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Thread: Love in the Time of Tropics (Amourshipping, PG-13)

  1. #26
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    Chapter continued from last post.

    Ash reached for the flyer and, realizing there were no others on the board, looked in towards it. It seemed to be a battle tournament held over in another town somewhere on Akala featuring the "unique style to Alola" supposedly. Whatever it was, the bright colors and words proclaiming "BATTLE TOURNAMENT" somewhere on the island got him just as excited as the trials and his bet against Hau did. He knew he'd have to check it out sometime, probably after defeating Olivia (he wasn't going to lose that bet, after all).

    "Ah!" Serena's voice called, dragging Ash away from the flyer and over to another one which was far more informative. "Here we are, there's going to be a Leilani Ceremony held right here in Heahea City!"

    "That's great!" Ash said, hugging her a little tighter to himself. However, he also noticed her face falling a bit with a sigh.

    "It's not for almost two weeks, though," Serena pointed out. Ash leaned in to see the marking on the flyer showing that, just as Serena said, the date there indicated it would be another two weeks before the Ceremony would be held at the Tide Song Hotel, clearly the gleaming building in the distance. His stomach churned again with hunger. "Ah, well, that gives us some time to travel for your trials and make it back on time, yeah?"

    "I guess so," Ash admitted, feeling just a little guilty. He really did want to watch and support Serena in her Ceremony, but the second she mentioned it wasn't to happen for another two weeks, he became relieved; he really wanted to get a start on his Akala trials.

    "Don't worry about it, Ash," she said, still hooked to his arm as they tore themselves away from the bulletin board in order to approach the café and take a seat. A waitress from behind the open-air counter immediately bustled up to take their order. "Truth be told, I'm grateful for the time to practice. I know that me and Braixen can learn that new move, and I want time for Popplio to fit in with the rest of the team."

    "Sounds good to me," Ash said with a laugh before turning to the waitress and ordering a sandwich. Serena did the same. The girl took the orders down but lingered a moment, as if staring at them. She opened her mouth, but then shut it and bustled off. "To be honest, I really wanted to get started on the Akala trials right away."

    "Of course, you have a bet to win now," Serena said. She took a moment and then winked at him. "I'm going to help you win that bet no matter what."

    "You just want another date, don't you?" Serena giggled at that one, confirming his own thoughts. He had to laugh at it while Pikachu stared between the two of them, yawning in his boredom while they waited for their food.

    Ash sat back, taking the moment to relax and enjoy the date. It felt like it had been a while for them to just do things together; eating, walking the town, and meeting new people as a couple had seemed to become sudden luxuries. The waitress returned with their sandwiches, the raven-haired trainer setting into his right away. As he ate, he looked over at Serena, who was staring off wistfully. He figured she was probably thinking of how to practice for her next Ceremony…a thought which inevitably led back to Keoni, of all things. His fingers dug uncomfortably into his sandwich while Pikachu ate a smaller one. He didn't like that boy, making him feel inadequate just because he wasn't wearing fancy clothes or was from somewhere like Kanto and Pallet Town. It reminded him of Trip, just a little, but to a much further extent.

    "Ash, are you okay?" Serena asked and Ash realized he was squeezing his sandwich a little too hard. He looked up to his girlfriend's clear blue eyes, staring at him in concern. Ash was glad to see them, but a small nugget in the back of his brain made him wonder if she'd ever look at Keoni that way. It made him suddenly feel like a very poor boyfriend and trainer.

    "Just…uh, thinking," Ash told her. She didn't look sold on it, so he sighed and decided to approach the topic as vaguely as possible. "Serena, you're not…um, we're gonna stay together, right?"

    "Of course. What brought this on?" she asked. Ash shook his head; he didn't want to admit the small kernel of fear that was in him. Serena, however, seemed to pick up on it, for she reached across and took his hand. "Ash, we promised, remember? I'll always stand by you, even when I become Kalos Queen and you become a Pokémon Master."

    Why do you want to be a Pokémon Master? Ash swallowed and nodded. He really hated his thoughts bubbling up like this. He still squeezed Serena's hand as thanks for the encouragement, which she accepted before returning to her sandwich. Feeling marginally better about his uncharacteristic thoughts, Ash finished consuming the rest of his sandwich before looking over to the ice cream stand. He wasn't alone in the thought as Pikachu was staring over at it longingly as well.

    "I'll go get us some ice cream!" Ash announced, standing. Serena nodded from her chair as he did so. Once Pikachu had jumped back on his shoulder, he skirted around the table, aiming for the surprisingly long line at the ice cream stand. Taking his place at the end of it, Ash waited on the balls of his feet, occasionally glancing across at Serena who was now chatting with the waitress from earlier. "Wonder what's taking so long…?"

    "Pi…ka…" Pikachu said, his own tone questioning. Ash frowned a bit and looked around the long line. From where he stood, it seemed like there was someone at the front of the line holding it all up as they deliberated over a decision. His eyes squinted, trying to see just who was holding the line up when he noticed what seemed to be a very familiar mane of blonde hair and black hair decorations. Like he was on autopilot, Ash walked forward, around the edge of the line.

    "Sorry, excuse me," he said, carefully avoiding any disgruntled gazes that surrounded him. Finally, he reached the front of the line and his suspicions were confirmed. "Cynthia! Alola!"

    "Alo…Ash!" Said boy grinned as the woman, now easily identifiable as the Sinnoh League Champion, turned to look at him. Her hand seemed to fall on a large menu and the man behind the counter bustled around, coming back with a vanilla ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles on it. "Ah, well, I suppose I'll go with this. Thank you much."

    "Anytime, ma'am," the vendor said, wiping some sweat from his brow before calling for the next customer. Cynthia stepped away and Ash noticed she was dressed in the same clothes she had been during her stay in Unova.

    "I had no idea you'd even be in the Alola region," Ash said. Mostly, he wasn't aware that Champions had the time off to do things like vacation, especially since even in Unova she had been there for the Junior Cup. "Catching up on vacation time?"

    "Hardly, actually," Cynthia admitted, her eyes rolling a little. She licked at her ice cream a little before answering Ash's question. "I'm here on business to Poni Island."

    "Poni?" Ash asked, thinking he'd have to ask Serena to look it up later, though she was still lost in conversation with the waitress. Cynthia nodded, deciding to just eat her ice cream as quickly as she could.

    "It's the smallest of Alola's islands, but the League is sponsoring a battle facility there," Cynthia admitted. "I'm meant to meet with the representative of the Battle Tree here in Heahea, but I got a little hungry waiting, I'll admit."

    "The Battle Tree…" Ash noted, looking to Pikachu, as if asking him to help him remember everything. That was when a thought hit him. "Oh, I heard Alola is going to be having a League."

    "You'd be correct. We Champions signed the order a few weeks ago," she told him. The Champion began to walk off, and Ash made quick to follow after, though only to the sidewalk that ran back to the hotel. When they did, Cynthia turned back to Ash, a soft smile on her lips, gazing at both he and Pikachu. "No doubt you're looking to participate."

    "Sure am," Ash said, pumping his fist in conjunction with Pikachu. Cynthia raised a hand and giggled a little. "But...uh…without Gyms…"

    "Oh, we've done a workaround for that," she said, waving her hand a bit. As she did so, she checked the thin watch on her wrist and seemed to realize what time it was. "You'll have to ask Professor Kukui about that, though. He's been the pioneer behind it…at least until the official announcement is made soon."

    "Kukui?" Ash questioned, though Cynthia offered no response. He did have to wonder why the professor had never said anything to him, but let it slide, considering the professor had been of so much help over the last couple weeks. Cynthia turned back towards the hotel.

    "I wouldn't worry, Ash," she said, her head looking towards him a moment. "Your trials going well?"

    "How did you…?" Ash began to ask before realizing he already knew the answer. Kukui. It brought him back for just a second to that flash in the battle against him before the first trial. How he felt suddenly impossible to surpass, and frightening. There was no doubt that if Kukui was in contact with the League regarding a conference, he was apparently keeping the Champions apprised of his own progress. It made him feel just a little put upon in expectations. "They're going great. Right, buddy?"

    "Pi," Pikachu agreed. Cynthia continued to smile, checking her watch once more.

    "That's good to know," she said. "I'll look forward to seeing you in the conference here, then, assuming I'm still around for that time. Pay a visit when you come by Poni Island."

    "Sure thing," Ash told her. She took that as an invitation to depart, walking towards the Tide Song Hotel at a clipped pace. Ash watched her, suddenly realizing all the questions about her presence that he hadn't asked. It simply felt so random. But so did meeting Looker…Ash shook his head, spinning on his feet to face Serena once more. "Oh, well, unimportant. Right, Pikachu?"

    "Pika!" Pikachu cheered, and the duo returned to Serena. The waitress noticed them approaching and decided to bow, leaving with what appeared to be payment for the meal. Serena stood, looking up at them.

    "No ice cream?" she asked, slinging her bag back on her shoulders.

    "Long line," Ash said. "That and I ran into someone. When you said this place was full of tourists, you weren't kidding. Though, I guess we could be considered tourists, too, huh?"

    "I guess…if still popular tourists here. That waitress was very enamored with the both of us, but she was nice," Serena told him, hooking her arm with his again. "So, where do we want to go now?"

    "I don't know…we've got a few hours, so let's just tour the city," Ash suggested. Serena appeared to like that suggestion, squeezing his arm as the two strolled through the city.

    Now that he was fed, Ash was able to notice a lot more regarding the city. It wasn't the same as the ones he was used to; no skyscrapers, no bustling cars. For being such a huge tourist attraction, the streets may have been bustling, but it was all remarkably relaxed. Vendors were around the town selling their wares while some people were dressed in beach day clothes, especially those leaving from the Tide Song Hotel. Which, incidentally, Serena had chosen to explore. Thankfully, they were allowed to do so, even being allowed out to the pool area in an enclosure which also seemed to contain the stage for the Leilani Ceremony. Ash noticed it looked even more similar to a Contest stage than before, no doubt due to the Kantonian influence.

    "We're going to have to work real hard to win this next Ceremony," Serena whispered as she stood before the stage. Ash nodded, understanding that, in some way, Serena was feeling the same kind of apprehension he was feeling from time to time.

    "You'll do it," he assured her. It was obviously something she appreciated, because she squeezed his hand as the two made to leave the hotel. Ash was certain he saw Cynthia in the hotel lobby once more, but was unable to catch sight of who she was meeting with before he was out the door and back on the streets if Heahea City.

    Following their excursion at the hotel, the couple decided to go more along the boardwalk and see what shops were in that direction, especially with their close proximity to the Pokémon Center. As they proceeded that way, this time able to stop for ice cream since the line had dwindled, more and more people were filling the streets. Ash wasn't sure if it was because time was stretching on towards dinner or if it was just the beach factor, but he started to find it a struggle just to hold on to Serena.

    "Sorry," he apologized after bumping into one girl on the way to the boardwalk. Said girl was obviously on her way back from the beach, a large fishing pole slung over her shoulder. Otherwise, she was wearing large blue pants and goggles over her eyes. She lifted said goggles up to look at him, saying nothing. Ash grinned at her before he felt Serena tugging on his hand.

    "No problem," the girl said, her head tilted in curiosity. As he left, he could have sworn he heard the girl mention something about "swimmer boys" but before he could double check his hearing, the girl was back to walking towards the exit from the city, whistling as she went. Finally, the couple (and Pikachu) broke out of the crush of the crowd to find some relief.

    "Maybe the beach was a bad idea, huh? Seems pretty popular," Serena noted, resting against a railing on the boardwalk. Ash leaned against it with her, nodding his head. Breathing in, the sound of the waves reached his ears, soothing him. He turned to try and look at the beach they were at, stopping to stare at Serena and her smile in the beginning-to-set sun. She really was beautiful at this time of day. Ash leaned forward, hoping to kiss her until he caught sight of someone standing on the beach.

    "Is that Lillie?" Ash asked. The moment having broken, Serena turned to look and both were finally able to discern the sight of Lillie on the beach, bare feet dipped into the water and Nebby clenched in her arms. Serena made the first move, climbing up the railing to jump on to the beach. Ash averted his eyes as her skirt flared outward, though he quickly followed suit. They landed on the sand and walked towards the girl, who seemed almost oblivious to anything going on around her.

    "Lillie?" Serena asked. The girl jumped a little, turning and revealing the sleeping Nebby in her arms. "Everything okay? Where's Hau?"

    "Oh…he left," Lillie said, tucking one of her braids back as best as she could. "And Mallow was at the malasada shop when I left her."

    "Then what brings you here?" Ash asked her. Lillie just lifted Nebby up, giving the boy his answer. He was clearly a little troublemaker, running off at any point in time. At the very least, Lillie had managed to catch up with him…though as Ash looked, he noticed that her shoes were missing. However, she didn't seem too concerned with it, turning back to look out over the ocean, tinged in orange and yellow. Ash and Serena came to stand on either side of her. Turning his head, Ash noticed how tensed Lillie looked, so he reached over and put a hand on her head, given that she was slightly shorter than him. She appeared to blink in surprise. "You can talk to us, you know."

    "I know," Lillie uttered softly. "I just…I like watching the ocean. It helps me calm down. That's why I liked Professor Kukui's so much."

    "It's certainly a beautiful sight," Serena agreed. As she said this, his girlfriend lowered her hands to take Lillie's arm and lock it in hers. "I'm sure there are many more beautiful sights we'll share…but that means a lot of walking to get to those places. Which means shoes."

    "Shoes?" Lillie asked, looking down and realizing that she had lost hers, likely in pursuit of Nebby. "Oh no, I lost my shoes! Oh…where did I leave them?"

    "Lillie, it's all right," Serena assured her. Lillie shook her head fearfully, her whole body shaking with the action. It was a surprise Nebby didn't wake up from it.

    "No, no, you don't understand!" Lillie cried out, and she sounded genuinely upset. "I can't lose my shoes…I just can't!"

    "Lillie!" Serena snapped suddenly. It wasn't harsh, but stern in a loving way as she reached up to grab the blonde's shoulders. "They're just shoes. All we have to do is buy some new ones."

    "Which means shopping…doesn't it?" Ash groaned. Serena smiled at it and he had to force himself to rein in a sigh. Lillie appeared to still be absolutely frightened by the fact that she lost her shoes, but at the mention of shopping, her eyes lit up. Ash was really starting to wonder if this was a girl thing, but not wanting to interrupt their date time, he followed after his girlfriend willingly.

    Serena simply escorted them from the beach and to a clothing shop that just happened to be near the waterfront. Thankfully, the place wasn't too busy with people at this time, allowing Ash to find a place to sit. This was going to take a while…

    He wasn't too far off, either. While the girls were only shopping for shoes, Lillie appeared quite enamored with all of the different garments that were available, including a rather modest line designed by the mogul of fashion herself, Miss Akela. Serena appeared to take a shine towards it for the girl, as well. It was here that Ash seemed to figure out why Lillie had been so averse to losing her shoes.

    "I think they'd look really cute on you," Serena said, holding up the clothes to Lillie's figure in the full-length mirror. Lillie reached out for the clothes with a shaking hand, taking the white shirt, hood attached, along with the matching skirt. Serena stepped away to let the girl look at herself.

    "Th-they are very nice," the blonde admitted. "But I couldn't!"

    "There's nothing wrong with just buying them. You don't have to wear them," Ash pointed out to her. Lillie jumped at the thought. She still had the frightened expression, yet Ash could see something else behind those eyes; something free, a light of hope.

    "But we do need to find you shoes," Serena said. "You can't go traveling without a good pair of shoes. Your feet will hurt otherwise."

    "I-I know, it's just…my mother…"

    "Your mother?" Lillie didn't seem sure how to answer Serena's query. After a moment of receiving the pair's stares, she sighed a little, placing Nebby back in her bag the best she could before handing the clothes to Serena.

    "Well, she made me these clothes, and I can't really imagine wearing anything different," Lillie said. There was a tinge of sadness to her voice, causing Ash and Serena to look at each other. With that single glance, they both decided to back off of the issue. Clearly the subject of her mother was upsetting; Ash had to wonder if she'd lost her. After all, he'd yet to share his own loss with the blonde.

    "Well, there's still no harm in buying it," Serena said, affixing a smile back to her face. "I'll get it for you as a gift. Why don't you pick out a nice pair of walking shoes and we'll head to the register to ring it up?"

    "O-okay," she said, nodding this time. Whatever was holding her back looked to have diminished, allowing the girl to look at the racks of shoes with enthusiasm. Unlike when Serena shopped for fun (not that he minded…though he'd never admit it aloud) Lillie took far less time to pick out a nice pair of sensible, white traveling shoes which she took to the counter. Ash just sat back and waited for the girls to return from the counter, Serena's gift for Lillie in a paper bag and the new shoes around said girl's feet.

    "How do they feel?" Serena asked as the trio was on their way back to the Pokémon Center (well, Pikachu was currently in Ash's arms, having fallen asleep during the process…he almost envied him).

    "They feel nice!" Lillie admitted, a little grin on her face. "Thank you very much! I feel like I can walk a million miles!"

    "They'll be put to good use, for sure," Ash pointed out. Lillie just pumped both of her arms, like she was ensuring that she could take it. The positive attitude floated to all of them as they finally approached the Pokémon Center. Through the window, Ash could see Clemont, Bonnie, and an obviously returned Mallow gathered around a table. Clemont happened to catch sight of them through the glass and he waved at them as they entered inside.

    "Oh, good…I thought I'd lost you, Lillie," Mallow said with relief, placing a hand to her chest. "Some captain I would have been if that was the case…"

    "No, sorry, it's my fault," Lillie insisted, taking a seat upon one of the open chairs. "Besides, I had to see Hau off…though I'm sure he's going to get lost sooner than later."

    "Yeah, he seemed like that kind of guy," Mallow laughed out. The laugh passed around the table, prompting Ash and Serena to take their seats on either side of Lillie. Mallow soon joined them. "But! Great news: my friend and fellow captain, Lana is returning to Brooklet Hill to open the trial site again. She's stopping at a few fishing holes along the way, but since I have to work a little longer when we get to the ranch, I figured I'd suggest it to you. Now, how about some food?"

    "Sounds good to me!" Ash answered to both, just as Nurse Joy approached with a platter of food for them to eat. Mallow quickly began talking up a storm when Serena asked her about their stop on the way to Brooklet Hill (now the obvious destination). From talks of Tauros and Miltank, Rotom interrupting to fill in its data, to some of her own duties, while avoiding any mention of her trial, everyone at the table quickly got invested. Even Pikachu and Dedenne put their food down for a minute to listen.

    Perhaps the most fulfilling thing that dinner, though, wasn't knowing where his next trial was, or where Hau was going, or Mallow's talk of all the Pokémon (no matter how much they interested him); no, it was something else. It was the smile on Lillie's face, brimming with the joy that Serena had given her. And for the first time since he had started dating Serena, since he had fallen in love with her, had he truly realized what a wonderful Queen and mother she would someday be.


    Author's Note: Yay for more exposition chapters! Really, that's what this was. Between introducing Mallow, Olivia and bringing Looker and Cynthia into the story I had to cover a lot in this chapter. Now, will all of these characters be semi-important? Of course! Will they be important right now? Except for Mallow, no. As this is designed as a trilogy, I have a little more leeway with how I use my characters. Nonetheless, they're set up for now.

    However, the much bigger issue at hand is Lillie, particularly in regards to Ash and Serena. If you haven't noticed (and it's okay if you haven't), she's a bit like a daughter to Ash and Serena by this point, despite being close in age. Will there be any "let's be parents" discussions between the couple? No. But this is an aspect of their relationship maturing, alongside something else for the future (which I also planted the seed for this chapter). I hope that makes sense. Just assume it's part and parcel of the "we'll be together forever" deal.

    Encouragement keeps me writing strong on this trilogy, so help me stay the course. Of course, you know you can do that by giving a Review and Dare to Be Silly.

  2. #27
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    Yay for belated birthday presents! On another note, no, guys, Anabel will not appear in the story. Would muddle up the plot for ultimately pointless drama and make little sense given the Anabel we know from the anime. But enough of that, Chapter 16 time!


    Chapter 16

    An Egg

    Jessie was in a bad mood. Not that she wasn't always, but it was showing particularly well today, James thought.

    "Ugh, let's just steal the twerp's Pikachu and be done with it!" she had snapped at one point, their entire group floating along carelessly in their balloon. James would have placed his sandwich down, but knew what could happen to it if he did, so he finished eating it.

    "Yeah, dat's worked so well for us in da past…" Meowth said sardonically, cutting his own sandwich into bite seized pieces before swallowing. Wobbuffet nodded his head, portioning out more sandwiches to Inkay, Gourgeist and Crabrawler, the latter easily gorging himself on two at a time. James patted the boisterous crab on its head before looking to Jessie, who looked ready to tear Meowth's whiskers out.

    "Are you challenging my authority, Meowth? !" she screeched. James would have covered his ears, but he was used to Jessie throwing her daily fits of rage. Any time she wasn't allowed to supposedly display her beauty on the stage was a time wasted. Well, if they weren't going after Pikachu. Granted, there was a major dearth of that since they'd entered Alola. Truth be told, they'd barely gone after the twerps at all, something that the whole group took initiative to change once they hit Akala.

    "I'm not challengin' your authority, Jess, but I ain't lookin' forward to gettin' blasted off again cuz of your poor plannin'," Meowth shot back. James' two companions quickly got in each other's faces, causing the blue haired man to heave a sigh. Neither appeared to notice that he did so, and he stood and stretched as a result. Inkay floated up near him, cuddling against his face, while Crabrawler clambered up the basket, clicking his claws.

    James heaved yet another sigh as Jessie and Meowth seemed to dive right at each other this time, Wobbuffet being a very poor mediator in the center of their little mess, clattering their lunch table to the floor of the balloon. With the both of them occupied, James turned his attention to the road below. They were currently hovering in place over a patch of trees, obscured from view (something James had learned from the science twerp during their battle against DARC all those months ago).

    "Braixen, use Fire Spin one more time!" the twerpette's voice called from a clearing in the forest below. Well, less a forest and turning more jungle-esque in James' opinion. Her voice calling out didn't seem to stop Jessie and Meowth from fighting, but it did make James take out his binoculars. As he adjusted them, patting Crabrawler absentmindedly, his mind slowly fluttered back to their whirlwind of an adventure through Alola, specifically the island they were now busy stalk…er, pursuing the twerps on.

    It hadn't been easy, blasted off by that Skull girl and being forced to scramble and make it back to Iki City in order to spy on the twerps and learn their next location, all just so they could take the ferry from Hau'oli City. Then there was the lunchbox man, Looker. He was a wrench they certainly didn't expect in their plans, something which Jessie made a comment on when they watched him interact with the twerps. Well…less comment and more complaint.

    "Not the lunchbox guy again!" she moaned out as James and Meowth pulled her back out of sight so she wouldn't be seen. "With him around, we can't just go capture Pikachu and expose ourselves and Team Rocket."

    "Yeah, cuz we were makin' so much progress," Meowth commented sardonically. That seemed to set off the spark of argument between the two that hadn't stopped since. Even arriving in Heahea City and learning about the Ceremony that would take place there hadn't dulled their fighting instinct.

    Probably because Jessie couldn't earn a Lei on Melemele Island…James reasoned to himself. Since then, they had kept a surprisingly low profile as they tracked the twerps from Heahea City to here, looking for the perfect place to strike. After all, they had no word on where Team Skull could be, and even if Looker had mentioned ARC, they had lost the man somewhere in Heahea. And as for Pikachu…

    "Oh, go cough up a furball!"

    "Yeah? Maybe you should remove da pimple from your face!"

    "How dare you insult my face!" James sighed again as Wobbuffet quickly got caught in the crossfire. Those two simply hadn't stopped fighting, allowing them no time to plan in the last few days between eating, sleeping and watching, for the simple fact that they couldn't seem to agree on anything. It made James worry if the boss was to call.

    "Craba?" Crabrawler asked of his sigh.

    "It's nothing, Crabrawler," James told him, finally affixing his binoculars on the twerpette below. Looking across at the opponent she and her Braixen were facing, he kept remarking on her as "unfamiliar twerpette", one that they seemed to have picked up in the city. The balloon rocked a bit as James looked between the two females, the twerpette's Braixen sending a Fire Spin out. For some reason, he took a small point of pride, remembering how he'd helped her understand Braixen's feelings in Kalos. The feeling happened to double as the Fire Spin flashed with a different color, converging on a single point of the unfamiliar twerpette's new Pokémon, one James had identified as a Tsareena.

    Said Tsareena was impacted and the mini twerpette cheered. James shifted his gaze to the unfamiliar one, particularly honing in on the strange bracelet around her wrist. Pulling out his data recorder and thumbing through it, he pulled up an image of the one he'd seen around the twerp's own wrist.

    "Tsareena, let's show them what Bloom Doom can do," the unfamiliar twerpette cried. "Maybe if Serena gets a better look at it, it'll help her learn that new move."

    "This should be good. Let's watch, Dartrix, it might be important for later," the twerp said. James focused his binoculars once again as the new girl crossed her arms in front of herself, her Z-Ring glowing brightly, before she clasped her palms together like praying; Tsareena imitated her. The twerp's Dartrix was watching with self-proclaimed awe as the twerpette raised her clasped hands to the sky and then split them open, like a flower in bloom. Funnily enough, that was exactly what happened: a field of flowers encircled the Tsareena and the twerpette's Braixen before a great, golden bloom sprouted from the ground, enveloping Braixen before exploding. The resulting blast rocked the balloon slightly, though not as much as the grappling Jessie and Meowth.

    "Z-Moves, hmm…?" James said, stroking his chin thoughtfully. They had certainly stumbled upon a bevy of information regarding Alola; one they'd have to report to Giovanni sooner than later. Scrolling through, he saw all the, surprisingly easy to come by, information they'd gotten on Z-Moves. How the user required a Z-Ring and a Z-Crystal corresponding to type. How they did different dance movements to channel the power between them. Beyond that, information was scant, as not everyone had a Z-Ring; only those who had cleared a Grand Trial. The balloon rocked again as James heard the twerpette saying what a help it was for controlling a move, this time nearly pitching over. "Will the two of you stop it before we crash and the twerps notice us?"

    "What are da twoips up to?" Meowth asked as he pulled at Jessie's mouth. The woman had him held over the tilting edge of the balloon.

    "Training like always with those Z-Moves of theirs…though I haven't seen the twerp use one yet," James mused thoughtfully. It was followed up with a shudder; he really didn't want the twerp to use one on them. "Otherwise they're on the move, as usual."

    "Will they never stop? We need our chance to nab Pikachu!"

    "And our other mission, Jess, but I guess you're too dumb to realize dat," Meowth snickered out. That resumed their fighting.

    "Are we really going through our obligatory once-a-region split moment?" James asked. Jessie stopped her attempt to throttle Meowth, and the blue-haired man figured that he'd finally gotten through to her. Well, he thought that way for a second. It was quickly disproven when she threw Meowth aside, into Wobbuffet's arms.

    "James, what's that Pokémon? !" she demanded, reaching over to grab him by the collar and dragging him. James choked a moment before looking down into the forest below where a Pokémon, which looked quite like a pink-striped stuffed bear was tilting its head, looking at them curiously. Freeing himself from Jessie, James took out his electronic database, looking through it.

    "A Stufful."

    "It's so adorable! Why, it's mere presence would make me look more beautiful in a Ceremony!" Jessie said, herself sparkling as she spoke. Meowth spoke under his breath, no doubt saying something snarky about Jessie's looks. Thankfully, their magenta-haired "leader" ignored it. "I've decided. I'm going to capture it!"

    "But what about the twerps…?" James questioned, especially once he saw the Stufful turn and begin running off into the woods, like it was leading them on a merry chase. Jessie didn't answer, instead snatching his binoculars to look around.

    "We're not going to bother with them while they're training, and it looks like there's some sort of farming town up ahead," Jessie snapped at him, tossing the binoculars back. "We'll snatch the twerp's Pikachu and a couple bonuses while they stop there. You know the twerps can't resist helping people out. Now, let's go! Stufful, come back, mommy's here!"

    "She's gone absolutely bonkers…" Meowth said, rubbing his neck. James had to agree as he did the same. Either way, he still navigated the balloon to change direction and head straight for the Stufful that was now the apple of Jessie's eye. This was going to be a very long mission.


    "Welcome to Paniola Town! Home of the Paniola Ranch!" Mallow's voice echoed across the quiet and dusty town before them, her arms outstretched proudly. "The ranch here on Akala makes milk and various other farmable goods for consumption all over Alola! It's hard work, like I mentioned, but fulfilling."

    "It looks really cool," Ash commented, glancing around. Like just about every other place in Alola, the people caught sight of them and waved cheerfully. He was pretty sure he'd never seen such a cheerful region before. He was also sure that, to his surprise, Clemont had never been in such an area before.

    "Ah! The Aerator Max 3000! I've only ever seen one in a catalog before!" he said, running over to a machine that was hooked up to some Tauros. Mallow stepped over, as if to unveil it.

    As she did so, Ash watched the perky green-haired girl. It had seemed almost like random chance that they had met her in Heahea (well, not entirely random), but having her along the last couple days as they had departed from the city had been quite the boon. Not only for getting to know the girl and her Tsareena, which Rotom gushed over only to get stomped onto the ground, but also for seeing her Grass type Z-Move in action. Not that he'd been able to master even Breakneck Blitz, no matter how much he tried with both Pikachu and Pikipek.

    Serena, on the other hand, had made much more progress with the captain as her tutor. Braixen seemed incredibly close to being able to turn Fire Spin into something more. It made Ash partially wonder how much more he and his team could grow with an appropriate teacher.

    "Ah, what a cutie!" Bonnie suddenly exclaimed, running over to what looked like a little pony, eating some grass near a house's front porch. The woman sweeping the porch looked at the young girl and Rotom as they approached it. Bonnie instantly began petting the pony's fur and it stiffened.

    "Bonnie, you may want to-" Lillie's warning came just a little too late. Bonnie's hand accidentally got stuck against part of the pony's fur, and it kicked out, sending her sprawling to the ground. Rotom laughed. Lillie just flinched and held her bag a little tighter. No doubt she was hoping Nebby wouldn't try and escape with them in a new town.

    "Bonnie just brushed a Mudbray the wrong way," Rotom said haughtily. "Rotom's data indicated you should brush it differently."

    "You knew that, didn't you?" Bonnie snapped, diving for the Pokédex. Ash and Serena chuckled nervously as Pikachu got to the ground and walked up to the Mudbray, greeting it. Mudbray appeared to neigh a bit before returning to its food.

    "Bonnie and Rotom are certainly at odds quite often, aren't they?" Lillie said. Now that Ash thought about it, the two were almost constantly arguing with each other. Especially in the mornings, when Rotom would sometimes decide to head into the girls' tent and pull on Dedenne's tail to make him shock the poor girl awake.

    "They're just good friends," Ash noted, shoving his hands inside his pockets. A door slammed from the house they were near, an older boy walking out with a crate of empty milk jugs, but Ash continued on. "Remember what we told you on the ferry? Good battles can mean good friends. We grow closer to each other and our Pokémon through everything we try."

    "That sounds about right," said a deep voice, one that Ash realized was from the boy who had exited earlier. "Whether through Pokémon battles, or Leilani Ceremonies or even just working alongside our Pokémon in day to day activities, we grow together. That is what it means to be a citizen of Alola."

    "Kiawe!" Mallow's voice called, bring her and Clemont's attentions to the boy before them. Now that he wasn't in Ash's periphery, he could take in more features of the boy. Kiawe was shirtless, his dark skin standing out more prominently as a result. What stood out even further, then, were his deep red shorts offset with colors of burgundy. In some sense, Ash felt he looked like fire incarnate, and from the way Mallow had said his name, he sort of understood why: Kiawe was the captain she had mentioned earlier. "What are you doing here? I thought you were busy on Royal Avenue for the whole week!"

    "I was," Kiawe said, placing the crate down carefully, its glass jugs clinking a little. "However, I was banned from further tournaments."

    "You blew them all away, didn't you?" Mallow asked, hands tucked behind her back as she winked at him. Kiawe looked away, turning his nose into the air with a slight blush. "That's just like you…Oh, sorry, this is Kiawe, everyone, captain of the Wela Volcano trial."

    "And an officiator of the Wela Ceremony," Kiawe corrected her, a fierce expression on his face. Mallow backed up, looking apologetic. It appeared that Kiawe was equal parts proud and shy. Serena lit up next to Ash, clapping her hands.

    "So there are Ceremonies by Wela Volcano?" she asked excitedly.

    "That's right," Mallow said cheerfully. She flounced up the steps to her friend and put a hand on his shoulder, grinning down at them. From Ash's gaze, the two appeared to be quite familiar with one another, judging by how Kiawe so easily accepted her on his shoulder. "In fact-"

    "Ah ah, allow me to explain," Kiawe said, once more letting his obvious sense of pride show. Mallow's eyes narrowed and her lip twisted as Kiawe stepped forward, his hands on his hips. "As the captain of the Wela Volcano trial I have many duties as a strong trainer of Akala, which also means serving as a judge on the Leilani Ceremony."

    "Wow, that's pretty impressive," Bonnie said, taking a break from pulling at Rotom. Kiawe, despite the sense of pride emanating from his body, didn't change his facial expression.

    "It's a duty I take with great reverence."

    "Of course it is," Mallow stated with a roll of her eyes before slapping the boy on the chest. He glared at her slightly. "Sorry, Kiawe is probably a little off the wall sometimes, but he means well. His grandpa was the old Kahuna of the island before Miss Olivia was chosen six years ago, and he was the first three of us captains to defeat her in battle."

    "It was quite difficult. Her Lycanroc nearly destroyed my team," Kiawe admitted. "I've not had so fierce a boiling battle since."

    "You're so modest." Ash could tell the two friends were interacting with sarcasm between them, especially from the way they were playfully glaring at one another. Lillie, however, appeared thoughtful, her fingers near her lips.

    "So…if you're all the captains, how come you aren't running your trials?" she finally asked after the tensionless moment of glaring. Mallow was the first to straighten up. "I know you said that you're helping your family for the time, Mallow, but…"

    "Because we as captains often hold more than one duty," was the answer from Kiawe's mouth. He raised his arm, placing a fist on his chest. Ash noticed the familiar looking Z-Ring around his wrist and his excitement returned. It shouldn't have been a surprise, given every other captain, yet he couldn't help himself. "Mallow is responsible for much of the agriculture and food supply with her family; Lana teaches fishing classes and understands the sea's ecosystem more than anyone on the islands, while I facilitate not only the trial but also the Battle Royal and as a judge for the Leilani Ceremony when my duty calls. These prevent us from being there at all times."

    "It's the reason the Wela Volcano trial is closed for the time being," Mallow decided to explain before Kiawe could go off. It was like a game of Ping-Pong between these two, each of them flicking their gaze between the two captains silently, paying close attention. "Kiawe has been asked to serve as a judge during the Heahea Ceremony…though at the time they assumed you would be at Royal Avenue this whole week."

    "Yes…well…if one is strong, sometimes it means having to take a knee," Kiawe said, nodding his head sagely. Serena happened to giggle at that, making Ash raise an eyebrow.

    "You like sounding cool, don't you, Kiawe?" she asked with a little bit of wink in his direction.

    "Wha…?" Kiawe spluttered out, as though he hadn't expected anyone to call him on the way he was acting. He quickly turned to Mallow. "Mals, who are these people?"

    "Not often you call me by a nickname," Mallow said, throwing her head back with humor. "They're friends. Well, at least, I'd hope we're friends."

    "Of course," Ash said, stepping forward and on to one of the wooden steps. Pikachu came back over from conversing with Mudbray to join him. "I'm Ash, and this is Pikachu. I'm taking part in the Island Trials."

    "I'm Serena," Serena introduced herself. "While Ash is doing his trials, I'm taking part in the Leilani Ceremony." One by one, their group introduced each other until Kiawe had learned all of their names and relative purpose for being there. By the time it was done, he seemed rather accepting of it all, nodding his head. Ash, however, only had one thing on his mind.

    "So, if you're both captains, and you're some expert battler, Kiawe, what would you say to a battle with me? I could use the training," Ash suggested, gripping one of his pokeballs. Kiawe folded his arms, a stern look on his face as he stared down at Ash.

    "Pokémon battles are not something to be taken lightly. Unless you and your Pokémon both wish to fight, they are nothing but cries of pain to the Tapus…" Kiawe said harshly. Ash frowned; as much as he knew he'd likely be facing the boy later, there was something about the way he held himself that told him that he wanted to battle Kiawe now. It was a shame that the Wela Volcano captain thought otherwise…leastways until his face broke out into a grin and he reached for his own pokeball. "That said, it is my off time. So long as we offer our training battle to the great Tapu Lele, I see no problem with it."

    "Oh, Tapu Lele is the guardian deity of Akala, isn't it?" Lillie asked excitedly. Everyone turned to her except for Kiawe and Mallow, who nodded thoughtfully. "I've read about the guardian deities in books, so I know as much as I can about Tapu Lele, who supposedly resides in the Ruins of Life on the southern part of Akala."

    "Which is the reason we give praise: for the life-giving water that flows in and around the island. Just as Melemele's Tapu Koko gives the water of strength," Kiawe said, now unfolding his arms, looking mildly impressed with Lillie's foreknowledge on the subject. "I look forward to a good battle, then."

    "Hold up," Mallow said, holding her hand out, as if to stop Kiawe from throwing his pokeball and beginning the battle. "The ranch is just on the outskirts of town, and there's more than enough room for you boys to battle there. So, let's all head there and I can make some lunch…and why's your face green, Kiawe?"

    "Uh…nothing…I just…" Kiawe stammered out. He looked at all of them fearfully, as if asking their entire group a question silently. Ash and Pikachu both tilted their heads while Clemont and Bonnie looked at each other. When he couldn't get his point across, he vocalized it. "You…you've eaten Mallow's cooking…and lived? !"

    "Well, yeah, it was pretty good," Ash admitted. "She and Clemont made a great cooking team."

    "It was a little spicy," Clemont admitted, "but nothing some sweet cilantro couldn't handle. I'd be surprised if you couldn't handle it, since my assumption is that you're a Fire type user."

    "Kiawe can handle my cooking just fine," Mallow claimed, bending down to pick up his abandoned milk crate and hoisting it in her arms. "He just likes to play around and tell me how much my cooking seems to suck."

    "Lana was sick for a whole week last month!" Kiawe claimed. Mallow once more rolled her eyes and began to push him in the direction of the ranch that Ash could clearly see was down the road. Hitching his bag a bit, he joined hands with Serena on instinct as their group seemed to cluster together once more and follow after the chipper captain and her surly friend.

    "Yeah, I'm sure that diving into the water to save a swimmer boy and getting stung by a Mareanie has absolutely nothing to do with it…" Kiawe seemed to realize at that point that fighting was not going to lead anywhere. Instead, he sighed and allowed himself to be pushed along. Ash did the same, his own body practically shaking with excitement. Serena appeared to notice, no doubt due to his jittering hand, but she let the actual event go unmentioned.

    Their rather large group managed to exit from Paniola Town in a matter of minutes, following a small stretch of dirt road that curved through dusty grass plains on its way to the house that sat comfortably on the hill, enclosed by a large fence that surrounded quite the acreage. As Ash looked around, it appeared just as Mallow had described: vast, sprawling with lots of Pokémon, and incredibly busy.

    "Alola, Miss Mallow!" one of the ranch hands, raking at a pile of hay, called out. Mallow raised her free arm to wave. "You too, Master Kiawe. Here to help for the day?"

    "Something like that," Kiawe said dismissively. When they had passed the man and were approaching a gate in the fence to open, the boy muttered underneath his breath, "Or maybe the whole week before the Ceremony. I've got nothing to do with my trial being closed."

    "Why is your trial closed?" Clemont asked. Ash wondered the same thing, given they hadn't really gotten a straight answer from Mallow or anyone else. Kiawe, however, had no such problems.

    "With the Heahea Ceremony being held, I cannot hold the Wela Volcano Ceremony, and it is vital that it is held for my trial." He didn't say much more than that, and Mallow wouldn't elaborate as she opened up the gate in the fence and allowed the bulk of them inside, striding up the remaining dirt path to the house that was situated there. The windows were open, but no sound was heard as Mallow reached up and placed the milk crate down, peering inside.

    "Looks like the parents are out for the day, likely for the restaurant…Probably left things in Gerald's hands," Mallow stated before she turned around. "Well, this is Paniola Ranch, the family's pride and joy!"

    "It's a really lovely place, Mallow," Serena commented, finally disengaging from Ash's hand to look around. Out of all of them, ironically, Bonnie and Rotom looked the most excited.

    "Look at all the cute Pokémon, Clemont!"

    "Yes, all these 'cute' Pokémon to register…careful, Bonnie…" Rotom teased out. Bonnie glared at him. Lillie took her hat off as they argued, wiping some sweat from her brow.

    "If you don't mind, I'd like to sit in the shade a little before checking out the farm," she admitted. Mallow nodded, indicating that it was no problem. Serena's eyes lit up at the thought, herself, and she scanned the area, finding a small hutch placed in the shade of some trees.

    "Why don't we sit there, and when we're rested, maybe we can help out a little? Bonnie can keep in our eyesight then, Clemont," Serena suggested to the inventor.

    "That sounds like a plan to me. I'd like to watch Ash and Kiawe's training before looking at some of the farming machines that the Pokémon use to help out," Clemont told them. Regardless of all their intentions, Mallow seemed rather pleased with them.

    "I'll whip up a quick drink and then give anyone who wants it the grand tour!" Mallow said happily. With a slight spring in her skip, Mallow bounced towards the door to the house and entered inside. While she did so, the girls all moved off towards the hutch, a herd of Miltank resting comfortably nearby. Bonnie and Rotom instantly went for it, practically racing to see who would get there first.

    "So, Kiawe, how about that battle?" Ash asked, finally gripping at his pokeball. Pikachu's cheeks sparked next to him. Kiawe smirked a bit, finally grabbing at the pokeball that Mallow had stopped him from taking hold of earlier.

    "Let's do it," he said. As soon as he said it, he walked forward across the grassy fields of the farm, taking his place opposite Ash. Pikachu once more scampered away from Ash to join Clemont in the middle of the field, the blond obviously planning on refereeing the battle. A distance away, Ash could see Bonnie playing while Lillie and Serena rested. A clatter sounded from the house and Mallow came out with a tray of lemonade, heading right for the girls. When Ash turned back, he saw Kiawe bowing low, his eyes closed.

    "Tapu Lele, we offer this battle as a symbol of our life, the power that lives and breathes within us and our Pokémon." Ash's eyes widened for a moment and he, too, bowed his head, silently speaking the words that Kiawe had offered, straightening only when the other boy did. "Marowak, let us begin the battle!"

    "Maro!" cried the Pokémon that emerged from the boy's pokeball. Ash was about to toss his own, but stopped at the sight of the Pokémon that was clearly Marowak…but very much not Marowak.

    "Interesting…" Clemont noted from the side. "It looks like Marowak has an Alolan form, as well. Rotom, you might want to see this!"

    "Zzt!" Rotom said, static issuing from its mouth as it sailed away from Bonnie rapidly. As soon as it caught sight of the Marowak it sped around the Pokémon, snapping pictures rapidly. "Very exciting! Professor Oak will be most intrigued!"

    "Um…Rotom…do you mind letting us battle?" Ash asked. He had to admit that he found an Alolan version of Marowak quite fascinating, but his mind was already gearing towards battle, albeit a training one. Rotom appeared to get the message when Marowak swiped a burning club, lit with blue flames, at its screen. It flew straight back towards Clemont. "Right, Greninja, I choose you!"

    "Nin-ja!"

    "Well, it would appear I am not the only one with an unfamiliar Pokémon in this battle. Should be exciting, but don't expect me to take it easy," Kiawe said. Ash nodded, straightening his hat a bit. As Clemont's hand lowered to begin the battle, Ash felt like it was moving in slow motion. A thought, rather a realization, entered into his brain: Kiawe was not at the same level as his fellow captains. He was above. Closer to a Kahuna. To Hala. To an Elite Four.

    "Greninja, be ready for anything," Ash muttered under his breath, conveying his thoughts. Then Clemont's hand was down as Greninja nodded, focusing both of their thoughts into action. "Greninja, use Water Shuriken!"

    "Gren!" Greninja cried, clasping at his side and calling forth the throwing stars of water. He leapt upwards and tossed them straight for Marowak. Trainer and Pokémon shifted their feet, bracing for the incoming attack.

    "Block it with Bone Club," Kiawe said. Just like Ash did with Greninja when they synchronized, Kiawe moved with his Marowak, as though they were dancers. Marowak's flaming club glowed as it brandished it back and forth, putting the Water Shuriken out with little problem. "Now, fade into the Will-O-Wisp."

    "Rowa…" Marowak said, it's voice sounding rather ghostly. Ash was intrigued as the turquoise-green flames appeared to surround Marowak's figure. Then they scattered themselves across the battlefield while Marowak appeared to fade. Greninja's eyes swiveled; even un-synchronized, Ash could feel it. Marowak was in one of the encroaching flames, and it was just a matter of figuring out which. Then Greninja's body stiffened.

    "Aerial Ace, now!" Ash commanded. Greninja's leg glowed white and he kicked out towards one of the flames. They hit their mark exactly, slamming Marowak backwards. "Now, use Cut!"

    "Ah! No! Wrong move, Ash! Wrong move!" Rotom cried out, flashing a big warning sign on its screen. Ash couldn't figure out just what Rotom was talking about until Greninja summoned his blade of white and slashed through Marowak's figure…or rather, he passed right through it, the attack doing nothing. "Marowak in Alola are Fire and Ghost type."

    "Oh…" Ash said, his eyes widening as he realized he'd just given Kiawe an opening. The captain took advantage of it immediately.

    "Shadow Bone!" he said, his voice brimming with passion. Marowak's bone shot out from behind, brimming with shadows that intermingled with the flames as it slammed into Greninja. The Ninja Pokémon flipped in the air and both Ash and he shared the same command.

    "Aerial Ace, again!" Instead of kicking, this time, Greninja punched downward, driving Marowak slightly into the ground before leaping away and back to Ash's side, looking almost smug with his achievement. Looking across to Kiawe, he could see the boy looked impressed. Beyond him, Serena and Lillie had stood, their glasses of lemonade finished as Mallow led them further into the ranch, towards what looked like a river.

    "You arrived here from Melemele, yeah?" Kiawe asked, folding his arms against his chest. "So, did you battle Hala at his full strength? I've heard tell that he is quite possibly the strongest of all the Kahunas…no, the strongest on the islands, even."

    "I wasn't able to complete my battle with Hala," Ash admitted. Greninja turned back, nodding a little. Kiawe reached up to stroke his chin, and then he grinned a little.

    "I was wondering…" he chuckled out. "You're not showing your true strength, are you?"

    "What makes you say that?" Ash asked. Of course, he knew he wasn't, but figured it would simply be unfair to use the Ash-Greninja form unless necessary, which it was so far proving that it was unneeded. Kiawe, apparently, had different ideas.

    "Because I can tell," he said simply. "You're moving in concert with your…Greninja? And yet, it feels like there is less weight and speed behind your attacks, enough that Marowak could avoid them if he so wanted to, but we wanted to gauge your strength. Now that we have, I want you to show your true power; I require it of all my challengers. Whether they be Champion level or beginners, a trial is meaningless if you cannot bring out the full strength of the bond with your Pokémon."

    "Ah, I get it," Ash said, scratching at his nose. He looked over to Greninja, who also nodded once more. They were all on the same page. "All right, Kiawe, get ready then!"

    "Ja!" Greninja cried and he raised his arm into the air in tandem with Ash. The water surrounded them, though Kiawe didn't flinch. He didn't think it was a regular occurrence in Alola, but perhaps Kiawe's belief in the spirituality of life that came from Tapu Lele made him unsurprised by life's phenomenon. Their minds and bodies connected, Ash prepared to start the battle anew. He clasped his hands together, and without an order, Greninja understood. The water coalesced, forming the shuriken, and he was off, copies of him appearing around the battlefield.

    "Combine Flame Wheel with Will-O-Wisp!" Kiawe ordered, spinning his hands like he was the club. The club was set ablaze, still with that entirely eerie color, both its middle and end burning brighter. The flames from earlier spat out, covering the field and then Marowak tossed its club. The club flared and then disappeared, reappearing inside one of the flames of Will-O-Wisp, slamming into a copy. Then it would disappear and materialize again like a phantom club. Ash knew he had little time before the copies were depleted.

    "Aerial Ace!" Greninja zipped forward, even faster than Ash had remembered him being before, to bring his leg flying up and into Marowak's jaw. The Bone Keeper Pokémon was flung upward and Greninja jumped for him. "Water Shuriken!"

    "Fast…this is really your true strength…Shadow Bone to block it!" Marowak cried out as his hand was stretched back, summoning the bone to his hand as he swung down. At the same time, Greninja swung upward with his giant shuriken and the two were locked in place for a moment, straining against one another in that ghostly haze. Then Ash noticed a subtle shift of Kiawe's body. The other end of Marowak's bone came soaring out, nailing Greninja in the side. Both trainer and Pokémon flinched, and Greninja was forced to cut off his attack and fall to the ground. Marowak landed shortly after.

    Marowak and Kiawe stared across at Greninja, as if sizing him up and his speed. Ash knew they were already calculating their next strategy, likely something to do with Will-O-Wisp, an attack he didn't want to have hit. There was a slight ping in his mind, as though Greninja was whispering to him, telling him what he wanted to try. It was certainly a bold and risky move…it had failed before after all, though it would cover a wider field than their normal shuriken. "Okay…let's try it."

    "Nin." At Greninja's request, Ash raised his hand into the air, just as Greninja lifted his water shuriken, sending it spinning rapidly above his head. Clemont's eyes widened, almost like he was fascinated, seeing the attack once again. A great heat burned at Ash's wrist, his Z-Ring suddenly sparking violently, like it was straining against something as the shuriken grew large and orange, blazing with steam. He ignored it, and both he and Greninja hurled the shuriken at their common foe.

    "Marowak, brace for impact!" Kiawe called. In just seconds, Marowak had raised his club like a guarded sword, and then the shuriken made impact, exploding in the air around them. Ash felt his hair ripple from the force, keeping his hat down as they waited for the attack to fade…only to find Marowak simply sagging a little…like the attack had done nothing at all…just like when it was used against Alain. The heat at his wrist returned to normal.

    "Again…" Ash muttered and the form Greninja had taken faded away. Kiawe apparently considered that to be the end of their training battle, for he took out Marowak's pokeball and returned it once he thanked it. Both he and Clemont walked forward. Ash looked over to both Clemont and Pikachu as they approached. "It didn't do much last time…"

    "I noticed. I'd have thought that with yourself and Greninja being stronger, it would have done more damage than it had against Charizard," Clemont pointed out. Kiawe stood there, listening, and though he obviously wasn't aware of the details of what they were talking about, he still seemed to have words to say.

    "It looked like it was going to be a powerful move," the boy said thoughtfully. "But in the end, it was lacking the power behind it, power it should have gotten from you as the trainer, channeling thoughts and feelings through a Z-Crystal."

    "A Z-Crystal?" Ash asked, genuinely confused. Clemont appeared to put two and two together quickly enough, placing his fist on an open palm. Then he chuckled.

    "Of course…that does make sense when it comes to Greninja," he told the both of them. Ash tilted his head, wondering what that all meant. Thankfully, Clemont decided to explain. "Well, Greninja, through his latent abilities has been able to bring out power on par with Mega Evolution. It is possible, therefore, that maybe he can also use something akin to a Z-Move, but without the crystal, in this case, you can't actually give it power."

    "So…what you're saying is that it's a Z-Move and Greninja and I can't really use it properly?" Ash asked, causing Clemont to nod. That made Ash sigh deeply. "I can't even master normal Z-Moves…"

    "Pika…"

    "I wouldn't worry too much about that," Kiawe said. He shoved his hands into his pockets, staring up at the sky while Ash looked over to him. The boy appeared to close his eyes, taking in the breeze that ruffled across the grass in the area. "Some achieve their Z-Moves right away. Others struggle. I think it's different for each trainer. Being one with your Pokémon is important, and there is no doubt you've succeeded at that, but perhaps the key to mastery lies in something else the two of you share. Perhaps it's what you're meant to use Z-Moves for."

    "Maybe…" Ash said, though he didn't quite understand what Kiawe was getting at. Still, he took solace in the fact. Looking at Pikachu and Greninja, remembering the heat from his Z-Ring, Ash knew he'd achieve them sooner or later. He'd just have to keep working at it and take some of Kiawe's advice. Knowing that, he decided to join the boy at looking at the sky, even as Grubbin came out of Clemont's pokeball to approach some machines.

    Then he heard a scream.


    *Chapter continued in next post...

  3. #28
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    Chapter continued from last post.

    "So, like I said, the farm provides milk to pretty much every area in Alola," Mallow said as she moved the girls along through the ranch. Serena looked around as she explained it all, seeing the dozy Miltank and Tauros, as well as a whole field full of Mudbray. Some ranch hands were nearby, milking the Miltank, while other Pokémon just rested lazily. Serena raised her hands in greeting to all of them and they waved back. "That includes your friend Hau's malasada shops. We get a lot of business from them, and the family's own personal restaurant."

    "It sounds like quite the bit of work," Lillie commented, stepping around a rather irritated Tauros.

    "It is, but fun…except for the waking up early," Mallow laughed out, rubbing the back of her head. "Especially when Kiawe chooses to practice his dance routine when the sun rises. That boy doesn't know the meaning of rest…No wonder Lana rarely stops by."

    "It sounds like fun, and fulfilling," Serena said. Mallow smiled and nodded her head, gazing over the large expanse of the ranch with a happy exhalation. Serena could understand: this was her home, something she loved and adored, her passion in its own way. Knowing that, Serena reached forward and tapped her on the back. "Can we help, then?"

    "Oh! You want to?" the green-haired girl asked, clapping her hands together. Bonnie was the first to jump at the opportunity, Dedenne just going to sleep inside her bag at the suggestion.

    "I do! I do!" she said. Serena quickly reined her in from her loud voice waking up the Pokémon. She quickly got the message and covered her mouth with embarrassment. Not that it mattered to Mallow, the girl seemed positively thrilled at the offer.

    "Then I'll go fetch some pails," she said, pointing at a small shack that Serena hadn't noticed in the distance. "We'll want to refill the troughs for the Mudbray and Tauros with water from the river. Then, if we have a little time, we can brush the Mudbray. Once that's done, we'll all get started on dinner for the ranch hands. Sound good?"

    "All right," Lillie said, nodding. Serena felt she looked a little apprehensive, but from the way she was acting, like she was rolling up her sleeves, the honey blonde could tell she was up for some work. Mallow quickly pumped her fists with a grin and ran for the shed. Serena tore her gaze away from it, looking towards the river they'd be working with, the flowing water shining in the bright Alola sun. Though…there also appeared to be something else…something…glittering.

    "Hmm…" Serena vocalized, her feet carrying her to the water's edge. Lillie called for her with a curious tone, but Serena ignored it. The closer she got to the water's edge, the more she realized that the glittering she was seeing was… "Ice?"

    "What's wrong?" Bonnie's voice piped up, interested in whatever Serena was interested in.

    "I wonder why there's ice here…" Serena mused, though it was more to herself than to the companions around her. The loud clanking of pails sounded out, and Serena figured that Mallow was on her way to return. The sound of sloshing ice rang in her ears and Serena's eyes moved up the river. Rivulets of ice continued through the flowing river, like something had traveled down it and frozen parts of it, not yet melting. Following it, Serena finally saw some rocks with ice on them. Her body moved of its own accord, padding along the grass near the riverbank, past a perplexed Mallow, to the rocks. She stopped short. "An egg…?"

    "What egg?" asked Lillie, the girl having obviously followed her. Mallow and Bonnie were close behind, but Serena was paying little attention. Without thinking, some sort of maternal instinct flared inside her and she plunged into the water, waist deep and soaking her skirt. Realizing she wouldn't get anywhere against the current, Serena grabbed one of her pokeballs and called Sylveon out.

    "Sylveon, hold on to me from the shore, okay?" Sylveon mewled happily and extended her feelers out to hold on to Serena. Bonnie came close as well, holding on to the Fairy type to make sure she didn't get dragged in. Serena continued towards the rocks and the egg that was bobbing along there. It was speckled with ice, little snowflakes appearing to decorate its surface. Serena reached outward, her fingers almost touching against it.

    The first time, she missed, not even scratching the surface of the trapped egg. Sucking in her breath and hearing the sudden cheers from Mallow and Lillie on the shore (even a distinct "Pew!" from Nebby), Serena lunged forward and clasped onto the egg. It was freezing to the touch, no doubt accounting for the cold and ice, but she held onto it, body banging slightly against the rocks. The egg jumped a little in her arms. Making sure the egg was secure, she turned back to the river bank…only for her eyes to widen.

    "Mallow, behind you!" she shouted, as best as she could amidst the merciless freezing waters. Mallow and Lillie both turned around, the latter giving a scream of surprise, catching sight of exactly what Serena had seen. Bonnie did, too, but she looked more annoyed than frightened.

    "It's Team Rocket!" she declared loudly. Serena didn't need her explanation to know that, reaching for Braixen's pokeball and calling her out without a single extra thought in her mind. However, it was much different for Mallow and Lillie.

    "Who are Team Rocket?" they asked simultaneously (Serena realized that the blonde had never been properly introduced to them). Mallow did drop her pails to grab her pokeball, however.

    "Pokémon thieves," Serena answered, still holding on. She was beginning to shiver in the cold water, but refused to let go of the egg. Nor did she refuse to look away from Team Rocket, their usual Meowth balloon floating ominously over the ranch as a large cage shot downward, slamming upon a herd of Mudbray and locking them in place. The infamous trio appeared to have heard her describe them.

    "I don't want to hear that from you, twerpette!" Jessie snapped, leaning out of the balloon. "We're honest do-gooders who are simply freeing these Pokémon from captivity."

    "And taking them into our own," James chuckled out menacingly, clutching at a blue rose. His Crabrawler and Inkay appeared to be out next to them, the former clutching to his head until the blue haired man threw a berry into his mouth.

    "So prepare for trouble on this po-dunk ranch!"

    "And make it double, we're making a snatch!"

    "To protect the world from devas-"

    "Tsareena, use Stomp!" Mallow's Tsareena instantly aimed upward, using her powerful leg strength to rocket right towards the balloon basket and slam into it. Team Rocket scrambled for holding, enraging Jessie (not that it was all that hard).

    "Hey, I am very tired of our motto getting interrupted for no good reason by smarmy twerpettes like all of you! How many of you are there now? What, is the twerp building a harem or something?"

    "Be quiet," Serena snapped, finding it very difficult to keep concentration in the water. She only retained enough presence of mind to call Braixen out. Inside the cage below, the Mudbray were all panicking, slamming against the cage with their hooves. The balloon shook.

    "I actually agree with da twoipette, Jess," Meowth said defiantly. "We betta skedaddle before dese Mudbray make a real mess of tings."

    "Shut it, Meowth, I'm in charge here!" Jessie snapped. From where Serena still was, starting to slowly inch her way back towards the grass, she saw Meowth shaking furiously. "Now, my dearly adorable Stufful, show these twerpettes what being a woman looks like."

    "Stuff!" From a new pokeball of Jessie's emerged another unfamiliar Pokémon, at least to Serena's eyes. Judging from Jessie's call, it was a Stufful, though it appeared more to be an adorable cuddly teddy bear. She could only imagine what Bonnie's eyes looked like right now, despite the Pokémon being an enemy of theirs.

    "Okay, Stufful, use Low Sweep," Jessie said, cackling a little. Meowth and James instantly facepalmed. Her newfound Stufful ran forward, and Serena was surprised to see the fierce determination in its eyes as it ran for Tsareena.

    "Use Stomp!" Mallow quickly called. Tsareena raised one of her feet before bringing it slamming down on Stufful. The Pokémon didn't stop in the slightest, bringing one of its legs around and knocking Mallow's partner off balance. "Ah…it must have the ability Fluffy, allowing it to halve the strength of contact attacks."

    "Oh ho ho ho!" Jessie laughed maniacally. "It looks like we have the upper hand."

    "Hardly," James sighed out. "Crabrawler, use Bubblebeam on the twerpette's Braixen!"

    "Baraw!" Crabrawler said, shifting his eyes a bit before opening his claws and firing the barrage of bubbles right at Braixen, who was standing near Bonnie. Lillie dove for the girl, wrenching her away from Sylveon and the line of fire. Sylveon was still focused on holding Serena, but Braixen seemed ready to battle from that. As she fought against the water, Serena gave a cry.

    "Braixen, use Flamethrower, wide range!" she called. Braixen twirled forward, brandishing her wand. The large jet of flame emerged from it, blasting through the air. It didn't touch the grass thankfully, fully aware to not ruin the ranchland. It did, however, make contact with both Crabrawler (who had jumped to the ground) and Stufful.

    "Stuuuuuff! Stufffful!" Stufful cried out as the flames receded, only to see that the little fluffy bear was a on fire, running around desperately.

    "Stufful? What's wrong with you?" Jessie asked, actually sounding concerned. It reminded Serena for just a moment how much Team Rocket could care about their own Pokémon. Though the cries of the Mudbray reminded her much more of their situation. James' spoke on the thought before she could do much more, having apparently found the reason why Stufful was set on fire.

    "Apparently Fluffy makes it weaker to Fire attacks," he said with a tired sigh. Jessie quickly grabbed him by the collar.

    "That would have been nice to know before sending her into battle against the twerpette's Braixen!"

    "Maybe ya shoulda listened, Jessie!" Meowth finally snapped, jumping up and slashing across his comrade's face. She howled from the pain and dove for Meowth. It was genuinely odd to see Team Rocket outright grappling with each other in the balloon instead of paying attention to their opponents. It certainly made everything easier.

    With another kick, the Mudbray managed to damage the container, busting it open and causing each of them to fall quickly. At the same moment, Serena reached the ground, pulling her freezing, wet body onto the grass. Sylveon let go and ran forward, using her feelers to save some of the Mudbray while also using Fairy Wind to slow their descent. A multitude of ranch hands ran forward to calm the horses and the Tauros that had been agitated. Serena raised her head.

    "Braixen, let's do this. Concentrate, just like Mallow showed us for a Z-Move. Bring all your power into your attack and use Psyshock!" Serena's words seemed to break through to Braixen. It might have been her effort and concentration, or maybe it was Serena officially putting a name to the attack she wanted to use. Regardless, as Braixen shot her attack from her wand, it was no longer a spiral of flame, but three twisting and turning purple streaks. One slammed into Crabrawler and Stufful each, driving them up through the center of the balloon basket. Then the last one flew straight through the hole, colliding with the flame on the balloon.

    "Of course…because you two couldn't stop bickering," James sighed out as the flame seemed to burst forth. Jessie and Meowth looked up fearfully to it, grabbing ahold of each other. Just before the balloon exploded, the two companions looked to each other and nodded. Then they leaned out of the balloon together.

    "Well, just you wait twerpette harem! You'll pay for hurting my precious new Stufful!" Jessie screeched out.

    "Next time we won't go so easy on ya!" Meowth finished, the two Team Rocket members apparently on the same page in the midst of their impending blastoff. Then the flame exploded, James shaking his head.

    "As usual, we're blasting off again," he sighed, and then the trio had disappeared into the sky.

    Serena exhaled, finally realizing how numb her legs felt from the cold water. The egg in her arms bounced a bit. Around them, the ranch hands all worked to calm the Mudbray down, a Growlithe running in to herd them all safely. Lillie and Bonnie detached from one another while Mallow walked over to Serena and held a hand out, helping the honey blonde up. She was a little wobbly, but when she had regained her footing, she turned to Braixen with a near giddy smile.

    "You did it, Braixen!" Serena cried, closing the distance between them and taking her beloved Pokémon's hands. "You learned Psyshock!"

    "Brai brai!" Braixen said enthusiastically. Serena simply felt overjoyed, the happiness bubbling up through her chest. If her legs weren't so freezing, and her skirt so heavy from the water, she would have danced. As it were, she could barely stand, but at the very least, she could look towards Mallow. Keeping her breathing even before she answered, Serena saw Bonnie looking at her with a sense of both awe and determination before the little girl looked down to the dozing Dedenne.

    "Thank you, Mallow, you were very helpful with your Z-Move," Serena said, bowing her head a little. Mallow smiled, about to say something, when Ash's voice called to all of them across the field, cutting off response.

    "Serena! Bonnie! Lillie! Are you guys okay?" Ash yelled, he, Pikachu and Greninja racing across the field. Kiawe was right at his side, a stern expression on his face as Clemont trailed far behind them.

    "Just fine!" Mallow answered with a grin and a wave. Ash skidded to a stop, looking around for whatever had caused the trouble he had clearly come running for, but he eventually focused on Serena.

    "Uh…why are you soaked, Serena?" Ash questioned. "It doesn't look very comfortable."

    "I am pretty cold," Serena admitted with a laugh. That was when she realized she was still clutching the egg to her chest; no wonder she was so cold. "I guess it's because of this egg. It's really cold. And I'm wet because I was in the river."

    "Oh…well, I have some shorts you can change into," Ash pointed out. The very thought and implication of what Ash had so innocently suggested made Serena blush. Wearing his clothes was something she'd done only once, and out of necessity! Though she supposed it was necessary now as well…

    "So, the egg is safe, then?" Mallow asked. Serena held up said object, twitching in her hands. The girls all let out a relieved sigh while the boys, including a breathless Clemont, stared at it in confusion. "I wonder how it got here…maybe washed from the sea…?"

    "You mean, it's not yours?" Serena asked. Mallow shook her head, her twintails flapping back and forth rapidly. At this, Serena held up the egg a little more in the sunlight, now moving closer to dusk, and examined it. She could feel the life inside of a new Pokémon, just waiting to come out. It made her feel connected and, strange as it sounded, like she could reach out and grasp the smile of the new Pokémon that rested inside the egg. It sounded so incredibly selfish, yet Serena looked towards Mallow and asked, "Can I keep it, then?"

    "Oh…I don't see why not," Mallow said with a laugh. "You were the one that found it. I see nothing wrong with you keeping it. I'm sure the Pokémon that hatches from it would be really happy to have you as its trainer."

    "Thank you," Serena said, once more bowing her head in thanks. When she straightened, she sneezed. "Though, maybe first, I should get that change of clothes."

    "Great idea!" Mallow said, skipping off a little. "It's about time to be making dinner, anyway. Kiawe, Clemont, you're helping me."

    "Not again…" Kiawe sighed, but he followed her nonetheless. Serena walked forward, suddenly supported by a concerned Lillie as she did so, at least until Ash came to her side, smiling with concern at her. She shook her head, indicating she was fine and they proceeded back towards the house, the bouncing egg clinging to her chest, filling it with more happiness than she could have ever described, on their journey forward.


    Author's Note: This was hands down the most difficult chapter to write. It feels like a filler. But it's not a filler. Obviously not, with Jessie getting a Stufful, Serena getting an egg, Braixen learning Psyshock and Ash battling Kiawe alongside learning that Greninja's giant orange shuriken of death was actually an incomplete Z-Move. That's right! I'm retroactively giving a reason for why it didn't do anything to that overgrown lizard! But one has to figure, if Greninja can tap into a Mega-esque power on its own, why not a Z-Move. However, in this case, Ash will need the Z-Crystal…if he can master Z-Moves.

    But beyond that, it probably felt light on the story, merely setting up plot points to come. So, feel free to take guesses as to what's in the egg (which shouldn't be hard), and feel free to guess what could happen in the next chapter…

    I really appreciate all the support this has gotten so far, and I hope it continues to the future! Until then, please Review and Dare to Be Silly.

  4. #29
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    I've spend so much time clearing up misconceptions, I've no idea what to say here…oh well, please enjoy Chapter 17!

    Chapter 17

    A Connection

    Dinner at the Paniola Ranch was a sumptuous affair. More than that, though, it was lively. Mallow and Clemont had worked a couple hours to prepare a large spread, something that even Ash was allowed to help on…at least until Mallow had kicked he and Kiawe out of the kitchen. Following that, until the bell had rung for the ranch hands to gather for dinner, Ash and Kiawe spent their time practicing and training together, the raven-haired trainer admitting that Kiawe was a pretty cool guy to be around.

    "Feel it flow through you, the power between trainer and Pokémon," Kiawe exemplified as he and Marowak moved as one. "Single purpose."

    "Yeah, I get that," Ash said, moving his arms in accordance with the movements required for Breakneck Blitz, yet still nothing was happening between him and Pikachu, or any of the others, as they practiced their own moves against one another. "It's just not working."

    "Hmmm…" the captain stated, folding his arms. "Maybe it's not about being one, but that you haven't found a purpose in using Z-Moves. There's been no need. Sometimes we pull out our greatest strength when backed into a corner."

    "Maybe…" Ash noted. He'd never thought of that before. Part of him thought he was just hesitant to use his Z-Moves because he'd seen how powerful they were and didn't want that power to spill over. However, the other part of him now saw sense in what Kiawe was saying. Maybe he and all his Pokémon shared the same mindset of winning without that special sort of power. The same way he'd tried to not use Infernape's Blaze or defeated Korrina's Mega Lucario with Pikachu alone. "Thanks, Kiawe. I think it might help."

    "I hope so. I want to battle you at full strength come my trial," Kiawe said, reaching out with a fist that Ash bumped. A bell rang overhead then to signify dinner as Serena came out to get them, and in no time, they and the ranch hands were seated at the table, consuming dinner at an accelerated rate. Kiawe appeared frightened, but upon tasting the food, dug in. It was only as they were about to fall asleep for the night that Bonnie made a surprising proclamation.

    "I wanna teach Dedenne a new move," Bonnie yawned out. Clemont nearly fell off the couch he was sleeping upon. Dedenne crawled up Bonnie and stared at her with wide eyes. She reached over and stroked his tail with a smile. "Seeing Braixen learn Psyshock made me think I can do it, too. I think without it…we won't be able to protect each other…"

    "Dene?" Dedenne asked, but as he was content, he seemed to accept it.

    "Will Pikachu and Luxray help?" Bonnie asked of Ash and Clemont. Ash only nodded, himself close to nodding off next to Serena, who had rolled just a little closer to him in her rest. Clemont made a noise of assent, reaching over and ruffling Bonnie's hair inside her Tyrantrum pajamas. Rotom was powered down next to him.

    Thinking it was nice to see the siblings helping one another out, Ash turned over, ignoring Kiawe's snores in the other room. He looked at Serena for just a moment, chest rising and falling rhythmically, before he fell asleep, a lone thought on his mind. She really does look good in my clothes…

    It was that thought he woke up with as well, considering his dreams had been filled with images of Serena in his clothing commanding Pikachu, just like she had back in Kalos. He'd never thought about it before like that, but now that he was, he realized he wouldn't mind seeing it more often. It was bad enough that Serena caught him still thinking about it as she ate breakfast, dressed in her own clothes once again. She finally cleared it from his head by leaning over and giving him a kiss, something that Kiawe reacted to by dropping his spoon with a surprising blush.

    "It's just kissing, Kiawe," Mallow said with rolled eyes once more, but the Fire type trainer was unable to form any further response until they were done with breakfast.

    Ash and the others then quickly packed up and were walked to edge of the ranch by the two captains. Serena checked her map, easily finding the location for Brooklet Hill, which would be easily reachable in less than a day or two, depending on the pace they took (and how long Lillie's feet would last, she admitted). Regardless, all of them were rested and ready for the journey ahead, turning to face their new friends at the exit from Paniola Ranch.

    "Take care, all of you," Kiawe said, reaching out to bump fists with Ash once more. "I'm sure we'll see each other soon. Definitely by the time of the Heahea Ceremony, if not earlier."

    "Looking forward to it. By then, I'll have cleared at least two trials," Ash said, taking his fist away and pumping it in the air. Pikachu was still slightly asleep on his shoulder, and so didn't react in the same way, merely waving lazily. As he did so, Mallow embraced Serena and Lillie both before pulling back.

    "All of you, be safe. I look forward to seeing you at Lush Jungle in a couple days!" she said as perkily as ever. Serena reached forward and took the girl's hand, clasping it in her own with a smile.

    "We'll be there," she insisted. Ash looked and saw that, for the moment, Lillie was holding onto the egg that Serena had obtained the day before. When his girlfriend drew back, however, she took ahold of the egg, pressing it against her chest. After another wave farewell, their little family once more set off on the road again, this time for Brooklet Hill.

    "At least the path there is simple," Lillie said happily once they were an hour out from Paniola Ranch. Sensing his chance at freedom, Ash noticed Nebby poking his head out of Lillie's bag. This time, the blonde didn't force him to get back in it, especially after he'd remained surprisingly hidden for most of their tenure with Mallow. "Even Nebby is enjoying it."

    "Pew!" Nebby said, but then he popped right back in the bag as Rotom came spying, hoping to get a picture.

    "One day, Rotom will record much data about Nebby…" it sighed before floating back silently and annoying Bonnie by tapping one of her shoulders. It would subsequently float to another side, just to make her look. So, they continued on, stopping at a grove with some berry trees for lunch. Dartrix appeared quite happy at the chance to feast, though, as usual, Pikipek put a stop to that.

    "What kind of move were you thinking of having Dedenne learn, Bonnie?" Clemont asked as they finished up their lunch for the day (leftovers from the massive dinner last night). Bonnie put a finger to her chin, contemplating the subject. Once she seemed to have decided, she leaned in towards Dedenne.

    "How about learning Parabolic Charge?" she asked her companion. "That way, you can attack and heal yourself at the same time!"

    "Dedene!" Dedenne cheered loudly. At her proclamation, Ash stood and ran with Pikachu over to a more open patch of grass. Bonnie and Clemont both appeared to take it as an answer that he would help (which, of course, was his intention) and they ran over to join him.

    "I can help with the storing of electricity portion, but Clemont…"

    "Right, Luxray's use of Electric Field should be able to help Dedenne gather the necessary electricity quicker," Clemont observed, adjusting his glasses. "And since I did teach Heliolisk Parabolic Charge, there's no doubt in my mind we'll have Dedenne running circles around opponents in no time."

    "No time" proved to literally be just that: they had no real time to perfect or even teach the move. Sure, Dedenne appeared to be a fast learner, but just as easily needed to rest after a single attempt. By the time they had to get back on the road, Dedenne had managed to gather the electricity thrice, but was unable to do little more than give off a medium-strength Thunder Shock.

    "It's okay, Bonnie," Lillie assured the downcast girl as they continued along the path to Brooklet Hill. "I'm sure Dedenne will figure it out. He has great teachers. Besides, he's already much stronger than Nebby."

    "Pew pew?" Nebby asked, popping out almost incredulously.

    "I didn't mean anything by it, Nebby!" she defended, patting the little one on the top of his head. "But we're not very much use together in a battle, are we?"

    "That's all right," Serena commented. "You're not a very big fan of battling, either, so it works out. Now, come on. There's a Pokémon Center outside the trial site, so I'd like to get there before dinner, if possible. Bonnie can practice more once we're there."

    "Yeah!" Bonnie cheered, running ahead on the path. Ash picked up the pace to follow her. He could tell that both she and Lillie appeared to be a little upset over their own failures, but with the smiles on their faces, he knew they'd work through it…though as he thought about it, he wondered if it stemmed back to the battle at Iki Town. If it did, he couldn't blame them for that; even he had felt a little inadequate after his skirmish with Guzma.

    Setting their resolves, the group continued along at a nice pace. Lillie and Clemont, the ones who typically lagged behind, kept up the pace surprisingly well. Ash attributed it to the thought of the Pokémon Center, and perhaps the trial ahead of him. Even he could feel himself speeding up without knowing it, his hands shaking a bit in his walk. His thoughts were soon proven correct.

    "I wonder what Ash will have to do for his trial," the blonde spoke, her new shoes getting a little dirty on the path, but clearly allowing her to walk further distances.

    "I'm surprised, Lillie," Serena said, leaning over with her egg as they walked. Ash looked back in her direction, himself, surprised. As he brought his head back to face forward, he noticed some storm clouds in the distance, and he hoped it would open rain upon them before they could get to the Pokémon Center, though they didn't appear to be moving very fast. "When Ash was going to face Hala, you seemed positively terrified."

    "Well…I still don't like Pokémon fighting," Lillie said, clutching at her bag. Nebby popped out, smiling at her as encouragement. "But, when I saw you battling those Team Rocket people, it showed me that sometimes you do fighting for different reasons other than hurting. Sometimes it's to protect and grow. Right, Nebby?"

    "Pew!" Nebby said cheerfully. Ash looked to Pikachu, a grin on his face as his best buddy grinned back at him. It was nice to see people like Lillie growing a little and changing; coming to understand things and people in a different way. And knowing the girl would be so excited to watch his trial, Ash knew he'd have to do his best, getting even more excited by the notion.

    "Hmm? Do you guys hear something?" Clemont asked suddenly. Ash wasn't sure what he should be listening for, their group rounding a corner to see the Pokémon Center they had been aiming for looming in the distance. As they drew closer, however, he did start hearing noises, like sounds of protest that soon became very distinct voices.

    "Yo, you can enter this Pokémon Center after you battle us," said a voice. Ash grimaced; the voice may not have been familiar, but the vernacular certainly was. "If we win, we get your Pokémon."

    "But only one-on-one, yo, else it ain't fair!" said another voice, likely the man's companion. Ash's gaze narrowed and he picked up the pace, finally rounding the corner. Sure enough, standing in front of the Pokémon Center, as if barricading the entrance with their Yungoos and Zubat were a pair of Skull grunts. Sprawled before them was a poor Psyduck, its trainer leaning over it. They weren't the only pair there either.

    "That's not fair when you attacked us out of nowhere!" the boy with the Psyduck yelled. Ash picked up the pace.

    "Yo, it ain't our fault you're so weak!"

    "Bro, why would we want a weak Pokémon, then?" the other grunt asked, bringing his arms out in an overdramatic expression. His friend folded his arms.

    "Because we make 'em real strong, right? That's what the boss said." Ash continued to run, the others now falling in behind him and they ran up close to the group of people, now angrily muttering and clutching their pokeballs. Ash turned to Pikachu, ready to instruct him to smoke them as one of the people in the crowd, a girl with blue hair that looked oddly familiar, stepped forward, clutching a Chinchou to her chest.

    "Please move," she said in a demure voice as she did so. The closer Ash got, the more he realized how much shorter this girl was than him. It made him surprised that such a girl would choose to challenge Team Skull when the other trainers were doing nothing but muttering fearfully.

    "Yo, we ain't movin' girlie!" the leader of the two grunts said, his hands moving all over, as per usual.

    "Yeah, so unless you gonna battle and get beat, might as well find another Center."

    "But the trial is here," the girl said, her arms tightening around Chinchou. Ash stepped forward, ready to attack at a moment's notice to defend the scared girl before them. Doing so, his eye noticed numerous things. Like the signs by a nearby stream indicating that it was a trial site, or the numerous wounded Pokémon around them…or how the second his foot touched the damp grass, he felt a wave of sudden fury that made him back off.

    "Yo, we don't give a crap 'bout no trial. Places like that don't prove nothin'!" the other Skull grunt said, deciding to get in the girl's face. Ash could instantly tell that was a mistake. He could practically sense the sudden bloodlust from the girl, and the others did, too, from the way they moved back. "You all think yer real strong cause you can clear some fancy thing. Well, we're strong, too, and we ain't movin'!"

    Ash swallowed. The girl stepped forward, and it appeared that the Skull grunt finally realized his mistake, stumbling back into his friend.

    "I said move." Silence followed for about five seconds, and then screaming. Lots of screaming. Lots of bright, electrifying lights and screaming. The Chinchou in her arms had leapt forward and had shocked the two Skull grunts, leaving them twitching in a piling heap. The doors to the Pokémon Center suddenly slid open, revealing a surprised Nurse Joy.

    "Oh my…" she said in shock. "Captain Lana, what happened here?"

    "Just a friendly chat," the blue-haired girl said. Ash once more swallowed. This was Lana? This was the captain of Brooklet Hill? Pikachu's shivers phased into his body. The girl was downright scary. "I would have been nicer, but they weren't swimmer boys…"

    "Oh…captain…" Nurse Joy said, shaking her head. "Everyone come on in and I'll treat your Pokémon. My goodness, there're certainly a lot of you…"

    "Sorry, Nurse Joy," said the boy with the Psyduck, bowing low. Now that the sheer frightening aura around Lana had faded, Ash finally realized how much damage the Skull grunts had caused before they'd gotten there. Many trainers, more than Nurse Joy and her Comfey could handle, were there with their wounded Pokémon, now all making their way into the Center.

    "It's no bother…though it may take a while…" Ash shook his head, realizing that he shouldn't just stand there, and he stepped forward to speak with the woman.

    "We can help out," Ash told her. "Our Pokémon aren't injured, so we can help if you need more hands."

    "Thank you very much…?"

    "Ash, and this is Pikachu," Ash introduced himself. The others all continued with doing so, as well, until Nurse Joy had learned all of their names. Lana appeared to give a start at his name, turning to look at him with wide blue eyes. He also stared down at her, curiously. This girl really was something else, and he finally recognized her as the girl he'd run into back in Heahea City, coming from the beach with a fishing pole.

    "Well, all of you are welcome here, and I appreciate the help, though I think only two of you should suffice. One to work the front and one to help in the back," Nurse Joy told them. Ash looked to Serena, remembering her nurse outfit from Kalos. Although, when he felt a slight flush up his neck from thinking about it, he decided to not offer.

    "I wouldn't mind helping," Lillie said, bowing slightly. Bonnie also jumped at the opportunity with a shout. Joy nodded, accepting their assistance, and led the two girls inside. Rotom followed after, presumably to take pictures in order to aid with treatment. It left Ash, Clemont and Serena alone with the blue-haired trial captain before them, slowly turning to look at them. At the very least, she was smiling.

    "You're Ash?" she asked. No longer feeling the fright that had possessed him a moment, he reached forward and offered his hand. Chinchou popped out of her arms to waddle inside the Center so that Lana could be allowed to shake it in return. "Mallow told me about you."

    "And you must be Lana," Ash said with a laugh. Lana returned it, and for a moment, he noticed her checking him out, only to sigh out in slight disappointment. Once she had, she looked over to the wooden bridges crossing the streams nearby.

    "Too bad you're not a swimmer boy," she said. Ash blinked. What did that even mean? She didn't give him much room to contemplate it, though, sighing once more and turning back. "Anyway, my trial is closed for the day. Sorry."

    "No, it's okay," Ash said, shaking his head. "I'll just do it first thing tomorrow."

    "Sounds good to me," Lana said, once more smiling. For another second, she glanced over at the location of the trial, Brooklet Hill. Overhead, Ash could see the rain clouds were still covering it, yet not moving in the slightest. It was beyond strange, but he was glad he wasn't getting soaked. "Hope the rain clears up tomorrow…Kyogre's been very angry…"

    With those words, she retreated into the Pokémon Center while thunder rumbled ominously over Brooklet Hill. Ash turned with a raised eyebrow to his friends, both Clemont and Serena appearing slightly surprised. Serena was the first to find her voice, though. "Well…she's certainly…interesting."

    "Yes, quite the intriguing girl," Clemont voiced with a slight smile on his face. Ash was inclined to agree, though likely not for the same reasons. "She's certainly quite strong, too."

    "Scary strong…" Ash chuckled out, looking in to the Pokémon Center. Lana appeared to be sitting at a table lazily, kicking her legs back and forth with a pleasant expression; nothing at all like she'd been earlier. Bonnie appeared to be at the front desk in her nurse's outfit while Lillie and Nurse Joy were nowhere to be seen.

    "Oh, we'll show ya who's scary!" croaked a voice from behind Ash. He whipped around to see the two Skull thugs rising to their feet, snarls on both of their faces. Their Pokémon were also up, bruised and singed, but ready for another round. Pikachu didn't wait for his trainer's command, just as Serena didn't waste a second in calling out Popplio; the two had really bonded. The second she was out of her pokeball, Popplio was sending a cascade of bubbles at the two while Pikachu launched an Electro Ball. It hit them, but they merely staggered. Team Skull was a lot more resilient than Ash had given them credit for. "Our turn! Yungoos use-"

    "Huuuuuuuu!" a great, guttural cry, like echoing metal, cut across the thug. In seconds, a shape had flitted in front of them, slamming into the enemy Pokémon and knocking them into their trainers. The Skull thugs fell backwards before rolling onto their feet, rubbing their shoulders.

    "Yo! Who did that? ! You gonna pa…" His voice seemed to die at the sight of the Pokémon, eyes widening. Ash's own eyes didn't widen, but he certainly recognized the Pokémon in front of him.

    "Pika!" Pikachu greeted Null, the unfamiliar (yet known) Pokémon nodding to him. Ash folded his arms. Where Null was, Gladion was sure to follow. Turning alongside his friends, that was quickly proven to be the case, because standing there was the familiar boy, his blonde hair as strangely styled as ever, and his clothes looking to have gotten even more rips. As he walked forward, to Null's side, he nodded his head at Ash, acknowledging his presence until he came to a stop and looked at the Skull thugs.

    "I think it's time you leave. You're not wanted here," he said insistently. The two thugs flitted their gazes between Gladion and each other, one of them shaking in what Ash presumed was fear. The other was more defiant.

    "Yo! You can't tell us what to do!" he challenged. Gladion's green eyes flashed angrily and Null hunkered down.

    "I said that it's time for you to leave." The voice was cold, and definitely got the message across, considering the way they each took out their pokeballs and began to scamper off, cursing under their breath at Gladion. It may have been more than that, though, judging from the vindictive looks they were throwing to Ash and Serena, the latter having clapped her hands with Popplio (the egg was tucked in the crook of her arm). Once they had fully vanished from sight, Gladion appeared to relax, adorning a small smile and patting Null on its head. "Good job, Null…and I see you haven't dulled since we last met, Ash."

    "You, too, Gladion," Ash greeted, reaching forward to take the blond's hand. "So, what're you doing around here?"

    "Work," was Gladion's simple one-word answer. The two disengaged hands and the blonde looked to Serena and Clemont, both of whom waved at him. "I'm glad to see you're all doing well, though. Here for the Brooklet Hill trial, then?"

    "Yep," was Ash's own one word response. His gaze traveled downward, now catching sight of the glint of Gladion's Z-Ring on his wrist. It was concealed by his sweatshirt (an odd fashion choice, all things considered) but was enough to be identified.

    "We got to Akala a few days ago," Serena spoke. "Guess we didn't think we'd run into you so soon, Gladion."

    "Nor did I," the boy smirked out, but he didn't fold his arms. He did look down at Pikachu, who smiled up at him, yet it did little to cure the awkwardness in the air between them. "But I'm…glad I did."

    "You are?" Clemont asked in surprise, earning a nod from Gladion. The boy's head hung a little before he started chuckling. When he looked up, he was almost actually smiling at Ash, taking the raven-haired trainer aback.

    "I've been working a lot on things since I got to Akala that I haven't had time for myself. Just doing odd jobs, cleaning up some of the boss' messes," Gladion admitted, shoving his hands in his pockets. Ash tilted his head, the memory of their first official meeting in the woods outside Iki Town coming back to him. Gladion had been on his time off, then, looking for…Lillie. Ash could only guess that it was a mere coincidence, likely he'd seen her in town and wanted to speak with her further, so he chose not to mention it further. "Though…I guess I have some time on my hands…"

    "Well, in that case, why don't we-" Suddenly, his and Gladion's stomachs began to rumble. Ash chuckled at it, but Gladion flushed a little, looking embarrassed over his clear state of hunger. Now that Ash glanced at him, it seemed like he hadn't eaten in a while. "Why don't we get some dinner? We'll buy."

    "You…you would do that?" Gladion asked in surprise. Ash gave a strange smile, not understanding the question.

    "Of course we would," Serena said. "We're friends, right?"

    "Friends…" Gladion said. Null looked up at him, prompting Gladion to place a hand on it once more. "Thanks. If you don't mind, I'd like that. I'm pretty hungry."

    "Great, I'll go get us some food inside, so why don't you get us a table?" Clemont suggested. Ash liked that idea, calling for Pikachu to return to him as he went behind Clemont into the Pokémon Center. Gladion was hesitant, but as Serena was waiting for him to move, he managed to follow after him.

    As expected, the entire Center was bustling with all the trainers from earlier, including a sitting Lana, who was staring out of the window absentmindedly. She was certainly a mysterious and aloof girl, but Ash ignored her in favor of a large table for them to sit at. Gladion took the seat next to the window, staring out it for a moment as the skyline darkened. Ash frowned a little until he felt Serena nudging him, as if telling him to speak. "So…uh…what kind of work do you do?"

    "Like I said, just little odd jobs. The boss allows me a lot of freedom, depending on what island I'm stationed on," Gladion admitted. He tore his eyes away from the window to look at Ash. In the background, a door slammed open and shut in quick succession. It went largely unnoticed due to Clemont arriving with their food. "And I like traveling. Gets my mind away from things."

    "Me, too!" Ash said with a grin. Pikachu agreed before swiping some ketchup and bringing it over to Null, resting at its trainer's feet. Null considered him strangely for a moment before leaning down and managing to lick the ketchup through its mask. Gladion chuckled at the sight.

    "Ash loves traveling," Serena said, taking a bite of the soup that Clemont had brought for them. "I'm surprised he managed to stay at home for six months without fidgeting too much."

    "Six months, huh?" Gladion commented. His eyes appeared to get clouded, lost in what was likely some memory. Ash chose to let the moment pass until Gladion opened his mouth and said something he likely hadn't intended. "So, you're like me…traveling to forget."

    "Forget?" Ash asked. For a brief moment, he remembered his father's death, but shook his head. He didn't want to forget. "Nah, I travel because I like meeting new people and Pokémon."

    "That's pretty optimistic of you," Gladion commented. Ash grinned at the thought, grabbing his bowl of soup and tipping it down his throat, swallowing it all in one gulp. Serena was shaking her head at the action but didn't comment upon it. "Never thought of it that way before. Traveling to meet new people…"

    "What exactly is it that you want to forget?" Clemont asked, munching into a sandwich. Ash reached for his own at the same time as Gladion, the two grabbing at the same one, accidentally tearing it apart. Neither considered it a great loss and wolfed it down.

    "Family," Gladion spat. The answer surprised Ash; family was something he never wanted to forget. Maybe that was why Gladion was always scowling, though it wasn't stopping him from tearing into the stack of sandwiches. "Dad's gone and mom's…I don't usually like to talk about it."

    "I lost my dad, too," Ash said. He couldn't stop the words from tumbling out. Serena and Clemont averted their eyes while Gladion stared at him. It was like he never thought it possible that anyone had experienced whatever pain he'd had. If anything, it made him look ashamed for thinking it. "Just after I met him, too…But…you know, I had all my friends. It helped me."

    "Then you're lucky," Gladion said, once more choosing to look out the window. "All I've known for years now is me and Null, all alone. Don't believe in anyone. Don't trust in anyone. If you don't, you can't feel pain."

    "There's always pain," Serena said. Out of the corner of his eye, Ash saw she was looking down. "Being alone is pain. That's why you can't…" She trailed off, not letting her words complete themselves for whatever reason. Ash could tell she was remembering Reeree, who had felt her soul ripped out; who had felt so alone that she felt nothing but pain.

    "But you don't have to be alone! After all, we're friends, right?" Ash asked, reaching out a fist towards Gladion. The blonde stared at it, as if he didn't even understand what it meant, only looking at the Z-Ring around his wrist. When he didn't say anything, Ash moved his eyes over to the battlefield outside. "And friends…they like to get in a good battle now and then. What do you say?"
    "That…" Gladion said, following the gaze before he actually smiled. "That sounds like a great idea. Maybe we can actually finish it, this time."

    "All right! Pikachu, let's go!"

    "Pikapi!" Pikachu acquiesced, bounding away from Null, who stood straight to follow after its own trainer. Serena called out for Ash, but he and Gladion were already getting into battle mode, heading for the field. He quickly saw his girlfriend throw her napkin down and stand before Clemont, who was busy dropping food on the floor from all the sudden movement. She was quickly after them until she reached the battlefield alongside the two of them, her egg clasped in the crook of her arm. Some trainers were there, eating outside as they waited for their Pokémon to be healed, but their attention was easily drawn to Ash and Gladion taking opposite ends of the battlefield.

    "All right, three-on-three sound good to you, Gladion?" Ash asked, punching forward. Gladion nodded, a light smile gracing his face. Ash could feel the palpable excitement between them. A battle between two trainers, exposing their feelings on the line that could only be borne in battle. It was like Ash was reaching out, waiting for Gladion to reciprocate, and when each grabbed their pokeballs, it felt like he did just that. Their hands had joined together as an invisible handshake, forging a connection between the two of them.

    "All right, then this battle will be a three-on-three between Ash and Gladion, and the battle will be over when all of either side's Pokémon are knocked out," Serena cried, taking up the post of referee over the scrambling Clemont. Seeing both ready, she lowered her hand, indicating for the battle to begin.

    "All right, Rockruff, I chose you!"

    "Salandit, time to battle!" The two capture devices exploded with light, and from them the first combatants appeared. Ash's eyes peered across the field at the opponent before him: a familiar Pokémon he had seen used by Team Skull, black in color with beady white eyes. It appeared to slither along the ground, snapping its jaw at Rockruff, who was hunkered down, growling. Gladion shifted his foot and took the first move. "Power it up with Nasty Plot!"

    "Rockruff, use Rock Polish!" Both of the Pokémon made their enhancements at once. While blue sparks shot off from Rockruff's body, Salandit glowed with purple smoke, surrounding its body in a haze as it hissed. Pikachu cheered next to Ash for Rockruff. "Now, let's go! Rock Throw!"

    "Dodge it," Gladion commanded sharply. Rockruff ran forward, kicking up dirt behind her as Salandit zipped to the side. Ash was surprised at its speed, but grinned. Rockruff was now faster. She aimed straight for Salandit, and the stones around her neck quickly jettisoned into the air, forming into a large rock that sailed forward. It was quick, too quick for Salandit to dodge fully. The geode slammed into Salandit, sending it across the battlefield. "Counter with Flame Burst!"

    "Ssssala…" Salandit hissed, opening its mouth wide. A red glow burgeoned within its maw and then it spat the shot of flame right out, sailing for Rockruff.

    "Get moving, Rockruff, around the field!" Rockruff barked and dashed to the side, her incredible speed once more showing. Even a speedster like Salandit was barely even able to keep up with it. The Flame Burst impacted with the dirt field, sending up a dust cloud as some of the embers split off. Those embers brushed onto Rockruff's fur and she winced a little, but remained alert. "Now, use Bite!"

    "Rrrrruf!" Rockruff growled, skidding to a stop and bounding forward, jaw open wide. Salandit, too blinded by the dust cloud, missed Rockruff coming overhead and biting into its tail. It hissed out in pain.

    "Flame Burst!" Gladion roared, bringing his hand up to his face and clenching it. Salandit turned around, showing incredible body flexibility as that same fire emerged from its mouth, hitting Rockruff in the face. She cried out, but remained holding on.

    "Swing it around," Ash called, keeping himself firmly planted. Rockruff reared back, keeping her jaws locked tight, and then she began to swing the Toxic Lizard Pokémon around powerfully before slamming it to the ground. Her jaw disengaged and she leapt backwards. "Finish it with Rock Throw!"

    "Toxic!" Gladion ordered, his fingers now curling into a fist. The pointed stones once more shot upward into the large rock. Salandit also opened its mouth, only this time there wasn't an orange glow. Instead, it was purple. Rockruff howled and flung her head, sending the rock at Salandit. At the same time, the purple stream of what looked like venom struck Rockruff, pushing her back slightly. Just before the stone made impact, she shook it off, though her body was wracked with momentary convulsions. Then the rock hit, creating a dust cloud that took several seconds to dissipate, revealing a fainted Salandit in its wake.

    "Salandit is unable to battle, Rockruff is the winner," Serena called, looking overjoyed at Ash's victory in the first round. Gladion shook his head, frowning as he returned Salandit. Rockruff shuddered once more. Salandit clearly was not the highest in the defensive realm.

    "You okay to keep going, Rockruff?" Ash asked of his team member. Rockruff yipped loudly to show she was still good. Gladion, meanwhile, seemed to have his expression waver between a smirk, a smile and a frown. Then he tossed his next pokeball.

    "Your turn, Mareanie," he said brusquely. Once more, an unfamiliar Pokémon appeared from Gladion's capture device. Ash sighed internally, wondering why Rotom had to choose now of all times to tease Bonnie (because there was no doubt of that happening). However, he kept himself focusing on the battle, not letting his body betray the fact that he didn't know about the Pokémon before him, purple in body with blue, floppy tendrils like hair. It was an unknown, and one Ash knew he'd have to be careful with.

    "Then let's go. Rockruff, use Bite!" Ash ordered, bringing his fist sharply up into the air.

    "Rock! Ruff!" Rockruff barked out and she once more ran for her opponent. Ash's eyes narrowed, realizing that she was moving slower than before, the poison already sapping her of strength and energy. He'd have to end this quickly.

    "Protect!" Gladion called, his expression now firmly settled into a smirk. Mareanie's tendrils snapped out and between them, a blue shield was formed. Rockruff's jaw slammed into it, and she slid down the side, whimpering slightly as the poison wracked her body. "Now, Venoshock!"

    "Rockruff, dodge!" Ash called firmly. It would not be a pretty result if Venoshock were to hit. Rockruff struggled to her feet, the poison slowing her down in every way. Ash gritted his teeth, hoping she'd get up, only for Mareanie to fling purple globules at Rockruff. They made contact, tinging her body violet for just a second before she whimpered and fell to the ground. "Rockruff!"

    "Rock…Rockruff is unable to battle. Mareanie is the winner," Serena said. From the side of the battlefield, some trainers clapped, praising the way that the battle was going. Ash could only stare in shock at how easily it had ended. He grabbed Rockruff's pokeball and returned her, thanking her for the good battle. Then he stared across at Gladion.

    The boy was shrewd, reminding him of Paul in a way, though perhaps not nearly so sacrificial when it came to his Pokémon. However, he was still a tactician. The second he saw the battle going south for Salandit, he'd already set up a means to obliterate Rockruff. At the same time, though, he felt there was more to it than that, and he searched Gladion for an answer. "Mareanie has the ability Merciless. It makes any attack that hits a poisoned Pokémon even more powerful. When combined with Venoshock…"

    "It's like an instant knockout," Ash said, chuckling under his breath. Now the result made so much more sense. He also knew what he had to look out for. So, he gripped another pokeball and tossed it into the air. "Pikipek, I choose you!"

    "Pikeee!" Pikipek cried, spreading her wings as she stared fiercely down at Mareanie, the Pokémon appearing to not care. Ash narrowed his eyes as Gladion stood there, not making a move. He was baiting him, no doubt, and he was prepared for that bet.

    "All right, Pikipek, be careful and use Peck!" Pikipek shouted and then dove straight at Mareanie, her beak glowing white. Once more, Gladion was smirking and Ash could feel that he was starting to get into the battle. It was the furthest they had gotten before being interrupted, after all.

    "Protect, now!" Gladion ordered, pulling the same exact thing as last time. It was just as Ash expected.

    "Pull up and use Feather Dance, quickly," he called, sweeping his arm out. Pikipek pulled to a halt instantly, showing the mastery of her flight before flapping her wings. Before the blue shield could erect itself, the feathers that resulted from her wings settled around Mareanie, making it shiver. "Now, Echoed Voice!"

    "Pikeeeeee!" Pikipek cried, the bright soundwaves firing off and hammering into the Protect before it faded away and drove Mareanie backwards.

    "Venoshock, let's go!" Gladion ordered. Mareanie raised its tendrils and from the stingers on the end of it, fired off the purple globules. Ash instantly called for a dodge and Pikipek went swooping and sliding through the air. Mareanie didn't stop its assault, firing orb after orb of the purple liquid. Ash watched, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Pikipek twirled, the buffet of air sending her into a spin that avoided one of the attacks.

    "Echoed Voice again, right now!" Pikipek snapped to attention and opened her mouth, blasting the blue soundwaves out. It was even more powerful than before, this time driving the Venoshock back into the ground, where it caused the dirt to smoke. Mareanie had a harder time than the ground though, especially as Pikipek began moving closer with her ever powerful attack from successive use.

    "Protect, quick!"

    "Maree…" Mareanie gasped out, but its tendrils lifted up enough to create the opalescent shield that ended Pikipek's attack. Then it faded and Gladion quickly gave his next order. Once more, Mareanie's tendrils raised.

    "Get out of the way, Pikipek!" Ash cried, but his command was in vain. He was falling into the same trap all over again. Gladion was a master at using Mareanie to get close, only to attack. Pikipek was slammed by the purple glob and dropped to the ground, struggling to get up as the Brutal Star Pokémon shuffled forward. Ash clenched his fist. "Pikipek, use Peck right away!"

    "Piki!" Pikipek called. She raised onto her wings and, despite the exhaustion, shot into the air, spinning around. She didn't even stop spinning, her beak growing all the larger as she headed right for Mareanie. A smile blossomed on Ash's face; she'd learned Drill Peck. The elongated attack slammed powerfully into Mareanie, driving it back with a cry.

    "We have them, now! Use Liquidation!" Pikipek couldn't break away, not before two of Mareanie's tendrils wrapped themselves around her beak. Then the others all shimmered with an aqueous quality before slamming in on every inch of Pikipek's body, battering it with splashes of water until their aim was done. Mareanie let go, and Pikipek dropped to the ground.

    "Pikipek is unable to battle. Mareanie is the winner," Serena commented with a sigh. Ash didn't bother gritting his teeth this time. Both of his Pokémon had done a great job, and now he had an idea of just what Mareanie could do. He returned his flier.

    "Great job, Pikipek. You ready to bring it home, Pikachu?" Ash asked of his beloved partner at his side. Pikachu flexed his muscles and then ran out onto the field. The spectators around them were starting to get quite interested now, though they didn't move towards Serena in order to give her space. "All right, Gladion, I know everything there is to know about Mareanie now."

    "Really?" Gladion asked with a confident smirk. "Guess we'll have to see if that's true. Use Venoshock!"

    "Use Quick Attack to dodge it!" Ash called. Pikachu bounded off powerfully across the field. Mareanie's tendrils lifted, firing the globules at Pikachu. He dashed to the side and then to the other. The Brutal Star Pokémon attempted to aim, but Pikachu was too fast, dodging every single one of the projectiles. Then he made impact with Mareanie, driving it backward. "Thunderbolt!"

    "Don't let it make contact! Protect!" Somehow, Ash knew that Gladion was going to make that order. As Pikachu let loose the searing electricity from his body, Mareanie formed the turquoise shield, completely nullifying the attack. Yet, at the same time, through the dust swirling around from the collision of the attack on the shield, Ash saw an opening.

    "Go up, Pikachu!" Ash cried. Pikachu rolled onto his tail and then used it to spring straight upwards, rolling through the air like he was in a performance before spinning towards Mareanie and the blind spot on its back half. "Now, Iron Tail!"

    "Catch it!" Just like with Pikipek, Mareanie's tendrils snapped outward, catching ahold of Pikachu's tail just as he made contact. Trainer and Pokémon grinned; it was just what they were waiting for. Serena gasped. She knew what was coming.

    "Now, Pikachu, Electro Ball!"

    "Pika pika pika pika pika chu pi!" The orb of pulsing shocks formed at the tip of his tail and then exploded before Mareanie could do anything. Ash watched as Pikachu flipped back through the air, landing on his side of the battlefield. The dust from the resultant attack faded, revealing a passed out Mareanie.

    "Mareanie is unable to battle, so Pikachu wins!" Serena cried. The score was once more even. Gladion shook his head, almost chuckling as he returned his second Pokémon. Ash's mouth changed, forming a thin line. He knew what was coming next; so, did Gladion. This was the real battle they had been waiting to rematch with.

    "Null, you're up," Gladion said. The air on the battlefield almost imperceptibly changed, but for the two battling there, the air was brimming with static. They had tested each other now, understood one another and their battling styles. It was time to make use of that to pull out a victory. Ash's Z-Ring clinked on his arm as he moved it, wondering if Pikachu and he would be able to use it this time, knowing Null could get them into that pinch. Those watching the battle silenced, and Ash noticed that Bonnie, Clemont and Rotom had joined them outside. He lowered his head a fraction. "Metal Sound!"

    "Huuuuuuuu!" Null screeched, sending out a horrible sound that made Ash grimace. Pikachu hunkered down, cringing from the move. It made it impossible to hear anything else, including Gladion's command. Before the sound had even faded, Null had rushed forward, its claw glowing blood red as it swiped across Pikachu.

    "Pika…!" Pikachu cried painfully as he was knocked into the air, wincing.

    "Pikachu, use Thunderbolt!" Pikachu didn't even bother trying to recover, sending out his searing arc of electricity. It partially scattered around the field until it found its mark. The yellow sparks and red aura around Null mixed and mingled together, but Ash knew they weren't done yet. "Spin and use Iron Tail!"

    "Chuuuuu pika!" Pikachu cried, finally righting himself in the air in time to do quick spins downward, much like Serena and Pancham would do in battle. Null shifted its feet. Ash snapped his gaze to Gladion, the boy almost trying to hide his grin. He actually was enjoying this. That meant he was giving it his all. It would certainly make the battle quicker.

    "Iron Head, block it!" he yelled. Pikachu's tail came crashing down upon Null's head as it glowed a silvery-gray. White sparks flew off from the collision of the two, but Pikachu was struggling far too much. In a matter of seconds, Pikachu was tossed back from the Iron Head, slamming upon the ground. He pulled himself up quickly though, looking back at Ash to assure him that he was okay.

    "Great, Quick Attack, max speed!" Ash ordered, punching forward powerfully. Pikachu grinned and dashed to the side with his blinding white aura. Null turned to catch a glimpse of him, but as soon as he had, Pikachu had vanished, confusing the Pokémon as he ran about. It was just like with Machamp. Finally, Ash had his opening. "Electro Ball!"

    "Take it," Gladion said. It was an odd order, but as Pikachu flung his orb of electricity and it impacted with Null, the result became clear: Gladion was building its Rage attack. "Now!"

    "Ho!" Null shouted as it ran at Pikachu, catching him in the middle of his action. Its claw slammed at Pikachu, making his partner have wide eyes for just a second before Pikachu went flying, off the battlefield and into the wall of the Pokémon Center.

    "Pikachu!" Ash cried out. Null looked almost ashamed at the way it had attacked, especially with the look of consternation that Gladion was giving it. Thankfully, it proved a moot point.

    "Pika…pi…" Pikachu grunted out. Ash heard Serena breathe in relief as Pikachu emerged from the rubble and ran over. He looked rather beaten up, but still prepared to continue the fight. In fact, now that he thought about it, Pikachu's attacks had done some damage to Null, who had taken them all in order to power up its Rage attack. He looked down to his Z-Ring. They really were pushed into a corner.

    "Pikachu…let's try it," he said calmly. Pikachu looked up and nodded, pulling himself to a standing position. They wouldn't be able to take much more, but if they nailed this…

    "Null, you get ready, too," Gladion spoke sternly. It was like the two trainers were on the same wavelength. Gladion's sleeve pulled back, revealing a Z-Ring that had sandy stones as its base, almost covered in moss, a white light shining from it. Both trainers crossed their arms in front of themselves and then brought their hands to the sides, their Pokémon mimicking their actions before separating their arms and boxing their bodies.

    "Breakneck Blitz!" they cried simultaneously. Ash's face was screwed up in focus, he and Pikachu both feeling the desperation. Yet nothing was happening. On their side, at least. The fist that his Z-Ring was touching clenched, nails driving into its palm as bright white light surrounded Null and it began charging across the field. The dirt was ripped up, leaving nothing but a mess in its wake. All Pikachu could do, surprised they hadn't mastered it, was take the attack. Ash readied himself.

    Null impacted powerfully with Pikachu, a guttural scream echoing out from within its helmet. Pikachu flew backwards in pain, cuts all over his body, yet enduring. Ash dove for him, catching his partner as he rolled onto the battlefield. Serena didn't need to call the result. They all knew what it was as the aura faded from Null and it pulled to a stop. Ash had lost. He grimaced a little.

    *Chapter to be continued in next post...

  5. #30
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    Chapter continued from last post.

    Again…we still can't do it…Ash said to himself. He wanted to beat himself up, but refused to do it in front of Serena and all the others. In fact, he didn't even look up at them all, not wanting to see how disappointed they likely were in him losing because he'd failed…again.

    "Pikapi…" Pikachu groaned out, clearly exhausted. Clemont walked up to Ash, tossing him a Sitrus Berry for Pikachu to eat. Ash offered it to his partner gratefully, turning his lips upward in an attempt to feel better about the situation. Gladion and Null, the latter looking exhausted, approached.

    "Pikachu is an amazing Pokémon," the blond spoke. At those words of praise, Ash looked up at his rival, the boy offering his hand. It was the first time that it felt like he'd really done so. Ash smiled a bit at that and reached up to take it, standing as the other spectators all walked away from the titanic battle. "I don't think Null's ever really had so difficult a fight."

    "Thanks. Pikachu and I have been together since the beginning, so of course he's my most dependable Pokémon," Ash insisted, scratching his partner behind the ears. His grin faded to a frown. "But we still can't get the Z-Move to work, no matter how close we are."

    "I noticed," Gladion admitted. He folded his arms, though it seemed more thoughtful than surly in expression this time. "You two are close, no doubt; a lot closer than Null and I. So, I don't know…"

    "It must be something else then," Serena said. Ash flinched a little, fearing disappointment in her tone until he felt her soothing touch on his shoulder. That allowed him to relax, bringing him back to Kiawe's words. Maybe there's been no need. Ash sighed, running a hand up to his neck. Gladion watched him before looking away, lost in a memory.

    "Truth be told, I struggled with Z-Moves as well," Gladion told him. That easily got Ash's attention. "We weren't able to use them very well, but it didn't matter much, because we were so strong. Then, one day, we got into some real trouble. Null was roughed up, and I could barely stand. We were fighting for our lives and that was when it all clicked. Guess we had to reach our lowest point for it to happen."

    "Hmm…" Ash mused. Hearing Gladion's story, his theory, it all made sense…but Ash didn't like it. He'd fought enough, struggled enough to keep him and others around him alive during Kalos. That wasn't something he wanted. If that was what was required to activate Z-Moves, he'd have preferred not using them altogether. Still, he was grateful for the advice, bringing with it a question. "So, does that mean you're completing the trials, Gladion?"

    "In my spare time. Not like I'm outright taking the Island Challenge, though," the blonde admitted, unfolding his arms.

    "Which Kahuna did you get your Z-Ring from, then?" Ash asked. Gladion appeared taken aback by the question, and almost seemed to not want to answer.

    "It certainly looks different from the ones Ash and the trial captains on Akala have," Clemont noted. "Honestly, I'd love to study them and see what they're all about. It would make for a fascinating invention if I could wrap my head around the mechanics."

    "I didn't get mine from a Kahuna," Gladion answered, cutting off Clemont's fanboying. "I…I received mine straight from Tapu Bulu, the guardian deity of Ula'ula Island."

    "Huh…" Ash commented. He didn't think he'd hear something like that, but glancing at the Z-Ring on his own wrist, he realized that it really wasn't all that farfetched to begin with. "Then we're the same. I got mine from Tapu Koko."

    "You did?" Gladion asked in surprise. He opened his mouth, almost like a gaping Magikarp, obviously wanting to answer when something beeped loudly on his figure. Gladion's gaping expression gave way to a scowl and he pulled out the same device he'd answered during their last encounter. This time there was no answering, but the scowl didn't go away. "Well, looks like my next assignment has come in."

    "Where are you heading?" Serena asked, stepping forward. Gladion reached up, closing his eyes as he rubbed the back of his head.

    "Hano Grand Resort, for the moment," he told them. "If I have some time, there are other places I'll want to explore on Akala before they transfer me. How about yourselves?"

    "After I complete the trial here and in Lush Jungle, we're heading for Heahea City and the Leilani Ceremony," Ash's answer came. Gladion nodded his head and then smiled, extending his hand once more.

    "Then maybe we'll see each other there," he said. Ash accepted the hand. "We had a great battle. Thanks, Ash. I needed it."

    "Not a problem. Only, the next time we battle, I'll be the winner!"

    "We'll see," he smirked out in response. "Clemont, Serena. Take care of yourselves."

    "Bye." Gladion nodded a couple more times, and then, without waiting, he ran back into the Pokémon Center and was out the door, leaving them all behind. Serena never removed her hand from Ash's shoulder and instead spun him to face her. "Ash, you should have Nurse Joy look over your Pokémon. That was pretty intense."

    "Oh, right," Ash stated. Cradling Pikachu in his arms, he detached from Serena, running into the Center proper. Bonnie was no longer manning the desk, but Ash knew where to find Nurse Joy. Jogging along, he turned to see Lana watching him with a curious expression. It creeped him out a little, but his Pokémon proved to be more important. Lillie was the one to open the door, looking pale. "You okay, Lillie? You don't look so well. Like you saw a Ghost Pokémon."

    "Don't joke about that!" Lillie insisted, clutching at her chest. Ash just laughed, hoping to lighten the mood. "And I'm fine. Is Pikachu okay?"

    "Just a tough battle. Can Nurse Joy look them over?" Ash asked, handing both Pikachu and his two pokeballs over to the blonde. Lillie nodded, putting a smile on her face, just as Nebby popped out to say hi, almost making it free from the bag before his caretaker grabbed him. She quickly shoved him back inside and then turned into the backroom. Ash just rotated his body and leaned against the wall.

    It had been a fun battle; one they could really go all out during. And for just a moment, he'd gotten to see Gladion for who he was, connecting in a way that perhaps no other person had for the blond. More than that, he'd gotten to see more of Null and its unbelievable feral strength. That made a grin blossom. He'd finally found another person to push him, and it fully excited him for the future battles with the boy and his upcoming trial, even as he fell to a dreamless sleep aside Serena and her ever-rhythmic breathing.


    "It's a gooooooood Rotom morning! Wee-oo! Wee-oo! Wee-oo!" Ash snapped forward, his hand sliding across Serena before he realized it. Pikachu slid off his chest, tumbling along to the floor and banging his head a little, shaking it.

    "Fire! Where's the fire? Which one exploded this time?" Clemont shouted in a rush, fumbling for his glasses and accidentally knocking them to the floor. Ash rubbed his eyes while Serena sat up with him, placing a hand on his chest as she leered blurrily over at Rotom. Sun was just beginning to peek into their room at the Pokémon Center.

    "Pewpew!" Nebby said, sounding like jingles as he floated over to Clemont's glasses, picking them up with his mouth and handing them to the inventor. Clemont thanked him and jammed the glasses on, finally getting a clearer view of things.

    "That was veeeeery nice of you, Nebby," Lillie yawned out. Ash had to blink over at her. For all their travels together, it was the first time, he realized, that he'd seen Lillie dressed in her sleeping clothes. As it turned out, they weren't all that different from her normal clothes, perhaps just made of a lighter material. What was different was that her hair had come out of its braided style, falling in a more consistent stream around her face. She seemed to notice she was yawning and quickly covered her mouth, looking embarrassed.

    "Rotom…" growled Bonnie's tired voice. Ash finally saw Rotom, the Pokédex floating along in midair, looking as happy as could be.

    "Today is the day of Ash's second trial. Rotom is most excited! Rotom will witness the next Totem Pokémon!" Rotom said, zipping around the room at max speed. "So, everyone should get up!"

    "You didn't need to wake us up so harshly, though," Serena commented, moving her legs so they hung off the bed. Ash took that as his own cue to get dressed for the day and he, too reached for his clothes while his girlfriend checked on the egg positioned on the bedside table.

    "Yes, I'm sure one of my alarm clocks would have done the trick," Clemont said, himself not moving. Ash genuinely wasn't sure if Clemont figured his alarm clock would actually work or if it's resultant explosion would wake them up. Bonnie didn't appear to care either way.

    "Dedenne…get him," was Bonnie's threat. Dedenne scampered to the edge of the bed, summoning electricity to himself. Pikachu turned around in shock, yelling a brief warning. The warning proved to be well-founded as in Dedenne's attempt to release the electricity, it was too much and he fell back, bringing the full brunt of his attempt at Parabolic Charge on Bonnie. Rotom floated close.

    "Bonnie and Dedenne are still half-pints! Half-pints!"

    "Yeah, well you're an annoying, stupid Pokémon!" Bonnie shot back angrily. Clemont was finally out of bed now and holding Bonnie back from attacking Rotom with her own bare hands.

    "Rotom, stop it," Ash scolded the Pokédex. "We're friends here, and Bonnie's working really hard. Stop giving her grief." Rotom blinked, showing question marks on its screen, but eventually seemed to take Ash's advice, flitting away from Bonnie. As Clemont calmed his sister down, Ash quickly got dressed and then waited for Serena and Lillie to take turns in getting dressed, themselves. When everything had finally settled down, their group headed out to breakfast.

    Things were much quieter now from how they'd been the day before, although glancing out the window showed that the ominous clouds were still hanging over Brooklet Hill. Ash paid it little mind and sat down for a hearty breakfast. They were some of the only ones in the Pokémon Center lobby, but most importantly was that Lana was nowhere to be found. Her absence was soon answered by the arrival of Nurse Joy.

    "Ash," the nurse spoke as they finished up their breakfast, "I have a message for you, from the captain. She says to meet her at Brooklet Hill for your trial, and that she'll be waiting."

    "All right!" Ash said, finishing his eggs quickly and standing. He and Pikachu pumped their fists into the air until they noticed Nurse Joy holding something out to them.

    "You'll also want to take these, she said," the nurse indicated. Ash looked down at it, realizing the massive stack in her arms were a bunch of raincoats, all relatively color coordinated. He took them with confusion as the nurse ambled away to speak to the Psyduck boy from earlier. Slightly confused, Ash shrugged and waited for the others to finish breakfast before handing them each a coat.

    Fully fed and energized, Ash took the initiative to lead them out of the door. As noted the day before, the signs indicating a trial site were a mere few feet away from the Pokémon Center, just like Verdant Cavern. That meant there wasn't far to go for their entire group to run. The pitter patter of raindrops began to fall, lightly hitting the top of Ash's head. He slung his blue raincoat over himself as it began to fall in a more consistent stream, soon obscuring his vision moving forward. Ash's feet hit the wooden bridges leading into Brooklet Hill and he cast his gaze around, looking for Lana. To his surprise, there was no barrier this time, but the second Lillie, the final member of their group, passed the threshold in her white raincoat, the blue shield suddenly spread up, locking them in. Ash still faced forward, noticing Lana sitting on a rock through the rain, fishing idly as the water fell around her. She looked at him as they approached, smiling.

    "Welcome to the trial of Lana," she said in the same soft voice she'd used when he first saw her. "Are you ready, Ash?"

    "I sure am!" he said proudly, rolling his shoulder back and forth with a grin, listening to the raindrops hitting his coat. Lana laughed a little, a hand by her mouth. Then she placed her fishing rod down and stood.

    "Then choose a companion." Ash and Pikachu both tilted their heads, not quite understanding what she was getting at. "For my trial, you're allowed to have a friend along until you face the Totem Pokémon. Once you've chosen a companion, the trial of Lana can officially begin."

    "Oh, hmm…" Ash said, folding his arms with a squelching of the jacket. He had to choose between one of the four friends with him, knowing he'd be heading into the rain. There was no way to know the task before him, which could only mean the choice was perfectly obvious. "Well, then, I'll choose Clemont."

    The inventor's mouth dropped straight open.



    Author's Note: So, this chapter ironically deviated greatly from my outline, but I feel turned out better as a result. We met Lana, who was oodles of fun to write. We reunited with Gladion, God bless his edgelord soul. And yes, Ash lost; but against a savage like Null using Z-Moves, can we blame him? Speaking of, indeed, Ash is still struggling with said Z-Moves and the reason is becoming clearer. Most importantly, though, the second trial is about to begin, and Clemont is along for the ride this time! I'll explain more next chapter.

    It's been a great time with all of you so far, so I hope we have more enjoyment on this story together. So, until Sunday, remember to Review and Dare to Be Silly.

  6. #31
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    Here we go with the second trial! Also, a Happy Easter to all! Now, Chapter 18 time!


    Chapter 18

    A Storm

    "Me? Ash, are you sure?" Clemont practically stammered out. He genuinely couldn't believe that out of all the people his best friend could have picked, it would actually be him. Ash turned to him with a bemused expression.

    "Well, yeah. Why not?" Ash asked him. On the boy's shoulder, Pikachu nodded. Clemont pressed his glasses up, somewhat unable to see through the fog that was resulting in the cool downpour.

    "Because I'm sure someone like Serena is a much better option for this sort of thing," Clemont pointed out, looking over to his other friend. The honey blonde appeared to frown at Clemont's underestimation of himself, but he knew it to be true. Out of all of them, he was the least athletic, the least predisposed to deal with danger, and was quickly showing himself to become the weakest when looking strength-wise of their group (if one didn't count Lillie and Bonnie, at least). "Why don't you take Serena along? I'm sure she'll help you clear the trial much faster than I will."

    "Nope, I want you," Ash said, throwing his arm around Clemont. Water flew in the air from off their rain jackets. Oddly enough, Lana didn't seem to mind at all, standing there in the rain like the sun was still shining brightly. "Come on, Clemont, don't sell yourself short!"

    "Ash…I'm not…I won't…" Clemont struggled to get out of Ash's grip, but suddenly froze. Ash did as well, and both boys looked over to Lana, staring at them in the rain. The two swallowed, feeling the palpable aura of…well, it wasn't quite bloodlust, but whatever it was chilled them more than the rain ever could.

    "Just choose already," Lana said in a low voice, reminding Clemont of how the girl had been outside the Pokémon Center just yesterday. She was certainly a scary one, but Clemont still had his misgivings over Ash's choice. He pushed his friend away.

    "Look, Ash, I like helping you, but I just can't see myself helping during a trial."

    "Clemont, don't be ridiculous," Bonnie snapped. She was clearly still miffed at Rotom from earlier that morning. "You have lotsa stuff to offer! Inventions, Pokémon, you're a Gym Leader from Kalos, and you're my big brother, so that has to count for something."

    "She's right, Clemont," Serena spoke up. He turned to look at her almost in exasperation, but she simply smiled at him with her egg safely in her arms for a second before she placed it gingerly in her bag, Lillie right next to her. Nebby looked to be poking out of the bag before retreating right back in from the rain. "You're a wonderful trainer. Far better than I am, and I'm sure Ash would have chosen me in seconds if I was the better choice. That he picked you simply proves you'd be the best."

    "But we don't even know what this trial is!" Clemont snapped. Suddenly, he blinked, as if hearing how he sounded. Gritting his teeth a little, Clemont felt like he could have beaten himself up. Since when had he started sounding so negative again? After all the work he'd put in through Kalos, following after Ash, gaining courage, it felt like he was chasing after the boy's back again. All it had taken was one person to feel like he was back to before everything. Finally, he shook his head.

    "That's the point!" Ash told him. Clemont finally looked up at him, evening his breathing, putting a smile back on his face. "You're really smart, and because we don't know what we need to do, I can rely on you to help me figure things out. Plus, there's all this rain."

    "All right, I understand," Clemont finally said, putting his hands in front of him. He smiled and formed a fist with both hands. He couldn't let Ash down by continuing to argue this. "I'll make sure to see you through this trial until the very end!"

    "Yes!" Ash said, the two reaching forward and clasping hands with one another.

    "Speaking of rain…" Lana said absentmindedly. Both Ash and Clemont turned to face the girl, herself staring up at the dark clouds overhead, endlessly pouring rain above them. She looked almost distracted, a far cry from how she was behaving earlier. Lana was most definitely a strange one. "Something has been making it rain over Brooklet Hill for days…I sent other trial-goers into the hill to examine it all, but no one was successful in figuring out what could be causing it."

    "Maybe it's a Pokémon," Lillie said, holding her rain jacket tight around her. Lana looked down now, but instead of her gaze being directed at the girl who'd just spoken, she instead looked at Ash.

    "I think I'll make that your trial," Lana said with a smile. Only, Clemont noticed that her eyes weren't smiling the way her mouth was. This girl was far more shrewd than she let on, and even if Ash wasn't picking up on it, Clemont knew he'd have to pay attention. It seemed like Serena and Bonnie were picking up on the same, though their gazes were directed elsewhere, towards the rock formation on the sides of the pond they were standing on. "Find what's causing the rain and I'll battle you for the Waterium-Z. Hint: I don't think it's Kyogre. I went looking."

    "K-Kyogre…?" Clemont stuttered out. This girl was very clearly off her rocker. The captain turned around and began walking back towards a herd of Lapras that were resting on the water's surface, next to planks that stretched across the ponds that made up Brooklet Hill.

    "Yes, he's sometimes friendly to Brooklet Hill, I think…though I've never seen him," Lana stated, throwing some of the reins off the Lapras, like she preparing them for departure. "Oh, and can you make it quick? I'm hungry, so if you finish by lunch, that'd be great."

    "We'll definitely do it," Ash said, holding a fist up. Clemont nodded fervently, agreeing with the notion. "You'll cheer us on, right Se…rena?" Ash's trailing words caught Clemont's own attention and he turned to look at the raven-haired trainer's girlfriend. Bonnie and Serena were still looking up, shivering in the rain for a moment. Lillie watched them curiously.

    "Is everything all right?" Clemont asked. His louder voice cut through the pitter patter of the rain, making the girls turn to look at them. Serena was wearing a concerned expression upon her face.

    "Y-yeah…just felt odd. Like we were being watched by something," Serena commented. She shook her head immediately after. "But, as Dawn always says, no need to worry! We'll cheer you on from wherever we are."

    "Yes, most profusely!" Lillie confirmed. Her braids looked odd under the wet rain, but her faced was enthused. Clemont, however, was more worried about Serena's words. He hadn't even noticed if they were being watched, and nor did Ash. It seemed almost odd that the girls had been able to sense it when even Ash, someone who appeared to sense danger on a daily basis, hadn't.

    "Bonnie…" he asked of his sister.

    "It didn't feel like a bad something. Right, Dedenne?" Bonnie said. Dedenne squeaked out an affirmative from inside Bonnie's bag. "Just…strange…Almost familiar."

    "Rotom will go look," Rotom offered, floating upward to the top of the rock face. Clemont watched the Pokédex a moment until it just as suddenly returned. "Rotom saw nothing."

    "Then there's nothing to worry about," Serena insisted, holding out a fist. Ash and Clemont grinned at one another before reaching in to tap their fists against hers. As soon as they connected, the three of them raised their fists high. "You just focus on your trial, okay, Ash?"

    "Sounds like a plan to me!" Ash said positively, bringing his fist down in front of his face. "You all go with Lana. Clemont and I will be there in no time."

    "Right. Stay safe, big brother," Bonnie said, running up to Clemont and hugging him a moment. The three girls then turned and ran over to Lana and the waiting Lapras. Ash and Clemont followed after them at a much slower pace, only nearing the planks of wood that formed a bridge across the pond once they were all seated on the Lapras. To the side, he could hear rushing water and as he turned to look, he saw a large canal that appeared to run down the hill, though it looked far too violent for most to take.

    "The Trial of Lana begins now," Lana said, almost cheerfully this time. "And if you see any swimmer boys, let me know. Lapras, let's go."

    Just like that, the Lapras were taking off, ferrying their friends away from them and leaving them all in the soaking rain. Ash breathed in, Pikachu shaking his fur to get the water off him in a vain effort. When he turned to Clemont and lowered the hood on his raincoat, the inventor could tell how positively thrilled he was to have started his second trial.

    "All right, we just have to figure out what's causing the rain, right?" Ash said, pounding his hand into his fist. "Any ideas?"

    "Not really," Clemont chuckled out. Both of the boys tilted their heads, placing fingers to their chins in thought. Now that Clemont was actually putting his mind to it, he realized that Lana's instructions were very vague, though it was hardly a surprise given how airheaded she tended to act. That's when it hit him. Perhaps Lana had given them a clue to find what they were looking for. It was really a matter of finding them before the arbitrary time limit Lana had given them was up. "Maybe it really is a Pokémon doing it, or at least one of its abilities?"

    "That's brilliant, Clemont!" Ash shouted, pumping his fist in the rain. Clemont just chuckled nervously, not really sure the deduction could be considered brilliant, given Lillie had given a close enough one before. "I wonder what Pokémon could be doing it, though…I mean, even with Rain Dance, there's no way a storm like this could be created."

    "You have a point…" Clemont agreed. "Why don't we look around a bit? It seems like there's various lakes and ponds here. Maybe if we get a better idea of what Pokémon are around, we can figure things out."

    "Right, and we'll get the others to help us out. Guys, come on out!" Ash called, taking all four of his pokeballs and tossing them into the air. The bright lights shined, even through the rain, revealing all four of Ash's other Pokémon.

    "You come out as well, Grubbin!" Clemont called, tossing his newest Pokémon's pokeball high. Ash peered at the little Bug type curiously. "If it isn't a Pokémon, or is some type of machine, Grubbin would help to find it. So…anything?"

    "Grubgrub," Grubbin said, moving back and forth, as though shaking his head.

    "All right," Ash said, shaking his head and adjusting his hat. "Guys, let's examine the area."

    "Gren," Greninja agreed, and he turned right around to dive straight into the water on their first pond. Rockruff, however, didn't even move, whimpering lightly as the rain hit her fur. Dartrix, catching sight of this, appeared to reach over and cover her with his wings.

    "Ah, sorry, Rockruff," Ash said apologetically. Pikipek was taking to the air, looking around carefully while Pikachu ran across the small bridge, glancing from side to side. "Would you rather stay inside?"

    "Rrruff!" Rockruff declined, evidently choosing to stay positive for her trainer. Ash accepted that and he began walking forward while Dartrix removed himself from the puppy and took to the skies. Clemont went right behind him, Grubbin sticking to his pack, along for the ride. Greninja was swimming back and forth as the two boys watched the pond, the rain causing ripples in it. A slight peal of thunder sounded out near the end of the hill, rumbling up and shaking the water. Some Magikarp scattered away.

    "Anything, Greninja?" Ash asked of his Water type. Greninja popped his head out, shaking it disappointingly.

    "Ninja gren, gren Greninja," he said slowly. Ash folded his arms and looked up. Both Dartrix and Pikipek were circling, a little lower than usual from being weighted by the rain, but neither seemed to have found anything remotely interesting. Clemont's hand returned to stroking his chin.

    "Perhaps it's further down…" he mused.

    "Hmm…maybe…" Ash said. He looked far more contemplative than Clemont was used to seeing. Typically, the boy was always an "act first, think later" type of individual, but here he was pensive. It made Clemont start thinking a little more, himself. While his idea of moving further into the hill wasn't a bad one, there was also the feeling that perhaps they needed to analyze the pond they were in.

    He snapped his fingers with an idea and took his backpack off. Ash watched him as he took out two small attachable flashlights. At the same time, he pressed a button on his backpack and his Heliolisk Light appeared, shining down into the pond, cutting through the rain. "Here, Pikachu and Greninja can both swim decently, so how about they wear these flashlights, so maybe we can see what's going on. The pond is rather small and shallow, after all."

    "Sounds like a good idea. You up for it, buddy?" Ash asked of Pikachu. The Electric mouse nodded, allowing Clemont to bend down and place the flashlight around his head, the electricity causing it to light up. Pikachu looked enthusiastic and dove into the water as Greninja approached, allowing Clemont to do the same for his wrist.

    Once they were off, the two trainers watched the Pokémon flit about the water, scattering Magikarp at every turn. In fact, that was all Clemont saw: Magikarp. There was nothing else. For a place that appeared to have many different kinds of flora and seemed like it would be a haven for Water Pokémon of all kinds, it was remarkably…not diverse. The inventor turned to his friend, who was petting Rockruff. Dartrix and Pikipek descended, landing on the wooden planks.

    "We should move on, Ash," Clemont noted. Ash stood, nodding.

    "There are a lot of Magikarp here. Do you think the other Pokémon or whatever's causing it are definitely further in?" Ash asked. Clemont nodded slowly. That deduction appeared to be good enough for Ash because he called Pikachu and Greninja back. Both of his older Pokémon returned, taking off the flashlights as they pulled themselves onto the wooden bridge.

    "It's odd that there's nothing but Magikarp," Clemont pointed out. Ash nodded, having obviously figured out much of the same. That fact surprised Clemont a little, but he supposed that Ash was simply treating the trial like a battle, making his senses sharpened.

    "Maybe the next lake can tell us more. I can see it now," Ash pointed out, holding his finger forward. Clemont could see it, too, bringing his feet onto solid ground away from the small pond. At the edge of a drop-off, Clemont could now look down to the much larger and far less shallow lake that made up the second tier of Brooklet Hill. Turning his head from side to side, he could note that the canal from earlier was definitely a violent one, inaccessible from anywhere but the top or bottom, but that to the side was a far gentler slope. He tapped Ash on the shoulder and pointed down it.

    "Right," Ash noted. He bent down to pick Rockruff up, the poor puppy clearly not at ease in the rain. He placed her in his jacket and their group continued on down the hill. Rocks lined the path downward, slick with the rain. Mist bubbled up, obscuring their vision a little as they drew closer to the second lake. More than that, the rain was thickening, proving Clemont's hypothesis that whatever the source of the storm was, it was further in. "Well, I think this might be a problem…"

    "What might?" Clemont asked, realizing that Ash had stopped in front of the lake. He didn't need any words to form an answer to his own question. Now that they were here, instead of up above and looking over it, Clemont realized just how large the second lake was. It would be impossible to send Greninja and Pikachu in to see what was inhabiting this particular lake.

    "Dartrix, Pikipek, see if you can find anything," Ash called. Clemont frowned; it was definitely an admirable attempt to see just what was going on, but Clemont felt it was a very foolhardy one. Pikipek looked to be struggling in the increased precipitation, while Dartrix only did a little better, clearly suffering from his wings getting wet (he even took the time to brush his hair out from his eyes). "Hmm…why don't you try Echoed Voice and Leafage!"

    "Darrroh!" Dartrix cried out in the affirmative. He swooped to one side of the usual bridge while Pikipek went to the other side. The latter opened her mouth, sending the soundwaves into the lake. At the same time, Dartrix flapped his wings, the leaves shooting out from them like sharp blades caught in a whirlwind. It almost looked different from how it used the move as a Rowlet. Yet, even from those attacks, all Clemont could see were Magikarp hopping out, though it was difficult to tell through the downpour.

    Regardless of Ash's intention, though, it gave Clemont a brilliant idea.

    "Heh heh heh," he chuckled out, making Ash, Pikachu and Rockruff stare at him in alarm; Greninja remained stoic.

    "Clemont…why are you sounding like Conway again?" Ash asked, inching away slightly, making his feet squelch against the mud. Clemont placed his fingers to his glasses, wiping away any water that lined the rim of his hood.

    "Because, it's almost like my mind was prepared for a situation such as this!" Clemont announced proudly. Like before, he whipped off his backpack, feeling quite giddy. In seconds, he had whipped out one of his old inventions, or at least parts of it. Grubbin crawled over his shoulder, looking on with interest as he cobbled it together carefully. At some point, he used a String Shot to bind two pieces together, but after a few minutes, the waterproof orb was wirelessly connected to his screen, a little antenna sticking out. "The future is now, thanks to science! Clemontic Gear on!"

    "Pika…?" Pikachu asked, clearly somewhat in awe of the machine that Clemont had created. He, himself, felt rather smug about the whole affair. Ash just watched on with clenched fists, though they weren't out of anger, but excitement.

    "It's an improvement to my Gotcha-Living-Being Mark II!" Clemont announced, flaring his nostrils and puffing his chest with pride. "I call it the Gotcha-Living-Being Mark III! While before, it could discern sources of life, finding any Pokémon it could, I've now refined it to be able to identify and classify different kinds of Pokémon so we don't run around aimlessly."

    "Wow…science is so amazing!" Ash exclaimed happily. Clemont felt pleased to be hearing him say that as he touched a button on the orb. Grubbin watched excitedly from his shoulder as the orb floated into the air and then whirled over to the water. Dartrix and Pikipek watched the strange device momentarily before it dipped itself into the water and began moving along. Clemont grabbed ahold of his screen, the picture of a Magikarp appearing on its surface, and then another.

    "More Magikarp…?" Ash asked in disappointment. "It is working, right?"

    "It is," Clemont stated confidently. Ash nodded, clearly having full faith in him as an inventor. Yet all that kept appearing on the screen was Magikarp after Magikarp. It was like any diversity to be expected of a place so surrounded by water truly was lacking. Had something happened to the hill or…?

    "Ruff! Ruff! Rock!" Rockruff suddenly started yipping and barking, like she was almost frightened of something.

    "Hey, what's wrong, Rockruff?" Ash asked, petting the canine on the head. She calmed a little, but didn't fully stop. Clemont looked to his screen as more and more Magikarp kept filling it up. He was starting to feel like it was all an exercise in futility.

    That's when the hairs on the back of his neck felt to stand up. He remembered Serena's words from earlier…that she felt they were being watched. Ash no doubt felt the same, because both stared towards a culvert, barely even noticeable in the white rain. Clemont felt his hands shake on his device, yet he couldn't look away. Four green eyes were staring out at them from across the water.

    "Greninja?" Greninja cried in surprise, running forward and diving into the water. There was a sudden flash of lightning, and the Ninja Pokémon leapt out of the water instantly as said lightning struck, rumbling the area. Clemont fell backwards, dropping his console. It didn't break, though the same could not be said for his device.

    The lightning having impacted with the water's surface caused the machine to clearly short circuit, glowing red hot in the water from too much generated electricity. Ash stepped back while Pikipek and Dartrix cleared the area. Then it exploded. Those Magikarp that hadn't been practically fried by the lightning flopped out of the water in fear. Clemont, however, just balled a fist and slammed it down onto the mud he had fallen into.

    "More Magikarp, again," Ash said before he turned to Clemont and offered him a hand. "You all right?"

    "Yeah, I guess," the inventor answered, taking Ash's hand and pulling himself up. Ash watched him a moment longer, but decided to take his words at face value and turned back towards the lake. Clemont grimaced as Ash faced away from him, reining in his feelings of uselessness that were returning tenfold. He thought he had been so smart, and all he did was…nothing. It was like Plumeria's Pokémon was pressing down on his chest again, preventing him from moving forward. And Ash was on the move again, this time across the bridge, leaving him stuck in the mud behind him.

    "Clemont, let's go to the last level of the hill," Ash called back to him, his voice almost lost amidst the rain. Clemont didn't respond for a moment, his fingers digging at the mud coating his hands. "Clemont!"

    "S-sorry," he called, making sure to move forward. He could tell Grubbin was looking at him in concern. "Thanks for the help, Grubbin."

    "Grub?" Grubbin asked before Clemont took out his pokeball and returned him. Once he had, he wiped his muddy hand on his raincoat and ran forward, catching up to Ash halfway along the lake. His eyes turned towards the culvert, the green eyes no longer there. Nor was the sense of feeling watched. He swallowed.

    As they finished crossing the lake, Clemont put his hand out, latching to Ash's shoulder as his friend returned all but Greninja and Pikachu. It wasn't hard to see why. The rain was even thicker now. They could barely see two feet in front of them, much less to the lake down below. Only Greninja, the frog impervious to the rain, was able to lead them forward as carefully as he could. Another set of winding slopes was approaching.

    "It's like knives," Ash grunted out.

    "Pika…chu…" Pikachu groaned out, deciding it was for the best to crawl inside his trainer's jacket. Clemont was inclined to agree with the statement. The rain was falling so hard and fast now that it felt like it was cutting deep into his skin, even through the raincoat. He hoped that Bonnie was doing okay, sheltered from the torrential downpour. Ash's foot suddenly slipped, sending the boy into a tumble. Clemont fell with him and they soon became a rolling mass of flailing limbs that fell rapidly down the hill before a slight incline pitched them into the air.

    Clemont screamed, fearful of meeting an unfortunate and rapid end by hitting his head on a rock. Thankfully, he didn't, as Greninja's tongue snapped out, encasing both Ash and Clemont and pulling them back to safely. "They weren't lying when they called this a trial…I feel sore…"

    "Yeah…" Ash gasped out, himself looking almost exhausted. It was no real surprise; after trudging through rain and mud, the fact that Ash could still stand was a testament to his determination. It was no wonder the other trial-goers hadn't yet managed to figure it out. Reaching over to a rock, Clemont pushed himself up and stared out at the white surface of the biggest lake before them. The sound of rushing water hit his ears, and he could tell that this was where the canal appeared to end, pouring over in a waterfall.

    "This is the last lake, right?" Ash wheezed out. Both of their bodies were clearly heavy with the dampness. Clemont squinted through his drenched glasses, trying to peer over the misty lake. All he could see were some black shapes in the distance. He faced Ash, who looked pensive, and it appeared that both of the boys had the exact same idea. "Greninja, can you examine the lake? But be careful!"

    "Keep a lookout for any Magikarp," Clemont insisted. Greninja nodded at both of them as Pikachu cheered him on. He dove into the lake, disappearing into the mist. The boys continued to stare out over its surface, the unrelenting rain pounding bruises into them. Yet they didn't move. "Nothing but Magikarp in the first two lakes…let's see if there are any here…"

    "I don't think Magikarp can fly," Ash said. Clemont nodded; he had clearly noticed it, too, that the shapes in the mist were not standing or flopping or swimming, but flying. A sloshing of water returned Greninja to their side and he shook his head. The hypothesis was confirmed.

    "No Magikarp," Clemont hummed out, causing Ash to nod his head. He folded his arms around himself in a hug, as if to ward off the rain, while he spoke. "Like they've been driven away to the other lakes. Or maybe the other Pokémon were gathered here."

    "Or both," Ash pointed out. Pikachu looked up at him, his ears twitching like he heard the sounds of the other Pokémon in the distance. "Clemont, are there any Pokémon that can create a rain storm like this on their own? I mean, other than Rain Dance."

    "Well, sure," Clemont stated. He tapped his chin as he considered all of the possibilities before them. "It's a long shot, but I do think that both Politoed and Pelipper have the ability Drizzle…oh! That would explain the fliers…But…"

    "Yeah…why here?" Ash said, frowning. Or, rather, Clemont thought he was, since he couldn't really see him properly through the rain. The inventor put his mind to the task, trying to think of why so many Pelipper and Politoed would come only to this lake…and why they would all come to the lake. He closed his eyes, almost listening to the sound of the crushing waterfall when he felt like he could hear something. Something small. Something like a cry. He whipped towards Ash, who did the same. "Of course!"

    "It is a Pokémon!" Clemont exclaimed, feeling positively giddy about their discovery. "But it's not creating the storm…"

    "It's gathering the ones that are!" Ash concluded. He raised his head upward, the rain practically falling into his mouth. "Isn't that right, Lana? !"

    Ash's voice echoed around the lake, and as if it was breaking a spell, the rain began to lighten. It turned from a white sheet of knives into a still fast-falling, but far less torrential rain. They could actually see once more. And in their sight they heard the sloshing of water. In the center of the lake was Lana, standing on top of her Lapras. A shiver ran down Clemont's back: she was no doubt back in her scary mode. Behind her were the others, all looking just as drenched, if better taken care of than the duo on the banks of the lake.

    "What made you figure it out?" she asked with a smile. "Even without entering the water…"

    "Because there was nothing but Magikarp up there, and none of them down here," Ash pointed out, grinning. He whipped his rain jacket off, clearly feeling that he no longer needed it. "But there's no reason so many Pokémon with the same ability would gather together like that unless they were called together."

    "Hee…" Lana laughed out, placing a hand to her mouth. "You'd be right."

    "Yes!" Ash said, pumping his fist. Greninja threw his into the air, as if happy he had helped. Only, Clemont knew it wasn't over. They had cleared the first part of the trial, but it wasn't done yet. Clearly, Ash knew that, because his body never relaxed once, even as Lana turned towards the waterfall.

    "It's amazing what Pokémon can create when they work together…" she expressed, her tone wistful and almost reminiscing. "When a Pokémon or a person is on their own, they seem so weak and fragile, but the more they work together…well, they could probably build and move mountains. Just like how two in love can create life, and then sharing that with Tapu Lele is blessed. Then they work with others until that life grows into an adult who then continues the cycle. That's why I had you work together.

    "Congratulations on clearing the first part of the Trial of Lana."

    "All right!" Ash cheered once more, coming over to Clemont to put an arm around his shoulder. "Thanks, Clemont! Without you, I probably wouldn't have figured it out."

    "Oh, I didn't do much…but I was glad to help you figure it out," the inventor assured him. He wanted to accept the praise fully, but all he could think about was his failed invention. Ash patted him on the back as the cheers (muted as they were) from their companions reached across the lake.

    "So…now we battle, right?" Ash asked. A grin was on his face, even if it was still continually raining. Lana smiled, but it wasn't the soft, serene one she had worn before. It was dark, like she was looking forward to battling Ash…perhaps even hoping to outright destroy him.

    "Yes…you get to battle against the very Pokémon that called all those others here…" Lana said. She didn't move from her Lapras, yet the water around her began to churn and bubble. "I wonder if you know what it is…Either way, you're allowed to use three Pokémon to defeat the Totem. If you do that, you'll have cleared the trial."

    "Well, we're ready for any…thing…" Ash's voice died and he swallowed. Clemont nearly fell back, bracing himself against a rock that was on the bank. The water that churned finally broke, splashing back. Once more, Ash and Clemont were drenched (not that they were ever not), while the girls were all pushed back. Rotom flitted around, shaking itself of the water. Lana, however, didn't even move, looking perfectly calm.

    Then, from the water emerged a positively giant Pokémon, looking like a whole gathering of fish put together. They were shaped almost like a giant blue whale, with white eyes that looked like fishes themselves. Clemont felt his hand trembling as a great orange aura flared to life around the giant Pokémon. And when Clemont said "giant", he felt that even that was an under-exaggeration…it almost eclipsed a whole part of the lake.

    "Wishiwashi, will you fight with me?" Lana asked sweetly, though her tone was so dark, Clemont almost feared for Ash's life.
    *Chapter to be continued in next post...

  7. #32
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    Chapter continued from last post.

    "Ohh…this is a Wishiwashi?" Rotom said, floating towards the giant Totem Pokémon. "Interesting…this is not in Rotom's data. Rotom only has it that Wishiwashi is the Small Fry Pokémon, and that it's awfully weak and notably tasty, so everyone is always out to get it. As it happens, anyone trying to bully it receives a painful lesson."

    "Certainly looks painful," Serena's voice said worriedly. "Ash, be careful!"

    "That Wishiwashi doesn't look like the Pokémon that Rotom's showing us at all…" Bonnie said. Clemont had to agree, trying to stop his shaking. He calmed enough to see Ash standing there firmly. Once more, his hairs pricked up, indicating that they were being watched once more, though Clemont didn't look away to see who.

    "Don't worry guys, I'll do this," he said, gripping a pokeball. "Three on one, huh? Then Pikipek, I choose you!"

    "Wissssssh!" the Totem Pokémon cried loudly. The waterfall was disturbed by its booming voice as Lana smirked. A pair of Pelipper floated down to join the giant fish and a Politoed was waiting in the water below. Clemont gazed around, finding there was no trial officiate like there was with Ilima. No, this was a battle against nature itself, against combined forces. He clenched his fist; Ash would overcome it no problem.

    "You have the first move, Ash," Lana said coldly, her voice dropping an octave. The grin on Ash's face told him that the boy knew she was taking it all seriously and he was doing the same.

    "Pikipek, start off with Drill Peck!" Ash ordered, punching forward. Clemont's eyes widened a little as he stood. Ash was just as confident as ever, even with the rain and exhaustion no doubt setting in. He never failed to impress. Pikipek shot right for Wishiwashi, spinning furiously. White streaks flew off from her beak. The Pelipper shot forward with Wishiwashi's growl, and Lana watched and waited. Both of the Pelipper opened their mouth and fired a Water Gun off at Pikipek. Too much into her attack, the Woodpecker Pokémon was struck by the Water Gun and fell back.

    "Piki…" she shuddered out, shaking her head and spreading her wings, raising them outward confidently. Ash continued grinning.

    "We'll need to take care of those Pokémon, so use Echoed Voice, wide range!" Ash ordered. His feet shifted on the embankment, muddying themselves slightly. Pikipek opened her beak wide and the sound waves of the attack, golden in the midst of the rain, fired out. The Pelipper were blown back and the Politoed dove under the surface to escape. Wishiwashi, buoyantly floating in the air, had no such room to escape and seemed to shudder. Regardless, it seemed to have done the trick. "Use Drill Peck!"

    "Ice Beam," Lana said darkly, if calmly. Wishiwashi opened its enormous maw, firing the frigid beam right at Pikipek. Ash called for her to dodge and she shot upward. It was a good thing, too, as the beam struck the rocks behind Ash, freezing them completely solid.

    "Oh my!" Lillie gasped at the sight. Clemont was inclined to agree with her. It had taken only seconds; Ash knew not to play around with this particular Totem Pokémon. Pikipek continued spinning, still having her free path, and she slammed in between Wishiwashi's eyes, driving the giant Pokémon back. Clemont looked to Ash, seeing how he was reacting to the Ice Beam.

    "I know that look…" the inventor muttered under his breath. Ash was already thinking of something: a way to use Ice Beam to his advantage. It made him wonder just who Ash had chosen to take down the Totem.

    "Poli!" the Politoed from under the water cried. Clemont snapped his attention back and he grimaced. This was no simple battle…Ash didn't have just one opponent to focus on, and it showed that he had made the single mistake of forgetting about Politoed.

    "Pikipek, dodge!" Ash called. But Pikipek was too busy recovering from her own attack. Politoed sailed forward, its fist imbued with ice as it punched Pikipek and sent her reeling. She recovered, but Clemont could see she was hurting from the attack. It didn't help that there was so much rain.

    "Ash, you need to focus!" Clemont called to him. Ash nodded, keeping his eyes trained on the battle.

    "Let's slow them all down, Feather Dance!" Ash ordered. Pikipek's eyes narrowed and she flapped her wings powerfully, sending a cascade of feathers over all of the Pokémon in the surrounding area. Each flinched a little, a light blue glow emanating off of their bodies.

    "Hydro Pump, Wishiwashi," Lana now commanded, just as calm as ever. Ash clenched his fist and swung it outwards.

    "Drill Peck, straight through it!" Pikipek gave yet another cry and began to spin, turning even faster and faster with her brilliant bright light. Wishiwashi's mouth opened, firing a powerful jet of water that could consume the little bird whole. Yet, just like her trainer, she didn't stop, spinning straight into it and cutting it apart until she reached the source, slamming once more on Wishiwashi's head.

    "Sssshi!" Wishiwashi hissed, its tone guttural. Apparently, it didn't like being attacked that way. Three blue rings surrounded its body, making it glow green, clearly recovering some of its former strength. Ash didn't seem to care about the Aqua Ring.

    "Keep it up with Drill Peck!" he shouted. Pikipek once more entered into a spinning dive. She swooped over the top of Wishiwashi, slashing across it with her beak before turning around once more and slamming into it again.

    "Beat Up." Clemont felt like his heart was stopping for a moment. Lana's command was absolutely frightening, and the great roar that Wishiwashi then gave off was even more so. Its tail flipped up as the two Pelipper and Politoed rushed at Pikipek, the poor bird entrapped. She cried out, and then the two Steel Wings, Ice Punch and Wishiwashi's own powerful tail slammed into Pikipek. She fell. There was no way that tiny bird could take that many attacks at once and still be okay.

    "Pikipek, return!" Ash called, grabbing his pokeball and calling his Pokémon back before she could hit the water's surface. He breathed in. "Thanks, Pikipek…you showed me exactly what to do. We'll win the next battle. Promise."

    "Your Pikipek showed you what to do?" Lana asked, her voice once more sweet. Clemont, and Ash for that matter, weren't fooled this time by her faux sweetness. This girl and her Totem Wishiwashi were frightening.

    "That's right. I think we'll only need one more round to end this. Dartrix, I choose you!"

    "Darrroh!" Dartrix cried upon emerging, flicking his green feathers out of the way. Just as Pikipek had, he took to the sky, looking serious and determined.

    "You ready, Dartrix?" Ash asked. Dartrix nodded, facing front in preparation. "Great, then use Leafage! Take them all out!"

    "Roh!" Dartrix cried. He angled his wings outward, and Clemont watched as the multitude of sharp leaves flew out, like small knives, carried on a cyclone of wind. It almost looked like a different move entirely, now that Clemont could see it more clearly. The cyclone whirled around, surrounding the Totem Pokémon and all of its allies. The Blade Quill Pokémon flew forward, vanishing into the leaves. At Ash's command, he darted around, slamming into Pelipper and Politoed, all three of them too distracted by the leaves. They fell into the water, unstirring.

    "Take it out with Ice Beam," Lana said, her tone back to being stern and scary. Wishiwashi turned slowly, menacingly, and once more sent the ice out at Dartrix. Some of the leaves froze, plopping into the water. Ash appeared to grin.

    "Fly low, Dartrix! Skim the water!" he called. Dartrix shouted an affirmative and shot low, wings snapping out to allow him to glide. The Ice Beam followed, freezing the large surface of lake as he flew along. Despite the speed and power with which the frozen beam tracked him, Dartrix was the faster, swooping around the lake and under Wishiwashi. "Now fly towards the waterfall and strike it with Pluck!"

    "Kooo!" Dartrix hooted, flapping straight up with precision. The Ice Beam followed, now freezing the waterfall before Dartrix got too far above Wishiwashi for it to follow. Then he soared straight down, his beak glowing blue as he slammed into Wishiwashi's back. It recoiled, tail flapping wildly. The Totem Pokémon began to roar, the sound echoing about the rainy lake; it was calling for more reinforcements. Ash, however, chose to not let that happen.

    "Tackle, now!" Dartrix backed up and then sailed back and forth, quickly, its body sputtering blue, but not quite. Then it slammed straight into Wishiwashi with force before Dartrix whirled around. Clemont's eyes widened; for a moment, it seemed as though Dartrix was learning a new move, and from Ash's own expression, he had noticed the same. He didn't let it distract him, however. "Leafage, close range!"

    "Freeze them!" Lana cried. It was the first time she actually sounded less scary and more frightened, herself. Dartrix flung his leaves out like knives again, all of them swirling about, cutting into Wishiwashi. It quickly obeyed Lana's order by firing off a powerful Ice Beam. The leaves froze once again, some raining down on the Totem, while others dripped off into the lake. "I'm sorry, Ash, but you'll need another round."

    "What?" Ash asked flatly. Clemont finally tore his gaze from the battle to see Lana standing there, a smirk stretched across her face in a truly terrifying expression. Her arms were crossed, a bright blue glow coming from the Z-Ring around her wrist. Then she moved her hands up to her left side, flowing like water before moving across to her right. The blue light burst out. Over on one of the Lapras, Serena stood, along with Lillie.

    "Hydro Vortex!" Lana shouted. Power joined with Wishiwashi and it shot forward. Ash didn't even have the chance to order for Dartrix to block or dodge. Clemont flinched. A new cyclone was formed, but instead of leaves, it was a giant water cyclone, generated straight from the lake, or so it seemed to Clemont. Dartrix was tossed about, slammed around by the Totem's giant body at every single turn, almost not visible through the swirling vortex. Then it faded, the water falling with the rain into the unfrozen parts of the lake. Wishiwashi turned towards its prey. Dartrix remained airborne for a single moment and then fell back, plummeting on to the frozen surface of the lake. Just a single resistant Z-Move had taken him out.

    Ash sighed and took his pokeball out to bring back the floating Dartrix. "I should have seen that coming."

    "Consider that it means your Dartrix was very strong," Lana said, her tone once more even from her near shouts. "If he kept going, his speed and strength would have taken Wishiwashi out, and I couldn't have that."

    "Ha," Ash laughed out under his breath. He took ahold of his hat and adjusted it a bit, rain dripping off its ends as he looked out to Serena and the others. Clemont looked at them, too, noticing that Lillie was watching with her hands by her chest, Nebby looking on in interest. Serena seemed less concerned, nodding her head at her boyfriend. He grinned. Lana faltered. "I have to admit, I thought Dartrix would win, but there's no way we're losing this one! Pikachu, you're up, buddy!"

    "Pika!" Pikachu cried, dashing forward onto the ice.

    "Of course…" Clemont breathed, chuckling to himself. "You made an ice field so Pikachu would have more room to move."

    "That's right," Ash said. "Now we're ready to win. Pikachu, use Electro Ball!"

    "Pika!" Pikachu yelled, calling his orb of electricity to his tail. Wishiwashi glowed green, proving that the effects of Aqua Ring were still very much in place. "Pika pika pika pika pika chu pi!"

    "Use Hydro Pump!" Lana ordered. Pikachu fired his Electro Ball off before Wishiwashi could obey, the powerful attack impacting with the Totem's underside. It grunted in pain, feeling the effect of the attack far more than the others before. It didn't flounder long, however, rearing back and firing the powerful blast of water at Pikachu.

    "Slide to the side," Ash ordered. Pikachu grinned and leaned his body one way. The Hydro Pump slammed into the ice but managed to not break it. Pikachu avoided it entirely, though, skidding across the ice. Ash punched forward and Pikachu got the message. His body sparked with shocks and then he sent the electricity out in a blistering Thunderbolt that consumed Wishiwashi, leaving sparks on its body that Aqua Ring couldn't heal.

    "Ssssssshiii!" Wishiwashi roared. A cry sounded from up above, two more Pelipper descending into the area, once more joining the fray. Ash appeared to stiffen, knowing what the resurgence of allies would mean. In fact, Lana didn't even give the order this time; Wishiwashi merely sprang into action, its giant tail and the two Pelipper aiming right for Pikachu.

    "Use Iron Tail and go underneath the ice!" Ash cried out, throwing his hand to the side. Pikachu leapt back, spinning as he brought his glowing white tail to the ice with a crack, splitting a chunk of it open. Then he leapt underneath the water, the attacks sailing harmlessly overhead.

    "Pikachu isn't a water Pokémon," Lana commented. Ash turned to her, tilting his hat up just a little bit. "He can't hide in the water forever."

    "Who said we were hiding?" Ash asked, once more affixing a grin to his face. Serena clapped her hands with Bonnie's as both cheered. The battle hadn't been won yet, but the sheer expression of confidence on Ash's face said it might as well have been. "Pikachu, now! Counter Shield!"

    "Pika…" came the muffled cry of Ash's closest partner. Suddenly, the ice burst forth, Pikachu springing out from it with a spin, his Thunderbolt zapping all around. "…CHUUUUUUU!"

    The Pelipper cried out, dropping onto the icy surface with dazed expressions while Wishiwashi convulsed from the attack. Its eyes flashed dangerously and it opened its mouth to send a stream of blue ice right for Pikachu.

    "Counter with Electro Ball!" Ash ordered. Pikachu wasted no time, barely having the chance to form the orb that then collided with the Ice Beam. Its hastiness proved to be its undoing and the Ice Beam consumed it before colliding with Pikachu, driving him back onto the ice, small chunks of it breaking up. Ash's body stiffened with a grin. Clemont chuckled. "Ah! Pikachu, use Iron Tail on the ice and fling it at Wishiwashi!"

    "Chu pika!" Pikachu cried, once more breaking the ice apart with his glowing tail before swinging said tail back and forth. The ice flew forward, battering Wishiwashi and preventing it from moving. Ash and Pikachu weren't staying still, though.

    "Get on top of Wishiwashi using the ice!"

    "It's just like against Sawyer!" Bonnie cried as Pikachu leapt forward, springing so quickly atop the ice that Clemont lost track of him. In no time, he had reached the waterfall, bounding off of it and on top of the Small Fry Pokémon. He grinned, and at Ash's order charged his cheeks up.

    "Finish it with Thunderbolt!" Pikachu let it rip, the searing bolt of lightning consuming Wishiwashi, all the more impressive by the rain all around it. The Totem Pokémon flipped and flopped in midair, continuing to convulse until it just stopped, as did Pikachu's attack. The two combatants waited a moment and then puff clouds surrounded Wishiwashi. The rain cleared suddenly, allowing the sun to stream in and melt the remaining ice over the lake. Pikachu dropped to the ground, and with him was a little fish…well, about the same size as Pikachu, but little compared to its other form.

    "Pika?" Pikachu asked, poking at the fish. Clemont breathed out. There was no referee to give the order, but it was clear that one wasn't needed for this particular trial. Wishiwashi had reverted forms, signaling its defeat. The ice Pikachu was standing on melted and he and the little form of Wishiwashi that Rotom had shown earlier dropped into the water. The latter swam off quickly, but Pikachu returned to his trainer's side.

    "You did it, Pikachu!" Ash cried, grabbing his best friend and hugging him. They were both soaked to the bone from the rain, but from the giddy expressions on their faces, one would have never known it. Another sloshing of water as heard as Lana and the Lapras bearing their friends approached the shore.

    "Yay! Ash cleared another trial!" Bonnie cheered the second they touched the shore. Lillie clapped her hands together, looking absolutely enthralled with the battle that had just taken place. For someone who disliked battles, she certainly seemed to have enjoyed watching it…at least, when she wasn't freaking out, probably.

    "Congratulations, Ash!" Serena said, flinging her arms around her boyfriend and giving him a spontaneous kiss at his victory. He grinned at her as she detached herself before he looked over to Lana, the girl holding a case in her hands. Now that the rain was cleared, Clemont could see a pillar, similar to the one in Verdant Cavern, at the back of the hill.

    "I really understand what you meant now, Lana," Ash said, rubbing at his dripping nose. The trial captain tilted her head, looking curiously. Gone was the scary expressions and she had reverted to being a complete sweetheart again. "When you talked about how Pokémon could come together to do incredible things…it was the same with Wishiwashi, wasn't it?"

    "Ah! Rotom understands!" Rotom cried, quickly spinning around multiple times to record data. "That was Wishiwashi's School Form, made by many Wishiwashi working together in concert! This is fascinating! Rotom has learned something quite interesting."

    "Yes," Lana answered, cutting off the Pokédex's babbling. "When those little ones come together, they can do the impossible. You did the same. All three of your Pokémon contributed to the battle in some way and helped you to overcome your trial. I haven't seen anyone do it so well in quite some time."

    "Hehe, thanks," Ash said, removing his hand from his nose. Lana stepped forward and held her case out, opening it wide. Everyone leaned in to catch a glimpse of what was inside: a blue wedge to place on the Challenge Emblem, and a crystal, the same one upon Lana's wrist.

    "As proof of clearing the Trial of Lana, I present to you the wedge for your Trial Amulet, as well as the Waterium-Z, used to activate Hydro Vortex." She smiled again, and for the first time, Clemont felt serene upon seeing it. He may have been soaked and muddied, but like the storm that had finally ended, Lana's smile shone through like the sun, filling him with warmth. Ash reached forward, clasping his hand around the two items. He grinned and held them high.

    "All right! I got the Waterium-Z!" Ash cried proudly. Pikachu popped up as Lillie and Bonnie began to clap.

    "Pipikachu!"

    "Nice job, Ash," Clemont finally said, catching his breath a little. Ash closed the distance between them, slugging an arm around him in a hug.

    "Thanks to your help!" The girls all laughed as Clemont flushed with embarrassment. He still felt like he hadn't really done much to help Ash clear his trial. His invention had been useless after all. Still, he felt grateful that Ash considered his efforts indispensable, so he laughed along with the girls finally.

    "This is your first trial on Akala, right?" Lana questioned. Ash disengaged from Clemont to nod at the girl. "Then you'll be heading for Lush Jungle next."

    "That was the plan. Mallow said she'd be waiting for me," Ash told the bluenette. Lana nodded before turning and looking out over the water.

    "I hope you beat her…" she said, folding her hands behind her back. "I haven't had so much fun in a battle in a long time. I know Mallow will enjoy your trial, too. And Kiawe."
    "You three must be close," Serena said. Lana nodded, still smiling, like she was recalling a happy memory. "Maybe, when Ash beats all three and challenges the Kahuna, you'd all want to watch?"

    Lana whipped around, and this time Clemont saw her eyes actually shining brightly with happiness. "I'd like that very much! Tell the others and I'm sure they'll call me."

    "Of course," Ash agreed. Clemont watched as he placed his wedge on to his amulet and then the crystal on his Z-Ring. The Z-Ring glowed and then appeared to absorb the crystal, melting into its surface. The sun was blazing overhead now and the black-haired trainer's stomach rumbled. "Guess we're a little hungry, huh, buddy?"

    "Pikachu…" Pikachu chuckled out as well. At those words, Lana clapped her hands together.

    "Then I'll escort you all to the Pokémon Center for a meal! We can take the waterfall and canal. It's a quick way up," she told them happily.

    "That would be nice," Lillie said, looking just a little embarrassed. "I'm pretty hungry too, and I don't want to walk up all that way. I don't mind a little dirt, but…"

    "I don't know about you, but I'm pretty exhausted. I don't mind not walking," Clemont admitted. Now that he thought on it, his rain coat was really filthy; he was just glad that the rest of him wasn't. Bonnie reached over and patted him on one of his few clean spots.

    "Oh, Clemont…" she said, shaking her head.

    "Looks like we're taking you up on that offer then, Lana," Ash indicated. The captain nodded and indicated for them all to board the Lapras. Clemont did so gratefully, seating himself carefully next to a soaked Ash and Serena. Before the Lapras moved off, Lana stared out over the lake and the blond inventor caught sight of Wishiwashi underneath.

    "Looks like I'll have to think of a new way to hold the trial…wonder if that will make some swimmer boys come," she said absentmindedly. She may have turned much kinder, but she was still completely kooky. With a light tap, the Lapras were off, water suddenly spouting underneath them to carry them to the top of the (admittedly short) waterfall.

    As they hit the crest, Clemont stiffened, along with his friends, and they all turned back, Lillie and Lana oblivious (one from fear and the other from…well, being Lana). It was just a second, a split second of feeling like someone had been watching them the entire trial. Or maybe it felt like they were being watched over. Whatever it was, Clemont only saw the brief flash of black and green on top of a rock face before it was gone, vanishing into the wilds as though it had never been there at all. He just faced forward and tried to ignore it, along with the other things continually clawing at his brain, with a smile.


    Author's Note: Another trial complete! Truth be told, I had a lot of fun writing this one. It was a little less action and more of this mystery for them figuring out what was going on. Plus, the structure Lana gave them allowed me to work with Clemont, who's been a little overshadowed…which is the point. As for the Totem battle, yes, it was different. I can't have every single one be your usual 3v3 after all! That would get so boring after a while! So, both to showcase how impressively strong Totem Wishiwashi was and to give a different format, you had this 3v1. I think it's still impressive because Ash had to deal with other Pokémon. And Pikachu got to star after that brutal defeat against Null!

    Of course, you know me, and no chapter is truly complete without hinting at some deeper plot, and this one certainly did. What seems to be watching our heroes? Or watching over, maybe? Who knows…? But rest assured, the answer should be obvious and come soon, along with Mallow's trial! Hope you all enjoyed this chapter!

    For now, however, please do Review and Dare to Be Silly.

  8. #33
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    A quick note on the SnowLilyShipping (Hau/Lillie) that I've been very slowly developing: I didn't just pull this out of thin air on shipping preferences, and nor will it ever really take Hau's character over (not that he appears here, but needs to be said). However! Hau does have a canonical crush on Lillie in the games, and that's where I took it from. With that cleared up, time for Chapter 19!


    Chapter 19

    A Rendezvous

    The trip up the canal through Brooklet Hill, and the subsequent lunch they took at the Pokémon Center, were surprisingly quick. To Ash's surprise, Lana was a very chipper girl, despite some of the very strange vibes she gave off. Not as happy-go-lucky as, perhaps, someone like Mallow, but at least someone decent to talk to. Lillie seemed to resonate the most with her, the both of them being relatively demure. Not that Ash was inclined to do much talking, he and his Pokémon too busy stuffing their faces

    "Slow down, Ash," Serena laughed out, rubbing her chilly egg, now back in her arms. On the floor were her own Pokémon, each of them enjoying an easy lunch with one another. "You eat too fast and you'll get a stomachache. I don't think you'll want that for the road ahead."

    "I know, but what can I shay?" Ash asked, about to stuff a whole sandwich in his mouth. He quickly thought better of it and decided to just take a large bite instead. As he did, his gaze went to his Z-Ring. Two crystals. Two of seven trials down. He wasn't any closer to mastering Z-Moves quite yet, trying to believe it would happen when it needed to, but he wanted to think he had taken steps forward.

    He wanted to think that.

    "Pikapi?" Pikachu asked, looking up at him from where he was sitting on the table. Ash finished eating the sandwich and reached over to ruffle his fur.

    "It's nothing, buddy," he said with a chuckle. "Just looking forward to the next trial."

    "I wonder what Mallow has planned," Serena said. She looked at Lana, as if hoping for an answer, but the girl was humming softly, clearly back in her own little world once again. His girlfriend just shrugged her shoulders and went back to cleaning the egg off of any grime that had resulted during the rainy trial.

    After the group concluded their lunch, though it involved a slight snag of Chespin and Pancham fighting over a malasada that Serena had made the night before, they were all ready to head north towards Lush Jungle.

    "Be sure to give Mallow my best," Lana said with smiling eyes. "I want to hold some more trials while I can, so I'll just wish you luck, Ash."

    "Yeah. You'll be hearing about me challenging Olivia sooner than later, so look out for that," Ash told her, putting a fist in front of his face. Lana giggled a little and nodded. When she stopped, she reached her hand out, prompting him to shake it as a sign of respect. "All right, then. Let's get moving!"

    "Yes," Lillie said enthusiastically. The reaction surprised Ash a little, but he answered by grabbing Serena's hand and beginning to run away from the Pokémon Center. Bonnie and Clemont issued hasty goodbyes and then were running off after them.

    Ash glanced back towards Brooklet Hill and the shrinking Lana. The sun was shining once more, the rain clouds from over the hill having vanished, bathing it like sparkling water. Lana continued to wave cheerfully until Ash and the others turned past a line of rocks, and she was lost from sight. Once she had, they slowed their pace, allowing Clemont and Lillie to catch their breaths a little (Clemont more than Lillie).

    "Pew!" Nebby suddenly cried, hopping out of the bag with freedom once more. He moved ahead of their group happily, a smile dancing all over his face as he swayed back and forth in the sunlight.

    "Nebby tends to like the sun, I've noticed," Lillie commented, shaking her large hat a bit. Ash noticed it was still somewhat wet, despite Braixen having dried their clothes for them back at the Center.

    "He's totally just like Squishy, then," Bonnie commented, gamboling through the fields and grass to come up near Nebby. He cried out, but only laughed strangely when Bonnie reached down to pick him up and tickle him. Even Dedenne joined in by using his tail. After a moment, though, Bonnie stopped. "I still hope he's doing all right…"

    "Squishy's just fine," Serena assured her, using one hand to clasp Bonnie's shoulder kindly. The lemon blonde nodded, wiping her downcast expression off and replacing it with a smile. "Besides, I'm sure you'll find each other again."

    "Just like you found Ash…" Bonnie teased, ribbing her again. Nebby wriggled free of Bonnie's arms, hopping happily back over into Lillie's. Serena laughed out, not even sounding embarrassed about what was supposed to be teasing. Seeing that her tactics weren't working, Bonnie seemed to throw her hands behind her head. "Hey, wouldn't it be funny if we ran into Hau? Then Lillie and he could have alone time together…"

    "What…?" Lillie asked, clutching at Nebby a little tighter than the cloud seemed to want it. "I…I certainly hope Hau is doing well, but I'd much prefer to have him off on his own adventures instead of spending time with me."

    "Reeeeally?" Bonnie snickered out. Clemont surged forward to put his Aipom Arm on her so he'd keep her in line. She just stuck her tongue out at him. Lillie walked a little forward to put a hand on Serena's shoulder. Ash looked behind, watching Rotom take a picture of a Pokémon he called a Fomantis, but Ash didn't get a very good look at it.

    "So, Serena, how far is Lush Jungle?" Lillie asked, hoping to completely change the subject. It appeared to work, because her question inspired Rotom to move on and land on top of Bonnie's head, annoying the girl enough that she dropped her line of conversation. Neither of them had let this morning go, apparently. Serena, ignoring them completely, took out her map and brought Lush Jungle up.

    "Hmm…I don't think we'll be able to get there until tomorrow…oh!" she said, drawing Ash's attention to her. He came up behind her and both he and Pikachu leaned over her shoulder to get a glimpse at what she was talking about. "There's no Pokémon Center near Lush Jungle. I mean, there is, but unlike the other Trials, we'd have to head probably half a day north…which seems like a waste."

    "Especially when we'll have to get back to Heahea City sooner than later," Ash agreed. He pulled back, folding his arms and screwing his face up into a thoughtful expression. Lillie stared between the two of them and then asked a question he hadn't expected.

    "Are there any other lodgings nearby?" Serena's eyes lit up and she zoomed in on the map, scrolling along until she could find an answer to Lillie's question. Ash watched her from behind, her skirt bouncing a little as they walked.

    "Yes! There's a hotel that appears to be for travelers. We could stop there for the night and complete our travels in the morning!"

    "Great, then we're all set!" Ash said, running forward a bit and pointing his finger to the sky. Pikachu grinned on his shoulder. "Nice thinking, Lillie. We have our destination in order!"

    "Thank you!" Lillie said, pumping both of her fists. She almost looked like a little girl as she did it, but the action invigorated and emboldened all of them.

    Picking up the pace, the group strove to make the hotel by nightfall. It wasn't the hardest task, distance-wise, but the terrain soon became extremely difficult to travel, especially with Serena holding such precious cargo. Eventually some of the ridges they had to explore only became possible thanks to a group effort from their Pokémon (and one of Clemont's exploding machines, but Grubbin had interfered, so he didn't like to talk about it). Between Chespin, Sylveon and Greninja hoisting them up, with Dartrix lifting Bonnie from the air as Rotom snarked about her inability to float, they were eventually able to ascend the rocky area and look upon the brightly lit hotel. If Ash looked beyond, he felt he could see the rustling trees of Lush Jungle. It was only a short distance, so he knew he and his Pokémon would have to be prepared.

    Easier said than done when they all felt almost dead on their feet just dragging themselves to the hotel receptionist.

    "R…room for five," Serena gasped out. The receptionist regarded them with a mix of amusement and near fear.

    "You kids come from Brooklet Hill?" she asked as she marked and checked things off. Ash nodded, slumped against the wall. He hadn't noticed it before, but now that he was actually close to getting some rest for the day, he realized how utterly exhausted he was. "Yeah, I thought so."

    "Why, pretty lady?" Bonnie asked. She seemed to get a twinkle in her eye, but was too exhausted to actually act on it. The woman chuckled, tossing two keys up, considering he was the only one standing.

    "Because no one likes to get here from Brooklet Hill," she answered. "The terrain is pretty rough. Easy to traverse on your way from, say, Lush Jungle, but from the opposite direction, it's nasty. In fact, we had another trio who came that way, and they looked worse off than you."

    "That…would have been really great to know," Clemont breathed with an ironic chuckle on his lips. "My legs feel like jelly after the trial and all…I only just noticed, ha ha."

    "I feel like Mallow just played a very mean joke on us…" Lillie voiced in a whine.

    "Rotom feels fine," Rotom indicated. That appeared to give Bonnie the requisite energy to pounce on him. Ash sighed, taking it as an indication that they should get moving to their assigned room. Helping both Serena and Lillie up from the ground, Ash opened the door for everyone.

    The hotel was different than most he had been in, given that they could access their room from the outside. Slugging along, Ash turned to see what looked like a familiar face entering a room down the way, while the aforementioned room that had been given to the earlier travelers was snapping its own door shut. Ash yawned, not wanting to pay them much mind as he unlocked their door. They shuffled in and instantly flopped upon their beds. Clemont was out in an instant.

    "Ash…" Serena called, and he realized that his girlfriend was lying right next to him on the bed. The others were already practically out like lights, not even noticing. "You mind if we…take tomorrow off? Head for the trial the next day…?"

    "Sure…sounds good to me," he breathed. Serena rolled over, practically on top of him, the egg nestled between them as she fell asleep. Ash just breathed out, lifting his Z-Ring to the air and glancing at it, two crystals seemingly contained inside. Pikachu was snoring on the end of the bed and Ash brought a smile to his lips. It was something.

    Wrapping his arm around Serena, he drifted into an easy sleep.


    "Okay everyone, today we're going to try something different," Serena said clapping her hands together. Ash turned his head to see his girlfriend in front of all four of her Pokémon. Out of all of them, Popplio looked to be listening the best, no doubt wanting to impress her greatly. Ash chuckled and turned to Clemont.

    He was glad Serena had asked for the day off. After a good night's rest and a hearty breakfast, they were all fired up. Bonnie and Lillie sat to the side, watching Serena instructing her Pokémon while the former took care of the egg, and even Ash was distracted from his own training session for his trial tomorrow. Serena was more fired up than ever, clearly inspired from his own performance at yesterday's trial.

    "Right, so here's what we'll do," Serena said positively. "Popplio, you're going to be the star in this case, so just pay attention to me, all right? We'll shift in between Braixen, Pancham and Sylveon, so you get a feel of what it's like to work with both me and the others. I know we've practiced between the two of us before, but we need to all work together. Sound like a plan?"

    "Pah!" Popplio cried, slapping her flippers together enthusiastically.

    "Great. Braixen, can you and the others wait over there while we start?" Braixen nodded and Serena's veteran partners returned to the side with Bonnie and Lillie, the latter watching adoringly. Serena tapped her foot to some unknown beat before sliding back and forth, sending herself into a twirl. "Popplio, Bubblebeam upward."

    "Pahpah!" Popplio barked out, creating a slew of bubbles from her nose that traveled upward, above Serena's head and began cascading down. Serena grabbed one of the bubbles and tossed it at her Water type. Popplio bounded back onto her tail and then leapt at the bubble, landing atop its springy surface.

    "Great job, now leap from bubble to bubble," Serena commanded cheerfully, the omnipresent smile on her face. Her hands and fingers danced back and forth as the bubbles all floated around her. Popplio flipped back and forth, slapping her flippers together. Ash chuckled a bit; they really looked like they were destined to be partners. "Okay, Sylveon, join in with a Swift."

    "Sylvie!" Sylveon said happily, prancing forward to dance around Serena. Her feelers sent out stars that collided with the bubbles, causing them to pop. The effect was spectacular, the water raining with the sparkle of stars. Unfortunately, it seemed to screw things up. Popplio was unable to time her leap correctly and crash-landed to the field they were practicing on.

    "Lioooo…" she whimpered out. Serena instantly stopped her routine to reach down to her Pokémon.

    "It's okay Popplio, that was my mistake…" Serena pointed out. She seemed thoughtful of things as Clemont cleared his throat across the field. Ash couldn't stop watching, though, even as Sylveon wrapped her feelers around the Sea Lion Pokémon apologetically. "That's it! Sylveon will just have to catch you!"

    "Pikipik!" Ash turned back just in time for Pikipek to affectionately tap him between his eyes. He stumbled a bit and finally realized how distracted he'd become, especially with Pikachu shaking his head.

    "Sorry, Pikipek! Sorry. I got distracted," Ash said. Pikipek nodded her head, glad they'd come to that conclusion before she settled back on to his shoulder. Focusing himself once more, Ash turned to the rest of his team, assembled before him. "All right guys, we're already up for our next trial tomorrow, which means we really need to give it our all!"

    "Rruff!" Rockruff barked the most enthusiastically. Ash grinned at the puppy and put his fist forward.

    "Right, so for all that, we need to do some training. Clemont's even offered to help us. How about a triple battle?"

    "Sounds good to me. It's been a while since Luxray's had a good battle," Clemont called across the dirt field they were at. In front of the inventor, Luxray pawed at the ground, throwing a challenging look Greninja's way. Bunnelby was slightly more apathetic while Chespin quickly stuffed an old macaron he'd been saving into his mouth. "Let's just make it if we take down two of the other side, huh?"

    "Sounds like a definite plan. Rockruff, Dartrix, Greninja, you guys are up!" Ash called. He threw his arm across his chest, stretching his muscles a bit. "We need a lot more training of dealing with multiple Pokémon at once in an official battle like this, so this'll be good practice."

    "Then let us make the first move! Electric Terrain!" Clemont called. Luxray hunkered down, the electricity and resulting steam covering the battlefield. Ash had a feeling he'd be using that move.

    "Rockruff, you use Rock Polish! Dartrix, kick things off with a Tackle! Greninja, provide some cover with Double Team," Ash said shouting forward. In particular, he paid attention to Dartrix. After the way he'd moved during the battle against Wishiwashi yesterday, he knew they were on the verge of something. Rockruff's body sparked and he instantly ordered a Bite towards Bunnelby.

    "Bunnelby, use Double Slap!" Clemont called. Multiple copies of Greninja covered the battlefield, obscuring Rockruff from view as she ran headlong at Bunnelby. Ash consistently flicked his eyes between the three targets, looking for how to engage all of them. As soon as Greninja had saturated the field, he ordered a Cut towards Luxray before snapping back over to Dartrix, who was practically flipping through the air. His eyes narrowed.

    "Darrroh!" Dartrix cried out as his body glowed blue. Pikachu gasped in surprise and Ash smirked. Clemont hardly looked surprised, even as the zipping force of Dartrix's attack slammed into Chespin and tossed him backwards.

    "Cheeees…" Chespin whined, but he got to his feet.

    "I had a feeling that was the case," Clemont called across. Greninja and Luxray locked themselves into a stalemate between Cut and Thunder Fang, all while Rockruff avoided the Double Slap to bite into Bunnelby. He responded without Clemont's orders to fling a Mud Shot straight at her. "Yesterday, Dartrix's body glowed blue."

    "I noticed it, too," Ash confirmed. All three of the opponents leapt apart, except for Bunnelby and Rockruff, who appeared to be straining against one another without using an attack.

    "Koo?" Dartrix said, turning his head in slight confusion. Ash walked onto the battlefield towards Dartrix, leaning down when he'd reached the owl. He placed a hand on top of his head and Dartrix practically purred into it.

    "You're awesome, Dartrix, learning Acrobatics like that. I'm really proud of you," he told him. Dartrix hooted happily. On his shoulder, Pikipek puffed her chest out and took to the air, landing on top of Dartrix. "Don't worry, Pikipek, you're awesome, too."

    "All of your Pokémon have been growing really nicely," Clemont commented. "I wonder if it's because you're such a skilled trainer, or maybe just the environment they've grown in with you."

    "I don't know," Ash admitted with a laugh. "All I know is that all of us are gonna keep growing together!"

    "Pikee!"

    "Pika!"

    "Rockruff!" Ash laughed out when a sudden loud noise from Serena's part of the field sounded out, revealing a giant bubble splashing upon her and Popplio, Pancham landing in her arms.

    "Well, that didn't work…I guess the bigger the bubble, the less sturdy it is," Serena said. Popplio and Pancham looked a little disappointed, but Ash could tell she wasn't blaming anyone. She seemed to just be trying new methods, working them out piece by piece. Judging from Sylveon's pleased expression, she had already figured out a routine with those two.

    "I think you should keep it simple," Lillie suggested from her seat. Rotom was busy attempting to take pictures of Nebby as she did so. "They look more elegant when they're simple."

    "Simple…" Serena mused. "Less clutter on the stage, maybe? Thanks, Lillie, you have some really great ideas."

    "No, no," Lillie answered, blushing a little with embarrassment as she traced her knee with her finger. "I just…I think you look very pretty dancing, but the more you use flashy moves, the less people see your smile and how much fun you're all having."

    "I didn't think of it like that," Serena agreed. Ash smiled, glad that Serena appeared to have figured something out. He could already see her and her team thinking of all the different combinations, even if none of them were saying a word. "Why don't we all take a break? I baked some Pokepuffs early this morning!"

    "That sounds like an excellent idea," Clemont called, obviously putting a hold to their practice battle. "Assuming Chespin hasn't decided to eat them all."

    "Chespin ches!" Chespin argued back. Leaving trainer and Pokémon to argue with one another, Ash nodded at all of his Pokémon, telling them to get a snack. As they did so, mobbing around the case of Pokepuffs, Ash approached his girlfriend.

    "Have everything figured out for Heahea, then?"

    "I think so. Just need to know the theme," Serena explained, sitting on the wooden porch where Bonnie was now gleefully serving the Pokémon, and crossing her legs. She reached over and took her egg back to her lap as she did so. "Popplio is fitting in great. She has an awful lot of variation to her attacks and Sylveon already looks to get along great with her."

    Ash couldn't argue with that one. Looking over at all the Pokémon snacking and feasting, they all looked to be getting along great. Rockruff appeared to be having a good time with Bunnelby, while Pikipek loved playing mediator between Chespin and Pancham, even if she was getting shoved aside from her small size. Serena was absolutely right about Sylveon and Popplio though, the two even practicing mini-Performance moves on their own. Ash chuckled at the sight and turned back to his girlfriend, catching sight of the man from last night. This time, his face was more obvious.

    "Mr. Looker!" Ash called, waving over to the inspector. He stopped, his eyes alighting at the sight of Ash and all his friends. "I didn't know you were coming this way. You left the ship before either of us really had the chance to catch up."

    "Ah, yes, my apologies," Looker said, deciding to abandon his attempts to enter his room and instead stride up to Ash and Serena. Clemont and the others caught sight, deciding to join them and leave the Pokémon to their own snacking devices. "I had a meeting in Heahea City you see. Needed to learn where to meet my contact."

    "ARC, right?" Ash asked, folding his arms. Looker nodded.

    "So…you're meeting a member of ARC here, then?" Clemont asked of the inspector. Looker nodded, folding his arms, but not saying much more. Ash honestly didn't expect him to. For some of his kind and goofy traits, the man was very clearly an investigator first and foremost. That he had shared the fact he was meeting with ARC simply showed how much he trusted them.

    "Um, excuse me, but what's ARC?" Lillie asked. Her bag was once more slung over her shoulder as she stood. It shook a little, but Nebby appeared to remain inside at the inspector's presence.

    "The Artifact Recovery Corps," Clemont answered. "They search for old artifacts and legends that could be used to do evil, making sure they don't fall into the wrong hands. They're working for the League now, right?"

    "That's correct," Looker said, looking mildly impressed by Clemont's explanation. Or he could have just been impressed with Clemont, since he had mentioned his exploits directly on the ferry. "Since they've taken up status within the League, things have become a lot easier for we of the International Police, as well as the G-Men."

    "Oh…I didn't know all of this," Lillie said, almost looking ashamed that she hadn't obtained such knowledge. To the side, Ash noticed a Pokepuff rolling past, over to an incline that the hotel grounds ended on. He turned back to Looker.

    "No shame in that," Ash told the blonde kindly. "ARC is pretty…secretive. I wouldn't be surprised if only those of us who battled at Geosenge Town knew about it. Now that I think about it…that's a lot of people…"

    "It might be, but no one there really wants to talk about it, do they?" Serena said. Her voice had taken on a rather melancholic tone, prompting Ash to smile softly at her. Even Bonnie hung her head, bringing some of the mood down, while Lillie looked around confusedly.

    "Ah, yes, I had heard…" Looker said sadly. "I was on assignment at the time with a young girl. That's why the G-Men had to step in to do investigations that I would usually. I had no doubt followed the news reports of all of you, Ash, Serena, Clemont and Bonnie."

    "Mmm…" Ash noted, registering how easily he remembered his friends' names from the single meeting. That recognition gave way to a different sort of recollection. For a moment, his hands trembled, though not with any sense of grief; that had passed long ago. If anything, it was a resonance with those around him, those that had felt the same pain. Ash breathed, steadying himself. Keeping his promise. "Anyway, Looker, you said you were working on taking down Team Skull? How's that going?"

    "Slow going," Looker stated, finally unfolding his arms to rub the back of his head. "I've been told that ARC has some information on them, maybe, so I have to meet with them before I can report back and hear what my superiors decide to do."

    "They certainly seem to be everywhere," Serena noted. Bonnie tugged lightly at her skirt, holding the egg up to her. Serena took it gratefully, having momentarily left it behind on the steps to speak with Looker, while Bonnie puffed her cheeks.

    "Those mean Team Skull guys are just a real big problem. They tried to stop people from entering the Pokémon Center!" she told Looker. The investigator seemed to laugh at her complaint, though not in a mocking fashion, something that Bonnie understood.

    "Yes, my intel tells me that they're generally all over the place, though most of the locals don't seem to think much of them," Looker indicated. He reached into the pocket of his coat and took out his notepad, a bunch of nearly illegible scrawls upon them. Ash tilted his head in interest. He had definitely witnessed a general apathy in regards to Team Skull from the Berry Farmers hardly getting furious until Team Rocket showed up, to even a little girl not being frightened of them, assured her parents would have easily crushed them. The only time a reaction was even remotely different was Hala's, but Ash still believed that was more personal than anything. "Let's see here…

    "Yes, here it is. I spoke with some of the locals around Heahea City, and even with some of the people whose Pokémon escorted me here. All of them seemed to laugh at the mention of Team Skull. For the most part they're regarded as jokes, it seems: trainers who failed to complete Island Pilgrimages or otherwise didn't make much of themselves. 'Nothings' a lot call them. I guess the only place they're regarded as some semblance of a threat is near a place called Po Town on Ula'ula Island, but as I've yet to scout the place, I don't have the requisite info or any confirmation. Seems to possibly just be a rumor passed by Team Skull to beef up their status."

    "From what I hear," Lillie began to say, drawing some of the attention onto her, "Team Skull might not be very threatening to others, but they can be horribly cruel to wild Pokémon."

    "Well, that makes sense," Clemont muttered darkly. "There's a reason the Aether Foundation had such a foot to stand on, taking in the Pokémon that were hurt in the wild."

    "They're just as bad as hunters, then," Ash spat. Looker was nodding his head, like he agreed with them, but didn't wish to share information with the party anymore. This was made even more evident by the man slipping his notebook into his jacket's pocket once more. "But I didn't know the Aether Foundation did stuff like that."

    "Of course they do!" Clemont proclaimed loudly. Like it was magic, the boy suddenly whipped out a magazine. Had he still been wearing his jumpsuit, Ash would have nodded it off, but as it was, he had no idea where the thing had come from. Regardless, Clemont opened to the page of the magazine he'd shown Ash before, just so he could shove it in his face. "They're the very pinnacle of Pokémon research in Alola! Their branch manager, Faba, is a leading authority on the studies of Pokémon in the wild and their rehabilitation! And their president is as committed to ensuring the welfare of Pokémon, taking in those who have been injured and returning them to health before-"

    Thud! Ash ripped his gaze away from the image of the balding blond man in time to see Lillie retrieving her bag from the ground, Nebby staring up at her angrily. "Sorry, slipped from my hands. I guess thinking about how they mistreat wild Pokémon makes me angry."

    "It should!" Bonnie said, placing her hands on her hips defiantly. "No one should treat any Pokémon in that mean way. If I see those Team Skull jerks again, Dedenne will master Parabolic Charge and we'll show them we mean business! Isn't that right, Dedenne?" No chatter of the girl's partner Pokémon sounded out. "Dedenne?"

    "Uhh, Clemont…where's Chespin?" Serena asked, looking over at the group of Pokémon that had finished eating their snacks. Pikipek was shaking her head at Dartrix's gluttonous appetite, but Ash quickly realized that someone else was missing besides the other two.

    "Where's Pikachu?" he voiced out. Realization began to dawn upon them that three of their Pokémon were missing. Ash groaned loudly and slapped his forehead. The Pokepuff…He hadn't paid any mind to it before. Now that he thought back, though, it was obvious that Pikachu and the others had gone chasing right after it.

    "Pancham…were you two fighting again?" Serena asked, her tone stern. Pancham shook his head, prompting Pikipek to fly up to Ash's shoulder.

    "Pikpik," Pikipek told him. He didn't quite understand, but he nodded nonetheless, especially once the bird extended her wing out towards the incline.

    "So, they're over that way…" Ash said, turning to face in its direction. He couldn't see a single trace of the Pokémon, but if Pikipek said they were in that direction, he trusted her. "Okay, Pikipek, Dartrix, why don't you take to the air and see if you can find them?"

    "Koo!" Dartrix called, brushing some sprinkles away from his mouth as he flapped up to join Pikipek, the two shooting off. Ash quickly grabbed the rest of his pokeballs out, calling Greninja and Rockruff back. Serena and Clemont also did the same. Bonnie was already running off after the two fliers, clearly worried about Dedenne. Ash bowed towards Looker.

    "Sorry, but we need to find our Pokémon," Ash said with a sheepish expression.

    "It's no problem. I'll go with you," the investigator said. "When someone's in need, we should always help! Besides, I have some time before my meeting."

    "Thank you," Clemont called out, hitching his bag on his shoulders. Grubbin was attached to it, having escaped the pokeball, but the inventor paid him no mind. Adjusting his own pack, Ash ran off after his two birds, the others following close behind him. Bonnie was a little further ahead as they reached the incline. She almost tripped, but managed to regain her balance as they pounded down the slope. The sound of the surf, as usual, reached Ash's ears and he saw that they appeared to be sloping down towards a small, rocky area that bordered the sea. Thankfully, he could see Pikipek and Dartrix flying overhead, looking carefully through some of the twisting and winding rocks.

    "Pikachuuuuuu!" came the sudden cry of his best friend. Ash picked up the pace, his feet almost slipping on the slick grass that led to their destination. That was definitely not the sound of Pikachu simply being lost.

    "Pikachu!" Ash cried out, his voice echoing around the entire area. His partner's voice called back, mixed in with the somewhat frightened tones of Chespin and Dedenne together. He grit his teeth and finished sliding, his feet now pounding across the rocky surface. Dartrix flew down, like he was prepared to guide the group. Bonnie and Looker were keeping up while Serena helped Lillie gingerly down the hill.

    "Hey, stop it ya dumb little mou-yeowch!" snapped a voice. It was followed by a stumbling noise and Ash weaved through one of the rocks and managed to emerge in a wider open space.

    "Team Skull!" Ash yelled instantly. It wasn't that hard to notice them in their black clothes, faces covered as a group of three surrounded the Pokémon. In front of them were the typical Team Skull Pokémon: Yungoos and Zubat, along with some Salandit. Chespin was tightly clutching to his Pokepuff while Dedenne was thrown off, having bitten one of the grunt's fingers.

    "Huh? Who the heck are you?" asked the same grunt that had shouted earlier. Ash ignored him.

    "Pikachu, are you all right?"

    "Pikapi!"

    "Yo, ya don't ignore Team Skull! Team Skull ignores you!"

    "I don't think it'd be a good idea to ignore them, bro!" one of the other Skull thugs said, his eyes wide as he stepped back. "They look real serious, yo."

    "Get away from Pikachu and the others," Ash said sternly, his voice leaving no room for discussion. Pikipek fluttered down to his shoulder, her own gaze fierce. Dartrix was no different, landing on a nearby rock stealthily. Serena and the others had finally managed to reach them, causing Dedenne and Chespin to cry out for Bonnie and Clemont respectively. "I won't ask again."

    "No way, yo!" the last member of the trio said, moving his hands like he was going to fold his arms, but stopping. "We saw 'em first! Finders, keepers."


    *Chapter continued in next post...

  9. #34
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    Chapter continued from last post.

    "You sound just as dumb as Team Rocket," Bonnie snapped at them. There was a slight trickling of rocks to the side, but Ash watched the Skull grunts recoil, their eyes going wide before they looked at each other. Then they leaned forward in tandem.

    "We ain't dumb!" they shouted as one, causing Ash to nearly roll his eyes. Next to him, Serena called out Popplio while Grubbin hopped off Clemont's pack before he could call out anyone else. "Now why don't you kids jus' get movin' along."

    "Not a chance," Ash said, clenching his fist. He wasn't sure if these grunts were just stubborn…or simply too stupid to comprehend that they wouldn't be going down without a fight. "Dartrix, use Leafage and then Acrobatics!"

    "Darroh!" Dartrix cried, shooting straight out from his spot on the rocks. The Skull guys turned around, once more giving their over-the-top reactions at the impending attack. One of them called for their Salandit to use Ember, but Dartrix was must faster. Throwing the consortium of leaves from his wings, they whipped up a cyclone that battered at the Skull grunts and their Pokémon. Pikachu and the others huddled together, making sure to avoid the edges of the attack. Dartrix vanished in a haze of turquoise, reappearing and slamming the Salandit into one of the rocks before it could strike.

    The leaves faded away, allowing Pikachu and the others to finally run forward. "Pikapi!"

    "I'm glad you're all right, Pikachu," Ash said as his friend hopped onto his shoulders. He faced forward while Dartrix pulled back, the Skull grunts woozy, but getting up. One of them recovered quickly enough and he slammed his foot forward angrily.

    "Yo! That was totally uncalled for! Who do you think you are, attackin' us out of the blue like that?" he shouted. His Yungoos hissed angrily in front of him. Serena and Clemont both moved forward, their Pokémon defensive. Even Chespin put himself into a defensive position while Bonnie grabbed a leaping Dedenne. Ash noticed that Rotom was hanging about, well outside of the line of fire.

    "You attacked our Pokémon first," Serena challenged. The Skull thugs once more looked at each other before nodding.

    "That don't matter, yo! You gotta pay the consequences!"

    "Shut up." It was a cold voice that had replied, one that was familiar. Next to him, Clemont stiffened, as though the very sound of it brought back horrible memories. Ash swallowed, wondering where the cold voice was coming from until he looked up in time to see a woman descending, her Crobat holding onto her. As she landed in the exact spot that Pikachu and the others had been, she threw a pokeball, calling forth a black and pink Pokémon, the creature hissing.

    "Ah…a Salazzle," Rotom squeaked out from behind Ash. "It's the evolved form of Salandit…For some reason, only females have been found. It creates a reverse harem of male Salandit that it lives with."

    "Interesting info, talking robot, but nothing I care about," the woman spoke. Ash finally remembered where he had seen her before, just as Bonnie came close to Clemont, gripping at her brother fearfully, but with her usual spark of defiance. "You three…what did I say?"

    "We're sorry, Big Sis!" one of the Skull grunts said. "But we saw a prime opportunity to-"

    "Oh, you adorable idiots," Plumeria chuckled out. She reached over to one of them and rapped them on the head. "I love you, but if you had just listened to orders we wouldn't be in this situation right now."

    "But Big Sis!" Plumeria glared at them, folding her arms under her bust. "S-sorry…"

    "Look, I appreciate the effort, but the goal was going after wild Pokémon," Plumeria scolded them. It was an odd scene to Ash, but one that made him no less tense in the middle of it all. She really was like a big sister, the way she disciplining the boys. "The second you get trainers involved everything becomes way too messy. You all know how much I hate complications."

    "We're sorry, Big Sis!" they all cried out, shedding tears at what Ash could only suppose was her mercy. Plumeria sighed loudly and turned around, now directing her gaze at them. For a very brief second, she looked elsewhere, towards some of the rocks, but it was just a second.

    "I really hate it when this happens," she finally spoke. "I don't like getting involved with this kind of crap, especially with trainers I've actually seen before."

    "You've met this woman?" Looker questioned, as if he was asking on mere instinct. Clemont was the one to answer, nodding slowly.

    "She's Plumeria, a member of Team Skull. We met her when they…"

    "When my boss was stupid enough to invade Iki Town, but whatever," Plumeria said, cutting across Clemont without a care in the world. "Normally, I don't give a crap when he does stupid things, but that one…he never wants to listen."

    "Why are you here?" Ash asked, his voice coming back to him. Pikachu's cheeks sparked angrily, as though he sensed the danger that the woman exuded. Plumeria regarded him with disinterest, raising an eyebrow for a single second before lowering it. Her arms unfolded and she cocked her hips to the side, a bored expression on her lips. Her eyes traveled over to Looker, briefly, with Lillie obscured behind the officer, before snapping back to Ash and the others.

    "I'm here because the boys and I were going on an expedition today; vacation time with the Big Sis, as it were," Plumeria said with an equally bored tone. "Then you got involved. Normally, I'd walk away, but judging from their states, I'd say you hurt my boys."

    "They were after Pikachu," Ash snapped. Clemont was shaking a little next to him, and Ash could see him forming a fist. Plumeria smirked.

    "And? Take better care of your Pokémon then, kid." Ash could feel it all break, the tense string suddenly snapping. "Flamethrower."

    "Sasssa!" Salazzle hissed, opening her mouth wide. From it gushed a torrent of flame.

    "Popplio, use Bubblebeam!" Serena shouted, throwing her hand forward. Popplio bounced a little and sent the assortment of powerful bubbles slamming upon the Flamethrower. Steam gushed through the area, obscuring everything from view.

    "Pikipek, use Echoed Voice," Ash called. Pikipek flapped up from his shoulder and opened her mouth. The soundwaves were forced outward. Some cries from within the cloud indicated that the Skull members had been hit, though no noise from either Plumeria or Salazzle made Ash wary. He looked to Clemont, who was shaking his head, getting himself back in the game.

    "Air Cutter, Crobat," Plumeria said. Her voice was dull, like she was just as uninterested in this battle as she was with their conversation.

    "Chespin, Pin Missile!" Clemont finally shouted. Chespin's spines glowed white and he fired off the green streaking projectiles. The white blades impacted with Chespin's attack as the steam cleared. Plumeria was no longer standing alone, her three "brothers" standing side by side with their Pokémon in front of them.

    "Mr. Looker, look after Lillie and Bonnie, please," Ash said. Bonnie looked to want to protest, but she shut her mouth after an insistent look from Clemont. The investigator nodded, having just noted something in his book. He stepped back, taking hold of Bonnie and Lillie to pull them away from the battle. Plumeria raised an eyebrow, now looking very interested, though it soon sharpened into a glare.

    "Coordinated attacks, boys. You can't beat these trainers if you just do whatever you want. Engaging them one-on-one would be foolish," the woman pointed out. Ash cracked his knuckles. Plumeria finally smirked. "Smog."

    "Lazzah…" Salazzle once more hissed. Instead of the red flames from earlier, the area was now covered in a thick purple stream of gas. Pikachu dropped down, unable to defend himself from the poisonous gas. Meanwhile, Grubbin managed to remain unaffected while Popplio surrounded herself with a balloon.

    "Dartrix, use Leafage to clear it all away!"

    "Combined Air Cutter, now!" Plumeria commanded of her men. As Dartrix flapped his wings to produce his Leafage, the various Zubat and Plumeria's Crobat struck, sending their white blades through the purple gas. Dartrix shuddered a little, the poison from the smog clearly affecting him as well. That slight delay was enough for the attack to sail through and slam into him. Leafage completely missed its mark.

    "Grubbin, use Spark!"

    "Popplio, Disarming Voice!" His friends' shouts were succeeded by the attacks they had commanded. Grubbin charged right into thick smog, and clearly managed to make contact with something…though, the problem was more that the smog simply wasn't disappearing.

    "Flamethrower," Plumeria called. Ash's fist clenched and his eyes widened.

    "Pikachu, you need to use Counter Shield!" Ash called out. Pikachu struggled to get to his feet, but the poison was already taking its toll. The Flamethrower was launched. First there was one explosion, and then another, like a chain that extended all the way over to them. Ash felt himself thrown back, Pikachu blowing into his arms as his back grated roughly against the rocky surface. He sat up. Dartrix was suffering, Pikachu was in no state to effectively battle against the coordinated assault…He was left with that option though. "Pikipek, use Drill Peck as fast as you can in multiple directions!"

    "Pikee!" Pikipek cried out. Her beak elongated and she began to spin, diving into the smog. As hoped, the trail of wind from behind her blew out some of the smog. She changed direction, blasting in from another angle. More of the smog cleared away.

    "Dragon Pulse," Plumeria called. She didn't sound as indifferent anymore. Clearly covering up their assault was a part of her strategy. Pikipek changed direction once more, but Salazzle was faster; way too fast, to the point that Pikipek might as well have had a lead weight hanging from her. The draconic beam soared out, slamming powerfully into Pikipek. She spiraled.

    "Pikipek!" Ash called out fearfully, unable to see her as she vanished into the remnants of the purple gas. Grubbin, still in the midst of the purple cloud, called out to Clemont.

    "Catch her with String Shot!" he called. Ash still couldn't see what was going on, and he hated himself for it. Plumeria was a much stronger trainer than he realized, especially for being a member of the supposedly "loser" Team Skull. In seconds, she had pointed out grave weaknesses of his, and done it with surprising grace. He only hoped Pikipek hadn't suffered for that indiscretion.

    "Pik…" Pikipek appeared to call softly. Ash raised his head, still holding Pikachu. "Piki…"

    "Pikipek, are you all right?" Ash asked. He pushed at the ground, standing and walking forward towards where the shapes of Plumeria and the Skull grunts were.

    "Piki…pikipeeeeeeeeek!" Ash halted his movements at her cry. More than that, he stopped at the bright blue light now shining from where she had fallen. Plumeria's body turned, the moment of distraction allowing for Clemont to call out another String Shot. Instead of aiming for his Pokémon, Clemont's partner managed to suddenly tie the Skull grunts and their own Pokémon together. Plumeria was too distracted to realize she was now alone. It was still hard to tell through the remaining smog what was happening to Pikipek, but Ash could at least see that she had grown larger, and with one final cry, burst out with her wings, blowing the smog away. "Kera!"

    "Pikipek…you evolved…" Ash breathed out, smiling as the evolved form of his Pokémon flew up into the air. She was slightly slower than before, owing to her larger shape, but Ash could tell she looked so much stronger and motherly than before. She was going to protect her flock. "Use Echoed Voice!"

    "Keraaaaaaaa!" she cried out. Plumeria's eyes appeared to widen as the soundwaves slammed into Salazzle and herself. She and her Pokémon held their ground, though Ash could tell that when compared to before, it wasn't as easy to resist.

    "Trumbeak's Echoed Voice is much more powerful than Pikipek's," Rotom commented. Ash didn't need to hear that to know how much more powerful she had become, but having a name for her was much appreciated. "Well, Trumbeak are known for creating very loud noises. Rotom wouldn't be surprised if her voice would grow even more powerful."

    "Well, that's unexpected," Plumeria said, staring up at Trumbeak with a mixture of disdain and apathy. "Sala-"

    Her words appeared to die completely as the rest of the smog finally aded away. Whatever command she had been about to give was never even uttered. She closed her mouth, swallowing. Ash narrowed his eyes, wondering why she would suddenly give up the attack when he noticed the shadow hanging by her, its claws extended, almost cackling from within the dark. Salazzle appeared to have felt it, as well, for it shrank down a little. Ash turned away a moment, taking the chance to help both Serena and Clemont up. When he turned back, it became much more obvious what had caused the duo to freeze: a Banette.

    "Now, that isn't a very nice way to behave, four on three," said a calming voice, itself almost sounding like it was coming from the shadows. Plumeria turned her head, as did Ash. "I thought I'd even it up a little."

    "Did…did you…?" Plumeria asked. She looked to be sweating, her mouth parted in what Ash assumed to be fear. Somehow, Ash was not surprised in the least, especially not at the sight of the man who had arrived at the mouth of the valley of rocks, leaning against them casually. "Well…"

    "Lionel?" Ash asked, confirming that he still recognized the man standing there. Lionel didn't acknowledge him outside of a light nod, but Ash was still glad that he knew the man standing before him, his darker skin more evident in the bright Alola sun.

    "Are we willing to put this to rest, young lady?" Lionel asked. He was still leaning casually, yet everything about the man suggested that he was ready to head for a very swift finish if Plumeria's actions called for it. This was made all the more evident by the way he was fiddling with the charm bracelet around his wrist.

    "Tch," Plumeria scoffed out. She finally took a look at her bound companions and sighed. With one hand, she returned Salazzle before grabbing ahold of her bound comrades. Crobat and the remaining Zubat all flapped down to take ahold of them. "We'll pull out. I've lost interest."

    "A wise decision," Lionel said with a wink in Plumeria's direction. She rolled her eyes, and with one last disdainful look towards Ash and the others, flew away from the scene. No one said a word as they all disappeared as suddenly as they seemed to have arrived. Eventually, though, Ash looked back towards Lionel. "Sorry about that, Ash. I'm sure you had it all under control, but I couldn't resist getting involved. I'm meddlesome that way. Jack always said it was a horrible trait of mine."

    "That surprises me," Ash said, fully facing the man now. "That always struck me as something my own dad would do."

    "Well…guess he rubbed off on me," the older man chuckled. When he stopped, he walked forward. The others all watched him come up to Ash and suddenly embrace him. Ash, himself, was surprised at the rather friendly reunion. Yet he returned the hug nevertheless; it felt, in some way, like a piece of his father was with Lionel. That was a comfort. "I'm glad to see you're doing well, and in Alola, no less!"

    "Yeah," Ash said, pulling back from the older man. Lionel was completely unchanged, though his clothes were more casual than they had been before, the man looking a bit more like Clemont in wardrobe than he had in Kalos. "I'm a little surprised to see you here, though."

    "Come on, Ash, you're smarter than that," Lionel commented, flicking at Ash's forehead. The boy avoided it. "I did tell you we were coming here. I'm glad you're not alone, though. It's good to see all of you as well, Serena, Clemont, Bonnie…and Pikachu, of course. And this young lady…er…"

    "Lillie," was the girl's response. She wasn't the only one responding.

    "Pi…ka…" Pikachu greeted. Ash gave a start, finally remembering the bad state that his Pokémon were in. Thankfully, Clemont was a step ahead of him, even as he responded to Lionel, handing out some Pecha Berries to them all.

    "Guess you're all looking for some sort of artifacts in Alola, then?" Clemont asked of the man. Lionel nodded his head, grabbing his pokeball and returning Banette effortlessly. "Have any success?"

    "More or less, we think," Lionel stated. "That's not the main reason I'm here, though."

    "You're here to meet me, yes?" Looker said. Ash breathed a little easier, seeing that Bonnie and Lillie looked completely unscathed from the battle that had taken place. As Serena looked over both of their other female companions, Looker approached Lionel with a handshake. The new leader of ARC took the gesture and accepted it. "I'm surprised. I thought we weren't meeting until this evening."

    "I arrived early," Lionel told him. "We had to change the gathering location. Some of our…"

    "Berka!" Ash turned, his grin sprouting as he ignored the remainder of Lionel and Looker's conversation, the two talking about something regarding meeting times. More important to him was Trumbeak now flying at him and practically tackling him, if not for him staying upright.

    "Look at you, Trumbeak! You're even bigger now," Ash laughed out. Trumbeak chirped out happily, showing herself as the same Pokémon as always. She reached forward and tapped him lightly on the forehead. Ash just hugged her while Dartrix rejoined them.

    "Daroh?"

    "Kera!" Trumbeak called, flapping out of Ash's arms to stand next to Dartrix. The Blade Quill Pokémon's eyes widened, but when Trumbeak put her wings around him, he relaxed into it, cooing softly. Heart warmed at the sight, Ash looked to Clemont and Serena.

    "Are the both of you all right?"

    "Just fine," Serena said, throwing a fist up. To Ash's surprise, the egg was still safely in her arms, though she appeared to be shivering from its cold effect. He frowned at her. "We've been through worse than this."

    "Yeah, but we haven't frozen our arms off," Ash pointed out. Pikachu perked up in his arms and looked over to what Ash was pointing out, some of the frost sparkling with little flecks on her arms.

    "Oh…I didn't realize, I guess."

    "You need to take better care of yourselves," Lillie said, her hands clasped worriedly to her chest. It was obvious she was relieved they were okay, but had still been concerned over the fight. Ash continued to frown; he was concerned about the fight as well. Lionel had said he would have won the battle, but Ash wasn't so sure. Salazzle had been so fast and precise, making Pikipek seem slow in comparison. Plus, there was the fact that Clemont almost seemed to shut down.

    "Sorry for worrying you," Clemont apologized. "Maybe we should all head back to the room then. I'm sure we're all hungry after a battle like that."

    "Sounds good to me," Ash agreed, trying to stop his stomach from rumbling now that Clemont had suggested it. He turned to the two men, Looker nodding and jotting notes down before displaying them to Lionel. "Do you want to join us?"

    "Hmm?" Lionel asked. He regarded Ash curiously for a second, like he hadn't even heard the question. That became obvious when he saw Trumbeak and Dartrix. "Well, look at these two! Yours, Ash?"

    "Yup, they're a part of my Alola team. Dartrix and Trumbeak are real strong."

    "I can tell," Lionel commented, smiling. Ash breathed lightly, observing the look in the older man's eyes. It was reflective and reminiscent, as though he could see a piece of Ash and a piece of his father inside the Pokémon that he had grown alongside. You've become a wonderful Pokémon Master. His father's final words came to him, and Ash had to wonder if Lionel was thinking of that very thing; if he agreed with the thought, or if he was disappointed. Ash almost wanted to ask, but found himself afraid to do so. Why do you want to be a Pokémon Master? "As for lunch, I'm afraid we can't stay. Long travel time ahead. You know, busy days and all."

    "Oh…I kind of wanted to catch up," Ash admitted, rubbing at the back of his head. "See how the others were doing."

    "Ash, I'd love to, but I'm not on my own dime anymore," Lionel said. At his own words, the man pulled out a badge that was emblazoned with the League crest on it. It was impressive looking, and more than answered Ash's question. Lionel stowed the badge away, a thoughtful expression settling on his face. "But you know, ARC will be on Ula'ula Island for a time. If we're around when you arrive in Malie City, maybe we can all catch some dinner."

    "I'd like that," Ash stated. Serena, Clemont and Bonnie all agreed to that, while Lillie and Rotom stared at each other, perplexed. Lionel nodded at their next planned encounter and he reached forward to pat Ash on the shoulder.

    "Until then. I hope to hear about how successful your trials have gone by then," he said. Ash gave no words as he retracted his hand and faced Looker. "Well, officer, I think this encounter will give us much to discuss about Team Skull, yes? Shall we get going?"

    "Yes," Looker agreed. Lionel took out another pokeball, calling forth his Skarmory. "It was nice to see you again, Ash, and the rest of you, of course. I'm sorry I couldn't have been of more help…"

    "Nah, that's all right," Ash said, throwing his hands behind his head. "If it wasn't for that fight, Pikipek wouldn't have evolved." Trumbeak called out her affirmative, folding her wings at her side. Looker nodded at Ash with a smile before reaching forward to shake all of their hands in turn. Once he finished, he boarded the sturdy Skarmory. With a slight wink of greeting, Lionel's Skarmory shot up to the air and off towards what Ash presumed was another area of Akala Island.

    "Time for food!" Bonnie declared, clutching Dedenne tightly to her. With her definitive proclamation, she began marching back towards the hill to the hotel. Serena was right behind her, shaking her head with amusement. Ash waited for the others to pass, his two birds now surrounding him proudly. With a brief pat to their heads, he began trudging after them.

    As he placed his foot on the hill, however, he finally heard Lionel's words. I hope to hear about how successful your trials have gone. He had known; known about Ash's adventures in Alola. The thought was unsettling, though somehow made sense, given ARC's connection with the League and Diantha. More than that though, he finally remembered why ARC had come to Alola: they were there to hunt Zygarde. To find Squishy. A sudden chill ran down his neck and he turned to see a flash of green, like eyes staring back at him. It was disconcerting.

    Pausing for a moment to slow his breath, however, Ash slapped his cheeks. It was no time to be thinking about that. He could ask Lionel all the questions he wanted to when he arrived in Ula'ula. Until then, his trial was his utmost priority, and with that, he ran back up the hill with his usual enthusiasm.


    James leaned back against a rock, feeling his breath evening out. Next to him were a shivering Meowth and Jessie. They had gotten so close to getting caught, that woman from Team Skull having looked right in their direction. It wasn't like them to be so scared, yet the way she had seemingly manhandled the twerp was most certainly something to be feared. Making sure the twerps had finally retreated back towards the hotel, all of them sighed, including Wobbuffet, who had slid to the end of the rock without noticing.

    "Dis…" Meowth finally breathed out, like he couldn't find the words. "Dis information is huge!"

    "We've finally found what we came to Alola for," James agreed. Never in his wildest dreams did he think that following the twerp would actually lead them to finding out more about Team Skull and ARC, the latter in particular. In hindsight, it made sense, but James was still floored by the fact that they had been here. Here. Just a few feet away. They could have taken the new leader of ARC hostage if they had just acted a little sooner.

    "I told you my hunch about getting back on the trail of the twerps would lead to some juicy information!" Jessie proclaimed, standing high as a wave crashed against the shore. "Now that we've found what we're looking for, let's call the boss!"

    "No, don't!" Meowth and James cried at the same time, leaping for their manic female companion. The small device that Jessie was going to use to contact Giovanni tumbled from her hands and crashed on the rocks below, breaking to pieces.

    "What gives, you lunkheads?" Jessie snapped, kicking at the both of them, but finding herself thrown off balance. "We need to tell the boss about-"

    "And what happens then, Jessie?" James asked pointedly. Jessie just looked at him angrily as she massaged her rear end. "He'll ask why we didn't take them out and we won't have a good answer. I don't think that being scared or that the twerps are here will cut it."

    "Grrrr…" Jessie growled out. She seemed tense, ready to lash out a single moment's notice. However, after some time passed, she relaxed and shrugged. "All right, fine, you have a point. But what do you suggest we do now?"

    "Hmmm…" James mused out, thinking. Meowth appeared bored with the proceedings, proceeding to lay back against the rock again. Sifting through the information in his mind, James realized all of the things that seemed to be interconnecting: Team Skull, the Lunchbox Guy and even their own target, ARC. All of them had converged in the same place. "I wonder if something is going on in Alola…perhaps that's why the boss sent us here."

    "You mean like one a dem tipping points?" Meowth asked, sitting up now. James wasn't sure what to answer. It was a farfetched theory at complete best, hardly worth substantiating.

    "Oh, tipping points, shipping points," Jessie snapped, folding her arms as she did so. James suddenly realized that in those folded arms was her Stufful, pawing at her playfully. "They all mean the same thing. Point is, how do we finish our mission without contacting the boss."

    "Dere not da same ting, though…" Meowth stated. Both Jessie and James ignored him. James now folded his own arms to think of the solution. It came to him all too quickly with a sigh.

    "Well, I think we'll have to abandon the twerp and our plans for catching Pikachu…for now, at least." He now stood, pointing out towards the ocean victoriously. "We'll follow ARC no matter where it leads!"

    "Ha ha, and if we get that information about their organization, the boss will be pleased!" Jessie concurred, joining him in his dramatic posing. Meowth was finally the last to do so, a grin on his face.

    "And den we'll put on da squeeze!"

    "Wobba wobb!"

    And just like that, Team Rocket set up their balloon as usual and blasted off in the direction that the Skarmory carrying their quarry had gone.



    Author's Note: This was a transitional chapter, and yet not. Things are certainly moving apace in Alola, now, aren't they? I mean, this was really carrying the road to Lush Jungle but with so much other stuff thrown in like Dartrix learning Acrobatics, Pikipek evolving, Plumeria appearing once again and the reappearance of Looker and…Lionel?! Yes, that's right, Lionel and ARC are back, as I'm sure you guessed they would be. What this spells for the story ahead is anyone's guess but TRio is on the trail! In either case, this chapter has grave implications for the story to come.

    Now, a quick note on the Pokémon so far. You may notice that for a lot of them, they aren't saying their names. In some way, this is deliberate. I'm doing a hybrid between the English name and Japanese name. If they're too different to come up with a sound that works for both, I'll go with the English name (like Pikipek) but if I can you'll get something like the sound for Trumbeak (from Trumbeak and Kerappa). Hope that makes sense.

    The next trial is up next chapter and I hope you'll all stick around through it. Until then, please Review and Dare to Be Silly.

  10. #35
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    Perhaps the greatest joy I take as an author is the ability to accidentally make all my readers think something that I know isn't true and then show them that and it somehow surprises them when I didn't even mean to. Guess that's a good thing, huh? An even better thing is Chapter 20!


    Chapter 20

    A Jungle

    "Is everyone ready?"

    "Pikapika!" Pikachu cheered, leading all of Ash's Pokémon in a cry for their victory. The sun was just beginning to shine over the ocean, illuminating the day they'd be traveling to Lush Jungle for the next trial. All of his Pokémon seemed excited, ready to take on the next challenge before them. Behind Ash, the door opened and soft footsteps sounded on the wooden deck.

    "You're all ready to go, then?" called Lillie's voice. Ash was honestly surprised that it was her instead of Serena, but felt no less glad to have the support of another friend in his next endeavor. After a day of training, it was definitely just what he needed. "Serena and the others are almost ready to go, but…I don't know. I just wanted to see how you were."

    "I'm doing great," Ash insisted, stretching his arms as Lillie smiled at him. "Nebby looks pretty excited, too."

    "Pewpew!" chimed in the little cloud happily. Lillie finally looked down and realized that Nebby had escaped the bag, basking in the golden rays now coming over the hill. The blonde girl gave a cry of shock.

    "Nebby…" she said sternly. Nebby turned slowly, peering up at his caretaker with an innocent expression. "Get in the bag."

    "Pew."

    "Nebby!" Ash laughed, not at Lillie's misfortune, but simply the entire situation; like a mother trying to make her child eat his peas. Ash eventually walked up to Lillie after a moment, putting a hand on her shoulder before he leaned down towards Nebby.

    "I know you probably don't like the bag, Nebby," he told him. Nebby swayed back and forth, smiling at him curiously. "But Lillie is only looking out for you. You don't want to cause her too much trouble, do you?"

    "Pew?" Nebby now stopped his swaying in time for Pikachu to run up to him and pat him kindly. Pikachu appeared to talk to him, as if explaining things in the same way. Eventually, Nebby nodded and jumped up towards Lillie, cuddling against her before slipping into the bag with a final "Pew!"

    At this moment, Serena, Clemont, Bonnie and Rotom all emerged, looking rested and ready for travel. Wanting to hit the road as soon as possible, Ash called all of his Pokémon to return, the four of them giving him fierce and determined looks before he did so. Then, wheeling around on his heels, Ash made sure to take Serena's hand (if partially because she was in charge of the map) before jetting off towards the direction of Lush Jungle.

    Given that it was still early morning, most Pokémon in the wilds hadn't woken up for the day as of yet, leaving their path devoid of distractions. Even Rotom appeared to be lazy enough to not even taunt Bonnie, the two of them having clearly declared a ceasefire with one another…for now, at least. Ash and Lillie, funnily enough, seemed to be the most enthusiastic about reaching Lush Jungle, if the yawns were anything to go by.

    "Your third trial?" Lillie spoke as the leaves of the jungle were very visible in the near distance. Ash estimated that it wouldn't take them much time at all, especially as he could see a small path coming from another direction that would join up with theirs on the final approach. Someone appeared to be walking, or running, down the path, but Ash focused on Lillie's excitement. "I wonder what it's like to take part in a trial…"

    "You've never thought about doing them?" Ash asked. The girl shook her head, her braids flying about.

    "I'm not exactly a Pokémon trainer, so…It would be rather difficult," she noted, looking slightly embarrassed by the confession of it. Ash grinned at her, once more placing a hand on her shoulder.

    "Well, nothing wrong with that," he said. "We all start off differently."

    "It's true. I didn't become a Pokémon trainer until a year or so ago." Serena's confession appeared to have surprised Lillie. "I probably never would have if I didn't see Ash on the television. Sort of like you, now that I think about it. But I wouldn't trade it for anything."

    "You just seem so mature!" Lillie said in surprise, earning an almost humorless laugh from Serena. It wasn't hard to notice why. They'd all grown up very fast in a short amount of time. Ash breathed in, hoping for it to restore clarity to his brain, reminding him of the normalcy that going on this adventure with his friends had restored. Though, perhaps, it restored a little too much clarity.

    "Hey…that's…" Ash questioned, squinting towards the figure that was approaching the entrance to Lush Jungle from the other path. Ash slightly swiveled his vision to note the signs that were near the gap in trees to the jungle, indicating the entrance to the trial. As he did so, Clemont peered through his own glasses.

    "It looks like Hau," he noted. Bonnie appeared to snap out of her lethargy from this one comment, looking around rapidly until she saw the figure charging down the path. The closer he got, the more Ash could definitively identify the figure as Hau, charging headlong towards Lush Jungle. Before he could hit that, however, he was also coming to the intersection that they were now standing at.

    "Lillie, this is your chance," Bonnie whispered to the blonde, though it was hardly inaudible. Serena and Clemont quickly tag-teamed the incorrigible little girl, pulling her back before she could say anything more. Not that it stopped her. "Leap into his arms as he-mmph!"

    "Hey, Hau!" Ash yelled down the path, saving Lillie from any embarrassment she could possibly be feeling. Now that they were close enough, Ash could see the boy was running so fast that there was a dust cloud billowing out behind him. His hair was tied up loosely and Pipi was clinging to him with all the energy she could muster.

    "No time to talk, Ash! Got a trial to complete!" the boy yelled, even forgoing his customary greeting. He was so in the zone of getting to the trial site that he even completely ignored Lillie, who was waving at him sweetly. The dust cloud that had resulted from his running burst up into Ash's nose, causing him to sneeze.

    "He's certainly in a hurry…" Serena commented, taking off her straw hat and brushing it slightly.

    "Yeah, he is…" Ash noted with a slight chuckle. Then the chuckle died. Realization set in and he snapped a look to share with Pikachu. "No way! That means he'll be doing his trial first!"

    "Pikapika!" Pikachu said indignantly, as if telling Ash there was no way they'd let that happen. Ash pumped his fists and kicked his feet off in Hau's direction, his head lowered like a charging Tauros.

    "We're not letting that happen!" Ash cried, leaving his friends behind as he charged mercilessly for Hau. The younger boy threw his head back and seemed to realize that Ash was, in fact, catching up. He grimaced and faced forward, attempting to pick up the pace. Ash wasn't giving him the chance, he and Pikachu pushing forward until they'd drawn even with Hau. This was nothing when compared to the last trial. "What's up, Hau?"

    "Nothin' much. Just taking care of my first Akala trial," Hau answered, grinning. Pikachu and Pipi greeted each other, but their trainers didn't stop their dash towards the gate that was the entrance to the trial.

    "I already completed one!" Ash told him, swiveling his gaze between Hau and their destination. Hau didn't stop grinning.

    "I figured as much," Hau answered. "I've been training real hard, though. Right, Pipi?"

    "Kapi!" Pipi agreed, raising her hand.

    "Besides, it'll be real easy to hit Brooklet Hill after this and circle back to Wela Volcano," Hau insisted with his grin. Ash just kept his own grin steady and accepted it. "But first, I've gotta beat you here and take care of this trial."

    "Oh no, you don't!" Ash cried out. Both boys dug their feet into the ground, racing those last few feet to the entrance. They both reached forward, as if their fingers crossing the threshold would decide who was to go first…only it didn't. Instead, they suddenly slammed into the blue forcefield and fell backwards, tumbling on the ground with loud grunts. "Didn't see that coming…"

    "Nope, definitely not…" Hau expressed, groaning. The two boys sat up, heads reeling a little. Then they caught sight of each other sprawled on the ground and started laughing loudly. A roar pierced the air, causing the both of them to look up. Ash shielded his eyes a little more with the brim of his hat in order to watch as a Charizard descended. The tramping sounds of footsteps behind them told Ash that the rest of his friends were all catching up. Sure enough, as the Charizard came to a landing position, Ash found Serena's hand being offered to him and he took it with a thanks.

    "You boys okay?" called the chipper voice of Mallow as she leapt off the Charizard. As it turned out, she wasn't alone, Kiawe patting the Charizard kindly. The Flame Pokémon snorted a little and then went to doze off in the shade of a small rock face.

    "We're fine," Hau answered. Mallow laughed a little, rubbing the back of her neck apologetically. When she was finished, she grabbed her captain's medallion and held it up to the signpost. Just like at Ilima's trial, the blue aura that surrounded the trial site began to fade away, allowing obvious access to it.

    "Sorry I was late, but you all got here faster than I would have thought," Mallow told them. "Kiawe stopped by so I thought I'd catch some breakfast quickly. At least you weren't waiting long."

    "It's no problem," Ash assured her, brushing off his shorts. Mallow smiled at that and jerked her head inside, indicating for them to follow. The raven-haired trainer offered a slight, acknowledging nod to Kiawe before pursuing Mallow inside. Hau was at his side, and as the two passed over the threshold, it was genuinely like being submerged into a whole different world.

    Everything around them exploded with the sound of Pokémon in the air, and a scent unlike any Ash had ever smelled before assailed his nostrils. It was wild and eclectic, permeating the entire area around him. Something moved in the distance and a thick patch of grass rustled. The air around him felt heavy, almost like it was pressing down on him with dew. Yet at the same time, it was all so invigorating.

    "Ash! Hau! Welcome to the Trial of Mallow!" the green-haired girl greeted them with a shout into the air. The denseness of the jungle around them prevented the sound from traveling far, but the way Mallow spread her arms seemed to indicate just how truly vast the entire area was. Looking upwards, Ash could see an outcropping of rock that looked almost like a balcony from which one could observe the entire jungle.

    "That's great, Mallow, but…" Ash voiced, folding his arms. He and Hau looked at each other, both realizing the predicament they had somehow found themselves in. "…who takes the trial first?"

    "What do you mean?" Mallow questioned, tapping her chin with a bemused smile. Ash blinked; surely she realized they were both here for the trial and could only complete it one at a time. Hau decided to take things into his own hands.

    "Well, we both got here at the same time," Hau explained to her. "So, how do we decide who goes first? I mean, the loser would have to wait a whole day…"

    "There's no reason to wait," Mallow said, her grin growing wider. She raised her hand and waved it across her face, as if all of this was simply a complete non-issue in the grand scheme of things. "You can both take the trial at the same time!"

    "But what about the Totem Pokémon?" Ash asked. Hau seemed to have no such qualms about things.

    "Sounds good to me!" Ash raised an eyebrow towards Hau, but chose to just go with the flow and shrug his arms, not making a big deal out of it. Mallow seemed to like Hau's approach to the whole thing, because she never stopped grinning, instead putting her hands on her hips and grinning proudly.

    "The Totem won't be a problem. This way, the trial will be more fun, and I get to see the both of you compete for your Grassium-Z," the captain told them both confidently. Ash chuckled a little under his breath and unfolded his arms, bringing them to his side while he looked at Pikachu.

    "I guess that could be pretty fun, huh?" he asked of his long-time partner. Pikachu raised his paw and agreed cheerfully. Ash turned back to Mallow. "All right, let's do it."

    "Yes!" Mallow cheered. Behind him, Ash caught the sight of Kiawe shaking his head in the periphery. However, Mallow completely ignored her friend in order to get the process of the trial up and running once again. "All right, so, since you're both doing it at the same time, why don't you choose your partners?"

    "This one, too?" Ash asked without thinking. Hau glanced at him curiously, but didn't say a thing, tilting his head in serious contemplation of who he would pick for his own partner. Ash had his own decisions to make as well. He hadn't expected yet a second trial to be completed with another friend by his side, not that he minded in the slightest. "What do you think, Pikachu?"

    "Pichu…" Pikachu said, folding his own arms as he tried to consider their decision. From the way his face was screwed up, Ash had the distinct feeling that his best friend wasn't coming up with any answers. Luckily, they didn't have to.

    "I'll do it!" Bonnie cheered out, raising her hand high.

    "You will?" Serena voiced. Ash spun around to face all of his friends, registering the looks of shock on their faces in his mind. Bonnie was the only one with a giddy smile as she skipped forward to grab Ash's hand. Clemont appeared concerned, though the raven-haired trainer knew it was more for his sister's safety rather than anything else. Ash was more concerned with Serena, and whether or not she had wanted to partner up with him. After a moment of staring in shock, however, she graced her face with that beautiful smile again.

    "I think it's a good idea, Clemont," she sounded out, shifting the egg on her chest. She had it wrapped in a towel today, no doubt to fight off the frostbite that nearly occurred yesterday if it wasn't for Braixen. "Bonnie's been working really hard with Dedenne to master Parabolic Charge. Maybe, some alone time in an unsupervised situation will be just what the two of them need."

    "I guess you're right," Clemont said, looking reassured at Serena's words. Ash had to feel happy at the older brother's response. Seeing his girlfriend calm even the worried inventor gave further proof of what an inspirational individual she could be. Clemont stepped forward to kneel a little and place his hands on Bonnie's shoulders. "But still, you need to be careful out there with Dedenne. It might be a trial site, but I'm sure that Lush Jungle is full of lots of dangerous Pokémon. Promise me you'll stick close to Ash as much as possible and do your best."

    "I'll be fine, Clemont," Bonnie dismissed. Dedenne scampered up on top of her hat to glare down at the inventor. "I've been through worse things than a trial before."

    "But…"

    "Don't worry about it, Clemont. I'll take good care of Bonnie, and we'll come back victorious," Ash assured his friend. Even Pikachu gave his own assurance for good measure. Clemont seemed to consider that as good enough, for he stood and nodded. Rotom swayed back and forth.

    "With Bonnie in Ash's team, I consider their chances of success at fifteen percent…mostly to account for Bonnie," Rotom said smugly, the hint of a smirk on the Pokédex's screen. Bonnie glared at the device, looking like she wanted to chuck Dedenne at it, but halting herself.

    "Yeah? Well, I'll bust your numbers wide open!" Bonnie shouted at the Pokémon. Rotom didn't stop his teasing and swaying movements, even as the lemon blonde put her hands on her hips. "I will see Ash to victory in this trial!"

    "That's the way, Bonnie!" Ash said, bending down so that he and the girl could share a double high five. Confident in his volunteer, Ash faced Mallow yet again. "I choose Bonnie as my partner for the trial."

    "Then I'll choose Lillie, to keep things even," Hau insisted. Lillie's bag thudded on the ground suddenly and the girl scrambled to pick it back up while Hau grinned at her. "Makes sense, right. We get along well, and both you and Bonnie aren't trainers, so it evens things up between us for who can get the trial done first."

    "Yeah, but Hau…I…" Lillie said, pausing in mid-speech. She turned over to look at Serena and then Ash. He wasn't sure if she was asking for some kind of permission or maybe just using their gazes to draw from the well of courage inside her. She breathed in and then smiled beautifully at Hau. "Okay. We'll work together to complete the trial."

    "Aw, yes!" Hau said, jumping up and down as he pumped his fists. Their teams apparently set, both trainers and partners turned to face Mallow. The green-haired girl waited a moment, like she was pausing for dramatic effect. Her eyes were closed and when she opened them, her hands were on the move. They shot out, suddenly placing what looked like rolls of parchment with a list of three ingredients on them to the two trial-goers.

    Ash quickly took his out of sight from any speck of Hau or Lillie's vision, all while his rival did the same. Right from the beginning, they weren't taking any chances. Ash once more bent down to share the list with Bonnie. It did indeed look to be a recipe list. Only, they weren't any ingredients Ash would include in a meal (if he knew how to actually cook properly). Bitter tastes like the Revival Herb combined with the sweetness of a Mago Berry and the spicy Tamato Berry were not very appealing things. Bonnie appeared to think so as well, because her face was screwed up in confusion.

    "So…what do we do with it?" Hau was the first to ask after he and Lillie had perused their list. Mallow walked a little closer to the both of them, hands behind her back as she chose to answer the tanned boy's inquiry.

    "The ingredients you see on your list are the things you need to gather," Mallow said sternly, and Ash could tell she had entered into her full captain mode. "You gather your three items and then you bring them back here to create a delicious dish from that recipe."

    "And how long do we have?" Lillie chose to ask. Mallow's smile grew wider.

    "That's what makes the trial of Mallow so exciting!" she proclaimed, running back and hopping onto a little rock that was nearby. "You have the whole day until the sun sets. Once it has, you fail the trial. But if you make it back before then, you succeed with flying colors!"

    "Sounds like a plan to me. Why don't we head right, Bonnie?" Ash said, pointing into what looked like a dense collection of trees on their right side. Bonnie clenched her fists as a way of answering, ready to dive into the brush.

    "Then it looks like we're going left."

    "Good luck, you two," Serena said. Ash looked to her and winked a little, causing her to laugh. She then decided to kiss on the air as a way of showing she was supporting him. Once more, Kiawe blushed with mortification.

    "Let's hurry it up Ash!" Bonnie said, gripping tightly to his hand and dragging him off in the direction he'd indicated seconds before. "We have to beat Hau and show that bucket of bolts who the real winner is."

    "All right, all right! We'll be back!" Ash called, throwing his fist in the air as the sign of his impending victory, before his remaining two friends completely vanished from view in the thick jungle.

    When they entered, almost all sounds except for those of the jungle were cut off practically instantly. No movement. No voices. Just a cry or two from up in the trees. There wasn't even a speck of wind, and though he hadn't noticed it before, Ash realized that he was sweating quite profusely in the humidity that permeated the jungle. Bonnie was doing the same, evidenced by her taking her floppy hat off and shaking it.

    "So…how do we find this stuff?" she asked, taking the list and looking it over again. Instead of allowing them to simply stay still, Ash pushed forward, keeping some of the large leaves on the trees from smacking them all in the face as they walked. A slight skittering was heard to the side, but Ash ignored it. Unlike the last two trials, this one didn't yet require them to battle Pokémon (which he was admittedly disappointed about, but sloughed it off).

    "Do you have any ideas?" Ash asked. Bonnie, for all the times she was rotating the paper while looking at it, shook her head. Ash sighed as a result; he hadn't expected her to have the answer anyway, but he wished that he did. "If I still had Noivern with me, he could probably find it."

    "How about using Greninja?" Bonnie now suggested, placing her own hands behind her head as she walked.

    "Dene?" Dedenne questioned his caretaker, but she didn't provide an answer, choosing to look up at Ash with the question still on her mind. He shook his head, though, even if he liked the concept of the idea.

    "Greninja is great at sensing living things," Ash explained, recalling how it felt to synchronize with the Ninja Pokémon. Every time they had, sensing things like danger or where Pokémon and humans were was an easy task. But things like berries and herbs was far too out of his comfort range. "Everything else, not as much. Pikachu, can you sniff anything out?"

    "Pika," Pikachu said, jumping down to the springy floor of Lush Jungle to sniff at the air. However, the dampness of the area appeared to be interfering with that mediocre sense of smell and he shook his head.

    "Well, this sucks…we'll have to search every inch of this place! No wonder Mallow gave us all day!" Bonnie pouted. She stopped in her tracks a moment, looking down at her feet. Ash stopped as well, gazing at the girl in concern. "Squishy could find it all, no problem…"

    "Bonnie…" Ash said. It had been a very long time since she'd actually spoken aloud about Squishy in a sad fashion. The little girl choked back tears and Ash kneeled, taking her into an embrace. He could understand the pain she felt of losing someone, and was grateful that they could share that burden. It felt less lonely that way. "I know that wherever Squishy is, he's thinking of you."

    "You sure?" Bonnie hiccupped out. Ash pulled back and realized she was doing a very admirable job of keeping her tears in check. For a brief second, as she did so, Ash's hairs stood on end, the familiar feeling of being watched pervading his mind. Bonnie stiffened, too, but just as soon as the feeling had come, it was gone. For some reason, it made Ash smile.

    "I know it," he told her. "And if Squishy is watching you and thinking of you, let's make sure we have lots of great stories to tell him when we see him again."

    "O…Okay!" Bonnie insisted, pulling her fists tight to her chest. Dedenne nodded furiously, joining Pikachu on the ground and communicating with their electricity. Ash found both sights heartwarming to see. It was often easy for him to forget that Bonnie was just a little girl; she always acted so grown up, and had been through so much. Her time in DARC's captivity appeared to have affected her, as well, even if the current journey through Alola had helped her to hide it. He only knew because one night in Pallet, he'd heard her screaming for someone to stop, asking for no more, only for Serena to calm her down. Seeing her now, pushing through it and endeavoring to become stronger was all he could ask for.

    "Then let's find those ingredients and beat Hau in no time!" Ash proclaimed, pointing down the path forward. Bonnie nodded as the Pokémon cried with them before she once more unfurled the parchment.

    "Guess we should start with the Revival Herb. It'll be harder to spot," Bonnie pointed out. She also reached into her bag and pulled out a pen. "I'll make a map so we don't get lost."

    "Great idea, Bonnie. That way, I can keep an eye out for Pokémon so we don't get hurt." Ash paused in his thought processes, but not in their movement forward. Bonnie was busy sketching out the path they'd already taken while his mind whirred with a possibility for helping them. It was all on Hau, and sensing…or maybe smelling. Hau had a Munchlax, one that would no doubt help him to find food in the same way that May's used to. However, that didn't mean he had no options. After all, he had a Pokémon that was as gluttonous for berries as they came, and a dog that no doubt had a great sense of smell. He grinned and decided to start with the latter. "Rockruff, I choose you!"

    "Ruff!" Rockruff barked out cheerfully, wagging her tail a little in joy at seeing him. Bonnie finished her part of the map and walked over to pet Rockruff happily.

    "Rockruff, we need to find a Revival Herb. Do you know what those smell like?" Ash asked, placing his hands on his knees. Rockruff barked instantly, a cheerful and yearning expression in her eyes. Ash wanted to pump his fist in victory, but refrained from it. "Great, can you sniff it out then?"

    "Rock…" Rockruff said contemplatively. She faced forward, padding past Pikachu and Dedenne as she sniffed at the air. Unlike Pikachu, who appeared to have a hard time discerning plants from one another as they mixed in with the humidity, Rockruff looked to be a sleuth. Perhaps she wasn't up to the level of a Slurpuff or Stoutland, but she certainly seemed to be finding a trail of…something. "Ruff! Rrruf! Rockruff!"

    "I think we've got the trail, Bonnie. Get ready to run," he said to the girl. She grinned with determination, jamming her hat back on her head. Rockruff ran forward, her little legs stampeding across the springy jungle floor. Ash made sure to get behind Bonnie so he wouldn't leave her behind as they, Pikachu, and Dedenne chased after Rockruff through the jungle.

    The sounds of Pokémon increased as they ran forward, flinging aside leaves that nearly ran into their faces. Water droplets flew off of them in all directions, but neither Ash nor Bonnie stopped. The little girl was sketching like she was mad, and though the lines were all over the place and squiggly, especially when they turned and the foliage became just a little lighter, Ash felt that the both of them could still interpret it perfectly; not like it was a real map, after all. Ash's eyes flitted back and forth, sensing Pokémon all around them, watching them as they progressed into the jungle. Thankfully, Ash didn't yet feel surrounded, especially with the twisting and turning path they were taking leading to a grove with tall tufts of grass, almost up to Bonnie's head.

    "Is this all Revival Herb?" Bonnie asked, nearly dropping the map on the back of the ingredient list. Ash decided to test her theory by ripping out a small portion and touching it to his lips.

    "I don't think so…no taste," Ash pointed out.

    "Rockruff!" the Puppy Pokémon yipped out, having dived into the grass. His call drew their attention and the pair of humans pushed into the grass. Pikachu and Dedenne had vanished inside the swaying landscape, no doubt aiming for Rockruff. While Ash and Bonnie seemed to have a bit harder of a time with the grass tickling them and forcing each other to hold on to the other's hand, they eventually pushed out of it to a small patch of very short grass that Rockruff was prancing around.

    "Dedede?" Dedenne questioned of the puppy. She barked at him and he seemed to decide it was okay to nibble on the short grass. That proved to be a quick mistake, because his lips puckered and he fell back, rolling on the ground into Pikachu, who caught him.

    "I think we found it," Ash said, reaching down to pluck the Revival Herb from the ground. Bonnie quickly dug into her bag and pulled out a small baggie that they placed the item into. "All right…two berries then."

    "How about we do the Mago Berry next?" Bonnie suggested, stowing the baggie in her own bag. "Tamato Berries should be easy to find. I bet they look like Lillie's face right now…"

    "You really like teasing her, don't you?" Ash asked, folding his arms as he peered at the mischievous little girl suspiciously. Bonnie's sly grin worked its way on to her face before she answered.

    "Well, my favorite couple to tease has gotten all lovey-dovey…a little too much sometimes, so you guys are no fun," Bonnie pouted out. "Clemont always shuts down my attempts to tease him about Korrina, so all that's left are Lillie and Hau, now. You wanna help?"

    "Maybe we should just let things be," Ash chuckled out. He really didn't want to get involved with that. His relationship with Serena was enough to handle in terms of love lives. Bonnie just shrugged at him declining her offer.

    "Suit yourself," she said simply. After that, she began looking around, peering about the grove. "So…uh…how do we want to find the Mago Berry?"

    "I'm pretty sure I've got the perfect partner for that, right, you guys?" Pikachu and Rockruff raised their paws in agreement. Ash gripped at Dartrix's pokeball and called him out, the preening owl landing on a branch that sagged a little under his weight, given that he was at its tip. "Dartrix, we need to find some Mago Berries in this jungle. I'm sure you know what the tree looks like, right?"

    "Roh!" Dartrix said, flicking his hair with his wing. Bonnie giggled next to Ash while the Blade Quill Pokémon puffed his chest out proudly. Once all his posturing was done he flapped into the air, through the dense foliage. Ash could no longer see him, but he had his own plan for that. "Darroh!"

    "You found it?" Ash called out, cupping his hands around his mouth to make sure the Pokémon could hear him. Dartrix responded in the affirmative. "Great! Go to the tree and wait for us, Dartrix…don't eat them all."

    "Pika pika!" Pikachu seemed to laugh out at the thought of it. Even Dedenne seemed to find it all rather humorous. Only Rockruff seemed lost at the joke, though that may have been because she was backing away from the Revival Herb, the smell likely just as bitter to her as its taste.

    "Rockruff, you're up, again," Ash said, looking to the puppy. She wagged her tail and barked a little, clearly happy to be of great use again. Having understood the directions without saying anything, she sniffed at the air, picking up clearly on Dartrix's scent. She barked one more time and bounded off in his direction. Ash grabbed ahold of Bonnie's hand, their Electric types returning to their sides as they crashed through more of the foliage.

    "I'm pretty sure we're not following any path now, Ash," the girl commented.

    "I'm not sure there was going to be much of a path left to begin with," was his response. Bonnie nodded, like she agreed with that statement. Thankfully, it mattered little, since Rockruff appeared to be traveling in a straight line for wherever Dartrix and the Mago Berry tree was. That was what Bonnie was drawing, too.

    "Pimia!" a harsh cry sounded out from the trees nearby, echoing just a little in the space. Ash tensed, gripping Bonnie's hand as Pikachu readied himself for a battle. They hadn't seen many Pokémon in the jungle, despite having consistently heard them throughout, so it came as a surprise that one had gotten so close as to actually have been heard. Ash turned his head, seeing a shadow flit through the jungle, as if trying to keep up with him. Whatever it was, it was fast. Rockruff's cries sounded out, indicating how close they were.

    With a final push through the thick leaves, Ash and Bonnie broke out into a small grove of numerous berry trees. Doing a quick circle, Ash could see the various kinds hanging there from Sitrus to Oran, or even an Aspear Berry. Most importantly was the one tree that Dartrix appeared to be sitting on, having taken a couple of the berries to snack on. He looked content and Ash ran towards the tree, raising his hand so that his Pokémon could catch sight of him. Dartrix raised his wing in greeting. "Think you could get some for us without eating them, Dartrix?"

    "Dar-"

    "Passim!" The sudden chatter cut across Dartrix's confirmation, echoing around the forest as some Pikipek and Fletchling appeared to take the air from some of the tree's topmost branches. Ash's instincts took over. He grabbed Rockruff, held onto Bonnie and dove to the ground. They rolled over to the center of the grove just as a large berry struck the ground where Ash had been mere moments before. Ash twisted around, making sure they were all okay and looked to where the berry was, surprisingly unbroken, part of the dirt having been dug into from its impact. A shadow flitted out from the trees as something landed, picking up the ball-like berry with a fierce expression.

    "What kind of Pokémon is that…?" Ash asked, surprised by the sight of something so unfamiliar. At the very least, he could tell that it was some kind of monkey, its fur black and white with broad muscles. What looked like two green leaves were sticking out from the back of its head as it crouched down, sprouting from a helmet on its head, the protective covering seeming to have been made from a coconut shell of some kind. Most importantly, however, were its orange eyes, staring at Ash, challenging him. Or maybe he was just defending the plants of the forest and they had simply been interlopers into his territory. Either way, the Pokémon wasn't going to let them go.

    "Passi! Passimian!" it cried, flexing powerfully before Ash. He scowled a bit, standing while Rockruff leapt forward, growling. From the sounds the Pokémon was making, Ash could only guess that it was called a Passimian, though he knew very little else. Where's Rotom when you need it…? Ash questioned to himself, but quickly focused. Dartrix was staring down at them, obviously torn between what he needed to do.

    "Don't worry about us, Dartrix," Ash called over calmly. "You focus on gathering the berries, okay? Bonnie, you-"

    "Passim!" the Passimian chattered out. It appeared to rear back, shadows brimming around it berry before it tossed the thing straight for Ash.

    "Use Bite!" Ash called. Rockruff immediately jumped, sinking her teeth into the incoming attack. They collided, causing Rockruff to fall back to the ground while the berry dropped as well. Passimian moved with surprisingly quick speed, grabbing the berry before Rockruff could react again. Then it moved forward, its free hand glowing a bright and brilliant white. "Dodge it!"

    "Ruff!" Rockruff called. She leapt backwards and Ash was with her. Bonnie did, too, only she was farther away from the center of the grove than either of them were. A root suddenly got in her path and she fell backwards, slamming into one of the trees. An Aguav Berry suddenly fell from said tree, striking her on the head.

    "Pikapika!" Pikachu cried in concern, leaping from Ash's shoulder to run to her and see if she was okay. He was grateful for the assistance, allowing him to put the full focus of his attentions onto the Passimian that already looked ready to make its next move. He narrowed his eyes, staring carefully into the Pokémon's orange ones, like a challenging statement. "Pika!"

    Ash turned his head, just for a fraction of a second, and Passimian struck out once again. The shadows surrounded the berry, but it didn't throw it this time, instead using it to give a close-quarters example of Shadow Ball. The attack slammed into Rockruff, forcing her head down. Meanwhile, Ash could only watch as a group of more Pokémon that Ash didn't recognize had fallen between Pikachu and Bonnie, preventing him from getting close. Their clicking sounds were distracting, but at the very least, Bonnie was pulling to her feet with a determined expression.

    "Don't worry about me, Ash," Bonnie called out. Dedenne hopped from her grasp to glare at the group of five Pokémon bearing down upon her. "Dedenne and I can handle this. You just focus on that other Pokémon!"

    "All right," Ash called, giving the girl a smile and a thumbs up. "Pikachu, just in case, be ready to help as much as you can."

    "Pi!" Pikachu confirmed. Ash whipped his head straight back on target, staring down the Passimian. It seemed to return his stare, still in its ever-challenging state. The more Ash locked eyes with it, the more it seemed like he could understand why it had attacked. Or he thought he did, at least. Whatever the case was, this Pokémon wasn't backing down and wasn't letting him leave unless it beat him thoroughly for whatever wrong he may have committed. Whatever that was…

    "Simi!" Passimian cried out, its fist glowing white as it dove for Rockruff.

    "Rock Polish," Ash called, throwing his hand out. Rockruff's body sparked with blue before she darted to the side. Passimian's fist struck the dirt, sending clods of it into the air. "Keep on the move and don't let it catch you!"

    "Ruffruff!" Rockruff barked out, running in circles around Passimian, occasionally changing her direction. The simian followed her movement for a moment before bending low. Like flashes of light, multiple copies of it appeared throughout their side of the grove. Rockruff pulled to a surprised halt for a fraction of a second, but when Passimian raised its arm, its berry covered in shadows once more, she went on the move again. Ash watched, trying to make sense of just why the Pokémon had attacked them. The Passimian finally threw its Shadow Ball fiercely.

    "Rock Throw! Intercept it!" Ash cried out. Rockruff didn't stop her running as the stones from her neck shot out to form the large stone that was then flung towards the incoming barrage of Shadow Balls. Only, the Shadow Ball wasn't just aiming for Rockruff. Above in the tree, Dartrix attempted to pick off a berry, only to be thrown off balance by a separate Shadow Ball (from Passimian's mouth) that was soaring through the tree's leaves. Ash's eyes narrowed; was Passimian as protective of the berries as Trumbeak or…?

    The two attacks collided, blasting apart and raining small stones everywhere. Rockruff's blue eyes shone through the debris and Ash mouthed his next order, hoping she'd pick up on it. She did, darting and weaving through the various copies that were vanishing. Passimian turned, attempting to find her before she leapt forward and bit into its tail powerfully.

    "Pa-a-a-assimian!" it cried, flailing about as Rockruff hung on tightly, not letting go for a second. The lemur didn't look happy as it twisted back and forth, but it allowed Ash a single chance to check on how Bonnie was doing against the other foreign Pokémon. To his surprise, Bonnie and Dedenne were keeping up as Dedenne used Nuzzle on one of them before flying back and letting a Thunder Shock off. That single one fell while Pikachu used Iron Tail to make sure that the others didn't get too far out of range. Dedenne landed nicely.

    "Parabolic Charge!" Bonnie ordered. Dedenne stood still, sparking and beginning to store electricity into his little body. Ash could only hope that he would hold out. For the moment, he turned back to his own battle in progress, as Passimian suddenly slammed into Rockruff with its open fist. She slammed into the ground, some of the grass torn up around her. The Passimian paused, as if horrified at what it had done.

    "Rock Throw from where you are," Ash commanded quickly, putting one foot in front of the other. From being splayed out, Rockruff's stone shot out into their usual size and then blasted upward, striking Passimian in the jaw. It quickly recovered, however, and once more created numerous clones about the area. Rockruff stood once more, shaking her head while Ash watched the copies for a clue of where the real one might be. That's when he caught sight of something odd: Passimian was over near the dirt clod and grass, patting it back softly and then methodically taking the grass out to look perfectly even. "Aha…so, that's why…"

    "Ruff!" Rockruff barked, pulling his attention back. Ash nodded; he finally understood Passimian as a rather compulsive Pokémon who wanted things to be done the right way, covering all its bases in any way possible. He grinned now.

    "Use Bite on all the copies that you can, and Rock Throw to hit those farther away!" Ash commanded. Rockruff instantly bounded for the nearest copy, biting into it fiercely before flinging a Rock Throw at another. "I get you now, Passimian. You didn't want Dartrix to take the berries in a way that would disrupt things…"

    Passimian, the real one, turned its head to look at him, almost like it was surprised that he understood it. In some way, the monkey reminded him of Hawlucha, only protecting the order of nature rather than just the Pokémon. Ash's other foot now moved forward.

    "Dedenne!" Bonnie cried out. Ash rotated his body, able to keep his gaze on both parts of the battle right as Rockruff managed to ram into Passimian with a Bite. Bonnie, on the other hand, was struggling, Dedenne hit by the mantis-like Pokémon that were attacking. The Antenna Pokémon struggled to stand, shaking his head. "Come on, Dedenne! You can do this! I know you can use Parabolic Charge! So let's do it together!"

    "Pikapika!" Pikachu cried, his own cheeks sparking with stored electricity. It was like an example for the Pokémon that served as his younger brother. Dedenne caught sight of it and nodded, once more drawing all of the electricity around his body. The mantis Pokémon moved in, each of them leaping for Dedenne.

    "De…denenene!" Dedenne called, finally bringing the electricity together, coalescing it into an orb that shot straight into the air. Passimian was on the move again, its fist glowing white as it made a move for Rockruff once more, hoping to clearly end the fight. Then the orb burst. Electricity blasted across the area, hitting all of the enemies. Even Ash had to duck to avoid the powerful blast of Dedenne's newly mastered move. The Pokémon attacking Bonnie were all fried, and the attack even slammed into Passimian, halting its attack as the energy from all of them turned green and flew into Dedenne. He looked rejuvenated.

    "Passi…passi…" Passimian breathed heavily, but was quickly regaining its breath. Ash knew it wouldn't stop, though, not until they were done. He didn't want it to wear itself out fighting for something when they could both come to an understanding. They could make sure Lush Jungle's ecosystem remained secure without leading both sides to destruction. Knowing this, Ash grabbed an empty pokeball.

    "Go, pokeball!" he cried. Passimian turned, moving sluggishly just as the pokeball hit it on the head. It took a second, but it went inside, disappearing as red light before the capture device dropped to the ground.

    Then, the pokeball began to shake.
    *Chapter to be continued in next post...

  11. #36
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    Chapter continued from last post.

    "How many times does one have to change direction before landing? !" Jessie complained, slumped over the edge of Team Rocket's balloon. For once, James had to wholeheartedly agree with his rather violent companion. After all, he, too, was slumped over the edge in exhaustion. They'd been following that Lionel guy on his Skarmory for almost a day now, only taking brief breaks to catch some sleep or eat while Wobbuffet steered the balloon.

    "Stuf?" Stufful asked of Jessie, pawing at her worriedly. Jessie didn't respond, merely letting out an irritated groan. James simply observed the pair, amazed at how close Stufful was to Jessie already…though she and Gourgeist treated the Pokémon like it was their daughter in a sense.

    "Hey, I tink he's finally landin'!" Meowth called, peering through the binoculars. His words were like a salve to James' utter exhaustion and the man finally regained his vertical mobility. He shuffled over to the other end of the balloon, where Meowth was keeping watch and pulled out his own binoculars. He focused them, peering over to the now slowly descending Skarmory. There appeared to be a small clearing amidst the palm trees, occupied solely by a trailer caravan, which was where the lunchbox guy and Lionel were heading. James quickly brought up his map and realized that they were, somehow, still on Akala. After having passed the volcano a couple times on their journey, he had begun to wonder if they were still circling the accursed island.

    "No, down! Wobbuffet, lower the balloon!" Jessie commanded tersely.

    "Wobb wobb!" Wobbuffet said, quickly lowering the balloon so they wouldn't be as obvious amidst the tree covers. At least with their binoculars, the trio realized that they could thankfully see the quarry they had been following tirelessly for the last day. Jessie finally joined the boys in peering over, a microphone amplifier in her hands that she aimed at the group.

    "So who all is there?" she asked snappishly. James couldn't blame her; they were all thoroughly exhausted.

    "Not many," Meowth commented. From James' own observation, the feline was absolutely right about that. In fact, the place looked almost positively abandoned if not for two men in the clearing, sitting comfortably on the stairs into the trailer. They both looked familiar, and James quickly recalled them as the ones known as Aidan (his blond-haired ponytail and sharp glasses giving him away) and Theodore, formerly (or still, James was unsure) known as Tau.

    "Took you a while," Aidan's voice resounded through the clearing as Skarmory touched down. "This our contact?"

    "Yes, my name is Looker, member of the International Police," Looker spoke, taking out his badge and showing it to both of the men there. Lionel patted his Skarmory and then returned him. His gaze traveled around the clearing, but Team Rocket ducked, hoping to avoid any attention. It appeared to work, because the men continued with their conversations. James and Meowth leaned in to listen to it in full.

    "He checks out," Lionel said to his compatriots. "He was with Ash and the others at the time, so I know he is who he says he is."

    "Then why did it take you so long to get here?" Aidan demanded. To James' ears, the man sounded suspicious, but Lionel laughed off the entire thing. James peeked his head out, watching as Lionel placed a pokeball back on his belt, likely Skarmory's.

    "Wanted to make absolute sure we weren't followed," Lionel instructed. "I'm pretty sure we escaped detection from anyone whose ears and lips would cause problems…Tiring out any pursuers would do that…I'm becoming as paranoid as you at this point."

    "Nothing wrong with a little paranoia, Lionel," Aidan snapped. Looker happened to clear his throat, as if reminding them that he was still there. Lionel thumped him on the back as his blond companion dropped the subject. "Right, so…Team Skull…"

    "Indeed," Looker spoke, taking a notebook out from his jacket pocket and flipping through it. James wondered how he wasn't sweating in the heat of the region. "I had the opportunity to see them in action, myself. However, in terms of taking them down, I do believe there are only two people of any real concern in the organization: someone known as Big Sis Plumeria, and their boss, Guzma. Though neither names are very big secrets."

    "Hmm…" Aidan commented, as though he was actually dismissing the subject out of hand. Lionel appeared to be rather disinterested himself, leaning against the trailer with a yawn. "Do you believe they're of any threat, then?"

    "No, personally not," was Looker's response, flipping his notebook back shut and pocketing it. "From what I understand, the only real power they hold is presumably on Po Town in Ula'ula, but they typically keep to themselves and the locals don't seem to like to interfere, so it's a bit up in the air as to its validity. Though I've no idea about the opinions on the island itself."

    "That's something we could figure out when we get there," Lionel yawned out. "I don't care to go chasing after small-time Pokémon thieves, though. Even if they did supposedly attack Iki Town."

    "Some of my research has revealed that particular excursion to be more personal than anything," Looker finished reporting to them. "I've been told by my superiors to assess the situation alongside you and make a plan for what's needed to be done."

    "Tell your superiors to lay off, then," Aidan spoke harshly, folding his hands behind his back. Lionel looked to roll his eyes. "ARC can handle investigations from here. We're more acquainted with Ula'ula."

    "I understand that, but…the League and the International Police want to make sure both the Hope Leilani and the first Alola League to go off without a hitch," Looker argued. Aidan genuinely didn't appear to care, but Lionel ceased his yawns to put a hand on his companion's shoulder.

    "We understand," Lionel said. "All of our organizations need to work together in order to ensure that nothing like the past happens again. Can't have DARC's actions inspiring others to reach the same level of manipulation and world-altering effects."

    "DARC is dead," Aidan spat. "We're just busy ensuring that there are no more tipping points to come to pass. ARC has always worked in the shadows."

    "And we'll continue to do so," Lionel said. His voice had grown colder, harsher. Aidan didn't recoil, his lips pursed as he stared down his nose at the leader of their group. James raised his eyebrows, wondering if there was any infighting within ARC that they could exploit. "The International Police are still our allies, though. While we work behind the scenes, searching for Zygarde, they will actively be looking at Team Skull, if you can. At the very least, anyone who would be watching would be blind to our movements."

    "That is the role we've discussed in alliance between the three organizations," Looker confirmed. James instantly dug for the device on his wrist, bringing up a purple screen and typing in all of the information that was prevalent. Zygarde was in Alola, and alliance between organizations. "We in the IP will be the face of operations, the G-Men will be the infiltrators and you all will be gathering the information no one can. In regards to Team Skull, there is someone I'm acquainted with that might be able to help. And as for information, since I've shared mine, it's important to have something from your end to report back."

    "Fair point," Lionel conceded. His face grew cold and harsh, like he was no longer joking around about the state of things. "On the surface, everything is very peaceful in Alola, but we're certain that things will take a turn for the worse soon. Our six months in the region have convinced us of that."

    "They have…?" James found himself unable to resist leaning closer to Jessie in order to hear more of the dialogue.

    "Zygarde is here," spoke the final voice in the group. James quickly realized that it belonged to Tau. "Its cells are active and aware, keeping an eye on things. The only reason for that is because it senses something is about to happen…just like Kalos."

    "That's the major foundation for our theory: DARC mentioned a tipping point in the past, and though we stopped them, the world doesn't stop moving. Maybe it won't happen to the same extent, but we can certainly expect that there will be a tipping point in the near future. There's been too much peace." Lionel's fearful premonition made James shake a little, though it wasn't from fear.

    "I knew it…" he hissed to his companions, but Jessie hit him over the head to shut him up.

    "Nature doesn't stop moving," Tau continued. "Nor does the world it seems. Apparently, the guardian deities of Alola are on the move, or at least the one on Melemele Island. That, combined with Zygarde's presence all but clinches it: nature has decided that the next battle for our world will be here."

    "That's what you can report to your superiors," Aidan concluded. "Things are beginning to move in the region. The peace we saw six months ago has changed. We asked for your help with Team Skull because they'd been slightly more active, though it seems to amount to nothing. But the other trends can't be ignored."

    "So, tell our bosses at the League and the International Police to be ready at any time," Lionel finally said. His voice was so brimming with authority that it made even Team Rocket stand up straighter. "The clouds are certainly about to burst, and we need to be ready when they do. In the meantime, we'll continue our own research, looking for answers."

    "So…wait, bad things are about to happen in Alola?" Jessie whispered. James and Meowth nodded, confirming that was what seemed to be said. "Then what do we do? Should we tell the boss and capitalize on it?"

    "Hmm…" James mused. He wasn't sure exactly what the boss would say if they told him what they'd just heard. All he knew was something that had settled inside of him when they had first received their mission. "I'm not sure, but I don't think we should continue to pursue ARC so thoroughly."

    "Why's that?" Jessie asked. She didn't sound angry, at the very least.

    "Well, if this really is another battle for our world…do we really want to take out the chance to save it by eliminating the people that are trying to?" Jessie folded her arms, as though deciding that James had a point. The blue-haired man looked to their other companion, who tapped his chin before answering.

    "I don't tink dat'd be a problem. Da last time we had a world-endin' situation, da boss told us to help 'em out," Meowth said. "So, let's do da same dis time."

    "We could be heroes if we pull it off!" Jessie said, letting her clear delusions of self-grandeur sink in once again. "And then…I'll win the Hope Leilani and become the Ali'i ka Leilani! Perhaps I should permanently go around as Jessilie to promote myself to my adoring fans! Ahahahaha!"

    "We've lost her to her delusions again…" Meowth expressed with a sigh. James did so as well, though he didn't think the idea of going around as Jessilie and her adoring fans was the absolute worst idea. It was probably one of Jessie's better ones. Deciding that to be the case, James turned back to look at where ARC and Looker were meeting, only to find a leering Banette in his face.

    "Uh-oh…" James chuckled out. Meowth and Jessie looked to see what he was talking about and they all gulped. Clearly, Lionel had more than figured them and their presence out. Jessie grabbed hold of Stufful, who looked to struggle, wanting to break out of Jessie's arms. Then Wobbuffet grabbed all of them. Banette grinned further before vanishing.

    Next they knew it… "Team Rocket's blasting off again!" And they disappeared into the sky over Akala.


    Author's Note: Praise be to Bonnie and Dedenne! Joking aside for their awesomeness this chapter, it was very fun to write. Being able to write different interactions for the characters than what I could feasibly put into the Kalos Trilogy has made these trials very fun, especially since Ash gets to use all his different Pokémon to help him through it.

    But underneath it, things are brewing…ARC is on the move, Zygarde's in the region and things are about to go to hell. Would you expect anything less from me? And then there's Passimian, whose personality, if you haven't figured it out, will be explored next chapter. But will Ash catch it or just make friends with it and go their separate ways? Guess you'll have to find out.

    The trial comes to its conclusion next chapter, so stay tuned! Until that happens, please Review and Dare to Be Silly.

  12. #37
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    As of the posting of this chapter, the entire Alola Trilogy is completely written. Therefore, there is never a need over the next many, many months of publication for this to ever really go off-schedule. But for now, let's enjoy Chapter 21!


    Chapter 21

    A Race

    "I hope they're doing okay…" Clemont spoke, his voice trembling as he gripped on the edge of the stone balcony they had been directed to. His gaze was cast downward towards his nails instead of overlooking the jungle where the trial was currently taking place. Serena's own expression turned from one of scrutiny to worry and she looked over at her friend.

    "I'm sure that Bonnie will be just fine," she reassured him. The words didn't appear to do anything to assuage his fears however, the lemon blond inventor digging in even further to the point that his fingers were turning red. Serena sucked a breath in and reached over, touching his shoulder as she balanced her egg carefully. "Clemont."

    "What? I'm fine! I'm fine…" he blurted out, clearly without thinking. It sounded more like he was trying to convince himself of this notion. "It's just…the last time Bonnie was really left all alone…"

    "But she's not alone," Serena reminded him. Clemont finally looked up at her and the Performer could now see the trepidation present in his gaze. He really was frightened about leaving Bonnie alone. Of course, she knew he trusted Ash, but none of them knew how deadly the jungle could possibly be. It didn't help that Rotom was taking pictures of every Pokémon and adjusting his calculations for success every couple minutes.

    "I know she's not…" Clemont expressed. His fingers stopped digging into the stone, but were now piercing into his palm. "I just…if I'm not there to protect her…"

    "Clemont, what's wrong?" she asked quietly. For a brief moment, she wondered if all of this was really just about Bonnie being on her own with Ash. Clemont had been acting off since they had left Melemele, really. It wasn't obvious, but there appeared to be something on his mind that he was struggling with and didn't want to tell anybody about. "You know you can tell me anything. I think of you as my best friend, and I know Ash feels the same."

    "Mm," Clemont vocalized. He appeared conflicted, but without him saying anything, it made it impossible for her to discern just what he was conflicted about. That frustrated her. How could she help people, bring a smile to their face, if they weren't willing to open up and talk about it? Hoping to encourage him, Serena reached forward and took his hands, feeling them unclench in her own. It was a start. "It's just…how do I put it…"

    "Try with words, Clemont," she told him softly. The inventor sucked in a breath and then spoke only two words, ones that appeared to encapsulate everything.

    "I'm scared."

    Serena wasn't sure what to make of that. Scared of what? Losing Bonnie? Ash not completing his trials? Or was it something different? Something so far beneath the surface that Serena couldn't understand? She frowned a bit, even though she knew that offering Clemont a smile might have been for the best. Not knowing which of those it could possibly be, Serena decided to deal with the one that she figured was the easiest. "You know, you don't have to be scared for Bonnie all the time. She's grown a lot and been through just as much as the rest of us. In less than a year she's going to be her own trainer and have lots of her own adventures and all we can do is support her from afar."

    "I-I know that!" Clemont insisted, his cheeks going pink. Serena tilted her head, much like Ash and Pikachu when they were confused about something. "It's not that, it's-" The sound of footsteps coming out to the stone balcony interrupted him, causing him to shake his head. "It's nothing."

    "Clemont…" Serena breathed out, but the boy was now adamant. She wasn't getting any more out of him, especially with Kiawe having joined them on the balcony, as shirtless as ever. For a second, it made her think of a shirtless Ash, but she fought the blush down and ignored it. "Wh-where have you been?"

    "Had to grab something for the trial," the captain admitted, pointing down at the jungle floor below. Serena took the chance to look below, where Mallow had a fire going on top of a large blanket. It didn't look particularly safe, but the girl appeared to know what she was doing. She caught them watching and looked up with a wave. Serena waved back and cast her gaze out over the jungle. Other than some noises, she really couldn't see what was going on with Ash, Bonnie, Lillie and Hau. Though it made her wonder…

    "Kiawe, is there a reason Mallow allowed them both to take the trial at the same time?" she asked of the other captain. Kiawe gave a start as he walked to the edge and leaned on the nature-made balcony.

    "For her, it's not unusual, really," the boy answered, smirking lazily. "Mallow loves people coming together. It's a passion of hers, really. I may be more in tune with the spirituality that ties to Mount Akala and Tapu Lele, but Mallow…she connects with people. Maybe that's why we get along. We're like the two halves of Alola: people and Pokémon. So, if two people come to do her trial, having them work with each other…"

    "But they're working against each other," Clemont pointed out.

    "Are they?" Kiawe asked, his smirk growing ever wider. Serena scrunched her vision at his words, looking back over the jungle as far as she could see. "People, Pokémon, civilization, nature…they're all tied together. In this trial, perhaps more than any other, the trial-goers will learn this. I'm looking forward to how this will end."

    Serena could see that from his smirk turning into a grin. He was getting excited about the state of the trial. Whether it was from a want to battle the two boys, himself, or simply because he enjoyed being present for a trial, Serena was unsure, but she was fine with leaving it at that. Putting a smile back on her face, she mulled over Kiawe's words and watched the jungle for more movement, hoping only for her friends' safety and success as the trial continued on.


    Ash breathed in and out, his chest tightening with anticipation. Behind him, the grassy mantis-like Pokémon fell to the ground in heaps, allowing Bonnie and Dedenne to run forward with jubilation. Pikachu was at her side as she ran up to him.

    "Did you see us? ! Weren't we great?" she asked of Ash. He smiled at her, keeping one eye on the pokeball that was still rocking back and forth.

    "You were awesome, Bonnie! One heck of a team!" he said, putting his hand down low so she could give it a high five. She then appeared to realize the shaking pokeball and she took her hands into fists near her chest, watching it rock back and forth. Pikachu looked carefully, waiting with all the others. It felt like an eternity, constantly shaking…and then it wasn't.

    Ding! Like a sweet melody to Ash's ears, stars shot out from the pokeball as it ceased all movement and laid there, containing the newest Pokémon that Ash had caught. He looked to Pikachu and Rockruff, the latter looking tired after the battle, complete with her tongue wagging out. Both looked very happy, even as Dartrix swooped down from the trees, berry-less. Ash walked over to the pokeball that rested there and grabbed it, still able to feel its coolness through his gloves.

    "All right, guys! I caught a Passimian!" he cheered, holding the pokeball up in the air triumphantly. It wasn't something he had expected, yet at the same time, felt right. Pikachu and Rockruff leapt into the air with joy and Ash pulled the pokeball closer to him. With another breath, he held it out. "Now, come on out, Passimian."

    The light from the pokeball exploded and took the shape of the simian Pokémon before him. The black and white monkey looked around, as if confused, before placing his berry down and standing upright to look at Ash. Feeling a little more confident, Ash walked forward. "Passin?"

    "Passimian, my name's Ash," he said, reaching his hand forward. The monkey considered it a moment, regarding it curiously no doubt. "I'm a Pokémon trainer, and…well…we're sorry for messing up your home."

    "Simi?" Passimian now said. He seemed to understand what Ash was getting at because he smiled just a little and reached forward to give him a high five. Ash smiled at that. There was one step complete.

    "Our battle was really great," he started to say while Bonnie plopped down next to him, choosing to groom Dedenne's fur for a moment. "You're really strong and precise. That's why you didn't want us taking the berries, wasn't it? When we took the Revival Herb, we probably didn't take it the best way, and you didn't want us to do the same for the berries."

    "Pas," Passimian chattered out while nodding. Ash felt himself nodding, as well.

    "That kind of dedication is amazing," he spoke, bringing himself even closer. Passimian, which he now realized was quite the large Pokémon when standing (taller than himself for sure), got back down into his crouch to be at eye level with the trainer. "I think you could put that kind of coordination and precision together perfectly in a battle. My other friends and I are trying to do the Island Trials, and this is one of them. It would mean a lot of battling, but we have lots of fun."

    "Rockruff!"

    "Darroh…" Dartrix said sleepily, his stomach rumbling a bit. Passimian looked at the both of them before ending on Pikachu, who raised his hand and smiled. Behind them, Ash could hear the sounds of Bonnie's foes slinking back off into their tree.

    "If you'd like, Passimian, I'd love for you to join us. Not only in showing us how to not disturb the rest of the jungle," Ash stated to the Teamwork Pokémon, "but also because I think we'd get along well and improve all of our skills. If you want."

    "Paaaaa…" Passimian said. He watched them a moment longer before turning around and bounding up towards the Mago Berry tree with a single leap. Ash ran closer and watched as Passimian quickly, but quite carefully, pulled a whole branch of berries down without even disturbing the tree. Dartrix's mouth watered, but Ash paid more attention to Passimian arriving back on the ground harmlessly and handing over the berries. "Simian!"

    "You want to?" Ash asked. Passimian nodded silently, waiting for Ash and Bonnie to take the berries. They did so gingerly, careful to preserve them in the perfect way his new team member had while placing a couple in Ash's bag, sharing them with the rest (mostly a hungry Dartrix). "All right everyone, let's greet our new partner, Passimian!"

    "Pipikachu!"

    "Passimian!" Passimian cried out, tossing his large berry into the air, it landing perfectly on his back, rolling off his tail and back into his hand. It displayed the absolute precision of his moves in the battle as he grinned at Ash. Grinning at his new Pokémon, Ash reached forward with an extended fist. Passimian met it.

    "Nice to meet you, Passimian!" Bonnie called, running over and hugging the Pokémon without thinking. He stiffened, but soon accepted Bonnie's affections. "You got such a cute Pokémon."

    "Passa? !" Passimian called, as if offended he'd be called cute. Ash just laughed alongside his Pokémon, eventually prompting him to laugh, too, reaching over with his free hand to pat the girl on the back. For a Pokémon that seemed uptight earlier, Passimian definitely seemed to understand the general vibe of the group. Ash was just glad that the impromptu, yet right-feeling, capture had turned out so well with a mutual acceptance. It made Ash feel like Passimian liked to battle and bring his precision skills anywhere he could. He seemed to nod this wordlessly, too.

    "Passimian, now that you're a part of the team, we're looking for Tamato Berries to complete the trial. Do you know where they are?" Ash asked. At his feet, Rockruff was starting to pant a little more, the exhaustion from the earlier battle taking its toll. Taking sympathy, Ash returned her to her pokeball.

    "Pas!" Passimian uttered. He grabbed on to his berry and then jerked his head, as if indicating for them to follow him. That was good enough for Ash and Bonnie. Passimian then ran forward into the jungle; Ash wasn't surprised at the speed, but certainly found it a challenge to keep up with the monkey.

    "Well, this is lucky," Bonnie noted, clutching Dedenne in her arms as she picked up her own speed to chase after Ash's newest team member. "Who thought we'd run into such a great guide?"

    "Yeah, he really knows his way, and I bet he'll be a really great addition to the team," Ash pointed out. This proved to be the case when the duo lost sight of Passimian for just a second, worried he'd left them behind, only for the lemur to back up and make sure they were still able to follow him. That only endeared him further to Ash. Passimian seemed equally impressed by Dartrix, who was able to keep up with him efficiently and with little problem as they ran.

    Eventually, their whole entire group broke out onto a dirt path. Looking down to the left, Ash noticed that it seemed to essentially lead right back to the entrance of the jungle. When Bonnie saw this, she stuffed her list into her bag with a pout, all of the extra work wasted (though Ash was pretty certain that the map would have been a useless mess of squiggles anyway). At the very least, it meant that they only had to follow Passimian's lead as he went to the right, towards a large grove in the back.

    "Let's do this," Ash stated, punching into his hand. He grabbed Bonnie's hand and the two spun in Passimian's direction before charging down the dirt path that was winding. The monkey didn't bother with that, instead showing them how to perfectly move through the plants without damaging them or the trees they were attached to. Despite all that, he didn't slow down one bit. The duo dove into the brush, carefully moving as Passimian ordered them to. Flitting by the sides was the winding path, but Ash had a feeling they were cutting off a lot of extra time; with the extra guidance, the time limit Mallow had set seemed meaningless.

    There was a loud crashing noise, like one of the plants being ripped over. Passimian pulled to a halt for a second, almost seething a little at the thought that someone would ruin the precious jungle he'd been a part of. Ash looked to Bonnie, who rolled her eyes…they had a rather good idea of who would be doing that.

    "Slow down, Oranguru!" Hau's voice could be heard yelling. "I know you're taking us to the Tamato Berries, but there's no need to knock everything down on the way."

    "Unless he's trying to kill us and we don't know it," Lillie squeaked out. Ash closed the distance to Passimian and put a hand on him carefully. The monkey looked at him, a spark of both recognition and fury resting in his eyes. Somehow, Ash had a feeling that whatever Hau was referring to was some kind of rival to Passimian in the jungle.

    "Don't worry about him," Ash said calmly. "Right now, the goal is to make it to the Tamato Berry, all right?"

    "Pas," Passimian responded in the affirmative. Wrenching himself away from the sound of Hau, Lillie and their supposed new Pokémon crashing their way through the jungle, Passimian once more sped forward, leading them through the brush. The sounds of their rivals grew ever closer, as did the final stretch of the dirt path that led to a gigantic bush in the back of the jungle, covered in red dots: Tamato Berries.

    "Ah! It's Ash! Don't tell me you're after the Tamato Berry, too!" Hau shouted. He and Lillie appeared to be floating in midair, almost making Ash stop, if it weren't for his feet moving of their own accord towards the berries.

    "Yeah, we are. Last ingredient on the list," Ash said, smirking a little in challenge. Hau laughed it off with a good nature. Finally, they all broke out onto the dirt road and Ash got a look at what they seemed to be floating on: a Pokémon with purple fur on white fur, clutching to a leafy fan and surrounded by the blue aura of Psychic. There was no doubt this was an Oranguru.

    "Hey, so are we!" Hau grinned. "And this is my new buddy, Oranguru. Wait…"

    "Ah, Hau!" Lillie clutched to Hau as Oranguru pulled to a sudden stop. So did Passimian, but Ash and Bonnie weren't riding him. As a result, both Hau and Lillie fell to the floor, skidding a bit along the dirt path with Pipi tumbling off. Ash, himself, pulled to a stop, staring between the two monkeys as they glared at one another. Now Ash was certain that these two had encountered one another before in a not-too-friendly fashion, though it wasn't anything too serious. Passimian grabbed his berry defensively while Oranguru dropped to ground, feet sending up dust clouds.

    "Passa!" Passimian called out to him. Ash looked his Pokémon in the eyes and the Teamwork Pokémon grinned cheekily. Ash got the message: go on, I'll handle this one.

    "Thanks, Passimian, we'll be right back! Pikachu, Dartrix, go get those berries!" Ash called, holding once more to Bonnie as the two sped past the toppled Hau and Lillie. Pikachu and Dedenne were already bounding ahead, with Dartrix even faster.

    "Oh, no you don't! Pipi, go get 'em!" Hau called, his voice muffled owing to his face being stuck in the dirt. Lillie was a little more fortunate, getting to her feet. Dropping the bag with Nebby to the ground, she pelted forward, a glint of steely determination in her eyes. Ash briefly looked back toward the girl catching up to them to see Nebby look at Hau when he sat up.

    "You know that Tamato Berries can be hard to handle because they're so hot, right?" Ash asked of the girl as she caught up to them, huffing and puffing, but not giving up. A small distance ahead, Pikachu and Pipi had their electric sacs locked together as they struggled against one another, barely making any progress. The sounds of battle were also behind them as Passimian appeared to be tossing a Shadow Ball at Oranguru who used its fan to produce an Energy Ball. Judging from the way Hau was cheering it on, Oranguru must have been his own newest Pokémon.

    "I can handle it…" Lillie insisted, holding her hat down as she ran. Ash grinned, but wasn't giving the race away just yet.

    "Dartrix, now!" Ash called. Suddenly, Dartrix swooped down, careful as he nipped the berries from the bush and carried them over to Ash and Bonnie. Bonnie leaped up, hitting them over to Ash, who opened his backpack and caught them inside with the Mago Berries. "Pikachu, time to go!"

    "Pikapi!" Pikachu called, creating an Iron Tail to swing at Pipi. She blocked it with a Brick Break, but the moment allowed Pikachu to run for Ash as he turned right around. He was forced to let go of Bonnie's hand, but the little girl had her own grin of determination, Dedenne running up to Pipi and nuzzling her. As he did so, the Antenna Pokémon jumping back into Bonnie's arms, Lillie darted past the incapacitated Pipi out of necessity to reach the berries, reaching out to grab them with her bare hands. Ash almost stopped a moment at hearing her hiss, but when he looked back, he saw her running forward, still with the same steel glint, bending down to scoop up Pipi.

    "Let's finish the race you guys!"

    "No way!" Hau called right as Oranguru used a Psychic to slam Passimian into the ground. Just before he was squashed, the lemur created multiple copies of himself, easily slipping out of the control to grin at Oranguru. Ash had a sudden idea.

    "Use Shadow Ball on the ground!" he called just as their entire group caught up. Passimian jumped upwards with his amazing leg strength and slammed his shadow swirling berry into the ground. Dust exploded, obscuring them from view as they dashed straight into the leaves and trees again.

    "Nice job, Lillie! You all right?" Hau was heard asking.

    "A little burned, but just fine," came Lillie's answer. "No more stalling. We have a race to win!"

    "Hurry it up!" Bonnie yelled. Ash agreed, gripping for Trumbeak's pokeball. Passimian was having no problem keeping up the speed in guiding them back to entrance, glancing back occasionally to see what they were about to do.

    "Trumbeak, I choose you!" Ash called, tossing her pokeball forth. Trumbeak appeared, and both she and Dartrix only needed one look to confirm what needed to be done. Ash did, too, looking back to see that Hau and Lillie were back on Oranguru and floating for the entrance. Suddenly, Ash felt himself pulled up by Dartrix's powerful talons while Trumbeak grabbed ahold of Bonnie. They blasted forward, soon drawing even with Passimian, back on the dirt road. Unfortunately, the sound of crashing trees soon drew Ash's attention as Hau's group began to draw even.

    "We're not losing this one!" the cheerful boy said. Ash threw a challenging look to him as what appeared to be the bright exit from Lush Jungle grew closer. Passimian and Oranguru glared at one another, almost looking ready to butt heads, themselves, just as they saw Mallow. Ash and Hau snapped one final glare at each other.

    "I'm gonna win!" they shouted, just as Oranguru lost its balance. The Sage Pokémon pitched forward, knocking into them all and bowling them all forward. Only Passimian managed to escape the pile up by leaping overhead. Dartrix was the first up, cleaning his wings off carefully. Ash groaned, raising himself slightly from next to Hau as both boys said the defining words at the same time. "Finish!"

    "Pikachu…" their Pikachu responded out. The sound of clapping, along with rousing cheers lifted Ash's spirits and he looked over to see Mallow, with Serena, Clemont and Kiawe up above, throwing their voices of cheer at them. Rotom, funnily enough, was the one to come straight down and start snapping pictures of the two Pokémon that were locking glares with one another.

    "Fascinating! Ash and Hau have caught Passimian and Oranguru respectively! That's impressive," Rotom said, snapping a picture. "Oranguru are only said to team up with very skilled trainers while Passimian are great team members. Though, what's more surprising is that Bonnie managed to let Ash tie with Hau."

    "Of course! Maybe we didn't help a lot, but we shocked Pipi and bought ourselves the extra seconds to win!" Bonnie groaned out. Ash rolled his eyes a moment.

    "Nice to see you, too, Rotom…" Ash groaned, pulling himself to a standing position and helping Bonnie to do the same. Once they had (with Hau and Lillie doing the same), Ash turned to look at Mallow, finally noticing a huge pot, or what looked like one, at least, created from what looked like molten rock over a boiling fire with fresh spring water bubbling up. "So…who won?"

    "What do you mean?" Mallow laughed out gaily. "You both won!"

    "But that makes no sense…" Hau laughed out. Ash had to agree. It made absolutely no sense that they had seemed to have both won when they were having a competition. "I thought we were competing to see who would win the right to challenge the Totem Pokémon."

    "Well…yeah…" Mallow admitted. She turned right around, extending her legs and walking towards the big pot. Ash scratched the side of his head while Hau put his hands behind his head.

    "That's confusing…even more than the girl at the malasada shop in Heahea giving me those numbers like the one in Hau'oli."

    "Hau…" Lillie said, puffing her cheeks at the boy like she was angry with him. Bonnie just laughed while swatting the persistent Rotom away. Mallow finally stopped her walking.

    "I said you were competing," the captain admitted, tapping the side of the pot and bringing her hand away quickly from the heat. "I never said you were competing with each other. You were just competing against time, and you both made it perfectly!"

    "Uh…" Ash couldn't get the words out, genuinely dumbstruck over what Mallow was telling to them. All of that effort trying to hold the other back and catch up to one another proved absolutely pointless. Ash looked to Hau and both boys had their mouths drop open. Then they started laughing in relief. Part of Ash felt so stupid, realizing that the whole time he could have been working with Hau instead of against him. At this particular revelation, Bonnie and Lillie took out the lists of ingredients from their bags, putting them right next to each other.

    "They're different…" Bonnie commented.

    "And complimentary, if my studies are anything to go by," Lillie remarked. She lifted her head to glance with the others at the grinning captain. "You mean, we were jointly collecting ingredients for a combined recipe and it just called for extra Tamato Berries?"

    "That's right!" Mallow replied in a chipper tone. Ash felt his body sag a bit, but he soon replaced it with a grin. "Your trial isn't over yet, though."

    "We still have to battle the Totem, right?" Hau called out, coming to stand right next to Ash as they both approached Mallow. Neither were clearly sure how that was going to happen now, what with Mallow's strange process, but they decided to trust in her nonetheless while their Pokémon stood by to cheer them on. Even Passimian and Oranguru stopped their glaring to stand with their respective team members. It made Ash have a greater respect for the boy next to him; Oranguru only chose trainers that were experienced, and it seemed to have no problem working with Hau.

    "You'd be exactly right, but the Totem is a little reclusive around here," Mallow laughed out, grabbing what appeared to be a giant bowl and stirring the water. "So, we're going to make a soup as an offering for it, with you boys as the chefs."

    "Oh my," Serena's voice echoed out from her placement on the balcony. Ash glared up at his girlfriend, watching her slap her hands to her mouth in apology.

    "Sounds fun. Where do we start?" Hau said enthusiastically. Mallow appeared to like that response, and Ash shared in it by digging into his bag to take out the perfectly pruned Mago and Tamato Berries. Bonnie ran up to him with the Revival Herb while Lillie dropped off Hau's ingredients. The two boys offered them to Mallow, who pointed down at the large blanket. Not wanting to bruise them, the two boys kneeled and placed the various ingredients gently down. When they straightened up, Mallow was once more holding a piece of parchment that she handed over to Ash.

    "Simple instructions that even the most novice cook can handle…I think," she laughed out. Ash wanted to think so, considering that as he and Hau looked over it, it seemed to be nothing more than "add this ingredient, stir". Hau immediately jumped into action, taking a mushroom he had found, and with the cutlery resting on the blanket, he chopped it up and threw it in.

    "Mago Berry is next, huh?" Ash questioned. He looked back at his Pokémon, in particular Passimian, who was watching him closely. Seeing that, Ash grabbed at the Mago Berry he had and took one of the knives, slowly following the directions to peel it. The first one didn't go so well, both because he sliced his finger a little and also because he cut straight through the berry. How people like Brock, Cilan and Clemont could do this every day, he had no idea. By his fourth berry, though, he had finally peeled it and tossed it in.

    "This thing won't open…" Hau cried, gripping at a rather large seed, trying to pry it apart. Ash walked over, looking at the directions and stirred the berry and mushrooms into the mixture, it turning a pink color, to his surprise. Finally, Hau cried out, placing the seed down and smashing it with his foot. That appeared to do the trick, as he happily picked up the seed and dumped the insides into the pot. Ash stirred even more vigorously as the Pokémon behind him cheered him on. It was frothing now.

    "Quick, Hau, get the Revival Herb over here!" Ash cried. Hau nodded, taking the grass that Ash had pulled and scattering it over the bubbling liquid. It soothed down for a second before truly bubbling and boiling. Ash looked at the final directions; this really was easy, considering Mallow had put in directions like "dice it", "pound it", and "beat it". "Smash 'em!"

    "No problem!" Hau said. Both he and Ash turned away from the pot to grab what looked like a hammer each and they proceeded to beat on the Tamato Berries, turning them into complete mush. If Ash were honest with himself, that part was actually fun, and in a minute they were tossing the berries into the pot. Now it looked like it was going to explode, though, until a bubble formed and burst outward, settling it down into a steaming red color.

    "Huh…that was pretty easy. Maybe I should try cooking for the group," Ash mused aloud.

    "Please don't, Ash," Serena called to him, having obviously heard him. "I love you, but not enough to let you cook."

    "That's mean." Mallow ignored the apologetic look Serena was shooting him as she dipped her finger into the substance and tasted it.

    "Yep. Perfect. The smell should attract the Totem here," the green-haired captain said positively. Ash and Hau both leaned over the concoction they'd just created. It looked somewhat appetizing, though the smell felt like it was burning Ash's nostrils. Mostly, he was just surprised at how quickly it cooked, figuring it had something to do with ingredients they had brought.

    "Wonder what it tastes like…" Bonnie commented, reaching over to dip a finger into the mix. Ash and Hau shrugged, finding nothing else for it and mimicked her before the three placed the soup into their mouths.

    "Tangy…" Ash commented, remembering some of the cornucopia of words Cilan would use to describe things. Bonnie smacked her lips, not finding anything surprising until…"AGH!"

    "It's spicy!" Hau screamed. The three fell to the ground, clutching at their mouths. Ash felt like he could pretty much breathe fire, causing Pikachu to run up to him and call for him. Lillie was on the move, too, handing over a water bottle to Hau. Ash accepted the suggestion, digging into his backpack for his own and guzzling it down. Finally, the taste of it vanished and the trio sat there heaving. "You could have warned us!"

    "Well…it's not like you made it for human consumption," Mallow pointed out with a quirked eyebrow. Ash realized, with a disgruntled groan, that she was right. Even as Rotom laughed at Bonnie, who ordered Dedenne to use a rather successful Parabolic Charge on it (showing what had truly proved useful in the trial during Passimian's attack), Ash folded his arms and admitted internally that he shouldn't have tasted it. At least it hadn't impaired them for long. The sound of leaves parting and a near stomping sound echoed suddenly. "Oh, it's here."

    "The Totem…" Ash said darkly, pulling himself to his feet. Hau was doing the same, aided by Lillie. After he had gotten up, the blonde walked over to Bonnie and the two agreed to join Serena, Clemont and Kiawe on the balcony above. Ash could only imagine how proud Clemont was feeling at the successful display of Parabolic Charge.

    "Aw yeah!" Hau said, rolling his shoulder a bit as he jumped up and down into the air. "So, how do we do this, Mallow?"

    "Together," the green-haired captain called. Ash realized she had taken out a pokeball by now and was tossing it up and down. Finally, the crashing ceased and a new sound took its place.


    *Chapter to be continued in next post.

  13. #38
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    Chapter continued from last post.

    "Luran…" Ash and Hau turned to the source of the newcomer's voice. As it parted the trees, Ash was no longer surprised by its size; all the Totem Pokémon were clearly large, and this one seemed smaller than Wishiwashi at the very least. Rotom, unafraid to remain near the battlefield, floated up to it.

    "Ah, that's a Lurantis, the evolved form of Fomantis," Rotom pointed out. Ash looked to its screen and recognized the picture next to Lurantis as being the Pokémon that had so unscrupulously attacked Bonnie. "It fires beams from its sickle-shaped petals. These beams are powerful enough to cleave through thick metal plates."

    "So it's strong," Ash commented. He had to grin at that one, especially when he saw Mallow approach Lurantis soothingly, the Bloom Sickle Pokémon leaning down to taste the soup.

    "Is it to your satisfaction, Lurantis?" Mallow asked. The Totem appeared to smile, nodding its head before consuming the remainder of the soup. The captain reached over and patted it soothingly, just as the familiar orange aura erupted around its figure. The battle was already set to begin. "Okay, boys, we're doing a double battle! Kiawe, you mind officiating?"

    "Why you and Lana don't keep trial guides on hand, I'll never understand…" the other boy called down with a shake of his head, yet walked down nonetheless. Mallow just grinned at him and turned back to the other two.

    "You each get one Pokémon to face against my two, at the same time," the captain explained. She finally tossed her pokeball into the air and called out her Tsareena. Lurantis finished the soup and stepped forward, making a slight clicking noise. Ash's eyes shifted to Hau as the boy's did the same towards him. They both nodded. "First side with both down loses. If you guys beat us, you both will get a Grassium-Z."

    As Mallow said this, she pointed in the direction that Lurantis had come from. If Ash squinted, he knew he could see the pillar like all the past trials. I need to start looking for those earlier…Regardless of his thought, Ash shook his head. Now was the time for battle, not worrying about architectural designs of the trials. "Dartrix, I choose you! The rest of you, cheer as hard as you can!"

    "And Torracat, you're up!" Dartrix flapped over to the scene at the same moment that the light from Hau's pokeball receded. Both bird and cat caught sight of each other, staring for a moment until Dartrix broke it by flicking his hair dismissively.

    "Merow!" Torracat called angrily, as if he didn't like being dismissed.

    "Torracat, this is no time to fight. Dartrix is your partner for this fight," Hau explained to the Fire Cat Pokémon. At the same time, both Pikachu and Pipi ran up to their trainers, standing by their sides. A little ways back, separated from the battlefield, were Trumbeak, Passimian and Oranguru, watching the whole thing carefully. Kiawe finally reached the center of the field from the balcony and raised his hand.

    "This will be a two-on-two double battle between the captain, Mallow, and the trial-goers, Ash and Hau. It will be over when either side is unable to battle, and no switching is allowed," Kiawe called, his voice booming across the expanse of space. Ash's fists tightened, and Hau rolled his shoulder once more with a grin. They were finally here. "Begin!"

    "Torracat, use Flame Charge on Tsareena!" Hau commanded right away. Ash took the sight of Torracat wreathing himself in flames as a signal for him to join in the battle before Mallow and Lurantis could make a move. Kiawe backed up, watching both of his future challengers intently.

    "Dartrix, get in there with Acrobatics!" Ash called, pointing straight for Lurantis, who was clicking its sickles loudly. Dartrix shot into the air, glowing turquoise before he zoomed through the air, right for Lurantis. At the same moment, Torracat was charging along the ground with flames spitting behind him.

    "Tsareena, Sunny Day!" Mallow called, her hands in little fists, making her look like she was cheering happily. Ash found it an odd command, considering a Fire type was charging right at her Grass type, but Ash figured Hau could handle it as the area around them brightened through the trees from above. Lurantis' sickles were on the move as Dartrix flew right for it, some of the force from Acrobatics already pressing into its massive midsection.

    "Luraaaaaan!" Lurantis cried. From the bushes suddenly leaped a whole swarm of Fomantis. For a second, Ash wondered if they were the same ones from earlier, but he couldn't think about it. Lurantis' sickles had moved, and surrounding it was a pink cyclone of what seemed to be cherry blossoms. It was no doubt Petal Blizzard, and as it blasted out, Dartrix was right in its path. The winds buffeted the Blade Quill Pokémon, halting his assault.

    "High Jump Kick!" Mallow now ordered of her Tsareena. The queenly Pokémon leapt upwards, showing incredible leg strength and speed as she brought her lag slamming down upon Torracat.

    "Use Bite to catch it," Hau called. Torracat's maw opened wide as Tsareena fell. He snapped forward, biting into her leg and holding her place. With Lurantis' Petal Blizzard still in the process of disappearing, Ash decided to aid Hau; it was a double battle after all.

    "Dartrix, use Pluck on Tsareena!" Ash commanded.

    "Darroh!" Dartrix said, nimbly changing course and flying straight for Tsareena, the blue glow shining off of his beak. There was another clicking noise and Ash turned in time to see the Fomantis firing a set of Razor Leaves off at the two enemies.

    "X-Scissor!" Mallow called. It was the first move she'd given to Lurantis, and Ash wondered just what she was up to. He barely had the chance to, however. Lurantis was fast, both of its sickles glowing purple. Tsareena moved her other leg and slammed Torracat in the face, breaking free as the Razor Leaf made contact. At the same moment, Lurantis sliced in a cross-shaped fashion, sending both Dartrix and Torracat tumbling across the ground. Ash grit his teeth; it was fast…really fast. And it was on the move.

    "Dartrix, use Leafage to pull the both of you out of there!" Ash called, realizing that Torracat wasn't in the state to actually pull out without taking some damage. Dartrix flapped up, sending his cyclone of leaves outward.

    "Trop Kick, Tsareena," Mallow said, still with that same chipper tone of voice. For how serious Ash and Hau seemed to be taking the battle, Mallow sounded like she was just having fun. Tsareena leapt upward once again, but this time, instead of slamming down, she aimed forward with her kick as her leg glowed green. She, too, was showcasing her speed and flitted right through the Leafage cutting around her to slam into Dartrix and drive him into a tree.

    "Torracat, use Flame Charge again!" Hau called. Torracat's body light on fire, igniting even faster than it had before. Only, just like last time, Lurantis was faster. It raised both of its sickles to the air, absorbing light quickly, just for Mallow to give the order.

    "Solar Blade!" Lurantis slammed down with the blade of brimming sunlight. At the same time, the Fomantis moved in with glowing claws that sliced all around Torracat. Dartrix wasn't immune to the stunning attack either. The blade of sunlight crushed both Torracat and Dartrix into the ground, snapping one of the trees over in the process. Passimian cried out angrily at that, but did nothing more in the presence of the jungle's leader. Overhead, the sunlight dimmed, fading away to its normal sense of shine.

    "Those Fomantis are getting pretty annoying, tag teaming every time Lurantis goes in for a hit," Ash pointed out to Hau. The younger boy nodded, but kept his grin regardless.

    "Then let's tag team 'em ourselves," Hau suggested. Ash nodded.

    "Dartrix, use Leafage and create some cover!" he called to his Pokémon. Dartrix managed to stand back up and shot into the sky. He threw his blade-like leaves out, the mess of them swirling around both Tsareena and Lurantis in a concealing cyclone.

    "Now, Fire Fang on Lurantis! Take the Totem out!" Hau yelled. Torracat pounced, his maw alighting with flames. At the same time, Ash called for Dartrix to use Pluck. The two charged through the swirling leaves, not taking damage from the concealing attack. Mallow gave no orders to either of the two Pokémon that she was commanding, concerning Ash a little. He let it go, however, as Dartrix's attack slammed into Lurantis while Torracat definitively sunk his flaming jaw into the Totem.

    "Tissss!" Lurantis screeched in a horrible hiss, crying out from the pain. A sudden flash of flame traveled up the Pokémon and Ash raised his hand out to high five Hau; they had managed to burn it.

    "Use Stomp," Mallow called.

    "Dodge it!" the two trainers called at once. Dartrix and Torracat immediately made moves to leap backwards, but were suddenly blocked by the quick speed of Lurantis' sickles digging into the ground behind them. Now locked in place, all they could do was take the Stomp attack that crashed into both of them. Like usual, the powerful slam from Tsareena's feet left them all reeling.

    "Now's your chance, Lurantis. Use Synthesis and go on the offensive," Mallow said. Ash's fists clenched. Mallow had just been waiting for the right moment to completely take them off their game. Lurantis raised its sickles high once again, drawing energy from the sun…only it was different. While one sickle appeared to be healing it of its wounds, the other was gathering sunlight. Whether it was slower because it was only one or because the sunlight had faded, Ash wasn't sure, but Ash knew they had to strike before it was too late.

    "I've got a plan, too," Hau said with his usual grin. It was almost like he'd read Ash's mind. "You just work on Tsareena and I'll take care of Lurantis, 'kay?"

    "Sounds good," Ash agreed. Dartrix pushed himself up, hovering just above Torracat, a glint in both of their eyes. Whatever animosity or rivalry they held between them, it was irrelevant for now, each focused on getting the win. "Dartrix, use Acrobatics and take out those Fomantis, then head straight for Tsareena!"

    "Koo!" Dartrix cried, instantly sending himself into a dive towards the clustered Fomantis. Each of them raised glowing sickles, as though ready to strike at Dartrix when he got close enough. Ash smirked a bit. The force of Dartrix's swooping slammed into the Fomantis from afar, knocking them out completely before he could get close. He turned his momentum, allowing himself to aim for Tsareena. The Fruit Pokémon shifted her long legs just a bit, like she was anticipating the attack.

    "Now, Torracat, use Swagger!"

    "Torreow!" Torracat hissed out, his flame sac puffing out a bit with pride. Dartrix swooped past him, right for the waiting Tsareena.

    "Use Leafage to surround her and hide your approach," Ash said. Dartrix tossed the leaves out, whirling them around their foe. He vanished suddenly, reappearing behind Tsareena and pelting her with powerful talons. "Now, use Pluck!"

    "Get ready, Tsareena, and Lurantis…" Mallow appeared to bite her lip. Lurantis was in no state to even do anything on its own, let alone listening to Mallow. Hau's attempt to take Lurantis out for the moment had worked, and judging by his flaming maw, Torracat was planning on ending it then and there, the Totem Pokémon whirling around, confused and unable to call for help. Dartrix slammed into Tsareena, knocking her through the barrier of leaves. Sadly, she landed upright without a single problem. "Tsareena, High Jump Kick on Torracat!"

    "Tsar!" Tsareena said haughtily, her leg glowing brightly yet again. She leapt into the air and extended said leg out, right for Torracat. Hau called for him to dodge, but he was already aiming for Lurantis, the confused Bloom Sickle Pokémon suddenly alighting with fire from its earlier burn.

    "Get Torracat out of there!" Ash called. Hau was nodding fervently. Dartrix changed directions from his spot in midair to grab Torracat with his talons. The cat cried out, pawing nastily at the air as Tsareena came crashing down upon the spot he had been.

    "Merow…?" Torracat asked in shock as Dartrix dropped him. Ash's Pokémon nodded, as if answering. Tsareena grimaced but a few feet away, the pain of the missed High Jump Kick shuddering through her body. Hau instantly leapt on the initiative.

    "Flame Charge!" he shouted. While Dartrix leapt out of the way, Torracat blazed forward, body surrounded in flames as he did so, straight for Tsareena. Ash looked over to Lurantis, seeing that it was slumped over and breathing heavy, almost winded…but no longer stamping around or looking confused. They had to end this.

    "Sunny Day!" Mallow said. She was still cheering, causing Ash to narrow his eyes. What did the captain have up her sleeve for this battle? Before, Sunny Day had proven to be quite the boon for her team, but surely the same thing couldn't work twice? Torracat slammed into Tsareena, the flames wracking her body as she flew back, slamming into a rock. Chunks broke off, and then Tsareena slumped to the ground.

    "Tsareena is unable to battle!" Kiawe announced. Above, in the balcony, Ash's companions all cheered.

    "Not done yet," Ash said. Hau nodded, ordering Torracat to turn his attention to Lurantis, just as their opponent sprang into action. It raised one sickle, charging it just as it had before. Ash's eyes lit up, even ordering a futile dodge. It was the sun. And more than that, he'd figured out a way to actually force the teamwork between the two Pokémon on the field to win this battle. Lurantis swung down with the sunlit blade, colliding with both Torracat and Dartrix, who tumbled backwards and against each other.

    "Luraaaan…" Lurantis called out, as though feeling its victory was secured. Even with the burn, even without Mallow. Ash had to admit: the speed with which Lurantis moved was making it difficult to keep up, even with Torracat's speed increasing and all of the damage they had afflicted. The Bloom Sickle Pokémon had a way of making this a war of attrition; one Ash was highly against.

    "Well, this isn't looking good for us…" Hau admitted, turning his gaze upon Ash. The raven-haired trainer nodded and turned to face his rival, holding out a fist.

    "Then let's work together and really make the odds work in our favor," he said to him. Hau tilted his head in curiosity, so Ash leaned in to whisper his plan, one that he could only hope would work in slowing the Totem down. Hau appeared to get it and he bumped Ash's fist.

    "Let's do it!" he stated confidently. "Torracat, no matter what, follow my lead."

    "Merow!"

    "You, too, Dartrix. It's time to win this." Dartrix replied in the affirmative, looking to Torracat and nodding. They both looked roughed up, but Ash knew this was unequivocally the time to strike. Mallow may have been ahead, judging by her smiling expression and small use of moves, but Ash knew they had the fighting chance to win this.

    "Torracat, use Bite on Lurantis!" Hau ordered, throwing both of his fists in the air. Torracat snarled and ran forward, his speed picking up with gleaming fangs.

    "Now you head straight up, Dartrix! Use Leafage and get as many leaves up above the battlefield as you can!" Ash yelled. Dartrix nodded and shot straight up. At Ash's feet, Pikachu was cheering loudly for the success of his teammate.

    "Petal Blizzard!" Mallow called, putting a palm out. She was clearly taking the battle a little seriously, now that she had lost Tsareena. Ash looked to Hau and stepped towards him with a smirk. They put their backs to each other, each of them feeling the support of the other in the battle. Lurantis was surrounded by the pink petals that blasted out in a spiral for Torracat. Up above, Dartrix was flapping his wings wildly, leaf after leaf shooting out with the wind and hanging in the air. It took a few moments, but Ash noticed the light fading.

    "Now, Flame Charge!" Hau screamed. Torracat blasted out with flames around its body and charged right forward. His speed was now beyond unbelievable, almost matching Dartrix's normal speed as he burst into the petals before him. The pink petals scattered as he charged forward and slammed into Lurantis.

    "Synthesis! Hurry!" Ash and Hau reached out, slapping their hands against each other before pointing forward. It was the moment they had been waiting for. Lurantis raised its sickles up and began glowing with green, only it was slower than before, the light of the sun preventing energy from reaching the Bloom Sickle Pokémon.

    "Now, Acrobatics!"

    "Fire Fang!" Torracat's maw opened wide and bit right into Lurantis' body with his fiery fangs. At the same exact moment, Dartrix descended, slamming into the Totem's head from above with Acrobatics, causing it to take a knee and canceling the Synthesis.

    "Break them up with X-Scissor!" Lurantis raised up, crying out loudly as it crossed its sickles.

    "No way!" Ash and Hau said together. "We're winning this one!"

    "Yeah! Go Ash and Hau!" Bonnie's voice could be heard echoing around the place. Lillie appeared to simply be clapping with Serena while Clemont gripped at the balcony. Ash grinned at them and held his fist up into the air. Hau, seeing it, clearly decided he liked it, for he did the same.

    "Now, Dartrix, pick up Torracat!" Dartrix practically flipped off, flapping down to Torracat and pulling him up with his talons, just as he had to save him before. Only, this wasn't a defensive move, but an offensive one, even as the purple X-Scissor was making its way for them. "Go!"

    "Flame Charge!"

    "Torrreow!" Torracat almost roared as flames surrounded his body. Dartrix flew forth at quick speed, further helped along by the flames that were speeding them up, making them appear almost like a blip. Lurantis flinched, the flames wracking its body. Then Ash gave the last command.

    "Use Pluck!" Dartrix cried out and their speed made them vanish. Then, Lurantis howled in pain as both Dartrix and Torracat appeared on the other side. Lurantis was blasted back a bit and its body burst with flames, consuming it for several seconds before subsiding. Torracat dropped to the ground and everyone waited, watching Lurantis.

    Its sickle plunged into the ground, as though it were steadying itself. Then it fell, crashing down onto the jungle floor with practical swirls in its eyes. Ash let out a laugh, one that he shared with Hau, before both boys turned to Kiawe in order to hear the final judgement call. The other captain stepped forward, looking at Mallow, who appeared to shrug, like the result didn't matter.

    "Totem Lurantis is unable to battle, therefore the victory goes to the trial-goers, Ash and Hau."

    "All right!" the boys yelled, practically leaping into the air (though in Hau's case, it was quite literal). They instantly threw a high five at one another, grinning the whole while. That lasted all of five seconds before their Pokémon had made their way back over and tackled them.

    "You were awesome, Torracat!" Hau proclaimed, holding the cat up into the air. He smiled down at his trainer just as Ash pet Dartrix on the head, hearing him coo. Rustling sounds from behind indicated that both the large Passimian and the smaller Trumbeak were also there.

    "See, Passimian. Told you we have a lot of fun," he told the monkey. Dartrix nodded, raising a wing. He looked tired, but Ash could tell he still had quite the bit of stamina in him (at least when it likely came to eating). Though, the battle had been much easier than it first suggesting. Shaking the distracting thought away, Ash looked to Passimian.

    "Passimian!" he cried out, rubbing his berry against the ground excitedly. Ash had to laugh at that, glad he had earned his newest partner's enthusiasm. Having that, Ash turned to see that Mallow was leaning down by Lurantis, thanking it for the battle by feeding it some of the soup she had saved. That felt nice to Ash, glad to see that Lurantis was all right. More important than that, though…

    "You two won!" Serena's voice yelled and Ash found himself tackled to the ground, caught by Passimian as his girlfriend wrapped her arms around him with a smile. Clemont approached slower with Lillie and Bonnie, the egg held in his arms while Rotom hung back, clearly having exhausted itself after taking so many pictures.

    "Thanks!" Ash said, putting his hands on her and pushing her off. To his surprise, Serena was actually crying a little, though he figured it was the joy at him clearing his third trial. Ash summoned up the joy of victory inside him and leaned forward to kiss her briefly as they stood. She returned it, the two finally breaking it once Ash saw Mallow approaching with the familiar box.

    "You know, I'm not surprised about either of you," the girl spoke out. The Totem Lurantis had gotten upright now, looking down at Bonnie, who appeared enthralled with it for the moment before it slunk back into the jungle. "Not only did you two manage to befriend new Pokémon, but you completely finished the trail before the sun even started to set."

    "Why? Is that unusual?" Hau asked, throwing his hands behind his head.

    "It is," came the answer from Kiawe. "In all the time I've visited Mallow during her trial as captain, I only saw one other person complete the trial so quickly, and that was about three months back. So, yeah, it's impressive."

    "Well, we're coming for you next," Ash said. He looked over to Hau, who was grinning as well as they looked to the final trial captain of Akala. Kiawe smirked and laughed, holding out his hand. The boys reached forward and took it, shaking it like a promise that they would overcome the captain.

    "Come on, Kiawe," Mallow said, slapping at the boy as she finished her approach. "Stop taking away from my trial. But he's right. It was great fun battling you both. The way the two of you came to work together in the end was awesome."

    "That was the point, wasn't it?" Hau asked. Ash looked at him, but realized just how much that made sense. If the first trial was learning about the natural order of things, and the second was about the power of teamwork, this one was a further extension of that, bringing together two people and Pokémon, working together. It made Ash wonder just what Kiawe's trial was about.

    "That's correct, and you two worked together really well," Mallow answered. "Not everyone can, you know? That's why I've got no problem presenting the Grassium-Z to either of you."

    Ash looked to Hau one more time as they reached their fists out to give each other a bump before reaching forward to the now open box, grasping their green wedges and the crystals next to them. They grinned, bumped each other's forearms against one another and then held their prizes into the air.

    "All right," they cried aloud, their Pokémon gathering around them, "we got the Grassium-Z!"

    "Pipikachu!"

    "Merow!"

    "Darroh!" The rest of Ash's team all joined in on the cheering, and even Rockruff's pokeball shook in triumph. Serena suddenly led the others in laughing in joy over their victory. Like the two rivals were synchronized, themselves, they reached down to place the green wedge in their amulets before then placing the Z-Crystal on their rings. Like always, the ring glowed, and then absorbed the crystal.

    "Another trial down, then," Clemont stated, handing the egg off to Serena once more. "Guess that means it's back to Heahea City for the Ceremony, right?"

    "That's right!" Serena said. She turned to look at Kiawe, a question clearly on her lips. "You said you'd be judging, right, Kiawe?"

    "That's right," the boy answered. "After that, I'll reopen the trial. Though for now, I guess I'll help Mallow with hers."

    "Looking forward to it, then," Ash said. Ready for the lot of them to set back off on their journey, Ash grabbed for his pokeballs and returned Passimian, Trumbeak and Dartrix. Hau appeared to have done the same for all but Pipi. "But get ready, 'cause we're gonna give you the hardest challenge you've ever had."

    "So am I," Hau said, already facing towards the exit from the jungle. "But first, I'm gonna train Oranguru up with the rest of the ohana, and then we're off to Brooklet Hill. I've got a challenge to win, after all."

    "Where do you plan to train?" Lillie asked before the boy could run off in his usual fashion. Said boy grinned back at her with a little wink.

    "I'll be around," he answered. Pipi nodded, like she fully understood just where Hau was going with this. "I'll probably stop by Royal Avenue for some training. Met a really strong guy there a little bit back and want to see if I can win this time. Good luck, Ash, but I'll be winning!"

    "Not a chance! You'll be planning that date for me in no time!" Ash yelled at him. Hau just waved his hands in farewell, racing off and yelling out "alola". Serena stepped forward, shaking her head.

    "That boy never stops…"

    "That's Hau," Lillie laughed out, dabbing at the sweat on her forehead. Now that Ash was finally calmed down from his trial, he realized that he was sweating profusely as well. Bonnie sidled up to Lillie and elbowed her.

    "You're gonna miss him, aren't you, Lillie?" she smirked out. Ash backed up and grabbed ahold of her before either Clemont or Serena could say a word. "Maybe you should confess your-"

    "And on that note, we'll be going," Ash chuckled out. "Take care, Mallow. Tell Lana that Kiawe is all that's left. We promised her that we'd tell her when I was going to battle Olivia."

    "Will do," Mallow said, raising her hand in farewell. Ash started pushing Bonnie away from a mortified Lillie (though the girl still held her composure well under the pressure). With another wave, they came to the entrance of the jungle, finally ready to start the journey back to Heahea City. "Good luck in your Ceremony, Serena. Take care, Clemont, Bonnie, Lillie! Alola!"

    "Alola!" Ash and the others called back before he picked up the pace, setting their sights for Heahea and the next step in Serena's goal.


    The sounds of the jungle rushed back. With the absence of so many unfamiliar humans and the two Pokémon that had a natural rivalry with one another, it burst with color and life. Only two other presences remained in that humid, tropical forest. Kiawe folded his arms, and moved to sit upon a rock near the entrance to the Lush Jungle. Mallow continued to watch their friends leave, vanishing beyond eyesight and earshot.

    "Well, there they go," she finally said. The smile faded from her face as she turned to face her friend and fellow captain. "I'm surprised in you, Kiawe. You really seemed impressed by the two of them. I mean, sure, they took me and Lurantis down faster and easier than most, even with me giving my all, but still."

    "Hmm…" Kiawe hummed out. Now Mallow's lips turned down. She knew that expression; knew it all too well as the pensive expression Kiawe would wear, sometimes before battle or prayer. "Ash intrigues me…"

    "Yeah, makes you wonder," she responded to him, tapping her chin in thought. News had always trickled from Melemele to them as though through a grapevine; in this case, Olivia was the one who had first heard and spoken about Ash and Hau, but apparently the Kahuna of Melemele, Hala, had spoken predominantly of the more foreign trainer. It all happened to be for one reason alone, the same reason Olivia had actually taken an interest in him. "Have you spoken with Miss Olivia recently?"

    "Mm," Kiawe grunted out, reverting to his usual, and far less sociable, nature. "She asked me to keep an eye on Tapu Lele."

    "That seems weird, even if it makes the most sense to ask you out of all of us," Mallow stated, still tapping her chin, only now at a more rapid pace. "Did she tell you why?"

    "Not really. She just said that Kahuna Hala indicated that the Tapus might be disturbed. Something about Tapu Koko choosing a trainer."

    "Like how Miss Olivia was?" Mallow asked. She couldn't stop the surprise from leaving her mouth. Kiawe shrugged his shoulders, like he genuinely didn't know the answers to her question. Mallow frowned a bit at that, but sloughed it off with a smile. "Maybe that trainer was Ash, and that's why…"

    "If I had to guess, it seems likely," Kiawe admitted. Now things made sense to Mallow; Kiawe was interested because it was possible for Ash to have been chosen by the God of Conflict, itself. "But more than that…I heeded Olivia's words, and she was right. I think Tapu Lele has left her shrine."

    "It has?" Mallow asked in shock. "But that's…Wasn't the last time that happened when Miss Olivia…?"

    "I know," Kiawe said darkly, his face becoming almost overly serious. "Something is about to happen on the islands, and I'm pretty sure it involves Ash and his friends." He looked upward, sharing a glance with Mallow that was as electric as anything before, sending her spine tingling. "Call Lana. Tell her to definitely be ready when Ash completes my trial. I'll keep an eye out in the meantime, but we'll need those answers from Olivia, and I have a feeling she'll only fill us in when she confirms things for herself."

    "Will do," Mallow answered. A sound of footsteps, like another trial-goer, reached her ears. Before she went to greet them, however, she leaned over and kissed Kiawe on the cheek. "But lighten up, okay? They're still friends, after all."

    Leaving a blushing Kiawe behind, Mallow flounced over to greet her next challenge, the ominous warning of what was bubbling beneath Alola's waves ever present between the captains in the dense jungle air.



    Author's Note: Three trials down! This one was fun, no? The first trial to split itself into two chapters, focused on way more than just Ash, too. I hope this particular double battle for the Totem worked out for you. It wasn't quite so pulse-pounding, but there is a reason for that…to be elaborated on later. More than that, though, Ash and Hau have new Pokémon to their teams! That should be exciting, yes? Which also means that Ash's team is full right now, and so soon! I know that in the games you can't catch Pokémon during a trial, however, since in this story the trials are sealed unless you're taking them, that doesn't make as much sense. If you can get a Pokémon to join your team during the trial, more power to you. Hope that makes sense. Beyond that, things are brewing; Clemont's having problems and the captains of Akala fear for what may be going on with the Tapus. What does it all mean? Well, you'll have to find out as we head back for Heahea!

    I hope the next chapters are as enjoyable as this one. So, please Review and Dare to Be Silly.

  14. #39
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    Some things in my personal life may be changing for the better soon, but fear not, wonderful readers, this story's schedule will not change! I promise that! So, for now, please enjoy Chapter 22!


    Chapter 22

    A Premonition

    The journey back to Heahea City from Lush Jungle seemed much shorter to Ash. Maybe it was because they weren't making so many stops on their way back to the city, or it could have been because it felt like they were going downhill. Either way, Ash appreciated the leisure of simply being able to walk and train as they went. Part of that included introducing Passimian to the rest of the group, most of which accepted him easily, especially Luxray and Greninja, who seemed to take a liking to him. Of course, Serena, in particular, seemed particularly fired up for her upcoming Ceremony…even if it was sometimes harder than she'd like to admit.

    One night, after they had passed by Paniola Ranch to the right and what looked like an abandoned trailer park way far off to their left, Serena had stayed up until well after the sun set, practicing her different combinations with Popplio and Pancham. While the combinations with Sylveon and Braixen appeared to be going quite well, it seemed that Pancham's extra mobility wasn't as well suited to Popplio's own restricted movement on the stage.

    "If we had some water, you'd be able to move around freely, but…" Serena commented. It was clearly a worrisome prospect for her, one that Ash watched her struggle with. Clemont and Rotom had zoned out that night completely, while the girls seemed to be watching Serena as they fell asleep.

    "Maybe you should be more involved with Popplio," Ash suggested. Serena had turned to him, looking surprised at it. He laughed a bit, feeling embarrassed about telling her how to run her own routine, but she continued to look at him with interest. "Well, if Popplio can't move as freely, then maybe by putting yourself more into it, she can use your body as a means of launching moves and all that. You know, like how Talonflame supported Frogadier in my battle against Olympia."

    "I guess you have a point…though it isn't very helpful for a battle…" Serena mused. Ash folded his arms at that point, thinking on how he could help her figure that issue out. It took her a couple minutes to think before she finally smiled, leaning forward to give Ash a kiss on the cheek without saying anything. The raven-haired trainer had to wonder whether she'd figured it all out or not, but considering that she didn't give him a response, he decided to let the issue go and get some sleep.

    "She'll be fine, anyway…right, Pikachu?" Ash called, laying himself upon his sleeping bag. Pikachu mumbled in his state of rest, rolling over. Ash took that as a sign of agreement and decided to get some sleep, himself, that night.

    By morning, Serena had a rather lively spring in her step, clutching Popplio happily in her arms as she led them along the path to Heahea City. She was even humming brightly as Popplio flapped her flippers joyously. Bonnie appeared to join in on the general mood, skipping forward alongside Serena. Lillie just hung back with Ash and Clemont.

    "She seemed like she was thinking about it all night," Lillie told the two boys. From within the bag, Nebby popped his head out. It prompted Ash to look at him, to which he responded with a mischievous little smile. "I think she worked it out, though. Obviously, she didn't actually perform it, but I really can't wait to see it in action! Nebby, no."

    "Pew…" Nebby sounded out, prepared to slink back into the bag at the girl's remonstrations. However, he ceased, looking around as he fidgeted about. Up ahead, Serena also stopped, turning and peering curiously into a forest. Ash pulled up, knitting his brow in confusion before he decided to follow her gaze.

    "Something wrong?" he asked, after seeing nothing but trees.

    "No…" Serena said, her lips twisting just a little. "Just thought I saw something in the forest for a moment."

    "Probably Team Rocket," Bonnie said with a roll of her eyes. "You know they never stop following us."

    "Perhaps Rotom should register them as Pokémon and track their movements!" Rotom said gleefully. Clemont appeared quite enthralled by this very notion.

    "You could do that? !" the inventor asked, grabbing for Rotom. The Pokédex was unable to stop itself from being grabbed and Clemont tapped around on the screen with interest. Rotom cried out for Clemont to stop as Bonnie laughed. Ash just shook his head while Serena moved forward again, her back almost right in his face. Once more, Ash's eyes narrowed: for a second, it looked like her bag was glowing, but it ended just as soon as it had begun.

    "Well, whatever it was, let's keep going!" Serena called. Popplio cried out happily as his girlfriend decided to pick up the pace down the dirt path. Ash shook his head, looking to Pikachu on his shoulder.

    "Pika!" Pikachu called, raising his paw. With the two grinning at each other, Ash moved to catch up with his girlfriend.

    After a couple hours and checking the map to make sure they were on track to Heahea City within the next couple days, the group decided to stop for lunch and relax by a small river. As soon as Ash and Clemont had set up the table, though, they all called out their Pokémon.

    "All right, guys! Time for some training!" Ash called out to his assembled team before him. They each raised their fists (or wings) into the air in proclaiming their victories. "Right, Dartrix, we're going to work on improving the accuracy of Leafage to hit the target, instead of just surrounding it, with Pikachu. Trumbeak, we need to work on speed until you can keep up with Rockruff's Rock Polish, which, Rockruff…I have an idea for improving Rock Throw by utilizing it from below. Greninja, Passimian, I think you two would enjoy sparring with each other."

    "Nin," Greninja nodded. Grinning with all of them, Ash stepped back to watch them all spar with each other in their groups. As they did so, Ash made sure to slide his eyes over to Serena, herself with her entire team out, practicing their usual Performance moves. She'd yet to do whatever she'd figured out with Popplio, but Ash figured she was working on it, especially with the way Popplio was hopping from bubble to bubble with Pancham.

    Ash turned back to his Pokémon. Flitting his eyes between all of them, he saw Passimian and Greninja utilizing Double Team in an effort to clash with one another. To his surprise, Greninja appeared to be a very good teacher for the lemur, the two of them almost similar in move-sets. Greninja was a little faster, though, something that Passimian picked up on and appeared to emulate. Pikachu and Dartrix were also both going at it, and Ash could see the leaves from Leafage becoming sharper with every successive throw, almost looking akin to daggers. The ones struggling the most appeared to be Rockruff, whose formation of Rock Throw down below was proving tricky, while Trumbeak simply couldn't move fast enough.

    "Kera…" Trumbeak chirped out, her face downcast. Ash walked over to pat her on her feathers.

    "Hey, don't worry about it," he told her. Rockruff also came up to nuzzle her affectionately. "You're plenty fast already…Hmm…"

    "Ash, lunchtime!" Clemont called. Ash looked up, his very brief thought broken as he patted Trumbeak one more time. She didn't dwell on things too long, moving to stop Dartrix and Chespin from eating everything. "You guys look better every day."

    "Yeah, they're a real great group together," Ash noted. If he were honest, he would say that other than Passimian (who was still too new) they got along as well as his Kalos team. "Though we're always working to get stronger."

    "You looked concerned about Trumbeak's speed," Lillie noted. Ash nodded, shoveling some food inside his mouth a little greedily. "Maybe you should help teach it something similar to Rock Polish. You know, raise its speed that way…"

    "Hey, that's a pretty great idea!" Ash said, grinning at Lillie. Tapping his chin with his spoon, Ash started listing off all the different move ideas in his head before hitting on one. "Hey, Rotom, is it possible for Trumbeak to learn Flame Charge?"

    "Let Rotom check…" Rotom stated, clearly flipping through its files. Trumbeak looked up from her food in interest, as though just as excited about learning the move. "Ding ding! Rotom can confirm that Trumbeak can learn Flame Charge!"

    "Awesome! Let's get to it, Trumbeak!"

    "Ash, your lunch…" Serena called out, but he was already well away with Trumbeak, his other Pokémon watching. He felt a little bad about ignoring her, but training was more important. It was the only way he'd become a better trainer, after all! The thought, however, made him pause. It was just a second, and he pushed it behind his mind for later.

    "All right, Trumbeak, let's do this! Feel that fire of ambition burn deep inside you, and charge down steeply to pick up speed!" Ash called out. Trumbeak cried out and attempted it, managing to avoid hitting the ground, but certainly not bursting into flames the way that Talonflame did. Regardless, with each successive motion, Ash felt like they were getting a little closer. At the very least, Trumbeak was getting a little faster, with more mobility. "Well, I guess it'll be a longer process, but we'll keep going at it!"

    "Turum!" Trumbeak cried, heaving a little from exhaustion, but clearly feeling better. Smiling at his Pokémon's seeming success, Ash turned his mind back to the lunch he had abandoned along with his friends.

    "Sorry about that, but you know me," Ash laughed out, making his way to finish his lunch while Clemont and Serena had already finished theirs. Lillie was taking her time, and Bonnie had run over to Serena's bag to take her egg out.

    "It's fine," Serena said, offering a smile. Regardless, it seemed just a little cold to him, as though she was disappointed. He shook his head, realizing it was just a figment of his imagination. There was no way Serena would be disappointed in him training, or even it not working out perfectly when he wanted it to; she knew the pains of that more than anyone. "Clemont, I was wondering if I could ask you for a battle?"

    "M-me?" Clemont asked, clearly surprised by the notion. Ash was surprised as well. "What for?"

    "I want to do some training against different types of opponents, especially with the battle segments, and since Ash's team looks a little tired from all their training, I figured you'd be the best to help me out with that," she said, smiling. Behind her, all of her Pokémon nodded.

    "Then I'd be honored," Clemont stated humbly. Ash watched them walk off to a more open area of the field where Ash had been training just moments ago. "Let's go with Chespin! He's always interested in a Performance style battle."

    "Then I'll choose Popplio! We have to get our style down perfectly for the Heahea Ceremony!" Serena said positively. Popplio bounded forward, still moving slowly, but determinedly, across the grass.

    "It's certainly a lot of fun being a Pokémon trainer, isn't it?" Lillie asked from next to him. She was dabbing at the corner of her lips with a napkin, surreptitiously patting at her stomach so others wouldn't see. Ash let out a low chuckle.

    "It sure is," he said positively. "Nothing better than traveling with your friends and Pokémon…Living together, working together, growing together."

    But have you? Ash frowned for a moment, and he suddenly felt like the locket sitting against his chest was burning a hole there. It had been the momentary question he'd asked himself before. He'd come to Alola to see new things, meet new people and Pokémon, and grow through the trials. Yet all it seemed was that it was burning the same lessons into his head over and over again. Even the last trial battle had been easier than he'd hoped it would be. Was he truly growing anywhere? Even if everyone around him was taking strides…

    "I wonder what it would be like, going on my own adventure with Pokémon," Lillie breathed out, stretching her legs a little upon the chair she was situated. "I mean, I have Nebby by my side but…"

    "You still can. I mean, you kind of are with us," Ash noted. His gaze looked over a little to see Chespin send Pin Missile out at a stationary Popplio. Serena called for a Bubblebeam. The bubbles appeared to shoot out, hanging in the air and Popplio's tail slapped onto the ground. She flew up and landed strongly on one of the bubbles. Some of them popped from the collision of the Pin Missile, but otherwise, the Sea Lion Pokémon was hopping from bubble to bubble without a care in the world. Now Ash could see how Serena had ultimately worked out her problem. It gave Ash a sudden idea, as well, and he dug into his bag.

    "I know, and I'm really glad to be going on this adventure with all of you," Lillie commented as Ash continued to dig into his bag. "I had a lot of fun during the trial, even if my hands hurt a little, heh…"

    "You did?" Ash asked. He stopped for a moment to ask his question, witnessing a Disarming Voice at Chespin. Lillie nodded, an adorable smile on her face, like a little girl who'd just had her first adventure playing in the mud.

    "I did!" she laughed out. "I know I said I didn't like Pokémon battles and all, and I still don't like the ones that are for nothing, but…the trial with Hau was simply so much fun, and your rivalry made it really enjoyable! I want to have an adventure with a Pokémon like that. I think it'd be very exciting. Don't you agree, Nebby?"

    "Pew!" Nebby agreed, though his voice sounded somewhat distant. Ash paid it little mind, grabbing out the object he was searching for as Pikachu scampered up to the table. As his Pokémon watched him, he turned around and placed it squarely into Lillie's hands.

    "What…?" the blonde asked, looking down at the pokeball now situated in her hands. Her fingertips ghosted over it, like she was wondering why it was there.

    "It's a pokeball," Ash laughed out. "That way, if you ever want to catch a Pokémon, and go on a great adventure with it, you can."

    "But Ash-"

    "Just take it, Lillie!" Ash said, reaching over and patting the girl on the back. "It'll be awesome to see what kind of Pokémon you catch." Lillie appeared to almost be tearing up at the thought of it, pulling the pokeball close to her in relief and joy. Ash just smiled.

    "Pi?" Pikachu's voice suddenly called his attention and Ash looked to see Pikachu, alert and almost battle-ready, staring off towards the line of trees near to their resting point. In fact, now that Ash thought about it, all of the Pokémon seemed suddenly and incredibly alert for a second. Wondering what was happening, Ash stood and directed his gaze upwards. For a second, or maybe even a fraction of one, the sky appeared to ripple. Then there was a light song, like three notes on the wind.

    "What's that…?" Serena asked, padding forward on the grass. Bonnie was looking around as she and Rotom stopped whatever new argument they were having (likely about the egg).

    "What's…what?" Clemont asked. It was almost like he hadn't heard the sound at all. Ash looked at him like he must have been deaf.

    Leleeeeeeee! The cry caused Ash to fall backwards, his Z-Ring feeling suddenly hot against his wrist. Lillie managed to catch him and pull him back upright, but the distraction appeared to be enough to miss whatever had happened. All he had seen was a flash of pink in the sky as the rippling faded. He did, however, notice that Serena was staring in the direction of the ripple.

    "Serena…?" Clemont asked, walking over to her. She was still staring ahead, towards the sky and Clemont was forced to shake her to bring her back to reality. "Serena, are you okay?"

    "Ye-yeah!" Serena responded, shaking her head of whatever she'd seen. Ash peered at her as she turned, the two locking gazes for a moment. It had been strange…were they the only two to hear it? The only two to see it? Surely not, for the Pokémon had appeared to react, and more than that, the Pokémon in the forest were also reacting, a flock of Fletching flying away, utterly startled.

    And it wasn't the only sound. There was a large crash from within the forest, like four bodies falling after being startled, though it was too far away to tell. Beyond that, though, was the sound of a familiar Pokémon crying out, followed by an equally familiar voice.

    "Mele! Aki! Slow down, you two!" Ash and Lillie stood while all the others turned in the direction of the rather loud voice.

    "Ori! Orrrri!" responded the girl's Pokémon and Ash couldn't help himself grinning in spite of knowing how embarrassing the arriving person could be. Sure enough, rising over the crest of one of the hills bordering the forest were two…well, at least one familiar Pokémon. The other looked familiar, in a sense, yet still very different.

    "New form detected, bzzzt!" Rotom cried out, slapping one of Bonnie's hands away and flying over to said grouping of Pokémon. Their trainer had yet to cross the hill, giving them only a view of the Pokémon. "It's a Pa'u Style Oricorio, typing Psychic and Flying! Rotom has wanted to see one and catalog it!"

    "Corrrio!" the one that appeared to be called a "Pa'u Style" cried. Ash looked in closer on it, noticing that it was certainly different from the yellow one holding pompoms, this one now pinkish in feathering with what looked like a white skirt of sorts. Finally, the huffing and puffing of their trainer could be heard.

    "Slow down, you two…" she said, the familiar black hair of Maka finally coming into view. The girl placed her hands on her knees as she skidded to a stop near her two Oricorio. Serena's eyes appeared to light up and she stepped forward. Maka, too, finally looked up and saw Rotom. "Hey…isn't that the strange robot that was with…Serena!"

    "Maka, alola," Serena called waving her hands at the younger girl. Maka grinned, placing her hands into their usual fashion, like she was framing Serena for just a second. Once she seemed done with that, she ran forward to take Serena's hands into her own.

    "Wow, you're looking great!" Maka said enthusiastically, and rapidly. "And you caught that Popplio! I'm almost a little jealous. She looks like she was born to take part in Ceremonies!"

    "I guess you could say that," Serena giggled out before looking right at Maka. The two separated their hands as Maka went back a little towards her two Oricorio. "Is that Aki, then?"

    "That's right!" the black-haired girl announced, waving her hands out like some sort of game show host. "Now that I've been to Royal Avenue and gotten the Pink Nectar, Aki is now in her ultimate form! Right?"

    "Cor!" Aki appeared to say proudly, puffing her chest a little. Maka grinned before she pulled her bag out and began to dig into it. Just as before, the girl's bag appeared to be a total clutter, little things like old wrappers falling out onto the ground. There even seemed to be a stale malasada that Chespin grabbed for, only to gag once he'd tasted it. Finally, after a minute, Maka appeared to find what she was looking for.

    "And here it is!" the girl called, holding out both a tiny case and a sketchbook.

    "You got a Lei!" Serena said, clapping her hands. "I'm guessing that it was the Hau'oli Lei?"

    "That's totally right! And this is just a sketch of the perfect film crew," Maka said, displaying the pictures of the four Oricorio on the sheet. It wasn't the best drawn, but they appeared similar enough that Ash could see both Mele and Aki's likeness on the page. "We got to Akala a couple days ago, but the Heahea Ceremony isn't for another, what, day or two? So we decided to make a little side trip to Royal Avenue in order to prepare for it by getting the pink nec-"

    "Now just hold up!" shouted a voice. Everyone in the area flinched rapidly except for Maka, who looked vaguely annoyed that she'd just been interrupted. He recognized that voice just as well. There was a loud crashing from within the forest as a tall and striking figure emerged, three others behind her, dressed in rather relaxed clothing. In fact, the woman was the only one of them that wasn't wearing casual clothes, instead wearing the dress she seemed to wear for Ceremonies.

    "Hey Jess…ilie!" the short man called, picking at his brown hair. "Dis ain't a good idea!"

    "We should listen to him Jessilie," the blue-haired man said, gripping onto a Wobbuffet. Ash shook his head.

    "Jessilie?" Lillie whispered out next to him. He watched the magenta-haired Performer stride forward with purpose to approach the two rivals. Like always, she was as boisterous and foul-tempered as ever. Now that he thought about it, though, her emerging from the forest, like she'd been spying felt eerily reminiscent of others he knew.

    "She's Serena's rival," Ash told her with a light chuckle. "She actually made semifinalist in the Master Class in Kalos. I think she's pretty full of herself sometimes, but Serena seems to genuinely like competing with her."

    "I can tell," Lillie noted, still clutching tightly to the pokeball.

    "Jessilie! What a surprise," Serena was saying, proving Lillie's observation and Ash's statement absolutely correct. "I didn't know you were on Akala! Are you taking part in the Heahea Ceremony? Have you won any Leis?"

    "Erk…" Jessilie appeared completely taken aback by the kindness that Serena was showing. She seemed so floored that she didn't have a response, appropriate or otherwise. Eventually, though, she flicked her hair. "Of course I'm competing! And my fan club will be supporting me the whole way!"

    "You have a fan club?" Maka sounded surprised. So did Jessilie, gritting her teeth angrily.

    "Of course," the blue-haired man said, walking forth as he rubbed his hand. His eyes flicked over to Pikachu, who tilted his head a little. "My name is Jameson, chairman of the Jessilie Fan Club."

    "Wow, that's impressive, lady," Maka said, grinning. "I'm just getting started on my own little film crew here, but once I beat Serena, she's going to become my lead actress."

    "I don't remember really agreeing to that," Serena laughed out. "Besides, I don't think anyone could own the camera the way Jessilie can."

    "W-well…that's…" Jessilie looked even more astonished, her mouth flopping open and shut like a Magikarp's. Eventually, though, her lips twisted a little. "Look, no buttering me up, all right!"

    "Yeah, you do dat well enough on your-ow!" The other member of Jessilie's fan club seemed to get kicked by the heel of her shoe suddenly.

    "Look, you can say all the words you want, but I won't be losing to a pair of girls like you in the Heahea Ceremony," Jessilie snapped. She reached under her dress and somehow managed to pull out a pokeball, opening it. From within, a Stufful emerged, pawing at the ground. "Me and my adorable Stufful will be taking first prize, ahahahaha!"

    "And we of the Jessilie Fan Club will be supporting her every step of the way!" Jameson appeared to take out some whistles and drums, celebrating the woman's appearance with every single turn. Maka peered at her, like she was considering something about her. Then she raised her fingers, framing her in the same way she would with Serena.

    "Yeah…I could see you working on the big screen…but it's also how you look with your Pokémon, too," the younger girl commented. "I mean, I can't just cast an actress that doesn't share equal time with her Pokémon. It would make the film completely pointless." Ash wanted to scoff a little; Jessilie never seemed the best at actually sharing with her Pokémon.

    "Oh, I know!" Serena finally said, snapping her fingers with a wink. "Since we're all here, what do the three of you say to a little practice battle? Jessilie can show what she's made of, and it'll make a great opportunity to get ready."

    "Fine," Jessilie said, once more flicking her hair. "I'll be able to show you how ahead of you two I am, after all."

    "Uh, Jessilie, maybe this isn't the best idea…" Jameson said. "I mean we have to-"

    "Oh, enough complaining. I need to show this girl what a stunning beauty I am. The Heahea Ceremony will be waiting for me anyway," Jessilie said before throwing her head back and laughing. Ash breathed out, wanting to laugh a little when he heard a small disturbance next to him. Turning his attention away from the trio of females, Ash noticed that Lillie was clutching at her bag, searching through it frantically.

    "Everything all right, Lillie?" Ash asked, concerned by the girl's sudden behavior.

    She turned to him, eyes wide and suddenly whispered, "I can't find Nebby…"

    Ash paled. That certainly wasn't a good thing. Not that Nebby didn't always have his habit of getting out of the bag, but the fact of the matter simply was that he usually didn't actually leave them. Pikachu appeared to have heard what happened, because Ash caught him sniffing the air while the two of them looked around.

    "Pikapi!" Pikachu called, pointing towards the forest. Ash squinted in its direction and seemed to see the puffy shape entering the trees. Looking back over to the group that was partially comprised of his girlfriend, Ash was surprised to see that the three females really were prepared to face off, Maka using Mele while Jessilie and Serena faced each other with Stufful and Popplio respectively. Clemont and Bonnie, on the other hand, were standing awkwardly by Jameson and his companions, the three of them looking on edge.

    "Let's go get him," Ash said, grabbing ahold of Lillie and wheeling her towards the forest.

    "But…what about Serena?" Lillie hissed out in her whisper. Ash just patted her on the back.

    "Don't worry about it. She'll understand," Ash said. Pikachu jumped forward, leading the way towards the forest. Lillie clutched at her bag, keeping it close as the two broke into the forest. Ash turned, briefly noting that the girls had already started their battle. He clenched his fist for Serena but put his attention back on what was important.

    Pikachu kept dashing his way through the trees, following the path that his nose was setting for him, carefully. Occasionally, he would stop, but usually regained his bearings seconds later. Lillie grabbed onto Ash's vest to make sure she didn't get lost as they ran along. He realized they were moving pretty far in, the cries of Pokémon becoming denser and the sounds of battle lost to them. Finally, though, after a few minutes of winding, Ash heard the telltale "pew" that could only come from Nebby. He shook his head, walking up to the little puff cloud that was stopped before what looked like a mound of dirt in the dark forest.

    "Nebby, there you are!" Lillie snapped. Nebby appeared to flinch a little, along with sweating (if it could, in fact, sweat). Then he turned with the most innocent grin he could muster on his face. Lillie wasn't fooled. "You can't wander off like that. Remember what happened back in Iki Town?"

    "P-pew…"

    "Now, back in the bag!" Lillie said, pointing towards the bag furiously. Nebby looked a little torn between obeying her orders and doing whatever he wanted to do. Ash figured it would end in a likely long stalemate between the two forces. Or he thought so, if it wasn't for the mound moving, standing up and looking down at them. Even then, Ash still wouldn't have thought anything of it.

    Then the Pokémon before them screeched loudly and chopped down a tree with its bare hands.


    Serena's breathing was even, steady. Facing across from Jessilie, her long-time rival, and Maka, who appeared to be her biggest fan for whatever reason, Serena found herself feeling no trepidation whatsoever. It felt normal. Calm. She smiled down at Popplio.

    "Ready?" she asked. Popplio slapped her flippers together. "Bonnie, make sure you take care of the egg, okay?"

    "Will do, Serena!"

    "Dede!" Serena let out another light breath at that, looking up. It would be the most difficult kind of battle to deal with: a three-way fight where anything would go. Serena reached up to adjust her hat a little, briefly touching the ribbon on her wrist.

    "Let's try to make this as Ceremony-oriented as possible, okay?" Serena called to the other two. Jessilie smirked, as if saying she'd have no problem with that, her Stufful pawing at the ground. At the same time, Maka pumped her fists, Mele brimming with electricity in front of her. "Then, let's begin!"

    "Stufful, use Baby Doll Eyes!" Jessilie laughed out, placing her hand under her chin. Stufful's eyes changed, almost looking sad and innocent. Pink sparkles blasted out from the single look, definitely one that had been adapted to be visible for a Ceremony. Mele appeared affected by it, but Serena quickly thought of a counter.

    "Popplio, Disarming Voice!" she said, raising her hand to the air as she did it. Battles felt so different from performances to her. She couldn't intervene, but only watch as her Pokémon acted based on her commands. It really made her understand just how Ash could feel in some of his own battles. Popplio reared back a little.

    "Liooooooo!" Popplio cried. The pink heart-shaped cry flew from Popplio's mouth, impacting with the glitter and exploding. It worked just as Serena had anticipated, making her own attack look all the more beautiful with the pink dust.

    "We can't let the twe…Serena do that!" Jessilie said, almost like she was correcting herself. "Use your Hidden Power!"

    "Stuff…ul!" Stufful cried, almost like it was sneezing. Yet from there came the bright silver orb that Serena was so used to commanding in those moments. It flew across the field just as Stufful began to charge across it. Jessilie was almost laughing giddily, especially when Stufful reached the Hidden Power.

    "Get ready, Popplio," Serena called. Popplio hunkered down, prepared to intercept the attack fully…only that wasn't Jessilie's plan. Instead, she seemed to order for Stufful to hit its own Hidden Power with a Low Sweep. Serena turned her head and realized that, instead, Stufful was aiming the Hidden Power for Mele, who appeared to be attempting to use Captivate.

    "Ah, use your pompoms to push yourself off the ground!" Maka ordered. Mele flipped forward and tried to leap out of the way, only for the now spinning silver orb to slam into him. Serena saw it as the chance to quickly strike.

    "Use Bubblebeam!"

    "Pahpah!" Popplio cried, practically jumping forward to create the giant stream of bubbles that hung in the air. Popplio turned back, as if asking for the permission to strike forward. Serena nodded, only for Maka to intervene.

    "Hey, don't count us as the lowest! We can contribute, too!" the girl cried jubilantly, framing the entire scene like she seemed to do with everything. "What a battle scene…now let's add some rain. Use Air Cutter!"

    "Orrrri!" Mele cried out. He flipped, sending out the rotors made of air straight from his pompoms. Before Popplio could even begin to leap forward, they had slammed through the bubbles, popping them and turning them into nothing but falling water. One of them broke through completely, striking Popplio. At the same unfortunate moment, Jessilie's Stufful had closed the gap as well.

    "Low Sweep!" she called out with as much chewing of the scene as possible. She clearly believed she must have been in auditions for the part of an actress, and Stufful was along for the ride. The Pokémon reached Popplio and suddenly kicked against her. As the Sea Lion Pokémon fell back, Stufful aimed another Hidden Power that struck, scattering silver dust all over Popplio's figure. Serena felt her fist clench as her Pokémon flipped forward.

    "Now Popplio! Let's make it quick! Bubblebeam!" Serena thrust her hand forward with her command. Popplio wasted little time, spinning around as quickly as she could. Bubbles followed from her attack and her tail slammed on the ground, carrying her upward onto one of the bubbles. She began to bounce forward.

    "That's a cool strategy…" Maka commented, a grin on her face. Mele looked back to her, as if awaiting some kind of confirmation. "Let's make it work for us, too! Revelation Dance!"

    "Oricorio!" Mele cried, rustling his pompoms together. The electricity began to gather and then danced across the battlefield, drawn to the water in the bubbles. Popplio was stuck, and the shock ripped across her. Popplio fell towards the grass.

    "Don't worry, Popplio! Just use Bubblebeam!" Serena called out. Attempting to flip over in midair, Popplio sent a powerful stream of bubbles right for Mele. She looked ragged as she did so, but the stream impacted at a high speed with the bird. "Now, Disarming Voice!"

    "Popah!" Popplio cried. The hearts she fired merged with the stream of bubbles, turning the water heart shaped as it cut through to land a second hit upon Mele. Unfortunately, Popplio wasn't so lucky, for Jessilie called out her own next command. Like before, Stufful suddenly showed up in front of Popplio.

    "Low Sweep," Jessilie ordered, throwing off various poses as though she were the one being watched. Serena wasn't concerned with that; she was concerned with Popplio hitting the ground from Stufful's surprising attack in the air.

    "Popplio!" she called, wanting to step straight on the battlefield. Stufful landed back near Jessilie, pawing at the ground once more, having not even taken a scratch of damage, really. Popplio attempted to get up, brief flecks of blue flying around her body. For all of Jessilie's posturing and posing, the woman knew how to work a field in so many different ways. It made Serena wonder what her dream could have been…how it had gotten her that far…If her own dream could be made that reality when she couldn't even protect the Pokémon she loved.

    "Pah! Pah!" Popplio cried, still straining. Serena's nails dug into her hand. Stufful appeared to gaze at Popplio with minor indifference while Popplio glared at it. Maka had stopped attacking, as though unsure of what was going on (or she was framing the scene, Serena couldn't be sure).

    "Sorry, but your Popplio is second-rate it seems!"

    "Our Jessilie fights like a dream!" Jameson cheered on, only for Bonnie to kick him in the leg without thinking. Serena's heart was racing now, her breath no longer even. So she stopped. She unclenched her fist and returned her breathing to normal. Popplio seemed to understand this, for she managed to push up bit by bit, a spark of confidence to her eyes.

    "Lio!" Popplio shouted once. Stufful tilted its head…and was then blasted back by a sudden torrent of water. Serena blinked, surprised at the speed Popplio had moved at, surrounded by the veil of water.

    "Popplio…you learned Aqua Jet…" Serena breathed. Only, she wasn't stopping there. It was like her will to become a mobile performer was suddenly manifesting itself. Her whole body suddenly glowed blue within the water, blasting out at every angle while she returned to the center of the field. Once she had, the water burst out, revealing a changed form: no longer dark blue, but light; no longer floppy ears but ones that seemed to stand on end. She looked like a ballerina almost, or at least one in a tutu.

    "Brionne," Rotom suddenly intervened. "It is the evolved form of Popplio! It cares deeply for its trainer, and will perform a dance to cheer them up."

    "That must have been why Popplio evolved," Clemont noted. "She could feel Serena's struggle and wanted to help, turning those feelings into fuel for evolution."

    "Well, that's not fair!" Jessilie nearly shrieked. "Stufful, you should evolve right now, too!"

    "Stuh…?" Stufful questioned. Maka was clapping her hands, and in some sense, Serena felt like it had been a conclusion to the battle. Brionne turned to face her, a great smile upon her face.

    "You did that…for me?" Serena asked. She reached forward and touched her now-evolved Pokémon's head, petting it softly.

    "Brio…" Brionne cooed out happily. She felt so warm underneath Serena's touch, and the honey blonde couldn't help the giggle from bubbling out so cheerfully. She began to laugh in cheer, as did Brionne next to her. There was the sound of footsteps behind her and Serena saw her Pokémon all approaching.

    "Braixen brai!" her first Pokémon stated, greeting Brionne happily. Brionne returned all of their affections happily. Serena whipped around, wanting to show off Popplio's evolution to both Ash and Lillie…only they were nowhere to be found. Brionne tilted her head, as if wondering just what was on Serena's mind as she looked around. The rest of his Pokémon were there, except for Pikachu, but her boyfriend and Lillie had mysteriously vanished.

    "Clemont, have you seen Ash?" she asked, standing up. Clemont looked around wildly, as though he had an answer.

    "Wasn't he…huh…?" Clearly, Clemont had had the same exact reaction of wonderment. Bonnie, too, seemed confused, while Jessilie continued to order a very confused Stufful to evolve. In the midst of their confusion, standing around, Serena felt a tap on her shoulder from none other than Maka.

    "Hey, congrats, Serena," she said, pulling the attention away from the missing duo a moment. "Brionne looks really happy."

    "Oh…oh yeah," Serena said, reaching down once more to pat the Pop Star Pokémon on the head. Brionne slapped her flippers together slightly in joy. "I just wish that Ash could have seen it happen…"

    "Uh…isn't that him, right there?" Maka pointed out. Serena followed her outstretched finger towards the row of forest that Jessilie and her fan club had come from earlier. At her words, everyone turned and saw Ash running out of forest, dragging Lillie behind him.

    "Ash! Where have you been?" Serena asked worriedly.

    "No time to talk, Serena! It's after us!" Ash screamed. Lillie was screaming as well, though hers was more of a consistent "ahhhh!" sound rather than any sort of explanation. None was needed, though, considering the explanation was charging through the forest, chopping down trees as it went along with a high pitched squeal. "Tried to stop it with Pikachu, but that thing's a force of nature, and I think it's angry!"

    "It certainly looks it," Clemont noted. All of the inventor's Pokémon moved to the fore, ready to protect against what looked like an enormous stuffed bear. Serena looked to Brionne and the two nodded, prepared to fight.

    "It is a Bewear, the evolved form of Stufful," Rotom pointed out to them, showing a picture of the two Pokémon on its screen. "This immensely dangerous Pokémon possesses overwhelming physical strength. Its habitat is generally off-limits."

    "Would have been nice to have known that sooner!" Ash yelled. He finally skidded to a stop, letting Lillie run past him as she was surrounded by his entire team. "All right, now we don't have to worry about falling trees!"

    "And we'll help out!" Serena said. The Bewear was still charging straight at them, flailing its arms madly, like it practically wanted to rip their heads off. Jessilie looked the most shocked out of them all.

    "Wait…Stufful evolves into that? !" she asked in shock. Her fan club was running for her, practically grabbing her while she seemed to protest something. "Stufful, ixnay on the evolution! No evolving!"

    "Brionne, use Aqua Jet!" Serena cried, paying little attention to Jessilie and her oddities.

    "You use Air Cutter at its feet, Mele!" Maka said. The two Pokémon leapt into action and Serena watched Ash give a double take at the sight of Brionne, surrounded by water. She sped forward, easily moving across the field until she slammed into the Bewear. It's squealing stopped, but its eyes looked no less rageful.

    "Time to get moving, Jessilie!"

    "Can't have you gettin' killed before your next Ceremony debut!"

    "Wobbuffet!" Serena turned her head, watching as Jessilie flailed against her fan club, unable to stop them from dragging her off over the horizon, away from the Bewear, who had now stumbled from the Air Cutter attack.

    "Pikachu, use Thunderbolt!" Ash called, punching forward. Pikachu charged up his electricity and let it fly just as Brionne bounded back and out of the way. The Bewear was hit and convulsed from the strike, like it was going to shut down. That quickly proved to not be the case as its eyes flashed dangerously, like a wounded beast. In fact, Serena narrowed her eyes at its expression.

    "Guys, I think we should focus on containing it, not taking it down," she said sternly. It was her turn to point at the Pokémon, noticing a stitched-up gash in its side.

    "Got it!" Maka said. She had abandoned any pretense of framing it like some sort of filmed battle, tying her hair up with the familiar red ribbon. "Mele, Captivate!"

    "Orri!" Mele cried, shaking his pompoms, as if hoping for the attack to work. It didn't.

    "Gah, must be a male Bewear!"

    "Then we're on it, use Iron Tail on its legs. Rockruff, use Rock Polish and keep it in place," Ash called. Serena could see him grinning, like he was truly back in his element amongst all of this. Pikachu and Rockruff ran straight for the madly flailing Bewear. Pikachu's brightly lit tail struck, causing Bewear to stumble a bit. Serena watch as it tried to move and strike in another direction, but Rockruff had headed it off.

    "Braixen, Flamethrower!" Serena cried. Braixen twirled her branch around and sent the jet of fire soaring out for their target. Just before it made impact, Serena suddenly remembered Team Rocket's Stufful (which caused a small inkling of knowledge that she pushed away) and how the Fire type attack had seemed to cause it so much pain. A plan instantly formed in her mind.

    "Keeeeeeee!" Bewear screeched, its fluffing suddenly lit on fire. It continued to flail its arm and Serena paid attention to the stitching, hoping it wouldn't set itself alight.

    "Brionne, Bubblebeam, quick!" Serena called. From Brionne's nose, the bubbles exploded out, impacting with Bewear and leaving it drenched. The fire was put out, and the Strong Arm Pokémon began to sag. "Now, Clemont!"

    "On it! Chespin, hold it with Vine Whip, and Grubbin, wrap it up with String Shot!" Clemont's Pokémon moved on command as Bonnie cheered her brother on wildly. The vines from Chespin quickly grabbed ahold of Bewear's legs as Grubbin got to work, wrapping up its arms and legs with a binding String Shot that made it collapse to the ground. It continued to writhe, screeching, but unable to make a move.

    "Sylveon, can you help?" Serena asked of her Fairy type. Sylveon nodded and she pranced forward, soon wrapping her feelers kindly around Bewear. He continued to twitch angrily as Sylveon spoke with him until, at last, the Bewear calmed down. Next to Serena, Maka breathed out in relief while Ash and Clemont made moves to approach Bewear calmly.

    "What exactly happened?" the inventor asked of him as they all approached.

    "Uh, we were looking for Nebby and…this guy just attacked," Ash explained, rubbing the back of his head. "I mean, we didn't mean to bother him."

    "I don't think you did," Serena pointed out. Ash grinned at her slightly apologetically before his and Pikachu's eyes looked towards Brionne. "Oh, Popplio evolved!"

    "Wow, that's great!" Ash said. Brionne appeared to agree with him by rapidly slapping her flippers together.

    "What's not great is this wound," Clemont said. "Bonnie, can you get me a Potion?"

    "On it!" the sibling responded, dashing off towards Clemont's bag. He pulled off the string and looked to the large gash in Bewear's side. It looked like it was a healing scar, but still a painful one. Bonnie quickly returned with the Potion, allowing Clemont to spray the wound. Bewear seemed to groan out appreciatively.

    "You should be good to go, if you take it easy and don't attack people," Clemont told him, patting the Pokémon on its side. Bewear sat up, blinking its eyes. It still seemed to wince in pain a little, but eventually got up, turning back to the forest from whence it came. As it turned, Serena caught sight of something on its backside, like a disturbance in its fur. She wasn't the only one, as Clemont was staring at it with distraction. It seemed almost like a strange mark of a trident surrounded by ovular shapes. However, they didn't get a very good look at it before Bewear had slunk away.

    "Whew!" Maka expressed, dropping onto her butt. "Well, that was a lot of excitement for a day."

    "Really?" Bonnie questioned. "This is like every day for us."

    "Sometimes I wish it wasn't…" Lillie expressed. Serena turned to her, seeing the blonde glaring harshly at her bag. Nebby definitely seemed to be the cause of the problem they'd just had. However, Serena's mind instantly attributed it to something else: the ripple in the sky, and the pink Pokémon she'd seen fly overhead for little more than a second.

    "Sounds exhausting…" Maka said. She retied her hair with her ribbon, and then looked up to grin at them. "I just want to do my Ceremonies, ha ha."

    "So do I," Serena admitted, her face slipping itself up into a smile, despite her heart telling her otherwise. Worry was settling in. Worry over the attack they'd just encountered. Worry over the upcoming Ceremony. She reached up and slapped her cheeks. "Say, Maka, would you like to come along with us? To Heahea?"

    "Hmm?" the girl questioned for a second, like she didn't quite understand. That didn't last long. "Oh, sure! We're both heading to the same place anyway, and then you and I can plan out some awesome roles for you!"

    "Yeah…okay…" Serena laughed out. The girl seemed back to normal, jumping up excitedly and talking about different things. Her fingers were moving back into a framing position as she looked at both Serena and Ash before jotting things down on her sketchbook. Ash seemed to indulge her, and Bonnie was little help in stopping her.

    Serena felt perfectly fine with that. Maka proved herself to be an entertaining and friendly person on the road back to Heahea City. Yet even with that, uncertainty settled back into Serena's mind, and she had a feeling it was the same for all those around her, if Ash's momentary falters and Clemont's contemplative expressions were anything to go by.

    Even the beat of their feet against the dirt road they were walking did nothing to take the thoughts out of their minds. Serena just had to constantly remind herself of how hard she was working and how hard her Pokémon had fought for her, evolved for her. It gave her courage on that road; the idolization from Maka didn't hurt matters. At last, however, after another day or two of traveling, when the dew was settling on the palm trees in the early morning of the Heahea Ceremony, they at last arrived back at illustrious tourist city, determination in their hearts…but a dangerous foreboding on each of their minds…



    Author's Note: This chapter was very much like a transition chapter, all things considered. However, while it was much slower than many of the preceding chapters (and much shorter!) it was no less important. Popplio has evolved into Brionne, we've met the lovely Maka again, Jessie is hamming it up as usual and Nebby causes problems. Plus, each of our heroes but Bonnie has something on their mind. Then there are those other things…the flash of pink, the ornery Bewear with the wound and the strange markings. What is this foreboding settling in? Well, guess you'll have to wait and see!

    We're drawing close to the end of this first installment, and I've appreciated all of the words you've given me. So, before we meet again, please Review and Dare to Be Silly.

  15. #40
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    I wish there was something I could give other than gratitude. This has become my most popular story by far! Let's continue to have it grow! But now, Chapter 23!


    Chapter 23

    A Movement

    The first thing Ash noticed upon the group's arrival back into Heahea City that bright, sunny morning, was how positively busy it seemed. Tourists and civilians lined the streets, approaching shops and stalls of all natures. Some were dressed to fit the city, while others were clearly tourists out for the day. The number one fact, however, was the impression that the Heahea Ceremony appeared to be a big thing.

    "Certainly lots of people," Maka said, skipping ahead of their group as she peered down the streets. Her gaze was obviously drawn towards the hotel, where the Ceremony would be taking place. "I wonder if they're going to televise the event…"

    "They do that?" Serena asked. Ash looked back to her, noticing that her egg was now back in her arms, sending little snowflakes onto her skin. "I mean, I thought they did, but only for smaller towns."

    "Well, sure," Maka told her. She was reaching up again, adjusting her hair with her ribbon, this time making it into a bun. "Melemele is small, so they don't really advertise the Ceremonies, but when you get to islands as big as Akala, it's kind of inevitable. It's how I found out about it, seeing the Hope Leilani one year…It was magnificent."

    "Seems like you've wanted to take part in this since you were a little girl, then," Clemont noted to the girl. Ash realized that Maka had gone practically starry eyed, like she was lost in the memory of it. Ash didn't blame her; all too often he'd remember the battles he'd witnessed on live television, making him want to go on that journey. A grimace flashed over his face as he pushed down the question still bubbling its way up.

    "I have! I mean, my passion has always been filmmaking, especially being in a small place like Melemele, but seeing that made me realize there are so many ways to film things," Maka told them, her tone wistful and almost romantic. "I want to produce an amazing film, and when people see me…well, a backup is always producing the television project for the Hope Leilani. That would be amazing."

    "It sounds rather amazing," Lillie told the girl, herself enthused with the concept of the Ceremony. That was no surprise, either. Lillie had always seemed interested in that particular world.

    "Totally is…but if I'm gonna do it, I still need to beat Serena, or at least get close enough to her, so it's off to pre-production for me!" Maka claimed. With a wave to them all, the girl turned on her heels and began running off towards the Tide Song Hotel with nary another word. Serena quickly waved back, as did they all, but Maka was clearly too fast on her feet to see the farewell.

    "I guess I should get some training in, too," Serena said, hitching her bag just a little on her shoulders. Ash nodded; he had full confidence that Serena would win this one, but just like his Gym battles in the past, as well as his trials, it was still important to get in that extra bit of training.

    "Perhaps we should pay a visit to the Pokémon Center, then," Clemont suggested amicably. "That way we can all get our Pokémon checked over and you can be sure you're ready for the Ceremony."

    "Sounds like a good idea," Serena accepted, turning in the direction of the Center. Ash looked to Pikachu. He had been looking a little tired from all of their own training, confirming that a little checkup before the Ceremony wouldn't be the worst of things.

    "In the meantime, since Dedenne is as fit as ever," Bonnie suggested, twirling around a bit, "why don't Lillie and I go reserve some seats?"

    "Can Bonnie really do that?" Rotom snickered out. Dedenne seemed to answer the snark with a Nuzzle. Bonnie just smirked at the Pokédex, grabbing ahold of Lillie's hand.

    "Of course we can," she said, beginning to drag her fellow blonde off without another word. "If this thing is as big as Maka said it was, then we should get all our seats for our big group as soon as possible. Maybe we'll even run into Kiawe again!"

    "You two just be careful," Clemont called. Ash looked to his inventor friend, noticing that he was surprisingly calm, given Bonnie and Lillie were going off to be all alone in the big city. To that, he grinned; clearly Bonnie's time mastering Parabolic Charge was quite the positive one in the eyes of her brother.

    "We will! Come on, Lillie!" Bonnie insisted. Lillie tamped her hat down with one hand, but allowed herself to be dragged off, making sure to shoot the very sneaky Nebby a rather scathing glare. Ash had to chuckle at that one before his hand was slipped into a smiling Serena's.

    "Shall we?" she asked, as though she was asking for a dance. Ash grinned at her, making sure Pikachu was firmly on his shoulder before the three friends set off for the Pokémon Center. Just as they had observed upon entering the city, the entire place was buzzing and alive with all manner of activity. Maybe it was because they were entering from a different part of the city, but Ash figured it had far more to do with the upcoming Ceremony drawing crowds of natives and tourists alike. Some were flitting in and out of clothing stores or restaurants, including one that was run by someone who looked like a male version of Mallow. People walked through the streets with bags of malasadas and Wingull chirped along the beachfront.

    The most peculiar of all the people gathered were those in white uniforms outside what looked like a lab. They all had phones out, or some other kind of data gathering instrument in their hands, as they appeared to run through diagnostics, some of them going in and out. Ash ignored them, even as people took pictures of them. He did smile at one of them leaning down to pet a small Growlithe with a little girl.

    As Ash looked up, he thought he saw someone walking down a side street, looking very extraordinarily like Gladion. For a moment, he thought of taking the turn to look, but chose against it in favor of keeping on with Serena and Clemont. Although, he was also certain he saw Cynthia somewhere with another seemingly familiar face on the beach; they were just lost in the crowd there, making Ash unsure. Before long, the three had arrived at their destination, checking in their Pokémon with Nurse Joy.

    "We'll have them checked up in a flash," she said, bowing to them. They thanked her, and walked over to the small café in the Center. Like the rest of the city, the café was bustling with people as well.

    "Judging from Melemele, I never thought that Ceremonies were as big as all this," Serena commented once the three of them were sipping on some pinap juice. "I mean, they were so small…"

    "True, but we should have guessed at it," Clemont noted, sipping his very carefully. He looked a little lost in thought, as though trying to remember something. "I mean, Maka telling us that winning the Hope Leilani was the first step to her dream of everyone seeing her films was kind of obvious…but I'm more interested in that group of people outside the Dimensional Research Lab."

    "What's that?" Ash asked, slightly interested.

    "Ah, I don't know much about it," the inventor admitted, "but when I was looking through the brochures on Heahea City when we were here before, I noticed it mentioned as being a place you have to visit at least once. It's run by a Professor Burnet, and she seems to study all kinds of dimensional rifts."

    "Like…like the ones that involved Zinnia…and DARC?" Ash knew he probably shouldn't have brought it up, not from the way both himself and Serena stiffened from even saying the words aloud. Clemont, however, shook his head.

    "I've no idea," he responded. "Maybe. I wouldn't be surprised if the League has contacted her, but that's beside the point. I just know about it from reading, and didn't think it important before…but those people out front look so familiar. I just can't place it…"

    "Ash, Serena, Clemont, your Pokémon are all ready," Nurse Joy's voice called. Ash quickly downed the rest of his juice, popping off of his chair to stride over to the gurney that Blissey and Comfey appeared to be rolling out.

    "Pikapi!" Pikachu called, waving upwards. Ash grinned and allowed his best buddy to jump onto his shoulders gleefully. "Chupika!"

    "Glad to see you're all doing well," Ash laughed out. He reached forward to take his other pokeballs along with his companions. As he reached Rockruff's pokeball, it suddenly burst with light, the Puppy Pokémon emerging with a slight yip. "What's up, Rockruff?"

    "Ruff!" Rockruff barked happily. She waved her tail and then dashed off for the exit to the Pokémon Center.

    "Rockruff, wait up! Ah, thanks Nurse Joy! Alola," Ash responded before running after Rockruff. While he ran, he affixed his pokeballs to his belt once more. The other two were quickly behind him as the doors slid open and Ash ran after Rockruff into the street. As she leapt into the air, Ash finally understood why she'd taken off so suddenly.

    "Whoa there!" cried the voice of Professor Kukui. Ash stopped at the sight of the man, collapsed onto the ground with Rockruff licking his face with abandon. "That you, Rockruff? You've grown so strong! And if you're here…alola, cousin."

    "Hey, professor," Ash said, waving his hands in greeting. Serena and Clemont finished running behind him, issuing their own greetings to the splayed professor. Rockruff barked once again and leapt off of Kukui, returning to Ash's side with a gleeful expression. "It's good to see you again."

    "And you," Kukui laughed out. He sat up, but didn't proceed to stand quite yet. "Still in Heahea City, or…?"

    "Nah, we've been to Brooklet Hill and Lush Jungle," Ash informed the older man. Kukui raised an eyebrow, yet he didn't look surprised in the least, almost like he'd very much expected it. "We came back for Serena's Ceremony."

    "Exciting stuff, then," Kukui chuckled out, his look now focusing on Serena. "I'll be attending, too. Then I've got some other exciting stuff on Akala."

    "Like what?" Kukui opened his mouth. However, Clemont's question went unanswered.

    "Honey, who are these kids?" Ash blinked at the statement. He looked up, suddenly seeing a woman there, her white hair standing out amongst her tanned skin. But more importantly, it had been the words she'd uttered: honey.

    "Ah, it's those kids from another region I was talking about," Kukui answered the woman. While he did so, she held her hand out to help pull him up. It was at this moment, finally moving his gaze away from the ground that he realized Kukui really wasn't alone. With him were three people: the woman who had helped him up, a ring similar to Kukui's glistening on her finger, a blonde woman wearing elegant clothing and a balding man in a lab coat. The sound of pokeballs dropping sounded out behind him.

    "Ohhhh…Ash, Serena and Clemont, right?" the woman holding on to Kukui said. "I thought you said there were four of them, honey."

    "Hm, I did…where's Bonnie, you three?" Kukui asked, shoving his hands in the pockets of his lab coat. Serena quickly answered before Ash had the chance to, causing Kukui to nod. "Right, where are my manners? You three, I'd like you to meet my equal in the field and in life, Burnet."

    "Oh, sweetie, you always flatter me," Burnet said, slapping Kukui on the shoulder. The professor grabbed her and pulled her in tightly. Inside, Ash blanched before he looked over to Serena. Did they act that way? He certainly hoped not, because it looked utterly mortifying and embarrassing to be around. "But yes, it's wonderful to meet you three. As my adorable husband said, I'm Burnet, lead professor of the Dimensional Research Lab."

    "Oh, Clemont was just talking about you," Serena noted. Ash nodded, deciding to face back at his inventor friend. However, when both he and Serena did so, the inventor was pointing forward, mouth stammering wildly, like he saw something he never expected.

    "Y-y-y-you…" he stammered out. Pikachu hopped off of Ash's shoulder to grab Clemont's pokeballs and return them to him. The boy took them like he was in a dream before dropping them yet again and running forward once more. He pulled out a magazine as he did so, looking almost starstruck. "You're Faba! Branch Chief of the Aether Foundation!"

    "Hmm…yes, I am," the balding man replied. Ash shifted his position, catching a better glimpse of the man, his green goggles covering his eyes. He seemed a little haughty, but almost appeared to soak in the admiration that Clemont was giving him.

    "M-my name is Clemont," he continued to stammer out. "I've been a huge fan of yours! The advancements in technology that you've made for the Aether Foundation in taking care of Pokémon have been an inspiration to me. Your recent revolutionary system known as the RKS has been talked about in the scientific journals for months even without all the specific details!"

    "Do go on…" Faba stated, stroking the small goatee that he had, a little. Clemont looked like he would have, holding out his magazine and a pen for the man. Faba appeared to get the idea, reaching forward to take the pen and sign the magazine. "You must have quite the extraordinary taste, young man."

    "Clemont's an inventor, himself," Serena said, smiling at the older man. Faba continued to stroke his beard with interest, though Ash felt the man couldn't find anything to say. It was almost like he regarded himself a little higher…or maybe just had something on his mind.

    "Faba, I wasn't aware you were acquainted with such children," said the final woman amongst their group. At her rather sultry voice, Ash turned to take a good look at her, barely even taking note of her features before. Now that he did, she looked surprisingly young, with long, voluminous blonde hair that practically reached her hips. She was dressed in a rather tight and form-fitting white minidress and stockings, the only splash of color on her entire figure being the black crystal on her chest and her piercing green eyes.

    "I'm not, Madam President," Faba stated, ceasing the stroking of his goatee at the woman's comment. The woman, or a president (Ash wasn't sure), raised her hand and giggled a little. It felt eerily familiar to Ash, but it was forced from his mind at the woman looking straight at him. He felt himself straightening a little before the woman moved her gaze, completely disregarding him.

    "I wasn't scolding, Faba. Merely a question," she said, lowering her hand from her giggle. "Though, Professor Kukui, it would appear that you're quite well affiliated with them, yes?"

    "I am," Kukui grinned out. No answer as to the woman's identity. Not even telling the woman their names, even if Ash figured she had gathered them from the earlier conversation; she looked rather discerning. The woman smiled again, almost looking like a cat for a moment before she extended her nailed hand towards the three of them.

    "Well, regardless of being children, it's a pleasure to meet you, particularly if Professor Kukui holds you all in such high regard," she said. Ash tentatively reached forward and shook her hand. She seemed to hold it only for a moment before letting go. In Serena's case, however, she took a slight time longer. "You said you're here for the Heahea Ceremony, yes?"

    "I am," Serena said, smiling at the woman with a nod.

    "Sounds rather beautiful," she said. "Oh, forgive me. Lusamine, President of the Aether Foundation." Ash's eyebrows flew into his hair, actually a little surprised by this. At her announcement of identity, Serena stepped back. At the same time, Burnet approached.

    "Lusamine is in Heahea on business with the Dimensional Research Lab," Kukui's wife explained. "We just received her from the port and were making our way over there."

    "Ooh, what kind of things are you researching?" Clemont asked, stepping just a little close to Faba. The man appeared to preen at the thought of being so idolized and he cleared his throat, as if about to answer the question. Lusamine, however, reached out and placed a hand on Faba, causing him to freeze.

    "Now, now, Faba, let's not share all our secrets," the president spoke sweetly. Faba chuckled under his breath, nodding in agreement with what Lusamine was saying. "And with that, we should really get to reviewing that data, Professor Burnet."

    "Well, it's little more than numbers…we don't have anything verifiable," Burnet said, waving the issue as she remained hooked in her husband's arm but moved slightly forward. Kukui appeared to be dragged along, looking just a little unsure of what to say in the situation.

    "Nonsense," Lusamine said. "I'm sure whatever data you have is most valuable, whether it's verifiable or not. Besides, the sooner we get to reviewing it, the sooner we can get to the Heahea Ceremony."

    "You plan on watching?" Serena asked, her mouth parted into an o-shape at the president's words. Lusamine turned her head, a smile upon it as she nodded.

    "Ceremonies are rather beautiful things…well, assuming that the right people are participating. I haven't had a chance to see one with all my work, so being in town for one is quite the opportunity."

    "Guess we shouldn't keep things waiting then," Kukui chuckled out. "Might as well show 'em your results, sweetheart. I don't think she'll take no for an answer."

    "Well…all right. You're planning on meeting with Akela, right?" Burnet asked. The two professors had already turned around now, heading back down the road to where the laboratory was, arm in arm. Ash really blanched inside now…he knew that he and Serena could look like that. Never before did he realize how utterly embarrassing it looked.

    "Lovely to meet you. I look forward to your performance," Lusamine spoke, tilting her head. She began to walk forward once more, heels clopping along the tiled streets. Faba remained standing still, as though lost in thought. "Faba, come!"

    "Y-yes, Madam President," Faba stuttered out and he followed after the woman like a lost puppy. Thinking that way, Ash looked down to Rockruff, who appeared to be rather proud at having received Kukui's praise. He leaned down to pick her up, smiling at her while he held her in the air. When Rockruff finally barked back at him, he turned to his friends.

    "That was interesting…"

    "Interesting? ! Ash, do you not realize the significance of the contributions to science that Faba and the Aether Foundation have provided!" Clemont shouted.

    "Then why did you never mention them until recently, huh?" Ash asked. As much as he thought science was amazing, he still thought Clemont was the better inventor, and hearing him gush over someone like the haughty Faba didn't sit right with him. Clemont leaned in, as if challenging him on it.

    "You can't possibly expect me to talk about every major inventor! I never thought I'd ever come to Alola or bring it up in conversation, so you can't hold it against me."

    "I just don't know what he's done that's so big," Ash commented, folding his arms. Pikachu was on the ground, looking between the two of them frantically until Serena finally pushed her way in, staring at the two of them sternly. Only Clemont didn't react, gaping at Ash like a Magikarp.

    "Boys, maybe this is something to discuss later, like when I don't have a Ceremony to get to," Serena pointed out. Ash felt mortified by her breaking up their argument, rubbing the back of his head.

    "Yeah, we should probably get to the hotel, huh?" Ash said with a chuckle. Serena nodded at him sharply, like he was quite right, before grabbing ahold of Clemont and wheeling him away. Ash just shook his head and followed after, briefly staring down the street to see the disappearing backs of Kukui's party. Grinning in bemusement at the odd encounter, it quickly turned to one of encouragement, turning his thoughts towards the impending Ceremony and cheering for Serena with everything he had.
    *Chapter to be continued in next post...

  16. #41
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    Chapter continued from last post.

    Maka had been absolutely right, Serena realized. The stage at the Tide Song Hotel was absolutely packed beyond measure. Cameras were flashing and the seats were filled. In some sense, Serena considered it lucky that Bonnie and Lillie had made sure to reserve them all seats. Otherwise, she had a feeling it would have been standing room only for her friends. Not that she had realized it, preparing herself in the large suite set aside for Performers.

    After getting a good luck kiss from Ash (a little more chaste than usual, but no less appreciated), she felt as though she'd been closed off, preparing for the Ceremony alongside Maka and Jessilie. Not that they were the only ones. This Ceremony on Akala appeared to have gathered more people than she thought possible to take part in it. Then there was Burnet's comment, about Kukui meeting with Akela. It made her wonder for what purpose the fashion designer would be here, and whether they'd meet again.

    None of that, however, made a difference in the face of the large crowd before the stage and the woman dancing atop it with her Comfey and her microphone.

    "Aaaaalola, everyone! Welcome to that time for dancing, performances and the trust between people and Pokémon," Maika said, holding her microphone up in the air. Cheers rose at her announcement, everyone standing to give a rousing cheer to the open-air stage. Serena briefly looked up, sucking in a breath at the shining sun. Somewhere ahead, Maka was fiddling with her ribbon. "That's right, it's time for the one and only Heahea Ceremony!"

    More cheers followed before being replaced with a reverent silence. Even Serena bowed her head, recognizing the moment as a very important one for the people of Alola. It seemed no matter how big an event was, the people still found time to pay homage to the guardian deities that kept them safe. Finally, though, the people raised their heads and the excitement returned.

    "So, without further ado, let's introduce our participants!" Maika called. All of them seemed to take that as a cue to move forward. Only, it appeared a little flashier than before, likely on account of all the camera crews there as each participant did a little dance. Serena chose to join in, wearing her smile as she twirled into spot before extending her hands to the sky. Jessilie took the longest, clearly absorbed in the adulating spotlight. "These lovely and talented participants will be competing for this! The Heahea Lei!"

    "Yeah!" the crowd roared towards all of them as Maika presented the object to the crowd. Serena continued her smile, finding Ash and the others standing with their hands cupped around their mouths as they cheered. Lillie didn't do so (standing, that is), and neither did Clemont, who was clutching her egg carefully, a faint glow visible on it from a distance. Next to Serena, Jessilie smirked, as if she was saying that the Lei was undoubtedly going to be hers.

    "In order to judge them in this event," Maika continued, "we have our eclectic panel of judges! From here in Heahea City, we have Nurse Joy! Best known for his trial by fire, the bare-chested dancer and battle expert, Kiawe!" Serena finally looked to the judges' station at the announcement of Kiawe, noticing the boy sitting there with a serious expression upon his face. Behind him, in the front row, appeared to be Kukui and his party of Burnet and Lusamine, though Faba appeared to be missing. They were all watching with interest. Then Serena saw the final judge.

    "And let's not forget our final, special judge: the one and only fashion designer and former Ali'i ka Leilani, Miss Akela!" That name garnered more than enough cheers to shake the entire stage. Serena, however, couldn't stop her staring. The violet-haired woman had never mentioned it once the two times she'd met her. Granting, she never mentioned being classmates with Kukui either, but one would have thought…She chuckled. It made sense now why she had asked her to take part, at least somewhat. There was still the question of "why" but Serena knew she could save that for later. "So we don't forget, I'm your host, Maika Olelo, here to bring everyone in Alola the latest and greatest on the Heahea Ceremony. Without further ado, let's begin with the Course: the Tunnel Course!"

    Like every time, the loud sound of a sheet ripping filled the stage as cameras flashed and popped, catching every image that they could of the construct now standing behind the participants. Serena turned with the others to catch a glimpse of what it was this time. Calling it a "tunnel course" certainly wasn't a lie. The whole entire thing was made up of tunnels: ones that were along the ground, others that acted like slides and still more that hung in the air. Perhaps most interesting, though, was that this time there were no waypoints…and certainly no way of seeing what was going on inside the tunnel.

    "As our participants can see, the entire course is like a single tunnel, snaking its way from entrance to exit, no stops in between," Maika said enthusiastically, pumping the crowd up. For a moment, Serena wondered if she was related to the commentator, Harry Kalas. "That means there is no judgment for when the race is finished because that's what the Tunnel Course is, pure and simple: a race."

    "Then we have this made, don't we Meowth?" Jessilie said, still keeping her smirk on her face. Serena finally noticed the similarly smirking and oddly familiar Meowth at the Performer's feet. Serena gripped for her own pokeball, already knowing just who she would choose for a partner in what would likely be the pitch black tunnels.

    "However, the challenge that will test the bonds with their Pokémon is that the trainer will be unable to see what is happening inside the tunnels! They can give commands, but their Pokémon must also act on their own," Maika said. It almost sounded like the toughest challenge that anyone would have to face, almost reminding Serena of when Ash ordered Pikachu to fight blind. She held tighter to her pokeball, even more resolute in her choice. "The first eight contestants of the many here to finish the race will be the winners and move on to the Performance Course!

    "Trainers, at your ready!" Maika's command forced a movement of all of the participants there to call out their Pokémon. They positioned themselves at the mouth of the numerous tunnels, and Serena realized that each Pokémon had their own tunnel. There was no need to interfere. It was all about commanding and trusting in your Pokémon to make it through. Braixen, who Serena had called forth, turned back. Her wand popped out of her tail, landing in her hand.

    "You've got this, Braixen," Serena said confidently. Braixen smiled back and then faced forward with her determination. Maika raised her hand high.

    "Let's begin!" Meowth was off the fastest out of all of them, darting right into the dark tunnel before anyone. Jessilie appeared to not really care.

    "Do what you can to win, Meowth!" she shouted, as though she trusted it could make its way to victory on its own. Braixen was right behind Meowth, however, diving into her tunnel with her branch fully alit.

    Serena scanned the tunnels, trying to see where each curved, made its way up and down and around. The darkness wouldn't be a problem for someone like Braixen, who had her fire to get her through all of it, but she wondered about some of the others, including a Tauros that was clearly too big for getting inside the tunnel. Her fingers ran over the smooth surface of her pokeball, contemplating when to call out. She closed her eyes, feeling the beating of her heart.

    Feel for it…feel for Braixen the way that Ash does for Greninja…Of course, she knew it was impossible for her to attain the same level of bonding that Ash had with Greninja and Pikachu, but still, as she focused, she thought she could feel just an inkling of it. There was no seeing through her Pokémon's eyes, but she could certainly see just where Braixen was in the tunnel, approaching a curve.

    "Lean into the right curve," Serena called. Around her, other trainers (sans Jessilie) were rapidly calling out orders for their Pokémon like a wild cacophony, including the ever-energetic Maka. Braixen appeared to cry out and Serena could feel her moving along, taking the turn easily. Serena felt the speed of her heartbeat, and she turned back a moment, noticing Akela watching her curiously, tapping at her lips with her nail. It created a sense of expectation within Serena, and a little pressure. Akela wasn't quite smiling, after all.

    The crowd had quieted down, most of them obviously unable to see for themselves just what was going on, only able to listen to the participants and their Pokémon cry out. Serena pursed her lips. She could see Braixen climbing up the somewhat steep hill of the tunnel. Part of her mind called for Braixen to use her wand as a walking stick, and though she couldn't feel her, she had a feeling that the Fox Pokémon was doing exactly that. Of course, as Serena moved along, she could see that a sheer wall was approaching.

    "Braixen, at the wall, use your Flamethrower to propel yourself upwards," Serena called calmly. A couple trainers down, Maka was ordering for Aki, clearly the Oricorio taking part in the race, to use her Revelation Dance in whatever way. A cry from within the tube seemed to indicate that Braixen was doing just as ordered, flying upward and into the airborne tunnel portion.

    The course had just become a little easier, the way Serena looked at it. Considering, however, that she had no idea how far along the rest of the opponents were, however, Serena knew that they couldn't just take things easy. Feeling intensely once again, she could sense the slide approaching for Braixen. No words were exchanged, no commands given, yet Serena's thought of how to tackle what was clearly the final part of the race seemed to be shared with Braixen.

    "Braaaaaaaaaixen!" the Fox Pokémon's voice echoed out powerfully from the location of the slide. It caused Serena to breathe in relief, just as a shadow appeared at the edge of one of the exit tubes. In particular, it was Meowth, looking quite smug.

    "Ha ha!" Jessilie cried. "I knew Meowth would take first place!" And judging by her unchanged expression, she must have figured that Braixen would take second place as well, as she came rocketing out of her tunnel with the trail of flame behind her. Aki looked like she was third, but by the point the fourth place contestant was making their way out, Braixen had run up to Serena and the two embraced each other in a hug.

    "You were wonderful, Braixen!" Serena cried, twirling around with her Pokémon. Out of the corner of her eye, Serena could see Maka slapping her hand against Aki's feathers with a grin. It made Serena smile, as well, to see; for a girl who seemed to look up to her, Maka was definitely the kind of person who had the ability to achieve her dream sooner than later without realizing it. She stopped her spinning to look at the judges, wondering how they were taking the relatively swift course compared to usual. Kiawe was still sitting as stoically as ever, but Serena was more focused on Akela.

    She wasn't smiling. Or if she was, it wasn't a genuine one, but more contemplative. It made Serena feel just a little inadequate. Perhaps it wouldn't have stung so badly if Lusamine wasn't actually peering at the Ceremony with some sense of disinterest. That her actions were so useless in causing even a fraction of a smile, it hurt her a bit. She sighed out. I'll have to turn that around with the Performance portion…

    After all, a bored judge could only be biased in one direction or the other.

    "We have our winners!" Maika's voice boomed across the stage now, hand raising towards the crystalline blue sky. Cheers shook the place and cameras moved closer to the stage, as if to capture both the participants and the screen on which they were now displayed. Serena followed the path of their lenses, noticing the eight faces on the screen. Most of them seemed relatively unfamiliar except for a face that Serena felt she had seen during the Kala'e Ceremony. The easiest three were herself, Jessilie and Maka, which was a given as to their placements. "What a swift race, with some of our early competitors really proving how to move it! These eight lucky competitors will be taking part in the Performance Round!"

    Serena and the others took it as their cue to leave the stage, returning to the side of the area for waiting. On the screen, the pictures containing all of their faces began to shuffle around rapidly before presenting them in a random order: Maka first, Jessilie second, and Serena somehow finding herself as going last out of all of them. Maika continued on. "Of these eight glorious competitors only four will move onto the two-stage Battle Round!"

    "So we have to win two battles…" Serena muttered. Next to her, Maka was nodding, fiddling with her red ribbon again. Seeing it made Serena think of her own blue one, and the boy cheering her on in the stands. Smile…He's cheering you on. So are the others.

    "Yeah," Maka finally commented. "Should be fun, huh?"

    "For sure," Serena commented. Maika was taking up the stage now, striding across with positivity and an abundance of joy that infected the entire crowd as they got ready for the next portion. Serena peeked over, trying to discern the judges' and audience's expression before they began. Akela was still unreadable, along with Kiawe, but Nurse Joy looked excited. The most disappointing thing was Lusamine checking a tablet of hers, though she didn't know quite why it concerned her. Serena also saw Burnet practically snuggling against her husband and it made her realize why Ash had been so chaste with her earlier.

    "So, for the Performance Portion, our Heahea Ceremony is allowing the use of two Pokémon on the stage at once! And, if the Course Portion reflected the darkness of the great night sky, then the Performance Portion will reflect the light that comes with it. Today's theme is…Sparkles!" Maika called. The very idea instantly put thoughts into Serena's head, and the others were clearly most excited to see it. "Without further ado, our first contestant, Maka!"

    "Here we go! Time for action!" Maka cried and she ran onto the stage, doing a cartwheel as she did so. Serena stepped back, now hidden on the outskirts of the stage to watch her friend and rival. Maka snapped out of her cartwheel and posed with her limbs spread out. "Time for a Revelation Dance!"

    "Orri! Orri! Orioricorio!" her two Oricorio called out. Mele shook his pompoms while Aki swayed back and forth. Electricity shot out onto the stage only to suddenly hang in midair from the other Revelation Dance. Then, bit by bit, it was like the attack was being picked apart, disintegrating into its sparkle state. It was clear that Maka's little "film crew" worked extremely well together.

    "Now time for a Helping Hand and Air Cutter combo!" Maka said proudly. Aki continued to sway, moving its hips even faster than before as she glowed yellow. Those yellow streams soon burst out from her body, glittering through the air until they joined with Mele's body, making the latter Oricorio appear to be sparkling. Then Mele threw his poms up, the blades of air flying upwards in two different intervals before the first began to fall, impacting with the second and colliding. "One more Revelation Dance!"

    Serena now saw Maka was moving her body alongside her Pokémon, switching seamlessly between Mele's movements and Aki's movements. The glitter fell softly and slowly, its descent slowed even more by Aki's Revelation Dance before the electricity sparked it all, giving it a vibrant sheen. Maka switched into a quick somersault as she slid across the stage, her Oricorio flipping forward and landing on her shoulders.

    "And that's a wrap!" Her, admittedly short, performance got quite the cheers from it, but Serena chose to not look at the judges. Knowing what expressions they wore for Maka's performance wouldn't help her in the here and now. Serena felt herself somewhat pushed aside, knowing that it was simply Jessilie's way of saying that she was heading for the stage. Maka apparently saw her coming because she cleared the area, turning back as Jessilie pranced forward.

    Wobbuffet and Stufful both emerged from their pokeballs as the woman twirled around, automatically creating a sheen of glitter to fit with the theme. Serena clenched her fists, watching her rival intensely, even if not listening to the commands given. She could tell that the spectators liked what they saw, though, and it wasn't hard to see why. Jessilie was a true master at making it all her own. The way Stufful would fling a Hidden Power at Wobbuffet for it to be blasted into the air, streaking glitter behind it. Then Jessilie would twirl with Stufful before bounding off of Wobbuffet, herself, having Stufful use Low Sweep to break the orb into little pieces. For having what appeared to be a limited move-set with the theme, Jessilie made perfect use of it.

    "Well, I'm impressed," Maka said, rubbing at her nose a little. "That lady knows how to work a camera. Maybe she can be your co-star."

    "Maka…" Serena said, causing the girl to grin at her. The honey-blonde shook her head. She figured that Jessilie would probably like that quite a lot, and if the reaction from the crowd to her performance was anything to judge by, then they would clearly like the idea just as much. Serena eventually blinked, realizing she had missed the ending to the stellar performance, but from the over-dramatic placement of Jessilie's hands and the falling silver dust, she could tell it was amazing. So amazing, apparently, that she didn't want to leave the stage until the next participant was already standing there and Maika began to usher her off.

    "Ugh, how rude! Removing me from my stage time! Isn't that right, Wobbuffet?"

    "Wob wobba!" her Pokémon agreed with her. That, too, made Serena shake her head. Jessilie was so very different from her. While Serena strove to make everyone around her happy with her smiles, Jessilie seemed to only care for herself. Watching the magenta-haired Performer going on about her lost screen time, made Serena realize this, even if it meant missing some of the other performances. Two different people, with vastly different approaches, who could still make the people around them smile, but perhaps only different kinds of people.

    Isn't there a way to do it for everyone…? She couldn't help but think to herself. Was it really something impossible to please everyone on her own? If that were the case…

    "And next up is our final contestant, the lovely Serena!" Serena firmly pushed that insecurity from her mind, barely registering that she'd missed much of the other performances, and ran out on to the stage, almost skipping like a dance. She twirled, tossing her pokeballs into the air.

    "Brionne, Sylveon, let's go!" Serena cried. Her two Pokémon emerged with an enthusiastic cry. Sylveon instantly began to prance around the stage, her feelers trailing behind her. Serena's smile stretched wide, throwing her hand high. "Now, Brionne, start off with Bubblebeam!"

    "Brion!" Brionne barked slapping her flippers together, the balls that seemed to form her ears jiggling. She spun, sending a cascade of bubbles into the air that hung there, floating about.

    "Now, Sylveon, use your feelers to knock them around!" Serena cried. Sylveon continued to prance about, her feelers moving in every which direction, slapping into the bubbles. They collided with one another creaking a sparkling fresh water around them. Serena twirled around, her dress flaring out a bit as Sylveon kept up her work, leaping onto her extended arm. "Now, Brionne, use Aqua Jet! Dance through the air!"

    "Veon!" Sylveon mewled, as if showing support for the Pop Star Pokémon's big debut. Brionne surrounded herself with water and shot off into the air. Water collided with the bubbles, leaving the misting sparkle of water behind her in a trail. Serena continued to dance, letting Sylveon leap off her arm as she flicked her hands from side to side.

    "Now, spin, and Sylveon, use Swift!" Brionne shot straight upwards, spinning rapidly within the Aqua Jet as Sylveon sent her golden stars for the suddenly collected bubbles, resting at the tip of the Aqua Jet. They collided, sending a blue and gold glitter sailing into the water that dispersed from Brionne's Aqua Jet. Serena launched herself forward, using her hand to spring off through a flip, allowing herself to be coated in the light mist. She landed deftly on her feet. "Now, collide Fairy Wind with Disarming Voice!"

    "Bree!" Brionne called, sending out the pink heart-shaped soundwaves. At the same moment, Sylveon flipped back, sending her glittering wind with the hearts. They broke apart into pink dustings, filtering down onto the stage. The crowd cried out, but Serena wasn't letting herself get distracted. Not now.

    "Sylveon, ride Brionne's Aqua Jet while she uses Bubblebeam!" Serena called. Sylveon cried out again and then leapt towards Brionne. Serena was a little apprehensive, worried that perhaps the weight would be too much, but her fears vanished as Brionne was once more concealed in water and shooting off with Sylveon on her back. Bubbles cascaded around her, shooting off from Brionne's nose, the water from the Aqua Jet making an even more iridescent mist behind them in the bright sun. Serena's dancing turned into practically playing with the bubbles, grabbing one of them and throwing them into those that remained, each of them popping and glistening. Finally, Brionne headed back around. "Finish it with Fairy Wind!"

    "Sylvie!" Sylveon cried proudly. Serena flipped forward once more as Brionne landed. Sylveon had leapt off, whipping her feelers around. The gust generated from them made contact with all the bubbles that remained hanging in the air. They all exploded, sending the fine glitter cascading upon them as Serena landed and raised her fist into the air.

    "Finish!" she called, feeling her chest heaving. Sylveon landed next to Brionne, touching her feelers to the Pop Star Pokémon's flippers. Around her, the crowd cheered and Serena turned to look at the panel of judges, wondering if she could discern their reactions. Kiawe seemed as stone-faced as before, like he was unwilling to even crack a smile no matter what the performance, while Nurse Joy was the complete opposite, glowing with praise. Miss Akela, however, was the one that mattered and Serena could see the woman's lips turning upwards just a little.

    Beyond her, however, was Lusamine, now looking amusedly bored with the proceedings. Serena felt her smile falter for just a second.

    "Breen?" Brionne asked, looking up. Serena forced her lips to go upwards, more of a way to calm her Water type, and she waved her hand to the crowd once more, looking and seeing Ash and Bonnie cheering on their feet. Finally, she turned back, heading for the area past the curtain while the judges deliberated.

    "As usual, you never disappoint, Serena," Maka said cheerily, greeting her as soon as she got backstage. Serena looked up, nodding a little at the girl as she greeted her. The cluster of participants were gathered around what looked like a screen, one Serena hadn't noticed before. Maybe it was because the other Ceremonies had been so small, that seeing this one making the participants gather behind the scenes was surprising. "That was a really awesome performance."

    "Thank you. Yours was great as well," Serena admitted, drawing closer to the screen. Jessilie appeared to scoff as they approached, flicking her hair somewhat.

    "As if these children could expect to match me! We all know that I'll be the winner here," she spoke haughtily, as usual. Maka appeared to giggle a little at it under her breath.

    "She has no shortage of confidence, does she?" the girl asked. Serena couldn't disagree, but most sounds around her were muddled, her attention zeroed in on the screen, waiting for the judges to make a decision. To Serena's surprise, she felt her throat go a little dry, like she was actually scared of the results without any reason to be. Was it because of Miss Akela? Kiawe? Not wanting to disappoint those who put so much faith in her?

    The bored expression surfaced in her mind's eye.

    "Serena, they're announcing," Maka hissed, tugging at the sleeve of her dress. Serena nodded, swallowing to clear her throat as she turned to the results on the screen. Maika was striding on the screen, Comfey swirling around her figure.

    "The judges' results are in and we have the names of the four proceeding on to the Battle Portion, complete with the first matchups!" Maika told everyone. Her image was replaced with four squares on an otherwise blank canvas. Serena's grip tightened. Then, they flipped.

    The first picture that Serena saw was Maka's, paired up against some boy that Serena didn't know. However, next to it, slated as the battle to start off the festivities was Jessilie's picture…and her own. The honey blonde turned her head, looking to her magenta-haired rival. Jessilie appeared only slightly surprised, enough that focusing on her drowned out all but Maika's call for the first two battlers, them, to take the stage.

    "Good luck out there," Maka said, framing Serena's shocked expression with one eye closed. Serena nodded, not having anything to say. Jessilie was ahead of her, walking out onto the stage with all the gusto that she could. The crowd ate it up, no doubt led by the woman's fan club, Serena's reception was relatively smaller, though no less warm, as she strode onto the stage.

    "All right, it's battle time!" Maika cheered from a safe place, away from the battlefield. "For those unaware of Ceremony rules, each trainer will use one Pokémon in an attempt to earn flowers and not lose them. The first trainer to reach seven flowers wins the battle, or if a Pokémon is knocked out, of course. These flowers will be handed out by the judges. Now, let's have the battle begin!"

    "Gourgeist, let's share the spotlight!" Jessilie called confidently. Gourgeist emerged from the thrown pokeball, dressed as usual for Performances. Serena's gaze tilted sideways, noting how Lusamine was sitting in a relaxed state, her eyes actually focused for the first time. Remembering it wasn't the time, and that only the judges and her own skills mattered, she threw her own pokeball.

    "Pancham, it's your turn!" she cried, called the Playful Pokémon to the fore. A beeping sound was heard and Serena saw another screen with her and Jessilie's faces, the translucent flowers spinning on them. A bell was heard. Serena went straight to work. "Make a line of two Stone Edges!"

    "Pancham!" Pancham called. He used his little legs to flip forward through the air and slam both of his stubby arms onto the stage. From those two arms raced a line of stones, jutting up with their blue glow from the ground and heading straight for Gourgeist.

    "Hah, Gourgeist, stop it with a combo of Shadow Ball and Seed Bomb!" Jessilie stated, flicking her hair. Gourgeist appeared to sashay (as much as one could while floating) forward. She opened her mouth and twirled towards one of the lines of stones, firing off the brightly glowing, green projectiles. It impacted, causing the stone to explode in a blue glitter. Pancham looked to Serena, who nodded. He leapt upward, getting atop one of them as Gourgeist threw a crackling orb of shadowy energy at the other line.

    "Dark Pulse," Serena said, thrusting a gloved fist forward. Pancham leaned his arms back, the darkness coalescing between his palms before flying off. It met the Shadow Ball, pushing against it until both broke apart into purple dust that clung to the stones. A dinging sound was heard again, indicating what appeared to be a point for both. Pancham leapt back down, moving out of Gourgeist's way. "Use Arm Thrust!"

    "Panpan!" Pancham called. Serena knew that, on its own, Arm Thrust would be utterly useless against Jessilie's Gourgeist, but though the woman appeared to expect just that, she had different ideas on her mind. Pancham's fist struck the stones powerfully, the force driving through them and breaking them apart. He didn't stop there, punching forward with another. That stone flew off in a large chunk to aim right for Jessilie and Gourgeist.

    "Use Leech Seed on the ground, my glorious gardening Gourgeist," Jessilie said, grabbing the hem of her skirt and holding it a bit.

    "Geist…" Gourgeist said. Her mouth glowed green and shot the seeds forth into the stage. They instantly sprouted like a giant gray wall that the stone shattered against, weakening the plants, but not breaking them. Another ding. Another tie.

    "Whoo, this battle is awful exciting between these two maidens battling for the top prize! Few moves in and they remain neck and neck at two flowers each," Maika commentated to the crowd, clearly able to get into it now that it was a battle. "How will this keep up?"

    "Use Dark Pulse and cut through the attack!" Serena called. She felt herself starting to grin, the passion of battling alongside her Pokémon, and in making their attacks look amazing, beginning to ignite within her. Pancham called forth the nexus of dark energy and swept it along. It was like a scythe almost, in the way that it cut through the Leech Seed, breaking them into leaves that fell down like it was the middle of fall. Pancham's attack continued on, aiming right for the Pumpkin Pokémon…only to be met with Gourgeist's own Dark Pulse. Yet more dings.

    "Neck and neck, these two are really battling it out, and none of their Pokémon have even been hit yet!" Maika called excitedly. The chatter in the crowd was rising, sounding more excited than ever. Serena ignored them. They were both tied at three points, with no way to gain an upper footing yet. It was different than any other kind of battle; hitting the opponent counted for less than actually making good use of the field and teamwork.

    "Gourgeist, make that Pancham pay for interrupting our combinations with a beautiful, dancing Shadow Ball!" Jessilie cried, posing dramatically, as though she were the unadulterated star of the show. Regardless of her diva-like attitude, Gourgeist immediately appeared to agree with her trainer, a Shadow Ball forming at her mouth. She began twirling off through the field, the crackling orb firing off. Gourgeist kept going, all of the orbs firing off in a wide array. There was no real rhyme or reason to the direction of the attacks, making them impossible to predict and dodge.

    "Pancham, spin on your back and use Dark Pulse, just like we've practiced," Serena called. Pancham dodged to the side, barely missing one of the Shadow Balls. His arm allowed him to flip onto his back, holding fast to the swirling dark energy before letting it loose. Unlike Gourgeist's Shadow Balls, Pancham's Dark Pulse did continue in a pattern despite being utterly wild. It impacted with the Shadow Balls, turning them into naught but wisps of energy in the air before slamming down on Gourgeist, landing the first true hit of the entire battle. At the same moment, Pancham's prone position of spinning allowed a stray Shadow Ball to strike him.

    "Paaaan…" Pancham groaned, his Dark Pulse petering out as he slid across the stage. Serena clenched her fist a little, realizing it would be impossible to hit the free flowing and swaying Gourgeist. There was only one way to take a victory.

    "Use Stone Edge to surround them!" As another ding sounded for their points being judged, Pancham turned his lost spinning into momentum, flipping forward with his feet to slam once more upon the floor of the stage. From there, large stones encircled both the Playful Pokémon and his opponent.

    Ding!

    "Serena's pulled ahead!" Maika announced proudly, driving the crowd into a cheering frenzy. "She's earned five points to Jessilie's four. Who will win this blistering battle between competitors?"

    "I will, of course!" Jessilie announced.

    "Jessilie! Jessilie! You're the one that can't be beat!" called the obvious voice of Jameson from the crowd. Serena narrowed her gaze, wondering just what her rival was planning from beyond the rocks.

    "Pancham, be ready with Dark Pulse," she informed of her Pokémon. Pancham called out, not being all too visible to see nodding. Then Jessilie snapped her fingers.

    "Use Leech Seed! You're not the only one that can put close quarters to their advantage," Jessilie called. Serena could see her arms rising up above the stone barrier, earning more cheers from the crowd. Nothing could be seen from beyond the pale, but Serena could hear Gourgeist's cry. It took a second and then the stones were suddenly ripped away from the ground, disappearing into glittering dust, vines tossing them outward. In the center of those vines was Pancham.

    "Pan…pan…chamcham…" Pancham cried out, clearly struggling against the hold. Serena's eyes twitched a little, trying to find a way to break out of it. The vines were glowing, sucking out her Pokémon's energy. His arms were trapped, preventing him from being able to do much at all.

    "Watch us world, and our beautiful garden!" Jessilie practically cackled out. Serena gritted her teeth, trying to think of her way to get out of things…yet she froze. There was a grin on Jessilie's face. It wasn't sadistic, or smirking, or mocking. It was a genuine grin. She enjoyed performing and battling and being recognized in this way. For a second, her hands trembling, Serena recalled words from too long ago, ones locked away in her memory, but ones that made her doubt for a single second.

    With every dream your heart makes, don't you shatter another's? If you achieved your dream, would you not crush someone else's? A fraction of a second passed, and Serena opened her mouth to give a command, find some way to break Pancham free, but she couldn't stop the nearly invisible trembling. Jessilie looked so happy. If she wanted to bring that smile out, wasn't her winning the only way to do it. Her own question repeated in her head, blinding her. Can I really make everyone happy and smiling?

    Then the bell was ringing loudly, the battle already over. Gourgeist's Shadow Ball, infused with the glowing Seed Bomb had struck Pancham, flinging him back towards Serena's feet. He wasn't incredibly injured, but he may as well have been.

    "I'm sorry, Pancham, I…" Serena whispered out. She didn't feel upset in the slightest; the pain and sting of loss had left her long ago. Instead, it felt like there had been an agonizing thought in her brain, receding now that the battle was over. She could barely hear Maika calling that Jessilie had won the match as she bent down to pick Pancham up. He reached a paw over to touch her face. "It…it's just a minor setback. Just something on my mind."

    "Pan…" Pancham appeared to agree. Serena breathed in. Just be happy, yourself. That'll help. You'll get there. You will keep your promise.

    "Let's go back," Serena said calmly. It was odd how serene she felt, losing. No tears. No sadness. She wasn't even sure she felt disappointment. If anything, she felt confused; confused over what had just happened in her mind, and what path to take. "Thank you for the good battle, Jessilie."

    "Oh…well, yeah, all right. You, too," Jessilie passed off, almost looking like it pained her to be even somewhat modest. Serena smiled at her, getting some measure of a smile from the magenta-haired woman. That was good enough, and Serena turned back, only catching a glimpse of Akela, not enough to read her expression. Hers was an expression she really didn't want to see.

    Maka was already moving to take the stage, giving her an almost sympathetic look, but no time for much else. Serena kept her smile, allowing Pancham to smile with her as they reached the changing room, the television in there playing the results and the currently running battle. Maka's work with one of her Oricorio was surprisingly good, as usual, but Serena focused more on changing. It was only when she was halfway to getting dressed, her skirt pooled around her ankles that the reality hit.

    She had lost.

    More than that, she had choked. Choked because she questioned herself and her dream. This time, it wasn't her abilities that were lacking, or maybe that even Jessilie was better (which she could have been). It was that for those few seconds on the stage, the ones that had made the difference, Serena questioned whether she could achieve what she promised she would. For that, perhaps, she hated herself. Her hands gripped at her camisole, balling it up when she heard a knock on the door, echoing through the surprisingly empty room.

    "Just a minute!" Serena called. She quickly pulled her skirt up and threw her shirt on, brushing a hand through her hair. Before she called for the person at the door to enter, she looked down to Pancham, who looked just as disappointed in himself. "You did really great today, Pancham. Next time we'll win, I promise."

    "Pan…" Pancham expressed dolefully, but allowed himself to be called back into his pokeball. No doubt when he'd have dinner with Chespin and Dartrix later, he'd be right back to his usual self.

    "Okay, sorry," Serena finally called. On the screen above, Maka had managed to claim victory, absolutely coming to sweep her opponent with no problem. Serena turned away as the door clicked open, revealing, in some sense, all the faces that she wanted to see right then and there.

    "You all right?" were the first words out of Clemont's mouth. In some way, Serena was surprised that they hadn't come from Ash, but when she looked into her boyfriend's eyes, she could understand why. There was a slight cloud behind his, as well. He knew exactly what she had experienced. Had felt it in the Winding Woods, and when Hala had asked him that question. He knew why she had lost, yet behind that, there was belief; belief in her that she would win the next time.

    "Totally fine," Serena expressed, putting her smile back on her face. "Just a misstep."

    "I totally thought you would win…" Bonnie expressed with her puffed cheeks. Serena laughed the issue off while Clemont stepped forward to hand the egg over to her. She took it gratefully, feeling it twitch a little in her arms.

    "I think we all did…but I guess, it's not always that easy, being a trainer," Lillie expressed. She sounded a little solemn, Serena felt, but yet still exhilarated. "I still enjoyed watching you. Your performance was a beautiful scene."

    "Definitely," Ash finally spoke. He had come up to her, smiling with Pikachu. Serena nodded back, feeling the slightest bit more comfort at his presence. "You'll win your next Lei soon, though."

    "Of course," Serena assured him. She truly believed it, too. Whatever doubts had settled into her mind and the pit of her stomach, they were all pushed away by her friends' encouragement. To that, she sucked in a breath. "Why don't we all go watch the rest of the Ceremony? I'd like to support everyone."

    "All right," Clemont agreed, turning away. The boy who had clearly just lost to Maka was approaching from the back door and Serena grabbed her things, making her way carefully out of the room to let him in. He looked displeased, but seemed to strut into the room with a zealous determination. On the screen, the battle between Maka and Jessilie was well underway, with Maka have two flowers to Jessilie's four; Aki seemed unable to get a good bead on Gourgeist. "I don't know if we'll be able to get seats, though. It's pretty packed, and someone may have taken ours."

    "Who cares?" Bonnie pointed out. "We don't mind standing, and Rotom can float!"

    "Bonnie is right…for once," Rotom commented. Serena let the laugh burst forth, shaking her body as she let it out. She took Ash's hand, feeling a little better, even as they entered onto the open stage, just in time to see Gourgeist's Shadow Ball soar forth to absolutely destroy Aki and earn Jessilie her seventh and final flower. That had been surprisingly quick…or they'd just taken a while to get to their seats. Regardless, their group walked forward, and Serena found herself staring over the massive sea of spectators, down to the stage. Maka looked a little disappointed over her loss, but just like in the Kala'e Ceremony, looked entirely at peace with it. Jessilie, comparatively, actually looked completely over the moon.

    "With that, people of Akala, the Heahea Ceremony comes to an end, with the winner as Jessilie!" Maika cried to the audience, grabbing Jessilie's hand and holding it into the air. Serena found herself clapping, glad that her rival had managed to win her first Lei. Maka had already long left the stage.

    "Yes! Jessilie wins!" cried Jameson from the crowd. Jessilie was grinning, clearly giddy over the win she had managed. Serena's gaze shifted a little lower, watching the judges, also clapping politely for their victor. To Serena's surprise, so was Lusamine; perhaps she had managed to derive some enjoyment from the Ceremony after all, though it wasn't like Akela seemed that much different. Comfey finally floated down, placing the Lei into Maika's hand as she gave it over to Jessilie.

    "And so, we present to Jessilie the coveted prize of our honorable Ceremony: the Heahea Lei. May you wear it with the blessings of the Tapus." To Serena's surprise, Jessilie actually managed to accept it humbly, if not with a grin that belied some of her vanity.

    "I'm happy for her," Serena said. Ash appeared to be the only one to hear it, nodding. He squeezed her hand, sharing that warmth and comfort.

    "We'll see you all next time!" Maika called. Jessilie appeared to still be soaking in the cheers of the crowd, only beginning to walk off when Maika took center stage and continued to ignore the magenta-haired Performer. In the end, she soon disappeared behind the curtain. Serena thought of going to congratulate her, but figured that the adoration of the crowd was all the woman needed. "Until then, everyone, alo-"

    Serena felt her body shaking. For a moment, she thought she was trembling again, until she realized it wasn't her brain shutting off Maika's words. Because she wasn't the only one trembling and shaking. Ash was as well, leaning forward to grip at a seat. Bonnie fell over, woefully trying to grab Rotom for support.

    "What…is that?" Lillie screamed out. She wasn't the only one doing so. Many people all over the Ceremony stands were doing the same. Serena fell against Ash, her chest pressing against his back as she stared down. Pikachu clung tightly, his gaze traveling wildly around as his ears twitched. In the center of the area, the stage suddenly began to split, as if the very air around them was churning violently. Maika threw herself off the stage while the adults and Kiawe all stood, looking around wildly for what was causing the sudden tremors.

    Woooooooo! Woooooooo! Woooooooo!

    "What's…?" Ash questioned. The shaking seemed to get worse, the very air being disturbed around them. Serena pushed herself up. Kukui and Burnet seemed to already be on the move, running for their nearest exit, with Lusamine right behind them. A large sound was heard somewhere far in the city, like a Pokémon crying out in pain.

    "Attention all citizens and visitors of Heahea City," Officer Jenny's voice happened to call over the loudspeaker. If she'd hoped for it to quell any panic, it appeared to have to opposite effect. "Remain calm. There are currently tremors through the city and watchers have sighted large groups of panicking Pokémon. We urge you remain indoors where it is…what…is that…?"

    Officer Jenny's words appeared to garner the attention of everyone, none more so that Pikachu, who pointed in distress towards the sky. "Pikapi! Pipika! Chupika!"

    "Pikachu, what is it?" Ash asked. He looked up at the same moment Serena did. Shrill screams filled the air at the sight of it. Serena's eyes widened at the horrific sight, practically stretching the whole of Heahea City like an ominous dark cloud. She flinched, because with a loud cracking noise that seemed to split the very earth itself, the eerie portal that was over Heahea City, one that had suddenly rippled into existence, split open.


    Author's Note: So how about that ending? Did you see it coming? Wouldn't be the Ancienverse without a city or massive amounts of people being threatened, am I right? What is this mysterious portal? What is to come for our heroes? Will Heahea City be okay? So many questions, that time will answer. On other notes, yes, that wonderful Lusamine has arrived in full glory, I suppose. What will her role be? On top of that, we have Burnet's appearance as well. But most importantly, Serena lost the Heahea Ceremony because of a question in regards to her own dream. This is obviously important, but you'll see how it develops.

    I know the Ceremony likely felt shorter, but, of course, it wasn't the ultimate point of this chapter, for obvious reasons. I hope it still turned out favorably, however.

    We're about to hit some great content, I think, so I hope you'll continue to stick around. So, until the next chapter, please Review and Dare to Be Silly.

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