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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81. The Delivery Part 1

Hey, Ashy! I hope you're doing well…I know you said you'd be a while in the Cave but I just wanted to check in on you. I never know if you'll remember to change your underwear without me reminding!

Things are great here in Johto! I'm at Goldenrod and it's fantastic, although the best part is seeing Spencer and little Molly again! She's so cute! I think you would really like her…really! And don't try to pretend like you didn't just have a face like you ate one of those sour candies Gary tricked you into eating when you were younger!

I wish you could be here, but I know you're going to have a great time in Hoenn.

Professor Elm's helped me learn so much! There have been so many advances in his field since I last studied it's crazy. He's discovered things I can barely imagine – there's so many more discovered mechanisms behind evolution than were known about just a few years ago. I wish I was good enough to explain just how amazing the chemistry and biology behind it is!

But I don't want to bore you with that. What have you been up to? Anything interesting happen inside the cave? Samuel told me that you met Daisy in Sootopolis and you're traveling with her now – that's great!

Daisy's a sweet girl…she helped change your diapers you know! She was such a joy around the house when she was little and I hear she hasn't changed that much. Tell her I said hello again and that she should tell me when she's in Pallet next. I'd love to catch up with her.

Well, I don't want to take up too much of your time, Ashy. I know you're busy, you big Elite Four trainee!

Take care and stay safe! I love you!

Love,

Mom

Ash smiled as he finished reading his mother's letter, although he wrinkled his nose at the thought of Daisy changing his diapers as a baby. That was something he didn't need to know – hopefully Daisy had managed to forget about it herself.

Still, he was glad to hear from his mother. She'd sent the message his first day in Granite Cave so he figured he'd best respond as soon as possible. She tended to worry about him a little too much, even though Ash couldn't really understand why – sure, he got into a bit of trouble now and then but unless a Legend was involved he and his friends were more than capable of handling just about anything.

Besides, he'd managed to avoid telling her about most of his encounters thus far.

"Thanks for helping me out last night," Daisy started as she left the bathroom, hair wet from her morning shower. Ash nodded, although he was too focused on reading some of the message to pay much attention. "It was really sweet of you to bring me breakfast too!"

"You looked like you needed it," he shrugged. Ash neglected to mention that the food she'd eaten was supposed to be enough for both of them. From his admittedly little experience he couldn't see that going in anything resembling a good way. Girls could be weird like that. "Feel better?"

"Loads!" She chirped. "It's almost enough to make me forget about not getting my hat back!"

Ash put the PokeNav down. "What happened with that anyway? No offense, but you looked terrible."

"None taken!" Daisy giggled as she plopped down onto her own bed. "Well, after I saw the Sableye I ended up chasing it down with my team…or trying to, anyway. It was a fast little thing and knew the caves way better than I did – if it didn't leave little marks for us to find we would've lost it in a few minutes, even with Gardevoir and Ninetales helping."

"So it led us on a chase for a few hours…" the Oak grumbled and folded her arms underneath her chest. "It actually caused a few cave-ins to block our path and led us straight into an angry Hariyama and Aggron that didn't take too kindly to our presence."

"Sounds fun," Ash grinned.

Daisy just shook her head. "You're a weird kid, you know that?" She smiled at Ash's frown and reached over to teasingly tug on his cheeks. "But if you weren't you wouldn't be so cute, would you, baby Ashy?"

He stared at her. She pouted and finally let go, although she still snickered for a few seconds.

It looked like being down in the caverns for two days hadn't done much to improve her sense of humor.

"Anyways, that's how the first day went," Daisy continued. Gardevoir, who elegantly sat next to the girl with almost unnervingly perfect posture, frowned at the next part. "We were almost about to get the stupid Sableye – like, Ninetales could literally smell it – and then an Onix bursts up out of the floor from nowhere! The whole tunnel collapsed – if Gardevoir wasn't so quick I might have been a little more scuffed up. We were trapped down there for the rest of the time before I finally gave up and let Gardevoir take me out. That was no fun."

"I'd imagine," Ash commented drily. He absentmindedly thrummed his fingers against the bed's iron railing, a small smirk playing over his features as he ran Daisy's story through his head.

"Oh you think it's funny, do you?" Daisy grinned evilly. Ash felt a sinking sensation in his stomach at that. Whatever she had planned, it wasn't good. Considering that Gardevoir had a full-blown smile on her face he felt that his fears were justified. "You know, I took the liberty of asking Grandpa to send me some of the old pictures I had in my room back at Pallet."

Ash frowned. He didn't like where this was going.

"You know that I used to help your mom take care of you when she needed some extra hands," she gave a smirk almost disturbingly reminiscent of Gary's. "You were so adorable back then! Just this chubby little baby with the cutest little tuft of black hair!"

He sat very, very still.

"But once you got older you got a bit crazy!" Daisy recalled fondly, idly toying with her PokeDex. She had an upgraded version, it seemed. The base model didn't come with messaging or similar features. "You know, I remembered this picture your mom took of you running around naked in the fields chasing a baby Growlithe! And one of you dressed up in this adorable little Squirtle suit with Gary in a Charmander one. And then there was this great one of you crying at your first birthday party with so much chocolate cake all over you I couldn't even tell you were a little boy! But I think the king of them all is –"

"I get your point," Ash said resignedly, cheeks just the slightest shade of red. Considering what it usually took to rattle him he'd give this round to Daisy.

"Good to hear!" Daisy giggled and put the PokeDex away. "It's too bad – I really wanted to take another look at those!"

"Well I don't," he rolled his eyes. "Actually I'd appreciate it a lot if you could delete those."

"And give up this kind of gold?" Daisy scoffed. "Yeah right! I'd have to be totally stupid to let go of this! You know, I wonder how much the tabloids would pay for this…you're still their golden child right now."

Ash just sighed and shook his head. He knew Daisy was just teasing. She might like messing with him but Daisy was about as far from cruel as could be.

"I guess I'm too nice for that. I wouldn't do that to you," Daisy sighed, attracting Ash's attention again. His eyes narrowed as her face lit up and a manic grin fell over her face. "But I bet my little baby brother would appreciate them even more…well, maybe not the one of you naked!"

"I would hope not," Ash grit out. His fists clenched until his knuckles whitened under the strain at the thought of Gary with that sort of blackmail material on his hands – Ash wouldn't let him get anything out of it, but he'd literally never hear the end of it. "You do realize if you do that I'm pretty sure I'm legally obligated to have my Magmortar incinerate your PokeDex, right? I'm pretty sure I could get away with it too."

"Hey, I have important stuff saved on here!" Daisy pouted. Ash had to admit she had a very real talent for making herself seem cute and innocent. Most guys might even fall for it – Daisy was a very pretty girl, although Ash wouldn't go so far as to say she matched up to Karen or the Sisters. Her gentle features lent themselves more to soft smiles than the haughty arrogance of Karen or the casual beauty of the sisters.

Daisy cocked her head at him as the last part of his words hit her. "Wait, what do you mean you could probably get away with it?"

"Well I am an Elite Four member," Ash grinned. "A trainee, anyway."

"Aww, that's so cute!" Daisy surprised him by giggling and reaching forward to tug on his cheeks again. "Big bad Elite Four Ashy Ketchum! It has a nice ring to it, don't you think?"

"Definitely," Ash rolled his eyes. He didn't know what he expected – he'd hoped to at least surprise Daisy out of the topic at hand, but then he should have expected that Daisy wasn't one to be impressed by titles or privilege. She was an Oak, after all. "I'll call up Lance to have my ID changed."

Daisy snorted, although she smiled at the mention of Lance. "Okay, that's actually kind of cool to hear you name drop the Champion like that."

Ash grinned, although he stopped when Daisy suddenly giggled to herself.

"Say," she fluttered her long eyelashes at him, "you wouldn't happen to mind giving me his number, would you? I promise it wouldn't get you in trouble!"

He pretended to think for a moment and tapped his chin thoughtfully. Ash stared at Daisy just long enough to make her a tad uncomfortable before he gave his reply.

"I could," he allowed. Daisy actually squealed before he continued. Ash had to stare at her for another few seconds until she calmed down and waited patiently, PokeDex already in hand. "But I think you might be a little young for his tastes."

"Wait, what? No! That's totally not – I mean that's ridiculous!" Daisy sputtered, all of her usual serenity lost. "I mean, sure he's really good looking and strong and he has pretty hair but I mean I totally wasn't after that even though it would totally be legal –"

Ash snorted and even Dazed and Gardevoir joined in with a mental chuckle. "You might as well just stop now. You're embarrassing yourself."

"I really wasn't!" Daisy flushed. If she got any redder she might give a Charmeleon a run for its money. "…and you know his type?"

"I have an idea," Ash shrugged. He'd heard a lot of stories from Lance during their time at Knot Island, some that his mother, Professor Oak, Steven…actually anyone with a normal sense of decency wouldn't approve of. Not at his age anyway. There wasn't anything too risqué but Ash was smart and knowledgeable enough to read in between the lines.

"Do tell!" Daisy leaned forward and listened raptly. "Please? For me?"

Ash smirked. "Sure. I want to watch you delete those pictures though. And you can't use them against me again."

"Fine," his companion sighed. She wiped an invisible tear from her eye. "I guess all good things must come to an end."

"Drama queen," he muttered, although it was about as affectionate as could be. "Well, this shouldn't take long. Lance isn't a complicated man…"

XX

"Did you get anything out of the trip to the caves?" Ash asked as he saddled up Plume. She patiently waited for him to tie the straps and affectionately cooed at him as he stroked her plumage as an apology for his slow progress.

"Well I got these really cool scrapes and bruises!" His companion laughed, playfully modeling the collection of yellow and purple skin for him. She eyed the faded burns on his arms and the thick rope of scar tissue underneath his eye. "They don't quite match up to yours, I'm afraid."

Ash smiled at that. "You sound jealous."

"What can I say? It might get me some extra points this season if I show up looking like I just walked out of a forest fire…not that I'd need them, of course!" Daisy giggled as she hopped up onto her own Pidgeot's saddle and started strapping herself in. She glanced at him as she adjusted the forest green goggles that would protect her from the high speeds. "Then again, I might not wear them as well as you do. They fit better on a guy, I think."

"Oh?" He asked as he caught up to her and hopped onto Plume, grinning as she let out a fierce scream that cut its way through the heavens. She always did like to announce her presence to the world.

"You've got the whole rugged look going on…give it a few years, though," Daisy explained. A devious smile slipped onto her face. "Then all the other girls might like them as much as Lisia does!"

Ash groaned at the joke and shook his head. "Are you ready to leave?"

"Yes, yes," Daisy brushed his impatience off with practiced ease. "We can head out now if you want."

He nodded and prepared to have Plume head off when Daisy suddenly interrupted him. She grinned sheepishly at him and brandished a few dull grey rocks he instantly recognized as Everstones.

"All jokes aside, I forgot to mention I found these when we were trapped by Onix!" The corners of her lips curved upwards. "They're a great find! You probably wouldn't expect it, but Everstones are really valuable for Coordinators!"

And giant, millennium old Rhydon. Ash couldn't help but think back to the First's Rhydon, who required a full five of the stones just to prevent its unnatural strength from forcing an evolution.

"Glad to hear it," he grunted. "Plume?"

In a second they were off, blasted off into the sky like a tan comet. Ash was just barely able to hear Daisy and her Pidgeot's annoyed screams before Plume's greater speed carried them just ahead of his companion.

XX

Ash,

Hey, how are you? It's been a while. I just wanted to check how you've been doing in Hoenn. I know you won't be meeting Steven for a while yet but I figured I should get a basic report of what you've done. From what I've heard you've made a good impression on everyone you've met so far – not that I expected otherwise. You are my student, after all.

Sorry I haven't been in touch. Everything's stable here in Kanto. The Elite Four rankings have been decided – did you watch those battles yet? – Karen and Koga are having all sorts of fun stabilizing the underworld, Mewtwo has been silent, the Orange League situation has been revolved, and even Moltres hasn't been in contact.

It's actually a bit suspicious. Are you sure you weren't the cause of it all? I guess I'll just have to wait and see if anything strange pops up in Hoenn while you're there.

Just kidding, of course. Regardless, keep me up to date on anything that transpires in regards to Legends. You have a closer connection to them than most.

Anyways, I hope you're having a good time in Hoenn. You deserve some time off and I know that Hoenn's a good place to relax, especially when Steven isn't there to mess up your fun.

With any luck your goal should be to have as good of a time as I did – and by that I mean grow the strongest you can, explore, meet some interesting people, do Indigo proud, and do some things you'll probably regret but will get great stories out of.

I would give a few of my own so that you'd have something to aspire to, but I'm pretty sure Bagon just found the way to Chinatsu while he was wandering around and I need to go save him.

I'll be in touch.

Lance

Ash read over the message and snorted at the rushed end – hopefully Bagon got out with minimal burns. Chinatsu was a fickle creature at the best of times and she didn't favor the current Champion or his team.

He looked down at the ocean below. They were about thirty minutes from Littleroot, maybe a bit less. It was a rather short flight from Dewford to the small town that housed Professor Birch and his research laboratory.

Plenty of time to get the report done. He didn't have too much to mention. It wasn't as if he'd accomplished anything fantastic in Hoenn.

Mostly it would be a brief overview of the locations he'd visited, what he'd done, and the addition to his team.

All that would really stand out was his report on the Legendary influences he'd encountered at the Cave of Origin and Granite Caverns. Ash wasn't sure if he should mention the strange effect he'd run into with the Thunder Stone in the official report or not.

Eventually he decided against it. He'd speak with Lance about it in their next correspondence. He didn't know if that was something he wanted to have on the record.

Besides, it would probably be better to speak with Sabrina about this. He'd have to check in with her next time he was in Kanto, although if it looked like he wouldn't be going there for the next few months he might just access the League databases and get her information.

Unlimited access to the League archives and profiles was one of the nicer perks granted by his position in the Elite Four, only outranked by his ability to permanently carry his full team with him.

There were still a few documents he couldn't view, but almost everything was laid bare to him. He hadn't used that privilege too often yet but he planned to in the near future.

Those were the main privileges of being in the Elite Four in his opinion. The most practical for his situation, at least.

Ash didn't see himself commandeering too many ACE or Ranger squads in the future. Or taking control of police operations, given access to literally anywhere with his ID being the only qualification required, or the other nigh unlimited legal powers afforded to him.

He very nearly was the law, even as a trainee.

There were other useful perks, of course.

Free access to League safehouses and requisitions facilities was very convenient. He could literally ask for almost anything he wanted. If they had it, it was his…to a point, anyway. Ash could be refused if he seemed like he was abusing the privilege.

Other than that he had to say that the high-tech medical technology was incredibly useful as well. It was only in close proximity to civilization or in League outposts, but those facilities housed the same technology that could take a mortally wounded pokemon and have it on its feet in a day. Even Pokemon Centers were primitive in comparison, although they did their job very, very well.

Ash would have to see what else would apply in Hoenn. Steven would be a great help on that – he seemed like the type to memorize manuals and guidelines. Everything Ash knew about the former Champion pointed to him being as by-the-book as could be.

He frowned and took a moment to look down to the great blue ocean, although he had to hold back a grimace as his stomach reflexively lurched at the sight. Ash wasn't worried by the sea itself anymore – the calming Song running through his spirit had seen to that – but he still had a long way to go until he was comfortable with being up at these heights.

Sure it was fun and exhilarating and brought him closer to Plume than he'd ever been, but he was quite literally higher than most mountains right now. That realization didn't do much for his sense of safety.

Ash shook his head at that and grinned at Plume, whose soft coo was lost in the winds as he stroked the back of her head. He supposed he really had nothing to worry about.

If he couldn't trust Plume with his safety then who could he?

He clutched the PokeNav tightly as Plume slowly started her descent – she must have picked out Daisy doing the same. They were basically flying alongside her with a few thousand feet between them…Ash could only just barely make out a tan dot in the bright blue sky.

It was a short flight so he couldn't say he was surprised. Daisy had said it would only take about two hours before they'd left, although it looked like they'd managed to make even better time than she'd hoped for.

Well, at least Plume and Daisy's Pidgeot's rivalry had some sort of benefit.

Rivalry might be a bit too much, he mused. They really just liked to compete against each other. Technically that fit the definition of a rival, but after his experiences with Gary he'd picked up his own interpretation of the word.

He shook himself out of his thoughts and started typing up the report once he'd gotten a few straps wrapped around it so that he didn't have to worry about his PokeNav falling into the great expanse of water below.

That might put a dampener on his day.

Still, he supposed it was good that he was finally getting to Littleroot. Ash didn't think he'd taken too long considering the number of unnecessary days he'd spent exploring or relaxing amounted to less than a week. Honestly he wasn't going to be in too much of a rush until Professor Oak personally called.

The data was important, sure, but from what Oak had let slip all of the Pokemon Professors had plenty on their plates already. It wasn't as if they got to ignore their normal duties for the League and their own personal research just because they'd gotten the Legends dumped on them. Ash figured they might delegate a bit more but considering the enormity of the task unraveling the Legends' mysteries entailed that drop in the workload was minimal.

With those musings out of the way Ash finally decided to get a head start on his report. He'd really rather get it done with so he could focus on things that were actually interesting.

Like training and spending time with his family. Or exploring. Or fighting.

Ash frowned thoughtfully at that. Maybe it was about time he added another activity into the mix.

His thoughts drifted off to the otherworldly instrument in one of his storage compartments. Even if he didn't have a musical bone in his body and his voice was mangled from his and Lance's battle with Moltres he could at least try – what was the point in giving up before he even began?

At the thought of the Flute his brown eyes habitually flickered down to the ocean they passed over in a blur. Ash found himself entranced by it as the Song echoed ethereally between his ears and for just a moment he could have sworn he saw a flash of white in the water before it vanished.

He gripped his PokeNav tightly and turned to it, although a slight smile drifted across his face at the reminder of the Great Guardian.

Lugia was one Legend he wished he could have spent more time with. It was just as helpful as Mew – even moreso considering it warned him of the Awakening – and it hadn't even killed him. He supposed that automatically gave it a few points in his book…and his team's.

Oh well. Maybe he'd meet it again someday…

XX

Ash grimaced as he stepped onto mainland Hoenn for the first time. His legs had started to lock into the position he'd been in riding Plume and it was an annoyance to stretch them back out.

"So what do you think?" Daisy called out from behind him as she slipped her goggles off and did her best to smooth out her hair. "It's a cute little town, isn't it?"

He nodded as he examined his surroundings with a practiced eye.

Littleroot was hardly even a town. More like a few neighborhoods and a small row of businesses built around Professor Birch's lab. Like Pallet Town it was mostly composed of researchers and others working at the Pokemon Professor's facility along with a small group of people that came to sell goods and provide services to the scientists.

The difference was that while Pallet Town existed relatively autonomously due to its isolation Littleroot was only a few miles away from Oldale Town. If the Hoenn Professor hadn't elected to have his workplace built where he could do fieldwork from home it probably would've been right outside Oldale proper.

Still, it was nice. It was simple, the largest building was Birch's lab, and it felt like it merged perfectly with the wilderness around it. Littleroot might be close to Oldale, but it was still rather isolated from any centers of civilization.

Its air was clean, there was plenty of shade, and he could hear plenty of pokemon crying out from the woods. Honestly, Littleroot was more of a clearing than anything. He could walk half a mile and be in thick, dense forest.

As thick and dense as Hoenn would allow, anyway. The trees seemed sparser here than in his native region, and thinner too. While they still looked sturdy and strong they appeared just a shade more delicate and didn't form the imposing walls Ash had come to love over the past year of his life.

That would take some getting used to. Combined with the light humidity that was still worse than almost anything he'd dealt with in Kanto, the heat that made him seriously consider going shirtless like most of the islanders he'd seen, and the unfamiliar pokemon calls he was well aware that he was a long way from home.

"Guess we should probably get a move on," Daisy remarked as she returned her Pidgeot. Ash nodded and glanced to Plume, who picked up on his plan and took to the skies. That two hour trip was nowhere near enough exercise for her. "Professor Birch is probably in his lab…you can head in and talk to him if you'd like. I'm going to visit one of my friends while you're busy with that – she's the wife of the Petalburg Gym Leader, Norman."

Ash frowned thoughtfully. He'd read the profiles on Hoenn's Gym Leaders. No reason to go in blind, especially since there was the possibility that he'd be working with them during his time in Hoenn.

Either Norman liked women a lot younger than him or Daisy had a few intergenerational friendships…not that he could say anything. Now that he thought about it he could pretty much count the number of friends he had that were his own age on one hand.

He inwardly shrugged. It wasn't important. At least he'd made friends – even if he would be more than content with just his team. They were all he really needed. The rest were just bonuses and greatly appreciated.

"That sounds fine," he agreed, bringing his focus back onto the conversation. Daisy had been staring at him expectantly. "Which house?"

"That one," Daisy pointed to one of the homes in the small neighborhood by the lab. "Professor Birch's house is actually the one right next to it on the right. Norman and the Professor are pretty good friends so they stay here in Littleroot instead of Petalburg."

Ash nodded, showing he understood. An idea suddenly struck him. "You think Norman'll be here or at the Conference?"

"Conference," his friend said without a second's hesitation. "He has way too much of a stick up his butt to play fast and loose with the rules like you said Brawly did."

"Thanks for that mental image," Ash grimaced and was rewarded with a bright smile from Daisy. "Well, I'll be off then. You said you'd have a place for us to stay?"

"Probably with Caroline," Daisy confirmed. "We haven't seen each other in forever and I'd love to spend some extra time catching up."

She turned to him fully and he braced himself for whatever was coming. "You know, Ashy, when I was talking to her earlier I mentioned who I was traveling with."

"Is that so?" He ground out, eyes narrowed.

"It just so happens that her son is a huge fan of yours!" The Oak sang. "She said he watches your matches so constantly she's actually getting worried about him! Apparently he knows your stats and all that other boring battling stuff of yours by heart."

Ash blinked. He didn't even know his official stats. There wasn't really a point…all he cared about was his ability, not how well he did in a tournament. Sure, the success was determined by his ability, but that wasn't what he really cared about.

"Huh," was all he could mutter. Ash felt like this wouldn't be nearly as relaxing for him as it would be for Daisy. His fans were something he'd managed to avoid up until this point…after the Conference, anyway. He still remembered very well the feeling of being ambushed or feeling all eyes upon him as he did something as trivial as walk down the street. It wasn't exactly something he was fond of.

"Also, I might have promised that you'd sign an autograph!" Daisy said very quickly as she trotted away. "Bye!"

He just sighed and watched her for a few moments before focusing. Ash had a job to do.

XX

The inside of Professor Birch's lab was almost a perfect replica of Oak's. Most of the important equipment and materials were in the sealed rooms to the back and sides, so this was just the atrium.

It wasn't quite as large, but it mimicked Professor Oak's lab well with its white, sterile atmosphere and general air of sophistication in contrast to the simple town around it. There were a few people out in the open, eating lunch or staring at some sort of device that was probably filled with data.

"Can I help you?"

Ash glanced on the speaker, who halfheartedly smiled at him. The man who looked to be in charge of greeting visitors was short with black hair, a patchy beard, and terribly dark bags under his eyes. Still, he appeared almost unnervingly alert and watched Ash with intensity that set the boy on edge.

"I have a delivery for Professor Birch," he said after a moment.

"I can take it," the assistant offered, stretching out a hand. "I'm not sure where he is at the moment but I can hold onto it until he returns."

He frowned. "I'm not giving this to anyone but Professor Birch. It's a delivery from Professor Oak."

"Oh?" The man leaned forward, much more interested now. "Well, I can understand your hesitance then. Professor Birch shouldn't be back for a while…he always runs out to visit his family or explore after lunch. To be honest it's getting a little excessive…we're going to have to put a leash on him if he doesn't start spending more time here."

Ash cracked a rare smile at that. Seemed like Birch's team had the opposite of Oak's. Whereas Oak obsessively remained in the lab and had to be reminded to eat and drink if he was working on something that interested him, Birch seemed to prefer fieldwork much more.

He supposed that might be a consequence of their pasts…as a trainer strong enough to be a Champion Oak must have gotten traveling and field research out of his system decades ago. Working in a lab and enjoying complete oversight must have been like a vacation for him.

"Do you know where I can find him?" Ash inquired once he'd snapped out of his thoughts. "This needs to be delivered as soon as possible."

"Like I said, best to try his house first," the assistant replied. He absentmindedly stroked his beard. "His son should be able to point you in the right direction if the Professor already headed out into the field. He at least tells him these things."

"Thanks," he said. "I'll come back here and wait if I can't find him."

The assistant just nodded and waved him off before returning to typing on the large computer in front of him. Ash just shrugged and headed out. He knew what he needed to do now.

XX

"Hello?" A boy probably two years younger than Ash answered the door with a lazy scowl. "Can I help – oh crap, you're Ash Ketchum."

"Yeah," Ash nodded, just barely holding off an irritated frown of his own. He took a moment to examine the boy more closely. He wasn't anything too special, not at first glance anyway. Tan skin, brown hair that just barely peeked out beneath an odd, knit white cap, and a red and black shirt that was surprisingly tight for someone who lived in southern Hoenn.

The boy recovered fast and threw the door open, inviting Ash inside. He followed, just a bit annoyed at all this unnecessary interaction. He had a job to do.

"I'm Brendan Birch and it's super cool to meet you, man. I've got to admit it gets really annoying when Max doesn't shut up about you but I checked out your battles in the Indigo Conference and wow!" Brendan rambled, after practically tearing Ash's arm off when he shook the trainer's hand. "Like, that Magmortar of yours is crazy strong! It took down a Salamence, that overpowered Jolteon, and needed a Snorlax to take it down…you totally should have won that battle, man. I know Salamence and I could tell that was a tough one."

Ash blinked. "It would've been nice to win. And Infernus is pretty strong – probably my strongest in raw power."

"I'd hope so," the boy snorted and turned around to face Ash again. "It literally destroyed the field. I was watching a recording of the live commentary and they said if it was much worse they would have had to relocate the Final since the field would have collapsed out from under your feet."

"Guess we would have had to do that if I rematched Michael," Ash commented drily. "Don't know how much Lance would have appreciated that, though."

"From what Drake told me he'd have loved it," Brendan smirked and crossed his arms. "And anyone who managed to beat Hoenn's Dragon Master is going to be someone that can appreciate large-scale destruction anyway."

"You know Drake?" Ash raised an eyebrow, a bit curious at that. Curious enough to entertain Brendan, anyway.

Brendan scoffed. "Do I know him? Dude, I'm the son of Hoenn's Pokemon Professor. I've spent more time at Ever Grande and the Gyms than I have in this backwater, what with my Dad and Mom being so busy."

Ash nodded at that. It was reasonable enough.

"What are you doing here anyway?" Brendan asked. "I mean, it's super cool to meet you and everything and I'm totally going to rub this in that little brat Max's face, but it's not every day someone like you shows up in a place like this."

"I have a delivery for Professor Birch – your dad," Ash corrected himself. "It's from Professor Oak and it's urgent that I deliver it as soon as possible."

"Alright, cool," the boy nodded. He walked over to one of the counters of the small home – Ash had been distracted enough that he didn't even take the time to examine his surroundings, which was a bit annoying to him – and slung a green pack over his shoulder. "I'm not going to pry if it's from Professor Oak. But I can take you to him. He should be just outside of town."

Ash smiled and followed the boy out the door.

"Normally I wouldn't go out on my own since I only get to help my Dad with fieldwork when I've got one of the lab pokemon, but I'm guessing you'll be plenty tough enough to handle the odd Poochyena or Zigzagoon," Brendan smirked, holding the door open for Ash. "If not…well, it's a good thing I've got a few pokeballs on me 'cause that's one Zigzagoon I'd be interested in picking up."

He nodded and lightly let his hands dance over his pokeballs, grinning as he felt each of his friends shake their containers in turn.

If something out in these woods could pose a threat to him…well, Brendan wouldn't need to worry about catching it. Ash wouldn't let something that tough get away without good reason.

XX

"He should be somewhere out here," Brendan said as he led Ash out of the town and off the small path. "Dad likes to hang out and watch wild pokemon for a while most days. Says it keeps him focused. Personally, I think he just likes taking a few hours off every day without anyone else being able to say jack."

Ash snorted at the boy's bluntness.

"You don't say much, do you?" Brendan looked back over his shoulder to Ash.

"Not really," Ash shrugged, a slight smirk playing over his lips as Brendan rolled his eyes. He might not be quite as good at it as Gary or Daisy, but it really was a nice bit of fun annoying people like this.

"Very funny," Brendan rolled his eyes and focused on pushing past a few branches that had grown into the beaten dirt path. "What's up with your voice anyway, dude? Sounds like you've been gargling sandpaper or something."

The Feather burned at that, Fire and Lightning coursing throughout his body as the memories surged. Ash winced as his lungs and throat seared with scarring heat, the feeling just as intense as it was when he'd first faced the Bird of Fire with the Dragon Master at his side.

"I spent a little more time around a volcano than I should have," he said after a moment's pause. "Not everything appreciates a fight there and I paid for it."

"Note to self, do not piss off volcano pokemon," Brendan recited and pretended to write down a few notes. "Any other words of wisdom?"

"Not really," Ash shrugged. "I'll let you have the fun of figuring it all out on your own. Where's the fun in learning from other people's mistakes?"

"Not tearing up my vocal cords, for one," the boy shot back. His tone softened a little bit, just enough for Ash to know his words had been meant in jest. Not that it would have bothered Ash anyway. He had thicker skin than that. "Not that it sounds bad, or anything. Just makes you sound like you're gonna punch someone out all the time."

Ash couldn't help but grin at that. "Considering some of the people I know that's not a bad thing."

"Considering the average person I'm not gonna argue that one," Brendan smirked back. "Some people make Slowpoke look like me compared to…oh, I don't know, everyone? Present company and a few notable exceptions excluded, of course."

"Aren't you just brimming with confidence?" Ash snorted. It almost felt like he was talking to Gary again. Brendan Birch and the youngest Oak had more than their relationship with a Pokemon Professor in common, it seemed.

"At least you didn't call it arrogance," the boy smiled. "Because it would only be arrogance if it weren't true."

Just like Gary, then. Brendan was just a bit more mellowed out than his friend.

"Anyway, he should be just up…oh, come on!" Brendan groaned. Ash tensed and stepped up beside him, only to snort as he realized what had brought on the boy's sudden attitude change. "Really, Dad?"

"Brendan? Is that you?" The deep voice of a tall, broad-chested man Ash immediately recognized as Professor Birch called out. It easily rang out over the light growls that came from a diminutive striped creature that leapt at the tree playfully, claws carving small gouges into the soft wood.

Ash raised an eyebrow. A Zigzagoon had treed the Professor?

"Yes, it's me! Got another son I need to know about?" Brendan snarked back. "Don't know if Mom would appreciate that one too much."

"Will you just help me?" Professor Birch cried from his position high up in one of the skinny trees of Hoenn. Ash eyed it warily. He was half-surprised it hadn't collapsed under the strain. Birch wasn't fat, but he was a large man.

Brendan smirked as he watched his father. "I don't know…you look pretty comfy up there. Besides, a Zigzagoon? Really? This is worse than that time with the Poochyena!"

"It's surprisingly mean!" Birch defended and pointed down at the small creature. It looked back with its tongue lolling out of its mouth before it growled at the man and started pawing at the tree again. "See that bag down there? The new batch of starters are in it. I dropped it before I could let them out to chase off the Zigzagoon. I was going to give you one for your birthday anyway, but if you get this thing to leave me alone you can have it early!"

"Now why didn't you just say that in the first place?" Brendan grinned. "Alright, pops. You've got a deal. Ash, watch and learn."

He snorted and watched as Brendan casually found the large sack and pulled three pokeballs out of it, examining each for the elemental sticker on it before finally selecting the one with a large drop of water. "This'll do."

The boy released what Ash recognized as a Mudkip then, bending down and muttering a bit to it as the Zigzagoon turned around to focus on the new arrival. Mudkip seemed to grin up at Brendan and squared itself as the Zigzagoon growled and darted forward in a zigzagging motion that almost gave Ash a headache.

Ash just sighed and let go of Aron's pokeball. He'd planned on giving the steel-type some real combat experience.

Guess that was a bust.

That didn't stop him from watching the proceedings with some small amount of interest, however. Brendan was surprisingly comfortable commanding the Mudkip as they prepared themselves for the Zigzagoon which soon barreled into Mudkip and knocked it on its side – it didn't escape unscathed, though.

"Mudkip, use Water Gun!" Brendan shouted and pointed at the Zigzagoon as it spun around to resume its attack on the water-type. Mudkip squinted and shot off a jet of water, surprising Ash. He supposed Mudkip was a bit better than he'd thought. "Mudkip, hit it again!"

Zigzagoon whimpered as the high-pressured blast slammed into it and knocked it onto its side, and as Mudkip reared its head back to deliver another Water Gun it scurried off into the safety of the woods with a blur of motion.

"Aww yeah!" Brendan cheered and leaned down to pat the gleeful Mudkip on its head, rubbing around its fins. "That's what I'm talking about! We're awesome!"

Ash snorted, a bit amused at that. It had been a long time since he could take that much pride in as small a victory. It was nice to see again – nostalgic, he supposed. Times like this almost made him wish he hadn't been quite as obsessive about training and battling as he was. If he hadn't pushed past his barriers with the determination Lance and Steven had seen in him he'd have been able to enjoy small wins like this a lot more.

Almost, of course. He wouldn't trade his experiences for the world…and he supposed that would have been quite a literal deal as well. If he hadn't gone through everything he had Ash doubted the world would be quite as stable or existent as it was now.

Mewtwo would currently be ruling from its throne of New Island, the Leagues would be obliterated, and overall Ash thought he much preferred this current state of affairs.

A leaden pressure expanded in the back of his mind and Ash had to retain a wince as it grew to uncomfortable levels.

I would prefer the alternative.

Ash scowled and forced the presence away, ignoring the mental smirk he could feel projected. His fists clenched to the point slight dots of red seeped out from his skin and he forced himself to look at the reunion of father and son to distract himself.

"Good job!" Professor Birch grinned as he clapped his son on the shoulder and shook the boy affectionately. "I knew you and Mudkip would get along famously!"

Mudkip croaked happily at that and nuzzled into Brendan's shoe, content. Ash watched with the slightest smile as Brendan reached down to stroke its damp skin again, already armed with a basic knowledge of what the water-type liked.

"Of course!" Brendan said, crossing his arms with a wild grin. Mudkip did its best to mimic his pose, although its trainer had to nudge it back after it nearly toppled over. "Mudkip's awesome, I'm awesome…couldn't ask for a better match, right?"

The water-type nodded quickly in agreement and its fin-like tail wagged almost frantically.

"Of course," Professor Birch chuckled with his deep voice, before turning to look curiously at Ash. "And who is – oh."

"Ash Ketchum!" Brendan smirked. "He decided to grace us with his presence. He wanted to see you for something. A delivery."

He decided it was time to speak. "It's from Professor Oak. I'm guessing you know what it is?"

"I do," Professor Birch said quickly, hoisting the large bag Brendan had pulled Mudkip's pokeball out of over his shoulder. "Let's hurry back to the lab then. You arrived much earlier than I'd expected."

Ash nodded and followed the father and son pair as they led the way back to Littleroot.

"Brendan, head back to the house," Professor Birch instructed. "Get to know Mudkip a little better. I know you've got a year before you can be a real trainer but getting started early can't hurt. And try to finish those reports on the data you found last week before dinner, alright?"

"Sure, pops," Brendan shrugged. Mudkip tried to copy the motion but once again failed miserably. "Gonna be a late night for you?"

Professor Birch nodded firmly. "You probably won't be up when I get home. This is League business."

"Gotcha," the boy nodded as they reached Littleroot's gates. He turned to Ash and offered out a hand, which Ash shook after a moment when he realized what he was supposed to do. "Well, it was nice to meet you, Ash. How long are you gonna be sticking around Littleroot?"

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