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Beyond Life and Death II: Guardians of Fate (PG, Amourshipping)

Discussion in 'Shipping Fics' started by necris14, Dec 13, 2017.

  1. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Hey, guys! I promised you to have my current story up on here this week, and here it is. If you don't know what I'm talking about, this is a sequel to the first Beyond Life and Death, which is already on here, as well as over on FF.net under my profile of the same name.

    I only just uploaded Chapter 3 to FF.net this morning, so I will bring all three of those over here, and from then on I will be updating this concurrently with that version of the story, so if you enjoy it, you're free to follow it on whichever site you choose.

    As always, I hope you all enjoy!


    Author: necris14

    Pairing: Amourshipping, Shiningsunshipping

    Rating: PG

    FF.net link

    Chapter 1
    Chapter 2
    Chapter 3
    Chapter 4
    Chapter 5
    Chapter 6
    Chapter 7
    Chapter 8
    Chapter 9
    Chapter 10
    Chapter 11
    Chapter 12
    Chapter 13
    Chapter 14
    Chapter 15
    Chapter 16
    Chapter 17
    Chapter 18
    Chapter 19



    Chapter 1: Kalos's Curtain Call

    "Now, Pancham, use Stone Edge!"

    "Pan-cham!" The small Pokemon cried, gracefully tumbling forward in mid-air before slamming its fist down to the ground, causing a dozen sky blue stalagmites to erupt from the stage a moment later.

    "Right, Altaria, you're up! Use Mist!"

    "Riiiiii!" The Humming Pokemon sang, swooping across the newly-formed pillars and spreading a thin veil of fog in its wake.

    "All right, Sylveon! Time for your Dazzling Gleam!"

    "Sylveon!" Sylveon cried, leaping forward in front of its twirling Trainer as rays of multicolored light began shooting off of its body.

    No further commands were given for a time, as Altaria, Pancham, and Braixen took their cue to dance, sliding in and out of view within the cloud of mist on the stage whilst Sylveon's rainbow-colored aura reflected off the pillars encircling them, and caused the very mist itself to take on an iridescent hue.

    "Okay, Braixen! Finish us up with Fire Spin!"

    "Braaaiiii-xen!" Braixen cried, flowing smoothly from its dance into a twirl before raising its stick over its head and spinning it quickly, causing a spiraling funnel of flames to rise into the air above them. A moment later, Braixen swung its stick down defiantly, causing the the trail of flames to surge outward all at once, blowing away the Mist and shattering the stone pillars all at once.

    "And thaaaat's it!"

    The crowd erupted with cheers as the four Pokemon and their Trainer held their final pose, with glittering motes of dust sprinkling down across the auditorium.

    As she looked out onto the beaming crowd alongside her Pokemon, the Performer, Serena, couldn't help but smile even wider herself.


    "Wow, Serena! You guys were awesome out there!" A male voice rang, causing Serena to look over at the source of it in glee. Sure enough, running up to meet her was the slightly older, black-haired, cap-wearing Pokemon Trainer that had come to be her constant companion ever since the start of her journey, complete with his ever-present companion Pikachu riding on his shoulder. "It's really too bad that this is just a Showcase exhibition. If it was the real thing, you would've won it for sure!"

    Serena felt herself smile almost automatically at his praise, accompanied by the familiar feeling of warmth in her stomach that usually came with it. "Thanks, Ash! That's really sweet!"

    The two of them were out in the foyer of the Coumarine City Showcase Theater. Given the nature of the exhibition, Serena was able to leave the backstage area immediately after her performance rather than waiting for the results and potentially more rounds.

    "Hey, you two! Don't go leaving us out of the picture again!" A second male voice rang out, causing the two of them to turn around. The source this time was a boy a little older than both of them, though it was difficult to tell by his appearance, happily walking toward them with a smaller, blonde-haired girl at his side. "You just had to get the jump on her again, didn't you, Ash?"

    "Oh, c'mon, Clemont...what are you talking about?" Ash replied nervously, eyes darting nervously between Serena and the ground.

    "I'm talking about how you ran off and left us in the auditorium claiming you had to use the bathroom!" Clemont insisted in annoyance. "I guess you couldn't wait for the last few Performances before coming to see Serena in private!"

    "Ahahaha..." Ash chuckled, the nervous look still present on his face.

    "Aw, give him a break." Serena parleyed, chuckling lightly at the two boys' back and forth. "It's not like he meant anything by it."

    "Yeah, she's right, big brother!" The youngest of the four spoke up, glaring at her sibling with an accusing look in her eye. "Just because Ash's found a wife doesn't mean you can give him a hard time! It's not HIS fault you're gonna be a lonely old man forever!"

    "Pika pika!" Pikachu chimed in.

    "Na-nana!" Dedenne agreed, resting in its usual spot within the bag slung around the young girl's chest.

    "Bonnie..." Clemont groaned in embarrasment, as Ash and Serena shared a laugh at their friends' antics. Despite the fun they were having, and the enjoyment she'd gotten out of her Performance just now, Serena couldn't help but feel a twinge of sadness as she realized that this may be the last time the four of them would be able to enjoy themselves like this.


    Later that night, after the exhibition had ended, the four of them retreated back to the Pokemon Center for the day. Serena's friends Shauna and Miette had made an appearance at the Showcase to tell her goodbye, as had Ash's old rival Alain and his friend Mairin.

    The four of them had enjoyed themselves well enough as they ate dinner, but afterwards, when they had returned to their rooms and begun preparing for bed, their began to think about what the future held for them after tomorrow.

    "So, Ash..." Clemont began awkwardly, trying not to stumble over his words as the two of them laid on their beds in their room, now seperated from Serena and Bonnie. "I guess you're...pretty excited about tomorrow, aren't you?"

    "Hmm..." Ash began slowly, taking stock of his emotions for a rare moment. "Yeah, I guess so."

    "Y-you guess so?!" Clemont exclaimed in disbelief, sitting up in bed and turning to face Ash. He had been expecting Ash to agree right away. "What do you mean, you guess so? Have you forgotten what's happening tomorrow?!"

    "N-no, 'course I haven't!" Ash countered at once, shooting up in bed as well and raising his hands in defense.

    "Then why aren't you more excited about it?" Clemont insisted. "The beginning of a new journey, in a rarely-visited region you've never seen before - and with Serena of all people! You haven't forgotten that she's your girlfriend, have you?"

    "No way!" Ash insisted, waving his hands frantically. "I guess...I'm..."

    Clemont remained silent and watched his friend, equal parts interested to hear Ash talk about his feelings for once and also eager to have his fear that Ash wasn't taking his and Serena's departure seriously enough dispelled.

    "...Aaagh, I don't know!" Ash grumbled in frustration a few moments later, running his hands through his hair in exasperation.

    "Pii-ka?!" Pikachu exclaimed in surprise, having been on the verge of slumber at the foot of Ash's bed before being jolted upright by its Trainer's outburst.

    "Ash? You are serious about all this...aren't you?"

    Ash hesitated a moment before responding. "Yeah. Yeah, I am, Clemont." He answered matter-of-factly, turning to look Clemont dead in the eye as he spoke. "I guess I'm just worried that she's not gonna be happy once we get out there. I mean...she's only going because I wanted to. Is that really a good enough reason?"

    Clemont regarded his companion with awe. Even after travelling together for all this time, Ash's genuine emotion and passion still surprised him sometimes - especially when they weren't directed toward his Pokemon. It had been a little over six months since Ash and Serena had officially started 'dating', though at the time it was exceedingly obvious how little the two of them actually comprehended what that entailed. Clemont had watched the pair navigate through what he had heard were all the usual twists and turns of relationships, and while Serena's innocence caused him to never have any doubts about her intentions, there were times - like now - when Ash's denseness and sometimes obliviousness to what was going on around him caused Clemont to question his true feelings. But, again, like now, every time that something similar had occurred, Ash had ultimately proven him one-hundred-percent dead wrong.

    "Oh, brother." Clemont sighed in relief. "You never cease to amaze me, Ash."

    "Huh?" Ash frowned.

    "Listen." Clemont began, raising a finger sharply to make the importance of his words known. "Serena would follow you to the ends of the Earth. Do you understand that? I think that you shouldn't look at it as you just dragging her around with you. Instead, try to see it as her goals becoming one with your own."

    Ash's eyes widened as the sense of what Clemont was saying began to sink in. "...Her goals...becoming one with mine...? You really think so?"

    "Mm-hm." Clemont nodded. "Do you remember why it was that Serena originally set out on her journey? It was to travel around with you, the person she looked up to more than anyone. I know, because I used to be the same way when we first met."

    "Really?!"

    "Yeah, of course." Clemont answered, laughing despite himself. "The only difference for me now is that I see you as more of a rival than an idol."

    Ash was silent for a moment as he processed Clemont's words. He had to admit that a lot of what his friend had said made sense. He'd known that Serena had looked up to him when they'd first met, but he wasn't exactly a stranger to that - his old companions May and Dawn had both felt similarly when he'd first met them. But he had never fully grasped just how important he was to her all that time. But, perhaps now, he was finally starting to understand...

    "Thanks, Clemont." Ash remarked seriously after what seemed like an eternity of silence. "I think I'm starting to get it now."

    Clemont smiled genuinely at his friend. "Sure." He blinked, his face falling slightly before continuing. "You know...I'm really going to miss you two when you're gone. You're...my best friends."

    Now it was Ash's turn to smile. "I'm gonna miss you guys, too. We'll be sure to stay in touch, okay?"

    "Yeah, of course." Clemont agreed. "We can't have you running off on an island vacation with no supervision, can we?"

    The two of them shared a genuine laugh before finally laying back down and forcing themselves to go to sleep.


    Meanwhile, in the next room over, Serena and Bonnie weren't having any more luck falling asleep than Ash and Clemont were. They had quickly decided that Bonnie was going to sleep next to Serena, as this was her last opportunity to do so, and after cuddling up next to each other, the two had begun talking and sharing stories about their adentures together over the previous year.

    However, after talking for a while, it finally dawned on Bonnie that this was more than likely going to be the last night she spent with Serena, and the excitement began to visibly drain from her face.

    "Bonnie?" Serena asked worriedly, noticing the sudden shift in expression. "What's wrong?"

    "Hey, Serena..." Bonnie began slowly, trying to keep her emotions in check. "D'you think you and Ash will ever come back to visit us?"

    "Bonnie...of course we will. We're all friends, aren't we?" Serena assured her.

    "Yeah, but aren't you going really far away? And you and Ash are gonna be alone together. What if you forget about us?"

    "Bonnie." Serena murmured affectionately, placing a hand on the young girl's cheek. "We could never forget about you. I promise that we'll stay in touch with both of you. If Ash was alone, I could see him forgetting to call every now and then...but I'll be with him, so don't worry. Okay?"

    Bonnie remained quiet for a short while, trying to keep back the tears that she could feel building up in her eyes. "You really...like Ash, don't you?"

    Serena's mouth opened slightly, then closed, a bit taken aback by the question. "...Yes. I do."

    "Then...I think you guys should go." Bonnie sniffed. "I want you to be happy."

    Serena's eyes widened at the maturity of Bonnie's statement. She could only imagine what the young girl must be feeling right now, but to ultimately decide on her friends' happiness over hers...

    Serena wrapped her arms around Bonnie's head and pulled her into a warm embrace. "Thanks, Bonnie. I mean it."

    "...Hey, Serena?"

    "Yeah?"

    "I-I've never had an older sister, but...if I had to pick anybody besides Clemont to have in my family...it'd be you."

    Serena could only pull her in tighter as Bonnie's tears began to flow unbidden, down her face and onto the bedsheets.


    The following morning, the four of them all got ready as if it were any other day. They showered, packed up their things, ate a quick breakfast at the Pokemon Center, and were at the pier by noon.

    It didn't take them long to find their ship - most of the vessels present were smaller ships, either for fishing or local transportation. The largest one by a sizeable margin was the one Ash and Serena had already booked passage on, the S.S. Pelipper -a transregional cruise ship whose next stop was their intended destination.

    "Well, I guess this is it." Ash announced with a sense of finality as they drew up to the loading ramps for the Pelipper. He turned to face Clemont and Bonnie as Serena drew up beside him. "Thanks for everything, you guys. It was a lot of fun!"

    Clemont shook his head. "That's my line. Thank you for everything, Ash - because of you, I feel like I can finally live up to my duty as the Lumiose City Gym Leader. I'll never forget this journey for the rest of my life!"

    He and Ash shared a determined look and shook hands firmly, as Serena and Bonnie shared a hopeful look.

    "I-I remember. Don't worry." Bonnie assured her, blinking a few times quickly before summoning her courage and pushing back the tears. "I'm not gonna cry!"

    Serena smiled down at her sadly. "I'm gonna miss you. Dedenne, you take good care of Bonnie, all right?"

    "Ne-ne-ne!" Dedenne agreed confidently.

    "And I promise - " Serena began, holding her pinky finger out to Bonnie as she spoke. " - that we'll come back. Okay?"

    Bonnie stared at her outstretched finger with wide eyes before eagerly thrusting out her own and hooking it onto Serena's and shaking, sealing their agreement. "Okay! It's a promise!"

    Ash and Clemont both smiled down at Bonnie before Ash stepped in to regard her as well. "Goodbye, Bonnie! You take good care of your big brother, all right?"

    "Oh, please! Don't I always?" Bonnie bragged, prompting everyone to laugh. "If you ask me, it's Pikachu that's gonna have to keep an eye on you two!"

    "Piii-kaa!" Pikachu affirmed, raising a hand in agreement.

    "Don't think I forgot about you, Clemont." Serena remarked, reaching out to shake his hand as well. "It was a lot of fun travelling with you. I'm going to be telling everybody the story of the amazing Lumiose City Gym Leader, and how he's one of my best friends!"

    Clemont actually blushed at her statement, but reached out and grasped her hand all the same. "Th-thanks, Serena, but you don't have to go around making up stories about me..."

    "Oh, come on, big brother!" Bonnie scolded. "Can't you just learn how to take a compliment?!"

    They all shared another laugh together and continued chatting for a short while, but before long the time had come for them to say goodbye. Ash and Serena said their final goodbyes and made their way down the pier and onto the ship. Surprisingly, there wasn't much of a line to get onboard, though whether that was due to them talking to their friends for a bit too long and making it onboard much later than intended, they weren't sure.

    Once onboard, they made their way up onto the deck just in time for the horn to blow, signalling the ship to raise anchor. They ran to the back of the ship and, just as the boat lurched forward and began to move, caught one final glimpse of Clemont and Bonnie standing on the pier, waving frantically at them as they departed the Kalos region. Ash and Serena raised their arms to wave back as their friends gradually got smaller and smaller on the horizon, until they were no longer visible past the expanse of sea.

    Silence hung in the air between Ash and Serena as they lowered their arms, the reality of their situation finally sinking in for both of them. Kalos was officially behind them now, and neither of them could say for sure what lay ahead.

    "Well...that's it, I guess." Serena murmured softly, her slightly-above-shoulder-length hair blowing in the sea breeze. It was times like these that she was thankful she'd decided to get it cut when she started Performing.

    "Yep." Ash agreed. "That's it."

    Another cool silence hung between them for a while as they watched the sea stretch out behind them. Eventually, the newly-established atmosphere began to set in, and Serena looked over at him brightly and slipped her hand into his.

    "Well, what do you say? Should we go inside and find our cabin?"

    "Pi-kaa!" Pikachu voted, raising an arm excitedly.

    "Yeah, sounds good. Uh, one question, actually..." Ash trailed off, causing Serena to groan in anticipation.

    "Oh, come on, Ash. If you ask what I think you're going to - "

    "Hey, come on, Serena, it's a serious question." Ash pleaded.

    Serena regarded him for a moment before sighing in defeat. "Oh, all right, I'll tell you again. It is kind of funny how you keep forgetting."

    "Hey, I'm not forgetting! I never knew in the first place!"

    Serena giggled at his defensiveness. That was one of the many things she liked about him, after all - if he knew he was wrong about something, he wouldn't rest until he had found the answer. "All right, now try and say it with me."

    Ash nodded and looked at her intently, almost causing her to blush and lose focus. But she held her composure, and raised a finger triumphantly as she made her announcement.

    "We're going - to the Alola region!"
     
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2018
  2. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Chapter 2: A New Start​


    The journey to the Alola region was scheduled to take about a week, assuming that there were no complications, and so Ash and Serena ended up without much to do to pass the time on the voyage. They spent most of their time out on the deck relaxing with their Pokemon, which actually resulted in Ash having a couple of battles with other passengers, but for the most part, their minds were left to wander time and again back to the reality that the two of them were now traveling alone together.

    Despite both of them agreeing to go on a journey with just each other, the idea of it seemed almost too much to handle for them now that it had actually happened, which ended up leading to them making an effort to never be fully alone together on the ship. Whether it be Pikachu, their other Pokemon, or even the other passengers, they seemed to always find ways to make it so they never had to deal with being fully alone in each other's presence.

    After a few days of this, however, Serena found herself unable to sleep, her mind constantly drifting back to Ash. She couldn't decide if she was doing the right thing by keeping this distance between them, or if she was only hurting their relationship in the long run by doing so, not to mention that, as usual, she had no idea what Ash thought of any of this.

    She finally gave up on trying to fall asleep and decided to go outside for some fresh air, hoping that the walk would tire her out enough to finally fall asleep. Sighing to herself softly, she quietly climbed out of bed and stepped into her slippers before tiptoeing out of the room, taking care not to wake the slumbering Ash or Pikachu across the room. She stopped at the door and turned to regard them for a moment, watching the steady rhythm of Ash's breathing.

    "Sleep tight, you two." She whispered, smiling to herself, before delicately opening the door and stepping outside, taking care to shut it quietly behind herself.

    Unsurprisingly, she didn't encounter a single person in the halls leading out to the deck. When she got outside, she found the area similarly deserted. She walked over to the far side of the deck, grabbed the railing, and began walking along the edge of the ship, staring out at the ocean idly as she went.

    "What should I do...?" Serena thought to herself, the cool ocean breeze lightly spraying her face . "I know I agreed to go with him to Alola, but...well, how could I have said no to him? It's Ash I'm talking about! But...now..."

    She managed a small smile despite herself, and found her thoughts drifting back to the day, not all that long ago, when Ash had asked her to accompany him to the Alola region. He had received two tickets from Professor Sycamore after their help with the Zygarde incident during the Lumiose Conference, who had told them that he had been contacted by the Professor of that region asking for a couple of bright Trainers from Kalos to come and try their hand at Alola's 'Island Trials'.

    Obviously, Clemont and Bonnie weren't going to go, and Ash may have considered going by himself, but in the end he had decided to ask her to go with him. She allowed her smile to widen and her eyes softened, recalling how determined his face had looked that day.


    "Hey, Serena...?" Ash began slowly as the last of the dishes vanished from the breakfast table. They were just about to pack up the rest of their campsite and hit the road again, heading north toward Coumarine City. "Can I talk to you for a minute...?"

    Clemont and Bonnie blinked, then shared a look that said they knew better than to speak up. They were no stranger to Ash and Serena's relationship by this point, and they could tell when the two of them needed a moment alone.

    "U-uh..." Serena stammered, blushing mildly as her mind raced with possibilities. "S-sure, Ash. What's going on?"

    "W-Well, you see..." He continued, edging closer to her as he spoke. He scratched the back of his neck idly, struggling to find the right words. "I've been thinking about it a lot...this whole Alola thing..."

    Serena's eyes widened at the mention of the far-away region. They had briefly discussed what would happen if Ash took Professor Sycamore's offer and left Kalos - in fact, that was the very reason why they headed to Coumarine City now - but, nothing was set in stone yet. She continued to hold Ash's gaze, but couldn't help but brace herself for what she felt was the inevitable announcement of his decision.

    "The thing is...I know I've done it a bunch of times before, but I just can't see myself going off to another region alone and leaving everything behind again." Ash explained, looking at her intently as he spoke, and Serena realized that he, too, was blushing. "I dunno...it's kinda funny, isn't it?"

    It took her a moment to realize that he was waiting for her to answer. "N-no, I don't think so at all! I always wondered how you were able to start over so many times."

    "Yeah, I dunno..." Ash admitted, his gaze drifting to the ground. "I never really had to think about it before. But I don't think I can do that this time." He raised his eyes back to hers, and Serena's impending fear was replaced by confusion.

    "What is he saying? Is he going to stay here in Kalos after all...?" Serena wondered, as a curious expression came over Ash's face, and he actually appeared to be nervous about what he was going to say next.

    "So...this is what I decided on." He gulped, and an anxious silence covered the area for the next few seconds until Ash continued. Even Clemont and Bonnie found themselves listening on the edge of their seats despite themselves. "Serena...I want you to go to Alola with me."

    Another silence spread over the campsite. Clemont, Bonnie, Dedenne, and even Pikachu's eyes widened in shock at Ash's request, and Serena's blush grew slowly but steadily as she realized what he had just said, until she thought she was going to faint.

    "Serena? Are you okay?" He asked when she remained silent, putting his hands on her shoulders and examining her face closely, which did nothing to help her current predicament.

    "Y-yeah, I'm fine..." She managed after a moment. "You...want me to go with you?"

    At her words, Ash smiled his typical Ash Ketchum smile. "Of course I do! I don't think I could make it without you there with me. And, Sycamore did give us two tickets, after all."

    Serena's mind remained frozen in place as she processed what he was asking. While it was true that they had technically been in a relationship for the past few months, the two of them were quite inexperienced and didn't typically show their feelings very often, and as such, their overall group dynamic hadn't really changed too much, and while she always knew that Ash did feel the same way she did, she had always just assumed that his Pokemon journey would still come first to him, just as it always had.

    "Serena...?" Ash remarked sadly when she remained silent. "If you don't wanna go, that's okay...we can always stay here in Kalos until we figure out something else - "

    "Yes!" Serena burst out suddenly, cutting him off mid-sentence, causing him to look at her in surprise. "I-I mean...I'd love to go with you, Ash."

    At her words, Ash grinned ear to ear, and although neither of them could see, Clemont and Bonnie's faces lit up, as well. "Really?! It's settled, then! The two of us are gonna be going to the Aloha region!"

    Serena smiled back and was about to join him in his cheer, but stopped short when she heard how he pronounced the region's name. "Uh...I think you mean the 'Alola' region, right?"

    Ash frowned and shot her a look of genuine confusion. "Is that how you say it? I've been trying to figure that out ever since Professor Sycamore told us about it."

    Serena stared at him and could tell that he was being serious, despite him having already said it correctly twice earlier in the conversation. And she found that she couldn't help but laugh.

    "Hey, it's not funny!" Ash insisted, as Clemont and Bonnie came walking up to join them.

    "I think it's pretty funny!" Bonnie argued playfully.

    "Ash, you said it right two times already. You mean that was on accident?" Clemont remarked in disbelief.

    "Come on, you guys! Gimme a break..." Ash sighed in defeat.



    "Serena? Serena...?"

    "Oh!" Serena jumped, having been so lost in her own thoughts that she hadn't even heard Ash calling her name. She turned to find him standing only a few feet away, his unkempt hair confirming the fact that he had, in fact, only just woken up. "Sorry about that. I was just...thinking..."

    "...Well, what are you doing all the way out here? You couldn't sleep?"

    "No, not really..." She began cautiously, still unsure of how much she should bring up in front of him. After a moment, though, she took a deep breath, and decided to go out on a limb. "I was just...thinking about...us."

    She expected him to act surprised, but much to her own shock, it almost seemed like he'd been expecting her to say that. He merely frowned and looked away from her, toward the ocean. "Yeah...I've been thinking a lot about it, too."

    Serena silently noticed that Ash hadn't bothered to wake Pikachu up before coming out here after her, meaning that, for the first time since boarding the ship, and possibly for a very long time before that, the two of them were finally, truly, alone together.

    Ash opened his mouth once, then twice, looking as if he was going to say something before stopping short. "...Rrragh! I don't know..." He grumbled in frustration, before turning to face her. "Listen, Serena...you know I'm no good at this stuff...but, when I asked you to go with me to...A-lo-la..." Ash spoke, slowly sounding out the tropical region's name as if he were reading a pronunciation guide. "I was so happy! And then we left, and got on the boat...and I was sure that the two of us were gonna have a lot of fun together. But...I dunno...it's like something's been off ever since we left Kalos, you know?"

    Serena couldn't deny it, and in fact, she had a feeling she knew what the underlying cause was, too. Under normal circumstances, she probably would never have considered bringing up something like this with Ash, but she already thrown caution to the wind by even starting the conversation in the first place, and so she decided to go one step further.

    "Yeah, you're right." She agreed, nodding slowly. "I'm not totally sure what it is, but...I think I might have an idea about how to fix it."

    "You do?" Ash responded with interest, only to be met by her suddenly closing the distance between them in an instant. She slipped her hand into his and leaned her entire body against his, leaving her head resting on his shoulder.

    "Ahh...Serena?" Ash stammered, feeling his face heat up at the intimate contact.

    "Mm...you know, you could do with growing just a couple more inches." She remarked lightly, smiling to herself as she indulged her feelings a bit. She could feel a blush growing on her face, but she didn't care.

    "Serena...w-what are you...?" Ash continued, ignoring her flirtatious comment.

    She shifted her head slightly to meet his eyes. "I think this has been the problem, Ash. We've been so used to being around Clemont and Bonnie that we never really learned what it was like to just be...us. Together."

    Ash blinked as he considered her comment. He had to admit that she had a point. "Y-yeah, maybe. But...what does that have to do with...?"

    "I'm not sure." Serena admitted. "But...isn't it true that this - " She stopped for a moment, squeezing his hand tightly with her own. " - feels a lot better than how it has for the past few days?"

    Ash gulped, feeling the familiar flip-flop in his stomach as Serena' s hand clutched against his own. "Yeah...it sure does."

    "Good. Then here's to a new start!" Serena remarked, beaming at him in satisfaction. He looked back at her with an uncertain look on his face for a moment, before leaning forward and capturing her lips with his own.

    Serena's eyes widened, but she held the kiss, which lasted for a few moments before Ash pulled back with a smile on his face. "Here's to a new start."

    Serena couldn't help but smile back, the infectious warmth she usually felt from him returning as the two of them remained there for a while longer, resting in each other's arms as they stared out at the ocean beneath the crescent moon.
     
  3. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Chapter 3: Old Friends, New Faces​


    After Ash and Serena's intimate encounter under the stars that night, the remainder of their voyage passed without incident. Ash had to keep reminding himself to go a bit out of his comfort zone when around Serena now, but before too long, the two of them had managed to settle into a status quo that seemed to be doing the job for both of them, at least for the time being; they'd begun holding hands just about everywhere they went, standing just a bit closer to each other even when their fingers weren't locked together, and they'd even stolen kisses from each other more often than they had in the past.

    And, just like that, the week of their voyage passed by without either of them realizing it. And, before they knew it, the day of their arrival to Heahea City was upon them.

    "Wo-ow! So this is the Alola region!" Ash declared in gleeful awe, looking at the city before them after getting off the ship.

    "Pi-kaaa!" Pikachu squealed in delight, sharing in his Trainer's joy.

    "All we can see from here is the city, you know." Serena added, drawing up to her usual position right next to Ash. "Maybe you should hold back some of that energy until a little later?"

    "Aw, come on, Serena!" Ash pleaded, turning to her without losing his vigor. "We just got here! This is the perfect time to be excited!"

    Serena smiled, knowing that it was pointless to continue arguing with him when he was like this. Instead, she decided to merely go along with his delight and enjoy herself. "Yeah, I guess you're right."

    Ash caught her gaze and grinned wider, an unspoken moment of emotion passing between them before he spoke up again. "So where are we headed first? We need to go and meet with the Professor here, right?"

    "Yeah, that's what Professor Sycamore told us." Serena confirmed, reaching into her bag to retrieve her navigator, which had recently been updated for use in the Alola region. "Let's see...hey, that's weird."

    "What is it?" Ash asked, sliding his head over to peer at the navigator as well, causing their cheeks to lightly bump up against each other. Ash either didn't mind or didn't notice in the first place, and Serena, who may have been more distracted by such an occurrence a week ago, noticed it, but merely smiled and didn't say anything, enjoying the mutual contact, minor as it may have been.

    "Well..." Serena began, bringing her eyes back down to the twin screens in front of her. "It doesn't look like there's a Pokemon lab in this city. The closest thing I can find is...umm...the 'Dimensional Research' lab."

    "Sure doesn't sound like a Pokemon lab to me." Ash agreed, scanning the digital map for their destination. "Professor Sycamore said we were supposed to meet them in Heahea City, right?"

    "That's what I remember." Serena affirmed, nodding. "What do you think we should do?"

    "Piii-ka..." Pikachu groaned sadly, also scanning the map to no avail.

    "Hmm...where would a Pokemon Professor be besides a lab?" Ash pondered briefly, before quickly deciding to move on to their next course of action instead. "Well, even if we're not sure where the Professor is, we can at least head over to the Pokemon Center. Who knows? Maybe someone over there knows where we can find him."

    "Yeah, good idea." Serena replied, agreeing with his chosen course of action as usual. "Looks like the Pokemon Center is...a-ha! There it is - and it's not that far away from here!"

    "Well, then what are we waiting for? Let's get going!" Ash exclaimed, and with that, he was off. He'd grabbed Serena's hand before he took off, which in turn forced her to keep pace with him in all of his excitement, but she didn't mind. The feeling of warmth and security she got from him was more than worth it to her.

    As they raced through the city together, the two of them couldn't help but notice how normal everything looked. Sure, there seemed to be a lot of people dressed in 'tropical' clothing - shorts, floral print shirts, and the like - and there were a few Pokemon that neither of them recognized, but other than that, they wouldn't have guessed by looking at it that they were now in a remote tropical region.

    When they arrived at the Pokemon Center, which was indeed only a few blocks away from the docks, they noticed right away that it was smaller than they would have expected considering the apparent size of Heahea City. They proceeded inside, and, despite the reduced size, were greeted with the all-too-familiar view of a Nurse Joy working behind the counter, which was situated against the back wall of the open lobby. About a dozen or so Trainers were milling around the area, some of them with more unfamiliar Pokemon at their side.

    "Well, this is a little bit different..." Serena commented as the pair walked up to the counter, gazing around the room.

    "Yeah, it sure is. I guess there just aren't as many people living out here in Alola." Ash agreed.

    "Hello!" Nurse Joy greeted cheerfully as they drew up to the other side of the Nurse's station. "How may I help you today?"

    "Hi there!" Ash remarked, returning the greeting with enthusiasm. "We were hoping you could help us find the nearest Pokemon research lab."

    "Pokemon research lab?" Nurse Joy repeated back to him. "Oh, you must be talking about Professor Kukui's lab!"

    "That sounds right." Ash affirmed with a nod.

    "You see, we only just arrived here in Alola from the Kalos region." Serena explained. "We were told to meet up with the Pokemon Professor that lives here after we arrived."

    "Yes, that would be our very own Professor Kukui. He lives one island over, on Melemele Island." Nurse Joy told them.

    "One island over?" Serena said uncertainly. "But we were told that he would here in Heahea City..."

    "Excuse me?" A gentle, feminine voice cut in suddenly. "There's someone here looking for Professor Kukui?"

    "Huh?" Ash remarked in surprise, he and Serena turning to find the voice's owner. Walking up behind them was a girl that appeared about their age, sporting an all-white outfit comprised of a short-sleeved hoodie and a skirt, with blonde hair that was currently pulled back into a ponytail. "Uh...yeah, that's us. We were supposed to meet him somewhere in this city."

    "Oh, that's perfect!" The girl exclaimed happily, drawing up a few feet behind them. Her emerald-green eyes seemed to sparkle as she spoke, giving her admittedly simple appearance an air of elegance. "My name is Lillie. I know the Professor - he's been wondering when you two were going to get here!"

    "That's great!"

    "Can you show us where he is?" Serena asked.

    "Sure! Looking for you two in case you got lost was actually one of the reasons I was out here today, so it all works out." Lillie explained, waving goodbye to the Nurse Joy over Ash and Serena's shoulders as they began to head back outside. "Come on - I'll take you to go see him."


    As it turned out, the place Lillie was taking them to was none other than the Dimensional Research Lab that Serena had pointed out on the navigator. The walk there, however, seemed to take longer than their inital walk to the Pokemon Center, not to mention Ash wasn't going full speed anymore, so the three of them had some time to chat amongst themselves along the way.

    "So you're Ash and Serena, right?" Lillie asked as they made their way down one of the city's backroads. "I heard about you from the Professor."

    "Yeah, that's right." Ash confirmed. "And this is my partner, Pikachu."

    "Pi-ka-chu!" Pikachu greeted jovially, raising an arm in salutation.

    "Um, how much did you hear about us, exactly?" Serena asked uneasily, curious as to how much Professor Sycamore had given away about the two of them.

    "Well, I heard that Ash is on a journey to become a Pokemon Master, and he goes around challenging all sorts of different Pokemon League tournaments." Lillie began, looking over at Ash with something like awe. "And as for you, Serena, I hear that you were one of the favorites to win the title of Kalos Queen in a competition of your own."

    Serena blushed lightly at her positive comments. "I-I don't know about favorites, but..."

    "Aw, c'mon, Serena." Ash remarked, putting a hand on her shoulder encouragingly. "Don't be like that - your last Performance was against the defending Kalos Queen herself!"

    "Well, what about you?" Serena argued back playfully. "You were the runner-up in the Kalos League, too! You had to win a whole lot more battles than I did to get that far!"

    Ash couldn't help but laugh a little bit pridefully at her words. "Yeah, I guess we both did pretty good, didn't we?"

    Lillie smiled to herself as she watched their exchange. "You're right - if you ask me, you both sound pretty amazing. By the way...there was actually one other thing I heard about you."

    "What is it?" Ash asked, genuinely interested to hear what Professor Sycamore had said about them.

    "Is it true that you are two are...well...involved with each other?" Lillie asked cautiously. "You know...dating?"

    Ash and Serena both blushed furiously in unison, but they quickly regained their composure, remembering once again their conversation on the ship that night.

    "Ah...yeah, that's right." Ash answered, nodding slowly. "But I dunno why the Professor would tell you guys that much about us."

    "I don't think we ever even officially told him." Serena mumbled under her breath.

    Lille giggled in relief at their responses. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. I was just curious, because...well...because I used to think that going on a journey with someone you cared about sounded like a great idea."

    "Used to?" Serena repeated, and she realized that Lillie's eyes had softened, and her gaze had become a bit distant. "Um...did something happen?"

    "...Yes. The person I cared about...he left." Lillie explained, her voice much softer and more delicate than it had been before. "I still hope that one day he'll come back, but..."

    "Lillie..." Ash murmured sadly, unsure of what to say to the girl.

    "I'm sorry to hear that..." Serena told her honestly.

    "...I'm sorry. I didn't mean to start talking about my problems all of a sudden." Lillie spoke up a few moments later, her attitude seeming to return to normal. "I just wanted to see if there was another pair out there that had managed to pull it off, that's all."

    Ash and Serena shared a brief look of concern for the girl before turning back to her with smiles. "Well...I don't know if we're what you expected, but, here we are." Serena remarked halfheartedly.

    "No, you two are great!" Lillie answered at once, waving away Serena's doubts. "I can tell how much you both care for each other. I think it's really sweet. And you look cute together, too."

    "Oh, stop it..." Ash teased, prompting a chuckle out of Serena.

    Lillie smiled back at the duo before casting her gaze into the sky, as they resumed talking back and forth between themselves. "Sun..."


    The now-trio continued making their way through the streets of Heahea City for a good while after that, until finally, upon emerging from an alley and rounding a corner, they came upon a large, rectangular white building a few stories or so tall, situated near the outskirts of town. Only a few glass windows were visible on the walls, and at least one strange radar-like contraption was sticking out of the roof, pointed vaguely at the sky.

    "Here we are!" Lillie announced, bringing the two of them up to the entrance, a pair of sliding glass doors that opened automatically when she approached them. "Come on, let's get inside. There's a lot we need to explain to you."

    "Explain to us...?" Ash murmured, shooting Serena a confused glance, but she merely shrugged and followed Lillie into the building, prompting Ash to do the same.

    The inside of the facility looked a lot more high-tech than anything Ash expected to find in Alola. The walls were all solid white, with a layer of glass positioned in front of them, giving the room a very sleek, futuristic appearance.

    The room they were in appeared to be the lobby, as there were a few empty sofas against the wall, as well as what Ash guessed was the receptionist across the room, sitting at a computer desk. He perked up when he saw them walk inside. "Ah, Lillie, you're back! Looks like you found the ones they've been waiting on."

    "Yes, that's right." Lillie answered back politely. "I'll be taking them upstairs to meet with the Professors."

    "Professors...?" Serena noted, taking the words right out of Ash's mouth. "There's more than one?"

    "Oh. Yeah, I guess I didn't mention that." Lillie answered apologetically as she took them across the room to the elevator. "There's Professor Kukui, of course, but there's also his wife, Professor Burnet - she's actually the one who runs this particular lab."

    "A husband-and-wife duo?" Serena thought out loud as the elevator doors slid open and they stepped inside.

    "Wow, so they're both Professors, huh?" Ash remarked, impressed by the notion. "That's pretty cool!"

    Once the elevator reached the third floor, they stepped outside, into what looked like a highly advanced office building. A few sets of computer workstations were set up in the area in front of them, and behind those was a glass-walled room with even more advanced-looking computer systems within it, along with large monitors all over the walls. The path to their left led past a series of packed bookcases to a small lounge, with a few sofas and a coffee table set up, before ending at a closed door.

    Seated on one of the sofas, however, was a tall, dark-skinned man, wearing a Professor's coat with no shirt on underneath it, and a woman of similar coloration beside him, wearing a skintight suit of some sort that was tied around her waist, as well as a simple gray tank top.

    "Oh, Lillie!" The woman spoke up upon seeing the three of them walk in. "You're back already - and you brought friends with you! That must mean - "

    "You two must be the Trainers we sent for from Kalos!" The man finished for her, jumping to his feet in delight. "Hey, I'm Professor Kukui, and this here's my wife, Burnet."

    "H-hi, nice to meet you." Ash greeted, a bit taken aback by their forwardness.

    "Nice to meet you." Serena echoed a moment later.

    "Pika pika!" Pikachu chimed in.

    "I found them asking for you at the Pokemon Center." Lillie explained, as the three of them walked over to stand opposite the two Professors. "If I hadn't been there, they might've decided to go to Melemele Island looking for you, Professor. Why didn't you tell Nurse Joy you'd be staying here for a while?"

    "Oh, yeah, that probably would've been a good idea, now that you mention it." Kukui admitted, his brilliant smile not wavering. "But it's all right now, yeah? You found them, after all!"

    "Professor..." Lillie sighed hopelessly.

    "Ash, Serena, thank you both for coming out here on our invitation." Burnet remarked warmly. "I've also got to apologize to you for what may have been some slight misinformation on our part."

    "Misinformation? What do you mean?" Ash asked, thinking back to what Lillie had told them outside about having things to explain to them.

    The two Professors shared a guilty look with each other before gesturing to the couch across from them. "Well, you should have a seat. It'll probably take a while to explain all of it."

    Ash and Serena blinked, sharing their own look of confusion before taking Burnet's advice and sitting on the sofa behind them. Lillie smiled at the sight of them together and took her seat on a third, smaller couch, by herself.

    "Professor Kukui, what's going on...?" Ash began worriedly, as Pikachu climbed down from his shoulder and planted himself in Ash's lap instead. "I figured we were coming out here to take the Alola Pokemon League challenge."

    "Well, yeah, we do have one of those, all right, though it's probably a little different than the ones you're used to." Kukui answered, he and his wife reclaiming their seats before he continued. "But that's not actually why we asked for you to come here. You see, cousin - "

    Before he could finish, however, a loud crashing sound was heard from what sounded like one room over, followed by a male voice grumbling loudly, and Ash could swear he knew the voice from somewhere.

    "What was that?!" Serena exclaimed, her eyes shooting over to the door behind the two Professors. The two of them merely laughed, however, as if this kind of thing were a normal occurence.

    "Oh, it was probably just our assistant." Burnet explained calmly. "He's actually another of the Trainers we asked to come help us out, same as you two - but, well, we haven't been able to find enough for him to do lately, so he's just been helping us out around the lab."

    "There's another Trainer here, too?" Ash asked in wonder, his eyes being drawn to the source of the noise as well.

    "Yeah, you see...there's not exactly a whole lot of Pokemon Trainers here in Alola." Kukui admitted, scratching the back of his neck pointedly. "Most of them decide to leave when they finish their Island Challenge, so other than the Captains and Kahunas, and of course the Elite Four, there aren't that many Trainers we can just ask for help with things like this."

    Neither Ash nor Serena understood much of what he'd said, but his words did serve to make them more curious than ever as to what they were actually being asked to do here. But, before another line of dialogue could get started, the door behind the two Professors suddenly burst open, followed up an older teenage boy stumbling into the room with a stack of boxes in his arms. He had dark, spiky hair and wore olive-brown pants and a forest-green shirt underneath a dull orange, sleeveless vest.

    "Rockruff, I swear, if you make me drop these boxes one more time - !"

    "Oh, hey there, cousin!" Kukui acknowledged, cutting off his dangerous-sounding threat mid-sentence as a small, brown, canine-esque Pokemon scurried out into the room as well, barking softly at their 'assistant' as it did so. "You're just in time to meet the other two Trainers I was telling you about, from the Kalos region! Say hey to Ash and Serena!"

    The boy turned to look at the young couple, even though Ash was already staring at him in disbelief, not quite believing what he was seeing. Even Pikachu seemed to be dumbfounded. When he realized who he was looking at, he grinned, the anger he'd felt just a moment ago suddenly vanishing like the wind.

    "Hey, what's up, Ash? It's been a while!" Brock exclaimed, waving a greeting to them with one hand.​
     
  4. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Chapter 4: The Guardians' Trial​


    "Brock?!" Ash gaped, his mouth hanging open in disbelief as the former Pewter City Gym Leader grinned back at him. "Wow, I can't believe it! What are you doing out here?"

    "Pii-ka?!" Pikachu chimed in, echoing his Trainer's surprise.

    "Same thing as you, I guess." Brock answered, lowering the boxes he was holding to the ground. "Seems like Professor Kukui sent out an invitation intended for strong trainers from some of the other regions, inviting them to come here to Alola. I don't think anybody else from Kanto was going to accept the offer, but my brother Forrest really wanted to...so I decided to come in his place." Brock's smile widened as he regarded his old friend, noticing how close Ash was sitting to Serena. "And it looks like it's paying off. So, Ash, who's your new friend here?"

    "I'm Serena. It's nice to meet you!" She introduced herself politely.

    "No, the pleasure's all mine, Serena." Brock replied smoothly. "But, what made you decide to come all the way out here with Ash? I mean, I can understand him answering the invitation, but..."

    "O-oh, well, you see..." Serena stammered, feeling her face flush at the question. She knew that Ash would chime in for her if she needed him to, especially given that he and Brock were apparently old friends, but she wanted to be able to say it herself. "It's because...I'm actually Ash's girlfriend."

    "You don't say?" Brock answered, putting a finger to his chin and examining the two of them. His tone gave away the fact that he had guessed their relationship before even asking. "I could've sworn Ash didn't even know what a girlfriend was the last time I saw him - "

    "Hey, knock it off, Brock!" Ash protested over the sound of Serena's laughter. "Anyway, the point is, the two of us decided to come out here together. So what's the deal with these invitations?"

    Ash shifted his gaze over to Professor Kukui, eager to move the conversation away from the topic of his and Serena's relationship.

    "Well...ah, where do we begin...let's see here..." Kukui began, not quite able to decide on the simplest way to explain things.

    "How familiar are you two with Alola's Island Guardians?" Burnet interrupted, cutting off her husband's stammering.

    "Island Guardians?" Serena repeated back, Brock taking a seat and settling in as he prepared to hear the story for a second time.

    "Well, I guess that answers my question." Burnet replied with a chuckle. "You see, here in Alola, there are four major islands that make up the region - Melemele Island, Akala Island, Ula'ula Island, and Poni Island. And on each one of these islands lives a guardian Pokemon that has protected the land for as long as we can remember."

    "Piikaa..." Pikachu murmured softly, already in awe of these supposed Pokemon. Ash and Serena continued listening intently without making a sound.

    "There's Tapu Koko for Melemele Island, Tapu Lele for Akala Island, Tapu Bulu on Ula'ula Island, and Tapu Fini for Poni Island." Burnet continued. "I guess you'd call them Legendary Pokemon - they're very rarely seen, and have a great deal of power. They even choose the kahunas for each island - similar to what you'd call a Gym Leader overseas."

    "Wow - the Pokemon choose the Gym Leaders?!" Ash remarked in shock.

    "Yes - and typically, that's the only time we ever hear from them." Burnet answered, shifting her eyes over to Kukui knowingly, prompting him to pick up from there.

    "Right, which brings us to the reason I brought all of you here." Kukui continued, gesturing in a sweeping motion to Ash, Serena, and Brock. "See, a couple of months ago, something really odd happened all of a sudden. There were reports of some folks seeing Tapu Koko appear around Verdant Cavern, an important site for the Island Challenge on Melemele Island. Then, the next day, Ilima, the Captain of the Trial on Melemele Island, disappeared." He paused for a moment to let the information sink in before continuing. "We never found out what happened - but the things that've happened since then have given us a pretty good guess."

    "You see, Ilima wasn't the only one - in fact, he was just the first." Burnet explained, picking up yet again from Kukui. "Ever since that day, more than half of our Captains and Kahunas have disappeared. It wasn't until a few weeks ago that were able to figure out why. It seems as if the Island Guardians have gone out of control, and have somehow begun hunting down and abducting the Trial-givers here in Alola."

    "But why?!" Ash exclaimed. "I thought you said they were supposed to be the guardians of the land!"

    "They are." Burnet confirmed, nodding. "But something's happened to them. What, I couldn't say."

    "But...why would they be going after these...Kahunas of yours?" Serena asked, trying to make sense of the Professors' story.

    "There's only one reason we can figure." Kukui answered knowingly. "All of the Trial-givers here wear what's called a Z-Crystal. They're mystical stones that allow a Trainer and Pokemon to connect their emotions and unleash a super-powerful attack, called a Z-Move."

    "Wow...Z-Crystals, huh?" Ash remarked, a faint twinkle of wonder glimmering in his eyes. "Sounds a lot like Mega Evolution!"

    "Yeah, the concept is similar." Kukui confirmed with a smile. "Anyway, the point is, whatever is causing the guardian Pokemon to go berserk like they have been must have something to do with the Z-Crystals. Which brings us to why we sent for all of you."

    "As we've already said, Alola is a bit short on Trainers - other than the Trial Captains and Kahunas, there really aren't too many we can call on. Even our current Champion is...away...at the moment." Burnet explained, a touch of sadness in her voice as she shot Lillie a quick look. "And since the Trial-givers themselves are the ones being targetted here..."

    "We decided to go out on a limb, and reach out to our friends in the other regions to see if there were any Trainers willing to come out here and give us a hand!" Kukui finished, a bit too cheerfully given the subject matter. "I apologize for not being straight with you in my invitation. I thought it'd be too hard to explain unless you were here in person. But you're here now! So...whaddya say?"

    Ash and Serena shared a concerned look, neither of them giving an answer right away. The two of them weren't necessarily strangers to encounters with Legendary Pokemon, and they couldn't just abandon Kukui and Burnet in good conscience when they were directly asking them for help.

    "Well, I guess you've already decided, haven't you, Brock?" Ash asked despite himself.

    "Yup." Brock answered with a smile. "If I ignored this and went back home, I don't think I'd be able to live with myself. I've got the time, and they could really use some help."

    Ash looked back to Serena one more time, and she responded with a dazzling look of support that told him that no matter what came their way, they could overcome it as long as they were together. He beamed back at her, squeezing her hand briefly before turning back to the Professors to deliver his answer.

    "Yeah, of course we'll help!" Ash responded enthusiastically. "What better way to explore the Alola region than to go looking for some Legendary Pokemon?"

    Kukui and Burnet sighed in relief, releasing a breath they hadn't realized they'd been holding. Even Lillie, who'd been silent this entire time, smiled at his answer.

    "Thank you, cousin!" Kukui replied with renewed vigor in his voice. "And after we're finished with all this, you'll be free to try the Island Challenge for yourself if you feel like it!"

    "Yeah, sounds good!"

    "Pi-pi-pikachu!" Pikachu exclaimed in delight.

    "Um...so, what exactly are we supposed to do first?" Serena asked curiously. "I mean, you said Brock had already agreed to help you, but...you've just got him here moving boxes around for you."

    "Oh, no, this isn't...I was just helping them out around the lab. Old habits, I guess." Brock answered sheepishly.

    "Brock's done lots of work for a bunch of different Pokemon Professors over the years." Ash explained to her quickly.

    "Well, so, that's the thing." Burnet remarked. "We're not quite sure what prompts the guardians to attack - like we said, it's been two months since Ilima disappeared, and there's only about eleven Trial-givers among all the islands. If they had gone after all of them at once, they would've captured them all a long time ago."

    "So, for now, we just want you to stay in the city and wait, at least for a few days." Kukui explained. "Akala Island here has three Captains, led by the Kahuna - and out of those four, only one Trial Captain is left - in fact, the Kahuna, Olivia, was just taken about a week ago. The last remaining Captain is a girl named Mallow. She's supposed to be staying here with us so we can keep an eye on her, but..."

    "Mallow's a little bit stubborn about these things." Burnet finished. "She agreed to stay here in the lab with us, but during the day she can't stop herself from going out into the woods and such."

    "It's okay, though." Lillie assured them, speaking up for the first time since the story began. "Whenever she goes out, I just send my Trumbeak to keep an eye on her. If anything happens, it'll come right back and let us know!"

    "Oh, wow - Lillie, you mean you're a Trainer, too?!" Ash exclaimed in surprise, not having realized it before.

    "Yes, that's right." Lillie confirmed with a smile. "Though I only just started recently..."

    "Oh, that reminds me!" Kukui jumped up with a start. "I meant to give these to you when you got here. Even if you're not officially Trial-goers yet, it's only right." He reached into his coat and produced a pair of bright red tablets, the screens shaped oddly like a Pokemon's face. "These are your Alolan Pokedexes. They're actually not quite complete like that, but, well, I hope you'll accept them anyway!"

    "Oh, wow, this is awesome!" Ash squealed in delight, he and Serena accepting the devices at once.

    "Thank you very much, Professor!" Serena responded politely, to which Kukui merely chuckled.

    "Oh, don't worry about it - it's the least I can do to repay the two of you!"


    Later that day, after the fanfare over the whole ordeal had died down, Ash and Serena decided to go and explore the city in lieu of anything else to do for the moment. Brock declared himself as going along, although Lillie elected to stay behind at the lab and do some work there.

    And so, the three bade her and the Professors farewell for the time being before heading back into the city proper, this time with a third companion at their side. Even though Ash seemed perfectly comfortable with him, Serena couldn't quite bring herself to be at ease around the older Trainer, if only partially because she felt like he was ever so slightly getting in the way of her being alone with Ash.

    The first thing that came to mind for them to do, however, was to call their homes back in Pallet Town and Vaniville Town and let them know that they'd arrived in Alola safely. To accomplish this, they decided to head back to the smaller-than-expected Pokemon Center from before.

    Much to Serena's relief, Brock quickly peeled away from them once they arrived, apparently besmitten with the Nurse Joy behind the counter. Ash merely laughed at his antics as if it were normal, though, which put Serena's mind at ease, and the two of them proceeded to the video-phones together.


    "...So, anyway, Mom, we're doing just fine here in Alola!" Ash concluded at the end of his story, having briefly summed up the events of the last week to her - leaving out the details involving the rogue Legendary Pokemon, of course.

    "I'm glad to hear that, honey." Delia responded smoothly. "Serena, do keep an eye on Ash for me, would you? I know how much of a handful he can be."

    "Mooom..."

    "I will, Mrs. Ketchum." Serena agreed sweetly, over the sound of Ash's protests.

    "Thank you. Now, you two look out for each other, okay? Can you promise me you'll do that?"

    Serena gazed at Ash affectionately. "Of course we will. Isn't that right, Ash?"

    "Yep, we sure will!" Ash nodded back warmly. "We won't take our eyes off each other! I promise!"

    "Now, now, Ash." Professor Oak chimed in, poking his head in from the side of the monitor. "I know how you and Serena feel about each other, but let's not go out of control, here."

    "What do you mean, Professor?" Ash responded with a blank look on his face. "It's like I said - "

    "Let's just leave it at that, all right?" Serena interrupted with a pleading voice, prompting Ash to stare back at her confusedly.

    "By the way, Ash, were you planning on sending back any of your Pokemon from Kalos?" Oak asked curiously. "I know how you are when you go off to a new region. There's plenty of room here for Talonflame and all your other friends."

    "Actually, Professor, about that..." Ash began slowly, trying to figure out how to covertly explain the nature of their situation to him. He had indeed been planning to leave all of his old Pokemon behind in Pallet Town as usual, however...the situation with the Legendary Pokemon made him think that he should hold on to them for at least a little while longer. Pikachu alone probably wouldn't be enough to help out in this instance. "I was thinking I'd like to keep everyone with me this time, at least for a little while."

    "Oh, is that so?" Oak remarked in surprise. "Well, if that's what you want to do, then that's fine. Just give me a call if you change your mind!"

    "You bet, Professor!" Ash responded at once, thankful that he wasn't prying any further.

    After hanging up with Delia and Professor Oak, they then dialed Serena's mother Grace back in Vaniville Town.

    "Hmm...?" Grace murmured curiously after answering, examining the monitor for a moment before perking up. "Oh, it's you two! How are you, Ash, Serena?"

    "Hi, Mom! We're doing great!" Serena responded happily. "We just wanted to let you know that we're here in Alola now, and everything's fine so far!"

    "Well, that's good to hear!" Grace remarked. "Now, Ash, you're making sure to take good care of my Serena, aren't you?"

    "Uh, yes, ma'am!" Ash replied nervously as Serena frowned in embarassment. "I sure am!"

    "Come on, Mom! I'm not your 'little girl' anymore..." Serena murmured, a hint of defiance in her voice.

    "I know you're not, dear." Grace responded tenderly. "I've known that ever since I watched you perform in Gloire City. But I still worry about you. Especially now that you've gone off to another region - and practically by yourself!"

    "No, I'm not all alone." Serena corrected. "I've got Ash here with me. And that makes all the difference in the world!"

    Grace was silent for a moment before flashing Serena a proud smile. "I see. I guess I don't need to worry about you, after all. You kids take care of each other, all right?"

    The pair nodded to acknowledge her request, and hung up with her a few moments later after saying their goodbyes. As Ash got up to go and find Brock, however, Serena grabbed his arm.

    "Hey, Ash?" She began, stopping him short. "Can we talk for a minute?"

    "Sure, Serena. What's up?" He asked curiously.

    "Well...it's not really a big deal, but...what do you think of that story about the Island Guardians?"

    "Oh, yeah...that. Well, it's not really what we signed up for when we decided to come out here, but we can't really just turn them down. It's like Brock said; we've got the time, and they need our help."

    Serena regarded him with pride in her eyes. It was times like this that she saw Ash's true character shine through, behind all his sometimes child-like naivety and ignorance. There was more to him than just his love for Pokemon and battling; he was a kind and honest person, and Serena had seen that in him ever since the first day they met. It was one of the many reasons she had developed a crush on him in the first place. And she believed it was one of the reasons she was in love with him now.

    "Wait, that isn't right..." Serena found herself thinking, catching herself in that line of thought. Although the two of them had confessed their love to each other during the incident with Korrina six months prior, they had quickly realized the depth of feeling that the famed 'L word' implied, and mutually agreed to refrain from using it to express their feelings to each other in the future for a while. It led to some awkward situations from time to time, but they firmly believed that it was better than abusing a word that they didn't fully understand the implications of.

    "Serena? Are you okay?" Ash asked, examining her closely as she got lost in her own thoughts. Ash's voice managed to snap her back to reality, however, and she looked up at him with a renewed feeling of pride, deciding once again to worry about the use of the 'L word' later.

    "Yeah, I'm fine." Serena answered happily, climbing to her feet so that she was standing face-to-face with him. "In fact, I'm better than fine - I'm great, because I've got you here with me."

    She reached out to clasp his hands in hers, and the two of them drew close to one another, resting their foreheads against each other tenderly. Pikachu took his cue, as he usually did, and clambered down off of Ash's shoulder, waiting a few feet away on the ground until the two of them were finished.

    "I'm just glad that you're happy." Ash murmured softly. And in that moment, Serena didn't need any fancy words to express her feelings - she knew that Ash understood her intent without them, just as she was able to understand his.

    She could have stayed like that for an eternity, and she may have tried to had Brock's voice not rung through her ears at that moment, bringing her back down to reality.

    "You know, I had a feeling that this would happen to Ash one day, but seeing it with my own eyes is a different story." Brock remarked, causing the two of them to separate quickly, though not as quickly as they may have done in the past. Ash also made a point to keep one of Serena's hands held in his own.

    "W-well, what did you expect?" Ash shot back playfully, a slight stammer to his voice to match the faint blush appearing on his face. "You already know about me and Serena."

    "Saying that I know about it is a bit of an overstatement." Brock corrected teasingly. "You guys are gonna have to tell the whole story here. If you agreed to follow Ash all the way out here from Kalos, then you're either crazier than he is or you're someone really special."

    "Hey, what's that supposed to mean?!" Ash protested, causing Serena to giggle at Brock's playful jab. She briefly considered playing along with him and taking another jab at Ash, but, possibly due to the moment the two of them had just shared, she decided to respond to Brock honestly instead.

    "It's not really about me - I'm not all that special." Serena admitted meekly, causing Ash to look over at her in surprise. "It's Ash who's special. My journey in Kalos changed my life, and it was Ash who invited me to go along with him in the first place. Without him, I wouldn't be the person I am today!"

    Ash gaped at her words, having not expected such a serious reply from her. "Serena..."

    "Wow." Brock replied after a moment, smiling in approval at her heartfelt words. "I dunno how you did it, Ash, but this girl's definitely head-over-heels for you. Great job!"

    He shot his younger friend a thumbs-up, but Ash still had Serena's praise ringing in his ears, and didn't respond right away. "Yeah..." He murmured after a moment, glancing at Brock before turning his eyes back to Serena.

    Brock eyed the two of them, clearly picking up on the tension in the air, and decided to finally shift the topic away from the couple for the time being. "Anyway, I guess you two are gonna need a place to stay, right? Seems like Professor Burnet doesn't have enough space for anybody else at her lab right now, since Professor Kukui and Lillie are both staying there. So I've already got a room here at the Pokemon Center. You guys are free to stay with me if you like."

    "Oh, really?" Serena replied, seeing as how Ash was still slightly out of it. "That'd be great. Thank you!"

    "Don't mention it." Brock answered with a smile. "Me and Ash go way back, remember? The two of us staying together will be just like the old days!"

    As Brock turned and began to walk off, presumably to show them to his room, Serena went to follow him before noticing Ash's expression.

    "Ash?" She prompted, causing his eyes to gravitate to hers, jolting him back to reality. He held her gaze for a moment before grinning at her in a very Ash-esque manner.

    "Yeah. Sorry about that - come on, let's follow him!"

    And, just like that, he was back to his usual self, pulling Serena alongside him as he took off after Brock. And Serena found that she couldn't help but smile even wider at him.​


    I hope to be able to update again before Christmas, but just in case I get too busy, Merry Christmas to everyone!
     
  5. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Well, as I predicted, I did end up getting busy over the holidays, and so this one took a little longer for me to get finished. I hope it was worth the wait for you guys!



    Chaper 5: A Tropical Tag Battle!


    Ash and Serena ended up taking Brock up on his offer to stay with him, even though there was only one additional bed in the room. The arrangement did leave Ash sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag, but, compared to some of the other conditions he'd been forced to sleep in before, he decided that it wasn't really that big of a deal.

    The following morning, they decided to head out into town and do some sightseeing, at least until they were called upon again by Professor Kukui.

    "Wow - hey, Serena, look at this!"

    "Aww - they're so cute!"

    Brock couldn't help but smile as he watched Ash and Serena play off each other so easily. He had always wondered if Ash would ever finally find someone that was on the same wavelength as he was, and it appeared that it had finally happened. And, after all of the time that he and Ash had spent travelling together, and the fact that he had sort of come to see Ash as another of his younger siblings, he found that seeing Ash finally get paired off with someone made him feel quite happy himself.

    "This place is huge!" Ash gaped, staring in awe at the large clothing store he had just pointed out to Serena.

    "Piii-ka-chu..." Pikachu agreed, equally as dumbstruck as his Trainer.

    "Supposedly, this is one of the biggest clothing shops in the whole Alola region." Brock added, granting him a grateful smile from Ash, appreciating the fact that his encyclopediac well of knowledge seemed to still be intact.

    "Yeah, I can tell." Ash replied jokingly, regarding his older friend with a sly grin. Despite the years that had passed since travelling together, it was apparent that nothing had changed between the two of them, a fact that both Trainers were grateful for.

    "We've just gotta go inside and look around!" Serena insisted after admiring the products on display in the windows for a moment longer. She grabbed Ash's hand, an action that Brock still hadn't quite gotten used to seeing, and began to drag him inside the store.

    "Y-yeah - sounds like fun!" Ash managed halfheartedly, shooting an uneasy look to Brock. Before Serena could make it inside, however, the familiar voice of a female interrupted her.

    "Hey, Ash, Serena!" The voice rang, causing Ash, Serena, and Brock all to turn in search of its owner. They were met with the sight of Lillie running down the street toward them, one hand raised in a wave, and accompanied by a green-haired girl wearing a salmon-colored shirt beneath a short pair of overalls that didn't even go down to her knees. "We've been looking everywhere for you guys!"

    "Hey, Lillie!" Ash remarked, returning the greeting in earnest as Serena was forced to stop in her tracks and put aside the potential bounty within the clothing store for the time being.

    "Good morning..." Serena greeted as well, trying her hardest not to sound disappointed at their new friend's timing.

    "I wanted to introduce you guys to Mallow!" Lillie explained as she and her leafy-haired companion drew up near to the other three. "She's a Grass-type Trainer, and one of the Trial Captains here on Akala Island."

    "Hey there!" Mallow uttered happily, regarding the foreign trio with a smile on her face. She noticed Serena's hand, which was still clamped firmly over one of Ash's, and let out a soft giggle. "I guess you two would be Ash and Serena. I heard about you from the Professor!"

    "Oh, really...?" Serena replied uneasily, managing a giggle of her own despite herself. "Seems like he's telling everyone about us..."

    "And that means you must be Brock!" Mallow declared, zeroing in on the former Gym Leader. "Sorry I haven't dropped in to say 'hi' sooner, but - "

    "Oh, don't you worry about that, Captain Mallow." Brock uttered smoothly, his voice a full two tones deeper than it had been mere moments before, and Ash could tell at once that Brock had changed even less than he'd thought since the last time they'd seen each other. "You see, I used to be a Gym Leader back in Kanto, before passing on the title to my younger brother. With a Trainer as strong as me around, you don't have to worry about being captured by those Island Guardians - "

    Before Brock could finish, a while light erupted from his backpack, and a Toxicroak flashed into existence between himself and the Grass-type Trainer, causing Brock to retreat from his advance at once.

    "Croak." Toxicroak remarked straightly, and Ash recognized the deadpan expression on its face in a heartbeat.

    "Oh, wow, it's a Toxicroak!" Ash exclaimed in wonder. "Does that mean your Croagunk evolved?"

    "Y-yeah, it sure did." Brock confirmed nervously, backing away from the Toxic Mouth Pokemon with timid steps. "Now, listen, Toxicroak, I told you to stop doing that - "

    "Croak." Toxicroak interruped, brandishing a glowing purple claw as if that was all the counterargument it needed.

    "Uh...Ash?" Serena whispered, somewhat confused by the strange course of events playing out before her eyes. "Do you know what's going on?"

    "Yeah, don't worry about it." Ash explained quickly under his breath. "With Brock around, this kind of thing happens all the time."

    "If you say so..."

    Amidst the apparent argument between Pokemon and Trainer, Mallow couldn't help but burst out laughing. "Wow - you must be some Gym Leader to carry around a Pokemon like that with you!"

    "...Huh...?" Brock murmured in confusion, and even Toxicroak stopped and turned to face Mallow. It certainly wasn't the first time it had happened, but the moments when girls responded to his flirting with anything beyond a blank stare were still few and far between.

    "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Gym Leader from Kanto!" Mallow exclaimed in delight, clearly entertained by Brock's antics. "I'll feel a lot better knowing that you're here with us."

    "Y-yeah...right." Brock replied, recalling Toxicroak back into its Poke Ball as he spoke, still clearly thrown off by Mallow's attitude.

    "But seriously, I really have to thank all three of you for agreeing to help us out like this." Mallow continued, extending her gaze to include Ash and Serena in addition to Brock. "For Lana, Kiawe, and Olivia...not to mention the others who've disappeared across the other islands..."

    Neither Ash, Serena, nor Brock recognized the names she listed off, other than Olivia, whom Kukui had previously explained was the Akala Island kahuna, but they could tell from her tone that they must have been the other Captains that had already gone missing. "They were all my friends - they are all my friends! I wanna help them, but there just aren't enough of us left here in Alola to do the job...especially with Sun gone..."

    "Sun?" Serena asked ignorantly, causing Lillie to twitch anxiously and look away. "Who's Sun?"

    "Oh, you hadn't heard yet?" Mallow asked, waiting a moment before accepting their silence as a 'no' and continuing. "Sun's the Champion of Alola, the last person who won the entire Island Challenge. He's the strongest Trainer I've ever seen!"

    "Wow..." Ash uttered in awe, his mind immediately constructing a scene of what it would be like to battle another regional Champion like Diantha or Alder.

    "Oh, yeah - Professor Burnet was talking about how the Champion of Alola isn't here right now. Is that right?" Brock asked, recalling their lengthy conversation with the two Professors the previous day.

    "...Yeah, that's right." Mallow confirmed, and even her jovial face fell somewhat at those words. "He helped us out a lot with some stuff that was going on during his Island Challenge, and we were all super proud to make him our Champion! But then...he just up and left, a little while after gaining the title."

    "...That's not true." Lillie spoke up, causing Mallow to look over at her in surprise. "He didn't just leave. He said...he wanted to go and explore the rest of the world, with his Pokemon at his side. I don't think he liked the idea of being stuck here watching over the trial-goers all the time..."

    "But Lillie..." Mallow countered slowly. "He kinda did just leave us. If he'd have been here, maybe none of this would even be happening right now...I mean, the two of you were the ones who stopped all that stuff that was happening last time, right? How can you - "

    "Mallow." Lillie interrupted softly, shooting the green-haired girl a smile so false that even Ash could see through it. "Please...don't. It's not his fault. If it's anybody's fault that everyone's disappearing...it's mine, for not being stronger."

    "Ugh, Lillie...I don't know why you stand up for him." Mallow remarked sadly. "Anyway...all I was saying was, thanks for coming out here and helping, all of you."

    "Yeah, of course!" Ash replied at once, waving a hand in the air dismissively, eager to shift the mood. "It's no problem. We're happy to help out!"

    "Pii-kaa!" Pikachu chimed in agreement.

    "Say..." Brock piped up, regarding the solemn-faced Lillie for a moment as an idea began to form in his head that would take their minds off the heavy manner of their situation. "What would you guys say to a battle between four of us? I think it'd be a great way for all of us to get to know each other better."

    "A battle?" Ash echoed, getting fired up at once. No matter what uncomfortable situation he was in, a casual battle with friends always seemed to be able to take his mind off things. "Yeah, that sounds great!"

    "Sure, why not?" Serena agreed, shrugging hopelessly at Ash's predictable excitement. She knew there was no sense trying to talk him down once he was like this, and it wasn't like she didn't enjoy battling to a certain extent herself. Plus, she could tell that Lillie was feeling off after the mention of the mysterious boy Sun, and if being around Ash had taught her anything, it was that Pokemon battles were one of the best ways to distract yourself for a while.

    "A battle, huh? Sure, sounds like fun!" Mallow agreed as well, after a moment of consideration. "But only on one condition - Lillie's gotta be my partner."

    "What - ?!" The blonde replied in shock, fully aware that she was by far the most inexperienced of the Trainers present.

    "Come on, Lillie - it'll be fun!" Ash urged. "Brock's used to being a judge, so it's no big deal if he has to sit out."

    "Gee, thanks, Ash." Brock replied sarcastically, placing his hands on his hips in mock annoyance.

    "Come on." Serena urged softly as well, eager to get the girl back to her usual attitude. "I'd really like to see what kind of Pokemon you've got!"

    Lillie looked up gratefully and found that she couldn't turn down all of their earnest pleas. "Well...all right, then, sure, if you really want me to. I'll battle with you all!"


    After relocating themselves, spending a few minutes following Mallow to a battlefield deeper within the city, the five had situated themselves appropriately, with Ash and Serena on one side staring down Mallow and Lillie on the other. Brock had taken his place off to the side, roughly in the middle of the field.

    "This battle will be a two-on-two Tag Battle, between the teams of Ash and Serena, and Mallow and Lillie." Brock announced, in a very official-sounding way that harkened back to his days with Ash, when he would regularly referee battles between the boy and his other companions. "Each Trainer will be allowed one Pokemon each, for a total of two Pokemon per team."

    "Just relax and have fun, Lillie." Mallow murmured under her breath. "We're all your friends here, remember?"

    "Right." Lillie replied with a smile, grateful for the girl's support.

    "You know, this might be the first time we've battled as a team like this." Serena noted, a hint of gleeful pride in her voice.

    "Huh...yeah, I think you're right." Ash responded with a grin. "Well, there's no one I'd rather be teamed up with than you."

    That comment alone made her smile from the bottom of her heart. Even though comments like those had become more and more commonplace ever since they'd gotten together, she never got tired of hearing them. It was times like these she wished they had a better handle on that elusive 'L-word' of theirs, so that she would have some way to express her feelings back to him. But, just as she'd done with every instance of this type of thing in the past, she pushed that feeling aside, and settled on a few less powerful words for the time being. "Thanks, Ash - you're my favorite partner, too!"

    "Pi-kaachu!" Pikachu groaned, feigning a bit of jealousy.

    "Aw, don't be like that, buddy." Ash reassured him. "You're my next-best choice for sure!"

    "All right - if both teams are ready, then let the battle begin!" Brock declared, swinging a knifehand down at a right angle to signify the official start of the match.

    "'Kay, Hawlucha, I choose you!" Ash exclaimed at once, rearing back and tossing one of his Poke Balls, mere moments before Serena did the same.

    "Sylveon, let's go!"

    "Luchaaaa!" Hawlucha roared, happy to be free after its fair amount of time in relative captivity.

    "Sylveon!" Sylveon chirped, shaking its head groggily as Hawlucha spread its wings.

    "Hawlucha and Sylveon, huh?" Mallow remarked, briefly sizing up the pair of Pokemon before throwing her own Poke Ball. "All right, Steenee, let's get cooking!"

    "Okay, Snowy! Come on out!"

    "Neeee!"

    "Vuul!"

    "Huh?" Ash cried in surprise, his eyes widening at the frost-blue Vulpix that emerged onto Lillie's side of the field. "Is that a Vulpix?!"

    "Yeah." Lillie answered, somewhat meek before Ash's overwhelming awe. "From what I've read, the Vulpix here look different than the ones you're probably used to, right?"

    "Yeah, they sure do." Ash remarked, nodding as he pulled out his new Pokedex. To his continued surprise, he found that the Pokedex screen displayed the white-and-blue variant he was seeing now instead of the red-and-brown one he was used to, just as Lillie had described.

    "Vulpix, the Fox Pokemon. These Vulpix have adapated to live in the harsh cold of Alola's mountains, and can exhale air colder than negative fifty-eight degrees. When they get warm, they spray the air around themselves with ice from their six tails to cool themselves off."

    "There are quite a few Pokemon that'll have different forms than you're used to, here in Alola." Mallow explained.

    "Wow. I didn't know that the same Pokemon can have different appearances like that!" Serena exclaimed in wonder.

    "The Alola region sure is amazing!" Ash agreed.

    "What's your Pokemon, Mallow?" Serena questioned, pulling out her own Pokedex as well and pointing it at the vaguely plant-looking Pokemon standing before the green-haired Captain.

    "Steenee, the Fruit Pokemon. Steenee love to bounce around energetically, and other Pokemon are naturally attracted to their lively appearance and pleasant aroma. The sepals on their heads developed to protect their bodies from predators."

    "Wow - it's so cute!" Serena cried in adoration, gazing starry-eyed at the opposing Pokemon.

    "If you two are finished, then it's time to battle!" Mallow declared, a touch of cockiness in her voice. "Steenee, let's start with Magical Leaf!"

    "Snowy, you use Ice Shard!"

    "Sylveon, use Protect!" Serena called out at once, prompting Sylveon to leap in front of Hawlucha before summoning a small, teal-colored forcefield around itself.

    "Oh, wow - look at that!" Mallow cried excitedly, speaking partially to Lily and partially to herself. "Her Sylveon knew to protect Hawlucha without even having to be told!"

    Lillie merely looked on with a slight frown as the barrage of ice and leaves collided harmlessly with Sylveon's Protect, leaving both opposing Pokemon untouched.

    "Don't worry! We've got you covered!" Serena remarked, winking toward Ash as she spoke.

    "Great - thanks, you two!" Ash responded with a smile. "All right, Hawlucha, jump high, and use X-Scissor on Steenee!"

    "Lucha!" Hawlucha responded, crouching down for a moment before making one of its signature sky-high leaps, then rolling into a spinning dive aimed at Steenee as its claws became charged with light-blue energy. "Haaaaw-lucha!"

    "Snowy, quick, stop Hawlucha with Aurora Beam!" Lillie ordered.

    "Steenee, you use Magical Leaf again!"

    "I don't think so!" Serena cut in, gesturing to her own Pokemon. "Sylveon, use Dazzling Gleam!"

    "Sylveeee-on!" Sylveon chimed, gathering up a sphere of rainbow-colored light with its feelers before firing the orb toward Lillie's Vulpix. The Aurora Beam stopped it short, but the impact also knocked Vulpix off its feet.

    "Snowy!" Lillie cried, gritting her teeth.

    "Steenee, keep going!" Mallow ordered, watching the Magical Leaf attack get blown away by Hawlucha's spinning X-Scissor. Steenee obliged and kept up the barrage, but to no avail. Hawlucha finally slammed into Steenee a moment later, sending it flying back to Mallow's feet.

    "Now, use Karate Chop on Vulpix!" Ash called, and Hawlucha ran forward, its right fist now glowing white, poised to strike at Lillie's Pokemon this time.

    "...Snowy, wait for it!" Lillie cried after a moment of hesitation. She knew that if she just fired off another attack without thinking, Sylveon would only intercept it again. Instead, she waited, watching closely until the last possible moment before Hawlucha struck. "Get ready...now, use Icy Wind!"

    "Piiiix!" Snowy screeched, rising from the ground at the last second and blasting Hawlucha with a flurry of frigid wind from its mouth.

    "Hawlucha!" Ash uttered, watching in shock as his Pokemon was quickly covered in a thin layer of ice.

    "That's our cue, Sylveon!" Serena cried, a determined look flaring up in her eyes. "Jump, and use Dazzling Gleam on Steenee!"

    "Sylveee-ooon!" Sylveon chirped, bounding up as high as it could before once again gathering up the motes of light around it and firing them at Steenee in a concentrated orb.

    "Okay, Steenee, now use Rapid Spin!"

    "Stee-neee!" Steenee obliged, launching into a twirl in place that also served to make the sapels on its head spin around as well. When Dazzling Gleam collided with it, the impact was shrugged off by the spinning motion.

    "What? It didn't work?!" Serena said, clearly surprised by the unconvential method defense.

    "Oh, wow...I didn't know you could use Rapid Spin like that!" Ash remarked in admiration.

    Mallow heard his comment and smiled, raising a hand toward Hawlucha. "Now, use Double Slap on Hawlucha!"

    Steenee then jumped forward, both of its hands beginning to light up white as it continued to spin. It moved to strike Hawlucha with each hand as they came around, the second attack sending the Wrestling Pokemon sailing through the air before landing a few feet away from Sylveon with a thud, the thin shell of ice around it shattering as it hit the ground.

    "Snowy, quick, use Aurora Beam!" Lillie called, aiming to hit them before Hawlucha could recover.

    "Sylveon, use Protect!"

    Just as it had at the start of the match, Sylveon jumped in front of Hawlucha protectively just as the multicolored beam of frost streaked through the air toward them. Just before it impacted, Sylveon's teal-colored forcefield shimmered into existence, diverting the attack away harmlessly for the second time.

    "Now, use Swift!"

    Mallow and Lillie's eyes both widened, surprised that Serena would call another attack when the smoke from Aurora Beam had scarcely even cleared yet. They both called for their Pokemon to dodge, even though they knew that they probably didn't have enough time to do so.

    "Hawlucha, you okay?" Ash asked worriedly, as Sylveon launched a golden flurry of star-shaped projectiles toward both Steenee and Vulpix.

    "Lu-cha!" Hawlucha confirmed, clenching a fist energetically as it rose back to its feet.

    "Great!" Ash sighed in relief. "Then let's get back in there!"

    He cast his eyes across the field as the smoke from Sylveon's Swift attack cleared. It seemed to have hit both opposing Pokemon, and Ash's smile widened as he prepared to call for his next attack.

    "Wow - you two are good, all right." Mallow declared suddenly, brandishing the large black bracelet that was on her wrist as Steenee drew up beside her. "Looks like I'm gonna have to show off my Mallow Special!"

    "Uh...maybe that isn't the best idea right now - " Lillie began, but the Grass-type Trainer wasn't listening; she had already brought her arms together and shot them into the sky, performing a vague impression of a budding plant, which Steenee mimicked, as both her bracelet and Steenee began humming vigorously with energy.

    "Okay, Steenee, let's do it!" Mallow cried excitedly, keeping her arms held high like tree branches as a vibrant green aura flowed smoothly from her Z-Ring into Steenee. "Use Bloom Doom!"

    "Steeeee..." Steenee chimed, twirling around slowly as its aura of energy began to expand outward at a rapid pace, leaving what appeared to be fields of flowers in its wake.

    "Hey, what's it doing...?" Ash inquired, unsure of how to respond to the strange actions being taken by both Mallow and her Pokemon.

    "Is that an attack?" Serena asked, possessing no more knowledge on the matter than Ash did.

    "NEEEEEEEE!" Steenee roared, the energy around it suddenly erupting into an explosion. The shockwave travelled right up to the edge of the faux-flower meadow, catching both Hawlucha and Sylveon in the blast radius.

    "Hawlucha, no!"

    "Sylveon!"

    When the smoke cleared, both Pokemon were lying unconcious at their Trainers' feet. The attack only seemed to have moved forward from Steenee's body, however, and as such, Lillie's Vulpix was still standing, apparently untouched by the attack.

    "Both Hawlucha and Sylveon are unable to battle! The winners are Mallow and Lillie!" Brock declared, raising a hand to signify the end of the match.

    "...Come on back, Hawlucha." Ash spoke softly after a moment, recalling his Pokemon back into its Ball. "You did great out there. Take a nice, long rest, okay?"

    "Sylveon, return." Serena said, following suit with Ash. "You were amazing. Thank you!"

    "You guys battled well together." Mallow remarked heartily, Ash noticing that both Steenee and Vulpix had already been recalled as the two girls strode across the battlefield, their Pokemon nowhere in sight. "I guess I should've expected that!"

    "Not as well as you." Ash shot back playfully. "Hey, so what kind of attack was that, anyway? The one that you and Steenee used to finish us off?"

    "Oh, that was a Z-Move." Mallow answered nonchalantly. "Didn't the Professors tell you about those?"

    "Well, yeah, a little bit, I guess, but seeing them in person is totally different!"

    Everyone shared a good laugh at Ash's child-like excitement over what had just defeated him in a battle. As the group continued talking, however, something far up in the sky managed to grab Serena's attention.

    "Huh...?" Serena murmured softly, looking up as she witnessed what she could only describe as a portal begin to open up in the sky above them. "Hey, what's that...?"

    "What?" Mallow responded, her eyes shooting up to the sky as well. When she realized what the strange phenomenon in the sky was, her expression turned to anger. "Oh, no - !"

    "What? What is it?!" Ash demanded, all five Trainers now looking skyward as what appeared to be a single Pokemon emerged from the wormhole. It was mostly pink, and seemed to have the majority of its body encased in a shell, with only its head and two stubby arms sticking out of one end, with the rest of the shell resting atop its head.

    "For it to appear now, of all times - I knew it had something to do with Z-Energy!" Lillie declared, her eyes not leaving the mysterious Pokemon floating high in the sky. "I hope you guys are ready for a fight!"

    "You don't mean - !" Brock began, only to cut himself short as he looked down to Lillie, who nodded to confirm his suspicions. His mouth dropped open, and he gazed back up at the shell-clad Pokemon in horror. After a moment, it turned its own gaze down on them, and swooped down toward Mallow without a second thought.

    "It's Tapu Lele!"​

     
  6. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Chapter 6: Grappling with a Guardian​


    "It's Tapu Lele!"

    Lillie's voice rang through the air as Ash and Serena could only watch in stunned silence, not quite processing what had just happened quite yet. The Guardian of Akala Island wasn't waiting for them to figure it out, however, and dove straight down toward the green-haired Trainer standing near Lillie, whose eyes were also locked on the Legendary Pokemon in disbelief.

    "Go, Steelix! Use Iron Tail!"

    A gigantic flash of light followed Brock's cry as he released his partner directly between Tapu Lele and Mallow. Steelix wasted no time in whipping its tail around once it emerged, aiming to swat the opposing Pokemon out of the sky with its serpent-like body.

    "Come on, Ash, snap out of it!" Brock urged worriedly as Steelix's attack narrowly missed its mark, Tapu Lele having dodged to the side just in time. The pink, shell-clad Pokemon then swerved around the imposing Iron Snake Pokemon and prepared to make another pass on Mallow, who instinctively took a few steps back from Steelix. "This is what we're here for, remember? It's up to us to try and stop that thing!"

    "Yeah, you're right!" Ash remarked, his signature fire back in his voice now that he had snapped out of his momentary trance. He glanced over at Serena and locked eyes with her, reaffirming to himself that she was still nearby.

    "I'm ready!" Serena assured him, producing a Poke Ball from her bag and stepping up beside him. "Braixen, I choose you!"

    Ash managed a small smile despite himself before throwing a Poke Ball of his own. "Talonflame, let's go!"

    "Braiiixen!"

    "Taloooon!"

    As Tapu Lele circled around and dove toward Mallow again, all three Pokemon took their places to stop it this time.

    "Talonflame, use Flame Charge!"

    "Talooon-flaaaame!" Talonflame cried, flapping its wings to gain speed as it put itself on an intercept course with Tapu Lele, cloaking itself in an aura of fire as it sped across the sky. It slammed partway into the Island Guardian's shell a moment later, clipping it with its attack before speeding off to circle around and wait for further instructions.

    "Braixen, Hidden Power!" Serena called, Tapu Lele not appearing to be at all fazed by Talonflame's attack.

    "Braiii-xen!" Braixen sang, whipping its bow-tied twig wand out of its tail and twirling it around before brandishing it like a sword, pointed directly at Tapu Lele. A flurry of energy-filled orbs materialized in a circle around the Fox Pokemon before shooting off toward the shell-clad opponent before them.

    Ash saw an opportunity to catch Tapu Lele between a rock and a hard place, and decided to take it on a whim. "Talonflame, quick, use Razor Wind!"

    Talonflame obliged at once, shifting to a hovering position as its wings became engulfed with white energy. After a moment, it swung them down dliberately, generating a series of razor-sharp blades of wind that shot straight toward Tapu Lele.

    The Island Guardian's eyes shot back and forth between both oncoming attacks before coming to a sudden stop in midair - and promptly withdrawing back into its shell. It tucked its head and hair in neatly so that none of its body was visible from the outside, and then simply hung there as the two attacks collided with its outer layer.

    "Huh?!" Ash remarked incredulously, surprised that it wouldn't even try to dodge the oncoming attacks.

    "Is that Withdraw?!" Brock uttered in disbelief, rather taken aback that a Legendary Pokemon would be making use of such a simple move. Neither of them had long to wonder about it, however, as it emerged from its protective shell a moment later and continued its descent toward Mallow.

    "Now, Braixen, use Flamethrower!"

    "Braiii-xen!" Braixen sang, pointing its wand at Tapu Lele once again. A stream of fire burst forth from the tip of the stick a moment later, streaking through the air and slamming into Tapu Lele's exposed face before it could react.

    "Good shot, Braixen! You got it!" Ash exclaimed happily in a celebratory tone.

    "No - it shouldn't be that easy." Brock remarked disdainfully, a serious expression on his face. "The people of Alola call these things Legendary Pokemon, after all, remember?"

    As if on cue, the signature pink shell-clad Guardian shot through the smoke from Flamethrower a second later, now close enough to Mallow to reach out and grab her if it tried to. For a brief moment, Lillie prepared to run out in front of her friend in some vain attempt to shield her, but as it turned out, there was no need.

    "Steelix, use Gyro Ball!" Brock roared at once, causing his Pokemon to follow suit, once again striking with its tail, though this time the tip of said tail was whirring around like it was hooked up to a motor. It slammed into Tapu Lele head-on and sent the Legendary Pokemon sailing back across the battlefield and into an alleyway, out of their sight.

    The group was silent for a moment as they all took a much-needed breath, each of them watching the alleyway with anticipation.

    "Do you think...that got it?" Ash asked meekly, as Talonflame finished its circle around the area and landed on the ground in front of him.

    "Piiikachu." Pikachu replied, which, to Ash, sounded an awful lot like 'I don't know'.

    "Well, Tapu Lele is a Fairy-Type, so it should be weak to those Steel-type attacks." Lillie explained briefly, her tone not entirely convinced. "But...no, I don't think it's finished already. The Island Guardians are some of the strongest Pokemon in the entire Alola region."

    "Lillie's right." Mallow nodded, swallowing for what felt like the first time in hours. Beads of sweat dripped down her face as she remembered what had happened to Olivia and the rest of her friends, and she realized just how afraid she was of having the same thing happen to her. "I think Tapu Lele is just getting started."

    "Come on, let's go after it!" Brock rallied, glancing at Ash and Serena for confirmation. They both nodded back in unison and took off down the alleyway, their Pokemon following not far behind.

    Lillie watched them go, gripping the straps of her backpack in frustration. "I have to help them...even if my Pokemon are no match for Tapu Lele, I have to try..."

    "Hey, Lillie, we should go, too - we don't wanna be left here without them!" Mallow urged, before taking off after Ash and the others herself. Lillie watched her go for a moment before following suit.


    "It's a good thing nobody else is around here right now..." Serena noted, as the three of them, plus their Pokemon, made their way through the narrow alleyway. The space wasn't too much of a problem for just the three of them; it was certainly wide enough for people to walk through, and as far as their Pokemon were concerned, Braixen was even smaller than they were, and Talonflame was simply hovering overhead. Brock's Steelix, on the other hand, was a different story.

    Fortunately, they emerged from the sidestreet only a few moments later - and found Tapu Lele lying in a small crater, right in the middle of the road.

    "What was that you were saying about nobody being around?" Brock remarked warily, noticing a good number of passerbys that had stopped and were staring at the Land Spirit Pokemon in awe.

    "Oh, no..." Serena murmured. "If we have to fight it in a place like this, all of these people here could get hurt!"

    Ash caught on to her concern at once, and ran out into the street between them and Tapu Lele, turning to regard the onlookers at once.

    "Hey, everybody! You all have to get away from here, it's not safe!" Ash announced, which only served to stoke the crowd's curiosity.

    "Not safe?" One of the onlookers questioned. "But isn't that Tapu Lele, the Guardian of Akala Island?"

    "Yes, it is, but something's wrong with it!" Serena insisted, stepping out into the street as well, with Brock following right behind her. "Please, listen to us, you all have to get away!"

    "But isn't it supposed to a blessing to be allowed to meet the Tapu?"

    "Yeah, that's right - and I heard that Tapu Lele's scales have powerful healing properties, too!"

    "You don't understand!" Brock boomed over the steadily-growing chatter of the surrounding crowd. "This Pokemon isn't well right now - it tried to attack one of your Trial Captains!"

    "He's right!" Mallow spoke, as she and Lillie emerged from the alleyway and joined the trio in the street. "The Tapu isn't well right now - it's out of control! So please, listen to us, and get far away from here!"

    There was some mild banter between the civilians before the seemed to decide that either Mallow was right, or that it simply wasn't worth the trouble to argue with a group of five Pokemon Trainers about it anymore, and the crowd began to steadily disperse.

    "Hey, thanks, Mallow." Ash said sheepishly, smiling at her in gratitude. "I don't think they were gonna listen to just us."

    The green-haired Trainer met his smile with one of her own, and was about to reply when she saw a shape rising up behind Ash's shoulder.

    "Hey - behind you!"

    They turned around at once, only to be met with the sight of the shell-clad Guardian Pokemon rising up from the ground slowly. Then, in an instant, its head snapped forward, and its eyes shone a brilliant pink, as a similarly-colored wave of energy shot out from its body.

    "What is this?" Serena asked to no one in particular, watching as the entire area around them turned a strange shade of distorted pink. The effect was centered on none other than Tapu Lele, who erupted with an explosive aura of amber-colored energy a moment later.

    "It's Psychic Surge, Tapu Lele's ability..." Mallow explained, keeping her eyes locked on Tapu Lele. "But that energy field around it...that's Z-Energy!" She shifted her gaze to Lillie, her fear showing through to her younger companion.

    "Yeah, you're right..." Lillie agreed, guessing her friend's question but unable to provide an answer for it. Without a Z-Crystal, it should have been impossible to produce the energy typically associated with them. The only exceptions that were known were the Totem Pokemon, and that had already been more or less confirmed to have been the Trial sites themselves that were awash with Z-Energy as opposed to the Pokemon within them.

    "Z-Energy?" Ash repeated blankly, looking at his companions for assistance.

    "That's what you used against us in our battle, wasn't it?" Serena asked, remembering the game-changing burst of energy that Mallow and Steenee had used to win against herself and Ash.

    "Yeah, but you shouldn't be able to produce it without a Z-Crystal!" Mallow answered worriedly, reaching for one of her Poke Balls. "You know what - I've had enough of this. I'm gonna help you guys out - "

    "It doesn't matter what kind of energy its got!" Ash cut in eagerly, swinging his arm out and gesturing at Tapu Lele. "Talonflame, use Flame Charge!"

    Talonflame obliged, once again cloaking itself in an aura of flames as it rode toward the Island Guardian. But just before it made contact, Tapu Lele locked its gaze on the approaching Scorching Pokemon, and caught in a brilliant golden beam that suddenly sprouted from its arms. The Extrasensory attack acted like a tractor beam, suspending Talonflame in midair helplessly.

    "Talonflame!" Ash cried, watching in shock as Tapu Lele swung its arms to the side and ceased its attack, causing Talonflame to get launched straight into a nearby building.

    "That's it! I'm not just gonna sit here any longer - !" Lillie thought, but she was cut off by a loud screech from Tapu Lele as it once again retreated into its shell, flipping over in midair after it was fully withdrawn.

    "What's that...?" Serena asked, once again to no one in particular, just as Tapu Lele slammed its shell down into the ground. And, the next thing they knew, they were all thrown to the ground hard, as if being forced down by an unseen force.

    "Wh-what is this - ?!" Ash demanded, Pikachu sliding off his shoulder and hitting the ground as well. "Is this an attack?!"

    "Y-yeah, I think so!" Mallow answered in exasperation, trying desperately to climb back to her feet, but to no avail. "All of the Tapus have a special move that only they can use called Nature's Madness - and they're all really powerful!"

    "Then...this has gotta be Tapu Lele's Nature's Madness! It must be a Psychic-type move!" Brock declared, managing to get back to his knees before being thrown to the ground again. Even Steelix was being forced to the ground, in all its grand stature.

    As they all struggled against the psychic onslaught, Tapu Lele emerged from its shell and righted itself in the air, eyes glowing a vicious pink. It then held its arms out and fired a second Extrasensory attack straight at Mallow, which none of them were able to defend against.

    "Mallow!" Lillie cried, forced to watch in vain as the concentrated golden beam struck Mallow continously, Tapu Lele holding her in its grasp until the Grass-type Trainer was literally knocked out cold from the strain.

    Tapu Lele drew closer and closer to Mallow, not stopping the attack until it was right next to her, at which point it reached down and grabbed her limp body, positioning it roughly on the rim of the bottom half of its shell. Then, it simply looked up to the sky, and as if on cue, a portal identical to the one that it had arrived out of burst into existence.

    "M-Mallow...no...!" Lillie grunted, trying in vain to fight against the psychic force holding her down. She watched helplessly as Tapu Lele flew off toward the portal in the sky, taking her friend along with it.

    "Come on...move...move...!" Ash spat angrily, gritting his teeth as he tried over and over to rise to his feet, only to be thrown back to the ground every time. He looked up and saw Pikachu suffering from a similar fate only a few feet in front of him, as well as Talonflame, pinned to the ground across the street. "Darn it...! Pikachu, use Thunderbolt!"

    "Pika...!" Pikachu choked out, taking a moment to gather its energy even as it was being forced to the ground. "Pikaaa-chuuuu!"

    The Electric-type attack went off all the same, though Pikachu was unable to aim it at anything in particular, and so, it ended up arcing off into the sky harmlessly, not even coming close to hitting its intended target. Tapu Lele spared a glance back toward Ash, eyeing him oddly for a moment before continuing upward.

    "Argh...Steelix, use Stone Edge!" Brock ordered frantically, taking Ash's cue and betting on the slim chance that one of their attacks could knock Tapu Lele off course - and possibly even stop its Nature's Madness attack in the process.

    "Steel..." Steelix mumbled, mustering all of its strength and drawing its head up off the ground by a few feet before slamming its chin back down, using the psychic force pulling it down to its advantage. "Steel-iiix!"

    A series of blue-tinted stalactites shot up out of the ground at once, travelling forward in a linear fashion away from Steelix's head. This actually put the attack right in line with Tapu Lele' flight path, but all it took was a quick reactionary ascent from the Island Guardian to dodge Steelix's last-ditch effort of an attack.

    "Mallow..." Lillie heaved, desperately reaching around behind her in a futile attempt to grab one of her Poke Balls. She was forced to watch helplessly as Tapu Lele flew straight into the wormhole, taking the unconscious Mallow with it as well. "Please...come back...!"

    As soon as the Island Guardian had vanished, the psychic hold it had on all of them was released, as well as the Psychic Terrain that it had created to battle them under. As Ash and the others climbed to their feet, kneading their muscles to alleviate the strain that had been put on them over the last few minutes, Lillie remained on the ground, fists clenched in solemn frustration.

    "Lillie..." Serena began softly, making her way over to the girl and placing a hand on her shoulder gently. She wasn't quite sure what to say to her; by all intents, herself, Ash, and Brock had failed in their job to protect Mallow.

    "Piiika..." Pikachu murmured, a shroud over its usually cheerful face.

    "Zeeen..." Braixen chirped softly, looking back and forth between Serena and Lillie, wishing that there was something it could do to cheer them up.

    "I'm sorry, Lillie." Ash said finally. "We were supposed to protect her, but we couldn't do it. That Tapu Lele's a lot stronger than I thought it'd be..."

    "I'm sorry, too." Brock added roughly. "I'm the one who went on about how I used to be a Gym Leader, but I wasn't able to do anything at all to that thing."

    Lillie was silent for a long while, trying her hardest not to cry. This was the first time that she had been a direct witness to one of the Tapu attacks - not to mention that Mallow was easily one of the Captains she was closest with - and watching her friend get taken away right in front of her was hitting her harder than she expected.

    "...It's okay. It isn't your fault." Lillie murmured sadly, finally climbing to her feet after allowing herself a few moments to process everything. "If anything, I should be thanking you...at least you tried to protect her."

    A dreary silence crept up between all of them at her words, as neither Ash, Serena, nor Brock knew how to respond to the girl. Finally, Brock decided to speak up. "...I think we should get back to the Dimensional Research Lab. We have to tell Professor Kukui and Professor Burnet what happened here."

    "Yeah, you're right." Ash agreed, taking a moment to make sure that Pikachu was all right before crossing the remainder of the street and producing Talonflame's Poke Ball. "Come on back, Talonflame. You did great."

    "You return, too, Braixen." Serena said, pulling out Braixen's Poke Ball as well.

    "Steelix, you take a rest, too." Brock finished, pointing Steelix's Poke Ball at it. And, three flashes of red light later, the three Pokemon had vanished back into their capsules.

    "Come on." Serena prompted, holding her hand out to Lillie. "Let's get going."


    After making their way back to the Dimensional Research Lab, the group wasted no time in recounting their encounter with Tapu Lele to both Professors. To their surprise, however, neither of them seemed to be particularly upset, or even surprised, at the way things turned out.

    "I thought we detected an anomaly in the space around Heahea City a little while ago..." Professor Burnet remarked, referring to the strange portal in the sky that Tapu Lele had summoned to come and go from the city. "We call them Ultra Hormholes, by the way. This isn't the first time we've seen them - but the Tapu shouldn't have control over them like that..."

    Professor Kukui was silent at first, putting a hand to his chin as he processed the fact that yet another Captain had now disappeared. "So...now Mallow's gone, too, then..."

    The trio of foreign Trainers looked at the ground in dismay. Brock was the one who spoke up first, feeling more responsible for their failure than even Ash or Serena due to his age. "I'm sorry, Professor. And after all the trouble you went through to bring us out here..."

    "Hey, I don't blame you guys for losing to the Guardian Pokemon - if any of us could defeat one of them, we wouldn't be in this mess, would we?" Kukui remarked, almost laughing despite the situation in an attempt to cheer them up. "But, listen...this means that there aren't any more Captains or kahunas left here on Akala Island. We need you to head over to Ula'ula Island next. There's actually two people with Z-Crystals left over there - the island kahuna, Nanu, and one of the Captains, a young girl by the name of Acerola."

    "Now that Mallow is gone as well, there's only one other Z-Crystal holder besides those two still here in Alola, and she's on Poni Island." Burnet explained. "I know the Tapu are powerful - but please. Protect Nanu and Acerola with everything you have."

    Ash, Serena, and Brock all shared a look of silent agreement before turning back to the Professors in unison.

    "If you're still willing to trust us, then, of course we'll help you." Brock answered confidently. "We'll watch over those two over there until you two can figure out how to stop all of this."

    "Mallow was our friend, too." Serena added sadly. "We won't let the same thing happen to anyone else!"

    "Yeah, you can count on it!" Ash finished dramatically. "The next time one of those Guardian Pokemon shows up, we'll take it down for sure!"

    Lillie couldn't help but be reminded of Sun when she saw the resolve practically emanating off the three of them. They had the same kind of drive that she saw in him - the drive that had inspired her so much back during Sun's Island Challenge. And seeing it displayed so prominently in these Trainers, as well - she couldn't help but want to be a part of their journey, even if only briefly.

    "I want to go, too!" Lillie spoke up all of a sudden, somewhat surprising even herself. The whole room looked at her in shock, but it was Professor Burnet who spoke up to address her first.

    "Lillie? Are you sure?"

    The blonde nodded in response. "Yes. I know I'm not very strong yet, but...I have to do something to help. Hau, Gladion, and even..." She took a deep breath, steadying herself before continuing. "...even Sun; they're all gone. There's no one left but me. I'm not just going to sit here and watch as my friends are taken away right in front of my eyes!"

    "Yeah, I'm right there with you!" Ash agreed, pumping his fist at her supportively.

    "Me, too. I'd love for you to come along with us!" Serena added.

    "Well, I guess that's decided. Welcome aboard, Lillie." Brock said simply, nodding his agreement as well.

    "Pika! Pi-kachuuu!" Pikachu chimed in, greeting their new companion in his own unique way.

    Lillie blinked, having not quite expected such an earnest reply from all of them. As she saw all of them beaming at her, however, she found that she couldn't help but smile herself. "Yeah - thanks, you guys!" It was at that moment, however, that she realized she had forgotten something in her eagerness to go and stop the Island Guardians. "O-oh, um..."

    Both Professors were already smiling back at her knowingly by the time she turned to face them, a slightly guilty look on her face. "I think I know what you're gonna say, cousin, and don't even worry about it."

    "Huh?" She responded, not understanding Professor Kukui's nonchalance. "B-but..."

    "You stopped being my assistant a long time ago." Kukui remarked seriously. "I've been letting you stay with me all this time because you're my friend."

    Lillie found that she could only beam at him in response, a gesture which he met with a brilliant smile of his own. "Now, you kids get out of here - I'll get you all passage to Ula'ula Island as soon as I can, but in the meantime, try to go and enjoy yourselves! I know you could use some fun after what you've just been through."

    "Professor..." Lillie stammered, finding herself at a loss for words. "Thank you."

    She bowed politely to him, and after Ash, Serena, and Brock exchanged a quick series of farewells with the Professors, the four of them were off, each of them as eager as the next not to fail the next time.​
     
  7. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Chapter 7: Pledges, New and Old


    After dismissing themselves from the Dimensional Research Lab, the group of now-four made a brief attempt at returning to their exploration of the various stores in town, but quickly discovered instead that none of them were in the mood for having fun anymore, given the encounter with Tapu Lele earlier that afternoon.

    Instead, they resorted to finding a middle-of-the-road restaurant and eating their fill for the time being, with Brock stepping forward to pay everyone's bill this time, partially due to his lingering guilt over being no more effective at stopping Mallow's abduction than his younger companions.

    At the very least, however, the universal distraction that was food seemed to work its magic on all four of them, and before long they had begun chatting amongst themselves. It wasn't hard to find things to talk about, given that Brock hadn't seen Ash in years, and none of the others even knew each other at all, excluding Ash and Serena - and, in fact, their relationship ended up being one of the first things that was brought up as a topic of discussion.

    "So, Ash, if you don't me asking, how long has this little situation been going on?" Brock asked, his eyes dancing between Ash and Serena suggestively, just as the former finished a gulp of his drink. Lillie took a sip of her own beverage and remained silent, equally eager to hear the history between the two, though not as willing to admit it.

    "Ahaha..." Ash chuckled nervously, scratching the back of his head in embarassment. "To tell you the truth, I dunno...it feels it's been forever."

    "Forever?" Serena echoed back in mock frustration. "Oh, I'm sorry - I didn't realize it was such a chore to spend time with me!"

    "Huh?!" Ash remarked in utter confusion as Serena put on a rather convincing pouty-face. "Th-that's not what I meant! Come on, Serena..."

    Serena maintained her facade for a minute as Brock and Lillie laughed at their antics. It wasn't often that she allowed herself to be hard on Ash for anything, really, so when the situation arose, she pressed herself to take advantage of it.

    "But seriously..." Ash said, a hint of exasperation in his voice when he turned back to Brock and Lillie. "We've been together a long time. I met up with Serena right after getting to Kalos, and that's when I found out that she had actually come looking for me! Turns out, we actually knew each other when we were kids!"

    "When you were kids?" Brock repeated back. "Wait, so you two had actually met before running into each other in Kalos?"

    Serena nodded in response, enjoying the chance to indulge herself and venture back down memory lane for a while. "Yep, that's right - I had actually gone to one of Professor Oak's Pokemon summer camps over in Kanto! Though Ash didn't remember me at all until a little later..."

    "Yeah, that sounds like Ash." Brock confirmed with another laugh, as Ash looked away under a shadow of guilt. "Well, then...what was your first date like?" The older trainer continued, fully aware that he was prying into their business, but interested to hear more about them all the same. "I still can't quite wrap my head around this whole 'Ash has a girlfriend' thing..."

    "Yeah, I don't think we could at first, either." Serena admitted, laughing despite herself, while Ash merely smiled in agreement and blushed. She looked over and met his eyes as she shought back to what would've been considered their first official 'date'. "Well...I guess it would be the day of the festival in Coumarine City? You know, with the Pledging Tree?"

    "Oh, yeah!" Ash exclaimed, as if he'd just remembered the events of that day and couldn't wait to share them with everyone. "That was a special day for us and our Pokemon."

    "Right...and I think that's why it sticks out to me all the more."

    "The Pledging Tree?" Brock repeated back ignorantly, mirroring the look of confusion that was also present on Lillie's face. "What's a Pledging Tree?"

    "Well, it's this gigantic tree on the outskirts of Coumarine City, back in Kalos." Ash began eagerly, gesturing up toward the ceiling with his arms to demonstrate the unusual size of the tree in question.

    "Mm-hm. And once a year, the city holds a festival where Trainers give their Pokemon presents by the tree..."


    "...Okay, Bonnie, it's up to you! Have fun taking care of them!" Ash remarked, having just released his entire roster of Pokemon out onto the street, fully trusting the young girl to watch after them.

    "And since I'll be making my presents, I can help Bonnie watch them, too! We're all gonna have a great time!" Clemont added as he released his own Pokemon into the mix, as well.

    "De-ne-ne!" Dedenne chimed happily.

    "'Kay, ready? Follooow me!" Bonnie said excitedly in a singsong voice, cheerfully skipping off toward the Pokemon Center with the herd of Pokemon and her big brother in tow.

    Ash and Serena gazed after them as the left, only to catch a glimpse of Bonnie turning around and winking at them slyly as the automatic doors shut behind her, leaving the couple all on their own for what seemed like the first time since...certain recent events.

    "...Ready to go?" Ash asked easily, trying to stave off the uneasiness he felt at suddenly being alone with her by doing his usual thing and simply moving forward.

    Serena tried to answer, but instead found that her voice got caught in her throat, and she could only muster an affirmative grunt instead. As the two of them set off down the street together, Serena made it a point to stay in step with Ash; she'd already discovered that she enjoyed the small feeling of pride it gave her to walk alongside him in public. When she went to reach for his hand, however, she found that her own hand froze up, and she was unable to follow through on what should have been a simple gesture to the person that was supposed to be her boyfriend.

    "So, what are you looking for?"

    "I-I'm not really sure yet..."

    Their attempt at small talk betrayed how nervous and inexperienced the two were when it actually came to spending time alone together, despite the fact that they were, in fact, supposed to be in a relationship with each other.

    Ever since that day a few weeks prior, when the two of them had confessed their feelings to each other, interaction between the two had become tense and stiff, like neither of them knew how to act around the other anymore. Serena had hoped that going off to find presents for their Pokemon together would serve as a good excuse to potentially break down that barrier, but so far, their 'date' didn't appear to be going as planned.

    "Hey, what's that...?" Ash remarked quizzically, spying a small stall against the side of the street, lined with what appeared to be a series of caged-up Pokemon. They strode over to the storefront together, both of them secretly glad to finally have something to talk about.

    "Are those...Pokemon in those cages...?"

    "That's exactly right, miss." The broad-shouldered shopkeeper responded, his deep, guttural voice matching perfectly with the large arms protruding out from his sleeveless gray tank-top. He chewed the bamboo sprig stuck in his teeth thoroughly as he looked down at them apprehensively, as if he were sizing up whether or not they were actual customers. "I've got Pokemon from all over the Kalos region for sale here, and then some. Between me and my partners, we bring in species from all over the place."

    "'For sale'?" Ash echoed back to him, a hint of disdain rising in his voice. "What do you mean, 'for sale'?"

    Serena bent down and looked into one of the cages, and sure enough, a live Swablu was there, peering back at her helplessly from the other side of the bars. It looked thin, like it hadn't eaten in a few days. "Are you...selling these Pokemon?!"

    "Of course." The man affirmed casually, as if that should have been obvious. "You wouldn't believe how many Trainers come by here looking for a Pokemon that they couldn't find out there on their own. Or how many parents I see, picking up a new pet for their kids." He shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. "Pokemon catching isn't just for Trainers, you know. Even you kids should know that much."

    Ash looked around at some of the cages with Serena, mulling over the man's words for a moment. A small part of him had to admit, there was some truth to the idea. Even if he personally believed that a Pokemon should be discovered and caught on your own, he couldn't discount the fact that there were many to whom this kind of service was a welcome convenience.

    And yet...

    "Yeah, maybe you're right." Ash confessed - though his tone didn't lighten in the slightest. He knelt down and inspected another of the cages, and found a passed-out Electrike lying at the bottom of it. "But the way you're treating these Pokemon is wrong!"

    "Huh?" The man grumbled incredulously, like he couldn't believe what he had just heard.

    "Yeah, he's right!" Serena agreed, still crouched near the cage with the Swablu in it. The tiny blue Pokemon inside seemed to be looking out at her expectantly, like it was waiting for her to take it home. "It doesn't matter what kind of business you're running, there's no excuse for treating Pokemon like this! It's not right!"

    "Hey, listen, you brats." The man rumbled, taking a step forward threateningly, despite the fact that there was a countertop between them. "The only thing that isn't right around here is how much my rent costs in this crazy city. You really think I care how happy my merchandise is when I sell 'em? As long as they're still alive, that's all that matters to me."

    "Merchandise..." Serena murmured sadly, looking back down at the Swablu with a clenched fist. "That's not what they are..."

    Ash gritted his teeth at the man angrily, about to say something back, when the man cut him off. "Now, are you gonna buy anything or not? Cause if not, I'd suggest getting out of here and leaving my store alone."

    Serena glared daggers at the man, but finally decided that there was nothing they could do. "Come on, Ash, let's go."

    She turned to walk away, eager to put the store and the sad state of all its captive Pokemon out of her mind, but Ash remained behind for a moment, scanning the cages quizzically before finally setting his sights on the Swablu that Serena had been looking at.

    "What are you, deaf?" The man bit sharply, slamming his hand down on the counter. "I said either buy something or get lost, kid!"

    Ash looked at the man one final time before turning and running after Serena, an idea slowly forming in his mind.

    "Yeah, good riddance..."

    Their shopping during the rest of the afternoon was rather uneventful in comparison; they looked around at a bunch of shops, tossed a few ideas back and forth at each other, but couldn't quite find anything that felt right for their Pokemon. Just as Serena had finally worked up the courage to try and hold hands with him, he edged out of her grasp just as she was reaching for him.

    "Hey, Serena, I think I saw a store back there that looked really cool." Ash explained quickly, pointing to some random direction behind him and quickly stepping away from her. "I'll meet you back at the Pokemon Center, okay?"

    "Wha - ? But, Ash - !" Serena called, but he was already gone, leaving her standing there alone in the middle of the street, and she couldn't help but pout a bit as she realized that he had just ditched her on what was supposed to be their first date. "...Do you have to go so soon...?"

    Meanwhile, as Ash frantically retraced his steps through the streets of the city, he couldn't help feeling immensely guilty for treating Serena the way he had, even if it was ultimately for her sake. "Oh, man...I could have at least come up with a better excuse..."

    When he finally found his way back to the imposing Pokemon hunter, he swallowed hard, cast his pride aside, and strode right up the counter.

    "Well, well, look who it is." The man grinned devilishly, entertained by the fact that Ash had actually returned. He looked around, noticing that Serena wasn't with him this time, and fingered the sprig in his mouth pointedly. "Where's your little girlfriend, huh? She get lost or something?"

    Ash glared at the man, but said nothing back. There was nothing he could do to stop this man's actions, immoral as they might have been, and so had decided to merely do what he could for at least one of the captive Pokemon instead. "...How much are they?"

    "Oho...so you want to buy one of them after all, do you?" The man chortled, putting a hand to his chin as he regarded the young Trainer. "Well, a Trainer like you should know that no two Pokemon are created equal - so the price depends on which one you want."

    Ash looked around at the cages again, wishing there was something he could do for all of them, but instead settled on the one he'd originally come back for. He walked over and knelt down in front of the same Swablu cage that Serena had been looking at, the tiny Pokemon inside once again peering out with pleading eyes.

    "This one." Ash answered in a low voice.

    "Huh...Swablu, eh?" The man remarked, regarding Ash with increased interest. "That's the same one your friend was looking at earlier, isn't it?"

    "...How much?" Ash repeated, trying to keep his temper in check.

    "Hmm...well, being a Dragon-type and all, that one wasn't particularly easy to catch." The man boasted, even though Ash was fully aware that Swablu didn't become a Dragon-type until it evolved into Altaria. "Not to mention that I know you're only buying it for your girlfriend, and, well...let's just say I don't particularly like you two."

    Ash wanted to bite back a retort at him, but he maintained his composure, for the sake of both Swablu and Serena. The man closed his eyes and thought for a long time, so long that Ash almost spoke up again, before finally giving his answer. "One hundred thousand."

    Ash's eyes widened in disbelief. "O-one hundred thousand?!"

    "That's the price, kid. To be honest, I shouldn't even be letting you shop here, after how you trash-talked my store earlier. But, business is business - plus, I think that one's on the way out, anyway, so you might be my last chance to actually make something off of it."

    Ash gritted his teeth in frustration - at the absurdly inflated price, the nonchalance with which the man spoke about his Pokemon's terrible living conditions, the fact that he was allowed to get away with things like this in the first place - all of it. He clenched his fists angrily, a flurry of words he so desperately wanting to say flooding through his mind, but he pushed them all down, thinking once again of Serena to calm his flaring temper.

    The price was steep to a ridiculous degree, but he could afford it - if he decided to forego his savings for the next six months. His mother usually sent him money every now and then, and it was simply up to him to manage his spending accordingly, usually with the help of his friends. But even he knew that this was way out of his price range. But even so, he found that he couldn't simply walk away and leave Swablu alone with this man for another day.

    "...Fine."

    The man smiled at Ash's submission, and produced a key and a Poke Ball from behind the counter. "Very good. Now all you have to do is pay up, and these two will be all yours. One thing, though; you'll have to actually catch it in that Poke Ball yourself. That whole six-Pokemon-only rule doesn't fly for businesses like this, so instead I just keep an stash of empty Poke Balls on hand."

    Ash hesitated one last time, eyeing the two items in the man's hands, before finally submitting to his fate and reaching into his backpack to produce his large sum of savings. It would take pretty much everything he had on hand to cover a purchase like this, far more than he could ever remember spending in one place before.

    Once he had finished paying the Pokemon hunter, Ash snatched the cage key and Poke Ball out of his hands, eager to have Swablu freed and be finished with this store.

    "Hey there, Swablu." Ash greeted softly as he swung the small prison open. The thin, sickly-looking Pokemon regarded Ash curiously, taking a cautious hop forward toward the outside. "It's okay. You're gonna come with me and my friends now, all right?"

    "Yep, it's all here, all right." The man confirmed, having just completed the counting of Ash's payment. He turned back toward the young Trainer and whistled. "You sure got a lot of cash on you - I didn't think you'd be able to afford that thing."

    Ash ignored him, picking Swablu up in his arms and stashing the spare Poke Ball in his backpack for the time being. "You're actually a gift for my friend Serena, okay? So, I'm gonna have her catch you...if that's all right."

    Swablu looked up at Ash without making a sound, still seemingly impressed by simply being in the outside world again. Without another word to the shopkeeper, Ash turned and ran off, heading back toward the Pokemon Center and hoping that Serena hadn't finished her own shopping spree yet.

    "Hey - tell your girlfriend I said hi!" The hunter remarked one last time, laughing at his own tasteless joke.

    Later that night, after a particularly troublesome encounter with Team Rocket, Ash and everyone else had gathered up at the Pledging Tree for the festival. Ash had been busy the entire rest of the day, as he'd had to go back and explain the situation with the Swablu to Clemont and Bonnie, and then go out again and find his own Pokemon gifts - although, he'd managed to pick up a second gift for Serena along the way, so, there was that. And Serena, while still slightly disappointed that her 'date' with Ash hadn't gone as planned, had still managed to find suitable gifts for her own Pokemon.

    After they'd all given out their normal gifts, and everyone seemed happily distracted by them, Ash finally turned to face his girlfriend nervously. "Hey, Serena...I wanted you to have this."

    "Huh...? What is it?"

    Ash held out a small, square-shaped gift box to her, an act that legitimately surprised her. Even in their original plans for the day, she'd never expected to actually get her own present from Ash. She took it from him and promptly opened it up, and was met with the sight of a simple, elegant blue ribbon resting in the center of the box.

    "Oh...Ash, thank you!" Serena remarked sweetly.

    Ash smiled back at her, but still looked like there was something else he wanted to say. "Actually, that's not all...see, when I went off on my own before, I was actually looking for something..."

    He turned back toward the crowd behind them, and Serena followed his gaze; together, they watched as Clemont and Bonnie walked up to them, a tiny, frail-looking Swablu cradled tenderly in the young girl's arms.

    "Huh...?!" Serena uttered in disbelief, prompting Bonnie to flash her a brilliant smile. "Is that...? Ash, but how?!"

    "I'm sorry I ran off and left you alone." Ash confessed, blushing lightly as he spoke. "I know you were excited about today. But when I saw how bothered you were by all those Pokemon that were caged up, I knew I had to do something. I might not've been able to buy all of them, but I thought I could at least get you one."

    "Yeah, and if I know Ash's finances like I think I do, that means we won't be able to rely on him to pay for anything for a long time..."

    "Aww, come on, Clemont! Don't worry about it so much, it'll be fine!"

    As the two boys chattered back and forth, Serena eyes remained locked on the small Swablu, totally blown away by what Ash had just done for her. She slowly reached down and plucked the tiny Pokemon up from Bonnie's arms, and it blinked curiously when it realized that Serena's face had replaced Bonnie's above it.

    "Hi there, Swablu...my name's Serena." She murmured softly, trying her best to make the Pokemon feel at ease. "I'm gonna take good care of you from now on, okay?"

    Swablu stared up at her curiously with its wide, black eyes, until finally, it seemed like something clicked in its mind, and it appeared to smile back at her. "Bluu - !"

    Serena almost gasped when she heard the Pokemon speak; it was the first time it had made a sound since she'd first seen it in the cage. Bonnie squealed in delight at the high-pitched chirp, jumping up and down excitedly. "Awww! It's sooo cute!"

    "Oh, by the way..." Ash spoke up, turning back to face her after apparently finishing his brief chat with Clemont. He held out a Poke Ball toward her as he spoke. "This is yours - it's for Swablu. I think you've still gotta catch it yourself."

    She nodded in understanding and took the capsule from him. "Well, what do you say, Swablu? You want to come along with us?"

    Swablu regarded her with that same curious look in its eye for a moment before letting out another cheerful chirp and nodding happily. Serena smiled and tapped the Poke Ball to it, at which point Swablu disappeared inside the Ball with no struggle.

    "Ash, thank you." Serena repeated after putting the Poke Ball away with her others, walking up to him now that her hands were free. "For the ribbon, and for Swablu...I didn't even get you anything."

    Ash grinned at her and put a hand on her shoulder. "Aw, don't worry about it. You weren't supposed to get me anything. If you ask me, just having you around is the best gift I could ask for!"

    Clemont and Bonnie glanced at each other and chuckled under their breath at Ash's abrupt praise. Serena didn't mind one bit, mostly because she knew that his abruptness merely meant that he was speaking what was on his mind, honestly and truly. She put her own hands on his shoulders and leaned in as well, briefly toying with the idea of giving him a proper kiss, but ultimately deciding against it due to how many people were around and instead settling for a peck on the cheek.

    When she pulled back, the two of them kept their faces close, looking into each other's eyes lovingly as the lights of the Pledging Tree nearby illuminated their features. They both felt their faces burning, as they weren't all that used to doing this kind of thing yet, much less with so many people around, and yet neither of them seemed to care all that much, either.

    "Serena...I..." Ash said softly, catching himself before saying the 'L word', as they'd been calling it lately. He had never fully understood what it meant, even though he'd said it to her already, and thus the two had recently decided to stop using it for the time being. "I'm really glad you decided to come along with me."

    "Yeah. I am, too."



    "...Wow. Do you still have that Swablu?" Brock asked as the two of them finished telling the story. It had started out with mostly Serena doing the talking, but then Ash had taken over to fill in during the portion where he'd gone off on his own, and they's sort of finished it out together.

    "Yep, I sure do - though its evolved into an Altaria now." Serena confirmed, putting a hand to the ribbon on her chest as well. "And this is the same ribbon that Ash got me back then. I've been wearing it ever since!"

    "That story was amazing!" Lillie remarked enthusiastically, flashing both Ash and Serena a brilliant smile. "I'm glad you have such a sweet boyfriend, Serena! I don't know about that part with Pokemon hunters, though..."

    "You'd be surprised what kind of stuff people will do for money." Brock said knowingly in a dark tone, as Ash blushed at Lillie's compliment. "Though you might be right about one thing - I don't think you'd find any Pokemon hunters out here in Alola. Everyone here seems to respect Pokemon, and nature in general."

    "That's probably because of the Tapus, and the Aether Foundation." Lillie explained.

    "The Aether Foundation?" Ash asked ignorantly as he took a bite of the nigh-forgotten sandwich in front of him. "What's that?"

    "Oh, it's a big organization here in Alola that focuses on the preservation of Pokemon...and, well..." Lillie continued, hesitating a moment as she brushed a strand of blond hair out of her face. "...my family actually owns it."

    "Piiika?!" Pikachu squealed in disbelief, its own shocked expression mimicking the faces of its human companions.

    "Your family owns it?!" Serena repeated back, as if to confirm the words she'd just heard.

    "I guess we haven't really gotten a chance to hear much about you yet, Lillie." Brock remarked, the realization dawning on them that they really didn't know too much about their new companion at all. "Would you mind sharing?"

    "Oh, there really isn't much to know about me." Lillie insisted, waving her hands frantically in front of her in an attempt to dismiss their curiousity. "I didn't even start on a Pokemon journey when I was ten like most kids do...I was too scared of even touching Pokemon back then to do anything like that."

    "I can understand that." Serena said encouragingly. "I didn't have a reason to go on a journey when I was ten, either. I didn't start on my journey until a little bit after that."

    Lillie nodded to her in understanding before continuing. "But...some stuff happened about a year ago that started to change my mind. I ran away from home with a Pokemon that I thought the Aether Foundation wasn't treating very well...and then, a little while later, I met Sun for the first time..."

    "There's that name again..." Serena noted to herself silently. "This guy must be pretty amazing for her to keep bringing him up like that."

    "...Anyway, a lot of things happened during Sun's Island Challenge, and I was there helping him out for most of it. At least, I thought I was helping him out, but when I look back on it now, I think I might have just been in the way..."

    "Hey, you shouldn't say stuff like that, Lillie." Ash remarked, further boosting the aura of support she was feeling from the three foreign Trainers.

    "Yeah, Ash is right." Brock added, shooting her a warm smile. "If this guy Sun you keep talking about is anything like you say he is, I'm sure that he never thought of you as a burden."

    Their kind words and actions continued to impress her; she may have been from Alola, where most people had a pretty neighborly disposition to begin with, but even that didn't quite cover the level of rapport she was receiving from these three people who, by all rights, should have been treating her as a total stranger. Her mouth hung open for a bit as she processed their words, eventually culminating in a grateful smile that she couldn't help but display.

    "Thank you for saying that, all of you. It...means a lot to me."

    "Yeah, no problem!" Ash responded at once, his fist shooting out toward her as he spoke. "I mean, we're all friends now, right?"

    "Pika pikachu!" Pikachu agreed, licking the remnants of the ketchup feast it had been enjoying off its face and planting its own stubby fist alongside its Trainer's.

    "Right - of course we are!" Serena joined in as well, joining her clenched fist to Ash's opposite Pikachu.

    "Just like the old days, huh?" Brock mused from across the table, locking his fist in across from the other three. Lillie gazed at their knuckle-lock strangely for a moment, once again surprised that they would think to include her in something like this.

    But when she glanced around the table and saw all of them smiling back at her so invitingly, she found that she couldn't resist. Thrusting her uncertainty aside, she held her own fist out eagerly, locking it into place between Brock's hand and Ash's, and completing the uneven circle that they had been trying to form.

    "All right - from this moment on, we're a team!" Ash declared exuberantly, and with that, they all raised their hands to the sky in delight, as if to signify the unwritten pact that had just been sealed.


    "Ooof!"

    Mallow hit the cold, hard floor with a loud and painful thud, the impact simultaneously waking her up and making her aware that she had been knocked out in the first place. The first thing that she felt was the cool, sheer texture of the floor she'd been thrown down on. Which, having spent her entire life in Alola as she had, was quite the alien sensation to her, and she was immediately put on guard by it, a feeling that was no less punctuated when she began to remember what it was that she had been doing just before being knocked out.

    "Does that mean I was captured, like the others?"

    She pushed herself up off the ground and climbed to her feet, ignoring the dull pain in her legs, and looked around. She could immediately tell that she was nowhere even remotely close to Alola - on all sides, she was surrounded by tall, imposing skyscrapers, all modeled in a similar fashion of black and silver. Most of them - maybe all of them, she couldn't really tell - had some sort of odd prism-shaped crystal on the top that seemed to vaguely point toward the sky.

    As for the sky itself, there didn't seem to actually be one here - at least not one that she could recognize. Above the heads of the skyscrapers sat an eternal curtain of blackness that stretched out in all directions. Even if had been nighttime, she should have at least been able to see the moon, a few stars, or even a layer of cloud cover, but here...there was just nothing.

    There was also one skyscraper that towered above all the rest, with a disc-shaped roof littered with what appeared to be triangular spotlights shooting off in all directions taking the place of the strange prisms that topped off all the others. Before she had a chance to examine it more thoroughly, however, a pair of adult-sized people dressed in funny-looking space suits approached her, which in turn alerted her to the fact that there were quite a few of these oddly-dressed people standing around the edges of the street she had appeared on.

    "Well, well. It's about time we found another one." The first one spoke, a somewhat deep, male voice accentuated by an odd warble.

    "That makes, what, eight of them now?" The second one added, this one higher-pitched and more feminine-sounding, though accompanied by the same strange warble as the first. "We're so close to our goal..."

    "H-hey, just who are you two?!" Mallow said in a challenging voice, instantly deciding that these people at the very least knew something about what had been happening to her friends, and were possibly even the ones behind it. Either way, she was smart enough to at least be on guard around them. "And where am I? What's going on here?!"

    "Oh, look, Rhodo, she's aware of herself." The female one remarked, as if they had only just noticed that was conscious.

    "Indeed, Alisma - I suppose the Guardian Pokemon's attack did not last as long as we thought it would, this time." The male voice, apparently named Rhodo, answered. "No matter. Tapu Lele, if you would, please incapacitate this Trainer once more so that we can deliver her to Megalo Tower more easily."

    Mallow let out a sharp breath at their words, but she didn't have time to do much else - almost at once, the pink, shell-clad Island Guardian appeared behind them, as if it had been floating somewhere nearby all along, and fired another Extrasensory ray at her without hesitation.​
     
  8. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Chapter 8: Confessional Redux​

    "Ciiiid..."

    "...Yeah, I know..."

    "...Ciiidue! Decidu-eye!"

    "I said I heard you, Decidueye!"

    The raven-haired Trainer sighed in exasperation as his partner continued hanging over his shoulder, staring at the letter in his hands expectantly. Not that the fully-evolved Alolan starter Pokemon was capable of reading it, but it knew the gist of what the letter said already, so that was a moot point to begin with.

    "...You really think we should go back?"

    The boy continued staring out at the horizon as he spoke, searching halfheartedly for a sun that hadn't quite risen yet. It was so early in the morning that the Olivine City lighthouse was still lit, with the brilliant yellow spotlight that the boy knew was powered by a particular Ampharos was shining out toward the sea dutifully.

    "Come on, Sun, what's wrong with you?" The boy said out loud in mild frustration, peering down at the invitation from Professor Elm for what must have been the millionth time. It was a simple letter, inviting presumably whoever the Professor decided to give it to to go and start a new journey in Alola, which was admittedly a rare opportunity for most. His adoptive home region was typically seen as more of a tourist spot than anything, which, aside from driving up travel prices to visit the area, also meant that it wasn't exactly the first pick when it came to regions that foreign Trainers would think to travel to.

    Only, Sun knew Professor Kukui. This didn't seem like the type of thing he would do on a whim, especially not now. Admittedly, he hadn't been home in a while, but as far as he was aware, they still had their hands full trying to find replacements for Ilima and Mina, who were both quickly approaching twenty years of age - which, according to tradition, meant that they would no longer be able to serve as Captains for the Alolan Island Challenge. Not to mention Hala, who was by far the oldest of the current kahunas, still running around like he was half his age, and Nanu, who had never wanted to be a kahuna in the first place, and actively shunned his role whenever he could.

    All of this led Sun to believe that something else was going on back in Alola, and that, whatever it was, they could probably use his help. After all, he was technically the current Champion, even if he'd done his best to hide that fact ever since arriving here in Johto.

    "Ciiiduuu..." Decidueye chirped softly, looking at him expectantly.

    "I know, pal, all right? I hear you..."

    He sighed heavily once again and let his hand fall to his side. He had decided to come to Johto after hearing that both Gladion and Hau, his friends and rivals from back in Alola, would be setting off on new journeys themselves, both of them aiming to get stronger. He had defeated both of them on his journey to become Champion, but after hearing that they were leaving Alola to get stronger, it hadn't taken long before his own sense of adventurous self-improvement had kicked in, as well - not to mention the fact that sitting around watching other Trainers take the Island Challenge wasn't exactly what he'd planned on doing after finishing his own journey.

    And there was one other reason why he'd left, as well, one that wasn't quite so easy to pin down with words - a reason that had a lot to do with a certain blonde-haired girl he'd met during his journey. He still hadn't found an answer to that one, which was part of the reason why he was so hesitant to return.

    "Cidueyeeee." Decidueye murmured, pecking at the hand dangling uselessly at his side, the letter still loosely clasped in his fingers.

    "Ow! Hey, stop it - !" Sun protested, withdrawing his hand closer to himself and backing away from his partner.

    "Eye?" Decidueye prompted, looking him straight in the eye.

    A long silence hung between them as Trainer and Pokemon stared each other down, until finally Sun was forced to concede.

    "Okay, okay, fine!" Sun relented at last, at which the dark, serious expression that had hung over his Pokemon's face melted away at once in lieu of a satisfied smile. "Geez, pal, you really don't know when to quit..."

    "Ciduue! Deciduuu-eye!" His Pokemon squawked excitedly as Sun stroked the feathers on his head.

    "Yeah...that's right." Sun remarked softly, shifting his gaze back toward the horizon. He saw the sun this time, eagerly beginning its climb up over the horizon, and casting rays of light across the ocean all the way up to the beach. "We're going home."

    The remainder of the evening passed without much consequence in Heahea City. Ash, Serena, and Brock stayed another night in Brock's room at the Pokemon Center, while Lillie opted to continue utilizing the free room at the Dimensional Research Lab, after being given the okay by Professor Kukui, of course. The following morning, they checked back in with the Professor, who told them that it would probably still be another day or two before he could get them all a ride to Ula'ula Island.

    This left the four of them without much to do yet again. Ash's usual sense of adventure was significantly dimmed by the looming threat posed by the Island Guardians, not to mention Mallow's abduction the previous day. The reality of these events, however, led them to decide that they should probably brush up on their battling tactics, lest their next encounter with one of the Tapus go the same way as the first.

    And so, they found an empty field surrounded by trees just outside the city proper, and decided to spend the rest of the day training with each other, not only to improve their own battle tactics, but also to familiarize themselves with the others' Pokemon.

    "Talonflame, Hawlucha, Noivern, come on out!"

    "Everyone, you come out, too!"

    "And us, too!"

    Ash, Serena, and Brock all respectively released their entourage of Pokemon into the clearing, a sight which Lillie observed with awe.

    "Wow..." Lillie gaped in wonder, as Pikachu scrambled down off of Ash's shoulder to join the group on the ground. "No wonder you guys were given the Professor's invitations."

    "Pan-cham, pan!" Serena's Pancham boasted, accepting the compliment graciously. It was still wearing the pair of sunglasses Serena had given to it when they had first met, and Ash doubted that it was planning on parting with them any time soon.

    "Lillie, this is Pancham." Serena explained quickly, stifling a giggle at Pancham's brash antics. "And that's Altaria - and you've already met Sylveon and Braixen. Everybody, say hi to our new friend Lillie!"

    Serena's team all uttered cheerful greetings toward the blonde-haired girl, who beamed back at them in response before producing three Poke Balls of her own. "I guess it's my turn now. Come out, everyone, and say hi!"

    Three simultaneous bursts of light later, a trio of creatures had appeared at her feet: an Alolan Vulpix, which they had already learned was named Snowy, a black-and-white bird Pokemon with a long, orange beak, and what appeared to be a free-floating, upright ring of flowers with a face attached to it.

    "Oh, wow. Never seen those Pokemon before!" Ash sang gleefully, he and Serena both producing their Pokedexes and pointing them at Lillie's Pokemon.

    "Trumbeak, the Bugle Beak Pokemon. Trumbeak often store the seeds of berries they have eaten in their beak. These seeds can then be fired at their enemies in a swift burst."

    "Comfey, the Posy Picker Pokemon. Comfey attach flowers to themselves with fluids from their own bodies, and the aroma that these flowers then produce is known to have a healing effect on both humans and Pokemon alike."

    "Awww - it's so cute!" Serena squealed, bending down to feel Comfey's flower ring.

    "Feeee!" Comfey purred, clearly enjoying the treatment.

    "Trruuum." Trumbeak chirped in a low tone, almost appearing jealous at the attention that Comfey was receiving. Pikachu, meanwhile, ran right past it and approached Snowy.

    "Pika pika?" Pikachu asked expectantly.

    "Vuul-piiix." Snowy replied nervously, looking down at the ground.

    "Pan-cham!" Pancham remarked loudly, walking up to the two of them and placing its hand on its hips. "Pan-pan-cham!"

    "Piiix...?"

    "Pi-kaa-chuuu!"

    And with that, Pikachu and Pancham bounded off together, leaving Snowy alone for a moment before it took off after them. As Ash watched them run off together, his eyes caught Brock's group of Pokemon, and he quickly looked them over to see who his old friend had brought with him to Alola.

    "I see you've still got your usual team with you." Ash remarked, glancing behind him at his Steelix, Toxicroak, Crobat, and Forretress.

    "Yeah, I guess you could say that. I was actually going to bring Marshtomp and Ludicolo along as well, but some of my younger brothers and sisters like playing with them a lot, so I figured I'd leave them at home this time." His eyes drifted over to Serena's Sylveon, and he began to regard it curiously. "Say...Serena, that's a Sylveon, isn't it?"

    "Hm?" Serena replied, turning away from her ongoing conversation with Lillie to face the older Trainer. "Yep, it sure is. Why do you ask?"

    "I've heard rumors about an evolution of Eevee that only occurs when it completely trusts its Trainer, but I've never actually seen it myself." Brock explained, clearly impressed that Serena had one for herself. "What did you say you were doing on your journey in Kalos?"

    "Oh - I was a Pokemon Performer!" Serena answered back excitedly, clearly elated at the opportunity to speak about such a topic again. Judging by the look on Brock's face, however, he wasn't familiar with the term.

    "It's kinda like a Pokemon Coordinator." Ash stepped in quickly to explain. "Pokemon Performers participate in the Kalos Pokemon Showcase, which is sorta like a Pokemon Contest - only at these performances, there aren't any real battles."

    "Oh, I see." Brock remarked, nodding in understanding.

    "Yeah...but I only made it to the final round of the Master Class Showcase in the end." Serena admitted, a touch of regret in her voice. "See, the Master Class is the final Showcase competition of the year. I wasn't able to win..."

    "Wait - you made it to the final round?!" Brock exclaimed in disbelief. "Serena, that's incredible! Even Ash has trouble making it to the final round of the Pokemon League sometimes! You must be an amazing Performer."

    "Hey!" Ash retorted in mild irritation.

    "Well...I don't know if I'm all that, but thanks, Brock." Serena replied sweetly.

    "You wouldn't mind if I asked to battle with you, would you?" Brock asked, the curiosity from before still present in his tone. "To be honest, I'm interested to see what a team of performance-oriented Pokemon can do in a battle."

    "No, I don't mind at all!" Serena answered at once, her Pokemon joining in with cries of affirmation behind her - sans Pancham, that is, who was still off frolicking in the field with Pikachu and Snowy. "You ready to go, Braixen?"

    "Braaai-xen!" Braixen chimed in response a second time, following her as she mirrored Brock and stepped away from the group.

    "So you're using Braixen first, huh?" Brock remarked, taking his place across from her on the imaginary battlefield. "All right, Crobat, you're up!"

    Crobat screeched modestly in understanding and flew over to its Trainer's side. Serena didn't recognize the quad-winged Pokemon, but decided that there would be time to check its Pokedex entry later, opting to focus on the battle instead for the time being.

    "All right, Braixen, let's start with Hidden Power!"

    "Crobat, stop it with Air Slash!"

    Both Pokemon launched their attacks almost simultaneously, and as such, both series of projectiles ended up colliding with each other perfectly, causing damage to neither side.

    "Now, Crobat, use Poison Fang!"

    Crobat began chirping loudly and dived toward Braixen with its mouth open wide.

    "Braixen, dodge it!"

    Braixen complied at once, deftly spinning to the side just as Crobat's attack was about to connect, causing the Bat Pokemon to pull up desperately at the last second.

    "Wow - that was some dodge." Brock complimented, as Crobat circled back around the field. "Now, use Cross Poison!"

    "Use Fire Blast, Braixen!"

    Braixen obeyed once again, sending out a massive stream of fire hurtling toward the purple X-shape now speeding toward it through the air. When the two attacks smashed together, they produced an enormous red-and-orange explosion that rained down onto the battlefield like fireworks.

    "I've gotta admit, you're pretty good, Serena!" Brock remarked in admiration.

    "Thanks - you're aren't so bad yourself!"

    As their battle continued, Lillie found that she, too, was enraptured by Serena's battle style, due in large part to the absence of any type of Pokemon Contest-type of event in Alola.

    "Wow...her Pokemon move so gracefully." Lillie breathed in awe, as she and Ash looked on from the sidelines with the rest of their Pokemon. "Is that what all Pokemon Performers look like?"

    "Yeah, I guess so." Ash answered with a shrug. Truth be told, he had been around so many different Coordinators and Performers in his travels, he had grown rather accustomed to watching their unique styles in action. Instead, his focus was now locked on Serena herself, and as he witnessed the elegantly effective form with which she and her Pokemon fought, he was reminded of the many Pokemon Showcases she participated in during their journey in Kalos...and suddenly, he began to feel guilty for taking her away from all of that.

    Later that afternoon, just as the sky was beginning to darken and burn amber, Ash found himself sprawled out on the grass all by himself, staring up listlessly at the sky. Pikachu was still off playing somewhere with Snowy and Pancham, while Crobat and Trumbeak had joined Noivern, Talonflame, and Altaria on a relaxing flight around the area. The day had ended up being more of a play-date in the field rather than an afternoon of training, but it didn't seem to bother any of them too much. And, as far as he knew, Brock, Lillie, and Serena were still doing some form of training without him.

    Serena...the girl that had single-handedly changed his life, and altered his perception of what he thought he knew about himself. He had never even considered finding a girlfriend before meeting her. It wasn't that he held no interest for girls - he saw pretty ones all the time - but simply that his dream of becoming a Pokemon Master and continuing his journey had always been the foremost thought in his mind. His ongoing quest had pretty much eliminated any potential girlfriend candidates simply because he never stayed in one place long enough to develop that kind of relationship with anyone.

    As far as his former travelling companions went, he was fairly certain that none of them had ever seen him in that way, either. They all had their own dreams and goals to pursue, just as he did. Which was why he was continually surprised by Serena's willingness to follow and support him, seemingly in lieu of her own goals. She had told him some things that he didn't fully comprehend back when they had first started journeying together, something about how she had decided to leave home solely so that she could meet him. He hadn't really understood the implications of that back then, and he wasn't sure he did even now.

    But even so, as the two had them had gotten closer and closer while travelling through Kalos together, he'd certainly begun to notice that she treated him differently than the other girls he had known. And then, during the incident in Shalour City with Korrina, he'd witnessed her quite literally put her life on the line to save Pikachu. After that, Ash had never been able to see her quite the same as he had before - and it had only been a matter of time after that before he finally admitted to himself, and later to Serena as well, how he felt, feelings that had only gotten stronger with time.

    He loved having her around. She was fun and energetic, not to mention clever; she often convinced Ash to see things from a different perspective than his usual approach. She also had a flair to her that reminded him of Dawn, but she seemed more grown-up than his old friend from Sinnoh. It had also taken her a while to figure out her own dreams, like another of his old companions, May. But she quickly revealed that she had been more talented than any of his friends prior to setting out on her journey, and between her skills at cooking, dancing, performing, and being in front of a camera, as well as her ease at getting along with Pokemon, she was eventually able to find her own goal.

    But Ash's favorite thing about her was how kind she was. He didn't use the word very often, but she was probably the sweetest girl he'd ever met. She was always making desserts for all of their companions and their respective Pokemon, not to mention she was unfailingly loyal to her own Pokemon partners, and she was always able to cheer him up when he was feeling down.

    It wasn't often that Ash's thoughts drifted this far inward, but now that he had started down this particular train of thought, he found that he couldn't get away from it, and eventually, he began to come to the conclusion that he'd only tugged on the fringes of before, particularly when he was debating over whether or not to ask Serena to come to Alola with him: he didn't want to leave her side, not ever. In his mind, she had become just as essential of a companion as Pikachu was, perhaps even more so. And when he realized this, the notion almost scared him.

    "Hey."

    Serena's voice made him jump; he wasn't sure how long he had even been out here, and he certainly hadn't heard her approach. She giggled when he jolted upright and twisted around to look at her.

    "Ah...hey, Serena. What's up?" He stammered as she looked down at him happily, her hands clasped behind her back.

    "Oh, nothing. I was just wondering where you'd gone and wandered off to." Serena answered innocently as she folded the bottom of her dress and sat down next to him. "You know, Lillie's a pretty good Trainer, considering she's only been one for a few months now."

    "Yeah, I could tell she was really close with her Vulpix from our battle the other day." Ash answered truthfully, despite the fact that he was still heavily distracted by his previous train of thought. "...What are Lillie and Brock doing now?"

    "They're still training." Serena replied. "Brock was really getting into it - I think he blames himself for Mallow being taken away like that..."

    "Yeah...I think you're right." Ash remarked, his gaze falling as he recalled Brock's initial infatuation with the Grass-type Trainer. However, despite his attempts to distract himself by engaging in her conversation, he found that his thoughts kept drifting back to the topic he'd been thinking about prior to her arrival.

    "Hey, Serena? ...Are you really okay with all this?"

    "Huh? What do you mean?" She asked, looking over at him with an inquisitive frown.

    "...I dragged you all the way out here to Alola with me, and even got you involved with all of this." He answered, his own frustrated gaze avoiding her eyes. "I never really stopped and asked what you wanted to do. Your dream was to be a Pokemon Performer - how can you do that when you're just following me around?"

    Serena eyed him for a moment strangely before fully catching on to his concern.

    "I chose to come with you, Ash - you didn't force me to." Serena answered, giggling softly at the notion of Ash being so uncharacteristic as to actually drag her along with him somewhere. "You did ask me, remember? And besides...it's true that I love performing. I almost can't wait until I get the chance to do it again! But...there's something I love even more than that."

    Ash watched her apprehensively as she drew her face up beside his, nudging his hat out of the way as usual and letting their foreheads rest against one another.

    "And that's being with you."

    When she leaned in to kiss him, confident in the fact that nobody was around, Ash didn't protest. He felt the familiar feeling of warmth flare to life in his stomach, and as it spread throughout his chest and began to dull his thoughts, he found that his awareness of the world around him narrowed as well. When a gust of wind blew through the field, taking Ash's dislodged hat with it a few dozen feet, he fond that he didn't even care enough to get up and chase after it.

    When they finally broke apart, Serena looked up at his unkempt mane of hair, noticing at once that his hat was suddenly missing.

    "Um...I think you lost something." She chuckled softly, a faint blush sprouting to her cheeks. Ash, however, didn't answer, instead holding her gaze and putting a hand to her cheek tenderly. "...Ash?"

    A rush of thoughts continued to stampede through Ash's mind, and he struggled to get his next few words out - though he knew all the same that they needed to be said. "Serena...I...

    "...Ash, don't say it..." She remarked sadly, causing Ash's brow to furrow at her interruption.

    "Why not?" He replied, a sense of stubborn pride in his voice now. "I know what we've been talking about, but - "

    "Then why would you want to say something like that?!" Serena bit back, a little harsher than she intended. She immediately caught herself and turned her frustration down a notch before continuing. "I told you before...if we say something like that and don't really mean it, then it's all for nothing..."

    "Yeah, well, if that was the case, then maybe I never should've said anything to you in the first place back in Anistar City!"

    "Wh-what are you...?!"

    "I don't understand a lot of this stuff, okay?! I told you I loved you back then because I didn't know what else I was supposed to do!"

    "Well, I don't understand any of it, either!" Serena cried, tears coming to her eyes now. "All I know is that I...I never want you to leave me alone! But if we say something we don't really mean, or understand, then..."

    "But I do mean it." Ash said definitively, clamping his hands down on her shoulders and bringing his face directly in front of hers. He gazed into the sapphire-blue eyes that he had grown to love so much and continued. "I may not always understand a lot of this complicated stuff, but I know what I feel toward you. These feelings are just as strong as anything I feel toward my mom, or Pikachu, or anybody else. If that's not what love is, well...then I don't think I could ever really love anybody."

    As Serena stared back into the copper-colored orbs that she had always admired so much, she found that all of her own suppressed feelings came bubbling to the surface in response to his words. She agreed with him wholeheartedly, of course. The only reason that the two of them had opted to refrain from saying that they loved each other for so long was, honestly, sort of a precaution that Serena had heavily suggested that they put into practice in response to Ash's knee-jerk confession. And they had both agreed that the original confession itself probably had a lot to do with the Anistar City sundial affecting Ash's emotions to some degree, coupled with the fact that he had believed at the same time that Serena was about to be killed.

    But for the last few weeks, and especially since coming to Alola with him, she couldn't deny the elevated level of attraction she had felt toward him. No...attraction wasn't really the right word. The more she struggled to put her feelings into words, the more she began to gravitate to the one word that she had declared off-limits to them, just like Ash.

    "Serena." Ash said, her name rolling off his tongue so naturally that it made Serena's stomach flip, so much so that she could swear she was back in Santalune City, introducing herself to him for the first time. "I love you."

    She couldn't fight the blush that burst onto her cheeks as he spoke, but she didn't really want to, either. Deciding to trust in his confidence and her own feelings, she swallowed her old, stubborn objections to the idea, and decided to forge ahead on this next step of their relationship together with him, instead of continuing to fight back against it.

    "Y-yeah." Serena answered, finally accepting her feelings for what they were. "I...I know you do. I think I've known for a while...but I was too scared to admit it."

    Ash continued watching her with expectant eyes, though a proud smile was now present on his face. In the next moment, Serena looked up and met his blazing eyes with a determined look of her own.

    "I love you, too, Ash Ketchum."

    The two drew closer for another kiss, one which they were able to share for a good while as the descending late-afternoon sun shone down upon them. After they broke apart again, however, Serena's mind, now having cleared one hurdle that had been ever-present for what had seemed like forever, immediately moved on to the next fear of hers.

    "Hey, Ash...?" She began softly, lowering her head to rest on his lap, a move that visibly surprised the dark-haired Trainer. The two of them were rarely this intimate with each other, if ever, though he supposed that perhaps this was simply part of moving forward in their relationship, and chose not to comment on it.

    He looked down at Serena's head after a moment of silence, which was now facing away from him. Her hat had loosely tumbled off of her head to rest in the grass by his legs, leaving her mane of honey-blonde hair as the sole part of her head that he could see. "What is it? What's wrong...?"

    She gripped the fabric of his jeans tightly with one hand before answering. "Can you promise me you'll stay with me...? Not just for this journey, or even whatever comes next. I mean...forever...?"

    Serena immediately regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth. They had just decided that it was okay to say they loved each other, and now here she was, coming out with a request like that! But she maintained her silence, knowing that anything she said would only make the situation more awkward.

    Ash didn't respond for a while, leaving the two of them to watch the billowing plains before them, each lost in their own thoughts, as Ash's stray hat lazily tumbled across the surface of the grass a few yards away.

    Ash wasn't entirely familiar with the level of commitment she was asking for, and though she didn't show it, Serena wasn't, either. Both of them were being spurred on almost entirely by their emotions at this point. But even so, he found that he couldn't find a reason to deny her - especially after the exchange that had just occurred between them, and his own recent thoughts on the matter. If there was anyone he would be comfortable spending the entirety of his foreseeable future with, it was her.

    And then, when he remembered what she had said to him just minutes before, and the look of sadness that had been present on her face when she said it, he knew that he only had one choice.

    "All I know is that I...I never want you to leave me alone!"

    "...Yeah." Ash responded, after what seemed like an eternity. Serena's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open as she rolled over to look up at him from below. He glanced down and met her gaze with his own, reaching over to brush her hair out of her face and behind her ear before he continued. "I promise, Serena. Wherever we go from here, it'll be together. Uh, I mean...as long as that makes you happy! I don't like seeing you cry..."

    He scratched his cheek and chuckled softly as he finished, apparently growing a bit self-aware of the way he was acting and getting embarrassed. Not that Serena minded in the slightest - his message had been received by her, loud and clear.

    "...Oh, Ash..." Serena breathed, taking one last moment to admire his expression before reaching up and throwing her arms around him. "I love you!"

    "H-hey - waaaah!" Ash cried, throwing his arms out in a vain attempt to keep himself upright as Serena's weight threw him off-balance, causing him to topple over backward a moment later. Serena clung to him the whole way down, and when he looked up at her resting her head on his chest, he couldn't help but smile back at her. "Yeah - I love you, too."

    The two remained like that for some time, enjoying the peace that had come with finally admitting their true feelings for one another, as well as the comfort and security that they both felt from the other's presence and proximity.

    "Hey, Ash, Serena!" Brock's voice rang all too soon, shattering the little world that the two of them had been living in for the past few minutes. "I think we should start heading back to town now - that is, if the two of you aren't too busy!"

    Serena sprang to an upright position immediately, where she saw Brock standing about a hundred feet away at the edge of the trees, watching them with a great degree of interest.

    "A-ah...no, we're not busy at all!" She answered at once, her voice shaking a little.

    "Hmm...you might be right." Brock said back as Lillie walked up beside him, a playful smile present on her face as well. "After all, I wouldn't really call taking a nap on your boyfriend 'being busy'."

    "Give them a break, Brock." Lillie remarked cheerfully as Ash sat up beside Serena, who promptly turned to him despite her embarrassment and began brushing bits of grass out of his hair. "After all, they are helping us out a lot just by being here. The least we can do is let them have some time alone together sometimes!"

    "Yeah, you've got a point there." Brock conceded before sighing to himself. "I sure wish I had a beautiful girl to spend my lonely afternoons with...uh, by the way, Ash...where's your hat? And yours is missing, too, Serena..."

    "Oh, uh..." Ash stammered, searching for a reasonable excuse as to how his favorite accessory had been allowed to just disappear. "Well, I guess it just kinda blew away while me and Serena...were..."

    Brock raised an eyebrow at him suggestively as Ash trailed off, not wanting to admit what the two of them had actually been doing at the time. The tension didn't last long, however, as just then, Noivern sailed through the air between them, followed quickly by Altaria - and both of them were wearing their respective Trainers' hats.

    "H-hey, Altaria, come back!" Serena wailed, and Ash noticed that Talonflame, Trumbeak, and Crobat had landed behind them during the commotion, only now they were joined by Hawlucha, as well. It didn't take him long to deduce the prank that had been pulled by their Pokemon.

    "Well, I guess that's what you get for leaving your stuff laying around." Brock remarked playfully amidst Lillie's laughter.

    Ash frowned at him and looked over to catch Serena's eye. "Come on, let's go after them!"

    "Yeah!" Serena agreed at once, nodding in response before taking off alongside him.

    And off they went, hopelessly chasing after their two Flying-type Pokemon as they rose back into the air, chuckling at themselves as they watched their Trainers attempt to catch up with them from over their shoulders.

    There's no real way to write-in a classic end-card moment from the anime, but I always loved those, so here's my attempt at creating one, haha.

    Also, I was originally planning on having Ash and Serena come to terms with their feelings a little bit later in the story, because one of the big reasons I had that little bit of confusion between them in the first place was to backpedal a little from the ending of the original story, in which I've kind of regretted that I just had the two of them come right out and confess to each other at the end. In that story, I had originally wanted to have them both be a little bit more naive and ignorant of how relationships and 'love' works, but in my hurry to get that one finished with over those last few chapters, I sort of had to throw out that idea in favor of a more definitive ending. So, my way of fixing that was by introducing the idea that you've been seeing thus far in the story. But, as I was writing this chapter, I realized that there isn't really a good reason to keep them from maturing in their relationship any longer - especially with how the later parts of this story will play out.

    Anyway, thanks as always for reading, and also for the reviews from my regular crowd! I'll see you guys next time!
     
  9. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Chapter 9: Stumped At A Tourist Trap!​


    The next morning, Ash had woken up later than usual, and by the time he had finally gotten himself ready and excused himself from their room, he found that Brock and Serena had already finished preparing their breakfast for the day: a fluffy stack of pancakes paired with a plate full of eggs.

    "Mmm...these taste great, you guys!" Ash expressed between mouthfuls, producing a satisfied smile from the two resident cooks, along with a soft chuckle from Lillie, who was slowly consuming her own helping of the meal as well. Even Pikachu had a small platter of eggs in front of it - though they had been drowned in a generous serving of ketchup.

    "Yes, it's really good." Lillie agreed. "Thanks for making all of this for us."

    "Oh, don't worry about it. I used to cook for Ash all the time when we were on the road together." Brock explained, waving her concern away.

    "And I used to cook treats for us and our Pokemon whenever I could." Serena added with a playful wink. "I really don't mind at all."

    "Hey, did anyone ever hear back from Professor Kukui yet?" Ash asked through a full bite of eggs, more eager than ever to continue on their journey.

    "Looking for me, cousin?" The Alolan Professor's voice answered, just as Ash felt an arm snake around his neck from behind. "Call my name and I'll appear, right? Or something like that, anyway."

    "Professor!" Ash exclaimed, nearly jumping out of his seat in surprise. His sudden reaction caused him to choke on the large bite of eggs still in his mouth.

    "Good morning, Professor." Brock greeted pleasantly. Professor Kukui drew back from Ash and smiled warmly at all of them.

    "What are you doing out here today?" Lillie asked amidst the sound of Ash still struggling to swallow his food, as Serena patted him on the back gently in an effort to soothe his clenched throat.

    "Well, I promised you I'd get you a ride to Ula'ula Island, right?" Kukui answered jovially, producing a set of four tickets from his lab coat as he spoke. "Well, it took me a little longer than I wanted, but, here you go!"

    "Oh, thank you!" Serena remarked, accepting the set of tickets from him with her free hand on behalf of Ash; her free hand was still resting on his back as he breathed deeply a few times, having finally swallowed his problematic portion of food.

    "So, we just use these at the ferry terminal, right?" Lillie asked cautiously. She was quite familiar with how the travel system worked in Alola, but she felt as though she needed to ask anyway, just to be safe.

    "That's right - but you'll have to make a detour to Konikoni City before making the trip to your actual destination." Kukui explained. "That's one of the reasons it took me longer than usual to get your tickets. I've got a couple of things I'd like you pick up at the treasure shop down there, if you don't mind!"

    "Treasure shop, huh?" Ash managed, the first words he'd been able to muster since the Professor's arrival. "That sounds pretty cool. What do you need us to pick up?"

    "Oh - just a couple of rare stones I wanted to examine." Kukui replied evasively. "I'm sure you kids will be interested in them, too. I already told the shop owners that you're coming - just bring them back to me the next time we meet up, all right?"

    "Yeah - you got it!" Ash answered with a nod, just as Serena pulled out her navigator, curious to find information on the location Professor Kukui had mentioned.

    "Konikoni City...looks like it's not all that far from here." The Performer noted, and then she read something on the screen that made her eyes light up like fireworks. "Hey, this says that they've got all sorts of shops down there!"

    Lillie nodded in affirmation, a light smile decorating her own face, as well. "That's right. It's sort of like a tourist town. It's all nestled next to the side of a mountain, too, so the whole place is practically built right on the ocean - it's wonderful!"

    Her description left Ash and Serena starry-eyed, leaving Brock as the only one remaining who could answer right away. "I guess that's that. Thanks for the help, Professor - we'll bring your treasures back for sure."

    The former Gym Leader chortled a bit as he spoke, happy to see that, despite whatever else may have changed about him recently, Ash still hadn't lost his sense of wide-eyed innocence toward most things.

    "All right - I'll leave it to you, then!" Kukui declared, flashing Brock a thumbs-up before turning away. Before he started walking, he stopped to have one final word. "Oh, by the way - the ferry leaves in about half an hour. So you might want to hurry!"

    Ash's eyes widened in shock, and he looked back and forth between the Professor's steadily shrinking back and the half-eaten plates of food still scattered around their table. "H-half an hour?!"

    Kukui smiled to himself as he overheard Ash's cries, the young Trainer scrambling around in an attempt to consume the remainder of their meal in time. "I gotta keep them on their toes, right?"

    "Calm down, Ash, it's okay." Serena told him soothingly, holding her hands up to him like he was a rabid animal she was attempting to subdue. "If we have to, we can always just leave some of it behind - "

    "Leave behind food that tastes this good?!" Ash shot back incredulously, like she'd just suggested he jump off a building. "No way! All right, everyone, come on out!"

    "Cha-lucha!"

    "Talooon!"

    "Noi-vvvvern!"

    His companions looked at him in disbelief as he released his entire team out onto the floor beside their table. Even Pikachu, who had just finished licking its lips to clean off the last remains of its own feast, was now looking on in bewilderment.

    "All right, you three - we've got to get rid of the rest of this food, quick! So who's hungry?!"

    The other three Trainers recoiled in their seats as Ash's Pokemon scurried over to the plates at once and began helping themselves to the remains of the meal. Serena couldn't help but notice that some of the other people eating nearby were casting strange glances their way, as well, but after a moment of feeling uncomfortable, she decided to merely go with it, and cracked a nervous smile his way.

    "You know, you could have at least let us finish eating first..." Brock sighed, taking one feeble last bite of pancake before resigning himself to being finished.

    "Piika-chuu..." Pikachu murmured, shaking its head hopelessly.


    As it turned out, Professor Kukui hadn't been lying about their departure time. By the time they had cleaned their table and made it to the ferry terminal, they only had around five minutes or so remaining before the ship was to leave. They hurried through customs and made their way out onto the deck just as the vessel left port.

    "Wow, that was close..." Lillie breathed, gripping the straps of her pack tightly as she took a moment to catch her breath.

    "Yeah, no kidding." Ash agreed. "What's the deal with getting us tickets with such short notice?"

    "I wouldn't complain, if I were you." Brock jabbed. "Or are you saying you would've rather bought them for all of us yourself?"

    Ash opened his mouth to respond, but no retorts came to mind, and he ended up agreeing with Brock's remark instead. Serena smiled at the two of them and turned out toward the sea.

    The ship they were on was nowhere near as large as the cruise liner she and Ash had traveled on previously, but it was still large enough to likely hold a few dozen people. The biggest difference that she could see was that it clearly wasn't meant for long journeys - there appeared to be hardly any room below deck, strengthening her initial implication that it was solely used for transport within Alola itself.

    As she continued watching the waves, feeling the pleasant sea breeze on her face, she found that she could only smile wider. Ever since her...discussion with Ash the previous day, she'd found that everything seemed to be a bit clearer in her mind's eye, like she had done away with a great weight she hadn't even realized she'd been carrying. She had felt something slightly similar after first arriving to Alola with him, but she realized now that their initial conversation on the S.S. Pelipper that night had only been the first step. She wasn't quite sure if the events of the day prior had been the second step or the last, but she didn't much care at the moment; she was quite content with how it had left her feeling either way.

    "Ash told me he loves me." She thought to herself, that simple fact filling her with warmth. "I know he's said it before...but somehow, I know he means it this time. He understands it - and I think I do, too. He even said he wants to stay with me from now on..." She squeezed her eyes shut and cooed softly to herself, basking in the memory for a moment as a light blush dusted her cheeks.

    "What's up? See something you like?" Ash spoke, walking up beside her and seeing her blissful expression.

    Her eyes opened and she saw him staring back at her, his face decorated with his signature carefree smile. "Oh...you could say that."

    He maintained his smile and turned toward the ocean as well. She scooted up beside him and leaned against his shoulder, remembering the last time she had done so and giggling to herself at their similar height.

    Pikachu took its cue and scampered down onto from Ash's shoulder before making its way back over to Brock and Lillie, who were watching the couple from a short distance away. They shifted their gaze to the small mouse Pokemon as it approached.

    "Pika! Pika-chuu!"

    "Huh? What is it, Pikachu?" Brock asked, trying to interpret what it was saying. "You wanna hang out with us while Ash and Serena are alone together?"

    "Pika!" Pikachu insisted, poking Lillie's leg pointedly.

    "Uh...I think it wants to play with Snowy some more." Brock explained, taking an educated guess. After all, it had spent most of the afternoon of the previous day running around with the snow-colored Vulpix.

    "Oh! Is that true?" Lillie asked, at which Pikachu nodded back eagerly. "Well, then, I'm happy to oblige you! Snowy, come on out!"

    "Vuul!" Snowy sang, appearing on the deck beside Pikachu in a flash of light.

    "Pika-chu." Pikachu greeted, motioning for the mono Ice-type to follow it before quickly running off. Having warmed up to it already the day before, Snowy didn't hesitate this time, and raced off after the Electric-type at once.

    As Brock and Lillie watched the two of them chase each other around the deck endearingly, Brock noticed the softness to her eyes that was usually only present when she was talking about Sun. "You know, you seem really close with your Vulpix. Was it your first Pokemon?"

    "Yes, it was." Lillie answered with a nod, clutching a hand over her chest as she spoke. "Actually...it was a gift from Sun. He found it as an Egg while traveling up Mount Lanakila - that's a really cold mountain where our Pokemon League is held. He knew I'd been thinking about starting a journey of my own, and he wanted the Pokemon that hatched from that Egg to be my first. And so, that's exactly what happened..." She giggled a bit as her cheeks flushed at the memory. "We even nicknamed it together. That's where the name Snowy came from, since it seems like it's always snowing up on the mountain."

    "Wow, Lillie. This guy Sun is really important to you, isn't he?"

    She looked out at the vast expanse of sea stretching out before them and sighed under her breath, the endless span of water serving as a constant reminder of the great distance separating the two of them. "...Yes, he is."

    And Brock could tell from her tone that it would be in bad taste to attempt to pry any further.


    The trip didn't take them long at all, which was right in line with what Serena had found about it being relatively close by. In what couldn't have been longer than an hour or two, they had already made port at Konikoni City, and the bright colors of the buildings mixed with their more traditional style of architecture made the entire city seem to jump out at them at once.

    "Wow - look at this place!" Serena gaped, gazing around her at the seaside tourist town in awe. "You were right, Lillie - it's beautiful!"

    "Remember, Serena - we've only got two hours to look around here before the ferry leaves again." Brock reminded her as the cool sea breeze blew past them, forcing Ash to adjust his hat.

    "Aw, come on, Brock. Let 'em have a little fun." Ash remarked with a chuckle. "Tell you what - why don't the two of us go and find this treasure shop for Professor Kukui? That way, Serena and Lillie can go check out the shops as much as they want."

    Brock opened his mouth to speak, initially intending to shoot down Ash's idea, but after a moment of thought he realized that it was, in fact, a rather sound decision. "Wow, Ash, that's...actually a good idea." The former Gym Leader replied, a look of genuine surprise on his face.

    "It happens once in a while." Serena explained jokingly between giggles of her own. "Well, if that's what you want to do...then, I guess we'll see you later!"

    Ash nodded back to her before clarifying her statement. "Yeah - just remember to meet us back here at the pier within two hours!"

    She waved in understanding as she and Lillie raced off down the avenue, the pair of them already on the prowl for whatever grabbed their eyes.


    Serena's afternoon with Lillie resulted in the two of them doing a lot of window-shopping at the various shops and stalls that lined the city's many busy streets. She knew that they were on a strict time limit, and thus held herself back from actually entering most of the outlets she came across. Not that it mattered all that much to her - she was happy to simply be allowed to enjoy some time hanging out with another girl her own age, a rarity for her ever since she'd left on her journey with Ash, Clemont, and Bonnie.

    The occasion also allowed her to finally get a bit more insight into Lillie's own character, as well. She found out that the young Alolan girl also had an older brother named Gladion, who was currently off traveling in another region, like Sun was. Apparently, he and the Alolan Champion had actually been rivals during Sun's Island Challenge, though Lillie didn't actually say whether or not Gladion had been doing the Island Challenge as well. She also mentioned that her mother was the president of the Aether Foundation, the organization she had mentioned to them before, and that her father had disappeared a long time ago and never returned, a fact which, honestly, didn't surprise Serena as much as it probably should have.

    But most importantly, Serena found that she still couldn't get her to open up too much when it came to the Champion himself. She already had a strong feeling that Lillie was harboring a crush on the boy, but if that were true, then it seemed like she had never been able to confess her feelings to him before he had suddenly left. That would explain why she was so hesitant to talk about him. The whole situation reminded Serena of how she used to act around Ash, and she tried to imagine what it might have been like for her if Ash had left Kalos without finding out about her feelings - or his own, for that matter. The thought made her shiver with fear, and helped her to better understand Lillie's attitude a bit.

    Later on in the day, around lunchtime by Serena's estimate, the two were finishing up with their not-quite-window shopping adventure. Toward the end of their trip, Serena had finally caved in and bought a couple of tropical-themed outfits for herself, as well as one for Ash - though she wasn't sure whether or not they would ever actually wear them. Lillie, on the other hand, wound up only getting herself a long spool of red ribbon, saying that she was inspired by the fact that Serena still wore the ribbon Ash had given her.

    This left Serena with two shopping bags and Lillie with none, as she'd merely slipped the ribbon into her backpack after buying it. Just as they were making their way back toward the pier to meet up with Ash and Brock, however, they were interrupted by a small, gnarled tree stump floating across their path, followed swiftly by a rather irate shop owner.

    "- and stay out!" The man was yelling, a couple of random articles of clothing in his arms. "Just go back to that cemetery where you belong - you're ruining my business!"

    "Tump..."

    Serena and Lillie watched curiously for a moment as the wispy Pokemon shuffled away sadly, the shop owner glaring at him from behind.

    "Hey, that's a Phantump." Serena remarked in mild surprise. "What's it doing here in town?"

    "I don't know." Lillie admitted, putting a finger to her chin as she racked her brains for any knowledge she could remember about the tiny Ghost-type. "Don't Phantump usually live near forests?"

    "Yeah..." Serena murmured in confirmation, watching the Phantump for a moment longer before approaching the angry shopkeeper. "Um, excuse me. Why were you so angry with that Phantump? Have you seen it before?"

    "Huh?" The man stammered, looking at the two girls as if he'd just noticed them standing there. "Oh, I've seen it before, all right. Rotten thing keeps showing up in my store. Stealing clothes, scaring customers...you name it." He shook his head in disgust. "All I can say is, if I see it again, I'm calling the cops."

    And with that, he skulked back into his store without another word. Serena and Lillie shared a look before turning toward the Phantump, who was now halfway down the alley across the street from them. Serena took off toward it without another thought.

    Phantump heard her approaching , and turned to face her before she could say anything to it.

    "Tump...?" It murmured, looking up at her sadly. It appeared to be quite sad for some reason, and didn't seem to be in a hurry to get to wherever it was going next.

    "Hi there, Phantump. My name's Serena." The Performer remarked, with an introductory gesture toward herself. "Um, can you tell me why you keep causing trouble for that man and his store?"

    "Phan-tump?" Phantump replied, eyeing Serena first, then Lillie, then shifting its gaze to the store behind them before finally locking eyes with Serena again. "Phantump. Phan-phan-tump!"

    "Uh...can you tell what it means?" Lillie asked, looking over at Serena ignorantly.

    "Hmm...I'm not sure..."

    Just then, a burst of light erupted from one of Serena's pockets, and Pancham appeared on the ground beside Phantump.

    "Pancham! Pan-pan-cham!" Pancham declared, gesturing rather insistently toward Phantump.

    "What is it, Pancham? Do you know what its saying?"

    "Pancham!" The Playful Pokemon confirmed, thumping its fist on its chest. It then flipped onto its back and spun around a few times before leaping back to its feet and striking a pose. "Pan-cham!"

    Serena blinked, looking back and forth between the two. Pancham certainly seemed sure of itself, but Phantump was regarding Serena's Pokemon with a bit of apprehension, so she couldn't quite tell how accurate its assumption was regarding Phantump's predicament. "...Is that true, Phantump? Do you want to perform on a stage, too?"

    "Phan?" Phantump responded quizzically, though she could tell it wasn't an outright denial. After a moment, it looked over her shoulder at the store again, and this time she followed its gaze. Walking out of the shop was a group of friends, all chatting loudly with one another as they made their way down the street. "Phan-tump..."

    Serena looked back at the small Pokemon as it sighed rather heavily, and a possible scenario began forming in her mind. "...Phantump, where do you live? Where's your family, or your friends?"

    "Phantump..." It sighed once again, and Serena could tell what it was trying to say this time.

    "You know, now that I think about it, there aren't any forests around here at all." Lillie remarked, regarding Phantump with increased interest. "I've read stories about Ghost-types sometimes appearing near the cemetery on Memorial Hill, just outside of town, but..."

    Lillie's words seemed to confirm what Serena had already guessed was the case. "Phantump...are you here all alone?"

    "Tump..."

    "Then, that means...you're only causing trouble in the store because..." Serena spoke slowly, trying to put all of the pieces together in her mind. "You just want someone to pay attention to you, don't you?"

    "Cham?" Pancham spoke, looking over at Phantump expectantly. It hadn't been quite the answer that Pancham had suggested, but it was similar, all the same.

    Phantump remained silent, and its gaze drifted to the ground. Serena was taken aback by its behavior; she'd never seen a Pokemon act so...depressed before. Even Pancham, who had been causing trouble for a similar reason when she'd first encountered it, had been eager and full of energy at the time - it was just directing that energy into the wrong pursuit. But this Pokemon...whatever must have happened to it to make it end up like this, she found that she couldn't help but sympathize with it.

    "...Hey, Phantump?" Serena began slowly, kneeling down to put herself on a more even level with it. "How would you like to come along with me and my friends?"

    "...Tump?" Phantump murmured, looking up at her as if it didn't quite understand her words.

    "I'm a Pokemon Performer, you know. If you come along with me, I promise you'll get to perform on a big stage one day - and then everyone will be able to see you!"

    "Phantump...?" Phantump repeated, but there was more vigor to its voice this time. It floated a little higher up off the ground, as if Serena's words were physically lifting it up.

    "Not to mention that me and my friends go to lots of different places together. If you come with us, you'll never have to worry about being alone again!"

    "Phan...tump..." Phantump replied, its eyes now sparkling with anticipation at all she was promising.

    "Pancham!" Pancham sang, as if to confirm the words of its Trainer.

    "So? What do you think?" Serena asked, leaving the decision in Phantump's hands. "Do you want to come along with us on our journey?"

    "Phan! Phan-tump!" Phantump squealed excitedly, and the two girls couldn't help but smile at its heartfelt reaction.

    "Well, okay then!" Serena declared, producing an empty Poke Ball from her backpack with her free hand. "All right, here it comes! Go, Poke Ball!"

    Serena reached out toward the Stump Pokemon, Poke Ball in hand, and Phantump squeezed its eyes shut instinctively. But she remembered how Ash had once captured a similarly timid Pokemon of his own once, and she kept the capsule clutched in her hand, bringing it right up to Phantump's face and tapping the ball on its forehead.

    Phantump was sucked inside at once in a flash of white light. It only shook once before the signature ding sounded, signalling that the capture had been completed.

    "Ta-daa!" Serena exclaimed with a smile. "Looks like I just caught a Phantump!"

    "Pan-pan-cham!"

    Lillie smiled at the two of them happily, regarding Phantump's Poke Ball with a bit of sadness. "The poor thing...I wonder how long it had to live like that? I think it'll be a lot happier with you, Serena."

    Serena nodded in agreement before holding out Phantump's capsule. "All right, Phantump, come out!"

    The Ball cracked open, and her new companion emerged into the alley once again, this time with a wide smile adorning its face.

    "Phantuuump!" It sang happily. It almost seemed like a different Pokemon from the one they'd originally encountered only minutes before.

    "Pancham!" Pancham greeted with a wave, as if welcoming it onto Serena's team. Phantump smiled at it for a moment before responding with a gleeful chirp.

    "Come on - we should get going." Lillie remarked, putting a hand on Serena's shoulder gently. "The ship's probably going to be leaving any minute, now!"

    "Oh, you're right!" Serena responded at once, having completely forgotten about their time limit. "Pancham, Phantump, let's go!"

    They both nodded obligingly and jumped onto Serena's shoulders, with Pancham on the left and Phantump on the right. And with that, the two girls were off, their group now one Pokemon stronger.


    "I dunno...where do you think they are?"

    "Beats me. Hey, Ash...you don't think they forgot, do you?"

    "Piiika..."

    Ash sighed helplessly as they continued scanning the area for their two companions. They had arrived here at the pier fifteen minutes ago, with Professor Kukui's 'treasures' in tow, and yet they had still seen no sign of Lillie or Serena. The ship was due to leave any minute, and there was no telling how long it would take them to get another ferry to Ula'ula Island if they missed this one.

    Just as they were beginning to lose hope and go looking for them, Ash caught a glimpse of Serena waving at him from the edge of his vision.

    "Hey! Hey, you guys!" She called, just as Lillie bounded into view behind her.

    "Hey, look!" Ash announced, grinning wildly when he saw her coming toward them. As she approached, however, he noticed two Pokemon sitting atop her shoulders, yet only one of them he recognized as one of hers.

    "Piika?" Pikachu spoke in confusion, staring at the strange Pokemon camped on Serena's right shoulder as she and Lillie closed the distance between their two groups.

    "Hey, guys - sorry we're late!" Serena remarked apologetically, panting heavily after reaching the pier.

    "We got a little bit held up..." Lillie explained breathlessly.

    Brock noticed the pair of shopping bags in Serena's hand and smirked. "That wouldn't have anything to do with those bags of yours, would it, Serena?"

    "Nope!" Serena answered truthfully, reaching with her free hand to stroke Phantump's head. "It was because we ran into this little guy!"

    Ash and Brock both regarded the Ghost-type strangely for a moment. "Where'd you find a Phantump in the middle of a big city like this?"

    "I'll tell you guys the story later. What's important is that he's going to be traveling with us from now on!"

    "Huh?!" Ash exclaimed, looking at the Stump Pokemon in disbelief. "You mean you caught it?"

    "Tuuuump!" It responded affirmatively.

    "Wow...can't say I expected that one." Brock spoke after a moment, smiling despite himself.

    "Yeah, me either." Ash agreed. "Welcome to the group, Phantump! My name's Ash. I'm really good friends with Serena, so let's get along well too, 'kay?"

    "Phantump, phan!" Phantump chimed happily yet again.

    "Well, shall we go onboard, then?" Lillie urged softly, not wanting the boat to leave the harbor while they were standing here chatting.

    "Yeah, good idea." Brock agreed, turning to face their ship. "Oh, I almost forgot. Serena, I think you'll want to see the 'treasures' that we picked up for Professor Kukui later."

    "You think I will?" Serena asked in confusion. "What do you mean?"

    "You'll see." Brock answered slyly, causing the Performer to stare back at him quizzically as she racked her brains, trying to figure out what 'treasures' would be of interest to both herself and the Professor.

    She didn't have long to think about it, however, as Brock took off briskly toward their vessel not a moment later, prompting the rest of them to fall in step behind him, finally bringing their adventures on Akala Island to a close.​


    In case any of you forgot, the way Serena gently captures Phantump here is meant to be a callback to how Ash caught Goomy. The way Ash was able to pick up on Goomy's timid nature and decided to just tap him with the Poke Ball instead of throwing it at him like usual was great, IMO, and I wanted to bring it back somehow. #RIPGoodra
     
  10. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Chapter 10: The Isle That Burns Crimson​


    The trip to Ula'ula Island, while quick in comparison to the journey between Kalos and Alola, still ended up taking a few more hours out of their day, and by the time they finally pulled into the harbor at Malie City, the sun was just beginning to climb down from its perch atop the afternoon sky. The first thing they noticed upon their arrival was the imposing presence of two distinctly separate mountains visible against the horizon, one appearing far closer than the other but also significantly smaller in size.

    "Wow...so this is Malie City, huh?" Ash remarked as they strolled down the main road leading into the city proper from the pier. The buildings were constructed in a traditional style, similar to what they had seen in Konikoni City, which wasn't quite the architectural style he'd been expecting from a tropical region like Alola.

    "What's the story behind those two mountains?" Brock asked, directing his question toward Lillie as he spied the pair of natural skyscrapers visible against the late afternoon sky.

    "Oh, those are the two highest peaks in the entire Alola region." The blonde explained, her ponytail swaying back and forth like a tail as she strode forward down the street. "The shorter one is Mount Hokulani, which has an observatory on it that's usually being run by a boy named Sophocles...but, he's also one of the Trial Captains that's gone missing recently, so a friend of ours has been looking after it in his place."

    Her last words sent a depressing chill over the group, and the foreign trio was silent as they were reminded once again of how Mallow had been taken from right in front of them only a few days prior.

    "...Anyway, the tall one is Mount Lanakila. That's where our Pokemon League is held here in Alola, and it's also the only place you'll ever see it snowing around here!"

    "Wait - you mean it can snow here?" Serena asked in disbelief. "I thought tropical regions like this were warm pretty much all the time."

    "Well, that's true for the most part - but Mount Lanakila is kind of special, I guess. It seems like it's always snowing around that area, no matter what time of year it is. It's actually the place that makes Alolan Vulpix like Snowy look the way they do, and I've read that the same is true for Alolan Sandshrew."

    "So that means there are Alolan Sandshrew, too?" Ash piped up excitedly, his eyes gleaming. "Man, the Alola region is so cool..."

    Serena giggled at her boyfriend's enthusiasm as Brock turned to regard Lillie with a more serious question. "So, let me ask you this, then. What's our plan now that we're here in Malie City?"

    Lillie clenched her fists softly against the straps of her backpack, and her brow furrowed roughly. She clearly wasn't used to being the one giving directions. "Well...we need to meet up with Acerola first. She'll probably be easier to find than Nanu. But neither of them live near here...I suppose we could go to the observatory and see Molayne. He might be willing to help us out."

    "Who's Molayne?"

    "He's a good friend of Professor Kukui's. He used to be a Trial Captain here on Ula'ula Island before Sophocles took over the job for him. He's actually one of the Elite Four here in Alola now, too!"

    Ash's eyes lit up at her words. The prospect of meeting members of any given region's Elite Four always excited him, and this time was no different, even in spite of their current circumstances. "Wow - one of the Elite Four, huh?"

    "Don't get any ideas, Ash." Brock remarked, attempting to reign in his friend's excitement before it got out of control. "Now probably isn't the best time to be challenging him to a battle."

    "Yeah, you're probably right..." Ash replied with a dejected sigh. Serena smiled and put her hand on his shoulder.

    "Don't worry. I'm sure you'll get a chance to challenge him after all this is over!"

    Ash returned her brilliant smile with one of his own, grateful for her attempt to cheer him up and keep him motivated.

    "So...who is this Acerola girl, anyway?" Brock asked, continuing on with his pseudo-interrogation.

    "Oh...Acerola is...well, she's an orphan." Lillie explained slowly. "But she's a really sweet girl. She lives at the Aether House, an orphanage for both people and Pokemon maintained by the Aether Foundation, and she loves looking after the younger kids there, not to mention the stray Pokemon that they bring in."

    "And she's a Captain of the Island Challenge, too? Doesn't that make her something like a Gym Leader?" Serena asked, already somewhat impressed by Lillie's description of the young girl.

    "Yes, something like that."

    "And...what about the other guy? Nanu?" Ash asked.

    "Nanu's a little bit...different. Don't get me wrong, he's a great Trainer, but...I don't think he ever wanted to be a kahuna in the first place - and he definitely didn't want to be a member of the Elite Four."

    "What?! You mean he's one of the Elite Four, too?!" Ash exclaimed, practically frothing at the mouth.

    "What exactly is a kahuna?" Brock asked over Ash's excitement, a bit desperate for clarification on the colloquial terms he'd been hearing lately. "You talk about them like they're a position over the regular Captains...but what exactly do they do?"

    "Well, after a trial-goer has completed all of the Trials that the Island Captains provide, they can then challenge the island's kahuna to a battle. If they win, they can go on to the next island...but, see, kahunas aren't picked by us - they're chosen by the Tapu."

    "The Tapu? You mean the Legendary Pokemon?!"

    Lillie nodded in affirmation. "Yeah. None of us are really sure how, but the Tapu are aware of the Island Challenge - the whole thing is supposed to be centered around honoring them, as a matter of fact. Whenever Alola has been in need of a kahuna, they're chosen by that island's Guardian, sooner or later, and you have to serve as kahuna from then on - for the rest of your life."

    "Rest of your life? What happens if you...don't?" Serena asked nervously, not sure she wanted to hear the answer.

    Lillie shrugged. "Then you become cursed...I guess. I don't think anyone has ever tried going against the wishes of the Island Guardians like that. Even people that don't want to do the job, like Nanu, know better than that."

    Ash gulped, thinking of how much trouble Tapu Lele had given them back on Akala Island. He could certainly understand not wanting to upset these particular Legendary Pokemon.

    As the four of them made their way further into town, following Lillie's directions toward the other side of the city, they saw a number of interesting buildings: a fancy-looking restaurant that Serena proclaimed she would love to visit, a number of clothing stores, and they even spied what appeared to be a traditional Pokemon Gym, a place which Ash had to fight his instinctive nature to prevent himself from walking in and asking for a challenge.

    When they finally appeared to be approaching the edge of the opposite side of town, which Lilllie had told them led toward the base of Mount Hokulani, they suddenly heard a pair of voices coming from around the corner.

    "Hey, Minccino, calm down!"

    "Cccinnooo!"

    "Hey, it's a Minccino." Ash noted, watching curiously as it chased a tall, skinny, blond man down the street next to them. In fact, the stranger almost reminded him of a somewhat older version of Clemont.

    "Yes, and that's Molayne it's chasing..." Lillie added. "Come on - we have to help him out!"

    "A...what?" Serena repeated, taking a brief moment to pull out her Pokedex.

    "Minccino, the Chinchilla Pokemon. Minccino prefer tidy habitats, and do not tolerate even the slightest of messes. They use their tails as brooms and mops to thoroughly clean any filth they encounter."

    "Miiin-ccinooooo!" The small, gray creature squeaked, jumping through the air before landing a powerful-looking Aqua Tail attack on the ground, narrowly missing the man Lillie had referred to as Molayne.

    "Hey, what's the big idea, Minccino?!" Ash cried, stepping between the two at once with a fiery look in his eyes. To his slight surprise, Serena stepped out alongside him as well, glaring down at the Minccino angrily.

    "What do you think you're doing?!" She added, the two of them effectively forming a wall between the Chinchilla Pokemon and Molayne.

    "Pika pika!" Pikachu growled.

    "Molayne, what's wrong?" Lillie asked urgently, herself and Brock drawing up next to the glasses-clad man behind Ash and Serena. "Did something happen?"

    "I - I don't know!" Molayne stammered uncertainly. "I was just on my way to the Recycling Plant on the edge of town when this Minccino started attacking me! It was following me earlier on my way into the city, but I never thought it would've tailed me this far..."

    "Did you do something that might've made it angry?" Brock asked, putting a hand to his chin quizzically.

    "N-no..." Molayne answered, straightening his glasses. "I mean, I could've handled it myself, but I didn't want to hurt the poor thing, especially not when I don't even know why it's so mad at me in the first place..."

    "Ccino!" Minccino hissed, glaring at Molayne darkly through the gap between Ash and Serena. "Minccinoooo!"

    "Come on, knock it off!" Ash insisted, taking a step toward Minccino alongside Serena.

    "There's no reason for you to attack him like that!" Serena added.

    "Ccino..." Minccino murmured, glancing between the two of them for a moment before coming to a decision. "Min-cciiinoooo!"

    It reared back and screamed, blasting a series of blue rings of energy out of its mouth toward Ash and Serena as it did so.

    "Aaaah! That's Hyper Voice!" Ash called out, as all five of them covered their ears quickly in an attempt to drown out the shrill, high-pitched shriek that was now assaulting their eardrums.

    "Pika!" Pikachu cried, leaping off Ash's shoulder and intercepting the Hyper Voice attack itself with Iron Tail.

    "Thanks, buddy!"

    "All right, Phantump, come out and use Forest's Curse!" Serena cried as the hyper-pitched sound waves died off.

    "Phaan-tuuump!" Phantump squeaked, emerging from its capsule and summoning a throng of violet-colored roots from the ground, quickly trapping Minccino within them.

    "Ccino! Min-ccinnooo!" Minccino growled, struggling against its bonds in frustration. Ash, meanwhile, walked up to it and knelt down, looking it square in the eyes.

    "What's wrong? Why would you want to attack Molayne like that?"

    Minccino stopped for a moment, returning Ash's gaze sincerely. It almost looked like it was ready to calm down before it suddenly spun out of control again, and began struggling against the spectral roots keeping it in place for a second time.

    "Something's making it angry. It's almost like it's reacting on instinct." Brock explained worriedly, examining Minccino with a steely gaze before turning to Molayne. "Are you sure you didn't do anything that might've upset it?"

    "I didn't do anything to it." Molayne insisted. "From what I can tell, it was mad at me from the moment it saw me on my way here!"

    Ash continued regarding the small creature seriously as it fought against its bonds like a wild animal experiencing restraints for the first time. And as he watched, he noticed that Minccino's eyes kept drifting back toward Molayne's left arm. Ash almost felt crazy for thinking this, but he turned halfway around so that he could see the older Trainer, and realized that he was wearing the same type of bracelet as Mallow.

    "Hey, is that a Z-Crystal?"

    Ash's sudden question drew the eyes of his companions, but Molayne merely responded honestly, albeit wearing a slightly confused expression of his own. "Yeah, that's right - well, it's a Z-Ring, technically, but you know what I mean..."

    "I thought so. I think Minccino here is scared of it or something." Ash explained, his face breaking out in a calming smile as he spoke. "It keeps looking over at it like it wants to attack it."

    "...Really? You think so?" Molayne remarked in surprise, sparing a glance down at the accessory on his wrist.

    "But why would a wild Pokemon be concerned about something like that?" Brock challenged, putting an inquisitive finger to his chin. Neither Ash nor Serena knew much of anything about the topic of Z-Crystals, and so they looked expectantly to Lillie to provide an answer for them.

    "Well...Pokemon are naturally sensitive to Z-Energy, I think." Lillie replied slowly, her own arms also assuming an introspective stance as she racked her brains to find the answers they were after. "So I guess it's possible that Minccino senses the energy from Molayne's ring. But I don't know why it would be so scared of it..."

    "Piii-ka!"

    "Ccino?"

    "Pika pika! Pi-ka-chuuu!"

    "Ccino, ccino! Minccino!"

    Ash regarded the brief exchange between the two curiously before turning to his partner for help. "What's it saying, buddy?"

    "Pika!" The yellow mouse exclaimed, bounding over to Molayne and pointing at his Z-Ring explicitly. "Piiika!"

    Molayne blinked, taking the tone of Pikachu's voice as confirmation that Ash's hypothesis had proven true, and brought the thick black band closer to his eyes for inspection. "So it really is scared of my Z-Crystal, then?"

    "I wonder if the Island Guardians had anything to do with this?" Brock postulated as Pikachu drew back up beside Phantump, the two of them standing only a few paces away from Serena. "Didn't Mallow say something about Tapu Lele producing an aura of Z-Energy during our battle with it the other day?"

    Molayne's eyes widened at Brock's statement. "It did what?!" The Elite Four member demanded, whipping around to face Brock so fast that his glasses went askew, forcing him to straighten them manually a moment later as Lillie nodded to confirm Brock's words.

    "Yes, she did...and I saw it, too. Tapu Lele was definitely using Z-Energy back then...and, based on that, we can probably assume that Tapu Bulu here on Ula'ula Island can use it, as well."

    "And you think that's what caused Minccino to become so afraid of Z-Energy...?" Serena deduced, looking back down at the still-bound Pokemon with a newfound degree of empathy. Ash, still knelt down on one knee, drew up closer to it and reached out toward its face through the vines.

    "Hey, it's okay, Minccino. We're not gonna hurt you - "

    Before Ash could even finish, Minccino had lashed out and bitten the back of his hand, and the instantaneous reaction made him again think of a wild animal acting on instinct. He choked down the pain silently, not allowing his gentle expression to crack. "There, you see? You're just fine."

    Minccino remained latched on to Ash's hand for a moment longer before it realized that Ash wasn't attempting to fight back. The expression on its face softened, and it withdrew its teeth, allowing Ash to gently stroke the fur on its disproportionately large ears.

    "Are you all calmed down now?"

    Minccino looked behind him at Molayne briefly, as if contemplating whether or not to trust him, before turning back to Ash with a solemn frown. "Ccino..."

    Ash's eyes lit up in spite of the trickle of blood flowing down his hand, and Phantump finally allowed the vines surrounding Minccino to dissipate. "That's great!"

    Molayne breathed a soft sigh of relief despite himself. "Whew - glad we got that all sorted out. I really wasn't sure how to deal with it, to be honest...some Elite Four member I am, right?"

    They all shared a good laugh at his distress before Lillie turned to regard him directly. "So, Molayne, you said you were on your way to the Recycling Plant before?"

    "Oh, that's right!" The former Captain exclaimed, as if he had entirely forgotten his previous engagement after running into Minccino and the rest of them. "I completely forgot to ask you - what brings you and your friends out this way, Lillie?"

    "Oh, we're out here on behalf of Professor Kukui." Lillie answered without hesitation. "We're trying to figure out how to stop the attacks from the Island Guardians."

    Molayne's face fell when he heard her response, as if it was a possibility he had been dreading. "Oh...I see. I really do hope Sophocles and the others are okay, wherever they are..."

    Ash, Brock, and Serena all shared an uncomfortable look, unsure of what to say next. After a few moments passed in silence, Ash finally decided to speak up and at least introduce himself. "Well...hi there. I'm Ash, from the Kanto region - and this is my partner, Pikachu!"

    "Pi-ka-chuuu!"

    "My name's Serena. I'm from the Kalos region, but I actually came here along with Ash." Serena greeted warmly. "And this is Phantump!"

    "Phant-tuump!"

    "And I'm Brock. I'm actually from Kanto as well - I used to be the Gym Leader in Pewter City." Brock explained, rounding off their trio of introductions.

    Molayne smiled awkwardly at the three of them. "Hello there - it's nice to meet you all. I'm glad to see that at least some Trainers were able to come and help us out with all of this..."

    Ash waved away his concerns and smiled at him. "Aw, it's no big deal. We were just excited to be able to come out here and see the Alola region."

    "Yeah - not to mention you may want to hold off on thanking us until we've actually done something to help." Brock remarked plainly, prompting a confused look from Molayne.

    "What do you mean, exactly?"

    The four of them looked away from him, their shared feelings of guilt over Mallow's abduction still lingering over their heads. After a few moments of silence, it was Lillie that finally spoke up with an answer.

    "The other day...we ran into Tapu Lele on Akala Island." The blonde explained slowly, her eyes still looking down at the ground in shame. "Mallow was with us. We were supposed to protect her, to keep her from getting captured...but..."

    Molayne's eyes widened, and the shared look of regret across their faces finished Lillie's explanation for her. "O-oh...I see...so Mallow's gone now, too...that's terrible..."

    "...Hey, Molayne, why don't we go with you for now?" Lillie proposed, trying to ease their way out of the somewhat awkward situation they had been placed in. "We were actually on our way up the mountain looking for you. We can at least go over to the Recycling Plant with you, right?"

    "What?" Molayne remarked absentmindedly. "Oh, yeah, of course. You're all welcome to come along with me. To tell you the truth, I'm not even sure what needs doing up there - one of the workers up at the observatory just told me that someone was looking for me there. I haven't been down to the city in a while, so I figured I'd come by and see what they needed."

    Lillie nodded in understanding, and the group drew up alongside Molayne before remembering their new friend, and they turned back to Minccino to bid farewell, with Ash taking the lead in the matter. "All right, now you stay out of trouble from now on, got it?"

    "Phan-tump!"

    "Piiika!"

    "Bye, Minccino!" Serena remarked, adding her words to that of Phantump and Pikachu as they all waved goodbye to the small Pokemon, who seemed more perplexed by their departure than anything. Before they had gotten more than ten steps away, it had already taken off down the street after them.

    "Ccino, ccino!"


    The city felt even larger than Heahea City to them, as by the time they finally reached the Recycling Plant on the outskirts of town, the sky had been painted a thorough orange by the setting sun, and the air had gotten noticeably colder with their proximity to the ocean.

    The building was easy to pick out in the distance, seeing as it was the only one within a mile or so of any other structure. It appeared to be deserted for the time being, likely due to it now being past normal working hours. As they drew closer, however, they realized that there was, in fact, one lone figure standing near the building, clad in clothes none of them recognized at first glance.

    "Hey, um..." Molayne began, injecting some small semblance of authority into his voice as he walked out in front of the others to address the lone figure. "Can I help you? The plant is closed right now, you know."

    The figure didn't answer right away, instead turning to face them slowly whilst maintaining its mysterious silence. Only once it had completed its revolution did it finally speak.

    "Oh...I'm not here for your...Recycling Plant."

    Molayne stared back in confusion, attempting to decipher the stranger's motives. A moment later, a rush of green swept past them, and before they could blink, a strange-looking horned Pokemon was floating in the space next to the stranger, causing Molayne and Lillie both to audibly gasp in shock.

    "Wait - I know you!" Lillie exclaimed, her eyes widening as she recognized the strange clothes the figure was clad in, as well as the Pokemon accompanying him. "You're with the Ultra Recon Squad, right? What are you doing here with Tapu Bulu?!"

    "Tapu Bulu?!" Brock echoed, himself, Ash and Serena going on the defensive at once.

    "...Oh, I see. You must be one of the humans that Phyco and his team encountered during that incident a few months ago..." The voice spoke, its tone and inflection that of a male, though there was an odd warble accompanying his speech. "Well, no matter. You see, our goals have shifted a bit since the events of that time."

    "Your goals have shifted...?" Lillie repeated nervously. "What do you mean?"

    "Those fools took it upon themselves to quiet the Blinding One back then, even if they had to enlist your help to do so..." The man spoke in a bitter tone. "The light of our world is gone, and as such, we are dying a slow and painful death. Phyco lost his chance to be our savior. And as such, that task has now fallen to me, Rhodo."

    "The Blinding One..." Lillie stammered, and suddenly the image of a terrifying black creature arose unbidden from the distant corners of her memory. "You're talking about Necrozma!"

    "Yes, that's correct." Rhodo confirmed with a curt nod. "After your battle with him atop Megalo Tower, all of his light was once again drained away, and he was scattered to the winds of the Ultra Wilds. But in time, he was rediscovered, and a plan was enacted to try and permanently restore his light to him, so that our world may once again thrive."

    "What does that have to do with us and our world?!" Lillie demanded.

    "Oh, well, you see, the method by which we realized would be the answer to restoring Necrozma's lost energy was actually rather simple. You people from Alola call it 'Z-Energy', I believe? There are a number of you here in this world that are entirely permeated with the stolen light of our Blinding One. All we must do is take the light back."

    "So that's why everyone's been disappearing?" Molayne remarked angrily. "So that you can use all of their Z-Energy to revive Necrozma?!"

    Rhodo nodded once again, confirming Molayne's fearful question. "Yes, that's correct. You Pokemon Trainers from Alola...you have a strong concentration of light within you, due to those Z-Crystals you're so fond of. This made you all prime targets for our mission." He stopped for a moment, and his gaze shifted over to Ash. "But this one...he does not appear to even possess one of those Z-Crystals, and yet his body is permeated with Necrozma's light."

    "Wh-what...?" Ash stammered in response, bewildered by the man's words. Lillie glanced over at him fearfully, and Rhodo regarded Ash intensely for a moment, almost as if examining the young Trainer for confirmation of his own words.

    "Yes...very interesting. I did not think humans were capable of emitting such energy on their own." Rhodo spoke aloud after another moment of contemplation. "You'll certainly be of use to us, perhaps even more so than those others - and don't think I don't see you there, as well, Z-Crystal-wielder."

    He glanced at Molayne for a moment before re-centering his gaze on Ash. And, seemingly at his words, Tapu Bulu charged forward with its head bowed, pointing its horns outward like a bull as they became charged with energy.

    "Ash, look out - !" Brock exclaimed, reaching for a Poke Ball. But before he could produce one, Pikachu leaped forward off Ash's shoulder.

    "Pi-kaa!" Pikachu growled, swatting away the charging Pokemon with a decisive swing of its Iron Tail.

    Their strange opponent regarded Pikachu with curiosity as the Mouse Pokemon landed on all fours and glared at him defiantly. "Ah, of course. Your friends don't want us to take you. But you see, that's why we enlisted the aid of the Legendary Pokemon."

    Brock took a step forward and regarded their assailant through gritted teeth. "You're not taking Ash anywhere! Crobat, let's go!"

    "Brock's right! We're not gonna let you lay even one finger on him!" Serena added furiously, stepping in front of Ash as well. "Altaria, come out, now!"

    "Noivern, you too!" Ash exclaimed, loosing yet another Pokemon to add to the mix of creatures now standing between himself and their assailant. Their three Pokemon, along with Pikachu, made up what they had assumed was going to be their team going forward this time, and so they were surprised when Lillie and Molayne both stepped forward to join the fight, as well.

    "Snowy, I choose you!"

    "Magnezone, if you would!"

    The foreign trio looked to the side in surprise. "You guys are gonna help, too?"

    Lillie narrowed her determined-looking eyes and didn't look back, answering Ash's question without shifting her gaze. "That's right. I won't let this be like last time!"

    "And of course I'm going to help. What kind of Elite Four member would I be if I let someone else protect me twice in one day?" Molayne remarked confidently. "We'll do this together!"

    Rhodo examined their lineup of Pokemon apprehensively, though his stony expression remained unchanged - not that they could see much of it underneath the odd helmet he was wearing. "Hmm. Impressive effort, as expected from you Pokemon Trainers. But let's see if it amounts to anything."

    Rather than send Tapu Bulu in to attack again as they expected, the man instead produced a rather odd-looking Poke Ball from within his clothing; it was sky-blue, and covered in a wire-frame pattern, with four golden claws protruding from a central point on the back of the capsule. Ash had never seen anything quite like it.

    "Now - come out, Nihilego!"

    The capsule burst open in his hand, and a free-floating jellyfish-esque creature emerged from it, which immediately began slowly bobbing up and down in the space next to Tapu Bulu. Ash didn't recognize it, but Lillie must have, as she gasped audibly as soon as it appeared.

    "Th-that's an Ultra Beast!"

    The man nodded curtly at her words. "Yes, indeed it is. Phyco may have failed in his mission to restore light to our world, but he did succeed in one task - he learned how to contain these creatures that have plagued us for so long."

    "Lillie, what's an Ultra Beast?" Brock murmured under his breath, so that Rhodo couldn't hear. Her eyes shifted uneasily before she responded.

    "It's like a Pokemon...sort of...except it's from another world." She explained haphazardly. "They're from the world on the other side of the Ultra Wormholes."

    "So that's one of them, huh." Molayne remarked, adjusting his glasses for a better look at it. "I've never actually seen one of them before..."

    "Pokemon from another world..." Ash echoed, looking at the creature with interest, despite their immediate circumstances.

    Rhodo raised his arm at that moment, gesturing toward their group. "Now, then - let's see how you fair against these two. Nihilego, Acid Spray!"

    Tapu Bulu rose into the air along with the Ultra Beast; apparently, the Island Guardian didn't need to be commanded in battle. Nihilego spiraled toward their Pokemon whilst shooting a stream of violet-colored venom from its body, causing them all to leap out of the way at once. Noivern and Magnezone in particular took to the sky, whilst Tapu Bulu fired off a double-shot of Energy Balls from its two arms, aiming them at Pikachu and Snowy down on the ground.

    "Pikachu, use Quick Attack to dodge it!"

    "Snowy, use Protect!"

    Pikachu obeyed at once, launching into a dash at top speed as soon as it hit the ground from its first dodge. The Energy Ball impacted the ground behind it harmlessly, at which point Pikachu leaped up into the air and slammed into Tapu Bulu head-on, though it didn't even flinch from the impact. Meanwhile, Snowy's protective shield cancelled out any effect the second Energy Ball may have had on it.

    "Now, Noivern, use Acrobatics! Hit Tapu Bulu again!"

    "Crobat, you use Cross Poison to help out Noivern!"

    Noivern and Crobat flew closer to each other as if to reflect the habitual camaraderie between Ash and Brock before launching into their attacks in sync with one another, both careening toward the lone Land Spirit Pokemon.

    "Nihilego, use Power Gem to stop those two!"

    "No you don't!" Serena interjected. "Altaria, use Dragonbreath on Nihilego!"

    "Snowy, you help out, too! Use Ice Shard!"

    Snowy's attack went off first, of course, launching a trio of ice chunks at the Ultra Beast that did their job in keeping it in place for a moment so that Altaria's much stronger attack could hit its mark as well. Between the two of them, their attacks sent Nihilego flying backward, removing it from the battle for a few moments.

    This left Tapu Bulu to deal with Noivern and Crobat's attacks on its own - which it quickly proved it was more than capable of doing. Instead of dodging traditionally, it launched into a full-speed dive toward the two Flying-types, zipping past Noivern's body by a narrow margin and also dodging Crobat's Cross Poison attack whilst a glowing white aura sprang into existence around its body. It looped around in the air for a moment before circling back and slamming into Crobat from above, even angling the attack so that Crobat crashed into Noivern on the way down, resulting in both of them cratering into the ground.

    "Noivern!" Ash called out, staring at the collapsed heap that was their two Pokemon.

    "That was some Skull Bash." Brock remarked warily, his face tightening. "This isn't gonna be easy."

    "All right, Magnezone, use Flash Cannon!"

    Molayne's Magnezone, meanwhile, finally stepped into the fray as well, attempting to catch Tapu Bulu off-guard and without its partner. Unfortunately, the Island Guardian saw what it was doing, and fired back an Energy Ball at it, causing the two attacks to collide in midair and explode off one another.

    When the small dust cloud created by the explosion had cleared, Nihilego had returned to Rhodo's side, and both Pokemon barely appeared to be injured at all despite the hits they had taken.

    "Well...as interesting as a battle of this scale is, I have the distinct feeling that this could drag on for quite some time." Rhodo commented impatiently, raising his hand toward Tapu Bulu. "I think it would be in our best interest to speed this along."

    At his words, Tapu Bulu's eyes shot open wide, and a green aura began emanating from them. As Ash watched the emerald-colored aura envelop the area around them, he was reminded of the ability that Tapu Lele had used on them right before it defeated them all.

    "Hey, Lillie!" Ash began cautiously, looking around them as dozens of seeds began sprouting up in the concrete around them. "Is this - "

    "Yeah - it's Tapu Bulu's Grassy Surge!" Lillie confirmed, but her eyes were focused on an entirely different phenomenon. "But, look - it has a Z-Aura around it, just like Tapu Lele did!"

    She was right; as Grassy Surge was taking effect, an aura colored identically to the one that had cloaked Tapu Lele near the end of their battle with it was now covering Tapu Bulu as well. Ash remembered well how much stronger it had made the first Island Guardian - and he could only imagine what it would do for this one.

    "Now, it's over for you." Rhodo declared. And sure enough, as he spoke, Tapu Bulu slammed the bell-like lower half of its body on the ground. A moment later, all of the seeds spawned by Grassy Surge erupted into growth, sprouting thick vines that entangled themselves around just about everyone present there, like a Leech Seed attack on a massive scale.

    "Serena, look out!" Ash cried, throwing her aside just as a series of vines snaked toward her. He succeeding in getting her out of its reach, but he was overtaken by them in her place, leaving him bound and barely able to move at all.

    "Ash - !"

    But her cry died out when she saw the magnitude of Tapu Bulu's attack. She was quite literally the only one who hadn't been ensnared. Pikachu, Noivern, Crobat, Snowy...even Altaria and Magnezone had been somehow pulled down out of the sky and were now trapped against the ground like the others. Brock, Molayne, and Lillie had been caught in it, as well.

    "Seems you missed one." Rhodo commented, but he didn't actually seem to care too much. In fact, he barely even seemed to acknowledge Serena's presence at all, given that she was neither a Trainer from Alola nor a user of Z-Energy. "It doesn't matter. It's time to take your light back for ourselves."

    His eyes locked on to Ash, and her train of thought was cut short. Her mind had just been racing about what her next move should be, given that she was the only of them that was free at the moment. She had been about to go to one of her other Pokemon for help, but when she saw Rhodo's eyes center on Ash, she knew she didn't have the time to make a decision like that right now.

    And so, when she heard him utter his next words, she was left to react purely on instinct.

    "Go, Nihilego - use Acid Spray!"

    The Ultra Beast twisted through the air to get a better angle before firing on Ash, intending to incapacitate him for ease of transport. With both himself and his Pokemon bound by Tapu Bulu's vines, Ash was helpless, incapable of doing anything besides watching as the spray of poison soared through the air toward him -

    "Ash, no!"

    Ash stared blankly as Serena threw herself in front of him, blocking the poisonous attack by using her own body as a shield. The acidic substance started to bubble as soon as it hit her skin, sending waves of searing pain coursing throughout her entire nervous system.

    "Serena - !" Ash cried helplessly, as she let out her own wordless screams as well from the burning agony she was now being forced to endure. Rhodo's eyes merely narrowed, and he raised his arm to command Nihilego for a second time.

    "Use Acid Spray once more!"

    "Oh, no you don't! Steelix, we need you, now!" Brock rumbled, just as his Steelix materialized at his words alone in the space between Rhodo and the rest of them. The Acid Spray attack hit the Steel-and-Rock type this time, resulting in its effects being entirely cancelled out. Rhodo shifted his gaze over to Brock in annoyance.

    "You talk an awful lot about wanting to take away the 'light' from Pokemon Trainers." Brock growled angrily, a pendant that neither Ash, Serena, nor Lillie had ever actually noticed him wearing beneath his shirt shining with a brilliant, rainbow-colored light that both Ash and Serena recognized at once. "Well, I've got some 'light' of my own for you, right here! Steelix, it's time to Mega Evolve!"

    Rhodo's eyes widened with interest as the signature rainbow-colored aura of Mega Evolution enveloped the Iron Snake Pokemon. Its body began to change in time with its deafening roar, and once the transformation was complete, the aura retracted in a helix-shaped swirl, leaving a much tougher-looking Pokemon in the original Steelix's place, complete with a series of rocks orbiting its new body.

    "Whoa..." Ash breathed, gazing in awe at the Mega Evolved Pokemon. The spectacle was even enough to momentarily distract him from the fact that he was still bound by Tapu Bulu's attack, and only another pained moan from Serena, still writhing on the ground a few yards in front of him, was enough to bring him crashing back down to reality.

    Meanwhile, Brock's glare hadn't faltered; despite being bound by Nature's Madness just as Ash was, he showed no sign of fear on his face. "Steelix, use Sandstorm!"

    At his word, his Pokemon roared, summoning a dust devil that quickly expanded to cover the entire battlefield. Rhodo raised an arm to shield his eyes from the sand, and called out to his Pokemon once again, his voice not quite as calm as it had once been. "Nihilego, Tapu Bulu - attack that one!"

    The two of them obliged, including Tapu Bulu, who had been passively observing ever since trapping them within its Nature's Madness attack. Nihilego launched a Power Gem attack from one side while Tapu Bulu flew straight up and launched another pair of Energy Balls from its arms, both attacks centered on the massive Iron Snake Pokemon.

    "Use Gyro Ball to block - then use Iron Tail!"

    Steelix obeyed, and the two oncoming attacks were intercepted by Steelix's oscillating tail, causing no apparent damage to the Mega Evolved Pokemon before it lumbered forward and slammed both of its opponents to the ground with its follow-up attack.

    "Of course...Steelix gains the Sand Force ability when it Mega Evolves." Molayne declared to no-one in particular. "That means that, in addition to the residual damage normally caused by Sandstorm, all of Mega Steelix's regular moves are being powered up, as well!"

    "Pika pika!"

    "Noi-veeern!"

    "Riiiii!"

    Molayne's words seemed to have instilled a newfound sense of hope into their Pokemon, and they began to struggle against their organic bonds yet again. However, they still proved no match for the thorny bindings, and to make matters worse, Nihilego and Tapu Bulu rose from the ground a few moments later, clearly damaged but yet still willing to fight.

    Brock gritted his teeth even harder, and called out another attack. "Use Stone Edge!"

    "Riiix!" Steelix roared in acknowledgement, thumping its tail down on the ground and prompting a linear series of stalactites to sprout from the ground at a rapid pace in the direction of its two opponents.

    "Dodge it and counterattack!"

    Both Nihilego and Tapu Bulu obeyed, dodging the Rock-type attack vertically before bearing down on Mega Steelix with another series of Energy Balls and Power Gems. This time, the attacks hit their mark, and the ensuing dust cloud joined together with Sandstorm's flurry to entirely obscure the battlefield.

    "Steelix!" Brock cried, and Ash clenched his fists so tightly that he drew a trickle of blood from his palms. Between watching Serena collapsed on the ground, whose pained cries had become suspiciously quiet in the last few minutes, and observing even Mega Steelix fail to hold an advantage against Rhodo's Pokemon, he was just about to lose his mind out of helplessness.

    "I've...gotta...do something!" Ash heaved, pushing against the vines with all his might and still coming up short. Just when he thought his arms were going to pop out of their sockets from the strain, however, a small, grayish creature shot past him like a blur, and before he could even register what had happened, his bonds had been cleanly sliced away.

    "Huh - ?!"

    Before Ash could even react, the gray blur had moved on from his position, neatly making its way to each and every growth of Tapu Bulu's vines and slicing them away with reckless abandon. The last one to get cut free was Molayne and Magnezone, at which point their savior finally stopped long enough for Ash to get a good look at it.

    "...Minccino?!"

    "Ccino!" The Chinchilla Pokemon squeaked triumphantly, a blazing look in its eyes as its shining tail turned back to normal.

    "Pi-kaaaa!" Pikachu cried gleefully, happy to be free of its bonds at last. Molayne adjusted his glasses and looked down at the Pokemon curiously.

    "It's the same Minccino, all right. I guess it came to save us!"

    "Yes - and right on time, as well. Thank you, Minccino!" Lillie remarked, beaming at Minccino gratefully.

    Ash, meanwhile, after taking a moment to massage his wrists, raced to Serena' side at once, only to find that she was, in fact, unconscious, something that he had been afraid of once he'd realized that her cries had ceased.

    "Pika..."

    "Vern..." His Pokemon moaned, looking down at Serena's face sadly.

    "Tch..." Rhodo clicked his tongue as the dust cleared, revealing Mega Steelix, Tapu Bulu, and Nihilego to all be equally injured at this point. As the Sandstorm died off, Rhodo glared in passing at the entire group of Trainers standing opposite him. "Such resistance..."

    With their vision of the battlefield now restored, and Tapu Bulu's restraints on them now gone, they all stood up save for Ash, who remained knelt down at Serena's side. Their Pokemon assembled in front of them, and they met Rhodo's angry gaze with determined looks of their own.

    "You might as well retreat while you still can!" Brock declared as Crobat fluttered to his side.

    "He's right! You can't possibly defeat all of us at once!" Molayne added, Magnezone hovering between him and Rhodo's Pokemon.

    Rhodo bit his lip, realizing that they were right - he was out of his league at the current moment. "...Very well. You won the day this time, Trainers of Alola. But...now that I know that there are three more of you than we initially thought - especially considering that two of you three have an even stronger light than we normally see - well...let me just say that this won't be the last time we meet."

    He recalled Nihilego into the same strange-looking Poke Ball it had emerged from earlier, and stepped securely onto Tapu Bulu's back. A moment later, an Ultra Wormhole sprang into existence behind them, and then they were gone, with the Wormhole vanishing just as quickly as it had appeared.

    They all breathed a collective sigh of relief once they had gone. Brock was the first one to speak, directing his words toward his Pokemon. "Good job, Steelix. And you too, Crobat. You two have earned a nice, long rest."

    He caressed the Key Stone dangling around his neck, and Steelix reverted back to its original form, at which point Brock called both it and Crobat back into their capsules. Molayne followed suit, patting Magnezone on the head appreciatively before recalling it, as well. Lillie, who seemed more exhausted by the battle than anybody, allowed Snowy to bound up into her arms instead, where she snuggled against it for a moment before the three of them turned their gazes toward Ash and Serena.

    "Ccino...?" Minccino chirped, following their eyes.

    "Serena!" Ash called out desperately, lifting her limp form off the ground and cradling her head in his arms. "...Serena!"

    His teeth ground together furiously, and his mind raced, searching for a solution that would save her. Brock knelt down and examined her grimly, paying close attention to the dried venom that still clung to her arm. "Hmm...this isn't good. Attacks like that aren't meant to be used on humans - our bodies can't fight them off like a Pokemon's can. We've got to get her to a hospital, fast."

    Ash nodded at once and scooped up her legs in his free hand so that he was now carrying her bridal style. As he rose to his feet, Molayne stepped forward to offer his assistance. "I know a shortcut to get to Malie General Hospital from here. Come on - I can show you the way."

    "Right. Let's go." Ash replied, and the two of them took off without another word, even leaving Pikachu behind with the others.

    "Piiikachu..." Pikachu murmured sadly as it watched its Trainer disappear back into the city, equally worried about both Serena and Ash. They should have been happy; technically, they had just won their first victory against the threat involving the Island Guardians. And yet, as the sun began to finally dip over the horizon, they couldn't help but feel even worse about their situation now than they had before.​

    A bit of a long one this time, due in part to me snowballing the ideas that I had planned out to begin the next arc into one big event, and also due to me being a little busier than usual lately, so I just kind of accepted that it was going to take me a little longer to write than usual.

    Regardless, I hope you all enjoyed it, as usual!
     
  11. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Chapter 11: A Lone Skull

    Serena's condition didn't improve upon being brought to the hospital. After being examined by the doctors in the emergency room, they were told that treating Pokemon poison in humans was usually a relatively simple process. However, the wrinkle in their particular situation was that they couldn't seem to find the antivenom for Serena's particular strain, and when Ash and Molayne were asked what Pokemon had poisoned her, they were unable to come up with a suitable answer for the medical team.

    Thus, after the initial tests and resulting consultation had been concluded, she was relocated to a short-term room of her own, with the doctor simply saying that they would have to continue their generic treatment for her and hope that her body was eventually able to fight the poison off itself.

    The two of them were allowed into her room for a short time, but before long Molayne had decided to go back to the others and report on what had happened. Ash, on the other hand, opted to stay at the hospital with Serena, telling Molayne that he and the others should find their own lodgings for the night and that they would meet back up in the morning.

    It wasn't long after the Steel-type Trainer left, however, that one of the nurses came in and told Ash that while he was free to stay at the hospital as long as he wished, he would have to leave the room for the night. He had no choice but to agree, which led to him relocating to an unoccupied lounge off of one of the nearby hallways, adorned with a small bench against each of the two opposite walls, as well as a couple of vending machines standing just past them.

    "Oh, man..." Ash sighed airily, attempting to loosen the knot that had taken root in his stomach recently. He slipped off his backpack and set it down on the floor next to the bench. "She's just gotta be okay. She's gotta be..."

    It took a few minutes of him stewing there with his troubled thoughts before he even realized that Pikachu wasn't with him, which only served to increase the unease he was experiencing. He then remembered racing away from the Recycling Plant in his eagerness to get Serena some medical treatment, and figured that he must have left his partner behind with their other companions without even being aware of it.

    This revelation surprised him; he couldn't recall ever forgetting his time-worn partner like that in the past. Rather, he didn't think anything could happen to him that would make him forget about the little Mouse Pokemon, even if only for a moment. Pikachu's presence was always at the forefront of his mind, no matter what kind of stressful situation presented itself to him.

    At least, that was how it used to be.

    Right on the heels of this revelation about Pikachu came another, this one revealing that Serena had actually trumped Pikachu in his mind back then. He didn't particularly feel guilty for it, as he knew that his bond with Pikachu could never be severed, but was rather surprised instead. He had always claimed that Pikachu and his mother were the two most important things in the world to him, next to his dream of becoming a Pokemon Master. And he was fully aware of the things he'd already told his girlfriend in the past about how important she was to him - but this was the first time that he'd really experienced his subconscious mind making a choice like that. It almost scared him to learn that all of his proclamations toward her weren't just empty platitudes, and that she really had become that important to him.

    After some time passed, mostly consisting of him being lost in thought like this, he yawned despite himself, and felt his eyelids growing heavy. After a moment, he submitted, slumping down in his seat and bowing his head slightly as he allowed himself to drift off into the simple embrace of slumber.


    "Do you think she'll be okay?"

    Brock glanced over in the direction of the hospital resolutely before giving his answer. "I hope so, Lillie. I can't imagine what Ash must be feeling right now. The only times I've ever seen him like that were whenever his Pokemon were in danger."

    "Cccinoooo..." Minccino chirped sadly. The small Chinchilla Pokemon had still insisted on following them around after the battle with Rhodo, though none of them had been able to figure out why as of yet.

    "Piiikaaa..." Pikachu moaned as well, clearly distraught at the situation in general.

    Molayne looked down in shame as the coastal breeze whipped through the avenue. "I'm sorry, all of you. If I hadn't brought you to the edge of town with me..."

    "Um...I'm sorry, Molayne, but I don't think that's true." Lillie remarked, turning to address him with her emerald-green eyes glimmering warmly. "We all heard what he said. He was interested in Ash just as much as he was in you, maybe even more. We would 've had to fight him anyway."

    Brock nodded in agreement. "She's right. Though, I am worried about what you told us before - you said that someone at your observatory told you to come down to the city, right?"

    The Steel-type Trainer thought for a moment, putting a hand to his chin. "Yeah...now that you mention it, you're right. But...he couldn't be working with the Ultra Recon Squad, could he...?"

    "That's the first thing you should investigate, if you ask me."

    "Yeah. I'll go back up there tomorrow, and do just that." Molayne affirmed, nodding assuredly to him.

    Once they arrived at the Pokemon Center, they all had their Pokemon that had participated in the battle with Rhodo treated, as well as Pikachu and Minccino. After they had all been treated, Pikachu bounded back up onto Brock's shoulder, content with using him as a surrogate until they had reunited with Ash. Minccino rejoined their group as well, taking up residence around Lillie's feet while leering passively at Molayne's Z-Ring, as well as the Key Stone dangling in plain sight around Brock's neck.

    "Hey, that reminds me..." Brock started, noticing the Chinchilla Pokemon's wary glances. "If you really are going back up the mountain later, you might want to do something about your Z-Crystal there."

    Molayne met his gaze in confusion. "What do you mean?"

    "Well, you heard what that guy was saying about Z-Energy and all of that earlier, right? And Professor Kukui had already guessed that the attacks by the Legendary Pokemon had something to do with that. It seems like what happened earlier just confirms what we were already thinking." Brock crossed his arms and frowned down at the bracelet adorning Molayne's wrist. "If you're on your own, wearing that around only puts you in danger."

    Molayne looked down at his Z-Ring hesitantly, pondering Brock's words for a moment before undoing the clasp on the bottom and removing it from his wrist. "If that's the case...then here."

    "Molayne - ?!" Lillie began in disbelief, but the Steel-type Trainer was quick to shut her down.

    "I know - it's probably a crazy idea." Molayne admitted with a nervous smile. "But I can't just abandon the observatory, especially not with Sophocles gone. It's not like I need my Z-Ring to do my work, anyway - you can hold onto it for me until all of this is over with."

    Lillie stared down at the bracelet he was holding out before her. After contemplating his words for a few moments, she reluctantly reached out and took it from him. It was lighter than she expected, and the silver Steelium Z held inside of it was glimmering brilliantly.

    "Make sure you keep it safe for me, all right?" Molayne half-joked, attempting to ease the tension in the air. Lillie nodded back at him and Brock smiled, content that their situation had been resolved for the moment. Just as they were about to head to their room, Brock knelt down to address Minccino, who had still been listening to their exchange silently from Lillie's feet, though it was now eyeing the Z-Ring in her hands with a touch of apprehension.

    "Thanks a lot for your help today, Minccino." Brock expressed cheerfully. "I'm not sure what we would've done if you hadn't shown up when you did."

    Molayne and Lillie both nodded at his words, and even Pikachu chimed in encouragingly, causing Minccino to cheeks to heat up at the attention it was suddenly receiving.

    "Ccinnoooo..."

    Brock stroked the fur on its head in gratitude before rising back to his feet. "We've gotta get going now. We'll see you around, okay?"

    They all waved goodbye and made their way further into the Pokemon Center, leaving Minccino standing there alone yet again, with a lingering feeling of sadness that they hadn't taken it with them.


    The following morning, Molayne stayed true to his word, and departed for the observatory. Brock and Lillie bade him farewell before making their way back to the hospital. After reuniting with Ash, they found that had still been no apparent change in Serena's condition, despite the doctors telling them that they had tried a variety of neurotoxins in an attempt to combat the poison's effects. For the moment, they had left her to rest, hoping that her body would be able to fight off the foreign bodies while they struggled to find something that would help her.

    And so, with the three of them at somewhat of a loss as for what they should do next, they ended up staying in Serena's room with her for the time being, and before long, Brock had decided to recap the information they knew so far, in an attempt to gain more insight into what exactly was going on with the Island Guardians.

    "So...here's what we know." Brock began as he eyed Ash and Lillie, who were both seated across from him over Serena's bed. She was still out from her encounter the previous evening, though her breathing was steady. "The Ultra Recon Squad seems to be controlling the four Island Guardians somehow, and they're using them to look for and abduct the Trial Captains and kahunas of the Island Challenge - in other words, the strongest Trainers in Alola, who also all happen to use Z-Crystals."

    Ash and Lillie nodded gently in his direction to prod him to continue.

    "They're also interested in Trainers that have Pokemon that can Mega Evolve, based on what happened when I used Mega Steelix against the one we fought yesterday." Brock continued, remembering how Rhodo had noticeably perked up when he had revealed his Key Stone. "And on top of that, they pointed out Ash as a target, as well..."

    "...You know, there's a theory that Mega Stones use a similar kind of energy as Z-Crystals." Lillie interjected. "I read about it in a book once. They say that it's actually the same type of energy being released, just in a different way."

    Brock stroked an invisible beard along his jawline as he considered what she had said. "Hmm...if that's true, that would explain why they're interested in both. There aren't many Trainers with Key Stones here in Alola, are there?" When Lillie shook her head, he continued. "That fits with why they've only been targeting the Captains and kahunas, if there aren't any notable users of Mega Evolution here in the first place."

    "But...what about me?" Ash piped up. "Why would they want me? I don't have any Pokemon that can Mega E-"

    He stopped short all of a sudden, remembering the strange phenomenon that he and his companions had nicknamed 'Ash-Greninja' from the last leg of his journey through Kalos. They had always wondered if it was a form of Mega Evolution at the time, but were never able to discover a real answer before Greninja went off on its own. Even if that were the case, however, Greninja was no longer traveling with him, so it shouldn't have been a factor either way.

    "Ash? What is it?" Brock prompted. "Did you remember something?"

    "Piiika?" Pikachu chimed in, happily resting in Ash's lap now that it had been reunited with him.

    "...No, I'm fine." Ash confirmed a moment later. "None of the Pokemon that are with me right now can Mega Evolve, and I don't even have a Key Stone. So what do they want with me, anyway?"

    "Well...try and think back to your journey through Kalos." Brock asked, being fully aware of the myriad of stories concerning Mega Evolution from that region. "Did anything happen to you that might cause you to become...uh...'permeated with light'?"

    Brock frowned and furrowed his brow as he tried to remember Rhodo's words from the day before. As he did, he recalled another piece of information he was curious about, but decided to hold off on asking Lillie about it for the moment.

    "Well...oh!"

    The memory came to him with all the subtlety of a Dynamic Punch. He was surprised and a bit ashamed that it had taken him so long to remember, given what else had happened that day, but he couldn't do much about that now.

    "There was one time, when we were fighting against this really awful group of crooks. They had taken Serena as a hostage, and...I'm not really sure what happened, but I remember getting really upset, and then this power just started flowing into me from this giant crystal that was nearby. It gave me...I dunno, super strength or something. Bonnie told me later that she thought I looked like 'Mega Ash'."

    Ash chuckled at that last bit, but Brock was looking at him in shock, apparently dumbfounded by what he'd just heard. "P-power...flowed into you from a crystal? Ash, do you know what that sounds like?"

    The younger Trainer merely stared back at him and shook his head. "Ash...that's exactly what happens during Mega Evolution."

    "It's the same for Z-Moves." Lillie explained. "You strike a pose, which helps the energy flow between the Trainer and their Pokemon. It sounds like the idea is the same."

    Ash blinked, looking back and forth between the two of them as he processed what they were telling him. "Are you saying that I really Mega Evolved back then?"

    Brock shook his head slowly, not entirely sure of what he was about to say. "No...I don't think so. But you definitely harnessed the energy inside that crystal somehow. Call it Z-Energy, or Mega Evolution energy - it sounds like it's all the same, and if you were able to use it, that might explain why the Ultra Recon Squad is so interested in you. Which brings me to my next question..."

    The former Kantonian Gym Leader looked over at Lillie. "That guy Rhodo said something about giving all this 'light' back to something called 'Necrozma'. Do you know what he was talking about?"

    Lillie eyes hardened, and she looked away. "...Yes. It's a Pokemon, I think, from Ultra Space - but it isn't an Ultra Beast. Sun fought against it the first time we met the Ultra Recon Squad. We thought he had defeated it for good, but..."

    "Why do they need to restore all of the 'light' to it?" Ash asked. "They said their world was dying..."

    "I...I don't really know as much about all of that as Sun does. I'm sorry." She was silent for a moment before another possibility came into her mind. "Actually, my mother probably knows. She's done a lot of research on Ultra Space. She's too busy with the Aether Foundation to help with all of this, but now that Necrozma and the Ultra Recon Squad are involved, maybe..."

    She trailed off, causing Ash and Brock to share a glance at each other in mild confusion. They left her to her own thoughts for a moment before Brock spoke up again. "Uh...do you think we should go see your mother, Lillie?"

    Lillie looked back at them, and she found herself wishing more than ever that Sun, Hau, and Gladion were back. "Yes...maybe we should. But we can't just leave Acerola and Nanu alone - especially not now."

    Brock crossed his arms in deliberation. He certainly wasn't comfortable leaving the two prime targets of Rhodo's efforts unprotected, but by the same token, even all of them together had only just been able to ward off the combined attacks of one of the Tapus and an Ultra Beast - and they were currently down two Trainers from the size of their party the previous day. Going to the Aether Foundation seemed like the logical course of action, but even so, he couldn't knowingly make the decision to potentially abandon more people to get abducted like Mallow had.

    Before any of them could come to a decision, however, the door to the room swung open, and an unfamiliar voice caused the trio to look back toward the source of it.

    "Yo yo, your man Guzma's in the house!"

    Ash and Brock were left at a loss at the apparent stranger barging into their room, but Lillie appeared to be noticeably less shocked. "Guzma?! What are you doing here?"

    "Hey there, how's it hangin'?" Guzma greeted, the white-haired man as rowdy and unrefined as ever as he gestured grandly at Lillie. "Been a while since I've seen you hangin' around."

    "Y-yeah...I guess it has."

    Guzma glanced around at the other occupants of the room and smirked respectably at them. "Looks like you found some new pals to hang around with. Can't say I blame you - at least these guys are stickin' around for now."

    Ash and Brock shared an uncomfortable look at each other before turning to regard Lillie in confusion. "Hey...do you know this guy?"

    The blonde nodded a bit awkwardly at Ash's question, as though she were embarrassed by the fact. "Y-yes...Ash, Brock, this is Guzma. He's...a friend of my mother's, and an old acquaintance of mine and Sun's."

    "Still talkin' about that deadbeat Champion, huh?" Guzma spat haughtily. "I used to like that kid, you know, before he went and left us all high and dry like that. If it weren't for all this stuff goin' down the last few weeks, we'd probably have replaced him by now."

    Lillie sighed heavily, swallowing down the retorts she wanted to say and instead opting for a more diplomatic approach. "...What do you want, Guzma? How did you even find us here?"

    "Oh, the prez sent me out here after you all. She heard from the cookie himself that you had joined up with some kids from overseas to try and figure out what's what with the Island Guardians. And after that big ol' discharge of Ultra Wormhole energy we detected yesterday, she just wanted to make sure you were still in one piece."

    Lillie frowned at the nickname he'd recently given Professor Kukui. "But how did you find us here? In the hospital?"

    "Aw, come on, you know I'm smarter than I look, right? And you kids don't exactly know how to cover your tracks." The white-haired man looked down at Serena, still breathing peacefully on the hospital bed, and frowned. "So she took a hit from an Ultra Beast, huh? The attacks from those things are no joke. Not surprised they couldn't find a cure for it."

    "Do you know about them?!" Ash demanded at once. "Where could we find something that would cure it?!"

    Guzma scratched his head thoughtfully. "Dunno...I guess you'd have to go get some Ultra Beast DNA or something. I don't think you'd find anything like it in our world, that's for sure."

    "That's what we're gonna do, then!" Ash declared at once as he shot up out of his seat, causing Pikachu to go tumbling onto the floor.

    "Pii-ka?!" The Mouse Pokemon cried in annoyance as it landed on the ground belly-first before climbing back to all fours.

    "Hang on, Ash, what are you talking about?" Brock headed him off at once, jumping to his feet as well.

    "We already know how to get them to show up. We just have to use a Z-Crystal or a Mega Stone, and then beat them in a battle when they come after us!"

    Brock opened his mouth to attempt to explain to Ash all of the problems with a plan like that, but Guzma beat him to the punch. "Wow. You've got some real stones, kid! Trust me, I wanna go bust those things up as much as anyone - so believe me when I say you really don't wanna do that."

    "What're you talking about?!" Ash demanded angrily. "You just said that fighting another Ultra Beast is the only way to find a cure for Serena!"

    "Yeah, that's right." Guzma answered, raising a finger in the air pointedly as he spoke. "But I don't think you really wanna go another round with those things right now, do ya?"

    Ash gritted his teeth in frustration. "It doesn't matter! The longer we wait, the longer that poison stays in Serena's body! We've gotta do something now!"

    "Look, chill out for a minute, all right? All you gotta do is go and get that little runt Acerola and old man Nanu. Between all of us together, we oughta be able to put a dent in just about anything that Recon Squad can throw at us."

    Ash was silent for a moment as he contemplated Guzma's words. It was true that they hadn't been all that successful in their battles against the Ultra Recon Squad so far. And they needed to protect Acerola and Nanu anyway. But at the same time, he couldn't find it in himself to leave Serena behind - not when she was in such a critical condition.

    "...Yeah, I guess you're right." Ash admitted finally. "We came here to find Acerola and Nanu in the first place, after all. But...I'm not going with you guys."

    Lillie and Brock stared at him in shock as he sat back down on the seat nearest Serena's face.

    "Ash, you can't just stay here all by yourself." Brock argued. "You heard what Rhodo said yesterday - they might just decide to come after you next! You'd only be putting Serena in more danger."

    Ash gritted his teeth in frustration. He knew that what Brock was saying was true, and yet he couldn't bring himself to simply leave Serena all alone, especially considering her current condition. He was just about to bite back another harsh rebuttal at Brock when he felt the gentle touch of Lillie's hand on his shoulder.

    "I'll stay behind."

    The Kantonian Trainer's mouth dropped open and he swung around to gape at her in surprise. "Lillie, what are you saying? Don't you wanna go with them to find Acerola?"

    "I do...but we've all seen how weak my Pokemon are compared to all of yours. It won't really make much of a difference whether I'm there or not." She admitted softly. "I can't even use a Z-Crystal...but if I stay here, I can watch over Serena for you. That way, you can go to the Aether House with the others and keep Acerola and Nanu safe."

    "Lillie..."

    "Are you sure about this?" Brock asked cautiously. "If something does happen here in the city while we're gone, you'll be here all alone, at least until Serena gets better."

    Lillie shook her head. "Like I said, I've never used a Z-Crystal before. From what we've seen, they shouldn't come after me here." She then looked Ash right in the eyes, and a determined look flared to life within them. "Don't worry, Ash. I know how important she is to you. I'll make sure that Serena gets better soon!"

    Despite her words, Ash looked down at Serena with some measure of difficulty. He knew that what his friends were telling him was the truth. More prominent than any of the ancillary reasons was the fact that he was now just as much of a target as the Trial Captains were, meaning that he would be putting Serena in danger merely by being near her at this point. And he couldn't bring himself to do that, no matter how great his desire to stay by her side was.

    Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he exhaled deeply before reaching up and removing his hat, letting his dark, unkempt hair run free, and placed the accessory on the desk next to Serena's hospital bed, right next to the Kalosian Performer's own hat.

    "Don't worry, Serena." Ash remarked softly, his voice steely and self-assured. "I'll be back before you know it. So just...make sure you feel better by then, okay?"

    Her chest rose and fell gradually with her breathing, her face betraying no indication that she had heard him. Yet Ash, undeterred as ever, took another step toward her and knelt down so that he was now whispering in her ear, and breathed the words, "I love you." and laid a quick and tender peck on her cheek before drawing back up and turning to face his older companions.

    "All right, Brock...Guzma. Let's get going!"​

     
  12. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Chapter 12: Dusk​


    The cool ocean breeze shot past them as Ash and Brock exited the hospital alongside Guzma. Without his hat to shield it, Ash's hair ruffled freely in the wind, and the sensation seemed to remind him of the amount of distance they would potentially have to cover in order to complete their objective, prompting him to turn to their new companion worriedly.

    "Hey, Guzma? Just how far away is the Aether House, anyway?" Ash questioned, assuming that it would be the first stop on their quest across the area.

    "Oh, yeah - it's on the other side of the island."

    His answer caused Ash to stop dead in his tracks. "The - the other side of the island? Who knows how long that's gonna take to get there?!"

    "Piiika!" Pikachu chirped in agreement.

    "That does seem pretty far." Brock agreed as well, his tone a fair bit calmer than Ash's. "Isn't there any way we can get there faster?"

    At their words, Guzma turned to them and smiled wickedly. "Yo, come on, now! It's your man Guzma we're talkin' about, here! D'you really think I'd leave you all high and dry like that?"

    Ash and Brock shared a look of mutual ignorance. "Uh...should we know you from somewhere?"

    Brock's words crushed his spirit so hard that the damage seemed almost physical. Guzma's expression shifted to one of annoyance at once, and he spun around on the spot to glare at both of them while gesturing wildly with his hands. "Yo, are you sayin' you've never heard of the mighty Guzma? Former leader of Team Skull? Huh?!"

    "Team Skull?" Ash exclaimed, putting his defenses up almost immediately at the highly suspect nature of the name. "What kind of group are you talking about?!"

    Guzma leered at both of them, still apparently not convinced that they didn't know his name. "You serious? You've never heard of us before? ...Where are you two from, anyway?"

    "Well...we're both from Kanto, actually." Brock answered nervously.

    "Yeah, but I've been traveling around for a long time. I actually came here from the Kalos region..." Ash added.

    "...Oh. Yeah." Guzma murmured, visibly deflating as he began to realize the truth of their words. "I think I remember hearing somethin' about the cookie getting some help from a few foreigners. That must be you guys..." He examined them closely for a moment and then sighed in defeat. "...which means you probably wouldnt've heard of us, after all. All right, you win."

    "...Who's Team Skull?" Ash asked straightly. "Sounds like a group of bad guys, if you ask me."

    Guzma eyed him defiantly for a moment before answering. "Yeah, I guess we were. Team Skull was the name of my gang here in Alola. We made a big ol' splash tryin' to make a name for ourselves a while back...but now..."

    He spun around and gestured with his thumb to the back of his unzipped black jacket, where two giant pieces of duct tape had been stuck haphazardly in the rough shape of an 'X'. Below them, a black-and-white skull logo was barely visible.

    "That kid Sun and his friends beat me down real good a while back and knocked some sense into me. Ever since then, I've been workin' for the Aether Foundation, tryin' to make up for some of the bad stuff we did." He looked back at them over his shoulder. "But listen, none of that's important. The point is that I've got a ride for us!"

    And with that, he took off down the street, prompting Ash and Brock to follow. A few moments later, he stopped in the small parking lot next to the hospital, and they saw what he had been talking about: parked right there beside him was a small, black, four-door sedan, and Guzma was already climbing into the driver's seat.

    "How's this for cuttin' down on travel time, huh?!" He sneered good-naturedly. Ash and Brock took a moment to admire the admittedly plain vehicle before going to approach it as well.

    Before they could get in, however, a familiar cry gave Ash a brief moment of pause.

    "Min-ccino!"

    "Huh?" He stopped and turned, looking for the source of the noise. Bounding across the parking lot toward them was the same Minccino that had helped them in the fight against Rhodo. "Minccino? How did you...?"

    "Wow...it must have been following us this whole time." Brock deduced, as the small Chinchilla Pokemon scurried up to Ash's feet.

    "Minccino, is that true?" Ash asked, at which it frantically nodded its head. He regarded the small Pokemon for a moment before kneeling down and smiling at it. "Hey, do you wanna come along with us? Is that why you've been following us this whole time?"

    "Ccino!" It nodded affirmingly. Ash patted its head and his smile widened as he reached for one of his spare Poke Balls.

    "All right, then here it comes!"

    And with that, he brought his hand down toward Minccino's head, bumping the button on the front of the capsule against the small Pokemon's fur. The Ball cracked open, and Minccino was sucked inside in a flash of red light.

    After wiggling in his hands a couple of times halfheartedly, the telltale ding sound was heard, and Ash clutched the Ball tighter in his hand.

    "Pii-pi-pikachuu!" Pikachu cooed happily as Ash stood back up.

    "Yo, are you guys finished or what?" Guzma barked from the driver's seat through the lowered window. "I thought you were all in a hurry to get movin'!"

    Ash steeled himself as remembered the severity of the mission they were embarking on. Stashing Minccino's Poke Ball in its new position on his belt, he turned back to the car and opened the back door, Brock having already claimed the front seat for his own.


    Serena's eyes shot open, and she was immediately aware of a dull, throbbing pain in her left arm. She instinctively tensed up and tried to move it before realizing that she was lying on a hospital bed, and her arm was presently hooked up to an IV drip. She could also tell that she was dressed almost solely in a hospital gown, and despite the one or two layers of sheets covering most of her body, she couldn't help but feel a bit self-conscious of herself all the same, and turned her head to scan the area for her companions, most notably Ash.

    "Oh - you're finally awake!"

    Lillie's gentle voice resonated pleasantly off her ears just as she found the blonde Alolan Trainer sitting on her right-hand side, clutching an open pocket-sized novella in her hands. There didn't appear to be anyone else present in her room, leading her to ask the most obvious question first when she finally opened her mouth to speak.

    "...Where is everybody? Where's Ash?"

    Lillie's eyes softened a bit before she answered. "They're...not here. They went to find Nanu and Acerola and bring them back to Malie City."

    Serena's eyes widened slightly as she remembered their original purpose in coming to this city. "...How long have I been out?"

    "Only a couple of days. They left yesterday, so you didn't really miss a whole lot."

    Lillie briefly recounted the events of the previous day to her, namely the details about her injury and the help they were now receiving from Guzma. At the end of the abridged tale, Serena's eyes drifted to the side and she noticed Ash's hat resting on the nearby table beside her own.

    "Hey...I think Ash forgot his hat here. That doesn't sound like him..."

    Lillie giggled before explaining the gesture to her. "You're right about that. He didn't forget it, he left it there on purpose. He said he'd be back to get it really soon."

    Serena smiled warmly despite the pain in her arm; she knew him well enough to understand how hard it must have been to leave her here in her current state. "...Thanks a lot, Lillie - for staying here with me. I'm sorry I caused everyone so much trouble..."

    "No - it's no trouble at all!" Lillie replied at once. "I'm not really of much use in a Pokemon battle, and Guzma knows a lot more about Alola than I do. Ash and Brock didn't really need me to go with them, anyway."

    "That's nice of you to say, but..." Serena began, her face falling as she spoke. "I haven't really been of much help since getting here, either. I think the only reason Professor Sycamore offered me one of the tickets to come here is because he didn't think Ash would go without me."

    "Serena...?"

    "Ash is the one Professor Kukui was looking for. He's an amazing Pokemon Trainer...he's been to more places than I can even count, and he's competed in the Pokemon League tournaments in every single one of them. Next to someone like that, what am I, really...?"

    Serena wasn't sure where these words were coming from all of a sudden, but she couldn't stop herself from uttering them all the same. Lillie, however, wasn't having any of it.

    "Don't say things like that!"

    Serena looked over at her friend in shock, and even Lillie herself seemed to be a bit surprised by her outburst. "Sorry...but...the things is, you and Ash really love each other, don't you?"

    She looked down, her fingers tightening around the fold of her bedsheets. "...Yeah, but..."

    "There aren't any buts!" Lillie continued. "You don't have to compare yourself to him. I'm sure that for all of those things you think are amazing about him, he's got two or three amazing things to say about you." She flashed her an encouraging smile. "Did you know that he didn't even come back to the Pokemon Center with us last night? After carrying you all the way here from the edge of the city, he stayed in the hospital all night by himself. He didn't even have Pikachu with him."

    Serena's eyes widened as the image of Ash sitting alone by her bedside came into her mind's eye. The scene brought a warm flush to her cheeks unbidden, and she found that she couldn't help but smile despite her misgivings. "...Yeah. That does sound like Ash. He's always willing to go out of his way for me like that."

    "...Serena, don't you see? You're the same way." Lillie told her with a giggle. "The whole reason you're here to begin with is because you didn't want to see Ash get hurt."

    "Yeah, I guess you're right. You're the same way with Sun, too, aren't you?"

    Lillie's eyes fell slightly, though her smile didn't falter. "...Yes...well, I like to think so, anyway."

    "What's the story with him, anyway?"

    The Alolan-born Trainer looked away, her false vestige of a smile contradicting her true thoughts on the matter. "I already told you most of it...he moved here from Kanto with his mother a little over a year ago. I was working for the Professors even back then, and I ran into him the day he set out on his Island Challenge."

    She sighed as the familiar fuzzy feelings she usually experienced when talking about Sun rose up in her stomach. "I was too afraid of Pokemon to even touch them back then, and he really helped me out that day. After that...well, a lot of things happened, but I ended up crossing paths with him a lot over the next few months. He always encouraged me to get over my fear and become friends with Pokemon...and, watching him always made me feel like I could do it."

    Serena's eyes softened; she could remember those feelings all too well herself. "So...why did he leave all of a sudden?"

    Lillie shook her head. "I don't know. Nobody seems to know. It's not really a surprise that he wanted to go off on another journey with his Pokemon, but he had just become our first Champion...and, I thought..."

    Serena watched as the girl wrestled with her emotions silently for a moment before Lillie finally turned and met her gaze again. "I thought that, even if he did go, he would have taken me with him. I wanted him to take me with him..."

    "I bet you did." Serena remarked knowingly. "You're in love with him, after all."

    Lillie's eyes widened minutely at her surrogate confession. "Yes, I think you're right. If only I had realized it sooner...I have no idea when I'll even see him again. I kind of thought he would come back when all of this with the Tapu started happening, but..."

    "Yeah, I know what that's like, too." Serena admitted sheepishly.

    "You do?"

    "Sure I do! I had a crush on Ash for a long time before I told him how I feel. It's not easy, and sometimes you want to pretend like you don't feel anything at all, so that you don't go crazy thinking about it...but I wouldn't be the person I am today if it wasn't for him. He's everything to me, and I wouldn't trade that for anything."

    Lillie smiled at her, but before she could say anything back, a sharp wave of pain suddenly began rolling off Serena's arm, and she doubled over in bed with a loud grunt.

    "Serena - ?!"

    "I...I'm fine..." The Performer assured her. She looked over at her wound, which had been wrapped with a bandage while she was unconscious. "What did the doctors say about this?"

    Lillie's gaze fell. "They can't figure out how to treat it. Even though it's just poison from a Pokemon, it was an Ultra Beast, so I guess that means that they can't treat it the way they would normal poison."

    A grave look washed over Serena's face. "They can't treat it...? But..."

    "Oh, don't worry. That's one of the reasons why Ash left! Guzma thinks that if we find that Nihilego again, we can find a cure for you that way."

    Serena stared back at her blankly. "Who's Guzma?"

    "Oh...he's...an old friend of my mother's. He works with her at the Aether Foundation, and he showed up here yesterday to check in on us. He went with Ash and Brock when they left here."

    "I see..." Serena murmured, taking in all that Lillie had just told her. Her eyes drifted over to the desktop where Ash's hat was patiently resting alongside her own. "Ash..."

    Suddenly, the door to her room burst open, shattering their peaceful reality, and a feminine-looking figure clad in apparel similar to Rhodo's strolled into the room defiantly. "Well now, look what we have here. Two little targets, ripe for the taking. Let me ask you: How long do you think it will take after I capture you before your boyfriend comes to save you?"

    Lillie shot to her feet at once, recognizing the woman as one of Rhodo's allies. "You - you're with Rhodo, aren't you? What do you want from us?! We don't even have any Z-Crystals!"

    "Now, now. You know that isn't true." She droned in a condescending tone, eyeing Lillie and Serena's backpacks on the floor across the room. "I can tell there's at least one more here in this room with us - but that isn't why I came here. My name is Alisma, and I've come for you."

    The woman continued closing the distance between Serena's bed and herself until Lillie physically stepped between them.

    "Stay away from her!"

    "What do you care about me, anyway?" Serena demanded incredulously.

    "Oh, it isn't so much you that I care about. It's your friend, the one whose very body seems to pulse with the Blinding One's light."

    A look of realization dawned on both girls' faces. "You're talking about Ash!"

    "Is that his name? Not that it matters. You see, our leader has grown tired of waiting to collect enough power to restore Necrozma's energy. We're so close now...we just need one final push. Now that you children are interfering with us, collecting the final few pieces might prove difficult - which is why we've shifted our focus to your friend. He should possess enough energy within his own body to finally restore the Blinding One to life once again!"

    Lillie eyed her backpack, planning to make a break for it and produce at least one of her Poke Balls with which to fight back - but the woman seemed to notice this, and held out another of the strange-looking Poke Balls that Rhodo had used as if to stop her.

    "I wouldn't do that. We may not have much space to move around in like this..." She stopped for a moment as the electric-blue capsule in her hand cracked open, and a small, white-and-yellow paper-like creature emerged from it and began floating at her side. "...but Kartana can move around in here just fine, I assure you. I'm sure you don't want to get injured like your friend here, right?"

    The two girls held her gaze intensely for a few moments as Kartana twirled around the woman's body. When she finally stepped forward, reaching forward toward Serena, a burst of light erupted from Serena's backpack, and the next thing any of them knew, the woman and her Pokemon had both been caught by a series of spectral vines emerging from the floor.

    "Phan-tuuump!"

    "Huh - ?" Serena breathed, looking down at Phantump at the side of her bed as it held their opposition in place with its attack. "Phantump?!"

    "What is this?!" Alisma demanded, struggling against her bonds. Kartana's movement appeared to have been restricted entirely, as it was no longer moving through the air around its Trainer's body.

    Lillie was the first one to move. She crossed the room to retrieve both her belongings and Serena's, and quickly reached for one of her own Poke Balls. "Comfey, I choose you! Use Floral Healing on Serena!"

    "Feeeey!" Comfey sang as it emerged before floating over to Serena and positioning itself on her head like a headband. Serena looked up at it curiously as it began to emanate a vibrant pink light, and all of a sudden, Serena felt her energy returning to her body.

    "What's going on?"

    "It's one of Comfey's abilities. It should make you feel a little bit better for now - at least, I hope it will. Come on, we've got to get out of here!" Lillie explained frantically.

    "What? But - " Serena began to protest, but when she looked over Lillie's shoulder and saw their opponents, she was reminded of how their last struggle with Rhodo went, and she realized that they really didn't have any choice in the matter. "...all right. Let's go!"

    She took a moment to tenderly remove the IV from her arm before jumping out of the bed with the newfound strength granted to her by Comfey, slung on her backpack, and nodded to Lillie.

    "I don't think so! Kartana, cut us out of this - use Leaf Blade!"

    "Phantump, use Astonish!"

    Phantump complied, summoning a series of spectral orbs in the air around it and launching them at the Ultra Beast, which seemed to do the job of knocking it off balance as the girls took off out the door, with Phantump following closely behind a moment later.

    "Lillie, where are we going?!" Serena asked frantically as they emerged in the hallway and continued running down the length of it.

    "I - I'm not sure!" Lillie admitted as they passed a nurse accompanied by a Blissey, who, after sidestepping to avoid colliding with them, noticed Serena's hospital garb.

    "Excuse me - what are you doing out of your room?"

    "Oh, uh - " Serena stammered, unsure of how to respond to her question. When she turned back to face her, however, she noticed Kartana and its Trainer appearing at the opposite end of the hallway.

    "It's her! She's a crook who's after Serena!" Lillie exclaimed at once, pointing out the oddly-clothed woman, who heard the blonde's voice and took off running toward them at once. The other hospital staff in the area heard her and turned to look at the woman as well.

    "Oh - !" The nurse who had stopped them sounded, eyeing the small Ultra Beast that was floating alongside the suspicious woman. Serena and Lillie continued running down the hall, at which Alisma called out another attack.

    "Kartana, stop them! Use Vacuum Wave!"

    "Blissey, stop it with Egg Bomb!"

    The egg-shaped projectile that Blissey fired was unfortunately cut in half by Kartana's slice, barely even performing the task of slowing the pair down. As they shot past the nurse and her Pokemon, she turned to the nearest fellow staff member with a look of urgency on her face. "Call Officer Jenny, quickly!"

    The chase continued until they got outside. After darting through the front lobby amidst a myriad of strange looks, they finally made it to the courtyard in front of the building.

    "Lillie, wait! Where are we going?!"

    "I guess we have to get to the police department!" Lillie decided, remembering the nurse's words. "If anyone can help us out right now, it's them!"

    Just as they were about to leave the hospital grounds, however, a sudden sharp rush of air slammed into both of them from behind, throwing them to the ground.

    "There - we finally hit you."

    Their assailant's voice rang through their ears as they realized that Kartana's Vacuum Wave had finally landed home. Lillie was the first to climb back to her feet, with Serena already beginning to feel weaker due to Comfey being knocked off her head by the Ultra Beast's attack.

    "Trumbeak, Snowy, come out, now!"

    A double flash of light signified the rest of Lillie's Pokemon joining the fray. Alisma merely continued advancing toward them with her Pokemon in tow.

    "Come now - let's put an end to this nonsense." She remarked icily, producing an ordinary-looking Poke Ball from her clothes, as opposed to yet another of the odd electric-blue ones that they had been using so far. "Hear me and obey, Lunala!"

    Lillie watched in disbelief as the Moone Pokemon burst into the air above them, seemingly at the command of the woman. "L-Lunala?! But...that can't be!"

    "But it is true. We have tamed not only your Island Guardians, but one of your mythological Pokemon, as well!" Alisma cried as Lunala screeched mightily from overhead.

    Lillie gritted her teeth angrily as her thoughts began racing. "I don't know where they found Lunala, or how they were able to capture it...but, as long as they don't have Solgaleo, then..."

    Her thoughts trailed off as Alisma offered her hand out toward Serena. "Now, are you going to come with me, or must we continue this battle?"

    Serena glared at her, not familiar with Lunala but able to read Lillie's reaction well enough to figure out what was going on. "No way - I won't let you use me to get to Ash, and I won't let you keep doing this to Alola, either!"

    Alisma's hand fell in disappointment, and a sound almost like a sigh escaped from her. "Very well, then, we'll do things your way. Lunala - get her, now!"

    The gigantic bat-like Pokemon swooped down at once, screeching haughtily as it soared toward Serena in a heartbeat.

    "Trumbeak, use Bullet Seed, quick! And Snowy, you use Aurora Beam!"

    "Phantump, Seed Bomb!"

    Their Pokemon all leaped into action at once, blasting all of their attacks at Lunala simultaneously in a furious swirl of energy. But Alisma was ready, and motioned quickly to Lunala as their attacks headed toward it.

    "Use Night Daze!"

    As the Legendary Pokemon soared through the air, a thick, purple aura shimmered into existence around it for a moment before erupting outwards, cancelling out all of the attacks heading toward it before continuing on and slamming into Phantump, Trumbeak, and Snowy all at once.

    "Oh, no - !" Lillie exclaimed as her Pokemon were thrown to the ground behind her to join Comfey in a heap on the ground. "Trumbeak...Snowy!"

    "Phantump - !" Serena began, but was distracted almost immediately by Lunala closing in on her. It seemed almost as if it were trying to clip her with its body, and she instinctively threw herself to the ground as it soared over her, bringing her within a few feet of her wounded Phantump. The proximity afforded her a generous view of the damage it had sustained from Lunala's attack, and she reluctantly produced its Poke Ball and recalled it inside before climbing back to her feet and turning to face down Alisma again.

    "Just give yourself up." The Ultra Beast Trainer remarked. "We'll find your friend sooner or later. At the very least, you'll be able to see him again before we drain his light away. I can promise you that much."

    As she spoke, Lunala circled around in the air and went to make another pass on Serena, passing by Alisma and letting her and Kartana jump on its back as it went. She saw it coming and froze, unsure of what she could do that would even make a difference against the combined forces of Kartana and Lunala.

    "Now go, Lunala! Use Teleport - !"

    "Snowy, use Ice Shard, quick!" Lillie interrupted, running outside with Comfey and Snowy at her heels as she attempted to cut off the command and keep Lunala from disappearing.

    "Piiiix!"

    "Huh?!"

    Alisma looked to the side in fearful surprise at the attack as Snowy launched a barrage of ice chunks at her. It succeeded in knocking the woman off of her perch - but Serena wasn't so lucky, and a moment later, Lunala shimmered out of existence, taking the young Performer with it due to their brief moment of contact.

    "What - !" Alisma cried, climbing back to her feet at once only to find that Lunala and Serena were already gone. She turned her gaze on Lillie, rounding on the blonde-haired Trainer at once. "You...you did this! And now, Lunala is..."

    She scanned the skies for a moment, as if hoping that the Moone Pokemon would suddenly reappear amongst the clouds. When it inevitably failed to do so, she roared loudly in anger.

    Lillie looked to the sky as well, managing a small smile despite the circumstances. "This is all I can do, Serena...stay safe, wherever you are."


    Serena blinked, and an instant later she felt the distinct sensation of weightlessness in her stomach for only the briefest of moments. Reality seemed to distort around her, and a second later her surroundings had shifted to that of a snow-covered mountainside, with neither Lillie, Alisma, nor any of their Pokemon in sight other than the giant bat-like Pokemon that Lillie had called Lunala.

    She shivered, feeling the effects of the sudden drop in temperature almost immediately. Her hospital clothes did nothing to shield her from the wintry breeze now ripping past her. "Wh-what h-happened...? Where a-am I?"

    Lunala circled around in the air and landed beside her, the malice it had possessed mere moments before having seemingly vanished along with their change in scenery. It glanced over at her and cocked its head to the side in confusion.

    Serena held the creature's gaze for a moment before deciding that, at the very least, it was no longer a threat to her, and scanned her surroundings. The two of them were situated on a snow-ridden mountain path that only seemed to go in two opposing directions, and she could see the drop-off not thirty feet from her current position.

    "D-did you T-Teleport us here?" Serena asked, directing her question at Lunala without really expecting an answer. Then her eyes widened, and she remembered what Alisma had been telling her during their battle not moments ago. "Oh no...I-I've gotta get to Ash before they d-do..."

    She tried taking a few steps forward, but as she did, another searing wave of pain reverberated out from her arm, and she collapsed down onto the snow just as the wind began to pick up around her. She might as well have been wearing nothing for all the protection the thin hospital clothes provided her from the cold, and her feet were completely bare; she found that her strength was being sapped from her faster than she could summon it.

    "A-Ash..."

    She fought to keep moving, but the thin layer of snow slowly building up on top of her had other ideas. The last thing she was aware of before passing out was the sound of a heavy, almost metallic-sounding foot crashing down into the snow like thunder from somewhere nearby - and then she was gone.


    Just to clarify, I'm using a mix of all of the Gen 7 games as the canon for this universe, but the baseline is Ultra Sun, so Nebby is Solgaleo here. Which is what Lillie was referring to when she saw Lunala appear.

    I hope you all enjoyed this one! Hopefully I'll be able to get the next one finished up by the end of this week. I'll see you guys next time!
     
  13. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Hey, everyone. Despite my attempts to the contrary, it seems as though the rhythm I've settled into is more along the lines of every two weeks-ish, like, 10-14 days, for an update, as opposed to once a week, like I originally wanted. You guys have probably noticed, haha. So, yeah, to ease my own worry, I think it's safe to say to just expect that schedule from here on with this story.


    Chapter 13: The Ghost Princess​


    Meanwhile, across the region on Melemele Island, the afternoon sun beat down on the ocean relentlessly, causing the surface of the water to shimmer brilliantly as it sloshed up against the ships, lying patiently in wait at the docks.

    As Sun emerged onto the pier of Hau'oli City, he made a point of keeping his head down. Despite the sunglasses and trilby hat he was wearing to help conceal his identity, he didn't trust them to completely do the job, should he actually come across someone who had met him before. Alola was a small region, a fact that he was more aware of than most, and he knew that not a soul lived within its borders that didn't at least know his name, as the child prodigy that had conquered their very first Pokémon League.

    But he hadn't come back for the publicity. He had a job to do, and he was eager to discover exactly what it was that Professor Kukui's invitation entailed. And so, he set out from the dock toward the Professor's research lab, situated on the edge of the city.

    Once he arrived there, he tentatively approached the door, noticing the troubling lack of activity on the beach surrounding the facility, and knocked three times in rapid succession. A few moments passed without an answer, and so he decided to try the door handle, which he soon discovered was open.

    "Hello?" he announced as he stepped past the threshold, shutting the wooden door behind him. There wasn't much activity inside the lab, either; the usual group of Pokémon scurrying across the floor was nowhere to be found - that is, until he stepped further inside, and saw the Professor himself hunched over his computer desk, with all of the lab's Pokémon huddled around his feet. "Professor?"

    Professor Kukui's head shot up like a bullet, and he spun around to lock eyes with the Alolan Champion. "Sun - ? Alola, cousin! It sure has been a while, hasn't it...?" He examined the reigning Champion with curious eyes, pushing aside the myriad of questions that rose to the front of his mind, and instead opting for a much simpler inquiry. "But what's with those weird clothes, if you don't mind me askin'?"

    Sun removed his sunglasses and managed a tiny smile. "Hey, Professor. I just didn't want anyone recognizing me on the way here, that's all."

    Kukui frowned at his response. Part of him had hoped that the boy had changed his opinion on the matter of his position. "Sun...I know you don't like it, but you are our Champion, you know? You could try to at least pretend like you enjoy it sometimes!"

    Sun's meager smile melted into a frown of his own at the Professor's words. "...Look, that's not what I'm here about. I...got your letter in Johto. Professor Elm gave it to me."

    "He gave it to you?" Kukui repeated, laughing heartily at the prospect. "That guy...of all the Trainers in Johto, he decided to give it to the one that was from Alola in the first place. Can you believe it?!"

    As the Professor spoke, the Pokémon clustered around his feet looked up at Sun cheerily and began yipping at him. He allowed another small grin to leak out as he leaned down to regard them, but by the time he returned his gaze to Kukui, it had regained its more serious demeanor.

    "Lucky that you caught me here, too...I was actually just on my way back to Akala Island, but I'm waiting on a call right now, so I guess that worked out for you, huh?"

    Sun was silent as the Professor continued chuckling to himself, only opting to speak up once he was finished. "So what's going on? It's not really like you to send out a request for help like this."

    Kukui sighed in affirmation, finally acquiescing to the fact that Sun apparently had no intention of chatting with him. "Yeah, you're right about that one. The thing is, cousin...the Tapu have turned against us."

    Sun nearly dropped his sunglasses at the declaration, almost not believing it. "Wh-what?!"

    The Professor nodded. "That's right. We're not sure how, or why, but a few weeks ago, the Trial Captains and kahunas around the islands started disappearing. It wasn't until recently that we connected this to the Tapu, but now we know for sure that they're the ones behind it. We're thinkin' Z-Energy might have something to do with it, as well."

    "But...that's crazy!"

    "Yeah, you're telling me. I had Lillie helping me out with this, but she went off with the few Trainers that answered their invitations before you. There was a former Gym Leader from Kanto, and two accomplished Trainers from Kalos, as well."

    "Lillie's with them?" Sun perked up. "Where are they now?"

    "Somewhere on Ula'ula Island, last I heard," Kukui answered. "The only ones left now that haven't been taken already are Nanu, Acerola, Hapu, and I guess you could count Molayne and Guzma. They have Z-Rings, too, and they're definitely strong Trainers."

    "The only ones left..." Sun repeated, letting the full implication of the Professor's words sink in. "You mean all the other Captains and kahunas are - ?!"

    Kukui nodded grimly. "I'm afraid so. Hala, Olivia, Mallow, Sophocles...they've all disappeared over the last six weeks or so."

    Sun was silent. He had been happily traveling through Johto for the last few months, blissfully unaware of the danger that his friends had been in. Would things have been different if he had been there? He shook his head angrily, trying to avoid the question, but a nagging voice kept resurfacing in his mind, asking if he was the one to blame for what had happened.

    Professor Kukui watched his internal battle without making a sound, but both of them were startled back to reality by a digital ringing sound suddenly blaring from the monitor behind the Professor.

    "Oh, it's about time," Kukui murmured as he turned around and clicked to accept the call. "I've been waiting on him for ages..."

    "Hello there, Professor Kukui!" came the unfamiliar voice of Professor Sycamore over the speakers, just as he physically came into view on the computer screen. "I really must thank you for taking my call on such short notice. You see...we've got something of an emergency situation here in Kalos. "

    "Oh, yeah...?" the Alolan Professor replied, as Sun stepped up behind him to watch the exchange with interest.

    "Well...you probably haven't heard, but just a few weeks ago, we faced a real crisis with a particular group called Team Flare," Sycamore explained briefly. "They were able to gain control of a Legendary Pokémon, and...well, let's just say that it wasn't good. But, thanks to the efforts of Ash and a few other exceptional Trainers, we were able to put a stop to their plans."

    Kukui nodded in acknowledgement, though he still wasn't sure why the Kalosian Professor had called him in the first place. Sun merely folded his arms across his chest and continued observing.

    "With something like that so fresh on our minds, we became careless...we didn't think another attack would happen so soon," Sycamore continued, and the tone of his voice became grave. "You see...a few days ago, another group attacked us right here in Lumiose City. They were using a Legendary Pokémon, as well, and were able to take control of Lumiose Tower, and much of the city with it."

    Professor Kukui frowned, his carefree demeanor having evaporated with Sycamore's words. Even so, he wasn't sure what the purpose of the Kalosian Professor's call was, unless he was planning on asking for assistance - but, given that Kukui himself had sent out a similar request not too long ago, he doubted that was the case. "I hear you, cousin. But what can we do to help?"

    "Oh, I don't expect you to send us any help," Sycamore clarified, and just from his tone, Kukui could tell that he was being sincere. "I'm well aware that you've got your hands full over there in Alola, as well. In fact, that's actually why I called."

    At that, Kukui cocked an eyebrow. The Pokémon at his feet had all grown silent and still, and were now watching the computer screen with just as much interest as Sun was. The entire room seemed to be hanging on Professor Sycamore's every word at this point.

    "You see...we have reason to believe that this same group will be heading to Alola very soon."

    "...What?!" Kukui's mouth dropped open in shock. It was bad enough that they were having to deal with the renegade Tapu; if another group showed up and started causing trouble, he wasn't sure what state it would leave the region in.

    Sycamore nodded grimly at his Alolan counterpart's outburst. "That's right. My assistant, Alain, is one of the Trainers currently trying to fight back against them. He told me just today that he overheard some of the members discussing their plans. We're not sure why, but it certainly sounded like they were planning to invade Alola next. Oh...and they mentioned something about a 'Necrozma'. Does that mean anything to you, by chance?"

    Professor Kukui eyes widened, and he put a hand to his chin, pondering the situation. Sun was taken aback by this knowledge, as well; as far as he knew, Necrozma had disappeared after being defeated by him atop Megalo Tower, not to mention how unusual it was for a group foreign to Alola to be familiar with Necrozma in the first place.

    Sycamore must have been able to tell that Kukui recognized the name, because he let the question go without further prodding. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to drop this all on you when you're already dealing with your own problems."

    Kukui shook his head, forcing himself to remain positive as best he could, at least for the time being. "No, it's not your fault, cousin. You're doing us a favor by letting us know, yeah."

    "Well, there is one bit of good news, I suppose." Sycamore admitted, cracking a small smile before continuing. "One of our own Trainers here in Kalos became quite worked up when he learned that Alola would be the next region under attack. He's rather good friends with Ash, you see."

    "Oh, yeah?"

    Sycamore nodded. "Yes, and now he's decided that he's going to go to Alola, as well, and help as best he can, after we resolve the situation here, of course."

    Kukui looked down as he processed the information he was receiving, and Sun was reasonably certain that he knew what the Professor was thinking. With Alola already embroiled in a crisis of its own, now was hardly the time to be hearing about another potential problem of this scale. Yet, the knowledge that yet another Trainer was coming was at least a small consolation - though, Sun still wasn't sure who this 'Ash' was that they kept mentioning.

    After some further internal deliberation, Professor Kukui finally met Professor Sycamore's gaze again, his eyes full of determination.

    "Tell me, cousin, who are they? What's the name of this group?"

    Sycamore didn't hesitate; he held Kukui's steely gaze, and gave his answer not a moment later.

    "It's Team Rocket."


    Despite their vehicle, the expanse of Ula'ula Island's eastern coastline proved far larger than Ash had anticipated, and thus they still found themselves traversing the length of it by the time the moon had taken over the sky above them.

    "Huh...I thought we shoulda been there by now, for sure..."

    Guzma was grumbling to himself in the driver's seat as he continued to scan the narrow road ahead of them. Their path had taken them south from Malie City and through some mountains before arriving at a seemingly never-ending highway along the island's edge, which was where the had remained for the past few hours.

    "Are you sure we're going the right way, Guzma...?" Brock asked uncertainly, eyeing the same rocky surroundings that had surrounded them for hours. As they'd worked their way further south, they'd begun to notice more and more evidence of snowfall coming from the mountains beside them, and now, there was a steady layer of snowdrift beginning on the slope about twenty feet above the road. The sheet of white continued up the mountainside out of sight, climbing toward what they now knew was the peak of Mount Hokulani.

    "Sure I'm sure! You really think your man Guzma would go and get lost like that?!"

    "Chaaa..."

    Neither Ash nor Brock responded, but Pikachu's disheartened sigh was enough of an answer for all of them, and they continued on their trip in silence for the next few minutes. Only when Ash finally spied a building on the horizon did he finally speak up with something that sounded almost like hope.

    "Hey - what's that?" he remarked, rising out of the literal slump he had been in and craning his head to get a better view out the window. The structure was situated across the bay from them, and looked to be in a serious state of disrepair.

    "Huh? Oh, that - it's just the old abandoned Megamart," Guzma explained, not showing nearly as much interest in the site as Ash was. "Nothin' for us there, unless you want to challenge the Trial, heh!"

    "An abandoned store?" Brock asked, beginning the regard the area curiously. "Way out here in the middle of nowhere?"

    "Not exactly - there used to be a place down this way called Tapu Village," Guzma explained, the sight of the Megamart coming into plain view now as the road curved to the right along the ocean. "Used to be a pretty big deal, I think. But, it turns out the place was built on some of Tapu Bulu's sacred ground or somethin', and one day, he just up and tore the whole place apart!" As he spoke, he continued making wide, sweeping gestures with his free hand. "After that, the Megamart got all infested with Ghost-type Pokémon, and people just kinda abandoned it after that."

    "Do you think we could stay there for the night?"

    "Didn't ya hear what I just said?!" Guzma responded incredulously, shutting down the former Gym Leader without a second thought. "That place is crawlin' with Ghost-types! Those things creep me out - and besides, there's still a Pokémon Center there where Tapu Village used to be. We can stay there - shouldn't be too much farther, if we're this close to the Megamart."

    A few minutes later, they came upon a fork in the road, with the leftmost path sloping downward toward the coastline, while the right-hand path continued on for a ways before turning hard to the right and disappearing out of sight.

    "Here we go," Guzma declared happily. "This road here'll take us straight to the ruins of Tapu Village. We'll be at the Pokémon Center in no time flat."

    As the car veered to the right, however, a strangely chilling wind passed through them, and out on the road, a series of gigantic boulders suddenly came tumbling down the mountainside, landing squarely in their path down the road to Tapu Village.

    "What the - ?!" Guzma cursed, swerving hard to the left reflexively. The car managed a bit of airtime as it jumped the small gap separating the two paths, and before they knew it, they were cruising down the side of the mountain path toward a large, expansive beach.

    "What was that?!" Ash demanded, twisting around in his seat in an attempt to get another look at the heaven-sent obstacle.

    "Rock slide, I guess," Guzma deduced. "Can't say it's uncommon around here. Only problem now is, there's no way back to Tapu Village from here. This road dead-ends at the Megamart farther down the coastline."

    "Guess we've got no choice, then..."

    Brock turned back and regarded the now-inaccessible alternate route suspiciously. "Still...don't you think it's a bit strange how that happened just as we were driving by?"

    "Piiiika?"

    "You think someone did it on purpose?" Ash asked nervously.

    "Well, Guzma did say that the Megamart up ahead is home to a bunch of Ghost-type Pokémon, right?" Brock reasoned, the ride becoming noticeably smoother as the car slid off the rough mountain trail in favor of the much cleaner road running alongside the beach. "It's not too much of a jump to think that they might have had something to do with - "

    "Hey, shut it!" Guzma cut in harshly, throwing his palm in Brock's face while still keeping one hand on the wheel. "You tryin' to curse us or somethin'? Don't joke about stuff like that!"

    As they continued down the coastal trail, Ash noticed that the rocks along the shoreline were tinted darker than he would have expected, possessing an almost black coloration. He shivered, still unable to shake the chill he'd felt right before the freak rock slide had occured. The narrow cone of light that the car's headlights provided did little to calm his uneasiness, and the feeling persisted for the rest of the trip.

    After what seemed like an hour, they finally saw the end of the road; an old, empty building roughly the size of a department store appeared off to the side of the trail, eerily illuminated by the moonlight. Guzma maneuvered the car into the deserted parking lot, and the three climbed out, trying to ignore the unsettling feeling dripping from the air.

    "Well, we're here," Guzma grumbled, locking his eyes on the building that dominated the area. The paint, which appeared to have been white at one time, was decayed and peeling, and most of the windows were broken. "You guys really wanna stay the night in this place? Cause I'm just as happy with the car."

    Ash crossed his arms nervously as he examined the building himself, and Brock put a hand to his chin as he considered their options. He had camping gear with him, and he was sure that Ash did, as well, but Guzma almost certainly did not, though with his car there with them, that wasn't as much of a factor, anyway. "Hmm...well, I'd hoped that we could stay inside somewhere, if we couldn't make it to a Pokémon Center tonight. But this place does look kinda spooky..."

    "Yeah, no kidding," Ash agreed. The three of them looked up at the decaying structure one last time, but just as they were about to silently make their unanimous decision -

    "AAAAAAH!"

    All three of them nearly jumped out of their skins at the unannounced blood-curdling screech that cut through the evening air. The voice sounded like it belonged to a girl, and it had come from the area behind the Megamart itself.

    "C-come on!" Brock declared, after a moment's hesitation. He took a step forward and looked back at his companions. "We should go check that out!"

    "R-right!" Ash agreed, his voice shaking as he and Brock took off running, heading toward the rear of the building. Guzma watched them go in shock for a second before realizing that they were about to leave him out there by himself, and reluctantly took off after them.

    As Brock rounded the back left corner of the structure, he saw a mass of about four shadowed figures across the area from him, and instinctively yelled out, "Hey - are you all right?!"

    The figures stopped moving and turned to face him just as Ash drew up beside him. There were four of them in total, two boys and two girls. They were standing near the only visible door of the building, situated a few feet away from an empty, rusted dumpster.

    "Huh?" The smaller of the two girls remarked in genuine confusion, her eyes growing wide when she saw Ash and Brock. "Who are you - ?"

    "Who are we...?" Brock repeated, now even more confused than he had been before.

    "We heard someone scream from over here, so we thought we'd come check it out," Ash explained uncertainly as he ran his eyes over the four strangers. The girl who'd spoken was was definitely the youngest of the group, appearing a year or two younger than Ash himself, while the others appeared to all be around Brock's age. "Was that you?"

    "Oh...yeah, sorry about that," the girl responded with a nervous chuckle. The slimmer of the two boys, and tallest among the entire group, looked away awkwardly at her words.

    "Yeah, that was my fault. I guess I scared her on accident, heh."

    Ash and Brock continued staring at the group, having not yet received a sufficient explanation for what they were actually doing here, when Guzma finally caught up with them.

    "Yo, don't go leavin' me behind like that - 'specially at this haunted old - "

    He stopped short when he saw the four strangers standing across the clearing. His eyes showed that he recognized them, and he decided to address the young girl first. "Acerola? What're you doin' all the way out here so late at night?" He then looked to the three companions she was with in quick succession. "Don't tell me these three bozos are challengin' your Trial?"

    The three strangers quickly raised their fists in protest, their mouths all opening to shoot back a retort simultaneously, but the girl's laughter cut them all off.

    "No way! At least, not yet. Though they were the ones who brought me out here," she explained cheerfully. "They said there was something weird going on that they really wanted me to investigate, so..."

    Guzma's eyes shot between the three she was referring to, and his face seemed to harden. "Is that right?"

    They seemed to buckle under his gaze, but neither Ash nor Brock had any idea as to what was going on, prompting Ash to finally speak up and request some clarity for the two of them. "Hey, Guzma, who are these guys, anyway? You know them?"

    "'Course I know 'em. That little squirt over there's Acerola, Trial Captain, and former member of our very own Elite Four, if you can believe it. And these three idiots are Tupp, Rapp, and Zipp, and they used to be my very own lackeys in Team Skull."

    "Yo, don't bag on us so hard, Guzma," the tallest of the three remarked once again, his voice shaking as he addressed the white-haired man. Guzma had called him Tupp, but other than their sizes and genders, Ash didn't see much of a way to tell them apart from one another; they were all dressed similarly in black tank tops, and the two boys both wore black cargo shorts, while the girl wore a pair of white shorts that were cut significantly shorter than her counterparts'. "That was all in the past, yeah? We came out here to start fresh!"

    "Oh yeah?" Guzma challenged, his stoic expression not wavering in the slightest. "Then would ya mind tellin' us what you brought Miss Rola out here for in the middle of the freakin' night?"

    "W-we just wanted to scope out the Trial site, that's all!" The pudgier of the two boys answered at once; he was the one Guzma had referred to as Zipp. He was shorter than his two companions, and his hair was darker, as well.

    "The Trial site?" Guzma barked back, a bit taken aback by his answer. "What for?"

    "Well, we were thinkin' of takin' the Island Challenge ourselves here pretty soon," the female, Rapp, responded. "We wanted to check out one of the Trial sites to get a feel for what it'd be like, you know? And we'd heard a whole buncha stories about how you gotta fight the ghosts that haunt the Megamart during the Trial, so we thought we'd go at night to really get a feel for the place."

    Guzma eyed them carefully, as if deciding whether to accept their story as fact or fiction. Meanwhile, the chilly breeze Ash had felt from earlier blew past them again, and the Kantonian Trainer shivered despite himself.

    "...Then what the heck's she doin' here?" Guzma responded at last, jabbing his thumb toward Acerola.

    "They wanted me to escort them here, in case anything happened. That's all," Acerola answered with a giggle. "They've been staying at the Aether House with us for the past few weeks, after all - I thought I could help them out."

    Guzma eyed the four suspiciously, still not appearing to be sold on their tale. After a prolonged moment of silence, however, he finally sighed in acceptance. "Yeah, yeah, all right. But listen, is there any way into this place right now? We kinda need a place to crash for the night."

    Acerola cocked her head to the side in confusion. "What? Why? Did something happen back at the Pokémon Center?"

    "Nah...I mean, not exactly..." Guzma trailed off, not wanting to bring up the strange incident that had occurred back on the road. Ash and Brock took this as their opportunity to enter the conversation, and stepped up beside him.

    "We were on our way to Tapu Village when a rock slide cut us off," Brock explained calmly. "We had no choice but to turn off and come here."

    "A rock slide?" Acerola repeated back. "That's strange. There usually aren't any near the fork in the road back there."

    Ash, Brock, and Guzma shared a look of confusion before looking back to the young girl, with Ash being the one to speak up this time. "Well, what do you think we should do?"

    Acerola scrunched up her face for a moment as she considered what they had told her, and then turned to her three companions. "Well...would you three mind if we went back for today? It's pretty late right now, after all. We can come back later, if you still want to see the Trial site."

    Tupp shrugged at her words, the other two seeming to defer to his decision. "Whatever you wanna do. We've already seen a lot as it is, ya know?"

    Acerola nodded at him and turned back to Ash. "All right, then. We'll just head back with you! If it's just the three of you, there's probably enough extra beds at the Aether House for all you to stay there, so you don't have to worry about the Pokémon Center."

    Ash's eyes lit up at the prospect of staying somewhere new for a change. "Oh, wow, really?!"

    "Sure!" Acerola replied cheerfully, nodding eagerly as she spoke. "But first we've gotta check out this rock slide of yours. Come on, let's go!"

    The seven of them made their way back around the building together, and once more, Ash felt a strangely chilling wind rip through him for only a fraction of a second. He spun around and examined the Megamart for a moment, almost feeling as if something was watching him from somewhere inside the building.

    As the group of them piled into Guzma's car, which was not at all large enough to hold all of them safely, a strange presence caused Ash to quickly check back over his shoulder one last time. He caught a fleeting glimpse of a faded yellow doll peering out at him from inside one of the broken windows of the Megamart, but when he blinked and looked again, it was gone.

    They retraced their path down the coast without much incident, and when they climbed the slope leading back to the fork in the road that they had encountered earlier, Guzma began to slow their vehicle down, until they finally came to a full stop just as they edged past the fork itself.

    "Yo, look at this, Miss Rola," Guzma remarked confidently, turning his head to regard the obstructive pile of boulders that he knew was barring their path. "Just like we said - "

    But when he turned to look, he found the road before them completely clear, as if the rock slide that had thrown them off course had never happened in the first place. His eyes widened in disbelief, a reaction that was shared by Ash, Brock, and even Pikachu, all of whom had witnessed the natural phenomenon nearly flatten them not an hour beforehand.

    "Huh...?! That's impossible!" Guzma insisted, despite the visual evidence to the contrary. It didn't even appear that anyone could have cleared the road since they had seen it last; the area was clear of any evidence that the rock slide had even occurred.

    "We couldn't have just imagined it...could we?" Brock suggested, examining the site closely, as if the pile of boulders in question would suddenly materialize if he just looked for it hard enough. When this inevitably failed to happen, Ash cocked his head to the side in bewilderment.

    "This is kinda weird..."

    "Kinda spooky, is what it is," Guzma corrected him irritably. "I told you guys that the Megamart was haunted, didn't I?"

    Acerola frowned at the distaste he was showing for her Trial site, but Brock was quick to speak up to counter his claim. "But the rock slide happened before we ever went to the Megamart. That doesn't add up."

    "And just because Ghost-types live there doesn't mean it's haunted!" Acerola cut in, clearly annoyed by his statement.

    "Aaaargh - all right, whatever!" Guzma roared, throwing his head back and running his hands through his bleached-white hair. "It doesn't matter - I just wanna get away from this place, real quick-like!"

    With that, he slammed his foot down on the accelerator and placed his hands on the wheel before throwing it to the side roughly. The result was that the car spun around in an almost perfect semi-circle before surging forward down the right-hand path leading away from the fork in the road, straight through the spot where the boulders had previously fallen to block their path.

    Ash had to throw his hands up to keep from slamming into the back of Guzma's seat. Pikachu, however, had nothing to anchor itself down to Ash's shoulder, and ended up tumbling down onto the floor. They ended up maintaining their rapid pace along the road even after clearing the fork in the road, making it evident that Guzma meant what he said about wanting to put the supposedly haunted store behind them as fast as possible.

    "So what brings you down here, anyway, Guzma?" Acerola asked, once they had regained a somewhat comfortable speed. Being the smallest among the group, she had managed to squeeze in between Ash and the girl with flaming pink hair, Rapp. "Are you heading back to Po Town?"

    "Well, actually, we're here for you, squirt," Guzma answered pleasantly, putting a friendly inflection on the nickname. "Let these guys explain it to you, though - I don't follow all that complicated stuff."

    She turned her head to Ash inquisitively, and he couldn't help but meet her innocent-looking face with a smile. "Hey there - my name's Ash, and this is Pikachu."

    "Pika-Pikachu!" Pikachu sang in greeting, now sitting in Ash's lap after being thrown from his shoulder earlier. Acerola reached over and scratched under its chin affectionately, causing the Electric Mouse Pokémon to coo in satisfaction.

    "Hi there, Pikachu! I'm Acerola!" the girl introduced, a bit redundantly.

    "And I'm Brock - it's nice to meet you," Brock greeted from the front seat, sparing her a wave, a gesture which she promptly returned.

    "So...what are all of you doing here?"

    Ash hesitated a bit at her question, unsure of how to answer succinctly. Thankfully, Brock was able to step in and provide a somewhat suitable explanation. "We're here on behalf of Professor Kukui. He sent us to find you, and protect you from Tapu Bulu."

    "Tapu Bulu...?!" she murmured back under her breath, her eyes widening as she realized what he'd said. The former Team Skull members, two of whom were practically sitting on each others' lap, all shifted nervously at the mention of the Island Guardian.

    Ash leaned over and looked her dead in the eyes, and she was instantly able to sense how serious the situation was. "Acerola, do you know what's been going on here in Alola lately?"

    "Y-yeah...I mean, kind of. We're usually a little out of the loop, down here at the Aether House...but sometimes, when I go into town at Malie City, I find out things. And Nanu comes by and talks to us sometimes, too," the young girl explained, nervously fingering the band adorning her left arm as she spoke. That, coupled with the patchwork dress she was wearing had certainly planted some questions about her into Ash's mind, but he'd already decided to push them aside for the time being. "A lot of the other Captains and kahunas are disappearing, aren't they?"

    She's spoken the last bit in a small voice, as if the fact scared her. If she was afraid, Ash thought, he certainly wouldn't be the one to blame her for it. Instead, he reached over and placed a hand on her shoulder comfortingly. "Yeah, they are. But don't worry - me and Brock have already fought the Island Guardians a couple of times. We won't let them hurt you."

    He almost let slip how Mallow had been taken during their battle with Tapu Lele, but thought better of it, given Acerola's age, not to mention the fact that she already appeared to be uncomfortable around this topic.

    "But...why?" Acerola remarked softly, looking over at Ash with a solemn gleam in her eyes. "Why would the Tapu be doing something like this?"

    "Shouldn't they be the ones askin' you that?" Guzma cut in playfully. "They ain't even from Alola; how should they know what's up with the Tapu?"

    Acerola did a double-take at his words, glancing back and forth between Ash and Brock quickly for a moment before responding. "Huh? Really? Is that true?!"

    The two Kantonian natives shared a brief bit of laughter at her antics before Brock answered her questions. "Yeah, we're both actually from Kanto. And...we don't really know why the Island Guardians are acting this way. But we're going to find out."

    He gave her a determined nod and smile, a motion that was echoed by Ash a moment later. The gesture seemed to ease her mind, even if only slightly.

    It didn't take them much time at all to reach Tapu Village, or rather, what was left of it. Guzma pointed it out to Ash and Brock as they drove past it; the 'village', as it was, resembled little more than a collection of ruins scattered along the shoreline about a half-mile from the main road. There was a single path branching off from the road that led in that direction, but they merely ignored it and continued driving. The Pokémon Center that was supposedly the one functioning building still in the village wasn't even visible from their position.

    After that, the remainder of the trip to the Aether House only took them a half-hour at most, which was all fine with Ash, considering that they hadn't eaten anything since their breakfast back in Malie City. And Ash's meal hadn't even been anything substantial, considering he'd stayed the night at the hospital.

    The building was a brilliant white box situated about a quarter of a mile away from the edge of a cliff, whose drop-off appeared to empty out at another beach far below them. The road made a sharp u-turn and continued on away from the facility, apparently leading down to the same beach at some point. The back side of the building was only a few hundred yards away from the foot of Mount Hokulani, giving the whole area a very picturesque appearance.

    Guzma parked his car in the grass off to the side of the building, as there wasn't actually a paved parking lot. They piled out of the car in a hurry, eager to stretch their legs again, and Acerola led them all inside the building.

    "I'm baaack!" the young Captain announced as they entered the lobby. The inside walls appeared to match the outside, with every surface imaginable being covered in the same shade of blinding white. To make things even more unusual, seated on the other side of the receptionist's desk was a large, white, ape-like Pokémon of some sort. He appeared to be holding a fan made of leaves, and merely grunted in acknowledgement at Acerola's energetic announcement.

    "Who's that Pokémon?" Ash murmured to himself, producing his Pokédex in a flash and scanning the reserved-looking simian with it.

    "Oranguru, the Sage Pokémon. Oranguru are known for their extreme intelligence, and will often look down on Trainers they deem as inexperienced. On rare occasions, they can be seen trying to match wits with Slowking."

    "Oranguru helps run the orphanage," Acerola explained cheerfully as she bounded further into the lobby. Other than the one they'd just entered from, only two doors were visible leading out of the lobby, one on either side of the receptionist's desk. Before Ash or Brock could ask any further questions, the door on the right slid open, and two men dressed in identical white uniforms emerged from within.

    "Acerola - it's about time you got back," one of the men chided as they both advanced on her. "What were you thinking, going out so late at night like that?"

    "It's fine, you two," Acerola responded, waving away their concerns carelessly as she walked past them, toward the door on the left. "I made it back okay, didn't I?"

    "I swear..." the second man groaned, shaking his head wearily. "One of these days, your carefree attitude is going to come back to bite you." As he spoke, he seemed to notice Guzma standing amidst the group, and his face softened somewhat. "Oh - Mr. Guzma. Sorry, I didn't see you there. Is there anything we can help you with?"

    "Nah. I'm here on business for the prez," Guzma replied, swatting their words away as well. Seemingly satisfied with that answer, the two men shot dark looks toward Tupp, Rapp, and Zipp before turning and heading back through the door they'd emerged from. The ex-Team Skull trio seemed to shrink under their gaze, and slunk away through the right-hand door after them without a word.

    "They're employees of the Aether Foundation. They work here, too," Acerola explained quickly. "Come on - I'm sure you're all hungry, right?"

    As it turned out, the Aether House did, in fact, have a kitchen inside, much to Ash and Brock's mutual relief. There were another handful of Aether Foundation employees staffing it, though they appeared slightly perturbed when they realized that they'd be making a fresh meal for three people and one Pokémon so late at night.

    Despite their misgivings, the meal came out without too much of a delay; grilled cheese sandwiches, apparently requested specifically by Acerola, not that Ash was going to complain after having gone basically the entire day without a proper meal. Pikachu even got a full serving of Pokémon food. After wolfing down their food, Acerola kindly showed them back through the lobby to the other side of the building, which consisted almost entirely of the orphans' living quarters.

    The right-hand door from the main room led them into a long hallway with numerous rooms attached to it, each of them complete with a series of bunk beds and a single bathroom. Ash caught a glimpse of the two employees he'd seen earlier disappearing into a unique-looking room at the far end of the hall; their own living quarters, he guessed.

    "This room here's empty right now, so you guys are free to use it as long as you need to," Acerola remarked sweetly. "How long do you think you'll be staying?"

    "Uh..." Ash said uncertainly, looking over to Brock for support. The former Gym Leader merely shrugged, however, leaving Ash to produce an answer for them himself. "I don't know. Now that we've found you, I guess we just need to find that Nanu guy, and then we can figure out what to do next after that."

    "Well, I'm not sure where Nanu is right now, but he usually works at the police station just past Ula'ula Meadow. It's pretty close, so I can take you there later, if you want."

    "Yeah, we might just take you up on that," Brock agreed with a smile.

    And with that, she bade them all good night before leaving to head back to her own room. The three examined their room for a moment in silence; there was a pair of bunk beds parallel to one another on opposite sides of the room, both against the back wall, as well as a small set of drawers accompanying each one. Other than that, and the door leading to the bathroom, the room was basically empty. Not that it mattered much to them; Ash and Brock were used to staying at Pokémon Centers, whose rooms were about on par with this one, if not worse, and Guzma had certainly stayed in worse before, as well.

    Given how late it was, not to mention the fact that they'd been stuck in a car together for practically the entire day already, there wasn't much chatter between the three after Acerola left. They all slipped into their night clothes without much of a fuss and laid down to sleep easily, with Ash and Brock taking the bottom and top of a bunk, respectively, while Guzma took the bottom of the unclaimed one for himself.

    Brock and Guzma seemed to have no trouble falling asleep, though, unfortunately, Ash was not quite so lucky. Now that everything was quiet, and he was free to lose himself in his own thoughts, he was reminded of the one thing that had felt off to him for the entire day.

    Serena wasn't with them.

    It wasn't really a surprise to him at this point, the fact that he was so bothered by this. It was more that he just...missed her. He couldn't remember the last time they had spent a night away from each other. Was it when she had been forced under the influence of the Mega Evolution cult, back in Coumarine City?

    It just felt wrong to him, somehow, knowing that she was nowhere nearby. And he couldn't deny that part of the feeling came from the fact that had put herself in the situation she was in to protect him. It bothered him to no end, long past the point at which he could tell that everyone else in the room had fallen asleep. He continued tossing and turning in his bed, unable to make peace with his internal thoughts, for quite some time before finally forcing himself to lie still and stare at the underside of Brock's mattress, until he was finally able to drift off into slumber.​


    So, I got really into writing this one, and I have another, like, half of a chapter written already that just continues straight on from here, but I figured that it was getting way too long, and this seemed like the best point at which to hack it in half. So, depending on how things go, I may be able to get the next one out quicker than usual, but I can't promise anything there.

    That's about it for this one. See you guys next time, which will hopefully be a bit sooner than usual!
     
  14. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Chapter 14: Ghosts from the Past​


    Later on in the night, though how long it had actually been since he'd fallen asleep was anyone's guess, Guzma awoke to the sound of a distinct thud from out in the hallway. He rose up in his bed and looked at the halfway open door leading outside, scratching his head groggily.

    "What the..." he murmured to himself, trying to blink away his exhaustion. He remained upright for a few more silent moments, and just when he was about to convince himself it was nothing and lay back down, he caught the sure-fire hiss of unsuccessfully veiled whispers. Deciding to listen to his gut, he sighed heavily, as if expelling the last of his drowsiness from his body, and rose from his bed, slipping his black jacket on and climbing into his sneakers before departing from the pitch-black void that was the shared room of himself, Ash, and Brock.

    Upon emerging into the hallway, he looked both ways; this area was still brightly lit, of course, just as it had been when they'd first arrived. His eyes scrunched up as they adjusted to the light, and he scanned the hallway for the source of the noise. It appeared to be deserted, but there was one door that was opened a bit more than the ones around it. Much as he didn't like to admit it, he'd broken into enough places in his time to recognize a shoddy attempt at concealing such an act. Cocking an eyebrow curiously, he trodded over to the open door, pulled it back all the way, and took a step inside.

    What he found within the confines of the room was simultaneously surprising and predictable. He appeared to have entered Acerola's quarters; the room was laid out much the same as their own, and, thanks to the light leaking in from the hallway, he was able to spy the young girl sleeping soundly on the bottom bunk of one of the beds. And standing a few feet away from the bed, huddled together in a group as they gazed at something he couldn't see on Acerola's night stand, stood Tupp, Rapp, and Zipp.

    Guzma blinked, and, once he got his brain in gear, it didn't take him long to realize what the object of their desires must have been.

    "What do you three punks think you're doin there, huh?!" Guzma demanded, causing Rapp and Zipp to twist their heads around in shock. Tupp, however, continued advancing on Acerola's Z-Crystal, even as Guzma's booming voice shook the item's owner from her slumber.

    Her eyes shot open just as he grabbed the crystal for his own, and as she watched in stunned silence, he rubbed it a few times methodically before it finally lit up, bathing his features in a ghastly purple light.

    "Yo, Tupp!" Guzma roared, paying no heed to the sleeping children in the rooms beside him. He advanced on his former underling with clenched fists. "I asked you what the heck you think you're doin' with Acerola's Z-Crystal! You gonna answer me or what?!"

    He moved to clamp his hand down on Tupp's shoulder, intending to spin him around so that he could see his face, but his two companions stepped in to bar the way.

    "Sorry, Guzma - but you ain't our boss anymore, ya know?" Zipp sneered as a wicked smile broke out on his face, an expression that was shared by Rapp, as well.

    "So we ain't exactly inclined to answer to you. Not like the old days," Rapp added icily.

    "Why, you little - !"

    This time, he moved to shove the two of them out of his way, but Tupp spun around at last and grabbed his hands, clamping down on Guzma's wrists with all his might as he finally looked him in the eye.

    "Guzma...? What's going on?" Acerola asked sleepily, though she was clearly awake enough to realize that something was amiss. Guzma's iron stare didn't falter as he answered her straightly.

    "I dunno - but I'm about to find out."

    "Fine - you wanna know what we're doin' here?" Tupp acquiesced in a threatening voice. "We're here for the same reason we were out there at the Megamart last night!"

    Guzma's eyes narrowed at his former subordinate's confession. "I knew you three were up to somethin' back then. You never were good at lyin', you know."

    "Shut up!" Tupp shot back, tightening his hold on Guzma's wrists, just as Acerola clenched her hand ever tighter around her bed-sheet as she continued watching silently. "You was always that way! Always talkin' down to us...treatin' us like we were nothin'! Well, now we found someone who really thinks we're somethin' special. And after we give 'im Acerola, along with her Z-Crystal, here, he's gonna let us live in his own paradise, forever!"

    "Are you kiddin' me right now?!" Guzma cried incredulously, finally forcing his hands free of Tupp's grip and reversing the hold on him. "Listen to me, punk - whatever those nutjobs from that other world promised you, it ain't worth it! There are some things you can't ever compromise on, you got that?!"

    "Oh, really?!" Tupp fired back, just as Rapp and Zipp threw themselves onto Guzma's arms in an attempt to pry him off of Tupp. "What about all of us, your 'useless idiots' from Team Skull? Sure sounds like you compromised on us!"

    "Wh-what are you talkin' about?!"

    "You mean you don't even know?!" Tupp roared. "When you disbanded the gang, you might as well've just thrown all of us in the trash! You went off and started workin' for the Aether Foundation. Doin' real well for yourself now, I bet. But what about all of us who weren't so lucky, huh? Where'd that leave us?!"

    Guzma stopped struggling for a moment as he reflected on Tupp's words. Rapp and Zipp's grip loosened on him as well, and the three of them watched him expectantly, anxiously awaiting his answer.

    "I didn't do no favors for anyone," he answered at last. "Just like it was in Team Skull - everyone out for themselves, right?"

    Tupp glared at him, the indignance he'd held moments before suddenly returning in a flash. "Tell yourself whatever you want - but like it or not, you abandoned us back then - all of us! That's on your head - and now, we're goin' somewhere where they'll really appreciate us!"

    Seemingly at his words, the wall behind him exploded, blanketing the room in a dust cloud that smelled strongly of sawdust. Through the plume of debris, Guzma recognized the towering form of Tapu Bulu as it drifted into the room, its gaze being drawn to the glowing Z-Crystal at once.

    "Yo - get out of here, squirt!" Guzma cried almost immediately, moving to stand between her and the invading Pokémon as he reached for a Poké Ball. "They're after you, so get moving!"

    Acerola stared at the troubling scene before her in shock for another moment before finally snapping back to reality, and making a run for the door on the opposite side of the room. As she went, Tapu Bulu seemed to notice her, and raised its arms to fire a second Energy Ball in her direction, similar to the one that had just leveled the outermost wall of her room.

    "Eyes on me, you bozo!" Guzma boomed, cracking open the capsule in his hand as he spoke. "Golisopod, give 'im yer First Impression!"

    The Hard Scale Pokémon burst out of its prison in a flash of light, already charging at Tapu Bulu when it emerged, with its massive, armored claws thrust out in front. They became surrounded with white light a moment later, and slammed into the unsuspecting Island Guardian, stopping its attack before it went off and sending it flying backwards out of the room.

    "Yeah, that's right!" Guzma cried triumphantly, pumping his fists in the air as his Pokémon landed back at his side.

    Just as Acerola made it through the doorway, she nearly ran headfirst into Ash, who was accompanied by Brock, as well as Oranguru, who was leading a group of the children who had woken up from the commotion.

    "Hey - are you okay?" Ash asked at once, stooping down to look into her eyes, which still appeared shaken by the sudden attack. He and Brock hadn't even stopped to put on any additional clothes, which left Ash standing there in only his tennis shoes, white tank top, and shorts, while Brock was only short his vest.

    "What's going on in there?" Brock demanded, stepping through the threshold before stopping short at the sight of the massive hole that had been blown through the far wall. "What happened - ?!"

    "Aw, snap, we gotta deal with more of these guys?" Zipp remarked upon seeing Ash and Brock arrive on the scene.

    "Let's make sure they don't mess things up!" Tupp called, producing a Poké Ball of his own, and prompting his two companions to do the same. "Salandit, get out here!"

    "Go, Zubat!" Rapp cried, adding her own Pokémon to the fray.

    "Garbodor, you're up!" Zip finished, leaving them with a total of three Pokémon, plus Tapu Bulu, who still hadn't returned from being blown back by Golisopod.

    "Hey, what do you three think you're doing?!" Ash demanded as their trio of Pokemon emerged into the open room. The sight of their three Pokémon glowering at him, compounded with the gaping cavity in the wall behind them, had served to put him on the defensive at once.

    "They're after Acerola!" Guzma explained angrily, waving a finger at them in accusation. "They used her Z-Crystal to bring Tapu Bulu here - I told ya they were idiots!"

    "They did what?!" Brock remarked, looking at the three of them in disbelief. But before he or Ash could say anything further, Acerola spoke up instead, having turned from her initial path of escape to re-enter the bedroom.

    "...Is that true? You three did this...?"

    She looked at them with a pained expression on her face, her eyes full of hurt. Her emotional plea appeared to have fallen on deaf ears, however, as Rapp was the one to respond this time, cackling as she gave her answer.

    "Of course it was us! Did ya really think we wanted to be friends with someone like you? We hate people like you!"

    Acerola's stunned eyes quivered, as if she was holding back tears. "But...all the things you said...you said you'd changed since Team Skull had disbanded..."

    "Ya still don't get it, huh?" Zipp sneered, a bit of a sinister chuckle in his voice, as well. "We were lyin' to you this whole time!"

    "Well, 'cept for one thing," Tupp added, attempting to clarify his companions' statements. "We have changed - we're not the same little punks that'd just sit down and be told what to do by a bozo like Guzma. We're stronger now, and we're gonna teach all of you a lesson!"

    He raised his hand to the sky, palm up, and just as he did, Tapu Bulu reappeared in an instant, hovering behind the three of them ominously. Acerola stared at the Island Guardian in a mixture of fear and awe, and Ash and Brock finally stepped forward defiantly.

    "That's it - I've heard enough from you three," Brock declared, producing a pair of Poké Balls from his pocket as he spoke. "Crobat, Forretress, let's go!"

    "Talonflame, I choose you!" Ash cried after him, without missing a beat. After the bird Pokémon had been released, he looked down to Pikachu, who was already crouched down on all fours in a battle position. "You ready, buddy?"

    "Pika-Pikachu!" the Electric Mouse Pokémon responded, his voice full of adrenaline, making it clear that it was just as ready to fight as its Trainer was.

    "Ya really think you can stop us? We've got the Island Guardian on our side, you morons!" Tupp declared arrogantly as he thrust his palm toward Ash. "Salandit, use Flame Burst, let's go!"

    "Zubat, Wing Attack!"

    "Garbodor, hit 'em with Sludge Bomb!"

    The three attacks flew toward them indiscriminately alongside Tapu Bulu, who charged toward Acerola yet again, this time leaving the signature white trail of Skull Bash in its wake. Ash swallowed, determined not to let this battle go the same way as their previous encounters with the Island Guardians.

    "Talonflame, use Steel Wing, and Pikachu, use Iron Tail! Stop Tapu Bulu, now!"

    Both of his Pokémon complied at once, charging to meet the Legendary Pokémon head-on as their respective appendages began to shimmer with energy. They each slammed into one of its horns with their attacks, forcing the three of them into a deadlock as both sides pushed frantically against the other.

    "Golisopod, hit Zubat with yer Aqua Jet!" Guzma commanded as Zubat swooped in toward the Hard Scale Pokémon, its own wings glowing white, as well. Golisopod was the only one present that would be a suitable target for Zubat's attack, and so he made the snap assumption that it would be the one targeted. Golisopod launched off from the ground in a torrent of water, slamming into the small Bat Pokémon before it could even complete its attack.

    Meanwhile, the Flame Burst and Sludge Bomb attacks had been effectively dispersed by Crobat and Forretress, respectively, while Talonflame and Pikachu were still locked in their parry with Tapu Bulu.

    "Keep it up, Talonflame! Add in some Flame Charge!" Ash cried. Talonflame screeched its name wildly and pushed forward even harder, even as its body was wrapped in a cloak of flames. The super-effective edge seemed to push Tapu Bulu back somewhat, but it still refused to break their deadlock.

    "Crobat, help them out! Use Cross Poison!" Brock yelled, prompting his much larger Bat Pokémon to swoop down toward the two-way struggle, and launch the purple, X-shaped wave of poisonous energy toward the exposed back of the resident Island Guardian.

    "Zubat, Supersonic!" Rapp shrieked, and the tiny Bat Pokémon took to the sky above them once again, this time firing the supersonic blast from its mouth at Crobat. The sound waves reverberated in the senior bat's ears, throwing it off balance, and causing the Cross Poison attack to miss its mark.

    "Pikaaa - !" Pikachu cried with some effort, continuing to push again Tapu Bulu alongside Talonflame. A moment later, a white aura erupted to life around the Land Spirit Pokémon, and it finally succeeded in knocking both of Ash's battlers to the side.

    "Pikachu! Talonflame - !" Ash despaired, watching as both Pokémon were thrown into the walls on opposite sides of the room, just as Tapu Bulu continued streaking through the center of the room toward Acerola. Just as it was almost upon her, Forretress threw itself between them, its outer shell glistening with a metallic sheen.

    "Fooor-e-tresss!" cried the Bagworm Pokémon, as it weathered the combined might of Megahorn and Skull Bash that Tapu Bulu was barreling forward with. Acerola watched Forretress hold the Island Guardian back in awe, until Guzma finally stepped in to provide some further assistance.

    "Yo, use Metal Claw!"

    Suddenly, Golisopod came tearing into Tapu Bulu's side, with its claws shining metallically, just as Forretress's shell. The attack finally succeeded in knocking the Island Guardian away from Acerola. It recovered quickly, however, and raised its arms to fire another volley of Energy Balls at the pair of them as soon as it did.

    "Forretress, use Rapid Spin!" Brock cried at once. His Bagworm Pokémon chirped in affirmation and began spinning in place immediately, deflecting the spheres of green energy and sending them into the ceiling.

    "Guru - ?!" Oranguru murmured from out in the hallway. They heard the other children whispering to themselves urgently, as well, leading to a shared look of concern between Ash and Brock.

    "We can't battle like this in here - if we do, we'll tear the whole building down," Brock noted worriedly, turning to Guzma and Acerola. "Is there any way we can lead them outside?"

    Guzma shrugged as he answered, "Sure there is - but it's up to Miss Rola here. They're after her, so I'm guessin' they'll follow her wherever she goes."

    Ash and Brock looked at the young Captain expectantly, but she avoided their gazes, apparently still in shock over all that was happening before her. And, before any of them could say anything more, they heard Tupp and his friends call out another wave of attacks.

    "Salandit, Double Slap!"

    "Zubat, use Bite!"

    "Garbodor, Body Slam 'em!"

    In a flash, their trio of Pokémon surged forward across the room, followed closely by Tapu Bulu, who was attempting another Megahorn attack on Acerola. Her own trio of pseudo-bodyguards, however, had other plans.

    "Pikachu, use Iron Tail on Garbodor, let's go! Talonflame, use Brave Bird on Tapu Bulu!"

    Both Pikachu and Talonflame responded by leaping forth from the rubble they'd been collapsed in, with Pikachu flipping through the air nimbly to gather momentum before slamming its energy-filled tail into the Trash Heap Pokémon in midair, while Talonflame circled around to get a vertical angle on Tapu Bulu before dropping into a dive, fully cloaked in its sky-blue aura as it went.

    "Golisopod, use yer Aqua Jet on Salandit!"

    "Crobat, use Air Slash on Zubat!"

    And, just like that, Golisopod lurched forward, cloaked in its veil of water as it slammed into Salandit and threw it back across the length of the room, just as Crobat beat its wings viciously to summon a flurry of wind blades, which cut through the air toward Zubat, and sent it crashing to the ground, just as Talonflame barreled into Tapu Bulu's exposed back, sending it plummeting into the floor, as well.

    "Now, Forretress, use Pin Missile on Tapu Bulu!" Brock called, intending to put as much pressure on the Legendary Pokémon as they could while they had the chance.

    "You too, Golisopod! Pin Missile!" Guzma added, and their two hybrid Bug-types proceeded to fire a volley of emerald-green, cone-shaped missiles from the various spines decorating their bodies. They bombarded Tapu Bulu before it could react, causing a decently-sized explosion near the center of the room.

    "Aww, man! How the heck are these guys so strong?!" Tupp moaned, dumbstruck as he stared at Salandit, Zubat, and Garbodor, all collapsed in a heap before him - and now, it appeared that Tapu Bulu had joined the ranks of the defeated, as well.

    "You bozos learned your lesson yet?!" Guzma roared menacingly as he pumped his fists toward them.

    "Now leave Acerola alone!" Ash added, throwing his arm out to the side as if to shield her from her would-be captors.

    Tupp and his comrades stared down Ash and the others for a moment, neither side willing to budge on the matter. The former members of Team Skull finally opted to recall their downed Pokémon, but they still didn't make any moves to give themselves up. On the contrary, after stowing away their Poké Balls, they quickly spun around toward the hole in the wall. Tupp spared a second to grab the Z-Crystal still lying exposed on the nightstand, before all three of them leaped the tiny distance from the floor of the room to the ground outside, and took off running, as fast as their legs would take them.

    "Hey, wait!" Ash called out after them, as he, Brock, and all of their Pokémon quickly crossed the room to follow them. Guzma and Acerola were quick to follow, as well, after stopping to look at the spot where Tupp had swiped his prize from.

    "They took it," Acerola murmured sadly, her eyes shifting from the empty space previously occupied by her Z-Crystal to the barely shuddering heap that was Tapu Bulu. "And they even used the Guardian Pokémon..." Guzma frowned at her for a moment, unsure of what to say, before simply putting a hand on her shoulder encouragingly.

    "Don't worry, squirt. We'll make 'em pay," he assured her gently. "Change of plans, though - you just sit tight in here, aight? They might have your Z-Crystal, but I'm pretty sure they need you, too."

    Acerola looked up at him gratefully, but she shook her head, a Poké Ball now grasped tightly in her hand. "Thank you, Guzma, but no - I'm going to fight, too."


    "CHUUUUU!"

    Tupp, Rapp, and Zipp were forced to come to a halt as a massive bolt of electricity scorched the earth in front of them, briefly lighting up the night around them as it arced through the air. They spun around, and saw Ash and Brock sprinting out of the Aether House and into the dark of night after them, surrounded by Pikachu, Talonflame, Forretress, and Crobat.

    "End of the line!" Ash cried out, as he and Brock closed in on the trio's position. "Now give us back that Z-Crystal!"

    Tupp gritted his teeth in frustration, and glared daggers at Ash as he stopped about a half-battlefield's length away from him. "No way! You don't know what we've had to go through these last few months - we're never goin' back to that, ya hear me?!"

    "Sounds like you're doing nothing but complaining, if you ask me," Brock snapped back sharply, the glare on his face matching Ash's in intensity. "I think you three are in way over your heads here."

    "You - you don't know anything!" Tupp cried, producing a second Poké Ball from his clothes and cracking it open at once. "Rattata, use Double-Edge!"

    He had called his Pokémon Rattata, but the black, mustached critter that emerged from his capsule looked anything but to Ash. Regardless, it wasted no time in obeying Tupp's command, and launched itself forward in a charge seemingly aimed at their group as a whole. Ash's eyes narrowed, and he prepared to utter a counter-attack to his own Pokémon, when -

    "Froslass, stop it with Ice Beam!"

    Before Ash could even get the first word of an attack out, Acerola's voice cut him off, followed almost immediately by an ice-blue stream slicing its way through the air and hitting Rattata head-on, freezing it into a solid block of ice at once.

    He turned, and was greeted by the pleasant-sounding chime of a Froslass's voice at once, its owner hovering in the air next to Acerola as she and Guzma quickly ran up to join Ash and Brock.

    "'Kay, Golisopod, smash it up with Aqua Jet!"

    Before Rattata could even break free, the Hard Scale Pokémon had already closed in on it, slamming into it with from within its cocoon of water, and shattering the prison of ice as it was thrown back at Tupp's feet.

    "R-Rattata..." Tupp murmured in shock, realizing that those two attacks alone had been sufficient to defeat it. He recalled the tiny battler at once, just as Guzma's voice rang through his ears.

    "I'll ask ya again - you bozos had enough yet? Huh?!" he took a threatening step toward them as he spoke, and held out his hand. "Now give us back that Z-Crystal, and get outta here, or else!"

    Tupp merely continued to stare back at his former boss in defiance, neither he nor either of his companions uttering a single word in response. Guzma took another step toward them, and by the look on his face, Ash guessed that he was about to try and fight all three of the kids himself. Before he got the chance to, however, they heard a loud rustling sound behind them, and everyone spun around to see what the source of the noise was.

    "PUUUUU!"

    They were all met with the sight of Tapu Bulu soaring out of the building, a somewhat deranged look in its eyes as it wailed a cacophonous battle cry to he heavens. It barreled into the air roughly before turning on a dime and making a beeline for Acerola, the signature waves of green energy that signified the activation of its Grassy Surge ability reverberating outward from its body as it flew.

    "Forretress, use Iron Defense to stop it!" Brock ordered at once, as all of them hurried out of the way of the Island Guardian's flight path - save Forretress, that is, who instead leaped directly between Tapu Bulu and Acerola, its shell once again shining with a metallic sheen. The horns of its opponent glanced off the surface of its toughened shell, leaving Forretress virtually unharmed.

    Tapu Bulu roared violently for a second time, and took a moment to climb higher into the sky before throwing its arms out to the side. Its eyes began to glow emerald-green, and a second later, a series of thick vines shot forth from the earth beneath Ash, his companions, and even their Pokémon. Ash, however, predicted the incoming attack, and turned to Pikachu immediately.

    "Use Quick Attack!" he called out at once, and Pikachu shot forth from his position like a bullet, narrowly avoiding the encroaching vines. It continued on its initial trajectory, aiming to hit Tapu Bulu in the chest in an attempt to disrupt the attack, but to no avail; the Land Spirit Pokémon saw the attack coming, and simply jerked its head down at the correct moment. The resulting Megahorn attack served to smack Pikachu back to the ground, Tapu Bulu having not even lowered its arms.

    "Pikachu!" Ash cried, watching helplessly as his partner, too, was ensnared by the Nature's Madness attack.

    "You gotta be kiddin' me - " Guzma grumbled indignantly, struggling fruitlessly against his own bonds. "What the heck is this? Is Tapu Bulu doin' this?!"

    Acerola nodded somewhat calmly, considering the situation they were in, and answered, "It's Nature's Madness. It's a special move that only the Tapu can use."

    "Yeah, she's right," Brock affirmed grimly. "It used this attack on us once before, back in Malie City - !"

    His words were cut short by the vines suddenly tightening around his entire body, a gesture that was soon emulated by the other vines, as well. Ash struggled against bonds just as he had the last time, but to no avail, and, unlike the last time, he found it difficult to even move at all; it was almost as if, this time, Tapu Bulu was actually trying to choke all of them to death.

    Once it appeared confident that they had all been sufficiently restrained, Tapu Bulu wasted no time in focusing its efforts on Acerola. As its stare hardened upon her, the vines ensnaring her body continued to tighten, choking the very breath from her lungs.

    "A-Acerola - !" Ash grunted, struggling uselessly against the earthy tendrils. The words he spoke were almost just an excuse to prove that he still had use of his windpipe, given that every second that passed served to make him less and less confident of that fact.

    "H-Hey - leave the runt alone, you - hear - me - ?!" Guzma choked out, trying desperately to pry himself free of the vines, only to collapse back into their clutches after his brief spurt of energy had expired.

    As Tapu Bulu continued to float ever so closer toward her, watching patiently as her consciousness began fading, a series of sinister-looking purple feathers suddenly sprouted forth from the Island Guardian's body.

    "Wha - "

    Before Guzma could even finish his cry of confusion, the feathers exploded all at once, throwing the Legendary Pokémon to the ground and blanketing the area in a haze of smoke.

    "What was that?!" Ash cried, finishing Guzma's thought for him.

    "Look - up there!" Brock declared, prompting all of them to raise their eyes to the sky, where a saddled Charizard and a green, owl-esque Pokémon that Ash didn't recognize were flying in on their position in unison. A boy was riding on the Charizard's back, but he was too far away to make out anything other than his gender and the purple glow that was quickly receding back toward his wrist.

    "Nice one - now use Leaf Blade, Decidueye! Cut 'em all free!"

    The boy's voice echoed off the nearby mountainside, and as such, was strangely easy for them to hear. At his command, the owl Pokémon swooped down with its wings shining green and deftly sliced through all of the vines summoned by Nature's Madness.

    "I can't believe this..." Guzma growled disapprovingly as he relaxed his muscles, watching the boy come to a perfect landing atop his mount. Acerola had fallen to her knees after being freed from the vines, but upon seeing who their savior was, she quickly climbed back to her feet with a smile, pumping her hands in the sky happily as she shouted out his name.

    "Sun! It's you!" she cheered, causing Ash and Brock to look at the newcomer in surprise as they kneaded their wrists. Ash could tell that he had dark, unkempt hair kept in check by a trilby, creating a look vaguely similar to his own, and he was around Ash's own age, as well. He had a pair of sunglasses clipped to the collar of his unassuming tank top, as well as a pack slung over his back, and a black device strapped to his wrist that Ash could now recognize as a Z-Ring.

    "So, it's true, then...something's wrong with the Tapu, after all," Sun murmured to himself, climbing down from Charizard before turning his gaze upon the opposing trio, who were all staring at the Alolan Champion with fear in their eyes. "Hey - what'd you three do to Tapu Bulu?!"

    "Uh..." Rapp and Zipp murmured in unison, letting their eyes drift over to Tupp, who was standing between the two of them.

    "W-we didn't do anything to it!" Tupp declared suddenly after a few moments of silence. "M-maybe it's just fightin' on our side 'cause it thinks we're the better Trainers! You ever think about that, Champion?!"

    As he spoke, his voice steadily stopped shaking and grew bolder. By the time he was finished, the smoke from Decidueye's attack had cleared, and Tapu Bulu had charged at the Arrow Quill Pokémon with another Megahorn attack.

    Sun's eyes narrowed as the Legendary Pokémon charged his partner. "Decidueye, use Phantom Force!"

    Decidueye complied and took back to the air with a flap of its oversized wings, putting itself on a direct collision course with Tapu Bulu. Moments before they made contact, however, the owl-like Pokémon melted away into nothingness.

    "What's going on?" Ash asked, finally finding his voice again as Tapu Bulu swooped past Sun's position on the ground, narrowly missing him before looping around and scanning the area for Decidueye. A moment later, the Champion's partner reappeared directly behind the unaware Island Guardian. A sinister purple aura cloaked its wings as it slashed Tapu Bulu, sending the Land Spirit Pokémon plummeting toward the ground.

    Tapu Bulu managed to catch itself just in time, however, and righted itself on a dime before launching forward beneath a shimmering white veil energy. Sun watched the Skull Bash attack close in on Decidueye for a moment before thrusting his palm out in front of him, and calling out, "Brave Bird!"

    Decidueye lowered its head in compliance, and took off toward Tapu Bulu, a glimmering, sky-blue aura erupting to life around it as it flew. The two slammed into each other, head-on, and only Decidueye continued on past its target. Tapu Bulu, on the other hand, was left hanging in place, somewhat off-balance and visibly damaged.

    "Come on, everyone! Let's finish that thing off, together!" Ash cried out frantically, seeing an opportunity that he wasn't about miss. "Pikachu, use Thunderbolt! Talonflame, Razor Wind!"

    "Forretress, Pin Missile, and Crobat, use Cross Poison!"

    "Golisopod, show 'em your Pin Missile, too!"

    "Froslass, use Ice Beam!"

    "Decidueye, Spirit Shackle!"

    The onslaught of attacks from all sides coalesced in a spectacular display of colors before slamming into the Island Guardian, who was still off balance from the Phantom Force attack it had just taken. The smoke cloud that resulted from the blast briefly covered the area, and as it dissipated, they saw Tapu Bulu fall from the sky in defeat at last.

    "N-no way...did they really...?!"

    Zipp appeared to be at a loss for words, as the three stared at the unconscious heap that was the Island Guardian in complete disbelief. Guzma glared daggers at them, silently telling them not to try anything else until this whole situation was resolved.

    "Is it really down?" Brock asked warily, despite the visual evidence on display for all to see. Their previous encounters with the Tapu had taught him to be cautious around them, to say the least. No one made a move to go investigate it, however, until Sun spared it a glance as he made his way across the clearing toward them. His reaction, or lack thereof, told them all they needed to know in regards to Brock's question.

    As Sun approached them, a dozen questions ran through Ash's mind, not the least of which involved how he had found them all the way out here, and in the middle of the night, at that. Before he had a chance to ask him any of them, however, the Champion's own question was already rolling off his tongue.

    "Where's Lillie?"

    The abruptness of his inquiry threw all of them off guard, though Guzma recovered quicker than Ash or Brock did. He took a step toward the boy and planted his hands on his hips, assuming a defensive stance as Sun strode toward them. "What kinda greetin' is that, huh? You go and disappear on us for months on end, and you think you can just mosey on back home whenever you darn well feel like it?!"

    Sun came to a halt at Guzma's words, appearing shocked for a brief moment before shrugging the feeling off and looking away.

    "Hey there, Guzma. It's been a while," the Champion murmured softly. "Glad to see you're doing better - "

    "Don't you gimme that crap!" Guzma spat, closing the distance between them and gripping Sun by the loose collar of his tank-top. "You got any idea what we been goin' through these past few weeks? Huh?! People been droppin' off the grid left and right, all over Alola! And all the while, everybody's been askin' where it is that our Champion ran off to."

    Ash and Brock were stunned, only able to watch the heated exchange with baited breath, neither of them daring to interrupt. Acerola, on the other hand, was observing the scene unfold with a far more worried expression on her face, and even Tupp, Rapp, and Zipp appeared enraptured by what was taking place.

    Sun continued avoiding Guzma's eyes, which only seemed to upset him further. He clenched the fabric in his hands ever tighter, and continued on, "I told everyone you were a loser, a deadbeat, for walking out on us like that. Some folks agreed with me, others didn't. But ya know who never stopped believin' that you'd done it all for some greater reason? Who it was that kept tellin' everyone you'd come back one day?"

    Ash figured he knew who Guzma was referring to, and he guessed that Sun knew, as well. But Guzma said her name anyway, and when he did, Ash swore he could see Sun physically recoil from the force of it.

    "It was Lillie. That stubborn little squirt didn't let anybody say a word against you," the former Team Skull boss remarked, and at that, Sun's face finally betrayed a hint of sadness. Guzma's voice softened a bit as he began to speak about the blonde-haired Alolan native, and his grip on Sun's shirt loosened along with it. "That girl's really somethin' else, you know? She's really come far since all this started...she deserves a thousand times better than a loser like you!"

    With that, Guzma reared back and slugged him, sending him falling to the ground roughly. Decidueye began to advance on the man at once in a flash of anger - but Sun held out his hand, signaling for his Pokémon to stand down.

    "It's okay, pal," he choked out under his breath, making no attempt to climb back to his feet. Acerola clasped her hands together and looked at Guzma's back with pleading eyes, but he didn't falter in the slightest.

    "You're right. She does deserve better," Sun remarked quietly after a moment. "I'm not here to try and apologize for what I did, but the least I can do is try and make things right."

    "Tch," Guzma sneered. "We don't need your stinkin' help anymore. Go back to Johto."

    "Stop it, Guzma!" Acerola cried at last, having finally seen enough of his venting. She ran forward and held out her hand toward Sun. "Sorry about that...I mean...you know how he can get sometimes."

    Sun stared at her hand for a moment as if it were a foreign object before reaching out and grasping it firmly. "Y-yeah...thanks, Acey."

    He massaged his left cheek tenderly as she pulled him back to his feet, Guzma watching with a disgusted expression. Brock coughed nervously on behalf of both himself and Ash, whom had both been feeling rather awkward during this whole exchange, and shot a suspicious glance toward Tupp, Rapp, and Zipp.

    "So, what do you guys think we should do with these three?"

    Guzma crossed his arms and regarded them sourly, before turning back to regard the giant hole in the wall of the Aether House. "Well, we can't let 'em just keep doin' whatever they want. We could always take 'em to the police and let them deal with it."

    His suggestion hung in the air over them for a few moments, as nobody tried to argue against it. Acerola appeared to be at a loss for words, and not even Sun spoke up to offer another idea.

    "Wait," Ash uttered darkly, stepping toward the former Team Skull trio. "There's something I wanna ask you. You're working with the Ultra Recon Squad, right? Tell me where that guy, Rhodo, is!"

    "R-Rhodo?" Tupp repeated, a bead of sweat rolling down his face as he met Ash's gaze. "Never heard of him. I dunno what you're talkin' about - "

    "Don't lie to us!" Ash growled, just as Pikachu bounded up beside him, the Electric Mouse Pokémon sporting an equally irate expression. "We know that those guys are the ones who've been controlling the Island Guardians. Since Tapu Bulu fought with you, you've gotta be on their side, too. So tell me where Rhodo is, now!"

    "Pika pika!" Pikachu hissed angrily, reinforcing the severity of Ash's words. Tupp was forced to shrink back a bit from their combined intensity, prompting Rapp and Zipp to step in to cover for him.

    "Hey, Tupp already told ya, we don't know nothin'!" Zipp insisted, scowling at Ash.

    "Why should you care, anyway? Ya already beat us, so just leave us alone - "

    "No way! That guy Rhodo and his Pokémon poisoned one of my friends, and I've gotta find him before she can get better! Now tell me where he is!" Ash demanded at once. When they still refused to answer, he clenched his fists and began rounding on them furiously. Before he got far, however, Brock stepped up behind him to stop him short.

    "Hold on, Ash," he said firmly, clamping a hand down his shoulder. "What are you gonna do to them?"

    Ash shook Brock's hand off at once, spinning around to glare at him in frustration. "What do you mean? I'm gonna make them tell me where Rhodo is!"

    "You're gonna make them tell you?" Brock repeated back incredulously, not quite believing the sinister tone his old friend was speaking in, all of a sudden. "And how do you plan to do that?"

    "...It doesn't matter!" Ash insisted, brandishing his fists as he turned back to face the three ex-Team Skull members. "I'll just do whatever I have to, until they tell me - !"

    "Ash - !" Brock cried, reaching out after him as he advanced on Tupp, Rapp, and Zipp, glowering at them with a terrible expression on his face as he did. The wind coming off the beach whipped around them roughly, and, without his hat, his already-unkempt hair was ruffled even further, granting him a truly intimidating visage.

    "D-do whatever you want to us!" Tupp reiterated, though the fearful look on his face betrayed his true feelings on the matter. "We won't tell you losers nothin'!"

    Ash gritted his teeth angrily as he edged out of Brock's reach. He raised his fists to swing at Tupp, who was the closest to him out of the three, and as he did, a swelling feeling erupted to life in his chest -

    "Froslass, use Confuse Ray!"

    Ash was forced to stop short at Acerola's voice. He turned, with his fist still hanging in midair, and saw a series of glowing, golden orbs come shooting toward them, as they materialized out of the air around Froslass. The spheres of energy skipped over Ash entirely, and shattered upon reaching Tupp, Rapp, and Zipp, leaving the three visibly reeling after the fact.

    "Huh...?" Ash murmured, unsure of the intent behind the young girl's sudden attack. He examined the three for a moment, dazed as they were, before turning back to find Acerola frowning at him, with her hands placed firmly on her hips.

    "Don't fight!" she declared insistently, as her Frolass floated idly from one side of her to the other. "There's no reason to fight anymore. So, just leave them alone, now...okay?"

    Ash's eyes widened, and he looked back at the three defenseless foes standing before him. He felt his rage began to subside, and the unusual feeling in his chest along with it, as he processed the young girl's surprisingly earnest request, and he lowered his fists down to his side slowly before exhaling deeply.

    "Don't worry, Ash," Brock remarked softly, placing a hand on his friend's shoulder again, though this time, the gesture was far gentler and more consoling. "We'll find a way to save her, but not like that. Serena wouldn't want you to stoop to that level."

    Ash looked back at his old friend gratefully, wanting desperately to believe his words. Pikachu walked up at his feet, watching its Trainer's eyes while wearing a similar expression as Brock on its face.

    "Pikapi..."

    Pikachu's solemn chime finally served to change Ash's mind. He turned back around fully, gently sliding Brock's hand off his shoulder, and smiled at him sadly. "Yeah...you're right. Sorry about that."

    Brock returned his smile warmly, and nodded at him in response. Ash maintained his smile even as he looked down, wondering what the odd swelling feeling he'd felt in his chest had been.

    "Hey, Miss Rola - Oranguru can keep an eye on these bozos now, yeah?" Guzma asked, jabbing a thumb in the direction of his former subordinates, who still appeared to be barely keeping themselves standing. When she nodded in response, he continued, "Great - then let's throw 'em in the lobby for the rest of the night, and see if we can catch some z's - for real, this time."


    "Tapu Bulu was defeated?"

    Rhodo had spoken the words himself, but he couldn't quite bring himself to believe them. He and Alisma both were standing before a computer console, along with four other, similarly dressed figures populating the remainder of the room behind them. Projected above the control panel was a view-screen that showed only a pair of normal-looking humans, betraying little else about what was on the other end.

    "How can that be?" Alisma asked, admittedly a bit shocked at the news. She had thought the famed Guardians of Alola to be tougher than that, though to be fair, she still hadn't heard who was responsible for taking this one down. "Have the remaining wielders of Necrozma's light finally banded together against us?"

    "Not exactly," the lavender-haired man responded, adjusting his glasses clumsily. "It appears that it was defeated by that same group of Trainers that foiled our plans at the Recycling Plant."

    "Though there's one or two new ones, now," his female counterpart added, with just a hint of curiosity. "Probably to cover for the ones in the hospital. Those Ultra Beasts of yours sure seem like they pack a punch."

    "Oh...yes," Rhodo affirmed after a moment, having almost forgotten about the girl he had wounded during his last battle in Alola. "Nihilego's poison is certainly potent. That is why I was aiming for the boy with it, but..."

    "Wait...you said some of those children are in the hospital right now?" Alisma asked, an idea flaring to life in her mind's eye. The two faces on the display screen looked over at her with interest.

    "Yes, that's right," the scarlet-haired woman responded plainly. "Why? Do you have a plan?"

    A wicked smile sprang to Alisma's pale-skinned face as she responded. "...Yes, I think I do. Can you two ensure that the rest of their group stays away from the city today?"

    The duo blinked as they shared a look of confusion between themselves. "Um, they're pretty far away as it is, I think. But I suppose we can tail them for the rest of the day, if that's what you mean."

    Alisma nodded quickly at the man's words. "Yes - do it. As for me...it seems it's finally my turn to return to Alola."

    The flamboyantly-haired duo's eyes narrowed on the holo-screen, and they nodded to each other in affirmation. "Understood. This disguise has been getting old, anyway - not to mention, I think that Molayne guy is onto us," the woman remarked.

    "Yes - a prudent time to make our escape."

    Rhodo and Alisma nodded back to them, and the digital screen flickered out of existence a moment later. As the dim light given off by the projection died along with it, the tallest of the four figures in the back of the room stepped up to the pair.

    "Must you continue to do this...?" he remarked, stroking his dark-blue mustache slowly as he spoke. "The Trainers from Alola are not at fault for what happened to our world. I'll ask you again - please, leave them out of this."

    "And every time you ask, I'll give the same answer, Phyco," Rhodo cut back harshly, he and Alisma spinning around on the spot to glower at their subordinates. " We tried things your way last time, and look at how things turned out. The Blinding One went berserk, and we were forced to rely on the Alolans to save us from its wrath."

    He advanced on Phycho sharply as he finished, drawing up in front of him before continuing on. "No...we will not make that mistake again. The future of our world has been entrusted to us, and we will not let it fall to ruin merely for the sake of Alola."

    Phyco held his condescending gaze, but made no effort to argue, knowing full well that it would be a fruitless endeavor. Instead, the next voice to speak up came from the smallest among the group, as she stepped forward beside Phyco.

    "Um...do we really have to do this, Rhodo?" the girl spoke softly, her single, fiery orange braid swaying back and forth as she walked forward. "I really like Alola, you know. I even wanted to go there and try the Island Challenge myself, one day..."

    Rhodo regarded her with stone-cold eyes as Alisma walked up beside him. "I understand your feelings, Zossie, but you know how important our mission is. Isn't that why you became a member of this group in the first place?"

    The young girl nodded hesitantly as the remaining two members of the group formed up next to herself and Phyco. The more masculine of the two placed a hand on Zossie's shoulder tenderly, while the more feminine one resorted to glaring daggers at Rhodo and Alisma.

    "Resent us if you wish, but we are doing what must be done to save Ultra Megalopolis," Rhodo declared brazenly, raising his fist in the air before him. Alisma turned to him and smiled.

    "I should be going now. We don't want to miss an opportunity like this, after all," she spoke plainly. "Which of those children did you end up injuring, anyway?"

    "Mm...one of the girls," Rhodo answered, after a moment's recollection. "The one not from Alola. She was protecting the boy we've spoken of before, the one who seems to emanate light from his very body."

    "Oh...I see," Alisma replied, and she had to stop herself from chuckling at the prospect. "Our pair of spies did say something about those two being close, didn't they? This may work out for us, after all..."

    Rhodo cocked his head slightly, regarding her with a look of confusion before ultimately deciding to trust her judgement, and dismissed her words. Phyco sighed heavily, making no move to stop her as she strode toward the only door leading out of the room. She stopped short for a moment when it slid open, turning back to regard Rhodo one last time.

    "Oh, one more thing. I'll be taking Lunala this time, since Tapu Bulu won't be of any use to us for the time being."

    Rhodo nodded curtly, and she continued out of the open door without another word. Once she was gone, he turned his gaze on Phyco and his three companions.

    "All right - we should go, as well. Time to check on our captives from Alola."


    Bonus points if you can guess who Rhodo and Alisma were talking to, haha. If you can't, well, you'll find out soon enough.

    And now we finally have Sun's introduction. I had hinted at him pretty much since the beginning (or, since Lillie's first appearance, at least), and now he joins the main roster, at last. The plot will certainly accelerate from here on out, so I hope you're all strapped in.

    Also, for those of you who might have missed Serena these last two chapters, don't worry. Now that Ash's side of things has caught back up with hers, you'll be getting some answers regarding what happened to her pretty soon. So make sure you keep reading for that!

    I'll see you guys next time!
     
  15. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Hey, guys. Sorry it's been a while since my last update! I've been a little busy with things lately.

    Also, the forums updated around the time of my last update, and I realized that it messed up the formatting for my old chapters. I'll be going back through and fixing that as I have time. The positive is that the new forum code seems to accept the formatting straight from FF.net now, as opposed to me having to re-edit it after the copy/paste, which is how it used to be. So from here on out, things will be easier as far as uploading them to here, but at the cost of having to go back and fix all my old posts. Meh.

    Anyway, enough of me rambling on. Hope you all enjoy, as usual!


    Chapter 15: Dawn

    Cold.

    That was the only thing Serena was aware of, a numbing, bitter chill, utterly blanketing her senses. Even the ringing pain from her left arm was drowned out by the frigid assault. She hadn't experienced anything like it before; the closest thing to it was the suffocating weight of the cold water off the coast of Shalour City, back in Kalos. Not that she had much time to think about it, and snow continued piling up on her body as she lay there, motionless, unable to do so much as cry out for help.

    She wasn't sure how much time passed after that; it could have been as short as a couple of minutes, or it could have been hours. Either way, the next thing she knew, the terrifyingly chilly cocoon around her body began to melt away, and some semblance of feeling was suddenly restored to her. She opened her eyes, and found a large, mostly white creature, resembling a lion, standing over her protectively.

    It must have been a Pokémon, but she had never seen one like it before. Its body was cloaked in a faint, orange light, and as she stared at it through half-closed eyes, she realized that it wasn't merely causing the cold to recede from her body; it was actually generating heat, as if it were a living furnace. She felt some of the snow that had accumulated on her body begin to melt merely from the proximity of the creature's body, and not long after, she actually felt the distant tingling of warmth begin to seep back into her own skin.

    Once she felt like she had recovered enough of her strength, she finally managed to sit up, sending the remaining tufts of snow that hadn't melted off of her back yet tumbling down to the ground. The lion looked at her without any expression on its face, and she noticed that its forehead looked almost like the night sky; it was a deep purple color, and there appeared to be stars glimmering within it.

    "...Who are you?" Serena murmured at last, rolling her shoulders a few times to loosen them up. When the creature inevitably failed to answer, she produced her Pokédex from her backpack, the one thing she had gratefully managed to bring with her during their escape from the hospital.

    "Solgaleo, the Sunne Pokémon. Solgaleo is said to be the male evolution of Cosmog, and is capable of radiating intense light from the surface of its body. With the activation of its third eye, it is able to open Ultra Wormholes."

    "Solgaleo..." Serena repeated, reaching out a hand to caress it gently. Its skin was warm to the touch, and had a texture akin to metal. She wasn't quite sure what a Cosmog was, but due to the Pokédex's mention of Ultra Wormholes, she assumed that it was rather important. A soft crooning against the arctic wind made her aware of the fact that the large bat-like Pokémon that had brought her to this mountain in the first place was still nesting calmly nearby, and, after regarding it curiously for a moment, swung her Pokédex around to scan it, as well.

    "Lunala, the Moone Pokémon. Lunala is said to be the female evolution of Cosmog, and is capable of absorbing light from the surrounding area into its body. With the activation of its third eye, it is able to open Ultra Wormholes."

    "What? This one, too...?" Serena murmured in wonder, as she stowed away her Pokédex. The similarities between their data entries, coupled with the fact that they were both evolutions of the same Pokémon, led her to believe that something unusual was going on.

    Her train of thought was cut short, however, by another surge of pain from the wound on her left arm. She doubled over in place, clutching the source of the pain tightly.

    "Ah - !"

    As she cried out in pain, Solgaleo's eyes were drawn to the bandage on her arm, clearly visible beneath her short-sleeved hospital shirt. With a soft growl from the back of its throat, almost like a purr, it leaned forward and tapped the bandage with the tip of its nose.

    Serena's eyes widened, and she watched in wonder as a fragment of the faint aura surrounding Solgaleo flowed into her arm, splaying out in all directions upon hitting her bicep before comfortably settling into the aging wound. Almost at once, the pain she was feeling began to dissipate, and the Sunne Pokémon pulled back from her, a satisfied look upon its stoic visage.

    "You...you healed me..." Serena murmured, staring at her bandage in disbelief. She quickly unwrapped it, and sure enough, the skin beneath the wrappings was almost entirely smooth again, save for a tiny, purple scar cutting a half-inch or so down the outside of her arm. And, just like that, she found that the biting weakness she had been feeling throughout her body had evaporated, as well, signifying that the Ultra Beast's poison had truly been cleansed from her body, at last. "Wow...t-thank you, Solgaleo!"

    It answered her with a pleasant-sounding growl, and shifted its gaze over toward Lunala, who was still watching them silently from across the mountainside. Solgaleo began speaking in sounds that were a bit more pronounced than the growls and purrs it had been using to communicate with Serena thus far, and she could only guess from its tone that it was asking something of the Moone Pokémon.

    Lunala retained its silence for a moment longer before replying, its own voice reminding Serena of a underwater sonic wave of sorts; it echoed off the mountain the same as any other bat Pokémon's cry would have, but there was far more to Lunala's voice than a normal Pokémon's, and it had a slight warble to it, as well, offsetting the deep, metallic tone that backed Solgaleo's cries.

    The two continued communicating in this fashion for a time, with Lunala apparently shrugging off whatever Solgaleo was requesting of it. Watching their exchange only increased Serena's suspicion that the two Pokémon were more than they initially seemed, and when she thought back to how their Pokédex entries had both mentioned Ultra Wormholes, she suddenly remembered the urgent information she had been made privy to just before being whisked away from Malie City.

    "Oh, no - ! Ash is in trouble!" she blurted out, fully aware of the fact that no other humans were around to hear her. Solgaleo paused its argument with Lunala, and cocked its head around to the side to glance at her in confusion.

    She stared back at the mysterious Pokémon that had not only saved her from the peril of the elements, but had also healed her rather troublesome wound, not to mention that it, apparently, held some connection to the Ultra Wormholes. An idea began forming in her head at a rapid pace, and, despite how far-fetched it sounded to her, she told herself that she really had no other choice, given her circumstances.

    "Listen, um...Solgaleo," she began slowly, and the Sunne Pokémon held her gaze intently, prodding her to continue. "You're a really strong Pokémon, aren't you? ...I know it's probably rude of me to ask this, but...I really need your help."


    Ash and the others found it difficult to get much sleep after their encounter with Tapu Bulu in the middle of the night, but they all stayed in their beds for most of the morning, regardless. Despite being the one running on the least amount of sleep of them all, Sun was actually the first one awake; he didn't feel comfortable leaving Tapu Bulu collapsed outside the building unsupervised for so long, and so ended up making his way back outside to keep an eye on it as soon as he'd rested up enough.

    Ash, Brock, and Guzma, on the other hand, slept in a good deal longer than Sun did, as well as Acerola, who was now sharing a room with the boys for the time being, given the giant hole that had been blown in her wall the previous night. None of them awoke from their hard-earned slumber until the afternoon sun was already high in the sky, and the meal that they ate after showering might as well have been called lunch instead of breakfast.

    When they finally made their way back outside to convene with Sun - after checking on Tupp, Rapp, and Zipp, who were still being guarded under the watchful eye of Oranguru - they saw him checking a device in his hands that Ash thought looked similar to Serena's electronic guide, with Tapu Bulu nowhere to be found.

    "Oh - mornin', everyone. Or, I guess it's afternoon, now, heh," Sun greeted warmly, upon noticing their arrival. He folded up his guide and stowed it in his pocket as they drew up closer to him. Guzma cocked an eyebrow at the small crater that marked the spot where Tapu Bulu had been knocked out the night before, noting the absence of the Island Guardian.

    "Good morning!" Acerola replied, beaming at him cheerily. "Hey, how long've you been out here, anyway? I thought you would've been the most tired one of us all, Sun."

    Sun chuckled at her question, and scratched the back of his neck in embarrassment as he gave his answer. "Yeah, I'm sort of runnin' on fumes right now, to tell the truth. But I was worried about just leaving Tapu Bulu out here like that, even if we did defeat it. I've been checking into some other things, too...you know, just trying to catch up on stuff."

    Acerola nodded at his words, but Guzma didn't look satisfied, and walked up to him with his hands splayed on his hips accusingly. "Yeah, speakin' of the Tapu - what happened to it, huh? I don't see it anywhere."

    Ash and Brock blinked at his question, only just now realizing that the Legendary Pokémon's body had vanished from the area while they were asleep.

    "Hey, you're right," Brock agreed curiously, putting a hand to his chin. "Sun, do you know what happened to it? If it got away, we might have more trouble on our hands."

    All parties looked up at Sun, their faces practically begging him for an answer. He met all of their gazes adamantly, and frowned nervously as he began to speak.

    "Well..." Sun began slowly. "It actually woke up a little while after I got out here this morning. It didn't seem like it wanted to fight anymore, but somethin' was definitely off about it...I dunno how to explain it. It's like its aura was...dark, or something. Anyway, with the way things have apparently been goin' around here, I figured we'd rather be safe than sorry...so...I captured it."

    Ash's other thoughts shrunk away as Sun produced an Ultra Ball from his backpack as evidence of his claim. "You - what?!"

    Sun met his eyes uncertainly, as if the prospect of catching a Legendary Pokémon wasn't all that big of a deal to him. "Well...yeah. I mean, I'll release it as soon as all this is over with - but, like you said, we can't just leave it runnin' around Ula'ula Island on its own."

    "You did what?!" Guzma boomed incredulously, channeling his extreme disbelief through his voice as he edged right up next to Sun and shoved his face toward him. "I mean...you can't just...this is the Tapu we're talkin' about, here!"

    "Weren't you the one whining about how the Tapu have been running around attacking people for the last few weeks just last night?" Acerola cut in, planting her hands on her hips and shifting her eyes toward Guzma suspiciously. "It sounds like Sun did the right thing to me. I can't believe he actually caught it, though..."

    "Yeah, I think it was still pretty weak from the battle with all of us," Sun explained, examining the black and yellow patterned capsule in hand uncertainly. "After it woke up, it just sorta looked around for a while, like it was confused, or didn't know where it was. I didn't even try battlin' it again - I just threw an Ultra Ball at it, and it went right in."

    He shrugged, and stowed the capsule away in his bag. "Like I said, I don't plan on keeping it. Legendary Pokémon like that shouldn't be used by Trainers, if you ask me."

    "Yeah, I think so, too," Ash remarked with an affirmative nod. Sun caught his eye and smiled back at him.

    "So, what are you actually doin' out here, anyway?" Guzma growled at Sun harshly. "I mean, we're kinda outta the way a bit for you to just be runnin' into us on accident. 'Specially since you're supposed to be in Johto right now."

    Sun nodded, confirming Guzma's suspicions. "It wasn't an accident. I came back to Alola, because...well, because the Professor asked me to, basically. And...because I realized that I might've made a mistake by leaving."

    "Tch," Guzma spat in disgust. "Real easy of you to say that now."

    "Yeah, I get it, all right?" Sun shot back heatedly. "Look, I haven't really figured everything out, yet. When all this is over, maybe I'll just go back to Johto, after all, if that's what makes everyone happy. But for now, I'm here, and I think you guys need my help."

    Guzma turned away from him, cursing at him under his breath, but Acerola stepped forward graciously instead. "Yeah, I think we do, too. Do you...know...what's been going on while you were gone?"

    Sun's face fell at her words. "Yeah, Acey, I do. Professor Kukui told me everything. Don't worry...I won't let them take you. Or Nanu, or Hapu, or anyone else still here in Alola. And we'll save everyone they took, too."

    Acerola smiled at his words of encouragement as Ash and Brock stepped forward beside her. "Well, hey - I'm Ash, and this is Pikachu."

    "And I'm Brock - we're both from Kanto. We're the ones who got Professor Kukui's other requests for help."

    Sun nodded at both of them respectively, but then he frowned, as if suddenly remembering something that didn't quite add up. "Wait, though...if you're the ones that the Professor was talkin' about, then...shouldn't there be one more Trainer with you? And Lillie's supposed to be with you guys, too..."

    This time, it was Ash's turn to frown, though his face darkened quite a bit more than Sun's had at the change in expression. "Yeah. We know Lilllie - she's back in Malie City right now, though."

    Sun looked at him expectantly for an answer, but when he failed to provide one, his gaze shifted to Brock, who sighed before explaining the situation in Ash's place.

    "That other Trainer that's supposed to be with us - her name's Serena, and she's Ash's girlfriend. See...we fought against one of the Ultra Recon Squad in Malie City a few days ago, and that guy ended up poisoning Serena with an attack from an Ultra Beast. She's been in the hospital ever since then."

    Ash nodded in confirmation at his words, as Sun's shocked eyes darted back and forth between them in surprise. "That's why Lillie stayed behind - she promised she'd keep an eye on Serena for me."

    "I see..." Sun murmured, his mind racing to process the information he'd just been given. "If it poisoned her that badly, it musta been a Nihilego. Their attacks are pretty nasty. I guess it wasn't as easy as just givin' her some generic antidote?"

    Ash shook his head. "No - the doctor said we had to find another Ultra Beast, and use that to create the antivenom."

    "Yeah...that makes sense, I guess." Sun looked away from his fellow Trainer, a guilty look crossing his face. "Sorry about that. If I'd've been here sooner, your girlfriend probably wouldn't've gotten hurt like that."

    Ash looked at his face, turned away in shame, and managed a small smile at him. "Hey...it's not your fault. We've just gotta make sure we take care of those Ultra Recon guys next time, right? ...Thanks for saying that, though."

    Sun looked back at him, and, after a moment of contemplation, returned Ash's smile with one of his own. Acerola grinned as well at the sight of the two of them getting along, and, remembering something she had meant to ask him earlier, decided to speak up. "Hey, Sun, you flew in here on a Charizard last night, didn't you? Does that mean you've been to Paniola Town already?"

    "Huh? Oh, no," Sun began with a bit of a chuckle, producing a Poke Ball from his backpack as he spoke. "Kiawe actually gave me this one as a gift, complete with the saddle and everything, a little while before I left for Johto. He said that it was special, since it hatched as a Charmander around the time I started my Island Challenge."

    "Oh..."

    Acerola's disappointed reply came out almost as a whimper. Sun regarded her somber expression seriously for a moment before shifting gears entirely; he turned to the others, a determined look on his face, and began speaking a bit more seriously.

    "All right, so what's our plan? You guys were headin' over to find Nanu next, weren't you?"

    "Yeah," Brock confirmed with a sharp nod. "We were supposed to find Acerola and Nanu, and bring them both back to Malie City to meet back up with Lillie and Serena."

    "Right...well, I can help you out with that. Charizard can fly a whole lot faster than we can walk - especially since you've gotta cross to the other side of the island to hit Route 16. Even if you found a road, it'd take a while to drive around the long way."

    "What about Acerola?" Ash asked, trying to remember the carrying capacity of his own Charizard. "Can Charizard carry all of us that far?"

    "Umm..." Sun murmured, appearing uncertain of the answer himself. He scratched the back of his head in embarrassment, taking a few moments to think before answering. "Y'know, I'm not sure. I've never really flown with anyone else before."

    He blinked, deliberating over the matter for a moment longer in his head before cracking open Charizard's Ball with a cry of, "Charizard, come on out!"

    With a flash of light, the Flame Pokémon burst into being beside them, saddle and all, with a middling growl. Sun eyed the seat of the saddle carefully before finally coming to a conclusion. "Looks like it'd fit about three of us. Maybe four, if the fourth is someone small, like Acey."

    Charizard eyed him warily, as if it were a bit uncomfortable at being scrutinized so closely all of a sudden. Guzma took a couple of steps toward Sun, his arms crossed, though his face was neutral. "So, basically what you're sayin' is, there ain't any room for me."

    Sun turned back to face him, a stoic expression on his face. "Doesn't look like it."

    The two held at each other, their silent gazes not wavering in the slightest. Ash and Brock glanced back and forth between the two nervously, and even Pikachu uttered a worried "Pi-kaa..." amidst the silence.

    "Yo, listen up," Guzma grunted sharply at last, clearly still uncomfortable about cooperating with Sun. "I'm gonna head on back to Malie City with those three idiots in there. I'll drop them off with the police, then I'll hang out with Lillie 'till you guys get back with Nanu. Sound good?"

    "Yeah, that'll work, I guess," Sun remarked plainly, as Acerola walked up to the older man with a frown.

    "I'm going with you, too," she spoke up defiantly, much to the surprise of Ash, Brock, and Sun. Guzma, on the other hand, merely looked at down at her quizzically, and responded to her statement rather flatly.

    "Why do you wanna go back with me? Wouldn't you be safer with Ash and the others?"

    Acerola's brow furrowed, appearing a bit annoyed that he was even arguing with her. "You have to be able to fit Uncle Nanu on Charizard, as well, right?" she reasoned, wagging her index finger in the air as she spoke. "I'll be all right. Don't worry about me - you guys just make sure you find him, okay?"

    She turned to regard Ash, Brock, and Sun as she finished speaking, making her earnest request plain to them as she did so. They nodded back to her in agreement, and Guzma groaned loudly.

    "All right, all right. Come on, then, squirt, let's get goin', already!" he barked impatiently. Chuckling at his demeanor, Sun climbed into Charizard's saddle first, prompting Brock and then Ash to follow, respectively. They quickly waved good-bye to Guzma and Acerola, and then, with a mighty flap of Charizard's wings, they were off, climbing high into the sky as they cleared the edge of the cliff and began sailing over the sea beyond it.

    The trio remained relatively silent for the initial leg of the trip, partially due to Sun being a new acquaintance for Ash and Brock, but before too long, Ash's natural curiosity got the better of him, and he began speaking to Sun in earnest.

    "So...you're Sun, huh?" Ash began, peering at Sun curiously from the corner of his eye. "Wow. I can't believe the Champion of Alola is someone around my age!"

    "You should've guessed that from what Lillie told us about him," Brock remarked, giving Ash a hopeless look from over his shoulder.

    Sun looked behind him for a moment, catching their eyes briefly before turning back to face forward. "Aw, bein' the Champion isn't really a big deal. It happened kinda on accident, to tell you the truth...Speaking of Lillie, though, what did she say about me, anyway?"

    Ash and Brock shared an uncertain look before Brock decided to take the lead. "Well...she never seemed to stop talking about you, for one thing. And she kept telling us how great of a Trainer you are."

    Sun refrained from answering back right away. If Brock's answer had elicited any kind of reaction out of him, he certainly wasn't letting them see it. A few moments passed in silence before he finally elected to answer back.

    "Nah, that's not how it is...not really. She's the incredible one...When I first met her, she was so terrified of Pokémon that she couldn't even touch them. But even so, she wouldn't give up on traveling around the islands and protecting Nebby."

    Ash and Brock glanced at each other in confusion at the name. Ash almost spoke up and asked who it was, but thought better of it in the end, and instead decided to merely keep listening in silence.

    "Even though we were on different journeys, we kept running into each other, over and over...And, when we did, her smiling face always seemed to give me strength."

    "So, why did you leave?"

    Brock's abrupt question cut through the serenity of Sun's recollection like a knife. Ash was surprised at the forwardness of his friend, but continued to remain silent as Sun squirmed in place, trying to come up with an answer.

    "Seems to me like you two had feelings for each other. So why didn't you take her with you?"

    Brock's second question hit Sun just as hard as the first, and he faltered for a moment before spinning around in a huff and answering, "Because - I didn't want to be Champion. I still don't. I wanted me and my Pokémon to go off and see other parts of the world, and to get stronger along the way. But...I don't think that's what Lillie wanted."

    "I don't know if she's mentioned this, but she has a brother named Gladion. He left for Kanto while I was still in Alola, to go on a journey of his own there. And when he did, it tore Lillie up inside. She didn't really show it, but I could tell...she missed him."

    "Yeah, I like her...I mean, I guess I do. I dunno about all that stuff - but, she's important to me. I couldn't bring myself to tell her that, only to leave like her brother did. And I don't think she wanted to leave Alola. So...I left for Johto, without telling her."

    Ash was silent, unwilling to cast any judgement on Sun for his actions. He could certainly understand what it was like to feel as though holding back your true feelings would only hurt the other person in the end. It was only during the last few days that he had finally convinced himself to be fully open with Serena about his own feelings (or at least, what he thought was being fully open).

    "But you are the Champion here, whether you want to be or not, right?" Brock remarked gruffly. "Don't you think it was a little irresponsible to just up and leave like that?"

    "'Course I did," Sun admitted with a laugh, and scratched back of his neck nervously. "But that didn't stop me from doin' it. I guess I just couldn't fight the pull of another journey."

    Brock laughed as well, shaking his head despite himself. "Where have I heard that one before? You sure sound an awful lot like Ash."

    "You think?" Sun replied, sparing a glance over his shoulder at his Kantonian equivalent.

    "Yeah," Brock confirmed with a nod. "Listen, Sun, I'm not here to cast judgement on you. Let me just give you some advice...and, actually, this is something I've been meaning to tell you, too, Ash."

    Ash perked up when he heard Brock include him in the audience, and leaned his head ever so slightly closer to his older friend to ensure that he heard what he was about to say.

    "Both of you - make sure you don't lose sight of what you really want," Brock said simply. "Sun, I don't know you all that well yet, but I do know Lillie. If she's as important to you as you are to her, then I think you need to think long and hard about where you want to go when all this is over. Remember, you only get one chance with these kinds of things. Don't waste it because you're too scared to say anything."

    Sun blinked at the older boy and nodded, as if beginning to realize for the first time how wise Brock actually was. Brock, seeming satisfied with that reply, turned his head over his shoulder to regard Ash.

    "And Ash, the same goes for you. I know Serena agreed to come out here with you, but I want you to think for a minute about what your futures look like. Do you really want this to be the way it is, forever? Not every region you go to is going to have a way for Serena to perform. And not every place that has performances is going to have a Pokémon League for you. If you really feel the way you say you do about her, you need to start thinking about what you're going to do from here on out."

    Ash stared at the back of his friend's head, unsure of how to respond. None of what Brock was saying was news to him; he had been worried about where their futures would lead and what it would mean for their relationship ever since the conclusion of the Lumiose Conference. He knew that he had made the vague promise with Serena that they would stay together no matter where their paths took them from here, but her happiness was more important to him than simply fulfilling a promise was.

    He remembered that Clemont had told him on their last night together that her happiness was now tied to being together with him, but he knew her better than that. No matter how much she loved him, she had a dream of her own that she undoubtedly still wanted to fulfill one day. And he wasn't sure she would be able to do that, not if she was stuck going with him on his Pokémon journey for the rest of the foreseeable future.

    Ash ran his hands through his hair in frustration, unable to produce any level of response for Brock. Pikachu looked up at him sadly and chirped a small "Chaa..." at him before the older trainer turned and placed a reassuring hand on the boy's shoulder.

    "Hey, I didn't mean to make you lose your mind over it or anything," Brock remarked lightheartedly. "Just...think about it, okay? You both deserve to be happy - that's all I'm saying."

    Ash nodded back at him uncertainly, bringing back the awkward silence that had initially covered their group. They didn't exchange any more words for the remainder of their trip, which only felt like an hour or two to Ash. In no time at all, they had reached the other side of the bay, and, after flying over a small forest that seemed to encircle a flowery meadow, they reached a relatively flat, open area with only a single road cutting through the grass below. They followed it for a short time until they saw a lone building, situated about a half-mile or so from the nearby town, which appeared to have a wall constructed around its perimeter.

    Charizard came in low next to the structure, a run-down, graffiti-covered police station that appeared to be abandoned. The paint on the outside of the building was peeling off, and Ash couldn't spy any vehicles parked outside, leading to the impression of an empty building that was well past its prime. The Flame Pokémon landed outside the station all the same, and, following Sun's lead, Ash and Brock climbed down from its back.

    "Are you sure we've got the right place?" Brock asked skeptically, examining the run-down exterior of the so-called police station with a disbelieving look on his face.

    "Yeah, this is it, all right," Sun assured him without hesitation. When he reached the front door of the building, he pulled it open and stepped inside without a second thought, prompting Ash and Brock to follow suit. Once inside, they were greeted with a large, single room interior, populated almost entirely with cubicles spread across the floor. All of the desks were empty save the nearest one to them, which held an aging man with dark hair that was streaked with gray, who looked up at them gruffly as they entered.

    "Oh, look who it is," the man grunted halfheartedly. His face was lined with thin wrinkles, and he wore a short-sleeved jacket with what must have been a police emblem stamped on the shoulders. Around his neck was a dark, black crystal that Ash recognized as a Z-Crystal, and strapped to his wrist was a matching Z-Ring. "Have you come back from your journey, or whatever it was, then?"

    A mewling sound drew Ash's attention away for a moment, and he noticed the building's only other occupants scurrying around on the floor: a group of about half a dozen gray Meowth. Under normal circumstances, he probably would have produced his Pokedex and scanned them, but as he was now, he was too distracted by what Brock had said to him on the flight over, not to mention the fact that he was still no closer to finding a cure for Serena.

    "Good to see you, too, Nanu," Sun sighed, though he didn't appear fazed by the man's gruff demeanor. "Listen, we need you to come back to Malie City with us. It's too dangerous for you to stay out here by yourself right now."

    Nanu stood up from his desk, causing most of the Meowth to look up at him curiously. "Oh. You don't say? I was just about to head there, myself."

    Sun stopped short, his eyes wide. "Really? It's not really like you to head into the city. What's up?"

    Nanu stepped out from behind his desk, revealing his odd choice of wearing sandals along with his dark-colored jeans. "Well, just before you kids got here, I got a message from the police over in the city. Doesn't happen all that often, but they ask for help from time to time."

    Sun shared a look of concern with Ash and Brock. They all knew that Serena and Lillie were still back in Malie City, and even though there shouldn't have been any reason for the two girls to be targeted by their enemies, they still couldn't help but worry.

    "And? What was it for?"

    Nanu met Sun's eyes, and he took a deep breath before answering.

    "This call sounds like I've got to answer it, whether I want to or not. Seems there's a member of the Ultra Recon Squad running loose in Malie City."


    "What's up? Where are those twerps heading now?"

    "They appear to be heading back toward Malie City. I thought it would've taken them longer to find that old coot, to be honest."

    "Headin' back to da city?! Den we gotta stop 'em, and quick!"

    The lavender-haired man lowered his binoculars and glanced down at his talking Pokémon companion, who was currently clinging to the inside of their balloon basket, his body suspended directly above the small spy drone that had previously been keeping tabs on Ash and his friends sat. "Yes, I concur. Those Ultra Recon fellows gave us strict instructions to keep the twerps away from the city, until they give us further instructions."

    His crimson-haired companion frowned and crossed her arms, her long, styled hair billowing in the breeze. "Why do we have to listen to those clowns, anyway, James? It was bad enough that we had to act as that Molayne guy's assistants for so long, and now this?"

    "You know our orders came straight from the boss, himself, Jess," James reasoned calmly, redirecting the trajectory of their hot air balloon, which was shaped like the head of a Meowth, to follow after Charizard as he spoke.

    "Yeah, and originally, those orders were to infiltrate Alola and help take it over," Jessie moaned, capping off her remark with a sigh. "But so far, all we've done is old-fashioned busy work that reeks of the old days. If I ever have to lift one more crate of computer parts, it'll be too soon."

    "Hey, I don't particularly like any of this, either, you know," James argued, a touch of annoyance in his voice. "But you can be sure they'll be a big payday waiting for us, once Alola is firmly in Team Rocket's control, so we've no choice but to stay the course!"

    Jessie looked over at him silently, seeming to contemplate his words. James held her gaze for a moment, the tension between them taut like a cord. He could never tell whether she was about to blow up at him, or simply relent and agree, and this instance was no different.

    "Hey, dere is one ting dat's different's dis time," Meowth remarked, releasing his grip on the edge of the basket, and letting his body fall to the bottom. His words served to ease the tension in the air between his two human companions. "We got dose two other idiots to outdo! Usually it's just da three of us on our own, but now we've got sometin to prove!"

    "Huh...?" Jessie murmured absentmindedly, apparently not quite understanding who Meowth was referring to. When she seemed to remember a moment later, her eyes shot open wide, and a fire overtook them the likes of which James and Meowth rarely saw. "That's right - how did I forget about them! There's no way we're letting them outdo us this time! Everyone, full speed ahead!"

    "Aye-aye..." James sighed submissively, and he looked to the horizon, even as Charizard and its company of four riders sailed off into the distance before them.


    "Still no sign of her? ...All right, continue your search. Let me know as soon as you find anything!"

    The blue-haired, uniform-clad Officer Jenny released the transmit button on her handheld radio, and clipped the device onto the belt strapped around her waist. She turned back to Lillie, undeterred by the fact that her target was continuing to elude capture.

    "Sorry...it looks like we still haven't found anything yet," Jenny explained, causing Lillie to immediately shake her head in response.

    "No, don't be sorry! It isn't your fault," Lillie remarked encouragingly, eliciting a small smile from the officer's lips. "We'll keep looking, too. She has to be around here, somewhere..."

    Officer Jenny spared a glance at the Trumbeak and Vulpix that were waiting patiently beside the young Trainer, and she nodded to the three of them. "All right. But, I'm telling you the same thing I told my men - if you find anything, let me know right away, okay?"

    Lillie nodded back to her and assured her that she would, at which point the officer swung around to face forward again on her bike, slid the kickstand back, and took off down the street with a loud groan from the engine. Lillie watched her go for a moment before turning to her Pokémon, a determined look in her eyes.

    "All right, we can't give up! Trumbeak, keep flying around and see if you can find her. She looks pretty different from how normal people look, so you should be able to tell her apart from everyone else...I think."

    Trumbeak nodded at her commands and took to the sky with a large beat of its wings. Once it was gone, she turned to Snowy, and clenched her fists in front of her chest.

    "Come on, Snowy. Let's keep looking, too!"

    The soft white-colored Vulpix chirped in affirmation at her words, and the two of them took off once again down the street, eagerly searching for any trace of their target. Alisma had managed to get away from her in the aftermath of Serena and Lunala's departure, and, even with the aid of the police, she was proving to be quite difficult to track down again.

    As the pair passed by a gap in the buildings along the side of the street, however, a small, hovering figure suddenly lurched forward out of the shadows. It was poised for a strike at Lillie's back, and the girl hadn't noticed it rising from the alleyway beside her -

    "Pix!" Snowy cried suddenly, leaping into the air to meet the attack head-on with the aid of the teal-colored force field of Protect. Lillie spun around in surprise as the small, blade-shaped Pokémon she recognized as Kartana was thrown back into the shadows of the alleyway.

    "Snowy...?!" she gasped, just as her partner landed deftly back on the ground. It was glaring into the alley viciously, prompting Lillie to follow its eyes expectantly, even though she couldn't see anyone there besides Kartana. "Who's there?! Come out where I can see you!"

    A moment of silence passed, and then the familiar form of Alisma emerged from the darkness, wearing a twisted smile on her face as she did so. "That's too bad...I was hoping to be able to dispose of you quietly. You're just like the other one...no light to speak of within you. You're of no use to us..."

    Lillie frowned, her face taking on similar features as that of her Pokémon partner. "Is that really all that's important to you? Gathering light for Necrozma...is it really worth all of this - ?"

    "Be quiet!" Alisma snapped at her, her smile vanishing at once. "Don't you presume to know anything about what we've gone through! You, who live so peacefully off the secondhand remains of our Blinding One, have no right to speak about it!"

    "What happened to the others, then?" Lillie cried, taking a step toward the woman assertively. "Where's Captain Phyco and his friends? They didn't want this for Alola back then - they were willing to cooperate with us!"

    Alisma's eyes narrowed at the mention of her former superior officer. "Phyco and his team are no longer in charge. That's all you need to know."

    "But - "

    "That's enough!" Alisma growled ferociously, gesturing to her Pokémon. "I won't negotiate with you, Alolan. We will restore our world - and you're standing in our way! Kartana, use Leaf Blade!"

    The small Ultra Beast surged forward at once, a pair of green energy blades manifesting from its arms as it went. Lillie flinched, the short distance between herself and Kartana allowing no time for Snowy to intervene.

    "Trrrrum!" came the rolling cry of Trumbeak, however, just as it swooped down from the air to meet Kartana's attack with one of its own. Both of its wings were glowing, saturated with energy, and they clashed with Kartana's blades for a moment before managing to repel it entirely.

    "Trumbeak!" Lillie exclaimed gratefully.

    Alisma clenched her fists angrily, and thrust her hand out toward the now-three of them. "Kartana, use Vacuum Wave on Trumbeak, now!"

    "Trumbeak, dodge it and use Rock Smash again!" Lillie called, prompting her Pokémon to launch itself forward at once. It circled around the nigh-invisible wave of air that was streaking toward it before closing in on Kartana, its wings once again cloaked in white energy. Lillie still wasn't sure what Type the Ultra Beast was, but she reasoned that Rock Smash had been effective enough the first time around, and so it was probably worth using again.

    Meanwhile, the Vacuum Wave attack zipped past Lillie, blowing her ponytail to the side as it continued across the street before finally crashing into a building on the other side. Lillie turned to follow its path and found a man standing just to the side of the blast zone, apparently paralyzed in fear from the near-collision with the attack.

    "Use Detect!" Alisma ordered at once, snapping Lillie back to the battle at hand. She turned back just in time to witness Kartana nimbly dodge Trumbeak's attack at the last second before impact, causing the bird Pokémon to overshoot its velocity and continue on down the alleyway. "Now, use Leaf Blade!"

    "Dodge it again, Trumbeak, then use Rock Smash!"

    Both of them watched frantically as Kartana and Trumbeak traded blows back and forth in midair, neither of them quite able to gain the upper hand against their opponent. Even Snowy stood watching with baited breath, waiting for Lillie to call for its own opportunity to enter the battle.

    "Hey!" an unfamiliar voice rang from across the street. "Battling in the streets isn't allowed!"

    Lillie was forced to turn around to find the source of the voice. It was the man who had almost been struck by Kartana's Vacuum Wave. He was standing at the edge of the sidewalk on the other side of the street, an indignant expression on his face as he shouted at Lillie and Alisma.

    "I'm sorry, sir, but this isn't what it looks like!" Lillie explained frantically. "Please, go and find Officer Jenny, or anyone from the police!"

    "What?" the man replied, his indignance giving way to confusion in an instant. "You wanna turn yourself in - ?"

    "Please!" Lillie insisted, fully aware that her attention was being diverted at a time when she really couldn't afford for it to. "It's important!"

    The man continued staring back at her, not sure whether or not to take her request seriously, until a biting cry came from Alisma, further down the alleyway, at which point he took off running down the street.

    "Kartana, use Sacred Sword!"

    Lillie spun back around in shock at the woman's command, but it was too late. Trumbeak had already been caught on the edge of a massive, blue blade of energy that was being projected from Kartana's right arm. As the Ultra Beast finished its swing, Trumbeak went sailing down through the air toward Lillie.

    "Trumbeak!" Lillie cried out, as the Bugle Beak Pokémon crashed into the ground before her from the force of the attack. Alisma's eyes immediately shifted to Snowy, not wasting any time in turning to her next target.

    "Use Sacred Sword, once again!"

    Lillie gritted her teeth, and her fists clenched subconsciously as she cried out, "Snowy, use Protect, quick!"

    Snowy indeed stood its ground as the Ultra Beast's arms sliced through the air toward it, only just managing to project its protective force field around its body before the attack made contact. The teal-colored orb succeeded in repelling the attack, though not without a significant effort from Snowy. Alisma swung her hand out toward the small Fox Pokémon.

    "It's useless, don't you see? Kartana, use Sacred Sword, once more!"

    Kartana didn't even bother retracting the energy blades projected by its attack; instead, it merely raised its arms over its head, and smoothly transitioned from the first set of attacks into the second. Lillie knew that there was almost no chance of Protect working a second time, nor were there any attacks she could call that would effectively put some distance between the two Pokémon. She opened her mouth to cry out for her partner, but before any sound came out, an enormous blast of white energy slammed into Kartana from the side, knocking it away like a rag doll and momentarily blanketing the area in a cloud of smog.

    "What?!" Alisma cursed as the smoke cleared, looking to the sky to see where the attack had come from. Lillie followed her eyes, and what she saw, sailing toward them through the air, was something she almost couldn't believe - which was saying something, giving all of the surprising events that had taken place that day already.

    A deafening roar filled the air a moment later, just as the owner of the attack landed on the ground mightily. Lillie felt tears brimming in her eyes, and quickly blinked them away before shouting out the creature's name for all to hear - a name she had given it, herself, once upon a time.

    "Nebby!"

    Alisma looked at the metallic lion strangely as it glowered at them. And then, the girl mounted on its back smiled wide, and returned Lillie's greeting with gusto.

    "Lillie! Are you okay?!"

    Lillie blinked and looked up at Serena, who was holding tightly onto Solgaleo's mane. She hadn't even registered that the girl had been there at first. "S-Serena? How did you...?"

    "Don't ask me. Solgaleo, here, is the one that saved me! It even healed my wound from that Ultra Beast - I think the poison's gone now!"

    Alisma gritted her teeth in frustration, just as Lillie smiled back at her two friends. "Nebby saved you...? Wait, Nebby healed you?!"

    "Nebby...?" Serena repeated, clearly not understanding the nickname.

    "Where did you find Solgaleo?!" Alisma spat angrily, interrupting their exchange. "We've searched for it at length here in Alola, and yet turned up nothing!"

    Solgaleo glowered at the woman menacingly as Serena jumped down off its back. "It found me, up on that mountain Lunala teleported me to!"

    "It couldn't have been that simple!" Alisma insisted.

    "It found you on Mount Lanakila?" Lillie repeated, looking at Nebby in surprise. "It must have been in the area, and sensed Lunala's presence...I can't believe it!"

    Alisma ground her teeth together as Kartana circled around her, patiently waiting for another command. "And where is Lunala now, then?!"

    "Do you really think I'll tell you that?!" Serena shot back angrily, trying to ignore the sharp cold of the concrete on her bare feet. "You were going to kidnap me, and use me to get to Ash! I'll never help you - Braixen, I choose you!"

    "Braaaixen!" the Fox Pokémon sang gracefully, emerging into the mouth of the alleyway in a flash of light. It surveyed the situation at once, and pulled its wand out of its tail with a flourish, preparing to attack.

    "Trumbeak, return," Lillie murmured quickly, taking a moment to regard its Poke Ball gratefully before stowing it away in her bag, and turning her attention back to the upcoming battle. Now that Serena had miraculously returned, not to mention the surprise appearance of Nebby, she felt more confident than ever in their chances.

    Alisma must have felt the shift in the odds as well, for she actually took a cautionary step back. "Why...? Why does fate always seem to favor you?"

    "Maybe because we're not trying to hurt people?!" Serena shot back at once. Her response, however, only seemed to enrage Alisma further.

    "You have no idea how many of our people have suffered already!" she spat. Before either of them had a chance to respond, however, a strange beeping went off from somewhere on Alisma' suit, and her eyes widened.

    "Oh...but, perhaps I spoke too soon," she remarked with a smile. "Look behind you, Trainers. Let's see what you make of fate, this time."

    Serena and Lillie shared a confused glance, and they turned, only to find an Ultra Wormhole swirling into existence a few yards away, right in the middle of the road. Lillie held her ground, swallowing audibly in anticipation of whatever was on the other side. She felt Serena, who must have been watching the same thing, reach over and grab her hand worriedly, a gesture which Lillie returned.

    What emerged from the wormhole a moment later was nothing like what Serena had been expecting. A gigantic, black, armored creature, with skin shining like crystal, and arms almost disproportionately large for its body, hovered forward into real-space, with Rhodo jumping down from its back as soon as it had cleared the wormhole.

    Serena knew she had never seen the creature before, but simply being in its presence seemed to drain the energy out of her, and she knew at once that this was the Blinding One that Rhodo and Alisma had been referring to all this time. Her deduction was confirmed by Lillie a second later, as the blonde shouted out the creature's name for all to hear, her voice cracking amidst her fear and disbelief.

    "No, it can't be...that's Necrozma!"

    Rhodo grinned wickedly as he walked toward them, the Ultra Wormhole blinking out of existence behind him. "Yes, it is. Behold, Alolans, for the Blinding One has come for you at last."

    Serena continued staring, silenced by her own shock, as Lillie continued to take the lead in their exchange. "But...she said that it wasn't fully restored yet. She said you still needed Ash, or at least the rest of the Captains!"

    Rhodo glanced over at Alisma, who returned his neutral gaze with one of her own. "It seems as though my partner has been talking too much. But it doesn't matter. It is true that Necrozma has not yet been restored to its full capacity...but it is also true that I've grown tired of toying with you Alolans. I will not subject my world to even one more day of suffering while you all live peacefully in this one. Necrozma's power now is sufficient to take whatever else it needs to be fully restored - and we've come to do just that."

    His eyes drifted over the faces of the two girls, and something almost like disappointment crossed his own visage. "The boy is still missing, then? And I don't suspect you'll tell me where I can find the remaining Captains..."

    "Of course not!" Serena blurted out instinctively. "We'll never help you!"

    "No matter," Rhodo responded, as if he'd been expecting her denial. He looked down at an indicator on his wrist, and then returned his gaze to Serena. "I think we've got all we need right here."

    "Do you really think she has enough, Rhodo?" Alisma argued. "The boy undoubtedly has more light within him than any of the others...especially this girl."

    "Yes, you're correct...but again, the boy is not here. She will do just fine - and, if it truly isn't enough to complete Necrozma's revival, well...I'm sure he'll come running when he learns what we've done to her. That was your plan originally, wasn't it?"

    Alisma smiled wickedly at his words, and he turned back to face Lillie and Serena. Their Pokémon readied themselves for battle, and Rhodo swept his hand out before them in a grandiose manner.

    "Now go, Necrozma! Take back what belongs to you!"
     
    Last edited: May 2, 2018
  16. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Chapter 16: Blinding Clash in Malie City
    A sharp current of air cut through the mountain range that dominated most of the island's surface, disrupting the otherwise pleasant view afforded to the four riders now sailing through the area. Their mount beat its wings and heaved mightily against the wind, struggling to maintain its speed with the additional level of weight resting on its back.

    "Keep it up, Charizard! We're almost there!"

    Sun's words of encouragement urged the Flame Pokémon onwards, and it raised its head against the back-draft defiantly before pressing forward through the turbulence.

    Nanu's body rocked to the side , and his hips bucked up against the edge of the saddle. "Sorry. I guess I'm weighing you guys down."

    "Come on, don't say that," Brock spoke, fighting for his voice to remain audible over the rush of the wind blowing around them. "We couldn't have left you behind even if we wanted to."

    Nanu stared back at him for a few seconds in silence before finally cracking a small smile, a gesture which Brock returned.

    As the distinctive skyline of Malie City came into view over the horizon, Ash's eyes were drawn toward the numerous low-rise buildings lining the streets. "So, what do you guys think is going on down there?"

    "It's probably Rhodo. He didn't seem happy about how we ganged up on him last time," Brock deduced carefully, looking down at the city with a discerning eye. "I wouldn't be surprised if he came back looking for a fight with us."

    Sun glanced over his shoulder at Brock, and his expression reminded Ash that the Alolan Champion had a history of some sort with the Ultra Recon Squad. "Rhodo...That's the guy who attacked your girlfriend, right, Ash?"

    "Yeah, it sure is," Ash replied with a nod, looking back at the boy quizzically. "Why? Do you know him or something?"

    Sun shook his head thoughtfully. "No...and that's what kinda worries me. I thought we were on good terms with the Ultra Recon Squad, the last time I saw 'em. But back then, it was a different group, led by a guy named Phyco. I dunno who these new ones are."

    "Phyco?" Brock repeated, the name ringing a bell from some distant corner of his memory. "I think Rhodo mentioned him, when he was arguing with Lillie that time...she was saying some of the same stuff that you are, but Rhodo shut her down, and said that Phyco isn't in charge any more."

    Sun's face darkened at his words. "That's not good. It took me months to get Phyco and his team on our side - if they're not callin' the shots any more, then this Rhodo guy must really have it out for Alola."

    Just as Charizard swooped low over the outskirts of the city, a sudden rain of barbs in their path caused it to swerve to the side roughly, nearly throwing Nanu and Ash off the back of the saddle in the process.

    "Huh?!" Sun gasped, spinning around in place to see where the attack had come from.

    "What was that?!" Ash exclaimed as well, his head shooting around to see what was behind them. What he saw was quite possibly the last thing he wanted to see, given their circumstances.

    "Nice shot, Mareanie!"

    The all-too-familiar voice of a certain lavender-haired man rang out through the air toward them, causing Charizard to come to a complete stop in midair. It beat its wings habitually to keep them hovering, as the four passengers on its back regarded their new opponents, drifting toward them in a Meowth-shaped hot air balloon, with shock.

    "Ahahahaha!" the bluenet's female companion cackled in ecstasy from the balloon basket. There appeared to be miniature jet turbines attached to either side of the basket, something that Ash had seen them use before when they needed to get somewhere in a pinch. He gritted his teeth in frustration, and yelled out at the familiar criminals who'd been chasing him for years.

    "Team Rocket! What are you three doing here?!"

    "What we're always doing, of course!" Jessie responded with gusto, just as the third member of their group, the talking Pokémon Meowth, sneered from his position on the edge of the basket, situated between his two human partners.

    "We're tryin' ta catch dat Pikachu of yours, and take over Alola in the process!" the literate Pokémon growled, crossing his arms so as to appear as intimidating as possible.

    "It's been a long time, twerp. Too bad about you losing back there at the Kalos League," James remarked with a sly grin on his face. "But now, we're finally back to business as usual! And operation number one is to capture Pikachu!"

    "I'll never let you get away with that!" Ash roared back, silently cursing his own bad luck that now, of all times, was when Team Rocket had to show their faces again. Brock glared up at them from Ash's side, as Sun and Nanu watched the situation unfold curiously. "What happened to helping us out with Team Flare, huh?!"

    "What, those clowns?" Jessie replied with a clear level of disgust in her voice. "We only joined forces with you against them because they were a threat to Team Rocket's operations in Kalos. Now that they're out of the way, there's no reason to keep playing nice with you twerps."

    "You three are still following Ash around?" Brock inquired in disbelief. "Guess I shouldn't be surprised. What, did you finally give the whole motto thing a rest?"

    "No time for a motto today, I'm afraid!" James answered, whisking his arm out in front of him to point down at Charizard. "Not only do we want Pikachu, but we have extra special orders today to keep you lot away from the city!"

    "And dat's exactly what we're gonna do!"

    "Mimikyu, front and center!" Jessie cried, lightly tossing a Poké Ball in the air. What emerged onto the edge of the basket beside Meowth was what appeared to be a tattered bedsheet, shaped oddly like a Pikachu doll. "Feast your eyes on our new and improved Pokémon! Mimikyu, use Shadow Ball!"

    "Mareanie, Spike Cannon!"

    "Charizard, use Flamethrower to block both of those!" Sun ordered, and Charizard did as it was told, rearing its head back before spraying an impressive stream of fire out before it, causing both the volley of spikes from Mareanie's attack as well as Mimikyu's Shadow Ball to both collide with it, cancelling them out with an explosion. Charizard landed on the ground a moment later, and three of the four passengers on its back promptly climbed down to the ground, relieving it of their combined weight at last.

    "We don't have time for you guys right now!" Ash roared, just as Pikachu leaped down off of his shoulder with electricity sparking from its cheeks. He didn't recognize Team Rocket's two new Pokémon, but he didn't much care, either, considering the situation they were in at the moment.

    "Pika pika!" Pikachu growled angrily in agreement. Before Ash could call out an attack, however, Sun's voice cut him off.

    "You all go on ahead," Sun insisted, Charizard's wings already extending in preparation to take off again, and Ash realized that he hadn't climbed down off of Charizard's back after them. "I'll take care of these guys - after all, it's the least I can do as Champion, right?"

    And with that, he rose back into the air, forcing Ash and Brock to briefly cover their faces with their arms as the sudden wind from Charizard's ascent buffeted them.

    "Sun, wait - !" Ash cried, reaching out toward them defiantly. But Brock's grip on his arm stopped him.

    "Let him go, Ash - we've got bigger problems to deal with, remember? We've got to find Serena and Lillie!"

    Ash turned back to him hesitantly and nodded. "Yeah...yeah, you're right!"

    "What about you?" Brock asked, turning his eyes to Nanu as he spoke. The older man shrugged.

    "I'm sure I'll find the source of the trouble if I stick with you guys. Your friends are probably caught up in all this, somehow, if they're anything like you."

    Brock nodded approvingly, and the three of them turned back to face the street leading further into the city together. Ash clenched his fists in determination as they started running, and found that only one thing was on his mind right now.

    "Serena...please be okay. We're coming."
    "Now go, Necrozma! Take back what belongs to you!"

    Lillie and Serena tensed as the hulking, black Pokémon swept its brutish arms forward, each one generating a purple-colored shockwave of energy with their movement. The two attacks hurtled through the air toward the female duo until Solgaleo - or Nebby, as Lillie had called it - lept in their path and swiped at them with its claws, which were, themselves, now gleaming with energy.

    "Nebby!" Lillie cried gratefully, the plumes of smoke from the intercepted attack blowing past them around Nebby's body. It turned and jerked its head affirmatively toward her before focusing its attention back on Necrozma. "Serena, I think Nebby's going to hold off Necrozma. That means we have to take care of Rhodo and Alisma!"

    "Right!" Serena nodded, but just as she went to regard the two of them, she was met with Rhodo's disapproving gaze.

    "Don't think this will go like it did last time," he sneered at her, producing a familiar-looking Poke Ball with a blue wireframe design covering the surface of it. "Come out, Nihilego!"

    Serena's eyes narrowed as the familiar-looking Ultra Beast emerged, floating above the street. Her left arm flinched reflexively at the sight of it, and she took a step forward before calling out her first command to Braixen. "All right, Braixen, use Flamethrower on Kartana!"

    "Snowy, use Aurora Beam!" Lillie cried. Braixen whipped its wand around elegantly and blasted a stream of concentrated fire from its tip at the small sword-shaped Ultra Beast, while Snowy shot forth a beam of rainbow-colored light from its mouth at the more squid-like of the two.

    "Kartana, Vacuum Wave!" Alisma snapped, and her Pokémon slashed forward with one of its arms at once, sending a wave of air slicing into Braixen's Flamethrower attack, effectively cancelling it out. The shockwave continued traveling all the way down to the Fox Pokémon's wand, knocking it off balance.

    "Nihilego, dodge that Aurora Beam and use Power Gem!" Rhodo cried, and his squid-like partner easily slid out of the path of Snowy's attack before summoning a swarm of rocks from the very air around it, and launching them forward at the small, frost-colored Fox Pokémon.

    "Use Protect!" Lillie called at once, prompting Snowy to summon its protective force field to block the oncoming Power Gem attack. "Now use Ice Shard, quick!"

    Rhodo swung his arm wide as he ordered, "Dodge it again!"

    As Nihilego swerved out of the way of the attack for a second time, Kartana moved in toward Braixen, who was still recovering from the previous attack.

    "Now, Braixen, use Fire Blast!" Serena called at once, seeing the small beast's attempt to move in. Her Fox Pokémon obliged, blasting a five-pointed, star-shaped flame out from its wand at its opponent.

    "Block that with Sacred Sword!" Alisma barked, and Kartana extended a bright-blue blade of energy from its right hand before deftly slicing through the Fire Blast attack with it.

    Serena frowned, her brow furrowing in frustration at the current stalemate. Not far from them, Necrozma and Nebby were still ferociously trading blows back and forth, without a current winner in sight.

    As she continued watching, Necrozma reared its head back and fired another multicolored laser from the prism-like pattern that Serena assumed was its face. Nebby stood its ground as the attack streaked toward it, only leaping into the air to dodge at the last second. The laser continued on and slammed into the building behind Nebby, leaving a large crater in the front of the structure.

    Nebby appeared unconcerned about this and sailed through the air purposefully, its eyes remaining locked on Necrozma. Its opponent, however, appeared ready for this, and it suddenly thrust both of its massive arms out in front of it as its prism-face started to glow.

    Nebby looked down in shock just in time to see the ground beneath it erupt like a geyser, spraying the entire area around them with light as the force of the explosion knocked Nebby out of the air and into the ground.

    "This isn't good..." Lillie murmured worriedly, now eyeing the battle between the two Legendary Pokémon herself. The only people that happened to be walking nearby had screamed at the sight of Necrozma's attack hitting the building and fled the scene. "They're even stronger than the Tapu. If they keep fighting like that, they'll destroy the whole city."

    "Darn it..." Serena cursed under her breath. "Where's Officer Jenny and the others?!"

    A sudden spray of purple acid caused the Performer to jump back reflexively, bringing her attention back to Rhodo and Alisma. "I'd pay attention, if I were you, girl. You wouldn't want to get hit by that attack again, would you?"

    Serena gritted her teeth, remembering the excruciating pain that had resulted from her previous exposure to Nihilego's acid. Before she could give another command to Braixen, however, the distinctive sound of sirens filled her ears, and she turned in surprise to find an Officer Jenny riding up the street toward them on her motorcycle, with another male police officer in tow.

    "Oh, look who it is. I was wondering when they were going to show up, what with all the noise we're causing," Alisma sneered as she watched the two officers' approach. "Kartana, stop them both with Vacuum Wave!"

    "Snowy, use Protect, quick!"

    Kartana angled its slash to the side as it launched a horizontal stream of air at the approaching police officers, aiming to hit both of their bikes with one swing. Snowy intercepted the blow just in time, however, leaping into the air and allowing its teal-blue, protective force field to absorb the blow before landing nimbly back on its feet.

    "What - ?!" Officer Jenny cried sharply, skidding to a halt alongside her partner as they finally got a full view of the situation. She turned, examining the destruction that Necrozma had already wrought on the buildings around them before finally looking to Serena and Lillie for answers. "What's going on here?!"

    "You've got to get out of here!" Serena answered urgently, and Lillie nodded in agreement at her words. "Get back, and set up a barricade around this area so nobody comes near here!"

    "A barricade - ?" Officer Jenny stammered, looking again at the damage around her. Some people still appeared to be inside some of the nearby buildings, and she found it difficult to resist simply running in and evacuating them right then and there.

    But something in Serena's eyes told her that the young girl could be trusted. She wasn't quite sure what it was, but it made Officer Jenny swallow her doubts and nod to her subordinate after a moment of hesitation. "But what about you two?"

    "Just go! We'll be fine!" Serena insisted, waving the officers away forcefully. They nodded to her again and spun their bikes around to leave, but Rhodo and Alisma had other plans in mind.

    "You think we'll just let them go?" Rhodo mused coldly, raising his arm in a commanding gesture to his Ultra Beast partner. "Nihilego, use Power Gem, now!"

    Officer Jenny and her companion ignored them and rode off at once, just as Lillie commanded Snowy to intercept the attack with an Ice Shard. The two moves collided with one another harmlessly, and Serena could tell that she and Lillie weren't the only one getting frustrated with the constant back-and-forth between the two groups; both Rhodo's and Alisma's expressions were growing darker and more desperate-looking by the second.

    Suddenly, Nebby reared its head back and loosed a deafening roar, and its entire body began to radiate light as the air shook from its cry. It leaped forward at Necrozma a second later, whipping the wind around it into a blazing orange aura that made Nebby look like a brilliant, white meteor.

    "No!" Alisma shrieked in desperation, just as she and Rhodo motioned for their Ultra Beasts to intervene. "Stop it, you two, quickly!"

    Kartana and Nihilego promptly launched a pair of attacks at the charging Sunne Pokémon, but they were both deflected away by the intense aura now surrounding it. Necrozma itself then raised its head to the sky, and loosed another massive beam directly at its opponent, who made no attempt to dodge. Instead, Nebby continued forward, plowing through the incoming beam with little difficulty even as Necrozma continued firing it.

    Rhodo's glare intensified, and he ground his teeth together at the sight. A moment later, Nebby finished its charge, and plowed into Necrozma with full force, sending it crashing into the ground harshly, with the lion-esque Legendary Pokémon positioned dominantly above its body.

    "Necrozma!" Rhodo cried angrily, gesturing to Nihilego and Kartana once again. "Hurry up and stop it, Nihilego! Use Head Smash!"

    "And Kartana, use Sacred Sword!"

    Nebby looked up complacently as the two Ultra Beasts launched themselves through the air toward it. Before it could make an attempt to defend itself, Lillie had already spoken up to call another command to Snowy, with Serena following suit right after.

    "I don't think so - Snowy, quick, use Ice Shard to stop them!"

    "Braixen, you use Hidden Power!"

    "Braaaii-xen!" the Fox Pokémon sang, whipping its wand out in the air in front of it to launch a series of energy-filled orbs forward at their opponents, just as Snowy fired a series of lightning-fast icicles from its mouth at them, as well. The attacks connected an instant later, and succeeded in knocking both Ultra Beasts off their intended path, and into the ground beneath them.

    Rhodo and Alisma both ground their teeth in anger as their respective partners crashed into the ground. Nebby turned to glower at them, its body still glowing brilliantly from its attack.

    Suddenly, Necrozma's large, brutish arms rose up from its limp form on the ground and seized Nebby's front legs with an iron grip. Nebby snapped its head around at once, only to find its pitch-black body rising up ominously from the crater it had landed in, just as it tightened its hold on Nebby's legs.

    "Nebby!" Lillie cried in shock, as Serena watched on in silent horror. She had thought that Nebby had proven itself Necrozma's better in the battle thus far, but the look of fear on Lillie's face told Serena all she needed to know about the sudden turn of events.

    Serena's worry was justified only a moment later; with a blinding flash of light, coupled with a painful roar from Nebby, the Sunne Pokémon's entire body seemed to break down into pure energy, and if she hadn't known better, the Kalosian Performer would have guessed that it was evolving. That idea was quickly put to rest, however, when the light formerly known as Nebby was suddenly absorbed into Necrozma's void-like form. And, with another burst of light even stronger than the first, Necrozma's body actually did seem to undergo an evolution of some sort.

    When the light show had finally cleared, only one Pokémon was left standing in the space where the two of them had previously been standing. It almost looked like Nebby to Serena, but its body was much brighter, and seemed to be made up of pure light, not to mention the fact that there was now a pitch-black shell covering most of its form, giving it an appearance eerily similar to Necrozma's. And with that, Serena guessed with a sinking feeling in her stomach that she already knew what had just taken place.

    "NO!" Lillie roared upon seeing the fusion of the two battling Pokémon. Rhodo and Alisma merely smiled hauntingly at the sight, and Serena found that the feeling of dread she had felt upon first seeing Necrozma had only intensified now.

    "Well, well...it appears that even the Guardian of the Sun can let its guard down, sometimes," Rhodo mused devilishly. Serena blinked and glanced over at Lillie, fighting to contain her shaking voice as she spoke her question.

    "Hey...what is that...?" she breathed to the blonde Alolan. "What happened to Nebby?"

    Lillie looked back at her, allowing Serena to fully see the fear now present in her eyes. "...It was absorbed by Necrozma. This happened the last time that...thing...came to Alola, too. I don't know how, but it's somehow able to devour Nebby's light, and absorb its body."

    "...This happened before?" Serena murmured back in surprise. That meant that there must be some way to turn it back, and save Nebby.

    Lillie nodded slowly at her words, but the fear didn't leave her eyes. "Yeah - and it's only because of Sun that it was finally stopped that time."

    Serena looked back at the entity before them, and found her hopes steadily fading away. She wasn't quite sure what the extent of Lillie's connection with Nebby was, but she could tell that they were close. And she, herself, was somewhat attached to the creature, as well, given that it had quite literally saved her life only an hour or so beforehand. She had quickly been able to tell how strong it was - no surprise, given that it had turned out to be a Legendary Pokémon - and having it on their side against Rhodo and Alisma had restored some semblance of confidence to her for a time.

    But now, she found that most of that newfound vigor had all but vanished as she stared at the horrific-looking fusion of the two legendary creatures before her.

    Finally, Nebby-Necrozma roared, an earth-shattering cacophony that sounded like a warbled version of Nebby's own majestic cry. Serena and Lillie were forced to look away and cover their ears, which meant they weren't able to see its next attack coming.

    In the midst of its roar, it fired another blast of its laser, strafing the entire side of the street that they were standing on with the attack in the process. Serena and Lillie were thrown through the air a good fifteen feet before hitting the ground again, and the street around them was blown to pieces by the enormous blast.

    Serena forced herself to sit up at the thundering sound of footsteps approaching, knowing who they belonged to. She opened her mouth to call out to Braixen, but when she looked up, she found that the Fox Pokémon was nowhere in sight amidst the plumes of smoke billowing around them from Necrozma's attack. Her voice caught in her throat, and her vision filled with the sight of Nebby-Necrozma bounding toward her through the destruction.

    Necrozma lunged forward, and a pair of black arms resembling Necrozma's original appendages stretched out from its back toward the grounded Serena. She looked up at it fearfully, watching as the massive black creature began to fill her vision like some sort of nightmarish monster.

    Suddenly, a concentrated stream of sand blew into Necrozma's path like a drill, striking the pitch-black Pokémon head-on. And, just as it did, the electrical attack that had been concealed within the stream struck Necrozma, as well, and its entire body surged with electricity as it collapsed to the ground.

    "What was that?!" Lillie cried, turning just in time to see none other than Brock walking up beside them, along with his Mega Steelix, who was continuing to produce a constant stream of sand around its body.

    "Brock!" Serena exclaimed in relief, as the older boy strode up beside her. His spiky, black hair was blowing with the wind from the Sandstorm, and she thought it made him look a little like Ash. And, no sooner had that thought crossed her mind, did Ash's voice echo throughout her mind from behind her, his voice tickling her ear as he spoke life back into her tired form.

    "Hey, Serena." Hearing his voice was like drinking from a fountain after being parched for days on end; just the sound of it made her whole body feel restored. She turned to meet his eyes, and found his face there at her side, as if it were waiting for her. "I hope we're not too late."

    "Ash!" she squealed in delight, throwing her arms around him before she had a chance to stop herself. "You couldn't have gotten here at a better time!"

    "Yeah, you're not kidding," the older man they had arrived with remarked somewhat dryly, as he helped Lillie back to her feet. The Sandstorm attack seemed to be giving Rhodo and Alisma pause; Necrozma hadn't yet risen back up from the ground, and neither Nihilego nor Kartana had been given any additional commands.

    "Thanks, Nanu," Lillie remarked gratefully, smiling at Ash and Brock as well as she got back to her feet. "Where's Acerola, though? Did you guys manage to find her?"

    "Yeah, we sure did," Ash remarked confidently as he laced her fingers through Serena's, and grasped her hand tightly before pulling her up to her feet. She was secretly grateful that he didn't even bother to ask why she was still dressed in full hospital attire, complete with lack of shoes. "We split up back at the Aether House, though. She's on her way here with Guzma."

    Lillie blinked, and her eyes darted back and forth between them. "Oh, right...Guzma isn't here, either."

    Brock nodded. "Yeah - we can talk about that later, though. Right now, we've got to find a way to take care of these guys."

    "It's not gonna be easy," Serena cautioned. Ash looked at her with concern, but then noticed that the bandage on her arm had been removed.

    "Hey, Serena...? Are you okay?" he asked curiously, eyeing the scar on her arm with uncertain eyes. She met his gaze and smiled warmly.

    "Yeah, I'm all right now," she assured him. "Solgaleo - I mean, Nebby - healed me!"

    "Nebby...?" Ash echoed, apparently picking up on the fact that it didn't sound like the proper name of a Pokémon.

    "Anyway, Serena's right," Lillie remarked, confirming the Performer's earlier words with a grave nod. She glanced over at Nanu, a knowing look in her eyes, as she continued. "That giant black Pokémon they have - that's Necrozma."

    Ash and Brock gasped despite themselves, and even Nanu's jaded eyes widened at her words. "N-Necrozma?" Ash stammered in disbelief.

    "Isn't that the Pokémon that's been absorbing all of your friends' stolen Z-Energy?" Brock inquired worriedly, putting a hand to his chin. "But I thought that it wasn't fully restored yet. That's what that guy Rhodo told us, anyway."

    "It isn't - at least, I don't think it is," Lillie answered, the urgency in her voice not wavering. "But it's still more powerful than any of the Island Guardians. They said they brought it here so that it could finish absorbing the last of the Z-Energy that it needs itself."

    "And that's why they want you, Ash!" Serena burst out at once, putting a hand on his wrist protectively. "That woman, Alisma, told us - they're determined to have Necrozma drain all of your energy out of you!"

    Ash blinked, and he was reminded of Rhodo's words during their battle at the edge of Malie City a few days prior. He put a hand to his chest and gripped the fabric of his shirt uncertainly. "But...I don't have any Z-Energy, do I?"

    "I don't think it matters whether you do or not," Brock remarked ardently. "What matters is that those two lunatics think you do - so we have to make sure they don't get their hands on you."

    "Pika!" Pikachu chimed in agreement, nodding in vigorous agreement with Brock's words. No sooner had it done so, than had a burst of light on the ground next to it signified the release of a Sableye, which looked around at all of them curiously.

    Lillie's eyes were drawn to Nanu at once by his sudden action. "Nanu? Does this mean you're going to help us, too?"

    "I might as well," the older man replied nonchalantly. "This seems pretty bad, all things considered. Wouldn't want Malie City to get destroyed, or whatever. Plus, well, it's probably not a good idea to let them keep control of the Guardian of the Sun like that."

    His comment elicited a confused look from Ash and Brock, similar to when Serena had mentioned Nebby's name a few moments earlier. Before they could inquire about it further, however, the Sandstorm produced by Steelix began to die down, just as Necrozma finally picked itself back up from the ground.

    "So, you're here at last, boy," Rhodo spat anxiously, eyeing Ash with a great degree of interest. "You may have stopped me last time, but that won't happen again. Even in its present state, you can't hope to stand against the power of the Blinding One! Now, get him, Necrozma!"

    At his command, Necrozma surged forward, mimicking Nebby's actions rather well as its front paws charged up with purple energy. It swiped forward with them at Ash once it had closed the distance, but Brock was quick to match his attack.

    "Steelix, use Stone Edge!"

    The Mega Evolved Iron Snake Pokémon slammed its tail on the ground at once, sending a series of stalactites jutting out of the ground toward Necrozma. It didn't see them coming, presumably because its gaze was almost entirely fixated on Ash, and took one of them straight to its underbelly, launching it into the air.

    "Pikachu, use Thunderbolt!"

    "Braixen, Fire Blast!"

    "Sableye, Shadow Ball!"

    The three of them didn't waste any time in following up; the three attacks burst forth almost in unison, and slammed into Necrozma before it could hit the ground, sending it crashing to the pavement much harder than it would have landed originally - and tearing the street apart in the process.

    It didn't wait for the ensuing smoke to clear, however - instead, another blast from the same rainbow-colored beam they'd seen it fire before strafed across their position from within the dust cloud, taking them all off guard. Most of them managed to jump back out of the way - except for Steelix, who merely threw up its tail to absorb the impact instead - but the explosion that came after the laser's initial impact still hit every single one of them regardless.

    Serena cried out in pain as she and Braixen were thrown backwards from the blast, and she could hear most of her companions doing the same. She reached out toward her wounded Pokémon, but before she could say anything, a part formed in the smoke, and she saw Nebby-Necrozma charging toward Ash's fallen form yet again.

    "Ash!" she cried, just as a flash of light erupted from his belt. Minccino materialized in midair next to Necrozma, and it promptly flipped forward through the air as a cloak of water swirled around its tail, and slammed its furry appendage into Necrozma just as Pikachu appeared from the smoke on the other side, matching Minccino's Aqua Tail with its own Iron Tail.

    "Minccino?!" Ash remarked in surprise as his two smallest Pokémon succeeded in knocking Necrozma back a few paces. The Chinchilla Pokémon turned to meet his eyes, a fire blazing within its own.

    "Cccino!" It chirped confidently, raising a tiny arm into the air. Pikachu added a rousing "Pika Pika!" of its own, and Ash smiled proudly at both of them.

    "Thanks, you two!" he uttered as he climbed back to his feet. Serena couldn't help but smile in relief as well, and looked over to survey the damage Braixen had taken from the last attack. It was still conscious, but Serena could tell that it had taken serious damage, despite the reassuring smile it was giving her from its position on the ground. That, coupled with the fact that Minccino's earnest desire to help them out, even in a situation like this, and she found that her own desire to fight was suddenly renewed.

    Her gaze softened as she gazed at Braixen thankfully, uttering a small "Thanks, Braixen. Take a long rest now," before recalling it into its capsule, just as she retrieved another one from her bag to replace it. As she did, she felt her hand brush against the surface of the two stones that Brock had handed off to her shortly after their stop in Konikoni City - and, just like that, she knew she had decided on the right Pokémon to send out next.

    "All right - Altaria, let's go!"
    "Okay, Mareanie, use Sludge Bomb!"

    "Mimikyu, Shadow Ball!"

    "Dodge 'em both, Charizard, and circle around!"

    Charizard obliged at once, swiftly veering out of the way of the oncoming projectiles before swooping into a hard bank to the right. Sun tightened his grip on the saddle as he was briefly thrown almost ninety degrees to the side, and then, as they came up on the back side of Team Rocket's balloon, called out, "Now use Flamethrower!"

    Charizard grunted in compliance and loosed a torrent of flames from its mouth in the direction of the balloon basket. The three members of Team Rocket residing in it panicked, but it only took a moment for Jessie to regain her composure.

    "Wobbuffet, front and center!" she barked, pointing sharply at the oncoming stream of flames.

    "Wo-bbuffet!" her Patient Pokémon replied dutifully, emerging from the Poke Ball in her pocket with a salute as its body shone with a pinkish sheen. The Flamethrower attacked continued forward until it was within an inch of Wobbuffet's body, at which point it sharply reversed course and began shooting backwards through the air toward Sun and Charizard.

    Sun narrowed his eyes and he cried out, "Watch out - to the left!" Charizard obeyed at once, and managed to narrowly dodge the reflected attack, at which point Sun urged him forward to fly alongside Team Rocket's balloon. "What do you guys want here, anyway? You're not even from Ultra Megalopolis, so why are you workin' with - ?!"

    "Hah! What we want doesn't matter!" James scoffed, interrupting his question before he could even finish.

    "All that matters to us is that we've got orders to help those weirdos out," Jessie explained, a hint of scorn in her voice. "And you twerps just happen to be in the way."

    "You've got orders, huh? That means all of Team Rocket's gotta be workin' with the Ultra Recon Squad, then, isn't that right?!" he demanded from them, as Charizard continued to flap its wings in order to keep them aloft. Secretly, he wondered if the involvement of the foreign criminal group had something to do with the two new members of the Ultra Recon Squad that Ash and Brock had told him about, but he knew better than to ask for answers of that magnitude from his enemy.

    "Yeah? And what if we are, huh?" their talking Meowth shot back arrogantly. "What's a lone little twerp like you gonna do ta stop us?"

    "I...I might be by myself. That's true. But...I'm also..." he stopped, taking a breath to steady himself. This was the first time he was publicly naming himself by his title. He still wasn't sure if he wanted it, but he knew that he had to stop whatever it was that had been going on in Alola since his departure. He thought of Kiawe and Sophocles, Lana and Mallow...and all of his other friends that had been taken during his time away. He knew that he had a duty to help save them. And that all began right here, with this battle. He couldn't afford to lose, not right now.

    He released the breath he'd taken a moment later, and stared down the criminal trio with a burning look in his eyes. "I'm also the Champion of Alola! And I'm not gonna let you have your way!"

    Team Rocket's eyes widened when they heard the word 'Champion'. "The...Champion...? Hey, James, didn't we hear that the Champion was some kid who left the region as soon as he got the job?"

    James met her gaze with nervous eyes before glancing back out at the young Trainer riding on his Charizard. "Why, yes, we sure did..."

    "Den...does dat mean dat dis kid is really...?!" Meowth stammered, the sense of fear steadily growing as he spoke.

    "Charizard, let's take them out with one blow! Use Overheat!"

    Charizard roared mightily, and sprayed forth a wave of fire three times bigger than the one it had launched previously. Team Rocket stared at the wall of flames in shock for a moment before Jessie halfheartedly called, "Wobbuffet, Mirror Coat...?"

    "Wobb!" it chirped, nonchalant as ever as it hopped into position to deflect the attack again. This time, however, when the all-consuming stream of fire connected, it simply bowled past the barrier that was Wobbuffet's own body, encircling the entire balloon basket within the searing flames. A moment later, the entire balloon exploded, sending the occupants flying high into the sky together.

    "Hey, that's not fair!" Jessie moaned, as the lot of them soared higher into the clouds. "Nobody told us we'd be fighting the Champion right off the bat like that!"

    "Mmm...but this means he's back in Alola, doesn't it? Surely that's valuable intel for the boss," James reasoned with a hand to his chin.

    "Guess dere's only one way to find out. And dere's only one place we're goin' now anyway, so let's just worry about it later, dig?" Meowth suggested.

    "Kyuuuu!"

    "Reannie!"

    "Wo-bbuffet!"

    "We're blasting off again!"

    And, with a twinkle in the sky signifying their departure, they were gone. Sun stared at the spot where their balloon had been for a moment longer, as if making sure they weren't coming back, before turning his head in the direction of Malie City again. Before he could say another word to Charizard, however, he saw a massive, rainbow-colored beam arcing forth into the sky from somewhere deep in the city, as well as the line of explosions that came after it, and his gaze darkened at once.

    "Come on, Charizard, let's go!" he urged, kicking his ankles against Charizard's torso encouragingly. "The others need our help!"

    And with that, the two of them were off, speeding toward the plumes of smoke now rising from deep within Malie City, with the gradually-setting sun framed against their backs.

    Hate to end it cold like that, but this battle goes on for quite a bit longer, and the chapter was getting really long. Like the other times, that means that it probably won't take me as long to finish the next one, because about half of it has basically already been written as the last chunk of this one that I chopped off.

    That about wraps it up for this one, so I'll see you guys next time, when the battle in Malie City will finally be resolved!
     
    Last edited: May 19, 2018
  17. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Chapter 17: Facing Yourself

    "All right - Altaria, let's go!"

    Ash beamed confidently as his girlfriend called out the very same Pokémon that the two of them had discovered together, once upon a time. Ever since he had bought it for her (and the notion that the circumstances at the time had forced him to buy a Pokémon still served to make his skin crawl, when he thought about it), he had always been slightly partial toward the Humming Pokémon, and right now was certainly no different. He couldn't help but watch in awe as it materialized in the air before them, spreading its fluffy wings elegantly as it assessed the situation around them at once, and prepared to join the fray.

    "So, you still insist on fighting..." Rhodo growled, turning his gaze back to the fallen Ultra Beasts still lying in the street behind them. "Up, Nihilego!"

    "You too, Kartana! Let's go!" Alisma added urgently from beside him.

    At their urging, their partners slowly rose from the ground back into the air despite the bruises covering their bodies. A moment later, however, a giant, black shadow shot up from the rubble around them, reforming into Sableye before striking both Ultra Beasts square in the back.

    "What - ?!" Alisma spat, her eyes moving far too slow as Kartana and Nihilego fell to the ground once again. Before anyone else had a chance to react, Necrozma surged forward, swiping at Sableye with a glowing, purple claw in a flash. As its limp body sailed through the air back toward Nanu, Mega Steelix was already moving forward, ready to tag in with its own attack.

    "Steelix, use Gyro Ball!" Brock called, and as Steelix's tail spun up and lashed out toward Necrozma, Ash and Serena both swung their arms out wide without missing a beat, ready to follow up from Brock's maneuver.

    "Pikachu, Electro Ball, and Minccino, use Hyper Voice!"

    "Dragonbreath, Altaria!"

    At their words, the three Pokémon sprung into action; Pikachu generated a sphere of concentrated electricity in its tail and flung it forward, Minccino loosed a funnel of sonic energy from its mouth, and Altaria breathed down a torrent of shimmering blue fire.

    Necrozma, seemingly undaunted by their efforts, merely roared another ear-shattering tone, its eyes shimmering in the process. A moment later, the ground beneath Steelix erupted in a geyser of energy, lobbing the massive Iron Snake Pokémon into the air with the force of it.

    "Steelix!" Brock cried out, just as Necrozma nimbly leaped into the air, well out of the path of the remaining three attacks heading toward it. As they arced beneath its body harmlessly, the yellow energy beneath the black shell that was Necrozma began to shine brilliantly. And, with another ferocious roar, Necrozma then shot downward through the air like a bullet.

    "Look out!" Lillie cried at once, as though she recognized the attack, with Snowy mewing sheepishly in rapport from its position on the ground next to her. Not that there was any time for them to react, anyway - Necrozma streaked past the three oncoming attacks, the aura generated by its charge blasting them away harmlessly in the process, and continued on past Ash and everyone else until it slammed through a two-story building behind them.

    Pikachu and Minccino were blasted out of the way by the force of the charge, though Altaria was able to dodge it by flying higher up in the sky, and Ash was forced to throw his hands up to shield himself from both the bright light given off by Necrozma's temporary aura as well as the shockwave that followed its attack.

    "Aaaah!" Ash cried, desperately attempting to maintain his footing as he heard Pikachu and Minccino both slam into the ground somewhere nearby. He looked up a moment later, and saw a decently-sized hole punched into the building before him, and his eyes widened in horror as he realized the amount of power that Necrozma already possessed.

    Before he had time to process that, however, most of the building's remains shattered apart as Necrozma pierced back through it from the other side, its second pair of black arms now reaching out toward Ash.

    With everyone thrown off balance by the last attack, nobody was able to react in time. The crystalline, almost crystal-like arms seized Ash around the waist and lifted him into the air almost triumphantly, followed closely by yet another resounding bellow from Necrozma.

    "Ash - !" Brock cried out at once, but after a quick glance at Steelix's collapsed form, he knew that he was in no position to be intervening. Nanu stared at Ash gravely, and his wrist holding his Z-Ring twitched, but he made no move to step in, either, knowing that he couldn't fire off an attack without also catching Ash in the blast.

    Lillie merely stared at Ash with her mouth open, as Snowy looked on helplessly from its position at her feet. Serena, on the other hand, wore a desperately determined look on her face, but before she could say anything, Pikachu and Minccino cut her off.

    "Pika Pika!"

    "Min-ccino!"

    The two undersized Pokémon charged Necrozma fearlessly as their tails charged up with their respective elements again, but after an irritated glance to the side from the massive, terrifying Pokémon, it fired off another of its rainbow-colored lasers at them, blasting them both high into the air before continuing down the street and tearing apart a good deal of the sidewalk in the process.

    "P-Pikachu! Minccino...!" Ash managed, as Necrozma's grip on him tightened. He rapidly felt his consciousness begin to fade as the air was squeezed from his lungs, and his vision began to darken. The last thing he saw was Serena, still in her battered hospital garb, as she rose to her feet defiantly with a blazing look in her eyes - and then there was nothing.

    Serena watched on helplessly as Necrozma finally managed to seize Ash in its iron grip. Her mind instantly switched over to panic mode at the sight, but before she could even shout a reactionary command to Altaria, Pikachu and Minccino had already charged forward in her place. Despite their brave attempts to rescue their Trainer, however, Nebby-Necrozma was simply too powerful for them now, as it had repeatedly proven over the course of the last few minutes.

    Just as quickly as they had rushed in, the two small Pokémon were thrown back from the hulking, armored lion. And, just like that, Serena suddenly realized what was about to happen to Ash if they weren't able to free him from Necrozma's grasp.

    And she stepped forward.

    "Stop it! Let him go!"

    Serena's voice carried through the destroyed city block, echoing off the remains of what had once been buildings, and she was surprised to find Altaria swooping up beside her, loosing a defiant, indignant screech in Necrozma's direction in the process. And, just as it did, a pair of lights began gleaming from within Serena's backpack.

    "Serena...! It's the stones!" Brock remarked in utter surprise, dumbstruck by what he was seeing. In truth, he'd almost forgotten about the artifacts completely; so much had happened between his and Ash's shopping trip back in Konikoni City that the day felt like it had happened weeks before. On top of that, he couldn't believe that Serena had put them in her backpack after he'd given them to her; if she had chosen any other location to store them, they would still be back in her hospital room right now.

    But, against all odds, the Key Stone and Altarianite that Professor Kukui had requested they procure from the treasure shop in Konikoni City were now both gleaming brilliantly for all to see. Serena quickly produced them from her bag, and the look on her face showed just as much surprise as everyone else did. Even Necrozma had halted its advance toward Ash, and was now glancing back over its shoulder at her curiously.

    "Is this...?" Serena breathed in awe, just as Altaria landed beside her with a chirp. She looked over at her Pokémon, and smiled after a moment's contemplation. "...Are you ready for this, Altaria?"

    "Riiii!" it sang back affirmatively.

    "Then let's do it!" she cried, tossing the small, marble-like Altarianite at her Pokémon at once. It caught the item in its mouth, and when it did, the two stones began shining even brighter. "Altaria, time for you to Mega Evolve!"

    At her words, a rainbow-colored aura burst into being around both her Key Stone and the Altarianite in unison, and the energy flowing forth from the Mega Stone gradually began to overtake Altaria's body. Its tail nearly quadrupled in size, and the fluffy, cotton-like material surrounding much of its form began to grow in size, as well. Its skin color lightened from sky blue to a much paler, almost lavender sheen, and a growth of cotton burst into being atop its head, as well.

    With a triumphant, resounding cry, Altaria emerged from the cocoon of energy a moment later, and Serena quickly ran her eyes over her partner's new form, the look of determination never leaving her face. She wanted to check her Pokédex to see what new abilities her Pokémon would gain from its evolution, but she also knew that there was no time for that at this point, and she made a quick mental note to do so later on.

    "What's this...?" Alisma remarked in seemingly genuine interest. "It seems the girl possesses a bit of light within her, after all. Not that it matters, at this point." As she finished speaking, her lips curled into a sinister smile.

    "Let him go!" Serena repeated furiously, ignoring Alisma's words and continuing to stare down Necrozma as it held Ash within its grip. Rhodo spoke up rather smugly at this, just as Necrozma turned to regard her curiously.

    "Don't you understand? You may have allowed your Pokémon to evolve, but in doing so, well..." He paused a moment for effect, just as Necrozma loosened its grip on Ash and allowed him to fall to the ground. Serena looked down at his limp form, desperately searching for some sign that he was alright, but found none. "...You've only made yourself a target now."

    At his words, Necrozma, with its arms now empty, lunged past his body in a flash and dived straight toward her, a ferocious glint in its eyes as it loosed another earth-shattering roar. Serena didn't back down, however, and instead called out to her newly Mega Evolved partner.

    "Altaria, use Dragonbreath, quick!"

    Mega Altaria complied with her command at once, rising higher into the air before opening its mouth and covering the space before it in a sea of blue flames. The attack didn't seem to deter Necrozma, however, as it shifted the target of its charge from Serena to Altaria in an instant, leaping high over the fire before swiping with its claws at the Humming Pokémon.

    "Dodge it and use Pluck!" Serena cried at once. Once again, her Pokémon obeyed her words and elegantly swerved to the side, out of the path of Necrozma's attack, before circling around and bearing down on its opponent. The attack that it launched, however, was certainly not the one that Serena had called out.

    As Mega Altaria soared downward through the air toward the now-plummeting form of Necrozma, a golden aura erupted to life around its body as it sang out a high-pitched chime.

    "Huh - ?" Serena stammered in disbelief, as she watched her partner perform the unknown maneuver. "What is that?!"

    Just as she spoke, the aura cloaking Altaria's body condensed into a vaguely bird-shaped silhouette and launched itself out in front like a missile, with its sights dead-set on Necrozma.

    "I know what that is!" Brock cried out as he watched Altaria soar through the sky, trailing closely in the wake of its attack. "That's Sky Attack!"

    Serena's eyes widened as her Pokémon's newly-acquired technique slammed into Necrozma, who had no room to dodge it as it fell back to the street in the wake of its own previous strike. It crashed into the street with a massive explosion just as Altaria soared past it elegantly, and circled around again to observe the effect of its attack.

    They all watched the resulting plume of debris anxiously, with the expressions on Rhodo and Alisma's faces showing a serious level of concern for the first time since they'd arrived in the city. However, a few moments later, another prismatic beam erupted forth from the smoke, blasting it away as it shot through the air toward Altaria.

    "Dodge it, quick!" Serena called, but Altaria was moving before she even opened her mouth; it shot to the side at once to evade the attack, but this left the laser beam free to strike the building behind it. It pierced the structure easily, punching straight through to the other side before causing the integrity of the entire building to fail, at which point it began to collapse in on itself.

    As Serena watched the structure fall apart in frustration, she realized from the corner of her eye that the spot that Lillie had been sitting on her knees in ever since her and Snowy had been knocked aside was almost directly beneath the crumbling building.

    "Lillie!"

    Serena reached out her hand as she called out to her, but there was no way that she could get to her in time. Serena's cry brought the situation to Brock's attention, as well, but he wasn't even on his feet at this point, and Nanu was farther away from her than any of them were, not to mention the fact that Ash still appeared to be unconscious.

    Lillie jumped to her feet as she realized the position she was in, but she froze after one look at the chunks of concrete about to rain down on her. Snowy stepped in front of her courageously, glaring up at the falling debris, but she knew that even Protect wasn't likely to save them from all of it.

    Suddenly, faster than any of them could blink, a green blur rushed by Lillie's position, and, just like that, all of the chunks of debris had been sliced into harmless-sized bits of gravel. A moment later, a green Pokémon that resembled a hooded owl swooped down from the air toward the blonde-haired Alolan.

    "Huh...?" Lillie murmured in surprise, blinking in disbelief at her savior as it deftly landed in front of her. Serena certainly didn't recognize the owl-esque Pokémon from anywhere, but the way Lillie was staring at it almost made her think that the girl recognized it from somewhere.

    "What?!" Rhodo snapped, looking to the sky furiously for the origin of the newly arrived Pokémon. Serena followed his eyes, and was rewarded with the sight of a boy riding toward them on what appeared to be a saddled Charizard. The Flame Pokémon swooped down low and landed on the damaged street a few yards away from them, and then the boy jumped down from its back without missing a beat.

    "Thanks a bunch, Charizard. Take a rest now," she heard him say, just as the large, orange dragon vanished in a flash of red light. The boy then strode forward confidently, turning his gaze on Rhodo and Alisma. "So, you two must be the new folks I've been hearin' so much about."

    Necrozma roared all of a sudden, another of its ear-splitting cries that stopped the Trainer from continuing on, and charged forward at his green, owl-like partner. He wasted no time in reacting, however, and cried, "Decidueye, use Leaf Blade, quick!"

    The Pokémon called Decidueye surged forward, gliding through the air on its wings in a manner that reminded Serena of Ash's Hawlucha, before slamming its glowing, emerald-green forearms against Nebby-Necrozma's claws.

    "What is this? Who exactly are you?" Rhodo demanded, as Decidueye fought desperately to hold back Necrozma's fierce advance. Brock and Nanu both took this as their cue to help the mysterious boy out, and threw their arms out in tandem as they each called an attack to their partners.

    "What, you mean you haven't heard of me?" the boy shot back, just as Steelix and Sableye both rose up once again with a unanimous second wind, and fired a volley of attacks at Necrozma in an attempt to aid Decidueye. Due to its struggle against the owl-like Pokémon, it was helpless to defend itself from the two-way onslaught, and was struck by the Stone Edge and Shadow Ball simultaneously. Decidueye used this as a opportunity, and reared back just as Necrozma was thrown off balance before slicing forward with both of its arms, its Leaf Blade attack finally hitting its mark.

    Rhodo and Alisma stared in disbelief as Necrozma fell to the ground under the barrage of attacks, and then looked back at the stranger angrily, the fire in their eyes demanding answers from him.

    "Then let me introduce myself - my name is Sun, and I'm the Champion of Alola." His voice cut through the air like a knife, and Serena's eyes widened as Brock smiled at him knowingly. She examined him a bit closer, now that his identity had been revealed; he looked a bit like Ash, though his dark hair was a little longer, and his face looked a little younger. He was wearing a trilby hat and a baby-blue tank top with a pair of sunglasses hanging from the collar, as well as a pair of white athletic shorts that were trimmed with blue at the hem.

    But Serena's surprise at his identity was nothing compared to Lillie's. The expression on her face was caught somewhere between fear and disbelief, and her gaze stuck to him like glue. Serena could only imagine what must have been running through her head at that moment.

    "Sun?" Alisma repeated blankly, just as a light seemed to click on in Rhodo's head.

    "You...you're the one that battled the Blinding One back when Phyco was still in command."

    Sun nodded in affirmation at his words. "Yeah, that's right. And if you don't mind me askin', where is Phyco, anyway? Last time I checked, we were on pretty good terms with him, after all."

    Rhodo made a noise that sounded like clicking his tongue, and he replied, "After his failure to restore light to Ultra Megalopolis, he was...relieved of duty. I am his replacement, Rhodo, and this is my partner Alisma."

    Sun's eyes narrowed as he eyed the two of them coldly. "So I was right - you two are the ones who've been making all of my friends disappear."

    "Save your pithy lectures, Champion - you'll find that I'm not as weak-minded as my predecessor was. We are on the brink of restoring our world to its former glory, and I will not let you stand in our way."

    "Oh, good - you just made this really easy for me." Sun held his arm out as he finished speaking, gesturing to the two of them, and Decidueye landed back at his side ominously.

    Serena wasn't quite following everything that they were saying, but she knew that he was on their side, and that he was strong. And right now, that was all that mattered.

    Ash blinked his eyes groggily, staring vacantly at the scene before him for a moment before he remembered what was going on. He shot to his feet at once, ignoring the dull ache he felt around his middle where Necrozma had grabbed him, and looked over to toward the battle to re-assess what had occurred in his brief absence.

    "Ash!" Brock uttered in shock upon noticing that he had regained consciousness. "Are you okay - ?"

    "Yeah, I'm all right," he groaned despite himself. Serena's head shot around to face him as soon as she heard Brock say his name, but he waved away her look of concern for the time being, and instead chose to focus on the scene he saw unfolding before them. "Is that Sun? It's about time he got here."

    Ash chuckled a bit as he finished, and Brock nodded as he and Serena turned back to face the Champion's exchange with Rhodo and Alisma. And, as they watched on, Ash couldn't help but feel a spark of hope reignite within him. He knew how strong Sun was from the battle with Tapu Bulu; surely between his Decidueye and Serena's Mega Altaria, they would finally be able to swing the battle with Necrozma back in their favor.

    But his hopes were dashed almost as quickly as they had been born when Necrozma loosed its mightiest roar yet, shattering the windows of the buildings that were still standing around them in the process. They were all forced to cover their ears as Necrozma's eyes glistened once again, and this time, it was a series of explosions that erupted around them like geysers instead of just one. At the feet of every Trainer present, the ground burst open simultaneously, launching them all through the air and scattering their battered forms across the scarred remains of the city block.

    Ash cried out in pain as he fell from the air, skidding roughly to a halt along the ground as he watched his two Pokémon fall before his eyes, as well. The distinctive, rainbow-colored flashes of energy he noticed from the corner of his eye told him that Steelix and Altaria had reverted to their original forms, as well, and he felt his hope begin to drain away once again.

    "Minccino! Pikachu!" Ash cried, reaching out his hand helplessly toward his battered team. As he glanced around the area, he saw the collapsed forms of not only his own Pokémon, but also his friends: Brock, who was standing over his toppled Steelix protectively; Lillie, who was down on the ground, with her arms wrapped around Snowy's unconscious form; Sun, who was still on his feet, along with Decidueye, but it was clear that they didn't stand a chance against Necrozma on their own. And, of course there was Serena, who was kneeling next to her Altaria, who, despite its recently acquired Mega Evolution, appeared to now be out of strength. Even Nanu, the grizzled old man he'd only just met, appeared upset at the prospect of his fallen Sableye.

    "Haven't you all had enough, yet?!" Rhodo boomed, thrusting his palm out toward them. The black-and-orange form of Necrozma loosed a deafening cry that made Ash's ears hurt at once, and it lunged forward, past Sun, toward Ash, its long, black appendages reaching out to grab hold of his body.

    Time seemed to slow down for him. He could feel every singular beat of his heart, and he could hear each successive crashing of Necrozma's feet as they pounded against the ground. He heard Serena's desperate cry, and he felt a single bead of sweat slide down his face as he realized that he was out of options.

    But even so, he didn't want to give up. He couldn't - not when all of these people around him had given so much to keep him here. He felt a swelling in his chest, a sensation he'd only felt a handful of times in his life - most recently when he had almost punched Tupp, back at the Aether House - but now, he realized, he had felt this feeling a number of times before that, specifically whenever he and one of his former partners had allowed their feelings to merge and become one.

    He screamed, and it felt as if the swelling sensation was bursting forth out of his body along with his voice. A shockwave flew out from where he was standing, stopping Necrozma's advance, as well as knocking it back a few feet. And, when Ash looked at his hands, he found that he was cloaked in a rainbow-colored aura, and every fiber of his body felt as though it was super-charged.

    "Ash - !" Serena gasped, recognizing the phenomenon for what it was at once. She was the only one there who had seen it before, after all. The last time this had happened had been in Anistar City, where Ash had been granted enough strength to single-handedly destroy the city's massive, crystalline sundial with his own hands.

    "There it is...!" Rhodo remarked gleefully, his eyes growing wide with ecstasy at the sight. Next to him, Alisma's smile grew, as well, and she gestured to Necrozma.

    "Now go, Necrozma! Drain him of his light, and take it for your own!"

    Ash watched as Necrozma regained its footing on the ground and charged for a second time, heading straight for him. Wasting no time, Ash threw his hands out in front of him, and roared, "Pikachu!"

    At once, a large portion of Ash's aura broke off from his body, and funneled into Pikachu's form instead. The nigh-unconscious Electric Mouse Pokémon felt the effects of the energy at once, and its eyes shot open immediately. It leaped between Ash and Necrozma, electricity sparking around its body as it went, and fired off a Thunderbolt the likes of which it had never done before.

    Necrozma howled with rage as the electric attack surged through its body, stopping it dead in its tracks. The power that Ash was feeding into Pikachu seemed to be amplifying the attack by a fairly severe magnitude, as the singular move now appeared to be beating Necrozma back all on its own.

    The effect didn't last, however - after Pikachu's second wind had finally been expended, the yellow mouse collapsed back to the ground as its attack fizzled out of existence, the aura around both itself and Ash beginning to dissipate, as well. Necrozma was panting roughly, but it was unclear how much stamina it actually still had left.

    Ash stood there, frozen, as he felt the effects of the energy surge recede as quickly as they had appeared. Just when he thought it was finally over, however, a screech that he didn't quite recognize echoed throughout the ruined street, and he shot his gaze skyward to find a large, purple-and-gold Pokémon resembling a giant bat soaring down from the sky to meet them, accompanied by a pair of strangers riding on its back.

    "W-what? Lunala?!" Rhodo gasped in utter shock, staring up at the mysterious Pokémon as it swooped down through the air toward them. "It can't be - !"

    His words were cut off as it slammed into Necrozma, who only barely managed to stand its ground by pushing back against the Pokémon Rhodo had called Lunala with its front legs. Ash looked closer and noticed that the two people riding on its back were dressed in the same strange garb as Rhodo and Alisma.

    "Hey there, Sun. So I guess you were here in Malie City, after all."

    The voice coming from Lunala's back was that of a male, and it carried with it the same strange warble that Rhodo's and Alisma's did. The figure speaking didn't look that much different than Rhodo, but his companion was much smaller than him, and a bright orange braid could be seen protruding from her helmet, causing Ash to assume that she was a girl - a suspicion that was confirmed as soon as she started speaking.

    "Hi there, Sun! It's sure been a long time, hasn't it? Sorry about...all this..."

    Sun took a step toward Lunala uncertainly as it continued clashing against Necrozma, neither side giving an inch. "Dulse...Zossie?! Is that really you two?!"

    "That's us!" the girl responded brightly, and Ash couldn't believe that she was acting so cheerful at a time like this.

    Rhodo glared daggers at her as she spoke, a look that was mimicked by Alisma. "You fools! What do you two think you're doing here?!"

    "What does it look like we're doing?" Dulse responded flippantly. "You see, Rhodo, we were talking with Phyco and Soliera, and we decided that we're done following your orders. We never should've let you take command of us."

    "...Well, I can't say I didn't see this coming...but if you really believe those words, then you're just as weak-minded as Phyco," Rhodo growled in disgust, at which Dulse merely shrugged.

    "B-but...how did you retrieve Lunala?!" Alisma demanded, pointing an accusatory finger at the large, bat-like Pokémon as it continued to struggle against Necrozma's might.

    "I don't know, to tell you the truth," Dulse admitted sheepishly. "When we were trying to figure out how to come to Alola and stop you, it suddenly just appeared to us from an Ultra Wormhole. We figured it had been sent back on your orders, Alisma."

    He shot her a devilish grin, causing the glare on her face to deepen even further. She swung her gaze around to Serena, and spat, "You! You must have done something - "

    "Oh...yeah, I guess I did," Serena admitted hesitantly, causing Ash to look over at her in surprise. "After Nebby saved me on the mountain, I asked the two of them to help me find a way back to Malie City. Nebby seemed to agree, but Lunala just went through an Ultra Wormhole and left us there."

    Ash had no idea what she was talking about, but before he could ask her about it, a pang of exhaustion shot through his entire body. He struggled to remain on his feet, and made a mental note to get an explanation from her later.

    "I guess we've got you to thank for that, then," Dulse remarked smoothly, shooting Serena a grateful smile before turning his gaze back to Rhodo and Alisma. "But now that we're here, I think it's time that we put an end to all this."

    "An end to this - ? What are you - "

    "Hey, Sun!" Dulse cried suddenly, flattening down against Lunala's back as he spoke. "We're gonna give you some time, all right? I can't promise how much, but with Lunala here on our side, I'd say the odds are in our favor."

    "But wait!" Sun cried, taking another step toward Lunala as he seemed to realize what Dulse what implying. "If you do that, then you'll be - !"

    "It's okay," Dulse assured him with a confident smile. "We'll be all right. After all, Zossie still wants to go on a Pokémon journey of her own right here in Alola, remember?"

    Zossie beamed at the Champion as well as he gritted his teeth in frustration, furious with himself for not being able to do anything to help them. "Don't worry, Sun! We'll be back to see you again real soon!"

    "I've heard enough from you traitors!" Rhodo growled as he ground his teeth together furiously. "Necrozma - destroy them all!"

    "And we've had enough of you!" Dulse shot back, ducking down low to Lunala's back and looking toward the back of its head. "Lunala, it's time!"

    The Pokémon they were riding on seemed to oblige, and a third, red eye suddenly shimmered into existence on its forehead amidst the purple starscape. Its entire body began to glow white, accentuating the golden trim decorating its form, and then, seemingly at its command, an Ultra Wormhole sprang into existence behind Necrozma.

    "No - !" Rhodo grunted, eyes widening as he realized what their plan was. He ran up behind Necrozma and jumped onto its back, motioning for Alisma to do the same as he continued, "You won't stop us! Even if you take us back here, Necrozma will only absorb Lunala's light, as well!"

    "The Blinding One cannot be stopped!" Alisma insisted as she climbed onto the creature's back, and took her seat behind Rhodo.

    "We'll see about that," Dulse remarked with a grin. "All right, Lunala, let's go!"

    At his words, Lunala loosed a deafening cry and shoved forward against Necrozma with all of its might. Necrozma roared in reply and pushed back against it, but it was clear that Lunala now held the advantage between the two of them. Slowly but surely, it pushed Necrozma back, tearing apart the concrete beneath its feet as it did so, until finally, the black creature's rear legs stumbled.

    With one last determined cry, Lunala shoved against mightily, carrying both itself and Necrozma, as well as the four humans riding atop them, into the Ultra Wormhole, which promptly shut itself behind them a moment later.

    A wave of silence washed over the area as everyone still present attempted to process what had just happened. Before any of them could think of something to say, Ash collapsed to his knees as the distinct feeling of weakness surged through his body, and he suddenly felt like he hadn't eaten in days.

    "Ash!" Serena cried worriedly, rushing over to his side at once. He managed a smile and waved away her concern, just as Brock, Nanu, Lillie, and Sun all proceeded to recall their respective Pokémon, and converged on Ash and Serena's position, the tension in the air more or less broken now.

    "Well...this was certainly more troublesome than I expected," Nanu murmured, looking around at the destruction that their battle had wrought. "I suppose it's a good thing I came along, after all."

    "Yeah, no kiddin'," Sun agreed, gazing at the rubble with a hopeless expression on his face. "Those two are crazy - I can't believe they actually brought Necrozma into the city like that!"

    "Now you can see why they've been causing everyone so much trouble," Brock remarked grimly through crossed arms.

    Sun's face fell, the older boy's words reminding him that he had been absent for much of the trouble with the Ultra Recon Squad. "Yeah...I sure can. I hope Dulse and the others will be all right..."

    The boy looked to the sky sadly as he spoke, leaving a rather solemn tone hanging in the air from which nobody seemed to want to pick up from. A few moments passed in silence before Lillie, of all people, finally shattered it.

    "Sun...?"

    The blonde's voice cracked as she uttered the boy's name, and it ended up coming out more like a whimper than anything. She stared at him, her eyes quivering as she fought to find the words she wanted to say to him, but nothing came out. Sun avoided her eyes, instead opting to look at the ground with a sudden degree of interest.

    "H-hey, Lillie..." he managed out after an extended bout of silence, scratching the back of his neck awkwardly as he spoke. "It's...been a while, hasn't it?"

    She finally managed to produce a successful smile at his words, though her eyes didn't stop shaking in the slightest. "Y-yes, it has...two months, I think? Or was it three?"

    "Somethin' like that," Sun answered noncommittally with a nervous chuckle. Serena watched Lillie with a glint of sadness in her eyes as their awkward exchange continued, and Brock sighed as he realized that the two of them weren't going to get anywhere speaking like they were.

    Finally, Lillie spoke up again bravely, her voice prodding at Sun for a glint of something that would return the dynamic between the two of them to some degree of normalcy. "So...what are you doing here? Did you decide to come back from Johto?"

    Sun eyed Lillie before he answered, a flicker of surprise crossing his face. When he gave his response, his voice came out lower than it had before, and even Ash could tell that Lillie had touched on a sore spot.

    "Oh...well, yeah, for now, I guess, but I dunno how long I'm stayin'. Long enough to get this mess cleared up, for sure, but after that is anyone's guess right now. I only came back in the first place 'cause the Professor said he needed my help..."

    Lillie's face visibly fell at his words, as if the one hope she'd been holding on to since seeing him show up again had just been shattered.

    "O-oh...I see..." Lillie stammered, her voice uncertain as she stared rather intently at the ground at her feet. "I'm sorry...I - I think I'll just meet you guys back at the Pokémon Center..."

    "L-Lillie, wait!" Serena cried out, but it was too late; the blonde-haired Alolan had already turned tail and run, pounding her feet against the concrete in a desperate bid to separate herself from Sun for the time being. They all stared after as she went, uncertain of how exactly to react to the rapidly-growing level of uncomfortableness that the rift between her and Sun was now causing.

    "Well? You're gonna go after her, right?"

    To everyone's surprise, it was Ash's voice that broke the silence this time. Sun looked over and found the Kantonian staring at him with a blazing look on his face, and that expression alone seemed to give Sun the push he needed to respond. He scratched the back of his neck nervously as a blush crept up on his cheeks unbidden, but he ultimately shook his head at Ash's words.

    "...No. I can't - not after how I left her the last time," Sun murmured, looking away from Ash as he continued massaging the nonexistant itch on his neck. "Guzma was right before - she deserves better than someone like me."

    They all stood there in stunned silence for a moment, none of them quite sure what to say back to him.

    "Look, you guys - thanks for tryin' to help and all, but I gotta sort through this on my own. I'll meet you back at the Pokémon Center later."

    And with that, he was gone as well, ducking around a corner and out of sight before anyone could stop him. Serena looked up at the sky and sighed, unable to come up with any words for their current situation.

    "What are we supposed to do now...?"

    Ash looked over at her helplessly as she spoke, but it was actually Nanu who provided her with an answer. "Well, as much as I want to, even I can't ignore what's going on anymore, not when this kind of damage has been done." He indicated the area around them that had served as their battlefield during Necrozma's attack, and sighed deeply. "I've got to go and help the police out. Not to mention I should probably check in with Professor Kukui, as well...I am a kahuna, after all."

    He nodded to them halfheartedly and took his leave of them, as well, leaving Brock, Serena, and Ash alone in the middle of the destroyed city block. Pikachu was so exhausted from the battle that it hadn't ever gotten back up after Ash's aura had empowered its last attack, and, after realizing that it was still out cold, Ash reluctantly called it back into its Poké Ball for the time being, until they could get back to a Pokémon Center and allow it to recover.

    "Well, I guess all there is for us to do now is wait," Brock remarked, after an extended silence between them. "Even if we knew how to go after Necrozma, our Pokémon are in no condition for another battle like that right now. I don't know how much time Sun's friends are giving us with their diversion, but it'll have to be at least a day, or we're going to lose to that thing, anyway."

    Ash and Serena knew that Brock was right, as usual. Sun and Lillie knew far more about Necrozma and the Ultra Wormholes than they did, so attempting to come up with a plan without the two of them there was pointless. Ash finally nodded at Brock's words, alleviating the tension that had hung in the air ever since the Ultra Wormhole had closed itself up.

    Almost at once, Serena threw her arms around Ash in a bone-crushing hug. He could make out her distinct, feminine scent in an instant despite her ragged clothes, and reveled in the sensation for a moment as she nuzzled her face against his shoulder.

    "Ash...thank goodness you're okay."

    He blushed a bit at her open display of affection, considering Brock was still standing right next to them, but he reached up and put his arms around her all the same. Between the days they'd spent apart, Necrozma's sudden attack, and the fact that both of them had actually been in danger only minutes before, they both felt a strong need to merely feel the other's presence. "I could say the same to you, Serena. What happened while we were gone?"

    He looked down to indicate her filthy hospital clothes, but she merely waved his question away. "It's a long story - I'll fill you both in later. Right now...I just want you to hold me...okay?"

    Ash blinked, but he seemed to realize what she was saying, and nodded silently back in response as he tightened their embrace.

    Brock merely watched on with crossed arms and a smile on his face, not wanting to interrupt their moment together.

    Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Serena pulled back from their embrace, and looked into Ash's vast, brown eyes. Wordlessly, the two leaned in and allowed their lips to connect, both of them allowing their basest need to take priority for once, and after they did, neither of them were quite sure how much time passed before they broke apart from one another.

    When they finally did separate, they continued to hold their faces in close proximity to one another, and Ash leaned his forehead against Serena's as he stared back into her piercing blue orbs. "Serena...? I love you."

    "Mmm..." Serena hummed softly, enjoying the tickle of his breath against her face. "I love you, too, Ash. So much. Don't ever leave me alone again, okay...? At least, not for a while..."

    "Yeah. I promise."

    The two shared another brief kiss, and after they pulled back, Serena suddenly remembered something else that she had stowed in her bag, other than the Altarianite. She peeled herself off of Ash and slipped her backpack down off her shoulders as he watched on curiously.

    "Oh - I almost forgot about this. Here you go."

    She giggled to herself softly as she presented Ash with his red and white cap, complete with the half-Poké Ball logo stylishly emblazoned on the front of it. He stared at it in surprise for a moment, having almost entirely forgotten that he'd left it behind with her upon his departure from Malie City. With a grateful smile, he took it from her and replaced it on his head smoothly. "Thanks, Serena."

    "Are you two all finished, then?"

    Serena turned and smiled sheepishly at Brock, unable to stop herself from blushing, now that she was reminded that he had been standing there this whole time. "Oh...sorry about that, Brock."

    "No, it's okay, really," Brock insisted, holding his hands up in the air to hold back her apology. "But we really do need to get with Lillie and Sun and figure this whole thing out."

    "Yeah, you're right," Ash agreed, crossing his arms in deliberation. "But how do we get them to make up?"

    "I think I know what's wrong with Lillie. We talked a lot over the last few days," Serena admitted with a girlish chuckle. "I should be able to fix things on her end. Do you think you two can take care of Sun?"

    Ash and Brock looked at one another and smiled confidently. "Yeah. We've got this."

    "Then let's meet back up at the Pokémon Center when we're finished with them, all right?" Brock remarked, to which Ash and Serena both nodded. "Oh, and, uh...feel free to change clothes if you want, first, Serena."

    Serena grinned at him and nodded, eager to finally be rid of her uncomfortable, tacky-looking patient garb. Ash and Brock both waved back to her as she began walking off down the street, and, once she was gone, they turned and looked at each other in deliberation.

    "So...where do you think we should we start looking for Sun?"

    "Hmm...I don't know, to tell you the truth. Is there anywhere in the city you think he might want to go?"

    Ash hesitated for a moment, trying to remember the landmarks he'd seen during their first visit to the city a few days ago. After a bit of thinking, he recalled a particular building that had seemed a bit out of place to him at the time, and thought that it was as good a place to start as any, especially if Sun was as similar to him as Brock thought he was.

    "Yeah, I think I've got an idea," Ash replied, motioning for Brock to follow him as he started off down the street opposite the path Serena had taken.

    "Really?" Brock questioned as he fell in step beside his younger companion. "Where'd you have in mind?"

    Ash merely smiled back in response. "You'll see."

    After the pair had walked about a quarter of a mile away from the site of the battle with Necrozma, they encountered a makeshift police barricade, which didn't surprise Ash all that much. When they stepped past the line of police cars and into the view of the police officers, it looked as if some of them wanted to question the two of them, but they were quickly talked down by an Officer Jenny that seemed to be in charge of the whole situation. She waved to them as they passed through the roadblock, and they were able to continue on through the city without further incident.

    After a few minutes of navigating through the old-fashioned buildings that made up much of the city, their destination finally came into view at the end of a long stretch of empty road. As they approached it, Ash's hunch was quickly confirmed as they saw a lone figure standing outside the facility, staring up at its walls with an expression of utmost longing on his face.

    "I knew I was right about you. You like this place too, huh?"

    Ash's voice seemed to shake him out of his introspection, and he turned away from the Kantonian-style Gym to face them in surprise. His face fell when he saw them, though, as if he suspected what they were planning to speak to him about.

    "Y-yeah. One of the reasons I wanted to go to Johto was to find out what it was like to challenge a series of real Pokémon Gyms."

    Sun's voice came out shaky and nervous, betraying the topic that was really on his mind. Ash and Brock sharing a knowing look at each other before the elder of the two stepped forward to address him personally. "Sun...you didn't forget what I told you earlier, did you?"

    Ash's mind flashed back to a few hours before, when the former Gym Leader had imparted some keen words of advice to both himself and the Alolan Champion while they were traveling to find Nanu.

    "No, I - I didn't forget. I'm just tryin' to think about her feelings, too - " Sun stammered, quickly shaking his head in response to Brock's accusation.

    "No, you're not. That's just what you're telling yourself, to spare you from having to admit what's really going on."

    "What're you talkin' about...?" Sun stammered uncertainly. "Th-that's not how it is! I just know that she's been hurt by people close to her before, and I don't want to put her through that again!"

    "Mm-hm. I understand." Brock's voice was low and monotonous as he nodded in agreement. "You're scared."

    "What - ? That's not what I - !"

    "You're scared of the idea that she might be willing to put herself through more hardships if it meant being with you. You care about her, and so that thought terrifies you."

    "I said, you're wrong!" Sun repeated in a seething growl, his frustration quickly turning to anger. Brock didn't falter, however, and merely continued trudging on with his perspective of the situation.

    "Admit it, Sun - you were too scared to tell her how you felt before you left, because you either thought she didn't feel the same way, or because you didn't want her to have to make the decision of leaving with you or staying in Alola. And now, you're too scared to tell her because you're afraid that she does feel the same way, and that she'll forgive you for what you did - "

    "I'm not scared!" Sun spat, cutting off Brock's tirade with a wave of his hand. When Brock moved to open his mouth to speak again, Sun clenched his fist tightly, and beat him to the punch. "J-Just shut up! What do you know about it, anyway?!"

    He reared back and swung his fist at Brock's face, but to his surprise, Ash stepped forward and caught it with his hand, a sympathetic smile on his face as he did so.

    "I know about it then you'd think," the former Gym Leader remarked, glancing over at Ash like he knew that he would step in and catch the punch for him. "You really are a lot like Ash, you know?"

    "He's right. I know how you feel, more than I'd like to admit, heh," Ash admitted sheepishly, wiping some nonexistent dirt from under his nose in embarrassment. "Listen, Sun, it's not all about making sure she's happy a hundred percent of the time. She's a person, just like you; she's gonna be upset sometimes, it just happens. Part of caring about her is realizing that, sometimes, you're not going to get along."

    Sun's eyes widened, and he looked at Ash in wonder as the boy's face fell. Ash wasn't sure where the words he was speaking were coming from; he was fully aware that he wasn't exactly in the best position to be lecturing someone else on the finer points of how relationships worked. But even so, watching Sun struggle against his feelings so tenaciously reminded Ash a little of himself, and the troubles he'd had to deal with in his own relationship over the past few months.

    "But..." Sun stammered, as his arm fell limply from Ash's grasp, back to his side, and the Kantonian thought he saw tears forming in the Alolan boy's eyes. "How...how do you deal with that...? If I knew that Lillie was in pain because of me, I don't think I'd be able to stand it..."

    Brock frowned, and he took a step toward the young Champion. "Don't you get it? She has been hurting because of you, whether you realized it or not. She's missed you ever since you left to go to Johto."

    Sun gritted his teeth, and he swiped his arm out in front of him in frustration. "That's not the same thing! It'd be even worse if I'd have told her how I felt back then!"

    Brock sighed irritably at the boy's stubbornness, and Sun took a step toward them. "Let me ask you something - how can you expect me to be with her when I know it's only going to end up hurting her? Answer me that, why don't you!"

    Ash hesitated for a moment, as even he wasn't quite sure of how to respond to Sun's question. He was familiar with Sun's dilemma, more so than he'd like to admit. The question that the Alolan Champion was posing wasn't too far off from the same one he'd been asking himself ever since the conclusion of his journey in Kalos. He scanned the ground beneath their feet as if the answer was buried somewhere beneath the concrete, pondering the words he'd received from Brock and Clemont over the past couple of weeks.

    "I think that you shouldn't look at it as you just dragging her around with you. Instead, try to see it as her goals becoming one with your own."

    "Do you really want this to be the way it is, forever? ...You both deserve to be happy, that's all I'm saying."

    And, with all the subtlety of a hurricane, the answer came to him, just as a sudden gust from the coastal breeze ruffled his hair - though not nearly as much as it would have a day ago, now that he was wearing his hat again. He opened his mouth to give Sun his response, and he almost felt as though he were speaking to his own reflection as the words spilled out of his mouth from the depths of his mind.

    "No...that's just it. I don't think you can really be with someone without hurting at least a little bit. Because, in the end, that's really what's it all about, right? Two people giving up part of themselves to become one. I think that that's why it's not easy to be in love with someone...if it was, it wouldn't really be something special, would it?"

    Sun merely stared on in silence as he spoke, his eyes and ears hanging on Ash's every word. Even Brock looked over at him and smiled proudly.

    "That's it, Sun. That's the answer." As Ash spoke, he made a concentrated effort to reign in his growing excitement as he realized that it was also the answer that he and Serena had been searching for. "If she's willing to go through some pain to be with you, then you've got no right to take that away from her. If you do, then Brock's right - you're just running away, acting scared."

    Ash's words rang truer for himself than he guessed Sun realized, and it dawned on him that he was guilty of the very same fear that Sun was experiencing right now.

    "After all...you've been going through some pain of your own during your journey in Johto, haven't you?" Brock questioned, cocking his eyebrow knowingly at the Alolan Champion.

    "But..." Sun stammered once again, his mind frantically searching for some excuse to prevent him from admitting to the obvious truth in their words. When he failed to come up with any, he gritted his teeth in an attempt to to keep the tears in his eyes at bay, and choked out, "But...I...I left her alone for so long..."

    Ash and Brock smiled at him in unison, and Ash reached out to put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "It's okay. You can make up for all of that, if you just go talk to her now."

    Sun looked up at him, wiping away the stray tears that were falling down his cheeks as he murmured, "...Right. I got it now...Thanks, you guys."

    Brock shook his head at once. "Hey, thank us later, all right? Right now, she's out there waiting for you."

    Sun nodded as he seemed to realize what Brock was saying, and slapped himself on his cheeks a couple of times to psyche himself up. "Yeah...yeah, you're right. Okay, then...I'll catch you guys later!"

    He waved goodbye to them as he took off down the street, and Brock and Ash couldn't help but continue smiling as they returned the gesture. After he disappeared into the urban jungle, Brock looked down at his younger companion proudly.

    "So...it sounds like you found your answer, too."

    Ash looked back at him and nodded. "Yeah, I think I did. Thanks, Brock - I couldn't have done it without your help."

    Brock nodded back at him. "Sure. Just make sure you talk to Serena about it soon, all right? After all, it seems like all of us are Necrozma's targets, now."

    Ash agreed, and shot his own gaze skyward to observe the darkening twilight sky. And, despite the truth to Brock's warning, he found that he couldn't help but feel a distinct sense of hope, as if a burden he hadn't even realized he'd been carrying had now been lifted from his shoulders.
     
  18. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Hey, everyone! Sorry that this one was so late on the forum here - I posted this a couple weeks ago on FF.net and promptly forgot to copy it over to here as well. Honest mistake, and I'm sorry!

    Chapter 18: Give A Little Bit

    "Um...Sun? What are you going to do...once you finish your Island Challenge?"


    "I don't really know, to be honest..."

    "I think...I'd like to become a Trainer, too. And travel together with you, Sun..."

    "..."

    Lillie sighed deeply and attempted to push the memory of that rainy day out of her head. When that effort failed, she instead resorted to burying her head in her arms, silently wishing that her problems would simply dissolve away into nonexistence if she merely shut her eyes hard enough.

    "Are you okay?"

    The pleasant chime of Serena's voice brought the Kalosian's presence to her attention, and Lillie lifted her head to look at her in surprise, not even attempting to mask the storm of emotions that was currently flying through her head. "O-oh...Serena, what are you doing here?"

    The Performer smiled warmly and took a seat opposite her at the table. They were in the Pokémon Center's cafeteria, and Lillie noticed that Serena was finally wearing her usual outfit again, as opposed to the dirty patient outfit that she'd unfortunately been stuck in for most of the day's events. This led Lillie to assume that the girl had, at the very least, made a stop in a bathroom before coming to find her, making her second-guess her perception of just how long she'd been sitting alone, lost in her thoughts. "I came looking for you when you ran off. Don't you think you should try to work things out with Sun...?"

    Lillie hesitated at her question before frowning and looking away. "I...I don't know, anymore. All this time, I thought that I just wanted to see him again, but now that he's back..."

    Serena looked at the girl patiently, allowing her to find the words she needed on her own.

    "...I don't know," Lillie repeated dejectedly. "I don't know what I'm feeling. Part of me is glad that he's finally come back, but..."

    "Lillie...we talked about this," Serena murmured, clasping her hands on the table in front of her and leaning down slightly in an attempt to coax out the blonde's eyes. "You've been in love with Sun this whole time, right? So it must have torn you up inside when he left. I know you've been trying to act like you're okay, but, to be honest, I've wondered about the two of you since the first time you mentioned him."

    "Serena..." Lillie breathed as she brought her eyes up to meet her friend's gaze. She couldn't say she was surprised at the girl's deductions; after all, it had been her who had first suggested that Lillie was in love with Sun in the first place. "But what am I supposed to do now? When I look at him, I can't help but remember how hard it's been these last few months..."

    Serena nodded in understanding, and Lillie suddenly wondered if her and Ash had ever had a falling-out like the one she was describing. "That's okay; I'd be surprised if you weren't at least a little mad at him. But you're never going to fix anything unless you talk to him about it."

    "...What if...I don't really know if I want to fix it?"

    "Lillie...don't you at least want to try? I know you care about him."

    "I...I don't know. Is it really worth all of this...?"

    "Listen, Lillie...there's something about me you should know. Before I met Ash, I didn't know what I wanted to do with myself. I hated the goal that my mom had picked out for me, and I didn't want to be a Pokémon Trainer, either. Going with him on his journey was sort of an excuse to put off having to decide all of that for a while. But...at some point along the way, I was able to discover something I really loved doing, something that I wanted to dedicate my life to. If I hadn't have been brave enough to leave home and go find Ash that time, I'm not so sure I wouldn't still be sitting around at home right now."

    "My point is - sometimes, you've just got to give a little bit. I can't promise that it's always going to be fun - but that's what makes it all worth it in the end. I know he left you behind before, and I know you haven't seen him in a while...but I really think you should try giving him another chance."

    Lillie wondered how the girl could have so much faith in Sun, given that she hadn't even actually met him yet. But then it dawned on her that much of what she was saying was likely taken from her own experiences with Ash. She trusted Serena, and wanted desperately to listen to her advice. But she still couldn't deny the small twinge of reservation she felt toward the notion of simply accepting Sun back like nothing had happened.

    Her train of thought was suddenly cut short as she heard footsteps approaching them, followed quickly by Sun's all-too-familiar voice dusting her ears, which subsequently spared Lillie from having to make a decision regarding Serena's words herself.

    "Hey, uh, Lillie," he began awkwardly, scratching the back of his neck and casting an uncomfortable gaze at Serena. "Can I...talk to you? Alone?"

    Lillie ignored him, not meeting his eyes nor responding to his request. She could feel both his and Serena's gaze on her as she stared at the empty gray table situated between all three of them. She opened her moth to answer after a few moments, but the words died in her throat, and she continued to sit there in silence.

    "...Please, Lillie. I want to talk to you about this...about everything."

    She wasn't sure what it was, but something in his voice managed to break her walls down, and she finally looked up at him uncertainly. She tried to speak again, but she still couldn't quite find her voice, and instead resorted to a simple nod to get her message across.

    Sun's expression lightened slightly at her approval, and Serena smiled as she stood up from the table.

    "I'll leave you two alone, then."

    Sun's gaze didn't waver as Serena walked past him, retracing the same steps that he'd taken to find them until she was out of sight. Once she was gone, he moved to take her seat across from Lillie, putting their faces in rather close proximity to one another, and she was forced to avert her eyes again.

    Sun continued staring at her silently, and as he did, she realized that even though she had recently come to terms with her feelings for him, that didn't necessarily mean that he had done the same. They'd had no contact since he'd left Alola, after all, and the status of their relationship even then had been hazy at best.

    "Why...?" Lillie murmured softly without raising her head, after what felt like an eternity. Her soft voice pleaded with him, begging him to answer the questions that had been gnawing at her sanity for the last two months. "Why did you leave?"

    Sun hesitated a moment before replying, "I told you before...I went to Johto, to start a new journey. I felt like there was still more I needed to see...I wanted to get stronger on my own, away from all of this."

    "Away from...me?" Lillie murmured, choking out the words that encapsulated the fears she'd been harboring about his departure for months. Once again, he seemed to take a moment to choose his words before giving his answer.

    "N-no...that's not what I meant. You know I never wanted to stay here and be the Champion. I'd always planned to go on another journey after the Island Challenge."

    Lillie was silent for a moment as she considered his words. "Yeah...I know. But when I asked you about it, that day on Exeggutor Island, you told me that you didn't know what you were planning yet...and after everything that happened with us, I...well, I thought - "

    "Listen, I'm sorry." Sun interrupted, cutting her off before she could finish. Despite his abruptness, she could hear the genuine regret in his voice. "I know I left too quickly. I should've made sure it was good with everyone before I did, especially you. If I had, I might've still been around when Ilima disappeared, and I might've been able to stop all of this - "

    "That's not what I meant!"

    Her sudden outburst surprised even herself, and Sun was left to stare at her bouncing ponytail in shock as her head bobbed back and forth slightly, indicating to him that she was crying. He cautiously reached a hand out toward her before her head shot up at last, allowing him to finally able to see her puffy, bloodshot eyes with his own.

    "I wanted to go with you!" she cried out at once, causing Sun's hand to drop to the table like a rock as he froze on the spot. "After everything that you taught me, and everything that we went through together back then...all I wanted was to stay together with you. Don't you remember? I told you that day - I wanted to go on a journey of my own, with you at my side."

    This time it was Sun's turn to look away from her, and he frowned as a mask of guilt washed over his features. "...I do remember. But you've got plenty of friends here in Alola now. You didn't need me to tag along with you...I probably would've just made things harder on you."

    "No!" Lillie insisted, clenching her fists tightly as she felt herself unraveling before him. "I - I wanted it to be you! Not Mallow, or Lana, or anyone else - you!"

    Sun stared back at her tear-rimmed eyes in shock, and Lillie was reminded of how much she loved the stormy gray color of his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, then hesitated for a moment once again, the uncertainty on his face seeming to get the better of him. "...Why? Why do you care so much that it's me?"

    She forced herself to hold his gaze and sniffed, fighting to keep her tears held back now. She still wasn't sure whether or not she was willing to admit her truest feelings to him just yet, and part of her wasn't convinced that he wasn't just playing dumb right now. "You mean you still don't know?"

    Sun examined her closely, and she couldn't quite guess whether or not he knew based on her coy evasion of his question. "I...uh...listen..." he stammered, his words coming out awkward and choppy. Finally, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When his eyes opened again, he looked straight into her eyes, and continued, "The truth is, I left because I was scared. I...liked you, Lillie. But I wasn't sure how you felt about me, and after they told me that I was supposed to be the first Champion for winnin' at the Pokémon League, I didn't know what to do. I talked to my mom about it, and she told me that if I felt like my heart was telling me to go on another journey, then that's what I should do."

    Lillie's stomach did a backflip at his sudden confession to her, and her mouth opened preemptively with the questions that were racing through her mind - but she forced herself to remain silent and allow him to finish.

    "But, even so...I couldn't bring myself to tell everyone that I was leaving. I didn't want to hear everyone's lectures about how I oughta stay and do my duty as the Champion...and I sure didn't want to put you through having to hear my plans, either. It was a whole lot easier for me to just leave quietly, on my own. I can see now that I only made stuff harder for everybody with my stupid ideas..."

    He sighed in exasperation, and finished the gesture he'd started a few minutes prior, reaching across the table and placing his hand on her arm. "I'm sorry that I left everyone behind. And I'm sorry that I left you, too. I don't know how I can make up for everything, but I feel like I've gotta start somewhere. I guess I can't ask you to forgive me, but...can we at least work together for now? For the others' sake?"

    Lillie swallowed hard as she listened to his words, and she suddenly heard Serena's advice echo throughout her mind once again.

    "Sometimes, you've just got to give a little bit."

    Despite her conflicted feelings on the matter, she knew that Sun was important to her, and she could tell that something had changed from how he had been before he left. It seemed like he was actually trying to make up for what he had done, which cemented his statement about being sorry for leaving in the first place.

    In that moment, she decided at last to have faith in his words once again, as well as in the suggestion that Serena had given her. She covered his hand with her own and leaned in closer to him, her blonde hair framing her face perfectly, as well as offsetting his jet-black with an equal level of flawlessness.

    "Y-you like me...?" she murmured, her voice almost a whisper as she practically breathed her words directly into Sun's face. He blushed at their sudden proximity, but didn't deny what she had said. Sure that she was blushing at this point, as well, she continued, "W-well...in that case, maybe I can forgive you, after all. Because...I like you, too, Sun."

    She saw his eyes widen as she continued closing the distance between them, and the next thing she knew, she had covered his lips with her own. She could feel his surprise at the sudden kiss, and she thought her heart was going to explode from how fast it was beating. After a moment, he seemed to relax a bit, and even leaned into a bit himself before Lillie finally forced herself to pull away.

    "I wasn't sure about it before, but...when I found out you were gone, I thought I would go crazy. I couldn't stop thinking about you..." she murmured, wiping her tear-stained eyes with her hands. "Every day, I found myself wondering what you were doing, or if you were thinking about me...I couldn't stand it."

    Sun blinked, and she guessed that his mind was still hazy from the first kiss that they had just shared together. Not that she could blame him for that, given the state of her stomach and heart rate at the moment.

    "...I'm sorry. Back then, I was afraid that you didn't feel the same way that I did, and I drove myself crazy thinking about what would happen if I tried to drag you along on my trip to Johto. So, I took the easy way out, instead, and I left you behind."

    She cupped his face in her hand and nudged his eyes back toward hers. "Yes...I think I understand now. I was afraid, too...that's why I didn't ask you about it myself at the time. I was afraid you only saw me as the Professor's assistant, who couldn't do anything for herself..."

    Sun clamped his hands down on her shoulders firmly, and a look of concern sprang to life in his eyes. "I never saw you like that! You were never useless, and you did plenty on your own. You even stood up to your own mother when she was saying those terrible things about you!"

    Her eyes widened at his words, and she felt her face heating up as Sun so easily managed to dispel the doubts she'd been having about herself ever since she'd met him.

    "Listen...I've messed up a lot. I haven't figured out what I'm going to do yet, and I'm probably going to mess up a lot more in the future...but...one thing I've got figured out, thanks to all this."

    "What is it?"

    "I don't want to leave you behind again. I want us to stay together from now on, whatever we end up doing. From now on, that's my goal."

    And with that, it was his turn to place his mouth over hers. The kiss was smoother this time, as both of them actually seemed ready for it, unlike during their previous attempt. And, now that their feelings had all been put out in the open, she found that it was much easier to enjoy it.

    "I hope those two can work things out," Ash remarked cheerily as the trio strode up the counter, catching the attention of Nurse Joy on the other side. She appeared to be a bit frazzled for some reason, and none of her Pokémon assistants were anywhere in sight.

    "Oh, hello again," the pinkette greeted breathlessly as she approached them. "What can I do for you three tonight? You weren't caught up in that incident outside, too, were you?"

    "Incident?" Serena repeated back to her, sharing a look of apprehension with Ash and Brock.

    "Yes...I don't know what's happened out there, but you could hear it even from here, whatever it was. And then, about half an hour ago, people started coming in like crazy. I wish I knew what was going on..."

    Serena blinked at her uncertainly and looked around the lobby; sure enough, now that it had been pointed out to her, she noticed a good deal more Trainers than she'd typically seen in Alola's Pokémon Centers, most of them sitting around looking distraught.

    "Uh...right...um, can you look after our Pokémon, too, please?" Ash requested politely, smartly dodging around the topic of their battle with Necrozma. Nurse Joy nodded and set out a pair of circular trays with Poké Ball-sized indentations marring its surface. The three of them all reached into their bags and produced a handful of capsules each; Ash and Brock had been needing this visit especially bad, as they hadn't gotten a chance to let their teams recover ever since departing Malie City with Guzma the morning prior.

    With eight of their Poké Balls stowed securely on the trays, Nurse Joy picked them back up and smiled happily at the three Trainers. "Don't worry; I'll take care of them all right away!"

    And with that, she was gone, whisking away their Pokémon into an unseen room behind the counter. With their one errand now taken care of, the three turned away from the counter and headed further into the Pokémon Center, which appeared to be a bit larger than the one in Heahea City, given that its lobby was compromised of more than just one room.

    "Sun and Lillie should be all right now. I think what you said to him back there really might've had an impact," Brock remarked as they found an unoccupied booth and sat themselves down at it.

    "You think so?" Ash replied, allowing Serena to take her seat first before sliding into place next to her, leaving Brock to plant himself opposite the two of them by himself. "I'm not really sure where I got all that stuff from...but hearing him talk about what he's gone through kinda reminded me of myself."

    Brock nodded sagely at his words as Serena glanced over at Ash with a curious glint in her eyes. "What stuff?"

    "Ah..." Ash stammered, feeling the weight of both her eyes on him as she awaited his response. Despite his claim to Sun that he had found the answer he had been searching for, he hadn't yet had time to figure out what, exactly, that actually meant for him and Serena. And he wasn't comfortable presenting another topic that he didn't fully understand to her so soon after solving the debacle about their feelings. "It's nothing - I'll tell you about it later, 'kay?"

    Serena frowned at her boyfriend's evasive answer, and decided to modify her original question rather than simply asking it again, knowing how stubborn Ash could be when he really wanted to be. "What did Sun tell you guys, anyway? I'm kind of curious to know what's been up with him this whole time. Where did you even find him?"

    "It's more like he found us, to tell you the truth," Brock admitted sheepishly. "We've sure got a lot to bring you up to speed on."

    She looked over at him and began to listen intently as both he and Ash began explaining the events that had transpired after she had fallen unconscious following their initial battle with Rhodo. Most of it followed what Lillie had told Serena once she'd woken up in the hospital - at least, it did up until they got to the part about them driving down the island coast toward the Aether House.

    After they mentioned Acerola's name, Serena remembered hearing it before when Lillie was telling them about the Captains of Ula'ula Island. Her eyes widened when they told her about Tapu Bulu's attack on the orphanage, as well as its apparent cooperation with Tupp, Rapp, and Zipp. She was relieved to discover that things seemed to get much quieter after Sun's surprise appearance, and the two of them finished off the story rather poignantly by explaining how they had left Sun behind to deal with Team Rocket, just as the Champion himself called out to them from across the room.

    "Hey, guys," Sun's voice rang, and they all turned in unison to find him striding up toward them vigorously with Lillie at his side. Serena couldn't help but notice that their hands were locked together, and her lips twisted into a small smile as a result. "Uh...were you waiting on us?"

    Brock nodded at him in response, causing the dark-haired Trainer to scratch the back of his neck sheepishly. "Ah...sorry about that. I didn't mean to...well..."

    "What he means is, we're okay now," Lillie finished for him, a dazzling smile present on her face as she spoke. "By the way, it looks like Ash and Brock have already met him, but that still leaves you out, Serena. So, Serena...this is Sun."

    Serena couldn't help but return the girl's smile as she proudly introduced the boy that she had been talking about since the day they'd met her. Her own opinion of him hadn't changed much since she'd first seen him outside; she still thought he looked oddly like Ash, but with a bit of an islander-style twist to him thanks to his clothes. But then again, after hearing so much about him from Lillie over the past week or so, it was hard for her to produce an unbiased opinion of him. "Hi there, Sun. I'm Serena! It's nice to finally meet you."

    Sun nodded politely to her. "Yeah, you too. I guess Lillie's told you guys a lot about me already. You're Ash's girlfriend, right?"

    Serena blinked in surprise, the question taking off guard for a moment. She wasn't quite sure why he would have already known who she was at this point, unless Ash had told him about her. "Y-yeah, I am. Why?"

    "Ash told me about what happened with Rhodo's Nihilego the other day. I'm sorry for that. If I'd been here like I was supposed to, you might not have been hurt like that."

    Serena stared at the boy for a moment, and she could tell that he felt genuinely responsible for what had happened, despite the fact that there was no guarantee that his presence in Alola would have made any difference at all in that particular scenario. "No, it's not your fault. You can't blame yourself for that. If anything, it's Rhodo's fault!"

    Sun's face lightened a bit at her kind words, and Lillie smiled at the both of them sweetly.

    "Thanks for saying that, Serena. Anyway, what's up? What were you guys talkin' about?"

    Brock's gaze fell at Sun's question, and he crossed his arms deliberately across his chest. "It's obvious, isn't it? We've got to find a way to defeat Necrozma. It'd be best if we had a way to stop it before it appeared again, to prevent any further damage to Alola...but you two are the experts on that. We didn't even know where to start without you here."

    "I see..." Sun mused, putting a hand to his chin as the possibilities began to form in his mind's eye. "Mind if we sit down here, Brock?"

    The older Kantonian didn't reply, which Sun seemed to take as an affirmative. He allowed Lillie to slide onto the bench first before he took his place next to her, leaving Brock mildly scrunched against the inside wall of the booth.

    "Well...if we wanted to go after them, we'd have to have a way to open an Ultra Wormhole. Nebby can do it, but...well, he's out of our reach right now."

    Lillie's eyes hardened a bit at the mention of Solgaleo being absorbed by Necrozma; Ash, on the other hand, was left to look across the table at Sun inquisitively. "Nebby? Serena said that name before, too, during the battle back there. Who is it?"

    "Oh, yeah - it's Lillie's nickname for Solgaleo, one of this region's Legendary Pokémon," Sun explained with a chuckle. "She's actually known it for a while."

    Serena blinked and looked over at Lillie, who was smiling sheepishly in a way that confirmed what Sun was saying. "That explains how you recognized it back when you first saw it with me!'

    "Yeah," Lillie agreed with a nod. "Though I still can't believe it showed itself to you, and even healed you! I haven't seen it myself since the last incident with Necrozma."

    There was a touch of sadness in her voice, and Serena guessed that there was more to their shared history than she was letting on. Not that Serena had any intention of prying into her past at this point.

    "Anyway, you guys saw it yourself: Necrozma's absorbed Nebby's essence, which means that until we defeat Necrozma, we can't help Nebby out at all. We need to find another way to get to Ultra Space."

    Sun's statement seemed to put a damper on everyone's mood; nobody spoke up right away with another suggestion, and after a few moments of silence, she heard Ash grumbling in irritation under his breath.

    "Yo yo, your man Guzma's in the house!"

    Serena snapped her head around at the unfamiliar voice, and was met almost at once with the sight of a man she didn't recognize swaggering over to them with a clear sense of purpose, followed closely by a much more friendly-looking young girl that appeared to be around their age.

    "Hey, what took you guys so long?" Sun asked them, and she was able to guess that this must have been the man named Guzma that Ash and Brock had told her about in their story.

    "Yo, I got here as fast as I could, all right?" he barked irritably. "We had to stop by the police station and drop off those three bozos first, remember? Anyway, what's up with that mess outside? Looks like a bomb went off or somethin'."

    "That's...not too far from the truth, actually," Sun admitted grimly. Guzma blinked in confusion and looked over to Ash and Brock to provide clarification.

    "...It was Necrozma. The Ultra Recon Squad attacked Lillie and Serena before we'd even made it back to the city," Brock explained, and Guzma's eyes widened in horror at the mention of the beast's name.

    "N-Necrozma - ?!" he stammered, sharing a look of dread with the younger girl at his side. "Those weirdos really have lost their minds!"

    "But, Sun...I thought you defeated Necrozma back then, when you went through the Ultra Wormhole with Solgaleo," the young girl remarked, a quizzical expression on her face.

    Sun turned to regard her seriously as he answered, "Yeah, I did defeat it - but I guess Rhodo and Alisma found it again. Those two aren't like the other members of the Ultra Recon Squad, and they've got no intention of being friendly with us."

    Guzma crossed his arms in deliberation, now wearing a much more worried expression than he had upon first walking up to them. "So...what's the plan, then? Did you guys defeat it already or what?"

    Lillie shook her head sadly. "No...some of Sun's friends from the Ultra Recon Squad saved us. They managed to take Rhodo, Alisma, and Necrozma back through an Ultra Wormhole. They even had Lunala with them."

    "No kiddin'..."

    "Yeah, and right now, we need another way to open an Ultra Wormhole so that we can follow them. Do you know any way we can do that?"

    "Hrrm..." Guzma grumbled, shutting his eyes tight as he appeared to rack his brains for a possible solution to their plight. "Well, there is one thing that the prez has been researchin' for a bit. I don't really get how it works, but there's a gizmo back at the Foundation that's supposed to be able to use Z-Energy to open an Ultra Wormhole. Thing is, she always said that you'd need way too much of the stuff for it to ever be able to work, and so it's never been finished, or even tested."

    "Using Z-Energy...? My mother's been working on that?" Lillie remarked, a bit blown away by Guzma's words. Serena wasn't sure why it would come as a shock to her, given that it was her own mother they were discussing, but decided against bringing that up for the time being.

    "Wait, wait - how much Z-Energy are we talkin' about here, Guzma?" Sun asked with a great degree of interest.

    "Oh, uh - I dunno, really. She just always said it'd be impossible to get it all together. I think she's been tryin' to find a way to fix it or whatever so that it doesn't take so much, but last time I checked, nothin' had changed with it."

    A silence passed over the group as they all pondered Guzma's words. Serena was certainly no expert when it came to the workings of Z-Energy, other than the fact that Rhodo and Alisma seemed dead set on capturing Ash and using the special kind of power inside of him to fuel their plans.

    "Wait..." Serena thought to herself, doing a mental double-take at the thought that had just crossed her mind. "They've been after Ash's power this whole time...so then, that means..."

    "Hey...I've got an idea..." she began slowly, drawing the attention of everyone else at the table. She turned to Ash uncertainly and continued, "Why don't we try using Ash's energy to open it?"

    "Huh? Ash's energy?" Guzma snapped back at once. "Didn't ya hear what I just said? We'd need a hundred of him, or maybe even a thousand, to get enough power."

    "No...that's not what she means," Brock remarked. "I guess you haven't seen it yet, Guzma, but Ash has something like a well of energy stored up inside of him. I think that's what Serena's talking about."

    "Well of energy?" Guzma repeated blankly, shooting Ash an incredulous stare. "What the heck are you talkin' about? You mean you've got a giant amount of Z-Energy inside of you somewhere?"

    "I dunno...I mean, I used to think it was Mega Evolution energy, but ever since we ran into Rhodo for the first time, he's been saying that I've got tons of 'light' stored inside of me," Ash explained, which did little to change the disbelieving expression on Guzma's face. "So...I guess they must be the same thing."

    "Wow, Ash, is that really true?" Sun asked, his face awash with wonder at the concept. "I guess that explains what happened back there with Necrozma, and why it's so intent on grabbing you."

    Ash nodded in response, but before anyone else could utter another word, the young girl that had come in with Guzma chimed in with an awestruck comment of her own.

    "Ash, that's amazing! Professor Kukui's been trying to prove a connection between Mega Evolution energy and Z-Energy for forever! If you can show him that there really is a link between the two, then - !"

    "All right, all right, calm down there, squirt," Guzma barked roughly, patting her head as she practically bobbed up and down on the spot with excitement. "First things first, yeah? If what you guys are sayin' is true, then we gotta book it over to the Aether Foundation and talk to the prez about this. If Ash here really can open a Wormhole with his power or whatever, then all the gear we need is gonna be there."

    They all shared a look with one another before nodding as a group, finalizing their next step in unison. The next thing they heard was the loud, contagious sound of Ash yawning, followed by him asking, "Yeah, sounds good, but we're going tomorrow, right? I'm totally beat..."

    "Oh, that's right - Sun, I meant to ask you," Brock asked, looking over at the Alolan Champion seriously." How much time do you think your friends can buy us, anyway?"

    Sun's face darkened at the reminder of what it was that had bought them this temporary respite. "I don't know, to be honest. But they wouldn't have gone to the trouble of attackin' Rhodo and Alisma all the way out here in Alola if they didn't think they could delay them for at least a little while. If you ask me, I'd guess that they're runnin' them around in circles through Ultra Space right about now. Remember, Necrozma's really attracted to Z-Energy - and Lunala's got plenty of it to spare."

    "I see...but, do you really think they can keep that up for twelve hours, or maybe even longer?"

    Sun shot him a confident smile that served to lighten the mood a bit, and stood up from the table. "Hey, don't sell Dulse and Zossie short. They're tougher than they look, especially if they've got Phyco and Soliera backin' them up."

    Brock frowned, but didn't push the issue further. Lillie, meanwhile, turned her head to look at Sun, the position on the bench next to her now vacant. "Sun? Where are you going?"

    "Where do you think?" he joked as he held out his hand toward her. "I'm starving! We haven't eaten anything since we left the Aether House this morning. C'mon, let's go find somethin' to eat!"

    Lillie sighed as she placed her hand in his and allowed him to help her out of the booth, but Serena could tell that the girl was happy. "We'll meet up with you guys again in the morning, all right? Just hang out here at the Pokémon Center if you can't find us. We'll be around!"

    Ash, Brock, and Serena nodded together at Sun's words, and they waved a quick and impromptu farewell to the pair as he and Lillie made their way back toward the front of the Pokémon Center. As they went, Serena couldn't help but notice Guzma giving them a disgusted stare, and he murmured something under his breath that she couldn't quite make out.

    As soon as they were gone, the young girl looked over at Serena and sang, "Hey, you're Serena, right? It's nice to meet you! I'm Acerola, a Captain here on Ula'ula Island."

    "Oh...!" Serena remarked in surprise, remembering the name as one of the people they'd come to this island for in the first place. "I'm sorry, I should be the one introducing myself. We came here to protect you, after all..."

    "Don't worry about that. Your friends have already been taking care of that!" Acerola assured her with a gleeful smile. "Hey, you're really pretty, you know? We should go shopping together sometime, when all of this is over!"

    Serena smiled warmly at the young girl's jubilance despite their present situation, just as a faint blush dusted her cheeks at the compliment. "Thanks! I'd love to go shopping with you!"

    "All right! It's a promise, then!"

    Guzma smirked at them as they grinned gleefully at each other and turned away from the table. "Guess I'll go an' call up the prez, then, to let her know we're comin' by tomorrow," he remarked, running a hand through his bone-white hair as he spoke. "You guys watch the runt for now, all right? Aw...I guess this means I'm stayin' in a hotel tonight..."

    He waved an absentminded goodbye to them without waiting for an answer and shuffled away, still grumbling to himself under his breath. Acerola crossed her arms irritably and frowned after him.

    "Hey - I can take care of myself, you know!" she called out after him, but there was no indication that he'd heard her. She pouted once he'd left the room, prompting a hearty laugh from Ash, Brock, and Serena.

    "What about you, Acerola?" Serena asked sweetly, Guzma's comments to himself having brought up a relevant question for them. "Where are you planning on staying tonight? If you need a room, you could always stay with us!"

    "Oh...could I, really?!" the girl answered back at once, her tone full of surprise at the offer. Ash and Brock shrugged at each other, and Brock answered back, "I don't see why not. After all, you let us use a room at the Aether House, not to mention the fact that we're still supposed to be keeping an eye on you."

    "Wow, thanks, you guys!" Acerola replied, beaming at them all gratefully.

    "Oh, yeah, that's right...shouldn't we go check on Nanu sometime tonight, too?" Ash asked suddenly, and Serena remembered the face of the older man that had originally shown up with he and Brock back during the battle.

    Acerola shook her head in response. "Ahh, he should be fine. Uncle Nanu doesn't get out and come to the city all that much, but when he does, it's usually because he knows something important's going on. He can probably watch after himself for now."

    Brock nodded slowly at her words. "That makes sense...he is a police officer, and the island's kahuna to boot. As long as he stays in the city, I guess it should be fine..."

    "If you say so..." Ash conceded, a remark that was quickly followed by the audible rumbling of his stomach. He rubbed his empty belly sheepishly and laughed. "Ahaha...I guess I'm just as hungry as Sun is."

    Brock sighed in exasperation, but the smile on his face betrayed his true feelings on the matter. "It has been a while since we've eaten. I guess we should start looking for some dinner around here, too."

    Serena nodded in agreement. It likely hadn't been quite as long since her last meal as it had for the two of them, but she was worn out from the day's events all the same, and decided that she could do with some food in her. Before she could make any further suggestions, however, she was cut short by Ash rising from the bench beside her, taking a moment to stretch out his arms, and reaching a hand out toward her, just as Sun had done for Lillie.

    "Hey, let's go grab something to eat, just the two of us. After all, it's been a while since we've been on a real date, hasn't it?"

    Serena stared at him in shock for a moment before responding. It wasn't like Ash to offer something like that off the cuff for no reason. "Wha...? Just the two of us? Ash, is everything okay?"

    "'Course it is! Everything's fine!" Ash responded at once, which didn't do much to dispel her doubts. In the next moment, he reached out and gripped her wrist gently before lightly pulling her out of the booth toward him. "It's all right with you, right, Brock?"

    The older Trainer looked at Ash intently in silence for a moment before giving his answer, as if scanning him for any sign of foul intent. "...Yeah, that's fine with me. I mean, if it comes down to it, I can always just cook something for me and Acerola."

    "Great!" Ash replied, now beginning to lead Serena out of the room by the hand. "We'll be back here in a couple hours or so. See you guys later!"

    "A-Ash, wait - !"

    But her protests fell on deaf ears, and before she could stop him, he had already whisked her away by the hand, leaving her to wonder what exactly it was that was lingering on Ash's mind.

    Now everything's finally coming together. I've gone back and forth on how much time I wanted to have between Sun coming back and his eventual reconciliation with Lillie, but putting it here instead of near the end of the story seemed to work better in my opinion. I think it will add a lot of weight to what ends up happening with his character here in a few chapters. I'm interested to see what you guys think about it.
     
  19. necris14

    necris14 Protect that smile

    Hey, everyone! I know, I know, once again I'm posting later than I anticipated I would be. It seems like whenever I get more time on my hands, more things pop up in my personal life to fill the empty spaces. Heh. At any rate, we are quickly closing in on the end of the story, here, and I appreciate everyone's patience and willingness to continue reading despite my slow update schedule. I've already started working the rest of the chapters in this arc, which is partially the reason for why this one still took me a little over two weeks to get finished.

    With all of that in mind, let's continue on, and begin the final arc of the fic!

    Chapter 19: Light of Tomorrow

    After Ash had succeeded in practically dragging Serena out of the building and onto the street, she finally managed to get him to elaborate a bit on what exactly his plans were concerning the two of them for the night.

    "Wasn't there a place around here you said you really wanted to check out? A restaurant...?" Ash asked her as the two of them wheeled around to stop on the sidewalk outside the Pokémon Center. He still hadn't released her hand. "Uh...Sushimi-something?"

    Serena blinked and stared at him in utter confusion for a moment as she racked her brains for the answer. So much had happened in the few days since they'd come to Malie City, not the least of which included her being unconscious for a full day, that it took her a bit of thinking to remember the day they'd originally arrived here. However, Ash's attempt at recalling the place's name eventually seemed to strike a cord in her memory, and the image of a traditional-looking building with a highly-decorated entrance sprang into her mind.

    "Oh! You're talking about Sushi High Roller!" Serena exclaimed at last. "It stood out to me when I saw it back then, since we never got to go to the one in Lumiose City. I've heard that it's just the best!"

    "Yeah, that's the place!" Ash remarked with a similar degree of excitement. "Come on, let's go!"

    She was admittedly rather surprised that he had actually retained the fact that she had been interested in the place at all, and was equally surprised when he managed to lead them right to it without much trouble. It was just as fancy-looking as she had remembered, though not quite as opulent as its counterpart back in Lumiose City.

    They stepped through the front doors together, passing underneath the flashing neon-yellow sign that screamed out the name of the locale for all to see, and were immediately surprised by how traditional the inside of the place looked. The tatami mats laid out as flooring and yukata that the staff were wearing served to quickly dispel any notion of 'fanciness' that the Kalosian equivalent's reputation may have perpetuated about the restaurant.

    "Wow..." Ash breathed in shock as they stepped inside the entrance threshold, gazing in awe at his surroundings. "This place sure looks different than I thought it would..."

    "Yeah, you're right," Serena agreed easily, just as a whiff of delicious-smelling fish hit her nostrils and bringing to her attention how hungry she actually was. "I don't think the one in Lumiose City is quite so...old-fashioned."

    As they slowly walked forward like a pair of deer caught in headlights, a pretty young hostess dressed in a light blue yukata caught their eyes, and called out, "Oh, hello there! How are you two doing tonight?"

    Ash looked at her blankly for a moment before remembering himself and smiling politely at her. "Um, we're doing good. Can we get a table for two, please?"

    "Of course! Right this way, sir."

    Ash grinned warmly at Serena and grabbed her hand before making to follow the woman further into the restaurant. As usual, the feeling of his hand covering her own was a comforting one, though it didn't entirely serve to ease her suspicion that he had taken her out tonight to discuss something important.

    The table that they were being led to turned out to be a small booth up against the far wall of the dining area, with seemingly just enough room on either side of it for one person to sit comfortably. The hostess bowed pleasantly to them as they took their seats and then left them alone with a pair of paper menus on their table.

    "Umm..." Ash murmured hesitantly as he picked up the menu in front of him and scanned it. "You know, to tell you the truth, I've never really been to a place like this before...what are you supposed to get, anyway?"

    His question inadvertently caused Serena to realize that she had no prior experience with a place like this before, either, and so by the time the waiter came around to take their order, they had agreed on simply getting a large plate of something fried that they didn't recognize either the name of the appearance of. After the waiter had scribbled down their order and left, the two engaged in a bit of idle conversation before she noticed that he seemed to be cleverly avoiding bringing up the reason for why he had actually brought them out here in the first place.

    "So...what's wrong?" Serena asked him at last, and he looked up at her in surprise at the sudden inquiry. "I know you - you wouldn't have dragged me out here like this if something wasn't bothering you. So, what is it?"

    "I've just been doing some thinking, that's all," Ash admitted, looking away from her and scratching his cheek in embarrassment as he spoke. "I guess...helping Sun out made me realize a few things."

    Serena paused for a moment to reflect on the positive state that Sun and Lillie were now in, thanks to their help, and wondered what her traditionally dense boyfriend could have gleamed from them. "...Like what?"

    "...Where do you wanna go next? After we finish up here in Alola, I mean...or did you wanna just stay here for a while?"

    His question took her almost entirely off-guard; she hadn't expected him to already be thinking about the future, considering the situation they presently had right in front of them. "Well..." she mused after taking a moment to properly consider her answer. "...I don't really know. I haven't had much time to think about it since we got here, after all."

    "Yeah, you're right about that," Ash agreed with a chuckle. "I kinda thought we'd be here for a while longer at first - you know, like a real journey. And if you wanna do that, then that's okay...but if it's all right with you, there's somewhere I'd really like us to go next."

    "Where is it?"

    Ash looked straight into her eyes, and she could almost feel the intensity flowing out of them. "I wanna go back to Kanto. There's a guy I know there named Scott...he offered me a job once, a long time ago...and I want to talk to him about it."

    Serena blinked, a million questions popping into her head all at once. "A...a...?!" she stammered, trying to decipher what exactly it was that Ash was trying to get across by telling her this. "A job?! Ash...what are you talking about? Weren't the two of us going to keep traveling together...?"

    "We are gonna stay together. That's why I want to go," Ash answered reassuringly. "I guess I should explain first. The guy I mentioned, Scott, he runs what's called the Battle Frontier in Kanto. It's sort of another place Trainers can go to challenge themselves besides the Pokémon League. I went through it myself a couple years back, before I came to Kalos, and I actually ended up clearing the whole thing."

    "Oh, wow..." Serena remarked in genuine surprise. She wasn't aware that he had ever actually won any of his previous challenges before. "So, what happened? Why do you want to go and find this Scott guy again?"

    "Well...before I left Kanto back then, Scott actually asked me if I wanted to become a Frontier Brain and work for him. I told him 'no thanks', of course," Ash said, as if that were the most obvious thing in the whole world. "I wasn't even close to feeling like I was done with my journey, and I wasn't about to settle down in one place like that."

    Serena blinked, and her lips parted slightly as an inkling of what Ash was thinking finally came to her. "But now...?"

    "But now I think things have changed. Maybe...maybe my journey is finally over. Maybe it was supposed to lead me to you."

    Serena continued listening silently as she attempted to process what Ash was trying to say. It almost didn't sound like Ash at all - and that fact almost scared her.

    "Listen, Serena. There's a Grand Festival over in Kanto - that means there's Pokémon Contests there, too. Palermo told you about those, right?"

    "Y-yeah, she did, but - "

    "Then, what do you say to coming back to Kanto with me after all this? If I can still get that job at the Battle Frontier, then I can do that while you keep chasing your dream of performing!"

    "But...Ash, what about after that?"

    Ash reached over and and put his hand over hers on the table. "From then on, I'll support you no matter where you want to go. Sometimes, I might even be able to go with you...I don't really know how all that'll work out. I never really thought about bein' anything like a Gym Leader..."

    Serena stared at him in awe as he chuckled softly despite himself, and she couldn't believe the words she was hearing him utter to her so casually. Here he was, Ash Ketchum, the boy she never thought would stop running, telling her that he wanted to try and settle down somewhere...for her sake, of all things.

    She shook her head; no, she couldn't let him do that to himself. She knew him too well for that.

    "Ash, you can't...we can't," she murmured softly, like she was worried she would break something if she spoke too loudly. Ash looked across the table at her quizzically at her negative response, and she continued, "I appreciate the thought...I really do. But I know how much traveling means to you. I won't let you throw that away just for me...it's not right."

    "I'm not throwing anything anyway," Ash told her firmly. "That's just it...that's what I've learned from everyone these past few weeks. I won't be giving up on my dreams, 'cause, to tell you the truth...you've caused my dreams to change. I still want to become a Pokémon Master one day, but not if I can't do it with you by my side."

    Serena's eyes widened, and she felt tears brimming them a moment later from sheer emotion. She shook her head back and forth in a vain attempt to stave them off, and argued back, "But that's not fair...! Why would you want to put an end to your journey like that? What if it doesn't make you happy?"

    "Aw, come on. That's impossible..." he answered coyly, shooting her one of his signature grins that was positively dripping with confidence. "After all, just being with you make me happier than I've ever been before. That's why I decided on this."

    "But...am I really worth all of that to you?"

    Ash leaned forward at her question and put his hands over hers. "Yeah, you are. Because I love you. I know things have been kinda weird for us these past few weeks, but I think this is really what I want."

    Serena looked away from him, unsure of how to respond. The old her probably would have taken him up on his offer in a heartbeat. She got to continue chasing her dream of making people smile with her performances and stay with Ash? It almost sounded too good to be true. And she knew that it was, in a way - it would be at the expense of Ash's dream of continuing to travel and become a stronger Trainer. Despite his words, she didn't think he would be entirely comfortable being rooted down in one place like that. And she wasn't sure she was willing to inflict such a fate on him just for her sake.

    "I...I don't know, Ash," she said finally. "Asking you to do that for me...or even for us...it's too much right now. I think I need a little time to think it over..."

    She avoided his eyes as she spoke, but she could feel the disappointment emanating from him all the same at her noncommittal answer. Despite this, his next words, as well as the tone of his voice when he spoke them, were nothing but supportive.

    "That's okay. Like I said, I've been thinking about it a lot lately, so it makes sense that you should give it some thought, too. No matter what you decide on, I'm sticking by your side from now on, no matter what."

    He shot her a reassuring smile to cap off his proclamation, and she nodded back at him gratefully in response. A short while later, their food was delivered, and they set about eating the indiscernible fried brown matter before them. Despite the fact that they didn't much know what exactly it was, it actually tasted quite good, to their pleasant surprise.

    Before long, they had finished eating, and, once Ash had paid for the two of them, made their way back outside and began to return to the Pokémon Center. Along the way, however, they happened to pass by a moderately-sized crowd that was still in the process of forming, and seemed to be growing quickly.

    "Hey, what's that?" Serena asked, both of their gazes being drawn to the ever-expanding mob on the sidewalk before them. Ash shrugged and they curiously approached the edge of the crowd, attempting to peer through the layers of people and get a glimpse at whoever was in the center.

    "Uh, excuse me..." Ash spoke up after a moment, his voice getting the attention of a few of the people standing nearby. "What's going on?"

    "Oh, it's the Champion!" the boy next to him responded enthusiastically, looking back toward the center of the crowd almost immediately after answering. "He's finally back! Can you believe it?!"

    Ash and Serena looked at each other in surprise before carefully beginning to push their way forward through the walls of people standing between them and the nucleus of the group. Once they'd broken through to where they could actually see who was standing in the middle of everyone, they were met with the sight of Sun and Lillie standing shoulder-to-shoulder, both of them wearing overwhelmed expressions on their faces as they attempted to fend off the ever-growing group of admirers.

    "Does this mean you're staying here for good this time?"

    "- I already told you, I don't know exactly what - " Sun stammered, but another voice had overpowered his before he could even finish.

    "What happened to you, anyway? Where'd you disappear to?"

    "Will you battle me later?!"

    "Hey, who's your girlfriend? How long have you two been together?"

    At that one, Lillie blushed a deep shade of crimson and Sun replied quickly with a cutting, "Th-that's private information!"

    "Hey, Sun!" Ash called out from beside Serena, and she figured that their proximity would allow Sun to discern his voice over the many others that were vying for his attention. It seemed to work, and both he and Lillie turned to face them in surprise.

    "Ash? Serena?! What are you two doing here?!"

    "We went out for dinner - we were just on our way back to the Pokémon Center when we saw this huge crowd!" Serena explained frantically over the voices of the others standing beside her. She noticed that a good number of them seemed to quiet for a moment as she spoke. "What's going on?"

    "Ah...well...I guess someone recognized me on the street. After they realized who I was, they started calling a whole bunch of people over, and now - "

    "Who are they? Are they friends of yours, Sun?" a stray voice from the crowd pried. A few of the onlookers turned to examine Ash and Serena keenly, and one of them perked up when she saw their faces.

    "Hey, I know you two!" a girl with two brown pigtails hanging loosely over her shoulders announced, jabbing her pointer finger out toward Ash. "You were battling that huge Pokémon that attacked the city this afternoon!"

    Serena paled at the girl's words, and she heard Ash swallow as they both realized that they were about to be just as much a target of the crowd's attention as Sun and Lillie were. "O-oh...I think you might have the wrong people..."

    "No, it was you two, all right! I'm sure of it!" the girl insisted, pumping her fists in the air excitedly as she spoke. "Are you friends with the Champion? Do you guys know something about about that attack on the city earlier?!"

    "Um..." Ash stammered, as he and Serena both were forced to turn around and back up against Sun and Lillie, the crowd now watching them expectantly as well. "It's kind of a long story - "

    "So are we safe here or what? Like, is the city gonna be attacked again?"

    "You can at least tell us that, can't you?"

    "Hey, are you seeing anyone?" the girl with the pigtails asked, edging a bit too close to Ash for comfort in Serena's opinion. "I saw you with your friends when we were running away from that battle - you were really cool!"

    Serena didn't give Ash a chance to respond before she bit back, "Yes, he is! He's seeing me!"

    The brunette regarded her with a bit of a disappointed look on her face. "Oh...I see...well, that's too bad."

    "Hey, hey - you kids go on and get outta here. And leave the Champion alone, while you're at it. Isn't it past your bedtimes or something?"

    Nanu's grizzled old voice cut through the evening air like a bullet, and the crowd began dispersing almost at once as he physically waded through it, shooing people out of the way as he went. Serena watched him move toward them in surprise, a bit taken aback that he was still able to command such a presence despite his appearance.

    "Hey, thanks," Sun remarked gratefully as the last remnants of the crowd continued to disperse. The older man planted his hands on his hips and look down at him sternly.

    "Bah...don't mention it," Nanu replied gruffly. "Those kids were poking their nose where it didn't belong, in more ways than one. A little like you all have a habit of doing."

    Sun chuckled nervously at his comment, but Lillie merely smiled and quickly bowed to him in thanks, which seemed to make his expression soften a little.

    "Hey, Nanu, how are things doing over with the police?" Ash asked, and Serena's thoughts were suddenly drawn back to the battle with Necrozma, and the damage that had been done to the city in the midst of it.

    "It is what it is," he growled, his tired eyes moving over to focus on Ash. "That entire block was pretty much wiped out, and there was even a bit of collateral damage to the area around it...not to mention the tally of the injured; last I checked, it was somewhere around fifty people. But...nobody was killed, and I guess we've got you kids to thank for that."

    Despite his attempt to express some amount of gratitude for their actions defending the city, Serena couldn't keep her face from darkening at his words. "Fifty people...?" She knew that they had done everything they could to stop Rhodo and Alisma, but somehow she still felt responsible for the damage that had been done.

    Nanu looked over at her and blinked quizzically, as if only just realizing the implication of what he'd just divulged to them. "...Don't worry about that, understand? All you four need to worry about right now is making sure that those guys don't come back. You got that?"

    After a shared moment of hesitation, they all nodded to him in unison, after which Sun stepped forward to ask him one final question. "So...if you're not goin' with us, is it all right if I leave Acerola with you, here in the city? She'll probably want to go with us if we ask her, but..."

    Nanu stared hard at him, but he seemed to understand what he was asking all the same. "...Yeah, sure. I guess we can't let her run around and do whatever she wants right now. Send her over to the police station tomorrow, and we'll keep an eye on her until you all get back."

    "Thanks a lot! That's a bit of a load off my mind, to tell the truth," Sun admitted with a nervous smirk. The next thing Serena was aware of was Ash's hand clamping down on her shoulder, and his voice coming from beside her with a newfound sense of determination.

    "All right, then let's get back to the Pokémon Center. It's starting to feel kinda weird without Pikachu around," he remarked sheepishly, and Serena had to agree with him. As much as she enjoyed being alone with her boyfriend, the majority of the time it simply didn't feel quite right without the little electric mouse right there with them, hanging off of Ash's shoulder as it usually did.

    "Yes...that's a good idea," Lillie agreed, speaking up for the first time since Ash and Serena had gotten there. Serena wasn't sure if she had just been overwhelmed by the crowd, or if their questions toward she and Sun had thrown her off somehow, but she seemed to finally be all right now, regardless. "It's getting late. We should leave as early as we can in the morning...for their sake."

    They all shared a look with her, and Serena knew at once that she was talking Sun's friends in the Ultra Recon Squad, the ones who had saved them from Necrozma earlier that day...and the ones who were probably still fighting it at this very moment, waiting until the rest of them came to drive off Rhodo and Alisma once and for all.

    "Yeah, you're right," Serena affirmed, and Sun nodded at the rest of them in acknowledgement, as well. After waving a quick farewell to Nanu, the four of them departed, resuming their original course that would lead them back to the Pokémon Center.

    Once they had finally made their way back to the facility, they were almost immediately greeted by Pikachu dashing up to Ash's feet and scurrying up to its nigh-forgotten perch on his shoulder.

    "Pikapi!" the electric mouse exclaimed gleefully as it nuzzled against his cheek.

    "Hey, buddy!" Ash responded with a similar level of elation, bringing a hand up to stroke his partner's back. Serena smiled at their long-overdue reunion as Brock and Acerola approached them, as well.

    "That's funny...I'm pretty sure you guys left separately," Brock remarked slyly as he eyed the two couples, and Sun laughed sheepishly at his observation.

    "Yeah...let's just say some stuff happened when we were on the back. We met up with Nanu, though - he said he's gonna keep an eye on Acerola for us tomorrow."

    "What?" the younger girl spoke up at once, planting her hands on hips in a rebellious manner that Serena recognized as such almost right away. "What are you talking about? I'm going with you! You guys need all the help you can get if you're going to fight Necrozma!"

    "Acey..." Sun murmured, but before he could finish, Lillie stepped forward and knelt down to regard the girl face-to-face.

    "Thank you for wanting to help. I know how you feel...but travelling to Ultra Space is going to be really dangerous. I think it's better for everyone if you stay here, where we know you'll be safe."

    "But..." she began, clearly wanting to continue protesting, but she seemed to stop when she saw the five of them smiling down at her in unison. "...all right, fine! I get it! I know there are some things I can't do...so, you guys have to promise me that you'll save everyone!"

    Sun moved forward to kneel down beside Lillie, and placed his own hand opposite hers on Acerola's free shoulder. "I promise we will. On my title as Champion, we'll bring home everyone that they took."

    Acerola looked at him strangely for a moment, then burst out laughing despite herself. Sun frowned and barked, "H-hey, what's that for? I'm tryin' to be serious here!"

    "S-sorry..." she squeaked out between her giggles. "I just thought you sounded pretty cool there for a second. It's not really like you, that's all!"

    This time, it was Lillie's turn to laugh, leaving Sun to merely grimace in halfhearted acceptance of the situation. After retrieving the rest of their Pokémon from Nurse Joy, they made their way to their two separate rooms - one for Ash, Brock, and Serena, while Sun, Lillie, and Acerola took up residence in another (after realizing that it made more sense for the youngest of their number to stay with Sun and Lillie, after all).

    As Serena tossed and turned in her bed in a vain attempt to fall asleep, she found that she couldn't stop her mind from dwelling on the request that Ash had presented to her on their date. And the more she thought about it, the more she found herself unable to come to a solid conclusion about what she should tell him in response. Of course she wanted to stay with him; that wasn't even up for debate at this point. But she also wanted him to remain the same Ash he had always been, freely chasing his dream of becoming a Pokémon Master, and traveling around the world with his companions. Part of her was afraid that he would lose a part of himself if he decided to finally settle down somewhere, and, try as she might, she couldn't get that fear out of her head.

    As the long night wore on, she finally resorted to simply pushing these unresolved issues aside long enough for her to simply fall asleep, figuring that she would have to deal with them at a later point in time.

    The following morning, the group all woke up early in accordance with their verbal agreement with one another, and, after eating a rather rushed breakfast, departed the Pokémon Center before the foreigners to Alola among them realized a rather glaring lack of information regarding their destination.

    "Uh...where exactly is this place, anyway?" Ash asked, and Serena was surprised that none of them had thought to ask such a question earlier. Despite being made up of islands, Alola was still a rather large region, almost more so than it appeared due to the fact that the ocean sectioned off most of its locales from one another. "And how are we supposed to get there in time?"

    Sun, Lillie, and Acerola shared a knowing look with each other before Lillie deigned to answer them. "Oh...I guess we never got around to telling you."

    "Huh? Tell us what?"

    Ash, Serena, and Brock all looked to one another in confusion, but before anyone could answer Ash's question, the signature booming voice of Guzma echoed through the air toward them, cutting off any attempt at a response.

    "So you guys still don't know where the Foundation is, huh? Then I'd say you're sure in for one heck of a surprise!"

    They all whirled around toward the source of the voice, and sure enough, they found Guzma striding confidently toward them - and, to their surprise, Nanu was right there with him, as well.

    "I guess maybe it's time we show ya where it is, then."

    "Except for you," Nanu remarked gruffly, walking up past Guzma to regard Acerola directly. "Come on. You're staying with me for the time being."

    Acerola looked at Sun with an almost pouty look on her face, but she moved forward to stand next to the kahuna all the same. Guzma smirked at the two of them when he realized what was happening.

    "Yeah, it's probably better for everyone if you stay behind with the geezer on this one, squirt. Wouldn't want you to get in the way when we're takin' care of business later on."

    "Hey, what's that supposed to mean, you big jerk?!" Acerola shot back, firing up at once.

    "Just what I said - Ultra Space is a rough place. Little runts like you oughta stay behind here, where they can be nice and safe."

    Nanu plunged his hands into his pockets and took a step toward Guzma. "That's funny, because the way I heard it, you weren't able to do anything to Necrozma last time, either. Maybe you should stay behind with me, too."

    "H-hey, that ain't how it went down!" Guzma stammered in protest. "I just had to protect the prez last time, that's all. Besides...there's no way you could get me to stay behind on this one. I got a score of my own to settle with those crazies."

    Nanu blinked, and then began walking off back toward the direction he and Guzma had come from, motioning for Acerola to follow him. "Whatever - it doesn't matter to me one way or the other. Just try and keep them off my island."

    After a moment's hesitation, Acerola fell in step beside him, spinning around and waving back at Ash and the others as she went. "Bye, everyone! I'll see you when you get back! Remember our promise, okay?!"

    The five of them smiled at her and raised their hands in farewell. "Yeah, you got it, Acey. We'll bring everyone back home - you can count on it!"

    "And we still have to go shopping sometime, remember?" Serena called out after Sun had finished. Acerola beamed at her and nodded excitedly.

    "Yeah, that's right! I'll hold you to that, Serena!"

    As she and Nanu disappeared around a corner, Guzma walked up to the rest of them, wearing an expression that said that he was ready for a fight. If Serena hadn't known better, she would have thought that he was planning on challenging one of them right then and there.

    "All right then - let's get goin'. We've gotta get down to the port, pronto."

    Ash, Serena, and Brock all shared a look of confusion between themselves at his words. "The port?"

    As it turned out, the Aether Foundation headquarters was actually located on a man-made island a little ways out from the Alolan islands. Guzma and Lillie explained as much to them during the remainder of the walk through the city. Once arriving at the pier, they found that Guzma had access to a private ship that ferried Aether Foundation personnel back and forth across the sea, and so, before long, the entire group had arrived on what was essentially a massive floating platform in the middle of the ocean.

    "It's called the Aether Paradise," Lillie explained coolly as they stared at their surroundings in awe. "My mother actually lives in a large mansion on the back of this island, if you can believe it..."

    "A mansion? Here?!" Ash exclaimed in disbelief.

    "I thought this place seemed huge from the boat, but I didn't realize it was that big..." Brock mused as they admired the overwhelming stature of the structure before them. "That's incredible."

    Lillie led them forward through a pair of automatic sliding doors that revealed a massive, open room that almost looked like a high-tech warehouse of some kind due to how much free space there was in virtually every direction. The relatively narrow walkway before them was initially flanked by two desks with uniformed workers sitting at them before continuing on to a central, circular hub that blossomed out in half a dozen different directions. Beneath the walkways wound a single water channel situated like a moat far below the various sections that the walkways all led to, and the path straight ahead seemed to eventually lead to an impossibly tall elevator shaft situated at the far end of the building.

    "Oh, Miss Lillie - !" one of the workers across the desk, a rather stout, purple-haired woman wearing wide, pink glasses called out upon noticing them. "Hello there! It's been a while since you have come in for a visit, hasn't it? And - and the Champion is with you, as well! How have you been, Sun? Does this mean that you've finally returned to Alola?"

    Sun let out a nervous chuckle and looked away with a crooked smile as Lillie waved in response to the woman's greeting. "Ah...for now, at least, yeah."

    "Oh, that's wonderful news! We have been at quite a loss lately without you around, you know."

    Sun continued to look away from her while maintaining his nervous smile, and Serena could tell that the additional reminder of the consequences of his departure weren't sitting well with him. Lillie must have noticed, as well, because in the next moment, she stepped toward the woman and said, "That's actually why we're here, Wicke. We need to see my mother."

    "Of course!" she responded at once, maneuvering her way around the counter standing between them and emerging a few feet away. "These must be your friends, right? I'll take you all up to see her right away."

    Lillie nodded her thanks, and Wicke turned and began leading them further into the facility at once. The blonde-haired Alolan swallowed hard as a look of uneasiness crossed her face - an expression that melted away as soon as Sun gently took her hand. She looked over at him and smiled, and their fingers laced together as they began walking after Wicke.

    Serena smiled to herself as Guzma walked past her, silently glad that Sun and Lillie had managed to work things out the previous day. And, before she had too long to dwell on that thought, she felt the familiar, reassuring warmth of Ash's hand latching onto hers, and she looked over to find him beaming back at her.

    "Come on, let's go."

    "Pika-chuu!"

    She hesitated for a moment, a bit surprised that he was treating her so warmly despite what had happened between them the previous night, and then decided to merely smile back at the two of them all the same, gripping Ash's hand back before beginning to follow after the rest of their group.

    Wicke led them all the way down the length of the central walkway, staying on it even after they reached the nexus of the other paths in the center of the massive room, until the path ended at the towering elevator shaft that Serena had seen upon first walking in. She punched a button on the stubby, white console located on the far side of the platform as they all filed into place atop it, after which an automatic glass door slid shut behind them, and the lift began moving upwards.

    "Madam Lusamine's office is on the top floor of the facility. We'll zip right up there in no time," Wicke explained to them sweetly, and Serena could only assume that the name she used was that of Lillie's mother. She turned and looked out through the transparent glass making up the elevator shaft behind them as the lift carried them upon its seemingly endless vertical ascent toward the top of the building, and she couldn't help but gape in awe a bit at the enormity of the structure.

    "It's huge..." she mused wondrously. "Is this really all for the preservation of Pokémon, like Lillie said?"

    "Well, of course!" Wicke answered at once, clapping her hands together joyfully as she turned to face Serena. "But with how much of an abnormality the Ultra Wormholes are, we also do quite a bit of research on those, as well as all of Ultra Space in general."

    After some time, the lift finally came to a stop at the very peak of the shaft, and Wicke motioned for them to follow after her as she walked down the narrow hallway that had appeared to them from behind another automatic sliding door. They complied, and were led down a narrow, plain-white hallway that continued on in a linear fashion until it hit what looked to be the roof of the building. They turned off down the only side passage visible to them and ended up at the front door of an office that didn't appear quite as large or lavish as one would expect from the President of such a massive establishment.

    "Excuse me, Madam, but you have some company that says they came to see you."

    As they walked through the threshold of the office, Serena immediately caught sight of the room's sole occupant, and was able to deduce at once that it must have been Lillie's mother, the same woman that Wicke was calling out to; the massive sheet of blonde hair cascading down her back proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

    "Oh, Guzma's returned, then? You didn't have to bother escorting him all the way here, Wicke - I think he knows his way around the building by now."

    She answered the woman without turning around; she appeared to be preoccupied with something on her desk, and had her back to them. From what Serena could see of her, she was dressed in all white, just like Lillie was, though her garb appeared to be a bit more elegant than her daughter's. Wicke coughed softly and clarified, "N-no - well, yes, Mr. Guzma is here, too, but ...Madam, it's Miss Lillie."

    Lusamine arms stopped their shuffling of papers at once, and the very air in the room seemed to stand still for a moment. Serena looked back and forth between Lillie and her mother anxiously, wondering, "What's going on here...? Is something going on with the two of them?"

    "Hey, boss, I'm back too, though," Guzma remarked nervously, clearly attempting to break the tension in the room as Wicke quickly shuffled past them back out of the room. "I found these guys pokin' around in Malie City with Lillie and, uh..."

    Lusamine took a deep breath before answering him. "So...she really was investigating the missing Captains. I figured as much."

    She finally turned around to face them after what felt like an eternity. She had green eyes, the same shade as Lillie's, and even their faces looked alike, though Lusamine's was clearly more mature and well-defined. Her white high heeled shoes, as well as the fact that her hair had been styled to partially hide her right eye, made her appear even more imposing than she already would have. She stared at her daughter intently for a few moments until Lillie finally decided to break the silence between them.

    "Hello, Mother."

    Her voice came out hard and quiet, as if speaking with her mother were an affair she'd rather not be participating in, and Serena silently grew even more anxious of what exactly the history between them was.

    "Lillie...it's been a while." Lusamine regarded her daughter pleasantly as she spoke, though she didn't attempt to close the distance between them any further. "I hope you've been well...and I see that our Champion is with you, as well, and walking hand-in-hand with you, no less. I assume that this means you've returned to us, Sun?"

    "Yeah...something like that. I'm here to help...at least for now," Sun admitted. She nodded as if his few words were sufficient for her before turning to face Ash, Serena, and Brock.

    "And who are the rest of our guests here? Given that you've come here with Guzma, I presume that this has something to do with the recent attack on Malie City?"

    Ash, Serena, and Brock all shared a look with one another before Brock stepped forward to answer her. "You could say that. My name's Brock, and I used to be the Gym Leader of the Pewter City Gym in Kanto."

    "Serena's my name."

    "I'm Ash Ketchum, and this is Pikachu. Me and Serena both came here from Kalos."

    "Pi-Pikachu!"

    "We all came here in response to Professor Kukui's invitation, which we later learned was really a request for help in dealing with your Island Guardians," Brock explained. "We met up with Guzma a few days ago in Malie City, and we fought Necrozma there yesterday, too."

    Lusamine's eyes darted back and forth between the three of them for a moment, but her unchanging expression gave Serena no indication of what she thought of their story. "I see. I hadn't realized that the Professor had gone to such lengths to combat the problem just yet...then, what brings you here to the Aether Foundation?"

    "Well, when we were talkin' things over last night, Guzma let it slip to us that there's a way to open an Ultra Wormhole here at the Foundation," Sun cut in. "Is that really true?"

    Lusamine's eyes narrowed, and she crossed her arms in deliberation. "Yes...we've been working on discovering the link between Z-Energy and Ultra Space for a while now. About a month ago, we developed a device that should be able to harness surrounding energy in order to tear open a wormhole, much like the Ultra Beasts do. But in its present state, the portal device requires an enormous amount of Z-Energy to operate. We've been trying to figure out a way around that limitation, but..."

    Sun took a step forward and pointed a finger behind himself at Ash. "I've got your answer right here. I don't know the whole story, but Ash somehow wound up with a ton of Z-Energy inside of him a while back. I've seen it in action myself."

    Lusamine's gaze shifted over toward Ash, and she seemed to be studying him with her eyes. "Well, that certainly sounds intriguing. Your name is Ash, yes? Tell me...where did you acquire this supposed power that rests inside of you?"

    "It's kind of a long story," Ash told her honestly, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. "I actually thought that it was just Mega Evolution energy back then, but now we're starting to think that they're actually all the same thing."

    "Mega Evolution energy, you say...yes, Professor Kukui has mentioned something along those same lines before. He has been investigating the link between the two for some time now."

    Lusamine examined Ash closely, the doubt apparent in her eyes. "You really believe that this boy can produce that kind of power?"

    "Yeah, I do," Sun affirmed with a quick nod. "Like we said - me and Lillie both saw it for ourselves. He used somethin' like a Z-Move back when we were fighting Necrozma, without a ring, or a crystal, or anything."

    "...Very well, then. Come with me...I'll take you to the portal generator, and we shall see if Sun and Lillie's words about you are true."

    She led them out of the room and back toward the elevator that they'd arrived in, only this time, they were taken all the way back down to the bottom floor of the building and beyond, ending up on what appeared to be a sub-level of the facility. They must have been underwater, but Serena saw no evidence of that fact in the area around them; they were in another fairly large area like the building's foyer, though this one appeared to be a bit smaller, with far less crisscrossing walkways. They walked out of the elevator shaft and passed by a few sealed rooms that appeared to be research labs before finally arriving at an empty one at the end of the open hallway.

    They entered the vaguely cube-shaped room before Lusamine shut the sliding door behind them. The room certainly had the appearance of a research lab; there were various shelves lining the walls filled with books, papers, and odd-looking glass objects that Serena couldn't identify, as well as a desk with three computers set up on it near the wall farthest from them. In the center of the room, however, jutting up from the floor, was a white, clawed storage device of some kind, with a translucent, colorless orb resting in the center of the numerous prongs.

    Lusamine approached the strange crystalline object and turned to face them once she was within arm's reach of it. "This is the prototype for the portal device we have been developing."

    Ash blinked and stared at it intently, as if he didn't quite understand. "...What is it?"

    "It's a crystal, made from the same material as the Z-Crystals that enable Pokémon to use Z-Moves," Lusamine explained. "We have engineered it to be able to hold an enormous amount of compressed Z-Energy within itself. Ideally, we would be able to store Z-Energy within the orb like a battery, and then use it to open Ultra Wormholes at will whenever we choose. As you already know, however, the amount of energy required to do this is still too great for us to muster, and as such, we have not been able to properly test it yet..."

    Everyone's eyes seemed to dart to Ash as she finished speaking, and he chuckled nervously despite himself. "Ahaha...I guess this is where I come in, huh?"

    He gently released Serena's hand and stepped forward to grab the crystal from within its resting place. It popped out into his hand easily, and it appeared to be the size of a Poké Ball. He stared at it awkwardly for a moment and flexed his hand a few times before asking, "...Okay, so what now?"

    "You tell me," Lusamine responded coolly. "Like I said, it can store energy within itself. So all you need to do is unleash this so-called power of yours, and send it into the crystal."

    Ash frowned at the orb in his hands and closed his eyes. For a few moments, nothing happened. But then, a familiar-looking rainbow-colored aura shimmered into existence around Ash's body, and Lusamine's expression changed from humoring to interested in a second. As they observed him, the aura around him grew thicker, and began coursing around him faster.

    Serena watched on in awe, her awareness of Ash's pool of energy not dulling the wonder she felt while watching him manifest it in the slightest. Ever since that day when he'd first received the mysterious power, during their first visit to Anistar City, she'd never been able to suppress her surprise at just how much energy he had stored up inside of him.

    Soon enough, the multicolored cloak of energy swirling around him began to coalesce into the small space of the orb that he was gripping with his right hand. A great wind rushed outward from his body, blasting everyone else back a few paces as the massive collection of energy focused itself into the compact space.

    "It's working...!" Lusamine murmured excitedly, watching on with wide eyes in much the same way as Serena. Ash didn't react to her words, and continued channeling his immense store of energy into the device. Serena briefly had a thought that the face of Lillie's mother, contorted with ecstasy as it was in this specific moment, almost mimicked the crazed expression that had been present on Rhodo's face, back when Ash had shown his power against Necrozma. She shook her head thoroughly to get the thought out of her head - this was Lillie's mother, she reminded herself. She was a bit angry with herself for even making the comparison.

    Suddenly, a small rift began to tear itself open in the empty, circular space in front of Ash, and a moment later, before any of them could truly discern what was happening, the familiar shape of an Ultra Wormhole had materialized into existence before them.

    "I...I can't believe it! It actually worked!"

    Lusamine's voice was dripping with glee as she eyed the wormhole before finally looking over at Ash wondrously. "...You really are something else, aren't you, Ash Ketchum?"

    "Y-yeah...told you so..." he breathed out before his legs suddenly gave way, and he began falling to the floor face-first. Serena's body had already moved instinctively before she'd even realized what was happening, however, and his head instead landed comfortably on her thigh as she knelt down to catch him.

    "Ash - ! Are you all right?"

    "I...I dunno...I just feel really tired all of a sudden..."

    "No surprises there. After expelling that much Z-Energy from his body like that, it's a wonder he's still alive at all."

    Serena looked over at Lusamine in shock, not having been aware of the apparent risk associated with such an act. "What - ? You mean he could've - ?!"

    The blonde-haired woman cocked her head to side curiously, like she was surprised that Serena would react in such a way to the prospect of her boyfriend potentially dying, but Ash put a hand on her shoulder and pushed himself up off her leg.

    "Hey...don't worry about me..." he breathed, though she could tell how winded he was just from looking at him. He shot her what she assumed was an attempt at a reassuring smile all the same, and continued, "We've got a job to do, right...? Then let's get moving."

    "Are you sure you're still up for this, Ash?" Sun asked cautiously as he produced a Poké Ball from his backpack.

    "Of course I am..." Ash managed, though he was still leaning on Serena's shoulder with one arm for support. "No way am I gonna back down now."

    Serena frowned at him, the concern she felt not yet dwindling, but before she could argue with him further, Lusamine spoke up to address all of them.

    "I must admit, I didn't believe that you could actually pull it off, Ash. But now that the wormhole has been opened, I can't guarantee how long it will remain so. You all should hurry through while you still can."

    Sun nodded to her and released his Charizard into the room at once, who growled out something like a yawn upon fully materializing, but Serena looked back at Lusamine with concern in her eyes. "Wait, the wormhole's going to shut behind us? How are we supposed to get back?"

    The woman locked eyes with her for a moment. "You will have to find your own way back through. You said that Solgaleo and Lunala are both on the other side, right?"

    Serena swallowed hard at her words. She was right, of course, but this meant that this really was an all-or-nothing mission at this point. If they failed, they would have no way to open another Ultra Wormhole. They had no choice but to succeed.

    "Hey, don't worry about it," Ash assured her, now finally able to stand on his own again without Serena's support. "I'll make sure we get through this, no matter what. Don't you remember what we used to always say? We never give up 'till it's over, right?"

    Serena's eyes widened as the memory of Ash's old mantra - which had, in a way, become her mantra, as well - hit her harder than she expected. Despite the fact that she had technically refused his invitation to travel to Kanto together after their business in Alola was finished, here he still was, encouraging her and cheering her on just like he always was. And, finally, she found that she was able to smile back at him.

    "Yeah, you're right. We'll win this fight, no matter what it takes."

    "Hey, don't go tryin' to steal all the spotlight," Sun interjected playfully, taking a step toward them behind his Charizard. "Me and Lillie are here too, remember? I've got a bone of my own to pick with Rhodo and Alisma. And I've already stopped Necrozma once - it's only fair that I be there when we do it again."

    "And this time, I'll be right there with you," Lillie agreed in earnest. "I'll make sure that we save everyone that those two kidnapped."

    Sun nodded gratefully at her, and Brock stepped up sheepishly as well, leading off with a nervous chuckle before continuing, "Yeah, what everyone else said, heh. I've been the only one with a Mega Stone this entire time, and I still couldn't defeat Rhodo or Alisma, much less Necrozma - not to mention that I used to be a Gym Leader. It's just as much my fault as anyone else's that this has gotten as bad as it has."

    Guzma smirked at their words and sauntered forward, as well. "Yeah, yeah, everyone's got their own reasons to fight. We get it. Now let's just get goin', yeah? The longer we wait, the more chance that those guys'll - "

    "No," Lusamine remarked sharply, cutting him off all of a sudden. "My apologies, Guzma, but there's something else I need you to take care of here. It pertains to what I was working on when you all found me in my office."

    "What? Whaddya talkin' about, boss? Ya mean I gotta stay behind and let these chumps do all the fightin'?!" Guzma argued angrily, but Lusamine merely stepped toward him and placed a hand on his shoulder.

    "It is a rather important task. I don't know who else to rely on besides you. They have their battle to fight, and you have yours."

    Guzma gritted his teeth at her and looked like he was going to say something back, but after a moment of silence he finally deflated. "Yeah, yeah, I got it. I know I'm your right hand man, after all. I guess I can't just go off and leave you all on your own."

    He whirled around with a sigh and turned to face Ash and the others. "Now listen up, you bozos! You make sure you bust those crazies up real good, you hear me? I don't wanna have to be cleanin' up your mess if it turns out you guys can't cut it!"

    "Yeah, sure. We got it, all right?" Sun sighed. "You don't have to go and try to act all cool like that just 'cause you can't come with us." Guzma sneered and stuck his nose up at the Champion, but didn't respond otherwise.

    Ash laughed after a moment at their antics before thrusting his fist out in the air before him. Sun seemed to catch his meaning, and walked up a bit closer before placing his own across from Ash's. Lillie smiled and added her own into the quickly-growing circle next to her new boyfriend's, and Serena mirrored her movement, placing hers between Ash's and Lillie's. Brock put his in last to complete the circle, but before they could say anything to send themselves off, Pikachu scrambled down the length of Ash's arm and placed its own stubby palm on top of everyone's hands.

    "Pika-Pikachu!" it squeaked out happily, causing everyone in the circle to chuckle a little at its antics.

    "All right, guys...let's do this!"

    And there it is; now Ash and company are finally on their way to Ultra Space!

    Unfortunately, Acerola and Guzma do not get to tag along on the mission to save everyone, but them staying behind will actually play a role in what comes at the very end of everything, which is also what Lusamine was referring to when telling Guzma to stay behind. That's the last big twist in the story, so I hope everyone is hyped to see what that's all about!

    Before that can happen, though, Necrozma has to be dealt with. Just as a reminder, Sun is still in possession of Tapu Bulu, and the other three Island Guardians are presumably still under the control of Rhodo and Alisma. Those two, meanwhile, are tagging along with Dusk Mane Necrozma as it chases after Lunala and the other members of the URS somewhere in Ultra Space.

    Everything's coming to a head next time, so I hope you're all excited! I'll see you all then!
     

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