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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60. The Family Part 1

"Ash Ketchum!" An excited reporter ran up to him, eyes bright with the opportunity to interview him after the exciting match. A cameraman lagged behind her, obviously tired. "I'm Jane Faust, Viridian City News. How do you feel about your victory? Gary Oak was a friend of yours, was he not?"

"He was. But we've been competing for a long time – ever since we first decided we wanted to be trainers." He replied as he looked at the pretty woman, no real interest in his tone. He didn't feel like speaking with the media right now. "We both knew that this was our chance to show who was stronger, and it turned out to be me. I'll miss battling him, but I'm glad it's over."

Ash hoped he hadn't come across as arrogant, but he couldn't find it in him to care too much. He was tired and needed to get his friends to the Pokemon Center. His answer didn't seem to displease the reporter, however, and he resigned himself to more questions when her mouth opened once more.

This would be a long night.

XX

"We'll have them up and ready to go in no time, Mr. Ketchum!" The nurse exclaimed cheerfully as Ash finished loading his pokeballs onto a tray. She took it and handed it to a beleaguered assistant, who quickly ran it to the back room. The Conference was winding to a close, but many defeated competitors continued to battle amongst themselves. They were no longer constrained by the restrictions placed upon them by the League.

Ash smiled gratefully at the woman. "Thank you."

"It's no problem at all!" Nurse Joy smiled. "Come back tomorrow morning. Have a nice night!"

"You too." He nodded before he turned to leave. There were some people crowding around him curiously, having recognized his name. Ash pulled his hat down a bit and slipped through the crowd with practiced ease. A few people looked as though they wanted to say something to him but he didn't stop moving.

He didn't feel like staying with the meandering throngs of humanity at the moment. Perhaps he'd stick around and talk to those who recognized him some other time, but right now he just wanted to be away. Gary was the only one he felt like seeing – and that was only to settle their rivalry beyond a doubt.

Ash took a deep breath as he reached the crisp night air. He'd gotten out just before the spectators began to exit, so the streets were packed full of thousands of loud and laughing humans. He stood back a bit as several large groups passed and frowned.

It looked like he'd have to wander for a bit if he wanted to find somewhere peaceful. Jonathan and Amelia had said they would be busy training tonight, so the house would be empty.

He smiled at that. Jonathan was actually taking his pledge to work harder seriously. Ash had seen him trying to find a Master several times, although he didn't think the other boy was having any luck. Masters were rare and generally valued their privacy. It would be difficult to find them on a computer.

Perhaps he would battle Jonathan once more before they left. At the very least he could help him develop a few ways to train while he sought out a teacher.

Ash was lost in his thoughts as he aimlessly wandered through the streets. Everybody was too busy and distracted by their own lives to recognize him. He didn't mind.

He frowned and glanced into an alleyway as a pair of luminous round eyes stared at him disconcertingly. His hand twitched toward Sneasel's pokeball, the natural paranoia that came with being a wilderness trainer rearing up in his mind.

The creature stepped into the artificial light that bathed the streets and Ash relaxed somewhat, although he kept his hand on the pokeball just in case.

It was a Clefable. A Clefable, one of the most elusive pokemon in the world, waving at him with one of its stubby arms from a grimy alley.

His eyes narrowed. It seemed familiar – it was Gary's. He vaguely remembered his rival using it to teleport after their battle at the Oak Corral.

"What does Gary want?" Ash asked with a raised eyebrow. Clefable smiled up at him and waggled its short fingers at him. He nodded as he recalled the way it had teleported. "He wants you to take me to him?"

A massive smile split the short creature's face and it hopped up and down on its legs, its wings held aloft by the wind. When it had gotten over its impromptu dance of excitement it held out a hand to Ash.

He didn't hesitate in taking the hand. He'd wanted to speak to Gary anyway. If his rival wanted to speed up the process then he was fine with it.

"Teleport me." Ash told the Clefable, which gleefully waggled its fingers and sparked a flash of light. He squeezed his eyes shut and stumbled about as his legs were jolted by a sudden impact. Clefable obviously hadn't mastered the art of teleportation.

At least it was better than Will's attempts. The contents of his stomach weren't strewn about on the grass which was certainly a positive change.

He looked around. Stars still covered his vision thanks to the annoyingly bright light Clefable produced when it teleported but he was able to make out some details at this point. Clefable had taken him outside of Indigo Plateau, although the bright flames of a patrolling Charizard and the immense glow of the League capital in the background meant that he hadn't gone too far.

They stood in a silent clearing. Trees surrounded it, shadowed sentinels in the night. He doubted there were any wild pokemon here except for the small lake the dark figure of a boy stood in front of. The hulking Golem that stood beside Gary would most likely scare indigenous pokemon away.

"Took you long enough." Gary grumbled as he turned to face Ash with crossed arms. His face was devoid of any expression other than annoyance. Not even his familiar smirk was in place. "Thanks for the help, Clefable."

The fairy flashed Gary a bright grin as it danced over to his side, a small orb of white light tossed between its small hands as it bounced up and down constantly. It giggled a few times as it played its game and tried to get Golem's attention, although the huge rock-type steadfastly ignored the creature.

"Gary." He acknowledged with a tight nod.

"Ash." Gary retorted mockingly. His features smoothed themselves out an instant later as he looked Ash over. "The hat's back on, I see. You do realize it's night, right?"

He raised an eyebrow and a little bit of the petty childishness that defined his relationship with Gary bled out. "You do realize I don't care, right?"

Gary snorted. "Sure, whatever. If you want to make a bad fashion statement go right ahead. I'm sure your adoring fans will love to follow suit."

The trainer grimaced and shook that thought away. "What do you want, Gary?"

"Not much. Just to talk." Gary shrugged as he turned around to stare out over the smooth surface of the lake. "It feels like it's been forever since we've done anything but insult each other, ya know?"

"I can't imagine why." Ash replied drily as he stepped up beside Gary. He paid close attention to his rival. This was the first time they'd had a civil conversation in years. He had to admit that it was oddly pleasant. "Who could be to blame for that, I wonder?"

Gary rolled his eyes. "Shut up, Ash."

When the other boy began to continue, Ash interrupted. "Is there a reason you're being so…"

"Nice? An utter delight to be around? A charming young man whose light you can bask in?" Gary asked pleasantly with only the hint of the sneer Ash had come to expect from him. "Gramps had a few long talks with me. He's done a lot for me. Figured I should at least try and return the favor, you know?"

Ash sighed. With the exception of Gary's more advanced vocabulary these words seemed far too familiar. He'd always been somewhat arrogant, if not unpleasant.

"Believe me when I say I know the feeling." He muttered. "The Professor knows how our minds work, doesn't he?"

"Yep. Annoying old geezer." Gary smirked. "Anyways, he wanted us to bury the hatchet after our battle was over and done with. Don't get me wrong, though. I'm pretty pissed about how that battle ended." His expression twisted into another annoyed scowl. "You made me look like an idiot in front of the whole region, you know. I'd at least expected a close match!"

He shrugged and a slight smile tore at him. "To be fair, you were more of a challenge than any of my other opponents. You took down Nidoking and Oz. Tangrowth might as well have been unconscious for all the good he would have done after Alakazam got him. Jonathan couldn't even take down Nidoking."

"Don't compare me to that punk." Gary scoffed. "You and I both know that we're on a whole other level than those two losers! How pathetic do you have to be to lose to a Nidoking with a Charizard, Gyarados, and Rhydon? He's a disgrace to the name of Pallet!"

Ash grunted noncommittally. It wouldn't be worth it to dispute the matter with Gary. That wasn't what he came here for.

"Whatever." Gary sneered before the unpleasant expression slipped away. "I'd rather not think about that loser anyway. Our battle was much more interesting, don't ya think?"

He hummed in agreement and waited for Gary to continue. The more talkative boy seemed to have a plan for this conversation.

"I know I can be a little cocky," Gary began, only to glare at Ash in annoyance as he snorted loudly, "but I know when I've been beaten for good. Maybe I can catch up to where you are now, given time, but you're just gonna keep jumping ahead. I'd have to find a Champion of my own willing to donate some of their time to me – one who hasn't been retired for about thirty years. I don't see that happening anytime soon."

"So our rivalry is over, I guess." Gary sighed, almost looking disappointed at his own admission. "You won. I lost. Woopty-freakin'-doo."

Ash didn't say anything.

"I figured you should have this." Gary actually grinned as he dug around in one of his pockets for a few moments before he pulled out half of a broken pokeball. Ash's eyes widened in surprise that his rival had actually kept it. He'd never figured Gary for the sentimental type. "To the victor goes the spoils. End it with the way it began, right?"

"Right." Ash grinned back as he pulled out his own broken half of the old pokeball.

Gary's eyes widened. "No way! You actually kept that?"

"I did. Why'd you think I wouldn't? I wanted to remember our rivalry." Ash raised an eyebrow as he took the second half to complete the pokeball. For just a moment he held the two halves together, taking note of the shards missing from both sides. He supposed that it had been broken beyond completion when he and Gary had found the whole pokeball so many years ago and tore it apart in their struggle to take it for their own.

"I figured you'd be a brat and throw it away just to spite me." Gary smirked nastily. Ash frowned. He hadn't thought he'd ever been that immature. "Oh, and if you don't remember being that stupid, think again. We're the elite now, but even you used to an annoying, snot-nosed brat. Get over yourself."

"Fine." Ash admitted with a roll of his eyes. "I just hope that you don't fall into the misconception that you were perfect either. Or are now, even if you aren't quite as antagonistic as usual."

"I don't know." Gary yawned and met Ash's brown eyes with his cocky gaze. "Aside from losing to you, I think I'm pretty perfect. Maybe something'll happen later to convince me otherwise, but I doubt it. Things are working out for me pretty well so far."

He rolled his eyes again, although another smile nudged at his lips. As strange as having a relatively civil conversation with Gary was it was nice. They'd been friends once. It was nice to see that they could still repair that lost friendship.

"So, now that you've won the grand prize for beating me what are you gonna do with it?" Gary glanced pointedly at the pokeball. "It's kind of useless."

"Probably leave it in my room to gather dust." Ash admitted. "Like you said, it's useless. It still has sentimental value but it's not something I need to carry with me."

There were far more valuable treasures he would take with him, as the slight heat of the Feather pouring through his chest would attest. Wherever he went after the Conference, he wouldn't feel right if he didn't take the Shard of the Moon Stone or the Dragon Scale with him.

They weren't just sentimental, of course. If he caught any new teammates that required them to evolve they would serve their practical purpose once more. But they would most likely remain as simple treasures, memento of his battles in the Sevii Islands.

"A good choice." Gary gave a grudging nod of approval. He turned back to face the lake, which continued to reflect the silvery moon that hung suspended in the infinite void of space. Clefable stared at it, enraptured, from its position nearby Golem. "So what do you think you're going to do after all this? You could win the Conference, you know. I know that the Final Four are pretty tough – you, that Unovan prick, and that guy from Orre more so than Neesha or whatever her name is – but I didn't watch too many of the others' fights. You might be able to pull it off."

"Maybe." Ash admitted hesitantly. He'd thought of winning his first Conference, dreamed of it, but he had never been able to actually visualize it happening. He was a rookie. Rookies weren't supposed to win Conferences. "I would like to. I –"

"You'd like to win the Conference?" Gary scoffed with a derisive snort. Ash scowled at him in annoyance. "You're going to have to give it a bit more spirit than that, Ashy-boy. You don't become a Conference Champion by liking victory. You become one by demanding it and tearing everyone that stands in your way down!"

Gary rolled his eyes and raised a hand to shut Ash up. "Not that I'm speaking from personal experience or anything, mind you. You made sure of that tonight."

"Fine." Ash sighed. "I'll dominate the competition from here on out and have my Magmortar burn the ashes. Is that enough for you?"

"Barely." The Oak laughed.

"Anyways, after the Conference I'd like to travel somewhere." Ash told him, continuing their original conversation. "I think I've seen what Kanto has to offer. I want to go somewhere new. The Professor told me that strength withers in stagnancy and I believe him."

"Wow. Deep." Gary mocked. "I thought the legendary Professor Oak reserved such wise words for his humble grandson. I'm hurt."

Ash sighed.

"But it sounds like you have the right idea." His rival admitted as he lightly kicked an errant pebble into the lake, disturbing the tranquility that loomed over the scene. "I'm thinking of going to Johto. If I keep up my training I have a decent shot at the Silver Conference next year. Maybe it won't be as amazing than if I were a rookie, but it should set me up for life."

He nodded again and remained silent for several minutes. There wasn't much to say.

"Hey, as enjoyable as this was, I think it's about time to wrap it up." Gary said finally, breaking the comfortable silence that had persisted far longer than expected. "It's late. Gramps and your mom are probably getting a bit concerned."

"Yeah." Ash murmured in response.

Gary recalled Golem and beckoned Clefable over. He hesitated and glanced over at Ash. "Hey, you want to come back with me? I know you probably have your own way to get back, but –"

"Yeah." Ash repeated, a genuine smile on his face at Gary's offer. "That sounds good."

They shared one last slightly uncomfortable smile before Clefable cheerfully waggled its fingers and they disappeared to Professor Oak's home in a flash of light.

XX

He stared at the computer screen intently as he typed in "Michael". Ash didn't actually know the red-haired trainer's surname, but that proved to be irrelevant. All other competitors named Michael had been eliminated from the Conference, so the only profile pulled up was the one he wanted.

Michael Braeden.

Ash clicked on the portrait and began to analyze his potential foe.

His personal profile was oddly sparse. It didn't mention where or when he had started training, his birthplace, or anything other than his age, full name, eye color, and height. Most competitors at least had a short list of information available to both the public and their fellow challengers.

It seemed that Michael had something to hide.

He waived that concern and continued reading the profile. It wasn't Michael's personal life that interested him. It was the team he had built over the many years he had obviously been training.

His eyes widened slightly at the sheer array of pokemon Michael had listed under his ownership. The other trainer would have no fear of being unable to combat a threat. There were dozens.

The most obviously threatening members were a Dragonite, Salamence – he had no idea where Michael had gotten that considering that it had taken quite a while for even the legendary Dragon Master Lance to get his hands on one – a Snorlax, and a Lapras. All three were exceptionally rare and powerful pokemon. The latter two members weren't impossible to obtain, but they were difficult to procure and maintain.

Snorlax ate a stunningly huge amount of food and were extremely difficult to maintain. They were also somewhat unreliable, although the amount of noise a Conference crowd produced could rouse one of the fantastically lazy creatures from its deepest slumber.

Lapras were simply incredibly endangered and regulated. Although they were recovering after the Indigo League stepped in the conservation efforts once it became clear that the Sevii Islands and the Orange League were incapable of protecting the dwindling species they still had a long way to go before they had recovered to their former grandeur.

Michael must have obtained the Lapras under special circumstances. The League had sent Elite Ranger teams out after individuals who had stolen even one from their herd. If an organization infringed upon the Lapras herds the League crushed them immediately with lethal force. Even Team Rocket had rarely gone to the trouble of taking them for fear of the League's retribution.

Perhaps he had taken it from a poacher or saved it. He was a League contractor, after all. Indigo didn't make great use of independent agents since it was by far the largest and most powerful of the three united Leagues but those it did put to work were some of the most powerful and trusted trainers Kanto and Johto had to offer.

He recognized several of his other pokemon. Jolteon, Arcanine, and Steelix he had seen before. He'd heard of Michael's Alakazam, Machamp, and several others.

Curious now and frustrated at the lack of information available, Ash searched the publically assessable databases. They were networked between the primary League made up of united Indigo, Hoenn, and Sinnoh as well as the scant few other stable, civilized regions. Unova and Kalos were participants, along with the Ranger Union and several other minor areas.

"Young hero Michael Braeden faces Cipher Admin Snattle on live TV." He muttered to himself, interested. Ash clicked on the link. It seemed to be dated, but it would hopefully give him a better insight to Michael's battling style. The matches he'd managed to catch were always ended in a one-sided manner similar to Ash's own.

The screen blackened before it cut to action in a beautiful arena of flowing water and meticulously carved white stone. It was breathtaking.

A young woman's face filled the screen briefly. Her face was nervous but the girl's eyes shined with excitement. "Hello, Orre! I'm Marcia from ONBS reporting live from the Phenac Stadium, where Cipher is leading a secret invasion!"

Ash grinned when the camera turned from her and focused in on Michael, who was probably in his early teens and flanked by Jolteon and a Claydol. He had a scowl on his face as he glared at an exceptionally strange man whose ridiculous hairstyle was almost hypnotic to look at. The tall man released an odd pokemon that looked like a crescent moon and a Quagsire as he ranted about something Ash couldn't make out, to which Michael and Jolteon just stayed silent.

"Miraculously, a young trainer has appeared and somehow defeated all of the Cipher agents in the area!" Marcia exclaimed as the camera remained trained on the two. "As you can see, he just beat this Cipher leader's bodyguards with no trouble at all. Let's – oh!"

The battle had just begun. An odd, shadowy energy covered the field as Lunatone attacked mercilessly, using some sort of technique Ash had never seen before. He watched closer.

Even in this video, most likely recorded four or five years ago, Jolteon was incredibly powerful. It and Michael seemed to know each other's thoughts and complemented each other perfectly. Even as Michael barked out orders Jolteon was able to get the gist of them before the teen was half-finished.

Michael was very good. Probably on Ash's level when he'd first faced Giovanni. Several more of his pokemon were released and he was fully capable of keeping control of the battle and managing them to press on his older foe's defenses.

In little time at all he'd cut down the man's team with the exception of the Lunatone, which he'd…caught? That was worse than illegal, although Michael didn't seem bothered. He supposed it wasn't too bad, since the man – Snattle, he thought his name was – seemed to be a major criminal of some sort. It wasn't easy to assault a city, even in the lawless wasteland of Orre.

Ash frowned as the anchor squealed happily and went to interview Michael. He cut off the feed. He'd seen everything he needed.

He wasn't helped very much. Michael fought very efficiently. That was all he could mirror to the older trainer's present tactics. His potential foe hadn't given him long enough to analyze his techniques and strategies in battles to actually compare anything.

It didn't help that Michael had used his entire team at once in the battle. Several of the pokemon he'd seen weren't listed anywhere on Michael's entered teams. Ash didn't know what to make of that.

But one thing stuck out to him: Michael had captured another trainer's pokemon. Ethical quandaries aside, that wasn't supposed to be possible. You could steal the pokeball but you couldn't catch a pokemon when it was already tied to a pokeball. The mechanics weren't well-known since Silph Co. suppressed that information quite effectively but it was one of the major guarantees when catching a pokemon.

Maybe Michael would tell him later.

Ash sighed and shut off the monitor. It seemed that Michael was the trainer from Orre Gary had mentioned. That was actually something of a surprise. Michael must have left a long time ago. He didn't have much of an accent from what Ash remembered.

He wasn't surprised that somebody as strong as Michael would have left Orre. Ash couldn't claim to be an expert, but he'd heard terrible things about the desolate region. What few cities it could support were ridden with crime with the exception of a few lonely gems. Poverty was the norm and the strongest trainers and crime gangs claimed vast swathes of desert and small towns.

It was practically quarantined. Orre was on a small continent too isolated and barren for any but the toughest and most rugged of pokemon to survive. There were two regions on the ocean to its west and south, but otherwise there was little to no human civilization on the continent.

None that he knew of, anyway.

The trainer sighed again and checked the time. He stood up and adjusted his sleeves. It was time for him to pick up his team.

"Sneasel!" He shouted throughout the empty confines of the house. Jonathan and Amelia were out training in the forest so he didn't have to worry about the volume. Ash exhaled in annoyance when Sneasel rushed into the room, one of Jonathan's hats engulfing his head and several pieces of Amelia's charms and jewelry placed onto his claws.

Sneasel rolled his head back and bared his fangs happily at Ash. The trainer rubbed his temples. This had happened far too many times for his taste.

"Put those back." He said firmly. Sneasel whined and played with some of the bright jewelry, entranced by the shiny objects. "You know you aren't supposed to be in their rooms."

The dark-type growled and crossed his arms. Obstinant little creature.

Ash's eyes hardened. It seemed that Sneasel was starting to give into his instincts again and challenge the pack hierarchy. "Now."

Sneasel whined again but broke under Ash's firm gaze and scampered away to replace the items. Ash just let out a breath. He couldn't wait for the Conference to be over.

His team was becoming wound-up. They needed to be free. Free to fight, free to explore. The team could not flourish cooped up around so many humans, unable to fight and release their energy except once every few days. It was a very good thing that the Conference was nearing its close.

As for himself? He longed for sun and dirt and wind on his face. He longed to be away from humanity and free to explore the world on his own terms. The Conference had been an interesting change but it was dragging on for too long. Ash enjoyed testing his friends' strength and skill against the best Kanto and Johto had to offer but he was eager to break away from society's chains.

"Do you mind staying here while I head to the Pokemon Center?" He asked Bruiser as Seeker fluttered over and latched onto his shoulder. Ash smiled and lightly scratched behind her ears as he Bruiser shook his head and beat a powerful fist against his muscular chest. "Thanks. I'd rather not leave the house empty."

Bruiser nodded again understandingly.

"I should be back soon." Ash told his friend as he gently pried Seeker off of his jacket and handed her back to Bruiser, whispering a few goodbyes to the Zubat as he did so. "Bye, Bruiser."

The Machoke dipped his head in respect to Ash as the group left the room. Ash crossed his arms and waited impatiently for Sneasel to come back. He wanted to reclaim the rest of his friends as quickly as possible. He wouldn't be happy if Sneasel delayed that.

Finally, just as his patience neared its breaking point, Sneasel blurred down onto his shoulder from the balcony above. Ash started a bit at the unexpected weight but almost instantly relaxed. He'd gotten used to Sneasel's little tricks by this point.

"Come on, Sneasel." He murmured as the dark-type adjusted to a more comfortable position around his neck. "We've got a lot to do."

XX

"This place has the best food." Jonathan sighed as he lurched over and collapsed onto the couch. He contentedly closed his eyes and stretched lazily, taking up the entirety of the massive piece of furniture. "G'night, guys. I'm out."

Ash and Nidoking, the only member of his team in the room, looked at him oddly. Amelia, who trailed in behind Jonathan, sighed resignedly. She was far more used to Jonathan's antics than he was. Even her team was, judging by her Raichu's utterly uncaring expression.

"…It's three in the afternoon." He finally spoke up. Jonathan just grunted at him and laid a hand on his full stomach. Ash shrugged uncaringly and turned back to his conversation with Nidoking. "Is your back completely healed? I don't want to enter you in this battle, but if I win it I'll make sure you fight in the Championship."

Nidoking grunted an affirmative and turned around so that Ash could examine his back closer. Thanks to the miraculous restorative abilities of implanted Ditto cells what was left of his ruined hide had been masterfully repaired. It wasn't even scar tissue, just exceptionally fresh hide and armor that perfectly mimicked what had been there before the Hydro Cannon had stripped the thick skin and muscle away from bone.

His friend would have to do some exercises in order to work the muscle and regain its former flexibility and strength but for the most part it was completely healed. Medicine's capabilities were closer to miracles than mere healing.

The poison-type's tail had also been repaired. Bone damage was easy to repair for such durable pokemon, especially when enhanced by Potions. He'd be a little weak and sensitive but it wouldn't be debilitating. Nidoking just needed a few days rest for it to finish healing.

"Teeth?" He asked. Nidoking turned around gingerly and bared his teeth. Nurse Joy had told him that most of Nidoking's teeth had been cracked at the least from Blastoise's Shell Slide. Nearly half had been knocked out, although they seemed to be growing back in. Nidoking were able to grow in teeth naturally from some genetic quirk, although they didn't have rows upon rows of back-up teeth like Sharpedo.

"I think you'll be fine to battle, then." Ash smiled. Nidoking snorted happily and carefully lowered himself to the ground. Nurse Joy had advised that he keep all activity other than his stretches to a minimum. His wounds had been healed but she wanted to make sure. "Just take it easy for a few days, alright?"

His best friend snorted again and lightly tapped Ash's leg with a massive dull claw to assuage his worries. Ash smiled and sat down on the floor next to him, uncaring of the slightly awkward position.

He spotted Amelia heading upstairs out of the corner of his eye. She'd been quiet lately, thoughtful. Jonathan had said something about her thinking of what she would do after she was done traveling.

Ash frowned as he leaned against Nidoking's unscathed shoulder. It was hard and cool like most of Nidoking's armored parts but it was still warm with NIdoking's life and rose with every breath.

It was strange to see one of his friends considering what to do when they had completed their journeys. He didn't plan to cease his wanderings for a long time to come. Human cities were nice for a quick stop or two, but he couldn't imagine actually living in one again.

He shut his eyes as he rested on Nidoking's shoulder. Ash wasn't sure when a League representative would come to take him to Indigo Plateau but he wanted to be well-rested. He'd stayed up late last night talking to his mother and Professor Oak. It wasn't anything particularly important, just inane rambling from all parties.

"Yo, Ash." Jonathan's voice snapped him out of his daze. He slit his eyes open and looked over to the couch. The other boy was still sprawled haphazardly across it but had abandoned his previous lazy look. "Have you seen Gary since you beat his ass?"

"Yes."

"Was he mad?" The other boy inquired gleefully, his eyes alit with curiosity. "Please tell me he was mad! Or crying. Either or, really."

Ash rolled his eyes. "No. We had a perfectly reasonable discussion afterwards. He wasn't even that annoying."

Jonathan pulled himself up. "Are we talking about the same Gary? Kinda tall, smart, huge jerk?"

"Definitely. He just decided to not be particularly obnoxious last night." Ash frowned. "It was strange."

The other trainer shuddered. "I can imagine. Do you think a psychic was controlling him or something?"

"…No."

"Huh." Jonathan considered as he looked at Ash. "That's disappointing."

"Very." Ash pulled his cap over his eyes, trying to give Jonathan a hint. He didn't want to talk right now. All he wanted to do was take a nap and catch up on his sleep. This must be what Tangrowth felt like when he didn't get enough sun.

Jonathan just continued to stare at him lazily. It was getting to be disconcerting. "So…know any Masters that might train me?"

He sighed and shook his head. This was somewhat interesting, at least. "No luck?"

"What do you expect?" Jonathan scoffed. "It's not like Masters are common! How often do you see someone on the level of the Elite Four running around that's not getting paid by the League? And I'm definitely not going out to look for one of those crazies that go and hide in the wilderness. I'd rather not get killed by some loon during training."

Ash raised an eyebrow. "Your standards are too high."

Jonathan growled and turned away with a thoughtful scowl. "Maybe. I guess I'll just go find the craziest Master I can find. If I get lucky they won't be some creepy guy wanted by the League for snapping."

"There's the spirit." He smirked. Ash stayed quiet after that. Maybe Jonathan would wait until later to keep up this conversation. Such as after his nap. He wouldn't want to keep Nidoking up with the noise.

The silence persisted for several wonderful minutes. Then…

"Hey, Ash?"

He sighed and temporarily abandoned his pursuit of a nap.

XX

A deep growl from Nidoking woke him up. Ash was immediately on alert and snapped up, conditioned by his time in the wilderness. His eyes warily took in his surroundings as Nidoking's great head rose and focused on the door.

Ash relaxed. Nobody was in the room. Bruiser and Seeker were probably asleep in his room. He hadn't released the rest of his friends. Jonathan and Amelia could be anywhere. They came and went as they pleased.

Several seconds later the doorbell rang loudly, the tone echoing throughout the house. Ash wearily pulled himself up. Nidoking started to follow but a look from Ash kept the exhausted poison-type on the ground. He didn't need to move if he didn't have to.

He opened the door quickly. It was most likely Gary or someone from the League. Gary had mentioned coming by his house sometime soon, so it was most likely him. The League would probably send Will.

"Steven?" He grinned up at the man, who was dressed in his usual suit. The former Champion smiled back down at him and stepped in after Ash, who moved aside. "Are you here for the League function?"

"Indeed." Steven smiled. "I'm to be your guide to Indigo Plaeau. It works out quite well, I think. I wanted to talk to you anyways and this way we're away from attentive ears."

Ash glanced at Steven. "What is it?"

"I'll tell you on the road." Steven replied vaguely, waving the question away. "It's nothing dangerous. Just something I'd like to talk about."

"We aren't teleporting?" He asked. Ash trusted Steven. He was willing to allow Steven to raise whatever issue he wanted to discuss at a time of his choosing but he had to admit that he was curious.

Steven shook his head. "No. There's still a good bit of time until it begins. We'll get there early even if we walk. I just thought it would be good for you to see Indigo Plateau – the real Indigo Plateau, not this resort town – with your own eyes. It's the center of the Indigo League and the focus of a thousand years of history. This is where true civilization was built."

Ash nodded. "I've been there before, actually. Will teleported me."

"Ah, Will." Steven smiled lightly. "He'll be a credit to the Indigo Elite Four when it goes through its structural change. Not to mention that it'll be nice to have another member besides Lance that can actually talk to the media since Lorelei is leaving."

That peaked his interest. "She's leaving? Why?"

"She's served her time and believes that her people are in need of her skills." The Steel Master explained. He absentmindedly rapped his knuckles again the chair he had sat down in as he continued. "The fact that Team Rocket very nearly conquered the Sevii Islands disturbed her greatly. I believe she seeks to reunify them and protect them from outside threats, if not outright lead the Islands."

"Lorelei would take over a region?" Ash frowned. That didn't seem like the woman he had met before the battle with Mewtwo.

"Perhaps if it came to that." Steven shrugged. "I don't believe it will, though. The Sevii Islands are splintered and divided. They want a unifier. Lorelei is one of the few with the potential to lead them out of their poor situation at the moment. She's the Islands' greatest child and highly respected by the inhabitants. Lorelei wants to bring peace, not war."

Ash nodded. He was slightly perturbed at how casually Steven treated Lorelei's quest. He couldn't claim to know enough about the situation to make an informed judgment, but it seemed like the Ice Queen's efforts could backfire if she didn't go about it properly.

He had no doubt that Lorelei could conquer the small, isolated Sevii Islands. Knot Island was one of the smallest of the islands but even the largest populations were scarcely inhabited. A Master like her would steamroll her way through any resistance.

But he couldn't see the friendly, intelligent woman doing such a thing. Ash hadn't had too much interaction with Lorelei, but from what he'd heard she was much too rational to act without a plan.

"It's a risky path, but I believe she will make the right choices." Steven said firmly, perhaps hoping to assuage Ash's concerns. He glanced down at his watch. It was a strange contraption and likely more expensive than anything Ash owned. "Are you able to leave now? I'd like to head out soon."

Ash started and nodded. He glanced over to Nidoking. "I'm going to recall you now, alright?"

Nidoking, who had been watching the proceedings with a single eye open, grunted in understanding. He disappeared in a flash of bright light.

He knew Nidoking needed to rest a bit, but he'd have time later. Ash didn't feel comfortable leaving Nidoking anywhere unless it was a medical necessity. Nidoking had been with him for nearly a year now and he didn't see that changing anytime soon.

"Ready." Ash announced. Steven smiled and rose from his chosen chair.

"Delightful. Let's head out then. It's not too far of a walk, but we aren't in a rush."

With that the two stepped out of the League home and set off to the League citadel that loomed comfortingly over the village of Indigo Plateau.

XX

"I'd like for you to come to Hoenn with me." Steven announced as they walked through the thick forest that separated the true Indigo Plateau from the Conference grounds.

Ash glanced at him with wide eyes. "What?"

"Come to Hoenn." Steven repeated with a half-smile. He gave Ash a moment to digest his words. "It's a beautiful land with rich history and a wide range of both people and pokemon. Kanto is wonderful, but Hoenn is something else. It's a home for anyone willing to accept it. If you come you will find whatever you seek."

"I don't know. Give me some time to think about it." Ash trailed off uncertainly. What was he supposed to say? He was certainly interested in Hoenn – it was where Steven had become a Champion, after all – but he still hadn't solidified his plans. It was a possibility but he couldn't just confirm it.

Steven seemed to have expected that response. "Of course. Whatever you choose, just tell me."

Ash nodded and said nothing as he glanced around the forest. A Caterpie looked at him with its huge, curious eyes and the green body wriggled slightly as it climbed up the tree. Several Pidgey stared at it hungrily, although the presence of a few Metapod hanging in the trees kept them at bay. Metapod meant Butterfree, who would be more than a match for the little flying-types.

He tore his attention away from the handful of wild pokemon that remained in the humans' presence and turned back to Steven, whose face was marked with a thoughtful expression.

"Would I be traveling with you?"

"Some of the time." Steven shrugged. "I'll certainly be around but one of the integral parts of a journey is personal growth. I'd rather not stunt that. I'll help train you since Lance won't have the time next year, but there are situations of my own I need to resolve that I'd prefer not to drag you into."

Ash nodded again. "Are you going back to Hoenn for the Ever Grande Conference?"

The Master nodded. "I'm no longer the Champion of Hoenn but I still have an obligation. Wallace wants me there to provide additional security. The Rocket remnants that persisted have been bolstered by Indigo Rockets fleeing from the League. We're afraid they might try something to project strength."

"Rockets?" He hissed, eyes narrowed. The Feather, fueled by his righteous anger, blazed and heated his blood. "What –"

"They aren't a true threat." Steven raised a hand to placate him. His voice was calm and steady as ever. "The Hoenn Rockets are a bunch of yipping Poochyena. They're still teething. I don't plan on allowing them to grow up."

That tempted Ash. If Steven was trying to convince him to go to Hoenn that was the way to go.

He was strong enough to fight Team Rocket now. He could stop the foul organization from rising ever again. And with Steven he would stamp them down until not even traces were left.

"Just keep my offer in mind." The former Champion smiled. His slate eyes met Ash's brown ones. "Lance has his own suggestion. Think them both over. This is your future."

"Thank you." Ash dipped his head. "Would you mind telling me what Lance wants?"

"That's something only he can tell you." Steven replied, amused. "It isn't my place to interfere with his plans – just to offer an alternative."

"Doesn't that count as interference?"

Steven shrugged. "Perhaps. Lance didn't seem to think so, however."

Ash hummed in response, not sure what to say. As the League citadel loomed ever closer peaceful silence reigned.

The two introverted trainers were content with the quiet atmosphere. Both were used to it after so long in the wilderness and were happy to find it again after nearly a month in the bustling Indigo Plateau.

"Will any of the gym leaders or Elite Four be absent?" Ash inquired. He'd been looking forward to meeting them again.

"Lance strongly suggested that they be present." A ghost of a smile tugged at Steven's face. "They will be there. It's a rare chance for the gym trainers to show that they can be trusted with authority so Lance all but demands them to remain at the Conference. Gym leaders are normally separated from their territory once a year at the most."

Ash supposed this year was the exception. With Team Rocket's aggressive movements and the sudden resurgence of Zapdos the gym leaders had been forced to move far beyond their borders.

He dimly realized that it might be years before he saw most of the gym leaders after the Conference. Ash planned on leaving for one of the other Leagues, after all, and the only gym leader not too busy to keep in contact would be Blaine. The others had tons of work to do even if they delegated gym battles to their trainers.

As much as he liked the asocial genius, he couldn't imagine calling Blaine to chat. The old man would likely berate him about something or another and show off the personality that left him as the only hermit gym leader.

"By the way, don't be too surprised when you see what the ACE trainers are wearing. After our last discussion I decided to arrange a surprise for Lance." Steven gave him a genuine grin that worked muscles that were often tense on the former Champion's stoic face. "I do hope that he'll love it."

Ash just raised an eyebrow and shrugged as they wandered down the path. He had a suspicion about what Steven had done, but he'd just wait before thinking further. It would be confirmed in a few minutes anyway.

XX

He looked down with interested eyes as they emerged from the forest onto a path of gold and silver bricks. Each had letters etched deep into them and a small symbol above the words.

"Each holds the name of an Indigo League member who has died in its service." Steven said gravely as they strode across the memorial. Statues of the giant Rhydon Ash had seen firsthand guarded the pathway with their hard slate eyes, perfect replicas of the titan. "The gold bricks are the fallen trainers. The symbol above their name, birth, and death are the territories in which they were born. The silver bricks are their teams arrayed around them."

Ash nodded and dipped his head in acknowledgement to the names immortalized in gold and silver. These were the last remnants of many of the pokemon, men, and women that had died in the League's service in all of its different incarnations throughout the last millennium. They were worthy of more than respect.

"How many have been added in the last year?"

"Three hundred and forty-three gold bricks and five hundred and sixteen silver." Steven grimaced. His aristocratic features twisted in grief. "It's the most fatalities any of the Leagues have suffered since the last war. Team Rocket is defeated but they have ensured that they will not be forgotten for many years to come."

He sent a sideways glance at the former Champion. Steven seemed to have taken the loss of so many League forces more severely than he would have thought. Ash would have expected Steven to be angry at their deaths but the Steel Master was an outsider to Indigo. They shared Leagues but he did not have the investment in the Indigo League a native did.

Pierce's haughty, caustic countenance flashed to the forefront of his mind. Ash's fists clenched momentarily at the memory. He suspected that Steven's failure to apprehend his traitorous cousin before Pierce could cause significant damage to the Indigo League played a major role in his feelings.

"Halt." A stern voice commanded as they passed underneath the massive Rhydon statues that guarded the gates to Indigo Plateau. Two ACE trainers materialized from the shadows, melting into existence alongside two Gengar that leered at Ash and Steven with bloody eyes and mouths of knives. "Before you enter you must submit to a scan. Identities?"

"Go ahead." Steven replied with a nod, face blank and hard as his namesake. He was all business. "I'm Steven Stone and he's Ash Ketchum. We're expected."

The lead ACE trainer nodded and jerked her head toward the two. One of the Gengar reappeared in a whirl of darkness an inch in front of Steven, who met its hungry gaze unflinchingly. It hissed in disappointment and collapsed into a cloud of gas and blackness before it washed over the former Champion and enveloped his body, careful to avoid actually touching the tall man. Steven didn't breathe, well aware of the dangers.

Ash barely held back a flinch as the other Gengar rushed at him from the shadows, maw agape and full of eerily white fangs. It stopped an instant before its mouth would have engulfed Ash's head, leaving his heart pounding and blood frozen.

"Enough, Gengar." Its trainer frowned. "Scan him. Please hold your breath, Mr. Ketchum."

Gengar's malevolent red eyes vanished into its barely corporeal body as it dissolved into a writhing mass of hungry shadows and toxic smoke. Ash didn't breathe in or out as it washed over him and left the scent of noxious poison in his nostrils and bloody iron in his mouth.

It was this ability that made Gengar so feared. Many ghosts could dissolve their corporeal presence and reform elsewhere, but Gengar had mastered the ability and turned it into a deadly weapon. In their corporeal form they were terribly fast, incredibly powerful, and resistant to most any physical attack, but when they dissolved into shadow and poison they were at their most powerful.

He had seen the natural ability referred to as Miasma many times, although no single name was entirely used. It allowed a Gengar to move about freely, fearless of any attack other than that of psychic power, dark-type moves, and elemental or energy-based attacks powerful enough to force Gengar to reform.

They could move quickly, jumping from shadow to shadow with a minimum of effort. They could envelop psychics and allow the strange, alien energy that suffused their form to drown their natural enemies in their terrible power and others in the toxic gas that made up their physical body.

And, although it wasn't allowed in regulated battles since it invariably lead to death or permanent harm on the victim's part, they could rush in through the nostrils or mouth and destroy their unfortunate quarry from the inside.

He saw a flash of manic scarlet eyes before Gengar's body rushed away from him and reformed into the mischievous creature he'd seen before. It waggled its fingers and grinned at him before its trainer snapped its fingers and Gengar dissolved back into the trainer's shadow.

Ash shuddered as he took in a deep breath. The air around him was cold from the unnatural energy held within Gengar's form. Its presence had left his mouth tasting of old blood – an obvious illusion or prank on the ghost's part and one that Ash didn't appreciate.

The trainer felt the uncomfortable atmosphere left by the Gengar burn away as the Feather shined bright, bringing fire into his veins and banishing the ghost's effects. Twin sets of red eyes appeared in the darkness and stared at him unnervingly, although the Feather pulsed again as Ash met the ghosts' gazes unflinchingly.

He felt no fear for them.

"Your identities have been confirmed and it's been determined that you are under no psychic compulsions." The lead ACE trainer announced. She did not move as the doors to the Indigo Plateau opened, heavy wood and solid brass moved effortlessly by an unseen presence. "Please enjoy your stay at Indigo Plateau."

He felt a pressure in his mind grow and rush in amusement at the ACE trainer's confident words, an icy fire that vanished moments later.

Ash froze at that, but did not say anything as he and Lance stepped into the hallowed halls.

The interior of Indigo Plateau was nothing like the short glimpse he'd seen of the halls outside of Lance's office. It was open and airy, although the three pairs of ACE trainers stationed throughout the lobby refused to let it feel like anything other than the citadel that it was.

Steven checked his own PokeNav and frowned. "Our little jaunt through the Indigo Forest took a little longer than I expected. The gym leaders should be getting here soon. I'll go ahead and take you to where we need to be. I'd meant to take you to Lance first, but it seems that you'll have to speak with him afterwards."

He nodded but remained silent. Steven placed his PokeNav back into one of his suit's surprisingly deep pockets and smiled lightly. "Well, let's get a move on. I like being early."

With that they set off, confidently passing the ACE trainers that spared them a single glance as they walked through the doors. When they left the atrium the architecture shifted to the rich, albeit simple and elegant, style and tones of the area outside Lance's office.

Steven led him through a labyrinth. Ash lost track of his location almost instantly as they headed through seemingly infinite hallways and past innumerable twists and turns. He could have sworn that they were going in circles but Steven never seemed worried in the least.

"Here we are." The man announced as they came to a stop in front of two large doors of polished mahogany. He easily spied the League symbol etched into the wood, the stylized Rhydon prominent amongst the halved circle. "This is the Indigo Ballroom, mostly used to host formal and not-so-formal functions. It had a lot more use before Lance took over."

"I can imagine." Ash snorted. Lance loved being the center of attention but he couldn't see the Champion being particularly happy at a formal event. For all his legendary lineage – the great heroes and conquerors that made up the ancient Wataru clan's history were renowned even in Kanto considering their importance to the history of Indigo – Lance was a simple man.

Something he'd been meaning to ask Steven about sprung into his mind. "Do ACE trainers usually wear capes? Or, more specifically, exact replicas of Lance's cape?"

"They do not." The former Champion half-smiled. "Today's the exception. Will was more than willing to speak with the ACE Commander in my stead and managed to convince the man to give a little tweak to the uniform. Being an Elite Four trainee has its perks, I suppose."

"Indeed it does!" A loud, obnoxiously cheerful voice exclaimed from inches behind Ash. He flinched and glared back at Will, who appeared as if from nowhere. "Ah, my apologies! I did not mean to startle you, my friend."

"It's fine." He grumbled and felt his paranoia fade away. Will just gave him another dazzling smile from behind the mask and casually balanced his cane on the tip of one of his fingers. Steven just smirked. "It's nice to see you again, Will."

"And you as well, Ash!" Will said, dipping into a slight bow. He swept his hand and caused his cane to vanish from existence, replaced by an expertly folded white cape. "Would you care for your own? With the good Steven's aid I have procured several dozen! Capes are the height of fashion at the moment, you know."

Ash raked his eyes over Will's formal clothing and black mask. Perhaps he shouldn't be surprised that the future member of the Elite Four thought so highly of capes.

Capes worked on Lance. Something about him made the great lengths of fabric meld into Lance and augment both his powerful physique and the legendary strength he embodied. It made him into a figure more than human, a hero from the old stories.

On anyone else they looked ridiculous. The legions of trainers seeking to emulate Lance attested to that. Ash had encountered enough of the Champion's devoted fans to know that for himself.

"I'm afraid I'll have to pass." Ash said, forcing a note of disappointment into his voice. "I don't think I would wear it very well."

"Champion Steven?" Will hopefully offered the cape to the Steel Master.

Steven shook his head. "I'm afraid not. I have my own image, after all. I'd hate to tarnish Lance's."

"Of course, of course!" Will smiled, not bothered at all by the refusal. He snapped his fingers and the cape suddenly appeared around his shoulders completely unruffled. The psychic checked the cape for any signs of lines. When nothing appeared to be wrong he flourished his arm dramatically, causing his cane to materialize instantly. "Well, shall we go in? It has been much too long since the Indigo leaders have been in one place!"

Ash nodded and tried to let his face relax. He liked the gym leaders. There was no reason to be nervous.

XX

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