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.


84. The Iron Wall Part 1

"Good job, Tangrowth!" Ash cheered as his friend hurled several balls of magma at an earthen wall erected by him earlier. The globs clung heavily to the damp surface and he could feel the heat even from where he stood fifty feet away. Most of them had almost completely fallen apart by the time they'd reached their target, but the drips of magma that had made it had done extensive damage.

Tangrowth gurgled happily and hopped up and down in a little dance, vines waving happily all around. Ash grinned as one rushed over to him and he patted it with just enough force for his friend to actually feel the contact.

Infernus, who stood about twenty feet away from Ash, snorted. A bit of flame spat from his nostrils but it was just a side effect of his power. If he'd actually been annoyed Dazed would have had to shield Ash from the resultant heat.

He eyed his friend with a savage grin, which he could almost see Infernus beginning to mimic as Tangrowth hurled several more balls of magma at different targets. Like the first volley they were just barely held together and lost most of their payload, but the important part was that Tangrowth actually learned how to manipulate the molten stone to a degree. They could only advance from here.

"It's impressive, isn't it?" Ash called out to Infernus as Tangrowth, engrossed in his success, used more and more of the lava to sear and crumble the targets into heated dust.

The Magmortar just grunted, though his lips were turned upwards. Ash smiled at that and turned back to the show.

He doubted he'd get more than that out of Infernus. Ash could read his friend well enough to know that the fire-type was impressed. Tangrowth had only taken a week to reach this point, though Ash suspected it would have taken much less time if Tangrowth hadn't had to work past the mental block Ash's grave warnings had erected.

Not that Ash minded. It was much more important for Tangrowth to know that his deadly new tool wasn't a toy than for him to learn it quickly.

What was power without control?

Ash had gotten a lot out of his training with Lance: Knowledge, great leaps in strength and combat experience in his team, and plenty of close friends. But he thought learning the importance of tempering his family's strength was more important than anything else.

Lance was all about power. It was what he loved in his team, what he searched for when looking at prospective new members. He had a keen eye for it and knew how to see the potential for his favorite trait.

That wasn't to say he wasn't skilled or cunning. No, the Indigo Champion was certainly both of those. But he had a deep fascination with raw, overwhelming power and favored its application above all else.

But he knew that unrestrained strength was useless. If it wasn't focused and honed into something then it would just go to waste. It was like trying to focus a wildfire – the forest fire might do more damage, but a campfire was much more useful.

Ash had taken that lesson to heart, and it was what he sought to instill in his team now. He was successful for the most part. Even Infernus had come to accept it somewhat, and ironically enough it was Tangrowth with his immature personality and devastating new ability that was the biggest threat to that ideal.

So he was content with reduced progress so long as he wouldn't find a glob of magma on his chest as a "joke".

That would be unfortunate, Friend-Trainer.

"Wouldn't it?" Ash grinned, still a bit giddy at Tangrowth's greatest success yet. Before today he'd been able to raise the magma a bit with Ancient Power but always lost focus. Something had clicked the last few days though, and he'd been able to maintain the sphere of magma longer and longer until it had finally managed to impact the target today.

It is good to know the Binder has finally succeeded. His disheartened mood was beginning to irritate me. I am pleased to know that his mental state will improve, though this excitement of his over mastering his new toy will only serve to distract me.

"So your mental abilities are coming along?" He asked, interested. Dazed had been quiet on her progress, so her actually giving him something was a welcome change. She certainly wouldn't be that sensitive to Tangrowth's mood before. Not without focusing on him, at any rate.

Yes. Others of my kind would still be disappointed in my capacity, but I have improved. I am able to bring the Striker under my influence with only three seconds of effort now while she is actively resisting. Progress is slowing but it is welcome.

"And your psychic awareness?" Ash raised an eyebrow. "Sounds like you're getting more sensitive."

It is growing more distinct. I may detect a slightly larger area, but the definition has increased. It is as though a fog has been wiped from my mind. Unfortunately, the brightness is almost blinding. I will have to focus my efforts upon filtering out excess minds.

Ash nodded. "Have you started yet?"

Yes. Today. The Binder's glee made me certain of the necessity of learning that skill.

"Good," Ash smiled. "I know I can't really help you directly with this, but if you need anything…"

You will be the first I come to, Friend-Trainer.

He grinned at that, content. "Good."

A sudden explosion and a disgruntled yowl split the air and Ash sighed. "Can you keep an eye on Tangrowth for a minute? I think Sneasel needs my help."

Very well. I believe you should give the Caretaker another few minutes with it. I am certain it deserves whatever vengeance it is being dealt.

He smiled at the suddenly enthusiastic Dazed but shook his head. "I'll be back soon."


"Keep it up!" Ash grinned down at Aron as the young steel-type tried to fight Nidoking. His starter was essentially standing there and absorbing the blows, testing to see how far Aron could make him budge. Every now and then Nidoking would growl to stop Aron in his tracks and grunt something at him to correct some deficiency in his technique.

Aron warbled cheerfully at him, pausing in his relentless efforts to come over and bump Ash in the knee with his domed head. Ash smiled and barely managed to pat him before Nidoking growled fiercely and Aron quickly skittered back into the slight groove he'd worn into the ground from his repeated attempts.

Nidoking dipped his head to Ash before he turned his beady black eyes on Aron, who was focused entirely on the older fighter. The poison-type growled once and Aron charged, faster this time.

Ash watched with interest as Aron built up a level of speed that was actually a bit more impressive than Ash had expected from him. That interest focused itself as Aron reared up on his hind legs as he neared his target, his right front leg shining with a fierce white power before he drove it onto Nidoking's heavily muscled leg with a loud warble.

His friend barely flinched at the attack, though he did shut his eyes for a moment as the Metal Claw landed, leaving a slight indention in his leathery hide before it smoothed itself out.

Aron himself rested on his haunches, sharp tongue lolled out as he panted up to Nidoking. His head cocked slightly as he stared up at the much more powerful fighter, as though he were waiting for approval.

Nidoking just grunted and eyed Aron speculatively. He growled a few moments later and pointed over to a spot a few feet away from where Aron had started from the first time. Ash wasn't sure if he was trying to get Aron used to new angles of attack or if there was some other sort of training they were about to start on.

Not that it really mattered. He trusted Nidoking to get the job done. Nidoking had never failed him. He was stern with Aron but he was fair. His friend would make sure Aron would get to the level he needed to be at to start training seriously once they met Steven.

Aron wasn't quite at the level where Ash felt comfortable giving him an actual task to work on. It was clear he had learned to tap into at least some of his power in the form of Metal Claw, Rock Tomb, and Protect – he probably had the Sableye to thank for that one – but Ash was almost certain that Aron had practically no idea how to actually use them.

That much was made evident by how slow that Metal Claw had been. And weak. If Aron was properly trained that would have at least scraped Nidoking instead of just bouncing off.

Their newest teammate had a long way to go but Ash was confident he'd be prepared by the time they left. There had already been noticeable improvement he'd noticed. Aron was much more focused, for one. The first day he'd been a bit overeager and barely got anything done as a result…well, until Nidoking decided to take a more active role, anyway.

He was also much less reluctant to actually attack. Ash had known from the beginning that Aron was a gentle soul, so it wasn't too much of a surprise for him to find that the steel-type had trouble forcing his offense. Aron was actually fine with using Rock Tomb defensively and shielding himself, but to actually take the step to try and cause harm to another living thing had taken the better part of two days.

At first he'd tried to show Aron that nothing he could do would harm any of his friends by having him watch a light spar between Infernus and Torrent. It had been good in theory, but in practice Aron got distracted by all the wanton destruction and ended up having Tangrowth pick him up so he could get a better look at the massive conflict of fire and water taking place.

Needless to say that could have gone better. Well, it at least showed him that Aron wasn't averse to battle itself, just attacking.

He could work with that and he had. Tangrowth had been the one to help Aron begin the basics of attacking and Nidoking's stern attitude had transformed Aron's actions into a reflex rather than a conscious decision.

After all, he couldn't get upset if he couldn't think about it. That's how Ash saw it anyway.

There was one surprise, though: Ash was fairly certain that Seeker had something to do with Aron's changed stance. He'd noticed her perched onto his back a few times before training and he always seemed to do a bit better when she was around. He couldn't prove anything but he thought he might have to bring that up to the Zubat in the future – Seeker actually involving herself with the rest of the team wasn't a common event, after all.

He sighed and turned away as Aron started another long training session. "Have fun, both of you. Nidoking, we'll talk later, alright?"

Nidoking nodded, used to that by now. Ash tried to get a progress report on Aron every night. Dazed would give him the basics, though Ash could usually get quite a bit out of Nidoking anyway. They couldn't exactly talk in the way he and the Hypno could but they understood each other quite well. Coming by to check on the steel-type gave Ash a bit of context to help him out as well.

Aron clucked a goodbye at him, though he paid for the distraction and let out a quick, high-pitched yelp when he stumbled into a slight crevice Nidoking formed while the steel-type had looked away.

Ash just grinned and turned away. He had a few more to check up on before he could call it a day and he had to admit he was more than a bit eager to see how they'd shaped up.


Plume screamed as she sped through the Ice Storm, tearing a gaping in the terribly powerful cyclone of wind and snow. Her cries were only barely heard over the fierce din of the hundred foot tall twister and held the haunting tones of a voice in the dead of winter.

Torrent intensified the Ice Storm at that, focusing more and more of his strength into it until the cyclone was less a twister and more a solid column of white, filled so densely with ice shards and winter's bite that scarcely a chink existed in his wintery armor.

The Pidgeot shot out and wheeled back before Ash could blink, scarcely capable of keeping track of the tan blur as she intensified her efforts as well. A thin, painfully bright beam shot from her curved beak and pierced the Ice Storm in a flash of light that Ash's eyes could barely stand even with his cap shielding him. Plume slipped into the gap and didn't come out, though he thought he saw small trails in the cyclone from where her wing tips brushed the edges.

Moments later he heard a thunderous crash, a deep rumble, and everything fell still.

Torrent's winds slowed and hung still in the air as they dispersed, the whirlwind of ice and snow falling to a whimper before hundreds of pounds of frozen dust collapsed to the ground with a roar.

It shuddered the earth and pulled up a dense cloud of dirt and crushed stone, casually dismissed by a flap from a tired form that rose slowly from the place from whence it had fell.

Ash stepped forward then, a grin stretched wide on his face as he watched the aftermath of the spar between Torrent and Plume. Both had done well, but the best showing was Plume's. Though she couldn't make dramatic progress in a week like she could when they'd first started out he'd been able to pick out noticeable strides. Her flying was impeccable, as always. But her Hyper Beam was far more effective and she'd learned to time it far better – now she was able to use it strategically to open up gaps in her opponent's barriers and swiftly dash in.

"Are both of you okay?" He asked as he crossed the ground now littered with layers upon layers of ice glittering in the sun like diamond. Ash took Plume's quick, exhausted coo and nip of his hat as a yes and looked to Torrent, who held onto his dignity even as his levitation strained him to his utmost.

Torrent nodded stiffly, scarlet eyes aimed only at Plume with interest. He cocked his head and snorted gently at the Pidgeot, who chirped back and preened happily under whatever the Kingdra had communicated to her. Ash watched with a soft smile and stepped forward to rub his friend's thick plates affectionately.

He took a moment to marvel at the heavy armor that enclosed his friend. It was different than the thick leather of Nidoking or the smooth steel of Aron – Ash wasn't quite sure how to describe the texture. His plates were almost eerily smooth, especially on the stomach area. Elsewhere he could feel just a hint of ridges where the plates overlapped.

Ash shook himself out his distraction. "So, how did both of you do? Good job with the Hyper Beam, Plume. Looks like you've finally worked out the timing."

Plume cooed softly at him as if to reward Ash for his praise and ruffled her feathers to get the last remnants of ice and dust off of her bright plumage.

"Torrent, the Ice Storm is looking better," Ash nodded to his friend. Torrent dipped his head back, eyes contemplative. "We'll have to work on condensing a small one into a barrier for you. I think that'll mostly be accomplished with Twister, though."

Torrent rumbled an affirmative. Though in the past they'd mostly relied on his ridiculously potent offense as Torrent's defense, Ash thought that they might be able to work at least some sort of defense in as well. Ice Storm itself worked quite well, but that was far too energy intensive to use all the time.

Ice Storm was Torrent's most powerful ability right now – Ash considered it to be beyond even Draco Meteor, at least for the near future – but he didn't use it every battle. Even Torrent couldn't sustain something like that constantly, especially considering he'd kept on learning to make it bigger and more powerful almost every time they spent any amount of time training.

No, Ash wanted something quick. Something that could be summoned with barely any effort and at least dampen most attacks. It wouldn't work against electricity, which was an issue considering how Torrent had been defeated in the battle against Michael, but if they kept working at it Ash thought that Twister would be able to dampen and alter the trajectory of projectile attacks and disperse fire, ice, and grass techniques.

"Take a break for now," he continued. Torrent nodded, confirming the meaning of the deep boom emanating from his chest. Plume chirped gratefully at Ash, nursing her wing. It looked like she'd taken a much harder hit than Torrent when she'd dove into the Ice Storm. Not exactly unexpected, of course. She was more fragile to begin with and she'd had a ton of momentum going in. To be honest it was almost miraculous how quickly she'd managed to change course and disperse most of the energy with her so quickly.

Though Plume wasn't quite as unstoppable in combat as Torrent she was still extraordinarily talented. It was something Ash appreciated whenever he could – even Lance had complemented Plume's flying. Considering Lance was almost as much a flying-type specialist as he was a Dragon Master thanks to the way his team was developed Ash found that to be a high compliment indeed.

"Wait around after dinner," he said to Plume once Torrent had levitated off. Ash eyed her injured wing worriedly, though his friend cooed at him to assure him that she was fine. "Doesn't matter. I'm still giving you a potion – I don't want that turning into anything worse. With how hard you've been pushing you should get a Potion anyway to fix up any damage you're doing to your body."

What was it his mother had told him, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?" or something along those lines? Ash wasn't quite sure but that principle was one he believed in. It was something emphasized heavily by Professor Oak as well before they'd been able to leave for their training journeys.

One of the most common problems that young trainers encountered was dealing with strain-induced injuries. They and their companions tended to get a bit enthusiastic and pushed themselves beyond their breaking point – not a terrible thing considering the miraculous potential of modern medicine but still dangerous if it happened out in the field.

That added up as well. Pokemon and humans were living longer than ever and rarely had to deal with the onset of wear-and-tear related complications but if damage occurred frequently from an early age then all medicine could do was slow the conditions down.

He'd avoided that. Ash didn't exactly focus on building up raw strength in most of his family. Some of the training methods he'd heard of other trainers doing – weights, extreme amounts of conditioning, and similar styles – just seemed almost pointless to him.

Oh they had their place, but only to an extent.

Weights could deal serious damage to the joints if they weren't aligned properly. It wasn't a good idea to put that much stress on one portion of the body, although the issue could be alleviated if the weights were dispersed basically over their entire body. Potions could help with the damage if done improperly but even Potions didn't heal perfectly – they just vastly accelerated the healing process. It consumed a lot of energy and didn't mean the wound would heal correctly.

No, you'd basically have to remove the affected area and implant some Ditto cells for perfect healing…or regeneration, as it was referred to in some of the databases that Professor Oak had recommended for understanding pokemon biology better.

Pokemon were much, much hardier than people and almost all of them were far stronger, but they were still organic. Well, mostly. There were a few odd exceptions.

Extreme conditioning and other physical exercises obviously helped, but Ash thought that indulging in that part of training too much just took time out of actual combat and technique training.

Those were what he focused on and he thought it had done him well. He balanced conditioning between perfecting their combat instincts, styles, and techniques. What was the point of having an exceptionally strong pokemon if they didn't know how to use it? They might have more raw strength but in most cases – namely, outside of a select few fighting-types like the Machoke family – it was better to have a wide variety of techniques and skill in battle.

Ash and his team had integrated battle into the deepest parts of themselves. Their responses were instinctual, abilities constantly ready to be put into use. When they were properly trained there was no hesitation – only action. They still thought during battle to work out strategies and ways to guide the battle but when they were actually fighting it was pure experience, instinct, and a few nudges from Ash guiding them.

Maybe it wouldn't work for everyone but it worked for him. His team were warriors to their core, not exercise enthusiasts.

"Don't give me those eyes," Ash snorted when Plume cocked her head innocently and cooed gently, raising her wing to show her range of motion. She wasn't a fan of the syringes he had to use to get the Potion in her when the injuries weren't on the surface. "It's just a tiny needle! You don't even mind Hyper Beams this much."

Plume ruffled her feathers and nipped the bill of his hat affectionately before she suddenly took off, probably trying to enjoy what time she could before he had to ruin her night with a tiny needle that even Ash could hardly feel.

He shook his head, exasperated. Ash didn't even think it was the needle itself that had Plume like this – she just hated it from the time he'd delivered a Potion into her as a Pidgey and had built the syringe up as much worse than it really was. Once he actually pricked her she probably wouldn't even notice.

Ash silently questioned whether it would be a good idea to just have Dazed place Plume under Hypnosis while he got her fixed up. It would be good practice for the both of them…


Electricity sprayed from Oz's fist as she whirred furiously, eyes flitting to and fro as Dazed rapidly teleported around the battlefield in a sequence. Weak booms of thunder rolled through the earth with every strike, scorching it and kicking up clouds of thick dust that obscured the field from Ash.

He could only just pick out dim shapes whenever Oz struck and a great flash of light would briefly pierce through the clouds.

The dust was swept aside with a wave of psychic force a few moments later, revealing Dazed as she materialized a few feet behind Oz. Her eyes flashed a piercing blue and Oz whirred in surprise as her body became entrapped by a shell of power the same color as Dazed's eyes.

Ash squeezed his eyes shut to slits as the shield was consumed with electricity as Oz released thousands upon thousands of the volts stored up in her fur in an attempt to break free, testing Dazed's hold with her efforts. The Hypno had ceased any attempt at teleportation and had allowed her eyelids to fall as her pendulum yanked and twitched on its thin chain with the sheer amount of power flooding through it.

Their stalemate went on for what felt like an eternity as Ash watched, satisfied with each of their performances. Perhaps it was only a minute or less in real time but he was so enraptured he didn't even care. It was good to see Oz holding her own – she needed this.

Oz wasn't a pushover, but she'd consistently faced superior opponents or been struck with bad luck since he'd added her to the team. First Lance's fearsome dragons, then hit with Confuse Ray by Gary's Umbreon…it went on and on. She'd never been defeated easily but it had happened an unfortunate number of times.

She'd been training harder than almost any of the others though, and it showed. The Electabuzz would never have the ridiculous stamina and reckless determination that Infernus had brought to bear as a Magmar but she was quick, precise, and powerful enough to hold her own now.

Dazed was an excellent opponent for her, he knew as they continued to contest one another for the victory. Not too overwhelmingly powerful too deal with like Infernus, Tangrowth, or Torrent, not extremely well-adapted to taking her down like Nidoking, and not at a disadvantage like Plume was if Oz managed to hit her.

Control against control. Speed versus teleportation. Passion matched by unassailable calmness.

Yes, he liked this matchup.

He watched more carefully as the shine from both the shield and Oz's constant release of electricity grew more and more powerful, each flooding their actions with energy that would probably knock him unconscious in a second. Both were frozen, focused only on securing this match.

And finally it shattered in an explosion of sound and light and heat that seared his skin even from his position several hundred feet away.

Oz stood freed of her psychic bonds, fur standing on end as she windmilled her arms to gather more and more electricity for whatever was coming next. Her electricity arced freely around her, generating a cloak of lightning that would leave anything that came near a nasty shock.

Dazed looked to have taken things up a notch herself. Her eyes were focused solely on her opponent, blind to the billowing clouds of kicked up dirt or Ash's eyes or the Pidgeot that circled above. The world was silent to her aside from the constant crackle of electricity as it danced around its master.

She polished her pendulum, which had ceased its erratic twitching in favor of shining bright as a star as it pierced the shroud of her white mane. Dazed showed no sign of exhaustion nor anticipation. Her power was anchored in her mental clarity and as such that serenity was what she would cling to no matter what.

The waiting game lasted for as long as it took Oz to realize that Dazed would never make the first move. She bared her fangs and punched both fists forward, casting a net of electricity before her that very nearly reached Dazed before the Hypno vanished with a slight crack of sound, deftly avoiding the Shock Wave.

Oz snarled at her miss as the Shock Wave was solidly absorbed into the earthen walls constructed by Tangrowth and instantly turned to send another Shock Wave behind her, though she was struck by a quick Psybeam from Dazed before she could focus the electricity into the desired form.

She staggered and Dazed appeared a few feet to her right, preparing to hurl a Shadow Ball into the Electabuzz's side and take a serious step toward ending the spar right there.

Unfortunately for Dazed, Oz decided that moment was right to loose an ear-splitting howl and pound her fists together to release a tremendous discharge of electricity that created a terribly bright flash of light. Ash and Dazed cringed as one, both barely able to see thanks to the white spots clinging to their eyes.

Ash didn't take too long to recover. His brain could handle sudden, immense stimuli like that far better than the incredibly sensitive Dazed. Psychics had trouble with loud noises and flashes of light at the best of times, let alone when they weren't expecting it.

So he got to see Oz punch a bolt of focused electricity at Dazed, stunning her as the Thunder Wave overwhelmed her body and only compounded the issues she was already experiencing. Her bright yellow fur and white mane stood straight up as the electricity arced throughout her own fur, overloading her nerves and locking her in place.

Oz's whir was more high-pitched than ever before and she dashed forward, blurring into a Quick Attack that took her right to Dazed before she delivered a Thunder Punch right into Dazed's shoulder, casting her to the ground. Ash grinned at Oz's success, though he also appreciated that she hadn't struck Dazed in the chest.

Huge amounts of electricity and the heart didn't mix too well, though Dazed's body would likely subconsciously shield itself in order to prevent too much damage. Advantages of being an exceptionally powerful psychic, he supposed.

When Dazed failed to rise or teleport or do anything to show she was still willing to fight Ash ran forward with a wild grin on his face, though he slowed and relaxed as he neared Oz. The Electabuzz just stared down at her former opponent, mouth open in a great big smile even larger than the one he'd worn.

A constant hum emanated from her chest, though it lowered a bit as she realized Ash's presence and allowed the electricity exploding from her body in uncontrolled bolts to be reigned in and tamed. Ash stepped a bit closer once it was safe.

"You were great, Oz!" He cheered, rubbing her furry shoulder and ignoring the painful shock that left his fingers twitching uncontrollably and his arm numb – though that was much less disconcerting than the sudden feeling of oneness he felt with Oz…or the electricity raging through her fur, rather. Ash managed to pull away and exhaled, relieved as he felt only his own body and mind once more. "I'm proud of you – you took down Dazed perfectly. I don't think either of us expected that at the end."

Oz grinned at him and her whirring intensified, though Ash managed to catch her sending him an odd look as he glanced down to Dazed, who had managed to raise herself up and lock her body in place with her psychic powers. He ignored it, though, and assumed it had something to do with the effect the touch of electricity had on him.

Indeed. I – expect the light. It…was an – stra – but…

"Relax," he raised his hand that wasn't numb and met Dazed's eyes. Her telepathic voice was scarcely even a shade of its former self. Instead of the smooth, svelte monotone he'd grown accustomed too her "voice" was erratic. It was almost as indistinct as when she'd first begun to practice telepathy, though he was more concerned by the gaps and wild changes in pitch she was experiencing.

My apologies – it…is a strain. I fear – are lacking in…contr – moment. I –

Ash shushed her with a shake of his head. "We know you're having a hard time after all the lights and noise. Just give yourself a moment. Breathe. That Thunder Wave is probably still messing with you."

Oz whirred in agreement and moved herself so she stood by Ash, watching Dazed. She fielded a general air of concern, probably having never used something like that against a psychic before. Ash suspected it was her first time using that technique – Dazed would have been a bit more wary of her otherwise.

"Where'd you learn that?" He directed to Oz as they waited for Dazed to stop trembling. The Electabuzz frowned at that, as though she weren't quite sure how to get it across to Ash. Finally she moved a few paces away and stared directly at the walls of the decently sized arena he'd had Tangrowth set up for the two.

His eyes widened in realization as power surged about her, roaring to life as arcs of white and gold energy stirred about her before focusing around her fist, which she loosed in a brilliant blast of heat and plasma that warped the air where it passed until it finally hit the arena's walls and crumbled the point it hit into dust.

"Surge," he breathed. It made sense. Surge hadn't really allowed him to view Oz's training in Lightning Bolt and he had mentioned that one of his experienced pokemon like Electivire or Raichu might give her tips for some of the other techniques they'd developed.

Oz nodded in satisfaction, though she squeezed her face tightly as she windmilled her arms to recharge some of her energy. It only took a few seconds before she was satisfied and returned to Ash's side.

They stood there for a long time. Dazed's trembling lessened and slowed and finally vanished, though Ash could see there was still quite a bit of weakness in her limbs. With how many contractions her muscles had gone through after being struck he couldn't say he was surprised.

Pokemon could generally handle and recover from powerful electric shocks much better than humans, but they still suffered from that much energy being pumped into their bodies. The difference was that it took a lot more to give them permanent damage…almost all of them could shrug off blasts of electricity that would instantly kill a human and they needed extremely powerful shocks suffered extremely frequently over a long period of time before it would truly leave a lasting impression.

Electrical burns (generally mild) were the only real injury they'd have to deal with, though exhaustion after electrical attacks was also a constant. Well, in pokemon that didn't have some sort of protection anyway. Most could handle powerful shocks without seizing up as badly as a human and hurting themselves that way or having their eardrums ruptured.

Despite their adaptations, it was still dangerous. Shock-induced damage was actually the leading reason for Ditto cell transplants. Not much else would regenerate the nervous system and the myelin sheath in a way that wasn't incredibly intrusive and risky.

I believe myself to be recovered.

Her voice was still wavering just a bit, but Ash grinned at her response. It was good to hear her voice again – having it failing and dying and changing was just wrong in his mind.

"Good," he grinned. "Take it easy for the rest of the day. You still sound a bit out of it."

Indeed. I will not put myself through excessive exertion. Perhaps now will be a good time to work on my other skills. Combat would be trying.

Ash nodded in understanding. Dazed knew what would be best for her.

Of course.

He snorted, though he watched carefully as Dazed turned to Oz. Her eyes flashed a brilliant blue and Ash felt almost as though he were interrupting something as he gazed upon the two. Ash glanced away, not wanting to disturb them.

Finally Oz bared her fangs in that familiar smile and nodded, allowing some of the electricity that had built up around her to disperse with a punch away from Ash and the Hypno. She dipped her head to Ash and walked to the center of the arena where Ash could easily see her focusing on building up more and more power by windmilling her arms.

Oz certainly wasn't done for the day.

She wished for me to inform you that she will not be in until late tonight. The Striker requests that you simply leave food and water out for her.

Ash nodded and waved to Oz as she glanced back at the two to show he'd gotten her message. She flashed her fangs at him before she went back to channeling her power – the area surrounding her was fairly glowing thanks to twilight beginning to reach its hand out to grasp Hoenn in its palm.

I did not expect her to win today. I will not fall to the same tactic again. She is a worthy adversary, but I will not fail again so easily.

"Good," Ash said quietly, falling astride Dazed as she slowly hobbled out of the arena and back to the camp they'd set up. Her pace was even slower than her normal shuffle and he could see faint shivers still racing throughout her body. "That's all I could ever ask from any of you."

We know. Though you ask many things from us, the impossible is not one of them. Only that which we may achieve is expected and that is what we strive for.

Ash wasn't quite sure how to respond to that verbally, though he was certain that Dazed would be able to make sense out of the mix of emotions and fragments of thoughts swimming about in his head better anyways.

Yes, it is a preferable form of communication. Far more efficient than those sounds you spew from your face-gash.

"You mean lips?" Ash's "face-gash" curled up into a smile and he raised an eyebrow at his companion. She turned her head to look at him and he could see her eyes curl up into a slight smile, though he could have almost mistaken it for a smirk if he didn't know her as well as he did…

Yes. Lips. They are odd. I am glad my current form does not possess them. I do not remember how they felt as a Drowzee.

"Perhaps," he shrugged. Ash had to imagine that from her perspective lips really were strange. She'd been without them for almost a year now, sustaining herself solely on the energy of those whose dreams she devoured…namely, his own.

It was actually fascinating how their biology worked – Professor Oak had sent him a few reports on Hypno a few days ago once he'd sent the man a message and gotten back in contact. They were stupidly technical and were even worse than his mother's babbling about science but he'd managed to work it out with a bit of help from the dictionary included in the PokeDex archives.

Essentially their period as a Drowzee was meant to have them subsist mostly on actual food, building up their reserves of organic material. Eating dreams wasn't even necessary in that period of their lives. It was essentially training for their psychic powers and their form of sustenance as a Hypno.

Once they evolved the dramatic changes induced by evolution essentially used a lot of their muscle and fat reserves and restructured their bodies into that of a Hypno. Ash had no idea how they'd evolved to be like this, but they actually lost their mouth and gained an organ system in that space and other spots in their body similar to those used by plants and grass-types for photosynthesis, though instead of using sunlight to start the process they used the energy they sapped from humans and pokemon.

From there they used the sugars produced and basically skipped the middle step of eating another organism to fuel themselves. They had all the energy they needed in the form of the sugars and just ran it through the same processes as other organisms so they could make protein, fat…everything they needed to survive.

That was the gist of it, anyway. Most of the explanations went over his head and it was only thanks to being around his mother for the months after the Conference that he managed to easily understand what he did.

Friend-Trainer, your mental tangents distract me as well. Please refrain until I have mastered my new empathetic skills.

"Of course," he apologized with a quick smile that Dazed returned with an upturn of her eyes. "Anyways, telepathy is efficient but don't you think speech has its advantages?"

Telepathy enables me to communicate with any pokemon besides the shades and blots. I communicate in concepts with those I do not understand the speech of and allow their minds to fill in the blanks. I am also able to simulate language, as I am now.

"What was I thinking trying to argue with you?" Ash grinned, sensing Dazed's amusement as well. "I should know better than that by now. Should have just kept my face-gash shut."

Only in matters such as these. In most I acknowledge your superior knowledge and judgment.

Ash snorted at that and they fell into a comfortable silence he cherished. He'd forgotten how nice it was to just be with his friends after the Conference, staying at Pallet Town, and then Daisy. This week had been one of the best in his life, he thought.

It was too bad he couldn't just stay here forever. The curse of having responsibilities…


Ash lazily prodded the fire so thoughtfully provided by Infernus with a charred stick. It was mostly black and had slowly come to disintegrate at the tip but it would serve him for a few more minutes yet.

He reclined against Nidoking's stomach, ignoring the slight discomfort nestled in his back at the tough surface. Nidoking's hide was thick enough as it was, but the wall of hard muscle right behind it made the ground seem more comfortable.

Not that he would trade this for the world. What was a bit of discomfort compared to where he was now?

Besides, there were plenty of advantages. Nidoking was fairly cool despite his proximity to the fire and he kept Sneasel from playing any unwanted tricks on them. Normally, anyway. At the moment he held the limp bundle of grimy fur in his lap, gently stroking him with several fingers to pick out the bits of leaf and dirt and bark that had gotten stuck in there.

Ash sighed at that. Sneasel's pranks weren't really something he had to worry about at the moment. Bruiser had done his job well in running Sneasel ragged, often forcing him to train for ten to twelve hours a day at least.

And that was when the Machoke was kind enough to accommodate Sneasel by training at night, when the dark-type would be at his best. Bruiser had come to practice every night, but thanks to the incredible vitality of a Machoke he worked for hours during the day as well.

Sneasel joined him on most of those occasions, naturally. Bruiser would never be the one to deny the dark-type the joy of training with him. He couldn't let Sneasel reflect badly on him – that would just be terrible.

Even Seeker got in on the fun by flying along with them as they played Chase the Sneasel for hours on end, flitting between branches and releasing waves of Supersonic to disorient the dark-type before dancing away to avoid a frenzied flash of his claws.

Bruiser made him pay for those attempts. He never broke bones but he had no compulsions about leaving Sneasel so sore and bruised that he could scarcely walk. It felt like when they weren't training Ash was either playing medic with Sneasel or protecting him from any attempts by the others to wake him from the slumber he so desperately needed after the intense training.

Ash had to admit he was worried about Sneasel. The first day had been relatively gentle. Bruiser hadn't even played Catch the Sneasel or its more popular variant Smash the Sneasel and had instead done general warm ups so as to ease them both in.

The second day was when the heavy training came in. Hours of combat, conditioning, meditation…it was a brutal load that Sneasel had hardly been ready for. He still wasn't ready for it.

After the third day he'd been about to transfer Sneasel and put him with another of the team, but Sneasel had steadfastly refused. There was a fire in his eyes burning just as brightly as any that Infernus could have conjured.

Bruiser's training was brutal and harsh and testing the lines of cruel. It was meant for pokemon that were far more physically powerful than the lithe, quick Sneasel. For strength, endurance, and raw power all provided by the body.

And Ash could see every bit of that in Sneasel. He couldn't stand after he was tossed into the camp at dawn and dusk for his break, having pushed himself far beyond his limits. His black fur was matted, usually with sweat and grime and a bit of blood. His claws were growing dull thanks to his constant use and the lack of any time whatsoever to maintain them. If he wasn't covered in his impossibly thick black fur he'd probably be black and blue all over.

It pained Ash for his friend to be like that, however annoying he could be. Sneasel rarely made any noise in camp anymore except for snores – Ash couldn't remember the last time he'd heard a hiss or a snicker or a snarl from the pokemon he'd raise from hatching. It was like a part of the team was missing.

His pride was extinguished, only the embers remaining to kindle his spirit. Sneasel knew he couldn't beat Bruiser or any of the true fighters of the team. He was the weakest and the tattered remains of his arrogance refused to allow him to stay that way.

Ash was proud of him.

When he'd asked Sneasel if he wanted to be transferred to work with Torrent there hadn't been a moment's hesitation. Sneasel had laid his beady little eyes straight on Bruiser, who stood a hundred feet of the way watching the dark-type with a smirk, and shook his head.

No hiss, no yowl. No posturing, just a firm refusal of Ash's offer.

Sneasel was many things: mischievous, bratty, a bit spoiled, and aggressive. But he had never been a quitter and never would be. He'd seen the satisfaction in Bruiser's face, the thought that Sneasel couldn't up, and hadn't spared a second thought about spitting in the face of the pain and hurt and impossible heat.

So Ash allowed it. It was probably too intensive for Sneasel but two weeks wouldn't lead to lasting damage. This wasn't strictly about improving Sneasel's abilities anymore and Ash wouldn't get in the way of that.

He accepted that and let Sneasel train like he never had before.

Ash would be there when Bruiser grabbed Sneasel by the scruff to haul him off to a long day of training.

He would be there when Sneasel and Bruiser clashed in a terribly unbalanced exchange of blows, every moment a desperate struggle for survival and pride.

He would be there when Sneasel collapsed, muscles quivering, and when he rose again on legs that just barely obeyed their owner's commands until they were pushed too far yet again.

He would be there when Bruiser unceremoniously dumped Sneasel in a heap of dirtied fur and limp limbs by Tangrowth, who cheerfully took the dark-type while he played with Aron.

And he would be there when he took Sneasel away from the rest and held him in his lap, allowing him to truly rest. He would feed him what he needed to recover and grow stronger, made sure he got water, and cleaned him as best he could since Sneasel was too exhausted to do it himself.

Finally, he would be there when Bruiser dipped his head and asked for permission to work the unyielding Sneasel half-to-death once again…and he would say yes.

It was hard but it was necessary. Ash wouldn't disrespect Sneasel by forcing him to abandon this mission. Sneasel had never pushed himself like this before and Ash wanted him to keep this blazing fire behind his eyes to replace the cool indifference he usually wore like a shroud.

This was the Sneasel he wanted to have on his team. Not the prankster or the child. No, he wanted the Sneasel that would never take the easy way out. That would push on for eternity to accomplish his goal.

The Sneasel that wasn't the baby of his team but a proud equal.

Ash sighed and relaxed as the stick finally started to fall apart in his hand. There was still a good seven or eight inches left to burn but the orange shine of the embers had slowly crawled toward him, seeking out all the fuel that was left to it.

He felt the Feather pulse with Fire and scowled. The branch landed in the campfire and he watched it silently as more and more pops echoed out through the eerily quiet night. Only the gentle chirping of Tailow and whistle of wind through the wings of Beautifly and Dustox kept him from tensing in worry.

Silence was rarely good out in the wilderness but he could appreciate this.

Ash adjusted Sneasel in his arms to angle him away from the fire. He had enough overheating issues as it was without leaving him to roast in his blanket of fur all night.

His eyes trailed over his team, rapt on examining each.

He couldn't see all of them but he knew where they were. He always would.

Dazed was a silent statue in the shadows behind him, leery of the warmth of the fire's hot touch. He could hear her soft, almost imperceptible breathing as air escaped her nose. A friendly touch coiled about his mind and he smiled.

Torrent wasn't too far off, having decided over the first few nights that he would rather create a small, private pond of his own than force himself to levitate all night. It was actually very easy – Tangrowth had ripped a chunk of earth from the close embrace of the ground and hurled it at Infernus and while those two had squabbled Torrent had decided to flood it with a bit of effort and help from an underground spring.

He imagined Infernus' eyes to be watching him from the glowing pool of magma that had been raised in a sort of bath about fifty feet away. Torrent had done the courtesy of creating a small moat around it to act as a heat sink and the "bath" itself that Tangrowth had helped Aron erect was nearly ten feet thick on every side and shaped from stone.

Infernus loved it, of course. If he wasn't tangling with his grass-type partner or trying to goad one of the others into a fight he just teleported into his pool and relaxed. Ash thought it might have been one of the first times he'd been relaxed outside of combat, odd as that may have sounded.

If he was right then Bruiser was getting some sleep underneath one of the huts Tangrowth had constructed for the team. He worked long days and exhausted Seeker and Sneasel long before he himself was done – Ash could scarcely comprehend how much training he was accomplishing. Only Infernus had that kind of stamina and he didn't do nearly as much physical work as the Machoke.

So Ash let him get his sleep. He didn't entirely approve of how brutal his friend was to Sneasel, but the situation didn't need to be addressed yet. Sneasel would get through the training or die trying and he hoped that this might be a way to engender some kind of respect between the two.

He sighed and used both hands to slowly work out a knot in Sneasel's fur. The lack of basic hygiene was what really alerted him to how badly off Sneasel was – normally his friend would spend a good hour per day at the least grooming himself and making sure there wasn't a single strand out of place. Another half hour was spent sharpening his claws and plucking at his feather and then a good twelve were spent sleeping…

When Bruiser didn't have a hold of him, anyway. Once all of this was done Ash wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to wake Sneasel up. He'd forced Bruiser to give Sneasel at least ten hours of sleep every day – Sneasel needed that sleep. That was the one thing he had put his foot down on and Bruiser had understood – it seemed like most of the issue was Bruiser not quite getting the differences in species.

If there was any member of his team obsessed with good health it was Bruiser. Ash was just glad he'd wasn't too picky about what he ate so long as it kept him strong and gave his body the incredible amount of energy it needed to maintain itself and grow even more muscle.

Ash couldn't remember perfectly but there was something like two thousand calories in one of the five bars Bruiser ate each day and close to a hundred grams of protein in them as well. That wasn't counting the protein supplements he put in Bruiser's water, which was quite frankly mindboggling.

He snorted at that. He really had no idea how Bruiser could like that water with all the supplement floating around in it. Even mixed it was basically like eating chalk. Not the most pleasant thing in the world, in his opinion.

Oh well. He couldn't understand how the others liked their food either. Most of them had gotten him to try at least a little bit of it at one point or another over his training career and it was just awful. It wasn't that bad at first, but the aftertaste…

Ash shuddered involuntarily at the memories of the standard food he'd had for most of his friends. They loved it for some reason, though he supposed some of that might have come from all the berries he mixed in.

He only fed that to a few of his friends, of course. Nidoking, Plume, Torrent, Infernus, Seeker, Tangrowth, Sneasel, and Oz. Dazed ate dreams and though Tangrowth and Oz supplemented their diet with photosynthesis and electricity to feed their powers, they still needed regular food.

A slight purr from Sneasel distracted him. He smiled and grabbed a brush from his pack so he could actually work out a few of the mats easily and get some of the leaf bits out. Normally Sneasel would have his claws out before he could even get close with the brush but well, desperate times called for desperate measures.

As Sneasel let out a sound not dissimilar to a motor he glanced over to the rest of his team.

All of the others were clustered to the side, fawning over Aron. The little steel-type basked in the attention, his icy blue eyes shut in rapture as he warbled cheerfully to some noise one of the others had made.

The corners of his lips twitched.

Aron had made himself very, very popular during his short time with them. He was just as friendly and cheerful as Tangrowth but without the oblivious nature that led most of the team to exasperation. Not to mention he was still young and childish and small and Ash assumed that most females of any species found those qualities…cute.

Tangrowth and Aron got along especially well, with neither of the two leaving each other's side for long. It seemed Aron had come to fill the void Sneasel had left after he started to get irritated with Tangrowth's constant attention. The grass-type still adored Sneasel, of course, but had slowly come to accept that things had changed.

Plume doted on him. There was no other way to put it. She'd found plenty of tasty metal treats for him, most of which he'd had to take. Ash really didn't want Aron getting in the habit of eating pokeballs…

Oh, and there was the time she brought a live Wurmple in her talons and set it in front of him. He'd come back to camp early from Dazed and Oz's arena one day and found Aron and the Wurmple playing contentedly. Aron had managed to snag one of the broken pokeballs he thought he'd put in his pack and munched happily on it as he chirped to Wurmple every few seconds.

Plume herself just watched them with a cocked head, not really sure what to make of the whole situation. Apparently making friends with her gift wasn't quite what she'd had in mind.

After Dazed took the Wurmple back to where it needed to be he'd had to spend some time ensuring it wouldn't happen again, though he had to admit he was just glad she hadn't tried to teach Aron to fly like she had Sneasel.

Ash could honestly say that he wouldn't know how to handle that.

Seeker was actually perched on his back, clinging to one of the ridges. He didn't seem to mind even though she practically covered his whole shell. She was rather light to Ash wouldn't be surprised if Aron hadn't even noticed the extra weight at all.

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