Traveler

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.

https://www.fanfiction.net/s/8466693/1/Traveler

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31. The Creature Part 2

Ash nodded understandingly and turned away, but Lance requested for him to stay a bit longer.

"Leave Viridian. Call your mother and tell her you're safe. If you need help for anything, call me." Lance said seriously. "Let everything die down and try to avoid the Rockets in the future." He gave Ash a small smile. "But don't hesitate to fight back, should you be forced to. You've proved many times now that you aren't a boy: you're a man, and a man doesn't falter."

A large grin stretched across Ash's face at the praise. For the Champion to say that…it was high praise. "Thank you. I hope that you and your partners get better soon." He said earnestly.

While it was important for Lance to get better, it was just as important for his pokemon to as well. The Champion was nothing without his family.

"No." Lance shook his head. "Thank you. I wish you good luck on your journey, Ash. Stay safe."

Ash nodded back before walking out. The two ACE agents walked in front of him. "We'll take you to the atrium, if you wish."

He stopped and considered before shaking his head. There was a promise he needed to keep. "Is there a trading machine here?" He asked.

The agent that seemed to be in charge nodded. "Indeed. I take it that's where you want to go?"

When Ash gave him a nod, the agent motioned for the trainer to follow him and the other ACE agent. Ash followed their brisk pace easily. He just ignored the slight pain in his side as he walked. It was nothing.

Eventually, after going down what felt like miles of halls and several flights of stairs, they arrived at a dark, empty room with several trading machines and video phones in it. It was small and discrete, clearly not meant for casual use.

"Here it is." The agent announced. "We'll take you to the atrium when you are done."

Ash dipped his hat – it had managed to avoid most of the damage, although he would need to change his ragged, torn clothes when he had a chance – to the agents before walking in. He sat down at the nearest monitor and pulled Bruiser's pokeball off of his belt.

He released Bruiser as he used one hand to quickly type in Professor Oak's number. The video phone began to ring, and he turned to his friend. Bruiser looked as good as new, if not a little weary.

Bruiser eyed his ragged appearance worriedly. He gave Ash a questioning grunt. The trainer sighed.

"There was a battle in Viridian." He explained, although he quickly moved to placate Bruiser when the machoke seemed to grow furious at the threat to Ash's safety. "Don't worry, I got off easy. We battled a psychic capable of taking on the Elite Four. It beat us, but like I said, I escaped without any bad injuries."

The fighting-type didn't seem too convinced, but any further conversation was cut off as the black screen flickered to life, revealing both the tired, anxious Professor Oak and his obviously terrified mother.

"Ash!" His mother exclaimed. She clapped her hands together and peered at him worriedly. "We heard about what happened at Viridian! It says you're calling from a hospital. Please tell me you're okay!"

"Everything's fine." He said as soothingly as he could. His mother still stared at him with frantic eyes, while Oak examined him with worried, exhausted eyes. "It's settled down. I'm leaving the city today."

Professor Oak cut in. He was stern but just as worried as his mother. "Ash, I was told about the raid. Were you a part of it? The reports are still slow, but my contacts have informed me that it was based off the observations of a young trainer."

Ash guiltily glanced away at his mother's suddenly furious gaze. She obviously wasn't too happy with him putting himself in danger, even indirectly. "Ash Ketchum! If you got yourself involved in another dangerous raid on who-knows-what project of Team Rocket, I will –"

"I told them that Giovanni had the thing that destroyed the St. Anne." Ash said quietly and tonelessly. Bruiser placed a calming hand on Ash's shoulder. The trainer glanced at his friend gratefully.

Both adults were silent. Oak's red-rimmed eyes flashed with pure fury tempered by an ingrained curiosity, while his mother froze in horror. She hugged her arms to her chest and began to tear up.

"What." Professor Oak said furiously. His fists were clenched and his knuckles were white. Ash's mother didn't seem capable of speaking yet. "Giovanni is part of Team Rocket? He's been hiding the psychic this entire time? How did you know?!"

"When I was entering the gym, I felt energy." Ash began hesitantly. He emphasized his words with unconscious hand motions. "It was psychic, but so far beyond anything I'd ever encountered that I knew it had to be the thing that blew up the St. Anne. I saw it as I was leaving, and I recognized it instantly. I called Lance and he managed to verify what I'd seen somehow."

His mother burst in. "You mean the Champion roped you into the raid!" She hissed coldly. Ash understood at that moment just why so many people in Pallet had done their best to be kind and polite to him and his mother. While his mother was usually happy and exuberant, her fury was a thing to behold. "I've had enough of the League enlisting an eleven year old! This is ending right –"

"I didn't participate in the raid." Ash cut in, hoping to halt his mother's wrath in its tracks. He didn't like seeing her like that. Both adults stared at him confusedly. "I watched, and I only got involved because Lance was about to die!"

"You could have died!" His mother shot back. Professor Oak was opting to stay out of the conversation for now. "How could you have helped against something that the Champion himself couldn't handle?"

Ash shifted uncomfortably. "I couldn't. The psychic was too strong for me to fight." He admitted without hesitation. "But I couldn't just let him die. He's more important than I am. Kanto needs him! He's the only person that even posed a challenge to the Creature."

"But I need you." His mother whispered, raising a hand to the screen. Ash smiled regretfully and placed one of his scraped hands up to match hers. "Lance might be more important to Kanto, but you're much more important to me."

Both sides were silent. Professor Oak watched quietly as mother and son stared at each other. He let the effect sink in for a few more seconds before he stepped in.

"A single creature managed to defeat the Elite Four?" He asked disbelievingly, horror written on his face. "And a psychic, at that? Was Agatha present?"

Ash nodded. "So were about twenty other trainers with ghost and dark-types. The psychic just wiped them out without even trying."

Oak sighed and rubbed his temples. "This is worrying. Agatha's ghosts are powerful beyond belief. A single psychic should not have been able to combat them, even if its power was focused through some kind of technology." He raised his head and stared at Ash with his piercing, intelligent gaze. "If it so effortlessly defeated the Elite Four, why did it not kill everyone present?"

He ignored his mother's intake of breath at the mention of his death. "I'm not sure." Ash replied. "It was going to, but then it saw me behind Lance. The psychic told him to step aside so that I could live, but I stood in front of Lance and kept it from attacking. It said that its partner was acting irrationally – that he, or Giovanni, I'm assuming, wouldn't let me be hurt."

Relief and – was that hope? – shimmered in his mother's eyes before she cradled her head in her hands, whispering something that he couldn't hear. She stayed like that, so thankful that he was spared that she didn't even rebuke him for placing himself in harm's way.

"Odd." Oak murmured to himself, although relief at Ash's luck was evident in his eyes. He glanced up and saw Bruiser, who still had a strong hand keeping Ash steady. "Thank you for telling me that. I doubt I'll get the full report for several more hours. But did you need to exchange pokemon?"

"I did." Ash said with a smile. He was glad to change the topic. The battle wasn't something he wanted to speak of anymore. "Do you have Plume's pokeball?"

Oak nodded and raised it. Ash smiled at Bruiser before he returned his friend and placed his pokeball into the trade machine. Moments later it was exchanged with Plume's.

"I should probably get going. There are people waiting on me" Ash said guiltily, glancing at his mother. She had raised her head, but he could see that she was an emotional wreck. "Bye, mom. I love you."

She gave him a bright smile. "Stay safe, sweetie. I love you to."

Ash smiled sadly at his mother before Professor Oak spoke up. "Good luck on your journey, Ash. I hope the trip to Pewter is less eventful than it has been in Viridian."

"I do too." Ash laughed. It was nice after so long of being serious. "Thanks, Professor. Bye."

Before he could cut the connection, Oak raised his hand in order to get Ash to stop. Ash gazed at the older man curiously. He couldn't think of what else the Professor could ask about.

"Do you know where Gary is, by any chance?" Oak asked hopefully. "He called and told me he was challenging Giovanni, but hasn't contacted me since."

"I'm afraid not." Ash said with a sigh. He didn't like the dejected expression on the Professor's face. "I saw him heading out of the gym, but after that I lost contact."

"Very well. Thank you for telling me." Professor Oak told him. Ash nodded and smiled at his mother one last time before he cut off the screen and stood up from his chair.

He slid it in before heading outside to meet the ACE agents. There were still a few hours left in the day. Ash wanted to use them as best he could and get away from Viridian. He was tired of this city.

XX

The first steps into the looming trees and thick foliage of Viridian Forest were nostalgic. Ash had a small smile as he exited the suburbs of Viridian, which were still in a state of confusion from the battle with the Creature.

Ash had already told his friends what had happened. He'd managed to assuage their worries and keep them from becoming too bitter over not being there to protect them, but Nidoking had demanded to walk with Ash during the journey.

He'd happily accepted his friend's offer. Ash hadn't gotten to spend as much time with Nidoking as he would have liked, and now it felt like old times again. Plume flew high above them, a powerful presence that deterred any of the indigenous pokemon from attacking.

For just a moment he could see a small, determined Nidoran and a pidgey flitting from one branch to the other just a few feet above him. Then reality came back and banished the glimpse of memory. Ash smiled fondly as he walked down the beaten dirt path. The plants of the forest encroached upon the edges thanks to the invigorating heat of summer, but they had not yet caused the path to be overgrown.

A lone caterpie was crawling on the road ahead of them. The tiny creature looked up and started in fright as it saw Nidoking and did its best to crawl out of the way.

Ash and Nidoking stopped as the caterpie slowly inched away from them. He smiled softly at the creature. It wasn't much yet, but soon it would be a bright, beautiful butterfree dancing through the woods. He wondered if his journey would have changed much if he'd caught any of the dozens of caterpie or weedle he'd encountered during the time he spent within the great forest. They weren't particularly strong, even as their final evolutions, but butterfree and beedrill could still be quite effective in the right hands.

He blinked and realized that the caterpie was gone and had taken his idle thoughts along with it. Nidoking grunted questioningly at him and Ash shook his head.

"Sorry about that, buddy." He frowned. Ash started stepping forward. The pain that accompanied every step was shrinking quickly. His doctor definitely knew what they were doing when they fixed him up. At least they had more resources than the tiny hospital/Pokemon Center in the Sevii Islands. "I just blanked out."

Nidoking growled and tapped him comfortingly on the shoulder with one of his dull claws. Ash sent a thankful smile back at his friend. The poison-type would probably be worried about him for a few more days before their journey ended up at the forefront of their minds. All of his friends were upset that they hadn't been able to help.

"Let's get going. It's going to be a long journey."

With that, both friends stepped forward and began their travels again. They might know the way through, but Viridian Forest was a natural maze. Ash expected the journey to take a little bit less than two weeks. Just because he was more experienced and had an idea of where to go didn't mean that he could cut an entire week off of the travel time.

XX

Ash shot up as he was jostled awake. It was the third night of their journey through Viridian Forest. So far it had been quite boring. Nidoking's presence scared most of the other trainers off. Even the stronger bug catchers didn't want to tangle with the intimidating creature.

It felt like he'd only been asleep for an hour. The forest was completely dark since he'd put the fire out before heading to bed so he couldn't tell the exact time, but his mind still felt weary and frayed. At least it wouldn't be dark. He'd had Infernus create himself a small pit of lava to sleep in. Tangrowth had used ancient power to raise rocky walls around the pit and Torrent had carved out a small trench filled with water to keep any potential fires down. If they failed Dazed would simply snuff the flames out.

"What is it?" He asked as he stood up from his sleeping bag. Ash easily recognized Nidoking's touch once he'd regained awareness.

Nidoking grunted excitedly and pointed to Infernus. He was barely visible in the dim light cast off by the fire-type's tail flame, but Ash was able to make that out at least. Ash glanced over to Infernus who seemed to be standing up and watching something interestedly. The other members of the team were huddled around as well, their features barely illuminated by Infernus' bright fire.

His eyes widened. It couldn't be. He hadn't expected this to happen for at least another week.

"Thanks for waking me." He grinned. Nidoking grunted and bared his fangs in a friendly manner before lumbering over to the others. Ash was right behind him.

Ash's friends made a space for him as he approached. He slipped in right between Dazed and Torrent, who had been guarding the camp for the night.

"Could you light the fire? I can't see very well." He directed at Infernus. It seemed that Tangrowth had covered up the magma pool with a sheet of rock – or else Torrent had hardened it with a few blasts of water. The fire-type acquiesced. Moments later a large flame danced in the air, providing heat and, more importantly, light. "Thank you."

He crouched down by the black egg. It was shaking erratically. A few small cracks had begun to thread throughout the ebony shell as it shook more and more. Ash had an uncontrolled grin on his face as he watched the egg tremble.

Ash's mind had completely forgotten that it was deprived of sleep. Now it was solely focused on the excitement of the situation. He had wanted to know what was in the egg for a long time now, and he was finally getting to see it hatch. The trainer could barely believe this was happening. For so long it had felt as though the egg would remain that: an egg.

He'd gotten a few shakes from it every now and then, but nothing like this. It had begun to roll around as the young pokemon entombed in it finally gained the strength to break out.

A single arm suddenly shot out of the egg, sending a tiny piece of the hard shell scattering off into the night. Ash noted that Tangrowth shot a vine out and snatched it out of the air before it could become lost.

Ash glanced curiously as the sleek black arm, wet and sticky from the amniotic fluid in the egg, tipped by a surprisingly large and slightly curved claw, wriggled around and tasted fresh air for the first time. Another tore out and waved around as well. The tiny pokemon didn't seem to know what to do.

Finally, the pokemon that Ash still couldn't make out managed to tear the egg apart, sending the two large halves flying a few feet through the air. He grinned wildly and pulled his pokedex out as he saw the creature that had been unveiled. A bit of clear, odorless fluid leaked out onto the ground.

The tiny creature peered up at him with curious ruby eyes. It stared at him intently with an awestruck expression. He grinned as it wobbled over to him so that it could get a better look at the human. Ash lowered himself a bit more, although he was careful enough to be ready to dodge at any moment should the small, wide-eyed creature try anything. The trainer knew that its kind were prone to mischief and sometimes vicious behavior.

It was a vaguely feline pokemon with slick, thick black-blue fur – although part of the slickness might be from the amniotic fluid inside the egg – but had a few bright red, feather-like growths on its ear and lower back. The creature idly retracted its large claws, which made Ash feel a bit less wary. There were distinctive yellow markings on its forehead and chest.

Ash smiled. "Hey, little guy. Are you feeling okay?"

The black pokemon cocked its head and peered at him. Ash knew it could understand him – all pokemon could understand human languages, even while in the egg – but it didn't react helpfully. Instead the small creature sat down and stared at him with a reverent expression.

"I'm just going to scan you. Is that alright?" He murmured softly. The pokemon narrowed its eyes slightly before nodding. It stared at him and growled in a friendly manner.

He held the pokedex out and scanned his new friend.

"Sneasel, the Sharp Claw Pokemon." It droned. "Sneasel can extend or retract its claws instantly during attack. It is extremely vicious and will not stop attacking until its foe is incapable of moving.

This Sneasel knows the moves: Quick Attack, Faint Attack, Icy Wind, Fury Swipes, and Ice Punch. Its ability is Inner Focus, which enables it to withstand attacks better."

It would certainly fight well, although he wouldn't start training it seriously for another month at least. Pokemon were ready for combat the moment they exited the egg, but they needed time to build up their muscles and grow enough to be really effective.

"You're going to be a tough little guy, aren't you?" Ash mused after he checked the pokedex to confirm that Sneasel was male. Sneasel nodded happily, still intently staring at Ash's face. It would retract and unsheathe its claws every now and then, apparently fascinated by the process.

Ash stood up. Sneasel jumped at the sudden change and looked at Ash's new height with wide eyes. It didn't appear very fearful, but it was surprised.

"Let's make some introductions." Ash began. He motioned to his friends, who were still gathered around them and staring at Sneasel with sharp eyes. Sneasel stood up and glanced at each one as Ash pointed them out. "That's Nidoking."

Nidoking grunted as unthreateningly as he could manage and met Sneasel's eyes. The baby pokemon didn't seem intimidated, which was good. He seemed more impressed than anything else.

"That's Plume." He said next. Plume cooed sweetly at the tiny dark-type. Sneasel yowled back. Ash was glad that they seemed to like each other well enough. He had been slightly nervous that Plume wouldn't like Sneasel thanks to his species. Sneasel were nest thieves, and the pidgey line were their favorite targets. It wouldn't have been surprising if Plume had an instinctual dislike of the tiny creature.

"Torrent." The trainer continued. Sneasel cocked his head curiously at the large, dignified dragon-type. He hissed curiously, and leapt back as Torrent let loose a low rumble that caused the earth to tremble. The dark-type grinned and bared his tiny, sharp fangs. Torrent just stared down at him with gauging eyes.

Sneasel's ruby eyes were locked with Torrent's scarlet eyes for several seconds. Eventually Torrent seemed to come to a conclusion and snorted. The dragon nodded and dipped his large head to Sneasel, who hissed back.

Ash smiled before pointing at the next member of the team. "Dazed."

The dark-type's eyes glittered maliciously when it recognized the psychic. Dazed stared back expressionlessly, the only emotion in her eyes a faint trace of dislike. Ash suspected that there would be problems with those two. Sneasel's more vicious tendencies would probably become especially pronounced around Dazed since she wasn't able to retaliate effectively.

He moved on quickly. That issue could be sorted out tomorrow. "Infernus."

Infernus growled and glared down at the tiny ice-type as he caused a thin veil of flames to burn around his body. He didn't seem too impressed. Sneasel hissed back and raised its claws, although he relented after a few moments and scampered behind Ash's legs. The dark-type peered out and growled threateningly at Infernus, although he quickly pulled his head back when Infernus snorted a bit of smoke and fire.

Ash hid a smile. At least Sneasel would have one member of the team willing to be harsh and discipline him. Nidoking and Torrent would be quick to step in if the dark-type stepped out of line, but Infernus would be the one that Sneasel would be careful around. It would be good to have Sneasel afraid of Infernus, as bad as it might sound. Sneasel would need someone to temper his more malicious tendencies, and there was no one better for the job than Infernus.

"And that's Tangrowth." Ash grinned. Sneasel scampered out from behind his legs and stared at Tangrowth, who gurgled happily and wrapped the small creature up in a hug with several of his vines. The dark-type squirmed and growled cutely in an attempt to fight Tangrowth's greeting off, but Tangrowth didn't notice. It was several more seconds before Sneasel escaped.

"These are your teammates." Ash said as he kneeled again and met Sneasel's eyes. The dark-type seemed locked on to Ash's every word. "They'll be your teachers and friends. They are your pack."

That word seemed to resonate with Sneasel, and he nodded his small head understandingly. He retracted his claws and examined each of them with short little glances.

"We're going to make you as strong as you can be. We'll be your family." Ash promised. Sneasel's eyes glittered brightly at that. The statement seemed appealing to him. "All that I want from you is that you follow my instructions and do your best to avoid trouble. Is that alright?"

Sneasel nodded and exposed his small fangs in a grin. Ash smiled back, but blinked in surprise when Sneasel scampered behind him and leapt up on his back, displaying quite a bit of agility. He was a bit uneasy for a moment, but quickly realized that Sneasel was just trying to be friendly.

"I've got to call Professor Oak and tell him about our new friend." Ash told Nidoking seriously. His friend nodded. He glanced up at Sneasel and saw that the tiny dark-type was peering around his shoulders at him. Sneasel reminded him a bit of Seeker in that respect. His tone was soft as he spoke to the baby pokemon. "Sneasel, could you go with Nidoking for a while? He'll tell you more."

The dark-type growled before glancing at the large form of Nidoking. He almost looked like he was going to jump onto Nidoking's back, but the large spikes seemed to dissuade him from that idea. Instead, the dark-type leapt onto the ground and followed Nidoking as the poison-type lumbered away. The rest of the team followed.

Ash watched his friends go for a moment with a soft smile before unclipping his PokeNav and dialing Professor Oak's number. He patiently waited as it began to ring. The Professor would probably take a long time to answer. It was rather late, after all.

While he probably could have waited until morning, Ash didn't want to take any chances of something happening to Sneasel. His friends would be able to track the dark-type easily and protect him from any threat, but there were a lot of pokemon and trainers in this forest. Ash didn't want Sneasel to be attacked or captured by a wandering trainer.

"Ash, why are you calling me at this hour?" The Professor spoke up as the screen flickered onto life. Ash smiled apologetically at the Professor. Oak's eyes were red from exhaustion and there were large bags under his eyes.

"You told me to call you whenever my egg hatched." Ash said with a grin. Try as he might, he just couldn't hold back his excitement. He was rather happy with his newest friend. While he would have been happy if a rattata hatched from it, Sneasel was just perfect. "It's a Sneasel!"

"I didn't mean that literally." Oak muttered. Still, he seemed more attentive now. "I'll authorize you for an additional pokemon. You will only be allowed to have an extra member on your team for two months, after which your seventh registered pokemon will automatically be sent here. Just give me a moment."

Ash nodded his thanks as Oak got to work, typing at an incredibly fast speed. In a matter of seconds the Professor was done.

"Thanks, Professor." Ash grinned a bit guiltily. "Sorry for waking you up. Good night."

"It's fine." Oak sighed. "I really am happy for you. I always wanted an egg to raise when I was a trainer. I'm sure that you'll raise Sneasel well." The Professor yawned before focusing his bleary eyes on Ash. "Good night. I'll be more excited in the morning, I promise you."

The trainer grinned again before the call was cut off. He clipped it back onto his belt and waited for his friends to return. It would probably only be another minute or so. Nidoking knew that it would be a brief conversation.

He sat down next to the dim campfire. Ash had a slight smile on his face. He'd faced horrible things these past few days, but everything was getting better. Now the death and destruction unleashed by the Creature was tempered with new life and new experiences. It would distract him from the grave events unfolding in Kanto, at least.

Ash picked up a small twig and drew a few patterns in the dirt. It was relaxing in a way and let him think. He wasn't sure how Sneasel would fit into the team. For now he was the baby. Sneasel would probably be pampered like no other teammate had been – mostly by Plume and Tangrowth, if Ash's expectations held up.

But in the future, Ash wasn't sure what twists and turns Sneasel's personality and role would take. He was going to have to start planning for problems. Sneasel were tightly bound to their packs, but there was a great deal of internal competition ingrained in their personality. Hopefully he could curb the most vicious tendencies of the dark-type, but if not he'd have to pay close attention to Sneasel.

At least he had Nidoking, Torrent, and Infernus. They'd keep their newest addition out of trouble and show him the discipline he needed when Ash wasn't there. He couldn't see Sneasel misbehaving too much around him, at least. Ash was the first thing that Sneasel had seen. Sneasel had imprinted on him. Now Ash was the closest thing the dark-type had to a parent.

He resolved to set a good example. Trainers influenced their pokemon and vice versa, but the role he would play in a newborn's life was especially relevant. Ash would need to strive to be the best he could be and instill the best traits into Sneasel.

Ash was distracted as he noticed his friends coming back. Nidoking seemed to have realized that it was time and led the group back into the clearing. Sneasel rode on Torrent's smooth back, grinning at everything he saw. Torrent looked slightly annoyed, but sharp glances from Plume kept him from shaking the little dark-type off.

"Did you fill him in?" Ash asked. Nidoking grunted. He smiled. "Thanks. Sneasel, could you come down?"

Sneasel agilely leapt off of Torrent's back and landed lightly on his feet. He looked rather pleased with himself for the feat, and Ash smiled at the dark-type.

He pulled a pokeball out of his pack and showed it to Sneasel. The newborn poked the metallic device with one of his sharp claws before he sniffed it. Ash smiled. "This is a pokeball. It lets me bring a lot of my friends with me. You need to let me put you in it if you want to come with me. Is that alright?"

The dark-type nodded without thinking. Ash smiled and lightly pressed the pokeball to Sneasel's chest. It sucked him into the pokeball in a burst of red light that illuminated the entire forest. For the first few seconds the ball shook wildly. But when Sneasel realized what was happening, the pokeball stopped shaking and clicked.

Ash picked up the pokeball and clipped it onto one of the additional spaces on his belt. He'd release Sneasel in just a few moments. But he needed to talk to his friends first.

"I know I don't have to tell you this, but we need to be good examples for Sneasel." He began. Each of his friends showed their understanding in their own way, even Infernus. "Be nice, but don't coddle him too much. He needs a firm hand if we want to make him a good member of the team. Discipline him to the best of your abilities if you find him doing something wrong and explain to him why he shouldn't do it."

His friends nodded again. Infernus seemed disinterested at this point. The others understood well enough, however, and that was all Ash asked for.

"Dazed, wake us up if Sneasel does anything." Ash told the psychic. Dazed nodded and shuffled off next to his sleeping mat. She didn't like being unable to watch over him closely. "To the rest of you, get some sleep. I want to get out of this forest as soon as possible."

They had similar opinions. Nidoking lumbered over to his sleeping mat as well before he curled up in a massive ball. His plates were facing outward and providing him an incredible amount of protection as he slept. Plume cooed softly to Ash before fluttering up to a branch strong enough to support her weight. Ash closed his eyes to protect against the powerful winds and dust kicked up by her movement.

Infernus nodded at Ash before slinking over to the lava pit. He casually punched through the thin barrier of rock keeping the heat in before slipping in. It flared up in response to his powerful presence before returning to its previous state. The magmar seemed rather comfortable in the bath of liquid stone.

"Torrent, could you stay here for a moment?" Ash requested as his friend began to levitate away. Torrent nodded and stayed as Ash released Sneasel. The dark-type darted his head around curiously. It seemed that leaving the pokeball was an interesting experience for him. "Sneasel needs a bath."

Ash glanced at Sneasel, who was still a bit wet from leaving his egg. "Sneasel, Torrent's going to clean you off. Just hold still. It'll be over quickly."

Sneasel growled his understanding and nervously stood still. Torrent gently sprayed the young pokemon with water. It easily washed the amniotic fluid off. The liquid was essentially salt water, so it didn't resist the stream in the least.

When it was over, Sneasel shook himself off like a growlithe and sent water droplets everywhere. Ash grinned. "Thanks, Torrent. Sneasel, come with me. It's time to go to bed."

Sneasel didn't follow his instructions. Instead of following Ash, he leapt onto Ash's back and deftly climbed up the back of the trainer's shirt. He was quite skilled, even without using his hooked claws. Ash didn't really mind and just smiled back at the baby.

He walked over to his mat, although he took a moment to say a goodnight to Infernus. The fire-type grunted and snorted a bit of fire to return the sentiment. Ash took care to walk around Nidoking as he walked to his mat. It wouldn't be good to trip around his friend.

The dark-type nimbly leapt off of his back when Ash began to lay down. When Ash had gotten comfortable, he glanced up and saw that Sneasel was looking at him hesitantly. He grinned and pulled up his light blanket. "Come on in, buddy."

Sneasel happily slid underneath the thin sheet of cloth and snuggled into Ash's chest. Ash could barely believe the species was known for having an attitude problem. So far Sneasel was as nice as could be, although he suspected that would change when the dark-type wasn't exhausted.

He fell asleep quickly. Ash was still a little tired from being woken up, so it was nice to return to his slumber. Returning to bed after waking up was definitely one of the best feelings in the world.

XX

Ash felt a lance of fear pierce his mind as he slid toward the roaring waves of the cold ocean. A ship sliced into two was dragged into the depths of the cold waters underneath him, yanking him and countless other helpless souls into the icy darkness as well.

He did not feel an iron need to survive and fight. Ash felt the fear he had when he was a newbie trainer alone in the wilderness for the first time.

Talons picked him up and he felt a flare of hope. Perhaps he could survive this after all.

But it was not to be. Plume shrieked horribly as his shirt tore and he fell screaming into the icy waters. Memories lapped at him as he lost oxygen and the edges of his vision grew black, not mixing well with the ocean. It was bright with the last lights of the doomed ocean liner and suffused in a choir of damned voices screaming as the water poured into their lungs.

He looked around desperately for the bright flash of light that would herald his salvation. But Torrent did not come through this time.

Ash gagged and choked helplessly on the icy water as he lost control and breathed in deep the killing liquid. He thrashed and writhed and looked around again, and he felt a flash of hope as he saw something moving in the abyss.

But his oxygen-deprived mind screamed when two horribly familiar glowing eyes lit up the ocean with the light of the sun, revealing hundreds of floating bodies drifting around them, pale and lifeless in the

"You cannot escape me." The Creature roared into his mind before yanking him down to the deepest trench of the ocean, laughing cruelly at Ash's dying screams.

He -

Ash shot up from his sleeping mat. A cold sweat covered his body and he was panting. He couldn't help but stare at his hands, just barely visible thanks to the fire's calm light, to make sure he was really outside.

A gurgle caused him to look up and realize that each of his friends had circled around him. He noticed that Sneasel was looking at him with fearful eyes, upset at the change in Ash. The others were simply worried. Nidoking placed a comforting claw on Ash. It hurt a bit, but the message was what mattered.

"I'm fine." He said shakily. His breath rattled in his lungs. What was that? "You can go back to sleep. I'll be fine."

His friends didn't seem to believe him, but they followed his command. Ash realized that even Infernus had come over to investigate what was going on. The fire-type narrowed his eyes at Ash curiously before slinking over to the lava pit and curling up again.

Ash shuddered again. He couldn't remember what exactly what was in the dream, but he knew that it had terrified him for some reason. It had already flitted away from his mind even as he tried to grasp it and confront whatever had inspired his fear. Dreams were frustrating like that.

Wait.

He'd dreamed.

That hadn't happened in months, ever since he'd gotten Dazed. He knew that Dazed had been feeding on his dreams ever since the St. Anne. The only reason he'd bothered giving her permission to do so was because he wanted to keep her from feeling guilty. Dazed needed sustenance, and humans tended to have more nourishing dreams than pokemon.

Ash couldn't even remember the last time he'd dreamed. But now he just had, which was disturbing. Dazed was always in close proximity to him at night, both to guard him and to gain the nourishment that was unobtainable otherwise.

He glanced up at Dazed. Sneasel had already snuggled back against his warm chest and seemed to be asleep. Dazed stared back at him. Her eyes seemed guilty.

"I had a nightmare." He said quietly. Dazed nodded and glanced away, an oddly open display of emotion for her. She had known before he'd said anything. It was a hypno's gift to know what dream someone was having. "Would it have made you sick?"

Dazed gave a tiny dip of her head, but still seemed uncomfortable. Ash sighed and pulled himself up on his forearms so he could be more comfortable. He was careful to avoid disturbing Sneasel, however.

"I understand." Ash said with a tired smile. He wondered just how many disruptions to his sleep he would get tonight. First Sneasel hatching and now night terrors. "I don't want you to get sick on my part. You shouldn't have to suffer for my problems."

The psychic shook her head in disagreement and stepped closer to Ash. She idly polished her stone pendulum in her white mane as she nodded pointedly to Sneasel. Understanding glinted in Ash's eyes as he realized what she was trying to get across.

"He's blocking you, isn't he?" Ash murmured quietly, lightly stroking Sneasel's feathers. The dark-type growled unconsciously and nestled further into Ash's chest, completely unaware of the event he had inspired.

Dazed nodded. Ash sighed, staring down at Sneasel. The energy that ran through his every cell didn't end with his body. It extended just a little bit beyond that, a field of energy from a foreign, distorted universe that completely neutralized psychic powers in its proximity.

Normally that ability was a boon, but not right now. As long as Ash was this close to Sneasel, Dazed wouldn't be able to eat his dreams. That created two problems: Dazed couldn't derive sustenance from his dreams, and he would fall prey to whatever nightmares the psychic had protected him from.

The obvious solution would be to keep Sneasel away from him at night, but that wasn't an option at well. Sneasel needed to be close to him. He'd imprinted on Ash. Their bond could not be jeopardized at such an early stage in Sneasel's life. When Sneasel had grown a bit older he would be free to sleep wherever he wanted, but for now they would be sticking together.

Fortunately, Dazed didn't require human dreams. She could easily devour the dreams of his other friends – with their permission, of course – to get the energy she needed. Dazed simply preferred his dreams.

He would have to go through a few nights without a dreamless sleep, then. It shouldn't be too bad of a problem. Perhaps this was just a rare freak occurrence. He'd gotten over the St. Anne. The only things left were mere flickers.

Now that he had a half-decent plan for the coming weeks, Ash prepared to return to bed and get what sleep he could. But before he could, he realized something.

"Dazed, you've eaten my nightmares before, haven't you?" He asked pointedly. Ash didn't quite accuse her, but he was being direct. Memories of a few mornings where Dazed seemed strangely downtrodden instead of her ordinary placid calm stormed through his mind.

Dazed nodded and met his eyes. Ash stared at his friend, who had been acting as an unknown protector of his mind for months now.

"…Were they bad?" He asked weakly. Dazed didn't show any expression as she nodded. Her eyes seemed just a bit tired as she recalled them. Ash grimaced. He'd never meant to cause his friend pain, even unintentionally. "I'm sorry. You don't have to do that if it hurts you."

The psychic seemed to sigh – even without a mouth – and rolled her eyes. She shook her head to refute his argument. Dazed pointed at herself, then conjured a protective shield of dim psychic energy before pointing at Ash.

A small smile curled on the edges of his lips as he understood her point. She was a shield for him. Ash helped her and protected her in some ways and she was simply doing her best to help him as well.

"Thank you, Dazed." He smiled. Dazed nodded and sat down. She continued to polish her pendulum as he continued. "But if it ever makes you feel too bad, just stop. I can face it if I need to."

Dazed just stared back at him before she glanced down at her pendulum. It was as shiny and clean as stone could be. Ash shook his head with a grin before slipping back into the mat. Sneasel hissed in his sleep but didn't wake up. He glanced at Dazed for just a moment and saw a flash of guilt pass through her calm eyes before he settled down.

He shut his eyes and let unconsciousness claim him. It would be a hard day tomorrow.

XX

Ash rubbed his red eyes as he walked down the path. He'd managed to avoid another nightmare, but the two major disruptions to his sleep had ruined the entire night for him. The team would be turning in early tonight.

A young trainer with a caterpie crawling faithfully behind him began to approach him, probably for a battle, but picked up his caterpie and scurried away when he saw Torrent levitating behind Ash. In just a few seconds the bug catcher had disappeared into the thick brush.

Ash couldn't hold back his smile at that. Torrent gave a low rumble that Ash easily identified as a laugh. When he'd first travelled through Viridian Forest that would have been a fun battle. Now it was just pointless. He'd come a long way.

Sneasel hissed as he chased after the trainer before scurrying back. Ash had decided to let him stay out while they walked down the trail, provided he didn't stray too far. There weren't any particularly powerful pokemon living in Viridian Forest – at least not in this area, which was relatively safe for trainers to go through – so Sneasel wouldn't be in danger. Even if he did somehow find a way, Plume's keen eyes would send her barreling towards the dark-type instantaneously.

The dark-type quickly leapt up onto Ash's back and grabbed on for the ride. Ash grinned and scratched behind Sneasel's feather. It seemed to be a particularly sensitive spot and made Sneasel's small body twitch.

"Having fun yet?" He asked drily. Sneasel hissed excitedly into his ear, doubtlessly telling Ash about every caterpie, weedle, and other helpless pokemon he had chased after. Ash smiled and noted that Torrent's eyes had a glint of amusement coloring them as well. "That's nice. Make sure you don't run into their parents, alright?"

Sneasel growled softly and leapt onto the dirt trail in front of Ash. He extended his claws and hissed as menacingly as he could at Ash, waving the hooked implements around wildly. When Ash laughed, Sneasel hissed and pointed once at Torrent and then at the sky.

"That's probably a better plan." Ash commented as Sneasel regained his former position. "Make use of Torrent and Plume while they're still protecting you. Once you start training you'll be all on your own."

The dark-type hissed excitedly and leapt onto Torrent's back. Ash grinned as Torrent rumbled in annoyance. Sneasel wasn't deterred, however, and happily clung onto his thick plates of armor with his hooked claws.

As Ash kept on walking down the path, he again found it hard to believe that Sneasel could ever be vicious. It would be a startling transformation, to say the least. Still, he felt that he could at least curb some of Sneasel's more undesirable traits. Sneasel would be a good member of the team.

For now, however, Sneasel's antics put a smile on his face as he continued his expedition into the ominous forest. It helped to pass the time and would doubtlessly make the coming monotonous days of journeying through the forest much more amusing.

XX

Ash took a sip from his heavy water bottle as he watched the rather curious interaction between Infernus and Sneasel. Sneasel had been out of his egg for two days now and he had a good idea of how he would interact with the rest of the team for the observable future.

Nidoking seemed to be wary of Sneasel, although he wasn't hostile. The poison-type was rather friendly and helpful, just careful and observant at the same time. He was biologically hardwired to be a leader and care for the herd, so he was naturally suspicious of Sneasel. Aside from trying to flesh out the newcomer's personality and motives, Nidoking was also wary of him simply due to Sneasel being a dark-type. They tended to have loner personality traits that were alien to social creatures like the nidoran family.

Plume seemed enraptured with nurturing Sneasel. She tried to help him and show the newborn how to do important things. Ash thought he'd seen her trying to teach Sneasel how to fly once. That had gone poorly. But Sneasel seemed to like her well enough and neither were showing the enmity Ash had been afraid of.

Torrent was similar to Nidoking, albeit less wary. He seemed to get annoyed by Sneasel's antics rather easily, although the dragon was amused by them at the same time. Sneasel seemed to know this and took particular joy in annoying Torrent by sitting on his head, randomly jumping on him, or poking him continuously. Ash was curious to see just how far Torrent's exceptional patience would extend before the dragon's dangerous temper would reveal itself. Sneasel would have to learn limits from someone, after all.

Dazed was wary of Sneasel. He instinctually knew that she was practically helpless to retaliate against him and took full advantage of that, despite Ash's scolding and warning him numerous times. Sneasel would learn his lesson eventually. The dark-type just had to push the right button so that Dazed would snap and show off what she was really capable of. But for now they seemed at an impasse. Dazed had, at Ash's suggestion, stayed around one of the other teammates to keep Sneasel from pushing her further.

Infernus was actually getting along with Sneasel disturbingly well. The fire-type was quick to scare Sneasel off with a weak blast of flame if the ice-type annoyed him, but Infernus had more patience than Ash had expected. He didn't understand all of the complexities of that relationship, but he knew that Infernus would be a good example and role model for Sneasel. Sneasel seemed to look up to the fire-type.

Tangrowth was probably the closest to Sneasel, aside from Ash and Infernus. He seemed to enjoy babying the dark-type and liked playing games just as much as Sneasel did. Right now their favorite game seemed to be one in which Tangrowth would try to poke Sneasel with several vines. Sneasel's part was to sever as many as he could, although he was inevitably overwhelmed by Tangrowth's speed and tickled until the grass-type grew bored.

Right now, Sneasel was trying to stalk Infernus. The fire-type was curled up in the ashes of their campfire, apparently asleep. But Ash knew his friend well enough to see the slight twitches that revealed that Infernus was awake.

Ash leaned back into Nidoking's armored chest and watched with a grin. Dazed and his temporary, rather uncomfortable headrest were watching as well. Plume was off doing something or another, and Tangrowth was sleeping in the last patch of the sunset's fading light. Torrent looked like he was asleep. It was hard to tell, sometimes.

Sneasel was silent as he prowled around in the shadows cast by the hundreds of trees surrounding them. His tiny fangs were bared as he suddenly rushed forward and leapt at Infernus from behind. He had quite a bit of strength in him for such a young pokemon.

Unfortunately for Sneasel, Infernus was well aware of what he was trying to do. The fire-type's eyes glinted with dark amusement as he casually slammed his tail into Sneasel and sent the dark-type flying a few feet.

He snorted at that, as did Nidoking. Dazed's eyes shined brightly, but not with psychic power. Sneasel cocked its head confusedly and stared at Infernus with bemusement. Apparently he couldn't understand what had just happened.

While Sneasel had been rebuked several times if he pushed too far, this was the first time physical force had been used on him. It was rather gentle, meant more to amuse Infernus than punish Sneasel for his attempted sneak attack, but it was still a first for Sneasel.

Sneasel growled and rushed at Infernus again, only to stop and dive to the side when Infernus turned his head and lazily shot a tiny, weak stream of orange flames towards Sneasel. The ice-type recoiled at the hot temperature but determinedly prepared to attack Infernus again.

Ash's eyes were alit with humor. Maybe memories of this would pop up in his dreams tonight instead of the rather unpleasant ones he had been subjected to thus far.

He relaxed onto Nidoking's armor even further and kept on watching the game. Ash wondered how long it would take Sneasel to realize that he wasn't going to win. Sneasel had proved to be very determined so far, and would probably only stop his mad drive for victory when he had completely exhausted himself.

So long as the two kept this up for a little longer, Ash didn't really care. He could watch this all night. It was a better alternative to watching the dark forms of the trees and prowling pokemon in the forest, at least.

XX

Five days later he was finally about to break out of the great forest. He hadn't been getting as much sleep as he normally did thanks to the incredibly annoying and infuriating nightmares that struck every other night or so and wouldn't go away and had eventually gotten so fed up with being tired, itchy, dirty, and extremely irritated that he'd cheated and had Plume show him the quickest way out.

It really was amazing how fast he could get through the forest when he had Infernus blasting a way through. So long as he had Torrent on hand to carefully extinguish the flames everything turned out perfectly. The lush vegetation he'd burned would regrow quickly enough.

As things turned out, however, he ran into that idiot in samurai gear again. He was in no mood for the other boy's crap, and released Infernus, who gladly took his side. Torrent levitated next to him as well. Sneasel was still perched on his shoulder, curiously leering at the boy in front of them.

"I remember you!" The boy cried. He released his Pinsir, who clicked its horns angrily at Ash and his friends. Ash just glared back. He wasn't in the mood for this. "You are one of the trainers from Pallet! I challenge you to a battle."

Ash scowled. "Infernus, you're up. Torrent, extinguish any fires. Sneasel, this is a battle." He grinned dangerously, which was matched by Sneasel and Infernus. Sneasel had started getting more mischievous, although not quite dangerous. "Well, this isn't a real battle. This is just what happens when trainers of vastly different skill levels battle."

Sneasel growled in amusement and peered closer. Infernus stepped forward with darkly amused eyes. He snorted a bit of flame.

He sighed when the idiot in front of him still thought it was a good idea to battle. "C'mon, Pinsir! Guillotine!"

Ash was actually surprised that the Pinsir was skilled enough to know the move. Maybe the idiot wasn't as bad as he thought. Nevertheless, he wasn't about to let the dangerous move so much as scratch Infernus.

"Flamethrower." He scowled. Infernus happily followed his command and bathed the bug in a blue stream of flame. It was hot enough to do serious damage to Pinsir but no so dangerous or strenuous as Infernus' ordinary white flame.

Pinsir instantly collapsed. Its trainer cried out in concern and instantly recalled the hurt bug-type. He turned to Ash furiously. "What are you doing? You could have hurt Pinsir! He's weak to fire."

"It's just unconscious." Ash growled as the boy ran up to him. Infernus slinked over to his side and menacingly glared down at the boy. "I'm just giving you a taste of your own medicine. If it can't take a bit of fire, you should try training it."

The boy growled back but just walked away furiously. Apparently he wasn't used to losing. Ash didn't know what else the boy had expected. He'd just stayed here for months while Ash had been training and adventuring. He couldn't find it in him to feel any amount of pity for the other trainer.

Whoever the boy was, he was a Camper – the kind most trainers despised. A Camper was someone who simply stayed in one area and challenged travelers and passerby. Most of the time it was a perfectly legitimate way of training, especially if the trainer wasn't up for travelling.

But this kid seemed to be one of the ones that just did it for the money. He was staying at the very edge of Viridian Forest on the main path that most trainers took. Quite a few newbie trainers stayed in western Kanto since the pokemon there were less dangerous, and Viridian Forest was practically a requirement unless you could fly or teleport across.

In other words, the kid preyed upon young trainers. He probably lost a few times when the trainers were coming from Pewter and weren't tired and worn down – if he challenged the fresh trainers at all – but the ones that were exhausted and weak from fighting through Viridian Forest were probably simple for him to defeat. Most young trainers didn't have the skills of Ash, or even Jonathan and Amelia.

Ash wouldn't mind if the kid was trying to get better, but he seemed to just aim for money. It was annoying, really. He just glared at the kid as he ran away, too annoyed to want his money.

He shook his head and wiped the scowl off of his face. Ash knew he was probably overreacting. His interrupted sleep hadn't altered his mental state too much, but it, combined with the time spent in Viridian Forest and the stress the battle at Viridian had placed on him, had made him surly and a bit more temperamental than usual.

The trainer returned Infernus, although he left Torrent out. His friend had just finished extinguishing any of the flames left over from the rather pathetic battle, but Ash wanted to keep him out to keep any other trainers on the path from battling him.

For now he just wanted to travel the next half mile or so to Pewter, get a hot shower and some food that wasn't bland and flavorless, and battle Brock. Then he would be perfectly happy and content. For a night, anyway. He would be picking up on his journey as soon as he could.

So he started walking down the path yet again. Hopefully he wouldn't have any further disruptions. All Ash wanted now was to get out of the forest.

XX

Ash had a grin on his face when he stepped out of the bathroom. He'd just taken his shower and brushed his teeth and he finally felt clean. It wasn't as though he neglected his hygiene when he was out on the road, but it was difficult to get properly clean when he depended on getting sprayed down by Torrent or taking a dip in a river. A shower was a vast improvement.

He had switched out Plume for Bruiser already. Plume was fine with it since he would be bringing her back as soon as he could. She was just too valuable on the road to leave behind, even if she wasn't one of his best friends.

Bruiser hadn't gotten to show off his new skill when he was battling Giovanni. He'd gotten taken out by a lucky shot. Now that he had had some time to rest and recover from the injuries incurred from Golem he was ready to battle.

If Bruiser somehow lost, he'd let Torrent take the field. It had been a while since his friend had gotten to be in a more casual battle. Torrent was just too strong to use on an unprepared trainer, so he was normally forced to use him in important battles. But Brock was a gym leader. He would be ready to face Torrent, especially if he'd toughened up as much as Ash had.

"Sneasel, let's go." He called out. Sneasel quickly leapt off of his perch on Tangrowth's head and dashed over to Ash. Tangrowth gurgled and tapped Ash on the forehead before he was recalled. The others were already in their pokeballs. Ash had just wanted Tangrowth to keep Sneasel company.

Pewter City's Pokemon Center was quite small, so he was out in just a minute or so. More trainers were beginning to filter into the lobby, so he was glad he'd arrived when he did. It looked like the Center would be filled up pretty soon.

He grinned when he felt the midday sun strike his face. Viridian Forest's thick canopy had kept him from actually feeling the sun most of the time, and it was a rather pleasant feeling. There wasn't a tree in sight in the City of Stone, so he was perfectly content.

Ash was guided by memory as he made his way through the perfectly aligned streets of Pewter. He liked Pewter. It wasn't too huge, but still large enough to be impressive. He hadn't properly appreciated the age and craftsmanship that went into the city and its buildings the first time he had come here.

The people were nice as well. They reminded him more of people from small towns and cities like Pallet and Viridian than those of massive cities like Saffron and Celadon. There wasn't anything wrong with the city dwellers, but he had been raised in a tiny town. He was able to understand people from Viridian and Pewter better than the inhabitants of Saffron.

He found himself standing before the large gym in just a few moments. It was just like he remembered it: sturdy and plain. There wasn't much beauty in it like Sabrina's gym or creativity like Blaine's, but it fit the gym's philosophy and ideals perfectly. Strength and stability were more important than looking fancy. Practicality over aesthetics.

Ash had a nostalgic grin on his face as he stepped forward and pushed the heavy wooden doors open. At least he didn't have to rely on gym trainers to do it like he had in Viridian. He actually wondered if Pewter City had any gym trainers. They had to in order to protect the city, but he hadn't seen a trace of them in his last visit.

Perhaps they were primarily sent to guard Pewter's territory from poachers and settle dangerous pokemon like Rangers. Pewter's territory was vast and untamed, making it prime land for criminals to hide in.

"What are you here for?" A teenager with dark skin asked in a deep voice. Ash grinned as he recognized Brock. The gym leader was exactly as he remembered: he still wore the same green vest and was sitting cross legged on a pedestal of stone.

"A rematch." Ash spoke up. His eyes glittered with amusement as Brock's eyes actually snapped open, although they returned to their normal form almost instantaneously.

"And why would Ash Ketchum, the Prodigy of Pallet, want to battle me again?" Brock asked as he stood up. He crossed his arms and looked quite serious, although a light smile took the bite out of his words. "I haven't improved that much since we've battled, you know."

Ash smiled. He felt Sneasel peering out over his shoulder, curiously taking in the building they were in. Sneasel probably liked how dark it was. "I'm doing another circuit of Kanto. Why wouldn't I come back here? We've both gotten better, and this time you'll take me seriously."

Brock uncrossed his arms and grinned. "It's been a slow day so far, so I'll take you up on that offer. You know the drill. We don't need to go over the rules, do we? Two-on-two, just like last time."

The gym leader quickly led him to the battlefield – it was exactly the same as when he'd first entered the dark gym – and took up his side of the field. Ash entered the challenger's box and smiled when he felt the barriers spring to life.

"Challenger chooses first." Brock called out. Ash nodded and released Bruiser. His friend pounded his chest and gave Ash a respectful nod before focusing on whatever Brock would send out. "Like you said, I've gotten better. Let's see how you work against Steelix!"

Ash reflexively shielded his eyes against some of the debris that exploded as a huge Steelix, just a bit smaller than Giovanni's, erupted in the center of the battlefield. It roared and coiled up in the tiny mountains. Dull eyes peered out at Bruiser, full of life and warmth even during battle.

"Dragon Breath!" Brock roared. He pointed unnecessarily at Bruiser. Steelix opened its gaping maw, revealing a tunnel of darkness, and blasted a huge column of light green air at Bruiser.

"Take it." Ash commanded. Bruiser wasn't fast enough to avoid the attack, so he'd just have to take the hit. While his friend was perfectly capable of anchoring himself to the ground and staying rooted, he needed Steelix to strike. There was no way he'd get close enough otherwise.

Bruiser was sent flying into the psychic barriers. He grunted as he crashed into it and fell to the ground, but recovered just in time to see Steelix rushing towards him. Brock was too secure in its indomitable power.

As Steelix lurched back and struck, Ash called out, "Do the same thing as you did with the onix!"

His friend needed no other explanation. Bruiser reared his fist back and slammed it straight into Steelix's skull as it snapped at him. Steelix roared in pain and froze for a moment, giving Bruiser a moment to pick himself up. Ash was glad that fighting-types were so much more durable than humans. If they weren't that blow would have broken Bruiser's hand.

Bruiser grunted in pain as he sprinted over to Steelix and leapt onto the steel-type's massive body. Steelix roared and bucked. Ash watched interestedly as Bruiser was sent flying high up into the air. Steelix moved to slam into him and instantly knock Bruiser unconscious through its sheer size and power, but Bruiser knew what to do.

Sneasel hopped up and down excitedly on Ash's shoulder as Bruiser maneuvered his body so that he would be able to punch Steelix as he fell down. It was remarkably similar to how Ash defeated Brock the first time.

Unfortunately, Brock seemed used to the technique. "Dragon Breath. Then Iron Tail."

Steelix blasted Bruiser with the stream of green air and sent him flying back up into the air. Bruiser flailed helplessly, but as Steelix swept its tail at him Bruiser caught it and held onto the tip. He didn't try to resist the force, which saved him from a potentially severe injury.

Bruiser squeezed as tightly as he could. Ash grinned when he saw Steelix thrash angrily in pain. The steel on his tail was beginning to bend from the immense, constant pressure. It was a slow process, but it was infuriating Steelix.

Brock shouted soothing words at Steelix to calm it, but the creature continued to thrash thanks to the pain. Finally it had enough presence of mind to try and slam Bruiser into the battlefield, but Bruiser took that moment to jump off.

"Rock Tomb!" Brock shouted. Ash didn't bother giving Bruiser commands. There wasn't much he could do to help. Bruiser knew what he was doing.

Steelix finally calmed down enough to follow Brock's order. It slammed its tail into the ground. The entire battlefield churned and groaned as the stone and earth responded to Steelix's command. Huge pillars of rock shot out from the earth and the stone walls. Each was aimed at Bruiser.

Bruiser punched through several of them before he realized he had to dodge. He destroyed one more before he charged at Steelix, who was completely focused on commanding the earth. Steelix tried to block Bruiser's charge with a wall of stone, but Bruiser barreled through it.

Steelix was too slow to avoid Bruiser as he landed a powerful punch straight into Steelix's midsection. The steel armor dented from the blow and caused Brock to resort to desperate measures. Brock seemed to realize that Bruiser was too agile for Steelix to hurt him physically, not without Bruiser being weakened.

"Hyper beam!" Brock shouted. Steelix instantly formed a ball of swirling orange and red energy in its mouth. It built up for just a few seconds before blasting towards Bruiser. Bruiser leapt out of its way, but Steelix followed him easily. Wherever the hyper beam hit the earth was covered in soot and fused into molten glass.

"On its back." Ash said with a grin. Sneasel was growling happily into his ear as the little dark-type watched the great battle. He seemed even more into it than Ash was.

Bruiser used all of his immense strength to leap onto Steelix's back. The steel-type was forced to cut off its hyper beam before it accidentally attacked itself. While the attack was classified as a normal-type move, it held so much raw energy that the effects were much like an extremely concentrated flamethrower. It was understandable why Steelix wouldn't want to melt its own armor off.

Ash grinned as Steelix collapsed to the ground for a moment. Bruiser took the time to race up to its head, slide down, and punch it right between the eyes. Steelix roared confusedly as its forehead dented. He winced at that. That would be annoying.

"Finish it." He ordered calmly. Bruiser jumped onto the solid earth and closed his eyes. The fighting-type focused all of his energy into a single movement as he turned around and slammed his fist into the same, dented spot.

Steelix's eyes opened up almost comically in shock before shutting. Its immense body grew slack before Brock returned him. The gym leader was smiling. "Good battle. I have to admit, you've done a good job training your pokemon. Let's see how well you do against Rhydon!"

Ash silently groaned. Rhydon were tough. They had incredibly thick stone armor, they had access to a wide range of attacks, and they functioned quite similar to Nidoking in a battle. As he'd learned from his friend, Nidoking were nothing to be trifled with, and, by the same logic, neither were Rhydon.

Rhydon seemed a bit larger than average for its breed, although nothing exceptional. It certainly didn't compare to the monster that Ash had met on his way to Saffron for the first time. Nevertheless, he resolved to be careful. Brock was taking him seriously now and wouldn't send out a weak pokemon against him.

"Bruiser, be careful." Ash warned. "Keep away from its tail."

Bruiser nodded and cracked his knuckles. He tensed up and prepared for a charge.

"Stone Edge!" Brock shouted. He pumped his fist in excitement. "Follow that with Earthquake! Keep it away."

Rhydon roared as rings of energy formed around it before yanking stone from the ground and fashioning it into sharp stone projectiles. It looked like it wasn't quite strong enough to transform the energy directly into the stone.

Even as the sharp rocks shot towards Bruiser, Rhydon leapt up into the air. When it landed an immense shockwave tore through the ground and made the ground ripple like water. Bruiser leapt into the air to avoid the earthquake, but two of the stones slammed into his chest and sent him crashing to the ground.

Ash winced but didn't step in yet. Bruiser would be fine. It looked like Rhydon was preparing another attack.

Bruiser dodged a weak lance of electricity that sparked forth from Rhydon's horn and began his charge. Rhydon blinked dumbly at him before slamming his tail into the ground. Another earthquake, somewhat weaker than the last, rippled through the ground.

Now that he knew what to expect, Bruiser leapt midcharge before landing easily on his feet. He quickly resumed his charge and, carried by the momentum, arrived at Rhydon quickly. The rock-type roared and tried to stab at Bruiser with its horn, but Bruiser easily ducked around the blow.

Bruno's lessons to Bruiser seemed to take hold then. Instead of simply letting Rhydon's angry attack pass, Bruiser grabbed Rhydon's head and used his immense strength to pull both of them down. Rhydon grunted angrily as it slammed into the ground next to Bruiser and kicked up a small cloud of dirt.

Rhydon was too heavy to get up easily, so Bruiser took his time. He circled around Rhydon and patiently looked for any chink in its thick armor he could exploit. When Bruiser found none, he grimaced and carefully launched a punch into the back of Rhydon's head.

The thick stone hide was excellent for neutralizing elemental attacks and most physical attacks, but it wasn't so good against blunt force. Well, that wasn't necessarily true. It protected quite well against reasonable amounts of blunt force. But the kind of power Bruiser put into his punch was far beyond what anything could ordinarily expect to encounter in the wilderness.

So it wasn't a surprise to anyone when Rhydon collapsed to the ground unconscious.

Bruiser pounded his chest and turned back to Ash as he stood above his conquered foe. He gave a respectful bow to Ash, which the trainer returned. Ash gave Bruiser a bit longer to savor his victory before he returned his friend.

Sneasel was hissing happily as well. He was scraping his claws together, which Ash took to be an expression of excitement.

"Good job, Bruiser." Ash whispered to Bruiser's pokeball. It shook a bit in response before quieting down. He had a grin on his face as he placed it back onto his belt. He stared at it a bit longer before he realized that Brock had circled around.

"I can see why the other gym leaders were impressed." Brock said with an easy grin. "That Machoke of yours is pretty impressive. I bet the others are just as good."

"They are." Ash replied. All of his battlers were incredible. He couldn't have asked for better.

Brock nodded and crossed his arms. "Well, I don't really have anything to give you. You already have the Boulder Badge and I don't have any unruly pokemon that I need to get rid of."

"A good battle is enough for me." Ash said happily. It was nice to have a gym battle that wasn't a constant struggle for victory. Technically this wasn't a gym battle, but to him it was. This had reminded him of his early days, when the gyms hadn't been a true challenge.

"Me too." Brock replied. He held out his hand, which Ash grasped in return. It was rough and calloused, exactly what he would expect from the Pewter City gym leader. "If you ever want to battle again, I'm game. I'll be ready next time."

"I'll swing by eventually." Ash smiled. It would be nice to battle Brock again. While it wasn't especially challenging, it was still fun. Bruiser could use the workout, anyways. "Thanks for the battle."

"You're welcome." Brock said. As Ash turned around to leave, he had one more thing to say. "Good luck on your journey, by the way. I'll be watching at the Conference."

Ash nodded his thanks again before walking out of the large gym. Sneasel was still perched on his shoulder and relentlessly growling and hissing as they walked back into the sun. It was still afternoon, so they had plenty of time to burn.

He wouldn't be leaving today, but he still needed to stock up on supplies. Viridian Forest had drained quite a bit of it.

So he set off to gather what he needed. It would keep him occupied for a while, at least. After that, who knew? Maybe he would get a good, long night of sleep for once.

XX

Ash stood outside of Pewter with his friends. Plume was flying overhead, lazily circling high above him. He smiled as he looked up at her. If his memories of the road from Pewter to Mt. Moon were reliable, she would be invaluable navigating the difficult terrain.

Nidoking and Tangrowth stood beside him. They were both eager to get a move on. His first friend simply enjoyed travelling and finding new challenges while Tangrowth wanted to explore and swing through the trees.

He grinned and started walking. Things had gotten dark over the last few weeks, but things were finally calming down. Maybe the world would fix itself by the time he got to Cerulean.

But he had another area to investigate first. It was the site of an incident that had shown him just how far Team Rocket was willing to go and had set him down his path. But those memories weren't important to him, not in this matter.

What was important was finding the Moon Stone. If it was as important to Nidoking as he suspected, he would spend months searching for it in the depths of Mt. Moon.

That was in the future, though. The near future, certainly, but for now he should just focus on walking. He'd get there in time.

Everything would work out for him in time. He was sure of it.

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