediately.

"I know who you are, Silver. Giovanni's son," Ash said, swallowing as a painful lump formed in his throat. It was difficult to force the words out. "He's my…"

Ash was actually grateful when Silver cut him off. He had no clue how to put all those furious feelings into the world.

"You think I'm stupid? Trust me, I know exactly who you are!" Silver scowled. But he sat back down. "The great Ash Ketchum! I couldn't go a day without hearing your damn name. The Indigo Finalist as a rookie! The Prodigy of Pallet! The one who earned the Earth Badge."

It was the last that was spoken with the most venom.

"Yeah, I know who you are," Silver finished softly. "He never let me hear the end of it."

Ash's eyes narrowed to slits as his fingers curled into claws. "Giovanni?"

"Who else?" Silver retorted. "You were all he fucking talked about towards the end! I beat Archer in a battle? Guess what, Ash beat that sick bastard Pierce. You screwed with his operations, brought the League down on his head, and he still wanted you."

He had no idea what to say to that except, "Why? I hated him. I never would've joined him in a million years!"

Silver's smirk was brittle. "Should've told him that. Stupid bastard met you once, lost his Gym, and acted over the moon about it. By his standards, at least."

"I wish I met him a second time," Ash said with a scowl. "He would've regretted every second of it."

The boy's eyes flickered. "You wouldn't say that if you knew what he was. Not if you knew him."

"It doesn't matter. Giovanni was a monster. I would've done anything I could to bring him down," Ash said. His fists tightened. "It's the least I can do for carrying his blood."

"How noble!" Silver's voice dripped with acid. He looked at Ash with abject loathing. "You're such a hero. Are you going to save a Meowth from a tree while you're at it?"

"I think a Meowth is perfectly capable of—"

"Shut up! Are you trying to piss me off? Just let me go. All you had to do was show up, ask for Giovanni, and he would've wrapped you up in a fucking hug. He was waiting for you! The second you turned up I was less than dirt."

Ash snorted. "You're the one he raised."

Silver laughed madly at that, although Gallade shot him a concerned look. The psychic rested his hand upon Silver's shoulder and his eyes flashed purple as soothing impulses washed over Silver's neurons.

The laughter eased, but Silver still seemed an inch from hysteria.

"You think so? I was never enough, and the moment you came into the picture he realized just what a disappointment I was," Silver said bitterly. "Three years of training and you outstripped me in months! I couldn't fight him. I couldn't prove myself. But you did."

"I didn't prove crap," Ash growled. "This isn't some screwed up competition. I survived. I went for the Earth Badge. I didn't even know who he was until after he got blown up!"

Silver's eyes glinted at that little scrap, but his lips quirked up in twisted amusement. "So you did all that and didn't even know? You outdid me without even knowing…"

"Just stop," Ash sighed, quelling his irritation with the way this conversation had gone. "You want to know why I bothered tracking you down, Silver? At first I just wanted to arrest you and make you the League's problem, but I can't do that. You're a prick with a bad temper and a chip on your shoulder, but I was hoping you could be more."

The redheaded boy watched balefully.

"Gallade believed in you. He begged me to let you free. He saw the seed of something good inside you, even if it had been watered with nothing but cruelty."

Silver twisted to crane his neck at Gallade, who uncomfortably stared right up at the ceiling.

Yeah, they'd definitely be having a conversation later.

"I didn't know who you were back then, but I spoke to Domino. She must have known, because she gave me enough information to put the pieces together. And I still thought of nothing but making sure you couldn't hurt other people."

"All I did was survive," Silver growled. "I did what I had to!"

"Not when you were with the Rockets," Ash pointed out. "You were strong. You could've made a difference…but forget that. But the more I thought of it, the more I realized I wanted to help."

"Pat yourself on the back," Silver said as he turned away from Gallade. "Good job! You fed a dirty criminal. I hope you tell all your League buddies so they can congratulate you."

Ash ignored him. That seemed to piss Silver off more than anything by the way he gnashed his teeth. He met the boy's silver eyes.

"You're more than what you've been forced to become, Silver. I'm not asking you to like me. I'm not asking you to trail along in my shadow. All I'm asking is for you to take the chance that you're being offered. There's a better path for you, and I'll move the earth and sea if it means that you're free to follow it."

Silver couldn't bear to look at Ash any longer. He glanced away, some of his venomous vitriol lost, and he stared into his silver dish as Ash's simple conviction bored into him like the rays of the sun.

"Do you know what he called me the last time we spoke?"

Ash blinked.

Silver's lips twisted into a wry smirk. It didn't hide the pain in his eyes. "Gallade and I had just failed one of his tests—we couldn't escape Persian and his Nidoking before they would have killed us. They tore us apart."

"I've heard stories about the Persian."

"All true and more," Silver said, though he spoke fondly of the feline. "Fast, vicious, and stronger than a Machoke."

Maybe not all Machoke.

"We didn't stand a chance, not even with the entire team," Silver said with old bitterness. "And then he turned to me with that look in his eyes! 'What else could I have expected from my silver medal?'"

Ash sharply inhaled.

"That's when I knew what I was: the silver medal to your golden boy. I don't know if that's why I was named, but that's what I became the moment he found you again!" Silver finished with a snarl. "You were my finish line, and every time I struck a new milestone he'd tell me you'd moved the goalposts further. And then when I finally met you face-to-face, I couldn't even scratch you."

Ash's heart panged. "Giovanni was a piece of shit."

Silver flinched, squeezing his eyes shut as if fearing some unseen reprimand, and fury rang in Ash's breast. Then the boy took a deep breath and it was over. "Yeah," Silver rasped. "He really was. A real piece of shit!"

At least they could agree on that much.

"I'm sorry," Ash said, meeting Silver's eyes. While the boy's eyes matched his name, there was still that odd familiarity to him. It was like Ash had seen him a dozen times before, though he supposed it was just their own family resemblance. And wasn't that strange to think about! "That's not pity, it's a fact. You deserved better than him."

Silver was silent, though they chatted tersely for a time. Silver was still acerbic. Ash was still impatient, finding that his half-brother had a way of getting under his skin. He was prickly, blunt, and wasn't about to lose that chip on his shoulder soon.

Ash didn't know when Silver stopped seeing him as an outright enemy, but it at least softened the boy a tad. He could at least speak with him.

And as their time came to an end, Ash told Silver that their two hours were nearly up. He made sure to grab a To-Go box for Drake. That might mollify him for what Ash was about to pull. Drake definitely didn't sign up for this.

Silver watched enviously as Ash easily paid for the meal—which nearly broke four figures after all Silver had ordered—without a care, then shared a glance with Gallade, whose eyes flashed purple.

"Do you really think the League would let me go?"

Was that hope? Silver certainly tried to disguise it with scorn, but Ash didn't miss the true intent. Silver wasn't half as subtle as he hoped.

"They would. I'll make sure of it—Steven is already supportive, and I think Wallace would listen. They're good people, Silver. They'll give you a chance."

"Steven and Wallace," Silver mouthed, plainly flabbergasted by Ash's casual mention of the Ever Grande Champions. "Just like that?"

"Maybe not just like that," Ash said, waving his hand. "They'll need assurances. But if you're willing to make this choice, I'll put my name behind yours. You'll probably be tracked and have to register, maybe check-in every so often, but you'll be free to live your life. No more skulking in alleys. No more fighting for every new day."

Silver's harsh mask broke at that. His eyes squeezed shut and his pale face looked terribly young.

Ash extended his hand. "You have a future, Silver. You only have to choose it."

And Silver did.

"What do I have to lose?"

XX

"Could've warned me you were going to stir up a bunch of shit," Drake said with a scowl. His hands were stuck deep in his coat pockets. "Wouldn't have agreed if I knew this would be such a pain in the ass."

Ash shrugged. "Didn't think it would go so well."

Drake grunted.

Once Silver had taken Ash's hand, it only took a few minutes to convince the boy that they'd have to venture together to Ever Grande City. At first Ash had thought it to be an impossible task, but Silver had given in surprisingly quickly.

Ash was beginning to suspect his half-brother had prayed for an opportunity like this to come along. How desperate had he become in his months on the streets?

The Rangers on guard had initially freaked out when Ash had Bob bring him, Silver, and Drake to Ever Grande City (and Ash had fun poking at Bob when he'd grown drunk on Mewtwo's power once again to whisk them there) but had been happy enough to take Silver to a visitor's room to set him up for a short stay.

Silver desperately needed a change of clothes, a shower, and a doctor. He'd provided well enough for himself through those illegal fights, but malnutrition had still struck him. The boy had sacrificed much for his team—and that alone showed more development than Ash could've hoped for—and Ash suspected he'd pass out for a few days once he had the chance to rest in a safe place.

But for this to stick, Ash had to talk to the head Honchkrow.

"C'mon," Drake said, slamming the door to the Ever Grande meeting chamber open without a care. Then again, he'd built the place. He could afford to be a little reckless. "Let's get this over with."

"Elite Four Drake," Wallace said pleasantly as he seated himself at the Sootopolis portion of the Hoenn table. "Ash. I wasn't expecting to meet with you today, but it's lovely to see you both! What brings you here?"

"I'm curious as well," Steven said by Rustboro. He smiled at Ash. "Has Claydol been treating you well?"

"Claydol's missed you. I think it's a little depressed without you to pick at."

Steven's eyebrows rose, but Wallace cut him off.

"I hate to cut the welcome short, but I have a meeting with several civic leaders from Slateport and Lilycove within the hour. We'll have to rush things along, I'm afraid."

"Fine in my book," Ash said. He stepped forward and passed a copy of Silver's file he'd printed out to Wallace, who took it with some sense of familiarity. Silver wasn't a top project of the Ever Grande League since he'd stopped actively causing trouble, but he was certainly on their radar. "Found him in Rustboro. Talked with him. Want to offer him clemency in exchange for whatever information he has."

Wallace blinked. "Oh."

"Yep."

"Those are some nice cigars, Drake," Wallace said too pleasantly. "Wherever did you get them?"

Drake's mustache twitched. "I have my sources."

"I'm sure you do," Wallace said, rolling his eyes. "Would you care to elaborate? I might be interested in picking up a new hobby."

The Dragon Master took a puff of his cigar and spat out a smoke ring, which Armaldo lunged at to devour. "Nah."

Wallace gave a long-suffering sigh. "You're clearly not aiming to be helpful today. Ash, can you please explain your side of this affair?"

"Sure," Ash said, glad that Wallace was giving him the time of day. Steven would always listen to him, and did even now, but Wallace was a busy man thanks to the cripplingly heavy white Champion's Mantle draped around his shoulders. "He wants a way out. He'd provide good information. He's misguided, could be an asset. Dumb kid. Brought himself to Ever Grande willingly. You can either toss him into the Trench or give him the chance to turn over a new leaf. And I think he wants to be better."

"Quite the convincing case," Steven said slowly, no doubt remembering the previous conversations that he and Ash had about the Silver. "I'm loath to condemn a child, although we'd obviously need to ensure that he's genuine. Questioning, psychics scans, the like."

"It would be a waste of resources to refuse this opportunity," Wallace acknowledged, though he glanced oddly at Ash. "And we can scarcely afford inefficiencies at the moment. Yes, I'm willing to offer him an arrangement in response for his aid. But still…"

Perhaps Ash fell for Wallace's bait, but he couldn't care less. "I'll take full responsibility for him. But give him a chance. Please."

Steven blinked, confused at such a gesture for a seemingly random boy.

"Steven, may we have a moment?"

"Certainly," Steven said, somewhat oblivious to the undertones. He gave Ash a nod as he strode out with Drake, who just looked happy to be out of the damn conference chamber. "It's time for my session with Regirock regardless. You know where to find me."

While Steven didn't seem to find anything strange about Ash's request, Wallace certainly did. The man's expression turned curious as Steven left. He turned to Ash once the door clicked close behind Drake and Steven, who had already begun some cursory conversation regarding Steven's recent investigations into several members of Devon's board.

"Steven is a good man. He's certainly the finest friend I could ask for! But he's never been the most adept in social matters without Claydol to pick up on all the context he's missing. So Ash, please tell me what's going on."

Ash hesitated, but Wallace urged onward.

"You've shed blood for Hoenn. There's nothing you could say to stop me in my tracks. I know you're a friend of Ever Grande, and you will be forever treated as such."

"I…" Ash hesitated. "It's very personal."

"Then all the more reason for you to come to me," Wallace said. "I won't speak with Steven or Lance regarding this matter unless it's of the utmost importance. I swear it. Your secret is safe with me if it doesn't compromise Hoenn or its people."

While that was far from an ironclad promise, Ash appreciated it nonetheless. Wallace was genuine in his word, and his transparency in regards to the condition for his silence made Ash trust him all the more.

To be honest, Ash would be worried if Wallace would keep a secret that would endanger his League. But while Ash didn't know him so well as Steven or Lance, he trusted Wallace nonetheless.

"The boy—Silver—he's…" Ash's breath choked. If only he'd thought to release Dazed or Nidoking ahead of this! But he'd been in such a rush. "He's my brother."

Wallace's turquoise eyebrows rose practically to his hairline. Was that a grey hair Ash saw?

"Isn't he…"

"Giovanni's son, yes," Ash said coolly. "That bastard is the link we share. Explains a lot, really."

"I suppose it does," Wallace said, looking past Ash as if various mysteries had just come together. "I'd be lying if I said I hadn't checked your file, Ash. This does make quite a bit of sense, and I appreciate your honesty."

"Don't judge him off that!" Ash said quickly. "Silver's done bad things, but he's just a stupid idiot. He can be better. He will be better. I've seen it in him. Just give him a chance…please."

"Do I judge Steven for his cousin's actions?" Wallace questioned. "No, this Silver will stand on his own merit. And he's made mistakes, no doubt. He's been a thorn in the League's side. And yet…"

Ash let Wallace stew for a moment.

Oh, he knew there were all sorts of practical considerations floating around in Wallace's head—Silver was a powerful trainer, a threat to even a Gym Leader, and yet he was just a boy. Cruel, perhaps, and vicious out of necessity, but he could change. He was still malleable as clay.

And with Ash taking responsibility for him, whatever resources devoted to hunting Silver could be reassigned permanently. They would go a long way in forging the new Hoenn that Wallace sought to drag out of this crucible.

But beyond all the practical concerns, Ash also knew that Wallace cared. He was a good man, a Champion in soul just as he was in name.

"I trust you, Ash. You've given your word, and I know that you'll go to the ends of the earth to see it through," Wallace said slowly. "Silver will have clemency, but it won't be free. I can't allow a trainer of his caliber to just vanish into the wilderness. He'll have to carry a beacon, and I expect him to stay in Ever Grande for questioning for the next week or so. We can't allow any intelligence to go to waste. But he'll walk free so long as he agrees to check-ins and weekly reports. And counseling! We'll give him a chance."

"That's all I ask," Ash said. "I…thank you, Wallace. It means a lot."

Wallace's lips twisted into a smile. "You're very welcome, Ash. I'd have likely given him a similar deal if he had come forward of his own volition, but I'll admit that your support eases my mind."

"I'll do whatever I can if it means he grows past what he is," Ash swore. "And if he starts slacking, let me know. I'll sort him out."

The Ever Grande Champion smiled.

"Oh, I don't doubt it…"

XX

The next few days passed quickly.

Silver was still stuck in Ever Grande, though he'd already provided all sorts of information regarding the Hoenn Rockets' splinter cells, elite operatives, fences, and hidden allies which were all worth a dozen time his weight in gold.

Steven had taken quickly to the new information, and Ash had no doubt that yet another layer of Hoenn's muck would be raked away by the all-seeing Metagross and Steven's powerful sense of justice.

While Silver wasn't happy about being stuck in Ever Grande while he shone a spotlight on Team Rocket's activities, he'd at least told Ash that he was enjoying the food and medical attention. pokémon were resilient, but his team had been pushed to the edge over the past few months as they engaged in serious fights without any real medicinal oversight.

The Rockets had managed to provide that much, at least, and had enabled Silver to hone his strength when he first transferred into Hoenn.

Ash didn't speak to Silver too much—while they weren't overtly hostile now, there was certainly a strange air between him—but he'd forced the other boy into weekly updates alongside those he provided to the League.

Silver was surly, belligerent, and frustrating to deal with, but he seemed eager to pursue freedom for both himself and his team. Ash doubted that he'd stay in Ever Grande for long given all those still looking for him. Last he'd heard, Wallace had forwarded a request for clemency to Lance as well.

Without mentioning Ash and Silver's relationship, fortunately. That was a conversation that needed to happen, but the mere thought of it left Ash queasy. Giovanni had been Lance's most hated foe. Lance was a good man—the best—but how would he take such a revelation?

Ash preferred not to think of it.

Not yet.

No, he preferred to immerse himself in other matters. It was easy to forget of Silver and Giovanni when he was huddled upon one of Forina's great stone spires alongside Plume, who had finally grown strong enough to whisk him back to their old training grounds.

He nearly wept to see the great stony pillars once more. The month he'd spent in Forina had been amongst the best in his life (despite nearly being undone by the mere whisper of Groudon's slumbering soul) and it had been nostalgic to return.

Ash and Plume had even swept over the remains of their old campsite set up by Steven, along with the site of their battle with Fino. Nature hadn't quite yet managed to heal those scars, although it was well on its way. Scorch marks would soon be reclaimed by root and bramble.

Nature was resilient, particularly in the face of the daily presence of pokémon . Their powers could reduce a great territory to ash in a single day.

He toyed with the remains of an old Draconid spearhead he'd found at the top of the spire, which held the old skeleton of a watchtower. It had been toppled long ago by nature or furious pokémon, but in the end the result was the same.

The rest of the Draconids' works weren't as permanent as the Sky Pillar.

They would be lost to time just like everything else.

But right now, all Ash cared about was Plume. She turned her eyes to the morning sun, bathing in dawn's rosy light, and spread her healed wings wide as she embraced the wind's rush as it coiled about them.

"Beautiful, isn't it?"

Plume shrieked her challenge to Forina, which went silent. They knew her cry by now.

How often had she returned on her daily jaunts to reestablish her presence here? Ash might never know. But the population here clearly remembered Plume's brilliance.

"I spoke with Torrent a few days ago," Ash said. He smiled. "I think I know what's missing."

Plume wheeled upon him with hungry eyes, her great beak ready to loose one of her empowered Hurricanes at just the hope of a true solution. They'd trained nearly a year now to wield a shadow of Lugia's might, and yet their results had been…well, not fruitless.

She could tear down half a forest with her faux-technique, after all.

But it wasn't a true mimicry of Lugia's greatest weapon. That had blown away the elemental cloaks of the Birds themselves! It was like all the might of a true hurricane focused and condensed into a truly unstoppable force. The gods themselves broke before its might.

Plume had shaped her own form of the technique, but it lacked the heart and soul of what Ash had felt in Lugia's all those months ago in Shamouti. How long it had been! Nearly ten whole months…he barely recognized himself from those days.

They'd healed so much.

They'd reforged themselves in Hoenn.

And Ash would never forget that.

"Lugia is the Guardian of the Sea," Ash said slowly, drawing upon all the insight he'd gained throughout various mediations and the days he'd played the Song and felt it flowing through his very being. "With all that entails. Moon-and-Storm. A living hurricane skating the surface of the sea floor…we've attempted to harness its power while missing the most crucial ingredient."

Ash and Plume breathed as one. Air flooded their lungs. For a moment Ash felt the inexorable pull of the Sky Pillar.

"I spoke with Torrent the other day. We delved deep for whatever scraps of the Sky Pillar's might burn like cinders in the air. But you have the opposite problem, don't you?" Ash said slowly. "You've felt it your whole life, you just don't realize it. It's the same as I realized last time we were here."

He reached out and felt the sheer immensity of Earth pressing down in all directions, smothering his lungs and driving his breaths short and quick. It was an awful feeling, but he'd grown accustomed to it while at Forina last.

They were resting atop the beast itself. Or near enough, anyways. Ash couldn't forget the image of a mountain range rising in the Last Awakening…

What could possibly be left of Lavaridge after that?

And hope was just a quick jaunt away all the same. For a moment he was tempted to visit Jirachi once more, but the thought of its honor guard of corpses left him shuddering.

"You've driven it beneath your wings your whole life," Ash said, refocusing. "It's fueled you. Now feel it. Use it."

Plume sang the Song just as they'd practiced together. Ash played the Flute alongside her, filling Forina with the peaceful music, and he took the opportunity to intermix the themes of Raikou, Entei, and Suicune within to complete the sweet notes.

The world seemed at peace as Plume suffused herself with the nature of the Sky itself—she knew what to look for now, having been strangled by it during her battle with the Mega Salamence—and Ash found himself balanced between the raging pressure of the Sky and the steady pulsating of the earth beneath his feet.

Yet even as he balanced those twin forces, he sensed something terribly familiar in the background.

His eyes snapped open just as a Dragonite landed just before him with a thud that shook the entire stone pillar with its force. "Whuh?"

"Taking a nap, huh?" Lance asked, crossing his arms. "I guess the reports were right! But here's a new challenge: race you to Rustboro!"

And with that, Lance took off in a golden blur.

Ash stared after him for a moment, totally flummoxed, and then scowled.

"No way we're losing to them!"

'

Plume agreed, and Ash was suddenly very grateful that he'd never taken her saddle off.

Rustboro awaited.

A/N: What's this, a Traveler chapter in less than a month? I didn't know it was possible! It ended up being a measly 32,500 words or so, but I'd say that's decent enough! As always, I hope you loved the story! Thanks to Raptor, Jain, and Val for their help as always.

I've been working through reviews and PM's still, but I'm still committed to getting caught up :)

Anyways, let me know what you think!

Also, I wanted to ask for a moment's attention to point towards a new competition in the Traveler Discord server, which has been put forth and set up by Idea Tamer Chaos (Or Chaos | Artistimo as members of the server likely know him) and wanted to post Chaos' announcement here as well for any who might be interested in joining the Traveler Server:

Hello everyone!

We are pleased to announce a new server competition celebrating the 10k milestones of Reviews, Favourites and Followers! As a celebration of Traveler's milestones, we're opening it to all forms of entries. Drabbles, short stories, art, animations, etc.

We want to encourage creativity and freedom of expression, as such there are no requirements for prompts or content, though a list will be provided if you want to look for inspiration there! Characters, scenes, places, alternate timelines, past and future events. All are valid.

There are a few rules.

No AI. We are here to see your creativity, your art, and your writing. Dm Chaos if you wish to negotiate on this.

OC's are allowed, but should fit within and compliment the Traveler setting. No inserting Goku in to snap Pierce's neck.

You are allowed multiple submissions (one per category).There will be a vote for each category, as well as a vote for everything combined. Those votes will be handled on a website hosting all of the works. If you would like to choose another medium, please contact Chaos, Elf or one of the mods.

Drabbles must be 200 words, Stories must be between 3k-5k words.

After the due date, there will be a short delay as Chaos uploads everything into the aforementioned website, and prepares it for everyone to view, and then later vote. At the moment the viewing period will be 1 week, with a 2 week period where you will be able to vote.

If anyone would like to expand the pot, or add new prizes, they are welcome to. However there is absolutely no obligation to do so. Please contact Elf if interested, as he is controlling the funds for this.

The prizes (USD):

1st Place: $100

2nd Place: $75

3rd/4th Place: $50

5th-8th Place (Conditional on submission number): $25

Top voted Art/Story/Drabble: $50 each.

The Deadline is 3 months from this announcement. [5/17]. Rules are subject to changes, although things have become fairly solidified!