Traveler

Ash Ketchum has been determined to become the best since he was a toddler. He has his eyes set on a charmander, but a twist of fate led him to the humble Nidoran. Note: Mix between anime and the games.

https://www.fanfiction.net/s/8466693/1/Traveler

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75. The Arrival Part 2

The two twins stared each other down, Ash's presence all but forgotten. He had no idea what was going on — their eyes were a fierce blue and both twins' faces were scrunched up in concentration.

Finally Tate's eyes lost their glow and he frowned. "That's not fair."

"Doesn't matter," Liza said smugly. "I win."

Ash looked to the twins for an explanation but neither offered him anything. He turned to look at the sea as he finished off his noodles, taking solace in its green depths.

That lasted for several minutes before Liza spoke up again.

"How'd you get so strong? I bet even Mr. Juan couldn't beat you!" Liza said admiringly. "You might even be better than Mr. Moore!"

Ash didn't answer for a few seconds. He recognized the names: Juan was the Sootopolis Gym Leader, who he'd probably be seeing in two or three days once he made his way to the ancient city. Moore was the aging Gym Leader of Lavaridge if he remembered correctly.

Moore was a figure of interest to Ash. His history mirrored Blaine's and he read that they'd worked together during the last war thirty years ago. Until about a decade ago Moore had been a member of the Ever Grande Elite Four before he took the Gym Leader post he currently held.

He hadn't bothered looking into the man's more recent history.

"The short answer is that I trained a lot, battled anyone who would let me, and got very, very lucky," Ash finally answered. "We spent several hours a day training once I got serious. On good days we had nine or ten battles. And we got opportunities most people can't even imagine."

"But in the end it came down to my team," he continued. "We trust each other with our lives and know that all of us would put our own on the line for the others. We'd do anything for each other and they prove that every time they go out to the battlefield."

When he finished he realized that Tate and Liza were watching him raptly, their inky eyes glistening with interest. He smiled at that — they'd known he wasn't done even before he did.

"But the long answer…that's quite the story," he glanced at the sun that hung brightly above them. "I hope you don't have anything to do for the next few hours."

"Nope!" The twins echoed. "We've got all the time in the world."

Ash smiled and tapped his chin thoughtfully as he regarded his avid listeners. "How to start…well, I'm from a place called Pallet Town…"

XX

He laid down in the surprisingly cool sheets of the bed with a tired sigh. Ash hadn't finished a somewhat abbreviated recount of his journey so far — it felt surprisingly good to tell in full, like he was lifting a weight off his chest — for nearly an hour. Tate and Liza hadn't run out of questions for an hour longer.

Ash only had to dodge around some questions about his encounters with Legendaries. Most he had happily answered since Tate and Liza already knew of his Brands and could even hear the Song, but he'd been unable to say a word about Mewtwo.

From the knowing looks he'd received from Tate and Liza they knew what was going on. Their eyes shimmered with energy and he thought they'd burn a hole in him from how intently they had stared.

After a short comment from Tate, "So that's your other light!", they'd let it go.

But once they'd finished and returned their dishes to the stall owner he'd found his way back, although he chose to take the scenic route rather than allow Tate and Liza to teleport him. Ash wanted to see Mossdeep for himself, not just a few select places of interest.

And he was glad he had. Mossdeep really was beautiful. It had an air about it that none of the cities of Kanto did. While they held an attraction of their own, Kanto's cities were too…modern, for lack of a better term, for him. They were built for efficiency, to hold a rapidly expanding population without encroaching upon the habitats of pokemon.

Mossdeep was simple. It was elegant. It was clean.

Hardly a city compared to the steel jungles of Saffron, but Ash found he preferred it by an immeasurable amount. Even Sabrina's presence didn't make up the difference, especially since Ash found he quite liked Tate and Liza as well. They were young but he could hold a conversation with them as easily as he could with himself, although he knew much of it came from their telepathy that they hadn't learned to restrain.

Ash shook himself out of his thoughts with a sigh and lightly pat the leathery hide of Nidoking, who had curled up on the bed beside him. His massive bulk — nearly four hundred pounds of muscle, hide, and bone — made the bed creak ominously but once Ash had gotten over the sensation of slipping toward his friend it didn't bother him.

He was mostly sure the bed could take his friends weight. It hadn't collapsed into splinters yet, at any rate.

The rest of his friends were spread throughout the house with the exception of Sneasel and Infernus. Ash just didn't trust Sneasel around this many valuable and beautiful objects and couldn't even lock him in the room with him since there were precious gems and samples of stone practically layering the walls.

Infernus was Infernus.

Torrent was already asleep in midair as he unconsciously kept himself aloft with his levitation. He'd required Dazed's help to fall asleep after Ash had told him where they were and promised to take him out to the ocean the next day — the regal Kingdra had an uncharacteristic mania in his scarlet eyes and looked like he was about to blast the walls down in his haste to return to the sea.

With the exception of Dazed, who lurked in the shadowed corner with her newly-polished pendulum, he had no idea where the others had placed themselves. Once they'd realized that Nidoking and Torrent's massive bulk left Steven's surprisingly small room rather cramped they'd left for unoccupied spaces.

The deep rumbles of Nidoking's breathing soothed Ash, who ended up opening his PokeNav to the messages. He couldn't sleep this early.

A smile found itself on his face as he saw the messages from most of his friends and family. His mother had practically overloaded the PokeNav with all of her good luck messages and information on her current circumstances.

He glanced over it. She was happy working at Professor Elm's laboratory and had already learned quite a bit, although he wasn't sure what. His mother had drifted off into a massive tangent full of long, scientific terms Ash wasn't in the mood to get lost in.

But she was happy and that was all that mattered.

Ash looked at the other messages. Professor Oak had sent him an address in Sootopolis he'd have to look up later and the date of two days hence, Amelia had sent him a good luck message from both her and Jonathan, and even Gary had sent him an expletive-ridden recounting of his battle with Falkner that ended with "If you need to rely on luck then you should have your Trainer's License taken away before Johnny-boy".

He snorted at the ending. Ash was relatively certain he'd need some sort of dictionary to go through the rest of Gary's letter but it seemed like it had gone favorably.

Not that he'd expect anything less from his former rival.

And — Ash's eyes lit up when he saw a message from Lance. He hadn't had contact with his mentor in quite a while and had hoped he'd get something from the Indigo Champion.

Ash,

Firstly, I'd like to apologize for not sending you anything sooner. Things have been rather hectic here at Indigo Plateau since Lorelei's left for the Sevii Islands and Agatha's formally renounced her position as a member of the Indigo Elite Four.

We've begun something of a tournament between myself, Bruno, Karen, Will, and Koga to establish the new pecking order, as it were. You should probably look it up in the databases later. I put in quite the impressive showing to retain my position as Champion, if I do say so myself.

Not that my competition expected otherwise. Even Karen isn't quite so arrogant as to believe she can match me, although she did put Dov on the ropes for a few seconds or so before we finished her sixth pokemon.

I would've invited you to scout out your future competition, but the timing was unfortunate. Perhaps you could have left a few days later but I would've heard no end of it from Steven. He's eager for you to experience every bit of Hoenn that you can before you meet up with him.

Not that I blame him. Hoenn is a beautiful land. I know that you've probably heard that from everyone who's even seen a picture of the place, but it's true. I went there when I was thirteen to train with Drake the Dragon Master — my title now, if you haven't heard — and those were probably some of the best years of my life.

Tell the old man I said hello if you run into him, will you? Steven will surely introduce you at some point. Drake's one of the most powerful trainers in the world even now. His Salamence can still take Dragonite on evenly, if that tells you anything.

Speaking of our mutual acquaintance, don't let him ruin all the good work I've done on you. I don't want to hear about you becoming a Steven, alright? There's too many in the world already, in my humble opinion.

On a more serious note, I wish you well. You were a good student, Ash, and you surpassed whatever expectations of you I had when I invited you to Knot Island.

So enjoy yourself. Live a little. Make some friends, maybe meet some pretty girls. Moltres knows that Hoenn's full of them. Well, maybe not. The Feather's burning a bit.

I suppose I'd best wrap this up. Gible's starting to eat the important paperwork.

Make sure to call, Ash. I want to hear more from you than those boring reports.

— Lance

By the time he finished Ash bore a slight smile and shut his eyes. He wasn't homesick. He'd gotten past that in the first week or two of his journey through Kanto. But he'd miss the people back home. He had more than just his mother and Professor Oak now.

He contemplated writing replies but decided against it. It would take him the better part of an hour to decipher and respond to his mother's jumbled mess of messages and he wanted to be at his best when he did so.

Besides, he really was tired. Today had been stressful, albeit enjoyable.

"Goodnight, Dazed," he said as he reached out to cut out the light. In the dark he could see Dazed's luminous eyes as her gem-like pendulum gently swayed back and forth. It glistened under the moonlight that pierced the window.

Sleep well, Friend-Trainer. You will need your rest for the dawn. The Torrent's heart yearns for the sea once more. His dreams are those of a Horsea.

Ash laughed softly at that, glad to hear of Torrent's excitement. It had been too long since his friend had showed this side of himself.

He shut his eyes, but the last he saw was a flash of red surrounding a hand before he fell into oblivion.

Sleep well, Friend-Trainer.

XX

This is a strange place. Humans pierce the sky here?

"They do," Ash confirmed as he leaned onto the rail to examine the rocket. Dazed stood beside him and stared dispassionately, although he could easily pick out the gleam of interest hidden within her eyes. "It's how we communicate and navigate. Satellites are at the source of it all."

Dazed blinked and idly polished her pendulum as she continued to look at the metal cylinder.

My mother told me of such feats when I was freshly hatched. I never paid heed to them.

"I don't blame you," Ash chuckled, although he almost turned to his friend in surprise. Dazed had never mentioned any family members. "It's incredible to think of what we can do nowadays. We've even put men on the moon, even if we've never gone back."

It is a barren place, or so it is claimed in the stories.

"Could you tell me more?" Ash asked, interested. He turned to look at Dazed curiously. "You've never said anything like this before."

There has never been a cause and I know precious little of what is recorded. My interest did not lie in such insubstantial tales. I did not believe they were relevant to myself…in light of recent events it is possible my disinterest was a mistake.

"I'll say," Ash snorted. Dazed's eyes smiled at him and she began her tale.

It is said that in the ancient times, when your kind and mine lived in stark separation, a great power threatened the world. The Origin did not wish this and manifested to shield its creations from their doom. As light filled the sky with death, the Origin appeared supported with the Pillars of Creation.

The Origin stopped the star-fire, but it was naught but a fragment of Creation and suffered. The Pillars it bore split and fell to the base earth. But others dispersed amongst the cosmos. Some appeared on the White, where they fused.

But as the Shards lay on the White's surface, one of those we share the world with gazed through them and saw the White, the reflection mortals may not survive in. It and its kind were changed by this, and the Shards fell to where they lived.

"And?" Ash prompted, thoroughly caught up in the legend at this point.

Ash wasn't sure he'd ever seen Dazed looked flustered before but it seemed like that just changed. Her eyes were closed shut and her pendulum absolutely still.

If I remember correctly I stopped paying attention at this point. I was young and hadn't imbibed sustenance in several hours.

He snorted in amusement, although he made sure to smile at Dazed so she knew it wasn't barbed. "Don't worry, Dazed. There are plenty of worse stories about me. I was a bit of a brat when I was younger."

She stared at him.

A difficult statement to believe. I require anecdotal evidence.

Ash smiled at her, amused. It looked like Dazed wasn't quite as above it all as she seemed…not that he hadn't already realized that. He could sympathize with her position more than most, after all.

"Well, there was this one time at Professor Oak's Summer Camp when I was seven. Gary and I were still friends, then…"

XX

"Dazed is really strong!" Tate whispered to Ash as Liza was engaged in a staring match with the bored Hypno. "When my eyes look at her they see so much."

"Like what?" Ash asked as he picked over his lunch of more ramen, although he'd mostly gotten fruit from another vendor to balance it out. The twins seemed to have an obsessive liking of the noodles, which were an import from Kanto.

He didn't bother asking Tate how he'd learned Dazed's name. It was a pointless question to ask a psychic.

Tate just smiled at him.

"So who should I go out of my way to meet once I leave Mossdeep?" Ash asked Tate, who'd taken advantage of Liza's distraction to start levitating her food into his own bowl. The boy looked up and stared at the Feather thoughtfully.

Ash was used to it by now and just waited for Tate's answer. He seemed to know most of the influential members of the Hoenn League quite well considering how he referred to them as his aunts and uncles.

The Hoenn League seemed quite close-knit. As much as Indigo was, for sure.

"Roxie is really nice — smart too!" Liza chirped while still locked in the competition with Dazed. Ash was fairly sure she was augmenting her eyes with psychic energy — they'd been going at it for nearly twenty minutes now. Dazed only rarely blinked, but no normal human could have lasted this long. "And stop stealing my food, baby brother!"

Tate grumbled and the pineapple slices dropped back to where they were, although he kept everything else he'd taken. Once that was done he answered the question that had been directed at him.

"Everyone's nice," he nodded sagely. At Ash's pointed look he deigned to continue. "Brawly's really cool. He taught me how to punch people. Maybe he can teach you too!"

Ash grinned at that and just shook his head. He couldn't see Tate hitting anyone.

"I can hit people!" Tate whined as his face scrunched up in displeasure. "Brawly said I can hit as hard as he can!"

"That's because you're a psychic, baby brother!" Liza giggled. "You're cheating!"

Tate shook his head. "Am not!"

"Am too!" Liza stuck her tongue out at him.

"Anyone else?" Ash cut in. As much as it amused him he would like to get concrete information.

"Flannery's really cool! And strong. And pretty," Tate added as an afterthought. "She helped teach us how to do our hair!"

"Don't forget about May and Brendan," Liza said, her voice wavering. It looked like the constant use of psychic energy around her eyes was starting to tax her. "They're only a bit younger than you!"

Ash nodded, grateful for the information. He turned to look out at the stretch of beach they'd claimed for themselves as he stewed over what he'd learned.

He couldn't hold back a smile as he saw Torrent out in the ocean creating vast whirlpools and twisters that reached a hundred feet high. Torrent's full strength was accessible to him in the water and he was making full use of it — he'd even created a massive ice floe for Sneasel to run around on.

The others were scattered all over the place. Tate and Liza had teleported them to an area very difficult to get to conventionally so they were the only inhabitants at the moment. Lunatone wasn't there since it was mostly nocturnal, but Solrock seemed to have struck up quite the camaraderie with Tangrowth, who'd occupied himself with trying to make a fort out of sand using Ancient Power.

Ash couldn't see the rest. Plume had flown away to scout out the area — with her speed Ash couldn't be sure she wasn't going to explore half of Hoenn — and all but Nidoking were out exploring with the exception of Infernus, who had opted to remain in his pokeball when Torrent had refused his challenge and promptly rushed out into the ocean.

"You'll see Mr. Juan next, right?" Tate spoke up as Liza finally broke away from Dazed, who almost seemed to smile before she went back to cleaning her pendulum. "He's kind of weird, but he's really funny! But don't let him talk you into getting different clothes — you'll be shopping for hours."

"I liked it," Liza frowned. "I don't think Mom or Daddy did, though. Why is money so important, anyways?"

He thought back to the picture of Juan on his Gym Leader profile.

No, he definitely wouldn't be discussing fashion with the Sootopolis Leader. It didn't quite fit in with his views, to say the least. Ash would rather not have to deal with Hoenn's sweltering heat in a long coat. As it was he'd abandoned his jacket and jeans.

Besides, if the lone picture of the man he'd seen was any indication Tate and Liza's parents were justified in wanting to avoid his influence. The man was very wealthy from a long Coordinator career aside from his League work and it showed.

"Phoebe and Sidney are really fun, too," Liza spoke up with a glimmer in her eye. "They hurt to be around, but they try to make it easier."

"Oh?" Ash asked, well aware of their status as members of Hoenn's Elite Four. They had only come into their position two years ago but were well-regarded from what he'd heard. "Are they bright?"

"No. Not like you," Tate said solemnly. "Phoebe bleeds darkness. She is Not. Where she goes the world cries. Sidney is a void. To us he does not exist, yet he walks. He breathes and laughs but he is silent. A tear in the world."

Liza sighed. "Tate."

The boy did not respond and stared into Ash's eyes intently. His own shone with raw blue that thrummed in time with Ash's heartbeat.

"Maybe your light will ground their darkness," Tate continued with the barest of hint of an echo to his childish voice. "A tear may be mended. A void may be filled."

Ash nodded slowly, his grip on Nidoking's heavy shoulder tight as he listened to Tate's words. He wouldn't say he was unnerved, but this was the side of psychics that he did not like.

It usually spelled bad news for him.

"It'll be okay," Liza reassured Ash before she turned to Tate. "Mom isn't going to like this! You know how she gets."

"Mom isn't here," Tate repeated his words from the day before. "He is."

Liza looked uncomfortable but nodded at last. "Well, it looks like everyone's almost done with their lunch! Where do you want to go now? You — oh, you've already been to the Space Center. That's where our Daddy works!"

"Really?" Ash asked, his interest piqued. The twins hadn't mentioned too much about their parents, although they referred to them quite often. "What does he do?"

"He's an astronaut," Tate informed him. The harsh blue glow was absent from his black eyes. "He would be going on a trip to the space station but it's been suspended."

Liza cut in before Ash could say a single word.

"Satellites being sent up aren't always making it," she said. When Ash glanced at her she smiled innocently. "What? I don't have to be psychic to know what you were going to ask!"

Ash rolled his eyes, although he couldn't resist letting a slight smile take hold. Nidoking, still asleep, grumbled as he stopped patting his armored shoulder.

"Could we stay here?" Tate broke the short silence. "I like the Song."

He shut his eyes and nodded. "Sure. Plume isn't back yet, anyway. Plus Torrent seems to be enjoying himself."

His heart is light.

Ash smiled at Dazed. "It is. He really loves this place."

It is the ocean. Wherever the abyss lies beneath is his home.

With that Dazed said no more and looked to stare at the sun that had only just begun to fall with shielded eyes.

"You know, if you like the Song so much…" Ash grinned as he reached inside his pack to materialize the Flute from one of the many storage compartments held within his new, rather expensive backpack. "I think you'll like this even more."

In that moment the attention of the world was on him.

XX

"What's this?" Ash muttered to himself as he pulled himself out of his bed. The last vestiges of sleep fled from his eyes when he saw a small badge in the shape of a heart with two halves and a red gem lying next to his hat. "The Mind Badge?"

He was a little confused as to why Tate and Liza had given it to him but went ahead and put it into his badge case. Ash honestly didn't even know if he was allowed to enter the Ever Grande Conference as an Elite Four trainee. But if he could he would — Ash would like to get one massive trophy to his name before he swore his life in service to the League.

So he kept the badge. It didn't matter whether Tate and Liza had given it to him for the unofficial battle they had his first day on Mossdeep or not.

What did matter was that they'd given it to him.

They came in the night. They would not cause you harm so I did not see it as necessary to alert you.

"It's fine, Dazed," he waved his friend off and started to get dressed. Ash took a moment to tap Nidoking hard enough on the forehead to wake him up, although Nidoking's tired grunt almost made him leave his first friend alone. "Come on, Nidoking. Time to get up. Can you lift the Hypnosis on Torrent?"

Of course, Friend-Trainer.

An instant later Torrent's eyes slowly slid open and his levitation stabilized itself. Ash flashed the Kingdra before his expression returned to its normal state and he opened his PokeNav to check for any messages his friends might have sent him.

The only indication of surprise he showed was a single blink.

Ash! that's not how you write it Tate!

It's Liza! And Tate but he doesn't know how to write letters.

Anyways I know we said we'd meet you before you left but we had to go to Ever Grande City for the day. Our Mom was upset about something. I don't think she liked that we didn't know where all the other psychics went. I'm pretty sure they'll come back.

So bye! Have fun!

From Tate and Liza

Ash smiled at the letter before he deleted it, although he did notice that they'd taken the time to add their information in. He appreciated that.

There were a few other messages but nothing important. Just another long letter from Gary where he glorified himself and his team and boasted of tearing apart Gym Leader Bugsy's team, some updates from his mother that he still didn't quite understand, and a furious, rambling letter from Jonathan about losing to Lance's cousin, Claire.

He couldn't say he was surprised about Jonathan's loss to Clair. From what Lance had told him about his cousin she was highly intelligent, vicious in a fight, and that she had the strength to back up her renowned arrogance. Apparently she stood just below Will and Karen, so Ash wasn't sure even he would be able to get a badge from her without a great deal of pain and planning.

Still, he needed to get moving. He wanted to be out of Mossdeep by noon and still needed to eat, get his friends their breakfast, get ready, and saddle up Plume.

Ash's face split into a grin at his last thought.

This was something he'd been waiting for ever since their time at Shamouti.

XX

"There it is!" Ash shouted over the howling din of the sky as Plume shot through the air. Her massive wings propelled them faster than he could keep up with. Guided by her Tailwind, they had already nearly finished the hundred mile journey to Sootopolis in about an hour. It was an easy pace for Plume.

Plume shrieked back and slowly began her descent toward the great white walls of the impact crater. He could only just make out the city within, although quite a bit was obscured by the wispy clouds that danced over the ancient fortress.

He stared at it curiously as Plume adjusted her course. It was too dark to see many details thanks to the goggles he'd bought to protect his eyes from the harsh sun and particles of the atmosphere but what he could see looked amazing.

Sootopolis was not an especially large city due to the limited space the crater provided, but it was one of the most influential and interesting in Ash's eyes. It was impossible to attack due to its natural fortifications and was a superpower in the olden days, playing host to an immensely powerful navy that created a trading and diplomatic empire that laid claim to all of the eastern Hoenn archipelago.

His mind flashed to the book his mother had given him. Ash had devoured it and thrown himself into the pursuit of history during his last week in Pallet. There was still a lot he hadn't gone over, but Alakazam had helped to fill in the gaps in his knowledge. But he'd made sure to read of Sootopolis, given its rather unique aspects.

And there were quite a few, as he'd quickly learned. Cynthia — he really had no idea how the Sinnoh Champion had the time to write such a monolithic text — had several chapters devoted solely to it, although he'd only finished the introduction.

He closed his eyes as his stomach lurched with Plume's descent and thought back to the words. Ash had read them so many times it seemed like they were burned into his memory.

In the year -33 BIL the sudden and almost entirely unexplained collapse of the Volumo Empire left almost the entire region of what is now Hoenn in shambles. Although chaos would continue to reign for centuries as the surviving city-states strove for power and influence one of the most prominent centers of the Volumo Empire remained untouched: the ancient city of what we know as Sootopolis.

Although weakened, Sootopolis quickly emerged as one of the most prominent of the new city-states and quickly claimed dominion over the islands of eastern Hoenn. In less than a century it had recovered from the collapse and maintained a booming trade network between city-states such as Lilycove, Slateport, Mossdeep, and Pacifidlog. Mossdeep was easily eclipsed and became Sootopolis' vassal, giving the leaders of the Rune City economic and military might unparalleled for centuries.

And that was just the introduction of its background with several more pages elaborating on its modern history and place in the revolution that shaped the Ever Grande League. Cynthia later went on to describe another fascinating discovery that had caught Ash's interest, even if he hadn't found enough time to investigate beyond the first few paragraphs before he'd had to leave for Hoenn.

"Easy," he called out to Plume as she neared the Rune City. She cried out in acknowledgement and slowed the descent, which had sped up to the point Ash's stomach was about to fly from his throat. Even with the saddle he was still having trouble adjusting to long flights. The saddle just seemed to make Plume think she didn't have to be as careful with him, although he'd set out on slowly disavowing her of that notion.

He took the moment to appreciate the view once more. Sootopolis' white stone had been shaped into countless ridges that held houses and buildings that had also been cut from the stone itself. It was a beautiful sight, like a gateway to another time.

There were modern designs too, of course. Pokemon had been employed to manipulate rock and earth to create platforms for new buildings that couldn't just be retrofitted for a new purpose such as Pokemon Centers. People had come up with ingenious ways to bring modern conveniences like electricity and running water — although that just improved on the ancient Sootopolitans' designs, really — but a Pokemon Center required too much modern technology to take any chances.

What buildings had been created in the new age still resembled the ancient designs of those hewn from white and grey stone. Aside from a few painted a dark blue they were almost entirely a light brown or grey so as to fit in.

"Do you like it?" Ash asked Plume, who happily shrieked and swooped low over the edges of the massive crater. She was alive in the air and ignored a few patrolling Swellow wearing the emblem of Sootopolis to spin wildly, which made Ash dizzy but also let her get away from the sentries. "I'll take that as a yes."

Plume cooed softly at him and finally opened up her wings to kill her speed. The winds around them slowly died down as she ceased her Tailwind and she was probably the slowest she'd been in weeks as she lazily drifted down over the city of stone. They'd already flown over the rather large port, although they'd been going fast enough that Ash doubted anyone had seen them.

"Do you see the gym anywhere?" Ash asked Plume, glad he didn't have to shout over the winds anymore. Ever since he'd battled Moltres with Lance it had been difficult to raise his voice to a shouting volume, although that had lessened after Shamouti. Lugia seemed to tried to heal some of the damage, which he appreciated.

The Pidgeot jerked him from his thoughts with a short cry of affirmation and she swooped toward a lone platform in the middle of Sootopolis' lake that Ash could just barely see. She seemed confident and he trusted her so he didn't say anything.

"Thank you," he grinned as he hopped off of Plume when she landed. She preened at the praise and affectionately nipped his hat as he started his work on the saddle. It would stay on Plume if he recalled her and he knew his friend would rather not deal with that if he released her for battle. "I know it wasn't quite the same as the last time we flew, but I enjoyed this. Maybe one day you won't have to hold back."

Plume cooed and lightly butted his shoulder with her head. He just laughed and took the last of the straps off her. The trainer spared just a moment to stroke her glossy crest before he pulled the saddle off and returned it to its storage compartment along with his goggles and the heavy jacket he wore for flight.

"I'll release you when I can," Ash promised Plume as he raised her pokeball. "I just need to battle the Gym Leader and check on that address Professor Oak sent me."

She bobbed her head up and down in understanding before she disappeared in a flash of light.

With that Ash turned to the building. It stood in stark contrast to the rest of the city in appearance and design. The platform dedicated solely to the Sootopolis Gym seemed to have been cultivated to reflect its Leader's personal tastes. Not uncommon, but gyms rarely differentiated from their city's standard architecture so much.

He stood at the entrance to a small courtyard surrounded by straight rows of trees that obscured the artificial island from the rest of the city's vision. Several hundred feet in front of him stood an absolutely massive building that looked more like an astoundingly extravagant mansion than anything else.

The gym was painted white and light blue that reminded Ash of the calm sea surrounding Sootopolis. Delicate pillars supported the front and above them was an intricate lattice of metal that appeared especially Kalosian in origin. A dark blue door held the entrance to Juan's palace.

Ash stepped forward. He ignored the courtyard and headed straight for the door — he wanted this to be quick. Professor Oak had given him a specific date, after all, and he wasn't sure how long he'd be able to go to the address.

Mostly he wanted to get a quick battle with Juan in to see how Torrent compared. Juan was well known for his incredibly powerful Kingdra, which served as the keystone of his team. It was said to rival an Elite Four's pokemon and Ash was certain it would serve as a very good opponent for Torrent.

He'd never gotten to face more than one of his own kind, after all. Torrent had fought plenty of other dragons but Ash hadn't even encountered another Kingdra in his travels aside from Mael. And Mael was hardly a good match for Torrent — he had reached his full physical maturity and was trained by Lance aside. It was just unfair.

But Juan's would be a fair battle. Ash hoped that he'd be able to pick up some tricks from the more experienced trainer. Strong as Torrent was, he lacked the experience and physical maturity that made Kingdra the forces they were under the command of trainers of mythical skill like Lance.

A tightly coiled ball of anticipation lurked in his stomach as he opened the door to the Sootopolis Gym and a battle Torrent had awaited for months.

"Hello!" A beautiful blonde woman greeted as he stepped in. She looked up from her computer to speak with him. "I'm Grace. How can I help you today?"

"I was hoping to battle Juan."

"Oh!" The woman frowned. She glanced at her monitor again. "I'm afraid Gym Leader Juan isn't present. He'll be staying at the Ever Grande Conference until its conclusion and there isn't anything on the schedule that suggests he'll be returning."

Ash sighed as the nervous energy within him faded. That was inconvenient. "Alright. Thank you for your help."

"I could schedule you a battle, if you'd like," the receptionist offered helpfully. "All I'd need is your Trainer ID Number and a time that's convenient for you. After the Conference, of course."

He hesitated before he made up his mind. "No, thank you. I'll just return later this season."

"Of course," Grace nodded. "Is there anything else?"

Ash's mind flickered to the address Professor Oak had sent him. He'd meant to ask Juan about it since he'd probably know about anything important for the Professor to take interest in.

"I don't think so," he shook his head. He'd rather not spoil the Professor's surprise. "Thanks for your help."

Grace smiled at him as he left.

XX

"A little further to the left," he instructed Plume as she glided over the water to a collection of platforms that held absolutely massive buildings. Most were plain and grey as the rest of the city, but the one they seemed to be heading toward was bright and tall, almost like a gym in size. "And that's it!"

Plume landed with all the grace he'd come to expect from her. Her claws dug into the soft earth of the platform but otherwise didn't cause any sort of disruption, although she did draw some ugly looks from the security guards outside. They didn't cause any uproar, however, so Ash ignored them.

Pokemon of Plume's size were generally frowned upon in cities, even if there weren't any laws against their release. It was only a problem if they were so large or temperamental that they caused damage, be it to property or people.

"Thanks, Plume," he grinned at the mighty Pidgeot. "I'll make sure you get extra Lum Berries tonight, alright?"

His friend chirped happily at that and nuzzled his shoulder before he returned her. Ash smiled at the pokeball as he clipped it onto his belt and put his PokeNav away.

"Sootopolis Event Center," Ash muttered to himself as he looked up at the large building. It probably had an enclosed stadium if its size was anything to by. The Event Center was probably larger than even the gym.

"Competition's over for the day," one of the guards told him. "You can probably get a ticket for tomorrow inside, if you want."

"Thanks," Ash nodded, even if he was inwardly confused. Regardless he stepped forward. There had to be some reason Professor Oak wanted him to come here.

The inside was nothing special. It was huge, but mostly bare of decoration. There were throngs of people hanging around, most surrounding individuals who seemed almost unnaturally cheerful and animated. They were usually standing by a pokemon, each of which looked very well groomed.

It wasn't until Ash saw the banner over what looked like a receptionist's desk that he caught onto what this was.

"Sootopolis Pre-season Contest Demonstration," he muttered to himself. Interested, Ash gave the area another glance. He wasn't close enough to see whether the pokemon were noticeably different from strict battlers, but the aesthetic differences were a bit more obvious now. They lacked some of the raw muscle that dedicated battlers possessed, although that only really came into play on physical fighters.

He honestly didn't know much about Contests. Gary didn't especially approve of the events, of course. His friend tended to be judgmental at the best of times, although he didn't quite understand his dislike.

Ash admitted that the idea of Contests — making pokemon look pretty, as far as his admittedly limited understanding went — wasn't exactly appealing, but he didn't see any reason to hate it. It just didn't mesh well with his philosophy.

But he'd heard that the sort of control that went into Contest training was incredible. It wasn't always easy to make a pokemon's techniques visually appealing. Awe-inspiring, impressive, powerful…those were easy. Beautiful to someone who didn't appreciate the raw effort and power that went into it like Ash did? Not always.

So he stepped further into the midst of coordinators and their fans, although he didn't step into one of the circles. Ash figured he'd have plenty of opportunity to examine one of the Contest pokemon and see if there were any subtler differences to pick out. It's not like they were under lock and key.

Still, he wasn't quite sure what Oak had sent him here for. To raise his interest in contests? Unlikely. The subject had never come up between them before.

Was there someone he was supposed to meet here?

He wasn't personally acquainted with any Coordinators. Ash knew that Champion Wallace and Juan were prominent coordinators but both of them were out at the Ever Grande Conference. If the Sootopolis Gym Leader wasn't here then there was no way the Champion would be.

"Thank you SO much for coming today, everybody!" A young teenage girl probably two or three years older than him announced suddenly. Ash looked up at the source of the voice who was on top of a strange flying-type with wings so fine and wispy they looked like they were clouds, which he recognized as — what in Mew's name was she wearing?

The Feather flared and crackled at his surprise and even the icy fire in the back of his mind chuckled in amusement before it receded.

He stared at the new arrival, who was wearing what might have been the strangest outfit he'd ever seen. Will's suit and cane looked positively mundane in comparison.

It was clearly modeled off of her partner's appearance, what with the large tufts of cloud-like material wrapped around her wrists and above her boots. She had on short tights that were utterly negligible compared to her skirt, which was basically one giant frill that extended outward from her waist.

Ash shook his head to distract himself. Once he got past the garish outfit the girl was rather pretty, although he decided to ignore that. He needed to listen — this was probably who Oak wanted him to meet. She had to be important if she was speaking at this sort of event at her age.

"Ali and I were SO excited to see all of you here — your performances were just fabulous! I can tell this year's Contest season is going to be awesome!" The girl cheered and was joined by the rest of the crowd. Her Altaria sang along with her with a tune that seemed to wrap every listener up in its cloudy wings. It was clear that both of them loved what they were doing as much as Ash loved battling. "We don't have a medal since this isn't an official event, but I still want to give a super special round of applause to our winner!"

His breath hitched as a young woman with long, light brown hair and a soft green dress stepped up beside the girl and her Altaria. An Eevee was curled up on her slim shoulders and seemed to grin out at the crowd of coordinators as the familiar woman graciously accepted the applause.

"She had an awesome showing and its great to see her back in Hoenn!" The girl cheered and took the older coordinator's hand to raise it up in victory. "So give Daisy Oak everything you've got!"

Ash didn't even hear the applause.

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