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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87. The Grind Part 1

"I suppose I should introduce you to the rest of my team," Steven nodded to himself. "You've still only met Metagross, correct?"

"Yes," Ash frowned. He leaned up against Nidoking's sleeping form. It'd been a long day, mostly consisting of Steven talking to him about some of the plans for his training and what he wanted to accomplish. In all that he'd been so distracted that he hadn't even thought about the rest of the former Champion's teammates. "I've seen your battles though."

Steven shook his silver head. "Those are out of date. It's been more than a year since I've had a match recorded. I can assure you that my team has grown much more powerful in the meantime."

Ash raised an eyebrow at that. After seeing some of Steven's bouts he could hardly imagine the Steel Master being even more impressive. He'd been an iron wall before, capable of weathering almost any kind of assault. Now Ash couldn't even imagine what Steven had evolved into.

Indeed. I only hope that they do not all match the Juggernaut. If so our spars will be rather short affairs.

He snorted at Dazed's comment. Aside from Seeker who was curled up on Bruiser's chest and Aron who rested near his feet she was the only one of his friends still awake. She wasn't capable of true sleep, so once she'd returned to consciousness she found her rejuvenation in sapping the energy from the dreams of the rest of the team. They were so exhausted that they'd never woken up in the first place.

Ash refocused his attention on the clearing Steven had them resting in for the night. The Steel Master raised his first pokeball and tapped a release, allowing a terrible beast clad in black and silver armor to materialize. Horns jutted from its head and its maw opened and closed with the telltale scream of metal grinding against metal.

"This is Aggron," Steven declared as the huge creature stretched its heavy limbs. It towered at a massive nine feet once it straightened to its full height and regarded Ash and his team with baby blue eyes that acted as the one chink in its defenses. Aggron's gaze flitted from each of Ash's team to the next, though it lingered on Aron in particular. "He's my second oldest teammate. I actually caught him deep in the Dewford caves…he was eager, but he made sure that Metagross and I proved our worth before he allowed himself to be caught."

Aggron snorted, the air sounding like a whistle as it flowed through his nostrils. Aside from shifting to stay a little closer to Steven – Ash noticed that it was still several feet higher than Steven on Metagross – it was almost perfectly still. It was like a statue carved from steel…powerful, impenetrable, and resolute.

He allowed his admiring glance to rest on the behemoth. Ash couldn't help but compare Aggron to Aron…it was hard to believe that his youngest friend would one day become a similar creature, a veritable king amongst steel-types.

Aron keened happily to Aggron and Ash lightly pat his shell with a quick smile. Aggron deigned a low groan in response, though the whole earth vibrated in resonance with the deep call. Ash just kept a comforting hand on Aron as the little steel-type got into a staring contest with the Aggron – he'd let them work that out.

No, he was more focused on the next creature that materialized next to Steven. The large bird scratched at the soft earth irritably as its neck twisted to and fro, finally settling its rapt attention onto Ash. Its eyes narrowed and the razor sharp beak snapped open before it squawked, unimpressed.

Ash frowned at it, unafraid of meeting its eyes. The Skarmory's talons tore into the ground again, tensed, and it flared its wings threateningly. Each feather flashed brightly in the lights Steven had set up around the clearing, showing the potential to blind an opponent in the shine of the midday sun. He crossed his arms, feeling the shocks and heat of the Feather as it flared to life.

Skarmory fluttered the wings again, allowing the razor-like feathers to scrape against one another in a high screech that felt as though it would split Ash's ears. He just stared at it.

"That's enough," his teacher cut in from his seat on the powerful Metagross. It wasn't loud, but he brooked no argument. "Skarmory, stand down. He's a friend."

Skarmory's wings settled by its side but it eyed Ash with disdain, snapping its beak open and screaming at him one last time before it fluttered into the air and landed on one of the gnarled branches of the ancient trees this training ground was home too. It was almost invisible outside the domain of the artificial lights, the only sign it was present the brightly gleaming eyes that reflected the electric torches.

"Skarmory was my third. We found her near Fallarbor in the middle of an ash storm," Steven reminisced. "We ended up walking into her cave while we were trying to find shelter. She didn't like that too much but once my team and I proved we couldn't be forced away she decided we might be with her time. As of yet I don't think she's too disappointed."

The aforementioned steel-type rustled at that, the slight screech that cut through the air claiming agreement. Ash couldn't help but smile at that. Irritable as the Skarmory seemed, he could still compare her to many of his own team. He wasn't blind to the fact that they weren't overly fond of strangers.

"Next is Claydol," Steven announced as he released the odd creature. Ash couldn't help but feel his mind flash back to his battle with Giovanni – a cold presence roared in his mind at the thought of the Rocket, not all of it Mewtwo – and he remembered how adaptable the thing had been. At that point he'd never encountered anything like it. Even now that combination of beams was impressive. It would certainly be a tricky one to battle.

He glanced at the strange creature. It was more or less identical to Giovanni's, though perhaps a little darker. Claydol held itself in the air almost perfectly, completely lacking the slight wobble most levitating psychics failed to remove. The only movement it had was a slight rotation that allowed its body to spin constantly, its faces all seeing the entire world at once.

Ash felt the slightest brush of a foreign mind, alien and warm and many, against his own before it recoiled. His blood flushed cold, though the feeling was banished by the Feather's heat. He frowned and glanced to Dazed, whose eyes flashed as she stared the powerful psychic down.

It looked like they were having quite the conversation. Dazed rarely kept her telepathy active with other pokemon for so long.

"—in the desert near Lavaridge," Steven was saying. Ash shook himself out of his distraction and focused. "It was just a Baltoy then, not especially powerful and essentially trapped in time. If I hadn't passed by and unintentionally activated it then Claydol might have stayed in stasis for an eternity. Claydol's a bit odd, but I promise that it will prove to be a good and patient friend. It will be taking a prominent role in your team's training."

Ash nodded along, pleased. It could be disconcerting to be around such a strange creature but he'd been amongst much worse company. Even if it wouldn't attempt to communicate with him at least he knew it was willing to help his friends.

He really couldn't ask for anything else.

The next appeared in a brilliant flash of light that practically exploded from the Ultra Ball Steven held in his hand. It was a fierce creature he recognized almost instantly. The new arrival had a stocky, heavily plated body. Combined with its bipedal stance it reminded him vaguely of Dragonite with how its tail slid out from underneath it, though the similarities ended there.

Where Dragonite was sleek, meant for diving deep into the ocean in search of prey, Armaldo was heavy and rough. It still held a streamlined design meant to allow it to take full advantage of its amphibious nature but the armor was disproportionately heavy, acting as its strongest defense.

Armaldo's claws were massive things, almost as large as a Kingler's primary claw. Each was more than capable of punching through steel without too much effort and he knew they could crack apart armor just easily.

Red and white fins on its neck flared threateningly as its cold eyes perched upon the sides of its head regarded him warily. The claws clicked together, as though Armaldo were itching to tear him apart.

He didn't have to look to know that Dazed's eyes flashed threateningly at the dangerous fossil pokemon. His team didn't take kindly to threats, especially those from Champion-level fighters.

At this point those were practically the only threats that mattered to him.

"Armaldo!" Steven barked, raising his voice for one of the first times since Ash had come to know him. The heavily armored insect clicked its claws one more times, blinked, and finally stood down. His mentor shook his head, obviously used to this display. "My apologies. She's very protective and not especially fond of outsiders. I promise she'll warm up to you eventually."

Ash met Armaldo's eyes, though he bent his neck just a little bit to show some respect. He knew that it would be hard to earn her friendship but he had no doubt that he'd get there eventually. To be honest he had to. She'd no doubt be heavily involved in training Anorith.

And that brought up another question. "Will Anorith be safe with her?"

Steven's mouth turned downwards and he thoughtfully stroked his clean-shaven chin. "To be honest I'm not entirely sure. Armaldo weren't necessarily aggressive with one another but they are known to display territorial tendencies. They weren't particularly attentive mothers either…I've thought about it and I think we'll just have to give Anorith's training a lot of oversight."

"I was planning on that anyway," Ash shrugged. He wasn't about to leave his future teammate unsupervised around a potentially dangerous Champion-level fighter. That was a recipe for disaster. "Would she even be able to help Anorith early on?"

"Definitely," Steven said. "If anything she'll be good for socialization…Anorith were communal creatures and any kind of familiarity will be agreed with. I'd like to get Anorith started on some basic maneuvers and techniques any Armaldo should know once she reaches two months…the sooner the better, I think."

He nodded. Ash could agree with that.

Still, he couldn't help but be distracted by Armaldo as it retreated back to Steven's side, almost touching Metagross. The metal behemoth showed no sign of even recognizing that Armaldo was there, instead opting to stand silently as seemed to be its norm.

Armaldo never allowed him to leave her eyes. They were trained on him like Plume with a Caterpie.

He needed to make sure he never turned his back on her.

"And finally, Cradily," Steven motioned out into the dark forest that surrounded them. Though he didn't actually release it, Ash couldn't help but notice that Steven tapped one of his pokeballs at the mention of the ancient creature. "He's actually been here this whole time…Cradily isn't much for traveling so I've left him the responsibility of watching over this training ground. Come on out!"

Ash squinted into the darkness, doing his best to seek out the old green fossil. He didn't expect to have much luck but –

A heavy weight landed upon the soft soil of the forest around twenty feet away. Too close for comfort. He scanned the shadows but he had about as much success as he'd expected. That was to say, none.

Allow me.

Ash nodded and didn't fight the mental jab that directed him to a spot far to his right, almost outside his field of view. It seemed so clear now, like he was some kind of idiot for not noticing it in the first place. He wordlessly thanked Dazed and focused upon this new arrival.

Cradily watched him silently, two of its tentacles coiled tightly to a massive branch that had managed to support its heavy weight. The rest were folded and held compact to its neck. He knew that they were essentially the same as any modern grass-type's vines – they were just such a useful appendage that they'd essentially remained unchanged since they developed in protograss-types two hundred million years ago.

His eyes were drawn towards the large yellow eye markings on its skull. If it weren't for his own knowledge of Cradily and the low-light conditions making its luminous yellow eyes quite obvious in the crescent-like opening on Cradily's head he would've been fooled.

He held back a flinch as one of Cradily's tentacles uncoiled and extended over to him. The innocuous petal-like appendage gently poked him as though it were truly fascinated with him. Ash thought it was just idle curiosity until the tentacle tapped the spot where the Feather had bonded into the skin of his chest. It recoiled as though seared with a great fire and quickly returned to Cradily, which examined him with renewed interest in those old eyes.

"Armaldo and Cradily were gifts from my father when I entered the Ever Grande Conference for the first time," his mentor reminisced. There was a smile on his lips that took years of weariness away. Ash wondered just what Steven had done to add what seemed like a decade to his refined features. "They were a tough pair at first but I like to think we grew on each other quickly. Armaldo's fierce, as I'm sure you've noticed. She's strong and independent. She's in a strange world but she's claimed it for her own."

"Cradily," Steven's smile grew wider as he motioned to the still creature, "Is more of the strong, silent type. He's happy to sit around soaking up the sun but when it's time for action you won't see his equal. I'd say he's probably the second most dangerous on the team right behind Metagross – and that's not really a fair match considering Metagross is more than a match for Lance's Dragonite."

Ash raised an eyebrow at that. Metagross was a monster, certainly – in the videos he'd watched of Steven's battles it had been responsible for a disproportionate number of knockouts before it was subdued – but so was Dragonite. Dragonite was too fast to hit on its worst days, able to take more damage than most rock and steel-types, and hit harder than a Steelix juiced on Rare Candy.

"I feel like Lance might dispute that," he drawled. If Lance had one failing it was his pride. And that pride shone strongest in his dragons, which he commanded as though they were just an extension of his self. When most trainers struggled desperately to earn the respect of a single dragon Lance casually demanded it from many. He wore it as a badge of honor and wanted the whole world to know it.

"Oh, I'm sure he would," Steven agreed readily. There was just the slightest hint of a smirk playing over his features. "He's never been one to take a loss well, much less once he became Champion."

Steven looked thoughtful for a moment. "Though I suppose he's been even less familiar with the feeling than before once he took up the Champion's Mantle. Perhaps I should have taken him up on that battle while I was last at Indigo Plateau…"

"There's always next time," Ash pointed out while struggling to contain a mad grin at the thought of the Champions having it out. They were opposites, really. Lance depended on his overwhelming speed and maneuverability. For all he loved coming down with all the power of a hammer it was the fact that his Dragonite were so damned hard to hit that made him the Champion he was.

Steven had shown him his hand with Metagross. He'd already had an idea of what he was capable of but Steven had refined those abilities down to pinpoint precision. He favored a tireless steel wall, one capable of absorbing and redirecting every attack imaginable until the perfect moment to strike with overwhelming force came along.

Careful, Friend-Trainer. Hypersalivation has been known to indicate madness.

He just rolled his eyes at Dazed's helpful remark. He should have expected that from her. She seemed to enjoy making that little quip.

"Perhaps," Steven mused, sliding off Metagross at last. Armaldo nuzzled into him, looking as happy as the warrior clad in hard carapace could be when the man affectionately rubbed her head. "It's been years. I'll admit he beat me rather soundly last time, but I've grown since then. He has too, certainly, but his duties limit his training time."

"I thought you beat him."

"Metagross beat Dragonite," his new mentor corrected. After a moment he added, "And Dov as well. If I remember it was that Kingdra of his that finally shut Metagross down…their styles tend to be quite effective against Metagross. They can't beat Metagross at Metagross' own game of precision. But with enough raw power even Metagross can be overwhelmed."

Ash snorted at that. He had a hard time imagining the metal behemoth ever being confronted with the feeling of being overwhelmed. The titan had singlehandedly stopped all of his friends in their tracks.

He'd never thought they'd feel so helpless again, not after training so hard with Lance. Lance had transformed them from what they were, compressing a year of progress into a wonderfully brutal month of exertion.

It wasn't even that he was surprised. He knew that any Champion-level fighter was beyond his family's capabilities at the moment in a one-on-one scenario, let alone the cornerstone of the team. But he'd still thought he'd be able to take down at least one with his entire family, even if it was Steven's strongest.

Saph had taken most of his primary fighters to bring down, but he'd thought that was due to his friends being unsuited to fighting her more than anything. She wasn't quite up to par with the rest of Lance's team thanks to her youth. The young Dragonite didn't hit as hard as the rest of Lance's team and lacked the steel hard scales to tank the sort of hits Ash's team could easily dish out.

What she did have was the incredible speed and maneuverability of Dragonite that allowed them to travel the world in a single day if they so pleased – though that was an extremely rare case, Ash vaguely recalled – and lent them their well-deserved position as one of the ultimate flying and dragon-type pokemon.

Metagross had disproved that. It really was a ridiculous pokemon, even for one of its insanely powerful species – like Steven had told him on the way back from the Sevii Islands, a single Metagross could annihilate a town in the old days. The titan that had demolished his team could have casually taken down a city, he bet.

Psychic powers at least as strong as those of Sabrina's Alakazam, a body as physically powerful as any normal Machoke and more durable, and the intelligence and processing ability proven to be around the level of modern supercomputers.

Combine that with more than a decade training with one of the mightiest trainers in history and modern technology to supplement its repertoire of techniques and you had a juggernaut on your hands. That strength and versatility combined with its impossible reaction time was a force to be reckoned with.

Not to mention Ash had quite a few suspicions about how it had reacted so quickly on the battlefield. He'd already learned that Metagross could use telepathy, although Steven's hadn't yet graced him with a conversation.

"So I just have to hit it really hard?" Ash snorted. Steven smiled, though raised an eyebrow when the younger boy hesitated for a moment. "What is Metagross, by the way?"

"I thought that would be obvious," his mentor drawled, looking inordinately pleased with himself. Ash could almost feel Dazed roll her eyes from beside him.

"No," he frowned, "what does Metagross like to be called gender-wise? All of my friends are a bit more…biological."

Steven's eyes lit up, though Metagross seemed disinterested as ever. "That's very polite of you, Ash. Metagross appreciates your interest."

Ash looked at the still, silent Metagross disbelievingly. Metagross didn't bother looking back.

"Metagross, as you're already aware, don't have genders as we do," Steven lectured, ignoring the odd look on Ash's face. Ash snapped his focus on his teacher. He was plenty appreciative of having a real expert's input. "You know they reproduce through budding most of the time and fragmentation when necessary thanks to the very long speech my father so thoughtfully provided earlier. That's lent itself to several unique behaviors and cultural phenomenon, especially with their colonial lifestyle."

"Most Beldum and Metang just see themselves as an extension of the hive. Beldum have practically no personality and are essentially drones to mine ore, gather resources, and maintain the colony. Metang are exponentially more intelligent thanks to the combined neural network of the fused Beldum," Steven said in full professor mode. "They're also more advanced psychically and act mostly as managers. They essentially direct groups of Beldum and ensure the colony's running as it should."

"Metagross are few, but what they lack in quantity they more than make up for in quality," the silver-haired man affectionately pat Metagross' crest. The steel-type's eyes shut and Metagross leaned into the former Champion's touch. "They are the colony's defenders and managers. In most colonies there are no more than five – the Hive, the Claw, the Shell, the Eyes, and the Ancient. What do you think they do? It's fairly self-explanatory I believe."

Ash rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He'd read about Metagross but he never saw anything this in-depth in the PokeDex archives. "The Hive is probably something to do with maintaining everything, right? Does it manage the Metang?"

Steven nodded and motioned for him to keep talking.

"The Claw and the Shell…" Ash muttered. "That sounds like one of them attacks and one of them defends."

"Yes," Steven agreed. "The Claw is responsible for attacking outside threats and ensuring the safety of the hive, although it normally just manages small groups of Metang and Beldum to ensure the colony has sufficient protein and food stored away. It's the hunter, essentially. The Shell protects the colony itself from attack – it can commandeer the minds of all Metang and Beldum and coordinate them to eliminate any threat or force them to flee if necessary."

Ash nodded that he understood before he continued. "The Eyes…I would've thought it watched out and kept an eye on everything. No pun intended. But if the Claw takes care of outside threats –"

Steven cut him off. "You're on the right track, Ash. But you're thinking too simplistically. Don't think of everything in terms of attack and defense. There's more to life – and Metagross – than fighting."

He frowned at that, though he chose not to respond to the criticism, and thought back to the original question. "So the Eyes don't just watch for threats, but everything?"

"Everything," his mentor agreed. "They're often excellent sensors and skilled in mental manipulation. Although the former Eyes of my family's colony received quite a bit of information from us they also maintained a network of pokemon informants. That's fairly normal for Metagross colonies, with the exception of the human influence. But what's truly impressive is the extent of its neural network."

"What, could it see through the eyes of the others?" Ash inquired, inwardly annoyed at the unintentional pun. He hadn't even realized it until after he said it. Not that Steven seemed to take note of it besides a slight quirking of his lips. "With their skill I'm sure they can shape psychic bonds without too much trouble."

"You're getting there," Steven said. "As I said before, Eyes was an expert in mental communication. I don't know of anything else in the world that had the range or skill it did."

Perhaps I should correct his ignorance.

Ash didn't flinch at the mental roar that made his blood run cold. He just steadfastly ignored it and tried to do the same to Metagross and Dazed, both of whom watched him carefully. One with open curiosity – the most he'd ever seen Metagross emote – and one with concern.

"—it developed several proto-Beldum to the point where it could form a psychic bond with them and had the Claw and the Claw's Metang plant several dozen of them throughout western Hoenn. Back when the colony was still active Eyes could use them as a relay, enabling it to have psychic influence throughout hundreds of miles. Primarily it used this as a way to gather information from the minds of passing humans and pokemon and to discern new areas to gather resources – Eyes warned my father of much, and had Pierce not been a traitorous bastard the Rockets never would have known to mask themselves with ghosts and dark-types," Steven ended with a furious hiss.

He looked at the man, not used to seeing such open emotion from the normally composed man. That must have been where Metagross picked it up from…although Ash supposed that being a metal titan that didn't actually have a face might play into it as well.

What the Eyes of the Stone colony had done was impressive too, of course. Ash didn't know that much about advanced psychic techniques – though he should remedy that so he could help Dazed – but he knew enough to know it would've taken amazing skill and focus to project psychic energy from such a huge distance.

And Metagross didn't even need the absurd power of a Legendary to do it either. All it needed was its own skill. Ash thought that that was much more impressive than being born with all of that ability –

Ash smirked at the furious hiss of icy fire in the back of his mind as Mewtwo's mental presence voiced its displeasure at his jab, though grimaced when that ever listening presence reminded him that it had more power over his body than he did.

Even as Steven brooded silently with the rest of his team and Metagross, Dazed, and Claydol watched him, Ash's heart literally stopped.

It happened instantaneously. His pulse, that little beat that had been with him for as long as he could remember, was conspicuously absent and in a matter of moments he felt that terrible burn of asphyxiation grasp him.

His chest exploded with Fire from the Feather as he tried to gasp but couldn't and with pain from his chest too and it felt like his heart was wrapped in a vice and he couldn't see – why wasn't Dazed helping him and why didn't Steven or the others notice his chest bursting into flame the Feather shocked him with Lightning and his vision went black

Everything was fine. His heart beat normally. His blood wasn't still like thickening magma. His chest no longer hurt and the Feather simmered down to its normal barely-there glow.

Steven looked at him, not even aware of the silent death Ash had just gone through. "Now, Ash, I believe you have one Metagross left."

He nodded silently – his face wasn't even pale and he displayed no sign of stress thanks to the psychic specter that haunted him.

With my power I parted the ocean to its deepest depths and entombed Fire within. What do you think one human's heart is to me?

Ash couldn't grit his teeth thanks to Mewtwo's influence and did his best to rise out of the unnerving calm that had fallen over him. "The Ancient, right?"

"Right."

"It's probably the leader. The others are leaders in their own right, but I bet the Ancient leads the entire colony," Ash said slowly. He was glad to lose himself in the pondering. It was better than the bloodcurdling experience he'd just escaped from.

What do you speak of, Friend-Trainer?

Later, he thought, and felt Dazed's worried mental touch slip away. "The Ancient is probably ancient, too."

"You need to stop doing that," Steven laughed. Ash blushed. "But you're right. It's oftentimes the oldest and most experienced Metagross in the colony. Before our colony was devastated Ancient was almost six hundred years old. It was actually the same Ancient my ancestors befriended when it was Eyes. Now Ancient is my father's Metagross."

Ash could see Steven's knuckles clench white, though the man didn't comment on it again.

"Ancient is the role of the supreme leader and keeper of knowledge in the colony," Steven started. His voice was unnaturally controlled, though it loosened as he fell into the scholarly speech. "The Ancient has knowledge from tens of thousands of years ago – each Ancient stores knowledge in a single proto-Beldum hidden in the hive. It's like a memory bank for hundreds of thousands of memories and experiences. It contains raw information on the progress of the colony throughout the ages. When the Metagross in the role of Ancient is psychically connected to the memory bank it is essentially the Ancient, channeling the knowledge and experiences of countless Metagross."

Steven grimaced suddenly. Ash started forward, slightly worried, but then the silver-haired man sighed, "I really am turning into my father, aren't I? Mother was right, I suppose."

"Ash," Steven said seriously. Ash blinked and listened. "If I ever go on like that again, kindly tell me to shut up."

"Okay," Ash said just as sternly. He really, really wanted to smile at that. "Even if you're being informative?"

His teacher nodded. He still looked like he'd just swallowed the black broth. "Especially if I'm being informative – I'd rather see Groudon and Kyogre clash again before I ramble on about everything like my father."

He snorted rather unceremoniously at that, despite the sudden call of the Song at Steven's words. "Don't make promises you don't intend to keep."

Steven started at that, a grim shadow falling upon his face. "I suppose you're right. Lance did say you always had a way of lightening up any situation."

Ash smiled. "I remember him mentioning that once or twice."

The older man smirked back and nodded, though he said nothing. They fell into a companionable silence that Ash was more than comfortable with – unfortunately, he had to be the one to break it this time.

I'm shocked, Friend-Trainer.

He rolled his eyes as he asked, "So what was the point of all of that?"

"I said all of that and I didn't even answer your actual question," Steven sighed. "Mother would be so disappointed. Well, let me fix that."

"What I was trying to get at was that as a hive culture each evolutionary stage has its own role, which directly affects what they preferred to be called. Their status as a colonial organism with one overlying mind formed from several less developed neural networks –" Steven caught himself, or appeared to, and nodded thankfully at Metagross. "Thank you. Now, as I was saying, the fact that they're made up of several organisms makes them a bit different when it comes to personal identity."

Ash nodded. That made sense. He'd picked up on that himself without the help of any long-winded explanations.

"Generally, all members of the line address themselves as 'we'. They have their own identity as a Metang or Metagross but respect the many that makes up the one. The Metagross that have a position, however, generally refer to themselves by their title. Third-person isn't quite as odd to pokemon as it is to us."

And that sounded familiar too. Most pokemon didn't seem big on the concept of names. Even Dazed rarely referred to anything by a human given name – she even called him Friend-Trainer. Ash was an afterthought at best.

"You probably noticed that when you were talking to –" Steven didn't finish that and just kept talking. "Well, you probably noticed it. There is one exception to the rule, however. The –"

"Ancient," Ash finished for him. Steven seemed inordinately pleased with his answer.

"Exactly! See, Ancient doesn't just consider itself the sum of its parts. Not the Metang that fused to create it nor the Beldum that fused to create the Metang. Not even the rest of the colony it controls. When Ancient speaks it doesn't speak as a part of the colony as the rest do – it speaks for them all. And, as such, it is the only one in the colony that refers to itself as –"

"I."

Steven smiled. "Indeed. You understand now. Now, Metagross is no Ancient. Metagross is still considered part of the colony – and Metagross is. When I'm dead and gone Metagross will return and perhaps become Claw. But for now it only speaks for part of the colony, the part that made up the Metang that makes up Metagross. And so Metagross knows themselves as we, and you can refer to Metagross as they."

Ash dipped his head in acknowledgement. It was a bit convoluted and probably not that important in the long run, but he was glad he'd learned. Knowledge didn't always need a purpose behind it.

Besides, it was interesting.

"Now, I believe that's enough for one night," Steven declared. Metagross slowly levitated. "It's getting late and we're waking up bright and early tomorrow. Gather your team and get some rest. You know where to find me if anything comes up."

He nodded and smiled at the man as Steven waved him goodnight. Steven's camp wasn't too far away, just about a hundred meters. They wouldn't need to have separate camps forever but Steven wanted to let the territorial members of his team get used to Ash.

Knowing how some of his friends could get Ash agreed. It'd be best if neither group were very hostile to the other.

Still, one thing was bothering him…

"Steven!"

The man turned to him, barely visible in the darkness. "Yes, Ash?"

"How did Metagross block Infernus' flames?"

He couldn't see for sure but Ash was fairly certain Steven was wearing a smug smile. "Think on it, Ash. You're a smart kid."

Ash just shook his head and relaxed as best he could, although their talk and the events of the day had left him plenty to think about. Especially the one with the dark passenger hiding away in his mind…

With that he absentmindedly rubbed at the Feather embedded into the skin and muscle of his chest. He instinctually knew where to tap the parts dominated by Fire and Lightning, respectively. Ash took a moment to thank them.

When Mewtwo had stopped his heart in a petty show of force – he couldn't help but flinch when he realized what he'd just thought, though thankfully there was no mental roar as there was a few minutes before – it was only the Feather that tried to help him. Steven, Dazed, all the others…they were blinded by whatever mind trick Mewtwo employed. Even Sneasel, who was his only remotely effective protector against Mewtwo.

The Feather had tried to save him. It had responded to him when he needed it most. Fire had tried to sear his body back to life with its molten heat. Lightning had surged through his heart in an attempt to shock it back to beating.

His fingers burned pleasantly as he brushed over the Feather and he even smiled as Lightning surged through him – the familiar Truth and Concept blurring through his mind comfortingly – and he felt every hair on his body stand on end for a single moment.

He sent one last thought of gratitude to both of them and allowed his hand to fall away from the constant reminder of the Birds.

Ash sighed. He could already tell that he wouldn't be getting to sleep on his own tonight. There was too much to think about and too little time.

"Dazed? Would you mind helping me?"

Of course, Friend-Trainer. Sleep.

XX

He fumbled for his pokeballs as he was jerked asleep and held aloft by a colossal force. Ash snarled instinctually and snapped his eyes open, well aware that anything that disturbed him should have been crushed by his friends by now.

"Gah!" He snapped once he realized he was being held upside down. It took a moment to realize considering it was almost pitch black outside. "What's going on?"

"How did Metagross stop Magmortar's fires yesterday?" A calm, composed voice asked. It came from behind him. Ash tried to struggle against the psychic bonds that held him but couldn't even budge. Not that that was a surprise as clarity returned.

"Steven? What –"

"I asked you a question," Steven's voice cut. "Answer it."

He shook himself awake, a little wary of this Steven. He'd learned the man could be harsh yesterday in the speech he'd given him after their battle but this was more along the lines of what he'd expect from Lance, Bruno, or Surge, not the soft-spoken Steven Stone.

"A psychic field?" Ash began uncertainly.

"Are you asking me a question or are you answering mine?"

Ash grimaced and continued, though he was starting to feel a bit sick as the psychic grip slowly began to spin and jerk him around to throw him off. Combined with his grogginess and the terrible feeling of getting nowhere near enough sleep he could barely think, let alone "It was some sort of shield. But not just a shield…there was something else."

He couldn't hold back a yelp as he was suddenly doused with a bucketful of icy water that immediately woke him up. Normally he wouldn't even mind the cold water in Hoenn's heat but the late night – or early morning, he really couldn't tell which – chill made it a lot less appealing.

"There, that should wake you up. Metagross was thoughtful enough to drain as much heat as possible from it. Focus."

Ash scowled but had to admit the ice water had served its purpose, though it was cold enough that he briefly felt himself become one with it as the frozen water touched him.

"Metagross didn't just use a shield. It was able to neutralize the flames before they even reached the shields but still need to maintain one to protect themselves from the heat. It was always centered around Metagross, not where the fire would be like the rest of Metagross' shields. And the vegetation around Metagross wasn't burned very badly."

Steven didn't do or say anything as Ash pieced all the observations he'd made during their battle to finally determine what exactly that was. He had his fair share of theories but saying it aloud like this made it easier.

"There was concern for the heat but the fires snuffed out before they even reached Metagross. And when Infernus teleported nearby Metagross he couldn't breathe…a vacuum?"

"Correct!" Steven congratulated him happily. Metagross turned him to face the former Champion, though Ash barely caught a glimpse of the silver-haired man before the contents of another bucket of ice water were cheerfully dumped on him. "There's your prize!"

Ash glared at Steven sullenly, more annoyed at the sensation of remembering Winter as the cold merged with him than the actual act.

"Oh don't be like that," Steven laughed. Ash was fairly sure he heard the loud, piercing screech of a very amused Skarmory. He didn't think the metallic raptor was too fond of him. "This wasn't even my idea in the first place. I'm just humoring Lance."

"Thanks," Ash retorted drily, more than a bit annoyed at both Steven and the Dragon Master who had put the silver-haired man up to this. Steven thankfully walked over and caught him just as Metagross released their hold on him. "So a vacuum?"

"Yes," his mentor nodded more seriously. "Good job on piecing that together. It's a technique my father and I worked out for Metagross. Once my team was first determined to be at Master-level and I set my sights on the Champion's Mantle I decided it was time to make Metagross everything they could be."

Ash nodded slowly, almost stunned at the concept. It wasn't something he'd ever heard of. It was dangerous, unpredictable, and a threat to almost every fighter in existence.

He loved it.

"How does it work?" Ash asked. "It has to be some sort of psychic ability. Metagross can't learn any flying-type techniques to create that effect. I can't think of any, at least."

"Correct," Steven smirked. "It's fine psychic manipulation on a scale I doubt any other living pokemon could accomplish. I doubt anything but a Master-level psychic could perform and none of them are suited to it like Metagross is."

Well, he couldn't argue that. Metagross still had to breathe but not nearly as much as others. He'd imagine it was fairly draining to hold their breath for so long and still fight but their stationary tactics probably helped to negate that.

"It's a simple concept," the older man explained. "Push all the air away, keep it away, and you've got instant resistance to one of the worst weaknesses of a steel-type. That it also makes it impossible for almost any pokemon to effectively fight Metagross at melee distance is a bonus."

"It's not perfect though," Ash stated. It wasn't contesting Steven. It was a fact.

Steven nodded. "You're right. It's not perfect, but it's about as close as we can get. Extremely effective. But yes, convection is the major flaw. Even though the fire itself dies out and loses a lot of its ability to transmit thermal energy there was still a blast of fire around thirty feet away from Metagross. That's a lot of heat, plus the combustible liquid fire-types use to shoot their flames is still hot and headed for Metagross. That heat is what the shields are for."

Ash nodded slowly, processing it all. It was too bad none of his friends would be able to learn it…Dazed might, but he wasn't sure if she'd be able to hold her breath long enough to find a use for it.

Plus he was pretty sure that it wasn't good for living things to be in a vacuum if they weren't protected somehow. Not that he was an expert or anything.

"So Metagross is safe in the vacuum?" He voiced his concerns. "And how long can Metagross maintain it?"

"Almost indefinitely," Steven replied. Ash thought the man sounded just a little smug about that. "It's somewhat draining but Metagross has high endurance. And it's not a total vacuum – there's a small pocket of air that Metagross is able to maintain underneath their body so they can breathe."

Ash raised an eyebrow. Psychic powers were notorious for being based upon focus, willpower, and ones own capacity. Only the best of psychics could perform multiple actions simultaneously. "And Metagross can maintain that? That sounds like a lot to keep track of."

"There are a lot of advantages to Metagross' computing capacity. Four brains are better than one, especially when each has exceptional ability on its own."

Yes, Steven was definitely smug now. There was no mistaking that. It was well-deserved pride bordering on arrogance. That wasn't to say it wasn't unfounded…pride at least had something to back it up.

It was no wonder Metagross was such a powerful psychic. Ash knew they were well known for being skilled and powerful – renowned for it in battling circuits, even – but he wasn't sure it had ever been pushed to such a degree as Steven's Metagross.

"Is there anything Metagross isn't good at?" Ash asked half-jokingly. It was frustrating fighting something that seemed to have every single one of its weaknesses nullified or worked around. The only weak point he'd found so far was ghostly energy and dark-type energy but Metagross was fast enough to escape even that usually.

"Not really," Steven freely admitted. "Metagross are some of the single most gifted pokemon found in nature. Even if they lacked any psychic capability at all they'd still be formidable with their raw physical might. Their extreme intelligence, analysis, and reaction time are almost unnecessary."

Well he could definitely agree with that.

"And with their psychic abilities…" Ash trailed off, already knowing the answer.

"They might as well be unstoppable to the unprepared," Steven agreed readily. "And in the case of my good friend Metagross, those who have spent months preparing. With Metagross' arsenal, training, reaction time, and the ability to manipulate their body with their psychic abilities they're by far my strongest teammate. The rest of my little family are certainly powerful in their own right, but it's Metagross who has cemented my position."

Ash scowled as he realized the enormity of the task that had been set before him. Steven gushing over Metagross and revealing the full extent of its abilities made it very clear how it had managed to take down Dragonite and Dov. That inhuman precision was dangerous. He'd seen himself how Metagross could snipe a fast, agile flier from the sky.

This was irritating. Ash trusted his team. He knew they'd triumph over Metagross eventually, but for now it seemed like climbing a mountain with nothing but his own limbs.

It felt like he'd been hammered with the sheer superiority Metagross had naturally. Oh, he knew they had worked tirelessly for the seemingly endless power they now wielded. Nothing could reach this level without discipline, impossibly long and hard work, and more pain and hardship than most could imagine.

But with all these natural advantages…

Steven had already mentioned the power Metagross earned by its sheer physiology. Intelligence, physical and psychic power, reaction time. But his Metagross possessed even greater talents thanks to its great experience.

Impossibly huge psychic power he'd never seen from an "ordinary" pokemon. Shields based on precision rather than area covered. Excellent tracking and evasion abilities. Nullification of virtually all of its possible weaknesses.

He wanted to beat it now more than ever.

"And there was me thinking Alakazam was the strongest psychic-type," Ash laughed.

"You aren't wrong," his mentor cut in. Ash paused and looked at him like Steven hadn't just spent the last five minutes gushing over his Metagross. "What? Metagross have more power than the majority of Alakazam and can perform several tasks at once but they aren't as versatile. See, that's the real weakness of Metagross and one that I've spent my career tearing out."

"What, trying to make Metagross versatile? It seemed to me like you succeeded," he snorted as he remembered the many ways Metagross had pounded his team into the ground. Speaking of his friends, where were they? It wasn't like them to not have practically attacked him now that he was up or actually attacked Steven for messing with him.

Steven frowned. "To a point, yes. But not as much as I'd like. See, Metagross is excellent at what they do. The best in the world in my own humble opinion –"

Ash couldn't help but bark out a laugh at that. Steven ignored him and kept talking.

"—but Metagross isn't perfect. See, Metagross is very good at most things but they lack that creative edge to push them forward. They're logical to a fault. It almost always works but it holds Metagross back in the highest levels of competition."

"Can I get some examples?"

"Of course," Steven agreed. "See, Metagross doesn't improvise. They work off of habit and an assessment of what will work best according to their own experience. It's generally fine. But faced with a challenging foe Metagross wouldn't know what to do besides try the same tactics over and over again. A blunt instrument, much like you now."

Ash frowned at that assessment of himself but didn't argue. Now wasn't the time.

"An Alakazam would try some creative use of psychic powers. They would weave an illusion or manipulate the mind if they could. Maybe even use an unexpected combination. Metagross? They are manipulators of force. Physical psychics. Precise users of force, perhaps, but that's their true specialty."

"Remember what Metagross did during your battles? It's all revolved around application of force via psychic energy. All psychic abilities are, technically, but I think you understand what I mean.

Metagross projected force to hit exactly where they needed to. They projected force to stop your team's attacks whenever it was required. They manipulated their body with precise application of force to avoid attacks or enhance their own. The only reason Metagross is as versatile as they are is because I spent a lot of time working with them to improve that."

Ash nodded. He did understand. It was fairly simple once they got to the issue, although he couldn't complain about Steven elaborating. Sure, he was getting the idea that Steven liked to hear him self talk, but he did appreciate the information. It showed he cared at least.

"I think you know what I mean," Steven sighed, winding down a bit. "Metagross almost solely use physical abilities to bludgeon their opponents and avoid damage. It's not their first reaction to engage mentally – not usually – despite how effective they can be with their unyielding mind. Alakazam have their own weaknesses, but altogether they're a match for most Metagross. The one in front of you being the exception, of course."

"Of course," Ash agreed with a snort. "So how did you fix it? I wasn't expecting most of what Metagross could do. Gravity is devastating."

"Isn't it?" Steven smiled. He coughed embarrassedly. "Well, I did manage to make quite a bit of progress with Metagross but we've found a more convenient solution in the meantime. It allows us to blend my own knowledge and relative versatility with Metagross' own talents. Without it Metagross wouldn't be quite as effective or quick to act with unexpected solutions. Can you –"

"Psychic link," Ash cut him off. Steven looked surprised, though pleased once the shock went away. "The Unovan trainer I battled in the Conference, Grey, used one with his Beheeyem."

His mind flashed back to that battle and Ash couldn't help but grin. It had been brutal and savage at parts – he hated remembering Infernus casually roasting one of Grey's pokemon alive – but overall it had been satisfying. Grey wasn't someone Ash would be friends, acquaintances, or even someone he had to see once every few years with but there was something compelling about battling someone like that.

Someone who loved it just as much as he did.

"Hmm, I'm surprised he managed. It's advanced, although Beheeyem are rather skilled with the mental arts…" Steven continued muttering to himself.

"Steven?"

"My apologies," Steven said quickly. "I was just thinking."

Ash blinked. "I could see that."

"Now, I feel like I've burned quite a bit too much daylight already," his mentor sighed. He looked mournfully up at the sky, which had only just barely begun to display the first hints of dawn. "We've got a lot to do, Ash. I'll take you to check out some of your own training and then we'll make a round and see how your team is settling in."

He nodded. That was acceptable. Still, he was a bit interested to see what setup Steven had in mind for his team.

When he asked that Steven just smirked.

"You'll see."

XX

It was finally dawn. Though the sparse forest in which they stood was cast in a faint, almost blue light as the sun made its presence known Ash could feel the heat and humidity brimming. He rubbed his eyes tiredly – once he was able to check his PokeNav he'd found at he'd only gotten about five hours of sleep.

That honestly wasn't too bad for Ash. When he had a strict travel schedule he'd been able to operate on just three or four hours for several days straight as long as he took naps whenever they stopped. It wasn't healthy but it worked. Dazed just had to make sure he had plenty of time to recover when the need for haste was gone.

He had the sneaking suspicion that Steven wouldn't be giving him too many breaks today. To be honest he had no idea what was coming. Steven had been quiet as he led Ash to his own camp atop Metagross' back.

Ash was slightly annoyed at having to walk but didn't say anything. He certainly wouldn't want anyone else riding Plume. Steven wasn't being rude – knowing their teams it was more concern for Ash's safety that kept him off the steel behemoth.

"Here we are," Steven said cheerfully and slid off Metagross with practiced ease. He landed lightly on his feet and took a moment to brush his long hair out of his eyes as Ash caught up. "I know you're tired but I'm going to need you to pay attention here. It's important. Metagross?"

He nodded and took a moment to focus on the Feather embedded his skin. Ash smiled at Fire and Lightning as they surged through his body, casting aside his exhaustion like a gale threw away a layer of dust. Lightning especially wound through his body, though it calmed once Ash noticed Metagross staring at him.

Metagross watched him for a few more seconds before its eyes flashed a brighter red and a mat five feet by five feet unraveled and laid itself before the small group. Steven tapped a button on his suit and instantly several items materialized onto the square.

Ash had to hold back a grin once the nature of the assorted pads and helmet became obvious to him, though he wasn't quite as enthused at the implication of the small, compact stun gun or the long, thin baton that looked like it could be flicked open to a much longer length, almost to the point of being a spear. The twin prongs that extended from its end like tiny blades didn't help that imagery.

"You know these aren't toys," Steven said quietly as he suddenly stepped forward, clasping the baton and expertly flicking it so that it extended to roughly three feet. He eyed the prongs measuredly, as though a tiny bolt of electricity would jump between them. "That's good. These are weapons."

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