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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89. The Grind Part 3

He grit his teeth to avoid going back to those thoughts. He needed Infernus to return to him.

Fire awoke in him and he felt the Feather melt deep into his chest as he felt his veins burn white-hot. He hissed in agony – he wanted to scream – but it was gone as soon as it had begun.

Infernus' eyes snapped wide open and he stood away from Ash, eying the burns on Ash's hands with something hard to place with the sudden glow of his friend's fire-patterned skin. The Magmortar grumbled a bit and stood straight, revitalized despite the water and mud still clinging to his suddenly revitalized form.

He wasn't sure what had just happened but he felt the Feather retreat, its job done.

Dazed, joined by Oz, said nothing.

"Sit!" Ash ordered Infernus as the fire-type seemed to remember whatever had done this to him. He'd been a few seconds away from taking off, ignoring that even with the Feather's help he'd be worn down by his low temperature in a minute or two.

Infernus obeyed without question.

"Alright, what happened?" Ash folded his arms and looked down on his friend. Infernus grumbled something and he was pretty sure he heard Sneasel snickering from wherever he'd scurried off to. He could downright feel Torrent's deep rumble from his side, so close they were almost touching. The noise practically vibrated his bones.

The Magmortar just scowled and renewed his efforts to reignite his fires to their true strength. Ash could tell Infernus didn't enjoy feeling like that any more than Ash did.

"Dazed?" He knew he wouldn't get anything out of Infernus. Aside from acting like a sullen child he figured he'd need Dazed's help to get any more than a very basic understanding.

Dazed's eyes were turned up. Ash looked at her oddly – she was actually beaming. He'd grown used to the quick eye-smiles she liked to give whenever he did something right in her eyes, but this was something else. She wasn't just happy – she was just as amused as Torrent.

I wish I could project memories.

Ash scoffed. "I do too. We can work on that later. How about you tell me what happened first."

His friend finally sobered up just enough to continue, though her pendulum still leapt to and fro oddly quick. Ash could spy little distortions in the air nearby, subtle reminders of the force just waiting to be channeled.

He shook it off and turned.

Mentor did not appreciate the Brute's continued disruptions. Mentor is patient, but I believe the Brute was too blind to appreciate Mentor's ability. While he futilely attempted to burn Mentor with his flames, Mentor opted to quench them with a nearby pond.

The trainer cocked his head. "An entire pond?"

Yes.

There was more smug satisfaction in that word than Ash had imagined Dazed was capable of. He shrugged it off – he'd accepted Infernus and Dazed would never be particularly close.

Then he frowned. "How did Claydol levitate that much water at once? I could see Metagross doing it, but –"

Mentor didn't levitate it!

Ash blinked at the high-pitched projection. He couldn't even remember the last time she'd exercised anything less than perfect control over her svelte mental voice. Then what she said actually caught up with him.

"Explain, please."

Dazed polished her pendulum with trembling fingers, her eyes wide as she recalled the scene. Ash couldn't help but smile softly, ignoring his concern over Infernus for the time being.

The pond simply…appeared. As though teleported. The Brute was dry one moment and as you saw him earlier the next. I would not have thought it possible! Mentor's skill is phenomenal!

Ash nodded along, pondering the implications of that…he wasn't sure Dazed was capable of something on that scale yet, but the sheer potential was too dizzying to pass up. He'd honestly never even considered utilizing remote teleportation…generally teleportation was only used to transport the user. A person or thing could be carried alongside the user, of course, but it was immensely more difficult. He actually had a lot of respect for the Alakazam specially trained by the League for that purpose. His lip curled up in a slight sneer as he realized he even had to include Bob the Alakazam in that category.

He shrugged it off. Now wasn't the time. He was more interested in just how to help Dazed develop that ability – he could think of so many uses just off the top of his head it wasn't even funny.

He'd need to think on this.

"Wake me up an hour early tomorrow, please," Ash decided, grinning despite the lack of sleep he'd have to face. Dazed more than matched it with an upturn of her eyes. "I think we have some work to do. Let's keep Steven out of the loop for now…I'd like to see if we can replicate it without his help."

Of course, Friend-Trainer. I look forward to training with you. I have no doubt that we will discover the true potential of this ability for ourselves.

She was already back to normal. Ash shook his head with a quick laugh. It was nice seeing her slip a little but he had to admit it was a bit shocking. Still, he appreciated the short glimpse past her disciplined walls. "It'll be fun. Can you alert the others? I'd like to start getting a little more work in on top of what we have during the day."

Sneasel audibly whined at that and Ash's keen ears heard him scurry off into the woods. He snorted.

It will be done. I believe we must return to Mentor, Friend-Trainer. I would not like for our training to be disrupted for so long. Mentor merely desired that we ensure the Brute's well-being. Farewell.

"Bye, Dazed, Oz," he directed to the Electabuzz. She nodded to him and whirred back, flashing Infernus one last satisfied smirk before she followed Dazed back to their training grounds. "I'll see you both tonight!"

When they were gone he met Infernus' eyes. His friend watched back for a moment before looking away. Ash sighed. "If you try to fight Claydol, make sure you win next time alright? You'll be coming with Dazed and I when we start training tomorrow. Steven's not going to know what hit him!"

Infernus grinned back fiercely and nodded, though he winced as some of the damp mud fell from his face. Ash chuckled. He just couldn't take Infernus seriously like this. "Alright, sit still. I'm going to try and break some of that caked mud up."

The Magmortar was surprisingly obedient. Ash unsheathed his knife and looked over to Torrent, who was silently levitating behind him. As always the regal dragon looked back expectantly.

"I'm going to need you to cool us both down. He's too hot for me to touch," Ash explained. Torrent dipped his head and gently blew a billowing gust of icy air that sent shivers up Ash's spine – the sudden flash of Ice enveloping him didn't help. Infernus resolutely bore the chill in stoic silence, perhaps accepting it as a punishment. "Thanks, Torrent."

Ash shook his head as he dipped close and enjoyed being able to be this close to the Magmortar without having some part of him set on fire. Infernus was…well, Ash would never say he was harmless, but he wasn't an automatic death sentence like this. It was a nice change, though so foreign Ash wasn't sure he was comfortable with it happening more than once a year. Plus he really didn't want to see Infernus so powerless.

There was an oxymoron if he'd ever heard one.

With that he started to work on the mud. Infernus could have clawed it off himself but Ash figured he would give the fire-type even more time to cool off from the little incident with Claydol. It would take him some time to regain his strength but that might actually be a good thing knowing his friend's temper.

Shattering the shell apart would've been child's play for Dazed as well but he doubted that would have helped anything. Best to just let them ignore each other.

It was quick work. Infernus had heated the clay and mud to the point it was extremely brittle. He didn't even bother trying to pry it apart with a blade – Ash got to the point where he pretty much smashed it apart with his knife's handle. Soon enough Infernus was free – all he had to do was fire up and boil the water into steam.

"Go have fun," he waved his friend off. Infernus grinned and backed away a safe distance before he roared mightily and spat a gout of flame dozens of feet into the air, quickly matched by twin streams of fire from his cannons that let everything around them know Infernus was back. He grimaced as droplets of sweat dripped down his back in response to the sudden flare of heat.

In the next instant Infernus was gone with a crack and blinding flash of light, leaving Ash and Torrent in peace.

Ash shook his head. That was one of the stranger situations he'd needed to deal with. Still, it was entertaining nonetheless. Not to mention he had some new training ideas for Infernus and Dazed. He couldn't wait to get started, especially with the juicy nugget of potential Claydol had so carelessly shown.

Now that was unlikely. Ash snorted, amused. Knowing Steven he'd put his money on the idea that Claydol had done that on purpose. Steven always seemed to have everything planned – if he really wanted to keep a technique out of Ash's hands then Ash wouldn't even know it existed.

No, it was just better to assume that chance was pretty much nonexistent when Steven was involved. If there was one thing he'd learned this past week it was that Steven liked to be in control – variables weren't something he encouraged.

He returned to the small stump he'd been perched on before and relaxed a little. No need to be too stressed out while he reviewed the dossiers Steven had sent him. They were frustratingly vague, however. Magma and Aqua had managed to hide themselves quite well.

The League didn't even know what their leaders looked like, just their names – Maxie and Archie, respectively. Not quite what he'd expected from the leaders of paramilitary organizations. Actually, he could imagine boys named Archie and Maxie in his old class at Pallet.

Ash couldn't help but belt out a small laugh at that. He shouldn't take them lightly. He could probably beat them both in a battle, but that wasn't where their power was. There was something that made them respected by their men and capable of leading shady organizations and he would be sure never to forget that.

Still, it was frustrating. Magma was suspected of corporate espionage, fraud of all sorts, poaching, illegal mining operations, and a host of other crimes that just left him shaking his head. Ash knew the Hoenn League wasn't understaffed but this seemed like a big deal.

If Lance was here he would have led the Elite Four on the warpath, bringing all of his power to bear against these rising threats the moment he knew what they were. Ash wished he could see it – he'd never truly gotten to see his mentor in action. Lance was right at home on the battlefield, forcing his might upon his foes and shaping the world around him, but all Ash had ever seen was the one-sided battle against Mewtwo.

It left a gnawing hunger deep inside the pit of his stomach. If Ash ever wanted to beat Lance then he needed to know what the man was truly capable of. Training with a boy who needed most of his team just to face one of his weakest fighters didn't really showcase that.

Torrent butted his mighty head against Ash when he saw his expression sour. Ash laughed and patted his friend once he'd righted himself. "Everything's fine. I'm just not too happy about going against some of these people blind."

His friend rumbled agreement. Torrent was always a bit on the cautious side since he'd been a Kingdra. He was more than happy to fight but had developed the same ruling instincts after evolution as Nidoking had. The difference was that Torrent's process was quite a bit smoother…Nidoking wouldn't be as calm and level-headed as Torrent for a while yet.

Ash shook his head and went back to reading on his PokeNav. He held back a grin as he saw Torrent glance up at a lone Cascoon hiding up in a tree. The immobile pokemon glared back balefully and Torrent finally snorted, amused at the creature's insolence.

He frowned as he reread Aqua's information. At least they didn't seem to be suspected of crimes against pokemon like Team Magma. Overall they either hid their operations in the archipelago well or had other avenues. They were even more mysterious, if anything – Ash couldn't even fault the Ever Grande League for that. It must be nigh impossible to track Aqua in the archipelago they made their home in.

Plus it seemed like they'd actually made some contact with the League in the past. They didn't have real relations but they'd been known to deliver poachers to League outposts in the islands and known members had claimed several bounties on criminals hiding out in what was suspected to be their territory.

Of course, he didn't actually care about those two organizations that much. His knuckles whitened as he scrolled down to the last of the major criminal organizations the League was actually concerned about. An icy flush of hatred from the back of his mind joined his anger and he couldn't even find it in himself to force it down.

Torrent eyed him for a moment before he went back to sniping individual leaves across the clearing with tiny bursts of water.

Ash relaxed. He could tear the Rockets apart in the future. But first he needed to learn about them. These were Steven's personal notes he'd written on the situation. They weren't as formal as a real report but they were more than satisfactory.

Team Rocket

Operations: Origins in Kanto, significant presence in Johto and formerly the Sevii Islands. Made forays into Sinnoh but were quickly rebuffed by operatives under the direction of Elite Four Lucian. Cynthia took Lance's advice and authorized lethal force against them as soon as they were discovered.

Hoenn: Brief presence in Hoenn for several years. Team Rocket was based primarily in the archipelago. After growing in strength under their commander, they moved operations into the mainland and established several bases before they were discovered. I fixed it.

He would've grinned at the suddenly informal note if he hadn't known the story behind it.

Former Status: Eradicated, splinter cells swiftly absorbed into criminal underground or apprehended by the League.

Current Status: Regrouping. Several small bases established in archipelago as well at least one larger one we don't know the location of. Have tagged severable notable Rockets and have compiled sufficient data to engage when we are prepared.

Recent reports suggest a splintering in the Rockets that have fled to Hoenn. Not unexpected for a criminal or terrorist organization that has splintered. Viridian's Giovanni was lost as a leader. Power struggles were expected amongst the survivors.

Two primary factions have emerged. Currently unaware of motives of each, only that they are in conflict as we have observed several skirmishes between previously friendly groups. Pitched battles are rare. They know they cannot afford to operate in the open.

We are aware of the leader of one faction, the Rocket formerly known as Executive Archer (see notes, pg. 118 section b) which seems to operate more openly. Still avoids direct conflict but seems to be the stronger of the two based upon observations of skirmishes.

The other is currently unknown, though suspected to be an Elite Rocket known as Domino (see notes, pg. 119 section c) who was noted to be close to their former leader. Perhaps trying to gather a group based around the old ideals? Could be using relationship to Giovanni to inspire and rally.

Suspected sources of income for both seems to be assisting other sources of organized crime at the moment, lending their reputation to bolster smaller operations. Poaching is confirmed based upon the recovery of several petrified pokemon – J? – and several Rangers' accounts of running them off.

Note – several breeding facilities have been hit, suspected to be inside jobs. Seem to have kept strategies from Pierce.

Facilities compromised: Verdant Plains (Shroomish, Nincada, Oddish, Lotad), MINE (Geodude, Aron, Sandshrew, Rhyhorn).

Wattson's pet project was also raided. Rockets have a confirmed source of Magnemite and Voltorb on top of other pokemon, which could potentially have been auctioned off in addition to broken. Need to ramp up security at other sites in order to avoid future assaults, especially as they become desperate.

Ash tore his gaze away from the text, disgusted. Cold and hot fury intimately raged together. He hated Team Rocket. They hurt the helpless and had kidnapped potentially hundreds of pokemon away just to be their damn slaves.

He remembered his brief look at a Rocket lab and shuddered. Nothing else he'd seen in his adventure, no matter how great and terrible, could ever quite make his skin crawl like that had. So many pokemon rendered helpless and resigned to death and madness – even Infernus had been counted amongst them.

It very nearly made him sick. That his – no, he wouldn't call him father. Giovanni was not his father. The only thing that tied them together was genetics. Ash didn't have a father and he was perfectly fine with that. His mother was all he needed.

How sweet.

Ash didn't even pay the mocking words any notice. He just couldn't care less what Mewtwo had to say at the moment. A smile ghosted over his lips as he felt a stab of displeasure in the back of his mind but the world remained blissfully silent.

He shook his head and suddenly put his PokeNav away. Ash looked up to Torrent as yet another tree collapsed in the distance as its thin trunk was split in half by the bored Kingdra's water gun. Torrent graced him with a dip of his head before he turned back to his game.

"Let's take a break," Ash suggested. Torrent turned, scarlet eyes locked on the trainer. He couldn't fault the Kingdra for that – it was rare that Ash called for a break this early. "I can't focus," He said in way of explanation. "I think I remember seeing a pond not too far from here…"

Torrent's eyes lit up and Ash knew if he backed down now it would be like kicking a Skitty. A very large, armored, several hundred pound Skitty that could also destroy most of this forest in an afternoon.

He grinned and rose. Technically he was on break anyways. A few minutes at the pond wouldn't hurt – and even if it did he'd think it more than worth it just to see Torrent so carefree.

With that he headed off, brushing aside limbs and narrowly dodging a Slakoth covered in concealing moss that blinked up at him. Ash gave the creature a wave and a wide berth as Torrent floated up behind him. No point in provoking the Slakoth – they could be aggressive.

The journey went by quickly. Ash could say a lot of things about this forest – not all of them good, considering how hard it could be to run in – but it was peaceful. The native pokemon had finally returned after a few days, finally comfortable with the intruders on their land.

Sure it could be a bit inconvenient for all involved – Sneasel absolutely loved chasing Zigazagoon and Linoone, though he never pushed too far, and Aron had somehow made friends with a Shedinja during one of his breaks – but overall it breathed a bit of life back into the world and made Ash realize just how off it had felt when they'd first arrived.

Besides, how could he deny Torrent his very own fan club? He snickered to himself quietly from his seat against an oddly massive pale tree as Torrent basked in the attention of a dozen water-types – Marill and Azurill, a lone Masquerain, and even a tiny Horsea that looked like it might start worshipping his friend right there.

Plume could learn a thing or two about preening from him, Ash thought. He just shook his head and watched the scene with a smile.

He'd needed this.

XX

"Take a day off. There's no point tearing you down if you'll never have a chance to build back up."

That was what Steven had told him and Ash was determined to make the most of it with his friends. So he'd lead the group far, far away from Steven and the small, elite core of the Steel Master's team on their legs. For once he was just as tired and bruised as they were. Steven didn't skimp on any aspect of their physical training, though at least now Ash had finally adjusted.

And apparently Lance was a hundred times worse. Ash shuddered at the thought of getting the full Elite Four experience back in Indigo – Lance had graced Steven with his presence soon after the younger man had become Champion and worked him into the ground. Steven had reminisced plenty of times of days without sleep, forced marches, and eating the black broth that Lance practically shoveled down his throat during the initial phases.

More than that Steven wouldn't say. Apparently Lance had decided that the standard ACE training "wasn't demanding enough for a Champion of Steven's obvious caliber" and drafted up a new program just for him as long as he'd been Champion.

In contrast, a bit of running and working out in a muggy forest seemed downright humane in comparison.

Ash shrugged his thoughts away. He wasn't going to spend their break thinking about training. This was time for his team to make up for the scarce amount of time they'd gotten to spend together as of late. It was hard to talk much when they all collapsed the minute they returned to camp, though Ash tried to stay up a few minutes with a few of his friends every night.

Just because they were being exhausted didn't mean that was an excuse to let their bonds weaken. His team was his family and he'd face whatever he had to if it meant spending time with them.

He was distracted by a hard round head butting against his leg. Ash winced before he looked down and graced Aron with a smile. "What's up?"

The small steel-type looked at him with wide blue eyes and warbled lightly at him before pulling himself up on his rear legs and resting most of his substantial weight against Ash. He had to reach out for a tree to stay standing but thought it was more than worth it. "You want up?"

Aron nodded quickly, his big head shaking all over the place. His tongue lolled out the side of his mouth and he licked Ash's shorts cheerfully. Ash frowned and patted the steel dome of his friend's head as he considered it. He'd held Aron in his lap before but there was absolutely no way he would be able to pick him up. Not right now, at least.

Inspiration struck him. Before he could even ask Dazed helpfully wrapped Aron in a gentle blue caress of psychic power and pulled him into Ash's arms smoothly. Aron squirmed and relaxed into Ash's arms and warbled again as he hid his face in the boy's chest. Ash grinned helplessly and nodded at Dazed thankfully as she kept Aron wrapped up in a shell. At least this way he was light enough to actually carry.

A small, furry body latched onto his shoulder a second later and he turned just enough to know it was Seeker contentedly perched onto him. Even a few weeks ago she'd never be out in the daylight but since Ash didn't wear a jacket anymore for her to hide in she'd had to adjust. It wasn't easy but with the help of the forest's shade she was able to make do.

"How's everyone feeling?" He looked out at his friends around him. They were all out, even Infernus. Between levitating Aron and constantly smothering any fires left in the Magmortar's wake Dazed was much to busy to reply.

Most just grunted, still exhausted. Steven had ramped up their physical training considerably. His team didn't even come close to moving around as much as Ash's, but they were still able to run his team into the ground through forcing them to dodge or engage them for long periods of times. Just trying to survive the hail of shrapnel, energy beams, and boulders was a workout in itself. Plume was by far the best since Infernus and Dazed had been forbidden from teleporting in their normal sessions.

Unfortunately for her, Skarmory seemed to have taken Plume's ability to actually dodge, dip, dive, duck, and dodge again as a personal challenge. So, naturally, it had taken to showing her just why Flash Cannon in the hands of a master was just as dangerous as a Hyper Beam. It had taken Ash more than an hour to pick out all the shrapnel in her wing, though he'd only been half-finished when Dazed casually lifted the small bits of metal out with a thought.

He smiled at Tangrowth's excited gurgles and held one of his vines that reached into Ash's hand. Tangrowth had taken to Cradily's lessons especially well…he could be exhausted but a quick nap in the sun was all he needed now to be completely refreshed.

Oz whirred suddenly from behind him, his hair raising on end as he felt the crackle of electricity nearby. Even without trying she could always make her presence known. He turned to her. "Oz? What is it?"

She just shrugged her burly shoulders and hesitantly reached forward to Aron, though she flashed her fangs at Ash in a savage smile once he gave her a cheerful nod. Aron whined happily as he felt one of his favorite caretakers – Oz had a special place in his heart since she'd taken to finding little pieces of scrap and old, broken pokeballs for him to nibble on – pat his domed head and slip an absolutely massive Chesto Berry into Ash's palm.

Aron quickly took to attacking the offered fruit, his rasping tongue shredding apart the tough exterior in just a few seconds.

Ash nodded to Oz in thanks. Aron was taking the training the hardest out of his team. He wasn't as developed or robust yet so his muscles were getting broken down every day with barely enough time to rebuild. At least the Chesto Berry would keep him busy and give him some time to wake up.

"How's your training been?" He offered as they walked. Most of his team was contentedly silent but he was more than happy to take advantage of Oz being more social. She just offered a shrug and a half-hearted buzz. Ash frowned. "I know it's not very exciting. It'll help a lot though. Is Claydol a good match?"

Oz whirred an affirmative, actually smiling at the mention of the odd pokemon. Ash still hadn't gotten to speak with it since Steven tended to separate their teams once training was over. Still, he could tell that it was pretty friendly. Only Infernus didn't get along with the strange creature and Ash had a sneaking suspicion that he was just holding a grudge against Steven's whole team at this point.

"Good," The trainer hummed. He took a moment to step over a thick root that jutted across two trees. "I know it isn't easy but you looked good last time Steven and I checked. Lightning Bolt sure seemed easier."

The Electabuzz nodded, tail twitching happily. A light buzz rose from her throat, probably the closest she could get to purring. Ash grinned and reached out to brush her thick, charged fur with his fingers. He liked seeing her like this.

He cast an aside glance at Nidoking, who stoically plodded alongside him. Ash snorted when his first friend simply plowed right through a tree rather than dipping around it. Nidoking didn't even slow down.

Ash stepped over a few long slivers of wood from Nidoking's incident and turned back to Oz. She held Aron protectively in her furry arms, though he seemed content to just nuzzle into her chest and take a snooze. One of her thick fingers idly brushed over his domed head affectionately.

His mouth opened but he shut it without saying anything. He would leave them in peace. Ash's keen gaze caught sight of Plume as her shadow lazily passed overhead.

Searching for Aron's next meal, no doubt.

Ash smirked at the mental chuckle of Dazed, though she showed no physical reaction. Thankfully he hadn't had to talk to Plume again about bringing Aron "gifts". That whole situation was one he'd rather avoid.

Nidoking grunted and brushed a blunted claw against the trainer's arm. Ash jerked out of his trance and grinned when he saw that they'd made it to one of the rivers that had carved its way through this land. It was almost picturesque. "Thanks, Nidoking."

His friend nodded and fell into his silence again. Ash watched him for a moment, a little concerned about his introversion, but didn't say anything. Nidoking would be fine. He always was.

Ash found himself a bit more occupied with his friends – Seeker just curled deeper into his neck as they stepped into a spot of sunlight. He was pretty sure she was asleep. It'd be another few hours before she'd be comfortable.

Seeker's fur was soft as he ran his fingers through it. She chittered happily at his touch and relaxed almost imperceptibly from whatever little bit of stress she'd been carrying with her.

As for the others…well, it was about what he'd expected. Plume landed on a particularly sturdy branch above him. She'd arrived so fast he hadn't even realized it until he heard the concerned creaking of the branches above. She wasn't really paying attention to him, too busy preening and cleaning her feathers from whatever muck they'd carried out.

Torrent made a beeline to the river, naturally. Tangrowth followed him, bounding to and fro on his big red feet. Ash smirked. A few of the wild pokemon would be making a new friend today whether they wanted to or not.

Bruiser had found himself a comfortable stump to sit on. He followed Sneasel's movements carefully as the dark-type dashed after Tangrowth, probably trying to ensure he wasn't making any mischief. Tangrowth certainly wouldn't be the one to do it.

Aside from Infernus quickly shaping himself a magma bath a short distance away – Dazed projected a long-suffering sigh as she set to preparing psychic barriers around it – there wasn't much movement. Most of his friends were content to just relax and catch up on their sleep after the hard days of training.

He himself remained standing. Ash quickly set about preparing a lunch for his team. They'd worked impossibly hard and for hours longer than he'd normally expect. He was proud of them – they more than deserved this rest and he'd do everything in his power to make it the best one they'd ever had.

Plus he doubted they'd get another day like this for a good while. Steven was likely preparing an even more grueling schedule so he'd have to make this day off count.

And he did. His friends were happy, he was happy because they were happy, and he knew they were more than ready for whatever lay ahead.

XX

"So do you think this will work?" Ash cocked his head at the odd scene in front of him. It wasn't even dawn yet. Were it not for the brilliant glow Infernus cast the clearing in he'd be completely blind.

Nidoking just grunted beside him and shrugged his heavy shoulders. Ash fought down the urge to yawn.

He checked his PokeNav. 3:09. They'd pay for this the next day – well, today – but he had no doubt it was worth it. If they wanted to challenge Steven anytime soon they'd need this extra training. It wasn't like they were skimping out on sleep too badly. Ash had figured they usually went to bed around eight o' clock or so. Seven hours was acceptable in his book.

The problem was that adding this training on top of the rest of their very, very busy schedules wasn't even going to be remotely fun.

"Dazed?" He called out to the lone figure across the clearing. The side he could see was bathed in Infernus' light. Her eyes snapped open and he could see a fiery glow behind them.

I am ready, Friend-Trainer. I will alert the others when the Brute may not take any more.

Ash raised his head grimly. If Infernus hadn't been so firm he'd never have gone this far with their training for a while yet.

After Infernus' misadventure with Claydol they'd started out training Infernus' weak spots. He was fairly resilient in the face of water already, but Ash judged it to be the most glaring of his elemental weaknesses since he could just teleport out of the way of rock and ground-type techniques.

He could with water-type techniques as well but those were the ones that would significantly weaken his power if they hit. Infernus couldn't really do anything about that – his body would always be weak to water – but Ash figured it would be good training in increasing his body heat. Training his control over that would let him boil the water off as steam, ensure he wouldn't be sluggish from the cold, and also go a long way in making Infernus at least somewhat effective against Metagross.

The first morning was fairly simple. Ash and his team had woken up an hour early and headed to a clearing to test things out. He'd only had a little bit of time that day but he'd learnt some very valuable lessons:

His first lesson was that teleporting anything other than yourself was stupidly hard. They'd made zero progress.

His second lesson was that Infernus apparently had no sense of self-preservation when it came to covering up weaknesses…not that Ash was surprised. Infernus had somehow managed to antagonize Torrent to the point he was essentially drowning under the wave Torrent had hurled at him.

True to form, Infernus was still grinning madly even after he was left a smoking heap on the ground.

And now they'd somehow come to this.

"Nidoking, take your place," He intoned wearily. Nidoking nodded and shifted to the right, forming a triangle between himself, Torrent, and Sneasel. They were each about a hundred feet apart from one another. Infernus stood in the middle, uncharacteristically still and silent. His fires burned hot in preparation – he almost looked like he'd grown another foot thanks to the grasping tongues of his shoulder flames. "Begin!"

The temperature in the clearing dropped thirty degrees in a second. Three nearly identical jets of jagged, wildly arcing Ice Beams struck Infernus at once, freezing his limbs and essentially leaving him a giant ice cube from how much ice he was covered in. Ash could see the air take on the dull grey of frost. White spines grew from around Infernus, reaching and spreading as best they could across the ground. Grass was painted a brilliant white, preserved in a frozen shell.

Ash stood with crossed arms and stared. Infernus' icy prison showed no signs of melting. His friends had done their job well – he shivered and couldn't help but step back as the creeping frost finally drew near.

He felt it blend with him, felt a part of himself shriek with the howling of a blizzard in the face of Ice. It was freeing – he was the Ice just as he always had been.

A moment later he clamped down on the odd euphoria. He couldn't be distracted.

This wouldn't kill Infernus. Ash wouldn't agree to anything with that risk. Not for training at any rate. But it definitely wasn't good for him – downright agonizing, most likely. Ash could still remember Infernus in the Seafoam Caverns while they ventured to the bottom floor. Sure he could fight it, but he was also terribly affected by the overpowering cold. It made him sluggish and weak and dumb. As they neared Articuno's nest Ash had only been able to keep him out for minutes at a time.

Ash sighed. It wasn't exactly a fair comparison. The weight of Articuno – of Ice – filling those caverns and freezing them in a way natural law would never allow just wasn't the same. Infernus could handle three Ice Beams, no matter how powerful.

That didn't stop him from being worried. He didn't want his friend exhausted for the rest of the –

There.

A glow emerged from within the ice. He caught sight of a humanoid figure shining within the whiteness even as the first drops of the spawned ice began to slough off the crystalline prison. Though it was slow, it was there.

It took only a minute. At first Infernus' progress was slow, just weakening the solid ice as much as he could through sheer heat alone. Ash grinned as cold water ran down the sides, slowly freeing Infernus. His friend stood completely still, eyes shut tight as he focused everything he had on heating up – on manifesting the fire within.

And then it was over. All that was left of the ice and frost was slush and Ash had to wipe a few beads of sweat from his brow. The forest seemed to cling to the great heat that had just been revealed, forcibly crushing it to the ground.

He stopped tugging at the collar of his shirt as he grinned wildly. "Good job! You'll be ready in no time if you keep this up."

Infernus grinned savagely from where he'd stumbled and spat a long, thin tongue of flame high into the air. The forest lit up around them at the sign of the hot fire, though in mere seconds it lost the fuel to live.

Ash eyed Infernus carefully. It was impressive how quickly he'd melted the ice that had solidly encased his entire body – fighting back his own exhaustion and dampened might all the while – but there were signs of improvement. They'd stick at this point for now, but –

He froze as clapping sounded around the clearing.

"Good show!" Steven smiled lightly. His eyes were far too bright for anyone this early in the morning. Even Ash's eyes were just a tiny bit bloodshot – getting up at this hour left him a little tired no matter how much sleep he got. Ash nodded, though scowled when Steven cheered, "I'm sure he'll be ready for Metagross in no time!"

The trainer froze for a moment and sighed. "Can I hide anything from you?"

"No," his mentor intoned solemnly. Then Steven brightened back up – Ash couldn't help but resent him a little for being so perky. He really, really wanted to go take a nap right now. "You should know better than that, my painfully naïve student."

"Painful is right," Ash muttered before shrugging it off. "So why'd you come by?"

"I was just impressed with your initiative."

Ash raised an eyebrow. He felt like most of his team did as well. "Oh?"

"Very much so."

He had a bad feeling about this as Steven smirked. The man was enjoying this.

"I underestimated you," his mentor shook his silvery head. "If I'd known you'd be getting up this early I'd have started like this from the beginning. A nocturnal schedule doesn't sound too bad, does it?"

Ash just sighed. Doubly so when the rest of Steven's team appeared behind the former Champion. Metagross was as inscrutable as ever but he felt a distinct note of irritation aimed at his team…Skarmory especially had a vicious glare. It seemed like they didn't appreciate their own sleep getting cut short. "Of course not. I'm looking forward to it."

Steven's lips quirked. "Good. Now, since you took the liberty of getting up early today let's get started. Make sure you and your team are properly fed. Meet me at my camp in thirty minutes. I don't think we've ever gone on a run this early before…"

And with that his teacher left. Ash rolled his eyes as he barked orders out to his team. Best to get ready quick so they could take their time eating.

It was going to be a long day.

XX

They were two weeks in.

The grueling schedule wasn't so bad anymore. They'd adjusted, even if Ash still felt like he had a headache every night from all of the battle scenarios Steven ran him through. At least the quizzes had stopped for the most part. Steven seemed rather content with his competency in that area.

He rubbed his eyes in an attempt to scrub some of the exhaustion out. It wasn't too bad but it did mean that he felt like he had a twenty pound weight strapped to his chest all the time…and a few weights on his eyelids as well. Steven made sure he had plenty of time to rest, especially since Ash started waking up early to train, but that didn't stop the fact that his young body was getting a harsh wakeup call.

At least Steven didn't actually start training at three o' clock in the morning like Ash had feared he would. As far as Ash could tell Steven had shown up the one morning to mess with him and left him alone for the most part after that – he still grimaced remembering how sore that first day had left him. He'd only just come to adjust.

"You don't look half-bad," He heard Steven remark. The former Champion stroked his chin – Ash noticed the first signs of silver stubble dusting his calm features – and finally smiled. "Who would've thought League apparel was a good look on you?"

Aron nodded cheerfully along. His tongue fell from his mouth and his sky blue eyes were bright as they followed Ash as his trainer stretched. Ash sent a grin Aron's way and waved, laughing a little when the steel-type warbled back.

"Quite," Steven quirked his lips. Ash grinned back at the man. His mentor had relaxed a bit. They were still very much on business terms when they were training but Steven would slip a bit…not that that was always a good thing. Steven seemed to enjoy watching his student's spirits dim after every particularly demanding exercise.

He took a moment to adjust the dark grey helmet to a more comfortable position. It didn't last long since the helmet was sealed onto the tan armor he wore, but it was a nice bit of relief.

Overall he felt…cool. It was a weird thought – Ash hadn't really cared about that sort of thing in a long time – but Steven had given him a mirror and he liked this look. After all, how many twelve-year-olds could say they had their own set of combat armor?

Ash wasn't a huge fan of the shock baton or the Devon spray Steven had gone on and on about for a little while but the armor itself was nice. It fit almost perfectly – Ash still had no idea how they'd gotten that right – and seemed built for him.

Then again, he supposed it was.

It was a relatively light and unrestrictive suit of hard, thick material he thought was plastic of some sort covered by a thick weave of Ariados silk. Only his chest, legs, and arms had real armor over them. The rest was protected mostly by the Ariados silk that made up the outfit. That'd keep his non-vital areas safe for the most part.

But what really impressed him was how flexible it was. The pads looked like they'd be a bit heavy from first glance but he barely noticed the weight at all. He knew it wouldn't save his life from a direct attack but he could move and run almost as well as he could normally.

His personal favorite was his helmet. The dark grey didn't blend in too well in Hoenn but if he was wearing this then he wouldn't be too concerned about that. It had a very light cooling system – he had no idea how Steven made that work – that kept him from overheating as well as a radio system Steven made them work with constantly.

"Alright, enough admiring yourself," Steven teased. He hefted a shock baton and flipped it on. Ash heard the tiny buzz and grimaced. It was hard to enjoy this part of training. "Get yourself ready. This is your first day in full gear and you need to make sure you adjust."

Ash nodded stoically and flipped out his own baton. It was shorter than Steven's but he knew it would serve its purposes just as well. He ensured it was flipped to the lowest possible setting. These were designed for pokemon, after all. Even the lowest setting could still cause a decent bit of pain…to a human, at least. It wasn't debilitating but Steven thought it would work well as a learning incentive.

"En garde!" Came the mocking cry as Steven swaggered closer and closer. He was confident. Ash would've called it arrogance save for the fact that Steven could back it up. Steven wasn't an expert but he was no slouch. "Remember, don't overthink it. Just act!"

Steven's baton batted Ash's aside with ease and proceeded to lightly tap the boy with it. He grimaced as the electricity surged into his body and Lightning came unbound but ignored it. Instead he put some distance between him and Steven. The older man's longer reach was just ridiculous.

He dipped forward and jabbed, barely catching the edge of Steven's suit as the older man jerked away. Steven had technique but he certainly wasn't very graceful. Ash pressed, jabbing faster and fast and deftly rearing back whenever Steven saw fit to stab at him with the barely sparking prongs. Once it shocked his shoulder but it only surprised him, really.

Despite the slight pain Ash had a smile on his face. It was odd fighting for himself with none of his team at his back – unless you counted Aron grinding out cheers for him in the back – but at the same time just a little satisfying…even if he wasn't really any good at it. This wasn't where his training was.

Ash panted as the weight of his gear made itself known. Their little dance had dragged on for a good while now. Steven barely seemed winded, having moved as little as possible, but Ash could feel sweat rolling down his back and neck. He grimaced as Steven quickly stepped forward, jabbed the hand holding his baton, and quickly swiped his legs.

He stared up at the sky. Ash heard coughing and dimly realized it came from him. A callused hand was offered to him and he took it. After a second of vertigo he was back up on his feet and staring dazedly at his teacher.

"Fun, isn't it?" Steven chortled. His eyes were bright and he lightly flicked his baton rhythmically into the air. Despite himself Ash grinned back. "Lance and I used to fight each other with these all the time," his mentor reminisced fondly. "He always beat me black and blue but it was always in good fun. I supposed he had to be better than me at something."

Ash barked out a laugh. "I don't know if he'd appreciate that."

Steven rolled his eyes and smirked. "Trust me, Lance has a better sense of humor than that." His face fell as he stroked his chin thoughtfully. "You did well, though I admit I'm mostly pleased you actually attacked. That was the point of this exercise – you have to be aggressive in defending yourself. That I got to shock you was just a pleasant bonus."

"Of course it was," He scoffed. Ash retracted his baton with a flick of his wrist once he'd switched off the power. "So all I had to do was hit you?"

"Indeed," was the response he got. Steven seemed to have cooled off. "You'll never get into a fight like this unless something is very, very wrong. Normally your team should have subdued any trainers in the area – it's certainly a lot easier than making you fight them, not to mention it's an easy way to shut down an entire team. Many are trained rigidly. Without direction they fall apart."

He nodded – at least he didn't have to worry about that. His team were formidable fighters in their own right. Ash directed them but a lot of his emphasis, which was doubled down on by Lance, went towards training his team to fight without his input unless he intervened.

"Let's get some water," Steven dipped his head towards a small cooler he'd left by his sleeping roll. "It's going to be a long day. We'll run the circuit to check on your team and then –"

The hairs on the back of his neck rose as Steven's pale face turned ghastly white. His teacher's slate eyes hardened to chips of steel and his knuckles were clenched as tightly as physics would allow. A ferocious snarl rose on Steven's face and were Ash any lesser human he would've backed away.

As it was he watched Steven warily even as the man cycled through a whole kaleidoscope of emotions. To be honest he wasn't sure humans were supposed to turn some of those colors.

"What –"

"Quiet!" Steven raised a hand. He sounded eerily calm. Ash allowed a grim mask to fall over his tanned features. That was the kind of calm that came before a storm of epic proportions. Steven's hard eyes shut and he fell completely silent, though Ash could see the tension just waiting to be released into an explosion.

Metagross appeared as if from nowhere, materializing behind Steven. Their red eyes melted to the color of blood and a furious glow shone behind them, the most emotion he'd ever seen from the behemoth. Steven turned to the steel-type and nodded at some unheard query.

"Yes! Recall them all immediately. Ash's team as well."

Ash could feel the questions practically burning at the tip of his tongue but restrained himself. Whatever this was, it was serious and he needed to trust Steven to handle this.

Steven whipped in his direction. A fiery red glow shone behind Steven's pale eyes and Ash dimly realized he'd entered into a psychic link with Metagross.

"Get your helmet back on!" His mentor – no, this wasn't Steven Stone. This was the Ever Grande Champion who had torn Drake the Dragon Master from his gnarled throne and claimed it for his own. This was the man who had hunted his traitorous cousin across regions in order to bring him to justice. "Pay attention. We don't have much time."

Ash was still. He had to fight the ridiculous urge to salute.

"Ancient has contacted me. The colony is under attack," bit out his commander. There was death in his eyes. "The Rustboro Gym and League are mobilizing, but they are too slow. It is up to us. Prepare yourself. We're going to battle."

"Yes, sir," Ash muttered under his breath. It wasn't even sarcastic. "Will we have –"

Juliet the Gardevoir, apparently Steven's personal teleporter, manifested immediately. She stepped primly between the humans as though she had been there from the beginning, just waiting for the show to start before she could walk from behind her curtain.

"Juliet will take us where we need to go," said the Champion. He looked as though he were fighting the urge to rush off into battle with just Metagross at his side. Then again, Ash thought, those two would probably be more than enough. "Ancient is feeding me information on the attackers. There's little of use yet. They are fairly powerful and coordinate several teams of dark-types and bug-types in order to subdue and capture…"

At that point Ash realized Steven wasn't even talking to him. No, this was just Steven trying to logic his way through this mess.

A crack sounded throughout the small camp – Juliet glared at a spot – and Ash grinned as he felt a familiar heat manifest itself. Infernus let out a low growl, a feral grin on his wide face as his fires flared up.

He must've been waiting on something like this for weeks.

"Infernus!" Ash cheered despite the seriousness of the situation. "We –"

"Recall him immediately," Steven commanded. Ash hesitated for just a moment before Infernus disappeared in a flash of light. "Metagross and Claydol have briefed them. They know as much as we do. Time is of the essence."

He nodded grimly. Ash allowed his mindset to fall into the same place as it had during the Shamouti clash or when he fought through Zapdos' Storm with Surge and Brock.

Right now he wasn't a trainer. Right now he was a soldier.

The rest of his family flooded in quickly. Juliette vanished for a few moments and appeared in a flurry, carrying a slower member of Steven's and Ash's teams each time. They were all swiftly recalled and in what seemed like no time at all yet far too long they were ready.

He felt that familiar ball of excitement and fear and savage fury rear up inside him, screaming to get out and do what they needed to do.

He clenched his fists. Now was not the time.

A slim, albeit heavy, hand rested on his shoulder. Ash looked up. Brown met steel, which softened for just a moment as some of the fire fled. "Stay safe, Ash. I know you can handle yourself, but just know that I'll be right there. We're going to win."

Ash nodded and returned the gesture with a grin of his own. It was hardly even forced now that the drums of battle boomed beckoning.

And as they emerged many miles away with nary a flash of light or crack of thunder, Ash knew in his heart of hearts that he was ready.

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