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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72. The Parting 1

Ash grinned as Lugia gently maneuvered itself back to the Shrine with its expert control. Its wings were still bound tightly at its sides, but they fluttered reflexively as the Guardian landed in the same position as it had when it first appeared to make its Song known.

The Birds followed, limited to a form similar to those he had faced when he and Lance battled Moltres atop the summit of Mt. Ember. They were no longer wild storms of their respective elements — they were bound to a physical body with the true power that roiled within them held tightly within frames of obsidian and ice and cloud.

He did his best to ignore his remaining bitterness at the Legends, well-aware that it wouldn't actually help him. It would just make him angry and tired and keep him thinking about this whole mess.

He had other things to think about now. The Awakening, namely. Lugia's warning would not go unheeded.

But that line of thought drifted from his mind. There would be plenty of time for that later.

Right now he was more focused on his team, who had stood with him against the embodiments of the elements themselves. They were all arrayed before him, proud and strong. Even Oz and Sneasel were there, and seemed to have been informed of the situation considering they hadn't collapsed in awe at seeing the Legends swoop in before them.

He felt a lingering bit of guilt at keeping the two out of the conflict, even if he had his own reasons for doing so. Oz would probably understand — she'd been under Zapdos' overwhelming power before and knew how terribly it had affected her. Sneasel, on the other hand, would probably be bitter at him for weeks if he didn't address the issue.

Ash couldn't blame the dark-type for his probable attitude in this instance, though. He hadn't seen the Birds for himself…not their true power, anyway, which Ash was certain would be enough to mimic the conditions required to force his evolution. And Ash knew he had months left before he was even remotely ready to evolve — Sneasel matured relatively quickly with their several spurts of puberty, but his own friend was still very young.

In other words, Sneasel was ignorant. And Ash was willing to keep him ignorant so long as he never had to face the wrath of a Legend as the rest had.

He'd face plenty of formidable enemies on his own, given time. But Ash would do his utmost to keep the cocky dark-type from ever having to even bare his claws against nature made manifest.

Ash shook his head and looked away from Sneasel, who was being held aloft by several of Tangrowth's gentle vines to get a better view of Lugia and the Birds.

But now his interest was in the Champion Lance, who held his massive body as high as he could given the undeniable exhaustion he suffered — the Shamouti Moltres might have recovered from its near-death but Lance's mortal body still shook from the aftereffects. His angular face was pinched and pale which only sharpened the contrast with the terrible bags that had formed underneath his sharp eyes.

Were it not for the immense bulk of Dragonite and Dov supporting him Ash had no doubt that Lance would have collapsed long ago. Slowking might have tended to the wounds he'd incurred in Articuno's Blizzard but the strain on his body was something only time itself could mend.

Your Champion wishes to speak to you, friend. His tired mind screams.

Ash nodded as Lugia extended its great, heavily muscled neck and allowed the human to hop off just by Lance and his twin Dragonite. Both monstrously powerful pokemon did their best approximation of a smile at him, aware of what he and his team had accomplished while they were unconscious.

He looked up — for the first time in a long while Ash noticed just how tall the Indigo Champion was — and met Lance's eyes, which were the only part of the mighty Drake that looked to hold any life at all.

"Ash…thank you," Lance choked out. His face was twisted into an amalgamation of emotion that the trainee couldn't even begin to interpret. "Slowking told me what you did — what you had to go through to do what I couldn't."

The trainee nodded shortly at the praise, a slight smile pulling at his lips. "You would have done the same — could have, if you weren't crippled by Moltres."

Lance cast a slight glare at the Bird that circled above them, just barely ablaze with the terrible power that expelled from within its obsidian frame. The normal reverence that the Champion held for Moltres was gone — this specific Third of the Bird of Fire had done nothing to earn his respect.

"Perhaps," the Champion allowed after a moment of contemplation. "But the fact is that I was crippled and you were the one to restore balance…you've done a great thing today, Ash. If it weren't for you I don't even want to imagine what would have happened."

The Champion leaned heavily on Dragonite's massive shoulder, sapped of all energy after his words. His eyes sagged with exhaustion and for a moment Ash feared that his mentor would actually pass out from the strain.

Lance drew in a slow breath and rose to stand above Ash once more, though. His cape drooped lifelessly around his shoulders as the world, calm and peaceful and bereft of the terrible winds that would have whipped up the mantle, seemed to pulse soothingly — some of the latent green energy that still hung in the air of the Shrine like a vibrant mist coalesced around Lance and fed him its restorative energy.

His features were a little less gaunt, his skin a little less pale. But the Indigo Champion was still far from the paragon of strength Ash had come to know him as.

"I'm proud of you and your team, Ash," Lance smiled down at him wearily. Ash felt a flutter of warmth in his chest and the world around him seemed to glow ever brighter at the Champion's praise — the Champion had complimented him before, as had plenty of others, but whenever Lance said it the compliment just mattered more. "…You'll make a fine Champion someday."

Ash's grin stretched so far that it hurt and all the remnants of pain and fear and anxiety from the earlier events were washed away finally, what little remained after he joined with Lugia's Song banished forever.

"When I do watch out," Ash jokingly warned Lance, "you'll be the first one I come after."

Lance tiredly returned his fierce smile. "I'll be waiting. Every teacher dreams of the day their student surpasses them, you know. My grandfather told me that years ago — now I finally understand."

He nodded slowly, eyes wide in wonder at the thought of ever surpassing Lance the Dragon Master, widely recognized to be one of, if not the, strongest trainer in the world. And with how dramatically the ability of trainers had risen over the past centuries with the advent of the pokeball and modern technology, all of history.

It was one thing for Lance to express confidence in Ash's ability to become a Champion. He was confident in his own ability to achieve that vaunted position one day — he'd grown stronger than most trainers ever would in the span of a year, albeit with some very talented Masters helping him achieve his strength.

But saying that he expected Ash to conquer him one day…that made Ash feel oddly warm. Hot desire for battle and domination mixed perfectly with the utter glee that resounded throughout his soul in that moment, so strong that it momentarily eclipsed the Song that he'd heard for what must have been hours now.

"I'll send you the information on your new position in a few days," Lance spoke up at last. "And don't bother submitting a report for this — I expect we'll be talking at length about this day soon enough."

Ash grimaced at that and sent the Champion a nod. He'd rather forget about this altogether but knew that was impossible. He had a responsibility now and couldn't shunt his problems to the side anymore.

"Before we part ways…thank you, Ash. Again. This is the second time you've stepped into a situation you never should have had to handle," the Champion sighed and absentmindedly brushed his long pinkish hair back. "I will do my utmost to make sure there won't be a third."

"Thanks," he muttered, "but I have bad news."

Lance frowned at him and Ash took that as his cue to continue.

"The imbalance caused by Mewtwo and today's events have far reaching consequences," he scowled. "The Legends are awakening."

The Champion's breath hitched in his chest and his face went even whiter. "No. How do you —"

It was I who warned the Chosen One.

Lugia's rich song slipped into his mind, comforting and powerful as ever.

"Is there anyway we can stop it?" Lance asked in despair. "Anyway you can stop it?"

The Guardian's luminous eyes closed in sorrow and the Song wailed in their minds.

No. I have done what I can. I have erected barriers and woven illusions around those that sleep within my domain but I am powerless in the face of their awakening. I may not fight the natural order of this world and it would be pointless for me to do so.

It falls to humanity to stop the warring forces that shall consume them. Your kind has done so before and it is my belief that you may do so yet again.

"How?!" Lance demanded and stepped forward on shaking legs. His angular eyes reflected the Fire of his Feather as he glared up at the Great Guardian.

All will become clear in time. I have interfered in this cycle too much already: it falls to humanity to preserve itself.

And even Lance knew the truth in those words. His anger soothed as the green power thrummed against him and he turned away from Lugia.

Lugia spread its wings and blotted out the sun in an endless expanse of the moon's pure white. It raised its head and regarded the mortals before it serenely.

I must bid you farewell, Chosen One. Bear the Truths revealed to you with strength and temper your spirit for the trials that await you. My Song will always carry behind you.

Ash bowed his head in respect to the Guardian, a gesture it returned. The Birds screamed to him and consumed the air in intersecting streams of Fire, Ice, and Lightning one last time before Lugia locked its wings into place with psychic power and launched itself up into the air like a great white missile. The Guardian hung there for a moment and regarded them all one last time before it shot into the depths of the sea with nary a splash and disappeared into the abyss.

The Birds followed in the sky, each angling toward their own island as they enjoyed their last flight for an eternity.

He watched them go with a gnawing emptiness. Beautiful as the sight was he couldn't forget the havoc they had wreaked in their clash.

Ash would not miss them.

"Bob should be here soon to get you home," Lance spoke up. "I figured you'd want to get home after all this. I'll handle the Orange League and Drake."

He nodded tiredly and finally felt the exhaustion creep in. Lugia had banished any of the physical effects but the enormity of his experiences this day taxed his mind heavily — he felt that if he blinked too long he'd crash into sweet oblivion.

But that didn't stop him from missing the barely hidden fury with which Lance spat the Orange Champion's name.

"Are you sure you don't need someone to keep you from challenging him?" Ash snorted. "You don't sound too happy about meeting him again."

"I'm not," Lance grunted and collapsed to the ground with a gentle groan. Ash joined him a few seconds later. "He's already caused plenty of trouble for the clan and now this — he had to have known the Birds were here. There shouldn't even be a settlement on these islands besides an Orange League fortress, locals be damned."

Ash ignored most of that. "Clan? You means he's a —"

"Wataru? Yes. He's my cousin," Lance growled. "Ran away ten years ago with his Dragonite after I became Champion. Didn't hear from him for three years and next thing we knew he'd become Champion of the Orange League and started going by the name of Drake. A bit presumptuous, if you ask me."

"You don't sound too happy for him," Ash observed and let a smile flicker across his features as his family started crowding around and laying down beside him. It seemed they were just as tired as he was.

Lance shook his head. "No, I'm proud of him. How could I not be? He might have forsaken the clan but he's still carrying on our legacy. I'm just not happy about having to clean up his mess. If he'd paid proper attention we — you, really — wouldn't have been needed. These islands should have been on lockdown."

Well that was a sentiment Ash could agree with. Hopefully Drake would listen to Lance's suggestions — he felt that the Birds wouldn't arise for many centuries, if not millennia, but he'd rather that the risk not be present at all.

If he was called upon to calm the Birds again he would be slightly annoyed.

Ash glanced over at the Champion. It looked like Lance had fallen into a brooding silence Ash felt he shouldn't bring him out of. He'd never seen the boisterous man in such a foul mood before, although he could understand it — Ash wasn't exactly feeling great, not with Lugia's warning ringing in his skull as loudly as its Song.

A flash of silver caught his eye just as surely as it caught the dazzling rays of the sun.

He couldn't help but smile as he picked up the Flute and examined it closer, although he did have to swat Sneasel's curious claws away before he could take it for himself. Ash found himself ignoring his team as he glanced over every inch of the perfectly formed instrument.

With a sigh he tore himself away from the entrancing sight and stood up, although he made sure to keep the silver length clenched tightly in his hand as he made his way over to Slowking, who had taken up a spot just a bit a ways from the gathering of pokemon.

"I think this is yours," Ash offered the Flute back to the Sentinel.

"I think it's yours," the Slowking shrugged. "Consider it a gift. A token of the Great Guardian's appreciation more tangible than the grim tidings you were given."

Ash flashed the Sentinel an earnest smile and gently placed the Flute in his pack. Without Lugia guiding his body he had absolutely no idea how to play a flute other than put his mouth on it and blow but he was willing to learn. At the very least he could pick up the basics, if only to make sure the gift didn't go entirely to waste.

Third Teleportation Squad present and ready for orders, Champion Lance!

He held in a groan as the snide voice slipped into his mind and turned to see ten Alakazam appear from nothingness. They were all centered around the form of Robert, who glanced around curiously before his eyes settled on Ash.

Robert's mustache twitched.

So you survived. It looks like you aren't so useless after all. Why, at this rate you might even —

The Alakazam fell silent when a towering mass of fire and fury teleported mere inches away from him and sneered down at the fragile psychic. Flames licked out from deep within Infernus' cannons and were it not for psychic shields that were instantly raised around all the bystanders there was no doubt that Infernus' great heat would have left more than a few of them badly burned.

There was a short staring match between the two until Bob finally broke his gaze. Infernus snorted and smirked dangerously at the Alakazam before he teleported a short ways away from the rest of those in the shrine.

When Bob next spoke to Ash his telepathic voice was shaken — it wavered and echoed, a clear sign of his disrupted focus. Telepathy required perfect composure to be as crisp and clear as a physical voice and it was clear that composure was something the Alakazam lacked at the moment.

It seems that you contributed a bit more than I expected, Storm-Tamer. Now I can feel the Truths you have touched. Very well. Under the physical duress of your brute of a Magmortar I offer an apology for my uncouth and undeserved attack on your noble person. Truly, I deserve to be consigned to the deepest depths of the Roost itself for my harsh words — I should have known better than to pluck at a delicate flower such as yourself.

With that Bob's mustache bristled again and he sent a short glance over at Infernus, who snorted and shook his head.

Now his voice regained some semblance of clarity.

Since that issue's taken care of, I may now carry out my orders. Champion Lance, what would you have the Third Teleportation Squad do?

"Take him home to Pallet, Captain Robert," Lance commanded. "Once that's taken care of return to Indigo Plateau and contact Sabrina. Tell her that she's to gather the Elite Four — oh, why am I even bothering? She's probably already carried out my orders and then some."

Of course, Champion Lance. Return your pokemon and hold still, trainee. It would be most disagreeable if I lost a part of you on the way — I might have to go to a special seminar. And that would be terrible.

Ash ignored him and returned his friends, smiling to each of them as he did so. They'd earned their rest.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" He mocked the acerbic Alakazam. "Show me what the Whole of Creation can accomplish!"

Bob's mustache twitched and Ash relished the odd looks the other Alakazam gave their Captain before Bob's spoons flashed with power and he found himself just outside Professor Oak's lab in Pallet Town.

Try not to get yourself into too much trouble, trainee. I think I've seen enough of you and your thuggish Magmortar to last a lifetime.

With those kind parting words Bob disappeared…hopefully forever.

Ash sighed and looked out over Pallet Town, which was draped in a thick blanket of snow that had just begun to melt. He froze as a bit of the cold material touched his skin and he felt the slush become an extension of himself, although it lasted only for a moment as he brushed the snow off as soon as he could.

He breathed heavily and looked at the whiteness with wide eyes. Ash was careful to avoid contact with it and rolled his slightly-short pants down as far as they would go so he wouldn't touch it again.

It seemed that his contact with the Sphere of Ice had a more lasting impact than he'd expected. With any luck it would just be temporary, like the Brands.

The boy frowned. Were the Brands temporary? If he recalled his conversation with Sabrina correctly she said the Brands would fade, but he didn't know if they'd leave him completely.

He shrugged it off. That was a question for another day. Besides, Sabrina would likely be run ragged for the foreseeable future. Definitely for as long as he'd still be in Kanto.

For a moment he wondered if his contact with the Spheres of Fire and Lightning would grant him the same strange…not ability, but being. It was not something he was doing, it was something he was altered into by the Sphere of Ice. For a time, at least.

He discarded that idea immediately, of course. For some odd reason he didn't think it to be as practical to try to test the ability with fire or electricity as it was with snow.

Still, it was an interesting idea and perhaps Oz —

"Ash!"

That was all the warning he got before he was locked into a crushing hug that drove the air from his lungs. Ash winced before he managed to glance behind him to see his mother, who was bundled up in thick winter gear. Several Rattata and an assortment of other shivering pokemon followed behind her, with a Ratticate and Amelia bringing up the rear.

"We were so worried about you!" His mother exclaimed and loosened her grip so she could look him over. "Your friends said you got taken away by some strange Alakazam! What happened?"

"League business," Ash said shortly and stepped away. "Lance wanted my assistance since I was the closest."

His mother's eyes widened and she clasped her hands over her chest but her reaction was nothing compared to Amelia's.

"Lance? You mean the Lance? Champion Lance? Lance the Dragon Master?" Amelia spouted off his titles so fast Ash could barely keep up. "What could he possibly need your help for? And how do you even know him? And —"

"Breathe," Ash ordered when her face started turning blue. Once she listened he began. "Yes. The Lance — Drake of the Wataru Clan and youngest Champion in the history of Indigo. He needed my help for…well, I'm not sure I'm at liberty to say. And I know him because —"

A small blur from the corner of his eye was all the warning he got before he was bowled over by a massive canine that melted the snow just by being around it. His eyes blurred from the shock as his head smacked into the ground but he managed a smile as a gigantic tongue licked the side of his face before a laughing voice ordered it off.

"I'm sorry, Ash," Oak apologized and patted Arcanine's side. Jonathan and Gary flanked him, with Charizard and Blastoise at their sides, respectively. "He's been a bit overzealous ever since the blizzard broke. I daresay he's been doing his best to melt all the snow in Pallet."

"It's fine," Ash grinned back and sent a nod to Gary and Jonathan. "How long have you two been awake?"

"A while now," his former rival shrugged. "Long enough to get word to Gramps and start working to keep the pokemon safe. No thanks to you for that, by the way. I hope going off with a strange Alakazam — I'm pretty sure that's something they warned us about in the trainer classes, by the way — was productive."

Ash thought back to the events of the last day — the struggle against Fire, Ice, and Lightning, the temporary apotheosis of Infernus. The warning…

"Yes. I'd say so."

"Good," Gary smirked. "You'll have to tell me about it sometime. Maybe later, when we aren't with these two losers, ya know?"

"NO!" Amelia shrieked. Everyone else present started. Ash blinked. "You are going to explain this to us right now! How on earth do you know the Champion — and on a first name basis, too? You are not leaving me hanging. Jonathan either!"

There was a moment of silence. Gary, Jonathan, and Oak watched him curiously. They hadn't heard the conversation they'd interrupted. His mother just looked at him silently.

He hesitated for just a moment.

"I'm a trainee of the Indigo Elite Four," he said matter-of-factly. Ash didn't bother to bring up his month of training with the Indigo Champion. It wasn't necessary and would bring up more questions than he felt like answering at the moment. "It was decided just before the Closing Ceremony."

Ash dimly realized that he should have brought a camera for this moment. The expression on Jonathan and Amelia's faces would bring a smile to his face for a very, very long time.

"Wh — what?" Jonathan squeaked. His eyes had grown so large that they completely dominated his wide face and Ash was almost tempted to reach out and close the boy's mouth. "You're a —"

"Elite Four trainee? Yes," Ash nodded. "I thought I'd established that."

Amelia just stared at him with an unreadable expression. "Trainee…"

"Yes," Gary rolled his eyes at the girl. "You need Blastoise to clean your ears out or something? 'Cause I can totally arrange that for ya."

"Shut up, Gary!" Amelia snapped and turned back to Ash. "When were you going to tell us? Were you even going to tell us?!"

Ash paused. He hadn't exactly thought that far ahead. "…It never came up?"

"That's the kind of thing you tell your friends, Ash!" The girl scowled. Ash blinked. He felt surprisingly small at the moment. Amelia stared at him. "We are friends, right? With how you act sometimes I can never be sure!"

He blinked again. This wasn't how he had expected this conversation to go.

"Of course you are," he quickly reassured the girl. Ash felt more than a little out of his depth at the moment — Jonathan and Amelia were a bit easier to interact with than other humans but he'd hardly had much experience with conversations like these. The very real emotion bleeding into Amelia's voice didn't help at all.

"Then act like it!" Amelia barked, surprising everyone present. Ash noted that Gary actually looked at the girl with something resembling respect, although that could just be glee at seeing her chew him out. Gary tended to be petty like that. "You always just shunt us off to go do who-knows-what! Spend some time with your friends for once — we aren't going to be together for much longer, you know!"

Ash got past his mental exhaustion and listened to every word. He felt an odd twinge in his chest and nodded once to show his understanding. "…I'm sorry. I didn't realize it meant so much to you."

"Well it does," Amelia sighed tiredly. She grabbed Jonathan's arm and started walking away. "I'll see you later, Ash. I think we all need a rest after this."

"You don't need to tell me," Ash muttered under his breath and turned away from the duo as they walked away.

"Can't say I expected that," Gary grinned and glanced over at Jonathan and Amelia's backs. "Looks like the Magikarp learned how to Flail. And it only took an entire year, too."

Professor Oak coughed. "Indeed. Now, Ash, I believe you need to inform me of what's going on. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe blizzards are common occurrences in this area during the summer months. And if you were with Lance I have no doubt that you found yourself tangled up in some sort of mess."

Ash snorted but spared a glance to his mother and Gary, both of whom were watching the two curiously. "I'm pretty sure it's classified."

"You're in the Elite Four now, Ash," Oak pointed out with a chuckle. "There are very few secrets that aren't yours to tell."

He nodded slowly, just now realizing that he didn't have to get permission from Lance to even consider speaking to other humans about his adventures. It was odd, as though a slight burden had been lifted from his shoulders.

"An Articuno was the cause," he said shortly, still not comfortable with divulging the entire truth without Lance's approval. What had happened this day had the potential to rock the world — would, if they failed to find a way to stop the Legends. But that was in the future. Right now even the revelation that Legends such as Articuno were real without a doubt would blow his mother and Gary's minds. "It was dealt with."

"You've gotta be shittin' me!" Gary declared and stepped up to Ash. His former rival steadfastly ignored the annoyed rebuke from Oak and the look of sheer surprise on his mother's face. "You're telling me that Articuno — something nobody's ever seen for sure ever — just decided to wake up and say 'screw these humans! I'ma make a big ass blizzard!' then you managed to find and stop it?"

"Something like that," Ash nodded with a smirk, although he had to hold back a snort at Gary's description. In his mind's eye he saw the terrible form of Articuno tearing its way across the sky, its great white body shrouded in a cloak of ice and wind that had nearly killed him the second Dazed's shields dropped…when Gary's invented personality was applied the Lord of Winter's terror was not lessened. The idea of Articuno as a petulant child was more horrifying, if anything. It removed the significance of the clash that held the world's fate in the balance.

His hand unconsciously flitted up to his face where his new scar was. It was faint, mostly healed by Lugia's soothing energies. Ash mentally thanked the Guardian and felt the Flute thrum in his pack.

He wasn't vain enough to worry about what effect the thick gash that had cut to the bone would have on his appearance but the sudden appearance of a fully healed scar on his face would attract more questions from his mother and friends than he'd appreciate.

Unfortunately that mindless gesture was enough for his rather perceptive mother to pick up on.

"What is this?" She demanded and began to fuss over him. "When'd this happen, Ashy? I don't recognize it."

Ash hesitated. He was pretty sure that there was no good way to answer this. From what he'd felt the scar was too thick to explain away as a slight cut that had been healed with a modified potion and if he'd had Ditto cells implanted then they wouldn't have left a scar — Ditto cells regenerated the damaged flesh so that it was as though the injury had never occurred at all.

"We can talk more later," Professor Oak cut in and saved Ash from the interrogation. "For now we should head inside and find something to eat. The pokemon are safe now and it sounds like Ash had a rather busy day."

Gary scowled at being cut off from his source of information but Ash sent a grateful nod at the Professor, who returned the gesture with a slight not. His mother just sighed and shook her head.

Ash felt a twinge of guilt at his mother's expression. He didn't enjoy lying to her but he wasn't sure he wanted to reveal the events that had happened today. His mother's strength was something he would never doubt but the clash between the Birds wasn't something to treat lightly. There were so many questions attached to it…

He would tell her one day, he resolved.

Just not today.

XX

"Are you sure you're alright?" His mother asked as Ash gingerly placed a steaming bowl of rice and vegetables in front of her. It turned out she'd been lightly injured by a frightened Pidgeotto and had some bruised ribs, although they would be fine in a few days. As such he'd taken it upon himself to help her around the house as much as he could. "You can talk to me, Ash. You know that."

"I know," Ash sighed as he took a seat opposite her and leaned down to scratch behind Nidoking's ears. His sleeping friend lightly rumbled his appreciation and twitched slightly, bringing a smile to the trainer's lips. A moment later he was serious again. "It's just hard. I don't know what I'm allowed to say and what I can't — Lance hasn't contacted me yet and —"

He quieted down before he said finally, "It was a lot easier taking orders."

His mother smiled softly at him. "I know, Ashy. I know. Responsibility's hard. But it's something you'll grow into — everyone does. You're just dealing with it a little earlier than most. That's all."

Ash nodded. He opened his mouth, closed it, and finally decided. "There's so much I want to tell you, Mom. So much I could tell you…"

She sighed. "It's alright, sweetie. I know this is hard for you — Professor Oak's face after you took him aside told me everything I needed to know. But I know you'll tell me when you're ready. You always have."

"But how am I supposed to just keep it in?" Ash put down his fork. "Things are just going to keep piling up and up and up. And what am I supposed to do with it all?"

"You'll find a way, Ashy. You always do," his mother leaned over to ruffle his hair. "And if you ever need to let it out I'll always be waiting. I'm here for you and don't you forget it!"

He cracked a smile at that. "That's not something you need to be worried about."

"Of course not!" His mother laughed — a pleasant sound that warmed his heart after the past day and the rather awkward morning. Ash had been silent on anything to do with the Birds or the time he'd spent at Shamouti no matter who prodded or asked. "You're my son, after all."

Ash nodded with a slight grin and ate as silence reigned. But it wasn't awkward like it had been before, when he was still trying to process just what had happened with Lugia and the Birds and his mother had been desperate to know what had happened to him.

He'd miss this, he reflected. This tranquility. It was something he'd found rarely out on the road. Even when he found the solitude he loved there was always an edge there, a slight paranoia that he'd grown into during his time as a trainer that kept him wary of everything in the world.

On the road there were no constants other than himself and his family. He never knew what the new day would bring.

In Pallet he was just one of many constants and there was peace in that. There were no surprises — that was something that he loved yet despised at the same time. Peaceful as Pallet was, it was boring. All there was to do was train or talk to his friends — or battle, although even Gary had ceased to be an excitement around two weeks in.

He spent a lot of time with his mother, of course. Both at home and at the restaurant when he wasn't training…although that time was admittedly scarce. Ash was determined to increase his skills before he met Steven and absolutely refused to even consider letting them atrophy.

They wouldn't get to see each other for an entire year and he wanted to make sure there was as little time to make up as possible. There certainly wouldn't be many opportunities with hundreds of miles of ocean separating them and he had no idea where Lance would send him after his year as Steven's apprentice was complete. The Indigo Champion might send him to another region to train further if he wasn't up to snuff or bring him to Indigo Plateau — Ash really didn't know.

That brought up a question.

"When will you be leaving?" Ash asked. It was something they'd both gingerly tip-toed around over the last month. But this was the beginning of the end and it was time to shunt their reservations aside.

His mother looked up, startled at the sudden break in the silence. She let out a deep breath. "Two weeks. I tried to postpone it to stay with you but Professor Elm…"

"It's fine," he reassured her when he realized she wasn't able to finish the sentence. "You have your responsibilities, I have mine."

She smiled lightly at him. "I really did try, you know. I'm going to miss my baby boy while he's in Hoenn."

"I'll miss you too," Ash said quietly. He shook the slight melancholy away. "So what'll you be learning with Professor Elm? He specializes in evolution, right?"

"Yep!" His mother exclaimed in her cheerful way. "I'll mostly just be working with his aides to try and bring myself back up to par with the rest of the students but if I'm lucky I'll get to speak with him personally! He's a very busy man, but Samuel said I could learn more about the breakthroughs in evolution in one day around Professor Elm than in a week studying a text book."

Ash nodded. He didn't exactly keep up to date with scientific breakthroughs — he was much too busy studying the pokedex and devising strategies and counterstrategies for the most common tactics — but he'd heard the name of Professor Elm semi-frequently. The Pokemon Professor of Johto actually visited Pallet every now and then and those were the days when Professor Oak had had to send Gary and Ash out to the Corral so they didn't interrupt things.

Not that they minded, he recalled with a slight smirk. Spending the day playing with the resident pokemon under Arcanine's watchful eye was about as enjoyable as anything could be to two young boys.

"And then you'll be off to Goldenrod," Ash surmised. At his mother's nod he frowned thoughtfully. "What are you going to be specializing in? I know you've got a year or two of general study, but…"

"I don't know," she admitted. Ash thought she actually looked a little troubled at that. "When I was studying with Samuel I was interested in the effects of pokemon on the environment — how their powers alter it and how that interaction creates an ecosystem — and I'd like to continue looking into that. But there's so much more out there now! There's been more advancements in the last ten years than the last hundred — nothing huge like the pokeball, but —"

Ash just smiled as his mother rambled on passionately about the subject she loved and gently scratched the sleeping Nidoking's ears.

He'd miss this.

XX

Ash stared intently at the messages he'd gotten on his Pokenav from Lance and Steven. Lance's was fairly simple and clearly rushed. He could easily tell that the Dragon Master was stressed out of his mind.

There wasn't a lot to it, mostly just information about his responsibilities as an Elite Four trainee. and what was expected of him. He'd skimmed past the section on moral responsibility and professional conduct— from what he did read he was fairly certain that as long as he didn't do anything Lance wouldn't approve of he'd be fine — but otherwise painstakingly gone through the long message.

Now he knew how to file reports, how to handle unexpected threats, and the very few limits of his authority in the Leagues. For his first year he'd need the oversight of an Elite Four member to apply most of his legal power unless it was a desperate situation, although he supposed Steven sufficed. He was slightly more limited in foreign Leagues but so long as he worked with them he could do just about anything.

Steven's message, which had come just an hour after Lance's, was more interesting and Ash paid a lot more attention to it. The message wasn't something he'd have to study like the manual Lance had sent.

But he couldn't read it yet. He still needed to update his team's training. They'd been going at it for a while now but none of them showed any signs of wanting to stop.

A small smile split his face with that. He'd expect nothing less from his friends.

Most were doing the exercises he'd had them doing since they returned to Pallet. Nothing too strenuous but enough to maintain their bodies and continue to hone their abilities. He'd had to limit the level of their spars lest he destroy too much of the forests around Pallet but since the saddle for Plume had come in he was able to go much further away and ease up on that limit.

He was only about ten miles from Pallet in the rugged lands to the east but it was far enough from civilization that he didn't have to worry about potentially harming a wanderer or destroying someone's property.

Ash glanced around and took note of what his team was doing. Most were fine to continue their current workouts but there were a few he needed to work with.

Nidoking was fine. He'd been sparring lightly with Tangrowth for the past hour and was still going strong, although he wasn't able to match the resilient grass-type's ridiculous stamina. It was good for him, though, since he didn't have to hold back against Tangrowth and his partner's Ancient Power provided an excellent way to train against an opponent with similar abilities to manipulate the earth as himself.

He winced when he saw Tangrowth playfully hurl a house-sized chunk of earth at Nidoking, who was forced to reflexively let the ground swallow him with Earth Power lest he be crushed. Tangrowth would never intentionally cause Nidoking serious harm but he had a hard time understanding that not everything could just lay out under the sun for a day or so and find themselves in perfect health.

Still, he trusted the two of them not to take it too far.

A fierce shriek drew his attention to the sky, where he saw a blur of motion followed quickly by a larger form of golden scales and massive wings. Plume had taken to sparring with Oak's old Dragonite when Torrent wasn't busy with him. The Dragonite greatly enjoyed stretching his wings and proved everyday that he could keep up with the younger pokemon with no problem, even if the long years of complacency showed when it came to their spars.

Not that Dragonite was ancient, Ash mused. He was less than forty years old, which was only around a quarter of how long the oldest Dragonite could live. With his general strength and the healthy diet Oak had him on he'd likely reach his bicentennial birthday.

Ash sighed when he saw the winds produced by their game of tag nearly tear some of the smaller trees up by the root when they descended a bit closer to the forest. He was sure that most of the wild pokemon had made sure to avoid the area while his team trained but he'd rather not annihilate their territory.

His attention was drawn next to Infernus and Arcanine, who had followed them here one day and was immediately challenged by the Magmortar. Arcanine was more than happy to accept Infernus' challenge, although Ash had to keep Dazed on them to extinguish any fires they made. Torrent helped as well when they got especially bad.

He could barely keep track of the two monstrously powerful fire-types. Infernus only rarely used teleportation against the aging Arcanine who returned the favor by only slipping into Extreme Speed to avoid potentially deadly blows. But Arcanine was still incredibly fast and Infernus did his absolute best to match the canine's speed.

It was good for Infernus, he mused. Ash was still trying to perfect the concepts of what techniques Ash could try to teach him and it let Infernus keep active and work out his frustrations of losing the divine power he'd acquired in the fight against the Birds — Infernus had returned to training with vigor Ash had never thought possible to try and find another avenue to that insane level of power.

But in this area there was no way Ash could let Infernus go all out. Even after he'd had Tangrowth raise a massive arena for Infernus to let loose in the Magmortar had burned through the thick earthen walls or just plain demolished them with his attacks. He was too powerful to train to his full potential here, just like Torrent. The Kingdra could at least hone his strongest attacks relatively safely, but Infernus' fires were just too dangerous.

So Arcanine coming after them was luckier than Ash could have ever hoped for. Even in his old age he could keep up with Infernus and had actually managed to become something of a friend to the Magmortar, even if it was only because he was the strongest fire-type in a hundred miles that would deign to fight him on a regular basis.

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