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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79. The Fighter Part 2

Thankfully Aron's carapace would take a lot more than that to dent it and he seemed to enjoy the attention, if anything. Aron bleated happily at Tangrowth before suddenly growing very quiet in the face of Torrent.

The Kingdra stared Aron down, scarlet meeting icy blue as the two locked gazes. Aron didn't move an inch and refused to even squeak, well aware he was being judged.

Finally Torrent snorted and levitated away to rest by Nidoking, who Ash was about to command to blink – either that or have Dazed telekinetically pull down his eyelids. Either or, really.

With Torrent's decision made, the others started filing in to examine their new brother. Dazed and Nidoking stayed by Ash, of course. Torrent eventually hovered over to Ash's left to watch the proceedings while Dazed brought up the rear.

Daisy and her team stayed a respectable distance away. They knew just how important this little ritual was for the team and weren't about to interrupt it. Many watched with glazed eyes, as though they were remembering a similar experience themselves.

He just crossed his arms and waited, careful to keep an eye on the proceedings. It would be nice to understand the basis of his team's relationships with the new arrival so that he could hope to work with it in the future if necessary.

Most were just about what he expected – Bruiser and Seeker were first in line, eager to make a new friend. They seemed to get along well enough from what he could tell. Aron barked a greeting, Bruiser bowed, Seeker flitted over to land on Aron's ridged back and sniffed him, they made a few noises and finally parted, although they stayed nearby.

Tangrowth always kept a tight hold on him, as expected. Ash couldn't say he was surprised. As Dazed had said, both of them were friendly and would get along. Not to mention it seemed like Tangrowth had missed having a younger friend to cuddle and play with. Sneasel, while not fully separated from Tangrowth, had become aloof enough that the grass-type was feeling a bit lonely.

It would be good for the both of them, Ash thought. Tangrowth would get a new, devoted friend to keep him company and Tangrowth would keep Aron busy and help to keep his mind off what he left behind.

Homesickness wasn't easy to deal with, especially for someone as young as Aron.

Aside from those three, Oz seemed to like him quite a bit. She let him sniff her sparking fur and Ash thought she was happier than she'd been in a long time.

A bit of guilt gnawed at his chest. Oz might have grown stronger in his care but he felt that she hadn't truly connected to any of the others. Not like she had her old herd. Sure, she might be polite and relatively friendly but the only relationships she had with any of his friends was her fierce rivalry with Infernus and her polite regard of Dazed.

The rivalry seemed to be all that was driving her most of the time.

Ash didn't think Oz was unhappy, but she certainly wasn't bouncing with joy.

Maybe this might change that. Aside from Tangrowth none of his team had really tried to reach out to her in the months they'd shared together, despite his best efforts. And although she didn't rebuke Tangrowth and even seemed to find his company soothing, Oz certainly didn't go out of her way to interact with the loving grass-type.

Who knew that a baby was what she needed? Maybe she'd been more to her herd of Electabuzz than just a protector – she wasn't old enough and didn't bear the thicker arms and fur of a mother, but perhaps she'd taken care of Elekid?

Regardless, her and Aron seemed to get along well enough. He might be the key to bringing her closer to the rest.

Aron certainly liked her, judging from the constant warbles and light taps with his domed head. Tangrowth, who was still holding him aloft with his vines, was gracious enough to move him closer.

After giving them a few minutes to get to know each other he went ahead and released Plume. It took a few seconds to get the basics of the situation to her and then Plume was gone, hopping over to the new addition as quickly as she could.

Ash snorted at that – he'd forgotten how involved Plume had been when Sneasel was still growing up. That was before his first bout of puberty had left him with a nasty disposition and she'd spent almost all her time with Tangrowth playing with and raising him.

Her influence had definitely been left on the dark-type if his infrequent attempts to fly were anything to go by. Ash had only been lucky enough to watch Sneasel jump off a limb and frantically flail his limbs once, but that memory was still enough to leave him giggling if he thought about it too much.

Infernus obviously stayed in his pokeball. Ash didn't want to traumatize the little Aron and Infernus would most certainly see an opportunity to do so with the timid steel-type.

Besides, Ash had the feeling that Infernus and enclosed spaces didn't really mix. Wouldn't do to have him burn up all the oxygen in the cave, after all.

With a sigh he turned to watch the others interact with Sneasel. It really was fascinating to watch the new web of relationships develop…it felt like it had been years since there'd been a new addition to their family.

There was only one more to introduce…he wouldn't even bother with Nidoking right now. His first friend certainly wasn't hostile to Aron, but it would take him a few days to get used to him.

Sneasel wasn't the only one going through puberty, after all. Nidoking might be farther along and a bit more developed, but he was still incredibly young to be a Nidoking. Most only evolved from Nidorino in the wild after at least a decade of living and even most trainers waited until their Nidorino was around three or four years old.

Nidoking evolved when he was about a year and a half as far as Ash could tell. From everything he knew about the Nidoran line – which was more than just about anyone else that wasn't a scientist – Nidoking had been about a year old when they'd first met in Professor Oak's lab.

Their adventures up until the point where Ash had felt confident in allowing Nidoking to evolve with the aid of the Moon Stone's shard had felt like a lifetime – as though his existence before his adventure was just a few months in comparison – but it had taken them less than six months to circle around Kanto the first time.

So Nidoking had to play catchup when it came to hormones…and that was just his normal puberty, not counting the influx that came with such rapid evolution and the physiological changes of becoming a Nidoking.

He would probably stabilize in a few months or years, but until then his protective instincts were in overdrive as his body sorted everything out…of course, seeing Ash die probably didn't do wonders for his stability either.

Hopefully that wouldn't happen again for a little while, he snorted. That would be a bit inconvenient.

I don't believe most sentient organisms consider their death a mere inconvenience, Friend-Trainer.

He grinned at that and could almost feel Dazed's eyes quirk up in her own semblance of a smile.

"I believe Infernus would beg to disagree," Ash directed quietly to the psychic. His heart ached as he thought of Infernus falling from the sky, limp and unmoving as he crashed into the peak of Mt. Ember, but he forced the feeling down. The Feather pulsed and he remembered the rainbow flames that had revived his friend. No need for dismal thoughts after that particular miracle.

I would be surprised if the brute understands the concept. He seems to go seeking his own often enough.

Ash could almost hear the sneer in her voice and shook his head. That was one relationship he might never be able to change.

Still, he turned his focus back to Nidoking. His friend needed him to keep him calm at the moment and he wouldn't disappoint.

All he could do now was stay close to Nidoking and lay a hand on his friend's armored shoulder. "Give it a few days. I'm certain he'll fit in well. He'll be a member of our family before you know it, Nidoking."

Nidoking's nostrils flared and Ash sighed as a rush of warm air brushed his face. "Just be patient, alright? I know it's not easy for you, but I promise this'll work out just fine."

His friend nodded slowly and returned to staring.

Ash just shook his head and decided to get this over with. "Sneasel, come say hello!"

Sneasel hissed and tried to burrow deeper into Daisy's embrace, although she just laughed, stroked his feather in a way that made him go limp with bliss, then set him down onto the cold cave floor.

The dark-type snapped back to reality in an instant and whined pitifully up at Daisy, who giggled and knelt down to pet Sneasel's luxuriously thick black fur before she pointed over at the small crowd around Aron. "Go on! I bet you two will be the best of friends, right?"

Ash's eyebrows very well might have been hidden under his hat as Sneasel whimpered and forced himself to nod to keep Daisy happy. He was rewarded with a short round of scratches and a cheerful bout of high, clear laughter before Sneasel was forced to wander over miserably to Aron.

In a flash Tangrowth reached out with several of his vines and wrapped around Sneasel, who was resigned enough that he barely struggled and let out just the slightest semblance of a hiss at the sudden movement.

Tangrowth gurgled and danced with all the erratic cheer Ash had come to expect from his friend as his vines moved to hold the two young pokemon face to face – Ash's eyes widened and he barely had time to watch Sneasel twist in displeasure at being forced so close to the unfamiliar steel-type before the claws came out and carved through the thick vines easily, dropping Sneasel, Aron, and nearly a dozen wriggling vine segments to the ground.

Sneasel's ears laid flat against his head and he lunged at Aron as his instincts took over, claws out and icy mist swirling around the tips prepared to find any crack in Aron's armor and scoop out the soft bits –

Aron leapt forward and headbutted Sneasel in midair.

Knocked onto his back with a heavy thud that made everyone listening wince, Sneasel snapped back to reason. He pulled himself up slowly, stunned by the powerful force and hard impact, and stared in surprise at the much younger Aron.

Aron looked back, blinked his blue eyes, and tackled him again.

Sneasel sputtered and yowled at that offense, finally irritated past his surprise. Just as his claws were encrusted in ice Ash was there, followed by Nidoking and Torrent. Dazed had teleported to his side, ready to pelt him with a few pebbles she'd picked out specifically for how jagged they were.

"That's enough," he said to both of them. Ash gently picked Sneasel up by the scruff, although he was careful to keep him away from his body until the dark-type had finally been brought back to earth. Once he'd calmed down from his surge of hormones he stared back at Ash and whined until the trainer set him back down. "Behind me, Sneasel."

The formerly youngest member of the team nodded dully and stood behind Ash, peering out at the newest addition with slit eyes. Ash could tell that Sneasel knew he'd messed up – and after he'd made so much progress too.

No matter. Ash knew that it was honestly more Tangrowth's fault than Sneasel's – the dark-type might have been the one to attack, but it was more out of surprise and reflexes than true malice.

Besides, he'd more than paid for his aggression. Ash had to mask a smile at the thought of Aron's quick response – and the look on Sneasel's face, of course.

There was no doubt in his mind that Sneasel was a far more capable combatant than Aron. Sneasel was very well trained if he did say so himself. After their months together he certainly possessed far more speed and strength than what Aron was capable of.

No, Sneasel had been angry and stupid. In the heat of his anger he'd underestimated Aron and paid the price in the form of the bruises Ash expected him to feel tomorrow.

Aron might not be very strong right now, but that head of his hit hard.

"Now that that's over with," Ash sighed, "let's calm down shall we? There's no need for violence."

Sneasel whimpered again and hugged Ash's leg. He rolled his eyes as he looked down at the little dark-type. His friend wasn't that good of an actor and it was beneath him to try and play the victim.

"We have a long day ahead of us," he announced. His friends watched on raptly. Aron just sat back on his haunches and blinked, eyes firmly on the trainer. "This will be our last full day in Granite Cave and I'd like to explore as much of it as possible before we return to the surface and face Brawly. Which of you want to travel outside your pokeball?"

Only a few stepped forward, and for the most part they were the ones he'd expected to in the first place: Dazed, Bruiser, Seeker, and Sneasel.

There was one surprise for him, though.

"Glad to have you, Oz," he grinned. She nodded back, the movement causing a crackle of electricity to burst through her fur. That wasn't enough to distract him from the fact that she had eyes for only one person right now: Aron.

"Aron, I'm guessing you'll want to be outside with us?" He knelt to make the little steel-type more comfortable. Aron nodded, his eyes squeezed shut cheerfully.

Tangrowth gurgled to attract Ash's attention, then. Ash nodded in acknowledgement to let him walk with them just as the grass-type did a little jig and wrapped Aron up in a fierce hug, a hug that the steel-type happily accepted.

Dazed really was on point with that prediction – he could already see that Aron and Tangrowth were going to get on swimmingly.

"Anyone else?" He surveyed. When the rest of his friends confirmed their willingness to be recalled he did so, leaving him with just a motley crew of his allies. "Well, if Daisy is up for I suppose we can head out."

"I'm always ready!" Daisy chirped, appearing by his side as if from nowhere. "I mean really, Ashy? What kind of question is that?"

He smirked. "Well, you are getting kind of old? I mean, you're what? Thirty? Forty?"

"Eighteen!" Daisy playfully smacked the back of his head, gasping as though truly offended. "The nerve of you children nowadays…"

"Not helping your point," Ash grinned as he absentmindedly straightened his hat. If this was how Gary felt all the time he could see the appeal.

She stared at him oddly. He frowned before he realized her eyes were locked on his hat. "Seriously, why are you wearing that in here? Do you have some sort of freaky reverse vision that makes you see better in the dark? Is it too bright in here for you?"

"Force of habit," he shrugged. Daisy rolled her eyes and scoffed at that. "It's not as if I can see much anyway."

"Boys!" Daisy scoffed. "Honestly, you and Gary are so weird. I just don't get you sometimes."

"Not going to argue that…" Ash muttered. He almost reached up to remove his hat before he thought better of it.

No, even if he was willing to give Daisy whatever minute satisfaction she'd get out of winning their mock confrontation Ash would never give the known hat-thief Sableye following them around the chance to take it.

This hat had seen too many apocalyptic events to risk. Who knew, maybe it was the reason he'd survived at all. It was a very nice hat.

He almost laughed at that – he could just see Mewtwo and the Birds stopping their assault on the world, too awestruck by his hat to control their power.

"Hello?" A hand waving in front of his face distracted him. He almost missed the ice that rushed through his veins. "Earth to Ash? You in there?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," he said quickly – maybe a bit too quickly if Daisy's frown was anything to go by. "Just got a bit distracted."

"That seems to happen a lot," Daisy noted. "You should really work on that. I wouldn't anything to happen to you because you spaced out, Ashy."

"I'm fine," Ash insisted, more interested in Mewtwo's sudden appearance. He felt a smirk take over his face that was not his own and quickly clamped down on the invading presence, a jolt of fear overpowering the subtle mental jab.

Then he noticed Daisy staring at him. Again.

"What?"

"I think your Hypno's trying to steal your hat." Daisy giggled and pointed at his head. "Guess she agrees with me!"

Ash froze as he felt the snaps on his hat fall apart and the item itself gently float away as gravity ceased to affect it. He looked up and saw the hat cloaked in a thin film of icy blue power, mocking him from above.

He snatched it out of the air immediately, grateful that the blue energy suffusing his hat dissipated immediately. Ash gripped the hat until his knuckled turned white and had to stop himself from staring.

"Please don't do that again, Dazed," he said quietly. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her nod, going along with the act. "Well, since all that's over with we should probably get a move on. Right, Daisy?"

"Right," she said unsurely, unnerved by his suddenly perky façade. "Come on, everyone! Let's go explore!"

Ash and his team fell in line beside the remainders of Daisy's team. Sneasel stuck by Ash, faithfully wrapped around his neck. He knew what to do by now if he felt that kind of power – Sneasel couldn't stop Mewtwo's influence if the psychic really wanted to take over or play with Ash's mind, but it would take some of the pressure off.

Dazed took a defensive position by his side, eyes luminous from the momentary touch of Mewtwo's powers. Ash could see her clutching her pendulum closely in order to hide the icy blow that emanated from it, although he could still pick out a bit of the glow from between her long, dexterous fingers.

He, on the other hand, just stared at his hat and nodded as needed while Daisy chattered beside him, ignorant to what had just occurred. Ninetales and Gardevoir – who actually looked quite a bit better than yesterday – seemed to have more of a clue.

All of that didn't really affect him, though.

No he was more considered with what just happened. Or, rather, who happened.

Was that…was that a joke?

XX

"So, have you ever thought of Coordinating?" Daisy asked after a few minutes of silence. Ash, who'd been paying rapt attention to the surprising development of Aron and Sneasel walking side by side, barking and hissing to each other every now and then, grunted in response.

"What?"

"Coordinating. Or even just trying your hand at a Contest?" Daisy prompted with a small smile. "Who knows, you might be good at it! Your team is very talented!"

Ash frowned. "I'm a little interested – it seems very different than battling."

"Yes and no," the Oak shook her head. He could see her rather well thanks to the Will-o-Wisps that Ninetales had conjured and there was a delighted gleam in her eye that put him on edge. It reminded him a bit too much of his mother when she got on the subject of research for his tastes. "Sure, Coordinating emphasizes different aspects of a pokemon's abilities – aesthetics are prized more than functionality, naturally – but many Contests have some sort of battle round and control over one's abilities is prized."

"For example, I know your smaller team would crush my team in combat," Daisy explained. "We're no slouches and can take care of ourselves, but I don't like fighting and neither do many of my friends. I don't put them through the same crazy training I bet you do, but I would say that my team's control over their abilities far surpasses yours."

"Probably," Ash nodded. He wouldn't argue that, although that didn't stop a small grin from crawling onto his face. "Age and experience will overcome youth and brashness, right?"

Daisy's head bobbed exuberantly at that. "Exactly! You're better fighters, but we've got our own concentration. We –"

"Have a lot of age in your favor," Ash jabbed. "Won't be too long before you catch up to the Professor."

"Brat," she grumbled and cuffed him in the back of his head. He just shook it off and grinned. "Anyway, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, my teammates can do things you'd probably never believe. We're a lot flashier than you are – putting on a show doesn't matter quite as much in the kind of battles you favor."

"I'll give you that," Ash allowed. "But I doubt you're flashier than some of my friends."

Daisy arched a slim brown eyebrow at him. "Oh really?"

"Really," he confirmed.

After a few moments passed Daisy sighed. "Seriously? Will you just tell me how? It's like pulling teeth with you!"

"Just watch the Final of the Indigo Conference," he said airily. "That should explain everything."

"Ooh, ominous!" Daisy giggled. "But yeah, I'll check it out. Guess I should see what you're capable of anyway, right? I didn't even really get to see any of the highlight reel they were blasting all over the news – I was still investigating some interesting spots in Sinnoh when all that happened."

Ash nodded at her explanation and waited a moment before he next spoke. "I will say that I don't know if I have the same flair for it you do. Or my team."

"What're you talking about? You'll do great!" Daisy cheered and pumped her fist. "Okay, so you might not be outgoing…or remotely friendly…or as good-looking as I am, but your team is! They're the ones you've got to have faith in."

"Thanks for your endorsement," Ash snorted. Not that he'd argue the first two points she'd made. Or care much about the last. "But yes, I trust my team. I trust them with my life. I'm just having a hard time seeing many of them performing in a Contest Hall."

Daisy paused as they plodded down the winding cavern, trusting their teams to guide their way. "Okay, so maybe they aren't very outgoing either. The team reflects the trainer and the trainer reflects the team. I mean, I wouldn't expect Nidoking or that crazy Magmortar of yours to enjoy it, but you're taking the narrow view."

"You have a good-looking group," she continued. "Sure, they've got their scars and you can tell that they aren't being prepared as a Coordinating team, but that doesn't matter much. They're fit, healthy, and just entering the prime of their life."

Ash grunted, waiting for her to keep going. He could tell when Daisy was about to go on one of her long-winded spiels. Coordinating was her passion and he wasn't about to interrupt that.

Why would he when he could learn something from a Contest Champion?

"Think about Plume, or Torrent, or Dazed!" Daisy exclaimed, pointing at the Hypno as the only one out of her pokeball. Dazed pointedly stared straight ahead.. "You would be amazing, wouldn't you?"

Naturally.

Ash rolled his eyes as he felt Dazed's amusement, more clear to him than ever before thanks to the boost Mewtwo's brief appearance had granted her, brush his mind. He should have known she'd take this opportunity to throw some fuel on the fire.

"See!" Daisy crowed. "Now you're, like, obligated to enter her!"

Please don't.

For some reason Ash felt that Dazed didn't bother projecting that into the Oak's mind.

"Can't you see her making art with her power? Weaving light and painting minds?" The older girl grinned with stars in her eyes. "Plume blurring through the air, dancing with wind. Torrent sculpting glaciers, Oz combing lightning…I could go on, but I think you understand my point. Isn't it beautiful?"

"It is," Ash admitted. He'd give her that much – Daisy had a way with words and the passion with which she spoke outstripped anything he could do. She, like the rest of her family and his mother, had that glow about her that lured people in like Teddiursa to honey.

He had to admit he was a little jealous. Ash knew he would never that way with people, that appeal.

Ash had never connected with words. They were irritants to him, lacking the kind of power he used and understood. No, he forged his bonds with others through other methods: battle and accomplishments.

Words could be toyed with, played like an instrument. The intent behind them might be there, but with humans it was too often shrouded behind endless veils of lies and half-truth.

He didn't care much for deception. Sure, it was necessary sometimes, just as many unpleasant things were. That didn't mean he had to like it.

You couldn't really hide who you were in battle. He could understand people that way, through their strategies and orders and the way they met their opponent. Cunning, intelligence, motives…they could all be discerned if one was observant enough. It was all about their personality and history in the end.

Actions told him who others were. It wasn't what you said that defined you, but what you managed to accomplish. If he knew someone did something, they couldn't lie about it.

Unfortunately not everybody had accomplishments to tell him about and fewer still would battle him. So he was stuck with words, with all the trouble that implied.

"Yeah it is!" Daisy grinned before she bit her bottom lip and watched him raptly. "You'll have to come watch me perform sometime! Might give you some ideas, get you to join us Coordinators for a while. I could even help you – no, never mind."

"What?" Ash frowned. "Why not?"

"Well, I'd hate to steal you away from Lisia," Daisy giggled. "She's got her eye on you and I wouldn't want to come between young love!"

Ash sighed. He had the strangest feeling that Daisy wouldn't let this go anytime soon. "We both appreciate it very much. Thanks for your consideration – I'm sure with your many, many years of experience on her Lisia wouldn't stand a chance."

"Oh, shut up," Daisy snorted. It was rather unbecoming on her, although Ash had to admit she almost made it look dignified. Almost. "You're no fun, Ashy. Can't you just let me tease you a bit?"

"I'm not exactly looking for a Gary replacement," he shrugged. "I had to deal with that last year and I'd rather not go through it again."

Daisy playfully wrapped an arm around him and hugged him closer to her side, swaying side to side to keep him off balance. "Oh, you really think I'm as bad as Gary?"

"No," he retorted as he struggled to keep himself from stumbling. Daisy was a slight girl, but she still had a few inches on him and enough weight to nearly knock him over – not to mention he really hadn't been expecting her to grab him. "Well, almost. You're moving in the right direction."

"Please," she scoffed and hugged him tighter to the point that he was almost having flashbacks to his mother's painfully overzealous embraces. Ash supposed Daisy had learned from the best – and that was only emphasized when she leaned down and whispered into his ear, "I am much, much worse!"

Unfortunately the whole effect was ruined when she broke down in a fit of giggles and gently pushed him away – he was actually caught off guard by that and stumbled for a moment. Ash just sighed and caught himself before he tripped over his own feet.

"Just keep in mind I did basically raise Gary," Daisy pointed out once she'd stopped snickering. "Not like Grandpa had the time. Don't you think he turned out great?"

Ash surveyed the girl in front of him – everything from the impish smile to the impeccably straightened hair (how did she get that done in the cave?) to the faithful team of pokemon arrayed about her.

"He could be worse," he allowed.

"High praise indeed from the runner-up of the Indigo Conference," she smiled. "Speaking of which, do you mind signing an autograph for me once we get back up to the surface?"

"…What?" Ash stared, genuinely caught off guard. That was the last thing he'd expected.

"Well, there's this cute girl, about your age, who I think would really appreciate one," Daisy started. Ash shut his eyes and shook his head. He knew where this was going. "She's got kind of light blue hair, short, unhealthy obsession with Altaria? Ringing any bells, Ashy-boy?"

Ash really didn't want to dignify that with a response but he just couldn't help himself.

"You're never going to let this go, are you?" He groaned and stared straight ahead – he didn't want to look at Daisy right now. "Also, please don't call me that. I'll deal with Ashy, but you're reminding me way too much of Gary right now."

"Fine, fine," Daisy snickered. For someone who looked so innocent she really enjoyed pressing his buttons. And what was worse he could tell his team was getting a sort of sick amusement out of it – Dazed was radiating satisfaction and even Bruiser looked like he was struggling to hide a reptilian smirk. "And no way. This is just too much fun!"

Ash nodded. "I thought so. Just…please never bring that up around my mom."

He didn't even want to know what would happen if his mother got that in her head. Ash wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to see his mother again without her harassing or poking fun at him. And knowing her she'd try and get Professor Oak in on it too.

"Huh, no promises," Daisy's eyes lit up at that. "I mean, it has been a long time since I've talked to her…and I'm sure she'd appreciate me for telling her about your new girlfriend."

Ash just ignored that. He knew that Daisy just wanted to get a rise out of him – she really must be where Gary got it from. He couldn't imagine his former rival inheriting that particular trait from Professor Oak.

"Come on," Daisy playfully flicked him in the back of the head. "Do something! You're awfully hard to mess with for an eleven-year old…I even thought I had you there for a minute."

"Twelve," Ash absentmindedly corrected. "And you're a little late to that party. I don't know if anything can get under my skin after dealing with your brother for so long."

An evil smirk came over Daisy's face. "Is that a challenge I hear?"

"No!" He said a little bit too quickly.

"Well, I guess I can't let my baby brother have all the fun," she mused. "We have what, four days left together? That should be plenty of time."

"Assuming I stick around for that long."

"Please! You're stuck with me!" Daisy grinned over at him. "I mean, look at me. I'm awesome. And don't you want to reconnect? I haven't really gotten to see you since your mom was taking care of Gary and I after – what?"

Ash straightened and a hand flickered down to Nidoking's pokeball at the surprise in Daisy's voice. Sure they had a veritable army surrounding them, but he always felt safer with his first friend at his side.

"What is it?" He asked, all business. His eyes hardened to stone and all of his team reflexively prepared for battle.

"Gardevoir's just told me something's up ahead," Daisy's mouth straightened into a line. "A Sableye."

And just like that all the tension flooded from his shoulders and he had to hold back a smirk at what he knew was following them. His team followed suit and started plodding, low growls and hisses fading into their usual chatter.

He kept an eye on Daisy though, well aware of just what this particular Sableye meant to her. Not that she knew this was coming.

"How'd Gardevoir pick up on that?" He queried. "Dazed is improving, but she still has some trouble detecting ghosts and dark-types."

"She's sensitive enough that she sort of picks out their 'holes' in the world," Daisy explained absentmindedly. "She can't detect their minds, but with her psychic sense she can feel out where the world disappears to it and know that there's something there she can't find directly. Think of it as picking out an invisible thing by their shadow, if that helps. I'll have her help Dazed with it, if you'd like."

Ash nodded. That was about what he'd expected – Dazed's explanations hinted as such. Just because psychics couldn't directly feel the minds of ghosts and dark-types didn't mean they were impossible to track. He'd heard of plenty of psychics doing something similar, he just wasn't sure how to go about training Dazed to pick out on something so subtle.

Daisy thankfully seemed to have lost her playful attitude as they continued through the cave. Most pokemon seemed to have fled or hidden from the massive party as they made their way through the tunnels, wary of what such a large group would want. Anything that lacked that fear was bound to attract her attention.

He just did his best to keep a straight face – he knew what was coming and it would more than make up for Daisy's recent teasing. It was too bad he wouldn't be able to take a picture.

Normally he'd be even more on edge than Daisy – he'd run into enough mysterious wild pokemon to make him a bit paranoid when dealing with unfamiliar creatures – but he knew exactly who this Sableye was and that it would never attack anyone Aron was with.

But it was more than happy to play a prank. Ash just hoped it knew what it was getting into with Ninetales about.

Then the group stopped and he heard the tell-tale scrape of razor claws against the harshly carved rock of the tunnel.

The ethereal blue light of the Will-o-Wisps flared brightly and he could see the faceted reflections of Sableye's precious eyes in the shadows between a fork in the cave.

"Is that it?" Daisy whispered to her team, her face twisted in surprise. She started at the high-pitched giggle that carried through the darkness and scowled. "Guess it wants to mess with us."

"I'd say," he agreed. Ash folded his arms and watched his companion eagerly as the gem-like eyes grew brighter and brighter, swirling with strange powers as the Sableye stepped closer. "Hmm, what's that on its head?"

"Huh?" She frowned and peered closer. Sableye was essentially in the open, although its body shifted strangely in the light of Ninetales' Will-o-Wisps. It distorted and twisted into nothingness, as though its shape were more of a suggestion than a defined structure.

The only constants were its glowing eyes and wide, toothy smile.

"What is that?" Daisy muttered as the collection of gems on her hat shifted and glinted in the darkness. "It almost looks like…wait…"

"YOU!" She jabbed a finger at the Sableye. Its grin widened and the shade took a mocking bow, its eyes never leaving Daisy's. "You're that stupid Sableye that stole my hat!"

The specter shrugged and splayed its hands in the air as though declaring, "So what?"

"I don't care if it's filthy, I'm getting that hat back," Daisy declared with steel in her voice. She eyed the gems woven into the tattered fabric. "With interest, it looks like."

"Good luck," Ash grinned. "With that Sableye you might need it."

"Don't I know it," Daisy growled. Her fists whitened and her eyes flattened into slits. "This might take a while. I'll meet you back at Dewford – follow the markers to get out or just have Dazed teleport you. Gardevoir will take care of me."

He nodded. Daisy could take care of herself and Gardevoir was protective, if nothing else. "Have fun."

"Oh, I will!"

"Then you might want to get started," Ash pointed out with a smirk. Daisy started and looked down the tunnel to the left, where only the slightest glitter of diamonds and a faint giggle hinted at Sableye's presence.

"Oh you brat!" She declared and took off as fast as she could. "Ninetales, all of you – let's go get him!"

Ash shook his head in exasperation as the vastly overpowered force of Daisy's teams rushed after the Sableye. That was a bit more than he'd expected – apparently Daisy really liked that hat.

He took a quick head count of his friends and frowned. "Sneasel, get back here!"

Seconds later Sneasel sulkily reappeared from the tunnel Daisy had rushed down and whined pitifully at Ash. He took his seat next to Aron, Tangrowth, and Oz, who seemed willing to put up with him so long as she could stay with the new steel-type.

"Believe it or not, you're part of this team," Ash rolled his eyes. "As much as you like Daisy, you don't get to run off chasing ghosts with her, no matter how much you'd like to."

The dark-type hissed and nodded. Looked like he wouldn't put up a fight now that he'd been caught.

"Well, I guess we'd best be on our way," Ash grinned and started heading down the right passage. "Who knows what we'll find down here now that it's just us?"

XX

He wasn't sure how long they'd been wandering through the caves without any real goal in mind before he felt a rush of fresh air.

Ash frowned and paused, motioning for his team to follow his lead. That was more than the gust of wind drawn up in the cold tunnels by a passing Zubat – even a Golbat or Crobat wouldn't be able to mimic this.

A way to the surface maybe? That didn't seem right – they were at least several hundred feet underground, although it was admittedly hard to keep track of their elevation when the tunnels routinely dipped and rose at random.

There could be a hole or something along those lines. Just an odd line to the surface dug out by some random wild pokemon. Still, he would have assumed there to be some hint of natural light if that were the case.

But there was something else in the cavern ahead as well. Nothing living, he was sure – Dazed or Sneasel would have alerted him if there was, but something.

Aside from the fresh air that did not even remotely belong in this labyrinth, there were two other scents that grew stronger and stronger as he took another cautious step toward the opening that he realized was just a bit too well-cut to be natural. Even the effects of erosion over however many centuries it had been since the mason had completed their work couldn't hide the even lines chipped away by time.

Sea salt and the heavy, cloying scent of earth – he supposed he should have been used to the latter after spending so much time down in the Granite Caverns, but it struck him more than it had when he first stepped in.

Ash frowned at the oddity and folded his arms thoughtfully. "Feel anything?"

Something. An echo, perhaps? The Three – they elude me. There is history here, Friend-Trainer.

"Great," he sighed. No avoiding it now. Well, at least they didn't find this place with Daisy. If there was "history" here then he'd rather the girl not see it with the vision granted to her by her bond with Ninetales. Depending on what it was that might bring up more questions than he'd like to answer. "All of you be cautious – I doubt anything's in there but it won't hurt."

He paused and looked to Aron, who was happily held aloft by several of Tangrowth's thick vines. The steel-type stared back at him from his perch expectantly.

"Do you know anything about this place?"

Aron loosed a keening whine, which Ash didn't take as a good sign. He turned to Dazed, hoping she would provide a better translation. Ash hadn't gotten to know Aron well enough to divine much meaning from the cry.

It is not frequented by the inhabitants of this complex. There is a weight here that dissuades explorers. Even the Shades shy away.

"Wonderful," he muttered. Ash frowned and stepped forward. No point shying away. "Fan out, all of you. Be careful and tell me if you find anything interesting."

With that he stepped forward, Dazed following mere inches behind. They were so close he could almost feel the static built up in her fur brushing him.

"Light, please," Ash called out when his lantern flickered on and off dozens of time in a second before it died for good. He stared at it with a furrowed brow and put it back into its storage department just as Dazed summoned an orb of deep blue light that effortlessly illuminated the entire room. "Thank you.

He sniffed again. The sea salt and almost nauseatingly powerful odor of the earth was clearer, if that was possible. A gentle breeze still danced across his skin, heedless of the intruders' presence.

"Where's all this coming from?" He frowned and glanced around the massive cavern, eyes falling upon a gigantic mural carved with inhuman precision into the great rock wall before him and painted over with a thin, glossy material that looked unevenly dried – wet on one side, flaked away in the other, and freshly dried to the top. "Ah."

Three beasts were etched into the flat expanse of stone, each bringing with it a weight that sank into Ash's stomach like a stone.

The one to the left was brought to life with crumbling paint, showing a terrible creature that breathed infernos, pumped the heart of the earth to bring its lifeblood to the surface, and focused the sun in the mural so intensely as to leave nothing but endless devastation in its wake. Under Dazed's light it almost seemed alive.

To the right was a massive leviathan trailed by stormclouds and lightning – the thin liquid that filled in the ancient carvings so damp he could have sworn the painters had left the room mere moments before he came in. Despite that there were no streaks – the paint was contained in the stone's wounds, unable to mar its perfection.

He eyed the – Leviathan – again, frowning as he focused in on the great creature. Idly he thought it seemed less that it was riding the waves and more as though the ocean was following it, trailing it like an obedient child.

But that wasn't what demanded his attention. There was an echo in this mural, just as Dazed had said. It was indistinct, but grew clearer and clearer the more he thought about it until –

The Song. Lugia's Song.

With that revelation the echo deepened in his mind and he grimaced as it practically wailed and screamed and crashed with all the force of a wave into him – it did not pull at him as the Song did, but did its utmost to pull him under itself until he drowned.

He looked away.

Whatever that was, it wasn't the Song. Similar, perhaps. It was older, less a Song than a Roar, the clashing of waves and a hurricane's fury rather than the gentle push and pull of the tides.

Ash frowned and shook his head, struggling to get the overpowering salty scent out of his nose. He really didn't want to think about that right now.

Before he looked to investigate the last of the beasts he glanced at the center of the mural where the creatures' wrath met.

Little stick figures were all he could see, sent flying by the clash. They were powerless in the face of the creatures and though most cowered or were sent flying across the rock wall, some looked to the sky, to two opposing objects dashing through the air.

Meteors. The Iron Child says the Shade that guided him told him stories, although he was too young to make sense of them. That is what I surmise "falling-fire-stars" to be, at any rate.

Ash nodded his thanks to Dazed and continued studying the mural. It fascinated him, he supposed. This was the history of some people – even if it wasn't necessarily the true way things had happened, this had shaped them.

This mural and the story it embodied molded their culture, their beliefs.

Was this what Cynthia felt like when she investigated ancient sites and dug up the entombed knowledge of a civilization or dug through records untouched for centuries?

If so, he understood her more than he ever could have imagined.

Ash frowned and stared at the little stick-people.

Who were they?

He sighed and looked up at the last of their traces in this cave. Ash knew he'd find nothing here.

A towering serpent stared down at him, maw gaping. The wall around it was clear of any sort of cataclysmic power of the kind its two siblings brought to bear – it was tranquil, in stasis. It was simply a passive observer, although it was coiled in such a way that it seemed as though it would spring into action at any moment.

Ash turned from the mural to Dazed with just the slightest hint of a scowl. He didn't like this.

Land and Sea, Behemoth and Leviathan…they breathe.

A shiver ran down his spine as he considered Lugia's parting gift of advice. Were these Land and Sea?

He wasn't an idiot. He'd researched what myths and legends he could, assuming many to be true.

Groudon and Kyogre weren't foreign names to him. Even his mother had told him the stories once, when she couldn't think of new tales of the First Champion or Sinnoh's God-King or Indigo's native Legends.

She didn't know them by heart, but she knew them well enough to tell him about their furious battle and the clash for dominance. He knew it was said they'd summoned deserts and drowned cities before their wars had ceased, feats of power that were admittedly not so impressive in comparison to the Legends he'd personally faced.

He'd suspected, once he read the tales again, but he hadn't been sure.

Still, how powerful were they if Lugia had been nothing but a pest to them in their prime? Fire, Ice, and Lightning…he knew them well. He had become them, in a sense. Their Truths laid unfolded to him in a way words would never describe thanks to his mastery of the Spheres.

Lugia and Mew represented something more complicated in his mind, and they were so much more powerful than the Birds it was almost incomparable. It was like comparing him when he had first challenged Bruno to the Ash he had become after his trials and training.

Moltres could summon an inferno to raze the earth all around it. Zapdos could shroud all of Kanto in vicious storms. Articuno's wings conjured vast blizzards as if from nowhere.

Impressive, but ultimately simple.

Mew and even Mewtwo – though he was loath to include the psychic that seemed to take pleasure in toying with him – could do so, so much more.

Mewtwo had manipulated the weather to the point of telekinetically creating and directing hurricanes powerful enough to seriously damage an entire region as relatively inexpensive weapons. It could easily split the entire ocean in half all for the purpose of trapping an enemy that could easily sear cities away permanently – all of this as it controlled a storm that would eventually shatter human civilization like glass.

And that was just the beginning. Even after all that it had still beaten Mew – should have, if Mew hadn't killed Ash while he and Mewtwo were merged as one. Mewtwo had torn its way out of a black hole, thrown around power Ash couldn't even fathom, and managed to use its psychic power to heavily wound Mew in a form Ash could reasonably suspect to be to dark-types what Mewtwo was to psychics.

And Mew was certainly no slouch either – it had shown itself capable of creating and controlling a genuine black hole, after all. It had quite literally created matter dense enough to create a singularity – Ash certainly didn't have the knowledge required to calculate the energy required for that out, but he was well aware it was on an absolutely ridiculous scale.

Combine that with its incredibly powerful techniques and you had a very, very potent entity on your hands. Ash wasn't sure if it even qualified as a psychic at that point – its powers were to the point that it almost seemed to be on the level of warping reality rather than manipulating it.

Lugia…well, he assumed it was on a similar level. It had easily levitated what he'd imagine to be at least billions of gallons of water to drown the Birds, if not trillions. Not to mention it had quite easily held the two of them off.

Ash frowned. Mew was called the Guardian of Life by many psychics and others informed of Legends and Lugia the Guardian of the Seas. But what exactly did they represent? The others embodied a very specific Concept.

He sighed. Maybe he'd get the chance to ask them eventually.

Still, what could Land and Sea do? Such simple Concepts, but so enormous…

Ash shook his head. It wasn't worth thinking about. All he knew was that Lugia was certain of the threat they possessed and that he trusted the Great Guardian. If possible he'd make sure Land and Sea never got the chance to show him that impossible strength.

"I think it's time to leave," Ash called out to his friends, most of whom seemed uneasy and nervous under the oppressive weight that filled the room. "I doubt we'll find anything here…"

XX

Stepping out into the sunlight after days in the black caves was a pleasure unlike any other. It wasn't exactly freezing down there, especially with Nidoking and the rest of his friends to keep him warm, but the chill was always noticeable.

There was something about not having to provide his own heat and light that would never get old. The constant feeling of his body heat leaking out of him and leaving with him with little other than what he and his friends could produce on their own was just exhausting.

Not to mention this meant he'd get to battle soon.

A savage grin carved its way across his tanned face at the thought – it had been too long since he and his little family had gotten the blood flowing. Even the battle with Tate and Liza hadn't been much more than a warm up for Sneasel and Oz.

He lightly stretched and turned to his left, grinning as Aron and Tangrowth plodded at his side. Dazed wasn't much a fan of the sun's overpowering light and Sneasel would be overheated in no time if he brought him out at noon.

Bruiser was on his right, a gentle smile on his reptilian face as he felt the heated sand brush his feet. Seeker wasn't with him, of course – she could scarcely bear twilight, so high noon wouldn't really agree with her.

Ash had made sure they enjoyed their day after finding the mural, though. They'd spent the rest of their time exploring to their hearts content and seeing if they could track Daisy through the tunnels, although they hadn't found any luck.

She moved fast but it seemed that Sableye had exploited its knowledge of the terrain to its advantage, slipping ahead of the annoyed girl with contemptuous ease.

He couldn't help but smirk imagining how annoyed Daisy would be. If he found that Sableye again he'd be sure to bring it some shiny presents – they loved little trinkets and anything that would glitter in the dim light of their homes.

And if Daisy caught that Sableye it might appreciate a few presents. Daisy might be one of the kindest people he'd ever met – despite how much she enjoyed teasing him – but even she wasn't perfect.

Not that she'd ever hurt the mischievous Sableye. All it had to fear from her was the loss of what seemed to be its prized possession and maybe her pokemon being a little rough capturing it.

But at the end of the day they'd realized Daisy had gone too far and they relaxed. Sneasel went off exploring with Bruiser and Seeker as his chaperones while the others stayed alongside Ash, eager to let their weary feet relax.

They'd spent one last night in the tunnels – he really didn't mind, especially since it gave him the opportunity to bask in the isolation with his family – and when they were all woken up he'd recalled his team and had Dazed teleport them to the surface.

It was a rough ride and he suspected she'd drawn on some of the latent power left in her from Mewtwo's influence the day before to compensate for her lack of control, but she did it.

That was Dazed's first time teleporting him long distance and she was still better at it than Will.

Ash made a mental note to mention it to his fellow Elite Four member next time they met.

But now they were on the surface, they were pent up, and they were ready.

Brawly wouldn't know what hit him.

XX

The Dewford Gym matched the town around it quite well. It wasn't overly large – it was quite small for one of the eight major gyms of Hoenn, in fact – it was rather utilitarian, and much wider than tall.

Dewford as a whole was quaint. It was certainly a city, albeit a tiny one, but it had held a prominent position in Hoenn's history for hundreds of years.

He thought back to Cynthia's Arbok-scaled book. Ash had managed to catch up on his reading last night, allowing Dazed to follow along in his head. She'd certainly enjoyed learning Hoenn's history as much as he did, if not more.

Although a minor city now, Dewford has a long and fascinating past. It is suggested from numerous historical records and maps that Dewford was once far more prominent and massive than it is in the modern era.

Recently, archaeologists discovered maps sealed away for more than two thousand years that reveal what is now Dewford was once a sprawling city for the times. More than that, however, is the revelation that Dewford and its nearby islands were once connected to mainland Hoenn as a peninsula.

This claim fits with prior evidence, speaking of walking to what experts have suspected for years to be Dewford's former name before the fall of the Volumo Empire and the revolutions that swept through the land in its wake. It also explains the traces of civilization and towns found on the ocean floor between mainland Hoenn and Dewford Town, although that also raises into question how such a vast amount of land was disconnected – there are several theories I will discuss in the next chapter, although none are currently substantiated.

After the revolutions Dewford came into its own as an impressive naval power rivaling Mossdeep, although it could not compare to Sootopolis' supremacy. For several centuries after the fall of the Volumo Empire it was a trading hub and important stop on the way to Slateport and held an impressive amount of influence for its size.

Although primarily taking advantage of its key location between Rustboro and Slateport, Dewford also found influence by mining the iron veins in its famed Granite Cave and mountains. This trade made them invaluable, although the infrequent invasions by other towns in the region in the hopes of securing the ore for themselves left them with a firm martial tradition. In the months before the formation of the Ever Grande League, Dewford's defensive forces inflicted a staggering amount of casualties on the Unovan task force sent to secure the island. Although ultimately the defense crumbled, their example rallied their fellow city-states on the brink of defeat and caused the first alliances to form. Even today citizens of the Dewford Archipelago make up a disproportionate amount of the Ever Grande League's Rangers and agents.

 
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