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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76. The Oak Part 1

He sat numbly through the rest of the applause and waited as the girl in the ridiculous outfit kept on talking, even though her impassioned words met one ear and went right out the other.

No, his attention was focused solely upon Daisy Oak. The young woman – she was…seventeen, he thought? – looked much the same as she had when she'd been his and Gary's babysitter when they were younger. Same brown hair, same soft smile, same green eyes that set her apart from the rest of the Oak family.

The Eevee was new, though. Well, not literally. From the deep brown of its coat it was clearly in its prime rather than a young specimen of the breed. Not to mention that its appearance in the Contest must have been rather impressive to have won the Contest.

He wasn't an expert on Contests, but anything capable of impressing that many of the crowd couldn't have been a newcomer. It took hard-earned skill and technique to win these experienced Contest-goers and no young Eevee could have put forth that kind of performance.

"Well, it was great seeing all of you again!" The girl finished with a cheery wave. "Ali and I just can't WAIT to watch everyone in the Contest season this year! It'll be fabulous!"

The impressive Altaria fluffed its wings and lightly nuzzled its trainer with obvious affection as the crowd started to disperse into smaller groups to talk amongst themselves.

He could care less about that, however, and kept his sharp eyes on Daisy and the girl that seemed to be in charge of the whole event. They were the only ones relevant to him in the least.

Ash could detect a few odd looks from the people around him as they mingled – some even seemed to recognize him, although nobody seemed brave or interested enough to approach him.

Imagine that.

It took a few minutes while their adoring fans and fellow competitors swarmed them in an eager bid to talk with the highly skilled coordinators, but eventually Ash saw an opening to speak to the two and took it.

"Daisy!" He called out as he stepped closer to the duo. Ash had to hide a wince as his throat protested the loud noise that irritated the seemingly permanent damage done to him by Moltres' ash.

The teenager turned to him, surprise evident on her tanned features as he moved closer.

"Hi, can I help…" she faltered and stared at Ash for several seconds until he came to a stop in front of her. "Ash Ketchum? Is that you?"

"In the flesh," Ash sent her a slight smile. Daisy just stared at him until she finally let out just the shortest of laughs.

"You've certainly grown up a lot!" She exclaimed and playfully lined up a callused hand with the top of his head. "Look at you: you're almost as tall as I am now!"

Ash rolled his eyes as Daisy took her hand away. "I'm not sure that's something to take pride in."

"You've been hanging out with Gary, haven't you?" Daisy sighed and put her hands on her hips. "I don't remember you having this attitude when you were a little baby."

"Just a little bit," Ash let a ghost of a grin slip on his face. It felt far less foreign than it once did. "We made up."

"Grandpa told me about that stupid feud," Daisy frowned before she exhaled a long-suffering sigh. "Guess you can't stop kids from being kids."

Ash snorted. "And you're surprised?"

"How is my baby brother?" Daisy leaned forward, ignoring his remark. "It's been years since I've seen him without it being through a screen…wow. Time flies, I guess."

His face revealed little. "I doubt you'd recognize him."

Daisy's young face grew weary beyond her years at that and it wasn't until Eevee gently licked her cheek that the tension drained away. Ash just kept careful track of her – Daisy was an enigma to him.

When he'd last seen her she had about as old as he was now. After this many years he might as well be meeting an entirely different person, even if he still felt comfortable enough around her to act with something resembling friendliness.

Before he or Daisy could say another word to wash away the awkward silence, her odd companion finally butted in.

"Excuse me, but did you say your name was Ash Ketchum?"

His attention snapped to the strangely dressed girl and her Altaria and gave her a stiff nod. "Yes."

"Wow!" She gushed and thrust her hand out for him to shake, which he did after a moment's surprise. "Hi, Ash! I'm Lisia. It's fabulous to meet you! What're you doing here in Hoenn? None of the magazines said anything about you coming out here."

"Magazines?" Ash mouthed, not sure he was hearing it right. He knew he'd attracted a good bit of attention at the Conference, but he hadn't realized any publications would be trying to keep tabs on him. It seemed that his strategy of escaping the media whenever possible had worked out for him after all.

"Yeah," Lisia grinned. "There were all sorts of people trying to figure out what you would do next – I even saw a few saying you got inducted into the League. Crazy, right?"

Ash blinked. "Yes. Crazy."

Finally, Daisy interrupted. Ash was almost grateful for it as questions tumbled through his mind as though carried by storm gales.

"What are you doing out here?" She examined him with the same sharp intelligence that lived in the Professor's eyes. "I thought Grandpa would have mentioned if you were coming. He thinks the world of you, you know."

Ash couldn't stop his lips from turning upwards at her words, although he managed to wrench his mouth back into its neutral expression a moment later. "He's actually the one that told me to come to Sootopolis – not that he mentioned you'd be here."

"Of course," Daisy grumbled and muttered something about meddling old men. "Well, it's nice to see you again, regardless. Are you staying in Sootopolis long?"

"At least another day," Ash rolled his shoulders noncommittally. "I'm not in a rush."

Daisy sent a dazzling smile his way. "Great! Do you want to catch lunch, then? I'd love to hear about what's been going on in Kanto – especially in Pallet. I don't get to call quite as often as I'd like."

"That sounds good," he nodded with a hint of a smile. It took a fair bit of effort to avoid snorting derisively, however. With how long it'd been since she'd spoken to Gary in person it seemed that her "often as I'd like" was anywhere in the range of months to years.

"Great. I know a decent place not too far from here. Cheap too." The Oak laughed before her attention slipped to Lisia. "You're invited, of course!"

Lisia sighed theatrically and clasped her hands together over her chest. "I so wish I could, but I already told my uncle I'd meet him! You know he'd be super sad if I cancelled!"

"It's fine," Daisy chuckled breezily. "Go meet your uncle and tell him I said hi. I know you don't get to see him often – just make sure to tell me what you two figure out tonight! I haven't been to the Wallace Cup in a few years and I can't wait to see what you do with it!"

"Of course!" Lisia flipped her hair back in a motion that seemed impossibly well-choreographed. "He'll be so excited you're coming back – he thinks you're just fabulous, you know! He says seeing you perform is like watching a Beautifly dance in the night sky!"

Daisy rolled her eyes, although a light smile played over her lips. "I'd almost forgotten he fancied himself a poet. I can't imagine how he fits it in with all of his other responsibilities."

"Because he is utterly fantastic," Lisia giggled and snapped her fingers. "That's why. And he still has so long to go before his story's complete. I think he's only on the fourth chapter!"

Ash blinked, utterly lost at this point. He just watched the interplay between the two friends and patiently awaited Lisia's departure. After spending most of the day flying with Plume he was understandably hungry and he trusted that Daisy knew somewhere with very good food – while not extravagant, the Oaks tended to enjoy the finer things in life and food was no exception. They had the means to acquire it and didn't hesitate to do so.

"Oh, sorry!" Lisia giggled when Ash's stomach suddenly rumbled. "You must be absolutely starving – I bet you came from so far away! I'll let you two go – wait, is that a PokeNav? Can I see it?"

A little overwhelmed by the girl's energy, Ash nodded dumbly and unclipped the device from his belt before he placed it into Lisia's soft hands. She obviously wasn't a traveler.

"Thanks!" She chirped and focused intently on the PokeNav as she opened up a menu and typed something in. A moment later she smiled at him and handed it back.

"There's my number!" She winked as their fingers brushed together. "Call me if you ever want to talk! And if you have any questions about Contests or anything just let me know! I'm always happy to help!"

Ash nodded steadfastly as he clipped the PokeNav back onto his belt and struggled not to show any reaction despite the slightest bit of heat that had flooded his cheeks.

He didn't say anything, but his short nod seemed to be enough for Lisia. She giggled and sent a quick glance to Daisy. "I'll talk to you later, Daisy! Bye, Ash! Have fun writing your chapters!"

With that she flounced off with all the energy Ash had come to expect from her over the course of their short meeting. He watched her and her Altaria go for a few moments before he turned to the Oak.

"She's…interesting."

"She's very good at what she does and a lot like her uncle," Daisy remarked airily before she glanced down at him. "But yes, she can be pretty weird. Then again, what great trainer isn't?"

Ash gave a noncommittal grunt in response. He wasn't about to try and make a compelling argument against that.

"You should be happy she's so taken with you – Lisia's not an easy girl to impress!" Daisy teased. "Maybe you should take her up on her offer."

"Maybe," Ash shrugged noncommittally. He didn't bother elaborating on that. Daisy would just continue to go after him regardless if he gave her any bait…if he remembered correctly she was exactly like Gary in that regard. Best to just shut them down early.

"You're no fun," the Oak sighed and crossed her arms. Just as she opened her mouth, she shut it and plastered a smile on her face. "Ash, if you don't want to let everyone watching the news to know you're here you should probably head out. I'll send you where to meet up…this might take a while."

Ash started to tell her his PokeNav number, but she waved him off. "I can get it from Gramps. I should probably talk to him anyway. Look, Ash, I'll talk to you later."

He was about to protest, but the excited murmurs that sounded exactly like the interviewers that had approached him during the Conference tipped him off. Ash gave Daisy a quick nod before he turned away and made his way past the pair of interviewers to the entrance.

Maybe he'd gotten used to the media during the Indigo Conference, but that didn't mean he wanted to advertise his presence in Hoenn. The less attention he had the better.

A grimace worked its way onto his face at the thought of broadcasting his movements. He could deal with it, but all he wanted was to travel without anyone truly recognizing him. Maybe a flash of familiarity, a few surprised glances…but anything else was a bit too much for him.

So he didn't even look back as he stepped out into the bright day.

XX

Ash looked out at the crystal pool that was Sootopolis' most distinctive feature from one of the outer rims. It was a bit precarious, but he had no problem with the great height.

The view made everything worth it.

"Stay safe," he tiredly warned Sneasel, who was edging dangerously close to the cliff's edge. "I know that Plume did her best, but I'm mostly sure you never learned how to fly."

Sneasel hissed at that and nodded as he dug his claws into the white stone for support. Despite Ash's warning he still peeked his head over the edge so he could examine the sheer walls that had been polished smooth by countless years of salt and whipping wind.

Plume circled high above, happily soaring through the blue sky in the light of the midday sun. The trip to Sootopolis had barely even tired her and it was clear she was itching to really cut loose – Ash just hoped she wouldn't go too far. If Sneasel ended up needing someone to catch him then Plume was really the only option. Dazed couldn't exactly teleport a dark-type, although he supposed she could teleport the pokeball and manipulate it to catch Sneasel mid-fall.

That is only if I was willing to catch the brat in the first place, Friend-Trainer. It has done little to garner my support.

"He, Dazed," Ash absentmindedly corrected as he watched the shadows of a small group of Wingull dive down to the water's surface. "I think he's earned that much."

Its improvement has not been so dramatic as to merit an individual identity.

"Give him time. He's learned to leave you and Bruiser alone, hasn't he?" Ash grinned back at his friend, who supported herself on the slightly narrow ledge with a slight platform of psychic power.

I would almost be disappointed if he hadn't with how frequently we played the game of your devising. My compliments on that idea, Friend-Trainer. The Caretaker and I most appreciate it.

Ash snorted and let a small smile play over his face as he watched Sneasel bare his upper lip to reveal a set of sharp canines and fire off several Ice Beams at the flocks of Wingfull, although he let out a yip of surprise when a curved psychic barrier manifested itself and absorbed the jagged arcs of ice until it finally dispersed into wisps of deep blue energy.

"Calm down you two," he sighed and leaned back onto the stone to watch Plume's shadow. Dazed shifted and teleported away with a small flash of light rather than physically move to make room for Sneasel, who whined and snuggled up under Ash's arm to try and wipe away some of the frost that clung to his face. "Think any of the others would appreciate this view?"

Dazed was silent for a moment before the cool, svelte voice echoed lightly in his head. Ash took a moment to appreciate the marked improvement from her first attempts at telepathy before her words flooded into his mind.

Thank you for the compliment. My efforts have not been in vain, it seems. However, I do not feel that many of the others would appreciate being released on such precarious footing. The Seeker would fear the Sun's heat, the Caretaker the height. The others would merely be bored, or attempt something foolish.

"You're probably right," Ash muttered to himself as thoughts of Tangrowth playfully collapsing the vast crater walls in pursuit of some sort of game came to mind. He hid his wince, although the amused upturn of Dazed's sharp eyes showed that she'd caught it. "I suppose we should try to find somewhere else to explore while we wait on Daisy. I'd like to let everyone out sometime today – it's hot, but that's not necessarily a bad thing."

Sneasel hissed in agreement and finally pried himself from Ash's arms only to seat himself comfortably on the boy's chest, the soft weight not a bother to him in the least.

Dazed's eyes focused on Ash as he shut his eyes thoughtfully. There honestly weren't too many places in Sootopolis to explore. Despite its immense historical importance, the Rune City was a rather small settlement with much of its space devoted to living quarters.

There were a sizable number of historical sites chronicling the rich empire that had been built up around Sootopolis for centuries that Cynthia's book had mentioned but he wasn't sure he was willing to rush through those. If he was going to look at the relics of gone-by ages he was going to take his time to fully appreciate them.

Of course, there was always the obscure –

I believe it would be of interest. There is power in this city, Friend-Trainer. It is an ancient thing, rooted in the foundations and diffused in the water.

Ash nodded slowly, although he grew wary when the icy fire in the back of his mind flared in interest. It simmered to the level he could ignore, but he was already on guard.

The fact that the Feather reminded him of its presence at the mention of his next destination didn't help matters. His spine tingled and skin burned and that wasn't nearly as comforting to Ash as it once was.

"Can you find it?" Ash asked at last, his voice a raspy whisper. His hand brushed the PokeNav, hoping desperately that Daisy would call at that exact moment.

I have felt it since you released me.

At that moment Plume dove down with a fearsome screech before she spread her wings to brake and hooked her claws into the bleached stone in a way that still somehow managed to convey all the grace of a Milotic in her motions.

The massive bird lowered herself and chirped at Ash, obviously for him to get on. He grinned at her and eagerly pulled himself up onto the great avian and sent a pointed look at Dazed.

"How long have you been planning this?"

Dazed eyes squinted at him and she didn't respond for a few moments. A light smirk played across his lips at the subtle – almost glaring for someone who knew her as well as he did – signs of the Hypno being flustered for once.

Before we left the Old Mentor suggested it. When you released me here I knew I must follow her words.

"Was that so hard?" Ash said playfully as he absentmindedly stroked Plume's glossy feathers. "You should have just said so from the beginning. It's not as if I don't want to explore."

Dazed was silent for a few moments until Ash felt a slight mental nudge. He rolled his eyes at his friend's response before he followed her suggestion and recalled the Hypno.

"I'm guessing you know where to go?" He asked the Pidgeot, who cooed softly back in response. Ash nodded at that and took off his hat to place into a storage container. "Well, let's get a move on then. I don't know how much time we have."

Plume nodded at that and outstretched her wings. Ash had just a moment to grip tightly to her huge body before she propelled herself hundreds of feet off the white stone of the crater walls and into the eternal blue of the sky. He shut his eyes as the wind whistled past his face and the slightest hint of the Song whispered into his ears and let himself fly.

And then it was over.

Ash sighed when he felt Plume's wings spread out and the wind around them die down to almost nothing. Seconds later he felt his stomach rise and reflexively clenched his arms around Plume all the tighter, although that forced him to let out a short grunt as Plume swooped down and dug her talons into the earth to reduced the impact.

"Thanks, Plume," Ash gave her a few more pats before he jumped off onto unsteady legs. His face was a little number and he wobbled just a little on the white rock, but he wasn't sure if he'd ever felt better. "Take a rest while you can. I doubt we'll stay in Sootopolis for too long, so you've got another long flight ahead of you soon."

Plume cooed once more and leaned forward to nip his hat – he winced in sympathy for it as the bill nearly snapped under the force of her gentle bite.

"Rest up," he repeated with a short laugh and stroked her crest one last time before he returned her. Ash stared fondly at the pokeball for just a moment before he shook his head and clipped it to his belt.

Once he was sure Plume's pokeball was secure he finally took in his surroundings.

It was satisfyingly simple. The Cave of Origin was hidden away from the rest of Sootopolis towards the northern end of the city, normally accessible only by following a series of paths towards one of the lowest points in Sootopolis prior – the only reason it wasn't drowned with the rest of the crater was because it existed in a deep hollow just high enough to feel the full light of the sun.

The Cave itself was shielded from the eyes of the surface by a large, rounded structure that hung over the dim black entrance of the most ancient legend of Sootopolis. Thick pillars of harshly hewn stone held the overhang from collapsing under its own weight and two ornate, branching designs were carved into either side of the structure.

He stepped forward and breathed. The Song echoed from the deepest bowels of the Cave and he could scarcely steel his will in time to avoid sprinting off into the sacred site.

There was power here, he realized with a clear head. Dazed had been more right than he ever could have imagined.

"You may not enter the Cave of Origin," a voice that sounded like the crack of stone called out. Ash tensed and turned to look at the speaker who had appeared as if from nowhere. A man and woman with twelve pokeballs on their belts and the League insignia woven into their shirts flanked the ancient man, whose face was hardly recognizable beneath the winding lines age had cut into him. "It's a restricted site, I'm afraid. Not even the Champion Wallace himself may know what lies within."

"I won't intrude," Ash said quietly and continued to look at the entrance to the Cave. It was ancient…older than the buildings that circled it hundreds of feet above for sure. Timeless. "I just wanted to see it for myself."

The ancient man frowned. "And seen it you have. Now you will leave."

Ash nodded but didn't move, fascinated as he was by the mysterious symbols carved into the stone. There was something more to them than just an interesting geometry…they were alive, in a sense.

"I was not making a suggestion," the guardian said more firmly. "This is hallowed ground, boy. Let's not disturb the tranquility here."

"Of course not," Ash said absently. He ignored the two League trainers that had their hands placed threateningly on one of their dozen pokeballs. They couldn't stop him. "No need to try and stop me. I was just curious."

"As I said, your curiosity is assuaged," the wizened man allowed an edge to fall into his voice. "Leave. It is not your place to know the secrets here."

At that Ash smiled humorlessly and unclipped Plume's pokeball. The League trainers tensed and prepared themselves, but couldn't have prepared for the sight of the massive Pidgeot that coalesced from the scarlet energy after Ash released her.

She glared at the trio with eyes of steel as she picked up on their wariness and shrieked threateningly at them for having the audacity to challenge her trainer, although a calming hand on her head soothed the irate Pidgeot.

"That's enough, Plume. Sorry you didn't get quite as much rest as I'd promised," Ash said quietly as he mounted her and hugged himself close. Easy as the journey away from the Cave would be he'd rather be as comfortable as possible. "Let's go, girl."

She nodded and cooed just loud enough for him to hear before she squawked at the three adults and arrogantly flared out her wings just a moment later to launch herself out of Sootopolis' heart.

XX

"This is a nice place, don't you think?" Daisy asked with a grin as she watched Ash tear into his food as though he were starving. The only breaks he took were to make sure to give some of the unfamiliar Hoenn cuisine to the array of pokemon that had circled around him. "Grandpa actually took me here when I was little…he was attending the Ever Grande Conference, I think, and managed to convince my parents into letting me come with him."

He paused at that, curious to hear more. Ash just had a hard time picturing the Professor ever leaving Pallet, the town he'd practically built with his own two hands. The most renowned Oak loved his research as though it were a member of his small family and to think of him taking a real break from it was almost mindboggling.

"He actually left Kanto?"

Daisy giggled at that. "Crazy, I know. But he always wanted Gary and I to be well rounded. Grandpa used to travel a lot, you know. Then he settled down and started his current work. But he's still got that old wanderlust in him."

Ash felt his lips turn up. "Trust me, I know. I've heard a lot about him since I left Pallet."

"Funny how that happens," Daisy nodded sagely. "Leaving home opens your eyes in more ways than one. Just part of growing up, I suppose."

He nodded thoughtfully and picked at what little food was left. Most had been tossed over to his team, who had eagerly snatched it up. Ash was happy to share food trainers normally reserved for themselves with his team, but given that he essentially ate the same tasteless, highly nutritious gruel as his friends on extended trips to the wilderness it was a rare occasion that he got to spoil them.

There was a mostly comfortable silence between the two. Ash wasn't really sure what he thought of Daisy. She was certainly a pleasant person to be around – smart, kind, and very knowledgeable. Not to mention highly skilled.

But she also seemed to contact her family only occasionally, which was something Ash couldn't really fathom. Sure, he'd been absolutely terrible at keeping in contact with his mother at first, but he'd grown out of it.

Daisy seemed to have never learned that lesson, and it wasn't something he could approve of.

"So, what exactly are your plans here in Hoenn?" Daisy paid close attention, genuinely interested. "You haven't been here before, right? Are you meeting anyone?"

He took a moment to rest his hand atop Nidoking's leathery head, just above the deadly horn that jutted from his skull, before he even said a word.

"I'm meeting up with a friend in Rustboro," he said at last. "He won't be there for a few weeks so I'm just wandering in the meantime. The only thing on my list at the moment is to deliver a package to Professor Birch in Littleroot Town."

"Really?" The girl leaned forward, soft eyes opened wide. One hand came up to brush her brown locks out of the way as she absentmindedly adjusted her green headband. "How were you planning on getting there?"

"I was going to take the water routes down to Dewford past Pacifidlog," the boy answered. "I've heard there's a lot of interesting places to visit along the way and I'll probably spend plenty of time on the mainland with my friend."

Daisy nodded thoughtfully but didn't say anything. The only sign she hadn't completely separated herself from the world was the slight twitch of her lips as Eevee squirmed in her arms and stretched as much as the little creature could to lick her face.

"You know," she started off carefully, "I'm actually headed to Petalburg to meet up with a few of my old Coordinating friends next week…if you want you could tag along with me on the way there. I could use the company and it'd be nice to catch up with you, Ash."

Ash paused and set his chopsticks down. Daisy watched him closely – he could detect just a bit of anxiety in the way she held herself: slim shoulders bunched together, mouth drawn tight, hands tense.

Was she afraid of him declining her offer or was she afraid of him accepting?

To tell the truth, he hadn't put much thought into the idea of a traveling companion. Not one of the human variety, anyway. He was happy with his family, proud to venture off into the unknown with just his brothers and sisters at his side.

And to be honest, he felt the same sense of unease as he suspected Daisy did. He hadn't actually traveled with anyone since before the sinking of the St. Anne – he had to focus his will just to keep a grimace from slipping across his tanned face as his blood felt as though it had been dipped ice – and had come to love walking the earth on his own more than he'd ever enjoyed doing so with humans.

But at the same time he found himself wanting to accept. Daisy was a highly skilled trainer even if she didn't seem to be much of a battler. There was a lot he could learn from someone as experienced as her, plus she could tell him more about Hoenn and the subject of Coordinating. He wasn't so prideful as to deny his own ignorance about it.

Even more than that, she was Daisy Oak. She was the closest connection to his home that he'd find outside of the messages from his friends and family. He wouldn't be able to see any of them for months at the very least, so some sort of bond to Pallet was appreciated.

Besides, it wouldn't be permanent. One week. That was it.

One week to get to know Daisy Oak.

To be honest, that was probably the deciding factor in his decision. He didn't like to be bound to people and he wouldn't have been able to travel with her once he met up with Steven. Ash felt that Steven would probably want to keep their training a relatively quiet affair, with little input from others.

Even Lance of all people had wanted to keep their training far from prying eyes – if the boisterous, outgoing Dragon Master who loved to show off his awesome power kept it so secretive he couldn't imagine the much more reserved Steven to do any different.

"Sure," he flashed Daisy a genuine smile that she quickly returned. It looked like his acceptance had settled her nerves a bit. "I'm looking forward to it. How long will you be in Sootopolis?"

She frowned. It looked incredibly foreign on her ordinarily smiling face. "With the Contest over I'm free to go anytime. I'd like to wait until at least tomorrow so I can gather my supplies, though."

"Of course," Ash nodded. He wouldn't expect anything else. "Where do you want to meet up tomorrow?"

"Pokemon Center's good for me," Daisy replied with just a moment's thought. "That's where you'll be staying the night, right?"

He nodded again.

"Great!" She cheered and ruffled the fur on Eevee's head. The little pokemon just yipped happily and stared at Ash with almost ridiculously huge eyes for such a small creature. "I'll see you around noon then, alright?"

Despite himself he couldn't help but smile back as he started portion out the remnants of his food for his friends. He'd bought them their own shares since he had more than enough money to do it at this point, but he wasn't going to finish and might as well keep it from going to waste.

Maybe this would turn out great after all.

XX

"Having fun, Torrent?" Ash called out from where he leaned back on Nidoking's leathery stomach. He was perched on a small, upraised section of Sootopolis' rim that overlooked the part of Sootopolis' lake he'd claimed for the day. Most of his friends were arrayed around him in some way, a majority of them either napping or close to it.

Torrent rumbled happily at him and dived back into the lake, an act which nudged the vast ice floe he'd created for Sneasel to play on slightly into the water. The little dark-type hissed and dug his claws deep into the thick platform to avoid from slipping in.

Ash counted out the rest of his family. He liked to know where they were, just in case.

Nidoking was behind him, of course. He'd been unconscious for the last hour or so, ever since they left Daisy to take care of her affairs. Only the peaceful rise and fall of his hulking form ensured that Ash knew he wasn't just a Nidoking-shaped statue.

Plume was doing laps around Sootopolis, although he wasn't able to keep track of her now that the sun had finally begun to fall. She was probably miles away, although he knew she would return.

The others, with the exception of Infernus, were all collapsed somewhere behind him. He could hear most of them, although he could see Bruiser sitting peacefully a fair distance away, eyes just and body tense.

He was meditating, Ash assumed. It was an exercise he'd picked up from Bruno, although it was only recently he really practiced it. The relaxed atmosphere they'd found since the end of the Conference helped Bruiser focus and Sneasel's slightly better behavior – and well-earned fear of the mighty Machoke – had finally given him the peace he needed.

Dazed sat in front of him with her pendulum swaying back and forth, an eerie blue glow emanating from the pendant and her narrowed eyes. It looked like the fighting-type had seen fit to assist Dazed's help in the exercise, which brought a flush of warmth to Ash.

It was nice to see his team work together so well. Ash knew that they had their fair degree of problems helping each other – quite a few disliked at least one another for some reason or another – but it seemed like this time of peace was finally helping those small rifts to mend.

And finally there was –

"Oh, hello," Ash murmured to Seeker as she landed on the small patch of moss behind him. He looked at her expectantly. Normally she'd land on his back or his hat, not around him. "Is everything alright, Seeker?"

She squeaked an affirmative and laid herself just a little awkwardly on the cool moss, thick blue fur slick with sweat.

"Do you want Torrent or Nidoking to help cool you down?" Ash frowned as he idly brushed her with his hand and felt that she was a little too hot for comfort. "You don't feel too good."

Seeker wriggled and shook her head in a way that Ash construed as a 'no'. She settled and stared out at the Sootopolis Lake as it reflected the fiery orange glow of the setting sun over its mirror-like surface.

Ash shrugged and kept on brushing the short, soft fur as he watched Torrent dance through the lake, exploding out in massive geysers and sinking to its darkest depths at the bottom of a newborn whirlpool with ease.

That went on for an eternity. The sun set and settled into a murky glow of orange and red and gold. The lake shimmered and darkened into an inky sheet as night swallowed the day.

And through it all he thought. Thought of his journey, his future, his family.

"Seeker…" the boy began almost hesitantly. The Zubat's ears twitched and she turned to look up at him with sightless eyes. "Are you happy? With us – with me?"

Seeker squirmed up onto his leg and squeaked almost violently – his ears stung at the sound and he had to withhold a flinch. Her fangs were bared and her blue fur stood straight as her ears in that moment.

He almost deflated with the force of his relieved exhale. It wasn't something he'd really thought of before. Seeker was always happy around him, especially since Lance had removed the six pokemon limit ever since their training.

But while she'd seemed happy, he knew he hadn't spent as much time personally with her as some of the others. She was with him while they trained and never showed any sort of discontent, but he knew that he'd never really tried to involve her. Protect her from Sneasel and keep her taken care of as best he could, yes.

Involve her – or even offer to involve her – no. He'd done a poor job integrating her into the team. When the others cared about her it was because they'd come to like her on their own. Ash had never truly tried to facilitate it aside from making sure she stayed around him and, therefore, the team.

"Good," he breathed and wrapped a gentle arm around her tiny body. It was always strange to remind himself of just how vulnerable Seeker was, even if her meek demeanor and the damage she'd taken saving him from Golduck's murderous Water Gun should have branded that knowledge into his mind forever.

But then, she wasn't really vulnerable. Physically, yes. Mentally, no. She bore many scars from her slavery to Team Rocket in every aspect. But she wasn't broken. Seeker had stayed strong and brave. She'd presumably survived battles with opponents far stronger than she was. She'd willingly taken a Water Gun for him even when it might have killed her.

Seeker might not look like much, but she was brave. As brave and strong in spirit as she was small in body.

"Do you want more?" He continued with a frown. "Do you want to fight?"

She stilled at that word. He felt every muscle tense and a slight shiver wrack her body.

"It doesn't matter to me," he did his best to reassure her. Ash couldn't hope to discern what her true thoughts were – she didn't give enough of a tell for him. "All I want is for you to be happy, Seeker. Peace or battle…the choice is irrelevant. All that matters to me is that you're happy with us."

Seeker curled slightly closer to him and disregarded the uncomfortable heat of Hoenn, which only seemed to have changed into heavy, muggy humidity as night fell across Sootopolis.

After what could have been an eternity she finally wriggled her head back and forth in a definite decline of his query. Seeker squeaked up at him nervously, as though she were still afraid of whatever judgment he would cast.

"You won't fight," Ash promised the smallest member of his family. "Not unless you want to."

The Zubat was silent and just laid still underneath his hand as the endless chorus of bug-types started to echo throughout Sootopolis' smooth stone walls. She tensed at that – it was her natural instinct to go after the bugs, after all – but kept still.

"Whatever happens, just know that I'm proud to have you on the team, Seeker," Ash smiled down at her. "Don't ever think otherwise."

She squeaked again at that and was practically twitching with energy, but didn't try to move. Instead she just relaxed and slowly let the excited tension flood from her muscles.

He leaned back against Nidoking again and felt his lips twitch as he stared at the stars, which were just now visible in the onset of twilight. They were different here in Hoenn. There were so many of the gleaming masses of burning gas that he recognized from the endless nights of watching the night sky with his friends, but they had shifted far from where he'd usually find them.

But they were there.

Gyarados' Maw, Umbreon's Spots, Starmie, and the Eye of Mew…they still watched over him.

And as he shut his eyes he decided that maybe it wouldn't be so bad to forgo the comforts of the Pokemon Center for just one night.

The last thing he saw were two gleaming blue eyes and a swaying circle of vibrant light.

Sleep well, Friend-Trainer.

XX

Ash rolled his neck in an effort to smooth out some of the stiffness as he waited in front of the Pokemon Center with crossed arms. He ignored the comers and goers as they passed in and out of the large building. He only cared about one trainer in this city.

Sleeping by the lake had turned out to not be such a great idea after all. After all of his experience out in the wilderness he honestly should have known what was coming, but he had been so relaxed that he'd thrown his prior experiences out the window.

He was sore, stiff, and before he'd rushed into the Pokemon Center to take a quick shower and brush his teeth he'd felt like a thin layer of sweat, dirt, and salt had practically coated his body.

But it had still been satisfying and both his thirst and hunger had been rather easy to take care of. Storage compartments really were useful things – he had enough supplies stocked away to last him and his team at least two weeks in the wilderness if he had to. Three if he was careful.

"Ash, there you are!" Daisy's soft voice, sunny as Hoenn itself, rang in his ears. He smiled back and stood up straight as she approached, having been teleported in by a particularly impressive Gardevoir. "Ready to go?"

"Of course," he responded easily. "Where are we headed and how are we getting there?"

"I figured we'd fly – where's the fun in teleporting everywhere?" Daisy giggled. Gardevoir rolled its scarlet eyes affectionately. "But there's a few nice islands I've visited before that I figured we could stop at for the day. We could make it to the Pacifidlog Archipelago today, but I'd rather not. It's not like we're in a rush, after all. I've got a full week to make it to Petalburg and you've got even longer until you need to be in Rustboro."

Ash nodded. That was acceptable.

"Then, we could get to Pacifidlog pretty early on the second day. It's a nice little town we could rest in – not a lot to do but a nice place to stop at," the Oak mused, tapping her rounded chin with a delicate finger. "I don't really know any of the islands or their communities past Pacifidlog, so I thought we could just fly straight to Dewford the third day. Granite Cave could keep us occupied for two days, probably. From there it's a pretty short flight to Littleroot – you said you needed to go there, right?"

He nodded for a second time. "I have a delivery for Professor Birch."

"Must be pretty important if the runner up of the Indigo Conference is personally carrying it," Daisy teased. "But don't worry, we'll get it delivered in no time."

"It's a little bit important," Ash acknowledged. It was just information that could prove vital to the survival of the Leagues. Nothing major enough to get in a rush over. "But as long as there aren't significant delays the timing of the delivery doesn't matter too much."

"Whew, that's a relief!" The Oak said as she unclipped a pokeball and released a Pidgeot of her own - one of the nearby pedestrians jumped in surprise, although Ash barely twitched. He was used to sudden appearances at this point. "Well, let's get going then!"

He nodded and reached for Plume's pokeball, although he took a moment to examine the new Pidgeot. It was a far cry from the massive Pidgeot he came across rather frequently. The bird certainly wasn't built for battle like Plume or Gary's. Instead it seemed almost delicate, as though it were meant to float along with the air instead of master it.

"Ooh," Daisy's mouth circled as she cooed at Plume, who cocked her great head at the girl's stare. "She's beautiful! I saw her on TV, but in person…very impressive, Ash!"

Ash couldn't help but feel his pride stoked by Daisy's praise, although he stayed outwardly calm. Plume preened under the kind words, however, and made no show of hiding it.

"She takes care of herself," Ash grinned as he patted Plume and released her saddle as well. Plume nipped at him affectionately, although the force behind it nearly knocked him onto his rear. "I just make sure she doesn't have to work too hard."

"That's all anyone can ask!" Daisy nodded as she put her own saddle – a large, flexible length of what looked to be made of shed Arbok skin – onto the comparatively small Pidgeot. "Anyways, I saw quite a bit from this Pidgeot when you beat Baby Gary – I wonder how much better she's gotten?"

Ash grinned dangerously at that and Plume, if she had lips, would have mirrored his expression. If there was one thing they shared it was that competitive edge that refused to take any challenge lightly.

"You have no idea!" His eyes flashed as he pulled himself onto Plume's back and pulled on the protective head gear that would keep him safe from the whipping winds and dust that permeated the upper atmosphere. "I doubt you'll catch Plume's wind."

His friend shrieked an agreement and flared her wings, dwarfing Daisy and her Pidgeot. The Oak didn't seem too impressed, though, and just kept her lips shaped into a soft smile.

"Don't underestimate us!" She laughed as she happily stroked her Pidgeot's glossy plumage. "We might not be battlers but we're not slouches either – Gary learned that the hard way."

The Feather flared as his spirit burned with the desire to show Daisy just how far of a gap there was between him and Gary, especially in regards to their Pidgeot.

Gary's Pidgeot wasn't built for speed. Every bit of its body was shaped in the pursuit of raw power – the power to dwarf every aerial fighter it faced and tear them out of the sky. Even most Dragonite wouldn't be able to stand against it in a battle of sheer physical might.

Plume was all about speed. That was her power. The force behind her attacks was primarily from her velocity, not mass.

And she excelled at it. Whereas Gary's Pidgeot would tear a Dragonite out of the sky with its massive talons, Plume would tear into them like a missile. They wouldn't even know what hit them before they found themselves lying in the dirt.

"You're on," Ash grinned as he clipped Plume's pokeball to his belt. He spared an absent glance to the Gardevoir that looked exasperated by the impromptu race before it was recalled in a flash of light. "Where are we headed?"

"Follow us to Sootopolis' rim," his opponent instructed as her Pidgeot shot into the air with nary a sound. "Catch us if you can!"

Plume followed less than a second later and loosed an offended screech out into the Rune City's clear skies. Ash held on tight as they gained easily on Daisy and her Pidgeot, who couldn't even hope to surpass the highly trained Plume in the open air.

As they passed over the crater's rim, Ash couldn't help but to look back and stare at the white city.

It really was beautiful, he thought. Simple and utilitarian but still so effortlessly elegant that he wouldn't have minded staying there for a long time yet. Not many cities could claim to be carved from the ancient walls of a crater, after all. Even fewer could claim to such a rich history.

And it wasn't just in the pages of dusty tomes that Sootopolis remained prominent either. Even in the modern era it had clung to prestige that dwarfed the Rune City's size and population.

Cynthia's words came back to him – he had read the gift from his mother through the entire chapter on Sootopolis by this point. It was almost incredible how easily it captivated him. Ash hadn't really thought he'd enjoy history, but something about how the Sinnoh Champion put her research, facts, and own opinions into her book spoke to him.

Perhaps it was her status as a powerful trainer that did it for him. Perhaps it was the fact that anybody who had earned the position of Champion held his respect before he even knew who they were.

Regardless, he'd almost memorized everything he'd read up to this point. His long talks with Alakazam as she elaborated on this point and that had only burned the knowledge deeper.

Despite its rich and influential past, Sootopolis has truly come into its own in terms of impact on the Hoenn region in recent years. In 967 AIL, as the Last War raged on, the Hoenn region was reunited under one banner for the first time since the initial fall of the Volumo Empire roughly one thousand years before.

While several of Hoenn's great cities – Rustboro, Ever Grande, and Lilycove amongst the coalition that pushed for unity as the Unovan forces threatened to break the naval blockade Hoenn relied on for centuries – were instrumental in creating the Ever Grande League, it was Sootopolis that finally forced its creation.

Although Sootopolis' attempts to secure its own city as the capital and headquarters of the League failed, its efforts earned it even greater respect and recognition interregionally once the new League decisively repelled the invaders at the Second Battle of Lilycove.

As the First Champion of the Ever Grande League, Dragon Master Drake Teach, was originally from the Rune City it gained even greater influence in the League's decisions. In the wake of Champion Drake's legendary, singlehanded destruction of a Unovan fleet and the League's solidification Sootopolis' leaders gained access to Ever Grande and retained their influence for many years.

Although its influence has waned as Rustboro has grown as the industrial age and the smaller cities have begun to gain notoriety the Rune City's ancient history and proven power have remained.

It can only be –

Ash was ripped out of his thoughts as Plume was forced to brace herself as a particularly powerful bout of turbulence rippled against the air bubble she'd thoughtfully constructed for him. He held on tight and patted her side as he stared down past the low-hanging clouds they'd shot above and saw the deep azure that called out to him.

An ancient tune echoed through his ears and he relaxed as they drifted lazily through the air. It was almost incredible how fast they were going considering that the ride was almost perfectly gentle. Only a few times had he actually felt the massive gales that rushed through the skies Plume practically owned.

Was this what the Champion Drake had felt when he soared above Lilycove and earned his revered title of Dragon Master?

He thought of Drake, Lance's mentor, as he turned and picked out Daisy flying almost half a mile behind them. Sootopolis was nothing but a white mound at this point and she was just a barely recognizable black dot. If it weren't for her keeping pace with Plume's sedate pace she wouldn't have even been visible at this point.

Ash turned straight ahead to the vastness of the sea and sky. Ash was tempted to pull out his PokeNav right now and search for any information he could find on Drake but figured that was probably the stupidest idea he'd had all morning. The PokeNav was too valuable to risk like that.

Still, he couldn't help but want to research the First Ever Grande Champion as much as he could. The respect Lance held from him was telling enough, but reading about his feats in the Last War had made him an almost mythical figure in Ash's eyes.

Before there were even an Ever Grande Elite Four Drake had taken his position as the undisputed Champion.

He had faced an entire fleet and hundreds of trainers on his lonesome with only his team at his side and won while the Hoenn coalition prepared a defense.

He had killed the Unovan Elite Four member overseeing the attack in the same battle and earned another two Master-level kills before the war was over.

He had earned a flee-on-sight order, unique amongst the three Champions that had banded their Leagues together in order to form the current National League.

And by the end of it all he was named the Dragon Master, recognized as the strongest trainer in the world for decades. It was only Lance, Drake's own pupil, that had earned that same title a few years ago.

After all of that, could Ash be blamed for wanting to meet him? And battle him, but that was a different matter altogether. Ash couldn't expect victory even as Drake the Dragon Master had waned in his older age, but it would undoubtedly be one of the greatest battles in his life.

If nothing else, that would inspire him to learn as much as he could from Steven. The Awakening that Lugia warned him of, the Rockets…they were his strongest motivator. But at the base of all his will to become the greatest he could be was the simple, primal desire for a great battle and that was what Drake would provide.

He'd be ready.

XX

"Oh, you are just too cute!" Daisy giggled as she ran her thin fingers through Sneasel's thick fur. The dark-type purred happily and rolled over, exposing his stomach to the older trainer as she showered him with affection. "You don't mind if I steal him for a few minutes, do you?"

"No," Ash whispered as he stared at the unexpected scene. He was joined by almost all of the rest of his team, who could scarcely believe their eyes. "Just…just keep doing what you're doing."

Daisy smiled beautifully and used one finger to scratch behind Sneasel's feather, an act that reduced him to a happy blob of black fur and sheathed claws.

Is this some sort of trick on the Brat's part? This is impossible. It has never been so…content.

"No, I think he's serious," Ash muttered to Dazed. He couldn't blame her for her suspicion, though. Sneasel had never been so calm, and certainly not apart from Ash. For all of his bad temper, Sneasel was immensely worse when Ash wasn't there to rein him in. For Daisy to tame the obnoxious Sneasel with just a gentle touch was something Ash would remember for a long time.

I would claim she was a psychic to have the effect she does on it, but that is obviously impossible. I find myself dumbfounded, Friend-Trainer.

Ash just nodded, an action mimicked by the rest of his team. Infernus was the only one that wasn't impressed and that was because he was stalking around the small island they'd decided to camp at for the night blasting at the ocean with massive spurts of fire that practically lit up the night sky for brief seconds at a time.

He'd been in an ill temper ever since he'd been released. Infernus had hoped to battle one of Daisy's team but Ash had stepped in before he could challenge his ideal match, her Typhlosion.

Daisy had assured him that Typhlosion was up to the task, but Ash wasn't about to let that matchup happen. For one he doubted that Daisy actually recognized how powerful Infernus truly was. She'd even admitted that she hadn't seen much of the Championship battle to him after they'd landed.

Aside from that, it wouldn't satisfy Infernus. Any pokemon not trained exclusively for battle wouldn't be capable of keeping up with him for more than a minute even without his teleportation.

Not to mention that he'd rather not have to deal with half the island being reduced to cinders and molten glass. He was fairly certain that the Magmortar didn't understand the concept of "restraint".

So now Infernus was frustrated, although Torrent had agreed to spar with him for a few minutes. They'd been at it for longer than he'd expected, although it seemed Torrent had taken advantage of the ocean's proximity and Infernus had decided not to use teleportation.

That evened things out but Ash still kept a close eye on the battle. If Infernus started getting too out of control he'd have to recall him.

He was just too dangerous to battle without supervision at this point. Too powerful, too fast, too smart. And much, much too ruthless.

But for now he let Infernus fight. He might as well let him relieve some stress in a relatively controlled environment. At the very least he couldn't cause much collateral damage on a small island in the middle of the Hoenn archipelago.

"You're a sweet little boy, yes you are!" Daisy giggled as her nails danced across Sneasel's sensitive underbelly. His tongue lolled out contentedly as she pet him. Whatever belligerence and pride hadn't been knocked out of him over the past month of "Catch the Sneasel" was forgotten entirely. "Wouldn't hurt a Zubat, I bet."

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