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.


55. The Preliminaries Part 3

"No, no, no, no, no, no…" Jonathan muttered next to him, his hands white from the tight grip they had on the seat. "Come on, not yet. Get through this!"

Ash had similar thoughts, if more reserved. He watched with a troubled expression on his face as Amelia faced off against George Grey.

It was not going well for her.

George Grey was strong. He'd been training for years and had the overwhelmingly powerful team to prove it. Amelia had been on the defensive from the very beginning, ever since Grey had released an absolute monster of a pokemon that was black, gigantic, and had three spitting and snarling heads, two of which were in its "hands" and each capable of using their own attacks.

The announcer had called it Hydreigon. From the awed timbre of the man's voice he assumed it was a ridiculously powerful pokemon, along the vein of Dragonite or Metagross. It was certainly imposing enough to be counted amongst such esteemed species.

He was impressed at the teen's guts. Hydreigon was clearly a dragon-type, inherently risky to use in a field that greatly favored ice-types. It had enough raw power and a savage, ruthless battle style that equalized things for it, unfortunately. Amelia's Dewgong had been knocked unconscious in a trio of Hyper Beams the moment the battle began.

From that moment on everyone knew how the battle was going to go.

Grey himself seemed to be enjoying this. His eyes were dark with glee and a sadistic grin was permanently stretched across his face. It was rather unnerving.

Ash would rather not have to battle the unbalanced trainer. Not only was he from far-off Unova, which was thousands of miles away and Ash knew next to nothing about, he was clearly powerful. He knew from personal experience the kind of will and strength it took to earn a dragon's respect.

Amelia frantically called out commands as her second pokemon, Raichu, skittered away from the slowly advancing Hydreigon, sparks flying from its cheeks as it swished its tail nervously. Hyrdreigon roared and suddenly rushed forward, its second and third heads spitting and thrashing frantically as though they wanted to rip free from their body and tear into Raichu themselves.

"Charge up! Thunder Wave Feint!" Amelia shrieked, her voice reaching higher and higher pitches as she saw Hydreigon's raging form rush closer and closer to her small friend. "Put everything you've got into it!"

"That ain't gonna be enough to stop Hydreigon, girly." Grey smirked lazily, his first words of the battle. So far he'd seen fit to let his monster of a dragon-type rampage mindlessly across the battlefield, barely noticing as it tore deep into the ice and exposed itself to the icy waters. "He's seen a lot worse than your rat and lived to tell the tale."

Amelia just scowled helplessly as she watched the scene play out. Raichu, backed up into one of the boulders, growled and focused tightly for just a second as Hydreigon's massive form rushed in, heedless of the sparks crackling around Raichu's body and the barely restrained power that flowed through its electrical sacs.

When Hydreigon was about to attack, Raichu fired off a few thin arcs of electricity that impacted the dragon-type and caused it to stumble and slow, but didn't cause it to actually stop. It was just too strong for Thunder Wave – at least Raichu's.

Ash watched with a frown as Raichu suddenly released all its pent up energy and shot forward in a raging aura of lightning and sparks, a sign that it had actually mastered Volt Tackle. Impressive, but not enough. The fact that Hydreigon took the blow and was still standing was enough to tell him that.

"Nice try." Grey yawned scornfully. It was actually impressive how much sarcasm he managed to inject into the gesture. "My turn."

Hydreigon raised one of its arms high and slashed downwards at the exhausted Raichu, its head's mouth wide open to tear into the electric-type's flesh with its jagged fangs.

It only found ice, which left the head to sputter and roar in confusion as it dully blinked and looked around for its prey. At least Ash knew that it wasn't very smart. The main head did most of the thinking, even though the other heads could attack of their own volition.

Ash nodded approvingly as Amelia put Raichu's pokeball on her belt. It would have been no use to continue that fight. Raichu was the member of her team with the most brute force behind it, meant to clean up what her traps couldn't take out, but it was no match for the might of Hydreigon.

He expected that the Hydreigon was around Torrent's level, only with more experience. A dangerous prospect, considering its unrestrained savagery. It held none of Dragonite's kind nature or Torrent's regal dignity. It was just a beast on a leash that was far too long.

Ash could only feel sorry for the ancient people of Unova to have lived around such a brutish species. Somehow he got the feeling that it wasn't just this specimen that was bloodthirsty.

Amelia had bit her lip as she thought it over. Ash could recognize the signs. He'd been in that situation himself more than a few times. It was a terrible feeling. He hated feeling so helpless in the face of an obviously superior opponent.

He knew that she didn't have anything that could turn the battle around. Her chances of victory had died with Dewgong's quick defeat. Now all she could do was try to finish Hydreigon off.

"What does the idiot think she's doing?" Jonathan snarled as Politoed appeared on the sheet of rent ice. It cheerfully stood up and hopped about as it examined Hydreigon, who had enough presence of mind to back off until the referee announced the renewal of the battle. "Politoed sucks. It barely even knows what battling is!"

"I'm sure she has a good reason." Ash said quietly, curiosity layered underneath his stoic tone. He wanted to see what she would do. The trainer had to admit that he didn't know too much about the Politoed species himself. They were exceptionally rare, after all.

The second the referee shouted for the match to begin, Hydreigon lunged. All three heads snapped their menacing jaws and roared with pure hatred in their eyes as they began their rampage for Politoed.

"Get out of there! Ice Beam it and stay far away!" Amelia shrieked frantically, waving her arms at Politoed to get the point across even though it wasn't looking at her. It happily followed her commands, however, and jumped away from Hydreigon as fast as it could, although it was clearly in pain from landing on the ice.

"Stop. It's leading you into a trap, you idiot." Grey said, apparently rather amused as Politoed leapt high onto one of the ice boulders, a perfect vantage point to hit Hydreigon with its Ice Beam. "I thought I taught you better than that. Blow it up."

Hydreigon happily acquiesced to the request, its hateful scarlet eyes, the opposite of Torrent's wise red, shining as all three heads suddenly released Hyper Beams to meet Politoed's sudden Ice Beam.

It was no contest.

"No!" Amelia shouted desperately as Politoed was struck by all three of the beams, which had been barely weakened by the water-type's Ice Beam, and was hurled backwards as the Hyper Beams detonated in an explosion of fiery orange and white energy.

Politoed smashed into the psychic barriers and fell to the ground, seared with painful burns and barely breathing. Amelia quickly returned it and stared at the pokeball as she was ordered off the stage by a sympathetic League official.

Grey got plenty of cheers, but less than what Ash would have expected. Apparently he unnerved people with his brutal style of battling. It was similar to Giovanni's.

The Unovan didn't seem to care and just smirked as he recalled Hydreigon and walked away.

"Ouch." Jonathan murmured. "She just got her ass kicked. Let's go catch up with her."

Ash just nodded as Jonathan stood up and walked off. He lingered for a moment to watch Grey as the much older trainer swaggered off the battlefield without a care in the world.

Grey was strong. His Hydreigon was probably his trump card, what he relied on to smash through most opponents, but Ash expected that the rest of his team wouldn't be pushovers. Anyone that could train something as ill-natured as that Hydreigon had to be capable of raising a strong team.

He wanted to fight him. Not just because he'd utterly thrashed Amelia, but because Grey was dangerous. Ash didn't know anything about him, but he didn't seem like someone he wanted to walk free, especially with a team like that.

He reminded him too much of Giovanni. The thought made ice rush through his veins, but the Feather embedded in his chest released soothing warmth that drove the bitterness away and calmed his emotions.

Ash knew it would come down to him, Grey, and Michael. There were other strong trainers, like Jessica and the others that had been on New Island, but Grey – or at least his Hydreigon – was a monster. Just like Ash and Michael.

"Hey, you coming?" Jonathan shouted up at him. Ash blinked and realized he'd been staring at empty space for the last few seconds. He nodded and headed down the stands.

He needed to think.


"So, how you feeling?" Jonathan asked as he swallowed a mouthful of noodles. Ash just listened to the conversation as he dug into his own food, which was rather good. The League certainly set up some excellent restaurants to accommodate the influx of visitors to Indigo Plateau.

"About as good as you'd expect." Amelia sighed, crestfallen as she just stared at the soup she'd ordered. "I really thought I'd make it farther. Jessica made it to the Top 16 her first try."

Ash frowned and finally spoke up. "You aren't Jessica. Don't compare yourself to her. Your opponent was very powerful. There's no shame in losing to him."

"Yeah!" Jonathan said as brightly as he could through a mouthful of noodles. Ash just wrinkled his nose in distaste and made sure not to look at the other boy directly. "I bet you could have made it to the Top 16 if you hadn't had to fight that guy. He was crazy strong!"

He hummed in assent. "You did about as well as could be expected from any rookie trainer. Grey is going to the top unless he meets a few certain people on his way there. The Hydreigon is too strong for most people to face unprepared."

Not that he was included in the rank of most people, or so he hoped. Ash felt that Hydreigon would be a complete pushover compared to even Saph. The reason he never achieved much success against Lance's team was that they were all ridiculously fast. The Dragonite trio, Aerodactyl, Magnus…any of his pokemon that could fly were almost impossible to hit.

Hydreigon looked to lack that capability, or at least it preferred to rush enemies on the ground. He felt that Torrent could defeat it without too much trouble, especially if he pulled out Ice Storm. It was an incredibly powerful technique, even if he'd discovered it extremely early in his career as a trainer.

Amelia looked a bit happier, so he supposed it was a successful endeavor. He'd leave the rest up to Jonathan. He was better at this than him.

"Just come back next year. I know I will – if I don't win the whole thing right now!" Jonathan boasted through another mouthful of noodles. Ash rolled his eyes and snorted in amusement, which attracted the other boy's attention. "Oh yeah, there's a pretty good chance we'll battle each other next, Ash!"

"Really?" Ash raised an eyebrow. "I haven't looked at the projected brackets yet."

"Yep!" Jonathan grinned and pushed his spotless bowl away from him. "This is where it gets serious, ya know? Everything up to this point has been a warm up. They're making sure to find the best of the best, and everyone not good enough to fight for real is getting cut – no offense, Amelia."

She just sighed at the thoughtless comment, although she didn't seem insulted. Amelia seemed used to it. Jonathan didn't exactly think before he spoke, even though Ash knew by now that didn't apply in battling.

As much, anyway.

"It's fine." She waved it off. "I know my team isn't strong enough to compete in the top ranks. We're good, but not that good. I'll just come back next year and hope it's enough."

"That's the spirit!" Jonathan cheered. He looked back to Ash. "Anyway, I think they're pitting rookies against each other. Most of us have been eliminated, but there's a few left. Me, you, Gary, and some other kid. Starts with an 'R' I think."

"Where'd you hear this?" He inquired. Nobody had mentioned it to him before, even though he could see it as the truth. There were a lot of rookies in the League this year. Normally they were all wiped out by this point. The League would probably want to narrow it down to see which of them was the best.

Of course, it could just be chance. Now that they were down to an eighth of the original competitors it was much more likely that he'd be placed against whatever rookies hadn't been culled.

"Guesswork, for the most part." Jonathan shrugged. Ash found his confidence in the other boy's claim fading at that. Apparently Jonathan was astute enough to notice, as he quickly moved to assure Ash. "Don't worry, man. I heard some of the older competitors talking about it too."

Ash hummed in response and finished off his own meal, content with the comfortable silence that had fallen over their meeting.

Comfortable for him, anyway. Jonathan and Amelia looked like they wanted to say something. He just hoped that they didn't start bickering again. He'd rather not have to leave the restaurant already.

It was Amelia who broke the silence.

"So…what did you do after the St. Anne?"

He froze and looked at her. They hadn't breached this topic yet, even though both parties wanted to. Ash wasn't sure how he was supposed to go into this, though. It wasn't like when he was talking to his mother or Lance about something serious. Then he could just let them talk and glean what information he could.

No, he'd actually have to get involved this time.

"I trained. Trained and traveled and found my family." He smiled softly at the thought of his team, although he was a bit worried about Sneasel. He'd had to drop him off at the Pokemon Center before this, although he'd pick him up before he returned to the house. "There's not that much to it."

"Oh, come on!" Jonathan prodded. "I know there's more to it than that. You're way more different than you used to be. It's like you got old, or something."

Ash shrugged. "I saw a lot. Not all of it good."

"Any details?" Amelia asked, before she hastily added in, "Not about the bad stuff, if you don't want to tell us! We've just been wondering about you. We tried to find you every now and then, but you must have been taking a completely different route."

He nodded slowly and thought for a moment. There wasn't a lot he could actually say. Lance probably wouldn't want him discussing Team Rocket with them, even if he did think they could keep their mouths shut, and he definitely wouldn't tell them about Mewtwo. The Legendaries were also off-limit, if only because he didn't want to put any crazy ideas like trying to catch one into their heads.

Ash inwardly flinched at the notion. Jonathan would be crazy enough to try and Amelia was loyal enough to tag along, even if he warned them explicitly of the dangers.

No, he wouldn't mention the Legends. They deserved their peace.

"I went into the Seafoam Caverns during the Ice Time." He mentioned. "That was probably about a month and a half after we split up."

"Ooh!" Amelia said, interest dancing in her brown eyes. "What was it like? That's where Gyarados dropped us off, but it wasn't the Ice Time yet. I really wanted to see how it looked. The Caverns were supposed to be beautiful!"

Ash thought back to the miserable experience. It was a long time ago but stuck out brightly in his memories. It was the first time he'd seen a true Legend. Articuno, the Bird of Ice. The first time he'd seen the terrible power wielded by the forces of nature made manifest.

"It was cold." He said simply. "I had to rely on Infer – Magmar to keep me alive. It was dangerous, as well – I was hunted by groups of Dewgong a few times."

"Ah, come on!" Jonathan whined to Amelia. "Why didn't we wait for the Ice Time? That sounds awesome! You just went in and caught a Seel while I was still knocked out."

Amelia just shrugged and motioned for Ash to continue.

"Then I trained with Bruno a few months after that." He mentioned. That wasn't confidential, not like his training with Lance. "It was –"

"Woah, slow down there." Jonathan said, eyes wide. "You mean the Bruno. Awesome, Elite Four Bruno?"

He nodded.

"Man, no wonder that Machoke of yours is such a badass!" Jonathan laughed. Amelia nodded in assent, just as amazed as her friend. "Wish I got to train with Bruno…much better than that jerk who traveled with us for a few days."

"What jerk?" He raised an eyebrow, curiosity piqued. "Who was it?"

"Some guy named Paul." Amelia spat with distaste. "He's a year older than us and knew a lot, but he's very…disagreeable."

"Why'd you train with him?"

Jonathan took over at that point, despite the angry scowl on his face. "It's not like we wanted to. We had to leave Lavender Town while that crazy storm was going through and the League made us stick together while we evacuated to Vermillion. There was a Ranger with us, too. He just didn't talk much."

"Was he strong?" Ash asked. He knew that Jonathan was no pushover, but from the anger in his face it seemed like Paul had overwhelmed him. Maybe he'd battle him someday.

The other boy's scowl deepened as he grudgingly replied, "Yeah. That was a while ago, though! I bet I'm way stronger than him now. Freakin' prick…"

Ash just sighed at the rather blunt comment and looked over to Amelia, who was hiding a grin. "I should –"

"At least he got knocked out of the Conference pretty early!" Jonathan interrupted brightly. He ignored the annoyed sigh from Ash. "He went up against Michael – he's a pretty cool guy, you know? – and got curbstomped. Jerk deserved it."

"I'll take your word for it." Ash replied drily. He glanced at the time. There was still another hour before he was set to pick Sneasel up from the Pokemon Center, so he might as well stay here and burn what time he could. "Have you talked to Michael lately? I ran into him once, not too long after the St. Anne, but neither of us stuck around for long. We were busy."

Amelia took a sip of her water before she replied. "Not really. We met him again in the Safari Zone while we stuck around Fuchsia and when we were registering for the Conference, but we aren't close to him."

"What's this about Michael?" A voice he hadn't heard in months asked from behind him. He didn't miss the delighted looks on Jonathan and Amelia's faces and put the pieces together. Jessica.

Ash felt a bit awkward as Jessica sat down in one of the empty chairs beside Amelia. He still felt like a bit of an outsider to his former traveling companions' close friendship. This wasn't helping matters.

"Heard you lost to that guy from Unova." Jessica frowned and patted Amelia's shoulder sympathetically as the younger girl frowned. "Hey, don't do that. You did great! Barely anyone as young as you even makes it into the Conference, let alone this far. Just get back on your feet and try again next year."

"Yeah." Amelia smiled up at her older sister. "I already got that speech from those two. Thanks, though. How'd your battle go?"

Jessica smirked back and patted her Persian, which had somehow managed to stay unnoticed up to this point. Ash frowned at the massive feline as it laid its head in Jessica's lap and purred as its ears were scratched. He couldn't get the thought of Giovanni's own Persian out of his head.

"Fine. Persian didn't even break a sweat." She boasted and slipped a treat down to the normal-type. Persian blinked and pondered the treat for a few moments before it lazily opened its mouth and swallowed it whole. "Ugh, lazy cat."

Ash sat back and listened to the conversation for a few more minutes. He finally glanced at the clock on the wall and stood up. "Sorry, but I've got to go. I don't want to get caught up in the line at the Pokemon Center."

"Alright. Bye, then." Jonathan said to him as Ash stood up and walked away. He heard the other two bid their own farewells before he stepped outside into the bright sun.

He felt some of the stress of being around people slide off of him and blinked a few times to adjust to the sunlight. Ash took a moment to orient himself and headed off to the Pokemon Center.

Ash would feel guilty if he made them put up with an angry Sneasel for any longer than necessary. As he knew from personal experience, it wasn't exactly pleasant.


"Good luck on your battle, Ash!" His mother waved cheerfully at him from the PokeNav's screen. She was in Professor Oak's lab with several bags of luggage, presumably full of clothes and other necessities since the Conference was still going to last for another two weeks or so. "We're about to teleport to Professor Oak's house at Indigo Plateau now, so I'll do my best to get there before your battle is over! How much longer do you have?"

"Probably half an hour, give or take a few minutes." Ash shrugged in response. "It's not too important. I just want you to be here for the Finals."

His mother rolled her eyes at his attitude. "But you're battling Jonathan! How is that not important?"

"Because I'm going to beat him." Ash said bluntly, the faint hint of a grin on his lips. "He's pretty cocky now. I'm going to put him down."

"Of course you are." His mother smiled serenely. "Just try not to push your team too hard, alright? I know this must be stressful for all of you."

He nodded. "I won't. Everything this far has been practice. Jonathan is just the last before I get to the real tests."

His mother frowned, but she didn't say anything before she turned and responded to a loud call from another room, presumably from Professor Oak. "Oh! Sorry, Ashy, but I've got to go. Professor Oak wants to get to the Plateau as soon as he can."

"I understand. Bye, Mom."

She just smiled and waved at him cheerily before she cut the message off. Ash stared at it for a moment before he pocketed it.

He honestly hadn't expected to battle Jonathan. Their brackets offered the potential, but he'd never actually thought they would be matched up. It was a lucky coincidence. For him, at least. He really, really wanted to battle Jonathan.

There was no doubt that he was strong, even if Ash didn't expect too much tact from his friend. Jonathan seemed like an improviser. Ash could sympathize. He didn't usually have explicit strategies planned out either, he just adapted to the battle and used on-the-go tactics to achieve victory.

He had always battled like that. Training with Lance, who favored a brute force approach to battling, only emphasized those traits in him.

In this battle brute force would meet brute force. Ash would ensure that he'd win this confrontation.

Charizard, Rhydon, Gyarados, Kingler, Magneton, and Pinsir. A strong team, but one with many counters.

He'd elected Nidoking, Torrent, and Oz for this battle. Nidoking, thanks to his extreme versatility, would be capable of striking down any of his team without too much trouble, even Magneton and Pinsir thanks to Flamethrower. It was a key element to Nidoking's own Triad technique, which Ash had honed alongside Bruiser's.

Torrent was a no-brainer. Only Infernus was on par with him when it came to brute power and Ash had confidence that he'd be able to take down any of Jonathan's team easily. He could only see Gyarados as a proper threat, especially since it was almost guaranteed that Jonathan would use such an overwhelmingly powerful pokemon against him. Jonathan had a big head but he wasn't stupid enough to dismiss Ash as a threat.

Oz would be an excellent counter as well if it came down to her and Gyarados or Charizard. Kingler wasn't as much of a concern, but it was also susceptible. Magneton and Rhydon were the only ones that would actually be strong against her and he had ways around that.

Ash sighed as plans flashed through his mind rapidly, each one analyzed for flaws and strengths. There were countless simulations played out, and each one was judged.

He knew he was stronger than Jonathan, but he wasn't going to be arrogant when it came to the other boy. Jonathan was strong enough to make it here, after all.

Ash would just have to make sure that he didn't go any farther.


"And the Green Trainer, the prodigious rookie Ash Ketchum of Pallet Town, arrives on the field! Now watch as another highly skilled young man, Jonathan Lindon of Pallet Town, arrives as well! Which of these neighbors will emerge victorious? Who has the stronger spirit? Let's find out!"

The referee wasn't on the field yet, so Jonathan took the chance to glance over to Ash and give him a gleeful grin after he'd finished waving and dramatically bowing to the crowd, who seemed to love his act.

"It's gonna be me! I hope you'll stick around for the Finals!" Jonathan yelled across the Grass Stadium. Ash could barely hear it over the roar of the crowd, who loved hearing trash talk before the matches. "Somebody has to be cheering me on!"

Ash just snorted and let a tight grin slide over his face as he casually bounced Nidoking's worn, scratched pokeball in his palm. He felt the ball quiver slightly as Nidoking responded to his proximity as well as the fire of the Feather as it burned and inspired his spirit.

"Ah, come on! Don't you have anything to say?" Jonathan shouted, disappointed. "Don't be like that! You might as well have fun while you can. You'll be on a bit of a dry streak after I'm done with ya!"

"We'll see about that." He murmured and flipped his hat around. It was twilight, so he didn't need the protection against the sun. The additional visibility would serve him well when Charizard took to the field.

Jonathan pressed a hand to his heart in faux fear. "Watch out, everybody! He turned the hat around! He's getting serious."

Ash just sighed and let his grin turn dangerous as the referee finally arrived and stared up at both of them. "Begin!"

As the Green Trainer, he released Nidoking first. He wasn't surprised in the least when Jonathan released Charizard, who flared up his tail flame as he recognized Nidoking. Nidoking lowered his head and grunted at his old friend, horn ready to release a blast of electricity at a moment's notice.

"I've been waiting for this since we split up!" Jonathan shouted to him. "Charizard's been going crazy for this! I hope you're ready for him. We're way tougher than we were last time we met!"

Ash just nodded as Charizard took flight and soared up into the darkness of the heavens, easily identifiable only because of his bright orange skin and blazing tail flame. Charizard didn't do anything yet, but seemed to be waiting for Jonathan's orders.

"Burn this field up! Let's get this over with!" Jonathan roared to his starter. Charizard just snarled and soared low to spit a large stream of crackling orange flame across the Grass Stadium, leaving blackened earth and an ignited field behind.

Nidoking didn't need Ash's direction to take advantage of the nearby Charizard. The second Charizard wasn't ready to retaliate, a lance of electricity shot off of his horn and, honed by many hours of practice, struck Charizard in the spot between his huge, unfurled wings.

Ash grinned as Charizard, surprised by the unexpected attack, lost some altitude as the electricity shot through his body. He recovered quickly, showing more experience than Ash had expected, but was a bit slower and much more wary of Nidoking.

"C'mon, Flamethrower! Don't get close to it and be careful!"

Charizard roared and shot down low again as he released another torrent of fire that shot straight toward Nidoking, who countered it with a Shadow Ball that managed to absorb most of the flames before the mixed attacks exploded in a gigantic flash of energy.

"Up the power a bit." He whispered to Nidoking. Judging from the specific way his ears twitched, he'd heard him over Charizard's furious roars.

"Trap it with Fire Spin and hit it with a Flare Blitz!" Jonathan shouted, uncaring of the advantage it gave Ash. It looked like he thought Charizard had enough of an advantage that Nidoking wouldn't be a problem.

Ash just watched with his arms crossed. They'd fought Magnus enough to know how to counter this. Fire Spin would keep Nidoking trapped, helpless to escape from Charizard's Flare Blitz, which was certainly enough to seriously injure Nidoking if it hit.

He was impressed, to be honest. Flare Blitz was an incredibly powerful technique. Ash hadn't expected Jonathan to have been able to teach it to Charizard. It was actually a good thing, in this instance. Nidoking would finally get a good workout.

Nidoking knew what to do as Charizard spewed a torrent of fire from his gaping maw, which spiraled down around Nidoking in a furious vortex that ignited the grass he stood on. A quick Ice Beam from Nidoking put an end to that. His armor was strong but couldn't fully protect against the heat of the Fire Spin.

"I thought this would be a lot harder!" Jonathan crowed up to Charizard, who roared in agreement as his huge body became wreathed in fire, although it was much weaker than what Infernus was capable of. Not only did Charizard not match his power, he couldn't handle fires of the intensity Infernus activated in combat. "Let's finish this! Flare Blitz!"

Charizard, consumed in the raging orange fires of the Flare Blitz, released all of his pent up power and shot down at the trapped Nidoking, who just watched with a bored look in his narrow eyes.

Ash waited as Charizard grew ever closer, the destructive potential in its body ready to release at its full power. Trickles and streams of flame lived on in the sky behind him, crackling for several seconds after Charizard had raged past in his comet-like form.

Just as Charizard came in range, Nidoking focused and released an immense blast of lightning from his horn, just enough to penetrate Charizard's protective aura of fire and shatter its concentration. As Charizard's focus broke the Flare Blitz weakened slightly, just enough for Nidoking to survive it without ill effect.

He grinned as Nidoking suddenly turned around just in time to smash his huge, muscular tail straight into Charizard's side and crush the massive fire-type straight into the field. As Charizard recovered Nidoking reared his head back and spat a huge quantity of toxic sludge onto the draconic pokemon's back, weighing it down so much that it couldn't fly.

He'd known that it would be enough. That was the kind of power Nidoking put into his attacks to bring Magnus to the ground. Jonathan's Charizard would barely have control of his body for the next minute or two.

"Wha – no! Charizard, do it!" Jonathan frantically screamed to his friend as Nidoking fired a barrage of Poison Stings into Charizard's thick hide, where they stuck, deeply imbedded in the flesh as they pumped poison into his tissues and bloodstream. "BLAZE!"

Charizard's eyes, formerly shut in agony and completely disoriented, reflexively snapped open at the command and exploded with dangerous red light, flames far stronger than those of his Flare Blitz wreathed around him. Charizard stood up, roared with the fury to cause the receding embers of its previous techniques explode with new life, and spat a huge cone of fire at Nidoking.

Ugh. He hated Blaze. He'd hated it ever since that first time he encountered it when he'd battled Jonathan and his Charmeleon on the St. Anne. It was basically an adrenaline-powered disaster – like Super Power for badly injured fire-types.

As one could imagine, that was a terrible thing to battle. For the minute or so it would take for Nidoking's poison to finish him off or for a decisive blow to be struck Charizard would be a monster, a juggernaut with as much destructive power as Infernus in his normal state. That was the kind of strength that had left villages in ashes back in the old days, when Charizard were the ultimate weapon one could bring to the battlefield.

And Jonathan seemed to have turned that potent, feared ability into a weapon. It was probably his ultimate trump card. Little could stand against a powerful Charizard further enhanced by its natural ability.

They'd defeated Magnus before, but Lance had always returned him if he slipped into Blaze. It gave a Charizard incredible power, but they lost some of their necessary self-control in the process. Lance had told him that Magnus would be the equal to Dov while under Blaze, if not the nigh undefeatable Dragonite.

This would not be fun.

"Yeah! Screw you, Ash! After you beat me in that tournament I knew what I had to do!" Jonathan whooped to the delight of the crowd. He had a ridiculously large grin stretched across his face. "If Charizard's angry or hurting, he can fire up whenever he wants. You are going down! Blast Burn that stupid Nidoking!"

Charizard, his entire body ignited and burning away the poison needles and sludge that Nidoking had hit him with, roared and took off in an explosion of fire until it soared high above the fiery field. Nidoking sat in the middle in a circle of tranquility amongst the destruction wreaked around him, ready for Charizard's next attack.

Blast Burn? Where'd Jonathan learn the exceptionally rare fire-type variant of Hyper Beam? It was a closely guarded secret amongst the Masters and specialists of the fire-type.

He frowned.

This wouldn't be fun.

Charizard, high above the arena, let out another roar of fury as it hung in the air like a stationary comet. He reared his huge head back, created an absolutely massive orb of fire, only enhanced by the incredible power boost given to him by Blaze, and leered down at Nidoking with his hateful red eyes for just a moment.

"Earth Power." He murmured to Nidoking, who instantly understood what he wanted. As Charizard focused the last of his power into the Blast Burn, Nidoking subtly twisted his foot on the scorched earth and allowed a deep, narrow chasm to open up beneath him. Ash heard a slight grunt as Nidoking landed in his hiding spot underneath the surface but knew that the slight pain was much better than the alternative.

"No!" Jonathan wailed dramatically. Ash smiled slightly as the Feather flared against his chest. The other boy knew that he'd been outplayed.

A second later Ash saw a firestorm that Infernus would have been proud of engulf the arena, so bright and furiously powerful that Ash had to avert his eyes lest they be overwhelmed by the raging inferno that exploded and burned and destroyed.

The fires raged on, even on the spots where the grass had long since been burned away. Ash felt the Feather pulse and react to his own feeling of triumph as Charizard fell from the heavens where he had released the last of his wrath and power in a single fell attack.

Jonathan recalled the helpless Charizard before he hit the ground. Everyone knew that he was unconscious the second the ridiculously powerful Blast Burn had ceased. Blaze made it even more destructive but that kind of power was dangerous to use when Charizard's body had already been worn out to exhaustion.

When Nidoking felt the power fuelling the inferno fade he emerged from his sanctum, not a scratch on him. Ash could see that he was uncomfortable, though. The enhanced Blast Burn might have been stopped at the surface but its heat penetrated far beneath.

"Come on – that was going to be so epic and you ruined it!" Jonathan pointed his finger at Ash accusingly. "That was supposed to be my great victory!"

"Did you think Nidoking would stand there and take it?" Ash raised an eyebrow. Nidoking grunted in agreement as he squared himself and waited for the next battle. "It was a nice display, but you'll have to think much harder than that."

Jonathan just scowled as the referee stepped up and did his routine. He instantly released the pokemon Ash had expected: Gyarados. The gigantic sea serpent roared and seemed to drink up the astonished reactions of the crowd if its apparent preening was anything to go by. It was odd to see a Gyarados preen, of all things.

"Act afraid." He whispered to Nidoking. His friend snorted in disgust at the plan, but made a dramatic showing of rearing back. Nobody that knew Nidoking would believe it was genuine for a second. He was just like Ash. He didn't let fear show. "Get underneath and penetrate it. Same plan as in Dandra."

"Gyarados, Hydro Pump! If that doesn't work blast it with Hyper Beam!" Jonathan shouted, enraged at Charizard's defeat. Good. That was what Ash wanted. "Don't stop until it's knocked out!"

Gyarados screamed happily at the command as it saw Nidoking back away in what seemed to be fear. Its gaping maw opened wide as it spat a seemingly limitless stream of water at Nidoking, who was quick enough to open another slight chasm that would let him drop down and avoid the worst of the powerful water-type attack.

And, just as he had done in the Dandra Tournament so long ago, Nidoking fired an overpowered Thunderbolt directly into the unending stream of high-pressure water, enough to make even the strongest Gyarados pause as the electrical current rushed up the blast and into the unprotected interior of the sea serpent.

Jonathan's Gyarados was strong, but it certainly wasn't the strongest.

It thrashed helplessly as its body, sensitive to electricity as it was thanks to its high water composition and extremely high muscle density, was consumed by the overcharged bolt of electricity and lost all control.

The water – or, rather, the impurities within it such as salt and minerals – that suffused every bit of Gyarados' insides would force debilitating cramps and contractions upon the sea serpent. Gyarados' nervous system, which had never evolved to resist electricity given the lack of them in the ocean, would be completely fried for the next few minutes and make it almost impossible for Gyarados to fight back aside from its undisciplined flailing.

The tactic wouldn't have been nearly as effective if Nidoking had just used Thunderbolt. Gyarados might not have evolved to resist electricity, but their thick armor was excellent at blocking it. They hardly liked it, but it would just make a Gyarados even more enraged than usual. To truly cripple a Gyarados like that he needed to hit it on the inside.

He knew it was a "cheap" tactic, but he couldn't find it within himself to care. Gyarados were monstrously powerful, whether they were trained by a rookie with no idea what they were doing or Lance, the greatest Dragon Master of all time. Ash felt that being pragmatic was a much better option than getting his friends hurt.

And he'd stick by that belief, even if Jonathan's annoyed shout told him that he'd have to put up with the other boy's whining later. So be it.

"You know what to do." He called out to Nidoking, who had dropped his rather unconvincing act and now stood tall and proud, although only his torso was visible. The rest was hidden beneath the charred earth.

Nidoking snorted as he watched the massive, convulsing form of the broken sea serpent. Ash knew that his friend could tell that it would be too dangerous to try and get close to the thrashing Gyarados. It didn't have any control of its movements anymore. There was no limit on its physical power, even though all of its control had been cut off in return.

Ash grinned as his friend opened a deeper chasm, relying on his intimate control over the Earth Power technique to go as far underneath the surface as he could. He knew that Nidoking would hit the extremely complicated machinery that controlled the stadium around twenty feet deep, but he wouldn't need to go any further than that.

The poison-type disappeared. Normally Ash would be a bit more wary, but Gyarados was still thrashing helplessly. He'd have Nidoking back off and attack from range again if Gyarados went limp. That would be a sign that its control was returning, even if it would be terribly drained from the cramps and the pseudo-seizure he'd put it through.

He smiled as he watched Nidoking seamlessly travel underneath the earth. It wasn't a tactic they were experienced with. It was more of an improvisation than anything – a way to make up for Nidoking's lack of defensive techniques. He'd rather not rely on his friend's armor, tough as it was.

It certainly wasn't the safest technique, but it was perfect for dealing with Jonathan. Earthquake and other ground-type moves that relied on shaking the earth could do serious damage and bury Nidoking alive. He'd be able to get out of it without much trouble, but that kind of weight could do some serious damage.

That didn't matter at the moment, of course. Nidoking had just exploded up from the earth directly beneath the badly injured Gyarados, his horn devoid of any evidence of poison but covered with arcs of electricity that jumped up and down the length in an erratic manner. The earth slid smoothly off of his bulky frame at the ground-type's command.

Gyarados roared hatefully as its spasms slowly simmered and died, but couldn't do a thing as Nidoking rushed forward and built up his momentum before he easily drove his horn straight through the thick plate of armor and released yet another overpowered Thunderbolt directly into the sea serpent's thin hide underneath the huge, ridged carapace.

Before Gyarados could be knocked out, Jonathan recalled it with a scowl. "You fight dirty, Ash. Not cool."

He just shrugged and stayed silent as Nidoking headed back over to his side of the field. It wasn't as if they'd enjoyed such a brutal tactic. Ash didn't like causing pain to pokemon, but Nidoking could have suffered far worse in a real battle and he knew Gyarados could take that kind of abuse.

"Let's do this, Rhydon!" Jonathan shouted and released the gigantic creature. She snorted and looked around curiously at the burned and charred battlefield, although she soon stopped caring and curled up where she'd been released. "Ugh. Get up! It's time to battle!"

Rhydon yawned and lazily got to her feet and glanced over at Nidoking, who had taken his place back in front of Ash. Nidoking watched her warily. He remembered the rock-type's odd temperament. She could go from peaceful to aggressive in the blink of an eye.

"Finish this quickly." He murmured. Nidoking grunted and squared himself in understanding. Rhydon certainly wasn't weak, but she wouldn't be a challenge. Not after they'd encountered the First's Rhydon and experienced its legendary power firsthand.

Nidoking hadn't revealed anything other than Thunderbolt to Jonathan yet. Normally the other boy would be more wary of Ash and whatever tricks he had waiting for him, but Ash felt that he'd managed to enrage Jonathan to the point that he wouldn't be thinking clearly.

And, with Jonathan's next command, it appeared that his assumption was correct.

"Charge! Try and hit him with a Stone Edge while you're at it." Jonathan said halfheartedly, his tired voice an indicator that he knew he was beaten. There wasn't that same cocky fire to it as before. Rhydon was strong but she didn't seem to have a particularly advanced arsenal of techniques.

Rhydon faithfully followed his commands without a second thought. She took a moment to get going, but her charge was completely blind and reckless. Regardless, it held the potential to do a great deal of damage if she actually slammed into Nidoking.

"You know what to do." He said quietly. Ash didn't enjoy this. Rhydon deserved a better battle, one where she actually stood a chance and had an opportunity to use her strength. This charge was just a side effect of Jonathan's broken spirit. It held no chance of success, even if she did manage to barrage Nidoking with Stone Edge.

Nidoking grunted softly, his feelings similar to Ash's if he had to hazard a guess. The moment Rhydon charged into range he fired off three Ice Beams, each of the jagged arcs of frosty blue energy aimed with the utmost precision.

Her legs were frozen first. Rhydon growled as she toppled over, her charge broken as the powerful limbs were encased in a thick layer of frost. Ash had no doubt that she could break it, given time, but he wasn't about to give her the opportunity.

Rhydon went silent as her head was frozen, the rapid temperature change too much for her. Jonathan recalled her just a second later, a deep look of regret etched onto his face as he said something too quiet to hear to her pokeball. It was odd to see on Jonathan's ordinarily jovial face.

Ash frowned. It was a good fight, but he hadn't enjoyed it like he'd expected himself to. This let him finally get back at Jonathan's cocky attitude and let Nidoking prove who was the stronger between the two.

He'd been too caught up in the preparation to defeat Jonathan to remember that, although he'd never been incredibly close to him or Amelia outside of the short time they traveled together, he was his friend. Ash enjoyed the feeling of victory, but he couldn't find it in himself to rejoice at Jonathan's loss.

Jonathan just gave him a short nod before he walked off quietly. Apparently he'd expected to beat Ash – or, at the very least, put up more of a fight than that.

"You did amazing, buddy." He said to his friend's pokeball once he'd recalled him. It shook slightly in acknowledgement, hot with pride. The Feather matched the heat with its own pulse and warmed his thoughts. "Rest easy. Now the real games begin."

"Ash Ketchum!" A cheerful, portly man greeted him as he stepped off the stage. Another man with a camera mounted on his shoulder stayed behind him as the first man stepped forward and took a place beside Ash, holding up a microphone to the young victor. "It's an honor to meet you! Johnson Brant here for Viridian News!"

Ash just smiled a bit warily and shook the offered hand. It was rather calloused, surprisingly enough. Perhaps the man had been a trainer many years ago.

"Hi." He greeted and released the man from his grip. After dealing with people like Lance and Surge he'd had to learn how to make it particularly tight lest the older men crush him.

"Don't be shy! Wave for the camera, why don't you? I'm certain the viewers would appreciate it!" Brant said cheerfully as he waved to the camera as well. Ash hesitantly joined him. He couldn't detect any of the unsavory qualities Lance had warned him about in the reporter. "I'm afraid we'll have to make this fast, my boy. We don't have a lot of time, unfortunately."

That was perfectly fine with Ash. He felt it would be better for everyone if he didn't voice that opinion, however. He just nodded and smiled again.

"Now," Brant began in a more professional manner, "how do you feel about making it this far? Did you expect it, given your age? Do you think you can continue to advance? The competition only gets steeper from this point forward."

Ash thought for a moment and the Feather pulsed with comfortable heat as he let word's spill from his mouth. "I feel good. I don't know how far I expected to get, but I don't think my age will have anything to do with my success. My team and I are rookies, true, but we've worked hard to get here. We'll keep fighting until we can't go on anymore and then we'll get back up and go again. We'll fight until we win this if we can. I don't know how strong the best person here is, but we're ready for them."

It was odd how easily the words flowed out of him. He barely knew what he was saying, but the pleased smile on Brant's face let him assume that he hadn't made too much a fool of himself. Ash wished he could project the sort of aura that Lance could. Every word that flowed out of the Champion's mouth on camera was pure gold, able to inspire the most broken of spirits and keep the attention of all Indigo.

"Confident words from an exceptional trainer!" Brant grinned to the camera as he clasped Ash's shoulder in a familiar manner. Ash didn't particularly like the contact, but he was just grateful Sneasel still wasn't ready to be in the excitement of the stadiums yet. He'd have done his absolute best to take Brant's hand off if he was released. "I really hope that your skills can back up your attitude! Now, your last opponent, Jonathan Lindon, is from your hometown, correct?"

Ash nodded.

"How did it feel to face him in the Conference, in front of the eyes of so many people? Were you worried? Battles like this can rock any friendship, after all."

He chose his words carefully. Ash could hear Lance's warning about coming off as arrogant echo through his head as he spoke up. "It felt good, and I wasn't worried. We traveled together with another friend of ours when we first started out and battled a few times. This was a good way to settle things once and for all."

Brant smiled and nodded, as though he understood the feelings behind Ash's words. "I'm glad to hear it! Now, I'm afraid that we'll have to wrap this up. The next battle is about to begin! Good luck, Ash! We're rooting for you!"

Ash gave the man a slight smile and nodded his thanks as he stepped out of the camera's sight and headed down the tunnel. The interview certainly could have been worse. Brant seemed like he was in a rush, so at least he hadn't asked Ash to go too in-depth with the questions.

He glanced up at the dark night sky before he headed through the tunnel. The stars shined down upon him, the pinpricks of light strangely calming after the battle that had just been fought.

He frowned. Beating Jonathan was just the beginning. Now he had to go find and talk to him just to make sure the other boy didn't hold his victory against him for whatever reason, find his mother and Professor Oak so that he could catch up, and then begin his preparations for the Final rounds of the Conference.

The Top 16 would be more difficult than this, he was certain. Even if his next opponent was on Jonathan's level having access to a full team of pokemon would make things much more interesting. He couldn't play around anymore. Sneasel's battles were at an end.

Ash readjusted his hat to its normal position. He probably looked a little strange wearing it in the waning hours of twilight, but he couldn't find it in himself to care.

As he emerged from the tunnel and staging area for the Grass Stadium he turned his eyes up to the moon, which was in the shape of a silvery crescent. He felt the Feather pulse in tune with the beats of heart as he felt the last of adrenaline leave his body and grinned as the heat spread throughout his body and a single fact impressed itself firmly upon his mind.

He'd made it to the Finals of the Indigo Conference. It had taken a lot of hard work and dedication, but his friends had fought through the worst of odds and brought him here. Every single member of his team deserved some treats for this – he'd been meaning to get them whatever ridiculously overpriced luxury they wanted for a while now.

They had three days until their next battle. He had time to indulge them as long as he made sure they'd burned it off.

Then it would be time to get serious.


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