In a different life Ash Ketchum looks upon his world from an unique perspective.


42. 40

Blue waves, tipped with white froth, gently lapped on the shores of Cinnabar Island under a bright yellow tropical sun. No breeze stirred the large palm leaves that line the docks as Ash, Brock, and Misty stepped off of the boarding ramp and onto solid land. Pikachu was on Ash's shoulder, gently dozing.

"Ah," Misty sighed. "Looking around. I can't wait to go for a swim. Maybe do some diving and catch some pokémon."

"I'm thinking of hitting a beach," Brock said. "I could catch a few rays. It would be nice to just spend a few days relaxing."

"A few days on this island?" Misty looked around, faking an expression of wonder and puzzlement. "I can't think of aaaannnything I can do to kill all that time!"

"I was just going to go to the pokémon center and then go get my badge," Ash spoke up, looking down at a map of the island. "It shouldn't take that long, so you don't have to worry about finding things to do."

Brock rolled his eyes, while Misty let her face fall into her palm.

"Aaron, please tell me you're joking," Brock said, turning to the boy.

"Huh?" Ash looked up from the map.

She wasn't being serious, Pikachu said from Ash's shoulder, cracking open one eye.

"Sorry," Ash rubbed the back of his head. "I guess I missed something. You actually want to take some days off? Didn't we have enough of that in the mountains?"

"Yes, but I want to take some days off to go do something, instead of just sitting around waiting for you to recover" Misty answered.

"I prefer the weather up here," Brock added.

"And I'd like to sample the tropical food-"

Mommy! Hungry! A cry arose from a small off-white thing clutched in Misty's arms. Misty looked down and smiled.

"Oh, is somebody awake," Misty clutched the small pokémon to her chest. "Is somebody hungry?"

Mommy! Mommy! Togepi squeaked.

There had been some confusion following the hatching of Togepi. Technically he had been part of the find, so some had thought that he belonged in the custody of the archaeologists for care and study. On the other hand, Misty had been the one to retrieve him, and the one whom he had bonded with, so eventually it was decided that he was Misty's, at least after some quick study. Togepi weren't exactly common, but there were enough of them that finding one was not a significant event. The archaeologists and biologists they brought in didn't find anything unusual with Misty's togepi.

Since then Misty had been carrying him around as the group traveled. Togepi had a pokéball, but one Misty only planned to use to store him during emergency situations. Brock for his part offered advice on the proper caring of young pokémon, something that he learned about while studying pokémon breeding, and Ash simply stayed out of the way.

Honestly, Ash didn't really get how excited they were getting over the young pokémon. Nobody could hold a proper conversation with a pokémon that young. They were pretty boring until they started to grow up.

Hopefully togepi grew fast. He wouldn't want to put up with that thing for more than a few months.

Elsewhere, on a different tropical island, a flock of butterfrees were lounging about, enjoying the sunlight on their wings. Most were recuperating from the long flight and from the ordeal of laying their eggs in the Viridian Forest, where they would sit for a year before hatching. And when that time came most of the butterfree would return to care for them, breaking up the flock.

Or that was usually the case.

Pokémon were sapient beings. They learned things, and passed these things along to their families, friends, comrades, flock mates, and societies. The behavior of these groups could be radically changed for a time, creating new pokémon societies, and new modes of behavior.

At least for a little bit. Eventually the society would collapsed, either from slow decay, or from the violence of the world, and then the knowledge would be lost.

In the case of Butterfree's flock, the change was that certain members of the flock were using their psychic powers to carry their eggs with them. And others planned on using their psychic powers to carry their children with them, and remain in the flock.

Butterfree, was a little bit weirded out by the idea that they would still be following his lead for years to come. It was a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. That and the eventual caterprie that he and Sky Painter would have to take care of.

Speaking of which, he'd rather be lying next to the pink butterfree enjoying the sun, but he had agreed to continue giving his lessons on psychic ability.

Alright everyone, focus, reach out, and perceive! Butterfree commanded. You can't just look at things! You have to get them!

Minds linked and power flowed. Inside his mind Butterfree could see the wild landscape of shifting colors begin to change. He focused, and recognized the patterns that represented the other pokémon. Patterns jostled against each other, clashing and pushing.

|Now look at yourselves!| Butterfree said through the link. |You're part of this too! Come on guys! Look at yourselves and quit fighting. Make the edges look the same!|

The outer edges of the patterns began harmonize and create a new pattern. The minds were linked, the network established.

|Awesome!| Butterfree exclaimed. |Now let's look around.|

Power was shared and vision soared. Minds danced over the waters, making out the sea lights of the life, over islands dotted with points of light, and under the swarms of brilliant points that were the sea going flocks of life. A collection of illumination, a seabound sun, beckoned, and Butterfree and his protégées heeded.

It was a human settlement and Buttefree thought that he felt a familiar mind...

Ash and Pikachu walked about the town, having left the rest of the party at the pokémon center. Ash was looking for a deserted spot where he might be able to have an uninterrupted conversation with Pikachu. The streets were busy without being crowded, people everywhere but no choking crowds, and no cars to be seen. There were open air cafes with red and white umbrellas, restaurants with neon signs, small bars, and all sorts of amusements scattered about.

The duo traveled through the sounds of the city life, and the smell of salty-fresh ocean air until Ash spotted a place that seemed to be deserted. A husk of blackened stonework and burned beams beckoned from an otherwise empty area by the coast.

Wonder what this was, Ash stated when they got closer. Whatever structure that the ruins had once been were seemed to have been a large one.

I don't know, Pikachu said, scurrying down Ash's arm and leaping onto a partially standing wall. Some of these walls seem sort of fancy. Maybe it was a mansion?

Or a museum, Ash suggested, looking around for a long stick to test the ground with. He found a partial piece of burned lumber that didn't seem that rotten.

They began to carefully explore the ruins, Ash poking ahead, Pikachu scurrying ahead.

So, second to last gym badge, Pikachu spoke up, idly kicking over a pile of debris to investigate it. This badge, and then the one back in Viridian, and then that's it for Kanto. What's after that?

Since we're not going to make it to the League conference in time, I thought we'd go to another region, Ash answered.

Which one?

I'm trying to decide between Johto, Hoenn, or the Orange Islands, Ash replied. Probably not Jhoto, since I they won't be having a conference this year. I wonder what this was. Ash poked at the burned remnant of what seemed to be a piece of complex electronic machinery.

Doesn't seem to have been a museum, Pikachu noted, maybe it was a lab?

Maybe, Ash said with a shrug.

Butterfree felt the familiar mind enter a strange place. There was light all about it, but not the white light of a living mind. Instead there was a savage array of colors, the echos of a fiery power. It helped and hindered Butterfree, giving strange boasts and providing strange resistance in turn. Without will the psychic landscape was an impossible ocean, waves not moving in unison and crashing against one another, maelstroms coming and going, and strange currents twisting and writhing.

Still Buttefree pressed on, trying to make contact...

This is really weird, Ash stated, cautiously making his way up what seemed to be a staircase that had been mostly spared.

How so? Pikachu asked, from further up.

It looks like the owners were doing some sort of science, but this building doesn't seem set up for it, Ash commented. And, it seems like a lot of this equipment was supposed to be hidden. Well, at least it was supposed to be hidden if I'm guessing where the walls used to be correctly.

Probably just your imagination, Pikachu said, reaching the top of the stairs.

Maybe, Ash agreed with a shrug, arriving soon after Pikachu.

So what's the plan for the gym? Pikachu inquired.

It's supposed to be a fire based gym, so Squirtle's definitely going to be used, Ash poked along an intact wall. I'd try and use Charizard, but the doctors said that he has a couple more months before he should try to fly.

Poor fellow, Pikachu shook his head.

He'll be alright, Ash said. He's a very strong pokémon. I have no doubts on his ability to overcome this issue. But, anyway, if it's going to be a double battle, I'll probably just use Primeape and Magikarp-what's this?

Ash poked a bit of blackened wall, which crumbled away to reveal what seemed to be a hidden compartment. Pikachu scurried up Ash to take a look.

There's some paper inside, Ash said, carefully removing the aforementioned item. Bits of burnt paper fell from his finger, ruined and useless, but there were still scraps that were pristine.

We have discovered new evidence of the ancient pokémon's location, deep within the southern hemisphere, Ash read aloud, and we must mount an expedition to cross this broken world to visit it. He leafed through the papers, trying not to damage them anymore. Mew- I can't read the rest-

Wait, did they find Mew or a mew? Pikachu asked.

I don't know, Ash replied, before reading onward. We work now with the- can't make out this bit- and will labor here, in secret,- another burned bit- best equipment is needed, but we must conceal our activities, the potential-

Ash flipped through some more pages, reading to Pikachu as he did so.

-such power. An answer to our prayers and hopes-

-coming along-

-vicious, brutal, we need to control it-


-hubris. In the end, we who have thrown our lot in with those that some would call tyrants, we who would recreate the beginnings of this world for the purpose of stealing the power found then, we who would stride the heavens unclad pretending to be giants, we have reaped what we have sown.

Anything else? Pikachu, asked, leaning over to look at the papers more closely.

No, Ash replied. I don't really get what they're talking about.

Maybe one of the scientists here was writing a story on the side? Pikachu suggested with a shrug. It sounds too fantastical to be related to what they were working on.

Let's keep looking, Ash said. Anyway, for the gym battle, if it's a double battle, I'll just use Primeape and Magikarp. Magikarp can provide defense against any fire attacks, while Primeape provides the offensive.

When was the last time that Primeape fought solo? Pikachu furrowed his brow.

Sometime before the Sa-Safari zone, Ash said. I should probably make him and Magikarp do some training alone-

Not that Magikarp can do much alone, Pikachu said with a smirk.

-so that they won't be helpless if they get split up, Ash rolled his eyes as he surveyed the last of the surviving second floor. Huh, I guess that's it for this part. Let's finish exploring the first floor.

I don't like speaking ill of a comrade, but come on, Magikarp will always be basically helpless, Pikachu said. It's just part of being a magikarp.

He did alright against Meowth, Ash pointed out as they came down the stairs.

Since when do you refer to him by name, Pikachu looked darkly at Ash. Don't pokémonize him by referring to that puffed up cat by name.

Ash rolled his eyes again. At least the Rocket Trio avoided killing people. After what he and his team had been through he was missing that in his enemies.

They poked around downstairs for a bit, Ash still taking care to test the ground before stepping on it. His diligence paid off when a section of floor broke off and fell when he put weight on it.

Hey! I see stairs! Pikachu said, looking down the hole. Where's the entrance to the basement?

The pair searched. The pair found nothing. The pair looked at each other.

Secret basement?

Secret basement.

Ash poked around some more, until he was able to find a bit of floor that broke just above the staircase. The two of them then made their way into the darkness below.

Ash stepped on some broken glass, the crushing noise filling the space for a moment. He began to shuffle about, to avoid stepping on any more.

Pikachu, do you think you could manage a little light? The human asked.

Pikachu shrugged in the dark and began to emit a small, slow stream of bright sparks from his cheeks, casting a sputtering, fluttering light over the area. The stairs lead to a subterranean junction, with two halls leading off to the side and one door straight ahead of Ash. The boy walked forward and through the door, into the large room beyond.

Inside the floor looked like it had been melted at some point and allowed to harden again. Broken electronic equipment lined the walls, empty and torn up shells now, and towards the interior there were rows of consoles, or what had once been rows of consoles before they had been torn up and cast about. From the flickering light Ash could see gash and tears above him in the walls. The place looked like there had been a storm within, not an explosion, but an actual hurricane somehow localized, allowing the full churning power of the storm to tear up the room.

The air should have been cold and stale that far away from the open skies. The room should have felt dark and empty having been abandoned for so long. The room should have been empty of sound except for the occasional creak of the structure settling.

But none of that was true.

Silence filled the room true, but it was the oppressive silence that ate sound and crushed down on the mind in a way even that overwhelming noise could only hope to match. Darkness surrounded Ash and Pikachu, but it was not empty darkness, rather the darkness was full and suffocating like the inside of a hungry beast's mouth. And the air felt warm and... angry somehow.

Ash and Pikachu could both somehow sense it. Something in the lifeless room was angry and in pain. It resonated in them on a level they couldn't identify, but filled them to the very brim.

Okay, that's enough of this, Pikachu said. Let's get back outside.

No, Ash said slowly. He could feel something else in the room, something calling out to him. He walked further in.

Seriously, let's just go! Pikachu said, clamping onto Ash' shoulder.

Ash ignored him.

At the end of the room, opposite the door, where the devastation was greatest, to the point where there was only warped metal and floor, there stood one structure. A glass cylinder more than large enough to hold a person, capped with machinery. The front was shattered and there were no shards of broken glass on the inside. Ash felt compelled to approach.

In the flickering, fluttering, stuttering spark light Ash knelt down by the tube. His hand stretched out, seeking something. What was this feeling?

His hand entered the boundary set by the glass.

What was he feeling? What was calling for him? What was this word?

His skin made contact. A blue spark flashed.


What? Ash looked up.

I didn't say anything, Pikachu replied.

Ash looked around.

I guess I'm just hearing things, he said.

The two of them left the room and made their way back to the stairs.

|Ash?| This time Ash looked around. It was different from before... and somehow familiar.

Okay, I heard that one too, Pikachu said. And I'm pretty sure I know who that is.

I know who that is too, Ash replied. But it wasn't them before.

|Ash can you hear me? Try to think at me.|

|I can hear you Butterfree|, Ash thought back.

|Oh good! It's nice to talk to you again!| Butterfree said via telepathy. |I can't wait to hear what you've been up to! I bet it's been crazy and fun.|

Ash and Pikachu looked at each other. They laughed hesitantly.

|Oh and before I forget, it's probably very dangerous for you two to be where you are.| Butterfree added. |There's a lot of residual psychic energy floating around there that might cause something to randomly explode. I mean it's nice that you two are there because it lets me talk to you, and I probably won't be able to when you leave, but I can't see of anything else good coming from that place.|

Ash and Pikachu looked at each other again. They looked at the stairs. Back at each other.

Ash started walking very briskly towards the stairs.

|So, I take it that you two are leaving?| Butterfree asked.

|I like not being exploded|, Pikachu though. |Hey are you relaying this? Can Ash hear this?|

|I can hear you Pikachu|, Ash replied.

|Good. I'd like to reiterate my point about not being exploded.|

The two of them hurried up the stairs.

|The connection is starting to get weaker|, Butterfree said. |I guess the source of all this energy is somewhere in the basement. Before we lose the connection, do you know when you're heading back to Kanto? I might be able to stop by and visit.|

|A week and a half?| Ash guessed, mentally shrugging, still heading for the first floor. |I don't know. Depends on how this gym visit goes and then when the next boat leaves.|

|I can work with that|, Butterfree replied as the two of them reached the first floor and began hurrying for the exit. |Connection is fading. I'll talk to you later Ash.|

Pikachu and Ash ran out the front doors and kept running until they reached the edge of the city.

Wow, Butterfree, really, Pikachu said. Dangerous amounts of energy that might cause you to explode is something that you want to open the conversation with. I don't think he was that much of an idiot-

Before he met me, Ash rolled his eyes. I know, I know.

Well, it's somehow your fault, Pikachu said. I just know it. You have some sort of idiotfying aura.

And yet you're still here, Ash replied.

Your aura must've gotten to me already, Pikachu sighed. Oh woe is me! Cursed the moment from the moment I first met you-

Oh ha-ha-ha, Ash said smiling. You know you love me and being around me.

Shut up, Pikachu said looking away, trying to hide a grin of his own.

The Cinnabar Island Gym lay before Ash, towering over the town. Or more accurately, the Cinnabar Island volcano towered over the island and the gym was built into the side of the mountain.

"That can't be safe," Ash said, looking up. "What if the volcano- uh- goes off?"

"What if it erupts you mean?" Brock said. "Don't worry. They've got enough shielding around the gym to protect it from any stray lava flows, or any flying debris. The shield actually is strong enough to deflect anything short of the entire mountain exploding and send it towards the sea."

"It still seems very reckless," Misty added. "Why build the gym in the volcano? It would be cheaper to build it by the volcano instead."

"Fire type gym," Brock answered. "I'm sure there was some reason related to his training philosophies."

"Eh, I'm still not buying it," Misty replied.

Brock rolled his eyes.

"I'm sure that your own type preference has nothing to do with the matter," he said evenly.

"Well, I'm even more sure that I'm not going to use Bulbasaur in here if I can help it," Ash said. "Come on, let's get this over with."

The trio entered the gym. There was a receptionist up front.

"Oh yes, just sign in here," he said when Ash mentioned that he was there to challenge the gym leader. "Mr. Blaine will be with you when he's ready."

Half an hour later the receptionist spoke up again.

"He's ready to see you now," he told the group. Go on through the double doors behind me."

"This feels more like a visit to the dentists then a gym battle," Brock mentioned as they left the waiting area. "But I guess that happens with the bigger gyms."

"Normally you don't have to wait this long," Misty said. "He should have had some gym trainers around to take care of some challengers."

"Maybe the ones that were supposed to be working today were sick," Brock suggested.

"Or maybe I heard rumors about a gym leader and a gym trainer traveling around Kanto with a kid." A new voice joined the conversation. Everyone turned to look at the newcomer. It was an old man in a red shirt and black glasses. He was bald on top, with shaggy white hair on the sides of his head. "Brock, Misty, how you've been?"

"Blaine!" Misty exclaimed. "It's nice to see you."

"We've had an interesting time," Brock replied. "But we've all survived."

"And this must be Aaron," Blaine turned to Ash. "Let me guess, you're here to challenge me?"

"Yes, uh, sir," Ash answered.

"Don't call me sir," Blaine mock glared at the boy. "I'm not that old."

"Yes, uh, Mr. Gym Leader," Ash said, looking up at the man.

"Just call me Blaine," the old man responded. "Hmmm... what badges have you gotten thus far?"

"Boulder, Cascade, Thunder, Rainbow, Soul, and Marsh," Ash said, reaching into his pocket for the badges.

"I'll take your word for it," Blaine said, gesturing at Ash to stop. "What took you so long to get here? You've missed the deadline for registration to battle in the conference."

"I got in a battle with a murderer," Ash answered. "Me and my team got hurt. We had to spend some time recovering."

"Really now," Blaine stroked his chin. "How many pokémon did you two use at a time?"

"I used seven and I think he used six," Ash said, thinking back.

"You had seven pokémon with you? Most trainers stick with six for a reason. Come on." Blaine started walking away. Ash and company followed.

"Six pokémon generally is the limit that a trainer can comfortably feed and care for," Blaine said while they walked. "And it's generally the limit that trainers can manage in a battle. Of course, trainers stopping at five pokémon or going to seven is not that unusual. In the end it's an example of diminishing returns, as the result of your battle may have showed."

"Diminishing returns?" Ash asked, unfamiliar with the phrase.

"The more pokémon you have, the less of a difference it makes when you add another one to your team," they turned down a hallway, and Blaine swiped a card to open a pair of metal sliding doors. A small wave of hot air washed over them.

"I'm guessing that you usually don't fight with all your pokémon together," Blaine continued.

"Yeah," Ash answered. "I've sent them out in groups before to do stuff, but never fighting at the same place at the same time."

"And you simply rushed into the battle with the murderer?" Blaine continued to another pair of doors. He swiped the card again and they opened to allow a much hotter wave of air through. "Hmmm... yes, I think I know how to handle this."

Beyond that door was an arena in a volcanic cavern. Stadium lights lined the cave wall opposite the door and above the door, casting bright white light of the standard League arena, and over the orange magma below. Machinery hummed and there was a blue glow around the bottom of the arena and the walkway leading to it.

"It's shielded, don't worry. The shields will even stop you from falling off the edge." Blaine reassured the group as he confidently strode over the walkway, not paying any regard to the magma below. "It's toasty in here, but you won't get burned." He smirked. "Well, not if you stay in the arena. Try not to fall off. Brock, Misty, go back down the hallway, take a left, and that hallway will lead you to the the spectator box."

Ash and Pikachu looked down at the magma. They looked back up at the arena. Pikachu gulped.

What is with this island and dangerous locations! Pikachu complained. Ash just shook his head and followed the gym leader.

"Do you know why I renovated this gym to be inside the volcano?" Blaine asked as he strode over to one end of the arena.

"Uh-because this is a fire type gym," Ash answered, knowing that it was probably the wrong answer. Blaine probably wouldn't have asked the question if it had such an obvious answer.

"Naive, but correct," Blaine answered. "But this gym specialized in fire types before I took over. Do you know what the most important thing about using fire types is?"

"I'm guessing it's not about the strength of their flames or anything," Ash replied.

"Correct," Blaine smiled. "It's about two things. One is that you must always respect the dangers of fire. It may be cliché to say, but given the chance, it will not only burn friend and foe alike, but it will also consume everything that it can. Fire should never be used without forethought."

Ash nodded.

"Second, is truly understanding how fire works. Do you know just how many misconceptions there are surrounding fire?" Blaine went on. "Do you know how many people would have just walked into this room without worrying about shielding? They would think that magma, or lava, is only dangerous if one touches it. People always forget that intense heat is emitted by the molten stone. Without the shielding we would have been fried before we were halfway across the walkway."

Again, dangerous locations, Pikachu scurried to the top of Ash's head. I'm really not liking this place.

"I would say don't worry, but you absolutely should worry," Blaine looked down. "No matter how many redundancies I've built in, no matter how good the monitoring system is, and no matter how much warning we get, all of us are absolutely in danger every moment we spend in here."

Ash managed to keep his impatience from showing. He had grown up in the wild. He knew that danger was always close, held at bay only by plans and circumstances so easily destroyed by cruel fortune. He didn't need an ostentatious display like an open pool of magma to reinforce that point.

Of course, while Ash didn't realize it, the true purpose of the hellish atmosphere of the arena was to put extra pressure on trainers challenging Blaine. It could be hard to focus when standing over a pit of glowing magma, even if the shielding would catch anyone who fell over the side.

"Do you know how many beginning trainers expect a gout of flame to stagger an opponent's pokémon?" Blaine continued. "They think that a Flamethrower attack transfers kinetic energy to the target. No! If you wish for your fire attack to have concussive force then you must use the heat to manipulate the air! You must not simply react based on basic instinct! Instead you must forge new instincts for yourself! This is the key to using fire types, the key to becoming truly great at anything!"

Ash nodded.

"Oh, you think you understand?" Blaine raised an eyebrow. "You may think you do, but your understanding lacks depth. You won't truly comprehend until the understanding sinks into your bones. Allow me to help with that!"

Blaine swept his arms out. White light blazed amidst the hellish red light. Six fire type pokémon stood on Blaine's side of the arena. Surrounding him was an arcanine, a ninetails, a rapidash, a magmar, a flareon, and a typhlosion.

"This isn't your usual battle," Blaine explained. "The goal here isn't to defeat my pokémon, but you might find it helpful to do so." He stepped into a circle on his end of the arena. "All you have to do is get one of your pokémon into this circle here."

"And then I win?" Ash asked.

Blaine smirked.

"Yes, you'll win if you do that," he said. "However, you'll have to stand in that circle there." He pointed to a similar circle over by Ash. "And if I can get one of my pokémon into that circle, I'll win."

"You'll win, because I'd probably be dead in a real battle if my opponent got their pokémon that close," Ash looked around the arena. "How many pokémon should I use? Six, or all of them?"

"All of them," Blaine answered. "This isn't the same sort of test you would find in other gyms. We're trying to get as close to a real battle as we can right now. I want to see how you handle your whole team."

White light blazed around Aaron and his pokémon came out. Pikachu jumped off his shoulder and joined their ranks. Primeape picked up Magikarp, swinging him onto his shoulders.

"Do your primeape and magikarp usually fight like that?" Blaine asked.

"Yeah," Ash answered, while thinking about how to best use Charizard and Bulbasaur. "It's something they started to do right after Magikarp joined the team."

Blaine raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything else.

Ash stepped into his circle.

"You ready?" Blaine asked.

"Yes." Ash answered.

"Then let the battle begin!" Blaine declared.

The battle was fast paced. Blaine's pokémon spewed forth streams of flames, keeping Ash's pokémon from moving forward. Ash for his part tried various attacks and combinations to break through, but Blaine was always three steps ahead. Pikachu was knocked back by the swipe of the ninetail's tails when he tried to sneak in under a Water Gun attack. Bulbasaur's vines were repulsed by the rapidash's flames. Squirtle was deflected by the arcanine when he tried to withdraw into his shell and jet over. Each one of Ash's gambits failed.

Blaine for his part made only token efforts to get over on Ash's side, probing the younger trainer's defenses. Ash figured that the other man was simply testing him. Ash also figured that Blaine wasn't going to wait around forever. He would need to figure out something relatively soon.

Ash looked at Blaine. The gym leader was keeping his flareon inside the circle, usually on his shoulder, and he was keeping the typhlosion within a couple feet of the circle. His other pokémon were staggered around his half of the arena. Ash took a breath. If he could take out one of the front-line pokémon and the typhlosion, he could probably get a pokémon into Blaine's circle. He needed to knock out one of the two near the center, either the magmar or the ninetails.

It was too bad that Charizard couldn't fly at the moment, but at least he could provide an active defense. Ash would have to rely on his other pokémon to make an opening.

If he showed any obvious opening Blaine would probably take the opportunity to knock one of Ash's pokémon. He would need to be cautious.

First he'd use the move he'd picked up from Misty.

"Squirtle, Barrage Counter!"

Squirtle let loose an extra wide blast of water. Blaine's pokémon dodged, but Ash expected that.

"Pikachu, use Thundershock on the Barrage Counter!"

Crackling bolts of electricity wound themselves into Squirtle's attack, and through the scattered droplets diffusing into mist. The ninetails had jumped far enough away that it received only a minor shock, but the magmar hadn't been as agile. It shrieked in pain, rooted in place as streams of electric power streamed through and around it.

"Charizard, biggest Fireball you got, don't worry too much about the power!"

Blaine's pokémon had launched Flamethrower attacks at Pikachu, but Charizard's own fire attack intercepted them.

"Bulbasaur Razor Leaf the magmar! Pidgeotto, Gust both flanks!"

Pidgeotto's attacks swept up the falling embers and sparks from the fire attacks, casting them over the arcanine and the rapidash. The two pokémon closed their eyes to protect them from the embers, even as they stood strong against the winds. This gave Bulbasaur a chance to slip in his attack. Leaves crinkled and burned as the approached the magmar, most losing their edge long before they could strike, but some keeping it just long enough to cut the fire type's limbs. The magmar stumbled.

"Primeape, go!" Ash commanded. "Get Blaine!"

Primeape bolted down the center, right at the unstable magmar. Blaine's pokémon steadied itself long enough to spew forth a small fire ball, but Primeape used Magikarp to slap away the crimson sphere. The fighting type jumped up, spun, and kicked the side of the magmar's head. Blaine's pokémon fell down and Primeape launched himself off of its back, rocketing straight at Blaine!

"Squirtle, cover him! Pikachu help him!" Ash ordered. He needed to stop the typhlosion from stopping Primeape. Squirtle blasted away, sending a pressurized blast of water down the center of the arena. Pikachu added his electricity to the attack, letting the yellow power coruscate around the whitewater.

Orange fire clashed with the water, throwing up a cloud of steam as the typhlosion moved to counter both attacks, spewing forth fire and throwing himself into Primeape's path. Primeape dropped and darted to the side, throwing Magikarp with all his strength.

Just go down! Magikarp shouted, slamming into the typhlosion's diaphragm. Blaine's pokémon stumbled and Primeape seized the opportunity. One more leap, one more burst of speed, and the circle that contained Blaine was in reach-

And then Primeape found himself on his back, skidding and skipping over the arena away from Blaine. Blaine's flareon stood in front of the gym leader, long tail swishing eagerly behind it.

"Flareon," Blaine said. "Fire Spin around their side."

A spiral of scarlet flame arced up and then came down around Ash's side of the arena. A ring of fire leapt up around Ash and his team, rising higher and higher, forcing his team to back together around Ash. Blinded by the smoke and flame, they didn't see Blaine's magmar cross the circle. A stream of fireballs blasted into Bulbasaur, knocking him down and out.

Another Fire Spin engulfed Pidgeotto as everyone was reacting to the first attack, engulfing her as she shrieked and fell.

"Pidgeotto return!" Ash shouted, stomach dropping in sudden anxiety, as he held up a pokéball. Red light shot out and Pidgeotto left the fight.

"Squirtle Barrage Counter!" Ash commanded.

Before Squirtle could react, a stream of fire lanced through the curtain of flames, catching him straight in the face. At the same time, the magmar spat out a giant fire ball at Charizard. Ash's pokémon was bowled over by the explosion.

"Pikachu-" Ash began, before he felt a tugging on his leg.

"You've lost," Blaine shouted. "Look down."

Blaine's flareon was tugging on Ash's jeans.

From inside the circle.

"Well, I've definitely seen better," Blaine said. He was standing by the doorway to a sitting room by the entrance. Brock and Misty were lounging on chairs and Ash was standing before Blaine, fists clenched at his sides, biting his lower lip, and looking down at his feet. Pikachu hung limply off the back of a nearby chair.

"Your team defense needs work," Blaine went on. "It took too long for you to try and take control of the field by utilizing a majority of your team at once. You were too slow to react to being blinded. And you let your defense fall apart when pushed."

Ash didn't look up.

"Still, you showed basic competency during the match. You were able to have your pokémon work together in small groups, playing their strengths off of each other and utilizing combination attacks. I initially had doubts about how your primeape and magikarp worked together, but after seeing them in action I have no complaints." Blaine said. "In the end I'm feeling generous today." He reached into his pocket. "Here's your badge and the advancement. And one more important lesson: Sometimes the most important thing, in life or death, is luck."

Ash took the items, frowning.

"Doesn't feel good, does it? Getting the badge in this manner?" Blaine smirked. "Good. Victory is not a reward. Victory is a duty. Victory need not feel good. In fact, victory should feel both heavy and empty. If you must commit to battle it should never be joyful and you should not frown on whatever grants you what you seek."

"That can't be right!" Ash protested. "Other-"

"Other gym leaders and other trainers have their own philosophies," Blaine interrupted. "They train, teach, and award badges according to those philosophies. Right now I'm teaching you according to my philosophy."

"Yes sir," Ash said, looking down again.

"I hope you keep all of this in mind next time you end up fighting someone," Blaine said. "Maybe you won't end up spending a month recuperating next time. Now scram, I've got appointments to keep."

Well that was a bit humiliating, Pikachu said. Taken down like a bunch of magikarps- no offense to Magikarp though- and then sent on our way so he could do other things.

He was a gym leader, Ash said in a near monotone, lying back on his bed. He and Pikachu were resting at the island's pokémon center. He was sharing a room with Brock, who was out running some errands. They're supposed to be able to do that.

Aren't you going to put his badge with the others? You haven't taken it out of your backpack yet. Pikachu glanced over to the container in question, on floor by the bed.

Eventually, Ash replied, still nearly monotone.

Pikachu shrugged.

So what do you think was up with that mansion? Pikachu asked after a few minutes of silence.

I don't know, Ash answered in a more normal tone. I think they were growing something there. But that's all I can guess without more information. But, whatever was happening was less important than the fact that we got to talk to Butterfree again. I can't wait to see him again!

It will be good to see my old comrade again. I wonder how well he's done as leader? Nah, he's doing great of course. After all he had me to help teach him how to act. Pikachu crossed his forelimbs and nodded.

I thought I was the one training him, Ash said with a small grin.

Yes, well, you taught him some things, sure. But there are other things that could only be taught by a pokémon as awesome as myself. Pikachu replied. Thought as long as we're talking to him, we can ask him about what he picked up at the mansion.

Nah, Ash rolled over. Whatever happened there won't affect us. We can just forget about it.

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