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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78. The Fighter Part 1

"So, what's first?" Daisy chirped as they rested in their room at the Dewford Pokemon Center. Her hands were clasped together and her heels tapped against the metal frame of the bed in a constant rhythm. "I know you said you wanted to fight Brawly. Do you want to get to that before or after we head into Granite Cave? I don't really care either way."

Ash fiddled with his PokeDex, which he'd pulled up to the entry on the Granite Cave, and frowned. "Granite Cave first, I think. I'd rather not go in with any of my friends tired and I don't want to wait…it's been way too long since I've really gotten to explore someplace new."

Or maybe not long enough.

He had to hold back a grimace at that. While he felt that familiar itching under his skin that had always driven him towards the unknown he had to admit his track record with caves wasn't very good.

There wasn't a huge sample size to draw from, admittedly. Still, the last real cave system he'd been in were the Seafoam Caverns and that had led to far more complications than he'd ever wanted.

It all started there, he supposed. The Third of Articuno he'd encountered there hadn't managed to end his life with talons shaped of razor-sharp ice or the blizzards summoned by its wings but it had Branded him and bound him to the Legends forever.

Ice hadn't killed him, but it had left its mark regardless. Perhaps one even more permanent than his frozen corpse buried under a tomb of snow and frost.

"Ash?" He became dimly aware of a slender hand waving in front of his face. The trainer shook himself out of his morbid thoughts and focused on his companion. "You there?"

"Yeah," he shrugged and tried to play it off as best he could. "Just a little bit distracted."

"I can tell," Daisy said drily and pulled her hand back. "So Granite Cave?"

At Ash's nod she smiled. "Great! It's not even noon yet so we can make some good progress tonight! I figure we can stay in Dewford for about three days before we really need to get moving so that should be plenty of time to explore!"

"When do you want to leave?" He asked. Personally Ash would rather head into the caves as soon as possible so he would have a little while to let his team rest before they challenged Brawly…if the fighter was even here, anyway.

Ash seriously doubted he'd find anything in those caves that could actually push his exceptionally skilled family but travel could be mentally exhausting. The darkness, the chill that seemed to pervade the caverns' air…it wore on the mind far worse than it did the body.

Daisy bit her bottom lip. "Hmm, how about in two hours? That gives us time to prep and let our teams know what's happening…plus this way we can send some last messages to people before we go off the grid."

He nodded. That was acceptable.

"Fantastic!" Daisy cheered and rose from the bed, shouldering her small pack in a quick, elegant motion. "Well, I guess I'll see you here in an hour or so…there are some things I need to pick up before we head off. Is there anything you need?"

Ash shook his head. "I'm well stocked."

"Of course you are," Daisy smiled and left him with a small wave. "See ya, Ashy!"

He sighed at the name only his mother had called him before but waved back regardless. Ash finally sat down on his own bed – Daisy had sprawled out on it before he could rest his legs – and released several members of his team.

Seeker, Sneasel, Dazed, and Nidoking all stared him down.

"We're in Dewford," he announced. His team listened raptly and even Sneasel didn't try to interrupt. "In two hours we're going into Granite Cave and I want us to have a plan. Nidoking, Dazed, Seeker: you all remember last time we were in a cave this big."

Seeker whined and fluttered over to him, snuggling close into his neck as though the far, far below freezing temperatures had reappeared anew. She'd been invaluable during that journey but Ash knew she had had a very difficult time surviving in there…even curled up inside Ash's jacket she was essentially a furry block of ice the entire time. The tiny Zubat would have entered a hibernation-like state if it hadn't been for the warmth Infernus had brought with him.

Dazed's eyes drooped as she recalled the vicious few days they'd spent fighting to the bottommost levels of the Seafoam Caverns. Those had been some of the hardest days in their time together, Ash knew, and Dazed had suffered during it due to her relatively short fur.

Nidoking's eyes just flashed purple and Ash knew he was far more concerned with the memories of their encounter with the Titan of Ice. Ash had recalled him before beginning his mad rush for survival but the Nidoking had felt Articuno's power permeating the air around them in frost and a heavy stillness he had felt only once since.

"Exactly," he nodded. He ran his eyes over his family. "While I doubt we're going to run into another Legend down there – it's much better documented than the Seafoam Caverns – I want all of us to stay cautious regardless. With our Brands we might draw the attention of something we'd prefer to avoid."

His friends had differing reactions to that but at the core of them all was a wary agreement.

"Like I said, there should be nothing to worry about," he continued. "But if we find something better off asleep then we run. Dazed, I don't care what we have to do – you get us out of there. Daisy and her team too."

Of course, Friend-Trainer.

He nodded, satisfied. A tempest swirled within him moments later and he met her eyes. "Use it if you must."

Dazed's eyes fell shut in consternation but the bond they shared flooded him with understanding.

He tried to focus on that instead of the cold trickle of amusement that filled his gut.

Nidoking let out a deep growl and shuffled close to Ash, laying his great head upon the boy's lap in an effort to comfort his trainer. Ash felt some of the tension flow away and lightly rubbed his friend's leathery skin. His starter's eyes shut in relaxation at the practiced motions and the two's breaths almost instantly began to mimic one another's.

"Sneasel," Ash started even as Seeker fluttered over to the cozy scene and buried herself in the nook between Ash and his covers, "you're going to be out almost constantly in the caves. I think it'll be fun for you."

The mischievous dark-type seemed to grin at him eagerly, allowing his razor-sharp claws to slip from their sheaths in an instinctual motion. A light scraping noise filled the room as he rubbed the lengths of bone against one another and he almost looked as though he were about to salivate at the prospect of finally getting to explore once more.

"But you will listen to me," his voice cut past Sneasel's glee. The dark-type visibly wilted but listened regardless. "You will not hunt without my permission. You will not attack. You will not endanger another member of the pack. Is that understood?"

Sneasel glumly nodded and his hooked claws retreated into his velvety soft paws. Ash let the message sink in and patted the soft blankets beside him…on the opposite side of Seeker, of course.

He really was pleased with Sneasel's development. Perhaps it was because one of his many hormone surges had begun to settled down or perhaps it was because the dark-type had finally realized he couldn't be such an insufferable brat without consequence anymore, but he'd been much more manageable lately and Ash wanted to reward him somehow.

Ash preferred positive rewards to negative punishment. He didn't want Sneasel to behave simply because it was a way to avoid pain – although that was a vital part of the process at the moment in order to get through the thick-skulled pokemon – he wanted him to behave because it was rewarding. Maybe even develop a sense of morality outside of "don't kill pack" one day.

One day.

For now he was content to lightly scratch Sneasel's feather while alternating his attention between Nidoking's heavy head and Seeker's fuzzy body. He caught Dazed's eyes – rarely warm – and smiled.

She might not have a mouth, but Ash knew that she had actually smiled back this time.

XX

"Okay, let's do this!" Daisy pumped her fist and stared determinedly into the gaping maw of Granite Cave. Pinpricks of light managed to escape the shadows – lanterns set up deeper in, he supposed. The League would want to keep the upper levels as safe as possible. "You ready, Ash?"

He nodded.

"Ugh," Daisy groaned at his nonchalance. She gestured grandly out at the cave entrance, ignoring the bored Dewford Gym member watching them half-asleep. "How can you be so calm? Where's your sense of adventure? We're venturing into the great unknown, aren't we?"

Ash blinked. "Didn't you say that you've been here before?"

"That's not the point!" Daisy sputtered, annoyed. "It's the great unknown for you at least."

He looked into the cave again.

"I've seen worse."

"You're impossible," Daisy rolled her eyes fondly. He sighed when she affectionately flicked him on the forehead and stepped forward. "Who knows, maybe we'll find something really interesting in there! Something nobody's ever seen before!"

Ash let her get a few feet ahead of him before he vocalized his true thoughts.

"I really, really hope we don't."

XX

The guard was there only to keep a registry of people who entered the caves and ensure they had a trainer's license. Liability on the Dewford Gym's part, of course.

It wasn't as if there was anything truly dangerous in the caves besides the odd powerful pokemon. Even they tended to avoid killing or seriously attacking humans, if only to avoid the wrath of the humans who didn't take kindly to such provocation.

While the League was very tolerant and would generally only attempt psychic communication at first, there was a limit to their generosity. Humanity had fought hard for its right to exist and the harsh lessons the League was founded on still hid at its core, desperately waiting for the terrible moment in which they were needed.

A pokemon could even kill a human without much of a fuss being raised. There would be an investigation, of course – specially trained teams of League psychics and trackers treated it just like any human crime, although a jury of one's peers was obviously an impossibility. But if the wild pokemon was found to have acted in self-defense or under extenuating circumstances they would essentially be free to go wherever they would.

If not…well, Ash preferred not to think about that. The League fought hard to coexist with pokemon and favored them as best they could – they had more rights than most humans oftentimes, at least in being protected – but they knew all too well how much havoc a single pokemon could wreak if left murderous. Even a Rattata could kill a human easily and any pokemon that had any kind of control over its power was a terrible, terrible threat.

Coexistence worked almost perfectly. Humans didn't interfere too much and protected pokemon from technological and other human threats and the sleeping giant that were wild and even trained pokemon didn't awaken and annihilate the human world in a bloody clash that would devastate both sides.

Humans had begun to move away from their natural bonds with pokemon as technology and industry arose centuries ago and they had learned many painful lessons for it. They had thought themselves beyond the threat outside their cities but it only took a few years for them to realize that the abuse would not be tolerated.

And, as pokemon were sentient, albeit without an actual government, they tended to understand why every now and then some of their more violent neighbors had to be hunted down and slain as humanely as possible…especially since most pokemon mad enough to willingly kill humans for sport wouldn't hesitate to attack them as well.

It was a delicate balance, but one that had been essentially perfected over the years.

"Don't you love these caves?" Daisy asked him as Seeker flitted overhead, undetectable aside from the slight displacement of air. Sneasel stalked somewhere ahead, silent and invisible in the cover of darkness. "They're peaceful, aren't they?"

"That they are," Ash agreed and kept an eye on Ninetales, who seemed to glide by Daisy's side. Were it not for the unnatural scarlet that glowed within her beady eyes he would've had an almost impossible time picking her out of the shadows. They'd decided to forgo light in favor of making the explorations more "interesting" in Daisy's words. He went along with it since they had Sneasel and Seeker to warn them of any dangers.

Besides, he felt a little more confident knowing that he would have a chance of picking out any threats with his own eyes now that they'd adapted quite well. It really was nice being mostly blind though…in a sense. Having to rely on his friends, barely aware of whatever haunted these ancient pathways.

It was freeing in a sense. Added a nice bit of tension he'd missed for much, much too long without overpowering him as his last true adventure with the Birds and Lugia had.

"Ninetales has always loved caves," Daisy brought up a few minutes later. Ash thought so, anyway. It was almost impossible to accurately track time when he was almost completely deprived of his senses. "She says it helps her remember her youth."

"She speaks to you?" Ash inquired, interested. He'd heard it wasn't uncommon for Ninetales to develop the skill – they possessed strange powers and were only surpassed by ghosts in their manipulation of otherworldly energies and true psychics in their mental prowess – but they were prideful to the point that deigning to communicate with humans was something very, very rare.

Ninetales' eyes flared and twin spots of red stared back at the two humans as she listened in interest. His eyes just barely caught Daisy's figure leaning down to stroke the silky fur of the fire-type before she continued.

"Okay, so speaking might be a bit generous," Daisy admitted with a short laugh. Ninetales huffed and the shining red eyes raised up with her head. "Mostly I get…impressions. Little flashes of emotion, maybe a glimpse of an image. Sounds, smells even."

Daisy was silent for a few moments. "Sometimes it gets a little worrying. I'll look up and see people that can't be alive today…or houses that are rotten and decrepit as they once were in their prime. It's like I'm living in a whole other world some days."

Ash nodded and hid his grimace at that out of habit. Not that it mattered considering he could just barely make out her outline as they aimlessly wandered through the tunnels Daisy had assured him she knew "really, really well".

He knew what it was like to feel out of control of his own mind after all…and he had also gotten rather good at ignoring the flood of ice that rushed through his veins and the booming chuckle that rattled his bones.

"I'm guessing this isn't intentional?" He asked, keeping a close eye on Ninetales. Ash would rather not offend her, even if they would only be traveling alongside one another for a week or so.

Not to mention that Ninetales tended to make for dangerous enemies. They were patient and cunning beyond what most humans could conceive. Why wouldn't they be when they had all the time in the world?

Chinatsu might be the oldest Ash had ever heard of – she had lived for at least a millennium, possibly more – but most Ninetales managed to reach at least a few centuries before vanishing, either killed or simply so bored with their surroundings that they decided to see what else shared the world with them.

His wariness bore fruit. Ninetales visibly stiffened even in the blackness of the cave and there almost appeared to be a thousand tiny glows buried in her white fur, a shower of sparks kindling in response to his words.

A single delicate touch from Daisy left them blind once again…even more so than before now that their eyes had to readjust to the inky shadows of Granite Cave.

"She can't really control it," Daisy said with an air of indifference. "And I mean it's not like it's a bad thing, you know? It's interesting! There was some weird stuff when I was exploring Mt. Coronet a few months ago but other than that it's like I'm living history all over again sometimes!"

Ash nodded, genuinely interested now. He could see how it would be interesting, even if he himself was a little bit too protective over his own mind to accept that existence.

"What did you see at Mt. Coronet?" He asked. Ash knew that name well – the great mountain of Sinnoh divided the massive region in half with its many peaks and the famed caverns that thousands had used to travel between the cities erected in Coronet's shadow were practically legendary for their depth and complexity. Nobody had ever explored all of Coronet, despite hundreds and thousands of adventurers seeking to achieve that goal. Some vanished, most gave up when they realized the enormity of the task.

The many caves used by travelers were well documented…and for good reason. Coronet could be treacherous at the best of times and stories of terribly powerful pokemon and strange apparitions as one ventured into its depths or climbed for its peak had dissuaded most from the idea.

Daisy was silent for a few moments and when she spoke her voice was unsteady. "It's hard to describe. Everything was so…vivid. Ninetales says she's never been there before so it wasn't her memories I saw. But when she was with me I could see and that's not always a good thing."

He nodded, even if she couldn't see it, and let the subject go. Ash could tell she wasn't really anxious to talk about it and he wasn't about to push it. It wasn't as though he couldn't understand her feelings – indeed, he was probably the person in the world best able to sympathize with her.

So he fell silent and they continued through these ancient halls of winding stone and blackness for what felt like an eternity before he finally raised his voice to ask the question that had been nudging him ever since they'd started talking.

"You said you could see in her memories places that were old?" He inquired, eyes gleaming. "If you don't mind me asking, just how old is she?"

Ninetales' eyes didn't turn toward him and he took that as not quite a bad sign…if not an especially good one either. She seemed uninterested and that meant it was up to Daisy's discretion.

Daisy just laughed. If he could have seen her face he'd have imagined she was smiling. "And here I was thinking your mother raised you right, Ashy! Don't you know you should never ask a lady her age?"

He sighed at that and ignored her quiet giggles – it seemed Daisy had well and truly amused herself this time.

XX

Ash sat around the dim lantern – still almost blinding relative to their surroundings – with his eyes rapt on the shadows that fell just outside the light's dominion. Sneasel was huddled to his side, almost asleep aside from the brief flutter of his eyelids as he fought valiantly to remain aware.

Seeker was a bit more active, however. She fluttered to and fro in the high arch of this particular part of the Granite Cave network and seemed to greatly enjoy her new freedom here. Dazed kept an eye on her at Ash's request. If anything with even a modicum of hostile intent was nearby she'd have Seeker retreat to Ash immediately.

He wasn't seriously worried, but there was no reason to not be prepared. Ash wasn't willing to bank on skating by challenges on chance, after all.

But he'd been on watch for nearly three hours now and aside from a few Zubat shooting past there hadn't been any contact with the resident pokemon…or fellow explorers. It was rather boring, all things considered.

Still, he couldn't complain. It gave him the opportunity to relax and rest his legs after a long, long day of treading through the absolutely massive tunnel network. Today had certainly proved he was out of shape after several months off the road and he honestly couldn't wait until he adjusted again. It wasn't as brutal an experience as his first day on the road more than a year ago but that didn't mean he wouldn't be feeling the hard trek in his legs tomorrow.

A small grin curled its way onto his face as he thought back to how young he'd been back then. He might be just a year older but he'd lived enough for several lifetimes. Not all of those experiences were what he'd classify as good, perhaps, but all were important. Ash wouldn't trade them for the world.

In fact, he supposed he'd already made that choice.

The soft velvet of Sneasel's paws kneading on his forearm made his smile soften and he affectionately rubbed the thin fuzz between the dark-type's eyes, which always served to put his little friend to sleep.

Sneasel had earned it today with how well he'd listened. He hadn't even antagonized Seeker beyond a few hisses when she got too close and Ash hadn't even found it necessary to rebuke him once.

He was proud of Sneasel. And it wasn't in the way he'd grown accustomed to recently. Sneasel hadn't perfected a tactic or mastered a technique. He hadn't won a battle or surpassed some limit in combat.

No, this was like when he watched Sneasel hatch. When he took his first toddling steps out of his egg to find his trainer, still wet with amniotic fluid. When he first met the team or sat down to listen to Ash's stories with rapture.

It was nice. Made him remember how things used to be before puberty hit Sneasel like an avalanche of moodiness and mindless aggression.

Ash figured he would enjoy it while he lasted. The harsh discipline he'd been enforcing since the end of the Conference had certainly helped somewhat, but he half-expected this sudden burst of compliance by Sneasel to fade away as another surge of hormones rushed through his veins.

Some might see it as a pessimistic view on his youngest teammate. Ash preferred to see it as realistic. That's what had occurred before and he felt it was what would occur again, although Daisy's presence and her near magical ability to reduce Sneasel to a puddle of inky fur and contented purrs might make things a bit more interesting.

He sighed and tore his thoughts away from the matter. No use thinking about it. Ash would just have to wait and see. For now he'd just enjoy being able to really connect with Sneasel again.

When the little dark-type had finally succumbed to the allure of dreams Ash looked to Dazed, who stood silent in the shadows. She had edged out of the light and he wouldn't have known where she was if it weren't for the subtle glistening of her crystal pendulum.

"Be nice to him tomorrow, will you?" Ash requested and smirked when he could almost feel Dazed's internal grimace. "Don't be like that, Dazed. You know he's been good."

Perhaps.

Dazed allowed, although her voice was indistinct and echoed in his mind due to his proximity to Sneasel. Her eyes flashed and he felt their connection overpower the energies bled into his body by the dark-type.

I will allow him a day's respite. It would also be difficult to find anything to discipline him with in this cave. I suspect you would not allow me to propel mineral formations at him, Friend-Trainer.

"You'd be right," he rolled his eyes. "I'm not going to let you throw rocks at Sneasel. I don't care if you knock him around when he's being bad, but there is a line."

Unfortunately. Perhaps I could persuade you to erase it? Or remark it?

Ash didn't dignify that with any response greater than a snort. Dazed's eyes flashed in the dark and he could see them turn up in a smile.

He was silent for a while as he fished out his PokeNav. While he couldn't actually communicate with it this deep in the caves – the Granite Cave network was fairly massive, even if it wasn't supposed to be as large or complex as the Seafoam Islands – he could look at the videos Lance had sent him of the Elite Four's matches.

This was what he'd been waiting for all day…and night, he supposed. It was a little hard to keep track of all that in the dark caves. Exploring with Daisy was great, but he'd been positively itching to watch these.

Ash wished he could have been there to watch the battles in person. Elite Four battles were rare, happening only once a year usually. Every now and then former Conference Champions would come back to challenge them in a massive spectacle that practically the entire world would watch, but for the most part they only had the current Conference Champions to contend with.

But those were usually against the first member of the Elite Four…the overall weakest. Not that that made it any less incredible to watch a truly powerful Master reshape the entire battlefield with individual attacks and dismantle the Conference Champions that could only very rarely keep up, but the monsters that ensured the League was always the dominant force only saw an exhibited match every five years or so.

Lorelei had been ruthlessly efficient in filtering out challengers. She was overcome maybe half the time, and Ash got the feeling that she didn't always push as hard as she could have. Maybe the others actually wanted to get to show off?

He'd have to ask Lance about that sometime.

In his decade long reign as Champion Lance had only seen challengers three times, and those bouts were over almost before they started. Dragonite alone was enough to utterly annihilate anything but the strongest of fighters. Ash had learned that in their long, brutal month together.

Lance didn't believe in pulling his punches. He was brutal, unforgiving, and ruthless in battle.

He was also an excellent teacher in Ash's opinion.

But the videos on his PokeNav would open his eyes to a whole new side of battling. He'd seen Lance battle – experienced it literally every day and every night for a month – but he'd never been enough of a challenge to actually push Lance.

Magnus, Mael, Lev, or even Saph…all of them he could take. They'd take down at least four of his teammates back then and could probably do more if they weren't concerned with actually hurting his friends, but as opponents they were just barely manageable.

Dragonite or Dov were enough to tear their way through his whole team. They were just fast on a level only Plume could match and boasted far more firepower than his friend at the moment.

But he hoped that the new Indigo Elite Four would be good enough to actually take down one of Lance's legendarily powerful Dragonite. They were Masters, some of the most skilled trainers in the world. And as the Elite Four they tended to be a bit stronger than the average Master.

The League would only accept the best, after all.

So he really, really, really hoped that one of them would prove to have what it took to deal even that blow to him.

…Ash supposed that losing so badly had stung his family's pride just a little bit.

Still, even if they did disappoint him at least he'd get an idea of how Will and Karen actually fought. He'd seen glimpses of their ability when the Elite Four had arrayed to apprehend Giovanni, but calling that a fight was like saying the camping Samurai Kid from the Viridian Forest was on his way to becoming a legendary trainer.

Something of an overstatement in other words, although he supposed a complete lie would be more accurate.

With that in mind he reclined against Nidoking's hulking chest and watched. It was as good a way as any to end the night.

XX

His eyes fluttered open as he heard the clink of hard feet tap their way across the ground. Even in his sleepy state he could tell that it was slow, cautious. If this was an enemy then it was a wary one.

It was close, though. Too close.

Ash opened his eyes in full, although he was careful to avoid moving suddenly. He'd rather not wake Nidoking…who would in turn wake up the entire Granite Cave complex with his furious roars and attacks when he realized that something had the audacity to get within ten feet of Ash without his permission.

If the unsleeping Dazed didn't deem it a threat then he wouldn't either. Ash trusted her opinion on these matters more than anyone else's.

It wasn't as if any of his other friends could see into the hearts and minds of almost everything that came close.

The dim light of his PokeNav – apparently he'd dozed off watching the battle between Karen and Bruno, judging by the frame the video was frozen on – irritated his eyes just a little bit but proved to be quite the allure to the heavy creature inching ever closer.

He could hear small chuffs and scrapes coming from the darkness. Whatever this was it certainly wasn't stealthy.

Sneasel's eyes snapped open at a particularly loud movement and narrowed into deadly slits. Razor-sharp extended from their velvety sheathes, ready to rend and tear into whatever creature was foolishly brave enough to approach.

Just as a terrible rumbling that would've set almost any human's nerves on edge rose up from the dark-type's throat and his fiercely territorial instincts demanded that Sneasel make the newcomer bleed – to establish dominance and perhaps a meal for the pack as well – he disappeared in a flash of scarlet light.

Not today, Sneasel.

Ash sat frozen. He could just barely see the small, rounded shape of whatever was lumbering in the shadows as it brushed the edge of the lantern's light. It was large and seemed perched on four tiny legs, although the figure was almost entirely devoid of detail.

Whatever it was – his groggy brain just didn't want to remember where he'd seen that rounded shape – glinted in the light. Aside from a few odd spots of darkness it seemed to reflect light rather well, although the shadows managed to shroud its finer features.

Ash cocked his head with interest and cautiously leaned forward as it stepped forward with a light thud, just soft enough to avoid waking any of the others. The little creature – the highest spot of its shiny skull he could see appeared to be just a little over a foot from the cave floor. It had a surprising amount of mass for such a relatively small pokemon.

It was only when it uttered a soft, curious cry that had the barest edge of metal scraping metal that the facts clicked together in his head.

Aron. Juvenile of the Aggron line. Diet primarily metal in order to provide it with the necessary materials to grow its metallic armor, but omnivorous otherwise in order to provide energy for the muscles required to bear that burden. Well-known for its high defense and the use of its large, hard head as an effective weapon. Could become a nuisance when it set up in human cities so the League oftentimes placed excess scrap metal in the wilderness for wild Aron to eat from instead.

"Well hello there," Ash murmured as the Aron hesitantly stepped into the lantern's light. Its wide, sky blue eyes squinted up at him. The little Aron started to back away when it saw the rise and fall of Nidoking's heavy chest but a proffered hand from the trainer made it pause. "Don't worry, there's nothing to be afraid of. We won't hurt you."

The Aron warbled at him and decided to stick around, although it was still more tense than when it had first come over to investigate. Ash just smiled at it and reached into his pocket – he knew he had a few treats hidden away in there for his family.

As he tried to find something to keep the steel-type around he sent Dazed a mental command to keep the rest of their companions asleep. Nidoking was the obvious subject of that request, but Dazed was quick enough to pick up on Ash's desire to interact with the Aron in peace.

"It's okay to come closer," Ash reassured the newcomer. He held out one of his hands placatingly, offering his scent to Aron as a gesture of goodwill. "Here's some food if you want it. I bet it's not easy finding food down here."

That tempted Aron and the tiny creature inched closer, its blue eyes fixated on the handful of food. It still eyed Ash every few seconds but its true wariness was saved for Dazed, who stood silently in the corner.

Not that Ash could blame Aron for its suspicion of Dazed. She could cut quite the intimidating figure to others, he imagined.

I am the definition of innocent, Friend-Trainer. I would never inspire fear in another.

If Ash could have he would have snorted at that. As it was he had to hold his amusement to himself so as to avoid scaring off Aron. It might approach him now, but he was perceptive enough to realize that it would bolt off as fast as it could if he made just one wrong move.

Not that the top speed of an Aron was anything special. They could get up to a decent run, which translated well considering their basic strategy was to hit things with their hard heads, but any of his well-trained friends could subdue it almost immediately.

Ash would just rather not have it come to that. He'd like to befriend the Aron, as it were. He wasn't sure he wanted to take another member of his family by force, even if he had to admit it'd turned out rather well for them all so far.

A wide grin wormed its way onto his face as Aron's tiny body finally stepped close enough to gently nibble on the food he held in his hand, although the steel-type was still ready to bolt at a moment's notice.

He shut his eyes and let the tension flow from his muscles as Aron's rough tongue scraped against his hand in search of the last few crumbs – the little creature had practically devoured the food, leading him to believe it didn't find much in the way of sustenance down here.

While in this stage of its life cycle Aron needed massive amounts of ore in their diet in order to supply the raw material for their coat of armor they still needed quite a bit of food to provide energy and grow the muscle required to carry that heavy load around.

Ash did end up wincing a bit as Aron's tongue – it was so rough it was almost sharp thanks to evolution demanding the Aron line be able to tear mineral layers from the ground and break apart metal in their mouths – started to tear through his glove and cut up his hand.

Aron warbled sadly and pulled back to lay on its haunches as it realized the food was gone but didn't try to flee. It cocked its head and stared at Ash's bloody hand, blue eyes narrowed in confusion. Finally it nuzzled Ash curiously and reached out with its sharp tongue again, although it quickly withdrew once it tasted his blood.

The steel-type lightly tapped Ash with its large domed head before it sat back on its rear legs and looked up at him expectantly. He had to smile at the little creature as its tongue lolled out of its mouth.

He really did like this Aron.

"Don't worry about my hand. I've gone through worse," he shook his head. "But I have a proposition for you, if you're willing to listen."

Aron cocked its head at him, icy eyes wide.

I suggest you utilize simpler diction with the little one, Friend-Trainer. He emerged from his egg mere moons ago.

"Is he old enough to come with us?" He asked sharply. Ash kept an eye on Aron to make sure he didn't flee at the more demanding tone and was pleased to see the curiosity inspired by his food apparently outweighed the steel-type's timid nature.

Certainly. His kind grows quickly, or so he says. He is already a capable combatant for this area, although I estimate it will require several months of intensive training for him to be an acceptable fighter in your eyes.

"Less of an investment than Sneasel then," Ash muttered as he idly patted the Aron on his domed head. Aron warbled happily at that and leaned into the contact, as though he wasn't used to touch.

Dazed's eyes turned up.

I would not be so bold as to call the brat an acceptable fighter, Friend-Trainer. Despite the Caretaker and I's best efforts he doesn't seem to comprehend the subtleties of combat.

Ash snorted, willing to let the sudden sound slip now that Aron was comfortable around him. He wouldn't call Dazed and Bruiser's actions in Hunt the Sneasel their "best effort" to teach Sneasel combat. It was a reward for them and motivation for Sneasel to better himself. They couldn't care less about Sneasel's improvement.

Well, Bruiser might. He was like that. Dazed on the other hand…

You wound me.

He grinned and turned back to the rather important object of their discussion. Aron was content to sit on his haunches and be pet right now but he wasn't sure how much longer it would last. Ash would really rather try and see if Aron would want to come with them now before he got distracted.

"Aron," he said quietly. The little steel-type turned his light blue eyes that looked almost painfully wide with curiosity up on him and listened. "What would you think about coming with me when we leave the caves?"

Aron cocked his huge head and let his tongue hang out of his mouth with what Ash thought to be confusion.

You would be correct. The Iron Child possesses a strong will and a braver heart, but I suspect he would find himself a kindred spirit with the Binder.

"Ah," Ash commented. Well, he could use another friendly member of the team. So many of his family members isolated themselves…interrupting their dynamic might be a good thing. Especially since Dazed did seem to like what she saw in Aron, despite her comments on his mental state.

"Well then, I guess I should explain it a bit better right?" He asked. Aron blinked at him with his bright eyes. Ash decided to take that as a yes. "My group isn't from the caves here."

Aron started at that and almost fell over as he swung his massive head back and forth in surprise, although a quick flash of power from Dazed stabilized the creature. The steel-type stared at Ash with renewed interest, as though he'd never even considered that these tunnels weren't the whole world.

My previous observation stands.

"Yes, yes, thank you," Ash rolled his eyes. "We're just visiting, you know?"

Aron scrunched his eyes shut and looked like he was concentrating for a few moments before the icy blue reappeared in a snap and he frantically nodded.

"Soon we're going to leave the caves," he said slowly. "There's a whole world out there to explore and I was wondering if you'd like to join us. It's a lot bigger than these caves so we could use all the help we can get."

Another cock of the head.

He is making sense of it right now.

Ash nodded to Dazed, grateful for the help. Telepathy really was a boon, even if Dazed still had a long way to go before she could count herself the equal of the most skilled telepaths. It was a difficult skill to master, especially for pokemon that wished to speak to normal humans – it was much simpler to make a mental link with another psychic or pokemon than it was most humans.

But she was progressing rapidly and he had no doubt she'd find herself amongst their ranks soon enough. Besides, even now it was still incredibly useful.

Finally his focus was broken when Aron…barked? He hadn't expected a steel-type to make such a noise, but even if the sound of grinding metal accompanied it that was the closest approximation he could think of.

"So you want to come with?" Ash grinned and patted Aron's hard head again. The little steel-type leaned in and nodded happily, tongue still hanging out of his mouth. "Great! You're going to love it, Aron."

Aron's head bobbed up and forth, although he pulled away after a while. He warbled something at Ash but didn't seem to realize that the boy couldn't understand him.

He decided to take the easy way and looked to Dazed for an explanation.

He says he wishes to bid farewell to his chosen-kin before he departs with us. It is an errand I believe he wishes to perform alone.

"I understand," he told Aron, who barked at Ash again. "Get back in a few hours, alright? I'll wait as long as I can but my partner might not be so patient."

Aron nodded before he cheerfully wandered off, barely able to keep his massive head off the ground. Ash smiled as he watched the steel-type go. He liked him already.

XX

The pleasant haze of Dazed's Hypnosis was torn from him.

Friend-Trainer, the Iron Child has returned. And judging from the void in the shadows he has brought one of his friends.

"Fantastic," Ash grunted as he pulled himself off Nidoking – who was still asleep, thankfully. Finding not one but two foreign pokemon by Ash? That would be a nightmare…and not just for everyone in the vicinity, either. With how strong Nidoking was right now the whole cave system might quake. "Think it's a threat?"

No. I cannot sense its mind, naturally, but I do not believe the Iron Child would have friends capable of true malice. He certainly does not believe that to be the case, although I may admit that his perceptions may be colored by bias.

"True," Ash frowned. "Wait it out and be sure to keep the Hypnosis active on the rest of the team. I'd be very impressed if it could even hope to match you."

Agreed. I do not believe the Monarch would take kindly to their intrusion.

"No he would not," Ash smiled. Nidoking could be a little too overprotective sometimes, but that didn't mean he couldn't appreciate the sentiment. "Just keep an eye on it."

Dazed nodded and allowed her eyes to shine brightly in the darkness of the corner she stood on, almost completely overwhelming the dim light of the lantern.

"Come on, Aron," he called out in the direction he heard the soft thuds of Aron's small feet hitting the ground and what sounded like…snickering? "Don't worry, it's safe. Are you going to introduce us to your friend?"

Aron's figure emerged from the shadows and he gave a happy warble at seeing Ash again. The trainer grinned at Aron and gave him a short wave, but his real attention was focused on the luminescent, gem-like eyes that haunted the cave behind the steel-type.

It slunk closer, giggling to itself all the while. Every few seconds it would scrape its short, sharp claws against the rock wall and its bright eyes would pulse erratically with a strange, unearthly energy.

Ash had a practically encyclopedic knowledge of the Hoenn region's native pokemon at this point – and he was working on Sinnoh's thanks to the National Pokedex upgrade he'd received from Professor Oak – and knew exactly what this was: Sableye.

They were known to haunt the Granite Cave system, although they weren't commonly encountered by the cave's explorers. Not directly, anyway – many had returned to the surface and suddenly found dirt in their bags, or vanished items, or strange scratches carved deep into their clothes and possessions.

Sableye weren't truly dangerous, although they tended to combine the worst of both dark-types and ghosts when it came to defending themselves. If they thought they were in real danger they'd suddenly assault their attackers with ferocity nearly unheard of and often leave the shredded remains around their territory as a warning.

Not that that happened often, of course, and only very rarely with humans – usually poachers that were after their precious eyes and whatever hoard of rare gems and minerals the Sableye had managed to collect. Just about everything else knew well enough to leave Sableye alone.

They preferred pranks and mischief to violence, despite how well-equipped they were for it considering their deadly claws, cunning mind, and mysterious powers.

Honestly they weren't even a threat to anything that didn't act with aggression towards them first. Their claws were evolved for digging and they preferred to eat their gems and subterraneous mushrooms – not that meat was out of the question.

Sableye were well-documented to devour certain parts of those foolish enough to make enemies of them – their eyes in particular, although researchers thought that was more of a ritualistic insult to their victims than anything they enjoyed eating.

In other words, he wasn't worried. Not when he had his family ready to fight at a moment's notice.

"Hello," he said in as friendly of a manner as he could. Ash sat in as open a manner as he could, hoping to keep the Sableye happy. "So you're Aron's friend?"

Sableye giggled and emerged from the shadows, revealing its purple body to his eyes. It was hunched over and Ash could just barely see the bottom of the smooth red gem that grew from its chest. The shade's hips swayed back and forth as though it were dancing – or getting ready to leap at him.

Of course, that wasn't the most interesting thing about it. Just tiny little details Ash instinctively perceived while his main focus lay on the wide, tattered, floppy hat the Sableye wore. The accessory was caked with dirt and a few precious gems – Ash recognized rubies, sapphires, and emeralds haphazardly embedded – but a simple green band of cloth woven into the fabric was kept clean enough to be recognizable.

He didn't say anything, but a genuine grin so wide it made his cheeks hurt tore its way onto his face as he looked at the Sableye that had stolen Daisy Oak's hat years ago.

Sableye smiled with its multiple rows of jagged teeth and even waved a clawed hand at him as it watched Aron wobble over to him. Its eyes shone and its grin faded as its friend walked over, but Ash could see that it had accepted Aron's departure. Seemed almost happy, if the giggles and waves to Aron that were returned in the form of warbles and the closest thing the steel-type could get to a hop were anything to go by.

Then its faceted eyes found Daisy's sleeping form and the grin returned a hundred-fold. The teeth almost glittered in the light of Dazed's power and Sableye just let out one last call of farewell to Aron before it retreated into the shadows, giggling madly to itself all the while.

Sensing that he'd found Sableye's approval – and a follower in the shadows, if its reaction to Daisy was anything to go by – he looked down to Aron. The steel-type sat on his back legs looking up at him interestedly, idly nibbling on one of his front legs.

Ash smiled and affectionately rubbed the segmented underside of Aron's metal carapace, marveling as he felt the deep lines on the dark grey body.

As Aron's tongue hung out of his mouth and his eyes shut in bliss Ash idly dug around in his pack for the storage compartment containing his pokeballs and – there.

Aron whined when Ash pulled his hand away and tried to nuzzle into his knee, but looked up when the trainer tapped him on the head and pointed to the red and white sphere in his other hand.

"Do you know what this is?" He asked seriously. Aron shook his head and headbutted his knee, which would probably leave a nasty bruise tomorrow. The steel-type didn't quite know his own strength…or weight.

A problem for another day.

"This is a pokeball," he explained. Aron nodded along, eyes locked on the device and Ash noted the small pink-grey tongue that flitted out. "It holds pokemon when it's easier for them to be there than to walk around. You won't get hungry or cold but you can still know what's going on outside if you want. If you want to come with me you'll need to stay in this every now and then, alright?"

Aron shook his head in understanding and Ash smiled. "I'm happy to have you, Aron. Just touch the pokeball and don't fight it. It might feel weird but just go with it, alright?"

With that he primed the pokeball and held the sphere out for Aron, waiting for its future inhabitant to activate it.

Which Aron did…by trying to take a bite out of it. The satisfied look in the steel-type's eyes followed by the raw surprise as the ball opened and sucked him in actually made Ash laugh, a feeling he relished in for as long as he could before he naturally sobered up.

Unconventional, but effective.

Dazed noted as Ash picked the now-still pokeball up. It had shaken a bit at first, but after the surprise had worn off it seemed that Aron managed to remember Ash's instructions enough to avoid struggling.

Aron would be fun to have on the team, Ash grinned. He might be just what they needed.

With all of that over with he hooked Aron's pokeball onto one of the empty slots on his belt and relaxed back into Nidoking's heavy body. It was nice to return to his pillow, even if he was rather pleased with what he'd managed to accomplish while he'd been startled awake.

Normally he'd let Aron out to sleep with him, but he'd really prefer to avoid the possibly literal explosion that would occur when the others woke up with a strange pokemon in their midst. Dazed could try to explain, but she might not be fast enough thanks to his friends' reflexes.

That is enough thinking, Friend-Trainer. Your body demands sleep. Rest.

Ash welcomed the red haze that filled his mind and knew no more.

XX

"Oh Mew!" Daisy cried as Aron appeared in a flash of scarlet light. The little steel-type blinked and had to balance his head before he fell over, although it seemed to be quite the struggle. "He's so cute!"

Sneasel growled at that from his position in Daisy's arms – he wasn't too happy with Ash after being recalled to his pokeball last night and so had practically rushed over to Daisy when released in the morning. He whined and squirmed in an effort to reclaim her attention, to no avail.

Ash wasn't sure whether to laugh or snort when he saw several of his teammates staring at Sneasel with smug satisfaction painted all over them.

"This is Aron," he introduced as he knelt by the steel-type and pat his head. Aron warbled his own greeting and looked around the group curiously, although Ash could feel how nervous he was as he tensed under his touch. "He wandered over last night and decided to come with us. Say hello, everyone."

By the time Nidoking – who Ash was relatively certain hadn't blinked once since Aron had appeared – grunted a half-hearted greeting Aron squeaked in surprise as dozens of vines suddenly snatched him from Ash's grip and brought him over to hover right in front of Tangrowth's face.

He sighed and wandered over to try and reclaim Aron before Tangrowth's complete lack of understanding the concept of "personal space" frightened the steel-type but it turned out he didn't have anything to worry about.

Aron relaxed almost instantly and warbled to Tangrowth, whose eyes got even wider if that was possible. Tangrowth happily bounced up and down on his massive feet as his coat of vines danced around him, although a good bit had already rushed to envelop Aron in a very, very strong hug.

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