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.


83. The Delivery Part 3

"Now that we're on the mainland, do you want to start walking?" Daisy directed to him as they stood together at Littleroot's gates. She had her pack shouldered and looked strangely chipper for the early hour. Ash didn't exactly hate getting up early, but he was out of the habit. "We've just got two days together after this and I think it'll be fun! That's plenty of time to get to Petalburg."

"Sure," Ash shrugged. Plume would be a bit disappointed but he'd release her so she could stretch her wings regardless. The rest of his friends would appreciate it, though, so he supposed it balanced out. "It'll be nice to stretch our legs for once."

Daisy agreed with a soft smile and set off, leaving Ash to sigh in annoyance before he caught up to her.

"I've missed this," Daisy said quietly to herself. Ash let his eyes glance over to her but otherwise didn't acknowledge her. "Feels like it's been forever since I just walked on my own two feet…I'm going to have to do this more often!"

"Will you get a chance anytime soon?" Ash asked after a few moments. He idly traced his friends' pokeballs, trying to decide which he would release first…he'd rather not have all of them out so they didn't squabble amongst themselves too much. "What are you even doing in Petalburg? You said something about your Coordinator friends if I remember right…"

"Yep! It's been ages since I've seen some of them and it's going to be great!" The slim girl beside him chirped. "Lisia can't make it, unfortunately, but a lot of the other Hoenn Coordinators I know will! We're just getting together for some practice before the Contest season starts next month…plus we get to scout out the competition, of course."

Ash smirked. "Not that you need to worry about any of them, of course."

"Of course!" Daisy agreed easily. "I mean, I am one of the most accomplished Coordinators in the world, after all. I'm a bit rusty after rummaging around in Sinnoh last year but my team's only gotten better! This upcoming season's going to be a blast!"

"Naturally," Ash snorted at her enthusiasm. "I just hope mine will be half as good."

"I'm sure it will be," the teenager smiled. "I mean, my second year was probably my favorite year of training. Everything was still pretty new, but I knew the basics and could actually have fun! Plus that was when I got into Coordinating seriously and figuring all of that out was a blast!"

He nodded. Well, that made sense at least.

"You know, you could stick around for a bit longer if you want!" Daisy glanced over him. "I'll be in Petalburg for a few days and I could introduce you to some of my friends. They'd probably be interested in meeting you. Maybe not interested in sticking around once they get to know you, but meeting you would be fine."

"Thanks a lot," Ash smiled slightly at her jab. He took just a moment to release a few of his friends – Nidoking, Plume, Torrent, Dazed, Tangrowth, Oz, and Aron – so they could get some fresh air. "But no, I'm afraid I can't. I need to spend the next two weeks training before I meet up with the League member that's going to hammer me into proper shape."

"Oh! Of course!" The girl gasped. "I always forget you have an actual job now…wow, that's a weird thought. Even I don't have a real job."

Ash shrugged as he reached over to pat Nidoking's shoulder – his friend let out a pleased grunt and nudged into the touch. "At least I know I'm not a deadbeat like you."


"I learned from the best," he let a soft smirk twist onto his lips.

"That you did," his friend agreed before she cast her gaze up into the sky and frowned. "Should Tangrowth be doing that?"

Ash followed her eyes and sighed when he saw what Tangrowth was doing: the grass-type decided that now was a great time to pick Aron up, extend his vines almost as far as they could go, and throw him up as high as he could before he caught the heavy steel-type with almost careless ease.

It looked like it was going to be one of those days.


"What do you think of Aron?" Ash asked as he leaned back against a hard tree. Nidoking was curled up beside him, eyes fierce as he scanned the surroundings for any potential threats. They'd been travelling on foot with Daisy for over a day now, but since they had made great time and were only a few hours away from Petalburg they'd decided to stop for the day and walk there in the morning.

He'd taken a much needed rest from…well, everyone. Every human, anyway.

Actually, he'd just count it as everyone that wasn't part of his tight-knit family. That was probably more accurate.

Ash laughed when Nidoking's heavy shoulders rose up in a slight shrug and watched raptly as his first friend set his eyes on the steel-type. Nidoking actually looked interested, which was a much better reaction than he'd had for the last member to join their team.

Currently Aron was charging Sneasel, who hissed and blurred away before he cast a gust of frozen air to further antagonize Aron. Not that Aron seemed to mind – he just warbled happily at the cold and shook his whole body to cast off the slight film of frost.

He couldn't help but grin, the urge growing even stronger when he saw Tangrowth leap from a tree he'd climbed for whatever reason and snag Sneasel out of the air, wrapping the protesting dark-type close to him before Aron joined moments later.

"He's certainly fitting in well," Ash smiled. He eyed Oz, who was watching from the slight cover of the sparse trees that decorated the areas. She hesitated for a moment before slowly stepping toward the group hug Tangrowth had initiated. "Aron's good for Oz. I think Sneasel likes him too."

Nidoking chuffed lightly at the mention of Oz and eyed her warily. Ash had long since broken him of his blatant dislike for the Electabuzz but with the massive amounts of hormones pumping through his brain he was still having trouble letting go of the protective impulses that dominated him.

Honestly, Ash was just happy he'd managed this much. Deeper work could be done in time, just as all progress was.

He turned his eyes from the scene and turned back to Nidoking, who shifted his whole head to watch Ash. "It'll be nice with it just the team again. Daisy's nice, but it's not the same."

His friend grunted softly and tapped a blunt claw to Ash's knee in agreement with that. Nidoking was paranoid enough already without counting in their companions.

"We're going to have to make the most of this next two weeks," he said seriously. Nidoking nodded and his ears twitched softly. "We have a lot of work to do before we can meet Steven – we won't disappoint him."

Nidoking's eyes narrowed and a soft growl came from deep within his throat at that. The sound made the earth around them ripple like liquid and windy cracks emanated from where the poison-type's claws tapped irritably.

Ash grinned and scratched behind his friend's leathery ears, glad Nidoking was on the same page. They both had great memories of the week they'd spent with Steven on the way to Cerulean and the thought of disappointing the man who'd helped them so much was repelling.

"I have a few plans for all of you," Ash continued. "Not a lot of specifics, but a few tactics or techniques that I think will be a huge help. I want you to complete Triad – I picked up the Flamethrower TM when my mom took me to the Department Store so I'll get it to you once we head out to find a safe place to train."

Nidoking nodded, eyes alit with glee as he pondered the possibilities. Ash had originally planned on getting Nidoking set up with Lance's Fire Blast, Thunder, and Blizzard Triad technique, but he'd decided against it.

While that kind of firepower would be fantastic for his friend, it wasn't necessary right now. Ash had plenty of raw, overwhelming power in the form of Torrent, Infernus, and hopefully Bruiser in the near future. Nidoking certainly wasn't a slouch in that department – Ash thought he was right behind the two juggernauts of the team in power, ahead of Dazed and probably on par with Tangrowth.

No, Nidoking's true strength rested in his versatility. He was prepared for any eventuality and could deal and take serious damage. His hide had only grown thicker since the Conference. His toxins were coming into their final maturity. His elemental abilities were rapidly growing in power.

He wasn't more skilled with ice than Torrent or as maneuverable as Infernus or Dazed, but his jack-of-all-trades style worked wonders for him.

So once he was armed with his own version of Triad composed of a mixed Thunderbolt, Ice Beam, and Flamethrower he'd be set against almost any threat. Not much could stand up to even two of those and the combination of all three would be devastating.

They sat there pondering their future for a few moments, each trying to think of where to start. They had some time to think but Ash wanted to waste as little time as possible once they managed to find a training ground that could withstand the immense forces his team would unleash.

Nidoking interrupted him with a slight grunt and a jab of his horn at Aron, who looked to have managed to catch and tackle Sneasel after Tangrowth let them down. Sneasel was hissing furiously and slashing his claws in every direction he could as the steel-type contentedly laid on top of him, his great weight more than enough to lock Sneasel in place.

"General training," Ash said, grinning at the scene. "I don't even know where to begin with him…I just want him to be in decent shape by the time we get to Steven. He'll be nowhere near the rest of the team, but at the very least he'll have a solid foundation for Steven to work with."

His friend nodded and let his black eyes shut, content to just lay there with Ash and listen to their surroundings.

Ash let Nidoking relax and withdrew his PokeDex. He almost wanted to slap himself for not scanning Aron sooner – that was just idiocy on his part. It had been much too long since he'd added a new member to his team if he'd slipped that much.

He discretely aimed the PokeDex at the content Aron, not wanting to disturb all of them as they played. Oz had even sat down next to the steel-type, growling at him every now and then and creating small showers of sparks once Aron warbled at her a few times, getting a delighted grunt from Aron and a groan from Sneasel.

"Aron, the Iron Armor Pokemon," the PokeDex droned. Ash smiled at the cool, emotionless tones. It had been much too long since he'd heard it. "A pokemon that is clad in steel armor, it has a diet heavily composed of metal in order to form its shell. When it evolves it grows a new set of armor and eats the discarded set. Aron is known to eat from railroads in order to supplement its diet."

"This Aron knows the moves: Mudslap, Metal Claw, Rock Tomb, and Protect. Its ability is Rock Head, which prevents the pokemon from taking serious damage from techniques that cause recoil."

Ash nodded slowly at that, seeing plenty of ways he could work with Aron from there. Rock Head was just a little bonus from Aron's physiology, which had evolved to withstand the serious force that it could carry in a charge. Otherwise it would get a serious concussion every time it hit something.

That's all Abilities really were anyway: quirks of a pokemon's biology that had developed in response to their evolutionary pathway. They just tended to have a lot of varied, unexpected use in battle and even civilian jobs if they and their trainer were clever enough.

Aron would primarily be a defensive fighter. He had a lot of offensive potential, of course, but that was generally focused on close quarters combat. If he was fighting a mobile or ranged enemy he'd need to have a lot of defensive abilities in order to draw them in close or wear them down.

He wouldn't be winning any battles for speed – he was a lot like Nidoking in that way. When he got going he was surprisingly fast, but that was only good for a straight line. Aron wouldn't be able to change direction fast enough to catch up to something fast like a Manectric, Mightyena…anything that wasn't focused on charging, really.

But he didn't need to be mobile. He actually fit perfectly into what Ash preferred in his fighters:

Environmental control.

Ash felt that if he could be said to have a specialty that would be it. That was what he favored in almost all of his friends' combat styles. They were all great fighters, of course, but it was when they turned the environment itself against their opponents that they truly harnessed their potential.

Nidoking destroyed the earth with Earthquake, slowing them and letting him control their paths. He could open up chasms and rifts and leave them falling into a fissure if he so desired.

Torrent dominated the entire battlefield with Ice Storm and Draco Meteor, which made the entire area dangerous and sapped away their strength with frozen winds and sharp shards of ice.

Infernus…well, that was obvious. When he unleashed his power the area around him was almost uninhabitable, and that was before he started spewing flames from his cannons everywhere or calling up lava to leave the battlefield incredibly inhospitable to most opponents.

Tangrowth's Ancient Power and vines left him the ultimate controller of the environment in Ash's team. Infernus could just destroy everything – Tangrowth could shift rock and earth to prepare defenses, walls, weapons…anything he wanted. Then with his vines coming from almost every side to suck strength and bind limbs it made Tangrowth a truly dangerous foe.

Ash thought he'd showed that best in his battle against Grey's Scolipede, where he'd managed to overcome the incredibly dangerous bug-type with creative use of Ancient Power.

Those were the strongest examples in his mind. The others either didn't have the capacity to alter the field on that level or simply hadn't reached that point. Or their styles had evolved to where they didn't really need it.

Plume would reach that level eventually. Hurricane was a good start – hopefully she'd reach the same level of air manipulation as Lance's dragons one day. She'd started work with it with Tailwind and mastering it, but she was just a learner at the moment.

Dazed was certainly an ideal one-on-one fighter, at least for regulated battles. In real fights he considered her more valuable as a sort of behind the scenes operator…one who could raise shields, alert him to what was going on, and teleport to wherever she needed to be at the moment – there was a reason psychics were so heavily used by the League.

Bruiser didn't really have the elemental capacity to twist the environment to his advantage. He had overwhelming physical strength as his specialty and Ash was still working on ways to incorporate more extensive elemental use into his style, though he felt that he'd have to evolve first. The extra two arms and greater neural capacity required to maneuver them properly should give him a huge advantage in that department.

Seeker might be able to get to the point of Lance's team's abilities one day if she ever decided to train. With Plume helping her it was almost a certainty. She just had to want it.

Sneasel…well, Ash had been working on that for months now. He felt Sneasel was almost ready to start that training. Ash just wanted to check with Steven to see what his new mentor thought.

Oz didn't have the power output she needed right now. Ash was thinking about incorporating some sort of environmental control – maybe Rain Dance – into her style once she'd evolved but she needed to increase her power first. It would be useless until that point.

It really wasn't easy to perform techniques like Sandstorm, Rain Dance, and Sunny Day. Oh, the theory behind them wasn't too hard. Almost any pokemon could accomplish it on a very, very small scale or for a short period of time.

But to actually bend the weather to your will took an incredible amount of raw energy that most pokemon couldn't give.

That was why he hadn't had Torrent use Rain Dance much. He'd essentially phased it out entirely at this point, although Ash felt like he was at the point where his friend could use it without much strain.

Really the only reason Torrent had ever managed to use it was because Kingdra were obscenely powerful pokemon. The moment they evolved their abilities increased exponentially, shaping even the youngest like Torrent into some of the strongest pokemon the ocean had to offer. Even as a young Kingdra Ash thought Torrent had more raw power at his disposal than almost any of his friends now – only Nidoking, Infernus, Tangrowth, and Bruiser in Rampage could harness that much energy if he was correct.

It wasn't every water-type that could go head-to-head with a Gyarados and have an even chance of succeeding, after all.

Well, not quite even but close enough. It really came down to whether the Gyarados was able to get in close and swallow them or not. Even that was pretty excessive since they only really got into conflicts over territorial disputes and only the most stubborn or vicious of pokemon would consider death an acceptable end to that squabble.

He shook himself out of his distraction and came back to the topic at hand.

Torrent would probably make good use of Rain Dance at this point, especially with all of the water and humidity of Hoenn. If he was on the coast it would be child's play to call up a storm and Ash made a mental note to try it out sometime soon.

Ash would be blatantly lying if he said he didn't want to see Torrent at his most powerful – with the water behind him, not having to focus a good quarter of his strength on levitation, able to use all the power he had gained in the time since the Conference with impunity.

Friend-Trainer, I believe you will begin to experience increased an increased rate of salivation if you don't restrain yourself.

"Thank you, Dazed," Ash grinned as she stepped out of the shaded woods behind him, eyes raised upward into a smile. She idly polished her crystal pendulum and it flashed a bright blue before Ash felt a slight pressure brush his face. "What would I do without you?"

I dare not consider the thought.

He grinned at that and closed his eyes, relaxed. Nidoking and Dazed were beside him and he feared nothing with them at their side. Most of the team were happily playing, Plume circled lazily above, and Infernus was safely in his pokeball and away from the many, many flammable materials around them.

"Where's Torrent?" He asked after a moment. Ash didn't open his eyes and just waited for Dazed to answer, resting an arm on Nidoking's leathery hide as he did so. It had been much too long since he'd gotten to relax out under the sun with his family and he'd prefer if one of his oldest friends were with them.

She was silent for a moment and he imagined her eyes shut in deep contemplative focus.

I have gleaned from the Sentry that the Torrent rests in a pond not far from here. I believe he grew weary of…Its…pestering and decided to rest. The Torrent's mind is giddy and I believe him to be basking in the adoration of the pond's inhabitants.

Ash snorted and let a slight smile twist over his lips. "I imagine there's quite a few there to see him. I still remember how many turned up to watch his evolution back in Pallet."

Nidoking raised his great head and nodded slightly at that, eyes cast months back into the past when they'd only just been coming into their strength. Torrent's evolution was a milestone for the team and they all remembered it.

Indeed. I expect his vanity will outstretch the Sentry's if he continues to meet so many admirers.

"Plume's not that bad," Ash countered breezily, eyes still shut. "You should have seen her when we first started out…I'm pretty sure she thought the mirror was the greatest invention of all time."

You cannot hear her thoughts as I do.

Ash opened his mouth and closed it at that. Point taken. "Bruiser, then? I doubt he's strayed too far if Seeker's not with him."

Meditating. His mind lies deep in thought and I would not disturb him. He ponders many things.

He nodded and did not pursue the matter. Bruiser would have his peace and his privacy.

They were quiet for a long time yet, content just to be in one another's presence. Nidoking's mind was calm and Ash grinned at that – his friend could use that peace well. The gentle rise and fall of his friend's brought a little surge of warmth to his chest, one that had nothing to do with the Feather bonded to his skin.

A slight drowsiness fell over him, growing stronger by the second. He saw a red glow, a familiar mental pressure that he gave into all too willingly.

Sleep, Friend-Trainer. Rest your weary mind. I shall wake you when you are needed.


"I guess this is it," Daisy muttered and kicked up some of the dust that had drifted onto the sidewalk in front of the Contest Center in Petalburg. Eevee whined at that and leaned forward to lick Ash's face, which he allowed with an easy laugh. "You sure you don't want to stick around for a few more days? I've really enjoyed this past week, you know. It's nice getting to see the man you've become, Ash."

Heat surged in his chest at that and he had to struggle to avoid grinning wide enough to leave his face sore for the next day. "Thanks…it's been fun, Daisy. I hope we run into each other again."

"Yeah," Daisy said softly. She reached out and squeezed Ash into a crushing hug and it was at that moment Ash realized that his friend really had learned everything from his mother. "Don't go all crazy isolated elite trainer on me, alright? I'm expecting to hear from you at least once a week. I need to make sure you don't get in too much trouble – I know you too well to expect you to stay out of it entirely!"

"I will," Ash grinned and finally returned the hug a bit, feeling distinctly uncomfortable with this much contact. He wasn't sure he liked being this close with anyone but his team. Daisy just seemed happy he hadn't pushed her away, though, and squeezed him tightly one last time and made sure to get one last try at cracking a rib before she let him go. "I'll try and come to one of your Contests."

"Tell me if you have anything come up!" Her eyes lit up. The Oak's voice slanted into a teasing lilt. "I want to see the big, bid Ash Ketchum in his element! I've got to admit that your Championship match was pretty impressive!"

"High praise," he smiled lightly. "But thanks, Daisy. I appreciate it."

She nodded back. "You're welcome! But who knows? Maybe you'll expand a bit beyond blowing stuff up, hmm?"

"I might give it a shot," Ash grinned back. "But my specialty really is blowing stuff up. Or burning it. Or –"

"I think I get it," Daisy giggled. Eevee's tongue lolled out happily and he yipped at Ash, eyes flashing back to watching some of Ash's team train. "Don't worry, you've got Daisy Oak to help you out! I'll make sure you don't embarrass yourself!"

"We'll see," he smirked. His eyes caught a flicker of movement and caught a few teenagers around Daisy's age pointing to her and trying to wave. "Looks like you have some admirers."

"What?" She asked, turning around. "Oh! Well, those are my friends…guess I'd better go on in."

Ash nodded, not really pleased to see her go. On one hand he was happy to be alone so he could do what he loved, but he'd enjoyed traveling with Daisy. It was nice getting to forge a connection with someone he should have known a lot better. She was kind and smart and if he was going to have to pick a human to travel with for longer she'd be pretty far up on the list.

"Bye, Daisy. Hope you have a good year."

"Bye, Ash," Daisy said quietly. She turned around before glancing back and pulling him into a quick one-armed hug that he returned a bit quicker this time. Daisy brushed a few strands of brown hair away from her slim face. "Take care of yourself, alright? I can't know what all you'll be up to, but I'm sure you'll find trouble one way or another. Just make sure you come back to all of us at the end of it, okay?"

"I'll stay safe," Ash promised. He paused for a moment as Daisy nodded, satisfied, and favored him with one last smile before she turned to leave. "Steven Stone will be my teacher."

She froze. "Huwha?"

"You heard me," Ash said. "Don't worry about me. I'm in good hands."

"I think a former Champion leaves you in hands better than good," Daisy shook her head, giggling a bit at the absurdity of it all. She turned around to beam at him, looking like a thousand pounds were just taken off her shoulders. "Thanks for telling me, Ashy. Okay, bye for real this time! Keep in touch!"

"Bye," Ash waved her off, watching her go the one last time. Once she got to her friends he left, walking the streets of Petalburg on his lonesome.

He barely paid attention to his surroundings, not really in the mood for it. Ash avoided the people in front of him and that was it.

He wouldn't be here long enough for it to matter.


"Everyone listen up!" Ash said softly, still managing to silence each and every one of his teammates. He glanced over the row of pokemon, nodding to them in thanks for their patience.

It had taken a long time to find a suitable training spot even in the isolated Petalburg Woods. Plume had spent the better part of an hour searching before she'd reported back with an area deserted enough for them to inhabit without affecting the native pokemon.

Instead of treading through the Woods he'd decided to just fly on Plume's back instead – he'd have time to explore in the upcoming two weeks, but it was too important for them to get started right now. They'd lost a week thanks to traveling with Daisy and he wanted to be at his best by the time they faced Steven.

"We've got a long two weeks ahead of us," he began. Most of his friends looked eager at his pronouncement and Infernus' fierce smirk very nearly made the part of the Feather that was Moltres recoil. "I'll be working with all of you personally to start on your individual training regimens, but for today we're going to just focus on getting back into shape."

More shows of excitement and Ash couldn't help his own grin from forming. Nidoking, who stood to his right, let out an amused chuff at that and let his massive tail pound lightly into the ground to return their focus to Ash.

"Thanks," he nodded to his friend, who just dipped his head before returning to glance over the team. "For today, you'll be working in pairs. I'll have you cycle out to rest or work with another of us when necessary."

Ash raised a finger for each pair he called out, helping to recall the list he'd memorized as he went over various scenarios.

"Nidoking and Aron, Plume and Torrent, Dazed and Oz, Infernus and Tangrowth, and Bruiser and Sneasel," Ash counted off. He couldn't help but smile slightly at the different reactions he got – Sneasel looked terrified and furious and all sorts of miffed, Infernus just looked annoyed, and Tangrowth had an uncharacteristically dark look in his saucer-like eyes. "Pair up. Spar for now. It's just a warm-up – I'll come around to talk to you about what I want from you for the rest of the day."

He paused for a moment to stroke Seeker's silky fur, grinning as a shiver ran down her tiny body. She was stuck nestled up to his chest for now, too sensitive for the noon sun in which they were starting in.

Ash took just a moment to glance over at a few of the other members of his team before he waited for them to find their own isolated areas.

Aron trotted up to Nidoking with his tongue lolling out, icy blue eyes aimed up at Nidoking with pleased interest. He had no doubt that the little steel-type was really, really looking forward to this. He hadn't really gotten to train at all yet thanks to their tight schedule.

"Assess him," he told Nidoking, who nodded steadfastly. Even his friend couldn't help but look a little bemused as Aron sat down in front of him and panted, head wagging side to side as he waited for Nidoking to start. "Take it easy, of course."

Nidoking dipped his head in acknowledgement before he grunted softly to Aron, who shot up from his resting pose and followed the powerful poison-type like a young Growlithe behind its mother as Nidoking led him far away from any of the others.

With those two out of the way he glanced at the rest of the pairs. Bruiser looked like his birthday had come early and cracked his knuckles, smiling disconcertedly wide down at Sneasel as the dark-type looked ready to dart away the moment Bruiser twitched.

Plume and Torrent seemed happy enough. They'd known each other longest out of almost all of his friends and had a strong bond as such. It didn't hurt that both were relatively calm and focused most of the team and generally much more mellow than almost any of the others. Each preferred to simply observe and act only when necessary.

Dazed and Oz were fine with one another – he hadn't expected anything else. They were both fairly similar in personality, though Dazed was calmer. They'd get along well together and he hoped the next two weeks would bring them closer together.

That wasn't the only reason he'd paired them, of course. Dazed needed to work on increasing her raw power and redirecting attacks and Oz needed to increase the level of strength she could harness as well. It would be a good workout for both of them to hammer away at each other, gradually increasing the intensity until they were working as hard as they could.

Really everything was fairly expected except for Infernus and Tangrowth. Ash usually kept them fairly far apart since Infernus was one of the few things Tangrowth didn't love within five seconds of meeting. They didn't really fight, but there was a grudge held by Tangrowth that Ash wasn't sure had ever been aimed at anyone else.

But he had his reasons. And, as he called out for them to begin, Ash felt that he had made an excellent decision on that match up.

Both were powerful – Tangrowth deceptively so considering his personality – and each had the potential to work very well together. And if Tangrowth could temper Infernus and Infernus draw out a bit of fire in Tangrowth…well, he couldn't see anything wrong with that.


He made his rounds after about thirty minutes of nonstop combat between the pairs. They weren't exhausted but they could use the rest and he took the opportunity to give them a detailed report on what he wanted them to focus on.

Nidoking and Aron were the exception. His first friend seemed pleased enough with the steel-type's progress but he'd need Dazed there to give him specifics. Ash could communicate extremely well with Nidoking but Dazed would make it much, much faster.

And with a deadline of just two weeks time was of the essence.

Plume would be taking a break from her speed training for now and instead would be trying to increase the power of her attacks to the point she could break through Torrent's Twister with an Air Slice or take down Ice Storm with Hurricane.

Torrent needed to work on facing fast opponents as well as aerial fighters. He was best underwater or against terrestrial fighters, but after the Conference Ash knew he needed extensive training against pokemon that attacked from above.

Their training with Lance had led him miles down the right path when it came to that, but there was always room for improvement. Torrent could predict fliers fairly well, true. But if he could learn to track the tan blur that was Plume then he could hit anything.

Dazed had already picked up on what he wanted from her and Oz so he only stopped by for a moment to check in. Mostly he just wanted to see how they were feeling after their break and to make sure they'd be able to accomplish what he had planned for them…not that he really had concerns. Neither of the pair were keen on failing.

With Bruiser and Sneasel it was basically just letting them know that it was going to be a day of Catch the Sneasel – Bruiser had flashed him a reptilian grin and Sneasel had practically wilted.

But he needed Bruiser to be faster and it would give plenty of time working on low-level Rampage and it was probably the best motivation for Sneasel to get better at predicting strikes and improving at dodging that he could imagine.

Sneasel really, really hated getting hit. So getting hit by even a half-powered punch from the Machoke was basically his worst nightmare.

Ash had the strange feeling he'd be using a disproportionate amount of his stock of Potions and Revives on Sneasel over these next few weeks.

Now he found himself in front of Tangrowth and Infernus, both of whom looked a bit more banged up than the others…not that it bothered either of them. Tangrowth could tank blows that would stop most of the team in their tracks thanks to his shell of vines and Ash was pretty sure getting hit by an attack just made Infernus even more eager to crush his opponent under his heel.

"Infernus, don't try and light him on fire when you aren't sparring," Ash sighed. The Magmortar grinned at that and let some of the tongues of flame escaping from his cannons die, though there was still the ominous glow deep within the tubes that bespoke of the fire's presence. "Thanks. So I'm guessing you two are wondering why you're paired up?"

Tangrowth nodded eagerly, a vine rushing over to pat Ash on the shoulder for asking. Ash snorted but had to nudge the appendage out of the way when it started brushing over the Feather, which was currently flooding his body with an intense heat that was almost painful as Infernus stepped nearer – flickers of gold and red could be seen under Ash's thin grey t-shirt and they grew ever greater in intensity.

"You two are going to specialize in lava," Ash began, grinning just as widely as Infernus. Tangrowth just looked confused. "That hot orange liquid you were playing with when we were at Moltres' island."

The grass-type cocked his whole body in confusion before his eyes lit up and he started fiercely nodding, all the vines covering his shapeless form wriggling happily when he realized what was going on – Ash noted one even tried to hug around Infernus, though the Magmortar snarled and flared his heat just enough to reduce it to a shriveled, blackened branch.

Ash winced as a few sparks drifted onto his skin, searing it and becoming an extension of the trainer. In the time it took to blink it felt as though the tiny bit of flame had been part of him for an eternity, although the odd feeling thankfully flickered and died once the spark cooled.

"Anyway," he said as much to distract himself as it was to direct Infernus and Tangrowth, "for the rest of the day I want to see you two working on manipulating magma. Nidoking will come by in a few minutes to clear an area so you two don't burn down the whole forest."

"And Infernus, no Earth Burn!" He said sternly. Infernus growled at that, not happy with the restriction, but gave in. At least he understood why. That might be a bit harder with the childish mentality of Tangrowth. "Dazed and Torrent will be training around you, so if the situation seems to get out of control they'll be more than ready to step in."

Infernus nodded at that, though he seemed disappointed. Ash had no doubt his friend would be more than happy to burn this whole forest to the ground, especially if he got to start off his path of destruction with an Earth Burn.

The Magmortar always did enjoy unleashing that technique…though Ash had to admit he enjoyed watching it just as much. There was something beautiful in that level of barely controlled power and destruction to him.

"Tangrowth, I want you to raise walls around the spot Nidoking clears," he instructed. Ash reached out and grasped one of Tangrowth's vines, which cheerfully wounds its way around his arm until the end reached his shoulder. "Listen, I need you to take this seriously, okay? Don't try and play with the magma or you might hurt yourself or someone else."

He gurgled and recoiled at that, eyes wide at the thought of doing real harm to any of his friends. Ash nodded, glad to see that it had the impact he'd hoped. Tangrowth was a gentle soul and hopefully his urge to avoid hurting one of the team would be enough.


"Can you dig out a pit for Infernus?" Ash asked Tangrowth, who closed his eyes and nodded cheerfully, earlier fears forgotten. An instant later an orb of silvery light shot from one of his vines and struck a spot a few feet away from them. A few seconds later and Tangrowth had shaped a deep hole in the earth, more than enough for the Magmortar to fit into. "Thanks, Tangrowth."

He walked about fifty feet away, leery about being anywhere near magma without serious psychic protection. Ash felt that he was in enough danger unintentionally without throwing stupidity in the mix – if he wasn't careful he'd probably get himself killed otherwise.

"Bring up some lava!" Ash shouted to Infernus, drawing the nervous attention of most of his friends. Most eyed the situation warily, with Nidoking, Torrent, and Dazed ready to step in at a moment's notice if they deemed it necessary.

Infernus smirked and teleported into the pit, disappearing in a crack and flash of light. Ash watched with a savage grin on his face as superheated air overflowed from the hole and the edges began to glow a cherry red as Infernus let loose. The hole's rim seeped and melted back into the pit, unable to maintain form in the face of the enormous power unleashed by the Magmortar.

A few more moments past before Infernus clawed his way up the stone walls of Tangrowth's pit, covered in molten stone that ran off his powerful body in sluggish rivulets before falling back into the pool from which they'd came.

The Magmortar shook himself off, grinning as he cast some more droplets back into the makeshift magma pool. He was almost indistinguishable from the glowing red of the pit thanks to the air that warped and twisted around him thanks to the immense heat he put out, though he appeared as though from nowhere as he walked a bit beyond the reach of the magma pit.

Ash always enjoyed watching Infernus work. The power, the sheer joy that the Magmortar took in his strength…it was never a disappointment.

Of course, what made this special was that Ash was fairly certain that Infernus hadn't even really used a technique. He'd just dropped to the bottom and flared his natural body heat to extreme levels, forcing all of his power into maintaining a cloak of energy intense enough to melt even rock.

It was that ability that made Magmortar into the truest expression of the fire-type, at least in Ash's eyes. The heat and fire was almost a part of them – they couldn't help but warp their surroundings to accommodate them. It was a quirk of their physiology that made them enormously effective and dangerous in any form of combat.

Any pokemon adapted to not just live but thrive in the extreme environments provided by volcanoes were to be reckoned with, if only because they had to be extraordinary to exist in their homes for even a few seconds without succumbing to the insane levels of heat and toxins.

He sighed and focused. Now wasn't the time.

"Tangrowth, I want you to try to touch the lava with just one of your vines," he said, glancing to Dazed to make sure she was ready to step in if needed. "Keep your body really far away from it, though. You don't have shields like you did last time."

Ash could barely hear Tangrowth's gurgle of confirmation and watched as a long vine snaked its way to the pit, though the grass-type almost stopped and whined as the ends became alit by orange flame long before they even touched the magma.

His friend kept pushing, though, until at last the surface of the vine – a blackened, shriveled wreck of what it had once been – touched the magma by virtue of the extension primarily taking place in the areas closest to Tangrowth's body.

He imagined most of the vine had charred away, with barely any of it even existing once it breached the superheated gates of the pit – that was generally where the vine started to sear away and the flames had started to overwhelm the fire-retardant nature of Tangrowth's vines enough to start to burn their way up the extended appendage.

Well, it did until Infernus casually ripped it off and cast it into the pit at least. Tangrowth gurgled and tried to reach another vine down to catch it, though a word from Ash stopped him in his tracks.

"Enough," he cut in, sending a nod of thanks to Infernus for stopping Tangrowth before the grass-type allowed the flame to progress even further up the vine. "See what that did to your vine, buddy?"

Tangrowth nodded, still staring at the pit.

"It can do a lot worse to pokemon not like you or Infernus," Ash explained slowly, taking care to ensure Tangrowth took in every word. "Do you remember when your arm got torn off in the Conference?"

His friend shook the regrown arm in an affirmative, gurgling down at it as though he expected it to communicate back.

"It didn't feel good did it?"

At Tangrowth's affirmative full-body nod, Ash continued. "Well, hitting most things with that magma would hurt a lot worse. They might die if you aren't careful."

Ash felt a little bad as Tangrowth recoiled but pushed on regardless. This was necessary so Tangrowth didn't see lava manipulation as some kind of game – it was deadly and he didn't even have to score a direct hit to do serious damage.

"So be careful, you understand? I don't want you to hurt anyone on the team," Ash finished. Tangrowth nodded almost frantically and for a moment Ash thought he'd scared his friend off from even trying to work with the molten stone, though he was comforted once he saw Tangrowth extend a single vine about twenty feet above the pit and fire a barely visible orb of silvery power in.

It didn't look like anything happened – the cock of Tangrowth's body helped him confirm that – but he smiled at Tangrowth anyway. "Keep at it! You'll get there soon! I believe in you!"

Tangrowth happily waved a few vines back before he returned to his task, carefully trying to harness the material before him.

Ash smiled at the wariness his friend was exhibiting before he turned back to watch the rest as they sparred, honing their bodies and their powers.

They had a day to get back into shape. After that, it was just raw improvement.

He grinned and folded his arms, scanning each and every one of the dueling pairs with an air of interest.

Steven might be stronger than him for a long time yet, but he knew the former Champion wouldn't be disappointed with what he found.

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