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.


96. The Festival Part 1

Water manipulation is a good start for Torrent. If you can get him to be any good at it than you'll have much better defensive options at his disposal. Right now his only form of defensive technique relies entirely on his extreme offensive capabilities. It's much more dynamic than Ice Storm. I've trained with Wallace frequently enough that I can help, though I'll be sure to set up a meeting with a true expert soon enough. It would also be a great step in being able to properly utilize Rain Dance, which I believe to be an essential step in his development.

Ash's eyes were little more than a blur as he skimmed over Steven's notes. The former Champion had been thoughtful enough to send them over to Ash since they hadn't gotten a chance to discuss them last night. To be honest he thought he preferred it this way. Steven was still acting kind of weird around him. Almost like he was waiting for something in the universe to snap.

But right now that was nothing he needed to worry about. He shifted in Plume's saddle and spared a moment to tighten up the wrist strap binding his PokeNav to him. Ash didn't think Steven would be too happy if he dropped the device – his teacher had gone out of his way to get the device for Ash more than a year ago.

Huh, time really did fly. The St. Anne had only been a year ago and yet it felt like a lifetime ago…then again it might as well have happened yesterday for how vividly those particular memories were carved into his mind.

His vision went black as his eyes squeezed shut. Now wasn't the time to remember the St. Anne. Ash had gotten over it months ago.

Now was probably a good time to focus on the important things.

I agree wholeheartedly with your decision to emphasize Dazed's talents in the mental arts. You've honed her abilities quite well, but her species has evolved to be nearly unparalleled in Hypnosis, mental domination, and manipulation. It would be a shame to allow those skills to atrophy. Remote Teleportation…well, I can say from previous experience that it's an invaluable skill that mitigates many of her current weaknesses on the battlefield.

Well, Dazed would be positively ecstatic to hear that. She already hung off Claydol's every word. He'd have to tease her a bit about getting some more quality time with the clever construct…huh, maybe Lance had rubbed off on him after all. At least he had something to look forward to.

Your decision to focus on Infernus psychically manipulating his flames is a good start. It would cut down on some of the waste he's so fond of right now. That's key to his future growth. I'd rank him as Master-level already. If he can become a tad more focused there should be nothing to worry about – several members of my team would be hard pressed to handle the dangerous combination of his firepower and mobility. Just take care to make sure you understand the effects of using his psychic abilities more frequently. Until he adjusts it will likely weaken his ability to teleport.

Ash squinted at where Steven had emphasized firepower. His stern, no-nonsense teacher had done that on purpose? He turned to look back at Steven, who had lagged behind a bit thanks to Skarmory's inferior speed. It was fast for its species but that didn't mean it could hold a handle to Plume. They weren't too far behind, just a thousand feet or so. It'd have been a bit harder to catch sight of them if Skarmory wasn't basically blinding everything within a mile thanks to the sunlight reflecting off its metallic body.

He looked back at his PokeNav pretty quickly, a light grin on his face. Ash would have to let Lance know about this one. And maybe Blaine – if anyone would appreciate it he would. Plus it might be good for somebody to actually reach out to the crotchety old Gym Leader every once in a while.

Ash decided that the feedback on Bruiser's plan wasn't anything too special as he skimmed over it. Steven basically just agreed with everything he said – master Rampage, expand his elemental range, and basically just get better at what he's already doing. Bruiser was a simple soul and his training reflected that. What was really important right now was making him mentally prepared for evolution. Everything would fall into place after that.

Tangrowth's entry was a little more interesting. Not because of anything groundbreaking but rather because of how little Steven actually commented on his plans.

Talk to me later about Tangrowth. Cradily has a technique that may prove useful.

He raised an eyebrow. Steven wasn't exactly open at the best of time but this was cryptic even for him. Normally the former Champion at least gave him an idea of how to unravel the mysterious little statements he dropped. A clue or key that would make everything seem blindingly obvious.

Then again maybe he had. Ash didn't know much about Cradily, to be honest. It was one of the more mysterious members of Steven's team, always lurking in the shadows and observing rather than really getting involved. The only one it even deigned to spend time around on his team was Tangrowth – how much of that was necessity and how much was due to Tangrowth's forcing it to be friends with him was up in the air.

It was something worth looking into. He'd have to review footage of the few matches where Steven's challengers managed to break past Metagross. Steven wasn't one to advertise his techniques but Ash didn't think it would be too hard to pick out one of Cradily's abilities that would be of use to Tangrowth. And even if he failed he might get an idea of how to develop his friend's talents further. Cradily and Tangrowth honestly had fairly similar styles.

Your ideas for Oz are sound. You say you plan on her forming a sort of team with Infernus and Torrent? I'm interested to see how you're planning on tying her abilities into their disparate skillsets at their present level. Consider me impressed with the idea of using the small pyrocumulus clouds spawned by Overheat and Earth Burn to enhance Oz's electrical abilities…in theory I think she'll be able to manipulate it to her advantage. In practice I think it may prove more difficult than you think. But if she manages to manifest an 'elemental cloak' like what you describe as analogous to the fires Infernus surrounds himself in I believe she'll be a far more formidable opponent. We'll swing by Mauville soon enough. Wattson might be able to provide input on how to achieve your goals.

I'm taking a particular interest in how you develop Oz. She's handicapped without being fully evolved but I believe she holds the potential to be amongst your strongest. I expect when you do evolve her into an Electivire her growth rate will be phenomenal. Metagross went through the same sort of process. As Metang they were formidable. But when my two Metang came together…well, you've experienced the results firsthand.

That he had. Ash grimaced, though a ghost of a grin flickered at the corner of his mouth. He couldn't wait to evolve Oz…in about three months he'd be able to get the Electivire from Surge and give her the strength to challenge Infernus yet again. If she could just struggle through as an Electabuzz for just a bit longer she'd reap the rewards. It wasn't as though she were significantly less stronger than most of his team as it was.

Oz was probably his weakest fighter right now. Ash wouldn't deny that. Dazed could teleport, Plume was uncannily good at avoiding electricity with her raw speed and maneuverability, Bruiser could enhance himself with Rampage, and both Sneasel and Aron honestly just needed more time to train. He couldn't count them.

Then again, wasn't time just what Oz needed as well?

Something to think about, Ash supposed. He'd have plenty of time to do that over the rest of the ride. They were still about thirty to forty minutes out from Slateport if the small map pulled up on his PokeNav was accurate. If it were just he and Plume they'd already be close to landing.

But he could ponder that later. For now he'd rather get through the last of Steven's commentary. He knew the former Champion hadn't written anything for Aron – they'd already been through the little steel-type's training so extensively that there wasn't really anything left to add. Steven had an unsurprising interest in shaping the raw Aron into the best he could ever be.

Ash, I wish you'd told me about the technique you've been working on for Sneasel earlier. I could've gotten Sidney to stick around for a bit longer to help you out. 'Mind Breaker' sounds like a devastating weapon if you can pull it off. Emanating constant waves of Distortional energy to emulate prolonged exposure to a Confuse Ray is fantastic in theory and similar to what many Dark Masters accomplish at a passive level. This is a bit more intense though. I doubt Sneasel will be able to handle it well before his evolution. It sounds like an incredibly draining technique he might not have the stamina for. But keep on practicing – if nothing else the training might enhance his relatively poor control over Distortional energy.

It's important for you to help Sneasel focus less on his base physical and ice techniques if you ever want to have a chance against a powerful psychic like Metagross. His power is in crippling psychics, not leaping at them with his claws from the beginning. That should be his last resort.

He nodded along with Steven's observations. It wasn't far from what he'd expected. Sneasel was having trouble getting a constant flow of his dark-type energy out. Sneasel was pretty much exhausted just from the attempt, let alone actually maintaining the flow.

Oh well, at least he had a second opinion on it now. Ash's lips twisted into a frown when he realized he'd need to get his third opinion from Sidney. It wasn't that he had a real problem with the Dark Master. He just didn't expect him (or that Zoroark of his) to be anything close to a good influence on Sneasel. He'd just gotten his friend to be a functioning member of the team and he'd rather not have all that effort go to waste already.

Ash took a deep breath and took a moment to adjust his goggles. They were a bit tight, though that wasn't really a bad thing. At least this way he wouldn't have to worry about getting anything in his eyes. A little discomfort was a pretty fair trade in his opinion.

The pale green of the forests below – interspersed with more winding lines of blue and darker pools of water than he'd ever see in Kanto – caught his attention. Ash took a few moments to appreciate the sight, silently wishing that he was down there instead of smoothly coasting above. He missed traveling. Training with Steven was great, sure, but it wasn't the same. The strength his friends had gained wasn't enough to make up for the emptiness gnawing at him.

It was so…restrictive. Even if he enjoyed learning more about training in a few weeks than he would learn on his own in months there was an itch he couldn't scratch when he was partnered with Steven. Right now all he wanted to do was land in the forest and walk to Slateport on his own pace. He wanted to appreciate Hoenn and get to know every ridge and every stream as he had Kanto.

Fire, Ice, and Lightning all surged through his veins with their approval. He couldn't help but bare his teeth in a dangerous smile then – for once it seemed like he and all the Birds were on the same page.

He turned his head away. Exploring wasn't something he could do right now. Not with his association with the League. Ash had obligations and that was something that would take getting used to.

The logical answer there didn't really help the void in his chest. He didn't really want to be restricted. His only real consolation was that Steven implied they'd be traveling for real pretty soon instead of just camping out. At least Slateport would be new enough to keep him busy. If their Summer Festival was as good as Lance claimed then he'd be occupied for as long as he needed to be.

Ash slumped a little and hugged closer to Plume as he settled in for the last phase of the ride. She twisted her neck back and chirped (though it was lost to the wind) before the Pidgeot playfully pressed her great wings flush against her sides and shot into an insanely fast dive – Ash's stomach lurched and he yelled out in excitement and fear and glee – that had the whole world blurring around them. Entire flocks of Tailow scattered as they fled before their better.

His heart hammered in his chest as Plume easily spread her wings and glided scarcely a foot over the treetops, her talons dangling so close to the leaves and limbs that they might as well have been touching. Ash dimly noted his knuckles were white but he barely noticed.

"We're so doing that again," he grinned and freed one hand to pat his friend heavily on the slick feathers of her side. She hardly felt it. Instead, Plume just screamed agreement and shot into the sky with a single flap of her mighty wings. Ash barely even noticed the pressure of the acceleration against his body and instead just decided to enjoy the ride. Even the pounding of his headache didn't bother him that much compared to the exhilaration of soaring through the skies.

It loosened the ball of anxiety in his gut more than he could have hoped.


"So…Slateport," Ash said lamely. He glanced around at the strip of soft green grass and rent earth they'd landed on just outside the Pokemon Center. Compared to the rest of the city it was positively barren. Elsewhere there were so many gaudy red and gold ribbons and banners and tents set up that the whole city looked red from the air.

"Slateport," his mentor confirmed. Steven's eyes were a little warmer than usual as he looked out at the streets. They were positively filled with people bustling down the roads and waiting at stands and booths to play games or buy food and drinks.

It made Ash shift nervously. He leaned heavily to his left side as he crossed his arms and looked silently out at the throngs of humans. His eyes flitted erratically from human to human…there were so many in all different shapes and sizes and colors. It was overwhelming.

A pale hand on his shoulder made him realize just how tense he'd become. "Relax," Steven said kindly. He removed his hand and glanced about. Some of the humans were looking at them and Ash swore he saw hints of recognition in a few of their eyes. "Let one of your team out if it'll make you feel better, Ash. There's nothing here to put you in danger."

He knew that. Yes. Nothing around could even threaten him. At the same time he really didn't want to disappear into the hordes of humans drifting about and milling to the side. There was so much energy here. Even the steel jungle of Saffron felt dead and lifeless in comparison, though it was magnitudes larger in both size and population.

Ash had to admit he felt a little better when Bruiser manifested beside him. He was probably the best choice for a situation like this. The Machoke was reliable if nothing else and looked formidable without being unnerving like some believed Hypno to be. He sent an unsteady grin Bruiser's way and received a knowing nod in return. Bruiser thumped his chest with one massive fist and gently pushed Ash after Steven, who'd already walked to the far side of the clearing that would take them out into the city proper.

One deep breath. Two deep breaths. Ash squinted again as he realized just how bright it was out here. Slateport was even hotter than the rest of Hoenn thanks to the paved streets and thousands of extra people crammed in for the festival.

"Let's walk a while – I have the rooms set up already," Steven explained. He seemed utterly at ease heading through the streets. Ash just felt trapped and envied his teacher's ability to seemingly force the dense crowds to part around him without a word. More than a few scurried out of the way with startled looks on their faces after seeing the resident celebrity. "Have you ever been to something like this?"

"Never," Ash shook his head. He had to struggle not to gape. How could so many people fit into one place? The only other time he'd seen half this many people was during the Indigo Conference. At least there they were mostly in the stadiums, organized into neat rows and seating. Here they were utterly disorganized, adrift without any particular aim or direction. Even Bruiser seemed a little suffocated.

Steven sighed. "I might have guessed."

"What about you?"

"I try to come every year," came his answer. Steven looked around fondly. "It's something of a tradition for me at this point. As a young trainer it had everything I needed – powerful opponents, a chance to discover rare stones, and plenty of breeders trying to advertise," his slim fingers instinctively tapped the fourth pokeball on his belt. "I actually found my…well, you'll meet her later."

Ash arched an eyebrow. That sounded ominous. At the same time he knew there was no use pressing – Steven wouldn't let anything slip he didn't want to. His teacher could be frustratingly competent like that.

"Though I had to skip coming the year after I became Champion," the silver-haired man grimaced as they passed a few trainers battling in an arena. They all looked fairly new so Ash didn't pay too much attention. One girl looked to be fairly competent with her Treecko but it would be a while before she would even be able to challenge Sneasel.

"Pierce?" Ash guessed.

"Lance," Steven grimaced. His fingers twitched as though he still wanted to throttle the burly Champion.

He blinked. That wasn't what he expected. Then again…

"What did he do?" He started listing off likely causes. "Blew something up? Got into a battle that wrecked half the city?"

"Close," his teacher rolled his eyes. "He got drunk with Drake to 'celebrate my great victory'. Somehow they ended up turning it into a di – contest to see who's stronger," Steven hastily corrected himself. "I was there to keep some semblance of order so instead of battling they just tried to see who could drink more. I don't think anyone won that night."

Okay that sounded like something Lance would do. Ash filed it away – he'd have to bring it up around Lance sometime. The Dragon Master was pretty much impossible to fluster but maybe this would do the trick. He couldn't be faulted for trying, right?

Steven took them off to the side where they had a clear view of Slateport. They were standing near a rail that looked out over the vast, glistening expanse of blue ocean that surrounded the ancient city. Ash followed his mentor's lead and leaned against the rail. Bruiser was quick to follow suit.

He relaxed as the Song filled his mind, echoing eternally. A flash of silver and navy glistened in the water but he wasn't sure if it was just his imagination. Ash closed his eyes and let the Song flow through his very essence. There was something different about it…was it sharper? It was almost like it was more distinct than usual.

Questions he'd likely never have the answers to ran through his mind. More than ever Ash wished he could just talk to Lugia again.

Unfortunately there was nothing he could do about that right now. Lugia was gone. The only way he'd ever find the Guardian of the Sea was if it deliberately sought him out. He didn't imagine that happening any time soon.

Ash opened his eyes and took a moment to admire the view. It was a nice relief from the heavy thoughts weighing upon his mind.

Slateport was old and beautiful and it showed. The architecture was simpler than most places in Kanto yet still held a sense of firmness that reminded him it had weathered many, many storms. At the same time there was a touch of modernity to Slateport – not many skyscrapers or anything of the sort but plenty of research buildings, shipyards, and high tech vessels littered the area and its harbor.

And that was even without the vast decorations set up for the Summer Festival. It celebrated the end of the Last War and the significance of the event showed – Ash suspected he would've loved Slateport any other time of the year. On paper it was everything he could've wanted: easygoing, quiet, and practically next door to vast expanses of wilderness.

Right now he wasn't sure where he even wanted to go.

Steven picked up on his mood. "See the Contest Hall?" He pointed out an absolutely massive, pentagon shaped building with sharp red angles and spikes. It dominated a fair portion of the city, seemingly acting as its own district. "Normally that's where the Hoenn Grand Festival is held. But for the rest of this week it'll have different events each night. Tonight will be an exhibition contest meant to signal the start to the Coordinating season."

That piqued his interest. Ash hadn't gotten to talk to Daisy in a while. Maybe she was here for the Contest? He'd have to keep an eye out. If he didn't see her around he'd just go to the Contest and see if she was competing. There was no way she wouldn't be involved if she was in Slateport – the Oaks were way too competitive to miss a chance like that.

"I'm guessing we're going?" He asked. It was less of a question than a statement. Steven nodded. "Alright. What time do we have to head there?"

"Get there around five," Steven shrugged. He looked back at the arena. "Technically the event starts at seven but I think you'll enjoy the chance to catch up with a few old friends."

Ash smiled a tad – his teacher looked relieved. It seemed like he'd find Daisy Oak here after all. Then it morphed into a frown. "You make it sound like we're splitting up," he said lightly.

Steven shifted around a little bit, still staring out at the ocean. "We are," he said at last. "For a while, at least. There are a few meetings I have to go to before I can enjoy the festival. Nothing you'd be too interested in," the former Champion was quick to explain at Ash's interested look. "It's mostly just arrangements for our travels. Double checking our route, mostly."

The boy just frowned. What exactly was he supposed to do in the meantime? It wasn't like he'd seen anything too interesting so far. Even Aron was probably overprepared for the young trainers he'd seen in Slateport and he wasn't itching for a fight that bad.

Cynthia's Arbok-bound book flashed to the forefront of his mind. There was an idea…it might let him relax a little bit if he just found a dark corner and read for a while. It had been a while since he'd gotten the opportunity.

"I'll send you a message when I'm done with the arrangements," Steven made it clear he was about to leave as he stepped away from the rail and checked his PokeNav. "Have fun, Ash. Take care."

"You too," Ash and Bruiser turned away from the pleasant view of the city as well. Steven gave one last stiff nod before he vanished into the crowds, surprisingly hard to track despite his distinctive appearance. Ash glanced over at Bruiser. "So, any ideas?"

Bruiser just shrugged and adjusted the Black Belt hanging around his neck. His reptilian face didn't reveal too much as he watched the crowds (many of the trainers passing by at least took a second glance, clearly impressed by the battle scars littering Bruiser's body) but Ash still got the feeling of intense curiosity.

Ash shook his head. He had to admit he could understand it. Bruiser rarely got to see this many humans, let alone when they were close enough to touch. He was calm enough to stay relaxed. That was something Ash envied…something about the whole situation had his hackles raised. His pounding headache and the exhausting heat didn't help one bit.

"We can look around the city later," he offered. Bruiser smiled at him and patted his arm as lightly as he could. Ash still struggled to stand beneath the sheer force of it. Nevertheless he grinned back at Bruiser and started to head into the crowds. How hard could it be to track down a nice, dark corner in Slateport?


It turned out to be quite difficult. They were wandering for the better part of an hour before they escaped the clamor of the festival. By the end of it Ash was just ready to be off his feet – his vision had started to swim nauseatingly and his skin felt a tad clammy. Collapsing in a relatively clean alley was practically the high point of his day.

"You can still see the people from here," Ash helpfully pointed out to his friend. Bruiser nodded and sat down across from the trainer with surprising grace. Seconds later he'd adopted a meditation pose and had allowed his eyes to fall closed. Despite Bruiser's seeming disconnect Ash had no doubt he'd be ready to spring into action at a moment's notice. "I'll get you when I'm feeling better, Bruiser."

Bruiser cracked an eye open and sent a reptilian grin Ash's way before he refocused. Ash just nodded along, pleased enough with the response, and tapped his storage compartment to materialize the massive book his mother had given him months ago. Despite how often he'd read it the tome was pristine – the pages were a little crumpled in places but the Arbok hide binding was good as new.

Ash took just a moment to appreciate the respite from Slateport's bright sun and heat before flipping it open.

This would keep him occupied for a while. He still had close to four hours before he needed to be at the arena.

Might as well do something productive in the mean time.


and, due to Slateport's favorable trading position in the Hoenn archipelago it remained one of the foremost powers in the region until modern technology made shipping routes obsolete. Despite the crippling blow to the city it remained relevant by exploiting its potential for tourism and nautical research. Several important discoveries have been made by researchers based out of the city, including the existence of the vast trench between Sootopolis, Ever Grande, and Mossdeep.

Slateport doesn't have an active Gym Leader position. Due to being devastated by the Unovan occupation during the Last War it lacked any representatives to the National League capable of filling the role. As such it has been treated as a training ground for the past few decades. Generally protection of the region is split between the Mauville, Petalburg, and Dewford Gym Leaders, though in practice the Hoenn Ranger compound is the first to be dispatched.

One detail of particular interest to archaeologists and historians in these modern times is the abundance of artifacts and remnants of structures that can be found in the harbor and nearby ocean. It is a puzzling question with no easy answersSome experts, such as noted archeologist Professor Alden of the Oldale Institute, hypothesized that these ruins and items are a result of a collapsed district built upon the ocean in a fantastical feat of early engineering.

Regardless, research is still being conducted. It is unlikely –

"Hey, you!"

Ash's eyes lifted from Cynthia's words and focused on the newcomer. He sighed when he realized it was just some trainer probably a year younger than he was. After a moment he allowed his hand to fall away from Sneasel's pokeball.

"You want something?" He grumbled. Sure he could have been polite, but what was the point? Ash wasn't feeling his best and he'd been pretty interested in Cynthia's preface of Slateport. He'd only gotten to read for about thirty minutes before being interrupted.

"Yeah, why're you out here? It's pretty weird hiding away like this," The boy said. He didn't look like he was trying to be rude, at least. More than anything Ash was reminded of Jonathan – innocently tactless. "You could be battling! Your Machoke looks pretty strong."

Ash let a grin slip at that. "Yeah, he is," he looked at Bruiser fondly. His friend still hadn't twitched. "I'm just tired and trying to relax."

The boy obviously didn't get the hint. "You don't look too bad to me!" He looked Ash over as he cheerfully bounced on the balls of his feet. "Cool scar though. Where'd you get that?"

"Articuno," Ash's mouth twitched. The boy just rolled his eyes in disbelief.

"You're kind of weird, aren't you?" Came the response. The boy didn't sound too put out by it. "What's your name, guy? I'm Leo."

"Ash," he said as he rose to his feet. Ash sighed – it didn't seem like Leo was going to leave him alone any time soon so he went ahead and stored his book away. Bruiser was already on his feet waiting for Ash's order.

Leo looked at him with dull brown eyes. They vaguely reminded Ash of old, dark mud. "So…" he trailed off and looked eagerly at Bruiser. The Machoke peered back. "How about a battle?"

That got a snort from the older trainer. He took in Leo's appearance. Clean clothes, pristine equipment, and only three pokeballs on his belt. "How long have you been training?" Ash asked, though he already knew the answer.

"Just a month!" Leo grinned, tapping one of his pokeballs for emphasis. "I know I'm just a rookie but I'm pretty good! I already have the Stone Badge. Pretty cool right?"

"Yep," Ash shrugged. He paused. Maybe he shouldn't dismiss Leo already. It'd be nice to give Aron a fight he could actually win for once. "You up for a battle? I have a new teammate who could use a workout."

"I can take anything you can throw at me!" The younger trainer looked a bit too cocky for Ash's tastes. He wondered if Leo would be this confident if he released Infernus? It might be worth a shot. Infernus would get a kick out of it if nothing else. "C'mon, let's go find an arean! They're all over the place!"

He pushed off of the dirty alley wall he'd been leaning against. Bruiser stood tall and straight beside him, more than a little interested to see where this would lead. "Lead the way."

This might be fun after all.


Ash took a moment to breathe as he settled into the makeshift arena's trainer box. It didn't have psychic barriers protecting the onlookers so he'd have to be careful. Aside from Dazed standing beside him to at least mitigate any damage all the battlefield really had were crudely drawn lines separating the combatants and trainers from the crowd of young trainers and kids looking on eagerly. Most looked to be friends with Leo if the cheers and calls from the audience were anything to go by.

He didn't mind. Once battle started he'd hardly notice – after the Indigo Conference no crowd was going to put him on edge. And at least this was a bit of a distraction from his concussion. The noise wasn't exactly comfortable and his head felt like someone was driving a railroad spike through it but at least he had something to focus on now.

"Okay guys!" A girl, probably a second year trainer if her confidence and six pokeballs were anything to go by, announced. Ash listened carefully, idly tossing Aron's pokeball up and down in his hand. He was honestly looking forward to seeing what his newest friend would manage to pull off in this battle. "Listen up! This is going to be a…"

"Three-on-one!" Leo interrupted from the other side of the small battlefield. He looked confident, though Ash could tell the boy wasn't sure of how strong his opponent was. "We set it up early, Sam. Trainer accounts synced and everything! Wager of a hundred poké."

The girl – Samantha, he noted – nodded. "Gotcha. Alright, so I'll be the referee for the battle between Leo Head and…what's your name again?" She called out to Ash. He caught her staring at the eleven pokeballs on his belt with wide eyes.

Well, at least somebody here knew what that meant.

"Ash Ketchum," he said. There might've been a smirk involved. And that hypothetical smirk might've become a bit more smug after a number of the kids fell silent and really looked at him. Ash knew arrogance wasn't the best trait but he couldn't help it here. The way that the kids looked at him made him realize how Gary turned into such a prick once he got his admirers.

"—and Ash Ketchum," she finished as she sent Ash a sideways look. At least she wasn't staring like some of the kids were. Samantha glanced over at Leo. "Still up for this?"

He pumped his fist. "Yeah! Let's see what you've got, Ash!"

Ash grinned and released Aron. His little steel-type warbled cheerfully and looked back at Ash with big blue eyes as he materialized on the dirt. Aron's eyes widened and he quickly snagged up a stray pebble near him with his rasping tongue, more than happy to chew on it while he waited.

"You've got this, buddy," Ash murmured. Aron perked up and nodded, turning his domed head to face Leo. The boy seemed a bit relieved at seeing the unevolved pokemon instead of one of Ash's best like Nidoking or Infernus. Maybe he should've sent one of them out first just to see the look on his face…

"Alright, I can handle this! Get out there, Electrike!" Leo cheered as the electric-type appeared in a dazzling flash of light – it looked like he'd spent some time modifying the pokeballs like Daisy said many Coordinators did.

Ash and Aron just waited patiently. Aron wasn't anywhere near fast enough to make a solid first move against something as nimble as Elektrike. Steven had been training him to have a reactive strategy with Aron and Ash would like to see how it worked here. It wasn't something he was used to but it might be what Aron needed.

Aron in particular seemed unconcerned with his first sanctioned battle. He just kept chewing on the pebbles scattered across the battlefield and blinked every now and then. The raucous crowd especially seemed to attract his attention – it was when he glanced over to a particularly loud boy that Elektrike struck.

With a fierce howl the lithe green electric-type shot forward, propelled by a single powerful push from its strong hind legs. Bright little arcs of electricity danced through its fur, concentrated mostly on its hind legs, though its maw glowed a vibrant gold as it prepared a Thunder Fang that would at least stun Aron.

"Rock Tomb," Ash called. He'd be taking a bit more of an active role with Aron. The little steel-type wasn't experienced enough to control the battle himself. Thankfully Aron was quick to respond, erecting a spike of stone a few feet in front of him moments before Electrike would have crashed into him with a blaze of green fur and controlled lightning.

Electrike yipped and slowed as it just barely darted to the side, avoiding the collision by a hair's breath. It drifted from an all out sprint to a steady trot as it eyed Aron with its predatory eyes. Ash could tell it was wary. If it were older it wouldn't have hesitated for a moment before pressing the attack again. As it was the fierce creature just waited for orders.

Leo frowned. "Electrike, let's try to push it! Use Thunder Wave!"

"Rock Tomb," he said once more. Even as Electrike focused some of the static electricity in its bright fur into the crippling wave of electricity Aron had already erected yet another wall of rock. The blue arcs of the Thunder Wave crackled through the air like a lightning bolt, though the blast splashed off uselessly against the Rock Tomb.

If Electrike's stiff frame and snarling lips were anything to go by it was starting to get frustrated. It was obvious it didn't have the raw firepower to pierce Aron's rudimentary defenses…Leo wasn't much better. The boy's face was red and his eyes were like daggers as he stared at Aron.

"Just push it! Don't give it a second to relax, Electrike – you know you're faster than it!" Leo encouraged, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet again. "C'mon, just like Roxanne!"

"Mud-Slap," Ash whispered, low enough so that only Aron would hear. His teammate warbled, cheerful as ever, and one of the tips of his stubby legs started to shine.

They didn't have long to wait. Electrike was as impatient as its trainer and dashed at Aron almost immediately, little more than a blur – if Ash hadn't gotten so used to tracking Plume he wasn't sure he would've been able to keep up.

Straight dash, loop around Aron's Rock Tomb, attack from Aron's unprotected left flank.

It was a good maneuver, he had to admit. That didn't mean it was going to work.

Electrike yipped and flew back as Aron cried out and kicked a veritable storm of dirt into the canine's face, barely missing Ash. He just stayed cool and watched as Electrike struggled to steady itself, though Aron had rounded about with surprising speed to smash into the electric-type with a sickening thud – he always did have a nasty headbutt.

"Good job, Aron!" Ash grinned. His friend's eyes widened happily as he trotted over his downed opponent. Aron peered curiously at the little Electrike and lightly tapped it with his domed head. The electric-type groaned and just tried to roll away. It was probably pretty nauseous after that hit. Unfortunately Aron didn't get the hint and tried to wake it up with his abrasive tongue, though Leo recalled Electrike before he could be subjected to that. "You're definitely getting some scrap tonight."

Aron lolled his tongue out of his mouth and panted. At least Ash knew he was excited – if his friend didn't know to stay out of the trainer's box he'd have probably been tackled. He took a moment to appreciate that. At least this way he didn't have to keep Aron from nibbling on the pokeballs clipped to his belt.

"Okay, the score is one to zero in favor of Ash Ketchum!" Samantha cried. She pointed imperiously at Leo, who had lost some of his upbeat demeanor in favor of staring calculatingly at Aron. Ash could practically see the mental gymnastics the boy was going through. "Leo, pick your next –"

"Wingull!" His opponent raised his second pokeball. The bird flashed into existence with a loud crack behind that almost sounded like a sonic boom. It flitted lazily about, hovering in a way Ash could only describe as casual. Wingull's wings barely even twitched as it maintained its position several feet above the ground.

Even if Leo didn't have too many options this was a good choice, Ash had to admit. Aron wasn't exactly specialized against flying opponents. He barely had any techniques that could strike something like Wingull. Combined with his complete and utter lack of height and this became an interesting matchup.

"You've got this," Ash reassured his teammate. Aron just chirped back. He just shook his head. Maybe he needed to stop letting Plume mother Aron so much…the steel-type reminded him a little too much of the Pidgeot sometimes.

In the precious few seconds between battles he ran over possible tactics in a frenzy. Wingull was fast and nimble. Throw in its ability to take on Aron at range with Water Gun. Honestly Aron's only real advantage was that they weren't in a favorable environment for the flying-type. The ocean winds weren't strong enough here to let it soar on any updrafts. Wingull were notoriously weak fliers without some kind of help from a breeze. It wouldn't be able to stay up for long.

"Focus on defense," he called out, just loud enough for Leo and Wingull to hear. If they went all out from the get-go Wingull might exhaust itself faster and open itself up to a counterattack.

"Begin!" Samantha announced, stepping back so the pokemon could begin their contest. Wingull struck almost immediately on Leo's orders and fired a surprisingly strong Water Gun that actually pierced Aron's immediate Rock Tomb wall. The shield was left with a perfectly round hole bored through and Aron a tad stunned from the blow.

Wingull's piercing cry struck Ash's ears as it swooped closer and spat another Water Gun to capitalize on Aron's distraction, but Aron was just quick enough to roll out of the way. The high-pressure blast of water shot harmlessly past Ash before being stopped by a small shield shaped by Dazed.

"Get ready," Ash warned Aron as his friend erected several rock walls to shield himself for a while. They were sturdy enough to slow Wingull's offense down, though Wingull had proven they weren't perfect defenses.

Aron squared himself. Right now he could probably take any hit Leo's team could deliver.

What followed wasn't the most exciting battle in his career. Aron would take a hit every now and then, though usually hid behind his rock walls as Wingull grew slower and slower, like tiny anchors of lead were slowly being added. Even Ash found himself a tad bored, though he didn't let that influence his decisions in the battle.

Maybe it was weird to care so much about a battle with some rookie trainer but Ash couldn't really help it. It wouldn't be him if he didn't try his best. Besides that he owed putting in his best to Aron – his friend had worked hard to adapt to the training lifestyle and he wouldn't just throw a battle away because of it.

Aron wasn't getting out of this unscathed, though. Ash winced as another burst of water slammed into Aron. A shrill, metallic rasp hissed from deep within Aron and he stumbled – Wingull shrieked, wheeled around, and Ash saw his chance.

"Protect!" He snapped. It was time to take a page out of Michael's book. Ash had to admit it was more than a little satisfying to see the exhausted Wingull spiral wildly out of control as it blurred into a Quick Attack, expecting to slam into hard metal but finding an even more impenetrable wall of rippling green energy instead.

"The score is two to zero in favor of Ash Ketchum!"

He could see from hear that Leo was grinding his teeth, obviously frustrated as he recalled Wingull's immobile body. Ash just grinned and congratulated Aron. The steel-type hadn't emerged unscathed – no, he'd been beaten up pretty bad. His armor was dented in some places and he stumbled a bit as he walked back to his starting position, leaving little scuff marks in his wake.

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