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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52. The Opening Ceremony Part 2

"I'm confident in our strength. We're ready." Ash said without hesitation. "We'll fight our hardest. However far we get, we've earned it."

"True, true." Oak agreed. His eyes watched Ash carefully. "As soon as I heard about your progress I was sure you would go far in the Conference, just like Gary. You share a rare bond with your team that will serve you very well. Now that Lance has taken you under his wing I can only imagine what kind of tricks you'll pull."

Ash met the Professor's dark eyes, surprised at the statement. "Thank you."

"Your mother and I will both be at the Conference to support you and Gary, you know. If you and Gary are paired up I hope you don't mind if I root for him." Oak smiled. Ash cracked a small grin back, although he didn't say anything. "He is my grandson, after all.

Professor Oak was silent again as he gathered his thoughts.

"I don't think you have to be told that Delia is proud of you. She can't go a moment without mentioning you and everything you've accomplished." The Professor remarked with a wry grin. Ash smiled to himself but didn't let anything slip. "But you should know that I am too."

Ash started and looked up at the Professor with wide eyes. His look of surprise faded slightly and was covered with an uncontrollable grin that split his face until his cheeks hurt as Professor Oak laid a rough, calloused hand on his shoulder and met his eyes.

"You've grown up a lot since you left with that little Nidoran. You two were a perfect match." Oak recalled fondly as he shifted his vision to look into the soft blue sky that stretched over the endless fields and forests of the Corral. "One with dreams of greatness and one who was willing to give up anything to fulfill those fantasies."

"You recall that day well, I'm sure. It's impossible to forget the day you venture out into the world with nothing but a lifelong partner and youthful curiosity." Oak reminisced nostalgically. He shook his head and cracked a grin. "Ah, I'm sorry. I've picked up a tendency to ramble in my old age."

The younger trainer just snorted in dry amusement. Professor Oak's mind was just as sharp as ever. He couldn't believe that the Professor would ever let his train of thought slip away.

"I know you're ready for the Conference, but what will you do afterwards?" The Professor inquired. He sounded genuinely curious. "You've grown strong, but you're still inexperienced."

Ash opened his mouth to protest that statement, but Professor Oak raised a hand. The stern command imparted by his dark eyes kept Ash quiet.

"You're still young." Oak explained. When Ash's face revealed that he wasn't satisfied, the older man elaborated. "How do I say this?" He pondered. "You've experienced a lot, Ash. You've seen and done more in your first year than many trainers do in their lifetimes. But you've only scratched the surface. No matter how strong you and your team are now, you can only become greater. Time isn't your ally yet. I know that you've experimented with new techniques, but you need time to reach your full potential. Time to grow, time to learn, and time to train."

"When you look at yourself in a year or two you'll understand." Oak smiled, as though he had just told a joke that only he understood. "Trust me. You won't recognize your own strength."

He nodded slowly, finally understanding. It was no wonder that so many institutes wanted Professor Oak to teach. Not only was he one of the most knowledgeable individuals in the entire world, he was a born teacher as well. When he said something it made sense.

"So, what will you do?" The Professor continued. "Will you stay in Kanto and train in the wilds? Will you travel to other regions and challenge their Leagues? There's an entire world out there."

Ash held his chin in errant thought. He looked up at the sun, which was hidden behind a wispy white cloud. He honestly wasn't sure. As much thought as he'd put into preparing for the Conference he'd never truly considered what to do afterwards. The Conference had been a final destination of sorts for nearly a year now.

He didn't want to stay in Kanto unless he was able to train under one of the Elite Four. As appealing as the thought of existing far away from civilization in the peace and harmony of the wilderness with his team was, he felt like there were more efficient uses of his time. That was a dream that would be realized a long way in the future. There was too much to do right now.

"I want to travel." He decided. Oak didn't seem surprised. The confident smile had never wavered.

"Good, good." Oak commented. He winced as he shifted and looked over at Ash seriously. Although his eyes were still warm they had become serious. This was a matter of importance for him. "I believe that it is through new experiences that we grow as trainers and as a person. To remain in one place is to become stagnant."

"Look at me!" The older man laughed. It made him look young again. "I dare say that I could still give any of the Elite Four outside of Lance a run for their money, but I'm weaker than I once was. Some of our atrophied skill is lack of dedicated training, but I haven't grown much since I settled in Pallet."

"It applies to the Elite Four as well, actually." Oak added. "They are still the strongest trainers in Indigo by far, but they are far more complacent than when they were developing their strength and skill. Members like Bruno and Lance train, but they are often too busy dealing with other issues to continue improving. What battles they face are rarely enough of a challenge to make them stronger."

"Conflict, experience, hardship…those are our teachers. They are the catalysts of our own strength." Oak mused and glanced over to Ash again. The boy paid rapt attention, hung on the Professor's every word. Ash knew that Oak was intelligent, but he'd never taken him as much of a philosopher. Now the assumption seemed foolish. Every great trainer seemed to have given quite a bit of thought to the concept of training and power.

A few moments of silence.

"I suppose that's enough education for one day." The Professor said. He still had a slight smile on his face, which continued to look years younger. Oak never really looked old since he was only about fifty, but these brief shadows of youth seemed to open a gateway in time. Ash felt like he had an idea of what Oak looked like in his prime.

The Professor looked out over the beautiful landscape and took a breath of the fresh air. Kanto was on the cusp of spring. There was still the slight nip of winter, but heat had seeped back into the world after a long absence.

"Enjoy your break but don't forget to train." Oak told Ash, who nodded. "If you need anything, come on up to the lab. I finished the commission for Silph yesterday and could use a break."

"I will, Professor. Thanks." Ash tipped his hat to the older man, who smiled back and started the long walk back to his lab. Arcanine trotted after him, followed by the Growlithe that nipped at the great canine's feet.

The trainer fell back and let Sneasel clamber back onto his chest. All of the others had gone their own way for the day. Nidoking was spending time with Gary's Nidoqueen and the Nidoran herd, Dazed had managed to tell him that she was going to commune with Alakazam, Plume had flown off somewhere, and Torrent had left for the lake.

Ash wasn't quite sure where the rest of his friends were. He was more than a bit surprised that Infernus wasn't chasing after Arcanine trying to start a fight. After his increase in strength he'd expected the fire-type would challenge the canine at the soonest opportunity. Maybe Infernus had matured a bit.

Bruiser and Seeker were probably out in the forest somewhere. They liked it there, hidden away in the deepest parts of the wilderness. It was dark enough for Seeker to be comfortable and similar to the harsh environment Bruiser had lived in before he'd joined the team.

Tangrowth could be anywhere. He might have stayed at home to help his mother, gone out with Bruiser and Seeker, or be in the fields playing with some of the younger pokemon. When he wasn't with Ash he had a tendency to flit from place to place.

Ash didn't know Oz's habits well enough to know where she would be. The obvious answer was that she would be tagging along with Infernus, looking for any opportunity to brawl with the Magmortar and probably cause an ecological catastrophe. She could also have gone to the lab to feed. Oak had set up quite a few generators specifically for that purpose.

He shrugged it off and pulled his cap over his eyes and relaxed in the soft, loamy soil. This was his one day of serious vacation. A simple nap felt like the best way to spend this early part of it. He could muse over Oak's words and what had happened with his mother later.

XX

"Well, here we are." Professor Oak remarked with a sense of finality. He was still just as casual and relaxed as he had been when he had visited Ash in the Corral a week ago. It was as though all the stress that had left him grim and terse had drained out of him. "It feels like just a moment ago you were here with Gary and the others receiving your starter."

Nidoking, who stood behind Ash protectively, snorted and tapped Ash's shoulder with a dull claw. Ash smiled back at his friend's hulking form and patted his shoulder to appreciatively return the familiar gesture.

Return your ally to its storage device. I did not agree to teleport two individuals to the Indigo Plateau.

Alakazam commanded in her crisp, clear tone. Ash still marveled at just how advanced she was. Her telepathy didn't echo or sound distorted in the least. It was in stark contrast to Dazed, who he could barely understand at times. He couldn't wait until his friend learned to apply more advanced forms of the techniques.

He tore himself from his thoughts and returned Nidoking. Once he placed the pokeball back on his belt he looked over to Professor Oak and his mother, who had come to watch his departure.

"Good luck, sweetie!" His mother said cheerfully, although she wiped a stray tear from her shiny eyes. "We'll be there tomorrow, don't worry!"

Ash just flashed a quick grin at his mother. Whatever awkwardness had been caused by her story had been short-lived. It still gnawed on him at times, but he'd put it behind him. His mother was a strong woman and had moved past the darkness. He should too.

"Try to stay focused. Don't accept any challenges after the Opening Ceremony – you'll be disqualified." Professor Oak lectured. Ash could tell that he had suffered a bit of grief over the past week. Gary was supposed to come home for the days before the Conference but had apparently chosen to forego that course of action. "Everything will be fine. Just keep your head straight and don't get caught up in the excitement."

"Thank you." Ash said. The gratitude wasn't just to Professor Oak for the information. It was directed just as much to his mother as the Professor. Both of them had gotten him to where he was now. "I'll see you soon."

"Bye, Ash!" His mother bade him farewell. She gave him a bright smile as Alakazam's spoons began to glow with ethereal blue light. A flicker of mischief was in her eyes. "Don't forget to change your –"

Her statement was cut off by the teleportation, thankfully enough. When Ash appeared outside a massive building with a few different lanes sparsely populated with trainer he rolled his eyes, although the anxiety that had begun to writhe in his stomach since the night before forced him to focus on the situation at hand.

He glanced up at a sign that stood in front of the building.

"Competitor Registration." He muttered to himself. Ash went ahead and walked over to the lines. He wanted a chance to relax and get ready for the Conference. This would be one of the greatest experiences of his life, no doubt. Ash was confident in his abilities, but he wanted to be ready for anything. Relaxation was necessary if he wanted to be prepared.

It was a fast line. The officials in charge of registration were very efficient. Ash was at the very front in what felt like no time at all.

"Trainer Card?" The no-nonsense tone of the woman manning the desk demanded. Ash handed over his PokeNav, which he had already flipped open and directed to the identification page.

She started a bit at the rare device but didn't let that hinder her. The woman quickly placed the PokeNav into a small machine that glowed briefly. Ash took his PokeNav when it was offered and waited as the woman read information off of a small monitor in front of her.

"You're in…Section A, House 12. It looks like there's two other competitors that'll be staying with you." The woman noted and handed him a key. "Jonathan Lindon and Amelia Franklin will be your housemates."

An involuntary smile graced Ash's face. That was a pleasant surprise. He'd suspected that he'd see them sometime during the Conference but he hadn't thought that he'd actually be staying with them. It looked like the housing was assigned by geographic proximity. Of course, that begged the question of where Gary was staying.

Ash snorted as he nodded gratefully at the woman and moved out of the line. Gary probably had his own house. Thanks to his relationship with Professor Oak he had some friends in high places, or at least plenty of people trying to curry favor with the Professor.

He finally made his way out of the building. There weren't many people lounging about. Ash couldn't say he was surprised. It was two days before the Opening Ceremony and there would only be two hundred and fifty six permanent inhabitants of the Pokemon League Village, although it would have a regular influx of reporters and family members during the actual Conference.

It took a moment for him to take in the sights.

The Pokemon League Village was enormous. It was composed of dozens of rows of magnificent houses, each probably twice the size of his house in Pallet, each for just three or four competitors. They stretched endlessly, nearly identical save for crisp, clear numbers.

Aside from the houses there was an innumerable assortment of restaurants, movie theaters, and other places of entertainment for visitors. Those parts were sectioned off from the League Village proper with the noticeable exception of a few very high-class restaurants that looked like they'd clean out even Ash's deep pockets without too much trouble. It was a good thing competitors received practically everything for free.

Not free, he reflected. Perhaps free in regard to money. But everybody that would inhabit these houses would have paid to be here through blood, sweat, and raw determination. Their toil for the rest of the year had earned this for them.

They had suffered for this brief period of luxury.

Ash saw the five dark, massive shapes of the stadiums more than a mile away. They loomed over the horizon, dwarfing even the largest of the Village buildings. Each would be of great import in the days to come.

Rock, Grass, Water, and Ice. Those were what the lesser four stadiums were modelled around. Not just anyone got to battle in the ancient Indigo Stadium, where untold generations of trainers had battled for fame, glory, and the right to call themselves the strongest.

He'd thought long about what he would use in each one as he prepared for the Conference for the past week. Between battles and training sessions he'd planned it all out. It had been a restless week.

The Rock Stadium would favor almost all of his teammates. Torrent would have a difficult time, as would Dazed thanks to their relative lack of maneuverability. Teleportation was best suited for open areas where one didn't have to worry about rocky outcroppings or other obstacles. Nidoking would likely have difficulty on that battlefield as well, come to think of it. He needed clear lines of sight for his Ice Beam and Thunderbolt, not to mention his charges.

Grass would also favor his friends. Torrent wouldn't have any particular advantage in it, but at least he wouldn't be crippled when facing a faster or more maneuverable opponent. Ash felt that he'd use Torrent a lot. His raw power and discipline unmatched by any of his friends would let him end battles without any trouble.

Besides, he wanted attention drawn to Torrent. Infernus was his other trump card, but he wanted to keep him unknown. Torrent, as a dragon-type, was flashy and would have the focus of all the observers. If he played his cards right he wouldn't have to use Infernus at all until the final rounds, which was when every advantage would be vital to his victory.

He'd only seen a few battles with the Water Stadium on TV, but he knew the basic layout. It was similar to the Cerulean gym's battlefield but with much more land available. To unfairly favor one side beyond random chance was unacceptable. The Stadium was based around a pool of water large enough to give even a Gyarados comfortable space but there was more than enough land to give any trainer a fighting chance.

It was the Ice Stadium that gave him a few concerns. His most powerful fighters would be fine, but the cold temperatures would cripple Tangrowth. Although it was unlikely that Tangrowth would be needed against any opponents released in the Ice Stadium he had seen enough battles in the Stadium to know that people didn't always adhere to logic in their choices.

But it was the Indigo Stadium that he dreamed of. He'd seen it countless times in battles on the TV. Ash hadn't missed a Finals battle since he was a toddler. They always promised to present an awesome spectacle of skill and power since only the most elite trainers managed to make it to the Top 32.

By this point he felt as though he could recall every pebble that was scattered across the Indigo Stadium's rugged surface. He'd watched dozens of battles from previous Conferences on it to try and search out common strategies and teams.

What he found was expected. There were plenty of trainers that did nothing but prepare for the Conference. They tended to be…unimaginative. They always had powerful teams. Alakazam, evolutions of Eevee, Tauros, Starmie, and Rhydon were common. The raw power such pokemon possessed enabled their trainers to advance into the competition, although more skilled competitors swept them away in the later rounds.

Ash knew what to look out for. Those standard fighters were certainly dangerous even in unskilled hands, but they also marked out fairly standard, dull trainers that relied far too much on power. They tended not to have any tricks.

He wouldn't dismiss those trainers, but he would pay more attention to the real threats. Trainers like that tended to gun for powerful pokemon that were agreeable and relatively easy to get if one had deep enough pockets. Ash knew he wouldn't see those trainers using wickedly cunning and wild pokemon like Gengar.

Somebody who could command the respect of a Gengar or dragon-type would be somebody to watch out for. They had real experience and imagination to get that far and survive whatever encounters had left them with such a fantastically rare and dangerous pokemon.

Ash was torn from his thoughts as he walked out of the shadows of the city built to contain the massive influx of humans and pokemon and into a brief patch of open sun. He looked to the west and found what he knew he would see.

This was Indigo Plateau, the place where hundreds of thousands swarmed annually. This was where legends were born.

What he saw to the west, built in the mountain pass that separated Kanto and Johto and united Indigo, was the true Indigo Plateau. It was not for entertainment or glory. It was the seat of the Indigo Pokemon League. Four of the most powerful trainers in the world called that massive citadel their home.

He wondered if he would ever stand within its ancient halls. Lance certainly wanted him to. Ash couldn't even imagine what it would be like. Few people were ever allowed admittance to the Plateau outside of the League's best military forces and upper echelons. Cameras weren't admitted and any attempts to enter were repelled with extreme, unmitigated force.

Before he'd come here he had thought about the security of the true Plateau. The Conference would bring countless visitors, any one of whom could try and use the tournament as a cover to try and enter the League's center. It was a fairly major concern, he imagined.

But he could see now that he didn't need to worry. The skies above the citadel were full of Skarmory, Pidgeot, and even the odd Charizard. There were probably Alakazam stationed around to detect any intruders and countless other precautions. Infiltrating it would be a suicide mission.

If Giovanni – Ash's face twisted into an ugly sneer that would have attracted some attention if the streets weren't completely empty – had wanted to attack Indigo Plateau it was no wonder he wanted something as powerful as Mewtwo. The League would brush off anything less, especially if one of the Elite Four decided to rise off of their thrones and deal with the invaders personally.

He forced the dark thoughts from his head and looked at the house he'd walked to. It was plain but was in perfect condition. There was something about its elegant simplicity that he found rather pleasing. Ash had half-expected the Village houses to be ornate and ostentatious. This was a nice surprise.

Ash headed up to the door and opened it with his key. It swung open easily and he stepped in.

It was nice, he decided. There was a staircase near the door that would take him up to the second floor. If he remembered right that was where the bedrooms were. Each competitor had their own. Ash wondered just how similar this would be to the St. Anne's luxury rooms. The League boats he'd ridden in certainly hadn't spared any expense for comfort.

He looked around the rest of the house very briefly. Everything was much bigger than he'd dreamed. Even the kitchen was gigantic and came with just about every type of food imaginable. They probably wouldn't have to restock for the entire month the Conference went on and still have a comfortable amount left over.

Aside from the kitchen there was a laundry room, a dining room that could easily fit twenty people, and a smaller room clearly meant for the competitors' use. It had a few small, comfortable sofas and four computers. Ash would definitely be using those to look up on future competition.

Once he'd finished his initial explorations he got ready to let all of his friends except for Infernus out. The house was so huge that his team would have no trouble at all fitting. There was more than enough room for Jonathan and Amelia's teams. Well, as long as Jonathan didn't try and release that Gyarados Ash had heard about.

Ash gave a dangerous grin at that. He really hoped that he'd get to battle them. They had to be strong to get into the Conference and he would be glad to test how much they'd grown.

If he didn't get to face them in the Conference he'd just have to seek them out afterward. It had been too long since they'd seen each other, although Ash knew he hadn't done anything to seek them out.

His grin faded. He didn't really know how he'd react to Jonathan and Amelia. It had been around nine months since he'd last seen them, way back on the St. Anne. He'd grown a lot during that time. So had they, hopefully.

It would probably be awkward meeting them again. Ash would just have to hope that they could get over that hurdle without too much trouble. He really did want to talk to them again. They'd been friends, even if Ash had felt like a bit of an outsider to the duo's close relationship.

Ash decided to put that out of his mind for now. He'd deal with that issue when it came up. For now he'd just release his friends and be buried underneath a few hundred pounds of happy pokemon.

He could think of worse ways to spend the next day.

XX

"Ash, are you here?" A voice called out as the door opened and crashed closed. The familiar sound rang throughout the house. Ash closed the video of last year's championship battle and smiled as he felt a bit of nervousness bubble up in his stomach. Since he'd arrived yesterday he'd been wondering constantly about the meeting between him and his old travelling companions. A lot of scenarios had played out in his mind. It looked like it was time to see which one would prove correct.

"I'm in here!" He shouted, his voice a little rough. The fumes from Mt. Ember hadn't left his throat completely unscathed. Sneasel turned and hissed from where he was perched on Ash's head, but he pet his friend soothingly to calm him down.

Most of his friends had been returned for the day. Ash knew that Jonathan and Amelia would be arriving sometime today. He knew that almost all of his team wouldn't mind them being here, although they might be leery at first. Sneasel, on the other hand, would probably try to attack them thanks to his paranoia and untrusting nature.

Footsteps.

"Man, this place is awesome!" Jonathan exclaimed loudly. It looked like he hadn't gotten any quieter over the last few months. Ash looked back to see Jonathan enter. Sneasel hissed and extended his claws, but a sharp glance from Ash cowed the dark-type. "Oh, hey! Long time no see, eh?"

"It's been a while." Ash smiled stiffly. It would take him a while to get used to their presence. "How have you two been?"

Amelia stepped in next and smiled brightly at him. "Pretty good! We got in kind of a rush to get our last badge since someone," she glared at Jonathan, who just rolled his eyes, "decided to wait around until the last minute."

"Oh, shut up." He laughed. It didn't have any bite. "You're just jealous because I caught Pinsir and you didn't. Get over it already. At least we made it into the Conference. Both of us got into a few tough spots in the Admission Rounds."

The girl's face grew red with anger. Ash just watched from his chair, already feeling like an outsider.

"Just because I didn't hide and wait for you to weaken it or…" She growled. Amelia suddenly blushed and stopped their argument. "Sorry, Ash. We probably aren't giving the best impression right now."

"No, please continue." He smiled. The other two rolled their eyes. Ash looked at them critically and got to business. At least this gave him something to say. "What teams do you have?"

"Checking out the competition, eh?" Jonathan snorted. He puffed out his chest. Ash really hoped that he wasn't being serious. If so he would have to knock him down a few pegs. "Well, I've got Charizard, Rhydon, Kingler, Magneton, Gyarados, and Pinsir. Those are the ones I battle with, anyway. Aside from that I've got a Spearow and Spinarak I'm training up."

Ash nodded. That was a pretty solid team. It was very focused on strength and aggression. Charizard, Kingler, Gyarados, and Pinsir were all noted for their monstrous aggression and ability to deal damage. Jonathan could definitely hurt some other competitors with it.

He turned his eyes to Amelia, who was looking at Sneasel. She didn't give him her team yet, but just asked, "Can I pet it?"

"That's probably not the best idea." He said. It was an understatement, as Amelia realized. She had already begun to stretch out her fingers to pat the dark-type before she actually comprehended what Ash was saying. As compensation for her rashness, Sneasel snarled and slashed at her fingers. She recoiled and looked at the dark-type distrustfully.

"He's not very friendly, is he?" She said rhetorically. Amelia shrugged Sneasel's attack off and looked over at Ash. "I guess you want my team too?"

Ash nodded.

"I've got Ivysaur, Raticate, Tentacruel, Dewgong, Kangaskhan, Raichu, Aipom, Bellossom, and Politoed." She told him. "I don't have anyone that doesn't battle."

He raised an eyebrow at that. Ash had no idea where she'd gotten a Kangaskhan or Politoed. Kangaskhan were almost fantastically rare. The League had a squad of Rangers around every herd in the wild to protect from poachers to keep them from getting wiped out. Only a few could be captured each year, although there was a small population that were hatched for trainers. Politoed were just uncommon.

When Ash voiced those thoughts, Amelia just smiled. "Jessica's got a friend that's a breeder. She managed to call in a few favors and got me hooked up with Kangaskhan. I bought a King's Rock for Politoed."

Jonathan had enough and impatiently cut in. "So, what kind of pokemon do you have? I know you haven't been screwing around for the last nine months."

Ash gave the shorter boy a wide grin that seemed to make him a little uncomfortable. "Nidoking, Pidgeot, Kingdra, Hypno, Magmortar, Machoke, Zubat, Tangrowth, Sneasel, and Electabuzz."

His friend blinked and let a feral grin spread over his face. "Wow, I really hope I battle you. That'll be awesome!" Jonathan lifted his chin up arrogantly and met Ash's eyes. "Who knows, maybe you might give me a challenge."

He just rolled his eyes at that. Ash wasn't sure if Jonathan was being serious or not.

"You're team's pretty awesome and all, but a Zubat…really? Why would you keep something like that around? They're useless." Jonathan cocked his head and snorted. Sneasel bared his teeth, half angry at an outsider insulting one of his pack and half-amused at the jab at Seeker.

Ash's eyes went cold. "Shut up." His mind flashed forward to Seeker's small, soft body flying in between him and certain death. The wounds she had suffered just to save him, someone she barely knew at that point. "She's better than you could imagine."

"Woah, calm down there!" Jonathan held up his hands to placate Ash. "I was just messing with you, ya know? Don't take it so serious."

When Ash didn't lose his harsh scowl Amelia cut in. "Hey, could you show us around the house real quick? We just need to get our rooms set up and then we can go out to lunch or something. We've been wondering what you've been doing for a long time. There's a lot to catch up on."

"That'll be fine." He exhaled. Ash relaxed a little. He needed to loosen up. There was no point in taking offense to anything right now. He'd just get Jonathan back in the Conference, hopefully. "The bedrooms are upstairs. Do you need any help getting it up?"

"Nah." Amelia waved him off. "Just wait down here. We'll only take a minute."

He nodded his assent and watched as the two walked off. They closed their heads together and whispered something that he couldn't decipher as the duo headed up the stairs with their bags, which they'd left beside the door.

"Do you want to come with us?" He asked Sneasel. The dark-type thought it over for a moment and nodded. Sneasel gave a short, happy growl as Ash stroked his feather in thanks. He'd feel better if he was around one of his friends during lunch. At least he wouldn't be quite as uncomfortable with Jonathan and Amelia. "Thanks, buddy. Behave yourself, alright?"

Sneasel hissed, as though he were insulted. Ash rolled his eyes but pet his friend some more. "I know, I know. You'd never do anything wrong. You're a little paragon of innocence."

Ash ignored Sneasel's annoyed growl and crossed his arms. He stared up at the stairs, waiting for the other two to come down. Living with them might prove to be very interesting.

Hopefully they'd stop bickering, though. That had already gotten old.

XX

There were plenty of familiar faces in the horde of two hundred and fifty six trainers that had proven themselves worthy of entering the Conference. They were arrayed underneath the massive Indigo Stadium, grouped together in no particular order. Even when he wasn't crowded into a huge group of people it was burning up, as though summer had come many months early. It was very uncomfortable, to say the least.

He'd seen Gary in the crowd, but his rival didn't notice him. Jonathan and Amelia were somewhere else. Ash didn't exactly mind them since he'd spent some time with them yesterday but he didn't want to spend the next hour or so listening to their arguments.

Ash never got to talk to anyone, but he'd seen Dan White, Ryan Dillard, and Jack Conolley from the Dandra Tournament. He wouldn't mind facing any of them again. They were all strong, even though Jack was probably the only one that would give him a real challenge at this point. Training with the strongest trainer in the world would do that.

He had also seen Corey and Neesha. They were walking with Michael and Jessica, who glared halfheartedly at each other now and then but appeared to have gotten over whatever grudge they'd had. Ash had almost forgotten about the two. They'd fallen out of his thoughts during all the commotion.

Corey met his eyes and nodded. Ash paled and returned it hesitantly. When Corey tapped Neesha's shoulder and pointed him out they repeated the cycle.

They remembered.

Ash hadn't been sure if Mewtwo would allow the others to retain their memory of that awful night. They had a sort of history together, as disgusting a thought as that was. He'd thought that he might have been an exception to the Creature's dulling of memories. Hoped, even. Nobody should have had to remember those events, least of all those who had blundered into it.

He looked straight ahead and tried not to think about that. Ash didn't want to let the dark emotions that writhed around the subject of Mewtwo to ensnare him in their tempting hands. He needed to rise above it all. Revenge would come one day. For now he just needed to live his life.

Somebody tapped his shoulder. Ash's head snapped over in surprise, although he relaxed when he saw that it was Jaimie. He returned the cheerful smile his partner in the Dandra Tournament flashed him.

"How's it going, Ash? Had a good few months?" She asked as everyone milled around, bored and ready for the Opening Ceremony to begin. Her cheerful demeanor was in stark contrast to the unsettled Ash.

He wondered if his definition of good was the same as hers. Since he had last seen her Ash had endured harsh, unyielding training underneath two legendary trainers, one of whom had held the title of Champion over not one, but two regions for nearly a decade. He had seen Legends, forces of nature made manifest. He had witnessed the awful power of Team Rocket's most twisted experiment and saw the Guardian of Life nearly struck down by its limitless rage.

He had died and been brought back by the Protector of Life.

"Yes. Yes I have."

"Glad to hear it!" She chirped. Jaimie looked down at him and adjusted her red-rimmed glasses. "How's that little egg you won? What did it hatch into?"

"A Sneasel." Ash smiled at the thought of his friend. "He's a bit of a handful, but he's learned to behave himself. I'm going to try and enter him into at least one of my matches. Sneasel's earned that much."

"Wish I'd won that." The teenager said wistfully. She twirled a finger through her short hair. "I could use a dark-type. Starmie and Kadabra need some practice against them. Nobody I've battled has one, not even in Johto."

Ash hummed in response, not really sure what to say. Jaimie shook herself out of her thoughts but furrowed her brow. "Hey, who's that?"

He frowned and looked to whoever she was pointing out, only to grin when it was Fergus. The older boy was headed right towards him with the same goofy grin Ash had come to associate with him in the brief time they'd known each other.

An image flashed through his mind of Fergus surrounded in a nimbus of icy blue energy, forced to bow in a mockery of fealty to Mewtwo. Another raced by, showing Fergus charging the Creature in a futile attempt to punch it – and the aftermath of the teenager suffering agony no other human could sympathize with. And then Fergus trying to protect him as the Legends clashed, putting himself in harm's way despite the pain he'd suffered.

"Fergus." He greeted weakly, pale as the memories appeared in sharp perfection. They weren't fuzzy like the others.

"Yo, Ash!" Fergus said with his normal cheerfulness. "You ready for this? I told you the Conference is awesome!"

"Yeah…I'm ready." Ash said, a note of strength entering his raspy voice.

Fergus grinned widely and clapped him on the shoulder. "That's what I'm talking about! There's no pressure at all. Just a few million people watching your battles. No biggie."

Ash glared at Fergus half-heartedly. He met the older boy's eyes and leaned closer to him so that the confused Jaimie couldn't hear what they were saying.

"Do you remember?"

Fergus glanced away. His face tightened and his hands shook a little. That was all Ash needed. Out of the small group that had braved Mewtwo's storm and watched events that could shatter the world unfold it was Fergus who had suffered the most, at least physically. He was the one who Mewtwo had crushed for his defiance.

"I remember." Fergus confirmed. He looked away for a moment. "Can we not talk about this?" He pleaded. "It's in the past. Let's just look forward."

Ash nodded and all of a sudden Fergus was back. The large teen glanced up and smiled at Jaimie. "Hey, what's your name? I'm Fergus."

"Jaimie." His former partner replied as she took his offered hand. "How do you know Ash?"

"A tournament we went to a while back. We talked for a while." Fergus said easily. "How about you?"

"The same." Jaimie laughed. "We were partners in a tournament a few months ago. He ended up beating me, though."

Fergus grinned and started to say something else, but was cut off as silence engulfed the stadium above. There had been constant background noise since the competitors had entered: The thunder of hundreds of thousands of feet stamping, the triumphant music that blared from the speakers, the words of a few groups brought in to entertain the crowds.

Now there was nothing. Everyone turned serious and faced forward as the sound of fireworks blared throughout the Indigo Stadium and raucous cheers shook the earth. Ash felt his bones shake and his stomach turn as countless people shouted and hollered for the Conference's beginning.

The Opening Ceremony was about to begin.

A speaker echoed throughout the stadium, so loud that they could hear it in their sheltered catacombs.

"And the Opening Ceremony for the Pokemon League Competition is officially underway!" A man announced, barely restrained excitement obvious in his tone. "This is where the top trainers and their pokemon come to prove their skill, their strength, and their spirit! These hopeful competitors will battle one another as they strive always for excellence and victory! Their victory will lead into the ranks of the Pokemon Masters. And here they come!"

Ash felt a little sick as the horde of trainers started moving. The Opening Ceremony was something he simultaneously dreaded and loved. It was the culmination of his friends' work. Their chance at glory. But it also subjected him to the gaze of millions.

He was confident in his abilities, but there would always be anxiety biting at him when he felt this small. All of his strength and accomplishments counted for nothing in the face of the sheer scope of this competition. Until he proved himself he'd just be another hopeful.

By the end of this Conference that would change. He would make it so, no matter what.

The announcer continued to speak as Ash stepped forward with Fergus and Jaimie and stepped into the light. He couldn't find it in him to care, though.

As magnificent as it was to see the Indigo Stadium full of screaming fans over the TV it was completely different to be subject to it in person. Everything was magnified. Ash could feel their roars, he felt like he could see every individual face, he could taste the dry, hot air and breathe in the dust that permeated the stadium.

He wondered if his mother could see him. She wasn't at the Conference yet but she would definitely be watching. It would have to be hard to find him in this sea of trainers. Almost everyone was at least six or seven years older than he was. Fergus was one of the youngest aside from the rare exceptions like Ash, Gary, Jonathan, Amelia, or one or two other young trainers. Pallet had a good showing this year.

Ash realized that he was slightly slouched, as though he were trying to hide from the attention of the masses. He scowled and straightened up and made sure to wipe any trace of apprehension from his face. He was proud to be here. It was time to act like it.

"Good." Fergus said approvingly as he waved, that same wild grin still painted on. "You've earned your place here, Ash. Be friendly. Look like you don't want to punch somebody out! Just loosen up and wave at the people. They're here for you."

He nodded slowly and hesitantly waved at the crowd. It was like reliving the Dandra Tournament but on a scale about a thousand times larger. The dread in his gut was still there but it was slowly starting to dissipate.

Ash spied out some of the others that he knew. Gary was eating the attention up. He was waving and laughing to everybody, especially those that seemed to know who he was. His rival had a confident smirk on his face that seemed a tad bit less unpleasant than when Ash had last seen him.

Jonathan and Amelia were waving halfheartedly, but on the whole looked like they were about to throw up. Ash could sympathize. Jessica looked to have fallen back from her group to help her sister, but she spent most of the time with a wild smile on her face. She looked like she was coming back to an old friend.

Corey and Neesha were hidden from him by the crowd, but he could still spot Michael and his red hair. The older trainer's eyes were determined but he had a lighthearted grin on his face as he enthusiastically yelled and waved back to the crowd.

Ash squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and looked up to the massive brazier that would hold the Flame of Moltres as the group came to a stop and met the other half of the competitors. The vessel was of a monstrous size and dwarfed almost anything Ash had seen before. It shined brightly in the harsh sunlight and almost forced him to look away.

The League anthem, its triumphant tune proud and strong, exploded from the speakers and forced the crowd into silence. Ash felt the earth tremble as thousands of people fell to their seats.

Silence suddenly prevailed as the bearer of the Flame of Moltres ran through the two groups of competitors. It was so stark that Ash felt like he could hear her panting in the vastness of the stadium.

When she finally reached the top of the seemingly endless flight of stairs the bearer turned to the crowd and raised the Flame of Moltres high in a gesture of triumph. Cheers greeted her, but Ash didn't care about that.

He took the time to examine the Flame. As he looked at it his body tingled and a comforting warmth swept through him, gentle but with the hint of immeasurable power. Ash gasped and held his chest, which heated up until it felt like an inferno would race through his blood.

It eased up but didn't disappear. Any doubts Ash had were gone. That was a true flame from Moltres, not just a symbolic torch. Moltres' power was omnipresent in that tiny example of the Legend's generosity.

The girl finally brought the torch down and touched the Flame of Moltres to the brazier, which instantly ignited in a raging inferno that only intensified the pounding heat. Ash wiped a few beads of sweat off of his brow. It was a mistake to wear his jacket today.

"And now from the League President, Charles –"

The announcer was struck just as silent as the rest of the crowd as the living flames that writhed in the brazier suddenly exploded, greatly expanding in both size and intensity. Nobody could move a muscle as they felt a presence descend upon them.

Power rang throughout the air as heat poured from the Flames and made the air twist and distort around them. Most people were confused, but Ash somehow knew what was coming. The heat within him pulsed, as though it were pleased at his knowledge.

Some people screamed as the flames shifted seamlessly into the form of a great Bird that sat in the brazier as though it were a nest of stainless steel. The flames crackled and roared as it shifted underneath the Bird's command until its great wings, easily hundreds of feet in diameter, were outstretched to encompass almost all of Indigo Stadium.

Its beak, a spear-like formation of fire that was at least thirty feet long, opened into two halves and it sang. Ash's blood seemed to boil as it let more and more of its power enter the area, but it didn't hurt. He wasn't afraid. The power was overwhelming and his lungs were almost scorched by the heat within him, but he was comforted. It was as though he were being embraced.

As the stunned silence of millions greeted the Bird, it shrank to a much more manageable size and shot from its nest. The Fire Bird did not release any more power as it circled over the stadium lest the inhabitants be seared to nothing, but it did not need to. The humans were spellbound.

The inner fire pulsed within Ash and he felt himself look up as the Avatar of Moltres circled overhead, a shadow of the Bird that could force a volcano to erupt with a single cry. Commanded by a presence infinitely greater than his own he reached up and snatched a single burning Feather that drifted down from the heavens.

He did not fear pain as he touched one of the feathers of Moltres, a piece of living fire. It would not hurt him.

Nobody seemed to notice as he grasped the Feather and pulled it down to him. The fires were similar to a Ponyta's. They were warm but did not burn him. Ash felt his hand pass through the fire, which sang as it touched the warmth within him in communion, and wrapped his fingers around the thin stem of obsidian that served as the fires' frame.

Guided by the unseen will of Moltres, Ash put the feather inside his shirt, close to his heart. It seemed to meld with him and pressed itself to his skin. He wouldn't have to worry about it falling off. The Feather was a gift, a token that would never be lost.

He felt similar fire to his own pulse one last time before the Avatar of Moltres completed its circle and landed gracefully in its brazier. The onlookers watched with awe as it dissolved into a mass of formless flames once more, although no one could forget the Fire Bird that had sprung forth.

Silence pervaded the stadium for what felt like an eternity as everyone watched the brazier. Ash felt the inner fire slowly leave him and return to whence it came, although the Feather's comforting warmth was a constant presence. He felt another remnant of Moltres somewhere else in the stadium, away from the brazier.

It pulsed in recognition and warmth flooded him.

"Remember that display, my friends. Few have seen the form of Moltres." An old, wizened voice whispered into the microphone. Ash found his attention drawn to the oddly compelling voice – or, rather, its source. "We are truly blessed this day."

He saw the short form of Charles Goodshow. The man's appearance was odd and looked out of place on such a powerful figure, but his voice and mind held all the power one would expect from the League President.

"Now, welcome, everyone, to the Indigo Conference!" Goodshow cried into the microphone, unaffected by the eyes of millions. "We have had a difficult year, full of sorrow and suffering, but we have risen above these trials! The shadow is passed and it is time to celebrate!"

Goodshow, lit from behind by the Flame of Moltres, motioned to the hundreds of trainers arrayed before him. "And what better way than to watch these strong men and women show the love and respect that has developed between them and their pokemon? This is a place for those who truly love pokemon and we are here to exult in it! The Flame of Moltres burns bright here and in our hearts!"

A wide smile made its way across the old, wizened face as he raised his hand to salute the crowd.

"Let the Indigo Conference begin!"

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