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.


92. The Menace Part 3

"Thanks," he gasped. Ash looked around slightly dazed. His body tried to give out. He wouldn't let it. His eyes set on Claydol. "What –"

Don't strain yourself, Ash. Ariados managed to lightly penetrate your armor. You have a minor wound in your back, although the main issue was the venom. Fortunately Ariados venom is covered in standard League inoculation for new trainers so you weren't in much danger of death. Steven ensured I could operate Antidotes and other medical supplies, however, so I took the liberty of taking one of yours to fix you up. I hope you don't mind too much.

"It's fine," Ash coughed. He wasn't entirely sure he hadn't drifted off into some sort of delirious dream. This just didn't seem real. Everything had happened so quickly…

Yes, the effects of pain and traumatic events on the mind are interesting. If it helps, the incident took roughly seventy-six seconds starting from the foiled assassination attempt with the Voltorb and ending at the point you regained your presence of mind.

Ash nodded slowly. His throat hurt too much to try and speak. Claydol was perfectly capable of reading his thoughts anyways. No point in wasting his breath on anyone but his team.

Indeed. You have some Ariados on your face, by the way.

He numbly took the black cloth courteously levitated over to him with shaking fingers. Ash robotically wiped his mouth and nearly gagged seeing how much of the slick brown substance came off. Thankfully he couldn't smell it very well at the moment.

Then he froze. His fingers played over the cloth and realization set in. "Where'd you get this? Are the Rocket –"

Yes. I didn't think our new guests would need their hats where they're going.

"New guests?" He muttered, though Bruiser helpfully pointed to behind him. Ash turned back towards where the battle – how on earth had he forgotten that?!– and blinked. "It's over?"


Dazed spoke into his mind this time. She shuffled over to his side, polishing her pendulum in her snowy white mane all the while. Her gaze softened when it rested on him and she gently reached out one of her lightly furred yellow hands to brush against his cheek. He smiled at his friend at the brief contact, though she practically drooped.

Are you well?

The normally smooth voice was hesitant. It broke a little with every syllable and Ash could feel the control that went into keeping the projection stable. Even so it "echoed" far more than it had since she'd first begun to explore the art of telepathy.

He flashed her a smile as he leaned heavily upon Bruiser, who was practically squeezing him. "Don't worry, I'm fine. We all are. We won."

Dazed closed her eyes.

Yes. Yes we did.

Ash comfortingly patted her shoulder before he looked back to where the rest of his team was. Nidoking seemed to have taken Claydol's orders to heart despite the absolutely murderous look he wore. Even Ash had to force back a jolt of fear at seeing his friend standing to the side of a line of Rockets frozen in shells of psychic power.

It wasn't the rage that shocked him so. No, Ash had come to expect that from Nidoking when something threatened Ash. Nidoking was his ultimate protector, his fiercest blade and staunchest shield. Whatever happened Nidoking would be there with a roar of rage embodied by vast Earthquakes and winding cracks in the earth that would devour the threat like great gaping jaws.

What scared him – what struck him deep to his core – was the emptiness lying behind Nidoking's deadly gaze. It was like nothing kind or thoughtful or proud lurked within his body, just an avenging will that would stop at nothing to rend its targets limb from limb.

But then it was over. The dark warrior hidden in Nidoking was still there but it was quieted. Nidoking's massive frame slumped, his armored shoulders held low in relief. Even Nidoking's powerful purple tail swayed lightly back and forth like an excited Eevee's.

He smiled and waved at his friend, though he couldn't spare a moment as he came to rest in front of the Rockets. Every bit of warmth vanished, replaced by a grim mask of certainty and satisfaction.

"You're finished."

The closest Rocket – he smirked when he realized the short, squat grunt was the only one missing the hat – couldn't say anything with the psychic shell imprisoning him. Despite that the hateful glare shot his way made Ash feel all warm and fuzzy inside. He snickered just like Sneasel, ignoring the pain and mental fatigue he'd built up over the past day.

Seeing the Rockets like this made it totally worth it.

Ash turned to his team and grinned wildly as that raw, primal feeling of victory rose up within. It beat out the pounding ache in his head by a wide margin. Nidoking stopped snarling and growling quite as much – Ash counted that as progress. Torrent just rumbled back from his position low to the ground, his levitation not quite as sturdy as usual after he'd essentially held half of the battlefield on his own.

"Thanks, everyone," he said quietly after he'd calmed down some. Ash frowned when he saw that not all of his friends were quite as happy with their victory as he was – Dazed still looked guilty, Nidoking like he was going to gore one of the Rockets (Ash wasn't entirely sure if he'd stop him, which left an uncomfortable weight in his throat), and Infernus looked bored as he paced around the captured Rockets. "I know it wasn't easy, but we've won. You all – you did great. I couldn't have asked for better."

He got a few nods. Torrent levitated up behind him and took his vigil when it was clear Nidoking didn't trust himself to do so. Ash greeted the Kingdra with a pat on his smooth scales and turned to their prisoners, not entirely sure what he was supposed to do with them while he waited for Steven to get back.

Maybe he should put them to sleep? That'd keep them from being a nuisance, though it would take some time and it seemed like they were already handled.

A low, guttural chuckle broke him out of his pondering. Ash sighed at the source. Why wasn't he surprised? A bored Infernus was never a good thing. It was clear he hadn't enjoyed the battle very much when not a single pokemon lasted more than a few seconds.

And, as if to punish the Rockets for daring to waste his time with such pitiful opponents, Infernus taunted them.

All he did was shake his head as the Magmortar's body flickered before his body heat grew so immense that it warped the air and ignited a cloak of flames around him– Ash shifted away uncomfortably. It irritated his burns and the dry air made Ash feel every single one of the cuts, scrapes, and bruises he'd collected today.

Infernus prowled along the line of Rockets with a cruel leer. Each of them could only move their eyes, which were bulging grotesquely with fear, and did their best to avoid looking at the Magmortar. Finally he stopped in front of a lone Rocket near the center of the line and grinned right at the only Rocket that didn't seem petrified by him.

The Rocket didn't keep his bravado for long. Infernus allowed his fires to slowly die until he was only just hot enough to keep things uncomfortable. He stepped close and stared right into the pale man's eyes, which squeezed shut moments later under Infernus' interested look.

Ash frowned as Infernus raised one of his cannons and it shifted into something closer to a real hand. He tapped a single blunt claw against the Rockets face thoughtfully and the man shook – Ash almost started to feel sorry for him. If only he wasn't a Rocket.

They deserved worse. He wasn't even being hurt thanks to Claydol's protective shells covering them. That kind of psychic power would have no trouble stopping heat.

Infernus cocked his head. Moments later his hand shifted right back into a cannon right against the Rocket's face. The man hesitantly opened his eyes, only for an audible moan to escape the psychic cage's bounds as the Rocket even managed to twitch one of his fingers. He must have finally been worried.

The Magmortar grinned. His cannon brushed down the Rocket's protected face smoothly and nestled it flush against the man's quivering throat. Ash could see the air around him warp and a low roar sounded in the cannon – light sprung from it, though no flame danced out to devour the prisoner whole.

"That's enough," Ash finally said – if he didn't stop it now then Ash knew Infernus would just keep taking things farther and farther. His friend instantly dislodged his cannon and waved at the Rocket like they were old friends before he left to skulk around the battlefield. With that issue finished he looked back to Dazed, who took a few seconds to look him in the eyes. Ash frowned but decided he could fix that problem later. "Can you ask Plume to track down Tangrowth? I think we're done here."

Of course, Friend-Trainer.

Ash graced her with a quick smile and turned away. He limped forward and thanked Bruiser again as the Machoke easily supported his weight. Bruiser's grip was almost too tight but his friend seemed to know his limits.

"I wonder what Steven's doing," he murmured. His eyes were cast to the great billows of smoke that had shaped into a large cloud slowly dissipating into the atmosphere. The Pokemon Hunter's ship had crashed there and Metagross was probably still lurking about somewhere.

He wasn't worried about Steven. The former Champion didn't need anyone's concern. Steven was impossibly strong even normally with his team at his back. With Metagross somehow evolved into an even stronger form (and wasn't that going to frustrate him until he got answers) and on the back of the strongest Skarmory Ash had ever seen the man was fine.

Steven wasn't the type to make rash decisions, regardless. If he thought he would be in actual danger from the Pokemon Hunter and what remnants of her team had escaped with her then he wouldn't have flown after her.

That didn't mean he wasn't a bit curious – Ash had to admit that would be an amazing battle to watch. Better than his, at any rate. He might've never been involved in anything on this scale but the battle was…easy.

Ash took in every single one of his teammates, even Nidoking who had stalked off somewhere. He could hear the loud crack of trees shattering in the distance and the heavy crash whenever one toppled. His face tightened – he needed to talk to Nidoking once his friend was finished taking out some frustration and they were safe.

He took in the heaps of unconscious bodies that encircled the small, protected zone where Ash's team had made their stand. Guilt like heavy lead settled around him seeing so many pokemon utterly crushed. Ash wasn't sad that they'd been beaten, but that they'd been in a position that put them here in the first place.

"Claydol, can you tell if any are…dead," Ash muttered the last word. His hands distractedly tapped against his thighs as he turned his back to most of the evidence of their conflict. It was a little harder to breathe than before – he anxiously tugged back the cloth of his armor to give his neck some room. Torrent saw it and moved closer, settling against Ash's side to comfort him as best he could.

A pause.

None are dead.

He exhaled, relief clearing some of the guilt away like wind blowing away a suffocating fog. Ash shut his eyes and relaxed. The Rocket pokemon would survive. They could be helped.

Some are barely hanging on, however. I believe some of their injuries may be fatal. Others might be crippled for the near future, though once they're rehabilitated it should be possible to cure their injuries with Ditto cells.

Every bit of relief he'd just felt vanished and dread filled him. He'd failed in that sense, then. Some might say death was preferable to being stuck as a slave to the Rockets, but not when a new chance was right around the corner. Ash caught Torrent and Bruiser glaring at Claydol but couldn't bring himself to care as he spent a moment wallowing in the realization they hadn't come out completely on top.

It was stupid, he knew, but Ash couldn't help it. He'd won, but it was an imperfect victory. Maybe it was naïve of him to think he had even a slight chance of escaping this without anyone being crippled or killed but what could he say?

When he fought someone in an arena it was clear-cut. You either won or you lost. They were absolutes. Out here it didn't matter how good you were. Absolutes faded into vague shades of grey and all you could hope for was to save as many as you could.

He'd take that to heart.

Claydol's massive body shifted slightly under the force of Ash's team's frosty stares and Ash vaguely noted it started spinning slightly faster than the usual.

I could be wrong. Perhaps they'll all live and be happy!

Ash scoffed and rolled his eyes. Claydol's terrible attempt at comforting him at least distracted him from the realization some of the Rocket pokemon wouldn't leave this clearing. He twitched nervously and raked his eyes over the dozens of defeated pokemon. A terrible, morbid curiosity fell over him as he started to count them – how many of them had he robbed of life? How many was he responsible for? Were –

Stop it. Do not be drawn into that trap. What's done is done, Ash. You have done well today, despite many unfortunate setbacks. Some of your former foes will die, most will live. Take comfort in the fact that their pain is ended, whether by the hand of one of your pokemon or by being granted a brighter future. In the future I have no doubt that many will regard this day as one of the best in their lives. Take solace in that.

He sighed, though relented to Claydol's logic with a short nod. Ash fell silent and crossed his arms as he looked out at the forest considerately. Brief flashes of light emanated from miles away and low booms followed suit seconds later – an instantly recognizable Flash Cannon exploded out of the treetops and lanced far, far into the sky like a shooting star returning to the heavens. The silver light pierced straight through the shades Claydol still kept manifested over his eyes and he grimaced.

"Can you do anything for the injured?" Ash finally asked of Claydol. He had to do something. This stasis was killing him – his fingers twitched inwards, desperate to avoid staying idle and useless.

His team was silent, mostly. As far as he could tell none had been hurt beyond glancing blows – though Oz looked like she'd been knocked on her back with all the dirt, grass, and random bits of bark captured in her fur – and were just tired. It might've been far worse if not for Claydol and Dazed ensuring solid psychic walls blunted much of the Rockets' assault.

Claydol floated over to him. Its spinning "faces" made a full circle around the field before they spoke again.

Yes. I cannot help the dark-types but it's not overly difficult to place the most desperate in stasis. I'll keep their wounds sealed until the League arrives. Please don't distract me. This will require an immense amount of focus.

Ash nodded. "Thank you, Claydol."

There was no response. The powerful psychic was seemingly as lifeless as he would've expected if he'd found it laying in a ruin. Ash sighed and grimaced as his legs ached with the strain of supporting him. Without the adrenaline pumping through his body he felt every bit of the pain and weariness he'd neglected until now.

"Can you put me down?" He whispered to Bruiser as his head pounded. Ash felt a little dizzy. His friend nodded, reptilian face drawn tight as he gingerly helped Ash over to one of the relatively untouched stumps laying around the clearing, and ensured Ash smoothly sat down.

Ash closed his eyes – after the day so far this felt amazing. Bruiser stood raptly by his side, mirrored by Torrent. "Thank you," he said as he stretched out his legs, finally free of having to work and run. Ash grinned lightly up at his friends. "I'll have to spoil everyone tonight – you did great. We did good today, guys."

Twin nods in response. Bruiser pounded his chest with his fist and even grinned at Ash despite how tense he was – though he did reach out two massive fingers and pluck Ash's own hand away from his chest as the boy tried to return the gesture. Ash frowned but Bruiser shook his head.

Torrent just shook the entire stump – and the ground around them – with his deep timbre. Ash fancifully considered it to be just as primal and forceful as a tsunami crashing into the shore…as thoughts of the sea slipped into his mind the Song's notes drifted through his mind.

He wished he had the Flute right now. It always calmed him down and Torrent absolutely loved it when he played. Even though Ash personally considered himself completely terrible with the instrument something about the notes always soothed the Kingdra – all of his friends liked it, really.

Except for Infernus. Whenever his fingers clumsily danced over the Flute to play Lugia's Song – it always came easiest to him, like he had learned it many years ago and he just needed to remember – the Magmortar became even surlier than usual and stalked off into the woods.

Ash couldn't help the smirk that stretched his face. Infernus always was bad about holding grudges – apparently he'd bruised more than just his body when Lugia had casually swept him aside back at Shamouti.

What made it worse was that Infernus was quite literally at his peak there, so he'd naturally take it more personally when –


He whipped around, startled. His friends did the same and that put Ash on edge – he didn't like it when even his teammates were blindsided. They were able to sense things long before he could hope to detect them.

Ash rose – Bruiser didn't stop him.

The source of the muted voice made itself clear. His eyes locked onto the shape gracefully stepping out of the last vestiges of the Pokemon Hunter's fog with practiced ease, the dark silhouette finally recognizable as that of a woman. She came from the direction of the smoking airship's wreckage.

He winced as he craned his neck to get a better look at her. She was still far enough away that he couldn't make out very much. It looked like she was fixing that particular issue, however. The woman didn't hesitate in coming closer and closer until she was only about twenty feet away.

"Who are you?" Ash demanded as he raked his eyes over her warily. Bruiser was tense, as was Torrent. Dazed just polished her pendulum with a tad more care than usual. His head cocked to the side as he examined her. "Are you from the League? I expected more people for all this."

She laughed, a pleasant, lilting noise that lingered in his ears for a few moments. It was…nice. "Oh no. I'm afraid I'm just a traveler. I've been looking for someone out here and I'd hoped I'd found her. You are quite the surprise!"

Ash regarded her again, a bit surprised at the faint traces of a Kalosian accent – the last person he'd met from Kalos was that blonde girl at Professor Oak's camp a few years ago. This woman's accent was hardly noticeable however, just noticeable as tenser pronunciation and sharper precision. She spoke slowly, like she had to think about every word before it could leave her lips.

He wasn't sure if he liked her answer or not. If he were wandering by he would come to check a battle like this out, but he was self-aware enough to know that he wasn't exactly like most trainers. A normal person would've gotten away and perhaps informed the League.

And then he hid a frown. Were people even allowed this close to the Stone family's Beldum colony? They couldn't be more than a few miles away after Juliet had teleported them. He'd have to ask Steven once he returned. Steven should know if they needed to make the limits more apparent to passersby.

He took in her appearance more fully. Ash absentmindedly lingered a bit more than was necessary. It looked like she was in her early twenties or so. She was obviously older than the average traveling trainer – most had settled down somewhere or worked for the League by that age – but there was something about the woman's presence that left him unsure.

Overall he didn't exactly mind looking at the strange woman, he decided. Her dirty blonde hair was fairly short, cut to just above her shoulders, and bleached from long exposure to the sun. A small sunhat – more practical than the massive, floppy ones he'd seen some women wearing in Hoenn – sat atop her blonde head, though it didn't hide her features from his view.

She was pretty in a striking sort of way – tan and bold. Her face was relatively clear save for a few small, thin scars on her cheek that reminded him of claw marks, though he could hardly see them thanks to the gentle smile she wore.

Her clothes didn't attract his attention for long. Just a plain black tank top and khaki shorts that rose high enough that she could run easily – and it looked like she took advantage of that. She was probably in as good of shape as Karen even without the extensive training Karen went through as a member of the Elite Four.

Yes, he could see her roughing it. She wasn't exactly dirty, but it was impossible to keep to as high of standards as you could in civilization. Ash was honestly in about the same condition – sweaty and with a little grime after the weeks with Steven, though at this point his own blood and armor covered up everything.

"Did I pass your test?" The woman's laugh rang in his ears. Ash flushed. She graced him with a teasing smile and tucked a few errant strands of blond hair behind her ear. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. "But I must say, this scene is most impressive. Did you defeat these brigands yourself?

Ash shook his discomfort off. He took a moment to glance back at the scene of destruction behind him…it was only now that he realized just what it must've looked like to a bystander. What trees and vegetation weren't smoldering softly were smoking, and the heaps and heaps of pokemon and winding fissures that had collapsed nearly a hundred square feet of earth were outlandish by most standards.

"My team did," he replied tersely. She didn't appear at all discomfited by his hard tone. All he got was a bright smile that fit too well on her tanned face. It didn't belong on someone who walked in on a scene like this – most people would at least be on edge around him. This woman was too confident. He didn't like that.

"An admirable attitude!" The woman remarked. She shifted slightly closer. Ash frowned, though she didn't appear to notice. Her eyes were hidden underneath her sunhat. He cocked his head as she cocked her head and lazily placed a hand on her hip at she peered around the clearing before her gaze leveled on Ash. "Yes, I can see that you're closer to your brothers and sisters than most…"

Ash nodded and relaxed just a hair. With that attitude she wasn't likely to be a Rocket, at least. "I'm guessing you are as well?"

"Indeed!" Her head bobbed up and down. The woman bared her white teeth at him in a friendly smile – it hid her scars quite nicely. She lifted her head and he finally met her dark green eyes. The shade reminded him of a leaf. "Ah, I have been so rude! Please forgive my awful manners. Ma mère would be so disappointed. My name is Jacqueline! It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance!"

He felt a little more comfortable now and smiled back, though he didn't move to approach her. Ash didn't want to irritate his wounds any farther and wasn't sure he trusted this strange woman – Jacqueline, he corrected – that much. Plus, to be honest, he barely trusted his own legs with the way his vision swam.

Instead he inclined his head slightly and remembered his manners. Ash held back a grimace. His mother would probably scold him if she knew just how hard it was for Ash to recall them. It was so much easier being around pokemon. "It's nice to meet you too. My name's Ash."

She looked at him measuredly then graced him with another tinkling laugh. Jacqueline's lips curved upwards. "Ash…that's a nice name. You seem familiar."

"I placed highly in the Indigo Conference last year. That might be it," Ash folded his arms. Her eyes lit up and her mouth shaped into a small "o" of recognition.

"That is it!" Jacqueline exclaimed even as she seemed to take a renewed interest in his team, though it was clear they didn't appreciate the interest. She murmured a quiet apology that kept them calm, though even Bruiser was obviously on guard. "Yes, Ash Ketchum. That is your name, no?"

He nodded. "That's right," Ash acknowledged. He idly scratched at his covered wrist as Jacqueline made a noise of approval. He wasn't sure if he was okay with the anticipatory glint in her eyes…it was like looking into a mirror. "I didn't know they broadcasted to Kalos."

A frown marred Jarqueline's face and she quickly shook her head, though she didn't display any other markers of stress. She twisted her hair around a gloved finger. "Ah, no, I have not been home for many years now, I am afraid. It has been a long time. I simply caught it when I was in Rustboro. The Conferences are a guilty pleasure of mine, see."

"Guilty pleasure?" Ash echoed. His brow furrowed. He'd heard the Conference described as many things but "guilty pleasure" was a new one.

The blonde waved his question off. "A story for another time! It is a personal thing. But yes, I remember you. Your team was quite impressive – you work with them well. The League saw that as well, I believe?" She pointedly glanced at the League insignia stamped onto his combat suit's chest. It wasn't much of a question. "Though I suppose the proof of your bonds is all around us, no? It is a shame so many of the innocent were hurt…"

Ash recoiled – well, his face twisted into a fierce scowl that Jacqueline paid absolutely no attention to – and frowned. "I did my best – I didn't want to hurt them!"

"I was not attempting to attack you," Jacqueline apologized. Ash frowned – when did she move? He could've sworn she was farther back last time he'd looked at her. She seemed completely unaware of his concerns, though, and stared past him right at the imprisoned Rockets. Even their eyes were shut now, and they showed no response to her fierce glare.

For just a moment her face twisted into an ugly snarl, something fierce and primal, then she expertly smoothed the emotion out of her face. All that remained was a dangerous glint to her eyes. "You did quite well. I watched the care you took. Even after your injuries you were merciful when you could allow it."

Ash felt like the crushed and splattered remains of Ariados mocked him then. He couldn't help but slip his focus over to the ravaged corpse of the arachnid that had very nearly killed him.

This odd newcomer was sharp enough to track his gaze. Her face softened ever so slightly. "A shame, but I would not begrudge you that life. Your family fought for you, as any good brothers and sisters would. As you would for them."

He nodded dumbly, a bit uncomfortable at the dark turn the conversation had taken. Still, he didn't stop it. Ash could handle a bit of discomfort and Jacqueline didn't seem like an actual threat. She could've attacked him from the trees if she were. He hadn't even known she was there – and that brought another of her enigmatic hints to the forefront of his mind.

"Why are you here?" Ash rasped, dissolving into a coughing fit as his injuries made themselves known. Jacqueline arched an eyebrow, obviously surprised at his bluntness, though it didn't last for long.

Her response was a bit of a surprised.

She laughed.

Ash scowled – was she not taking him seriously? She raised a small hand to placate him. "Peace! I did not mean to offend. I was merely surprised…it has been a long time since I have had someone ask something of me so plainly. It is appreciated."

He waited.

Jacqueline folded her arms and she lowered her head to regard Ash more seriously. One of her fingers brushed one of the pokeballs on her belt and he tensed, though he quickly he realized it was just a matter of habit. He did the same thing on occasion.

"I will be candid with you. It is clear you are no mere boy to be led easily astray," she said seriously. There was something hard in her voice and it took Ash a moment to realize she wasn't angry. Jacqueline took a deep breath. "I am here to ensure justice is served!"

"Justice…" he trailed off curiously. He watched raptly and fell silent. Jacqueline smiled before she continued.

"Justice," Jacqueline echoed. She paced back and forth, reminding him more of a caged Umbreon than anything. Ash found himself briefly distracted by her movements. She moved with grace of the sort few humans could ever achieve. Not quite the fluid steps of a trained fighter like Bruno or Koga, but the casual air of someone with complete confidence in their own body. "See, Ash, my employers do not like Team Rocket. What those cretins do is…disgusting. My employers will never allow their sins against pokemon to go unpunished."

Her eyes blazed and a savage smile split her bronzed face into something dark. "I am the same. And I am more than happy to be the instrument of that justice. Team Rocket will not be allowed to fester like they have elsewhere. Not when I am present."

"So why didn't you help?" Ash asked, motioning to the widespread destruction around the clearing. He wasn't sure it would be easily habitable by pokemon for some time after what his friends had done to it. "You could've saved lives."

"Oh no," the blonde chuckled wryly. "If I was involved I wouldn't have been saving lives." Jacqueline frowned over at the unconscious pokemon. Some had begun to rise, but very quickly realized it was better to just stay still. "The innocents, yes." She stared past Ash at the Rockets. "Their tormentors, on the other hand…"

Ash frowned. This conversation was devolving rather quickly. Jacqueline was dangerous, he realized. He'd suspected it before, but the casual way she spoke of ending lives – something deep within him still recoiled at the concept – left his eyes barely narrowed. It didn't help that he wasn't altogether able to disagree with her. "We could have used your help, Jacqueline."

"Silly boy!" Jacqueline laughed. She looked at him fondly. "You don't want my help. Not yet," she finished with a despondent sigh. The woman waved at the clearing his friends had quite nearly obliterated, including the hundreds of smoking trees Infernus had seared. "Regardless, you had it well in hand. You did not need help. By the time I would have stepped in that friend of yours had already gone after my main target."

"The Pokemon Hunter?" Ash frowned. He eyed Jacqueline curiously. "I thought you said the Rockets –"

She waved his question off, though she did grace him with a smile that didn't make Ash feel quite as warm as when she'd first showed up. "A mere task…though one I would enjoy. No," a dangerous grin darkened her eyes, "my chosen quarry is rather more interesting."

Then she deflated, looking like the sunny girl she'd been when she arrived. Jacqueline shook her head and ran her fingers through her blonde hair. "But now I see my presence here is unnecessary. Steven Stone is much more capable than I."

Ash filed that away for future reference. It was the first crack in the confidence so seemingly intrinsic to her personality. She didn't seem intimidated by Ash in the least but Steven at least seemed to keep her on edge.

He didn't know who Jacqueline was, exactly, but at least she wasn't some sort of insane Champion-level opponent who'd arisen from nowhere.

The woman readjusted her sunhat. She inclined her head just a fraction. "And if I am not needed then it is best that I leave," she sounded almost disappointed. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Ash. I thank you for saving these pokemon…"

Ash nodded stiffly. He wasn't sure how he felt about her leaving as abruptly as she'd entered. Jacqueline was obviously dangerous – every little thing she did left him ill at ease. At the same time, however, he would rather her wait until "That's not something I need to be thanked for."

"I know," he received a bright smile for his answer. Despite himself Ash felt his cheeks warm. Jacqueline laughed. "Oh yes, I truly do. You are a good one, Ash. Don't lose that," she finished more seriously. The blonde turned away and folded her arms. "But I must leave, indeed. There are pressing matters I must attend to."

He frowned at that – should he try to stop her? It would only take a word to his friends, though at the same time he was hesitant to do so. She hadn't done anything hostile. Besides, she clearly had a pokemon of her own. Ash was too unsure of just how much offense she'd take to that.

Jacqueline walked away and he noted again just how smoothly she glided through the relatively unscathed portion of the clearing she'd entered from. She was heading straight for the airship's wreckage and –

Bruiser grunted and quickly pulled Ash to him, hiding him protectively underneath a bulging grey bicep almost as thick as Ash's torso. He squeezed the boy just hard enough to keep him still as a sudden roar echoed throughout the entire clearing, a pained howl that left a taut frown on his face.

That was the cry of a Salamence.

It came from far above. Ash craned his neck to look into the blindingly bright sky, eager to catch sight of the fearsome dragon the Hunter had escaped on, when a blinding beam of silver shrapnel exploded into his field of view like a howling hurricane, pierced through one of the clouds that had appeared after Infernus' relentless bursts of flame, and struck something unseen in a vast explosion whose shockwave nearly knocked Ash off his feet. Only Bruiser's powerful arm kept him stable.

Ash squinted and saw something – a blue and red comet with a pale, armored belly – fall from the sky at a breathtaking speed. Worried lines creased over his features as the trajectory it was on carried the creature in a corkscrew motion to land just a hundred feet away.

"It seems I am not useless here after all!" Jacqueline piped up from behind him. Ash barely thought about it as he realized just how hard that Salemence was going to hit. It had fallen from nearly a thousand feet up.

He reflexively squeezed Bruiser's arm for support.

Seconds later the impact left the clearing in shambles – he could barely see the Salamence's silhouette as it landed with enough force to absolutely pulverize a human's fragile body, though all it did to the mighty dragon was knock it unconscious.

Infernus roared, Dazed's eyes flashed – her pendulum darted to the left in her grip, and the clouds of dust and shattered stumps and grass were swept away in the same direction – and Torrent levitated just a little in front of Ash. Claydol was still utterly silent.

He learned forward to see more when a figure garbed in a long, black coat that almost looked like a dress staggered drunkenly from the site, coughing out a lungful of fine dirt that had been breathed in.

Ash found it hard to believe anyone had survived at all from such a hard, chaotic impact. They must've had safety measures in place for such a possibility – Ash thought of the ambush, the armies of pokemon, the willingness to flee immediately once things got out of hand.

Yes, he thought darkly, he could imagine the Pokemon Hunter being prepared for almost anything.

It was a woman, he could tell, and Ash frowned at some sort of strange gauntlet she wore, though it looked heavily damaged from the landing. The woman was limping heavily and cradled the arm that bore the strange device gingerly – he winced when he saw it was at a terribly unnatural angle, like Fergus' arm when Mewtwo broke it.

Ash didn't acknowledge the dark smirk threatening to take over his face. It wasn't his own.

"Stop!" He roared, and the woman reflexively jerked her head up to look him in the eyes. Ash blinked in surprise at her features – even with innumerable cuts and a massive blue bruise covering half of her face he could make out familiar sharp, pointed features and a head of tousled silver hair.

If she suddenly pulled out a Metagross Ash was going to be pissed.

"You aren't getting away! Torrent, Dazed!" Ash snarled, realizing that this woman was responsible for everything that happened today. The attack on the colony, the death of so many broken pokemon…he felt a spike of hate directed at the Pokemon Hunter when he realized she was the one that had nearly killed him.

And worse, his team.

Dazed's eyes flashed and her pendulum bounced madly in her grip, but nothing happened to the woman as she looked over in his direction and paled visibly even behind her bruised face. Ash frowned as Dazed cocked her head and lowered her pendulum. It wasn't often she was surprised enough to show even the faintest sign.

His teeth bared much like Nidoking's, and he nodded to Torrent. Even if she'd somehow proved immune to psychic powers there was no way she would stand up to one of the strongest of his friends. Torrent rumbled and turned dismissive red eyes onto his target as a sphere of compressed air suddenly shape itself on the tip of his snout, howling wildly as the frozen winds twisted faster and faster, little flecks of frost and ice shaping as the temperature all around fell nearly fifty degrees in a single second.

Torrent wouldn't hit her head-on with it. That'd be a death sentence – even this relatively weak Blizzard would flash-freeze her with just a few seconds' exposure. But the Kingdra was plenty skilled enough with his Blizzard to simply make it impossible to escape. In her condition she was hardly capable of walking, regardless.

A gust of cold wind swept through the clearing and Ash visibly shivered, though more due to the sudden merging of himself with the cold air than anything else. For just a moment he felt it as an extension of himself, a wild gale whistling through the air carrying something strange and quick in its wake.

He shook the strange feeling off – he silently found himself frustrated with his inability to quell the merging brought on by Articuno's influence – and grinned as Torrent loosed the howling gale.

With the new control brought on by Steven's extensive training it was something to behold. The white storm of sharp ice and subzero temperatures erupted in a tightly bound funnel that seared Ash's lungs with the bite of cold when he breathed in, despite him being several feet away. Crystals of frost trailed the howling Blizzard, glistening like diamonds hanging in the air in its wake.

Grass was encrusted in crystal, tree trunks groaned and creaked as they expanded, and the ground itself was so cold it hissed and cracked until it had very nearly sundered beneath Blizzard's path.

And, just like that, it was over.

Ash gaped as a familiar curved shell of green – it wasn't a full sphere, he noted, unlike most uses of Protect – shimmered into existence from nowhere moments before Blizzard would've passed by the woman and left her immobile from the cold. A terrible fury rose up in him and he bared his teeth even as he saw the unexpected source appear moments later.

He couldn't track it well – it was a mere blur, and all he could pick out was a wild mane of white fur pulled back by the impossible speed of the newcomer, like it was carried by the wind itself. The creature was blindingly fast, almost as if Plume had managed to convert her speed to the ground as well.

The Pokemon Hunter, who had taken the unexpected opportunity to limp farther away in her long black coat (it must've been absolutely sweltering in the Hoenn heat, he noted) froze for a moment as the blur whipped around her. Her whole body stiffened for just a moment before she collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.

Ash blinked. His friends didn't seem any better. He grew slightly concerned – and wasn't that surprising, him even being slightly thoughtful about the still Pokemon Hunter – and eyed her as closely as he could.

"Do not bother, Ash."

He whipped around wildly to face Jacqueline. She was closer than she was before and he stiffened. Her hand was on her hip and she regarded him with something akin to pity.

"You killed her."

It wasn't an accusation. No, only a resigned statement of fact left his lips. Ash stared at Jacqueline. He didn't know what to feel – it was like there were too many things tumbling around in his head and not enough time to process them all.

He dimly realized he felt vaguely nauseous. It was like he wasn't even watching the scene from his body anymore. The clearing was little more than a vague blur – the only thing his wide eyes flitted between were the still body of the black-clad Pokemon Hunter and Jacqueline's light frown.

Ash had never watched someone die. Not even on the St. Anne…

"Some live, some die," Jacqueline said quietly, like she was quoting something she'd heard long ago. She looked away from him. "So it goes."

Ash didn't say anything. He didn't know what to feel. Should he feel angry that Jacqueline had killed the Pokemon Hunter when he was about to take her peacefully? Glad that the Pokemon Hunter who had ruined so many lives was gone? Sad about the loss of life, no matter what it was?

But right now he was just numb. Even his friends didn't move, not sure what to do in this situation without Ash giving them a direct order. They were as lost as he was, though not for the same reason.

"I cannot save many," the blonde woman told him. Her voice was a little dispassionate now. "Not many humans, at least. But how many pokemon's lives may I save by killing her? She was a plague and it fell to me to be her cure."

"I was going to stop her!" Ash's fists clenched. A spike of fury pierced the wave of numbness that had fallen about him like a cloak. "She couldn't have gotten away! You didn't have to kill her."

Jacqueline cocked her head as she regarded him, still totally at ease with the situation. It wasn't quite as interesting as it had been before. "Perhaps not. The League would have taken her, yes. You did well. But can you blame me?"

Ash didn't answer that. With the whirlwind inside of him – he almost felt like the powers within were reaching out to steal his mind away piece by piece – he didn't even know the answer to her question.

A Shiftry appeared by her side so quickly Ash couldn't even catch the movement. It regarded Ash dismissively with its fierce yellow eyes, though its gaze lingered on his team warily as it huddled close to Jacqueline. He noted its large, leaf-like hands – male, he knew, the cold, instinctive thoughts a bit of a comfort right now.

"Ah, dear Corin!" Jacqueline crooned to the Shiftry. She lovingly ran her fingers through its flawless white mane and it looked up at her with something he could only describe as complete and utter adoration. "You did most well! I do believe you have earned quite the celebration tonight!"

Shiftry keened happily and leaned into her touch, like it was the only thing that mattered in the world. The guardian of the forests didn't even pay an iota of attention to Ash or his team – he felt tempted to order an attack and subdue the two, but then he remembered just how quickly Shiftry had stolen the Hunter's life.

No, not now. Not when he was this close and Dazed's shields would do absolutely nothing to stop it. Ash looked worryingly at Claydol, who still hung suspended motionless in the air. It might be their only hope right now – Torrent picked up on his object of focus and nodded, starting to drift closer to the Champion-level fighter.

Dazed was frozen. The glow in her eyes and had dimmed and she looked at him with something he knew to be fear. That cut through the fog in his mind and he turned back to Jacqueline and Shiftry with narrowed eyes.

"This is Corin, one of my dearest," Jacqueline introduced Ash to the Shiftry once she realized he was looking at her. A smile played upon her lips and she lightly tapped the grass-type on the shoulder. It quickly gave Ash a quick bow, though didn't hold it for long. "He likes you."

That snapped him out of his funk and Ash eyed the deadly Shiftry dubiously. It watched back coldly and he heard a cold wind hiss from behind it. The wintery air brushed against his skin and he suddenly felt wrong – he looked at Dazed and saw that she sagged with exhaustion.

"A simple precaution," the strange blonde woman explained. She'd lost some of her playful air and looked at him sharply when he scowled. "You have nothing to fear from me, Ash. You aren't my enemy."

He nodded, going along with her game for now. Ash knew he was dealing with a very, very dangerous person. The careless confidence she wore like a badge of honor made sense now.

Ash casually glanced around. His team was here for the most part. Ash could pick out Sneasel hidden in the tangle of trees about a hundred feet behind her, ready to strike if it came down to a fight. Infernus proved again he had a surprising capability for stealth – he knew the Magmortar had to be around here somewhere but couldn't see even the hint of a glow.

Nidoking was nowhere to be found. Ash was a bit worried about him but thought it was probably best if his overprotective friend wasn't present, especially in the volatile state he'd been in after Ariados attacked.

Could he take Jacqueline? Ash thought so. No matter how strong she was – and he really had no clue, though Shiftry was certainly impressive – his team would be an enormous threat, especially with only one pokemon. He had complete confidence in his friends.

Then again, he hadn't known Shiftry was around either.

Nothing good would come out of a confrontation, he knew. They were too close right now and he didn't want to see any of his friends hurt today. Besides, she hadn't tried anything against him.

He didn't like that she'd killed the Hunter.

Ash knew that now, despite still regarding the dead woman with contempt. But now wasn't the time to try and take her in. Not with his team roughed up from their earlier victories and an opponent he knew practically nothing about.

The scrape of countless swords carving against each other filled his ears. Ash didn't need to look for the blindingly bright reflection of Skarmory in the air to realize who was arriving.

Skarmory must've been miles away to just now be arriving, Ash realized. He frowned when he realized just how impossibly difficult hitting the Hunter's Salamence with Flash Cannon must've been. Even Plume couldn't have done that.

He decided to attribute it to a combination of Skarmory's immense skill and Metagross' annoyingly excellent coordination.

Jacqueline took a few steps back, a guarded look in her green eyes. Shiftry's leaf-like hands twitched and he caught sight of a razor edge shaping. She shook her head and the bladed leaves slowly softened.

"I must take my leave. Farewell," Jacqueline said quickly. She graced him with one last sunny smile before she took off into the forests, quickly putting her long legs to use. Ash watched her go, conflicted. He saw a flash of familiar scarlet light, a black shape spreading its wings, and the two were gone.

She was confusing and he didn't like that in the least.

Skarmory shrieked and landed near him on a relatively stable patch of land. The bird's wings were carefully tucked away as Steven, practically hidden by the blinding glow reflected off Skarmory under the sun's light, slipped off smoothly.

"Ash!" He rushed over, glancing over the boy worriedly. Steven clasped one of his shoulders as he examined him – Ash felt a little uncomfortable. It was like Steven was trying to pick out some gaping wound. "Are you okay? Claydol reported her presence – did she hurt you?"

He took a step back from the former Champion. Steven's blatant concern was just…wrong. Before he answered he stared suspiciously at Claydol. Had it known what was going on?

Of course. I was distracted, not blind. The situation just didn't demand immediate attention.

Ash rolled his eyes. Why had he expected any differently? Then he mentally frowned. Could Claydol even see?

If you can't even recognize a simple figure of speech perhaps you're the blind one. Or suffering from a head injury. You've had a long day.

A familiar chuckle graced his mind but Ash quelled the sudden intrusion viciously. When an impatient cough demanded his attention he looked to Steven bashfully and got down to business.

"No," Ash shook his head. His injuries screamed at him now that he didn't have an actual distraction. "She just wanted to talk – who was she?"

"Jacqueline Durand," was all Steven said on the topic. He seemed a bit relieved, if the slump of his shoulders told Ash anything. Ash thought this might be the most open Steven had been in weeks. "I'll explain more later, I promise."

Ash nodded, accepting the situation for now. Weariness fell heavy upon his shoulders and he looked around at the battlefield again, taking in everything he could. It would be branded into his mind for weeks to come. He pointedly ignored the Hunter's corpse – he didn't want to see evidence of Jacqueline's murder.

"The Pokemon Hunter's dead," Ash muttered. He bent his legs a bit and Bruiser took the hint, lowering him gently to the same stump he'd collapsed on earlier. Dazed shuffled close, as did Sneasel as he loped over from the bushes as cheerful as ever.

He closed his eyes as he stroked the soft fur between Sneasel's eyes and gained a throaty purr for his efforts. As he realized what he had just said he finally felt the weight of failure – he should have been quicker. Perhaps then the Hunter would still be alive and in their custody.

"I know," came the quiet response of Steven. He sat down on another stump a few feet across from Ash. He still looked utterly pristine in his suit, like he hadn't just fought a trainer with pokemon powerful enough to support the assault on a Metagross colony. "I'm sorry."

Ash's head jerked up. "Why?" He scowled and looked to the side where Ariados' remains were smeared. Disgust – at himself, at the situation, at all of this – reared up inside him.

Steven frowned and stroked his chin thoughtfully. "It wasn't supposed to happen like this," he admitted after long last. It sounded almost like a confession. "When Ancient contacted me I was careless. I besmirched my duty as your teacher. And for that I apologize."

He just waited. There was more to this. Steven fidgeted. He toyed with one of his plain steel rings and watched it pointedly.

"I didn't think," his mentor shook his silver head. Ash thought he heard something like guilt slip through Steven's composure. "This…I did what I could. I left my team to make sure you would be protected. But you weren't ready for something like this yet – I should've had you remain behind to protect the colony and dealt with this myself. I'd hoped to turn this into a learning experience for you. It grew beyond that the moment it escalated into a pitched battle."

Ash cocked his head quizzically. He felt a little dizzy. "But I won!"

Steven chuckled wryly and cast his gaze across the clearing reshaped by vast storms of wind and frost and fire, torn apart and collapsed by earth controlled and directed like another limb. "I suppose you did."

The former Champion sighed. His face aged a decade with that single breath. "You did well, Ash – fantastic, even, and I don't say that easily. I'm proud of you. But the fact remains that I was irresponsible with your safety…look at yourself! You're half-dead from exhaustion and there's still Ariados venom coursing through your veins – it's a miracle you're still conscious, even with Claydol's help!"

He flinched away from the impassioned spiel. It didn't help that Bruiser had nodded along with Steven as he placed a massive hand on Ash's shoulder.

"I'm fine," Ash grumbled, ignoring the way he irritated his scraped skin. He rubbed Sneasel a little harder – the dark-type hissed happily and crawled deeper into his lap. "You don't need to worry about me, Steven."

"That fact that you can even consider saying that right now proves my point," the older man disagreed. He shook his head and paused to pat Skarmory when the fierce bird demandingly thrust his spiked head into Steven's lap. Steven regarded Ash with surprisingly soft eyes. "It's easy for me to forget how young you are, Ash. You're mature and experienced for your age. I won't demean you by ignoring your achievements and treating you like a child, but I will take responsibility."

Ash shied away from Steven's impassioned spiel. It was odd and unexpected. He wasn't sure he liked the man's concern. Sure it showed that Steven at least cared – even now the Steel Master was examining his multitude of injuries with a discomfited frown– but it was unfamiliar.

People weren't normally concerned for him – they didn't need to be. Ash knew he and his friends were strong enough to stand this. He had survived events that had threatened the entire world. Compared to New Island or the Shamouti Incident this had just been a friendly neighborhood spat.

His mother was worried about him, but that was special. That was who she was. The same went for Professor Oak.

Ash didn't need Steven to be worried about him. He was fine. If he could get through other battles then he could handle this.

"What happened to Metagross?" The question burst from his lips. Steven raised a silver eyebrow, surprised, but acquiesced to Ash's change of subject. "I've never seen anything like it before."

"You wouldn't have," the former Champion chuckled. His fingers unconsciously traced over the spot that strange piece of jewelry was hidden in his suit. "It's not something we try to spread around, as you might guess. The Leagues would rather keep that sort of power under wraps. If the wrong people tried to harness it…"

He nodded slowly. Yes, he could imagine. Metagross was a powerhouse before the strange metamorphosis – with it the metal behemoth had proven to be practically unstoppable.

It was an entirely different level they had tapped. The power that radiated off of Metagross so casually had practically left him shaking just from remaining in its presence.

Then again, that might be from the concussion he might have. Ash shook it off, wincing as the blow to his head from the Pokemon Hunter's energy cannons ached. That would be annoying if it stuck around for long.

"Ash?" Steven's voice sounded. He glanced over at the man, who looked a little worried. "I told the League to bring medics. We'll get you checked out before we return to Rustboro."

He dimly nodded. Ash shut his eyes and smiled as he felt the steady plod of Nidoking's massive frame come up behind him. Hot breath brushed against his back and he didn't even care that it hurt when Nidoking gingerly brushed his back with a dull claw.

"Hey buddy," he grinned. It hurt a little bit. Ash decided to let the topic of Metagross' impossible evolution go for now – he had more important things to take care of. "You feeling better? You missed some excitement."

Nidoking chuffed and licked the side of Ash's face. The massive tongue left his skin tingling from the tiny levels of toxins spread throughout every bit of his friend's body but Ash was used to it by now. He just smiled and reclined, allowing his head to lean heavily against Nidoking's thick hide.

Everything was okay now – Plume's cries weren't too far away and Ash thought he heard Tangrowth gurgling far in the distance.

The injured pokemon, Jacqueline, the dead Pokemon Hunter, the dozen questions lying on the tip of his tongue…they slipped away like they hadn't been a concern in the first place.

A red haze covered his vision even through the black of his eyelids, though Ash suddenly couldn't find it in himself to care as a deep-seated exhaustion made itself known.

Something buzzed on the edge of his darkening consciousness – this feeling was familiar, somehow.

"Rest for now, Ash," he heard Steven whisper. Skarmory's sword-like feathers clanged against each other roughly and he heard the quiet crinkle of Steven's suit as the man stood. There were voices in the distance now, unfamiliar. "I'll take care of the rest. When you wake I'll answer all your questions, I promise."

Then, moments later, "Thank you, Dazed. Keep him relaxed but don't let him fall asleep. I'm still not sure if he's concussed…"

Ash didn't register another word as he blissfully slipped away into a limbo between the dreaming and waking world. Even his injuries couldn't touch him here. The piles of the wounded and dead that haunted his every thought drifted away.

For just a time, he was at peace.

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