Traveler

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.

https://www.fanfiction.net/s/8466693/1/Traveler

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93. The Recovery Part 1

"Please remove your shirt and lay down on your stomach."

Ash heeded the doctor's professional voice quickly. It wasn't the sort of tone that brooked argument. His muscles screamed at him with the slightest twitch – his back especially burned with a deep, throbbing ache that radiated out through the rest of his body. It was like dropping a white-hot pebble into a pond made of pain and torn muscle –

That analogy might have gotten a little away from him.

"Sit."

The doctor pulled on a pair of stretchy blue latex gloves as Ash laid himself face down on the plush cushion of the "bed" he'd been ordered to. He was slow and deliberate with his movements despite the daze he found himself in – he grimaced as he twisted his back a little too much.

That was getting annoying really fast.

Ash cast his ruined shirt aside – it would just be thrown away later anyways. The Ariados' attack had pierced most of the way through his armor and left it a ruined wreck of sharp plastic shards and tightly woven cloth. Steven hadn't let him see the exact spot where it had hit but the man's face was paler than usual.

He couldn't really make out whatever the doctor was feeling. The tall, thin man with the pale skin of a mainlander didn't seem particularly expressive at the best of times. Dr. Alexander had been fairly brusque so far – curt and to the point.

It was probably the best experience Ash had had with a medical professional.

Plus it probably helped that he hadn't been jabbed with a needle yet, although after Claydol stabbed him with a full-blown Antidote he doubted any others would faze him.

The doctor hummed a little as he presumably examined Ash's injured back. It still burned, though Ash could force the pain down. Without the adrenaline pumping through his veins it was much, much harder but at least he had new aches to worry about. The scabbing cuts on his face where his helmet's visor had sliced him had finally managed to make themselves known.

He just buried his head in his hands and relaxed. Ash wished he could have had some of his friends here with him. Unfortunately the doctor's Alakazam was having to attend to them in the next room. Apparently they would be "too stressed" if they were in the same room as him.

Ash grudgingly admitted the doctor probably had a point there.

He hissed as one of the latex-covered fingers prodded the main wound in his back – a growl rose up from deep within his chest, though the guttural noise trailed off once the offending digit vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

That was incredible reaction time, like the doctor had known what he'd done wrong before it even happened.

"You're very lucky, Mr. Ketchum," his thoughts were cut off by Alexander's words. Ash thought the man sounded very tired. "The Ariados' horn entered your back mere inches from your spine. It was fortunate your armor deflected the attack. If it hadn't you'd be looking at a minimum of a month recovering before the Ditto cells could properly heal the damage."

Alexander gave him just a moment to process the sentence. "As is I believe you'll be fine once I apply modified potion and you have time to rest."

He stiffened unwillingly. Ash hadn't even thought about the alternative – Ariados could have easily paralyzed him. Maybe that wasn't quite as grievous as before Ditto had popped up and revolutionized medical science but it definitely wasn't his cup of tea.

Ash was positive he'd go mad cooped up in a bed for that long.

"How long before I'm back?" He cut to the chase. His voice was a little muffled from behind his arms. Ash kept his eyes shut – there was something relaxing about the darkness. The doctor's room was too bright, though not as bad as the sun had been when Steven walked him in.

There was a long moment before the doctor confidently stated, "Your back should take roughly a week to recover. More if you exert yourself – don't exercise for two weeks or so. These injuries are putting your body under a lot of stress and you don't need to add to it."

Ash grimaced. That probably meant Steven wouldn't be allowing them to travel again for a while. His mentor had been absolutely suffocating ever since he'd gotten back to the scene of the battle. Somehow Ash doubted he'd be getting to do anything especially exciting for the near future…well, not under Steven's watch at least.

On the bright side there wouldn't be physical training! It was almost worth the crippling injuries.

"Mr. Stone also asked us to examine you for signs of a concussion. Based on your behavior and thought processes I agree with his request. You show many of the standard symptoms."

He frowned. Ash didn't think it was too big of a deal. Aside from the hole in his back, all the cuts littering his face, arms, and hands, and the disconcerting feeling that he'd been hit by a hammer the size of Nidoking he was fine.

It was nothing he hadn't faced before.

After all he hadn't even died this time, Ash thought as a morbid smirk slipped over his face.

Then something Dr. Alexander mentioned slipped back into the forefront of his mind – "What was that about my thought processes?"

"I'm a psychic, Mr. Ketchum," the doctor said like it was the most obvious thing in the world, "I don't have much of a choice in the matter. Your thoughts are scrambled. Based on my previous experiences you have a concussion. I'll discuss that with you later. I'm not certain of its severity at this time."

"Huh," Ash muttered eloquently after a few moments. He squeezed his eyes shut tighter. He was really tired. "You aren't like a bunch of the other psychics I've met."

Dr. Alexander didn't say anything for a while as he continued examining Ash's back. He felt a warm, soothing heat wash over him. A brilliant purple light suffused the entire examination room, bright enough that it was obvious even behind Ash's closed eyelids. Ash felt himself relax – it was like being under the soft heat of the morning sun when he woke up surrounded by his team.

"I'm putting you under for a few moments while I apply the Potion," Dr. Alexander's voice sounded like it was drifting to Ash through a thick fog. He mumbled something incoherent as something he thought might be a nozzle clicked. Something sprayed onto his back – it burned for a moment before fading away into the pleasant haze he found himself lost in.

There was a cold, sharp jab in his shoulder but somehow Ash couldn't find it in himself to be bothered by it.

He wasn't sure how long he spent under the gentle, lulling power of the doctor's abilities before the world cut back into focus. Ash started at the sensation, like he'd just fallen back into his body from a great height.

As he sat up he decided this really wasn't his favorite feeling in the world. The burning of the potion as it sunk deeply into his flesh and blood was more apparent now, though hardly as painful as the initial application. Even his muscles felt a little better already.

"Sit still – I need to wrap your back."

Ash did as directed and awkwardly looked around the League clinic Steven had taken him to. He idly wondered where the former Champion was – Steven hadn't been injured in any way despite the fierce battle he'd presumably been engaged in. Then again he wasn't liable to just up and leave Ash and his team if his presence wasn't demanded elsewhere.

"So why're you a doctor?" Ash blurted out – he grimaced to himself at how childish it sounded. He rubbed his temples and wished this stupid headache would go away. He didn't like this. Everything was out-of-focus, almost like he was watching himself from outside his body.

Dr. Alexander paused briefly in wrapping Ash's scarred torso – he dimly realized he needed to never, ever let his mother see how much damage he'd taken over the course of his journey – and seemed focused on the small round patch of shiny pink tissue Mew had left him as a souvenir. He didn't immediately frown, at least, so Ash doubted that he'd gone too far. Alexander seemed more amused than anything.

The brown-haired man (his age was hard to read, although Ash thought Alexander was at least in his thirties) raised a hand and Ash could practically feel the energy radiating from him as his palm burned a vibrant purple, winding the bandages around Ash in an instant. Dr. Alexander eyes lacked the overwhelmingly glow that came from Sabrina or Will – only the vivid shine searing within his pupils displayed the power coursing through his every cell.

"I like helping people."

Ash nodded slowly, not really sure what he expected. Dr. Alexander remained quiet and the power he channeled quickly dispersed as the job was wrapped up. The boy absentmindedly moved to rub at his bandages – they were tight, though not suffocatingly so.

A flare of psychic power and stern glance from the doctor cut that short. Ash just frowned. Normally he wouldn't be so irritated but the headache pounded behind his eyes and he felt itchy – he needed to move.

"You'll be out of here soon enough, Mr. Ketchum," Dr. Alexander's said, obviously amused at his impatience. Ash just watched the psychic doctor with a raised eyebrow, though he frowned as the bright light emanating from the man's palm left him squinting. It was brighter than it should've been. "I'm just filling out some paperwork. It shouldn't be long before Alakazam –"

The door slammed open. Ash's eyes narrowed into slits as he whirled around but barely held back a stunned gasp as his torso screamed in protest. His bandages certainly weren't helping matters. He couldn't help the narrowed hunch of his shoulders, though he did calm a bit once he realized it was just Steven.

Ash blinked.

His mentor looked harried, his usual air of cultivated patience and utter calm gnawed at by the events of the day. Steven Stone's hair was usually fairly messy but in a controlled way – now it was all over the place and the man's long fingers fidgeted incessantly, like he was trying to reach for something that wasn't even there.

Steven's shoulders slumped a bit after he saw Ash and some of the lines in his face smoothed out. A light smile graced Ash, though it was a far cry from Steven's normal confidence. Ash couldn't help but let his eyes flick down to Steven's perfectly unruffled suit, the only part of his appearance that didn't show the whirlwind of paperwork and reports Steven had probably just escaped from.

Ash's eyes opened slightly, the fog billowing throughout his mind shaved away for a few split seconds. He couldn't help but remember the strange piece of jewelry hidden away in the folds of Steven's suit…that tiny stone had upended everything he'd known about evolution.

No pokemon could evolve more than twice. It was simple fact, some little quirk of evolution (not the "semi-instantaneous metamorphosis" his mother loved going on about in her letters to him) that had been kept throughout the ages. There were some oddities, like some pokemon having multiple evolutionary pathways depending on what stimuli they received, but it was a simple fact that the third stage of their line was the last.

Metagross and Steven had apparently decided that those rules were more of suggestions than a guideline. Even now Ash didn't even know where to start on analyzing that – aside from thinking making his headache worse it just seemed like he had no information to go off of.

The stones Steven and Metagross possessed were obviously involved somehow, possibly like ordinary evolutionary stones? They certainly hadn't resembled the more common stones but that wasn't enough for Ash to consider discarding that relationship. And it looked like Steven had been the one to activate the evolution.

A link there, perhaps?

Would Metagross be in that form forever? Ash held back a grimace at that thought. He didn't want to have to fight the improved version of Metagross – that just wasn't even fair. Maybe if he could get his own team to involve again…though even then that would be more of a case of evening the scales than actually throwing things in his favor.

Fighting Metagross evolved to an even more powerful form would be just as bad as fighting the First's Rhydon if it had evolved into a Rhypherior during their battle, Ash decided. The First's Rhydon had been absolutely terrifying to face (even if Ash had been more excited than anything), possessing strange powers over rock and earth that Ash hadn't even imagined before.

He idly wondered if he could incorporate that into Nidoking's style somehow…

It was frustrating. That was all he could really decide on. Steven wouldn't be sweeping this whole situation under the rug – that was a certainty. Ash would take a page out of Gary's book and outright ignore his mentor until he got his answers.

"Ash!" Steven sounded concerned. He blinked and took a few seconds to focus on Steven, who was standing just a little in front of him with a thin frown. His arms were crossed and he really did look exhausted.

"What is it?" He cocked his head to the side, wincing as some of the gashes on his face stretched open. Dr. Alexander audibly grunted at that and Ash felt a little guilty – was the doctor feeling everything he did?

Ash wouldn't envy him for that.

The former Champion looked down at him, obviously not sure of what to make of Ash's complete and utter lack of real concern. "How are you feeling? Have you been – "

Dr. Alexander stepped forward and blocked Steven from Ash's view. The boy just watched through half-closed eyes. He couldn't pick out any sort of glow from the psychic doctor but somehow he could feel the energy that tingled his skin as it emanated from the slight man – it was a warning.

"Mr. Stone, please remove yourself from the room until I've concluded my examination of Mr. Ketchum."

Steven actually scowled. His whole posture screamed of defiance. Somehow Ash got the feeling that Steven wasn't used to being reprimanded. Not in a way beyond the subtle mocking and jabs Lance always sent his way, at least.

Alexander clearly didn't care.

"I'm his teacher!" Steven protested. One of his hands was curled into a tight fist while the other absentmindedly brushed one of the pokeballs on his waist. Not quite a threat but a clear sign of his agitation. "It's my responsibility –"

The doctor cut him off without any sort of hesitation. "Mr. Stone, if I recall it's your 'responsibility' – or lack thereof, I might add – that got Mr. Ketchum into this mess. You might be a former Champion but you are not in charge here. This is my clinic and you will remove yourself before I am forced to press the issue and have Alakazam expel you."

Ash blinked at Alexander's bluntness. He thought that was a bit harsh. From the waxy look of Steven's face it looked like the former Champion agreed.

"Very well," Steven's lip curled up nastily, though he didn't push the doctor's orders. He looked a little shaken. The Steel Master stepped to the side and looked past Alexander to Ash – looking at him head-on like this made him think that Steven himself might need to see a doctor. He'd seen better days. "Ash, I'll be waiting outside. When you're done just find me and I'll have us taken to my apartment, alright?"

He nodded back. Steven sent a strained smile his way before dipping his head and turning to leave.

"Now where were we?" Dr. Alexander asked, utterly nonplussed by Steven's interruption. He acted like this was a regular occurrence for him…though for all Ash knew it was. "Hmm, give me a moment and I'll have the preparations for more thorough examinations made."

Dr. Alexander's eyes shone a brilliant purple for just a few moments.. Veins in his forehead bulged grotesquely under the strain of his telepathy and even his breathing became harsh and labored – by the time the glow faded and he slackened a bit with the sudden disappearance of the pressure a slight sheen of sweat misted his face.

Ash frowned. Sabrina had never shown that sort of difficulty.

The doctor chuckled at that and shook his head, though he didn't bother saying anything. Ash frowned – he always did have trouble remembering that his thoughts were essentially broadcasted to any psychics around. It wasn't a big deal to him like it was to some trainers.

"Do you not like Steven?" Ash spoke up suddenly after a few moments of comfortable silence. He frowned inwardly at his bluntness then shoved the niggling feeling away. It wasn't like it mattered – Dr. Alexander knew what he was thinking regardless. Unlike most psychics, however, the doctor didn't just have one-sided conversations with Ash.

He could appreciate that, he supposed.

Dr. Alexander ignored the abrupt query and continued about his work as he checked off a few things on a clipboard. "Not particularly so. He was a skilled Champion and both Alakazam and I are impressed with his ability to work so well with psychics. I feel that he's been reckless and irresponsible as of late, however. It's unbecoming of someone so trusted by the League."

Ash lifted an eyebrow and idly toyed with his hat, which the doctor had made him remove pretty much the moment he was dropped off. "Reckless doesn't sound like Steven."

"Did he or did he not bring an untrained child into an active combat zone?" Dr. Alexander retorted, though not unkindly. Ash frowned. "It was a rash decision even if he assessed it to be less dangerous than it truly was. He put your life in danger – perhaps if you had seen yourself when you first arrived you'd understand. It's been years since I've had to treat a child with those sorts of injuries."

"I can handle myself," Ash scowled. "I've been through a lot worse than that. This is nothing."

Dr. Alexander rolled his eyes as he set the clipboard down next to a small terminal and sat down in a comfortable looking rolling chair. "I'm afraid you have a skewed perspective of 'nothing', Mr. Ketchum." Ash didn't miss the doctor stare pointedly at the perfectly round scar on his chest, "You're certainly capable and mature for your age but you aren't experienced enough for live combat yet. The League puts its agents through months of specialized training before they're put into these sorts of situations."

Ash stewed on this for a few minutes once he realized that Dr. Alexander had nothing left to say. He didn't agree. Sure he'd been surprised, but he'd ended up fine. He was still alive and, more importantly, his team had made it pretty much unscathed.

Compared to facing down the might of a Legend this was a joke.

Rockets were nothing in comparison. Even the Pokemon Hunter was just a blip on the map compared to Mewtwo or the Birds. The only difference to him was that the Rockets had actually tried to fight him – and his friends had won.

He'd been through too much to be treated as just another kid even if Ash had to admit that the battle had been slightly overwhelming at first. But that was fine – Steven had gotten him through it almost entirely okay. At least Ash had learned something and managed to do some good in the world.

Next time he'd really be ready. Maybe it wouldn't go perfectly but at the very least he could save even more of the Rocket pokemon from their fates. The Rockets wouldn't last against him.

"The examinations are prepared," Dr. Alexander spoke up. He looked at Ash with something indecipherable hidden behind his reserved mask, though he didn't give voice to his thoughts. That was just fine with Ash. "Come with me, Mr. Ketchum. I'll get you out of here quickly."

Ash nodded and pushed himself up with just the barest hint of a wince. Not that he could complain. He could already feel the scrapes and superficial damage healing – no, regenerating – until there wouldn't even be scar tissue left. In a week he'd be good as new.

And all he had to pay for that was the gnawing bite of hunger in his gut as his body's metabolism skyrocketed to supply the energy consumed by the Potion. Not a bad trade, all things considered.

He shook his head and stepped into the sterile white hallway of Dr. Alexander's clinic. Ash wobbled slightly, his legs unsteady and his vision uncomfortably blurred still. Everything was so bright…

No, he needed to stop that and focus. He needed to get through this so that he could return to his team and Steven.

He was ready, he decided. Now all he had to do was rush through these exams.

XX

Ash stared dully into the mirror as he finished drying his hair with one of Steven's impossibly soft, fluffy grey towels. He idly wondered how much money the former Champion spent on them before he realized that was something he was probably better off not knowing. Steven was very much a fan of the finer things in life.

He examined his face. It was fairly red from how vigorously he'd scrubbed. Ash could still remember Claydol matter-of-factly mentioning how he still had Ariados on him…he reflexively wiped behind his ears again with the damp towel.

No matter what he did he still felt dirty.

The dirt and grime and blood had all been wiped off by the time he'd been taken to the hospital so that doctors could examine his injuries. Most of it, anyway. Ash still had the niggling feeling that there was still dried blood or ichor or something hidden away on him.

It was maddening.

Ash wasn't anything close to a neat freak. He didn't want to be absolutely disgusting but he wouldn't worry himself over a bit of dirt and sweat. It was a fact of life on the road. The closest thing to a bath he could get was washing for a few minutes in a cold river or pond. Normally he just had Torrent hose him off – his friend had a particular knack for getting particularly obstinate smudges and clumps of dirt off.

Not that that was particularly impressive considering Torrent's jets of water could bore through rock without much particular effort.

His eyes squeezed shut. Even with Dazed and Alexander lulling him into a hazy euphoria he still felt exhausted. Unfortunately he wasn't allowed to sleep thanks to his concussion – Dr. Alexander had ended up confirming that, unfortunately.

It wasn't especially bad but the doctor wanted him to stay up until the normal time he fell asleep.

Too bad that happened to be in just a few hours now. He really was on a weird schedule thanks to Steven's rigorous training. He'd have to adjust to a new one – Steven hadn't said much to him since they'd left the clinic but Ash got the feeling it would be a while before they went back to the training grounds.

Ash froze as a foreign presence brushed his mind, though he relaxed when there was no violent surge of icy fire or a mocking laugh to chill his bones. It was relaxing, like a gentle sea breeze wrapping around his very essence.

His head pounded at the contact, though, and he couldn't help but grimace underneath the sudden pressure.

Trainee Ketchum, your presence is required in the living room.

He allowed his eyes to open to slits as he numbly nodded. Juliet, the Gardevoir assigned to Steven, quickly cut the mental connection. At least one of the psychics poking around in his head was considerate. Even if he wasn't that much of a stickler for privacy he could appreciate what Juliet and Alexander were trying to do.

Ash raised an eyebrow when he didn't even feel the ghost of a hand clenching around his heart from the indirect jab at Mewtwo. That was a surprise. Progress came in many forms, he supposed.

That wasn't really important, Ash told himself. He needed to stop getting so distracted. It sounded like this was actually important…a report, maybe? Steven hadn't really gotten around to showing him how to do one of those yet. They'd definitely need his testimony of the events, if only to make sure most of the Rockets were accounted for.

Or maybe he was totally wrong. Ash's lips pulled up into a snarl – he hated feeling like this. It was like he couldn't even trust his own mind. Everything was muddled and blurry and would this stupid pounding just stop?

Peace, Friend-Trainer.

Ash exhaled deeply and sent a wave of gratitude towards Dazed's soothing words. He ignored the intensified throbbing in his head for now. It was more than worth the pain if he could hear her. It was just a headache, after all.

He fumbled with the towel a bit to fold it right before he left it on the perfectly smooth, seemingly unshaped granite of the countertop. Ash had to admit it fit Steven's apartment perfectly – everything in this bathroom, including the shower and the separate tub (wasn't that hard to wrap his head around) was shaped from harsh, craggy stone with flat planes and smooth curves of absolutely flawless marble.

Somehow it didn't come as a surprise.

Ash quickly pulled on an impossibly soft grey shirt and similarly comfortable black pants. He wrinkled his nose at the musty smell they carried, though he couldn't really complain. Steven hadn't gotten his pack and belongings from their old camps yet so for now he needed to make do with some of Steven's old clothes.

Once he was dressed he glanced one last time at the perfectly polished mirror. Ash grimaced at what he saw. His face was covered in scrapes and small gashes that had only just begun to heal thanks to a tiny dose of modified potion injected into his shoulder to clear things up. He absentmindedly rubbed the throbbing spot.

They'd definitely scar. Though none of the gashes from his splintered helmet were especially long they'd been plenty deep. It wasn't as bad as the long stretch of pale, ropy scar tissue from Articuno's Blizzard but he wouldn't be forgetting this battle anytime soon.

He was fine with that. Ash didn't want to forget this. Seeing what had happened to the Rockets' pokemon, to the Pokemon Hunter's army of slaves…that would push him on no matter what. He'd fight as long as he needed to if it meant that he wouldn't have to face such utterly broken beings again.

Ash sighed. He had to focus. No more distractions.

With hands still shaking from exhaustion – one downside of the potions pulsing through his bloodstream – he opened the carved marble handle of the bathroom door and swung it out, frowning when it hit something with a heavy thud. All he heard was a light chuff and the shifting of a huge mass.

"Nidoking?" He frowned. His friend peered up at him from his spot right outside the bathroom, shifting just enough to let Ash pass. Nidoking quickly rose and dipped his head, not meeting Ash's eyes. "Relax, buddy. Here, come along with me. Steven needs me for something."

Ash eyed his friend worriedly as Nidoking mechanically shifted and followed Ash as he stepped out into the guest room Steven had sent him to. Nidoking seemed keen on staying as close to Ash as he could – every time he looked back Nidoking's massive face was just a few inches away, though Nidoking would quickly back off once he realized that he'd been caught.

It looked like he'd need to talk to his friend sooner than expected. Nidoking obviously hadn't handled things very well. Ash frowned at that. Normally Nidoking was fairly stoic and reserved, always careful to keep his composure in order to maintain his status as a leader. For him to so obviously shed that veneer meant that he was even more rattled than Ash had thought.

His gut twisted nervously. Ash couldn't help but brush one of his hands over Nidoking's leathery head before he opened the door that'd take him into the living room. He breathed deeply, forcing back the dizziness that had decided to tag along with his concussion, and scratched Nidoking's ears gently before he stepped forward.

"Ash," said the former Champion. Steven nodded to him tersely – the man seemed even more reserved than usual in the wake of the battle. Somehow Ash didn't think that Dr. Alexander's dressing down helped matters. The Steel Master was still pale and more ruffled than he'd ever seen him.

"Steven," Ash smiled lightly back. Steven's shoulders lost some of their tension and the man turned to introduce Ash to the other occupant of the room that he'd barely even noticed.

"I'd like you to meet Sidney of the Ever Grande Elite Four," Steven motioned to the tall, lanky man beside him. Ash's attention quickly sharpened and the piercing headache was just an afterthought as he took in the Dark Master that stood before him.

He'd read this man's file.

"Savage" Sidney, a Dark Master well-known for focusing almost entirely on offense. In the Conference where he'd been accepted as an Elite Four member he'd utterly devastated almost everyone he'd faced down with his team's overwhelmingly powerful attacks, dirty tactics, and strange abilities.

Sidney might not have had the opportunities to show off his skill in the Rocket War like the members of the Indigo Elite Four but Ash had no doubt that this man would crush him in a battle. He possessed at least a decade of experience on Ash and had benefited from the League's brutal training for several years now.

Ash found himself staring for a little longer than was polite. Despite his reputation Sidney wasn't all that impressive physically.

He wasn't a tall, muscle-bound knight in shining armor like Lance or standing with the cool, smooth grace of Karen. No, Sidney was lanky and awkward with a mostly bald head, sharp red eyebrows, and a crooked grin.

Despite feeling a little awkward there just staring Sidney down he couldn't help it. There was something strange…

"Hey there, nice to meetcha!" Sidney dashed forward and shook Ash's hand before he could even react, ignoring Nidoking's low growl at the sudden movement. Ash twitched at the man's roughness but somehow knew that Sidney didn't mean anything by it. Instead he just shook it back and sent the grinning Master a strained smile of his own. "So you're the kid who knocked all those heads! Good goin' there, sport. You sure showed them!"

"Yeah," Ash grunted as politely as he could. Just because he didn't want to forget the battle didn't mean he wanted to discuss it. Sidney completely ignored his unease and stepped past to look at the hulking Nidoking behind Ash.

"Well aren't you a big brute? You must be the one who wrecked the whole forest," Sidney chuckled and slapped Nidoking's shoulder like they were old friends. Nidoking's nostrils flared, his eyes went black, and the very room shook with the force of his primal growl.

Ash's eyes widened in disbelief and he only had a moment to gape at the sheer stupidity of the Dark Master before Nidoking snarled and lunged with a lowered horn, though Sidney just stood there with a cocky grin and his fists held loosely at his side.

"Are you insane?" The younger trainer snarled furiously as he surged forward and tried to shove the Dark Master out of the way of Nidoking's sudden attack, trusting his friend wouldn't harm him.

He dearly hoped Nidoking would realize what had happened – he wasn't sure his first friend would ever forgive himself otherwise.

Ash touched nothing but air.

"Huh?" Ash looked dumbly at his hands as he stumbled through Sidney. He turned to the smirking man and was barely cognizant of Nidoking's pointed horn that had swerved to the side almost as soon as Ash had moved. "What?"

Sidney winked at him even as his shape melted into nothingness. All Ash could compare it to was a fresh painting with water thrown on it – it took mere seconds for the man to dissolve into a slick puddle of oily goo at his and Nidoking's feet.

A strange hacking wheeze reached him, paired with a long-suffering sigh from Steven. He looked to his mentor in some vain hope of answers and only found irritation reflected, though he didn't think it was directed his way.

"Sorry, sorry," another Sidney cackled from the doorway where Ash knew he hadn't been before. A third copy of the man slipped out from the corner with the same crooked smirk. The lanky men wore identical masks as they watched him with dark eyes. "Couldn't resist, ya know? You shoulda seen the look on your face, pal! Classic, just classic."

Ash and Nidoking glared at both of them. He was pretty sure Steven wouldn't be too mad if he released Infernus and had him sear the twins to a crisp. It couldn't be that expensive to replace the carpet…not in comparison to getting to avoid these idiots, at least.

It was too bad Dazed wouldn't be of any use here considering who they were dealing with. Psychics and Masters of the Dark didn't play too well together. It would just be a waste of time asking for her help here. At least one of Sidney's teammates had to be involved here.

"That's enough, Sidney. Neither of us are in the mood for games today."

Ash looked gratefully to his teacher. He had the nasty feeling Lance would've let this go on for a bit longer.

"You're no fun," the second Sidney pouted, though instantly he dissolved into that greasy goop the first one had. The third reached to his face and tore it away with a sickening rip that revealed the deep red of healthy muscle and black fur –

What?

He only got a fang-filled grin before that Sidney collapsed in a limp, boneless heap. Moments later it simply vanished as though it had never existed in the first place.

A dark figure manifested itself from the ceiling and dripped down next to Steven like a black Grimer, though the shadows dripped away almost instantly. Ash eyed this newest Sidney warily, not trusting anything at this point.

This one folded his arms as he glanced over Ash and Nidoking. He just stared back, taking the "man's" measure. Ash honestly couldn't tell if this was another stupid trick or not.

"Ash, I'd like to formally introduce you to Sidney of the Ever Grande –"

"Nice to meet ya," Sidney interrupted. He stepped forward a little more cautiously than his first doppelganger had, though still a little too at ease with an irritated Nidoking for Ash's liking. "Sorry about all that," the Master apologized with a wry grin, "Zoroark just likes to have his fun, you know?"

Ash blinked. "Sure," he said, more than a little lost. Between his concussion, the events of the last day, and whatever on earth had just happened he was having trouble keeping up.

"If it helps I'll introduce you two for real," the older man chortled. He glanced over to the closest corner, where black strands of shadow wove themselves into a large, bipedal canine with a long red mane. Its claws dripped darkness into the floor and it took a moment for him to get over his surprise long enough to meet the strange creature's eyes. It winked and waved to him and Nidoking, who was only held in check by Ash's hand resting on his shoulder, before it melted away into nothingness.

"He's an obnoxious little jerk," Sidney said fondly and reached out to stroke Zoroark, who manifested next to him by seemingly climbing out of a bloody pool on the floor. Zoroark flashed a satisfied grin and leaned into the touch. "But he's a good friend once you get to know him. I bet he could teach that Sneasel of yours a few things, champ."

Ash frowned. On one hand Zoroark and Sidney were really annoying. They got under his skin in ways not many others could and he'd known them for less than a minute. Even Gary on his worst days couldn't claim to do that.

On the other hand Sidney was one of the most renowned Dark Masters in the world. Zoroark, for all of his irritating personality, quite obviously displayed his talent to the world. Ash had never seen a pokemon do what Zoroark could.

The Dark Master sniggered and waved Zoroark off. The mysterious creature vanished without any fanfare this time. "But that's for another time, yeah? Let's let the big boys talk," he trailed off thoughtfully and looked at Ash. "Then again big is a bit subjective. Let's just call it two and a half."

Ash was pretty sure he heard Zoroark's odd wheezing again. He got the strangest feeling that the creature thought Sidney'd dumb joke was absolutely hilarious.

He also realized that that meant Zoroark was somewhere in the room…presumably somewhere extremely close.

Zoroark could essentially turn itself invisible.

He needed that.

"If you're finished," interrupted Steven frostily, "we have serious matters to attend to. Sidney, are you ready?"

"Yeah, yeah. Chill out, boss man."

Steven turned to Ash. "We need your complete account. Normally we'd just ask you to submit to a psychic probe but…"

"But?" Ash cocked his head. He had the funniest idea of where this was going. His nails bit into his palm.

"— But you've got some weird stuff going on up there," Sidney tapped a long, skinny finger to his temple mockingly. Ash kept both eyes on the man, still not sure what to make of him. The Dark Master looked away and focused on a seemingly empty corner of Steven's brightly lit apartment before sending a wry grin to nothing in particular.

Zoroark was really, really annoying, Ash decided.

Steven rolled his eyes and picked up his own PokeNav from one of the polished stone tables. Ash took it in quickly – the device looked a bit newer than Ash's and was also a fair bit cleaner. The former Champion cleaned it so obsessively he could swear Steven had just unwrapped it.

"He's not entirely incorrect, although he could've phrased it much more diplomatically," Steven stressed the last word. Sidney just rolled his eyes and leisurely plopped onto a nearby couch, raising his feet up onto the polished granite table. His mentor's jaw twitched. "Juliet had difficulties testing you for psychic damage while you were unconscious. Something," he looked knowingly at Ash, "knocked her out."

Ash would say he was surprised but, well, that would be a lie. Mewtwo didn't play well with strangers. He was so tired he couldn't even harbor more than a slight bit of annoyance at Mewtwo for making him deal with all this.

He made a mental note to apologize to Juliet sometime. Mewtwo hadn't made a habit of being gentle thus far.

"Get on with it, will you?" Sidney complained, plucking at one of his sleeves. "I promised Absol I'd go running with her before sunset. She's been antsy since we left Ever Grande."

Steven hummed. "Absol have been migrating to the area for the last few weeks," he stroked his chin thoughtfully as he peered out of one of the carved windows into Rustboro's brilliant light. "Would you mind looking into that?"

"You aren't the Champion no more, Steve," Sidney scoffed. Steven frowned and the Dark Master's scowl melted into a lopsided grin. "But I'll see what I can do, pal. Seriously, though, can we hurry this up? I've got better things to do than listen to boy wonder here."

Ash snorted at that and fought a slight smile. For Sidney that had been almost entertaining. Still, he'd play the game for now. Best to get him out of here before his oversized Vulpix decided to spice things up a bit by teaching Sneasel a few tricks.

He grimaced as the sight of Sneasel cheerfully offering him Ariados' severed head dripping thick, gooey ichor flashed to the forefront of his mind…

"Fine," he shrugged the gruesome thoughts away. Ash folded his arms and relaxed onto Nidoking's massive side. He knew his friend well enough to avoid any of the venomous barbs. At the same time he felt a little uneasy as Nidoking almost seemed to lean away from the touch. That was new. "Where should I start?"

"The beginning, Where else would you start, Ashley?"

Ash didn't rise to the bait and just looked to Steven, who didn't offer more than a weary shrug as he glanced over at the Dark Master. That wasn't a good sign.

"Fine."

This was going to take a while.

XX

Sidney whistled and looked at Ash a little differently. "So you met good old Jacqueline Durand. I don't envy you that one, Nancy. I was wondering when she'd pop up again…"

"Who is she?" He demanded. Nidoking loomed up behind him as well, his ears twitching in a way Ash knew meant trouble. Ash could almost feel the barbs and spines on Nidoking's back raise. "She was weird but –"

Steven nipped that in the bud. He'd shifted closer to Ash (and farther from Sidney) over the course of the story and placed a warm hand on his shoulder. "I'll forward you the files soon. For now just know that she's not someone to make friends with. She's dangerous."

Ash frowned at Steven's purposefully vague answer and leaned harder back into Nidoking, who chuffed lightly and made sure to keep Ash comfortable. He'd relaxed a little over the past ten minutes or so and Ash wasn't sure if words could describe how relieved he was.

Nidoking not wanting to be near him was just wrong.

"I understand."

"You're lucky you came back in one piece, champ," Sidney yawned as he stretched out on Steven's couch. His dirty boots had caked drying mud all over the polished table and Ash was pretty sure Steven was about to have an aneurysm. That twitch was starting to look pretty serious…"She has a body count higher than I do! Once we unfroze those Rockets you captured all but one of their heads –"

"That's enough, Sidney!" Steven cut in. Ash jerked as Steven practically snarled at Sidney. The frosty look sent the Dark Master's way wouldn't have looked out of place on Articuno. Ash found himself reminded that this was the man who had hunted the Rockets to extinction in Hoenn.

Steven stole a look at Ash after he'd a moment to breathe. Sidney discretely dropped his feet to the floor.

"Thank you for your account, Ash. Sidney and I have a few things to discuss in confidence."

Ash was smart enough to pick up on the unspoken command. He tried not to let his imagination get the best of him as he thought of what Sidney said about those Rockets. Instead he pulled up from Nidoking and took a moment to steady his shaking legs. Nidoking was quick to hold him up with one of his powerful arms.

He hadn't even realized Jacqueline had done something to the Rockets even as she'd had a relatively pleasant chat with him. Ash felt a little wary even without the hints Sidney had dropped. He wasn't exactly sad about the Rockets – not after what he'd seen of their pokemon – but it was wrong.

Who was Jacqueline Durand? She wasn't with the League. That much was obvious. That Steven wouldn't even let him hear what she'd done…

Ash shook his head as he hobbled away from the two Masters. He paused for just a moment to stare suspiciously at the table Sidney had rested his boots on. There had been so much mud there just a moment ago.

Steven's frown hurried him along. Ash couldn't hold back a spike of annoyance at how much his mentor was coddling him. He knew where Steven was coming from but he'd seen and heard so much worse already.

He needed information.

"I'll talk to you later, then," he called back to Steven as Nidoking helped him stumble back to his room. Ash winced at the sudden pang that shot through his head but ignored it. He graced Sidney with a nod (and got a cheery wave back) and disappeared back into his room.

Steven was right about one thing: he really needed to rest.

XX

"Ash! It's wonderful to see you!" Professor Oak's tanned face was bright and clear on the PokeNav's camera. Pikachu clung to one of Oak's shoulders and chirped at him with sparking cheks. It must still be feeling the effects of that lightning it'd absorbed during Mewtwo's storms.

He sent the Professor a genuinely happy grin, though it wasn't too comfortable for him. His face was still healing and every motion stretched it painfully. It was like he was wearing a mask too small for his face.

"It's good to see you too," was all he got out before Professor Oak actually looked at him. Ash winced as the older man's expression practically froze over. A glacier would have shown more warmth.

"Ash. What. Happened."

Even Pikachu picked up on the mood and tensed up. Professor Oak looked much less like the kindly scientist he'd become and more like the warrior Agatha had idolized.

He didn't know? Ash almost jerked back, though thought better of it. He supposed it made sense…Oak's influence didn't run quite as deep in the Ever Grande League. In Indigo he was one of the most revered figures of the modern era. In Hoenn he was just a highly respected scientist.

"Rockets," he said tonelessly. Ash straightened his posture and pet Aron a little harder while the little steel-type nuzzled into his lap. Aron just wriggled a bit and leaned into his warm touch. "The Stone's Beldum colony was raided earlier."

"Again?" Oak leaned forward, his face a mask of shock. The building anger in those old eyes was wiped away in an instant. "How have I not heard of this? This is vital to know! If the Rockets managed to get their hands on –"

He knew this wasn't going anywhere good and stopped the Professor in his tracks. It took a lot to get the old man mad but once he did his fury would consume everything in his path. "I stopped them," he cut in. Ash paused for a moment and added, "With Steven's help."

There, that was better.

The relief was palpable. Oak slumped in his massive, cushy chair and rubbed his temples. "Thank Mew. Whatever you did, you did it well, Ash. I'd normally be more concerned for your safety but the Rockets with a renewed source of Metagross…"

Ice filled his veins at the mention of Mew but it was gone as quickly as it appeared. Ash exhaled and looked at the Professor wearily. It felt good to know that at least the Professor supported him. It would be a small mercy if his mother ever got wind of this.

"But how on earth could they pull off an attack of this magnitude? The League devotes several Ranger squads to the Stone Property…" came the muttered stream of words as Oak started to think things over. Ash kept up for a moment but once Oak's monologue devolved into names he didn't recognize, ranks he probably wasn't supposed to know about, and a steady list of locations he didn't know existed he stepped in.

"A Pokemon Hunter did the bulk of the work," he said grimly. Ash flinched as the memory of the grey-haired woman's body landing on the ground rewound itself in his mind. "She took out the League forces and met the Rockets a few miles away."

Oak jerked up, his eyes dark. His opinion of the Pokemon Hunter was all too clear. "Let me guess, she was well-armed with an airship, an army of pokemon, and extremely advanced technology."

Ash nodded. "How'd you –"

"There's only one current Pokemon Hunter willing to stage such an outrageous assault. And only one with a prototype energy cannon," Oak looked pointedly at Ash's red skin. It was all that was left of the burns the Hunter had left on Ash. "Hunter J."

The name struck a cord with him (something Steven had mentioned, perhaps) and Ash nodded.

"You didn't face her down?" Oak said hopefully. Ash quickly nodded, knowing it was the right answer. "Thank goodness," the Professor looked several years younger then. "I have confidence in your abilities but she was too dangerous for you. You aren't trained for that kind of conflict."

Ash frowned, more than a little indignant. He could handle himself just fine. It'd been overwhelming at first, but his team had done well.

And even taking into account what he assumed to be the Hunter's true team (the much more powerful Ariados, for one) he'd had her outnumbered. The moment Steven and Metagross had torn her ship from the sky he could've taken her on himself.

"She was nothing compared to the Legends," he said dismissively. "I could have –"

"Ash, listen to me. You are not ready for that fight," the Professor hissed. He met Ash's eyes and he knew very well that he wasn't meant to look away. "You're brave and your team is powerful. You've connected with them beyond almost any other I've seen," Oak mused. "But you aren't trained. You're still just a boy, Ash."

He stayed silent. A million thoughts ran through his head, none of them able to claw their way to the top. There were so many things he wanted to do, spurred on by Fire and Ice and Lightning.

But he could not say any of them.

"A battle with an opponent deliberately trying to kill you is different than surviving the Legends as you have, Ash," Oak spoke every word deliberately. His face was pained. Ash's gut rolled as he realized the Professor was speaking from experience. "You've done very well so far. You've saved the world – nobody else could have. But if you face a trainer like Hunter J you will die. She doesn't fight like you. She only has one priority and that is to kill you and escape."

Aron warbled as Ash stopped stroking him. He mechanically resumed his pets and Aron cheerfully burrowed back into the crook of his arm.

"Do you understand me, Ash?"

"I understand."

"Promise me," the Professor said quietly, "that you will remember that. That you will not try to fight someone like that unless you're forced to. I don't want to be the one to tell Delia her son was killed in a stupid battle that could have been avoided."

There was a lump in his throat that lingered despite Fire blazing in his heart, urging him to cast the concerns aside and engulf any foe that challenged him in his fury.

"I promise," came the quiet words, carrying a certain weight that worried Ash. At the same time even the thought of what his mom would do if she heard he'd been hurt or killed…

"Thank you," came the response, and Ash could tell that Professor Oak was genuinely relived.

A minute of silence followed. The storm of Ash's thoughts was too much to try and talk through. Professor Oak looked very, very tired then.

Finally the comfortable veil of quiet was broken.

"Your mother told me you traveled with Daisy," Oak brightened up a bit. Ash blinked. Why had his mother been the one to tell him?

"It was…interesting. Daisy's very…" he trailed off. Dazed, who lingered in the corner of the room, shuddered at her name. Oak caught the move and laughed.

"Ah yes, say no more," the Professor chuckled. He absentmindedly scratched Pikachu's ears as the rodent drank from a bottle of – was that ketchup? "I thought she'd be good company on your travels through Hoenn. I knew she wouldn't be able to pass up the chance to see who you'd become, Ash."

Ash grumpily rolled his shoulders and rubbed Aron's dome a little bit harder. It looked like Sneasel was getting impatient for his own turn. "She enjoyed it plenty. I didn't think she could be worse than Gary but she proved me wrong.

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