Ash stared at his mother in utter, complete shock. "What?"
Delia's eyes glittered with happiness. "Isn't it wonderful?"
He stared at his mother and future stepfather, not really knowing how to approach this. Carefully, he asked, "How did this all come up?"
His mother took hold of the Professor's hand. "While you were away on your private island, I got quite lonely. Samuel saw that, and he started coming over more often. Eventually, we started dating. That was eight months ago. Last night, he proposed to me! Aren't you excited to be getting a new father, Ash?"
Doing what he was best at these days, Ash feigned excitement. "Yeah, I am! This is great!" Truth be told, the idea of the Professor and his mom getting married kind of creeped him out. Sure, he thought of Professor Oak as a father figure, but the idea of him actually being Ash's father seemed strange. Especially since Delia Ketchum was about twenty years younger than the Professor. Yeah, everyone said that true love had no boundaries, but nobody ever said it couldn't be weird.
Forcing his voice to stay steady, Ash asked, "So when's the wedding?"
This time, Professor Oak answered. "Sometime next spring. Your mother and I haven't quite decided yet."
Ash shifted his weight. "Well, I'm happy for you both. Mom, Professor Oak, you have my blessing." He almost choked on the words.
His approval made Delia even happier, which in turn made Ash feel a bit better. Nothing meant more to him at that time than his mother's happiness. He'd do anything to make sure she was happy. Even if he hated the idea of Professor Oak being his stepfather, his mom had done enough for Ash to deserve his blessing.
Professor Oak smiled kindly at Ash. "Please, Ash, call me Samuel. We're family now. There's no longer a need for you to address me so formally."
Ash swallowed. "Sure... Samuel." Saying Professor Oak's first name felt even stranger than the thought of his mother marrying the guy.
As if that wasn't enough, Delia just had to plant a kiss on Samuel's cheek right then and there, nearly making Ash gag. "Let's go get some punch, Samuel. This is Ash's big day, after all. Not our's."
The Professor smiled. "Of course." Squeezing his fiance's hand tight, he led her toward the punch bowl. Shaking his head in disbelief, Ash stumbled back toward the living room, not really feeling like any of this was actually happening.
Ash trudged along the beaten path, sweat making his shirt stick to his skin like glue. He had spent an hour that morning arguing with his chauffeur about whether or not he needed to take the limo to the opening ceremony for the Tournament of Legends. Ash had finally ended the argument by saying that if his chauffeur didn't let him walk, then he would fire him. Ash didn't usually drop the fire card, but he had been thoroughly irritated with the man's implication that celebrity Ash was too delicate to walk.
Ash yanked at his tight-fitting black tee, greatly regretting ever having picked that to wear for the day. There was barely any room for him to breathe in the shirt, and it didn't help that the shirt was the exact color everyone said you weren't supposed to wear when it was hot out. He hated to admit it, but it seemed to Ash that celebrity life had made him forget some of the most logical parts about traveling.
The buildings of the Indigo Plateau were just beginning to stick up from the trees. Ash felt immense relief as he saw them, knowing that they'd have the air conditioning going full blast inside. The last time he'd been here had been when him and Brock had gone to watch the annual Indigo Plateau Conference the previous year. He remembered having spent nearly the entire time searching for Misty's face among the crowd, having heard from an Elite Four member that she would be there with her then-boyfriend, Jace. Ash hadn't been planning on going until he heard that. He wanted to meet this Jace guy for himself, see if he was good enough for Misty. Maybe take him out back and have a nice chat with him that included a minor threat against his life should he ever hurt her. But, as it turned out, Misty and Jace hadn't been there. It didn't end up mattering in the end, however, as news of Misty and Jace's break up broke headlines a few weeks later.
Ash, who was busy silently fuming over the fact that Misty's first kiss hadn't been with him, failed to register that he was about to walk straight into a river. By the time he came back to the real world, it was too late. His feet slipped on the muddy bank, and down he went.
"Fuck!" He cursed, splashing around in the surprisingly shallow water. "God fucking dammit!"
He eventually recovered himself, only to find that his Pokemon League Expo hat had floated downstream. Cursing, he splashed toward it, trying desperately to keep his balance on the slippery stones.
As his fingers closed around the hard brim of his cap, something else took a liking to it and bit down as well. Yanking on it, Ash tried to free it from the strong grip of whatever had it. He eventually succeeded in retrieving it, although it earned him another fall into the river.
Cursing at the large amount of bad luck he seemed to be experiencing, Ash stared rather dejectedly at the bite marks in his hat. The hat he'd sent in about a million post cards to get. Why did it have to be the hat? Why not something he didn't need, like his underwear?
"Hey, Ashy-boy! I thought being the World's Greatest Pokemon Master'd get you a better seat for your ass than the bottom of a river!"
Ash jerked his head around. There, on a shining new purple bike, sat his lifelong rival, Gary Oak. The brown-haired man had a broad grin on his face that, like usual, promised no good. He was wearing a blue denim jacket over a white tee and black jeans. His black eyes glittered arrogantly.
Ash stood up, fixing his hat back over his wet hair. He greeted his former neighbor coldly. "Gary."
Laughing, Gary responded, "Do you need a towel, Ash? You look a bit wet."
Ash gritted his teeth. "What are you doing here?"
"Oh, you know, I was just passing through on a little morning stroll when I came across you. I've been good, by the way. Thanks for asking. I've been busy with my research. Made a lot of money off of a vaccine I came up with just a few months ago. Bought a villa in Undella Town. Oh, and a Ferrari, too. Chicks dig those. It's all I can do to keep 'em away from me these days." The arrogance radiating off of him was almost enough to make Ash fall over. "So, Ash, what about you? I don't suppose you spend every day sitting in a river?"
"No, I don't." Ash replied, his already nearly non-existent patience with Gary quickly burning away. "In fact, I'm on my way to enter the Tournament of Legends. I suppose with all of that utterly important research you've been busy with you haven't had the time to get noticed enough for an invite." Just to further his point, Ash pulled his invitation out of his pocket, which was now soaking wet.
Gary's grin got even bigger. He pulled a piece of paper out of his own pocket and waved it around. "It just so happens that I did get an invitation. And it also just so happens that I'm going to get there before you!" Shoving his invite back into his jacket pocket, he pedaled away. "Smell ya later, loser!"
Steaming, Ash scrambled out of the river and started running after his rival. "Loser! Huh! I'll show him who's the loser when I win this competition! Then he'll really see how wrong he's been all these years!"
Despite being quite fast, Ash was no match for a bike. By the time he reached the Indigo Plateau, Gary had already arrived, parked his bike in the rack, and gone inside. Trying not to let the feelings of getting beat get to him, Ash got in one of the lines to go inside.
The line was slow, so Ash spent his time taking in the sights of the place that had once housed his biggest dream. The days during which he had tried so desperately to make it into the Indigo League Conference seemed like a lifetime away now. He'd competed in so many competitions since then, some of them a hell of a lot bigger than others. Who'd have thought that he'd end up coming back here to start chasing yet another wild dream?
When he finally got up to the front of the line, he was met by a very professional-looking lady in a businesswoman's suit. As soon as she saw him, her eyes got huge.
Here we go.
"Are you Ash Ketchum?" The woman asked.
Ash gestured toward the cluster of fans behind him. "Isn't it obvious?"
The woman turned her face away from him for a moment. Hiding her amazement, he figured. Would there ever be an end to all of this?
When the woman looked back at him again, her professional look had returned. "Well, Mr. Ketchum, as much as I would like to just give you a free pass through, I'm going to need to see your I.D. and invitation."
"Don't worry," he assured her, tossing his Trainer I.D. and invitation on the counter. "I hate free passes."
Not seeming to notice the spite in his voice, the woman took his I.D. and invitation and scanned them both. Ash caught sight of her name tag as she turned a little. Wendy. Somehow, he felt like he would need to remember that.
As soon as his I.D. and invitation came back as authentic, Wendy passed them back to him. "Thank you," he said, putting the items back in his pocket. Wendy blushed a little as he walked away.
As much as Ash would have liked to have changed out of his wet clothes, he knew he would need to wait until he had somewhere to dry them. The thought of having to spend the day in wet clothes really pissed Ash off. He was sure he looked that way, too, since he kept getting concerned glances from everyone he passed by.
It was a miracle in its own that Ash hadn't yet been swarmed by fans. He figured word had gotten around that he wanted his privacy. For once, it seemed, the public wanted to respect that. He just hoped the media would be the same way, whenever they chose to show up.
After a bit of wandering, Ash found the exit to the stadium where the opening ceremony was being held. Hundreds of Trainers were already gathered, eagerly awaiting the ceremony to start. The people who weren't invited to participate in the Tournament were gathering in the stands. Ash kept his face low, hoping no one would notice him.
He searched the crowd, looking for someone he knew. His eyes were just about finished making a full 360 when a flash of red hair caught his eye. Ash immediately jerked his gaze toward it. Could it be?
No. It couldn't be... could it? Could she actually be here, now? Was his luck actually about to turn around?
Ash started toward where he'd seen the hair flash by, forgetting to apologize as he bumped into another man. When he got to the source of the flash, he looked all around for her. Disappointment struck his heart when he saw nothing.
At the sound of a female's voice, Ash turned hopefully around. His heart sank when he saw not a redhead standing before him, but a brown-haired woman instead. It took him a few moments to realize that this woman was Serena, an old traveling partner of his from back in his Kalos days. He blinked a few times, surprised to see her there.
Serena looked at him curiously. "Ash, are you okay? Aren't you going to say hi?"
Ash shook himself. "Yeah, sorry. Hi. I was just surprised to see you here, that's all." The minute he said that, he regretted it.
Hurt flashed in Serena's eyes. "You don't think I deserve to be here?"
Ash shook his head quickly. "No, no. I think you deserve to be here. It's just- I mean, I-" He fumbled for the right words.
Thankfully, the arrival of yet another old traveling companion saved him the trouble. Iris, his hotheaded, temperamental companion from the Unova region, stormed toward him. "Ash!" She cried, wrapping him in a hug he was surprised to receive from the fiery woman. "It's so great to see you again!"
Ash was so surprised by the hug that it took him until she pulled away to respond. "Hi, Iris. How have you been? It's been a while."
"It sure has!" she said, her voice oddly perky. "I've been good. I went through all of the regions, just like you suggested. I caught a bunch of new Pokemon, too! Wanna see?"
Still trying to figure out why exactly Iris was in such an uncharacteristically good mood, Ash nodded. "Uh... sure."
"Great!" Iris ripped her pack off of her shoulders and grabbed an armful of Poke Balls. "See? These aren't even all of them!"
"That's... great, Iris." Ash said, hoping she'd hear the awkwardness in his voice and explain the motive behind her madness. But, unfortunately, she did nothing of the sort. Instead, she threw all of her Poke Balls back in her pack and started rambling on about things Ash didn't pay any attention to.
After a while, he finally remembered that Serena was still standing there. Feeling like a jackass for ignoring her, he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away from Iris's chatter. "Are you alright?" he asked, genuine concern for his friend in his voice.
She nodded but didn't say anything, which instantly told Ash that she definitely was not all right.
"Serena." he pressed. "If it's about what I said back there, that's not what I meant. I just meant that I was surprised to see you at that moment in time and everything."
"No, it's not that."
"Then what? Please, tell me. I'm your friend. You can trust me."
"I know that, it's just..."
"Ash! Where'd you go!" Iris's call sounded nearby. Cursing, Ash dragged Serena deeper into the crowd, hoping Iris wouldn't find them.
He stared straight into her blue eyes, an extremely serious expression on his face. "Tell me. Tell me, and I'll help you. Just like the old days."
She lowered her gaze. "I..."
At that moment, someone's voice blared over the loudspeakers, and everyone fell silent. Ash turned away from Serena, directing his attention to the big screen. On it was a pudgy old man in a fancy tuxedo addressing the crowd with a mic. Mr. Goodshow.
"Welcome, welcome, to the first annual Tournament of Legends! My name is Mr. Goodshow, and I'm here to tell you everything you need to know to compete in what is now the sole most important thing in your lives!"
Ash had a feeling he could argue that statement.
"The Tournament of Legends will begin with a preliminary match. We have an even number of 5,000 competitors, which means we will be having 2,500 preliminary battles! These battles will be taking place over the course of two days. Each of the five stadiums here at the Plateau will be in use. The winner of each match will be guaranteed a spot in the next segment, while the loser will be out of the competition. Each match will be one-on-one and battling pairs will be selected at random. After all of the preliminary matches are finished, we will begin the true competition. The day after the day after tomorrow the 2,500 remaining competitors will gather in this very stadium at dawn. Everyone will orient themselves so that they are facing the exit of the stadium. At the sound of the gunshot, everyone will begin what I like to call The Quest to Be the Best. What is The Quest to Be the Best, you ask?
"The Quest to Be the Best is what will determine who the strongest Trainers among this group are. Each competitor will be required to travel through the Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, Sinnoh, Unova, and Kalos regions, as well as the Orange Archipelago and the Decolore Islands. Throughout each region, twelve Battle Centers will be located in hidden locations. It is up to each competitor to locate these twelve Battle Centers and battle the Trainers there. In order to reach the end of a Battle Center, you must defeat at least three of the six Trainers there. Once you do that, you will be given access to the final room. There, you will battle that Center's Battle King or Queen. To clear a Battle Center and receive a Victory Stamp, you must defeat that Center's King or Queen in a six-on-six battle. To clear a region, you must get ten out of twelve Victory Stamps. To gain access to the next region's Battle Centers, you must battle and defeat the Region King or Queen in a six-on-six battle at that region's Regional Outpost. Upon defeating the Region King or Queen, you will receive a Region Clear Stamp and clearance to move on to the next region. You must clear the regions in the order of Kanto, the Orange Archipelago, Johto, Hoenn, Sinnoh, Unova, the Decolore Islands, and then finally Kalos. The Orange Archipelago and the Decolore Islands only have six Battle Centers, and you must clear four of them. Each time you move to a new region, the Battle Centers get harder and harder. By the time you reach Kalos, only the strongest will make it. And don't think you can just blow through these. You will need to train harder than ever before to defeat these Battle Centers. Those who do not listen to what I am telling you now will regret it later. Train, train, and then train some more. It can only help you. But do not dawdle at the same time. In order to be entered into the final segment of this Tournament, you must be one of the first sixteen competitors to make it to the Hall of Legends in the Kalos region.
"Upon reaching the Hall of Legends, if you are one of the first sixteen and can show proof of your region clearances, you will be allowed entry. There, you will be permitted one week to train before entering the final leg of your journey, the Battles of Legends. During this final segment, each competitor will battle against another one of the sixteen, effectively eliminating eight of the competitors. The remaining eight will battle until only four remain, then those four will battle until only two remain. Those two will fight, and the victor of that battle will then face one final fight. This final fight will be against the strongest Trainer currently known to be alive. And no, it isn't Ash Ketchum. If you win against that Trainer, you will be awarded one million dollars and the title of Legendary Trainer. You will then take the place of the final Trainer for the next year's competition. Are you ready for the fight of your lives?"
That question caused the crowd to erupt into a chorus of screaming and foot-stomping. Ash joined in, figuring that he might as well. The whole thought of this Tournament had him so excited that he forgot to be modest.
As soon as the crowd had quieted down, Mr. Goodshow spoke again. "We will now show you the first round of pairings, who will battle at 8:00 A.M. tomorrow. Please keep watch for your picture."
Ash focused hard on the screen as five pairs appeared on the screen. He searched for his face, didn't find it, and then searched for his friends' faces. He didn't find any of them, either. Not sure whether he should be relieved or disappointed, he waited for the screen to turn back to Mr. Goodshow.
"I hope you all are excited about what is to come. I wish all of you the best of luck in the coming days, and may the odds be ever in your favor."
The screen turned off, and everyone started moving toward the exits. Ash started searching for Serena, eager to find out just what the hell was bothering her so much. Even though they barely talked anymore, he was still her friend. And friends helped each other when they needed it most.
He eventually spotted her walking with a tall, black-haired man. Curious, Ash got close enough to hear their conversation but not so close that they noticed him.
"I just don't know how to tell him." Serena said. "How can I? He won't understand. He never has when it comes to that stuff."
Ash blinked. Was she talking about him?
"I know it's hard, Serena, but you have to tell him. Remember what I said about being brave? That's especially true now that you know what kind of challenge you'll be facing. Ash is your friend. You've told your other friends. You can't just not tell him."
"I don't want to make our relationship even more awkward."
"Sometimes you have to risk things like that. Ash has always been there for you. He was there when you were struggling as a Trainer. He was there when your mom died in that car accident. He'll be here for you now."
"Yeah, but I've never confided in him like this! I don't want him to think I'm weak."
"He won't think you're weak, he'll think you're brave for telling him something so personal."
"I don't know if I can, Edward."
"How do you know?"
"Because I know you."
"You don't know me as well as I know myself."
"Are you sure about that?"
"I don't know what I can be sure of anymore."
Ash stopped walking, letting Serena and Edward walk on ahead. Now he really wanted to know what was bothering Serena so much. She had said that it was super personal, which only piqued Ash's interest more. And who was this Edward guy? Was he her boyfriend? Just a friend? A relative, maybe? So many questions were spinning through Ash's head that he didn't even notice her until her hand connected with his face.
"Ow!" Ash cried, grabbing at his stinging cheek. Anger shot through him. "What the hell was that for? What did I ever do to you?" He looked in the direction of his attacker, expecting a large, burly man or a gangster of some sort. That was not even close to what he saw.
He saw her.
Her, in all of her fiery redheaded glory. Her, standing above him with a mixture of irritation and joy on her face. Her, eyes blazing with determination. Her, looking beautiful as always.
"Misty." He greeted her for the first time in years. His voice trembled as he steadied himself before her. "Hi."
"Don't 'hi' me, Ash Ketchum! What the hell is wrong with you!? You didn't visit. You didn't call. You didn't even write! And there I was thinking we were friends!"
"We are friends!"
She snarled at him. "Friends keep in touch with each other, Ash. I don't know if you got the memo, but they don't just leave each other in the dust like that!"
Quite startled by both her sudden appearance and her anger toward him, Ash stuttered, "I-I, I was going to call, b-but I..."
"You what? Let me guess. You were too busy battling and loving up some girls to bother with me, right?"
The implication that he was a womanizer brought Ash back to his senses. "I'm not a lady's man! I'll have you know that I've never even had a girlfriend!"
"So you're a one-night man, then? How pathetic!"
He buried his face in his hands for a count of three. "That's not what I meant, Misty. Not at all. What I meant was that I've never had a girlfriend because there's never been a girl that I've really wanted to ask out." Except you. And maybe May.
She put her hands on her hips and shook her head. "Do you understand how hurt I felt? Ten years, Ash. It's been ten years since we saw each other last."
"I know. I'm sorry, Misty. I really am. But I've kept up with you. I know about your victory in the Gym Test, and everything."
"That's not important! What's important is that my best friend never bothered to call me or write to me or anything!" She was screaming now.
Ash was beginning to run out of things to say. "Once again, I'm sorry. I get that I probably should have called or something, but I just didn't have time, and other things got in the way..." He paused to look down at his shoes momentarily. He looked back up at her. His voice was quiet as he said, "But I haven't forgotten about you. Out of everyone I've ever known, I've remembered you the most. You're still my best friend, Misty."
She studied him, not knowing whether or not he was sucking up to her or telling the truth. Was it possible that he actually did miss her? Or was he just saying that to avoid another slap?
Ash met her gaze, pleading with her to forgive him.
At last, she sighed. "Fine, Ash. I forgive you. But I won't the next time."
His eyes lit up. "Really?" He sprang forward and hugged her tightly. "Thank you, thank you, thank you! I'll be better, I promise!"
When he pulled away from her, the smallest hint of a blush had appeared on her face. As was typical for a dense man as himself, Ash failed to notice this and instead skipped away, happy that she had forgiven him.
Recovering from her small blush fit, Misty called after him. "Ash, wait!"
He stopped and turned. "What?"
"Dinner tonight at Nickel's? I thought we could catch up a little. You know, since we haven't talked in ten years and all." There was a hint of annoyance in her voice.
He nodded. "Sure! See you at six, then?"
She smiled. "Yeah. Stay safe, Mr. Pokemon Master."
He didn't hear her, for he was already gone.
As soon as he had left Indigo Plateau, Ash was out in the forest training. He pushed his Piplup to its limits, knowing that it had to be strong before his preliminary battle took place. It had already been bred to pedigree perfection per Ash's request. Now it was his job to utilize that perfection.
He was busy working on improving his Piplup's Bubble Beam when a loud explosion sliced through the air. Both Trainer and Pokemon stopped, jerking their heads toward the source of the noise. A cloud of smoke was pillowing up into the sky. Exchanging a quick glance with Piplup, both Ash and his Pokemon started toward the explosion.
When they arrived, the area was empty except for a giant smoking crater in the middle of the field. Ash started looking around frantically, calling for someone to show themselves.
At last, something did appear. Ash's attention was caught by an Ampharos as it padded out of the forest, focusing its clear eyes on the Pokemon Master. Piplup stepped forward, bravely squawking a challenge. The Ampharos thought nothing of it, continuing to stare at Ash out of curiosity.
Then, the glowing started. Ash had to shield his eyes as the Ampharos began to glow a brilliant white. When the light faded, Ash lowered his arm to see a girl standing in place of the yellow Pokemon.
The girl looked to be about eighteen or nineteen, with long blonde hair and brilliant blue eyes. Her skin was tan, although not flawless. She was wearing a blue tank top and white shorts.
All in all, the girl was cute.
Ash found himself staring, something that only ended when his Piplup pecked him in the leg. Jumping a little, he introduced himself. "Ash Ketchum."
The girl nodded. "Yeah, I know you." She had a country accent. "You're that fella who took the World's Greatest Pokemon Master title from Paul, right?"
He nodded. "Yeah, that's me. Who are you?"
"Daisy Thackman." She answered confidently. "Pokemon Trainer and Aura Master."
The mention of an Aura Master made Ash freeze. Alarm bells started ringing in his head. This girl had to be lying. He was the only Aura Master left in existence.
"Are you okay, mister? Ya look pretty pale all of a sudden."
Ash shook himself. "Yeah, yeah. So you... What's an Aura Master?" He decided to play dumb for the time being. He wasn't about to admit to this girl that he was an Aura User as well. He wasn't even sure if he could trust her yet.
She nodded vigorously. "Sure am. I can do a lotta stuff with my aura. Why, I can turn into different Pokemon, make aura shields to defend myself, and shoot aura spheres at stuff! Cool, ain't it?"
Ash nodded. "Yeah, it sure is. Sounds useful. I wish I had that kind of power."
"Yeah, it's rare. Granddaddy always used to say only a few people're left with this kinda power on the whole planet. Amazin' that I'm one of 'em, ain't it?"
"Mm-hmm." He agreed. "So you can turn into Pokemon? That's cool. So you were that Ampharos, then?"
"Yep. It took a lot of work, but I finally got the hang of it. Now I can disguise myself pretty darn easy. Real useful out in the wilderness when I'm trackin' a Pokemon."
"Are you participating in the Tournament of Legends?"
"Naw, that kinda thing isn't my style. I like layin' low. You participatin'?"
"Yeah, I am. Say, do you think you could give me some advice on the whole aura thing? My brother is an Aura User, and I'd like to pass the advice on to him."
"I can always pass it on in person."
"He lives in Kalos." Ash said, thinking quickly. "I'll pass it to him over the phone. Don't worry, no one will hear us."
"I don't care about that! Just tryin' to make it easier for you."
"Well, I can take care of it. Mind sharing with me?"
She checked the watch on her wrist. "Well, shucks, I'd love to, but I gotta go. Dinner'll be in a few minutes. How 'bout we meet tomorrow?"
He thought about it. There was still a chance this girl could be lying, even though she seemed innocent enough. Still, she might not be. She might actually give him advice he needed to actually make progress in his Aura training like he'd always wanted to do. He could always bring someone along with him.
"How about we meet at the park at 8:00 tomorrow morning?"
She smiled. "Sounds good! See ya around, Mr. Ketchum!" She waved at him, turned into a Liepard with a flash, and was gone.
Ash stared after the spot where she had disappeared. This had turned out to be one hell of a day, that was for sure. And he knew it could only get better from here.