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.


85. The Iron Wall Part 2

The last was Oz. She mostly kept an eye on him, though she seemed to enjoy his company. The Electabuzz had even put up with Tangrowth for a while as she stayed with Aron, doing her best to show him a few of her techniques every now and then.

She tended to keep the others in line. Ash had come to trust her with managing any more gifts from Plume, stopping any flying attempts, and keeping Tangrowth from being too reckless.

Oz was very, very good at it. It seemed almost second nature to her…he supposed she must have been involved with the children of her herd after all. Ash didn't really question it. He was just glad that he didn't have to constantly keep an eye on Plume and Tangrowth.

Plume wouldn't do anything reckless, but he'd rather avoid any of her shortsightedness. Though she was intelligent she just didn't seem to get that not every young pokemon was the same as a Pidgey.

Tangrowth…well, he was Tangrowth. Aron was probably more mature than him.

He shook his head and relaxed into the sleeping Nidoking's bulk. Ash laid his eyes on the fire and focused his attention on that and that alone, though a stray desire to try to play Lugia's Flute danced through his head.

Ash had to admit he wanted to give it a shot. The Flute was beautiful and he really did enjoy playing it, though he was terrible. He had no idea where to begin other than blowing in and flutes weren't exactly covered in the Pokedex.

Instead he just relied on the Flute's own incredible make to keep his attempts sounding at least passable. Not good by any means but they didn't make blood gush from his ears like he'd been afraid of.

It was harder to play in the forest. When he was by the coast it had been so much easier. Lugia's connection, no doubt.

Imagining the Song helped. The tune branded on his soul was quick to jump to his lips and be shared with the world again. It was the one thing he could play somewhat well, though he never reclaimed that state of perfection he had entered as he joined his voice with Lugia's in the wake of a ravaged world.

But in the end he decided against it. Ash couldn't put his finger on it, but it just didn't seem…right.

Instead he felt the Feather pulse as his focus became the campfire and he breathed.

Just a few more days and they'd be gone. Then it would be time to meet Steven and leave his mark on the world once more.


"Did you get it?" Ash asked eagerly as he pulled the TM away from Infernus' forehead. The Magmortar was slack, as though he'd just finished running a marathon. His weakness only lasted a few moments though before he stood up perfectly straight, a delighted smile on his lips that unnerved Ash more than any snarl. "That's a yes, I'm guessing?"

Infernus nodded peacefully, the smile growing ever wider with every passing second. Ash felt the heat against his skin grow more and more despite the powerful shields Dazed had layered over his skin. The Feather sung at the touch of hot air and urged him to lean closer, though he quelled that desire instantly.

"Well, let's see how this'll work," he muttered to himself as he mirrored Infernus' expression. There was a frenzied energy to him as he jogged several hundred feet away to a safe location, like there was a bolt of lightning trapped inside his gut. His hands shook slightly as he stood behind the stone barrier raised by Tangrowth and watched with eager eyes.

Dazed stood beside him in a cloak of power as her pendulum floated aloft in the air, energy focused so intensely to it that it failed even to jump and dance as it usually did. Instead it was frozen in a shell of deep blue that nearly left dark stars glittering in his eyes.

Tangrowth, Nidoking, and Torrent were each arrayed in a safe zone around Infernus' arena. All three of them were ready to intervene at a moment's notice if things looked like they were about to get out of control.

Ash wasn't sure how this would go down. He'd probably set up more precautions than necessary but the limits on Infernus' evolved strength weren't quite known. And with the technique he was about to test that question would finally be answered.

"Do it now!" He shouted, his voice carrying easily to Infernus as the Magmortar stood in the midst of air warped and distorted by the sheer heat put out by his body. "Overheat!"

For a moment nothing happened. Infernus simply stood there, though the shell of wavering air immediately expanded to a radius of thirty feet more than where it had hung previous.

Then a slight glow suffused Infernus and flames shot up around him, their heat leaving the earth around the Magmortar caked and cracked and scorched in their wake as it stole away whatever moisture rested within. Tiny fires erupted all around as vegetation buried beneath the earth ignited underneath the terrible heats emitted by his friend, though they died almost instantly as their fuel was burnt away in an instant.

Smoke and steam clouded his vision, though it was helpfully cleared away by an observing Plume, though she quickly darted out of the area when Infernus' glow shone past the fruits of his labor with no effort at all – even through the clouds Ash had still been able to see his friend's shape outlined and filled with fierce light that strove to match the sun itself.

All over the span of a second.

Ash could almost feel the buildup of tension, all the power coiling with Infernus and straining to be released to sear away the entire world. It was the heat that exploded from the Magmortar, the rippling air, the scorched earth and endless steam from where Torrent had soaked the arena beforehand.

It released.

He couldn't help but fling his forearm over his eyes as a plume of orange and yellow fire exploded forth from one of Infernus' cannons, heralded by a great flash of light that left his eyes stinging and wet. A moment later a primal roar followed, echoing in his ears like the cries of some ancient beast woken from its slumber.

Infernus' form was hidden as the huge cone of flame rose from his arm, twisting and writhing like a great serpent. Smoke trailed from the edges, desperately chasing the lead of the column that flew higher and higher until it seemed as though the entire sky of the arena had been consumed in the power released in Infernus' Overheat.

Cinders fell from the sides as the great gout of fire stubbornly hung in the air for a few seconds, fighting the laws of physics desperately to continue burning and devouring the atmosphere itself. It felt like an eternity before it had finally dwindled into a simple rain of embers that drifted all over, falling from titanic clouds of smoke formed in the wake of the plume's death.

Ash's face twisted up into a smile, mouth barely held closed despite his inner want to whoop in joy and do a little jig before running over to hug Infernus, whose shoulders had slumped even as the results of his labor fell to the earth around him in tiny trails of flame, scorching the earth beyond recognition.

The arena itself and even the forest beyond felt the rain of countless embers, though they failed to ignite thanks to Torrent transporting almost an entire pond to douse it before hand. They were the only thing that shone in the world aside from Infernus himself – the sky itself was overcast with smoke for as far as Ash could see and even the air around him was filled with the thick, black substance that billowed through the atmosphere.

He could not see the sun. Only a hint of its light pierced Infernus' firestorm, lightening the smoke to a point where it appeared almost grey rather than the fierce black it truly was.

Ash coughed then as smoke rushed into his lungs and the Feather pulsed molten rock through his veins. Old wounds made themselves known and his lungs heaved terribly as they were reminded of the trials forced upon them by Moltres' volcano.

Nevertheless he kept watching with wide eyes and a stupid grin.

Infernus wasn't spent, but he was tired. Ash could see that from here. And considering what it took for Infernus to show even a hint of exhaustion…well, the evidence had just stolen the oxygen from his lungs and blinded him moments before.

It was taxing, but Ash couldn't have asked for more.

"Dazed, can you clear the way?" Ash coughed, wincing at the rawness of his voice. His throat burned horribly and he'd wished he'd had the foresight to bring one of his canteens with him. Still, getting to Infernus took priority. Plume would clear the aftereffects of Overheat away.

Yes, Friend-Trainer. Trust yourself. I will guide you to the brute.

He nodded and staggered forth, eager to congratulate Infernus. That was on a scale of nothing he'd accomplished before – even in the relatively brutal battles in which he clashed with Tangrowth he preferred precise blasts of intense flame. Unleashing his full might was just too dangerous for Tangrowth and so he'd been forced to reign his own power in – and that was the opposite of Overheat.

Overheat was pouring a huge amount of energy into the attack. It was much like Draco Meteor in that it taxed even experts of using the technique a great deal and could exhaust most inexperienced wielders. Essentially it was a blast of flame that matched the users highest potential at that time – all-or-nothing.

It was the equalizer. It tapped into power that could overwhelm even superior opponents if the user was strong enough, though it had better knock them out then or the rest of the match would be rather quick.

But Ash didn't really care about that. It wouldn't be something he relied on. Aside from the obvious tactical drawbacks the collateral damage was almost ridiculous – if he hadn't had the field prepped beforehand they would be fighting a full blown forest fire right now.

No, he wouldn't rely on it. But he had one very specific person who he knew he'd use it against in the near future. It wouldn't be an equalizer, it would be a fighting chance.

That was in the future, though. For now Ash just wanted to check on his friend.


"Show me what you've got," Ash murmured as he firmly rubbed Aron's domed head one last time before he rose and moved a safe distance away. The little steel-type nodded with an air of determination about him, his rasping tongue held firmly in his mouth instead of hanging off to a side as it usually did. The early dawn's light shone off his armor brightly, making him difficult to look at but Ash managed.

Once Nidoking was absolutely certain Ash was safe he grunted. Aron warbled back and the battle to prove what the student had learned in these past two weeks began.

The first technique Aron accessed was one he'd proven to be rather adept with. He loosed what was probably meant to be a fierce cry and focused for several seconds, his small literally trembling with effort before all the power he'd gathered exploded forth in the form of several jagged walls of stone that jutted up and enclosed Nidoking in a fully sealed prison.

Aron slumped for a moment, though he quickly scurried as far as he could to his left before the thin barriers he'd summoned with Rock Tomb were destroyed by blunt claws, overwhelming force, and a single sweep of Nidoking's mighty tail.

Nidoking roared, the bellow forcing the dusty remains of his temporary prison several feet away. His beady black eyes swiftly settled upon Aron, who scarcely managed to focus his energy into a semispherical shield with Protect before dozens of poisonous quills sprayed into it, bouncing harmlessly off the barrier.

The steel-type quickly dashed away again as Nidoking followed him with his fierce gaze, analyzing every movement of Aron. He slid to a halt and only barely managed to keep his footing when Nidoking grunted again and tapped his foot to the earth, releasing vast amounts of focused energy that carved a thin crevasse into the soft ground and lined it with golden energy as it grew wider and wider.

With his escape cut off by a second Earth Power that carved off the area behind him, Aron made his last attempt. He warbled as he turned to Nidoking and charged with barely a moment's hesitation, head lowered.

Nidoking growled softly as Aron's domed head swiftly moved upwards, kicking a thin spray of dirt into the poison-type's eyes that managed to distract him just long enough for Aron to finish his charge.

…Unfortunately for Aron, that charge ended underneath Nidoking's heavy, clawed foot. The blunt nails pressed firmly into Aron's metal hide as Nidoking cocked his head, ears twitching as he glanced down at the steel-type. Finally he seemed to heave his plated shoulders in a shrug and removed his massive weight from the steel-type's body and let the stunned Aron stagger off to the side.

His friend met Ash's eyes inquisitively. Ash nodded with a grin – Nidoking had done well these past two weeks. Aron wasn't anywhere near ready to join the main team, obviously, but at least Ash felt confident releasing him against weak opponents.

Aron had come far from what he had been in the beginning of this past training session. Still young, still slow, and still weak. But he had experience and the mentality to grow strong now. That was all Ash had asked.

For Nidoking to have shaped Aron into a mighty warrior standing even close to Sneasel's ability would have required a miracle. Aron might have started training months later than Sneasel, but he had to be trained to have the proper mindset for combat unlike the naturally aggressive dark-type.

The newest member of their family was gentle. His kind developed slowly physically. They had the same incredible lifespan as the Rhydon family and lacked any natural predators – they didn't need to develop extremely quickly, especially since Aggron tended to be excellent parents and stuck around until they were certain the offspring could take care of itself.

Sneasel had been as ready for combat a mere few weeks after emerging from his egg as Aron was now. Different rates of development, different instincts, and different personalities accounted for that.

But Aron was ready now. It wouldn't be an easy road for him, but he had just taken his first few steps. Ash was confident in his ability to meet the rest of the team as equals one day – he just had to get started first.

"Good job!" He rubbed Aron's back and steadied his young friend as the steel-type almost fell onto his side. Looked like Nidoking stopping his charge had rattled him harder than Ash had expected. Dazed might need to check on him to make sure nothing was too bad. Aron's shell should have stopped anything too bad but it was better to be safe than sorry. "You've really gotten strong, haven't you?"

Aron squeezed his icy blue eyes shut at the praise and nuzzled Ash's hand, doing his best to lean his entire weight on it. Ash had to bring in his other arm and push his leg against the steel-type's mass to keep himself from being crushed but he thought it was more than worth it – being close to his team wasn't something that had a price.

"I'm going to return you now, alright?" Ash said slowly, doing his best to make sure Aron got every word into his heavy skull. Aron blinked and warbled, licking Ash's forearms and tearing plenty of skin off before Ash smiled at him and recalled him into his pokeball. "He should be more comfortable now. I don't think it would be good for him to try and walk back to camp."

Nidoking plodded over to Ash's side and nodded, taking care that his horn stayed far away from Ash.

"Thank you for helping him," Ash said quietly as he and Nidoking stood together. He turned his eyes to his friend, who had shifted his head so as to catch Ash's every word. "Nobody else would have done as good of a job."

His friend snorted at that, the soft rush of hot air brushing against the exposed skin of Ash's arm. Ash's lips twitched upward at the pleased rush on Nidoking's face before the monarch's countenance shifted back to hard, loyal stone.

"I'll get some more one-on-one time with you to make up for losing a good week of training," Ash said. Nidoking's ears twitched, pleased at the news. "How's your own training coming along? I know you've worked hard with Triad and I saw a lot of improvement with Earth Power. Not quite as rough, if that makes any sense."

Nidoking nodded in agreement, baring his fangs in a smile.

"By the way, start working a bit with your psychic abilities," he told Nidoking. The poison-type's ears twitched curiously, that part of their training having fallen by the wayside long ago in favor of his much greater potential in the form of his physical and elemental techniques. "Nothing major. Just try and improve while you're working with Aron – I've got some plans."

That was all Nidoking needed to hear and he gruffly dipped his head. Ash smiled and patted his friend's shoulder, grinning as the hulking Nidoking leaned into his touch. "Let's head back to the camp – I think it's about time we move on. I want to be early to Rustboro."

Nidoking grunted in agreement and fell in line with Ash as the two walked past the large clearing of Petalburg Forest that they'd claimed as their own – it was mostly deserted already, probably from some battle between careless trainers some time before. Their presence had attracted some attention over their second week in the forest, though. They often had audiences as they trained in the form of inquisitive Wurmple, Shroomish, and other young denizens of the area.

The older pokemon stayed away, probably just close enough to keep an eye on their children. Ash had no doubt that they were wary of him – the younger ones were impressed with his team's strength. The adults knew just how dangerous his friends could be.

Ash had briefly considered approaching some of the pokemon to see if they'd be interested in coming along with him but decided against it. Most were freshly hatched and he had his hands full with Aron – it was intensive bringing a new member into the fold and he wanted to make sure the team had stabilized again before throwing yet another new brother or sister-in-arms into the dynamics.

Maybe he'd make a return visit one day, but for now he wouldn't bother trying to test their interest. They were too young and the older ones had already settled in and had a life here in the forest. He wouldn't want to remove them from that unless they approached him first.

He'd have to make sure he had everything cleaned up before they left tomorrow. Not just their camp, but also all the damage his team had done to their separate arenas over the course of their training.

It wouldn't be too bad for the most part. Nidoking had practiced his Earth Power quite a bit, but he'd also work with general earth manipulation and used a bit of simple work to heal the scars in the earth he'd left behind. His training with Aron wasn't anywhere near enough intensive to do anything but leave slight tracks where he'd tossed the steel-type and treads in the angles he attacked from.

Torrent and Plume's training grounds would just require a bit of touchup by Tangrowth, as would Sneasel and Bruiser's. None of them had used attacks that would wreak large-scale devastation on the earth itself.

The Kingdra hadn't really focused much on his draconic techniques. He had them down fairly well and Ash wanted to develop some of his other talents for now, mostly working to expand his versatility.

Dazed and Oz wouldn't require extensive work either. He supposed Dazed had done about as much damage as Bruiser – though where he tended to leave small craters from his Focus Blasts she'd started working to rip chunks of earth out of the ground. It was a lot more draining than Ancient Power and not as effective but it worked well as a distraction and soaked up Oz's electricity quite well.

No, none of them would be the issue. They hadn't done their utmost to literally destroy and remake their training ground several times over, unlike a certain pair that came to mind.

Ash couldn't help but bare his teeth in a fierce grin as he remembered the sight of Tangrowth and Infernus dueling, each limiting themselves a bit to keep things interesting. Infernus wouldn't teleport and in turn Tangrowth could only use magma.

Technically that wasn't fair at all and Ash was fairly certain that Infernus had tricked Tangrowth into the match for fun. The magma might weigh Infernus down but the potent heat and molten stone soaking into whatever injuries he incurred only made him burn hotter and heal in moments – with how much he'd been coated with by the end of it Ash was fairly certain Nidoking could have gored him through the stomach and had the Magmortar's fiery flesh mend around the horn in seconds.

Probably an exaggeration and not at all safe to test, but Ash thought it was interesting.

If only he could call up Lugia's shields from the Shamouti Incident at will…

I can.

Ash's face twisted at the unwelcome intrusion and clamped down on it with an immediate assault. It had become a reflex with how much the Shade of Mew had decided to whisper into the back of his mind recently.

He didn't like it at all, though there was literally nothing he could do to stop it. It was something Ash had to deal with for now. Fire and Lightning flooded his body as his heart pounded, the adrenaline still drowning his system.

Ash grimaced and focused as they peacefully plodded across the flat expanse of dirt and tattered grass. What trees there were had been knocked over before they'd even come here – all that remained were a few stumps and thick, knotted roots that wound their way across the clearing's floor. They were dry and dead and Ash figured that a resident Slaking had probably thrown a tantrum here at one point.

That didn't explain some of the veritable wasteland that made up the rest of the team's training grounds but he supposed he would take what answers he could. It was too bad Daisy wasn't here. Maybe she would've been able to see what had happened with the help of her Ninetales…

Still, that wasn't quite as interesting as the memories of Infernus and Tangrowth's battles. The two were quite fierce with one another, though he supposed that was the norm for Infernus. Tangrowth's eyes were always narrowed, the luminous saucers never leaving the glow of Infernus' heat.

Of course, he was fairly certain Infernus was having the time of his life. Torrent rarely deigned to battle him, wary of the consequences should both of them unleash their full strength. Nidoking was ill-suited to fight the teleporting menace, whose incredible body heat made most melee engagements a joke. Dazed had trouble resisting even a few intense blasts of his terrible fires and neither Bruiser nor Plume could get close.

Tangrowth had turned out to be his ideal foe, at least when he didn't teleport on top of him and burn his way past the grass-type's fire retardant vines.

He disliked Infernus, fought best at range, and could literally make every step a constant war for control of the battlefield. Tangrowth wasn't very bright but he was excellent in combat and matched the Magmortar's lust for battle and blood with an iron resolve.

In fact, Ash thought that Infernus might be coming to like Tangrowth. That might be pushing it, but there was clearly an enjoyment there. It wasn't often Infernus could be truly pushed, even with a handicap. So to exert effort again and again until he could reach the final release of victory was probably the most satisfying thing in the world to him.

Ash himself couldn't have been happier with the development – even if it wasn't a real friendship and a very one-sided relationship it was good for Infernus and Tangrowth both. Infernus found something to occupy himself with, was able to release the pent up aggression Ash knew all too well, and got to actually stay outside the pokeball almost all the time.

For his part, Tangrowth had become a bit more focused. He was still the same as ever – especially when Ash caught him playing with the magma Infernus summoned for him, juggling it between vines with fascinated eyes on the glowing, sluggish liquid – but Infernus' harsh lessons had taught him well.

The dangerous smile he wore as he'd considered the wanton power wielded by two of his friends faded into one of content as he assessed the results of this trip. He literally couldn't think of a single thing to be disappointed in.

His friends hadn't just grown stronger – they'd grown closer. There had always been a rift in his team, now that he thought about it. His family was united in the sense that they wished to help him and tolerated one another, despite their own feelings. But they weren't close in the way he had wished.

This training trip had helped to mend that. The gap was by no mean healed, but it had been patched together with careful stitching. His team had partners, Aron, and actual peace for them to come together. There were no distractions from the outside world other than the inevitability of their departure.

And unfortunately, that time had come. Ash had to admit that he was more than ready to see Steven again but he would miss this. It felt like it had been ages since it had just been him and his team without a care in the world.

All good things came to an end, of course. While leaving this behind would be the death of a good thing, he had no doubt that joining Steven would be the beginning of something great.


"The next time some of you are released, you might be facing down Steven," Ash began as he stood before his team in the bare clearing that once held their camp. They listened eagerly, several considering the future battle with childish fascination and others with wariness. "I don't expect us to win against any of his team, but I do expect to show him what we're made of. I've seen how far all of us have come in the last two weeks and we're going to make Steven see it as well!"

That got him a few cheers, a few faces full of anticipation. He smiled.

"I've tried to prepare all of you for what's coming, but it's going to be tough," he continued, face set in stone. "Steven's unlike any other opponent we've ever faced. He doesn't focus on flight like Lance. He's a defensive fighter and probably the best of that style in the whole world. I've shown you videos of his Metagross. Metagross might be his strongest, but that doesn't mean the rest of the team isn't on a similar level. So be ready and give it your all – we're going to start this journey off right."

"But that's in the future," he said easily, allowing his stern tone to slip away like water through a sieve. "Right now we need to clean up and then we'll enjoy ourselves. Everyone have fun and go demolish your arenas! Tangrowth, fill in the holes. We're not leaving a trace of evidence behind."

With that he relaxed and fell back against a tree, crossing his arms as most of his team eagerly went to tear down the walls that had contained their battles for the last two weeks. Sneasel especially was happy to dash off, more than ready to release some of his frustration on the walls that he'd been smashed into by Bruiser on more than one occasion.

He watched them go with a smile. They'd be quick.

Ash sighed and pulled himself off the tree. The camp was cleared up and he had all of his equipment safely stashed away in his storage compartments but he needed to prepare a few things beforehand.

Technically he was cutting it a bit close. He was due to be at Steven's place in Rustboro at three today according to the message Steven had sent him about a week ago. Ash guessed he'd completed his responsibilities at the Ever Grande Conference, though the event's closing Ceremony wasn't for another ten days when June came to a close.

But he'd prepared as much he could. His schedule allowed for a little bit of flexibility. Ash had looked up address his mentor had given him on the PokeNav databases, quickly locating it. It looked to be an apartment complex, probably ridiculously expensive.

So he knew where he was going. It was probably just a two hour flight to Rustboro and it was only ten in the morning. He'd woken up at the crack of dawn to get a last assessment of his team's progress and spent the next hour cleaning up the camp.

Now he just had to wait another thirty minutes or so for his team to come back, saddle up Plume, and then he'd be off. Rustboro probably wouldn't appreciate him flying in but he figured if he just went to the Pokemon Center closest to Steven's home then he'd be fine.

Besides, he was a member of the Indigo Elite Four. It wasn't like they'd stop him. That was definitely one of the more convenient parts of his position.

Ash figured he'd spend whatever spare time he had going to the Rustboro Gym to drop off Birch's package and then wait out at Steven's apartment. He would normally try to fit in a Gym battle to burn some time but Ash wouldn't allow his team to be anything but their best – none of them had done anything taxing for the last two days so they could recover properly.

He wouldn't disappoint Steven. The former Champion was doing him a great service by giving him the privilege of traveling and training under him for the next year or so and he wasn't about to reward the man with a poor display.

At that he shook his head. He needed to relax. Focusing too much on the battle wouldn't help any. He'd worked out plenty of strategies for what he knew for Steven's team and spent a bit of time running his team through them. There wasn't anything else he could do.

Instead of worrying further he released Aron. His newest friend wouldn't be much help to Nidoking in wrecking the arena and wouldn't be able to avoid the tremors of Nidoking's Earthquake either.

And if the Aron currently licking a hunk of scrap metal Ash had obtained was great at one thing it was distracting him with a good mood.


"I'm sorry, the Gym Leader isn't in today," the attendant, a teenager maybe two or three years older than Ash, drawled. He rapped his fingers against the stone the Rustboro Gym's desk was carved from. The furniture looked ancient and flowed seamlessly into the rock floor, as though the building had been constructed around it. "She won't return until the conclusion of the Ever Grande Conference. If you'd like we could schedule a battle now. Just leave your Trainer ID number and we'll get it set up immediately."

"Thanks, but I'm actually here on a job from Professor Birch," Ash rasped, wincing at the sound of his voice. His throat was still a bit irritated from breathing in so much smoke during Infernus' first use of Overheat, though it had been clearing up. "I'm supposed to deliver a disk to the Rustboro Gym."

The attendant blinked and straightened up, more interested. "Oh, of course. Can I see it?"

"Here," he said, handing the disk's case to the teen. Ash wasn't too worried about this data. Although it did hold information on Legendaries Birch had said it was mostly just irregularities in normal patterns. There was nothing very sensitive on there. Nothing that would turn the world on its head.


Ash nodded stiffly and turned as the attendant whistled a merry tune and walked the disk into the gym proper, probably headed to Roxanne's office. He had no doubt that any personal deliveries from the Pokemon Professor of Hoenn would be given utmost priority. Roxanne might actually return from the Conference or have it transferred to her quarters there.

That wasn't any of his concern, though. Until he could battle her he couldn't really care less.

With that Ash headed out, pleased with how quick it had gone. No real niceties, just a simple exchange and the job was done. That was just about all he could ask for, even if it did mean he'd have to amuse himself for a bit longer now. It was only one o' clock so he still had two hours to wait.

Oh well. That would go by in the blink of an eye once he got into Cynthia's book. Despite fervently reading, it felt like he'd barely made any progress at all. He'd skimmed it, but considering how huge the monolithic text was he didn't count that. No, he wouldn't count himself as having completed the book until he'd actually mastered the knowledge held within. Anything less just wasn't sufficient.

That meant he'd have to release Dazed, of course. She enjoyed reading it through his mind as much as he did. Moreso, even. The Hypno had a scholarly and intellectual bent no other members of his team held and he was more than happy to foster it.

He had to get to Steven's apartment first, of course. With that in mind he trudged off into the city of Rustboro, navigating the steel jungle so similar to Saffron's with relative ease. It wasn't quite as cramped and the streets were far wider, though the dull monochrome brown of the city was a bit disappointing. At least Saffron was more varied with his colors.

Still, none of that mattered right now. He had a task to finish.


Dazed helpfully turned the page for him with a flash of blue. Ash smiled at her and continued reading, losing himself in the text.

As such, Rustboro can in many ways be seen to mirror Sootopolis. In contrast with Sootopolis, a naval, sea-based superpower in the east, Rustboro is a land-based power with roots primarily in production and trade rather than war.

While it made good use of its access to the sea, traditionally Rustboro favored trade on land. The massive Meteor Falls cave networks and the foothills of Mt. Pyre separated them from Fallarbor's territory, though in essence Rustboro controlled the majority of central and northern Hoenn through close association with the ancient Draconid peoples, who have died out over the past centuries.

Though hugely successful, it failed to expand east beyond the Arid Zone separating Fortree and Lilycove from the rest of mainland Hoenn and found itself unable to push past Petalburg. It historically rivaled Slateport, who was in constant competition with Rustboro for dominance in the Dewford region.

Despite tensions that have lasted for the better part of a millennium, neither Rustboro nor their historical foe have gone to war. There are many reasons for this truce, which experts believe to primarily lie in the form of the Draconids, whose relationship with Rustboro enabled them to have military success without relying on a large standing armor.

The Draconids occupied a role similar to Blackthorn in the Johto region, though perhaps on a larger scale. Both possessed extremely close relationships with powerful dragons that allowed them to strike almost anywhere in a region overnight and return to their beds the next day.

Through their breeding of Salamence and other dragons, the Draconids were undisputedly the most powerful military force in all of Hoenn for centuries. Their ability to strike at targets hundreds and thousands of miles away meant they were feared by all and their own comparative lack of cities or infrastructure meant it was exceptionally difficult to find them. Many resided in concealed villages or in Meteor Falls, where –

Ash started slightly as the alarm he'd set on his PokeNav went off. He grinned and felt a little rush of energy surge through him as he quickly closed the Arbok-bound book and returned it to his storage compartment. Dazed gave him a quick nod of permission before he recalled her.

It was time.

He knocked on the door for the second time that day and patiently waited. Steven hadn't been here when he'd first arrived and had probably just teleported in. The former Champion certainly didn't seem the type to disregard punctuality.

A few moments later the door opened, revealing a smiling Steven Stone.

"Ash, it's good to see you!" He swung the door open fully, waving Ash inside. "Come in, come in. I'm glad you're here on time. We have a lot to do today."

He grinned back and followed Steven into the apartment, which looked to be absolutely massive. It wasn't unexpected for this apartment complex, which he wasn't sure he'd be able to afford even with his salary. Ash had half-expected to be given a complementary suit and tie just for visiting so as to avoid disgracing their reputation.

The living room along looked like it was the size of the first floor of his house back in Pallet and was completely pristine. There wasn't a single thing out of place. All of the furniture was spotless, blankets perfectly folded, and the floor clear of anything that might resemble a mess.

Honestly, if it weren't for the pictures of Steven with all sorts of people he was sure were influential in some way or another he wouldn't' think it had been lived in at all. Oh, and the display cases full of rare stones of both the mundane and evolutionary types.

"This place is huge," he commented as he took in the whole scene. This was less of an apartment and more of a one-story house. It didn't even have a kitchen attached – it looked like it was in its one room.

"It's fairly nice," Steven agreed as he shut the door and turned back to him. "I'm not here often but it serves its purpose."

Ash nodded dumbly, barely resisting the urge to snort at Steven's assessment. The former Champion had very different standards of luxury than he did.

"Please, take a seat," his new traveling companion motioned to one of the plush armchairs dotting the room. Ash quickly fell into one, tapping his fingers against the armrest as Steven sat across from him. "How have you liked Hoenn? I know I haven't been in touch quite as often as I should have. Wallace has been running me ragged with the Ever Grande Conference – after dealing with the Indigo Conference as well I couldn't be happier to be done with it."

He grinned. "I've enjoyed it. I haven't explored quite as much as I'd like but I've gotten a lot of training in and picked up a new teammate. And I found a few interesting things in Sootopolis and Granite Cave that might need to be investigated."

"Lance told me," Steven sighed and rubbed his temples. "We've known about the Cave of Origin for centuries now, though you illuminated us a bit more than the keepers of that lore. But the news of Granite Cave is a bit more worrying – I know of that mural. I've seen it before. But what you reported of the unnatural influences was unexpected. When I found it I felt nothing of the type."

Ash decided not to point out that the influences acting on him in that cave – the touch of Legends – probably shouldn't be classified as unnatural. They were practically the definition of natural, technically. He knew that much.

But that wasn't what they were discussing right now and it would just be picking at semantics. He wasn't entirely surprised only he'd felt it anyway. After all of the Legends he'd encountered he was probably more open to their influence than most.

"I'll ensure Wallace sends a Ranger team to investigate it," Steven muttered, scratching his chin thoughtfully. Ash wasn't sure the man was actually talking to him. "A mundane Ranger and at least one psychic or otherwise sensitive member…need a control."

"Be careful of the psychic that gets sent," he warned. Steven's head jerked up at the intrusion, as though he'd momentarily forgotten Ash's presence. "Human psychics tend to be more vulnerable to Legendaries, I've noticed. They might not be able to handle it."

Steven nodded at that. "Ah, yes. Thank you, Ash. I believe Sabrina reported something along those lines, though I'd forgotten it. I haven't been quite as involved in the research into the Legends as Lance has been."

"Now, what's this you said about a new team member?" Steven raised a silver eyebrow as he moved onto a happier topic.

Ash grinned and unhooked Aron's pokeball with a swift movement. An instant later he tapped the release and Aron materialized on the rug. The steel-type blinked and yawned before he allowed his rasping tongue to hang freely and sat down contentedly on his haunches as he examined his new surroundings.

Steven's eyes lit up. "An Aron! That's fantastic, Ash. I'm glad to see him on your team – it's been a long time since I've been able to work with an untrained steel-type. I'm afraid my team has remained the same for quite a while now."

He nodded along with Steven and had to hold back a snort as Steven slid out of his chair and next to Aron, carefully running his callused fingertips over his shell and muttering quietly.

Aron warbled and leaned into the touch, always eager to get some attention. Steven smiled and rubbed his domed head, stopping at a point where his head and main body connected to scratch. "I've found that almost all Aron like this spot rubbed. This is where a lot of the stress builds up from raising their head and they appreciate having some of the tension released. If they aren't with others of the Aron family they tend to have minor, chronic pain build up over time until they evolve."

Ash dipped his head to show he'd heard and watched carefully, appreciating Steven's deep knowledge. He paid rapt attention as Steven tapped a few more spots and seemed pleased with Aron's condition.

"He's in good condition," the Steel Master smiled softly as he tapped Aron's forehead before rising. "Aron and their line are hardy anyway. I'll show you what to keep an eye out for once we settle into our routine."

"And what will that be?" Ash raised an eyebrow. Aron plodded over by his feet and cheerfully knocked his heavy head into his shin before settling down and watching Steven with a small bit of interest.

Steven reclaimed his seat and relaxed.

"Today won't be too difficult," he said. "First I'd like to introduce you to someone who's very interested in meeting you. After that I will have us teleported to a training area I've frequented in the past a few miles out of Rustboro so I can assess you. Once that's finished we'll return here so that I can give you an outline of what we'll be working toward over the upcoming year. Understood?"

Ash nodded. "Crystal clear."

"Good," Steven smiled. He shut his eyes and moments later a Gardevoir appeared. Its luminous eyes raked over Ash and watched him intensely, though judging from the focus revealed on Steven's face they were having a mental conversation. "Recall Aron, please. Juliet here will teleport us to our destination."

He quickly followed the former Champion's command and flashed a smile to Juliet in thanks for helping them. At least he didn't have to put up with Bob's nonsense while she was around.

Juliet just nodded before she shut her eyes, though an inner light that suddenly flashed made it appear as though they were still open.

What followed was perhaps the smoothest example of teleportation he'd encountered aside from what he remembered from watching Mew battle Mewtwo. It was a perfectly seamless transition.

There wasn't even a moment of disorientation or a rush of motion and color and space as she teleported them, just as though they had shifted from one point to another. No flash of light, no crack, not even a hint that anything had happened.

"Thank you, Juliet," Steven said to the Gardevoir. She nodded and vanished a moment later, as though she'd never even been there at all. The former Champion idly toyed with the cuffs of his suit as he watched Ash marvel at their new surroundings.

He wasn't sure where they were, but it was lavish. The walls were of the same drab grey and brown stone much of Rustboro was shaped from but the floor was a glossy marble and artwork that practically screamed of wealth adorned the walls.

There were some news articles and what looked like scientific and financial journals hung on the wall but he couldn't really take the time to examine them at the moment. Most had pictures of a tall, smiling man with silvery-white hair just a few shades paler than Steven's slate on them. Despite his rather odd haircut – it vaguely reminded Ash of a Starmie – he still cut an imposing, albeit friendly, presence.

Seeing the man gave Ash a few guesses as to where he was but he figured he'd know for sure in a few minutes.

"Ah, Steven!" A booming voice echoed throughout the hall in which they stood. Ash instantly turned to examine the new arrival, who walked past a secretary's desk without a care in the world and blinked when he realized it was the man he'd just seen plastered all over the walls. "Welcome, welcome! It's been too long, my boy!"

"It has," Steven smiled as he shook the tall old man's hand. He waved Ash up. "Father, this is –"

"Ash Ketchum," Mr. Stone said gravely with an accent quite a bit stronger than Steven's. He looked down at Ash with interest as he took Ash's hand in a tight grip and shook it up and down enthusiastically. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ketchum. My name is Francis Stone. As you might have picked up on, I'm Steven's father."

Ash returned the firm grip. "It's good to meet you too."

Mr. Stone smiled lightly at Ash's simple greetings. "Let's move into my office. I'd hate to distract Ms. Carla while she works."

Steven and Ash followed in silence, though his mentor flashed the secretary a smile as they passed which she happily returned and waved them off, though she never took her eyes off her monitor.

The heavy wooden doors swung shut once they'd passed and left them in a massive office that looked like it doubled as a meeting room. It looked as though Mr. Stone's workplace was towards the back of the room and surrounded by all manner of personal touches. There was a huge table that looked as though the room had been carved around it in the center, lined with chairs. Its top was thick glass that revealed all manner of fossils and rocks trapped beneath.

Mr. Stone seemed to share Steven's fascination with minerals if the countless display cases full of rare and beautiful stones was anything to go by – their name was useful for that much, at least. He didn't even recognize some of the rocks that were obviously evolutionary stones and there were all sorts of stone slabs with ancient carvings etched into them that could be sold for a fortune.

But overall he was more distracted by the odd feeling that he was being watched…

"Please, relax!" Mr. Stone chortled as he slid into an impossibly comfortable looking armchair and steepled his fingers together, watching them closely. "Would either of you like something to eat or drink?"

"No, thank you," Steven shook his head. "While we would love to stay and chat this needs to be kept brief. We have a lot of work to get done."

"Of course, of course," the older man murmured. "Very well, then. Metagross!"

That was enough to distract Ash from his contemplation of an odd stone held aloft by what almost looked like some sort of ceremonial artifact. The side angled toward the chairs in front of Mr. Stone almost reminded him of a face the way a large crack angled straight down and then into what looked like a frown. Two dots were indented right above where the crack branched.

It was utterly unremarkable, though it put him on edge nonetheless. That might be something to talk to Steven about later if it became any stranger.

Still, that barely even mattered to him right now. No, he was much more concerned with the twin Metagross that had appeared from the shadows, eerily silent as they stepped forward with a smooth grace that belied their hulking forms and massive weight.

One was a few shades darker than the other, almost approaching black. That was a sign of age in Metagross if he remembered correctly and the strength of their armor tended to correspond to how dark it was. All the color reflected was how many layers had been developed over the course of their life.

The other was much closer in shade to Steven's and as it turned its bloody red eyes on him he froze.

He knew this Metagross.

"Mr. Ketchum, wait!" Mr. Stone cried as Nidoking and Dazed appeared beside the boy in a flash of light. Both picked up on the situation instantly, probably thanks to Dazed pulling the context from his mind. "Please restrain yourself! That Metagross will cause no harm to you."

"It already has," Ash snarled, staring down the Metagross he had once met in battle without a hint of fear. Fire roared in him and he was more than ready to resume that battle if he needed to. When he saw it and knew what it was, he did not think. He simply acted.

A firm hand took ahold of Ash's shoulder, despite the warning growl Nidoking sent to its owner. Steven didn't care about any of Nidoking's threats and squeezed him gently, just enough to snap him out of the reactionary state he'd fallen into.

"That's enough, Ash," Steven said quietly. "His Metagross won't hurt you. It simply wished to speak with you…although in a much different context. It wasn't supposed to happen like this."

Ash nodded jerkily, eyes never leaving Pierce's Metagross. It stared dispassionately back, looking very, very tired in that moment. "You could have told me beforehand."

"I was about to," his mentor frowned at Mr. Stone. "Some of us don't pay attention, it seems."

"Yes, I suppose most of the blame rests in my hands," Mr. Stone grimaced. His knuckles rapped nervously against the glossy wood of his desk. "My apologies. Metagross wasn't supposed to enter yet."

Our apologies as well, Conqueror. It was remiss of us to be so careless. But we desired to communicate immediately.

"What do you want?" Ash crossed his arms. He trusted Steven enough to relax a bit but by no means would he ever like this creature. It wasn't quite as monstrous as Pierce's other beasts in personality but it had aided and abetted countless murders and terrible acts when it stood by its master's side.

We simply wished to express our recognition of your accomplishment. We did not enjoy the last years of our time with our former trainer. Thank you for allowing us freedom and a return to our home.

"If you didn't enjoy it why didn't you leave?" He scowled at the hulking metal creature. Its eyes still held him dispassionately, not a hint of emotion displayed. "I know it's possible. Not always easy, but possible."

We are loyal. Master Pierce was there when we hatched and we expected to be there when he died. Though we did not condone his activities we would not forsake our bond. But without Master Pierce we see that perhaps there were alternative routes we could have taken to curb his level of collateral damage. But we were blinded. He was all we had ever known, unfortunate psychological failings and all. He was our duty.

Ash's lips were flat as he listened to the creature. "If you're trying to apologize –"

Why would we apologize? What is done is done. Lost lives may never be reclaimed. We simply wished to recognize your involvement in our freedom and thank you for it. The future is more mutable.

Perhaps we will conform to your preconceived notions of ethics in the future and redeem ourselves in your eyes. Or not. We wish only to thank you for allowing us that choice, Conqueror.

He nodded stiffly, just wanting this to be over as soon as possible. Ash didn't want to talk to this Metagross who had the blood of hundreds on its hands. Generally he thought himself quite capable of comprehending the alien mindsets of certain pokemon but this…he couldn't handle it. Not right now. Not yet.

Farewell, Conqueror. We wish for chance to favor you in the time to come as you travel with Master Steven and our kin. We see your strength for ourselves now but improvement is a certainty with Master Steven…you have surpassed Master Pierce already, and only Master Steven may guide you now.

Ash twitched as the Metagross lumbered silently away and into the shadows where it had first emerged, unnerving grace even more apparent to him now that he knew just what that creature was.

The other Metagross examined him. Its eyes were far darker than Pierce's Metagross, the red so deep it was nearly black.

Bearer of the Golden Feather, Storm-Tamer, and host of powers known and unknown…you carry lofty titles on your shoulders, Ash Ketchum. It is no wonder the Traitor-Thief-False Kin fell to you, young though you may have been. I thank you for your deed.

"You're welcome," Ash said, mouth dry. He was relaxed now that Pierce's Metagross was gone and quickly recalled his two friends now that the time of crisis was over – it was only putting more stress on everyone. "After what he did I would never let him escape justice."

Good. Blood must be paid with blood. That is our way.

The older Metagross truly looked at him now and he thought he saw a dangerous glint in its wise red eyes.

You are dissatisfied with the perceived escape the Betrayer has achieved. I will allow you to know the truth: Betrayer will pay for its crimes in a way that will mend them.

It is not within Betrayer's ability to bring back those it has stolen life and limb from, but for the deepest sin, the betrayal of family, it shall find peace. Soon, when it is large enough, I will return to the colony with Betrayer.

When I bring it to the site of its betrayal, I will summon the Dumb that hide there still. I will rend Betrayer limb from limb and the Dumb will do their work. From its life-husk countless Dumb will arise and grow and the colony will live again. Life begets death and death begets life.

It knows its atonement. It is the reason it was reclaimed and not destroyed by Champion for its crimes. It accepts and desires reconstitution to the colony as it should.

Ash nodded slowly at that. Cruel, but fitting. And perhaps the most good it could possibly do – it seemed like the Stones' Beldum colony had recovered very slightly, but was still in a precarious position.

He couldn't help but wince at the brutality of what would happen, but it seemed as though it would at least allow the Beldum to recover from what Betrayer – as the old Metagross so aptly named it – had assisted. And if Betrayer was okay with it…well, who was he to intervene?

It was their justice, not his.

Farewell, Storm-Tamer. Bear your burden well. I wish you luck.

"Thank you," he lowered his head to thank the Metagross. It allowed its body to sink low to the ground in response before it raised itself up on impossibly powerful legs and clambered quietly to the shadows, not a footstep heard.

That really was eerie.

"I'm sorry, Ash," Steven apologized once the Metagross had vanished into whatever area Mr. Stone had set up for them. "Like I said, it wasn't supposed to happen like this. We were going to ask you if you wished to see Pierce's Metagross, but it decided to take matters into its own hands. Figuratively, of course."

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