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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88. The Grind Part 2

"So this is the training you were talking about," Ash muttered. "Combat?"

Steven nodded. "It's ugly, but I think it's necessary and so does Lance. The battles you'll be involved in aren't like what you've faced before in the Sevii Islands. You won't be mopping up a handful of untrained Rocket grunts or act as the backup. You'll be leading the charge."

Ash's face was like stone. He wasn't afraid of combat or risking his life, but somehow this seemed so much…uglier than stopping Mewtwo or the Birds. It would be a return to bloody struggle between mortals where every second was another opportunity for lost life.

"I'll be there, of course, but I don't want you getting hurt," or killed went unsaid by the silver-haired man, "simply due to chance. If there's a hope that I can avoid it then we'll chase that hope."

"What do I need to do?" Ash asked quietly. He would listen, and he would listen well. His life and the lives of his friends might depend on it.

"The two of us will be assisting League forces in cracking fortified Rocket positions during your time in Hoenn. We're two powerful assets who can overwhelm most defenses with ease," Steven grimaced. "And these are the remnants of the Rockets in Kanto. They're fiercer, less organized. It's a dangerous, wily Rocket that survived Lance's wrath when he realized that Mewtwo was no longer protecting them and they've done a good job of hiding themselves away until they could grow in strength."

Ash raised an eyebrow. "What happened to them being Poochyena still trying to grow some teeth?"

"They still are," the former Champion returned passively, though quickly enough that Ash could tell he'd touched a sore spot. "Though they've hidden away and have begun to build up power they're still not a threat. We've begun to catalogue their bases and are preparing our own actions. There are also several groups who are providing, well, unexpected assistance. It's welcome but considering who it's coming from…"

"And who would that be?" Ash cut in. He needed to learn about this. The most important part of fighting your enemy was to know them first.

Steven frowned, as though he were deliberating. Finally he shrugged. "Two paramilitary organizations that have been active in Hoenn for nearly two decades now, Aqua and Magma. There's a few others involved in the fight but those are the major players that aren't affiliated with the League."

"Aqua and Magma?" He tried the names out. Odd choice of names for an organization but at least it was better than Team Rocket he supposed. And with their duality… "They're related somehow?"

"Not that we know of," Steven confessed. He didn't seem pleased about that. "We aren't even sure who their leaders are or what their motives are. They've been suspected of shady activities in the past but we've never been able to definitely prove anything. We've tried to keep an eye on them but the Ever Grande League just doesn't have the manpower to track those organizations, especially when they haven't even done anything for certain."

Ash frowned. The Indigo League would've been keeping track of those groups like a Fearow eying a Caterpie. After Team Rocket emerged from nowhere a while back as a fierce, relentless criminal group with maneuverability and planning good enough to mark the first real internal threat to Indigo for a century the Indigo League would never make that mistake again.

They would always be vigilant.

"What else is there to know about them?"

Steven sighed and shook his hair out of his eyes. "Too much to say now. I'll forward it to your PokeNav, alright? You can look over the information tonight. I'll make sure to attach other relevant information about the Rockets as well. We don't have time for me to explain everything now."

Ash nodded. He could accept that. He wondered what Dazed would think of it – she'd be reading his mind while he read the actual message, of course.

He suddenly felt very lonely. This was the first time he'd been alone without any of his friends in…how long had it been? It must've been before he started his journey. They were almost a part of him now, attached by an invisible tether that kept them nearby.

He didn't like them being away. After what he'd seen – well, without his family he felt naked. There was always Nidoking listening for threats or Plume scouting or Torrent standing guard. Dazed to banter with and stand as his silent guardian. Infernus always ready to erupt from his pokeball with a roar and gout of flame. Bruiser and Seeker always cheerful and reliable…Tangrowth doing his best to be friends with everybody no matter what. Sneasel to watch grow up and Oz to see grow into her new family.

Without them he was just Ash, a twelve-year old boy who couldn't really do much of anything. A boy who was missing his greatest friends and family.

It was like someone ripped a part from him. He wasn't complete. This silence, only being around Steven and his own team…it was unnerving.

"Ash," Steven's words prompted him to force his mind away from those depressing thoughts. "When you wear these, remember that they aren't to protect you from pokemon. They're there to protect you from the collateral damage of their attacks. The best thing you can do for your own safety is to rely on your team and stay back. Do you understand?"

"Yes, I understand," Ash couldn't help but frown back. It was nice to know Steven cared enough about him to hammer that point in but he needed Steven to realize he wasn't a complete idiot. He had no illusions about his ability to survive even a weak pokemon intent on killing him.

Steven's shoulders relaxed a bit. "Good. This is high quality equipment but if a pokemon wants you dead…well, you're going to die. This equipment buys you time and shields you from shrapnel and secondary effects. You get hit by an attack full on and all this will do is prolong your life a few more seconds. It keeps me from worrying about you getting suffocated by a Gengar or getting a rock shoved through your side but that's it."

Ash nodded again, the reality really setting in on him. He'd faced lethal situations before – more than most, for sure – but a battle really was something different. Usually he just had to stay out of the way of Legends and hope their elemental cloaks didn't rip him apart. In combat he'd actively have dangerous, high-level trainers doing their best to take him out.

"This is the Electrike Shock Baton," Steven demonstrated by making a few quick jabs with the extended length of the weapon. "It's manufactured by a subsidiary company of Devon. This won't stop a ghost or any truly strong pokemon, but if you're dealing with weaker pokemon it can at least hold them off and buy you time. Tougher fighters like rock and ground-types will just shrug it off – if you see them, run."

"You don't have anything to deal with those?" Ash raised an eyebrow. "I thought the League would be ready for anything."

"Ghosts wouldn't even flinch – and that's if you managed to hit them. Look, these produce high amp and high voltage. Penetrating power and capability for actual damage. But that really doesn't mean anything if you're dealing with a mature pokemon. All you can do is stun it and hope you can either escape or one of your friends sweeps in."

Steven frowned as he suddenly remembered something. "And I'm definitely not giving you cryo or pyro grenades. I'm not authorized to give you that training and there's too much opportunity for friendly fire besides."

Ash slumped just a bit. He'd actually really wanted to try one of those out. Something about having that capacity for direct destruction rather than needing to ask one of his friends for help was appealing.

"Look, I'm going to train you in what's practical," Steven explained. He didn't seem too surprised at Ash's disappointment. "These electroshock weapons are easy to train with and maintain. But more importantly they're effective. And it's not all I'll be teaching you – see?"

With that Steven unclipped a small appliance from his belt that Ash hadn't even noticed before. It was almost like a spray bottle, though clearly designed for distance.

"I have Pokemon Spray," Ash snorted. It was basic equipment, like Repels. You couldn't fight pokemon off with a knife, after all, so that was relegated almost solely to being a survival tool. Spray was basically an absolute last resort if you were caught off guard by an aggressive wild pokemon. The composition was almost identical to Repel, though far more concentrated and enough to blind and overwhelm most pokemon. It was generally more effective than electroshocks for survival – shocking a pokemon would just leave it really, really angry once they recovered.

Spraying it with the Occa berry extract generally just made it want to get as far away from you as possible.

"This is a bit different – a bit more range," Steven said, spraying a thin line of liquid and aerosol directly at a tree about fifteen feet away. He couldn't help but squeeze his eyes tight as he felt them start to water at the painfully spicy scent. "It'll distract almost anything. It lets you actually assist in a fight by distracting pokemon and it's certainly not standard equipment – it's my own contribution."

"Thanks," Ash said gratefully as Steven tossed him the device. He examined it closely, though he quickly turned his attention back once Steven sheathed the baton and picked up the ranged stun gun. "I'll be using that too, then?"

"It's just another option," his mentor clarified. "It's better to have this than nothing. Obviously rely on the Devon Occa Spray when you can but if it comes down to you and an enemy pokemon this is better than nothing."

Ash shrugged at the small device, which Steven didn't even bother demonstrating. That would be good for one use and then he'd have to take off sprinting or hope one of his friends intervened. Neither the stun gun nor the shock baton would do more damage than even a moderately powered electric attack.

Mostly it was there for shock value. Ash's lips quirked up at that.

"And my personal favorite, the uniform!" Steven grinned, unraveling the clothing with a small quick flick of his wrist. It was a plain, tan uniform that was lightly padded in several areas such as the shoulders and torso, though not enough to severely restrict mobility. Ash also noticed that the material it was made of looked suspiciously similar to Steven's suit – not in color, but definitely in texture.

Steven caught Ash's knowing gaze. "Oh, you noticed? Yes, my suit and all League combat uniforms are created from Ariados silk. It's strong, durable, and tough enough to protect you from just about any minor explosion or attack. It'll keep you alive, at any rate."

"And the helmet?" Ash asked as he stepped forward to pick up the helmet, which was such a dark grey to be almost black. A barely noticeable antennae rose from its right side, hidden underneath the top layer. Its eyes were glossy black, though he thought he could see a tint of red whenever he caught it from an angle.

Aside from that it had a small respirator in the mouth area and he could see where it sealed down onto the combat uniform. It was clearly a gas mask, probably designed to prevent an enemy Gengar or other ghosts from just flooding into the area and suffocating the wearer. Not to mention there were all sorts of things you wouldn't want to breathe in during an all out battle scenario.

"The Mk. II Aron Ranger Helmet contains a built-in radio, protects you from blunt force trauma, shields your eyes, and ensures you don't breathe in anything too nasty," Steven listed off as though he'd memorized it straight from the manual. Knowing him, he had. "It's a personal gift from me so you could get a cooling system in it as well. Trust me, you don't want to approach a battle with a hot head."

Ash stared at Steven suspiciously after the play on words but when the man didn't even give a hint of a smile Ash figured it was just an innocent mistake.

"Every day we'll get you accustomed to working in uniform," his mentor declared. "You'll need to be ready when we are called to attack Team Rocket and able to focus without distractions. I'll do my best to get you competent with your aerosol and electroshocks too…though hopefully you'll never need them."

He nodded with that, completely agreeing. Ash would really not get involved in the battle himself. If anything was strong or quick enough to make it through the perimeter forged by his friends…well, he'd rather not be the one to face them down.

"How good are you with them?" Ash asked. He had a hard time imagining Steven as any sort of truly martial figure. The man had always seemed like a general to him, like he stood far, far away and managed everything from a distance. Not at all like Lance where the giant of a man would be in the middle of everything screaming and shouting his heart out if he could. "I mean have you used them before?"

Steven frowned. "Let's just say I've gotten my fair share of practical experience in and leave it at that."

Ash nodded, properly rebuked. He knew how it was to want to avoid bringing up bad memories.

The older man sighed at the look on Ash's face. "Take a minute to put these away in one of your storage compartments. They're your responsibility now. Once you're done we'll make a round of your team's training. We'll start on personal combat tomorrow."

"Sounds good," Ash agreed as he set to work. He didn't really think too much as he quickly completed the task he'd been given. All he wanted was to see his friends again…though he couldn't help but be curious as to what each of them would be set up with.

All he knew is that it couldn't be easy. Steven wasn't an easy taskmaster.

XX

"I asked Aggron to take Nidoking and Aron and try to find where they need to develop," Steven declared as Metagross came to a stop. Ash grimaced when he came to a stop. The area was just rugged enough to make it a challenging hike – well, at least if you weren't riding a levitating metal giant – and he found himself unnerved by the complete absence of any other pokemon in the area. He couldn't hear a single Taillow chirp or Wurmple rustling curiously through the grass.

They knew what was here and they were terrified of it.

"I doubt that'll be too hard to figure out for Aron," Ash snorted. "He's only trained for about a week. I've got my own ideas for Nidoking."

"Oh?" Steven smiled at him from atop Metagross, who seemed intent on looking down upon the training site that Aggron led. "Do tell, Ash."

"I've sort of figured that Nidoking's never going to be like Infernus or Torrent. He just doesn't have that raw power," Ash sighed, despondent. "He's strong, but I've been trying to take him in a different direction. I've got to let him develop in his own way instead of trying to push him down the same path as the others."

Steven nodded, listening attentively.

"Nidoking's strength is in his versatility," he muttered. "You saw it when he went up against Metagross yesterday. Remember Triad?"

"Ah yes," his teacher nodded. "I'm sure Lance would be pleased to see his technique used by such an effective wielder. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery."

"It's effective," Ash shrugged and said no more on the topic. "But I'm trying to think of ways to help Nidoking catch up…he won't be a powerhouse but he can be just as dangerous. I think he might have the control for Dig at this point…"

The silver-haired man smiled. "A useful technique, though not without its weaknesses. We can discuss that at another time, though. At the moment I'm more concerned with Aron."

Ash turned sharply to look at the older trainer. "Aron? Why?"

Steven rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a moment before he explained.

"Aron is completely untrained right now beyond a few training exercises you've put him through," he said. They walked forward a few more feet and Steven gestured towards the unveiled great pit rent in the earth where Aggron stood with Nidoking and Aron. Even here the hulking steel-type's size was evident – he towered above even Nidoking, who was becoming quite the large specimen of his breed. It looked like he was growling something to the two of them. "In other words he's ripe to be molded into any style we want…even the unimaginable."

"Watch!" He ordered and tapped one of his storage compartments, releasing a large metal rod he unceremoniously hurled down at Aggron. Ash blinked when it simply stopped several feet away from Aggron's bulk rather than clanging uselessly against the armor. "See?"

Ash stared, doing his utmost to comprehend what had just happened. Aggron hadn't used unexpected psychic abilities to do that. There was no sign of the ethereal glow that always accompanied the use of psychic power. The thought of an Aggron being that strong of a psychic was almost unfathomable to begin with.

His mind rapidly dashed through the sorts of techniques Aggron could learn. Knowing who his teacher was he'd been sure to memorize them during his time in Hoenn. Despite that there remained little that could possibly be responsible.

It wasn't a flying-type technique. Ash couldn't think of any way air could keep the rod as eerily still as it was now. The rod was similar to Aggron in that way…neither so much as twitched. If someone wasn't aware of what Aggron was it could easily be mistaken for a terrible steel statue of some fearsome creature.

He could accept that it was just a strange use of psychic powers if there had been at least some sort of glow. Even extremely specialized, elemental use of psychic powers like with Stealth Rock were obvious.

Aggron could learn Magnet Rise, but that was raw and completely unrefined compared to this. And he'd never even heard of it being applied like this. All it had ever been able to do was keep the user aloft for a minute or so and even that was shaky.

Then again he'd come to realize that most of the truly powerful pokemon had ventured into skills deemed impossible. They excelled at some aspect of combat or technique and used it to crush all that stood in their way. He should know better than to dismiss any possibility by now.

"How?"

Steven smiled. Ash got the feeling that he really enjoyed showing off what his team had achieved…not that Ash was any different. "Think on it for a while. If you can't figure it out by tonight I'll help you out."

Ash sighed but didn't press harder. It was clear Steven preferred that he worked it out himself. And to be honest he couldn't even say he disliked that – there was always a certain satisfaction in doing something without the help of another.

"Let's move on and leave them to their session," Steven spoke up, gesturing for Ash to come along. "As you can see, Aggron has some relatively unique abilities that took a very long time to learn. It didn't help that he began learning them long after he'd mastered most of his abilities…I'm hoping that Aron, as a blank slate, will be able to adapt to them much more quickly and master them to a degree Aggron can't."

"He still needs to learn how to fight normally," Ash pressed. While he found the idea of Aron mastering whatever peculiar ability Aggron possessed appealing he wouldn't sacrifice basic skill in combat for that sort of specialization. It only seemed that it would be useful against steel-types at the moment, though he imagined plenty of other avenues would become obvious once he understood more about it.

"Of course, of course," Steven waved his concerns away. "Don't worry about that. He'll be as combat-ready as we can make him. He'll just have a little more on his plate than he would otherwise."

Ash nodded, letting Steven know he wouldn't argue further. He trusted the man more than almost anyone else – he'd saved his life, after all – but that didn't mean he wouldn't press if he felt concerned about something. Steven knew a lot and clearly had more experience but he wasn't omniscient.

He'd have to keep that in mind as they worked through the rest of the team.

XX

"Most of your team won't be doing anything too fancy during our time here," Steven announced from atop Metagross. The man absentmindedly drummed his long, thin fingers against the titan as he spoke. "I just need to make sure they're up to my standards before we begin focusing on more advanced and demanding exercises."

"Control?" If there was one thing he knew Steven wouldn't find wanting in his team it was power. He had to admit he favored it.

"Control," Steven nodded, a shimmering blue shield appearing slightly above his eyes as they walked into an open clearing alit with the first light of dawn. "They're…unrefined. As I mentioned yesterday your team is very wasteful. In some ways it works – as I said, Kingdra are relatively effective against Metagross precisely because of that – but they could all use a bit of focus. If you got into a battle of attrition there's no way your team would be able to sustain themselves for long."

Ash snorted and shook his head. He doubted Infernus would agree with that. Infernus was a stamina monster. Even as a Magmar he could take hits and rise up again and again long after he should have collapsed. As a Magmortar he held seemingly endless energy – it didn't hurt that the more fire he used the stronger his body got as the environment shifted into his favor.

"Who are the rest of my friends paired up with?" Ash asked after a long silence. He didn't feel quite as naked without his team anymore but he still felt an itch at being apart from them. The Feather searing into his chest like a livewire didn't help.

His teacher didn't answer for a moment, deep in thought. "Hmm…let's see, Nidoking and Aron are with Aggron, obviously. Hypno, Electabuzz, Magmortar, and Kingdra are with Claydol. Tangrowth is with Cradily. Pidgeot and Zubat are with Skarmory, and Sneasel and Machoke are with Armaldo."

Ash held a moment of silence for Claydol. He liked the odd pokemon so far and he'd have to apologize to it later for having to deal with Infernus…and not just Infernus, but an Infernus who had suffered a one-sided defeat the day before and was certain to be in a foul mood.

"When will I get to see them?" Ash couldn't hold back the growl that erupted from deep within his throat. It wasn't right for them to be apart.

"Soon," Steven reassured him quickly. He sent a wary glance at Ash. "Don't worry, this won't be a regular occurrence. I just wanted to see how they'd handle being away from you…trust me, I don't want to have to go through the hassle of separating them from you again."

He smirked at that. Ash wished he could've seen Steven trying to get Nidoking or Dazed away from him…they tended to act as his shadow. Nidoking especially was adamant about never leaving Ash unguarded, though he reluctantly accepted Dazed as a suitable substitute when he had to sleep.

"If I might ask, what on earth made Nidoking so protective? Even Aggron never defended me so fiercely," Steven asked quietly. He didn't look at Ash, instead opting to stare straight ahead as Metagross slowly meandered through the clearing. Ash followed, though he almost froze at the question.

The spot in his chest where Mew had pierced his heart with a beam of psychic energy burned hot and he grimaced. He hadn't told many people that he'd actually died in the battle with Mewtwo. Only Agatha really knew…the rest wouldn't handle it well.

Just the thought of telling his mother what happened…

Ash shook himself back from those dark thoughts. "New Island."

Steven's slate eyes widened in understanding and he nodded sharply. "Ah. That's reasonable, then."

There was a long, uncomfortable silence after that as they walked through the training grounds. Ash distracted himself by marveling at the huge variety of damage that had been done to the land. It was irreparably scarred by impossibly powerful attacks, though it didn't deter local wildlife from setting up in some of the spots.

"Let's return to the camp. Normally I'd have you undergoing physical training, but for your first day I'd rather test your knowledge instead," Steven smiled lightly. "Naturally I can't expect Lance to have taught you too much but who knows? Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised."

Ash felt a dangerous grin come across his face at the challenge.

Steven certainly knew how to motivate him.

XX

"I'd have Infernus use Fire Blast," Ash declared, his mind sluggish. They'd been doing this for hours and he'd watched the sun rise high into the sky and come down again. They had breaks every forty-five minutes or so – Steven had said pushing Ash for any longer would just be a waste – but then they'd immediately go back to work.

"Why?" Steven asked, watching him impassively. There was no sign of approval nor disappointment in his cool features. Ash didn't know how he did it – the moment they were back he'd slipped into this cold, calm state that left Ash feeling as though he were constantly walking down a very narrow, unsteady bridge whenever he tried to answer the question.

Ash frowned. "At the distance you described there's no way it could miss. It's slow but there's no way a Slaking could dodge, especially after using Hyper Beam like you described. Plus it would help keep Slaking overheated and give Infernus more time to work before it was able to retaliate."

Steven finally nodded as Ash finished his assessment of a mock battle. The older man had run through dozens at this point, forcing Ash to consider every move and its outcome. Despite that it always seemed like the older man was able to pick out some flaw in everything Ash did, though as he came to learn Steven's expectations it became much more manageable.

He rubbed his aching temples. This much mental focus was difficult. The blasted Hoenn heat and humidity didn't help, though he didn't notice it nearly as much anymore. After the long weeks training before he met Steven he'd managed to adjust to it a little bit.

"I think that will be all for the day," Steven said after a moment. His lips quirked up into a smile and he shifted a bit from where he sat on Metagross. Ash idly wondered how he could still feel comfortable up there after spending almost all day on the titan. They didn't look like a nice seat. "You pleasantly surprised me, Ash. There's always room for improvement but you've gotten the hang of thinking things through."

Ash nodded tiredly. "Will we do this everyday?"

"Of course!" Steven chirped. Ash grimaced and the man finally laughed. "Oh, don't give me that look! I promise it won't be so grueling. We covered a lot of the basic stuff – like how much you knew about the physical effects of techniques on a variety of different pokemon – and it's clear you know the Pokedex inside and out. We'll stick to the mock battles and a few other hypotheticals from now on, I promise."

He let out a sigh of relief. The quizzes hadn't been terrible but Steven had quickly made the questions harder and harder until he had to think for at least one or two minutes before answering.

At this point it felt like no stone had been left unturned. Steven had tested his knowledge of pokemon care, their abilities, their physiology, what habitats they lived in, what techniques were favored by what families, and several other categories that made his brain hurt just thinking about them.

That had been in the first two hours. Ash absentmindedly took a swig of water, glad that Steven ensured he always had plenty. If he hadn't stayed hydrated his mouth and tongue would feel drier than a desert with all the talking he'd done.

He went ahead and rubbed his jaw a bit too, wincing at the stiffness. Ash had probably talked more today than he had since coming to Hoenn. Considering Daisy had enjoyed poking and prodding him for conversation whenever she could that was honestly impressive.

"Take a rest until your team returns," Steven said sympathetically. His face had slackened from the hard lines it had held during training into the somewhat softer visage of the man Ash knew. "I know this schedule is demanding but I promise it will pay off. By the time we leave her in a few weeks you'll notice the difference."

Ash nodded gratefully and relaxed. He quickly pulled out his PokeNav and checked his messages. It felt like it had been a while since he'd been in contact with his mother and everyone else. Besides, it was too dark right now to read Cynthia's book. He'd have to wait until Infernus or Dazed got back to make a light.

XX

Ashy,

I hope your first day is going great! I know you might be too busy to read this but just know I'm thinking about you!

Goldenrod's fantastic. Classes have finally started and it's amazing! I'd forgotten just how exciting it is to go and hear from real experts on the field…though none of them are quite as good as Professor Oak!

But even aside from classes there's so much to do. Movies, shows, just exploring the city…I love it here. I know you like your woods and mountains but you should come by sometime if you're able! I've love to see you again…it's not quite the same sending messages.

Your Uncle Spencer's been a wonderful help showing me around when he's not off researching the Unown. It's really fascinating stuff though and I can't fault him for spending so much time on them, especially now that I'm able to help with Molly! Those Unown really live up to their name!

I know I've said it before but you'd really love Molly. She's a sweet little girl and smart too! She's so young and I'm already able to start teaching her to read! It's really easy when I use the Unown carvings Spencer keeps everywhere…she's seen them all her life and she picks up on it so quickly!

That's enough about me – I know I'm not that exciting! How are things with you, Mr. Elite Four Ketchum? I know you're with Mr. Stone now but how is he? I'm sure he'll be a great teacher and if he isn't just let me know and I'll see what I can do!

I hope everyone's doing alright! I know you said Sneasel is being nicer which is wonderful. Isn't it great watching your baby grow up? But it does sound like Bruiser's been good for him! I have to admit I miss the big guy and cute little Seeker too…they were such a joy to have around the house!

I'll cut this a bit short. I know you have a lot more important things to do than talk to your mom! Try not to push yourself too hard and say hello to everyone for me! I love you!

Love,

Mom.

XX

Guess who just got his fourth badge in Johto? This guy! I beat Jasmine with just Charizard. I actually felt kinda bad for beating her so bad but who cares? I'm awesome! Amelia had way more trouble than me. I thought she was gonna lose.

Amelia here, that's because I don't have a stupidly powerful Blaze ability that makes pretty much any steel-type useless against you. And Jonathan almost lost Charizard to her Steelix so I don't think he has room to talk. Plus we met Gary.

And it's Jonathan again. That fight was crap. I swear the jerk was tracking us or something! There's no way he would have just conveniently been waiting at the end of that route after we kicked the crap out of a ton of trainers. I caught a Houndour by the way. She's badass.

He's trying to change the subject. He's just mad he lost.

I don't think it counts as losing when my team was halfdead alredy from fighting so much that was complete crap and next time I fsiht Gary Im gonna beat the crap out of him like he beat the crap out of my team

He gets passionate.

It's not passion I'm pissed off because Gary was somehow waiting for us and still got all cocky about beating me when Charizard was barely conscious and the rest of my team was tired and Ash if I don't beat him I demand you stomp him with that super strong Magmortar.

Ash smiled at that. He of all people knew that Gary could show up at the worst of times. Plus he really wasn't opposed to getting in another battle with his former rival…

Anyways, that's all that's been going on with us. I'm guessing you're on some top secret mission for the League or something? I know you said you were training until you met Steven again. Say hi to him for us by the way! We didn't really get to see him since Mt. Moon.

Yeah! Steven's the coolest. Also ask him if he could take me as his apprentice because I can't find a Master to save my life. Why'd you have to go to Hoenn Ash? If you were with us we'd probably run into a Master like every other day. You seem to know half of them anyways.

Alright well we'll cut this short! I bet you're super busy. Good luck!

What she said. How's that Aron you caught coming along? Aggron are super cool and I can't wait to have Charizard beat it up!

Jonathan and Amelia

XX

Ash,

How's my favorite trainee doing? Steven told me you performed well in his trial yesterday. The fact that you pushed Metagross so far is seriously impressive. It's not easy for me to admit, but last time we fought Metagross got the better of me. It took Mael using Draco Meteor to finally finish the blasted thing off. After that the rest of his team fell like Ledyba. He still beat me but just know he's not unbeatable. I'd like to think I'd prove the stronger after all this time.

Steven's not quite as focused on growth through combat like me. That's not his prerogative. That doesn't mean he won't have you challenge him. And because of that I'd like to give you some advice now that Steven's had his fun:

DO NOT fight on Steven's terms. His whole team is designed to counter trainers like us, Metagross being the prime example of that. You and I hit hard and fast. We tend to overpower our foes through elemental force and attrition. Not many can keep fighting long when they're dodging or nullifying everything our teams throw at them.

Steven and his Metagross are one of those. Attacks just wash off its shields. It can track and shut down fliers with ease. It conserves as much energy as possible with those tiny shields. You will never win just through tiring it out…not without sacrificing your entire team.

Trying to beat Metagross – or any of his team, really – with raw power just won't work. It's like trying to break a steel ball with a hammer. It'll crack eventually but it's just not worth the effort.

No, he's learned to counter us well. I suppose you have my time in Hoenn to thank for that. Drake always loved seeing me get frustrated trying to pound Steven's team into dust…it's really been too long since I paid the cranky old coot a visit.

Their weakness isn't a physical thing. I daresay Steven's nullified those entirely. He's a master of techniques and has pushed his team past limits most would never even realize.

Steven's weakness is that he's just as cold and rigid in battle as the steel he's mastered. He isn't as flexible as we are. Our mutual friend is clever enough to get by but he relies on preparation, planning, and the encyclopedia he's shoveled into his skull.

From what I've seen exploiting that psychic link he has with Metagross only deepens that weakness. Sure, he gets a bit more time to think and has a great awareness of the battlefield, but it also limits his creativity. A psychic link goes both ways, though he likes to pretend it doesn't.

Now my advice…I'm tempted to let you figure everything out on your own. I know you're smart and clever enough to have worked it out all ready. But with how Steven can be I figure I'll be nice.

Topple that house of cards he's built. Just because they're cards made out of metal and stabilized by Metagross' psychic powers doesn't mean anything! Catch him off guard, disrupt his plans, and take a picture of his face when his prized Metagross falls flat.

I'm serious about that by the way. I still owe Steven for that little prank with the capes…

I think that's about it. I just wanted to check in with my favorite trainee. Steven's a harsh taskmaster but he does care about you and will do a great job of guiding you along your path. You'll find him to be a good friend.

I'll be in contact for the remainder of your time in Hoenn and look forward to hearing back from you. I would send you more information on your responsibilities and the tasks you'll face in Hoenn but I'm allowing Steven to take over for the moment. He loves that stuff.

Good luck,

Lance

P.S. Bruno wanted to congratulate you on the progress of Bruiser and his Rampage. Steven himself told me of its effectiveness against Metagross. Despite what it looked like Metagross was pushed hard in your battle.

Keep up the good work.

Ash smiled when he finished the letter. Lance always was good at lifting his spirits up. Giving him a veteran's insight into Steven's mindset was quite the treat but to be honest he just found it to be a relief that his family had pushed Metagross. After seeing it seemingly shrug off everything he'd been worried of just how far the gap was.

This…this made it manageable.

So he smiled and relaxed. That was the last of the messages left for him. As he typed his response he couldn't help but allow his mind begin to weave strategies based around facing down and neutralizing Metagross.

It might be a good while away, but it was attainable. And he would win.

XX

"You're back!" He cheered as his team arrived into their camp. Steven didn't look up from his own PokeNav, though he smiled at Ash's exuberance. Ash couldn't find it in himself to care and cast his own PokeNav aside as he rushed over to his team.

Steven's team passed by without a care in the world. Most looked rather satisfied with themselves.

"How was it?" Ash asked, noting that Steven and his team were already headed away to give them some privacy. He went ahead and guided them over to the rather Spartan camp. Aside from his bedroll and the food he'd prepared for his friends there was nothing to differentiate it from the surrounding environment.

Nidoking just grunted softly and paused to lightly bump Ash with his armored shoulder before he curled up at the trainer's feet and closed both eyes. Ash blinked and cocked his head. None of his team had any obvious injuries.

Do not fret, Friend-Trainer. We are merely exhausted. Though we did not battle our exercises were…demanding.

Ash nodded in sympathy as he glanced around and saw just how tired his team was. Even Infernus, bountiful fountain of limitless energy he was, sagged slightly. That didn't stop him from flashing Ash a savage grin and flaring up a bit, of course. He just grinned back and dipped his head in acknowledgment…if even Infernus had lost all spirit he'd really be worried.

"Control?" He asked. His team nodded back. Ash shook his head ruefully. With Steven it was no surprise. No doubt the former Champion wanted to maximize their productivity over the next few weeks.

As well as rigorous mental exercises – no doubt the Brute was beside himself in disappointment. I doubt he's ever considered using his mind.

Ash rolled his eyes and snorted at Dazed's barb. He supposed she'd never be too tired to take a shot at Infernus. She quickly sobered up.

Mentor was adamant that we possess a plan for every eventuality. It was an interesting day, albeit a difficult one. I was impressed with Mentor's ability to maintain simultaneous telepathic contact with each of us.

"All four of you, huh?" Ash muttered and eyed Dazed, Infernus, Oz, and Torrent. Claydol must have pushed them hard. He couldn't help but smile at Torrent when the Kingdra straightened under his gaze, refusing to show any sign of weakness. "Good job, everyone! I know it's been hard but you'll be seeing the results in no time."

There wasn't too much response to that, although Tangrowth gurgled happily – in fact, he seemed to be in the best shape of them all – and held Aron up so the little steel-type could hear better. Ash grinned at Aron, whose sky-blue eyes had started to droop from fatigue. Their newest friend just wasn't accustomed to this sort of intense training.

Though he had to admit that the rest weren't doing too much better. There was a huge difference between physical exhaustion and the headache inducing mental fatigue that built up from the sort of training Steven was instilling in them. That wasn't to say they'd escaped physical exhaustion – he could easily see the weariness that engulfed their bodies from the long hours of control exercises.

They needed rest. Ash doubted tomorrow would be any easier and it was already dark. He'd like to be awake before Steven came by. They'd most likely be up at around the same time, or maybe earlier if Steven was disappointed by their progress.

It was only eight at night but he didn't care. It was a long day for all of them and he'd rather have too much rest than too little.

"Get to bed!" He ordered, not unkindly. His friends were all too eager to oblige. Bruiser had already collapsed and Seeker was happy to stay perched on top of him, wings held tightly to her body. She looked like she didn't even want to flutter over to say hello at the moment. "Torrent, Infernus…come with me. I want to talk to you for a minute."

The targeted pokemon nodded, though Infernus couldn't help but snort a bit of fire. Ash frowned as he turned to Dazed, silently giving her permission to put the rest under. It was just unfortunate that Sneasel wouldn't be able to take advantage, though Ash knew he'd never had any trouble sleeping. Half the time it was all the little dark-type wanted.

He stepped off into the forest. Infernus and Torrent followed, the latter careful to extinguish any cinders left behind by the Magmortar.

Ash crossed his arms. "How are you two feeling?"

Torrent dipped his head in what Ash knew to be his equivalent of a shrug. Ash sent him a smile. "Good. How about you, Infernus?"

The Magmortar growled, heat radiating off of him in steady waves as his anger flashed. It was clear he didn't appreciate the reminder of his one-sided bout. Ash grimaced as he felt the Feather flare in tune with Infenrus' fury…his awareness only grew as the fallen leaves around them crackled and twisted as the hints of fire licked at their shells.

"Enough," Ash whispered and it was over. Infernus lowered his head. He eyed the Magmortar measuredly. "I know it's frustrating but we will beat Metagross. We just weren't ready for it. We've never fought a truly defensive fighter like that before. But now we know what to expect."

Both of his friends nodded in sync with one another. Ash looked from one to the other. "I brought you two out here because you're going to be key to that. Torrent, you're going to be the only one who can really damage Metagross for the near future. Bruiser can as well but he has his own issues to work through. I'll talk with you later about what to start working on but I wanted to give you a heads up."

Torrent nodded. He bowed to Ash one last time before he followed the unspoken dismissal. Ash watched his massive form silently levitate through the light limbs and branches of the sparse forest before he turned to Infernus, who glowed even with his great power restrained.

"You're angry."

Infernus' nostrils flared but he didn't do anything. Ash smiled. "Good."

He took a step closer. Ash had to fight to ignore the heat that poured from Infernus' body. "I've already told every one of you that I'm proud. Each of you fought as hard as you could against an overwhelming opponent." His lips quirked up as Infernus growled softly. "But I know you – that's not enough. You didn't have a chance, did you?"

The Magmortar really did snarl at that, though not at Ash. No matter how furious he was he would never do that. Ash knew that as certain as he did that Infernus had surrendered godhood at Ash's request.

"Metagross is immune to fire," Ash stated. He almost laughed at the roar that rose up in Infernus' throat before the Magmortar thought better of it. To Infernus, who had been as one with Fire, that was almost a personal offense. "They can take the air out of an area, cut off the oxygen supply so any fire will just sputter and die."

Infernus' mouth twisted up into a sneer. Despite himself Ash could easily see the glow emanating from his friend shine ever brighter and the heat grew even more intense…if this kept up Ash would have to back off.

He was only human.

Ash met Infernus' directionless glare and grinned savagely. "But Metagross isn't immune to heat. They might not burn, but they will melt."

Infernus smiled back.

XX

"How are you feeling?" Steven chortled as they came to a stop. The man had discarded his standard suit for once, opting for a grey tank top and black running shorts instead. He kept laughing as he clapped Ash on the back. "Stand up. If you stay hunched over you won't breathe as well."

Ash nodded but couldn't help the slight bend in his shoulders as he wheezed in a desperate attempt to get rid of the fire in his chest. Sweat covered him with a slight sheen and he was certain he'd need to have Torrent help him get in a shower tonight. That wasn't even close to a priority right now though – he was a bit more concerned with the heavy lead that had made its home in his limbs.

"Three miles!" Steven grinned. He was breathing normally, used to hard exercise in the hot and humid air. "We'll make an athlete out of you yet. You did alright, though we'll have to work on that time. Thirty minutes won't cut it."

He didn't respond as he collapsed against a blissfully cool tree trunk and closed his eyes as a faint feeling of nausea swept over him. His body was rebelling as best it could against the unexpected exertion. This wasn't quite what he'd expected during their slot devoted to physical training…he understood that he would need to be in good shape for field work but he hadn't realized just how unforgiving Steven would be.

Lance had him work with his pokemon when they climbed Mt. Ember but he felt that the Indigo Champion did that more for his own amusement than anything. Sure it helped with their bond and was an interesting exercise but it wasn't strictly necessary. He'd just been trying to get Ash involved.

Steven was getting him into shape. Ash wasn't unhealthy by any means. But building up endurance for long days of walking wasn't quite the same as running several miles, let alone in this unfamiliar climate. All he could be grateful for was that it was still fairly early in the morning – they'd started just after dawn broke and most of the team had been sent to work with Steven's pokemon – and that it wouldn't reach the miserable temperatures he'd see in midday.

"Just be glad Lance wasn't able to give you standard Elite Four physical training," his teacher smiled as he watched the exhausted boy. "I know he had you climbing on Mt. Ember but when it comes to fitness he's brutal. He's the one that got the National League to raise the fitness requirements for relevant Elite Four and Gym Leaders."

Ash just barely nodded. He wasn't much interested in talking at the moment, though he exhaled in relief when Sneasel, the only one of his friends to join him on the run, blew a small gust of icy air onto him. His sweat felt like it froze over and it might've been the most wonderful feeling in the world.

"Drink up!" Steven tossed him a bottle of water. Ash quickly snatched it out of the air before Sneasel could do anything with it. He'd seen the way his friend's eyes longingly tracked the bottle…Sneasel always had enjoyed freezing the water inside the bottle and watching it explode. "You'll want to stay hydrated. Hoenn's humidity isn't doing you any favors. Just wait until we do this in full gear!"

He just grunted and uncapped the bottled water before he lowered it down to Sneasel, who greedily drank it up. The dark-type was in perfectly good shape but Ash knew he'd have a much more demanding day. This was just a warm-up – Sneasel had loped alongside him with ridiculous ease. He was pretty sure Sneasel was laughing at him.

Sneasel was kind enough to leave the water ice-cold once he'd had his fill and eagerly clambered up onto Ash's shoulder, hissing a bit as he almost slid off from all the sweat. Ash just laughed and scratched his friend as he took a few swigs of water. No need to rush.

"Sneasel is in excellent condition," Steven noted with interest. He was wise enough to stay away from Sneasel, however. No matter how interested the former Champion was he knew just how quickly a Sneasel's ire could be raised. "You must train him extensively. I've met Weavile with less stamina."

Ash couldn't help the laugh that burst from his throat at that one. He didn't even care that Sneasel hissed and clenched down on his shoulder more tightly or that his throat seared with the noise. "Let's just say I've found a good way to motivate him."

Steven eyed him curiously but didn't press. Apparently he wasn't sure it was something he wanted to know.

"It's just a fun game we play," Ash snickered, though he was sure to rub Sneasel's ears affectionately to appease his friend. Steven nodded slowly.

"I can't say my team's ever been much for games," The silver-haired man confessed. Ash saw his eyes flit upwards. "And I'm certain they'd end up being a bit too…competitive."

Ash shrugged. "It's all about finding the right one."

Steven smirked. "Perhaps." He stroked his chin. "You know, I'm feeling a bit competitive myself. What do you think about making a bet?"

"What bet?" Ash eyed the man warily. He knew Steven enough to know this would be interesting.

"We're going back. I'll give you a five minute head start on the journey back to the camps," Steven started. "If you win I'll have Claydol teach Hypno a rather powerful technique of mine a few months early. If I win…well, we'll try and work a few more miles in. It's been a while since I've gotten to stretch my legs."

Ash frowned. On one hand he seriously doubted his ability to beat Steven in any sort of race. He didn't have that much endurance or speed and Steven seemed to be deceptively athletic underneath that suit of his. He lacked the sheer mass and bulk of Lance but he had a sort of wiry strength to him.

On the other he'd be doing a disservice to Dazed if he didn't at least try. It would only be him being punished if he failed.

He eyed Sneasel. Besides, Steven didn't outline any other rules. His friend might just be able to leave some obstacles to slow the man up a bit. It just might equalize this.

"Let's do it."

XX

Ash ignored the fire in his lungs and weight in his limbs as he ran back to the campsite. He needed to hurry back lest Steven overcome him through sheer physical superiority.

Sneasel dashed alongside him, turning to fake a yawn at Ash every few seconds. Ash just snorted and shook his head – sweat flicked to the side and he grimaced at the raw feeling in his throat. That wasn't something he'd expected when he'd started this race.

He couldn't even spite Sneasel for making fun of him. Not after he'd put his friend through much worse for the sake of training. Besides, Sneasel had considerately frozen essentially half the forest behind them to slow Steven's progress.

If he didn't feel absolutely terrible he would've grinned as Steven's small campsite came into view…only to stop and stare as he saw Steven casually sitting on his bedroll sipping water and tossing scraps of meat to Skarmory. The great steel bird eyed Ash and seemed distinctly satisfied even before it snapped another thrown snack out of the air.

"Ah, Ash!" Steven smiled softly as he looked over at the approaching pair. "I've been expecting you. Take a rest…you'll need it before we continue."

Ash's eye twitched. He didn't bother asking how Steven had arrived. His bearer stood before him, clad in armor of shining steel and armed with razor-sharp talons and a beak that could pierce and pry open stone with little effort.

"Good, I don't need to explain," The older man laughed as he rose in a single, smooth motion. Metagross appeared from behind him near silently, hidden by the foliage. Ash scowled as he walked over and sat on a tree trunk that had been felled by one of Steven's teammates. His black-furred companion quickly clambered up into his lap. "I'll admit you were clever using Sneasel…I'd hoped you wouldn't forget his skills. You're resourceful, though I'd advise you to be a bit more observant next time."

"You don't have to worry about that," Ash muttered. He couldn't exactly be angry at Steven for flying back on Skarmory but he was still a bit irritated. That he'd be wasting time running until Steven got bored rather than doing something productive like training either himself or his team. "I've learned my lesson."

Steven nodded, serious once more. "In that case stay down. We'll run when we check on your team but if you've learned your lesson there will be no need. Just stay observant. Things are rarely as they first appear."

Ash snorted. He knew that better than anyone. Since becoming a trainer he'd seen entire sides of the world he'd never have imagined. The Legends weren't what he'd expected when he first stepped out of Pallet.

Despite that he nodded along to humor Steven. It was a valuable lesson, regardless of how annoying he found it. He'd do well to focus what wisdom he'd gained onto mundane matters as well as those of Legendary proportions…he supposed it was just a bit hard for him to take these issues as seriously after watching the devastation of a single Bird.

Steven rolled his shoulders as he glanced at Ash. "My point is made. I won't keep up these little tests for much longer. I'm just trying to breed good habits – if you run in without thinking you might get yourself and your team killed. I've seen too many people hurt from simple lack of forethought to risk you and your team." He grimaced, as though remembering a memory best forgotten. "Just keep it in mind for when we start running through mock battles and other scenarios. I know this sort of twist is annoying, but the experience will serve you well in the future."

"Thanks," Ash dipped his head. He idly traced small designs in the dirt. A few miniature versions of his team packed together. A double helix. "I know it's valuable." He considered the silver-haired man for a moment. "So who taught you all of this? I doubt you just figured it all out on the road."

"You're not wrong," the older trainer drummed his fingers across his thigh. He didn't look at Ash, opting instead to stare off into the forest. Metagross' massive bulk cast him in shadow, though the glowing red eyes distracted Ash somewhat. "Let's see…it should be said that I spent a fair amount of time with the Elite Four from a relatively early point as a trainer. After I placed in my first Conference I received an invitation to Lavaridge to train under Fino Moore."

Ash frowned…that name sounded familiar. He knew that was a member of the old Elite Four here. But if he was right then that definitely wasn't a Steel Master. Fino Moore was the complete opposite, in fact.

When he voiced those thoughts Steven graced him with a laughing grin. "Ah yes, I wasn't sure if you'd recognize the name. He's retired from public life nowadays, though I try to keep in touch. How much do you know?"

"He's a Fire Master formerly of the Elite Four," Ash recited from one of the League archives. "He was one of the first of the Ever Grande Elite Four and his cornerstone was a Typhlosion," he finished, struggling to remember any more. The man had been a footnote mostly. It didn't seem like he'd done much of anything notable other than that.

"That's plenty," Steven shook his head. "He was retired from the Elite Four by that point but he was still well-respected as the Lavaridge Gym Leader. Fino took me under his wing and taught me much of what I know. I'll admit it was probably the hardest thing I've ever done – training under a Fire Master pushed me to my brink at times."

Ash nodded along, grateful that he wasn't a specialist. They might make it to the rank of Master more frequently but he couldn't imagine how frustrating it would be to be faced with your natural weakness every time you sparred. Steven was annoying to face since he could shut down almost everything but at least when he beat Ash's friends down it wasn't through mere type advantage.

He eyed Steven as a thought suddenly popped into his mind. "You developed your Vacuum technique there, right?"

Steven grinned, obviously pleased. "Indeed. It was just about the only way to equalize things between us…relatively, of course. Fino was my greatest challenge for years – I can honestly say I was prouder when I defeated him for the first time than when I claimed the Champion's Mantle."

Ash couldn't help but nod along absentmindedly. He knew for a fact he'd relish the defeat of his own Master.

The former Champion smiled at Ash – a real smile, not just a satisfied or wry or confident twist of his lips. "I think he'd like you. We'll have to swing by sometime."

His eyes lit up. "Think he'd be willing to battle? Infernus would love that!"

His mentor chuckled and rose in a single smooth motion. "Always so eager for a fight. He might just humor that – Fino's a gentle man at heart, but his team's always enjoyed a good spar. You have a long way to go before you match him, though."

Ash matched Steven's motion. "I could say the same with you," he rolled his eyes and took a moment to adjust his cap, "but that won't stop me. How can we get better if we don't try?"

"A good attitude," was his response. Steven smiled brightly and gracefully climbed Metagross to adopt his normal seat. Ash couldn't help his grimace – he had the nasty idea that he knew where this was going. "Let's put it to work, shall we?"

And with that simple sentence a very long, very painful day began again.

XX

He eyed the brush warily as he heard a great thunderous roar that sounded all too familiar. The acrid scent of hot, oily smoke graced his nose and he grimaced. Ash rose to his feet in an instant, worried about whatever on earth had frustrated Infernus this badly.

Normally he'd be a bit more relaxed. Ash trusted his friend just as much as any other member of the team, if not more so. But the fact was that Infernus was still being a sore loser over his loss to Metagross – though he couldn't complain considering how relentlessly he was training – and not exactly enjoying the tame nature of Steven's training. Even after nearly a week they hadn't progressed beyond very light spars. Lance's training was a lot more appealing to Infernus.

He placed a palm against Torrent's smooth chest as the Kingdra's snout pointed fiercely in the direction of the noise. "Relax," Ash shook his head. "How about we see what's going on first?"

Torrent reluctantly back down and his chest relaxed a bit. That didn't keep him from keeping dangerous scarlet eyes narrowed. Ash just shook his head. Torrent had been so relaxed earlier too. He'd been released from training for the day in order to spend some time with Ash.

Ash just crossed his arms and look levelly into the woods. He cocked his head. There was plenty of smoke but very little heat. More surprising, there wasn't any fire. And when Infernus was angry…

Well, he should probably try and see if Steven would consider training somewhere other than a forest at some point. Infernus was strong enough to be a walking fire hazard already. The randomly charred and ashen clusters of trees dotting the training ground were a testament to that.

His patience was finally rewarded when a giant, gray clump of something he couldn't quite make out burst from the foliage in a rage, tearing apart trees like they were toothpicks and roaring something that got Torrent's attention.

Finally the dust and splintered wood cleared.

He blinked and heard a deep, unfamiliar rumble from beside him he was pretty sure was Torrent laughing.

Infernus glared at the Kingdra, quite literally steaming mad. Sneasel popped up behind the Magmortar snickering madly, though he seemed to enjoy perching himself on Infernus' massive shoulder. It wasn't often he could even bear to be around the fire-type. Thick fur and heat weren't a good combination.

Ash couldn't really find it in himself to say anything.

He'd never seen his friend so…damp. The normal fires that flickered and jump with Infernus' every twitch had died, reduced to little more than tiny wisps of smoke that fought fiercely to escape past the water on his skin. He wasn't quite small, but without his fires he lost some of the normal height and bulk he claimed otherwise. He was still an absolutely massive pokemon but Ash thought it almost sad seeing him so, well, pathetic.

Mud clung to Infernus' upper body, stifling any chance of Infernus getting out of this easily. It was smeared all over him, mostly clumped up on his shoulders, chest, and back spikes as well as his head. That looked to have been thrown off for the most part, though, and his head and shoulder flames had essentially baked the mud onto him. The spots where it had been slung off in Infernus' frantic charge was steaming.

Infernus was quite literally dripping and nothing he could do seemed to change it…he wavered slightly, as though drunk, and blinked slowly before he toppled forward. Sneasel hissed and yowled as he barely clung on and spitefully dug his claws in deep to the tough hide.

"Infernus!" He rushed forward with a cry and stabilized the huge warrior. Infernus growled something, though it didn't even sound angry. The Magmortar shook his head sleepily and leaned onto Ash…unfortunately he was still much, much hotter than Ash's body could handle easily and the boy hissed as his hands were seared. "What happened?"

The Brute lost his patience and thought it a good idea to attack Mentor rather than complete the assigned exercise.

A voice like velvet whispered into his mind, amused.

Ash turned to face Dazed as she made her appearance, ignoring the burning in his hands even while the Hypno shielded him from Infernus' heat. He didn't even respond, too worried about Infernus' state. He hadn't seen him this exhausted since –

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