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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94. The Recovery Part 2

Oak smirked. "I'll be sure to mention that to him next time he calls. He'll appreciate learning about that particular challenge."

"Please no."

He didn't need an even more obnoxious Gary – they'd only just managed to get things back to normal. If Gary was any more annoying Ash might have to take his chances in Kalos or Unova just to get away from him. The Eastern Continent wouldn't be safe.

Ash thought Professor Oak looked like he was enjoying this whole scenario a bit too much. Well, at least he knew it was genetic now. Then again even Pikachu squeaked with what he knew was laughter. After meeting Surge's Raichu he wasn't surprised it had a terrible sense of humor.

"Can we talk about something productive instead?" Ash groused. Professor Oak just smirked. "What have you been dealing with lately, Professor?"

Oak's whole demeanor shifted. "Oh, it's fascinating! Leading the efforts to document the Legends has proven to be quite the endeavor!"

He thought the Professor was a little too cheerful to be discussing the Legends but he kept that opinion to himself. Then again he couldn't really say he was surprised. The Legends defied all scientific logic and he was sure the Pokemon Professors couldn't even imagine letting that stand.

"Find anything interesting?" Ash cocked his head to the side. Sneasel stealthily clambered up onto his shoulders and curled around his neck. He grimaced but spared a few moments to give his friend a few scratches. In the meantime he just had to ignore the sudden sweltering heat from Sneasel's thick fur.

"I haven't – I'm primarily managing our operations," the Professor explained. He reached to the side and returned with a strange purple pokeball in hand. Ash eyed it curiously but didn't bring it up even as Oak absentmindedly tossed it up and down. "Rowan's research is proceeding quite well, in my opinion. He's currently investigating a theoretical link between the Legends and evolutionary stones, and if they are linked, then –"

He stopped the Professor right there. "They do," he said flatly. It was hard to forget the violent reaction the Thunder Stone in Steven's home had when he touched it. He'd need to bring that up to his mentor some time or another.

Oak looked at him patiently.

"Just trust me," Ash finished. He fidgeted slightly. "I'm not sure what it is but there's a link. When I was handling some of the stones in Mossdeep they exploded when I touched them."

The older man smiled brightly. "Fascinating!" Oak murmured and set the pokeball down in favor of jotting a few notes down. When he returned his attention to Ash he looked at the boy like he was a particularly fascinating specimen.

Which he was, Ash supposed.

"You haven't looked into it further?"

Ash snorted in a way reminiscent to Nidoking when Sneasel did something especially stupid, "I don't have the money to be blowing up that many stones."

"A pity," Oak replied, absolutely serious. Ash just shifted Aron off to the side so Sneasel could curl up on his lap. Aron didn't even flinch and just sleepily licked the covers for a few seconds before curling back up. "I'll see if I can requisition a few. I'd love to see it in action as soon as I can – no reaction like that has ever been recorded!"

"We seem to be running into things like that a lot these days," he shook his head. Oak just chuckled. "Sorry I don't know more than that. If I figure anything else out I'll let you know," Ash said. He paused for a few moments. "Did you hear about that mural I found in the Granite Caves?"

Oak sighed. Any levity fell away in an instant. "Of course. Steven informed me immediately. I've added Groudon and Kyogre to the list of prospects, though I must admit we haven't made any progress on that front."

No surprise there. Ash couldn't even begin to imagine where they could be resting. The planet was a big place. He could assume they were near Hoenn but there was no guarantee.

"It's hard looking for something when you don't even know what it looks like," Ash agreed. Sneasel nodded along with him as he kneaded his velvet paws into Ash's leg.

"Exactly. We don't know their size or any concrete knowledge of their abilities, though we can make several assumptions," Oak trailed off on a grim note. He massaged his temples but the corners of his mouth twitched up when Pikachu helpfully offered the nearly empty bottle of ketchup to him. "Thank you, Pikachu, but not right now."

Pikachu just shook its head and bounced off the Professor, taking its ketchup away with it.

Oak watched the rodent scamper off fondly before getting back to business. "I have to admit that Groudon and Kyogre honestly aren't our top priority. We're still struggling to track the known quantities. The Zapdos you encountered at the Power Plant seems to have outright vanished," he finished, frustrated. "Don't ask me how something like that disappears so easily. If I knew it would make my job much easier."

Ash pet Sneasel thoughtfully as he considered the news. They needed to find those two. He could hear Lugia's warning echo through his mind as deeply as he had months ago.

Land and Sea, Behemoth and Leviathan…they breathe.

Lugia might not have given the names bestowed upon them by ancient humans but to Ash the identities of Land and Sea were clear as day. Whether it was his own knowledge, common sense, or some shade of intuition granted by Lugia didn't really matter. All that he cared about was taking heed of that danger.

The Song echoed through his mind and he found himself thinking back to the old myths.

"There's more than just Groudon and Kyogre to be worried about," Ash stated. He didn't need to elaborate.

"Rayquaza?"

Ash nodded. The Professor shifted uneasily. "We've made no progress on that front either, I'm afraid. If it's still active it must move far too frequently to track effectively. Our satellites has revealed nothing of the sort and the Sky Pillar is lifeless."

He grunted. That was unfortunate but he hadn't expected otherwise. A few awkwardly silent moments passed by. "So have you had any luck? You must have found something, right?"

"We have," Oak relaxed a bit. He started toying with the strange ball again. Ash watched it for a few moments. "The Beasts seem to remain centered in Johto. Sightings are more frequent than ever and they haven't evaded our Rangers as they usually do. They're more subtle than the Birds but easy to find once you know what to look for."

That was something. Not as much progress as Ash would've liked to hear but it sounded like they had tabs on at least some of the Legends. It was a nice change from being totally in the dark. The only others they knew the absolute location of were the Shamouti Birds, the Mt. Ember Moltres, and Mewtwo…not that the latter even mattered. New Island had vanished entirely from what Ash understood.

His mind turned to the most ancient of the Leagues. Kanto and Indigo were the first of the Leagues but Sinnoh's history was undeniably old in a way they couldn't match. It had been civilized for thousands of years, though it had risen and fallen in the same way all empires did before the modern era.

"What about Sinnoh?" He cut in. Oak's frown told him that he wouldn't get much good news on that front. "Mom used to tell me about all the stories up there. Has the League figured anything out?"

Professor Oak drummed his fingers against his desk as he finally nodded. "Rowan has been a great help in that regard. Invaluable, in fact."

Ash fidgeted impatiently. "And?" His betrayed his interest. He thought of all the myths and stories his mother had told him. "What'd he find? The Lake Guardians? Heatran?"

"Give me a moment to answer," the Professor laughed at his enthusiasm. Ash sheepishly quieted down and hid a groan at the sudden resurgence of his headache. Nidoking chuffed and raised his great head to lick at Ash's arm. He just grinned at the tingling feeling and scratched for a bit on Nidoking's leathery ears. "Professor Rowan believes he's managed to trace Heatran."

He nodded, calmer now. "What will you do about it?" Ash spoke up, genuinely interested. Heatran wasn't the star of many myths but it seemed fairly benevolent. Assuming the stories were accurate, anyway. He'd learned that plenty of the old tales were a tad distorted by time over the past year or so.

"Nothing," the older man said firmly.

"Nothing?"

"Nothing," Oak repeated. "This is a slow, careful process. We will observe but we'd prefer to leave Heatran in solitude for as long as possible. If we offended it all of Sinnoh might suffer."

He dipped his head. Yes, he could imagine how much havoc an offended Legend could wreak. Somehow Ash doubted he'd be able to rely on any of the other Legends to stop it either. Mew was nowhere to be found, Lugia seemed intent on remaining out of conflict, and Moltres would probably just make things worse.

Asking for Mewtwo to step in…that idea was laughable.

I agree.

Ash sneered at that but quickly wiped it away before Professor Oak could take note. He wasn't entirely successful given the odd look on the older man's face.

"Just be patient," Oak began. Ash didn't like the way he was looking at him. "We have time."

That wasn't something he was so sure of. To be honest Ash wasn't sure he could be patient right now. Lugia's warning wasn't going to leave him any time soon and he knew it had been given to him for a reason.

The world wasn't safe right now and he couldn't just sit back and wait while other people worked to preserve it. That just wasn't his nature.

Sneasel hissed at Ash's sudden melancholy and possessively trapped his right hand between his soft paws. He wasn't getting that back any time soon.

He cracked a grin. He really did need to relax. "So how's my mom doing?" Ash turned the conversation to a lighter topic. There was plenty of time to grill the professor later. "She's tried explaining what she's studying but, well –"

Professor Oak looked to appreciate the change in topic as much as Ash did. "She's doing quite well for herself! Several of the professors at Goldenrod have had nothing but good things to say about her!" He boasted. "Your mother is making the most of her time there, I assure you."

That was a relief. Ash felt like there was a weight lifted off his chest. There'd been no doubt in his mind that she'd be happy back in her element but he'd still been a little worried about her. She'd been in Pallet for more than a decade. It must've been hard to adjust to the busy city life.

Not that he really knew anything about that, he had to admit. Ash hadn't exactly gone out of his way to linger in the cities he passed through.

"To be honest I haven't spoken to her as often as I'd like," Professor Oak admitted. He looked wistfully at Ash. "But she seems very happy, Ash. She's doing what she loves."

He felt a little stab of guilt twist into his heart but he made sure to quash it. His mother would smack him if she thought he felt guilty for holding her back. It'd make her unhappy if he was unhappy.

Then again didn't the same go for him? He wasn't blind or stupid. His mother loved him and had put everything into the café and their tiny family. But it didn't take a genius like Professor Oak to see that she craved an escape. She was too smart for that. She must've been bored out of her mind once he left on his journey.

She was supposed to do more with her life. Ash might've been a bit biased but he thought his mother was brilliant, even if she didn't flaunt it. She deserved more than just grinding her life away in Pallet.

So he was happy she was happy.

"Good," Ash said simply. He looked down at Sneasel and squeezed his eyes shut. The headache was back.

Naturally Professor Oak picked up on it. "You should get some rest," he said kindly as Pikachu leapt up into his lap. The rodent squeaked at him and waved in agreement – Ash's lips curled up into a smile when Sneasel's ears twitched and an unconscious hiss rose from his throat.

"Call me whenever you'd like, Ash," Oak smiled tiredly at him. The older man looked away for a brief moment. "Pallet's been rather quiet as of late."

Ash nodded slowly. "I will," he promised. He hadn't thought of how isolated the Professor must feel with his family, Ash, and his mother gone from Pallet. No wonder the Professor had devoted himself so fully to the Legendary project. "Thanks, Professor. I'll call soon."

"Thank you," came the genuinely grateful reply. Ash shared a hesitant smile with the Professor before the screen went black.

With that done he just sat silently for a few minutes. The only time he moved was to pet Sneasel and Aron every now and then. He couldn't help but smile when he looked down and saw Sneasel's repulsed look as Aron snuggled deep into his warm black fur.

The rest of the team was arrayed all around him for the most part. For the first time in what felt like ages he was totally relaxed.

Unfortunately the headache decided it was a good time to spike back up. That would be annoying. Dazed couldn't do anything for it. She didn't have Dr. Alexander's medical training and every time she tried to communicate the headache got exponentially worse.

Ash needed to sleep. He'd be an idiot to argue with the heavy weight draped over his body from exhaustion. Every muscle was stiff and he was pretty sure someone had filled his every cell with lead. It'd been a long day and he needed rest desperately.

But he couldn't. Ash eyed the cold grey silk of the pillows arrayed comfortably at the head of the bed. He felt absolutely no desire to sleep here. After his time in Hoenn so far it just felt wrong.

He couldn't help but wonder what was wrong for him as he reminisced about collapsing on his thin sleeping mat and watching the stars every night. Maybe he really did need to spend some time back in civilization.

That was a debate for another time, though. He sighed and picked up his PokeNav with his free hand. It took a little extra effort to type in his access code and scroll through his recent notifications but soon enough he got to see his two new messages.

Courtesy of Steven, naturally.

Curiosity got the best of him. He ignored the weariness and quickly accessed the messages. Ash was actually a little impressed with himself when he managed to avoid disturbing Aron or Sneasel.

His exhaustion faded quickly and Lightning jerked him to alertnesss the moment he laid eyes on the documents Steven had sent over:

Dossier: Jacqueline Durand.

Dossier: "Hunter J"

Ash's bare fingers shook slightly with the sudden burst of energy. He quickly accessed Jacqueline's dossier, more than a little interested to see what lay within. He couldn't find it in himself to care for the flame hanging in the back of his mind.

What did it even matter if Mewtwo was interested?

Full Name:

Jacqueline Yvonne Durand

THREAT LEVEL:

AA (Master, do not approach)

Age:

26 (PIL 973 - )

Height:

5'3" (approx.)

Weight:

125 lbs. (approx.)

Eyes:

Green

Hair:

Blonde

Place of Origin:

Laverre City, Kalos

Family:

Disassociated

Personality:

Highly independent and avoids strong bonds with others. Unpredictable and operates on an unconventional moral code. Rarely shows remorse for her actions. Generally appears friendly. Rarely attacks without due cause but has been notably aggressive in the past. Particularly protective of pokemon. Many of her confirmed kills are known poachers or abusers.

Little to no regard for the law when it suits her. Generally tries to work within its boundaries to avoid undue attention.

Bio:

Noted as a promising trainer early in her career. Placed Top 16 of the Lumiose Conference as a first year trainer.

Placed on list of potential recruits for Lumiose League. Lumiose League grew particularly interested after she placed Top 8 and Top 4 the proceeding years.

Was approached in 987 after becoming the Lumiose Conference Champion her fourth year of training. Refused training.

Proceeded to leave Kalos in 988. Pokemon Center records shared across Leagues confirm travels across multiple regions.

Visited Unova between 988 and 990.

Whereabout unknown in 991. Possibly entered the Ranger Union at one point (Report 6A sec. 5b) and Sinnoh.

Remained in Sinnoh during 992. Movements seemingly random. Last known location was in Veilstone City.

Lumiose League received sporadic reports of her movements until 994. Sighted in Alola and Hoenn regions during 993. Suspected to have ventured into the wilderness of the Western Continent late in 993. Activities unknown.

Confirmed contact with paramilitary group "Plasma" in Unova. Extent of collusion likely minimal. Status as a direct asset extremely unlikely based on personality profile. Noted to avoid keeping firm ties with organizations.

Returned to Kalos in 994. Presence noted and observers placed as mandated by Lumiose League protocol for returning trainers.

January 3, 995: Assassination attempt against Lumiose Elite Four Malva for reasons unknown (Note: Look into that). Unsuccessful. Four Lumiose ASTRE trainers charged with protecting Elite Four Malva were killed.

Elite Four Malva lightly wounded. Team suffered substantial damage. Delphox killed, Houndoom critically wounded, though it later recovered. Durand escaped with only two surviving team members (Shiftry and Farfetch'd).

Resurfaced in Kalos in 996. Almost apprehended. Appeared to have developed an entirely new team (specialties unknown, only Shiftry and Farfetch'd currently observed) with specialty in combat and anti-psychic tactics.

Vanished. Whereabouts unknown.

Resurfaced in 999 in Hoenn. Contacted Elite Four Trainee Ash Ketchum (see file Ab6) and appeared non-hostile to him. Knew who he was (Indigo Conference) and did not engage. Fled after my appearance. Current whereabouts and affiliations unknown.

Threat Level/Protocol:

Deemed Master-level before attack on Elite Four Malva. Currently suspected to be more dangerous than before, though her activities and team are mostly unknown. From what reports have gathered she has reshaped her new team into combat specialists. Likely to exhibit exceptional teamwork. Noted for anti-psychic capabilities.

Ranger Squad Protocol: Do not engage. Alert Hoenn ACE immediate. Several teams developed for Durand as per protocol. ASTRE team from Lumiose stationed in Ever Grande to be dispatched in event she is found.

If possible at least one member of the Elite Four or myself will be dispatched to engage. With her interest in Trainee Ketchum she has become a priority to dispatch.

Criminal Activity:

See attached file DURAND: CRIME

Ash sat the PokeNav down. He looked down and numbly noted his hands were shaking. It wasn't just due to Lightning and adrenaline this time.

Jacqueline – no, Durand, he corrected – was dangerous. He'd been a bit sympathetic at first. It didn't sound like she'd gone after good people. Poachers and abusers weren't exactly on his list of people he'd want to be around.

But the attempted assassination of an Elite Four member? Killing League ASTRE trainers (whatever those were)? Leaving such a trail of devastation that Steven had to make an entirely separate file just for her criminal history?

It was hard to reconcile with the relatively pleasant, albeit odd, woman he'd gotten to know.

He felt a little gross remembering how he'd thought she was pretty. That spark he'd seen in her eye wasn't just the spark of a great trainer. It was the spark of a great trainer who'd utterly fallen off the deep end.

Ash had already picked up on the fact that she was incredibly dangerous. When Savage Sidney respected her lethality he'd have to be stupid to realize what was going on. But this was more than he'd ever expected.

He'd be lying if he said he didn't feel a little nauseous right now. Then again that might be due to his exhaustion and medicine more than anything.

After a moment of staring at the link that would take him to Hunter J's file he shut the PokeNav and tossed it aside. Ash wasn't in the mood.

The bed looked much more appealing than it did before.

XX

He couldn't sleep.

Ash scowled and flipped over on his bed so he could stare up into the blackness of the ceiling. It was utterly silent. Steven must've soundproofed his apartment somehow. He shifted uncomfortably in the luxuriously soft and smooth silk of his covers. They were grey…just like literally everything else in this apartment.

Hmm, what could Steven's favorite color be?

The room was almost completely black. He could only see Dazed's hunched figure because of her glittering pendulum. Moonlight scattered off from the crystal and painted the entire area in pale silver.

It was mark of just how bored and frustrated he was that he noticed the glow from the city didn't penetrate whatsoever. Ash figured psychics were involved somehow. Whenever something defied explanation they were usually a safe bet.

Or maybe it was something the Devon Corporation had done?

Ash silently resolved never to ask. He didn't need another perfectly recited summary of a product – did Steven get paid for that, maybe? Ash knew a Champion with such a close relationship with the business would do wonders for it. The Leagues loved their leaders.

He glanced over at Dazed as her eyes burned an eerie blue, though they flickered out of existence mere moments later as she presumably recalled that her telepathy didn't mix too well with concussions.

They'd need a few days before Ash could communicate with her again. There was a sour taste in his mouth as he considered that. For the past few months Dazed had been the person he talked to the most. He'd had plenty of conversations with Daisy and Steven but Dazed had been with him for so long that he couldn't even recall being without her.

The same went for the rest of the team, if he was being honest. It felt like he'd been absent from the sleep hills of Pallet for three or four years rather than just one.

He reconsidered her as she set to polishing her pendulum. Ash was pretty sure the little loop of crystal hadn't been anything less than pristine since she'd found him.

Ash could confide anything to Dazed…and now she was lost to him. For now.

Dazed shuffled closer, careful to avoid waking any of the other members of the team. Most of them had tried to stay up with him (except for Sneasel, who'd cheerfully curled up under the covers the second the lights went out) but Ash knew they needed their rest. Dazed had quite helpfully put them to sleep with a liberal use of Hypnosis.

So now they were the two left in the waking world while the rest of the team drifted off into peaceful dreams.

He surveyed them thoughtfully.

Just Nidoking's head gently laid on the bed was enough to force Ash to roll over to the side – his bulk was so great that Ash was fighting to avoid rolling into him. Plume was utterly still except for the occasional ruffling of feather, perched as she was on one of the chairs.

Even Torrent had allowed his regal bearing to falter. He drooped ever so slightly without water to support his great bulk. The Kingdra was the last to have claimed his own spot. All the others had been forced into the center of the room in one big heap. Tangrowth was at the center, of course. Ash could hardly even see him underneath all the others.

Dazed's eyes held only a sliver of the power she wielded. They burned dimly in the black and the brightness of the moonlight only made them dimmer in comparison. But it was all she needed. The thin filaments of writhing scarlet connecting to their sleeping family kept everyone peaceful and relaxed.

He admitted defeat and sat up. This was one of the few times he didn't have to worry about disturbing his friends' slumber. "Thanks," Ash murmured, shattering the silence that pervaded the apartment. Dazed was simply silent as her eyes curved up into one of her smiles. "So this is every night for you, huh?"

She shrugged. Ash sent a crooked smile her way. "This must get kind of boring."

Her shoulders shook just a bit at that. Ash felt a little satisfied. It wasn't always so easy to make her laugh.

He fell silent for a few moments as he gathered his thoughts. "How're you feeling after today?" Ash's voice was so low he was worried she'd have to strain to hear him. Dazed shook her head noncommittally. The burning eyes flashed again and he winced at the sudden flare, though she quickly locked away her psychic powers. "Yeah, that's about how I am too. It…I can't sleep tonight."

Ash's eyes fell shut. All he could see was the dark shape of the Pokemon Hunter collapsing. The broken, silent forms of the pokemon his team had fought.

The images became more defined. Sharper.

Nidoking crushing a snarling Houndoom with a fearsome sweep of his muscular tail. Infernus tearing into a Charizard's thick orange hide with claws sparking with electricity.

The entire nightmarish horde of enslaved pokemon ripped apart by the seamless teamwork of the Metagross colony wasn't something Ash would ever forget.

After the bond he'd forged with the Metagross he didn't know that he could. They'd shown him their perspective. Granted him an insight to the eidetic memory of the colony. It had marked him, though he didn't know for how long.

Back during the waking hours he hadn't been too bothered. At the least he had his team to distract him. But now he was alone. Even Dazed, his usual partner for late nights, was cut off from him. The adrenaline was gone. His hands shook from exhaustion, now, not the volatile cocktail of chemicals and venom and potion coursing through his veins in the wake of the battle.

Ash was trapped with only his own thoughts to keep him company. Dazed wasn't able to let him cheat his psyche this time.

He wiped a few beads of sweat from his brow and stared at his wet palm. How did Steven sleep like this? Compared to the muggy heat of the training grounds this was downright comfortable. But the warm air trapped like this…it was wrong. All he could think about was how close the walls were, how the ceiling loomed closer and closer the longer he watched it.

Dazed really had spoiled him. Sleep had never been hard to come by with her around. Dreams were little more than a distant memory by now, for better or for worse. The last time he'd really had to face them were when Sneasel had been insistent on cuddling with him as a baby.

It had been a brutal few weeks but they still brought a smile to his face. It wasn't as tight as it had been before.

The Hypno shifted closer. She shuffled awkwardly over to his bedside, careful to step around Aron, who was rolled over on his back (and dreaming of running, if his stubby legs twitching were any indication) until she rested silently mere inches from Ash.

Her hand hovered over his for a scant few seconds before she allowed her yellow-furred fingers to brush against his palm. Ash smiled up at her in return, appreciating the gesture for what it was. She might not be able to shield him from his dreams tonight but that didn't mean she had to stand by and do nothing.

She'd never been comfortable with physical touch. Ash had accepted that without a second thought. After traveling with Jonathan he'd developed a personal bubble only his team really got past.

His breath fled his lungs. Ash hadn't even realized he'd held it in until now. He shut his eyes as his entire body slumped.

"Thank you," Ash whispered as he felt her fingers, thicker and clumsier than his own, lightly rest against his palm. Her fur was incredibly thin, almost like Mew and Mewtwo's. He could feel her rubbery skin beneath and focused on the texture. It was interesting. Foreign yet shockingly familiar.

Dazed's luminescent eyes softened and her head twisted to look down on him. They flashed several times, like she was about to speak to him telepathically before she remembered his concussion. Instead she just watched over him like a golden-white statue, though he could still see the warmth hidden within that most were blind to.

Hypno were feared for their powers and mannerisms. Most psychics were regarded warily by those who hadn't known one of their kind. Those who were attuned most closely to the mental arts were particularly fearsome in some people's minds, though he honestly couldn't understand that any more.

The world would be a better place if people just learned to trust on character instead of their own hasty judgments.

His friend's hand squeezed just a little tighter. Ash's smile renewed at that and he adjusted himself to be more comfortable. Even with his eyes shut the images weren't so sharp anymore.

Howls fell, cries dimmed, and the crystalline perfection of his memories slowly faded away.

He squeezed his eyes shut and focused instead on the Song rushing through his ears. His hand twitched for the familiar, cool weight of the Flute, and he waited.

Ash wouldn't remember the darkness enveloping him.

XX

It was an awkward time sitting at the table for lunch. The mood was a little more lax than yesterday but neither of them really knew where to start. Ash almost wished Lance were here. He was too impatient to wait for Ash to start whatever discussion they were about to have.

Instead of speaking he watched his mentor eat since there honestly wasn't anything else to distract him. Steven ate with a mechanical precision Ash would normally only attribute to a Metagross. Though that stirred up some rather unpleasant memories…

Before he could slip down a darker road he hastily spoke up. "I had no idea," Ash admitted as he sipped on some water. The spaghetti Steven had made for them both felt odd as it slid down his throat. Not that it was unpleasant – it was actually pretty good. Better than his last few teacher's had given him, at any rate.

Steven just arched a silver eyebrow and waited for Ash to finish washing down his food.

"About Jaqueline," he clarified. Ash idly wound some of the spaghetti around his fork. "She was weird and all, but…" the boy trailed off. Steven finally decided to break his own silence.

"Dangerous," the former Champion finished for him. Steven delicately set his utensils down as they finally got to the real Donphan in the room. "Yes," he added, "there's a reason I was so concerned from subduing J. I never would've thought she would be the lesser threat."

Ash nodded tiredly. Yes, from what he'd read of Hunter J's file this morning that sounded about right. She'd made Jacqueline look like a saint. At least the strange Master seemed to have some semblance of morality.

Hunter J, on the other hand, had a rap sheet even longer than Aqua and Magma combined. Ash wasn't sure if there was something illegal she hadn't done. It was like she'd had a checklist of every major law and decided to see how many she could break before she got caught.

It looked like she'd hit her limit, came the morbid thought. He just ignored the chuckle that reverberated from his mind to his bones to his mind again.

He brightened a bit as he ate another mouthful of the noodles. Kanto really needed to get this. It was a million times better than what he'd eaten the past two weeks, which were all based around Steven's complicated nutritional plan instead of flavor.

Back during his journey through Kanto it wouldn't have bothered him at all. Not after the black broth Bruno and Surge had tried to force down his throat. But now that he had so much money from the League (he was still a little mind boggled) he'd spoiled his team and himself.

"This is good," he remarked absentmindedly. Steven's pointed look reminded him to shut his mouth and swallow before speaking. His teacher was a bit more of a stickler for manners than his team. "Sorry."

"Thank you," came the gracious reply, studiously ignoring his breach in conduct. Steven leaned back in his chair and seemed content to abandon the heavy start to their conversation. "I can teach you how to make it, if you'd like. Cooking is an important skill to learn."

Ash's head bobbed up and down. "I don't cook often," he admitted and absentmindedly shifted his meal away from the seeking paws of Sneasel, who hissed unhappily before scampering away. "Mostly I eat trainer meals and nutrient bars."

Steven looked just a little disgusted, "You sound like Lance. I should've known better than to have expected otherwise," the Steel Master sighed. He paused then looked more than a tad concerned, "Ash, you don't eat that swill the Indigo League serves its operatives, do you?"

"The black broth? No!" Ash recoiled. He was pretty sure he could still taste the disgusting sludge. "Just…no!"

"Good," Steven made a face. Ash eyed the silver-haired man curiously – he wasn't sure he'd ever seen Steven quite so petulant before. "Lance prepared it for me the morning after I became Champion. I was…unwell at the time and he promised it would make me feel better."

The former Champion paused in his reminiscence.

"Needless to say, he lied," Steven finished flatly. A sour look crossed his face. "I should've just taken the hangov—illness," he hastily corrected himself. Ash just smirked.

"Bruno made me eat it when we were training," he recalled. Ash set his spaghetti down. He didn't really feel like eating for now. "I'm pretty sure it was just Grimer in a cup."

"You're not giving Grimer enough credit," his teacher chuckled. Steven stroked his chin thoughtfully. "The texture of Grimer might be a tad better, actually."

Ash grinned a little at the joke and finally took another bite of spaghetti. At least it gave him something else to think about. They sat there quietly for a minute or so, the only noise being what little came from Ash eating. Steven had finished.

There was something else weighing on his mind, though. "When are we leaving Rustboro? The investigation's over, right? I don't have to talk to Sidney again?"

"Thankfully not," Steven sounded a tad relieved. He pushed his plate to the side. Ash had to yank Sneasel back by the scruff of his neck before he could slink over to steal the scraps. "Sidney's back in Ever Grande, thankfully. I don't know how much longer I could have put up with his brat of a Zoroark."

"Where's Zoroark from?" Ash interrupted. It was annoying but he'd been fascinated by its abilities. He'd never seen anything like it, let alone from a dark-type. He was more than a little tempted to try and hunt one down. Even if he didn't catch it that would be a fascinating battle.

All he really knew was that they weren't native to the National League. His PokeDex would have informed him if it was.

Steven didn't waste time answering. "Unova," the man eyed Ash knowingly. "I wouldn't get your hopes up, Ash. They're fantastically rare…or hiding in plain sight. Who knows?"

Hmm. Yeah, he could see how they might be hard to track down. The level of control Zoroark had over its illusory abilities was insane. Even psychics usually lacked that sort of skill. Psychic illusions could be broken since they were direct alterations of the environment or light. Even the illusions hardest to break, those created in the minds of the manipulated, were rarely on that level.

Then again that just raised even more questions. How did they pull that off? Dark-types generally favored a much more blunt approach to their powers. The deception they used tended to be based around skulking in the shadows before unleashing brutal assaults with their corrosive powers, not truly warping the perceptions of others.

"But we're leaving tomorrow," Steven finally answered his first question. Ash perked up. He'd been worried they'd be stuck in the city for ages with how Steven had acted. "That said," he brought Ash's attention back on him, "we'll be traveling very lightly. You aren't in any condition for strenuous activity," the man finished with a grimace.

Ash grudgingly nodded and twisted some more spaghetti around his fork. "Where are we headed? Back to the training grounds?"

Steven shook his head abruptly. "No, I think our time there is done. You're ready to progress to the next step of your training," he added with a slight smile. Sneasel hissed cheerfully at that from below. "We'll be moving to Slateport – there's someone there I'd like you to meet. He'll be at the Contest Hall."

He leaned forward, his interest plenty piqued by Steven's comment. "Who?"

Ash was more than a little frustrated when all he got was a lingering silence. He suddenly found himself twisted between being frustrated at Steven's reticence and curious about whoever they might be meeting.

Wallace, perhaps? The current Ever Grande Champion was still famed in the Coordinator circuits. Lisia was another option but he doubted Steven would take him all the way there just to meet the girl.

He had the grudging suspicion Steven was doing this just to annoy him.

"I know better than to play that game," Ash sighed and took a moment to squeeze one of Tangrowth's searching vines. Sneasel yowled before he was yanked back to the grass-type in a crushing hug. Steven smirked ever so slightly. "Fine, where are we going after that? I don't think Slateport would want us training there."

"Correct. Once we've wrapped everything up there we'll be off to Mt. Chimney. It's isolated enough that we shouldn't have to worry about property damage."

Well that was a relief. There was something liberating about knowing his team was so strong they couldn't even train around populated areas.

It meant he was just one step closer to becoming a Master. There was a reason they tended to affiliate with the Leagues or hide away in the wilderness. Even a single misplaced attack could cause utter devastation in the confines of a city.

Sneasel seemed pretty pleased about that as well. He flickered into Ash's lap in a blur and purred like a small motor after managing to escape from Tangrowth's loving hug…which was probably a good thing, considering Tangrowth's vines could crack rock if he really tried.

He scratched the little dark-type a bit more than usual. He'd been good today. Sneasel hadn't even tried to ambush Seeker once.

It was kind of sad he considered that progress but what could he do?

The moment was ruined a bit when he had to smack Sneasel's seeking paw from snagging his food but he could take it. Ash really should have seen that coming.

"Sounds good to us," he flashed back a feral grin mimicked by Sneasel. Steven rolled his eyes. "So what're we doing for the rest of the day?"

Steven pursed his lips. "We aren't doing anything. I'm going to be analyzing some data and taking care of some details about yesterday's conflict. You're going to stay here with your team. You don't need to be out andabout."

That wasn't what he wanted to hear. "I'm fine," Ash stressed. Even his headache had faded a bit, though there was still an uncomfortable pressure pounding. At least he could focus now. Plus his back only hurt when he moved. "How about I go battle Roxanne? That won't be too hard. Plus I'd like to see how Aron –"

"I'm not arguing this," Steven was firmer than before. "Dr. Alexander was very clear that you desperately need rest."

Fire spurred him to argue but was stopped in its tracks by Steven's placating hand. His jaw snapped shut and he shifted impatiently while Steven tried to string some words together.

"I know you've had worse than this," his mentor shaped every word slowly so Ash would listen. The former Champion's voice was so low and soft Ash had to strain to hear. "I'm not happy about that but," silver brows lowered, "I will not have your recovery hindered. I need you at your best for our future training."

Ash hesitated, swayed a bit by Steven's logic. "Fine," he folded his arms. His lunch was forgotten. "Is there at least something else I can do? I can't just sit here!"

Steven actually looked at him sympathetically then. He stroked his chin as he thoughtfully looked past Ash to one of the numerous, well-kept display cases practically bursting with rare stones.

He really needed to bring up the Thunderstone incident soon, he realized.

"There is, actually," came the response. Ash grinned just a little at the good news. At least he wouldn't be totally bored today. "Before we commence the second phase of your training we need to determine where you want to take it. I know your plans for Nidoking and we've been working together on Aron," Steven looked at him. "How goes your progress with Magnet Rise, by the way?"

"It's fine," Ash shrugged. They'd started working on the technique after Aggron's display with the metal rod a few weeks back. Steven had been kind enough to explain the key to Aggron's abilities: a complete and total mastery of the Magnet Rise technique. It would be a long road before Aron could boast that skill. "I think what we really need is to devote some time to it. Right now he's just doing his best to master the basics when he's not going through conditioning."

Steven scooped up what dishes were cleared and rose to take them over to the sink. "Yes, it's not a simple technique to learn," he agreed knowingly. Ash snorted at the understatement. "We'll have plenty of time, however."

Well, that was just what they needed. Ash knew time was his most precious resource right now. It just so happened to be running out at a disturbing rate. Ash needed to become stronger like he needed oxygen filling his lungs. If Jacqueline had taught him one thing it was that the strength his team had fought for so far wasn't nearly enough.

Ash couldn't deny that he'd gotten a bit arrogant since he'd come to Hoenn. To be honest it'd been festering in the deepest, darkest parts of him since the Conference. He'd found himself measured against the best of the Indigo League and found most of them wanting.

It was time to remember the lessons he'd first learned when Sabrina absolutely thrashed him in their first battle: he had a long, long way to go. Just because he was one of the stronger trainers in the region didn't give him an excuse to think he was unstoppable.

He was far from his peak. Ash would have to be an utter idiot to think he couldn't grow stronger from here. No matter how powerful his team grew he would always have room for improvement…he desperately needed to push and push until he found the next wall to tear apart.

Ash couldn't remain as he was. He'd been weary and exhausted when he'd met Jacqueline and so had his team but that was no excuse – knowing what he did now, he should've stopped at nothing to keep her pinned down until Steven could capture her.

Ash couldn't change the past. Time was something he'd never be able to fight.

But the future…that was another beast altogether.

Jacqueline would have crushed him no matter what, he knew. There was no denying that. That didn't mean their next meeting had to go the same way. Fire, Ice, and Lightning all spurred him on to greatness – it wasn't in their nature to be mediocre.

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