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.


42. The Legend Part 2

After that, the most major change was that his bill sunk into his face and rippled into what Ash knew was a mouth, although he couldn't see details thanks to the light. His eyes remained roughly the same, although they were more visible without the two burning lumps of flesh over them.

The rest of the process largely resulted in Infernus becoming much larger and bulkier. Muscles bulged outwards and thick hide stretched to cover them. Infernus had already been bulky and powerful before, but now he was much taller and larger in every area.

When Ash had first released Infernus, way back in that clearing a day's trip away from Celadon, the Magmar had been a little over five feet tall and around a hundred pounds. Now he had gained at least another hundred pounds and stood at least six and a half feet tall, a true monster of his breed.

He watched with awe as the glow suddenly left Infernus' new, improved body. The energy born from Moltres' flames slowly dissipated and Infernus remained on his feet, although his powerful limbs trembled with the strain born of evolution and presumably ressurection.

"Infernus?" Ash asked tentatively, voice full of hope. The Magmortar stared at him with blank black eyes. They were still glazed and blind to the world, but the hulking fire-type twitched at the mention of his name. "Are you alright?"

The Magmortar's eyes sparked to life, but there was no recognition in them. They were still tired and slightly blank from the strain of evolution, a situation Ash had encountered before with Nidoking after the poison-type's particularly painful transformation, but there was life and fire that flickered behind the dark pupils.

Lance tensed when Magmortar raised its arm and the scale covering the cannon slid back. Flames were visible in the hollow part of Magmortar's arm, but Ash just stared back. Moltres watched from atop its hallowed altar, its great head cocked and curious.

"It's alright." He said calmly. Ash raised his hands up in a placating position. "You're fine. It's me, Ash. I'm your friend."

Infernus' eyes suddenly lost their glaze when Ash said his name. He eyed Ash and his pink mouth suddenly twisted from a weak frown to a mockery of a smile. The Magmortar staggered forward to Ash, still weak. Ash rushed forward in concern, but Lance held him back.

The Magmortar suddenly stopped when he realized that he felt different. His previous actions had been driven by instinct born of pain and weakness. Now that his rationality had been returned, Infernus realized that he was far heavier and much stronger than he remembered.

Ash smiled when Infernus looked at his cannon-like arms with disbelieving eyes. His eyes were narrowed and darkened with momentary confusion before realization washed over him. Infernus raised one of his arms to examine it further. He swept it around to test it before he made a small stream of flame explode out of it. His arm flashed white from the heat and there was a wild, maniacal grin on Infernus' face as he realized the immense power he now wielded.

Infernus' grin grew even wider as he stepped back, raised his arms high into the air, and reveled in his newfound strength by releasing two great rivers of flame, pure white with their intensity a hundred feet into the air. When they died out, it was only because Infernus demanded it.

"How do you feel?" Ash inquired, a grin on his face from the sheer happiness he felt at Infernus' survival, let alone evolution.

The Magmortar's grotesque smirk grew wider and he snorted a plume of flame into the air. Ash smiled back, but the movement of Moltres atop its altar drew his attention.

Moltres had regressed to a weaker state as Infernus had undergone his transformation. It appeared just as regal and majestic as ever, despite the miracle it had just performed. The Bird eyed them with emotions Ash couldn't decipher from behind its ancient, pulsing eyes.

Lance stepped forward, although he kept a strong hand on Ash's shoulder to keep the injured boy steady. He stared up at Moltres as it eyed them from atop its altar. It cocked its head and watched them impassively.

Infernus' eyes hardened and his smirk turned into an ugly grimace as he turned to regard Moltres. Ash took that as a sign that he had some memory of his demise, however faint. Nevertheless, Ash took the moment to order his friend to stand down.

"We did not come here just to challenge you." Lance announced. His voice was still strong, if raspy from the volcanic gases and ash he had inhaled. Moltres watched him silently, the only other sound on the blazing mount the Bird's crackling flame. "There is a threat in Kanto, too great for us to battle alone. We need your help."

Moltres did not react. It simply watched and listened. Ash watched it warily. The Bird had brought Infernus back, but it had a fickle temper. What it had done to Infernus proved that.

Regardless, Moltres was the only one that Ash could trust to care about their plight. Articuno seemed too hostile and uncaring of humans while Zapdos could have destroyed Kanto and not noticed. Moltres, on the other hand, had restricted itself to keep the world around it safe. If the legends were to be believed it had aided humans many times in the past. It cared about the ants that scurried around the globe, erecting cities that were meaningless to the awesome power it exuded.

"It's gone into hiding, but we can't do a thing if it attacks." Lance continued. "If it appears, we need your help. You are the only being we know of that could hope to defeat it."

Moltres was silent, but it suddenly met Lance's eyes. The Champion froze and tensed up. Ash forgot all of his anger towards Lance and tried to see what was wrong, but he recoiled when he saw that the Champion's eyes shined with the same fiery light of Moltres', molten red, orange, and gold.

Lance's face twitched and an aura of power surrounded him, hot and alien to any human. Ash's eyes narrowed and he stood back, but his face winced in sympathy when Lance's body began to shudder and twitch from the alien power that inhabited it, unable to take the strain.

The Champion opened his mouth, but no scream echoed forth. Only light of the same kind as that of Moltres' eyes shined out as Lance's mouth gaped open in a voiceless scream. Moments later Lance collapsed to the ground, which had cooled significantly as Moltres' fury had abated.

He twitched for several more moments, but the power that danced around him kept Ash from trying to help. Infernus swaggered forward and eyed him, but even he couldn't go close.

Moltres was completely still as Lance's body was wracked with agony. It simply watched silently until the glow finally left the Champion's still form.

Ash looked at the Legend in fear and awe as it sang its song once more. As fires boomed forth from the earth and embers fell from the sky Moltres gently flapped its wings. Heat filled the air as Moltres launched high into the air, a lance of fire, before it hovered above the chasm.

"Thank you." Ash murmured as he met the Bird's eyes for the last time. Moltres' pulsed brightly in response as time seemed to slow. In that eternal moment, Ash silently paid his respects to the Legend that he and Lance had challenged so arrogantly. They had disturbed it, although he had to admit that Moltres seemed to see it as a game. It had every right to smite them and burn the ashes, but it didn't. Moltres deserved his respect for that, even if he disregarded everything else.

Moltres' eyes pulsed in tandem with Ash's thoughts and the trainer stiffened as he felt warm, forgiving energy course through his body. He watched with reverence as it dived straight into the volcano and returned to its sanctum once and for all. When it had vanished deep into the bowels of the earth, Ash looked down at Lance's weak form.

"Are you alright?" Ash asked worriedly as he kneeled next to Lance's crumpled body. The Champion nodded and pulled himself up with a strained expression. He couldn't help the older man, unfortunately. His burns didn't need to be irritated. "What happened?"

"Moltres…communicated, for lack of a better term." Lance wheezed. His skin was slightly burnt and his eyes were exhausted. Everything about him looked like he'd been incinerated from the inside out. "I don't suggest's not a comfortable experience."

"I can only imagine." Ash commented wryly. Lance finally staggered to his feet, although it looked to be a painful exertion.

Lance smiled, although he winced from the movement. "I can't really explain how it felt, other than that there was living flame inside of me. I don't know what Moltres took from me, but it marked me in ways I don't understand."

He could only remember the psychics of Sabrina's gym that recoiled from him and Sabrina's mention of his "Brands". Ash could only imagine what would happen if a lesser psychic encountered Lance now.

"Are you going to be alright?"

"I'll be fine." Lance coughed, although his weakness suggested otherwise. He reached down and unclipped one of his pokeballs from his belt. Ash reverently took the offered pokeball, which was worn and scarred from many years of service. "Release Dragonite. He'll be strong enough to take us to safety."

Ash nodded and released Dragonite. The great dragon was clearly weakened and scarred from his casual defeat by Moltres, but he grunted and leaned towards Lance worriedly when he saw the Champion's condition.

"I'm fine." Lance insisted as Dragonite sniffed the charred Champion. He coughed. "Take us to the Center at Knot Island. Ash needs medical attention immediately."

Dragonite nodded and lowered himself. Lance limped over and waited by Dragonite's side as Ash turned to Infernus.

"I'm going to return you, but I promise to release you the moment I can." Ash swore. Infernus grunted and nodded, although his smirk weakened at the mention of being in his pokeball. Moments later he was consumed in scarlet energy.

Ash grit his teeth in pain as he stumbled to Dragonite, still disoriented and in growing pain from his burns. He wheezed from the slight movements and his bones felt like they'd been cracked from the pressure Moltres carried with it.

"Easy now." Lance commented as he gently hefted Ash up onto Dragonite, who adjusted himself to make sure the boy was comfortable. Moments later the Champion weakly climbed onto the dragon's back as well. He had to shoo Ash away to keep the trainer from helping.

"Hold on tight." The Champion warned. Ash heeded the advice and slipped his hands underneath two dull scales, although he was careful to avoid the edges just in case. A few seconds later Lance gave the word and Dragonite tore into the air, incredibly fast but slow enough to ensure that the humans' injuries wouldn't be irritated.

Ash turned his head to take one last look at Mt. Ember as they sped away. Fires and smoke still belched from the dormant volcano, a last reminder of Moltres' fury. A massive cloud of smoke circled the volcano and the island around it for nearly a mile, thick enough to keep almost all sunlight from penetrating.

The last thing he was able to make out before he turned back to the front was Moltres' idol. The rough volcanic stone still glowed brightly, and he thought he could see its eyes pulse a fiery red before he finally looked away and left Mt. Ember behind him forever.


"You are very lucky that medicine has advanced so far, Mr. Ketchum." The stern doctor said drily. He examined a piece of paper on a clipboard. "Second-degree burns on your forearms, a dangerous amount of toxic gases in your longue, first-degree burns over your entire body, and too many others to count."

He sighed and adjusted his glasses. Ash silently watched him from his bed. Several IVs were hooked up into him in order to feed him the modified potions that would heal most of his wounds in mere hours.

"You're going to keep those scars for the rest of your life." The doctor explained with a hard face. Ash raised his arms to look at the shiny flesh that had already begun to heal. "Hopefully they'll remind you to not be such an idiot."

The trainer barely listened and prodded at the cords. It hadn't hurt so bad to get the IV needles in, but he'd be lying if he said that the substance they injected into him to clear out any potential for infection didn't hurt. It burned his blood as it travelled through and reminded him far too much of the chemicals his mother had used to clean his scrapes and cuts when he was younger.

Ash looked up at the doctor from his bed. It wasn't like he could have said much anyways, not with his oxygen mask on. In Kanto there was no need for equipment like that thanks to the far more advanced facilities, but here in the Sevii Islands they seemed to be pretty standard.

"Stop that!" The doctor snapped. The old man rolled his eyes. "You're lucky to be alive. You and that other idiot should have climbed the damn mountain during an eruption somewhere else. It would have saved me a lot of trouble."

He barely held back a grin at the doctor's assessment of Lance. The doctor frowned. "You're staying here for the night. I'm not about to let you irritate those burns."

Ash shrugged in response. It was annoying, but he expected something like that. He wasn't exactly in the best of condition.

The doctor checked his watch. "I'll leave you be for the night. A nurse will come in the morning to release you. The other idiot is coming in after me, by the way. Try not to get too excited."

With that the irritable old man swept out of the room, probably off to sneer at some other helpless patient. Ash smiled when Lance walked in, mostly unscathed thanks to his heat-retardant clothing.

Lance had an uncharacteristically guilty look on his face as he gently placed Ash's pokeballs on the bedside table. He frowned and backed up so he could get a better look at Ash. The trainer was sure that he was something to see. His skin looked as though he'd fallen asleep in the sun for several hours and his forearms were heavily bandaged.

Not that the Champion looked very good either. Lance's face was pale and had exhaustion written all over it thanks to Moltres' attempt at communication. He slouched slightly and the skin that had been exposed looked the same as Ash's.

"How are you doing?" The Champion asked quietly. He shifted his gaze away from Ash when the trainer tried to meet his eyes.

Ash winced a bit as he gave the Champion a thumbs up and a slight grin. He couldn't wait for the potions to start kicking in. The doctor had filled one of his IV bags with painkillers before he'd berated Ash.

"I have to leave in an hour." The Champion began. Ash frowned. "The League needs to know what happened. This could be our lucky break against Mewtwo." Lance smiled slightly. "Besides, I've been gone for too long. I don't want Indigo to shatter before I manage to get back."

The trainer's mouth curled upwards.

"I've called a Seagallop Ferry to the port for you. The doctor told me that he'd release you tomorrow." Lance explained when Ash gave him a questioning glance. "Hopefully you'll be able to continue your journey the moment you leave."

At least he had something to look forward to, Ash thought. He probably wouldn't be doing anything strenuous for the next few days, but it was about time that he took Blaine up on his training offer. Infernus would need help fully adjusting to his new form and who better to go to than the man widely recognized as the foremost authority on the Magmar line?

Lance took a seat on the rickety stool the doctor had sat on not too long before. He took a moment to adjust the swiveling piece of furniture before he leaned forward and clasped his hands together. There was pain on his face that wasn't from the burns and pain he had experienced from being touched by Moltres.

"I won't be so arrogant as to ask for your forgiveness. That arrogance nearly cost you your friend and put you and your team in mortal danger." Lance began quietly. He finally met Ash's eyes. A moment later he looked over to the side again. "I should have listened to you. You didn't want any part in the battle and I basically forced you into it."

Even if Ash could have spoken, he wouldn't have. There wasn't anything to say to that. He had already forgiven Lance, even if he still felt some of the resentment that had flooded his heart lingering in the wake of the battle. He just shut his eyes and took a deep, raspy breath.

"Anyways, I just wanted to say that I'm sorry. I never meant for anything like this to happen." Lance gestured wildly at Ash's burned body. He took a few slow breaths to calm down. "I'm sorry."

Ash struggled to push himself up onto his hands so that he could actually move, but it was too awkward and his body was weak from the healing process. Lance quickly stood up and gently pushed him down with a shake of his head. "No, don't move. You don't want to irritate those burns."

The trainer shrugged and laid back down onto the soft hospital bed. Lance eyed him for a moment before he sat back down.

"I know that what I did was stupid." Lance mused once he had settled. "I definitely know that I shouldn't have dragged you into it and that I should have flown you away the second I saw what Moltres really was." He laughed derisively. "I saw Ho-Oh once, you know?"

He perked up. Kanto and Johto might have been separated, parted by the great Ore Mountains and the indomitable peak of Mt. Silver, but they had a close enough proximity to share many myths and tales. While Kanto had much less of a mythological background and put less emphasis on the traditions, its children grew up knowing of Johto's tales.

The Birds and Mew were the only Legends spoken of in Kanto, and few even dared to hope at their existence. Johto's Legendaries were much more well-known and there were far more myths and tales about them. Whether it was Lugia's role as the Guardian of the Sea, Ho-Oh's position as a bringer of peace and spring, or the legend of Entei, Suicune, and Raikou's birth and resurrection the Johto Legends were simply more known to the public.

For Lance to so much have caught a glimpse of the Legend was nothing less than a miracle. It only appeared to those of pure hearts or destined to be the greatest of heroes, or so the stories claimed. He couldn't even begin to imagine how powerful it must have been. Moltres was only one of three. Ho-Oh was utterly unique.

"It was my first day as a trainer." Lance smiled fondly, some of his scorn gone as nostalgia filled his features. "I'd just left Blackthorn when it appeared. The air got hot and a huge rainbow appeared in the sky. I looked up and saw Ho-Oh." He said simply. The Champion's face was pinched, as though he couldn't quite find the words to describe what he had seen. Ash knew the feeling.

Lance rubbed his temples and gave a short laugh. "I know I'm not doing the best job of describing Ho-Oh." He snorted again and eyed Ash speculatively. "But you'd know all about that. You're one of the few that are fortunate enough to have seen any of the Birds, let alone all three."

"Anyway," Lance sighed, "I should have known better. Lorelei and Sabrina both warned me away from Moltres. I had only the briefest taste of what a Legend was really like. My arrogance nearly got both of us killed. I just wanted to apologize."

Ash nodded in acceptance of Lance's apology and winced when it irritated the movement irritated his burns. His oxygen mask slipped a bit. He couldn't wait until the doctor took it off. It was just to stabilize him while the potions worked their magic.

"Before I go, I have something to give you." Lance started. When Ash's eyes narrowed, he hastily corrected the trainer's assumption. "No, no. I was going to give it to you anyways." He smiled. "You were a good student. I hope this will help you on your path to greatness."

The Champion pulled a case out from his pocket, one that Ash immediately recognized as a TM.

"This TM contains Hyper Beam." Lance explained. He stood up and set it on Ash's bedside. "It's my favorite move, along with Giga Impact. Just about any fully evolved pokemon can learn it and use it to great effect."

Ash grinned beneath his mask and nodded his thanks. He'd seen what it could do in the hands of Lance's team. With the right training Hyper Beam could be turned into the ultimate weapon. Very few pokemon were able to resist it, which was what had gained it its typing. There wasn't an element involved, just raw energy.

"I'm not sure if you knew this or not, but Silph Co. has a special arrangement with the League. They take off the mechanisms that make sure TMs are a one-time use." The Champion said. "I had the techs perform the service on this one. It's being released to high level trainers anyway. You meet the qualifications."

The Champion checked his watch and sighed. "I need to go."

Ash nodded slowly. The meds were starting to kick in. His eyes were a little fuzzy, although he thought that he could stay awake for a few more minutes.

Lance looked at him once more, regret still obvious. He finally met Ash's eyes and held his gaze. "Good luck, Ash. Call me if you need anything."

With that the Champion swept out of the room and left Ash to his thoughts. He seemed to be as bad at saying goodbye as Ash was.

Ash relaxed and flickered his eyes over to the disk once Lance left, although he didn't dare to move his body. The meds were beginning to work but they had a ways to go before he was knocked unconscious.

He shut his eyes regardless. Sleep sounded really good at the moment. Perhaps the blackness would help him to sort out the thoughts and emotions that had been numbed by the medicine.


"Hey, buddy." He coughed as Nidoking materialized inside of the cabin. Ash was able to walk and move freely now that the potions had accelerated the healing process, but it was still painful. His lungs still hurt whenever he breathed.

Nidoking grunted in concern and placed a gentle claw on Ash's shoulder. His unspoken question was obvious.

"I'm fine." Ash said with a tired grin, although the rasp in his voice and his burnt skin claimed the contrary. Nidoking wasn't convinced in the least and moved closer to Ash, although he had to take care to keep any of his spines from nearing Ash. "Really, I'm fine. How are you feeling?"

The poison-type glared at Ash at the trainer's attempt to change the subject, but gave in and grunted. Ash smiled when Nidoking promptly began to examine him again. He took the moment to look over his friend in turn. Nidoking looked to have been healed completely in the day that Ash was stuck in the hospital. His armor was free of scorch marks or any visible damage.

"I'm sorry." Ash finally told his friend as he sat back on the couch. It was more comfortable than the bed, although the bed was a wonder in of itself.

Nidoking cocked his head and gave Ash a curious grunt. The trainer shut his eyes. "I should have left when we had the chance. Did they release you with the others?"

When Nidoking shook his great head, Ash leaned forward solemnly. "Most of you got away with just minor burns or I recalled you before anything bad could happen, but Infernus…"

Ash didn't really know how to say it. His heart twisted and his gut lurched just thinking about Infernus' death. He did his best to not think of it, but that didn't work too well. It was impossible to stop thinking of Infernus' death and how easily he could have been torn away from him forever.

He squeezed his eyes shut. Ash might not have seen Infernus' death other than the great conflagration that had radiated from Moltres, but his was one of the only corpses Ash had ever seen. The last had been the Team Rocket grunt that Nidoking had killed in their flight from the St. Anne.

That thought didn't help him meet Nidoking's eyes. He felt even more guilt before he finally came out and said what had happened.

"Infernus was killed." He said flatly. Nidoking recoiled, his rivalry with the fire-type forgotten. The poison-type's ears flattened and his eyes squeezed shut. It was a harsh reminder that despite Nidoking's power and maturity, he was still young. Most Nidorino wouldn't evolve until they were nearly a decade old. His friend was just a young adult and Ash kept that in mind as he rushed to complete his sentence. "But he came back! Moltres resurrected him."

Nidoking froze and his eyes snapped open, narrowed in disbelief. He blinked a few times and pointed a dull claw at Ash's belt, which held all of the other pokeballs. Lance had left him with authorization to carry all of his pokemon until after the Conference.

"I can't let Infernus out." He explained. Infernus was a hazard on ships before. With his new power, which Ash wasn't sure his friend could control yet, Infernus would probably accidentally melt the floor. "We're on a ship."

His friend shook his head to show that Ash had misinterpreted his point. Nidoking lightly tapped Dazed's pokeball with one of his claws. Ash quickly released Dazed, who examined him silently for a few moments before she shrugged and looked at Nidoking.

Nidoking met her eyes, which promptly glowed with psychic power greatly enhanced by the brutal training she had been put through over the last month. Her eyes pulsed with power and excitement as information flowed between the two pokemon.

When she finally tore away, she looked at Ash and pointed at his pokeballs. He shrugged and released all of his other friends. Dazed nodded at him once they'd been released and her eyes began to glow anew.

Sneasel was the only one left out as Dazed gave the information to them directly. They turned to Infernus' pokeball and stared at it in reverent awe. Nidoking grunted something to Sneasel, whose eyes widened to a comical size as he looked at his idol's pokeball.

"You can talk to him in a few hours." Ash said firmly. He winced and rubbed at his throat when it burned. That was going to get annoying. "We're going to Cinnabar Island to train."

All of his friends winced at the mention of training, which prompted Ash to hastily correct himself. "It's mostly for Infernus. Blaine can teach him some new tricks and how to control his new body. The rest of you just need to take it easy and work on some techniques. I know that we pushed you hard."

That was an understatement, but his friends seemed happy just to know that they had some time off. Training with Lance had made them much stronger, but it was grueling. A month was enough to wear them down to almost nothing. His friends deserved some time to recover.

It wasn't as though Blaine would be much help with training the rest of his friends. He was a Master of the fire-type. He probably knew a lot about other pokemon, but he never had to raise too many outside of his Rhydon. Blaine had only raised that because it was able to survive in a volcano as well as a Magmar, or so Ash assumed.

He shrugged his thoughts off and laid down on the couch. Sneasel climbed up and curled on top of one of the cushions. Seeker, who had been perched on Bruiser's shoulder, huddled up to his chest. Ash winced in pain as she squeezed onto him, but didn't show it otherwise. He didn't want to make his friends worry.

After that he made sure each of his friends were okay. Sneasel and Seeker weren't really involved, but the others had taken at least some damage from Moltres. Ash was sure that the Center had done a wonderful job, but it never hurt to make sure there wasn't any lingering pain.

Once he had been assured that his friends were fine, he rested his head on a large pillow and lazily looked out. "We're going to be at Cinnabar in about two hours. Everyone should probably get some sleep."

His friends liked that idea. Most of them quickly found a place to curl up, although Nidoking instantly claimed the area right next to the couch and Torrent simply levitated behind it. The rest just tried to stay close to Ash.

He couldn't keep a slight smile away as he shut his eyes and gave into the weariness that ached in his mind. It was nice to be with his friends again. They hadn't had much time to just talk. Every waking moment of the last month had been spent training or learning.

They deserved a break.


Cinnabar Island was much different than he remembered it. Instead of the loud, obnoxious tourist trap it was a quiet, lazy town. Now that the summer and its heat had left the tourists had no reason to stay. Everything looked rather grey, even if it was comfortably warm compared to the rest of Kanto.

One thing he noticed in particular was that the obnoxious, stereotypical beach music wasn't playing. Most of the stands seemed to have been taken down and people wore normal clothing. There were certainly a few tourists wandering about, but it was miniscule compared to when he'd come in July.

He didn't bother staying in the city for long. Ash wasn't here for the sights. All he wanted was to train with Blaine so that he could go home. A few days of relaxing at Pallet Town and reconnecting with his mother and Professor Oak sounded great. Maybe Jonathan and Amelia would be back as well.

Ash felt a little guilty when he thought of his human friends. He'd tried to avoid thinking about them aside from a few vague mentions every now and then. It wasn't really doing them justice after the months they'd spent together on the road. He just hated thinking about them. Every time he did the roar of waves and the terrible power of Mewtwo flashed to the forefront of his mind.

The trainer shook his head and took a deep breath as he exited the city gates. He was quick to release Plume and Nidoking. Ash didn't remember exactly where to go and he wanted a scout. His friends were more than capable of dispatching any Magmar that wanted to attack, but he'd rather not push his luck. Magmar were too cunning and dangerous to take lightly.

"Hey, girl." He laughed as Plume affectionately nuzzled his neck. Ash patted her powerful, glossy wing and lightly scratched her neck. She gently nipped at his hat and cooed before he began to give her orders. "Can you lead me to the Big Riddle Inn?"

Plume nodded and cooed at him again before she shot up into the air. Nidoking steadied Ash from the winds and walked beside him as Plume inched along high above them, aware of Ash's injuries. He levied a grateful smile to Nidoking as he began to hobble along the path. Ash could go faster, but he'd rather not push his luck. Every step made his lungs and muscles burn.

He wheezed after a few minutes, but Ash was barely aware of it. The trainer was much too focused on what Blaine would teach Infernus. Air Lens was the obvious choice, but there were surely other techniques Blaine had developed in his long years of training. No one knew the Magmar line like he did.

Ash thought of other things too as they dredged up to the foothills of the massive volcano that dominated this side of Cinnabar. He thought of what he would talk to his mother and Professor Oak about when he finally returned to Pallet, methods of training, Infernus' death and subsequent resurrection, and a dozen other topics. So much had happened to him recently.

One of the things he'd decided was to begin creating strategies to combat dragon-types. He knew that he would have a much easier time when he wasn't fighting dragons trained by the Dragon Master himself, but even untrained dragons were a potent force on the battlefield. His friends could match their raw power if they weren't trained to the degree of Lance's, but the sheer speed something like a Dragonite possessed was enough to win a battle.

It was rather hard to win if you couldn't even hit the target, after all.

Right now Plume, Torrent, and Nidoking were his only real defense against dragons that could fly. Oz could hurt them and was incredibly accurate, but most dragons could shrug off electricity with little difficulty. Ice was the only real way to fight them. Dragon-type moves were a last resort since they tended to incite rage in other dragons.

Once he'd finished perfecting Plume's as-of-yet ultimate technique she would be able to defeat almost anything in the air unless it was as powerful as one of Lance's pokemon or faster. He couldn't wait until she was practically undefeatable in her own domain.

Sneasel would be useful once Ash trusted him enough to use Ice Beam and Blizzard responsibly, but right now he was still too weak and inexperienced to properly fight dragons. He was improving quickly, however. Ash had even let him into some of the battles against Lance near the end.

Nidoking's gentle tap snapped him out of his daze. Ash glanced up and realized that they were on the hill that would take them up to the Big Riddle Inn. He had a grin on his face. It would be nice to see Blaine again, even if he didn't have the friendliest disposition. Blaine was an interesting figure, especially after everything he'd learned about him from Lance and Surge.

"Thanks, Nidoking." He said quietly. Nidoking grunted and supported him with a powerful arm as Ash began his struggle up the hill. His weakened body screamed in protest, but Ash ignored it. He'd undergone much worse in the last month, even if Lance had been careful never to get him hurt.

"Good job, Plume!" He called out to the sky as Plume began her descent. When she was close enough he recalled her. Ash would let her out later. Plume needed a good chance to stretch her wings that didn't involve combat against a gigantic Dragonite.

When he reached the top of the hill he felt like his lungs were on fire. He wondered if that was what Lance had felt like after Moltres had sent the slightest tendril of its power into his body or if he was looking at it all wrong. Perhaps it hadn't been a physical pain in the sense that he was used to.

Ash shrugged it off and pulled open the door. He figured that Blaine wouldn't mind the unannounced entrance. It wasn't as though Blaine had many customers.

"I'm going to return you for a few minutes." He told Nidoking apologetically. It would be best to clear it with Blaine before he brought a gigantic Nidoking into the Inn.

Nidoking just nodded in response, a bit of amusement in his narrow eyes. He patiently waited as the trainer recalled him and walked into the Inn.

"Who is it?" Blaine called out in his soft, mellow tones. He had his wig and sunglasses on and was cleaning a few glasses with a white rag. The Master looked up and smiled when he saw Ash. He took off his sunglasses and revealed his fierce narrow eyes. "Great, it's you. Took you long enough."

The old man surveyed the trainer. "You look like that Magmar of yours gave you a hug." He snapped. "What did you get into?"

Ash smiled. "A training experience with Lance."

Realization dawned on Blaine's face. The old man nodded sagely, some of the annoyance gone from his unlined face. "Good answer. How'd he rope you into training with him?"

"He asked." Ash shrugged.

"Idiot." Blaine snorted. He put the glass down. "Lance isn't a gentle teacher. You and your pokemon are going to be useless for a few days."

Ash shrugged. "Not all of us."

Blaine eyed him closely. His eyes glimmered with intelligence as the old man sought out an answer.

"Infernus evolved." Ash explained. Blaine's eyes widened and he speculatively twisted the edge of his rather impressive mustache.

"Where did you find a Magmarizer?" Blaine demanded, eyes narrowed. He stepped around the bar and walked over to Ash. The trainer wasn't sure if he was curious or annoyed for some reason.

He looked up at the gym leader with an unimpressed expression. Blaine was intimidating, but he'd met Mewtwo's eyes. The old man was nothing in comparison to the psychic that barely qualified as a pokemon.

"I didn't." He replied. Ash watched Blaine's reaction. The gym leader seemed more incredulous than anything.

"How did you evolve it, then?" Blaine inquired. There was real curiosity in his voice, even if he sounded as though he didn't really believe Ash. "There's no way it could have evolved through proximity to a volcano. That takes years."

That led to a dilemma. While Ash trusted Blaine, he wasn't sure if Lance would want him to speak of Moltres. For all he knew that was highly classified information that the League didn't want released to anyone but the Elite Four.

In the end he decided to dodge the question.

"Ask Lance." Ash said back. Blaine's face twitched in annoyance, but the old man just sighed and didn't say anything. The gym leader placed his sunglasses in his pocket and stepped toward the door that would take them to the gym via the hot springs.

"Come on, then." He said gruffly. The old man picked up a pokeball that was idly laying on the counter, right underneath a small photograph of a younger Blaine that stood with another man that had long hair and a pointed beard. Both of the men had wide grins on their faces. They stood in front of what Ash recognized as the Cinnabar Research Lab.

Blaine took a moment to look at the picture before he shook his head and placed the pokeball on his belt, where five others were already placed. Despite that, his gaze lingered on the old picture for a few more seconds.

Ash wanted to ask, but reigned in his curiosity. A solemn look had passed over Blaine's face when he saw the picture, which was odd. Normally Blaine either had a stoic expression or a nasty grin.

"I heard about what you've been up to the past six months." Blaine said as they walked down into the hot springs. The gym leader quickly activated the Gyarados statue and opened the way into the gym. Ash winced at the heat as they stepped into the corridor that had been painstakingly carved from stone. "Nice work."

"Thanks." Ash replied quietly.

"Tell me, how much did Lance tell you about Mewtwo?" The old man asked casually as they descended the harsh stone stairs. Ash nearly coughed in surprise, but he managed to hold it back.


Blaine turned to stare at him with an annoyed expression. "Don't pretend as if you don't know. You went off to train with Lance. Every gym leader knows that you're his protégé. After what you've seen he would have told you the truth."

"He told me that Mewtwo is a clone of Mew." Ash started slowly. He had to take a moment to recount the information. Although it was important it had been about two weeks since he and Lance had a serious discussion about Mewtwo. "Team Rocket used it as a super weapon and it rebelled."

"That's the gist of it." The gym leader grunted with exertion as he stopped moving at the massive iron gates. Before Ash could blink he had released Magmar, who was just as powerful and robust as Ash remembered. "A simple retelling of an incredible work of science."

Ash frowned at that. Blaine didn't seem particularly appalled at Mewtwo's existence. Mewtwo had been born of twisted DNA, likely engineered to be vicious and coldhearted. It was disturbing, but Blaine didn't seem to mind.

Blaine noticed his expression and rolled his eyes. "Don't give me that look. What Mewtwo and Team Rocket have done with that power is disgusting, but Mewtwo itself is a masterwork of cloning and genetic engineering. I can't imagine how much time and resources were devoted to it."

The gym leader had a faraway look on his face as Magmar easily pushed his way through the iron gates with his immense strength and opened the way for them. Magmar didn't take long to settle on the gym leader's side of the arena, which was just as hot and impressive as when Ash had last seen it.

Ash just watched attentively. Blaine seemed lost in nostalgia and professional curiosity. He didn't even immediately walk over to his side of the arena.

"You encountered Mewtwo." Blaine stated. His harsh stare met Ash's calm eyes. "You know how powerful it is. Nothing else shall ever measure up to the ingenuity and skill it took to create it from fragments of DNA that were potentially millennia old."

He didn't say anything. Ash had to admit that the fact that Team Rocket managed to make something that powerful was impressive, but their creation was horrible and twisted, a mockery of life. They had taken a Protector and defiled it into a heartless murderer. The trainer would never be able to share Blaine's awe and enthusiasm about the subject, even if he could understand where Blaine was coming from. Mewtwo was the ultimate pinnacle of the field he had helped to establish. It was only natural that he be enthralled by the concept.

Blaine's face was contorted into a nasty grin before he turned away. "If Mewtwo doesn't kill us all I'm sure it will be remembered as one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time. I don't know if I could have replicated whatever sample of Mew's DNA they found without destroying it."

"You can replicate DNA?" Ash asked, surprised. It wasn't something he'd ever heard of. He didn't really know all that much about science outside of pokemon and their biology, but that seemed like a miracle."

"It's not too hard." Blaine shrugged. He finally began to walk over to Magmar, who patiently waited in the center of the burning arena. "It's called Polymerase Chain Reaction. All it really consists of is getting the required materials for DNA replication, heating cycles and throwing a bunch of enzymes into a test tube. Invaluable for cloning ancient species."

Ash nodded dumbly. He assumed that was the vastly oversimplified version. If Blaine was half as knowledgeable as Lance and Surge had claimed he could probably teach advanced classes on the subject.

"Enough about that. I wouldn't want to burn out your tiny brain." Blaine said with a grin. Ash wasn't sure if the pun was intentional or not. Knowing Blaine, it probably was. "Let that Magmortar of yours out. I want to see it up close."

He complied and released Infernus, who looked absolutely manic at being released. A terrible smirk was on his pink mouth and his body glowed a dim white. His gigantic flames burned brightly and leapt and danced as he moved.

Now that Ash wasn't practically dead from heat and fire he could really appreciate the sheer power in Infernus' form. Considering how physically powerful Infernus had been as a Magmar he wasn't sure if even Nidoking could match the fire-type in raw strength.

It would be odd now that one of his friends actually had a face. He had learned to interpret each of his friends' body language exceptionally well over their months together, to the point where it could be strange interacting with humans after a few weeks out in the wilderness. Hopefully it wouldn't take long to adjust.

"Not too bad." Blaine said with a wide grin. He twiddled with the end of his mustache as he examined Infernus more closely. Infernus just glared at him. Ash assumed that his friend didn't like being looked at as a piece of meat. "One of the best I've seen in a long time. Plenty of power behind him, enough to make most dragons flinch away."

Magmar nodded in agreement, the ancient fire-type's eyes alit with interest. It growled at Infernus and spat flame into the Magmortar's face, which caused Infernus' temper, much more fragile thanks to the rush of hormones that came with evolution, to snap.

Infernus snarled and slashed at Magmar with his dull claws, but Magmar moved with blinding speed. Now that it wasn't poisoned and actually took the Magmortar seriously its true strength was revealed.

"It's been a while since he's had a good fight." Blaine laughed wildly as the two exceptionally powerful fire-types roared and slashed at each other. Despite Infernus' superior power and strength, Magmar proved to be terribly fast. He also exploited Infernus' awkwardness in his new form to great effect. "Our last challengers were a few months ago, two little brats that thought they had what it took."

Ash's lips turned up a little bit, but he realized he had a question that he'd meant to ask while he was last here. "Why did you never evolve Magmar?"

"Never needed to." Blaine snorted with amusement as he and Ash walked away from the intense fight. There were a few too many blasts of torturously hot fire for either to be comfortable. Ash's burns were irritated from the heat, even if they'd mostly healed over the last day. "Magmarizers hadn't even been invented back in my day. Once I joined the Elite Four Magmar was powerful enough to wipe out most of an upstart's team."

Blaine's unlined face wrinkled into a dangerous smile as he recalled old victories and experiences. He suddenly sighed and looked over at Magmar, who still held up well against Infernus even as the younger fire-type's body grew white with heat.

"That was a long time ago. He's too old to evolve now. Evolution involves far too many complex physiological changes to be safe at his age." Blaine sighed. He stared at his comrade fondly. Ash felt as though Blaine had forgotten that he was there even as he answered Ash's question. "Magmar's a tough old bastard, though. He's still handing your Magmortar his ass on a silver platter."

Ash rolled his eyes. That was certainly an exaggeration, although Magmar was an admittedly tough opponent. As the battle progressed Infernus' movements grew more fluid and his reactions, fuelled by the heat of the volcano, easily began to outpace Magmar's.

Still, Ash couldn't imagine how powerful Magmar must have been in his prime. Magmar lived to be rather old, just a bit less than a human, and Blaine's actions and words about the fire-type suggested that Magmar was his starter. Blaine didn't show it, but Ash knew he was at least a decade older than Professor Oak. Magmar could easily be at least fifty years old.

"There isn't that much I can teach you aside from Air Lens." Blaine revealed as the brutal fight raged on. Infernus had begun to push the old Magmar back to the edge of the arena, where the churning lava's glow ominously burned. "Magmar and Magmortar aren't really meant for strategy. Their raw power pulls them through most of the time and when that fails technique and ferocity won't. Most tactics that benefit the line just involve exploiting their natural strengths like their camouflage and ability."

Blaine crossed his arms as he peered down at Ash. His balding head was shiny from perspiration. "Magmortar is ready for Air Lens. It has much greater control, although it can still improve. After you leave, I suggest you teach it attacks to neutralize its type-weaknesses. Earthquake and Solar Beam will get the job done for the most part."

Ash nodded. He was a bit disappointed that Blaine couldn't teach him more powerful techniques, but he understood why. Infernus had always been focused on raw power. Not much could stand against him when he got close thanks to his horrifically high body heat and the flames that tended to accompany the ferocious fire-type. Haze was used to obscure him so that he could actually get close against ranged fighters.

Air Lens would be incredibly useful, regardless. Electric-type attacks tended to be exceptionally powerful against most organic pokemon. Even if they didn't do much real damage they tended to be incredibly painful and could easily stop a pokemon in its tracks. Most living creatures weren't meant to take thousands of volts of electricity, even if pokemon were tough enough to handle it.

Besides, it would be useful to completely neutralize an entire type. Every advantage would be needed in the Conference.

The sudden end of the battle shook Ash out of his thoughts. He smiled when he saw that Infernus had managed to hurl Magmar off of the edge, although the aged fire-type easily exploded back up onto the arena inside of a great geyser of lava.

Although Infernus snarled and prepared to launch himself at Magmar, Blaine stepped in and defused the battle with a single hard look. Ash followed the balding gym leader as Blaine prepared to begin Infernus' training.

"Air Lens is a deceptively simple technique." The old man growled. Infernus just glared back, not afraid of Blaine's bark. "To put it simply and largely incorrectly, it involves heating the air around you to incredibly high temperatures. It completely blocks large electrical charges in the air."

"Again, that's the explanation so that your tiny little brains won't explode. The real mechanics involved in Air Lens are more complex than you could imagine at your age." Blaine sneered. Ash rolled his eyes. "It's rather easy to learn, but the amount of control required to use and maintain it are immense. Air Lens is a very delicate technique."

Blaine shared a glance with Magmar, who grunted and moved to the opposite side of the arena. He released Rhydon next, who had grown much larger than Ash remembered. It wasn't anywhere near the size of the monster he'd encountered on the way from Celadon to Saffron but it was an exceptional example of the breed.

"Watch." Blaine ordered. Ash turned his eyes to Magmar. The fire-type raised its arms and the air around it wavered and distorted even more. "Thunderbolt."

Rhydon grunted as an arc of electricity jumped from the tip of its horn and arced at Magmar. Although he knew it would happen Ash was still amazed when the electricity simply fizzled out a foot away from Magmar's burning body.

"There might be a limit to how much electricity it can block, but I haven't found it. Tactics based on physics don't tend to be broken easily." Blaine commented as Magmar motioned for Infernus to walk over. The fire-type showed the young Magmortar the correct position and growled something.

"How long do you think Infernus will take to learn it?" Ash inquired. He would stay for however long it took, but he missed Pallet Town. It had been far too long since he'd spoken to his mother or Professor Oak. Sensitive technology like communication devices didn't work around Mt. Ember. His PokeNav couldn't even pick up a signal.

Blaine shrugged as his sharp eyes tracked Magmar and Infernus' movements. "Not too long, a day or two. It's a simple technique. The issue lies with control. Magmortar usually have an easy time with it. More heat, more surface area. They usually have pretty good control as well. If they don't everything around them tends to catch on fire."

Ash's lips curled up in a slight smile. Blaine snorted and turned to Ash. "Come back up. Those burns of yours are probably getting irritated. I know way too many people that would have my head if something happened to you."

With that Blaine began to walk away. Ash stared after him for a moment, perplexed, before he shrugged and followed. He bid goodbye to Infernus, who replied with a single grunt before he returned to mimicking Magmar's stance.

His gaze lingered on the powerful form of his friend before he finally left after Blaine. Ash wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to forget just how lucky he and Infernus were. He'd never take any of his friends for granted.


Ash winced as scalding water ran down his throat. He put the glass down and silently wished he had waited for it to cool first. Blaine chuckled in amusement from across the table. The old man downed an entire glass of it without pause.

"Afraid of a little hot water?" Blaine mocked. Ash rolled his eyes and smiled back. Spending a day with the old gym leader let him pick up on most of the man's habits. It was a lot like being around Surge, although Blaine's harsh voice had more of a bite to it.

Blaine's personality was a far cry from how he had acted as the quiet, soft-spoken proprietor of the Big Riddle Inn when Ash had first come to Cinnabar so many months ago. He wasn't mellow and kind, but harsh and tough. The man certainly wasn't cruel, but he had a bitter edge to him.

"I'd rather not give myself as many burns on my inside as I have on my outside." Ash shrugged as he scooted the steaming glass of water away from him. He wasn't sure why Blaine liked it so much. It certainly woke him up, but he wasn't sure he would be able to taste anything for a few days.

"Man up." Blaine snorted. "I'm sure you had some of the black broth when you were with Surge. Nothing I give you could be worse than that."

Ash blanched at the mention of the foul concoction and he withheld a shudder. Perhaps not being able to taste anything wasn't so bad. It would have been great when he trained with Bruno. The thick, slimy texture of the black broth flashed to the forefront of his mind.

"That's what I thought." Blaine pointed out smugly. He snorted again. "What's a little pain compared to the broth? The best part of leaving active duty with the League was that I didn't have to eat that poor excuse for food."

"Don't you still go on missions for the League?" Ash asked with a raised eyebrow. Defending the territory appointed to them was one of the primary responsibilities of a gym leader. Blaine didn't seem the type to reject it.

Blaine shrugged. "Every now and then. I got called back in during the war with Team Rocket. All I had to do was suppress the odd cell every now and then."

Ash wasn't surprised that Blaine didn't have to do much. His reputation was legendary. As a member of the Indigo Elite Four he had been notoriously brutal against criminals and those who abused pokemon and humans. He turned the greatest weapon of criminals – fear – against them.

"—not too much to do, like I said." Blaine continued. Ash dimly realized that he was still talking. A nasty grin spread over the animated gym leader's face. "The wild magmar did most of the job for me. They're a territorial bunch and don't like outsiders. Most of my job was cleaning up the Rockets they attacked."

He felt a little disturbed at how casually Blaine spoke of "cleaning up". Ash knew that Blaine had lived through harsher times and had likely had to do things he couldn't fathom in order to protect Kanto, but it wasn't something he wanted to think about. After seeing the brutality Infernus was capable of if provoked Ash didn't want to imagine what the vicious wild magmar could do to Rockets.

"Sorry." Blaine said apologetically. He didn't look like he really meant it, but at least he'd recognized the disturbed look on Ash's face. "It's been a while since I've had company. It's easy to forget that you're just a kid."

Blaine stood up, which prompted Ash to do the same. He took a moment to crack his neck before he looked at Ash. "Come with me. We've left them down there for a day. It's time to see what progress that Magmortar of yours has made."

Ash followed with no hesitation. The potions had mostly healed his injuries, although he was still rather tired. He was just glad that he didn't have to hobble around. Mobility was a wonderful thing.

When they'd travelled past the hot springs and the cavern that had been hewn from volcanic rock Ash noted that what was left of his burns weren't nearly so irritated. That was a relief. He was good at taking pain, but throbbing pain was immensely worse than the quick sharp pain one got from most training accidents.

He looked at the arena with unbridled curiosity. They'd ended up leaving the two fire-types and Rhydon down there for the day while Ash and the rest of his friends relaxed around the inn. The Magmar line was capable of easily going without food for a week and only a few hours of rest in most places. In a volcano they could go for weeks without food and almost that amount of time without rest. It was one of the reasons they could be so dangerous around Cinnabar.

"Magmar, how much progress have you made?" Blaine inquired as they stepped onto the hot metal platform. Magmar, who had been roaring something to Infernus, snapped to attention and gave a satisfied nod. If he could have smiled Ash bet he would have.

Blaine smirked. "Good." He casually snapped out, "Rhydon, Thunder!"

Rhdyon, who had previously been curled up on the ground, raised its head and gave a thunderous roar as several blasts of electricity shot from its horn at Infernus. The Magmortar snapped to attention and raised his left arm. The air around Infernus wavered as immense heat poured out of his arm and the powerful explosion of lightning suddenly dissipated as it grew close to the fire-type's cannon-like appendage.

Ash noted that Infernus was slower to use it than Magmar, but that was just from his lack of experience. Magmar seemed to use Air Lens reflexively, a reaction probably born of decades of using the technique. In time he was sure Infernus would use it just as easily as Magmar could.

"Like I said, a simple technique once the prerequisite control is met." Blaine laughed. He turned to Ash as Magmar suddenly slashed at Infernus and started up another fight. Infernus roared and furiously attacked back. His movements were far more fluid, although still oriented more on power than grace. "All I suggest is to develop ways to neutralize type weaknesses. You'll find that not much can stand up to a Magmortar without an incredible natural advantage."

Blaine suddenly stopped and considered something. "Have you ever heard of Flare Blitz?"

Ash nodded. He'd never seen it used in real life, but he'd come across the pokedex entry for it. It was an exceptionally powerful move, although the sheer force released from the impact's explosion tended to injure the attacker as well.

"Good. Look into it. It's a powerful attack and the Magmar line learn it easily." Blaine instructed. He turned an eye over to the battle that had sparked between the two fire-types. "You shouldn't have any trouble learning it before the Conference."

"Will you be there?" Ash asked curiously. Blaine seemed to enjoy his life as a hermit. He didn't seem the type to enjoy the pomp and ceremony of something like the Conference.

"Of course." Blaine rolled his eyes. "It's required for gym leaders to go. The Conference is too big of an even for the League to let us skive off. That's where the League makes most of its money. I'll just have a few ACE trainers set up station in my inn for a few days."

Ash nodded. Hopefully he would get to see Blaine while he was there. He liked the old man, even if he could be a bit acerbic and had a love for bad riddles and puns. The trainer could only imagine what a conversation between Blaine and Surge would be like.

"By the way, make sure you pay attention when they light the Flame of Moltres." Blaine smirked with a knowing gleam in his eyes. Ash's eyes widened and he looked at the old man with surprise. "Lance doesn't mind telling me things like that. I could have just asked Sabrina, but I didn't feel like deciphering cryptic nonsense."

The old man smiled. "I have to admit that I'm impressed with the sheer stupidity that you and Lance displayed. Not many people live – or deserve to – after showing such an astounding lack of self-preservation instincts."

Ash frowned and he glared at the old man in annoyance. He didn't say anything back. Blaine was actually right about them being idiots, even if Ash didn't like it. The old man was a bit too harsh.

"Oh, look. The fight's over." Blaine commented. Ash immediately turned to the clash between the two fire-types. As expected, Infernus had won. He wasn't unscathed, however. Slash marks ran down his chest, although they healed even as Ash watched. It was amazing how powerful being inside of a volcano could make Magmar and Magmortar.

Infernus grinned and shot a huge stream of flame high into the air from one of his cannons. It was tinted with blue without any visible effort from the Magmortar. Ash laughed. "Nice job, Infernus! You're doing great!"

The Magmortar snorted fire, although he had a pleased smirk on his face all the same. He lowered his cannon-like arm and stared at Magmar as the old fire-type slowly pulled himself back up.

"Impressive." Blaine stated with a shrug. His eyes narrowed as he suddenly smiled. "Let's see how he does against something that doesn't burn so easily. Rhydon, get up!"

Rhydon lazily stood up to its full height. It was just as tall and powerfully built as Infernus, although it had much more weight behind it. Infernus' eyes lit up and his claws slid back to reveal the gaping holes of his cannons. Small flames danced within the dark tubes, barely visible in the bright light of the volcano.

"Go!" Both he and Blaine ordered at the same time. In a mere moment both of the powerful pokemon began their battle, one of the last that Ash would have before he left.


The ride home to Pallet Town was a short one, only three hours on the Seagallop Ferry that Blaine gave him authorization to use. He left the day after Infernus learned Air Lens. After that they had spent a few hours having Infernus constantly battle the team Blaine had used last time Ash fought him. Infernus dispatched most of them without issue.

Ash wasn't sure how anything would ever defeat Infernus aside from Lance's dragons. As powerful as he had been as a Magmar, Infernus was exponentially stronger now. His body was too hot for most pokemon to get close, his fires were powerful enough to knock weaker fire-types unconscious without too much effort, and nothing seemed to so much as faze him. Even Torrent and Nidoking would probably have a difficult time.

Most of the day had been spent talking to Blaine or lazing about with his friends. Ash hadn't shown Infernus to them yet. He wanted to give Infernus a chance to calm down. His friend was still awash in the sea of hormones that followed evolution, which could make him exceptionally aggressive and dangerous if anything managed to spark his anger. There was a reason Magmortar were solitary creatures.

He'd also decided that he'd had enough of Nidoking's rivalry with Oz. Nidoking still hadn't escalated to physical confrontation, but team unity was too important for him to ignore it. Ash had given his best friend nearly two months to sort out his feelings to no avail. It was time to step in personally.

That would wait for when everyone was relaxed during their short vacation at Pallet Town. Everyone was still a little tense from the aftereffects of training for so long, not to mention the spectacular defeat they had suffered at the hands of Moltres.

Ash figured that he'd spend a week or so at Pallet Town unless something came up. There was plenty of room to train or relax and he didn't really feel like travelling for a while. He'd probably head to Fuschia when he was done, although he wouldn't visit the Safari Zone. It was too close to the Conference for him to devote time to training a new teammate.

He felt a little odd walking into Pallet Town, much like he had the first time he'd returned home during his journey. Nobody seemed to recognize him, but he got plenty of odd looks. The fact that an enormous Nidoking that had grown quite a bit since his last time here walked beside him and that Sneasel was curled up awkwardly around his head and shoulders might have something to do with it.

As he walked toward his mother's restaurant he wondered if Blaine would be too averse to him returning sometime. Blaine knew plenty thanks to his long career and could help Ash more than almost anyone. He really wanted to battle Blaine's Elite Four team one day as well, or at least what was left of it.

He really would have liked to stay for a few days, but Ash desperately wanted to see his mother and Professor Oak again. Ash had opted against calling either of them during his two days with Blaine so that he could surprise them, but it wasn't easy.

Hopefully his mother wouldn't be too mad at him for not calling for a month. She would have expected it thanks to knowing that he was in the Sevii Islands, but he knew that she would still be annoyed with him. At least he was sure that she'd be overjoyed with the news that he'd be staying for a while, although he would have to leave to keep his friends up to par.

Ash really wasn't sure what he would do for the next month and a half. He had to be at Indigo Plateau by the first of March to enter the Conference. Until then he could do whatever he wanted. There was roughly a month and a half to burn before he needed to prepare to go to the Conference.

There was still Koga, who would be a fun fight. Ash enjoyed fighting the gym leaders' real teams. He could only imagine what battling Koga, who was considered a prime prospect to replace one of the Elite Four, would be like. It would certainly be different from fighting the gym leaders that focused on brute force.

One thing he knew that he would spend a week or two on was developing strategies with each of his friends to effectively fight dragon-types. He didn't have trouble if they were on the ground but he didn't have many pokemon that could combat flying dragons on even terms. Their powerful hide neutralized most strategies that he would ordinarily use on flying-types.

He was torn from his thoughts when he recognized his mother's diner. Ash grinned when he saw that it was open and didn't have too many people in it. It wasn't the time when most of the people Professor Oak employed in his lab got off for lunch, but he never knew if something might have happened.

"Sorry, Nidoking, but I can't bring you in." He said apologetically. Nidoking wasn't surprised and affectionately patted his shoulder with one of his dull claws. Ash smiled lightly. "I'll be back soon, alright?"

Nidoking grunted and motioned for Ash to head into the restaurant. Ash laughed and did as his friend asked, although he gave Nidoking one last lingering look. Normally he would have recalled his friend, but no one in Pallet was going to mess with Nidoking. He'd grown another five inches since they'd left and had gotten even bulkier.

His mother looked up from the counter when she heard the door open. She began to give him the standard greeting before she realized who it was. "Hello, how can I help you – Ash!"

"Hey, Mom!" He greeted enthusiastically, although anything else he might have said was cut off as his mother rushed around the counter and wrapped him up in a hug. Ash pat her back even as he struggled to breathe.

When she finally released him he managed to get out his question. "How was your trip?"

"Wonderful!" She exclaimed as a bright smile broke out. "Little Molly's gotten so big and she's so smart! She's only three but she's already starting to read."

Ash nodded back with a smile, even if he didn't exactly share his mother's excitement. Most of what he remembered of Molly was a baby that drooled a lot and smelled bad.

"Spencer's involved with some really exciting research too." She continued, fascination and a faint hint of jealousy in her words. "He's investigating the Unown. Spencer thinks that he's close to a major breakthrough!"

That perked his interest. He remembered the small Unown that Jessica kept in her house. Ash wasn't so sure about the claims that they were Legends after encountering the Birds, but they were certainly fascinating. There had to be some reason that they were so prominent in Johto.

"But that's enough about me, how was it training with Lance?" His mother asked. Ash could catch a strange inflection in her tone, as though she couldn't believe that he'd actually trained with the Indigo Champion. He couldn't blame her.

"Great!" He grinned. Ash was glad that most of his burns had healed. It wouldn't be good if his mother saw what he looked like right after the battle with Moltres. "All of us are way stronger. Infernus evolved and the rest of the team learned a ton!"

"I'm glad." His mother smiled. She absentmindedly scratched Sneasel behind one of his feathers. The ordinarily hostile dark-type purred contentedly and leaned in to her hand. "I haven't gotten to see this little guy yet. Does he have a nickname?"

Ash dimly realized just how long he had been gone. Sneasel felt like he had been with the team forever. He was beginning to catch up to the rest of the team, although he had a long way to go before he could equal them. The amount of progress he had made over the months was stunning and his mother still hadn't seen him face to face.

"Not yet." Ash shook his head as he was jolted back into reality. "I'm waiting for him to mature so that he'll pick one he'll like forever."

His mother nodded and kept on scratching. She suddenly examined him closely and raised an eyebrow when she saw that he was still burned. "What happened? You don't look so good."

"I got burned a bit during the training." Ash shrugged. Perhaps he'd overestimated how much he'd healed. Then again his mother was quite perceptive. Not much got past her. "It's feeling a lot better."

"Good." His mother smiled. She suddenly frowned when an alarm beeped. Her face was a bit downcast as she spoke again. "I'm really sorry sweetie, but I have to get back to work. It's about to be lunch hour for Professor Oak's employees. I'll get home as soon as I can, alright?"

He nodded and hid his slightly disappointed expression. They'd have plenty of time to catch up. "Bye, Mom. I'll see you later. Love you."

"Love you too, Ash!" She called out as he left the door. Ash watched her rush behind the counter for a moment before he left. Nidoking grunted at him as he walked out. "Hey, Nidoking, we're going to the house. We aren't doing anything for the rest of the day, so you can head to the Corral whenever you want."

Nidoking seemed to grin at Ash.

"I know you miss Nidoqueen." Ash laughed. Nidoking rolled his eyes and grunted at Ash again as they started walking.

Ash smiled as he and Nidoking fell into a comfortable silence. He looked around at Pallet to try and commit every detail of his town to memory.

It was good to be home.

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