Ash Ketchum has been determined to become the best since he was a toddler. He has his eyes set on a charmander, but a twist of fate led him to the humble Nidoran. Note: Mix between anime and the games.


38. The Champion Part 1

His heart stopped. Ash's eyes bugged out in surprise as he choked out, "What?"

"I want you to train with me." Lance repeated, a knowing smirk on his lips. His eyes glinted with amusement. "You've proven that you have the potential to tough it out, plus I've been ordered to take mandatory leave. I might as well do something productive during it, and you've proved worthy."

"But you're the Champion." Ash said numbly. "The League needs you to fight against Team Rocket."

Lance laughed and pressed a few buttons on his keyboard. "I've sent you a few files to look at. They should illuminate you to our current position in the war. Make sure to look at them before you pick up your ticket. I'll be waiting."

Ash nodded. A moment later Lance cut the power. He frowned and walked into the cool halls of the power plant. It was surprisingly sunny outside, and the air was muggy from the evaporation of the lakes created by Zapdos' storm.

Plume shrieked at him and landed right behind him as he opened the doors. Ash had let her out earlier. She needed to stretch her wings after so much time spent in the pokeball. He smiled and held the door open for her as she hobbled on unsteady talons into the power plant. She didn't want to be separated from him, and he reciprocated the feeling.

So as to not force Plume to struggle across the tiled floor of the building, Ash sat down against the wall just a few steps in. Plume stood as straight as she could next to him and bent down to see what he was doing. Ash idly stroked her glossy feathers as he looked down at the files Lance had sent him. They were in the application that also allowed him to access his Trainer ID, although he had his pokedex for that.

He frowned when he saw the name of the first of the three files. A spike of worry drove into his gut. "Mysterious Explosion near Pallet Town?"

Plume cooed softly and nuzzled his shoulder in an attempt to comfort him. Ash numbly patted her wing as he accessed the file. What had Lance sent him? Some sort of news report?

His guess was correct. As he opened it, the screen showed a news anchor that was popular in Viridian City's territory, Martha Green. Ash remembered that his mother usually watched her in the mornings before she went off to work.

"This morning, an immense explosion occurred roughly fifty miles southeast of Viridian City, although at this moment we do not know who was involved in the event or what caused." She said gravely. It seemed that she had grown all too accustomed to delivering bad news as of late. "The League is confirmed to be investigating the occurrence, but no information has been revealed to us as of yet. We do have footage taken by cameras at Professor Oak's laboratory in Pallet Town, however, and we will show it now."

Ash tensed. If it was close enough to be visible from Pallet Town, he was not happy. That put his mother and Professor Oak in far too much danger, not to mention the other people and pokemon that lived in Pallet Town.

The video was of high quality, just as he would have expected from a camera owned by Professor Oak. It was probably one of the ones that the Professor put up around the Corral to monitor some of the wild pokemons' interactions with the Corral pokemon.

It showed off a clear image of a field, although it was angled upward. Ash wondered if Professor Oak had been having trouble with another spearow flock. The view displayed the massive expanse of grass, but also the large mountains and forests that encircled Pallet Town to the east and west. To the south lay the sea, although it wasn't visible in the video. Judging from the overgrown area and obvious neglect, it seemed to be on the very edge of the massive Corral, probably a mile or so away from the Professor's home.

For a few moments, nothing happened. Ash noted that the video was edited to have been dimmed a bit, perhaps because –

Ash managed to spy a massive cylinder of bright blue light shoot into the infinite sky before the light grew too intense and whited out the screen for a few moments. Plume squawked in surprise and reared back, but he kept his eyes firmly fixed upon the screen. He heard a vast shockwave inside of the video, dampened by the medium through which he was hearing it but still powerful.

Everything in the video was silent for a moment before the wilderness and Corral erupted in a frenzy. Pokemon ran as far away from the direction of the explosion as they could, each with its own unique cry of fear and confusion. Arcanine was barely visible in the video before it cut off. Ash managed to see that the old canine was dashing toward the site of the explosion in a blur of motion.

"I repeat, we do not know the cause of the explosion. Photos taken from an aerial view," here the screen showed pictures of decent quality, although they were unfocused and obviously taken by a camera attached to a pokemon if the unsteady look to them was anything to go by, "show that the explosion flattened two square miles of forest, although we do not know if any humans were injured in the blast. We will report back to you when we receive more information."

The file ended and placed him back at the selection page. Ash took a deep, steadying breath. He'd only gotten a short glimpse at the strange cylinder of energy, but he had a horrible suspicion of what had caused it. Only one entity that he knew of could utilize energy that shade of icy blue, let alone release that kind of power. The Creature was at work. But what had it destroyed, and why?

His face was hard as he accessed the next file. It was another video, but one much longer than the last. He selected it and watched carefully. Plume peered down at the screen warily, not happy with the sudden flash of light from last time.

It seemed to be attached to someone's helmet. The camera shook, but it was still of good quality.

"This is ACE Trainer Morrison." A deep, steady voice began. The camera scanned over a huge pile of molten, smoking metal. It appeared to have cooled, but the metal of the structure was twisted into a mockery of its former self. Most of the building appeared to have been vaporized, however. Only the remnants were left. "My team has reached the site. Our investigation will begin momentarily."

He could hear a muffled voice coming from the video, which he assumed was from some sort of walkie-talkie or mobile communication device. Morrison was silent for a few moments. "Understood. Alpha Team, move in. Search for any identifying markers or evidence of the cause."

A hand that held a pokeball rose into the camera's view. Morrison released a large, stern Alakazam. It nodded at him with eyes perpetually wreathed in a dim glow of blue light.

"Scan for any survivors." Morrison commanded. Alakazam did not show any response other than closing its eyes. There was silence for a few moments before Morrison spoke again. He turned to face several other trainers in solid black uniforms, slightly different than the ACE trainers Ash had seen during the raid on Viridian. "Alakazam, show Gregory and Mackeroy their locations. Hurry. They're on the verge of death. Frederick, Avery, you're with me. We're searching the ruins."

There were a few muttered acknowledgements. Morrison's camera showed two of the ACE trainers splitting off from the main force. The remaining two followed Morrison as he turned around and headed into the smoking ruins.

"Spread out." Morrison barked. Alakazam lazily levitated next to him. As they neared the twisted heap of metal, Alakazam's eyes flashed. The metal wrenched itself into the shape of a door so that the ACE trainers could move in. "There are no survivors. Keep an eye out for any bunkers and identification."

The team was silent, but fulfilled their orders. Alakazam stuck with Morrison, stuck on the edge of the camera's vision, but Ash spotted an Arcanine and Machamp with the other two trainers. Morrison breathed lightly as he navigated through the ruins, alit by the bright midday sun.

Morrison released a Dugtrio, although Ash could barely see it from the camera's vision. "Dugtrio, search for any underground structures."

Dugtrio squealed and disappeared underneath the earth. Morrison patiently waited. Ash could dimly hear the barks of Arcanine in the distance. After several seconds, the ground-type popped out of the ground and forcefully displaced some of the wreckage. It grunted a few times and pushed through the ground. The ACE trainer followed the slow creature. Alakazam levitated beside him and avoided the need to push past heaps of metal.

"Good girl." Morrison said stonily. The camera focused and zoomed in on a small metal hatch. It appeared to have been mostly melted, but it was recognizable. Dugtrio was returned. "Alakazam, break it."

The camera didn't show Alakazam, but it showed blue light layering over the surface of the hatch. It shone more and more intense, and Ash could see the thick metal crumple under the immense force focused upon it. After a few more seconds it crushed inward with a loud clang.

"Frederick, Avery!" Morrison snapped. The two ACE trainers hurried over and flanked Morrison as the man became enshrouded in psychic energy from Alakazam and was levitated into the fortress. In several seconds the others joined him, if the rustling behind the trainer was anything to go by.

It switched to night vision. The bunker was completely wrecked, although traversable. Alakazam appeared in front of Morrison. "No survivors." The man muttered as Alakazam imparted the information into his mind.

Alakazam shifted debris out of the way with quick blasts of energy, which cleared the way for the ACE trainers. Morrison's breaths stayed slow and steady as he glanced around with the camera, which eventually focused on a bright red R painted on one of the metal walls.

There was a sharp intake of breath as they saw the symbol of Team Rocket, recognizable even through its ruined state.

"What have we found?" Morrison muttered. The camera started to turn, but the video suddenly cut off.

Ash's face was puzzled. It was a Team Rocket base, obviously, but why had the Creature destroyed it? Had it rebelled? If so, he wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. While it was devastating and a honed weapon in the hands of the Rockets, the Creature could at least be trusted to not cause too much pointless destruction. Freed of all restraints imposed by its handlers, it had free reign of the world.

He returned to the selection screen and accessed the final file, which appeared to be a document. Ash frowned as it appeared on the screen of the PokeNav. It seemed to be edited to show only a certain part of the full document, as it cut to a segment that had no lead up.

Site of explosion determined to be major base of Team Rocket, evidence gathered from bunker beneath the wreckage suggests Team Rocket HQ. The amount of energy required to destroy the building and heavily damage the fortified bunker beneath, as well as the destruction of the surrounding forest, suggests that UEC is responsible.

Circumstances regarding UEC's sudden change is currently unknown, as are its whereabouts. Protocols regarding potential attacks by UEC should remain in place for now, at least until more information is discovered or UEC has been contained.

Most data hidden in the bunker is deemed recoverable by experts. Porygon teams have been dispatched, along with prototype Porygon- 2, to recover information.

Assessment by Elite Four Bruno calls for immediate action to press forward against Team Rocket. A major number of personnel were believed to be stationed at the base, as well as financial and other organizational records. Movements will be implemented to prevent a second rise, and the power vacuum left in its wake will be suppressed by Elite Four Agatha.

Ash couldn't believe it. They thought Team Rocket was broken and sought to stamp on its ashes lest it rise up again.

Team Rocket hadn't been dealt a death blow by the League, although they had devastated its ranks and assets. They had been crushed through the efforts of their own creation. There was still a fight to finish, but the decisive blow had been struck.

He understood now why Lance could take the time off to train him. There wasn't a war anymore. Kanto didn't need its Champion now. The Elite Four and the wrathful hand of the League would eradicate whatever holdouts the terrorist organization retained.

Ash wasn't foolish enough to believe that Team Rocket was completely broken through their HQ's destruction. They wouldn't put all of their eggs into one basket. Fortunately, the League had already smashed a majority of their eggs. Only the fragments remained.

It was hard to believe. Team Rocket, the organization that had publicly terrorized Kanto for a little more than a decade, had been broken. Giovanni was likely dead. He'd seemed important to the organization, considering that he'd been trusted to handle the Creature and use it in his gym.

He scowled at the thought of the former gym leader. Ash would have liked to have defeated the man himself, or at least helped in his apprehension.

Ash sighed and took a deep, calming breath. He just needed to focus. Team Rocket's end was something he could think on later. For now he just needed to speak to his mother and make plans for the time being.

The trainer figured that he should call right now. Surge would wake up within the hour, at least if Brock's estimate was correct. He wanted to be completely ready to leave. Lance's call and going through the files had taken more time than he expected.

Plume lightly nipped his hat as he dialed in the numbers, to which he simply laughed and tapped her on the forehead. After several months with Tangrowth, it was an instinctual reaction. It had the added benefit of shocking Plume, who cocked her head and cooed at him in confusion.

He absentmindedly stroked her crest apologetically as the screen suddenly flickered to life and revealed his living room, which was even cleaner than usual. Ash frowned at that. His mother tended to clean obsessively whenever she was worried. That wasn't a good sign.

She'd known about his mission. He'd told her what he was doing after Lance had told him. While his mother wasn't thrilled that he was working for the League again, she didn't seem to mind too much. In comparison to the battles against Team Rocket, venturing into a large storm had seemed perfectly safe.

While it was common knowledge that electric-types were migrating to the storm, his mother probably hadn't expected their interference to be bad enough to block all signals. She was probably stuck between being worried sick and absolutely furious. Ash felt a sinking sensation in his stomach as his mother came into view. Her ordinarily smiling face was perfectly composed, which was never a good sign.

Just because he could explain his lack of communication didn't mean that his mother would be any less terrifying.

"Ash Ketchum, why did you not call me for three weeks?" His mother said in a perfectly even voice. Ash inwardly flinched. She definitely wasn't happy. Her eyes seemed tired, but tightly focused on him. "Do you have any idea how worried I was?"

Ash stayed silent. It was best to let his mother get most of her anger out now and then explain. She was much more rational when she didn't have a bunch of pent up emotions roiling inside her.

"The storm was on the news, Ash." She hissed. "I heard about how bad it got. More than twenty thousand people were evacuated. That doesn't –" his mother suddenly froze and examined him. All anger flooded out of her face, replaced with motherly concern. Her sudden mood swing was disconcerting, to say the least. "You're so pale! Are you feeling okay?"

"I'm fine." He said reassuringly. Ash knew he didn't look his best. It had been three weeks since he'd had a proper shower, although Torrent had helped when he hadn't been completely drenched. He had also gotten several bad colds and he was sure that the exhaustion incurred by the journey showed as well. The trainer wasn't sure if there was any evidence of the explosion he'd been caught in that was visible.

His mother wasn't convinced. "Are you sure? You look like you're about to collapse."

"I'm fine." He repeated. Ash tried to sound convincing. His mother didn't look too good herself. Seeing the effects of the stress he put on her made him feel guilty. "It was just a harsh journey. Nothing dangerous."

She stared at him suspiciously. Her expression was still one of worry, but she relented. "Alright. How was your journey? Did you see anything interesting?"

"I caught an Electabuzz." He said brightly, a grin on his face as he thought of Oz. Even without the storm powering her, Ash suspected that she'd be perfectly capable of keeping up. She needed some work, but her determination and willpower would make the process fly by. Although it was a struggle, Ash eventually decided to leave out Zapdos until he knew what story the League would be told.

"Really?" His mother questioned. She clasped her hands together in excitement. "I had no idea! Samuel never mentioned it."

He shrugged. "Communications were blocked. There were a lot of magnemite, plus the storm was really powerful once we got closer."

"That makes sense. I'm sorry I snapped at you." His mother smiled guiltily. "I've just been worried, you know. A lot's happened around Pallet lately."

Ash tensed up, almost imperceptibly. "The explosion?"

"You heard about that?" His mother said oddly. Her voice seemed a bit choked. "It was awful. For a moment I thought that there was an earthquake, or that another gyarados attacked. Professor Oak and I were having lunch when it happened."

"Did you see it?" He asked, barely able to hide his eagerness. An eyewitness account would be better than the video Professor Oak released, even if it was from far away.

His mother had a faraway look as she spoke. Ash frowned at himself. That probably wasn't the best question to ask. "No. Samuel did. He wouldn't speak of it, though. I haven't seen him since then. He's been very busy, but he won't say what he's doing."

In other words, he was doing something for the League. Although Professor Oak specialized in human-pokemon relationships, he had a vast amount of knowledge in many fields. He was often called in by the League for particularly interesting or unknown phenomena, or so his mother had told him.

"Was anyone hurt?" Ash said guiltily, aware that it should have been the first thing on his mind. He couldn't help it, though. The explosion held so much more significance than most people knew. It would dominate his thoughts for weeks to come, he expected.

His mother faltered. A brief flash of pain went through her eyes, but she pushed it away. "Y-yes."

"Who?" He questioned tentatively. It was certainly an important question, and one that could be major for both of them. Pallet was a small town. Ash knew everyone.

"No one you would know." She said quietly. "I knew him a long time ago, before you were born."

Ash nodded awkwardly. He wasn't really sure what to say in this situation. He'd never run into it before. "I'm sorry. Did you know him well?"

She smiled softly. "Yes, but we lost touch. It's been a long time. Don't worry about me, I'm fine. It was just…sudden."

He nodded again. Ash resolved to change the subject. "Are you still going to Greenfield?"

"In five days!" His mother said brightly, some of her perpetual cheer back. "I'm so excited to see little Molly again! She was just a baby the last time we visited. Spencer said she's a handful."

Ash smiled. He remembered that she had just been born when they'd last visited the town about three years ago. It would be a lie to say he liked babies in the least, but his mother did. Hopefully Molly would keep his mother happy and cheer her up for a few days.

He suddenly realized something, and his stomach sank. "I don't know if I'll be able to drop by before you leave, Mom."

"Why?" She asked. Although she didn't seem surprised, his mother looked slightly forlorn. The stress his absence had put on her was more visible than ever.

"Lance offered me a chance to train with him." Ash began carefully. His mother wasn't exactly happy with the Champion after the Sevii Islands operation. He dearly hoped that they never met. While it would undoubtedly amusing to watch her lecture Lance, it was something to avoid.

Her eyes narrowed, as he expected. "Lance? As in Champion Lance?"

He nodded and met her eyes guiltily. "I'll try to make it. I can ask Professor Oak to send Alakazam to get me. I have a day to get to Knot Island. I know I can make it to Pallet and back."

"No." His mother said sharply. Ash looked at her in surprise. She was always soft-spoken, even when delivering lectures. Her tone might have reeked with barely constrained fury while giving it, but it was always calm. "This is too important for you. I can wait. I know you'll come home before the Conference, and I can still call you."

"Thanks." Ash smiled.

His mother smiled back, although she looked tired again. "I might not approve of the Champion dragging you into League business, but he can help you a lot more than a visit to me could. You might never get this chance again. It's what's best for you, and that's all I want."

Ash couldn't really articulate what he wanted to say to that. All he knew was that he was deeply touched and would probably wrap his mother up in a hug right now if she was present. He would even stay when she tried to tell him to change his underwear.

In the end, all he could voice was, "Thanks."

But his mother seemed to know what he wanted to say, if her bright smile said anything.

A loud beeping sound went off in the kitchen. His mother leapt out of her seat. "I'm sorry, sweetie. I have to go – the food is burning. Make sure to call every now and then! I love you!"

He wasn't able to say anything back before she left the room in a panic, although the screen stayed on. Ash was about to cut the video, but he spotted a blur of soft blue fur in the air before it slammed into the screen and clung to it.

"How's it going, Seeker?" He laughed. Seeker, whose head was positioned directly over the camera, chattered excitedly and revealed her sharp fangs. From the tiny parts of the room Ash could make out, he saw Bruiser's leathery grey skin in the background. "Bruiser, have you kept up your training?"

Bruiser grunted and delicately pulled Seeker off of the camera, although she promptly clung to the machoke's head instead. Ash snorted in amusement. "Good. I'm going to be bringing you back to the team soon. We're going to be training with Lance."

The machoke gave him a wide, reptilian grin and pounded his chest, although Ash wasn't certain that he knew who Lance was. Ash smiled at him, although there was a bit of guilt hidden in it. He hadn't done a good job of keeping his friend in the rotation, although there had been quite a few unexpected events that had hampered his efforts. Hopefully this would make up for it. Bruiser was powerful, he just needed to get more combat experience.

"Ash, where are you?" Brock yelled. Ash snapped his attention to the direction the gym leader's voice came from. "Surge is getting up!"

"Coming!" He shouted back. Plume squawked in annoyance at the loud noise, so Ash lightly stroked her glossy feathers to placate the great bird. "Sorry, Plume. I know you don't like it when I yell. Can you tell me where Sneasel is?"

Plume shook her head and cooed softly. Ash gave a half-smile. It wasn't unexpected. Sneasel had been interested in exploring the power plant, and Ash wasn't inclined to stop him. The dark-type needed to venture out on his own, and Ash wasn't too concerned about the electric-types that still congregated in some of the halls. His friend was tough enough to fight them off, but the electric-types were still too powerful for Sneasel to risk sticking around to finish them off. Most of the electric-types were confused and placid now, anyway.

"Could you call him, please?" He requested. Plume nodded and let out an earsplitting shriek, one that was sure to attract Sneasel. Ash had made sure that each of his friends were able to get Sneasel to return to him, should the dark-type ever run off. It was a standard practice when dealing with dark-types and infant pokemon.

He crossed his arms and patiently waited. After a while Sneasel rushed into the hallway from deep within the power plant and skidded to a halt. Sneasel whined at him when he realized that there wasn't food, which was his usual reward for coming when called.

"Sorry, buddy." Ash said with a smile. "I need to return you. We're going back to Vermillion. After that we'll be training with someone that's really strong. I'll make sure you're involved. Is that a fair trade?"

Sneasel eagerly nodded and acquiesced to Ash's request. He disappeared into his pokeball. Ash glanced over at Plume. "Thanks for calling him."

She nodded and cooed at him one last time before she was recalled. Ash clipped both of the occupied pokeballs to his belt and started walking to where the group had set up camp. Brock would probably be annoyed that he took so long, but would probably understand. After dealing with his younger siblings, he knew just how hard it could be to get them corralled.

It was just a short jaunt to the camp. He didn't have any trouble with the dazed electric-types wandering the halls. A pikachu that seemed slightly more lucid than the others sniffed at him and a few magnemite levitated over and curiously buzzed at him, but most barely seemed aware of his existence. There was nothing to fear.

"What took you?" Brock asked in annoyance. Surge was sitting up, his entire chest covered with bandages. Most were slightly bloody, although the red stains didn't seem fresh. Ash wouldn't have been surprised if covering Surge's chest had taken their entire supply of bandages.

"I had to get Sneasel." Ash replied as he walked over. He'd cleaned his own portion of the camp up earlier. The materials and his sleeping mat were lying in his pack now, either in the storage compartments or in the physical item itself.

Brock nodded. His face, hard with stress, softened a bit. "I get that." He said quietly, a bit of longing in his eyes. The gym leader sighed and pulled two pokeballs from his belt. Brock released two Alakazam from the spheres, both of whom took a moment to scan their surroundings before closing their gleaming eyes in contemplative silence.

"They'll be taking us back to Vermillion." Surge directed to Ash. He glanced over to Brock after Ash nodded his understanding. "Kid, did you get the report sent in?"

"As soon as communications were clear." Brock said stoically, all business. "Lance should have received it by now. I told him about Zapdos, but I don't know how he'll spin that to the League."

Ash was quiet. He wasn't sure if they'd heard about the fall of the Rockets yet, and if not they'd hear about it in a few hours anyway. The trainer had to admit that he was surprised that Surge didn't show much of a reaction to Zapdos' presence. Brock had probably told him in Ash's absence.

"Are you ready to teleport?" Brock asked Surge concernedly. Ash could easily understand the worry. Surge was one of the toughest people Ash had ever met, but the amount of blood that soaked the bandages was worrying. The gym leader was still rather pale and his face had several burns and bruises.

"Yeah, just give me a minute." The powerful man growled. He pulled himself up slowly. "Bet you're glad to get back to the litter, eh, Brock?"

Brock gave a short, barking laugh. Most people probably would have showed offense, but no one could have trained under Surge without developing a thick skin. Ash knew that Surge wasn't trying to be hurtful, regardless. It was just his personality.

"You could say that." The teenager snorted. "I can't say I won't miss the quiet. I'll definitely be glad to get away from you, though. Getting shocked every day isn't exactly fun."

Ash's lips curled up into a grin, although he stayed quiet. It was amusing to watch their interaction.

"If you didn't deserve it Raichu wouldn't do it." Surge growled as he stood up on limbs weak from his recovery. Ash had no doubt that he would still be a force to be reckoned with, however. "Let's get out of here. And Brock?"

Brock inclined his head to the giant as his Alakazam's eyes began to burn.

"Give your old man a punch in the jaw for me." Surge said with a dark grin. "Bastard deserves it."

The younger gym leader matched the grin, although his eyes were much more serious. An instant later he vanished along with the Alakazam. Ash had to marvel at the psychic-type's skill. Dazed had grown adept enough with teleportation that she only produced a small flash of light, but Alakazam and Brock simply warped through time and space seamlessly. Hopefully Dazed would be able to master teleportation to that extent one day, although her species' natural limitations would probably keep that from happening.

"I'm ready." Surge grunted to Ash. The trainer nodded and patiently crossed his arms as Alakazam's eyes flashed a bright purple and it crossed its twin spoons. An instant later they were transported hundreds of miles away into one of Vermillion City's hospitals.

Ash glanced around the familiar building. It was just as he remembered it: stark white and incredibly huge. It was one of the largest buildings he'd ever been in, even if he hadn't really been up to exploring it the last time he was here.

"Lt. Surge?" A short, squat man in a lab coat asked. He ignored Ash and Alakazam.

"Yeah?" Surge growled. He held his chest in pain and his face was contorted slightly. Ash wondered just how bad his wounds hurt. Brock had managed to keep him stable, but had mentioned that Surge needed medical attention as soon as possible.

The man smiled. "I'm Dr. Smith. The League called. Everything's ready. We'll just do an inspection before determining if you need further treatment."

Surge nodded stoically and stood up to his full height, which caused him to tower over everyone in the room. Ash was perceptive enough to catch the wince of pain that accompanied the movement. Despite the pain he must have felt, Surge was too proud to reveal any weakness. He was one of the toughest people Ash had ever met.

"Take the Runt to the Vermillion gym." Surge commanded before he made to follow the Doctor. Alakazam nodded. An instant later they disappeared again, although by the time Ash finished blinking they were at their destination.

"Thanks for the help." He said politely. Alakazam nodded stiffly at him before it vanished into nothingness. Ash was extremely impressed with Alakazam's sheer endurance. While it had likely been specifically trained to teleport like that, it was still a notable feat. It took a lot of power to teleport long distances, especially in such a short period of time.

He glanced around. He'd appeared in the room that he'd met Surge in before they'd left on their mission. The large computer, which was locked onto a black screen, hummed gently. Ash wondered where he was supposed to look for the ticket Lance had told him about.

"Who's in here!" A loud, threatening voice snarled. Ash shot a look over to the door and saw that one of the gym trainers stood in it. He didn't recognize the tall, fearsome woman, but that didn't seem to be a problem. "Wait, are you that kid I got a message about?"

"Probably. My name is Ash Ketchum." He said tersely. The heavily muscled woman glared at him suspiciously before she seemed to shrug. She pulled out an envelope and handed it to him.

"Here." She snapped. "It was waiting in the Lt.'s office for you. Now, scram! We've got too many trainers waiting to waste time with you."

Ash rolled his eyes as the bad-tempered gym trainer stormed out of the room. He followed in her footsteps, not particularly concerned with her harshness. Compared to Surge she was a teddiursa, although Surge's words ceased to have the bite the trainer's did.

There was a battle going on as he left the small room. He eyed it with interest. A girl that was about six or seven years older than him used a pokemon he recognized as Meganium against one of the gym trainer's Magneton.

She was certainly skilled, although she wouldn't have been able to handle Surge. Her choice for the battle wouldn't have held up to Surge's overwhelming offensive power. Ash thought that she looked familiar, though. He just couldn't place her face. It was odd, he felt as though he should know her.

Meganium had quite a bit of power behind them and could take hits that most other grass-types couldn't, but they didn't have any sort of aggressive instincts that were needed in high-level battles. They were herbivores. Most of the time they would flee from a fight, although they could be incredibly dangerous when provoked or cornered.

On the bright side, their weight and many ranged attacks meant they could easily stand up to flying-types. Most grass-types were weak to flying-type attacks because they tended to be extremely light and frail. A powerful blast of wind would be impossible for the majority to resist.

Additionally, her Meganium didn't seem trained specifically for battle. Its attacks had plenty of power and obvious skill behind them, but it seemed to unconsciously spend more energy making the attacks look impressive than effective. Meganium and the trainer also made mistakes that no experienced battler would.

He snapped himself out of his thoughts and took one last glance at the oddly familiar girl before he headed out of the gym into the tantalizing sun. Ash had a wide grin on his face as he smelled the crisp, salty air of Vermillion. It was chilly, but compared to the deep freeze of the storm it was perfect.

Ash took a moment to bask in the heat of the sunlight before he looked at the envelope. It had nothing but his name written on it, along with the League symbol: A stylized Rhydon, the cornerstone of the first Champion of Indigo's team, bisected by a line to create two halves.

The trainer deftly opened the envelope and pulled out a single ticket. A scrap of thick, glossy paper was attached to it.

"Ash, the ship will be waiting for you at the League docks. Look for the Seagallop Ferry under Captain Darrow." Ash muttered. He recognized the ferry's name. They were a line of extremely fast ships used by the League to reach areas that they couldn't just teleport into, due to political or tactical reasons.

The Sevii Islands didn't like Indigo or Hoenn butting into their affairs, and tended to frown upon teleportation into their territory. Out of all the regions, they were amongst the most xenophobic. Only Sinnoh came close, and that had ebbed away in recent years. Now the massive region was as accepting as any other, if a bit stiffer.

He continued reading. "I will be waiting for you at the Center on Knot Island. Get some rest on the ferry. We will leave for our destination once you arrive. – Lance."

Ash had a determined look on his face as he carefully placed the ticket and letter into his pocket. He'd be ready for anything Lance could throw at him. He wouldn't let the Champion down.

The trainer moved quickly toward the docks. It wouldn't take long to find the League's partitioned area.


"Captain Darrow?" Ash asked as he stepped up to a large, sleek ferry. It had the League symbol emblazoned upon the side and had the same number as the ticket.

The tall, grizzled man that stood in front of the ramp eyed him. "You Ash Ketchum?"

Ash nodded and held out his ticket. The man eyed it for a moment before he shoved it into the pocket of his coat. "Come on up. The League wants you at Knot Island as soon as possible. You might want to take a nap in your room. It's about a twelve hour trip. Just head into the cabins. You're the first on the right."

"Thank you." He responded before he walked onboard. Ash glanced around the impressive ship. It looked extremely sleek and fast, but also tough. The trainer knew that these ships could go practically anywhere, as long as it wasn't into a hurricane.

The Captain didn't give Ash a second glance as he headed up to the bridge. He was much less interested in Ash than Taggart had been when he'd taken him back to Pallet Town. Maybe Darrow had been at it long enough to know better than to ask questions.

Before he followed the Captain's advice, he released Plume. She shrieked as she appeared, a challenge to any opponents. Ash smiled and stroked her feathers, which elicited a soft coo from the great bird and caused her to lean her large head into his hand.

"Hey, girl." He said quietly. "We're heading to Knot Island now. I figured that you'd want a chance to stretch your wings. Just land and call for me if you want to come in."

Plume cooed again before she took off. Ash stumbled backward as the powerful gust of wind buffeted him, but kept his feet. He'd gotten plenty of practice resisting the winds by now.

He watched her blast into the atmosphere with a small smile on his face before he turned away. The trainer figured that he should follow the Captain's suggestion. Ash could feel the exhaustion from the last few weeks heavy on his shoulders.

He headed into the cabins, which were accessed through a door directly below the bridge, and found his room. Ash noted that it was quite similar to the room he had during the journey from Cinnabar Island to Pallet, although a little less luxurious. It was still quite nice, however, and he eagerly sat down on the bed before he released his friends.

Ash opted against releasing Torrent, Infernus, and Oz. Torrent had grown too much to be able to fit into the cramped quarters of the cabin. It was a reminder that although he was fully evolved, he wasn't completely mature yet. He would grow for another few months to a year at the least. Infernus didn't do too well inside. Oz might have panicked if she was released in an unfamiliar environment, especially one so cramped.

The trainer kept a careful eye on Sneasel. His friend had lost some of the aggression from his puberty, although the process was still going on. Instead of attacking viciously and without warning, Sneasel had begun to steal things. It was something he'd only barely noticed during the mission, since he'd had more important things to worry about, but he'd noted it. Hopefully he could curb that behavior as well, although he doubted he could stamp it out altogether.

Nidoking curled up beside his bed, although he took up a good portion of the room in the process. Dazed simply stood next to him in silence, content to simply be around him.

As expected, Tangrowth gave Ash a light hug with one of his vines before he tried to catch Sneasel. Ash smiled as the dark-type hissed in annoyance and playfully slashed at the seeking vines, and couldn't stifle his laughter when the indignant Sneasel was easily wrapped up and tickled.

"We're going to train with Lance." Ash said quietly to Nidoking and Dazed. Nidoking's narrow black eyes widened as far as they could go and his large ears perked up with interest. Dazed snapped her head toward him and stopped polishing her pendulum. "It's about a twelve hour boat ride, so get some rest. I have no idea what we'll be doing with him."

Nidoking grunted in return and curled up into a ball, his armored back to the door. Ash patted his shoulder before he stood up. There was a bathroom in the cabin and he needed to get a proper shower. He was filthy. It would be nice to sleep without bringing a bunch of dirt into the bed.

He narrowly ducked underneath an errant vine from Tangrowth before he walked into the room. Before he thought about getting into the shower or any other luxuries that he hadn't had for the last few weeks, Ash looked at his reflection.

It was no wonder that his mother thought he was sick. Although he was healthier now that he'd had time to rest, he still looked awful. His face had lost some of its tan thanks to the constant cloud coverage and the illnesses he had suffered through had left him even paler. While he didn't look as though he suffered from malnutrition, his eyes were a bit sunken in and exhaustion was obvious in his face.

Ash rubbed some of the fatigue out of his eyes and splashed some water on his face. The icy liquid did the trick, and he felt more of the exhaustion fade, if only for a moment. He looked disdainfully at the layer of mud that caked his boots and pants. As a trainer it was a common sight, but he'd probably have to get new clothing. It was a good thing he had several extra pairs in his pack.

Hopefully the shower would make him feel better. At the very least it would be better than getting doused by Torrent.


Ash leaned onto the railing as they approached Knot Island. His friends were walking around the deck. Plume let out a piercing shriek every now and then. It had gotten too dark for her to safely fly several hours ago, so she had landed. By then Ash had finished his nap, which ended up being about seven hours, and had left the cozy cabin.

"Are you ready for this?" He asked Nidoking as the Seagallop Ferry danced across the water at a dizzying pace. A small spray of salty water hit him every now and then, but he bore the annoyance unflinchingly. Ash kept his eyes on the great form of Mt. Ember, whose top glowed with a great inner fire. He frowned at that. Mt. Ember was supposed to be dormant.

He was distracted by Nidoking's low growl. A dull thud echoed through his ears as his friend crushed his claws together in an expression of determination.

"I think so too." He said softly, his eyes locked on Mt. Ember. Its light, dim from this distance, was still large enough to drown out the starlight from the heavens. "If we aren't, then we'll become ready. This'll make us strong."

Nidoking grunted again and affectionately tapped his shoulder. Ash smiled and returned the gesture. He knew that Nidoking would fight just as hard as he would to get the most out of this training. Lance might be a Master of the dragon-type, but there was no doubt that he didn't know a lot about other types as well. To be a Master one had to know the ins and outs of every pokemon that might show up and what techniques they could learn.

Ash had to marvel at the pace at which they approached the island. It had been a mere speck in the distance a few minutes ago. Now they had almost arrived. He knew that the Seagallop Ferry was fast, but it was hard to appreciate its speed without encountering it firsthand.

On a ferry such as Captain Stewart's, the trip from Fuschia to Cinnabar was about a week if the Seafoam Islands were skipped over. It would take it another twelve hours to a day to reach Knot Island, although the ship that he'd taken with the Champions had made it in an hour.

It would have taken Captain Stewart's ferry a good four or five days to reach Knot Island from Vermillion. The Seagallop Ferry had cut that time down to twelve hours. He couldn't help but be amazed at just how fast it was.

But that didn't matter. Right now he needed to prepare. They'd reach the docks in a few minutes.

"I'm recalling you." He announced to his friends. Ash heard a few noises of understanding before he returned his friends. Only Sneasel was left out, and the dark-type swiftly dashed over and leapt up onto Ash's back. "Hey, Sneasel. Are you making progress on Ice Beam?"

Sneasel hissed an affirmative, which put a smile on Ash's face. The dark-type's training had slowed thanks to the mission, but they'd kept up lessons when the weather wasn't too bad. Torrent was particularly good for teaching Sneasel in the harshest parts of the storm. Training had only been abandoned when using an ice-type move was deemed unsafe. Hypothermia would have put a dampener on the mission.

"Good. If you get to fight any of Lance's dragons, you'll need it." Ash said with a grin. He wasn't quite sure how this training would work out. It wouldn't be too much of a surprise if Lance had brought some of his weaker pokemon along for a workout. There was no way Ash could defeat any of his main team.

He looked back at the sea, which was a dim orange thanks to the light of Mt. Ember. Ash wondered if they would be training there. Most of Knot Island seemed fairly mundane and absent of powerful pokemon or rugged environments. He could only see Lance training in the most extreme of locales.

Ash held onto the railing tightly with one hand. The other was used to steady Sneasel as the ship turned and slowed. While it was still fast, it wasn't even close to its previous speed. Sneasel hissed in annoyance and clasped on tightly to Ash.

As the Seagallop Ferry slowly angled toward Knot Island's port, which was bright with lights, Ash wondered how well Sneasel would adapt to the new environment. Sneasel had evolved to the harsh winters of the north, not hot, humid tropics. He might have to try and cut some of Sneasel's thick fur. His friend normally kept it a perfect length, but Ash was afraid that Sneasel would overheat otherwise.

He took a deep breath of warm air as they slowed down even more. Knot Island wasn't as hot as it was last time he'd been here, which was in the midst of summer, but it was still much hotter than the crisp, cold air of Kanto. The first few days here would be brutal, especially if the training was as intensive as Ash expected.

The ship came to a stop, and Ash waited patiently as the ramp mechanically lowered to the dock. He waited for Captain Darrow to come out of the bridge before he stepped off. There were a few burly sailors hanging around.

Ash took the opportunity to examine Knot Island. The town was larger than when he had left it, and seemed to be in much better condition. It was still rather small, but it was larger than Pallet Town to a fair degree. He wondered whether the Rockets had destroyed it and chased most of the residents off or if inhabitants of other islands had moved here.

"Thanks for the ride." Ash said gratefully. Darrow nodded.

"You're welcome." Darrow glanced over at the large, modern Center that dominated the town with his hard brown eyes. "I suggest you hurry. The League message was rather urgent that you reach the Center as quickly as possible."

The trainer nodded and shouldered his pack before he set off. Sneasel swung himself up to a more comfortable position as they made their way through the town, which was alit by the light of Mt. Ember and a large number of streetlights. Some of the sailors edged away from him when they saw Sneasel.

He knew that the Sevii Islands didn't use pokemon to the extent of other regions. They didn't have Apricorns to develop pokeballs from, and the pokeball had been a rather late arrival to the Islands. While they still had pokemon as friends and partners, there were few trainers and most work relied on humanity's skill and effort. Most only had one or two pokemon, if any. It was one of the reasons they were so fiercely independent.

It didn't take long for him to reach the Center. He took one last glance down at the town before he stepped in. The inhabitants of Knot Island had done an amazing job of bounding back from the Rocket occupation.

Sneasel sniffed the air curiously as they walked into the cool Center. He'd forgotten how large it was. The Center easily matched the sheer size of one of Saffron's Pokemon Center. Ash glanced around and looked for Lance. It was around midnight, but Lance should have expected him to arrive about now.

When he turned to look again, a wide grin split his face. Lance, who towered above all of the few islanders still walking about at this hour, strode towards him. Two pokemon followed on his heels. One was the pokemon Ash had seen resting on Lance's desk the last few times he'd called and the other was mostly blue, but had a thick helmet of a grey, bone-like substance. Neither were particularly impressive, but Ash expected that they would be monsters when they reached adulthood.

"Ash!" Lance boomed. Sneasel's ears laid back as he hissed at the unexpected noise. The Champion didn't even notice. "It's good to see you. Good job with the mission, by the way. I could barely believe the report when I read it."

"I couldn't believe what I saw." Ash admitted as the Champion walked up to him. Lance motioned for Ash to walk alongside him as they headed deeper into the Center, close to the Trading Room. "It was stronger than anything I've ever seen."

Lance sent a quick glance at him. "Even the Creature?" He asked nonchalantly. Ash looked back questioningly. The trainer had no idea where he'd heard the name Ash came up with for the Creature.

"Sabrina included it in her report." Lance said with an easy grin as they entered the Trading Room. "It's as apt a name as any. Much better than UEC, anyway."

Ash sent another look at Lance, whose face grew a bit more serious. "Unidentified Enemy Combatant. It's the Creature's latest designation. Our analysts went through a host of others before we found the Rocket HQ. Its ruins, anyway."

"So it's really over?" Ash asked quietly, a silent contemplativeness in his eyes.

"It's never over." Lance said bitterly, although his face loosened a bit when one of the tiny creatures by his feet tugged on his pants. "But for now, there's a break. Team Rocket is shattered, and we're hunting down the fragments. As long as I'm Champion, Team Rocket will never rise from its ashes. Kanto has peace for now, and I intend to keep it that way."

He didn't have much to say to that. Ash had never heard Lance so passionate, although there were glimpses of that side of the Champion during battles.

"You don't have a limit on the amount of pokeballs you can carry." Lance spoke up, quiet now. "Bring all of your pokemon. They deserve to come."

"How long will we be training?" Ash asked as he typed in Professor Oak's number. He hoped the Professor wouldn't be too annoyed at being woken up. It was rather late, after all. As the video phone began to ring, Lance spoke.

"A month, give or take a few days." Lance shrugged. Ash looked back and noted that the Champion didn't seem too happy about being pulled away from the League. "They think I've been pushing myself too hard. This is supposed to be my downtime. I figured I would do something productive, and you deserve a bonus after everything you've helped the League with."

Ash smiled a bit, but paused when the screen suddenly flickered to life. Professor Oak didn't seem surprised to see him.

"Ah, hello, Ash." The older man said tiredly. He didn't look exhausted, but it was clear that he would have preferred to be asleep. "I've been waiting for your call. Which pokemon would you like to switch out?"

"I'd like you to send over Bruiser and Seeker." Ash grinned. Oak squinted at him suspiciously before he checked something on his computer. The Professor smiled lightly and shook his head before he placed the two pokeballs into the trading machine. It looked like he had prepared for this. "Wait, did you say you were waiting on me?"

Oak nodded as he transferred the pokeballs to Ash. "Indeed. I received a rather urgent message from a League representative today." He quickly glanced at Lance before he focused back to Ash. Oak wasn't surprised to see the Champion. "Delia told me about your training, so it wasn't too unexpected."

Ash frowned, but didn't say anything. He simply picked Bruiser and Seeker's pokeballs up. Seeker wouldn't be training thanks to how timid she was, but he wouldn't leave her alone at the Corral. She deserved better, and he would enjoy seeing the zubat again.

"Thanks, Professor." He said with a dip of his hat. Ash gave the older man a rueful smile. "Sorry that you had to stay up."

"It's fine." Oak waved his concerns away. "I wish you good luck on your training." Before Ash could disconnect from the call, the Professor seemed to remember something. "Oh, Ash?"

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