Resonate female laughter assaulted their eardrums, echoing off the walls, reverberating through the concave ceiling and plummeting back into the room like tortuous rainfall. They all exchanged nervous glances, unsure what to make of this new element.

     Across the crystalline expanse, at the far end where Samurai's ill-fated boomerang lay motionless upon the glass floor, the faint, humanoid outline of something could barely be discerned as it shifted its weight.

     "Hello, Ashy." A silky, feminine voice greeted throatily. It paused for effect. ". . . Did you miss me?"

Summer sunshine beat down in merciless waves upon Indigo Plateau's trainer village. No one was outside today. In fact, at this time of year, the sprawling complex was, for the most part, quite vacant. Only a few permanent, on-staff members-who lived in the biggest, most luxurious apartments, duplexes, or townhouses deeper into the establishment-stayed around, and they were usually up to their necks in all the various activities, extracurricular and otherwise, that one could be into at the Indigo League's prestigious headquarters.

     During the off season, a million things had to be done before the national competitions which were conducted late in the year could take place. Every two years, that to-do list practically doubled as preparations were made for the long-awaited World Championships.

     The grounds were renovated about every half a decade or so but were maintained meticulously year-round; and construction of some sort was always going on behind the scenes somewhere. Capacious, state of the art battle arenas housed in sprawling stadiums; cutting-edge facilities and exquisite landscaping; plus any number of consumer services-pools, spas, and general fitness/recreation to outsized shopping centers offering just about everything from the plain to trendy to the exotic or even the outright weird-all contributed to the veritable, multi-million dollar capital of Pokč-mania. Yes indeed. Keeping the League running was no small expense. Indigo was fortunate to have its myriad of subsidiaries, benefactors, sponsors, and of course, the self-sustaining aid of its management's own lucrative investments (most all the consumer businesses on the grounds were a big part of that). Behind the dark blue, starch white, and deep purple edifices, every member of Indigo Plateau's collective, fifteen-hundred-plus maintenance staff and other essential personnel practically lived from one major event to the next. And that said nothing for the thousands more hired by the multitude of businesses and non-profit organizations that had their headquarters, or at least a chain department store, built or rented somewhere on or around the League's main infrastructure. Even during the so-called off season (which was really little more than a slight fluctuation in the droves of trainers, spectators and other menagerie who constantly traversed in, out, and through the place), all commercial and non-commercial institutions alike where moving at a break-neck pace.

     The League's research facilities were on overdrive trying to finish conducting every conceivable-and legal-experiment they could in their never-ending quest to find the perfect way to do everything, from creating the most effective Max Revive and other such remedies, to finding the best way to breed a Slowking that knows Earthquake or a Snorlax with decent speed (if that was at all possible). All the main battle houses and training gyms were also in full-swing, stretching their handfuls of expert advisory trainers out as far and wide as they possibly could without completely exhausting their well-paid but poorly compensated and hard-driven staff. And of course, the resident champions were always on their toes, training like mad, answering important challenges, attending promotional events and social gatherings, and generally trying to pretend to have a life whenever the omnipresent media showed its face (with a collective 24-7 coverage, NBC and ABC always managed to find something to poke their nose into).

     In sum, Indigo felt something like Hollywood, Las Vegas, and New York City combined; and for a few of its resident celebrities, that was just the tip of the iceberg (if not a complete understatement). That's why, during the summer months, when they didn't really have to be there, most of the League's notable personalities took leave of their beloved establishment on a well-deserved, seasonal furlough.

That's where Gary Oak should have been. Out on some transpacific cruise, enjoying a carefree summer chillin' it with his other internationally renowned friends; no worries save the continued training of his now-legendary, world-class team.

     For a man in his early twenties, Gary was undoubtedly one of the League's most accomplished individuals. Among other things, he currently held the National Championship title, the Earthquake World Cup, the Pacific and Atlantic Cups, the Tokyo Street Fighter's Belt (a very brutal tournament), the Trans-European Cup, and World Gym Leader's Cup-all of these awards a testimony to his extensive prowess as one of the world's greatest Pokčmon Masters. But those were not the closest to his heart. Two others attributed higher honor.

     One was the Rainbow Wing Medallion, which he had managed to win during the last international competition. It was awarded to the victor of The Spartan Pancration, the World Championship's most trying and brutal elimination event. Each contestant fought with a full six-mon team, of any type(s) and level they chose, providing no two Pokčmon were off the same particular breed. Only authorized attacks-those sanctioned by the Elite Four, Professor's Coalition, and the head management of the International Pokčmon League-could be used in battle, but in any combinations they chose. No fatalities were allowed (in case of such, the trainer who's Pokčmon was slain was automatically declared the winner of the match and proceeded on to the next round). Aside from that, almost all the rules instated over the other events were lifted, making this bout one of the few sanctioned no-holds-barred matches. Most trainers considered the Rainbow Wing Medallion to be the World Championship's ultimate prize. By tradition, it was the highest honor a lone trainer could receive in any competition.

     The other was the World Doubles' Wreath-almost of equal import, and certainly of next-in-line prestige, to the international Pokčmon Master community. It's event, The Olympian Duelathar, was exactly like the Spartan Pancration, but with two-trainer duos, each bearing only three of their own Pokčmon, making a combined team of six. The matches were fought in the same manner as the Pancration, but with two Pokčmon from each team, one from each trainer, out on the battle field at once. This was actually the harder event. It took no small amount of skill to conduct strategic combat in an arena occupied by four, high-level Pokčmon who were constantly milling around, firing off their attacks left and right, and usually in rapid succession. It was partly for this reason that Gary Oak considered the Doubles Wreath to be of far more value than any of the other trophies, even the coveted Rainbow Wing Medallion. And until this last World Championships meet, he had been one of the Olympian Duelathar defending champions-third-time consecutive.

     The other was his all-time partner, Ash Ketchum.

Gary Oak was alone in his seventeenth floor apartment's living room, in the most luxurious establishment on Indigo grounds. He was on his knees, staring nostalgically up at an enormous, six-by-seven-foot photograph framed and imbedded in the far wall adjacent to the veranda overlooking his exclusive complex and the whole eastern portion of Indigo Plateau. The stately buildings gleamed behind him in a brilliant mix of bronze, gold, and sharp mauve as the setting sun cast its final rays over the veritable metropolis. Amber light pierced the comparative dark of Oak's spacious living room, illuminating the gold frame around the image that held him captive.

     Gary's arms hung limply in front of him, between his spread legs. In his hands, he loosely clutched a black utility belt, stocked with a full load of Series Gold, Quantum-X, -XII, and -XX Pokčballs. Releasing one of the golden spheres, he removed it from the main cluster, running his fingers along the gilded orb's complex, stylized grooves. He'd been here for well over an hour and his legs were killing him. But he didn't really care anymore; maybe he deserved whatever pain and suffering he got.

     It had been a month since his best friend in the whole wide world shut the door on their long-standing alliance. Gary Oak and Ash Ketchum. The greatest Master duo that ever set foot in an arena. For years they'd been the IPL's two fiercest rivals, hashing back and forth, stepping all over each other in their frenzied attempts to claim ultimate glory for themselves. The episodes were downright pathetic. In fact, it occurred to them both that their personal training was, on the whole, beginning to suffer dramatically from lack of attention-attention they'd devoted almost entirely to getting the best of each other.

     It was about this time, as Ash and Gary advanced to the highest levels of international competition, that the two struck an unexpected bargain, changing their lives and their relationship toward each other forever.

     The arrangement was fairly simple but it took everyone by complete surprise. Ash would initially contend for the Rainbow Wing Medallion and the Thunder World Cup. Gary would go for the Silver Wing Medallion and the Earthquake World Cup. (The Silver Wing's event, The Athenian Ultramarathon, was an extremely grueling race over a 200 mile course rittled with snares, snags, pits, rough terrain, a ten-mile swim, and a final mad dash across the last 1000 feet to the finish. It took a whole day to complete. Plus, trainers were allowed to battle each other along the way. Losers were immediately disqualified from the rest of the race.) Every other year, he and Ash would exchange taking shots at the two Wing Medallions, the catch being that both would agree to stay out of the other's event. It was promptly declared the corniest, most superficial show of false sportsmanship and no one believed for a minute that Oak and Ketchum would hold to their agreement.

     Ash lost the Rainbow Wing to Indigo Elite Four Champion, Lance Drakefire; a member of the legendary Sahara Wind League bested Gary in the race for the Silver Wing; and everyone waited for the two to be back at each other's throats. No one even saw what was coming.

     Gary could feel the exhilaration coursing through him as he relived that defining moment all over again: A shocked hush enveloped the arena. He and his dark-haired comrade strode with almost regal majesty, heads held high, onto the command platforms overlooking the world's greatest super-stadium. The silence was immediately shattered by the crowd's thunderous roar. Sunlight reflected off their trademark gold jumpsuits and custom-ware as the pair simultaneously saluted their adoring fans, shook hands and departed for their own outcroppings, the crowds cheering them on. If anything, it was just great to see two bitter rivals work together for the first time ever.

     They all had no idea!

     Precisely fifteen minutes into the first round of the World Doubles Cup, Ash and Gary made a living mockery of their opponents, dispatching them with breathtaking ease. Round two only brought more shame to those who opposed them, more resonating applause from the crowds; round three was no different, and so it continued to build, with one impossibly quick victory after the next. And when the last doubles team went down in smoldering ruins, on their knees, waving the white flag for all their sobbing worth, the masses rose to their feet, drowning the place with one unified roar. Such was the passion in that place; the crowd surging to the edge of the stadium's two hundred foot high walls, pressing their screaming, cheering, tear-streaked faces against the perimeter's clear barrier. On that day, before nearly half a billion witnesses-before the whole civilized world (and anyone else who had a TV)-Gary Oak and Ash Ketchum's long and fruitless rivalry came to an official end.

     As the season progressed, it became painfully obvious to the constituents of international competition that the pair were simply in a league of their own. Try as hard as anyone might, it was all they could do not to look like shredded paper being blown in the wind. For three consecutive World Championships, Oak and Ketchum dominated the World Doubles Cup. Gary had seen the videos (still being meticulously scrutinized by combat experts all over the world). No one could defeat them. They were like Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh; Zeus and Apollo; they were like gods.

     But a month ago, all that came crashing down.

     Ironically, the duo's reign was brought to a sudden end not in the arena but in Gary Oak's bedroom. The details were still too embarrassing to recount. Somehow, he'd gotten himself into one vulnerable situation with Duplica Mimique, Ash's con-artist girlfriend, and the two were in the process of generating a mutual orgasm when Ketchum walked in on the lovemaking scene.

     Gary's hold on the gilded Pokčball tightened, the guilt and humiliation pouring back down on him like droves of pelting rain. Ash could've done a million things at that moment. If anything, he should've at least been angry. Such outright betrayal! But he just crossed his arms and gave his doubles partner and girl a long, cold stare. Then, with a dismissive shake of his head, he abruptly turned on his heels and strode briskly out.

     Gary had immediately sprung after him, hastily whipping the humid sheets about himself, leaving Duplica to her own devices.

     "Ash! Wait-up, man!"

     Ketchum marched resolutely on, not looking back.

     "Please! I'm sorry! STOP!"

     Ash paused then, turning as he opened the front door to Gary's apartment, "What?" He raised an eyebrow at his soon-to-be-ex-friend's sorry attire.

     For a moment they remained like that, Gary unable to come up with anything more to say, Ash unwilling to vocalize his own thoughts as the bridge they had built between each other came tumbling down. Gary stood helplessly as the facets of his hard-earned friendship eroded away into the abysmal void of silence.

     Finally, Ash came forward and put a hand on the other, trembling man's shoulder. "Look, Oak," he said, "it's not that you disappoint me-it's not even that you do it this way," he nodded back toward the bedroom. "It's that for once, I really thought you were finally going to be my friend, my ultimate ally." His eyes narrowed. "We were partners, man. Everything I had was yours," Ash choked back a tear, "and you still let me down. I don't give a damn about Duplica. I know how she is; I was an idiot to ever hook up with her. But you," twin streams trekked their way down his chiseled features, "I had faith in you, Gary Oak." He straightened, backing away from his stricken comrade. Reaching behind his neck, Ash undid the slender, gold chain that held his most prized possession. "Farewell."

     And with that, he tossed the chain and its attached medal at Gary's feet. A gilded ring of olive leaves stared up at him. . . the Doubles Wreath.

     Gary fell to his knees as Ashura Ketchum walked out the door, out of his life, forever.

". . . Duplica?" Brock and Ashura exchanged wary glances.

     Misty's eyebrow cocked, "Mimique?"

     Ash's face flushed a brilliant, angry crimson. He looked like an overcharged Electrode, about to explode.

     Ketchum shoved his loaded weapons toward Misty, "Take these away before I do something rash!" And then he stomped, past Brock, Giselle and Samurai toward the voice that had called him with such erotic passion. It was time to bring closure to this whole stupid thing!

     Misty exchanged glances with Brock and Samurai, then started after her fuming ex-partner, Mr. Stone and Mr. Shoto in tow, Giselle following quickly behind.

     Ash closed with his target, "You conniving wench." He stated with cold condemnation. "You've a lot of nerve to show your face again!"

     Duplica's translucent arm reached behind her shoulder as she stroked her Ditto. The Pokčmon dropped their glassy cloak and Mimique's stunning figure re-emerged. She feigned a sad sniffle, "Must we be so harsh?"

     Misty approached the scene, along with Brock, Shoto, and Giselle, "Ash, what's going-?"

     "Misty, give me one of those back, please," Ash requested curtly, extending an arm behind him.

     Puzzled, Misty complied, handing Ketchum one of his revolvers.

     "Thank you." To everyone's shock, he pointed the firearm straight at Duplica. "Let's get a few things straight, shall we." He cocked the hammer. "I don't like where we are right now, how we got here, and I could care less about you."

     Brock's semi-auto's muzzle rested against Duplica's left temple, on cue, as ever, "So, we'll forgo all the pleasantries and get straight to business, miss."

     Samurai's katana pressed lightly against Duplica's right jugular, "We're going to ask you a few questions. . ."

     Misty stood by Ash, aiming his other revolver and her [empty] semi-auto at Duplica's forehead, ". . . and you're going to give us the answers."

     Giselle crossed her arms, giving Mimique a hard look. "I would advise you to give us your full cooperation."

     "Any games out of you," Ash affirmed, "and your lucrative career is over."

     Duplica, an amused expression registering on her plush countenance, shifted her playful brown eyes from one stone-cold face to the next, gauging, perhaps, the validity of their threat. "Okay, Ashy-boy." She conceded, her lips parting in a dazzling smile, "You win."

     "Good." Ash kept his weapon trained at a point somewhere between Duplica's mischievous eyes. "Now, tell me," he lowered his voice slightly, "who are The Elite?"

     Mimique's smooth features went cold. Her disarming smile evaporated. For once, she actually looked worried. Gingerly, she put an index finger on the open barrel of Ash's gun. "You really want to know?"

     "Yes." Ash answered firmly.

     Duplica gently pushed his weapon back toward him. "Then follow me." She said hauntingly.

==To Be Continued==
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