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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58. The Top 8 Part 1

"We've got a booth already." Neesha explained as she ushered the rest of the group into the bustling establishment. Unlike the rest of the group, including Jaimie, she was completely sober. She seemed resigned to their antics, however. "Corey! Hurry up!"

"Why did Fergus bring me here?" He inquired, hoping to find an actual purpose. Catching up, as Fergus had coined it, didn't seem like the whole truth. They were friends of a sort, he supposed, but they weren't close. He wasn't even sure how Fergus knew where to find him.

Neesha shrugged as their group made it into the restaurant. It was already filled with laughter and raucous shouts. "We saw you win your battle against Jessica and figured, since you've earned a place in the Top 16, you deserved a bit of a celebration. Nice job, by the way. She's never been a pushover."

"Thanks." Ash grunted tersely. "What am I supposed to do?"

She raised an eyebrow in surprise, but before she could actually respond Fergus through a burly arm around his neck and tightened it affectionately. Ash wrinkled his nose at the teenager's "aromatic" scent. Liquor and the salty meat of a Gyarados' breath weren't the most appealing of combinations.

"Loosen up!" He shouted into Ash's ear. Ash fought the urge to cringe away from him. He didn't mind Tangrowth or the rest of his family violating his bubble of personal space, but he wasn't quite that familiar with Fergus yet. "Haven't you ever done something like this before?"

"No." Ash admitted. He usually didn't remain in cities long enough to make any connections among the rest of Kanto's trainers.

"It's never too late to get started." Fergus grinned as he stumbled slightly and landed into the booth Neesha had guided them to. "Think of it as practice, if you have to."

Ash frowned at that but accepted it. He sat down last, next to Neesha. He hadn't been around inebriated people before, but he'd seen enough TV before his journey to know that he would want to avoid sitting in front of them. Fergus didn't seem too bad, so he was acceptable to be in front of.

Corey and Jaimie, on the other hand, were not. Ash watched them warily from the corner of the eye. At least he had a solid reason to never consider accepting any of Lance's flasks now.

"Ash." Corey acknowledged with a deceptively serious look in his glazed eyes. "Go – good job out there. Kicked that Jessica chick's ass, you know?"

Neesha glared at him with crossed arms, but Corey didn't seem to notice. Ash just paid rapt attention. This Corey was much different from the serious, intelligent trainer he had met in New Island. Perhaps it had been the circumstances that demanded Corey step up, but Ash would prefer that he stayed as he had been when they last met.

"Are all of you still in the Conference?"

"Nope." Fergus growled. "That other kid from Pallet, Professor Oak's grandson, kicked my ass. Do they get you training while you're still in diapers or something? All of the Pallet rookies this year are crazy strong."

Ash allowed a real grin to slash his face apart at the thought of how strong Gary must have become. Fergus was a very powerful trainer in his own right, although his reliance on water-types could be debilitating. He wasn't quite at a Master's level, which tended to be the point when the weaknesses of specialization became practically nonexistent, but he'd most likely achieve the fabled rank in five or six years if he remained dedicated.

"We have incentive to succeed." He said back, thinking of how far his rivalry with Gary had pushed him after their encounter outside of Cerulean. It was the St. Anne that had set his path to power in stone, but it was his first true loss at Gary's hands that pushed him upon it. "Many strong trainers come to speak with Professor Oak and there are even more former trainers working with him. We see their examples our entire lives and grow up surrounded by pokemon. Most of us become trainers by the time we're thirteen and every one of us wants to be the best. It gives us competition."

"Pretty deep for a kid that's barely hit puberty." Fergus snorted amusedly. "You aren't going to be one of those crazy Masters that hides out in the wilderness and ponders the existence of life, are ya?"

Ash blinked. "I wasn't planning on it."

"Good." Fergus grinned. "Be one of those sane Masters, will you? Nobody needs a crazy guy with an Elite Four-level team running around."

"How'd you –" Ash began, curious as to how Fergus knew of his ambition.

"Anyone that's trained for long enough can tell." Neesha cut in. She glanced distastefully over at Jaimie, who didn't seem to handle alcohol well, before she continued. "You can see it in their eyes. The way they carry themselves. But in your case it's pretty obvious. You've been training harder than any other rookie I've seen or heard about if your team is any indication. You have to go way past determined to become as strong as you have in a year."

"What she said." Fergus grunted. "You've got a goal. I didn't know if you wanted to be a Master specifically, but you're strong enough that you'd become one eventually no matter what. We've watched you battle, you know. You've got a lot more cards than you've shown."

"Thanks." Ash smiled slightly at the praise. His expression shifted to a frown as he suddenly remembered what he'd wanted to speak to them about in the first place. Their assessment of his abilities and goals made him feel nice, but he didn't want to lose focus. "I don't want to be rude, but could we talk about a certain mutual acquaintance?"

Corey's eyes widened and narrowed furiously and he smashed his fist against the table, loud enough to attract attention even in the loud restaurant. "That fuc—"

"Corey!" Neesha snapped. She had her hands up like she was going to cover Ash's ears, but she thought better of it. "Jaimie, do you want to go order something?"

"Sure." Ash's old teammate mumbled almost incoherently. Her eyes were droopy and she looked like she was about to collapse. Fergus, who was far less inebriated, managed to stand up and helped Jaimie out. Neesha gave the burly teenager a nod and he guided Jaimie away from their table.

"How much do you remember?" Ash inquired warily at Corey's wrathful expression. He didn't want to dig too much. All he wanted was to know if they remembered something that he couldn't. He wouldn't put it past Mewtwo to remove specific bits of information from his mind.

Of course, Mewtwo wouldn't likely be careless enough to leave scraps of knowledge in the others' heads if it had removed it from Ash's, but he had to make sure. Anything that could potentially give him more knowledge of Mewtwo…anything could help him.

"Too much!" Corey snarled as he glared at Ash. "I don't know if you have different memories then we do, kid, but we just want to forget it and move on! We nearly died. Our teams nearly died. You did die!"

Corey leaned in closer at Ash's grimace, the stench of alcohol harsh on his breath. "So drop it. I'm not interested in whatever game you're trying to play and neither are the others. It's over. That monster has been kicked back under the bed where it belongs."

Ash leaned back, eyes wide at Corey's vehemence. It wasn't something he'd encountered often and the sheer venom in his words stung. He glanced away. "Fine."

"Glad we got that out of the way." Corey grumbled as he collapsed back against his seat. He took a swig of amber liquid and stared off at a wall with tired eyes. He seemed rather old in that moment.

As Corey's harsh words echoed in his ears he unconsciously rubbed the spot on his chest where Mew had killed him. He had left the shirt that held the only evidence of his temporary death in Pallet, but he could never forget. Phantom pain seemed to rush through his chest, the fire centered in a small circle over his heart.

"We didn't just bring you out here to celebrate your victory, you know." Neesha said quietly. She didn't look at him. "It's impressive and all, but we were worried about you. It was Fergus' idea."

"Is that why Corey and Fergus have been drinking?" Ash asked, incredulous. "And I'm fine."

"No. This was a spur of the moment sort of thing." Neesha admitted with a small laugh. She grasped her own cup of suspicious liquid with a tight hand but didn't drink. "It did seem to encourage Corey, though. He's been a bit reliant on it since…you know."

Corey looked up from his drink. "I'm right here, you know."

"Quiet." Neesha said dismissively as she finally looked down to Ash. "Are you sure? You can talk to us, you know. We were there – we know what you went through. The fear, the panic, the hate. We felt it too."

"I'm fine." He repeated stiffly. "I've talked to some people already. They helped."

Neesha exhaled in relief. "Good, good. It's just…we were worried. As trainers, we've seen terrible things. It's not common, but it's there. Death, pain, sorrow. We're old enough to be used to them. But you're just a kid. You shouldn't have had to go through something like that. Nobody should have."

"Thank you." Ash said finally. He appreciated the sentiment.

"I know you said you're fine, but if you ever need help dealing with something, call us." Neesha raised a hand to stop him before he spoke as she pulled a pen from her pocket and wrote several numbers down on a napkin. "You might not be able to talk to a professional about the things you've seen, but we'll do our best to help you out. Alright?"

Ash took the offered napkin gratefully. He carefully folded it and placed it into his pocket. He wasn't sure if he would ever call them, but it was nice to actually have someone to call aside from his mother, Professor Oak, or Lance. They were wonderful and had guided him well, but there were some things even Lance wouldn't be able to understand.

Mewtwo at its full, unstoppable power was one of those things. Lance had only seen Mewtwo when it was at a fraction of its power, held back by Team Rocket. It had rules then.

"…Thank you." He repeated after a long pause. Neesha smiled at him, although Corey continued to stare blankly into his cup. "I appreciate it."

Neesha nodded and glanced over to the throngs of humans meandering around the restaurant. He followed her gaze and noted the slightly tipsy Fergus and Jaimie, guided back to their table by a waiter with a weary look on his face as he slipped through the crowd.

"Maybe it's time to get that celebration started." Neesha said with a light smile. She sighed when she glanced over at the silent Corey. "Or at least catch up to him, at any rate. You've made it further than Fergus or Jaimie, you know. That's quite the accomplishment – I made it to the Top 16 my first year and the media wouldn't leave me alone for a while. I can't imagine what they'll make you out to be."

Ash grimaced at the thought, but forced a smile back onto his face as the annoyed waiter stepped up.

"These are yours?" The beleaguered man sighed as Fergus and Jaimie giggled and slipped back into the booth. Ash leaned a little further away as Fergus' overpowering scent so reminiscent of a Gyarados' breath filled the warm air.

"Yes, thank you." Neesha said gratefully.

The man nodded and handed out several menus. "I'll be with you shortly."

Ash nodded at the man and sat forward in his seat, his slight grin maintained as the relatively sober Fergus began to speak of him. He didn't plan on making a habit of doing this, but he supposed he could enjoy it while it lasted.

XX

He slipped away from the restaurant several hours later, exhausted physically and mentally. Nothing had gotten out of hand, but when Corey had finally lightened up and entered the "celebration" it inspired the others to new heights of obnoxiousness.

Despite all of that it had been somewhat enjoyable. Ash was hesitant to say that he would go out of his way to have a repeat, but he wouldn't be averse to being dragged into another celebration. He would have found just as much enjoyment sitting with his friends or researching the rest of the competition, but at least this provided a new experience. It didn't hurt that they'd stopped heaping attention on him early in, content to use the event as an excuse to be loud.

He had discovered some interesting information, of course. Nothing that he couldn't have found on the computer provided to him by the League, but it saved him the effort of seeking it out himself.

Fergus and Jaimie had been eliminated. Gary had beaten Fergus in the Top 32, much to the burly teen's displeasure, but Jaimie had been beaten in the Top 64 by a trainer he'd never heard of. Probably a Conference veteran who competed every year in the hopes of clawing their way ahead.

Corey and Neesha were still in. Ash wasn't sure how far they would go. He'd seen them battle on television in years past, although he'd never cared to remember their names until he'd actually met them, and knew they were very powerful. He felt that he could beat them, though. From the blurry rush of memories Mewtwo had allowed him to retain his own friends had done more damage overall to their clones. Not a sure sign of victory, but a telling one nonetheless.

Walking alone amongst the night, Ash didn't feel any particular desire to return to his house. Tired as he was, Ash felt an urge to explore the darkened Indigo Plateau. Without the hordes of spectators it was peaceful.

Ash looked up at the Indigo Stadium. It loomed over the rest of the town, its ancient stands soaked in blood and glory. He loved it and everything it stood for.

He abruptly shifted directions and headed to the Indigo Stadium. Ash wanted to see it. He wanted to see Indigo Stadium as it was meant to be when it was first constructed more than two hundred years ago. It had been renovated many times, but the core, the battlefield in which hundreds of the strongest trainers Kanto had ever produced, remained a constant.

He wanted to see it in all the solemn dignity afforded to the ancient stadium by the cold night. A memory that would last him longer than the fleeting cheers of the crowd ever would.

XX

Ash was surprised to walk through the arched entrance unhindered. He had half-expected to be barred from entering on grounds of security. Instead of a small retinue of ACE trainers as he expected the Indigo Stadium appeared to be protected by there was nothing.

As the air grew slightly cold and the shadows seemed to lurch around him, he remembered that appearances could be deceiving. Ash's sharp gaze caught a pair of glowing eyes the color of fresh blood staring at him from a wall, its sinister aura accentuated by a grinning mouth filled with several rows of white, serrated teeth.

He paid the watchful Gengar little mind. If it had wanted to stop him it would have done so. Its trainer would have spoken to him. The League was paranoid about security this year, but not to the extent that they would allow a Gengar to prey on any unfortunate trespassers.

It was here to watch him and intervene if he attempted anything that would pose a threat. Ash would ensure it – and the League by proxy – that it had nothing to worry about. He was here to think.

After a moment of wandering through the Stadium's halls and climbing several flights of stairs he found himself standing high in the bleachers, next to the Flame of Moltres. The Feather released a steady pulse of heat and comfort as it found itself next to its source. The Flame roared higher in response, although Moltres did not manifest itself.

"Thank you for your aid, Moltres." Ash dipped his head to the Flame. "Your strength shielded us, if only for a while. If you require my own strength for any reason I will give it."

The Flame roared in response and climbed slightly higher in tandem with the heat from his Feather. Ash could see its glow from beneath his shirt as painless heat was channeled into the obsidian flame of the resplendent piece of Moltres.

After what felt like an eternity the Feather's light finally faded and the Flame returned to its former passive state. The great brazier swallowed the remaining fire as it was content to simply burn, casting the Indigo Stadium into shadows and dim light.

He sat down on one of the hundreds of thousands of seats and stared down at the battlefield, taking in what it felt like to watch one of the battles rather than fight it himself. The battlefield was smooth and pristine, completely unsoiled by the vicious battle that had taken place on it mere hours before.

Ash didn't know how long he sat there. His fatigue had been burned away by the Feather's influence, which still pulsed and struggled for the Flame. His eyes were no longer gummy and his mind had long since ceased to scream for sleep.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" An aged voice asked from behind him. The rasping tones were easily recognizable. "History has been made here. Champions have been crowned and many young men and women have left their mark on this arena. It's alive – if you know where to look."

A cold feeling rushed through him as the shadows seemed to grow darker and the layer between worlds grew thin. Four red eyes stared at him with mockeries of a grin before the form coalesced into two masses of shadow and toxins.

"Hello, Elite Four Agatha." Ash greeted the Revenant Crone politely. He'd heard enough about the formidable woman during his time with Lance and Bruno to feel as though he knew her quite well.

"Just Agatha, please. The title makes me feel old." She smirked as she suddenly appeared in the seat beside him in a shifting of shadows. Her cane rapped against the ground and her mismatched eyes flashed a deep red before they settled to black and pale blue. A shiver ran up Ash's spine and he felt the instinctive urge to lean away.

Ash's eyes were wide at the display. "How did you do that?"

"A Lavender Town secret." She cackled. "My forefathers once ruled it, you know. My clan has waned in recent years but we haven't forgotten all of the old arts."

"I understand." Ash replied noncommittally as he kept his eyes focused on the battlefield.

"You don't." Agatha smiled dangerously as she absentmindedly tapped her cane against the concrete. "And for your sake I hope you never do."

They sat in comfortable silence for a long while after that ominous statement. Agatha seemed to be just as content as he was in the quiet night. Whatever noise the revelers made did not make it past the soft roaring of the Flame.

"Why are you here?" He asked finally. Ash tried to keep his tone polite, but it was a difficult statement to keep civil.

"I guard this place when the obnoxious public leaves." She gestured widely to the peaceful setting of the stadium. "My brothers and sisters in the shadows watch and wait for any foolish enough to dare to disrupt its peace."

"My apologies." Ash said insincerely.

Agatha shook her head of greying blonde curls. "Do not be sorry. You have earned the right to my Stadium and it never hurts to have some worthy company. You have fought well, young man."

"Thank you."

"That reminds me. Lance would like to pass along an invitation to a gathering in Indigo Plateau in four days." Agatha said quietly. "I believe you will find many there that are eager to meet you again. You seem to have left quite an impression on Surge. I commend you for that. The insufferable man is not easy to impress."

His mouth curled up into a slight smile. "You can tell Lance I'll definitely be going. I wouldn't miss something like that."

"Good." The Revenant Crone said, satisfied. "I'm sure that Lance will be pleased. He seems to be trying to introduce you to the family sooner rather than later."

Ash raised an eyebrow. "The family?"

"The Elite Four and the gym leaders." Agatha sniffed as she sent him a sharp glance. Her black eye flared red for a moment. "We fight for the same regions and protect the same people. Blood is thicker than water, but family is more than blood. It is the bond impressed upon us by our shared duty and responsibility to those who cannot protect themselves – our love for Indigo. It is far more solid than birth."

She broke the short silence that ensued with a weary cackle. "Oh, listen to this old woman ramble on. To think I've fallen so low!"

"No, please continue." Ash waved her on. He liked listening to Agatha speak. She hadn't displayed the sharp tongue that she was famous for, but he wanted to know her. She was a legendary trainer in her own right, one of the greatest Masters to take a place in the Elite Four. It wasn't easy to hold onto the position for three decades, although Lance had hinted that she might retire soon.

"So respectful." Agatha smiled. "How boring. You're just like that old duff Oak when he was your age, you know. We traveled together many years ago."

"Thank you." He replied, waiting to see her reaction. Ash knew it was a rather backhanded compliment, at least from Agatha. From anyone else it would be praise of the highest sort.

Agatha snorted. "I never said that was a good thing, child. He was always too soft-spoken and I had hoped that trait wouldn't have passed on to his successors. Of course, he still had his fighting spirit back then. Now that old coot's a shadow of his former self."

"I can't say I would know. I've never seen him battle." Ash shrugged noncommittally. "His team is still strong, though."

"Of course they are!" Agatha barked, her heterochromic eyes alit with an inner blaze. They briefly shifted a bloody scarlet and her bared teeth seemed to mold into points. Ash repressed a shudder as the old woman stood up on her cane and glared down at him. "The old fool was once a Champion! Had he fallen so far as to become weak I would go down to Pallet and beat him silly with this crutch!"

Ash stared at her with shocked eyes as she confirmed one of his old suspicions. "Champion?"

"Of course!" Agatha repeated with a disdainful snort. "You said you saw his team. How could you have not known? It's been many years since I've seen them but I know their power firsthand. They might be out of practice but they are more than sufficient to defeat a member of the Elite Four!"

"I suspected, but –"

"Bah!" Agatha snapped as she gingerly sat down. Her features calmed and the ominous light behind her eyes dimmed. "Foolish boy. A suspicion means nothing if you do not take steps to address it!"

He was silent as he met her fierce gaze. Ash could practically feel the shadows around him grow darker as Agatha's annoyance waxed. "I have looked. There was nothing."

Agatha snorted. "You didn't look in the right places, obviously."

"Obviously." Ash agreed sourly. That made Agatha finally smile again. "It wasn't in the old files I looked at in the Pokedex or in the other computers I searched. Where else could I have looked?"

"You trained with the Champion of the Indigo League for a month, if I'm not mistaken." Agatha said bluntly. "I believe that would have been the perfect opportunity."

Ash's mouth opened and closed as he searched for a response. He finally sighed and admitted defeat.

"I suppose I can't judge you too harshly." Agatha mused as she lightly tapped her cane against the hard plastic of the seat in front of her. A sly, amused grin was on her aged face. "Oak was only the Champion for a single day, after all. It's something of a legend in the League – the shortest reign of any champion. The One-Ringed Oak."

"Why?" He inquired. "Did a previous Conference Champion challenge the Elite Four at the same time?"

"No. Nothing so interesting." Agatha said dismissively. Youthful fire blazed in her eyes as her face set in old indignation. "The old fool defeated the Champion in a three-to-six battle, took the mantle, and gave it back. He couldn't bother to wait until the ceremony was complete before he surrendered his title!"

"Bah!" The aged woman growled. "I won the next year. I couldn't claim what Oak gave up, but I did find myself in this position. I have served the League well and it has done the same for me."

Ash frowned and absentmindedly rapped his knuckles against the seat's small armrest. "Do you know why he gave it up?"

"Of course I do. We were close at the time." Agatha reminisced before her nostalgic expression twisted into an ugly scowl. "He said he was tired of battling. He wanted to study pokemon, not battle them. He was tired of power and responsibility."

"It was his last act as a true trainer." She sighed. "After that he went soft. He's stayed that way ever since, although I saw some of his old fire return after – never mind."

"What?"

"Not something you should hear." Agatha rebuked. "You've grown up quite a bit, but I doubt the old duff would appreciate me divulging something like that. I despise what the legendary Samuel Oak has become, but I will respect the man he once was."

Ash was silent at that. Agatha had already given him quite a bit of information and he'd rather not push his luck with her. He would rather stay on her good side.

"Thank you for telling me this." He said quietly.

Agatha snorted derisively. "It's something you should have already known. Oak might not care to mention his achievements to his little prodigy, but I actually place value on his old strength."

"He could have been one of our greatest Champions." Agatha said to him wistfully. "Oak was always better than me and I was hardly a slouch myself. He was a prodigy amongst prodigies. Even Blaine couldn't match his potential."

"But he threw it all away. He gave the mantle back to Champion Uther, who sat on his throne for another decade before Marcus came along and took it back." The old woman sneered. She turned her wise eyes to Ash. "You walk the path of a Champion, boy. When the time comes do not shy away from your duty. Follow Lance, not Oak. Don't become soft and weak like your mentor has."

Ash held his chin thoughtfully as he processed Agatha's embittered words of advice. The Revenant Crone offered him high praise – an expectation which he was loath to disappoint. . She was silent, content in the shadows cast by the Flame.

"What was he like back then?"

"Quiet and tough, although his spirit always shined through his façade. Very charismatic." She replied shortly. "He used to have a reputation as a real heartbreaker, although you wouldn't think it now. Even before he took the world by storm thirty years ago Oak was regarded as one of the greatest trainers alive, equal to any of the Champions."

Her face twisted up in old annoyance. "You know the rest. He threw all the power he had earned away and faded into the tired old man he is now."

Ash was silent as he digested Agatha's words. He'd thought he'd known Oak. Perhaps he did know the man he had become, but only now did he realize just how eventful the man's life was and how much he didn't know. Oak had changed from one of the greatest trainers in the world, one of those rare few with the potential to be Champion, to one of the most groundbreaking and influential scientists of all time.

The revelation of Professor Oak's legacy made anything he might achieve in the future pale in comparison. Even if he became a Champion he most likely wouldn't be able to accomplish what Oak had. Oak had changed the world and the pace of human development with his work on pokeballs, potions, and other miscellaneous products. He'd made them far more efficient than they had once been.

He and his team might reach the mountaintop but Oak would always remain in the heavens, always in sight but never attainable.

"So you finally realize your mentor's influence. Over the years he's settled his roots and grown into quite the mighty tree. His branches extend all over Indigo and beyond." Agatha chuckled. "Don't be so gloomy, child. You've already surpassed the old fool in some ways."

Ash raised an eyebrow at that.

Agatha just gave him a grim smile. "Come now, don't disappoint me. Use your head! Even the renowned Samuel Oak, legendary Pokemon Professor of the Indigo League, can't claim to have departed this earth and returned to walk again. Few can, astoundingly enough."

His blood froze. "How'd you know about that?"

The Revenant Crone's eyes glittered scarlet in the shadows. "Ghosts are not the departed souls of the dead as some superstitious fools believe, but they are very sensitive creatures. I have lived amongst these dimensional strangers for many years now and I suppose they've given me a gift of my own."

"Are you going to answer the question?" Ash frowned, unamused.

"You feel different than when we last spoke – slightly different than mundane humans that haven't gotten themselves killed." Agatha replied with a slight curve to her lips. "It's something of a psychic phenomenon, and I do believe dear Sabrina could elaborate with far more detail than this old woman. I will suffice to say that there is a great flame about you, a pale rainbow that is empty in some way that words may not properly describe."

"Mew…" He muttered as he thought back to the form Mew had greeted him with after he had awoken. A great Bird of Fire Light, the mere shadow of Ho-Oh that exuded power equal to that of Moltres. So it had marked him.

He was tired of Legendaries leaving their Brand upon him. Right now he simply wanted to escape their influence.

"Ah, yes. The battle at New Island. Lance informed me of whatever sequence of events he could scrap together from your testimony. It made for interesting reading material." Agatha smiled airily. "It didn't mention that you died, however. I had to piece that together for myself. I dismissed the aura surrounding you – the Brand, as Sabrina insists on calling it – as an oddity from being surrounded by such cataclysmic psychic powers until one of my companions spoke to me."

A wispy form of shadow and toxic gas rose up from the darkness, bloody red eyes gleaming as it sent him a gruesome smile of rows and rows of serrated fangs. It hovered beside its mistress for a few moments before it finally dived back into her shadow.

"The ghosts know more than most give them credit for." Agatha smirked. "They recognized the Brand you carry within you as that of the Sun Bird, Ho-Oh. It is fading, but my companion spoke to me of the Sacred Ash and it all came together. Your reaction simply confirmed my theory."

"Great." He groused. "Now what?"

"Now I do nothing. You simply assuaged an old woman's curiosity." The Revenant Crone chuckled. Her dichromic eyes met his. "Sabrina will have an eye on you, I'm sure. I see only wisps and shadows of the Brand. She is far more susceptible to it than I. Should you suffer any ill effects I will be notified."

That wasn't a particularly comforting thought, but Ash didn't voice that concern. He just watched Agatha carefully. He hadn't expected anyone to learn the truth of what had happened to him. It wasn't an event that he cared to remember.

"Don't turn into a sullen child." Agatha snapped after another short period of silence. "I would expect better from you after the praise you have earned from Lance and Bruno. It's somewhat annoying after our rather enlightening conversation, don't you agree?"

"My apologies for becoming introspective about my death." Ash rolled his eyes. Something about Agatha made sarcasm slip out a little easier.

"If I'd thought you would react this way I never would have brought it up, brat." She cackled. It ended with a short series of coughs, although she waved away his concerns. "Just old age catching up with me. My body has suffered more than its fair share of stress and pain throughout its time. It's simply venting its grievances at this point."

Ash nodded slowly. He wasn't sure he could imagine getting old. It was impossible to sympathize with Agatha for that particular weakness, although he was more than capable of empathizing with the pain.

They were quiet as Agatha fell into another fit of coughs. Her eyes ceased to glow red and the shadows around her loosened and fell away until she was bared to the light of Moltres' Flame. Bloody eyes and a maw of sharp fangs vanished into her shadow once more, joining the last.

"Are you going to retire soon?" He finally asked, breaking the silence. Ash was almost surprised at himself. It wasn't often that he initiated a conversation.

"I suppose I will." Agatha sighed as she held her cane in her weathered hands and stared at the length of polished wood. "I've served my time. The world is changing and it feels like I fall a little further behind every year, no matter how hard I try to keep up. It's time for the young to step forward and leave their own mark on history."

"The League will be changing soon." She muttered. "The model used since the time of the First will finally be retired in response to this new world. The structure of the Elite Four – the Champion at the head and the three strongest trainers of Indigo as their sharpest eyes and strongest hands – will be retired. We'll adopt Hoenn and Sinnoh's method. Lance will take his place as the Champion, above the rest of the Elite Four. I believe that I will leave and the trainees will fill the empty spots."

"Will and Karen?"

Agatha nodded. "Most likely. They're good children. I couldn't ask for a worthier successor than either of them. Will acts the bumbling fool, but he knows what is needed and will not hesitate when the time comes to act. Karen reminds me quite a bit of myself at that age. A bit more humble, perhaps, but very similar."

"Karen humble?" Ash rolled his eyes. He didn't have much interaction with Karen aside from a particular memory that made his face flush red for a moment, but she certainly hadn't been the epitome of humility.

"Humbler." Agatha corrected with a short bark of laughter. "I was the third-youngest member of the Elite Four in the League's history by that point. I'd wrenched my position from Elite Four Matthias, who was a legend in the last war. I doubt the history books remember him, but I certainly do. I had a right to be arrogant."

Ash nodded along with Agatha. He vaguely remembered the name of Elite Four Matthias, but no specifics. Just before he was about to speak Agatha interrupted him.

"But it's time for me to give up this mantle. My time is over. A new age is beginning." Agatha said wearily. "It's time for your generation to build its own legacy. I'll enjoy spectating the action rather than partaking in it for once."

"Hopefully there won't be too much to watch." Ash remarked. He'd heard once that the worst curse in the old days was to wish someone an interesting life. With Mewtwo banished and Lance firmly guiding the League he hoped that the world be quiet for the perceivable future.

"Wisdom oft comes from the mouth of babes." Agatha mocked affectionately. "Perhaps Lance should simply hand you the title right now."

Ash frowned. He knew Agatha was being sarcastic but he couldn't imagine how terribly that would turn out. He'd grown and become powerful in the year he'd been training, but he was well aware that he wasn't ready to become a Champion. Not yet.

Agatha glanced up at the moon, which was half-exposed. "As enjoyable as this discourse has been, I'm afraid you should return to your quarters. Little children need their sleep and you are no exception."

His frown morphed into a scowl at her condescending tone but he stood up nevertheless. "Thank you for your time, Agatha."

"It's been a pleasure." She smiled as he prepared to head down the stairs and exit the lonely Indigo Stadium. "But before you go I would like to leave you with some parting words. Think on them."

He waited with an interested glint in his eyes as he glanced back to the crone.

"Of the Champions since Oak, only Lance has equaled him." Agatha began with a scowl as she spoke of her old friend. "I daresay that he will soon surpass him once his team enters its prime. He's still young. But I believe you can leave the old duff in the dust should you work hard and stay focused. Lance believes you to be his successor and I am inclined to agree."

"Your Champion has put quite a bit of effort into you and fostered the seeds of greatness you carry within yourself. Don't let them die as that fool of an Oak did. Nurture them and do not accept yourself as anything but the best. You possess the potential, child. It's up to you to live up to it." Agatha finished. She stared at him with her eerie eyes. "Think over my words. There is no hidden meaning. There is only the truth. I trust you to accept it as such."

Ash dipped his head in respect before he began to descend down the stairs to leave the Stadium. "Thank you, Agatha. I won't forget. I'll live up to your expectations."

"It's not my expectations you should be worried about."

XX

"Ash Ketchum. I'm here for my battle." He told the cheerful woman at the desk. The room was empty aside from the two of them. It was practically filled during the first stages of the Conference but was rarely needed now that most of the competitors had returned home.

"Of course!" She exclaimed as she typed something into her computer. Moments later an image of the brackets came up on a screen above her head, which zeroed in on his own name and face before it zoomed away and fixed on another boy with a cocky smirk Ash knew far too well. Once both had been selected their information was displayed, including their stats and the time of their battle.

"It looks like you'll be battling…Gary Oak." She read and cut the screen off. "Your match starts tomorrow at three o'clock. Get there by five thirty to register your team."

Ash nodded shortly and turned to leave, his calm exterior belying the turbulence roaring within himself. "Thank you."

"Good luck!" She called out as he walked away. Ash smiled and waved before he left, glee and determination fighting for dominance over his mind.

Gary was his. They were to meet in the greatest of the five Stadiums and fight their climactic battle, the one that would leave one of the two the ultimate victor and the other the ultimate loser. This was what he had been waiting for.

Gary couldn't run away this time, a thought that brought a cheerful grin to Ash's face. He couldn't just leave the Indigo Stadium. This would it – this would be their final confrontation. He expected that their paths would split off from one another's after the Conference. Their rivalry would be pointless if they were in different regions.

He was going to crush Gary. He was going to force Gary to acknowledge him as the superior trainer. He wasn't going to be the loser his rival seemed to see him as – he was going to be the victor, stronger than Gary could ever be.

It might even be enough to release the most devastating of his friends. Ash unconsciously tapped the worn pokeball, which seemed to heat up at his contact.

Ash suddenly changed his course. He could tell Jonathan and Amelia about his next match later. It was more important to let his mother and Professor Oak know, preferably in person.

XX

"Is anyone here?" He called out as he stepped into the now-familiar confines of the Oak mansion. Ash didn't bother knocking or ringing the doorbell. He was welcome.

"Yeah. Just telling Gramps and your mom the good news!" Gary grinned at him from the second story. His arms were crossed and Umbreon was at his side, her luminous yellow spots pulsing every few seconds or so. "Don't tell me you just found out! I can't blame you, though. I always seem to be one step ahead of you. Isn't that right, Ashy-boy?"

He scowled, childish anger flooding his mind. "We'll see tomorrow."

"Yeah. We will." Gary agreed with his infuriatingly cocky smirk. "My team and I'll try not to crush you too hard, alright? I'd hate to embarrass you in front of the whole world. Maybe I'll even take it easy on you so that you can actually leave a few scratches to remember you by."

Ash frowned. "Thanks for the consideration. I'll notify the Pokemon Center tonight. They're going to need to free up some space for you once this is over and done with."

"Aren't you confident?" Gary mocked as he carelessly flicked his hair out of his eyes. "You might turn out to be a tough nut to crack but you don't hold up to me. I haven't trained so hard for so long just to lose to you, Ashy-boy! You haven't been able to catch up since we were kids."

"I think that's enough." Professor Oak commented as he stepped up behind Gary. He gave an exasperated sigh as Ash's rival started to say something else and casually smacked Gary on the back of his head. "Save it for the match, boys. There's nothing to gain squabbling like a bunch of Mankey."

Ash smiled at that and obediently held his tongue. His mother was oddly quiet as she watched the spectacle unfold.

"Ash, please come up. You haven't stopped by in a while." Oak remarked. He glanced at Gary. "Daisy said she wanted to talk to you today. You should call her soon. She'll be out of contact while she's on Mount Coronet."

Gary shrugged. "Alright, old man. I guess I'm out of here. I'll see you later."

Oak watched Gary and Umbreon swagger down the stairs with a small frown but didn't say anything. Gary flashed Ash an irritating smirk as he bumped past him and pushed his way out of the house.

Ash didn't bother keeping his scowl in check as he stared at the door as if Gary was still standing there.

He shook off his irritation and followed the carpeted stairs up to where his mother and Professor Oak were waiting. They had a lot to talk about.

XX

"Do you want anything?" His mother asked him as they settled in the same little room they talked in the first time he'd come here.

"I'm fine, thanks." He smiled as he sank into one of the thickly cushioned chairs, followed quickly by the two adults. "I probably won't be here long. I hadn't expected Gary to have already tell you about our match."

Oak smiled brightly. "Oh, yes! It's rather exciting, is it not? I'm sure the two of you are glad to finally settle your little rivalry. Hopefully you'll finally be able to move past your petty little squabbles."

"It depends on who wins." Ash shrugged. He would at least try and let things taper off when he won, although he wasn't sure if Gary would be able to accept a loss. If his rival somehow managed to pull off a win Ash would try and just forget that it ever happened. He'd need to be debilitated before the match for Gary to win – at least in his humble opinion.

"We'll just have to see, won't we?" Oak said with a slight upturn of his mouth. "I'm afraid I won't be able to support you wholeheartedly in this match, but I wish you luck nonetheless."

"Thanks." Ash grinned wryly. "Hopefully I won't need luck to get through this."

His mother finally spoke up with a bright smile. "Of course not! I'm sure you'll do wonderfully, especially with all of this extra motivation!"

Ash snorted. 'Extra motivation' was one way to put it.

"I'll be back in a minute." She continued. "I think it's about time for some lunch. Do you want anything, Professor?"

Oak shook his head as his mother swept out of the room. Ash stared at the man, his conversation with Agatha from several nights ago fresh in his mind. For a moment he looked past the lined face and weary eyes and imagined what the youthful Samuel Oak had looked like – the Champion before he had shifted into the Professor.

"Is there something on my face?" Oak raised an eyebrow at Ash's staring.

"No." He shook his head. Ash hesitated before continuing on. "I had a conversation with Agatha a few nights ago, after my battle with Jessica."

The Professor's eyes shined with interest, just a bit hesitant at the mention of his old traveling companion. "Really?"

"She said you used to be the Champion." He said bluntly. Ash would prefer not to waste time dancing around the issue. It wasn't as though he were accusing the Professor of some heinous crime. For most people the title of Champion would be an honor they would never surpass in their lifetime. Professor Oak was the sole exception as far as Ash knew.

Oak sighed and met Ash's eyes. "Yes. I suppose I was, no matter how short my reign might have been."

"Why'd you never tell me?" Ash demanded, aware of the little bit of annoyance that had crept into his voice. "It's hardly something to be ashamed about!"

"I was never ashamed of my past. I've simply chosen to leave it behind." Oak replied firmly. He barely seemed to register Ash's ire. "My time as a trainer was very successful, but I've been tired of fighting for a long time. I love my team – they are my lifelong friends that have been one of the constants in my life – but that time is over and we have long since moved on."

"Just because you've moved on doesn't mean you have to leave it completely behind." Ash challenged. "I doubt I ever would have found out if Agatha hadn't told me."

Oak smiled tiredly. "That was the point. I've tried to keep the knowledge relatively suppressed – as unknown as it could be in this day and age. I'm not listed amongst the Champions in most unofficial sources as per my request and my exceptionally short reign hardly left much of an impact. The only place I'm recognized is the Hall of Fame, as far as I know."

"Becoming Champion – even if it was only for a few seconds before I resigned – was my last act as a trainer." Oak continued. "I wanted to achieve the pinnacle of what it meant to be a fighter before I turned toward more peaceful pursuits. I've accomplished far more as a scientist and creator than I ever could have as a trainer. I'm certainly not ashamed of my past as a trainer, but it has very little relevance to me now outside of my dearest friends."

Ash stared at the man – the Professor and former Champion – for a few moments and didn't say anything. There wasn't anything to say. Perhaps he wasn't the best at reading people, but he could tell that Oak didn't want to talk about this. Oak held the power over his past and it would do no good to push.

He'd just have to be patient.

"Thanks for talking to me." Ash told the Professor as he heard his mother's footsteps. He'd rather avoid any heavy conversations with the older man while she was around.

"It wasn't any trouble, Ash." Oak replied with a frown. "But please let the past lie. Perhaps we may speak of this again in the future, but for the present I'd like to put that conversation on hold."

Ash nodded. "Of course."

"Now, if I may ask, what else did you speak of with Agatha? It has been many years since I've said more than a few terse words with her…"

XX

"It's coming full-circle, isn't it?" Ash pondered as he casually tossed Nidoking's pokeball up in the air. The aforementioned poison-type and Plume stood in front of him, the Pidgeot perched on one of the wooden benches. Hopefully the League wouldn't mind the scratches. "Us and Gary. One last battle."

Nidoking grunted in agreement and tapped Ash on the shoulder with a great dull claw. Ash smiled and awkwardly patted his friend's shoulder plate from his sitting position. It was uncomfortable but manageable.

Plume cooed and leaned over to him so that she could lightly nip the bill of his hat. He managed to stroke her glossy crest before she pulled back and sat proudly. "You didn't get to battle him back at the Corral, did you?"

The Pidgeot shook her head and snapped her beak a few times. Her eyes were fierce with thoughts of Gary's own Pidgeot, the gigantic bird that dwarfed even Plume. She had grown since then and would continue to do so for the next few months, but Ash was certain Gary's would be absolutely massive at this point. No Pidgeot was small, but Gary's was one of the biggest he'd ever seen. It was closer to the size of a Dragonite than an ordinary Pidgeot.

"I'll try and let you out for his Umbreon." Ash grinned at Nidoking, whose eyes darkened at the mention of the dark-type. He knew it would be safe for him to pit his friend against Umbreon. Nidoking held great potential for wrath but some of his impulsiveness had been tempered by his evolution and experience. It took a lethal threat to Nidoking or someone he cared about to push him into his deadly berserker rage. The mere memories of a mauling he had long worked past would not lead him to kill the Umbreon.

Nidoking bared his teeth happily at Ash and nudged him with his shoulder plate, nearly knocking him off of his bench. Ash laughed as he settled himself and began to speak to his first friend when the speaker flicked on.

He tuned out the words and stood up. He'd heard them enough for there to be a sort of echo in his head as his mind filled in the gaps.

"Looks like it's time." Ash said with a wild grin on his face. This was what he lived for. This would be a battle that wouldn't disappoint him. Gary would let him test out his skills with no fear of exposing his power to the competition. He had made it to the battle for a position in the Top 8. No one would underestimate him at this point.

"I'll see the two of you soon." He told his friends, who looked just as eager to fight Gary as he felt. Nidoking tapped him one last time before he recalled his two friends.

He began his trek to the Indigo Stadium's surface with a nervous stomach and a gleeful heart.

Ash took his hat off. He wouldn't need it.

"I'm ready, Gary. Don't disappoint me."

XX

"What an exciting match we have for you tonight, folks!" The announcer crowed over the speakers to the roar of the crowd. "The two Prodigies of Pallet, Ash Ketchum and Gary Oak, meet in the battlefield! These boys have proven themselves to be two of the strongest trainers in Indigo as rookies! I can't imagine how intense this battle will be!"

Ash kept a steady frown on his face as he took his position in the box. He tossed Nidoking's pokeball up and down in a calm manner, doing his best to keep any hint of excitement from his body. If Gary could detect it he'd try and break his focus.

"Ash Ketchum, who has defeated several Conference veterans and other prodigious newcomers, has taken the stage!" The announcer shouted. "He will release first in this battle!"

He felt the ground shake with the force of the crowd's shouts. Ash smiled uneasily and gave them a slight wave. They were cheering for him. He'd attracted some attention thanks to his successes, but it was hard to realize all the same.

Then Gary rose up out of his own tunnel, a devilish smirk on his face as he confidently strode up and gave a lazy bow to the crowd. Every gesture oozed arrogance, although he sobered a bit when he saw Ash. There was a hard glint in his eye, despite the half-wave Gary sent at him. Whatever his cocky demeanor hinted at, he was all business right now. This was an act to hide the intensity below the surface.

Ash returned it with a brisk nod as the announcer and spectators roared for the well-known trainer. Gary's attitude and love for the spotlight had served to endear him to the public in a way that Ash's preference for solitude had not.

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