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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82. The Delivery Part 2

"Just today," Ash shrugged, judging the information to be harmless. "My friend and I are leaving for Petalburg in the morning, I think. We just needed to stop here for me to make my delivery."

Brendan nodded. "Guess I probably won't see you again today, then. Have fun, I guess. Stop by if you ever come to Littleroot – it's been cool, man."

He nodded. "Will do."

With that Brendan and Mudkip walked off in the direction of Professor Birch's house. Ash only spared them a moment's glance before he fell into a comfortable walk beside the Professor.

"We can talk about the delivery in my office," Professor Birch said, looking down at Ash. "It's sensitive information. From what Samuel's told me you understand the value of that quite well."

"You can say that," Ash nodded.

Professor Birch smiled lightly at that. "Ah, a man of few words I see. But enough of that…what do you think of Littleroot?"

"I like it," he replied as they circled around the research building to find the doors. "Not too big, not too small. It reminds me a lot of Pallet, actually."

"The Ever Grande League and I actually developed it from the model of Pallet Town!" Birch smiled. "I never studied under Samuel like Professor Elm, but he did have a great degree of oversight in my research before I was Hoenn's Pokemon Professor. I thought I'd pay a bit of homage…besides, the design seems to have worked out quite well for him!"

Ash nodded. He could agree with that. Pallet was small, but for what it lacked in quantity it more than made up for in quality. That was his view, anyway. It might be just a bit biased.

"Your specialty is pokemon habitats and distribution, right?" Ash asked after a few moments of silence. They'd entered the sterile environment of the laboratory and he wouldn't mind breaking the silence…strange as that sounded in his own mind.

"Yep!" Birch grinned. Ash inwardly sighed. That look and tone reminded him enough of his mother to know that he'd get hit with information overload soon enough. "Mostly my focus lies in wild pokemon. I observe their behavior and how differences in their habitat and unique environmental pressures cause them to adapt."

"I'm sure you probably think all the scientific mumbo jumbo is boring, but I promise it's actually quite fascinating!" The Professor continued. Ash paid rapt attention, even if he knew he'd probably end up with a headache soon. "It's amazing to watch how sentient creatures like pokemon adapt to external influences in ways that most humans would never expect! It's actually allowed me to work extensively with several other researchers that have taken up residence in Littleroot about pokemon psychology in the wild, and the differences in the ways humans and pokemon – wild and domestic – think and address challenges."

Ash nodded – he was well aware that pokemon thought rather differently from humans. They were all people, but their biology and evolutionary history left them with worldviews that could sometimes seem alien. Pokemon and humans lived in a different world and it showed.

It was one of the biggest challenges as a trainer, especially when one was just starting out. Many young trainers thought of pokemon as either humans or tools and both perspectives were deeply flawed.

Pokemon were equals. They were people. Almost all of them were sentient, although intelligence ranged all over the place. Some were smart, some were dumb. They were like humans in that way.

But they weren't human, and it was foolish to ever consider them as such. They were very, very close in many ways but there was a massive gap in others. They thought differently, processed information differently, acted according to instincts no human could command.

They had all the intelligence of a human – or, considering the massive population advantage and variety pokemon had globally, humans had all the intelligence of a pokemon. But they applied that intelligence in different ways according to their instincts, their culture, and whatever was going on in their environment.

Ash had gotten around it, mostly. Unlike many of the younger trainers he'd observed he understood his team very well…their personalities, their desires, everything. They were as close to him as his mother. Closer, even, considering how much time they spent together. Their bonds were deeper than blood.

Their bond was what made them work so well and it was that bond he attributed the great strength of his family too.

"…and Brendan helps to gather data, of course. He's been surrounded by pokemon his whole life and I wanted to get him started early," Birch rambled on, distracting Ash. The large man smiled when he realized they'd reached the door to his office. "Ah, here we are."

With that Birch swiped a clear plastic card through a scanner next to the doorway. Ash stepped in as the Professor ushered him through and turned to watch the man as he secured and locked the door.

"Here's the data," Ash handed the tiny disk to Professor Birch. It was a bit humbling to realize just how important that information was. He doubted it would change anything regarding the Legends, but it could very well at least help the League to understand them. "Delivered safe and sound."

"I'd expect nothing less from the newest associate of the Indigo Elite Four," Birch loosed a bellowing laugh. "But seriously, thank you. You've done a great service for the League, Mr. Ketchum."

"It's my job," he pointed out drily. "But you're welcome. I'm always happy to help."

"Great!" Hoenn's Pokemon Professor grinned and pulled out a grey case remarkably similar to the one Ash had literally just given him. Ash had to hold back a resigned sight at that. "In that case you won't mind taking this to Roxanne, right? She's the Gym Leader in Rustboro."

Ash nodded after a moment and took the disk. He tapped it to the storage compartment he kept important objects in. A moment later it dematerialized and vanished. "Fine."

"Thanks a lot! I know you're probably tired of being treated like a Camerupt so don't worry – this'll be worth your while!" Birch smiled at him. "This isn't required by your League duties – it's a personal favor, really – so I've allocated C-rank pay to your Trainer ID."

He just raised an eyebrow. More money was always nice, although he supposed he wasn't really scrounging for it anymore. To be honest it hadn't been an issue since Lance gave him the forty thousand for assisting against Team Rocket in the Sevii Islands.

"Oh, I forgot Indigo doesn't do that," Birch said sheepishly at Ash's blank expression. He turned and sat down at his desk, sighing in relief at finally being off his feet for the day. Ash followed suit. "Alright, well you know Hoenn's League is a bit smaller, don't you?"

Ash nodded. He'd remembered Steven mentioning that a few times. If he remembered correctly it was actually supposed to be why Team Rocket could set up shop in Hoenn in the first place.

"Well, the size difference is a bit more severe than you probably think," Birch admitted. "We're the newest League – barely thirty years old at this point, actually – and we don't quite have the resources Indigo or Lily of the Valley have at their disposal. Not much of Hoenn is developed anyway thanks to our prior history and expansion regulations put in place by the League, so we've got a lot of wilderness and barely explored areas out there."

"With how little manpower the Ever Grande League has we tend to stick to the cities and nearby areas," the Professor continued. "Our Rangers patrol, of course, but when it comes to duties League personnel aren't required to perform the League likes to work with trainers. The Gym Leader or other authorities in the area post things they need done and trainers in the area get it done."

Ash dipped his head to show he understood, but frowned. "Wouldn't it be easier to just train more Rangers?"

Birch snorted at his words, though Ash didn't detect any bite in them. "Give me a second."

With that the burly man typed a few things into his computer before a massive holographic map of the world materialized on his desk. Birch carelessly swept a few stacks of paper and assorted knickknacks off the massive piece of furniture and Ash winced at seeing the mess.

"Oh, don't worry about that. That's what interns are for!" Professor Birch belted out another booming laugh before he calmed down and looked down at the map. "Pretty cool, right? This is brand new technology! Cutting edge! The Indigo League developed it last year, apparently."

"I've seen better," Ash said after a moment's contemplation. Loath as he was to say it, Mewtwo's holograms were much, much more advanced. And took up less space and energy if the low roar from the power source was anything to go by. It was probably easier to develop technology like that when physical laws were more of a suggestion than fact, of course.

He'd done his fair share of research on cloning thanks to learning about Blaine's involvement with the field and the events of New Island and he could say that what Mewtwo had done with the clones – developing fully-grown, perfect clones in minutes rather than years – outstripped its holographic work by far. That was supposed to be impossible and Mewtwo had done it with hardly a hint of effort.

A cold smirk filled his mind and Ash barely noticed it before he banished it away.

Now was not the time.

"Oh, really?" Birch raised a disbelieving eyebrow. Ash eyed it interestedly…the Professor's eyebrows were thick enough he should probably keep Plume away from the man. She might mistake them for oddly colored baby Caterpie and try to get herself a snack. "Indigo's keeping the good stuff for themselves, then? And here I thought we were friends!"

Ash just shrugged, not sure if that was really something he should be answering. Birch didn't seem to care that much, though. He was just messing with him.

"Something like that," he replied as he examined the map. It was actually impressive, even if its quality wasn't quite as good as Mewtwo's holograms…then again, the League didn't get to cheat.

It showed everything quite clearly, although the constant hum of the power source really was annoying. The edges were a bit soft but considering what little he knew he couldn't fault the designers for that, especially with how new the technology seemed.

Ash frowned in concentration as he traced his finger over the hologram, mapping out every bit. It wasn't the first time he'd seen a world map, obviously. Far from it. This was just a much more interesting way of viewing it.

The Eastern Continent – more commonly known as the League continent since the League had come to dominate it after the last war – held his focus, of course. He could easily pick out Indigo dominating the south, split in two by the Ore Mountains. There were the Orange Islands to the southeast, the archipelago barely visible as a series of dots. If the territory weren't noted he would have had a much harder time.

The Sevii Islands were to the southwest of Cinnabar and he definitely needed the territory marked for them…they were so tiny he couldn't even actually see them.

Hoenn was even further to the southwest than the Sevii Islands. It was always surprisingly big to him. Its mainland was nearly as large as Johto.

The Southern Continent, largely unmapped and unkind to humans thanks to the viciously territorial pokemon that made it home, was situated even further southwest than Hoenn. It was only a little south of the region – probably by three or four hundred miles – but it was about a thousand to the west if he remembered correctly. It stretched out for what seemed like the entire globe, dominating from the southern pole up. Technically it was the largest continent, although barely anything was known about it even with modern technology.

Not to say there weren't any pockets of civilization on it, of course. Orre was the major one, although it was circled by several other minor regions that were constantly on the edge of collapse and anarchy from what he'd heard.

Those regions were built on the backs of immigrants from the Western and Eastern Continents and what few native humans had managed to survive the pokemon that had not adapted to their presence nearly as well as pokemon had elsewhere. They were unique in that whatever the pokemon's first experience with humanity had been was bad enough to leave its mark on almost the entire continent.

It was only in the worst areas of the Southern Continent, within the wastes and deserts few pokemon would ever call home, that they had survived. They were trapped inland, however, until the first settlers arrived and managed to claim the coasts.

Ash smirked as the knowledge he'd gathered from Cynthia's chapter on Hoenn's neighbors left him with the realization that Orre was actually the jewel of the Southern Continent. It was by far the most modern, with access to up-to-date technology and relatively few wild pokemon for the most part. In some regions they'd apparently made a comeback, but those were supposed to be far tamer than the ones the immigrants and native Orrians had first driven away so they could stake their claim on the land.

Still a cesspool of corruption, crime, and strife according to literally everyone he'd ever heard mention it, but he hoped that Michael might be able to make it a little better.

He turned his eyes to the north of Indigo, not really wishing to pay more attention to the Wastes.

Rota's long, thin strip of territory just to the north of Indigo and the Ore mountains was clearly colored a bright green, contrasting with Indigo's…indigo. Whoever designed this certainly hadn't earned marks for creativity.

North of that was a harsh, almost deserted strip of land almost five thousand miles long from east to west and six hundred north to south. Ash didn't know much about it – nobody did, really. A series of mountains at Rota's northern border marked the boundary and from there it was a mountainous, treacherous land.

Dark forests said to be so thick as to be impenetrable dominated it. There were supposed to be sudden drops around every corner, waterfalls that fell thousands of feet into empty trenches of the earth. Great stretches of scarred desert in the midst of endless trees…lakes that appeared at the desert's edge, or in its center.

Water that flowed up, giggles in the shadows and strange phantasms that led explorers to their doom. Trees that came alive to devour hapless sleepers whole in the night. Fierce screams and sobs and keens of rage that refused any possibility of sleep.

Volcanoes spewing their contents for an eternity, night devouring the sun at high noon, hail and snow falling over wastes of sand and magma, spots where the moon shone with the intensity of the sun or the air grew thick and heavy with unearthly energies…that was the reality of this land.

Or so he had heard. After a few thousand years of trying only the most stalwart and bold of trainers went exploring in that strange, unearthly strip. The others had finally come to understand that whatever lived there didn't take kindly to intruders, and some swore that the land itself rose up against whatever dared to breach its borders.

It had many names: Land of Gods, World of Contradictions, Unearth, Dark World, Scarred Strip, Desolation, and a thousand others. It was land of mysteries and strangeness and no humans had ever survived.

Or so he had heard.

But one thing kept it out of the public mind was that it was so far removed from the civilized world and possessed such a terrible reputation that few attempted to enter it anymore. Scientists tried to push into it even now, but he'd never heard of anything approaching success…not that the League even allowed many people to come within a hundred miles of it anymore, regardless.

Satellites couldn't penetrate the forests, couldn't pick out the apparently unending deserts. Couldn't find the inland oceans and seas what few explorers had succeeded spoke of when they staggered back to the civilized world, half-mad and spouting gibbering nonsense.

Technology sputtered and died. Electronics were sapped of energy, even gears would grind and grit until they were stuck. Only pokeballs seemed immune, and even those took seconds or minutes or hours to work.

Teleportation failed. They found themselves a few hundred feet into the blackness and few had returned, speaking of claws and teeth and shadow.

Fliers crashed, seeing up as down and down as right and left as all of the above. Or none.

No, there was only one way to travel once one passed the towering mountains that guarded the Dark World on all sides. Once one trespassed and ignored the warning the Shields of Mew – so named by an ancient sage who saw them as a divine gift protecting the world – blatantly gave: on foot.

It was a wild land, and one that Ash would rather ignore. So long as one didn't enter it the Dark World was harmless, just a nightmare given form by the fears of man.

But he possessed knowledge now, had been touched by the influences of entities far greater than any other in this world.

He knew the basest Concepts of Fire, Ice, and Lightning. Had become them, in a sense. He had touched the mind of Mew and its Shade, felt the enormity of their presence drown him. Lugia had embraced him, given him a piece of itself to call his own.

And if he knew one thing after his encounters with the Legends, it was that something was terribly, terribly wrong in the Dark World.

There were many places in the world humans hadn't touched – many more than they had, certainly. Places where the land was destroyed by titanic battles between powerful pokemon and species, ravaged and left poisoned by Muk and burnt until nothing was left save charred glass by some titanic creature.

Few wild pokemon could match a trained one, but over the course of millions of years it was a given monsters of such a caliber that they could lay waste to the land itself would arise independent of Legends…although armed with his experience, Ash suspected that the Legends had more than a little involvement.

He'd even met a few of the ancient, wonderful creatures possessing of unearthly power: the Clefable that acted as Guardian of the Moon Stone, the First's Rhydon that could tear down mountains, old Chinatsu who bore Fire on her back, the Slowking of Shamouti.

Others had to be out there somewhere in the wild places of the world.

But yes, there were many of those wild places. Places humans could find no value in, where even pokemon fled from as though there were a wound far greater than the mere physical damage gaping. Places where pokemon had learned to hate and fight the strange interlopers in their affairs who cleared away nature for their own use.

The Dark World, however, was unique. Though it bore traces of the lands humans had reached and balked from, it was strange and unearthly and wrong in a way no others were.

And Ash would rather avoid that if possible. He had enough trouble with the natural forces of the world, let alone whatever had decided to make the Dark World its home.

He sighed and glanced up from his troubled thoughts. Birch was content to let him examine the map to its fullest. Probably eager to see him marvel over the shiny new technology and eat his previous words.

Not that he would. Mewtwo's technology really was better…even if it had probably achieved its success by toying with the laws of physics like a Meowth with a ball of yarn.

Still, he took advantage of the opportunity to keep glancing over the map. It really was…cool. Ash found it incredibly interesting to see what looked like a real-time map of the world, judging from how there were great masses of white cloud all over the screen. It was still simple to pick out the land, especially since most political regions were filled in with color superimposed over the landscape, but he liked watching the clouds crawl across the seas and lands at a pace so slow it was almost impossible to notice.

Since Birch looked to be busy – he was playing on his own PokeNav and considering how fast his fingers were moving he was either typing frantically or playing a game – Ash continued his survey.

From the northern edge of the Shield of Mew a line of short mountains jutted up in a straight line until they met their greatest at the mighty shape of Mt. Coronet, which towered far above almost any others on the world map. It was incredibly easy to pick out, and not just because he knew where it was unlike some of the other important locations he'd found on the map.

Most of the mountains that shot north from the Dark World were claimed by the Ranger Union, which acted as the last barrier between the southern regional Leagues and the northern League of Sinnoh.

The Ranger Union was made up of the regions of Oblivia, Fiore, and Almia. Ash didn't know much about it – they were rather secretive and although there had been a fair amount of trade with them in decades past, they'd closed off their borders in the recent years.

Mostly he just knew that they didn't use pokeballs, had a highly successful relationship with their native pokemon, possessed a relatively small population with an overall high level of technology, had harsh laws in place for people that tried to abuse or poach pokemon, and were content in their relative isolation.

Not that they had a hard time keeping it that way. Their northern border with Sinnoh they'd essentially allocated to pokemon preservation, leaving it incredibly difficult to get through since the land was entirely untamed. They were only exposed to their east and west thanks to the shores of Almia and Fiore, respectively. Oblivia just consisted of an archipelago off the west coast of Fiore.

Fiore and Almia were divided by the mountains that linked the Shield of Mew and Mt. Coronet. Almia was to the east and claimed a volcanic island and another medium sized landmass that looked completely undeveloped except for a few dots of civilization on the west coast marked by the holographic map.

The Ranger Union wasn't very large – altogether the three regions were only about the size of Kanto or Johto. It was only six hundred miles east to west as well as north to south according to the map…although he supposed counting the rest of the landmass it owned off the coast of Almia would probably bump it up to a thousand at least.

Next he looked to Sinnoh, isolated from most of the world except for Oblivia, Fiore, and Almia for almost its entire history thanks to the Dark World carving the Eastern Continent in half for time immemorial.

It dwarfed the Ranger Union, just its mainland being almost half as large again as the alliance of the three smaller regions and the small landmass where the League was focused in Sinnoh adding another few hundred square miles on top of that.

Sinnoh had been mostly unified for thousands of years and had a rich history and culture as a result. Mt. Coronet was capable of being navigated on the lower levels without much danger and it didn't completely cleave the region in two like it did Fiore and Almia, granting much easier travel between the east and west.

He actually knew a decent bit about Sinnoh's history, myths, and legends…and not just of the Legendaries, either. His mother always had an obsession with them and had always loved lulling him to sleep with stories of its greatest heroes and infamous children: the God-King said to have pierced the Shield and conquered his way down to Rota before stopping or the Knights of Uxie who safeguarded the Great Library of Canalave before it was seared away in a razing of the city centuries ago.

Those were old, very old.

His personal favorite however – the one he vaguely remembered badgering his mother about all the time so he could hear them again, although that had been so long ago it took effort to recall – was probably of Calanthia.

Calanthia was the first Champion of Sinnoh, the woman who gathered the region together during one of its brief periods of internal strife about eight hundred years ago according to his mother. She cast aside the old kingdom and, inspired by stories of the Indigo League, shaped a government in its image that still stood proudly today.

She was the Lily of Sinnoh – the one who the Sinnoh League was named after – and his mother had instilled her fascination with that history into her young son, although as Ash grew up he got bored with the stories and much preferred pokemon instead.

He smiled slightly at that and focused back on the map.

Sinnoh was the northern edge of the Eastern Continent so he glanced to the west. Thousands of miles to the west of the farthest reaches of the Dark World stood the Western Continent, home to Unova and Kalos and a handful of other minor regions that hadn't amassed the same level of power.

Ash really didn't know anything about it. Just a little about the troubled history between the East and West before their current good relationship had come about and even that hadn't been focused on in school. Pallet Town's schools stressed science and practical knowledge mostly, with geography and history being an afterthought.

He wouldn't even have been able to find Unova on the map if it weren't shaded a light brown. It didn't stand out like a lot of the other major regions – it wasn't on a peninsula, or a piece of land that jutted out. Unova was tucked quietly into the Western Continent's southeastern coast and was only marked from the rest by its huge, dividing rivers that reached hundreds of miles inland.

Kalos was easy to find with its distinctive shape. It was almost two thousand miles away from Unova, although thanks to Unova and Kalos' pasts there were plenty of minor regions connecting them. The star-shaped region was actually closer to Indigo than Unova – they were actually believed to have been connected at one point since Kanto faced east to the great sea and Kalos faced west.

That was one interesting geographical fact he'd learned in Pallet. They'd been studying the surprising similarity in pokemon population as well as fossil finds. He'd even gotten to see a computer model about how it all worked.

"Okay, I think it's decided that this map is way cooler than anything Indigo has!" Professor Birch interrupted with a grin, tapping the Hoenn portion of the map with his pointer and middle finger and pinching, pulling the region into focus. "I could practically see the gears turning in your head…far be it from me to say anyone can think too much, but I think you were getting there."

Ash smiled slightly and shrugged. He leaned forward onto the table and examined the map with interest…it was fascinating to see just how much detail had been revealed.

He traced his fingers above the two massive mountains that jutted out noticeably from the holographic representation of the small continent that was Hoenn. Both dominated one side of the landmass: Mt. Chimney claimed the west, Mt. Pyre the east.

Neither could match the great peak of Mt. Silver, which split two regions each a bit larger than Hoenn's mainland in twain, but they stood out quite a bit on Hoenn's landscape. It was rocky and ridged in most areas, but it didn't have too many mountains.

There was the subaquatic range that clustered to create the archipelago, but the mainland didn't have claim to that many.

Those twins had quite a bit more significance than the minor bumps and crevasses that dotted the rest of the region, of course.

Mt. Chimney basically dominated the mainland's climate, with several of the main cities circling nearby it or the mountain range that trailed the volcano like the spine of the earth. Cynthia had said it was the only volcano for hundreds of miles, the nearest ones existing isolated in the great oceans, Orange and Sevii Islands, and Kanto.

Of course, given what he knew about Mt. Ember and the Shamouti volcano now, Mt. Chimney might be the only natural volcano for a much larger range. He was just a bit spotty on geography.

Mt. Pyre was mostly a cultural force. He'd heard a lot of weird things about it and the ancient site was known to be home to one of the largest concentrations of ghosts outside Lavender. It was to the point that psychics had trouble distinguishing the past, present, and future and could have some very strange expression of their power.

Naturally he wanted to visit. He'd wanted a ghost for a long time and if he couldn't find one at Mt. Pyre then he clearly wasn't meant to get one at all.

"Okay, so the mainland's relatively similar in size to Kanto or Johto. It's where most of the cities are based," Professor Birch pointed out. Ash nodded as the Professor then waved his hand at the absolutely massive archipelago surrounding the mainland in all directions, although most of it was focused to the south and east. "With the outer islands and the archipelago we're actually the largest political region in the world, even bigger than Indigo!"

"Obviously a lot of those islands aren't inhabited by humans," the Professor stated. Ash saw where this was going but stayed silent so the burly man could make his point – from the wide grin on Professor Birch's face he was clearly enjoying this. "Which makes it a little easier to govern our people…but when most of our territory is unclaimed by anyone it means that we've got a lot of issues to deal with out in the isles and it takes most of our resources to root out fugitives and criminal syndicates that want to try and make it big…that's not even mentioning the poachers that come in from pretty much everywhere to seek out pretty unprotected targets."

He glanced at the map…it really was mostly islands. The mainland and the primary islands that the League based their Gyms out of dominated but there were so many tiny dots that he could see where the trouble came from.

"So basically it's easier to just get trainers to do the boring stuff," Ash commented. Birch grinned and agreed with a thumb's up.

"Exactly!" Birch cheered. "I mean, maybe a quarter of those islands are inhabited. Maybe. So we put most Rangers there and rely on helpful trainers that want to make money to do the rest…well, anything that isn't too important. And even then we make exceptions from time to time if they're proven trustworthy. Or a League member who wants some extra cash can pick it up. We aren't very picky. We don't have enough recruits to protect every bit of our own region so we can't really afford to be."

The burly man eyed Ash. "From what I've heard, you basically got into that position with Indigo. You know how profitable it can be."

"Well, it got me a job," Ash shrugged. "So I guess it's alright."

"Alright, he says," the Professor shook his head. "Guess we've got different opinions on the pay check, then. Oh well! Guess you won't care at all about my job then!"

"I really don't care that much about the money," he shook his head. "I have plenty of that as is…not that I'll turn down more. So why is it you need me to give this disk to Roxanne?"

"Normally I'd just send it digitally or entrust it to a League courier, but this has more information on the Legendaries," Birch explained seriously. "We try not to leave any evidence of this research existent except for secure servers…we've probably got half the world's Porygon protecting these files while they're in use. So no digital transmission is allowed."

Ash signified his understanding with a quick dip of his head. That attitude reminded him quite a bit of Blaine's paranoia. He idly wondered if the old Fire Master was involved – it wasn't like he had much else to be doing since he was just holed up in his inn the rest of the time.

"So what's on this one," he asked, curious as to what Birch had managed to find.

Birch frowned for a few moments before relenting. "Nothing too important – Samuel's a slave driver with this project, so it's pretty much anything out of the ordinary I detected. I really just needed to give the old man something and I thought that Roxanne's people might get at least some use out of the data…maybe not anything to do with the oncoming apocalypse, but maybe real science."

"What exactly are you doing with the project?" Ash cocked his head curiously, staring at the Professor. He remembered a little bit of what Oak had told him but he'd like to hear it from Birch himself. Might be a bit more interesting.

"Not much, all things considered," Birch shrugged. He relaxed, ready to talk freely now. "I'm basically looking at what the Legendaries have done to the environment and the pokemon around him. It's not like I have that much to work with – Champion Lance requisitioned almost all of our Castform to run damage control and restore weather patterns back to a stable state after the Zapdos, Mewtdwo, and Shamouti incidents. It's not perfect, but at least we won't have too many issues in the upcoming years."

"Really all I'm doing right now is investigating reports of unusual pokemon migration and going over accounts from each of the previous incidents – I've actually read quite a few of your statements," Birch grinned at Ash. "Fascinating stuff. It's like reading a movie script!"

Ash frowned slightly at that, not really liking that for obvious reasons. The Professor seemed to pick up on Ash's darkening mood – his slight scowl might have had something to do with that – and coughed awkwardly before moving on.

"Anyways, I mostly see how their influence on the weather has affected pokemon," Birch continued a bit more quickly than before. "It's not too surprising – electric-types went to Zapdos and fire and ice-types congregate around Moltres and Articuno, respectively. The increase in power and mood change is more interesting to me, but I don't really have anything concrete on that as of this moment!"

"The Mewtwo and Shamouti incidents are a bit more interesting, though!" Birch chirped – Ash almost recoiled at the noise that a man as huge as Birch really shouldn't make. "There was an incredible migration from all over the world to Shamouti – pokemon of all types started moving there. Well, psychics tended to avoid it like the plague but they're the exception."

Birch frowned and tapped a pen to his bearded chin – Ash decided not to say anything when he realized that Birch mixed up the sides and was basically scribbling all over his face with black ink.

The interns that would have to clean up his mess might appreciate it.

"I was actually a bit surprised with the migration reports from some of my researchers working in Kanto at the time of the Mewtwo incident," the burly man sighed. "I'd hoped to see that psychics would attempt to rush to the scene as they had with Zapdos. I can't fathom why they wouldn't."

"Really?" Ash raised an eyebrow as he stared at Birch. A great power smirked in the back of his head. "None at all? You can't think of a single reason why they wouldn't want to be there?"

"No!" Birch complained and idly spun around in his chair, still tapping his pen to his face as he fell deep into thought. "Mew and Mewtwo, two of the most powerful psychic Legendaries that we have confirmed the existence of, should have drawn psychics there like a Dustox to flame."

Ash sighed and opened his mouth to explain why exactly psychics wouldn't want to be around the maelstrom of fear and hate and power that was Mewtwo but thought better of it.

It probably wouldn't matter anyway. Professor Oak understood and could explain it to Birch if he really didn't get it for whatever reason.

He smoothed out his features once he noticed Birch looking at him oddly and managed to relax.

"Everything alright?" Birch frowned at him. "You looked pretty weird there for a minute."

"I'm fine," Ash grunted,. "Just thinking is all."

"I never thought I'd say this but you might need to stop thinking so much," the bearded Professor snorted. "If you keep it up you might bust an artery before you're thirty. You might want to check in with Indigo and see if they have a psychic that could help you chill out."

"I'm fine," Ash repeated. His fingers itched towards his team's pokeballs – they were the ones he wanted to be with right now. "Is there anything else you need? My friend's probably wanting to know where I am."

Birch shrugged and slipped back into a more professional demeanor, which Ash was grateful for. "Not really. Thanks for helping out, Ash. I'll get the payment into your account once the job's done."

Ash nodded and turned to leave when the Professor spoke up. "Actually, can I see your PokeNav? I'd like you to be able to contact me if you need anything or find anything relevant to our research on the Legendaries."

"Of course," he quickly handed his PokeNav to Professor Birch, who simply scanned it with his own before he gave it back. "I'll be sure to contact you if I find anything."

"Thank you, Ash," the Professor nodded. Ash watched him – it was odd how easily he drifted between his two demeanors. "The Ever Grande League greatly appreciates your help."

Ash dipped his head back before he turned to leave.

He really, really needed to relax.

XX

Later that night he realized he really, really should have stayed with Professor Birch if he didn't want to clear his head.

Oh, he didn't mind the family they were staying with that much. Caroline was a nice woman and reminded him a bit of his own mother, if a bit calmer and about a decade older. She was probably nearing her forties at this point if the slight lines and the beginnings of wrinkles on her face were anything to go by.

The daughter, May if he remembered right, was polite, although she didn't really talk to Ash much. She was much more interested in Daisy, who seemed to know her pretty well already if the way they carried on an animated conversation he could barely keep track of was anything to go by.

No, the reason he wasn't able to relax was the very, very enthusiastic six year-old that had basically been attached to him since he'd stepped through the door. Ash didn't mind that much but it would have been nice to relax.

"—so why did you release your Kingdra to take down the Dragonite? I bet you could have won if you'd done that!" Max questioned. Ash barely listened to him at this point and took a few moments to answer what must have been the hundredth question the boy had asked him in the two hours he'd been here.

"At the moment I wanted to take down Dragonite first and foremost," he explained tiredly. Aron, who'd crawled up in his lap and settled down quite comfortably, warbled up at him and licked his shirt, easily wearing through a patch of it with his rough tongue. Ash grinned and ignored the damage to his clothing so he could pat the steel-type. "With hindsight I would have done it different, but I thought Torrent would handle Dragonite with no problem and be able to match almost anything that came out next."

"Huh," Max looked at him for a moment behind his thick glasses. "So why'd you do it if you know you shouldn't have now?"

Ash blinked and decided not to address the boy's odd logic. "Well, it's different being in a battle than watching one. What seems right at the time might seem dumb later, no matter how good you are. It's easy to make stupid mistakes when there's that much attention on you."

Max squinted at him. "I don't get it."

"Think of it like a test," Ash pat Aron's head and steadfastly ignored the fact that he couldn't feel his legs anymore. He could address that in a few minutes. For now he just enjoyed being close to his newest brother-in-arms. "You're in school now, right?"

"Of course I am!" Max declared. "I'm the smartest in my class!"

"I bet you are," he muttered under his breath. "Well, I'm sure you've looked back on a test and seen something you got wrong that you knew how to do."

"Not really," the boy grinned up at him. "I get everything right!"

Ash frowned. "Well, it happens. Think of a time when you thought you did something completely right but it turned out to be wrong."

"Oh, like that time I pet my daddy's Slakoth the way Brendan showed me but it still bit me!" Ash's self-proclaimed number one fan exclaimed. He quickly showed Ash the scar that hadn't completely faded from the angry red it had originated as. "See! Isn't is cool?"

"Yes," Ash allowed as he glanced at it. That really was a nasty wound, although the fact it was on a small boy definitely made it look worse than it was. And that was probably just a nip from the Slakoth too. If Max had actually made it angry he'd more than likely be missing a hand or not speaking to Ash right now. Slakoth were very lazy, but they had a nasty temper if something managed to actually infuriate them. "What'd you do?"

"Well, Brendan said I should get down and blow in its face and pet its nose and stuff if I wanted to be friends with it!" Max pouted. "Slakoth didn't like that and I didn't see Brendan for a while after that."

Ash blinked. "You probably shouldn't listen to Brendan."

"That's what my parents said," Max agreed. "But he's really smart! He knows more than anyone!"

"Even Professor Birch?"

"Especially Professor Birch!" Max told him seriously. "I saw Professor Birch get peed on by a Poochyena once when he was taking a nap. Nobody smart would let that happen!"

That got Ash's attention. He turned to actually look at Max and raised a black eyebrow curiously. "Oh really?"

"Yeah!" Max grinned. He glanced over to the table where Daisy, Caroline, and May were all sitting. Ash snorted when he watched May flush red and bury her face in her hands from something Daisy giggled out – it looked like Daisy and Caroline were teaming up on the girl. "My mom doesn't like me telling people but if you showed me one of your pokemon…"

Ash rolled his eyes and picked out Tangrowth's pokeball. He was definitely the friendliest – well, maybe now he was tied with Aron, who was eying the nearby lamp hungrily – and definitely had the patience.

Dazed or Bruiser would probably be his next choice but they'd either be irritated by Max after a few minutes or just get bored and ignore him. Bruiser wouldn't want to be released unless Seeker was out as well, which he would rather not do in the home. Seeker would just be stressed out, especially since only Aron and Sneasel were released.

"Oh wow!" Max exclaimed as Tangrowth materialized, drawing in the whole room's attention. The girls just smiled at his exuberance and Daisy introduced them to the grass-type, who sent a few friendly vines their way to happily shake their hands. "I watched all of your battles! You have a 5-3 record in the Indigo Conference and always took down at least one opponent each battle! James Sage said he counted you as one of the strongest members of Ash's team and integral in each battle you fought in when he was reviewing the Indigo Conference!"

Tangrowth blinked and stared at the boy, obviously having no idea about anything he'd just said. His big round eyes turned to Ash, who just shrugged. The grass-type gurgled in distress at that, having almost never encountered something that Ash couldn't explain to him.

"Can you show me your Ancient Power! Apparently Tangrowth are really well-adapted for that and I want to see it in person!" Max rambled on, inching closer and closer to Tangrowth until he was almost on top of the grass-type. "You're obviously an impressive specimen and we don't really need that neighborhood anyway! It's perfect! What do you think?"

Ash grinned and held one of Tangrowth's vines as it raced over to him, hoping to feel better if he was holding onto the trainer. Another brushed over Aron affectionately. The steel-type warbled happily and gently headbutted it.

It looked like Tangrowth had finally met his match.

Tangrowth himself leaned back from Max, who'd begun to inspect the grass-type with a critical eye and muttered to himself every few seconds. A constant whine emanated from deep within the shell of vines and his eyes were narrowed in discomfort as Max roughly grabbed one of his arms and examined it.

"Huh, it really is rubbery. Would it hurt if I yanked it off?"

At that Tangrowth actually bounced away from the boy and huddled close to Ash, who patted his friend affectionately before he handed Aron off to Tangrowth. By that he meant he politely asked his friend to hold onto Aron for a while since Ash wasn't anywhere near strong enough to lift the young steel-type off of him with his own strength.

"Alright, that's enough," he sighed as he stood up, looking at Tangrowth gratefully when his friend kindly supported him with a few vines when it looked like he was about to fall thanks to his bloodless legs. "He needs a quick break."

"I just wanted to know," Max sulked.

"And you found out," Ash replied. A slight grin fell over his features and he cocked his head at the boy. "If I remember right you were going to tell me about Professor Birch and that Poochyena…"

"Oh yeah!" Max's eyes lit up. "Well…"

XX

"So how'd you get that scar on your face?" Max poked the length of ropy tissue. Ash winced and lightly pushed Max's finger away before Tangrowth could do it instead. "You didn't have it during the Conference. It's not on those magazine pictures I have on my wall."

Ash blinked and decided to just avoid the whole issue of Max having pictures of him on his wall altogether.

Wait, there were pictures of him in magazines?

"So where'd you get it?" The boy asked again, looking like he wanted to poke Ash again. "It looks really cool!"

"I got a little too close to a temperamental ice-type," Ash scowled at the memory of rushing through the subzero temperature of the Blizzard on Plume's back. The shield breaking, the razor of ice that carved through his skin until it scratched the bone, that sensation of his gut rising as he fell through the snowstorm…it wasn't something he enjoyed recalling.

"Which one? You must have been in Kanto…wait, don't tell me!" Max cut Ash off. "Was it a Seel? Dewgong? Jynx, maybe? No, they're usually friendly. Wait, was it that Sneasel of yours! Their claws can punch through a half-inch of steel if they're trained right! It would cut through your face no problem I bet."

Sneasel, who was currently purring on Daisy's lap while she rubbed his soft belly – Ash still wasn't sure how she did that without losing a finger – snapped to attention and snarled at Max then, not taking kindly to the accusation.

"I mean it totally wasn't your Sneasel!" Max cried as he tried to run and hide behind Tangrowth, who leaned away from the boy as far as he could. Tangrowth still eyed him suspiciously and tucked his arms underneath his cloak of vines. "It would never do anything like that!"

"He," Ash corrected as Sneasel simmered down. Moments later the dark-type was reduced to a puddle of purring fur as Daisy calmed him down with just a well placed touch.

Max frowned. "Why does it matter?"

"Because Sneasel is a he," Ash said firmly. "Not an it."

"Huh," Max frowned, looking like Ash had just unveiled some sort of ancient knowledge to him.

"Sweetie, I think that's enough," Caroline suddenly stood over them. She smiled softly and picked Max up despite his protests and glanced over to Ash. "Thanks for spending some time with him, Ash! Thank him, Max."

Max finally gave up on trying to wriggle his way out of his mother's vice grip and nodded. "Thanks, Ash!"

"You're welcome," he nodded and plastered a slight smile on his face. "I'm happy to help."

"Well, I think it's about time for this little guy to go to bed!" Caroline cooed at her son, who protested about being treated like a baby in front of Ash Ketchum. "Nuh uh, no whining! I won't give you your night night kiss if you act up!"

Ash grinned as Max blushed a bright red and tried to hide face in his mother's shoulder. "Mom!"

"Let's go get you all tucked in," Caroline kissed Max's forehead with a slight smirk. "I don't my little Wurmple acting all fussy in the morning!"

At that Max just gave up and looked like he was doing his best to curl up and collapse into a singularity of embarrassment and Ash snorted softly. Tangrowth gurgled happily as Caroline took Max out of the room, winking before she left.

She really did remind him of his own mother, although Ash wasn't sure if his mom would be quite that cruel.

"All better, buddy?" Ash grinned at his friend. Tangrowth finally let his arms out and wriggled them around wildly, like he was checking to make sure they were still there. At last he bent his whole body forward in a nod and gurgled happily before he bounced over to Daisy and May, carrying a delighted Aron in his vines along the way.

"Ash, get over here!" Daisy grinned as she summoned him. Ash sighed and walked over. He crossed his arms and watched Daisy warily, not sure what she was up here. "Take a seat."

He took the one closest to Tangrowth, who was considerate enough to pull the wooden chair out for him with a quick shift of his vines. Ash grinned at his friend and patted one of the extensions affectionately, which got him a gleeful gurgle and Aron elevated into his face as a reward. Ash took a moment to pat his new friend before he turned to an amused Daisy, who looked to have started brushing Sneasel.

"Okay, this is a very important issue. I think it'll do you a lot of good to hear this," his friend smiled angelically at him. Ash stared at her, not sure where she was going with this but relatively certain he wouldn't be a fan. "You see, May here is conflicted."

He spared the brown-haired girl a glance. She looked distinctly uncomfortable under his stare and Daisy's grin and shifted awkwardly in her seat.

"May is standing at the crossroads of her destiny," Daisy continued solemnly. She clasped her hands together and stared unflinchingly at May, who seemed like she was about to crawl under the table. It probably didn't help when Tangrowth joined in with his saucer-like eyes or when the grass-type decided to move Aron to where he was less than a foot away from her cheek and watching her every move curiously.

"Oh really?" Ash raised an eyebrow, going along with Daisy's antics. "And what would the roads lead to?"

"A good question. Thank you, Ashy!" Daisy winked at him. Ash just snorted. "May has decided to embrace the true, sacred path of a trainer and join our ranks. But she is conflicted. Her spirit is uncertain."

Ash decided to keep playing and stared unblinkingly at May. She blushed when she saw him looking and instantly turned away, refusing to meet the eyes of any of the people staring at her.

Tangrowth moved Aron closer – Ash had to quickly reach over to tap the steel-type before he could lick May's cheek and probably leave quite the mess for Ash to deal with.

He doubted she or Caroline would appreciate a few layers of her skin getting ripped off by a tongue evolved for stripping rock away from metal.

His mother certainly wouldn't have.

"What is she torn between?"

"Though she walks the true path, this young one finds herself tempted by the uncultured brutes that take the Road of Battle," Daisy sniffed imperiously, sparing Ash a smirk as May steadfastly refused to look at either of them to show she was just joking. "Terrible influences surround her and she knows not the appeal of Coordinating, though I have done my best to show her the true way tonight. She finds it beautiful, but has refused to follow my fantabulous example!"

"Maybe she wants to be strong instead of putting on fancy light shows," Ash smirked. Daisy rolled her eyes at that. "It's worked out pretty well for me."

Daisy sighed sympathetically, as though she pitied Ash. "Oh, you poor soul. I shouldn't have left your life when I did. You were corrupted into a poor, fashion-challenged barbarian when you could have been walking in my footsteps as a proud Contest Champion."

"Yes, I'm sure my life would be perfect if you'd let me tag along with you on your journey," Ash rolled his eyes. He almost wanted to tell her that they'd all be the slaves of a psychic clone if he had but figured that might take a bit more explaining than he cared for…and Lance probably wouldn't appreciate it. "I think getting to be on the Elite Four just about makes up for it, though."

"You pulled that card early," Daisy rolled her eyes. "Don't know what else I expected."

Ash raised an eyebrow. "Didn't you just say that you're a Contest Champion?"

"Shush!" Daisy put a finger over her lips. "I'm a girl. I don't have to make sense to you. But you…" the Oak shook her head in faux disappointment. "I expected better, Ash. I mean, arguing with a girl? I know for a fact your mother and I taught you better than that!"

He snorted. "Maybe if you'd stuck around longer those lessons would have sunk in."

Daisy gasped and put her hand over her heart, bowing her head silently. Her shoulders started shaking and Ash had just started to feel a tad guilty for thoughtlessly throwing that at her before he realized she was actually laughing.

Annoyed, he sat back and folded his arms as he waited for her to stop.

"Gotcha!" Daisy crowed, looking up before she relaxed again. "Oh, don't look at me like that! You know it was funny…that really was a low blow though."

Ash just shook his head and sighed.

Sometimes he wondered which of them was really the twelve year-old.

"Anyways, if you decide to focus on battling instead of being a beautiful, graceful Coordinator you'll turn out like baby Ashy here," Daisy redirected her focus to May, who'd been staring at Ash nonstop since she heard his announcement. "No, don't be impressed by him! Join me! Aside from having way better hair, I can show you how to be friends with your new family in a way that doesn't involve blowing stuff up."

"Now where's the fun in that?" Ash challenged, grinning at Daisy. She rolled her eyes and mouthed something that looked suspiciously like 'boys' before she turned back to May, who'd hesitantly made some strange squeak that might have been an attempt at initiating conversation.

May finally spoke. "…please, can I wait? I still have a whole year left."

"Well, I guess so. I wouldn't want to make you uncomfortable," Daisy said pleasantly. Ash winced – he could practically hear the honey in her voice. She was way too good at that.

"Thanks," May said gratefully, finally looking like she wasn't going to pass out from embarrassment. Of course, she did yelp when she turned to look at Ash and found Aron inches away, staring at her curiously with his big blue eyes. Ash just barely hid a smirk before the surprised girl regained her composure. "Well, it's getting late and I think my Mom wanted us to go to the Conference to meet my dad pretty early so I'll just be leaving now –"

"No, please stay for a little longer," Daisy smiled softly. May froze and looked at Daisy, who'd leaned forward and rested her chin on her hands as she examined the girl closer. "Ash, can you step closer to her?"

He did as she asked, mentally preparing himself for whatever little bout of embarrassment she was going to try to leave them with as a parting shot. Ash had spent enough time around Daisy this past week to know her that well.

"Hmm, I was right," Daisy muttered to herself. She whispered a few more nothings as she glanced between the two and finally said something to Sneasel under her breath, causing the little dark-type to snicker.

"Right about what?" May asked clueless. Ash had just enough time to groan, "No, don't!" before Daisy let a mischievous smile play over her lips.

"You two would make an adorable couple!" She giggled and flipped open her PokeDex, smiling beautifully at the unfazed Ash while May stammered and blushed. "Should I tell Lisia she has some competition?"

May blinked. "You know Lisia?"

"Yep!" Daisy winked, letting her joke fade away. "Perks of being a Coordinator, you know? I could introduce you to her if you want…"

Ash let himself smile slightly as May leaned forward, star-struck.

Looked like Daisy had found her opening.

XX

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