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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95. The Recovery Part 3

"I'm not hungry any more," he explained to his mentor as the silver-haired man watched him oddly. Ash rose with a certain sense of purpose and gave a pointed look at Sneasel. Finally given permission to gorge himself the dark-type practically purred as he leapt atop the table.

"You seem like a man on a mission," Steven chuckled as he rinsed the dishes. "What's the cause of all this?"

Ash rolled his shoulders. There was a spike of pain but nothing too severe. Not yet, anyway. He had some time before his medication wore off. "Just a bit of inspiration," he said as he focused on one particularly appealing mental image. Plume wouldn't look at him for a week if he didn't tell her about this.

He looked at his suddenly pristine plate. Sneasel always did eat fast, he mused. "Should I…" he began, more than willing to help out with the dishes before he holed up in his room.

"Don't worry, I'll take care of it. To be honest this is keeping me from paperwork so I don't mind at all," Steven confessed. He tossed one of the plates aside with practiced ease. "Just put some thought into your team, alright?"

"Will do!" Ash called back as he treaded through the dark granite doorway back to his room. He barely caught sight of one of Tangrowth's long vines dropping his clean plate into the bubbly sink, though he took care to pretend like he didn't hear Steven's curse when his pristine suit was dowsed in water.

Instead he focused on the sudden roar of the Song in his ears and the inspiration rearing its pretty head. How could he say no to that?

Ash was a little worried he'd drown in the soft, fluffy bed when he fell onto it but he supposed he got lucky.

Aron wasn't. He warbled cheerfully as his round metal carapace rolled clean off the bed, only to be saved by a sudden flare of power from Dazed. Ash shook his head and sent a mental thank you to the bored Hypno.

Too bad he got cut off by a metal pokemon being dumped in his lap.

If it weren't for the innocent baby-blue eyes looking up at him Ash was pretty sure he'd have let out a worse curse than Steven had. Instead he just rubbed his (probably cracked) ribs and gave Aron a few vigorous head rubs before he got to work.

His PokeNav clicked as he flipped it open. Ash glanced at the screen – no new messages yet. Not too surprising. Jonathan and Amelia were supposed to be in pretty deep wilderness. Gary was…well, Ash was never really sure what he was up to. He just assumed his former rival was probably doing something to annoy Jonathan.

No matter what he'd probably hear about it sooner or later. He would say that being so far away from them was a good thing since it saved him from rants about Gary (or Jonathan) but all it really meant was that he got to read it instead. Jonathan's spelling meant that that could be a pretty huge hassle.

A quick tap opened up his notes section. There were already dozens of entries: strategies, his own thoughts about where to take his team's abilities, complex nutrition plans Professor Oak had helped him with before Ash had left Pallet…the list went on and on.

He ignored them all and opened up a new entry. No need for the old notes. Right now he was going to try and break totally foreign ground – the Song had promised him that much.

The only things that split his attention were Aron sleeping on his lap, Dazed lurking in the corner, and Oz climbing up onto the bed to watch the young steel-type. The rest of his focus laid solely in his own mind.

Everything seemed so simple now.

XX

In the end it was the Song that guided him. It painted the apocalyptic clash between the Birds and the Titan of the Abyss in his memories as though he were watching it right now – as the Feather flared with Fire and Lightning he felt almost as if he had been cast back in time.

The Inferno, the Blizzard, and the Storm swirled and raged and clashed in displays of grandeur that could not be named. His words only summoned to mind pale imitations of nature's wrath. No human words could conjure up words to explain the rawest expressions of Fire, Ice, and Lightning.

But for once it wasn't the Birds he was thinking about. It was their master.

For all the raw, primal might the Birds wielded so effortlessly it was like nothing in the face of Lugia.

Shrieking Ice, Roaring Fire, and Thundering Lightning swirled and mixed and fought. A ball of light shaped easily in Lugia's fierce maw, collecting for just a moment before it erupted in a blinding, deceptively thin lance of orange and gold that carried with it all the might of a hurricane. It tore through the squabbling Birds' elements and whipped up a screaming gale behind it that purified the air of the storms that befouled it.

He rubbed his temples. The darkness that lurked within his mind was silent. It still hurt, though. At the same time the memory lingered and seemed to soothe some of the pounding ache spiking through his brain.

Every cloud had a silver lining, he supposed.

Though this particular silver lining was a little more useful than others. Ash had picked up the strange, potent technique Lugia had used as its most reliable offensive power. Even in the frenzy of the Clash it couldn't be denied.

It was what Lugia used every time a genuinely dangerous threat (to it, anyways) reared its ugly head. The elemental storms were banished by its power and Infernus with the might of Fire behind him was brought to his knees.

At the same time it was hard to wrap his head around it. The thought of a Legend using a technique of all things was mindboggling. To be honest if it were anything other than Lugia wielding that power he'd be more than a little worried. All that brute force he normally attributed to Legends was dangerous enough. At least they tended to use that overwhelming and seemingly infinite power with all the subtlety of Lance.

Shaping and honing that power to be in its most effective state was something that bothered him. Mew and Mewtwo had been bad enough. Their battle had been almost beyond his comprehension, full of tricks and uniquely devastating uses of psychic energy he'd hoped never to see replicated.

Lugia had shattered that dream. Not that he could fault it – Lugia had saved the world with that technique. But there was something distinctly fearsome about the attack it had used, something he hadn't felt from Mew and Mewtwo.

That battle had been about deception and creativity as much as anything. It was how Mew had handled itself so well against a trained warrior like Mewtwo. Everything was about manipulating their powers with the mastery of both an unfathomably powerful psychic and the experience to use it most efficiently.

But when Lugia summoned that blast…it was like a hurricane had been breathed into the world. Like something far greater than psychic manipulation had taken place. Lugia had poured a bit of itself into the world with the beam, expressed itself in a way Ash wasn't sure he could quite understand.

The Guardian of the Sea was the bridge between what he knew of the Birds and Mew. All the raw, elemental force of the combined Birds with the terrifying potent and versatile psychic power that lent it unstoppable force when it dared to spread its wings and touch the world.

And it was that power Ash intended on harnessing for Plume. A tiny, infinitesimal fraction of that power, of course, but it would draw itself from the same source.

Hopefully. It was a long shot but he thought he might be able to do it. Lugia had shown it was at least possible – though whether a mortal pokemon could pull it off was something else entirely.

If anyone could make that dream a reality it was Plume, though. Ash had an air of certainty he wouldn't abandon easily. Plume was smarter than most of his team and just as skilled.

Plus she needed this. Hyper Beam might grant her the offensive power to pierce otherwise unbreakable defenses but it was a liability. It was exhausting and robbed her of the stamina that made her almost untouchable. She wasn't Infernus. She couldn't just keep fighting and flying for hours.

Training would help that. Had helped that. But Hyper Beam was an inherently exhausting technique. It was the price you had to pay for using that sort of power at a whim. Hyper Beam's strength didn't come from the sun like Solar Beam. The energy was drawn directly from a pokemon's own body.

It was useful but the drawbacks more than made up for it. But if his friend could compensate for that physical toll with the control she'd gained over wind she'd be in a much, much stronger position. Plume had proven time and time again that she was good at what she did.

The problem was she couldn't do it for very long.

She slowed down when she was exhausted. When she slowed down she got hit. When she got hit…well, she didn't like getting hit.

Aside from all that he had to admit that embarking on the long, arduous road of unraveling Lugia's tapestry of secrets sounded like the sort of challenge he craved. He'd always felt that demanding little voice urge him forward on the road of life and it seemed it finally had something that might slow it down.

He couldn't wait. That was the voice that demanded he do the impossible. That he uncover the secret of a Legend. That he learn from the truest masters of the elements – the elements themselves.

"Plume!" Ash's face was pulled painfully tight by his grin when she materialized from her pokeball in a brilliant flash of light. For once he didn't stroke her plumage. Instead he just admired his friend as she preened – she really was incredible. Massive, sleek, and honestly everything he thought a Pidgeot should be. "Hey there. You feeling better? I know you were still a bit roughed up last night."

She cooed and butted her head against his hand. He rested it there, happy she'd gotten over yesterday's injuries. Ash just took care to avoid brushing against some of the feathers that were still snapped and broken. They'd come back in soon enough.

"That's good," he agreed. Ash showed her the Flute. Plume eyed it as greedily as Torrent had on occasion. They knew what it represented. He had her interest now. "So, you remember Lugia?"

"Stupid question," he amended when Plume stared at him like he'd grown a second head. Nevertheless she watched him in that peculiar way that meant she was truly, genuinely intrigued. Ash hummed along with the Song as he gathered his thoughts. "I've been a little…distracted," Ash allowed. Plume cooed again, softer this time, and gently rubbed her massive head against his own. The force nearly knocked him off the bed. "Thanks, Plume."

He smiled as she rested her head on the top of his hat. Ash barely kept from buckling. The headache came back in full force but he'd put up with it. "Let me rephrase that: Do you remember that attack Lugia used? The beam?"

Plume cocked her head. It felt odd considering where she was laying it. A loud chirp let him know that did. Ash smiled and eyed the glossy plumage that trailed down to the floor behind her.

Ash allowed a few brief moments of silence. How to proceed?

A light tingle came from the spot the Feather was bound to him, followed by a flush of warmth.

He knew his answer.

"You're going to learn to use it," Ash twisted the Flute in his hands, marveling at the impossibly smooth surface. It almost felt like it would slip from his hands at any moment. There wasn't a single imperfection.

She jerked away, rearing back like she'd been struck. Her raptor eyes stared at him, wider than he'd ever seen them.

That was a bit more of a reaction than he'd expected but Ash wouldn't complain. At least this way he knew that he had her attention. Her feathers puffed out like she'd been hit by a bolt of electricity courtesy of Oz.

Speaking of which, the Electabuzz looked fairly interested in the way this conversation was going. He thought she seemed a little more interested in the Feather glowing bright beneath his pale grey shirt, though.

He really needed to have a talk with Steven about getting some variety in here. It felt like he hadn't seen more than three or four different colors since he'd gotten here last night. Everything was a shade of grey or silver.

Including Aron, he smirked. The aforementioned steel-type sleepily rolled over in his lap, nearly crushing the Flute. Then again Ash was pretty sure Aron would just slip right off of it. Plus there was a good chance the Flute, having come from a Legend, was a bit more durable than Aron would ever be.

"What?" A lopsided grin rolled onto his features. Plume's feathers ruffled a little more and she raised her head high, seemingly to regain what little dignity she'd kept. She feigned disinterest but he knew her too well for that. "Don't even try that act. I know you can do it, Plume. We know it's possible. It's not like we're working from scratch."

Ash wasn't sure how comfortable he was with being stared at. Plume must have thought he was out of his mind. He cringed a little at the low grind of her razor sharp talons against the expensive marble tiles. He wasn't sure he could afford to owe Steven any more money after the Thunder Stone incident.

He just shot her a pointed look and she slackened just a tad. The trainer was also going to do his best to ignore that he pretty much was starting from scratch on this pet project.

In his time as a trainer he'd seen a lot of fantastical things: Ancient Rhydon whose very breath could manipulate rock, a Clefable with a power so incredible and versatile he wasn't sure any living pokemon could compare, and a Ninetales that could dissolve into living flame.

He had no idea how any of those worked. Ash had his guesses and a few theories but he doubted he'd be able to reverse engineer a single one of those techniques in a reasonable amount of time. There was a reason those pokemon had ascended to greatness, after all. If everyone could develop those techniques then they wouldn't be special at all.

Lugia's technique was something else. It was a fair bit simpler, yet at the same time was so mysterious and beyond his comprehension right now. He needed time to think on it and dissect it. On the surface it appeared basic, yet he knew there was more going on than just blowing a bunch of wind around.

At the same time he trusted in Plume's own ability and experience. They'd tread this path together.

And it wasn't as if they were going alone. Ash's eyes strayed to the length of cool metal in his hands. It had been created for him.

They had a guide. Right now they just needed to learn how to approach it.

"Think on it, will you?" Ash stroked her plumage just the way she liked. Plume's beak snapped down on his hat as gently as she could, though he winced as he heard something snap. Just another reminder of how powerful she was. "We're going to start on this as soon as we leave the city – we just have to figure out where we want to start."

Plume nodded. Her resolve was obvious and it made Ash feel a little more confident about this whole thing. Rebuilding the technique of a Legend for the use of a mortal pokemon was a long shot, sure, but he doubted the Song would be singing so clearly right now if it wasn't possible.

They fell into another companionable silence as Ash released the Flute from his grip. He was a little concerned when Aron's rasping tongue sleepily reached out to lick at the moonlight made manifest but it was for nothing. Aron's tongue left no more of a mark than if he'd ran a finger down its spine.

He pulled out his PokeNav and opened up the notes section again. Ash grimaced as he saw the entry on Hunter J – he didn't want to read that again any time soon.

People said that you died twice: Once when you stop breathing and once when nobody remembers you. Ash had seen Hunter J's first death yesterday. Now he wanted to do his part in putting her to rest for good.

But then a message came in. Ash raised an eyebrow – he hadn't expected one from his mother quite yet. She'd given him the heads up a while ago that she'd be really busy as she started to take her first tests.

If he didn't know better he'd say that Oz smirked at how fast he opened up the message. He just rolled his eyes and read a little greedily. It felt like forever since he'd talked to his mom.

Ash,

Hi, just wanted to check in on you! I hope training's been going well – if it's too hard then give me Steven's number and I'll make him give you some time off! Anyways I just wanted to apologize for not being able to call lately…all the professors seem to think they're my only class!

But I wouldn't trade it for the world. I've learnt so much and gotten to meet so many brilliant people. I'd say there are even a few Samuel would have trouble keeping up with!

So how have you been? I know you haven't had a lot of spare time lately. You must be being worked to the bone! I bet all of you are getting so strong! Say hi to everyone for me…it's been strange not seeing Bruiser and Seeker around. I got so used to them! I'm glad they're with you now.

But besides my classes I've been spending a lot of time with your Uncle Spencer and Molly. I know you must be so tired of me talking about them but it's been amazing to see them so often! Do you think you'll be able to come to Johto some time this year? I know you're really busy being a big, bad member of the Elite Four but I think it would be a lot of fun for you to come to Greenfield or Goldenrod. I've told little Molly all about you.

I'll let you go now. I hope you weren't too bored reading this, Ashy. It feels like you've always got something exciting going on.

Love,

Mom

Ash curiously clicked on the attachment his mother had added. She hadn't really sent him pictures or anything before.

He blinked and leaned in a little closer once it loaded. Ash had to admit he was a tad surprised. There was a little stab of envy thrown in there too but that wasn't something he'd be telling anyone about.

"She looks happy," Ash muttered. He looked at the picture a little longingly as he saw his mother, Uncle Spencer, Molly, and Teddiursa all lounging in front of the Hale's massive mansion. It had been a long time since he'd seen those rolling green hills. Ash wouldn't say he was homesick but there was nothing like those in Hoenn. Hoenn was like an entirely different world.

Plume chirped at him and leaned over his shoulder to look at the picture. She cocked her head quizzically but didn't really seem to get what was so important about it.

"It's nothing," he brushed off her concern. He still smiled as she rubbed her face against his cheek. Ash appreciated that – it did make him feel a little better. Not that he was upset or anything. This wasn't a big deal. It was just that he hadn't seen his mother in a while and it was weird seeing her like this.

The picture wasn't anything too fancy. Great scenery, of course. Greenfield was beautiful if nothing else. The Hales were lucky to live in a place like that even though their mansion was a bit too fancy for Ash's tastes.

His mother and Spencer knelt next to each other, his arm around her shoulders and huge grins on both their faces – his mom looked like she was laughing at the funniest joke in the world.

That smile washed years off of her – she could be in her early twenties for all he could tell. Molly was dressed up in a Teddiursa costume for some reason (he had the sneaking suspicion his mother was involved) and hugging her Teddiursa so tight he was almost a little worried for it. The small creature looked cheerful, though.

They all did.

Ash stared at the image a little bit longer. They looked like a family. A full one that was just missing a son instead of a father. His mom was as happy as she'd ever been with her arms draped around Spencer and Molly, hugging the girl tight. She was laughing.

He exited away from the image and his mother's message. Ash would reply later.

Instead he just opened another notes section and set to work. Steven needed to know what he had planned for his team.

They'd talked about this before. But it had never been anything too concrete. Mostly it was Ash brainstorming and seeing if Steven thought it was a completely terrible idea or not. Steven hadn't given too much input these past weeks – he mostly just seemed interested in whipping Ash and his team into shape more than anything.

But Ash could see the wind blowing in a different direction. Steven thought his team could keep up now.

This was where the real work began. And if it distracted him – not that he needed to be distracted, no matter what Dazed seemed to think as she watched him from the corner – then all the better.

XX

Ash folded his arms and leaned against one of the thin, pale trees that filled the forest just outside Rustboro. It bent under his weight, slight as it was, but didn't break. That would've been a bit of a downer.

Most of his team were either at the apartment or in their pokeballs. This was private. Steven had grudgingly allowed him to leave the apartment while the older man went over the courses Ash had charted out for his teammates. It would take him some time to analyze the plans and prepare his feedback and Ash couldn't bear being cooped up anymore.

He needed to stretch his legs. Breathe some fresh air. Talk to Nidoking.

The aforementioned massive, purple individual stood right in front of him. Neither of them did much of anything. Ash didn't doubt that Nidoking knew why he'd brought him out here. His friend was smarter than most gave him credit for.

Ash didn't feel like being the first one to break this silence – tense, for once. He didn't know if this situation could actually be less awkward. It wasn't as if they didn't want to have this talk. It was just that there was something heavy between them. Some sort of mental wall that had built up over the past day.

No, that wasn't true. Ash wouldn't try and claim that. This wasn't something new. This had been building since Nidoking had evolved years before most of his species. Since he'd had an influx of hormones and primal instincts and urges that Ash wasn't sure his friend had been prepared for.

Nidoking had never been the most expressive member of the team. He'd always been firm and calm. Level-headed. That was something Ash would always respect. It was what made Nidoking the sort of leader that could keep a team with as many diverse personalities as theirs from falling apart. Even Infernus still respected Nidoking despite surpassing him in raw power. It wasn't just that Nidoking had always been strong, it was that he'd practically been born to lead.

Ash should have realized the problem sooner. Nidoking had been a tad reclusive and short-tempered since evolution but it hadn't been until New Island that things really went downhill. The Conference had stabilized him a bit, but it seemed that since they'd gotten to Hoenn his friend was more withdrawn than ever.

They were still close. Ash would die for Nidoking and Nidoking would die for him. It was as constant as the sun rising.

The problem was Nidoking would probably get himself killed if Ash died. He was too reliant. If it weren't for Ash there wouldn't be anything truly binding him to this world. No reason for him to go on. Ash had become his life and he wasn't sure that was a good thing.

Nidoking was friendly with the team. He was their leader, after all. He was the one to deal discipline and control the wildest members (and Infernus, who jumped right past wild and into raging wildfire). Plume got along well with him and so did Dazed.

Ash thought he and Torrent were as friendly as two monarchs could ever be. Bruiser and Seeker were respected as well, though they weren't especially close. Tangrowth was tolerated. Infernus was respected for his formidable ability if nothing else. Sneasel…well, Nidoking didn't despise him quite as much anymore. He doubted Nidoking and Oz would ever be friends.

Aron…well, there was Ash's hope. Nidoking actually enjoyed having him around. It was the only thing so far that had actually distracted Nidoking from constantly following Ash and acting as a massive, armored protector.

He appreciated Nidoking's constant companionship but he knew this had to stop.

What had happened yesterday had unraveled something in Nidoking. Ash had known his near-death would probably be harder on the poison-type than it would on Ash himself. But whatever misplaced guilt Nidoking was feeling was rotting him from the inside out.

His friend – no, his brother – could hardly even look at him anymore.

That was what he needed to fix first.

"Look at me," he said. Ash's hands shook just a little. He'd walked a long way to make it this far. Nidoking grudgingly crane his neck up until his narrow black eyes stared right into Ash's. "Good," Ash breathed. "What's up?"

Nidoking grunted and started to look away. He barely caught himself. His mighty, spiny tail swayed back and forth, the only sign of his discomfort.

"I almost died yesterday," Ash broke the silence. He honestly wasn't sure where he was going with this. Fire didn't guide him. Nor did Ice or Lightning. This was all him. Even Mewtwo seemed to withdraw.

As expected his friend let out a thunderous groan and smashed his tail into the earth. Little ripples emanated out from where it impacted, warping the ground like it was just water. He'd never get used to that.

"Relax," he raised a calming hand. Nidoking's nostrils still flared and Ash was pretty sure he was flashing back to yesterday but at least the heavy pressure filling the air had slackened somewhat. "I'm fine," Ash stressed. He held out a hand for Nidoking to sniff, as though to prove he was still here. Nidoking hesitantly leaned forward and tapped the tip of his face to his knuckles. His hot breath left tingles on Ash's knuckles.

"See?"

Nidoking reared back and ascended to his full height. Ash admired his friend for a moment – it was easy to forget Nidoking was hunched over most of the time. Right now he easily pushed past six feet. He might not be the best judge but he was fairly sure Nidoking was closer to seven feet than six.

"The reason I'm alive is you – and the rest of the team," he finished. Ash crossed his arms and casually looked up at his hulking friend. "I think it's time to realize that you aren't my only protector, buddy."

He winced at Nidoking's groan. His friend looked like he'd just been struck. His tail swished back and forth, agitated. Ash knew Nidoking would never hurt him but he needed to tread lightly.

"We're a family, Nidoking," he leaned forward and rested a hand against his friend's heavy armor. "Nobody has to bear these burdens alone. That's what makes us strong – we split up the load. I know you've had it hard," Ash whispered sympathetically. His grip on Nidoking tightened and his friend finally met his eyes again. "But it's time you hand off some of this responsibility. It's eating you up. It doesn't take Dazed or Claydol to see that."

The poison-type's claws clenched tightly together. Ash knew from experience that they could grind rock into powder with less effort than that.

Ash sighed. He should've taken care of this much, much earlier. It was only now he could see how much this had festered in the deepest, darkest parts of Nidoking. "I can't be your whole world."

If Nidoking's slit eyes and raised spines were anything to go by he didn't take kindly to that. Even Ash had to take a deep breath to avoid flinching at the display…the low groaning roar didn't help matters. It was like the earth itself was expressing its displeasure.

He just let his first friend get it out of his system. No good would come of trying to cut him off.

"That's exactly what I'm talking about," Ash said at last. He looked past Nidoking and out into the dim forest. Only thin rays of light pierced the foliage. It was oddly silent but he'd gotten used to that. Most wild pokemon weren't too interested in hanging around a massive Pidgeot or a grumpy Nidoking. "What do you care about besides me?"

Nidoking hesitated. His eyes roved, settling on nothing in particular. It looked like he genuinely didn't know the answer to that question. The mighty tail thumped rhythmically against the layer of moist vegetation covering the ground – not that it mattered. His connection to the earth was as strong as ever.

Ash sighed. "You need to let go, Nidoking."

His friend whined. Ash looked up jerkily. He hadn't heard a noise like that from his friend since he was a humble Nidoran. As far as he knew Nidoking couldn't even make a noise like that.

"I know it's hard, buddy," Ash stepped forward and took care to dodge Nidoking's spines as he hugged his friend's massive midsection. The leathery plates of armor all over him were surprisingly warm. He spoke into Nidoking's chest. "You know I love you. You were my first real friend on this journey – we're gonna be together forever," he said with certainty. But he squeezed his eyes shut. "But I need you to grow past me. There are others protecting me and others that need to be protected by you. Like Aron."

A massive arm wrapped around him. The blunt claws scraped lightly against the back of his shirt.

"I know it's a lot easier to say than do," Ash smiled and pulled away from the embrace so he could look up to meet Nidoking's black eyes. "It always is, isn't it?"

Nidoking chuffed slightly and nuzzled Ash's head. His horn just barely avoided piercing his skull.

"Just think on this. I want to help you. You can't continue on like this, bound just to me," the boy said to the beast. Nidoking was utterly silent. "We can talk on this later, okay? I just want you to at least consider it. Can you promise me that?"

In the end Nidoking took an entire minute before his mind was made up. He stepped back and extended his arm towards Ash, pausing when it was about a foot away from his trainer.

Ash grinned at the distinctly human gesture and took Nidoking's huge, solid claws in his smaller, softer hand. Whatever tension there was before dissipated as they shook on the deal and he felt his shoulders slump in relief.

This was all he could ask of his brother-in-arms.

"It's still light out," he pointed out after a few seconds of contemplation. Nidoking's ears twitched. "Want to explore a little?" Ash asked with a wry grin. "It's been a while since it's been just the two of us. It'll be like old times."

Nidoking's lips pulled up into what Ash knew to be a smile and his tail thumped the ground happily. He let Ash rest for a moment before following the boy's lead.

He didn't have any particular goal in mind – Ash just knew he was totally safe in these woods. They were strange in a pleasant sort of way. They were as different from the temperate forests of Kanto and Johto as could be yet they were just familiar enough to remind him of home.

In a way it was like they really were beginning a new journey. What had happened yesterday was a breaking point in Ash's mind…he felt a rare certainty that this was a new chapter of his life.

All there was to do now was to figure out whether it would be better than the last.

As he and Nidoking made their way through the forest, Ash talking and his friend silently listening like they had in the old days, he was pretty sure he knew the answer.

XX

Steven put his PokeNav down and looked over at Ash from his comfortable grey (of course) chair. It seemed like a king's throne thanks to Steven's quiet dignity. Ash sat on the couch across from him waiting for whatever judgment the former Champion might give.

"Good job."

Well that was a tad unexpected. Ash jerked up and waited for whatever else Steven was about to drop on him. That was how Steven worked, he'd learned. He liked to catch Ash off guard. Either he opened up with something positive then tore him down or vice versa.

It hadn't taken him that long to learn most of Steven's tics.

"That said, I think we have some things to discuss."

There it was.

"Like what?" Came his measured response. Steven just smiled at him.

"Oh, nothing too severe. You mapped out your plans quite well. I'm impressed by the creativity you've put into some," Steven congratulated him. Ash fought the urge to preen like Plume did when he paid her a compliment. "But I'm looking at Infernus' and I'm honestly confused."

Ash raised an eyebrow. "About what?" He thought he'd been pretty clear. It wasn't anything too crazy. Mostly he'd just explained how he wanted to start having Infernus try to psychically manipulate his flames.

Nothing too major. Ash just thought it might be a way for Infernus to get a little more precision in his blasts and maybe be able to take down flying opponents without teleporting on top of them. Plus it might let him focus his power a little more and stop being so wasteful. If he removed that flaw Infernus would honestly be much, much more formidable.

The only other thing he'd included was his plans for Infernus to negate Metagross' vacuum. Normally Ash would've held that strategy close to his chest but he didn't care about beating Steven so much any more.

Yesterday had taught him one thing: Ash needed to improve. Striving to beat Metagross was important but he'd rather take advantage of every bit of Steven's knowledge and experience. Survival in whatever battles were to come was much more important.

Besides, he had no doubt that even if Infernus did manage to penetrate the Vacuum with his heat that Metagross would just throw him halfway across Hoenn with their telekinesis. Disclosing one trick wasn't that big of a deal.

"Convection," Steven stroked his chin thoughtfully. His cheek twitched like he was holding back a smile. "Convection is the movement of heat from one place to the other by the movement of fluids."

"Yes?" Ash ventured hesitantly. He had the strangest feeling that Steven was going to make him feel really, really dumb. This must be how Jonathan felt every time he talked to Gary. Or Amelia. Or…well, the list went on and on.

Steven folded his hands together. "Do you know what a fluid is?"

"Gases and liquids," came the quick reply. Ash squinted at Steven. Where was he going with this?

"You're planning to penetrate Metagross' Vacuum technique by moving heat from Infernus' fires to Metagross via convection. Convection is the transfer of heat from one place to another via the movement of fluids – gas, in this case."

Ash nodded along. Wait…

Steven smirked. "Do you know what isn't in a vacuum?"

The groan that came out of Ash's mouth could've easily been mistaken for a low whine Sneasel would have emitted. But it wasn't. Ash didn't whine.

Instead he just hung his head in his hands. He was right. Steven did make him feel like an idiot.

"I'll forward you a physics notebook my father gave me when I became a trainer," his mentor chuckled. Steven seemed perfectly content to just watch Ash's misery. "It has some basic definitions that might do you some good. I assure you it's a very useful tool if you use it correctly."

"Thanks," Ash grumbled. He tried to ignore Sneasel's hissing giggle from across the room. At least Tangrowth seemed sympathetic if the thick vine gently squeezing his hand was anything to go by. "I wasted so much time on that."

Steven seemed a little too amused by that. "Ah yes, it happens to the best of us. Trust me when I say I've run into similar issues in the past – not that I can think of any off the top of my head, of course."

"Of course," Ash agreed easily. He frowned and scratched his chin thoughtfully. Just one of the tics he'd picked up from Steven as of late. "Well since that's a bust…how would you penetrate Metagross' Vacuum?"

His mentor laced his long pale fingers together and nodded approvingly. Claydol levitated out of Steven's room and levitated behind him, circling slowly as though to let every single one of its 'faces' see the room. "Fantastic question. I was wondering when you'd ask."

Steven rose – though he looked as though he regretted that decision when Sneasel clambered up onto his seat and settled comfortably. The chair would be more black than grey soon enough.

"Ugh," the former Champion sighed and massaged his temples. Ash thought Claydol seemed faintly amused if anything. It was hard to tell with the mysterious pokemon, though. "As I was saying, that was a good question. There's a few options."

Ash waited patiently. Steven was being surprisingly helpful. Maybe he should've approached him sooner. But for now he would just sit and listen as Steven started making himself a glass of an amber liquid and what looked like some kind of soda.

"Vacuum is honestly only really useful against fire-types and melee fighters," came the thoughtful reply. Steven gave Ash a sideways look as he sipped from his glass. It glittered as though it were shaped from crystal. "And to be honest if Metagross weren't already fairly resistant to fire-types it wouldn't be that much of a help. Propulsion based fire-types aren't as inhibited, though fuel based fire-types –" Steven coughed and shook himself out of his lecturing state. "My apologies. Essentially it's mostly a way to manage the worst of fire-types and ensuring that nothing can get close to Metagross."

He nodded. That was something Ash had already pieced together. "But how can Infernus get through it?" Ash pressed. "There has to be a way."

"My solution is admittedly crude and simple – much like Infernus himself," a brief smile graced Steven's features as he took another sip from the glass. "Have Infernus teleport on top of Metagross and do his best to break Metagross' focus. It won't be easy but I think it will work better than any refined technique."

"Not what I would've expected from Steven Stone," Ash grinned. Oz swaggered into the room (probably at the mention of Infernus) and took her place at his side. Sneasel eyed her warily but seemed more concerned with making sure he kept his new bed. "Normally you're a bit more…elaborate."

Steven smirked and stood next to Claydol, resting a gentle hand on the construct. The other was wrapped tightly around his drink. "Well, when all you have is a hammer…"

Even Oz just shook her head. All that showed she was amused was her flared nostrils and an odd whirr that reverberated all through the room, like it came from the very depth of her chest. To be honest it almost sounded like she was purring.

Ash smiled and gently rubbed behind one of the crests on Oz's forehead. He was sure to be gentle. Those crests were how Oz detected electric fields so well, one of the main advantages she had against some other electric-types like Raichu. Honestly he was just happy she was comfortable enough with him to let Ash touch her.

But he frowned suddenly. With his mind on Metagross one of the most pressing – and honestly confusing – issues he'd been thinking of lately came to the forefront.

"What happened with Metagross?"

"I'm sorry?" Steven sounded almost flustered. Ash sent a hard look his way. The former Champion almost deflated.

"You know what I'm talking about."

"Fine," his teacher stroked his chin thoughtfully. He exhaled tiredly. "To be honest I'd hoped to avoid this conversation for some time yet. Unfortunately the events of yesterday forced my hand."

Ash just waited as a pregnant silence filled the room. Even Sneasel had perked up at this. It seemed his team were just as curious about Metagross' transformation as Ash was.

"I don't suppose you've ever heard of Mega Evolution?"

Steven didn't seem the least bit surprised when Ash shook his head. Mega Evolution? The term made sense, given what he'd seen, but it still seemed so fantastical…

"I didn't think so," Steven said. His eyes hardened just a tad. "You must understand, Ash, what I'm about to tell you is a closely guarded secret of the League."

"I'll add it to the list," he snarked back. Steven's disapproving frown shut him right up. "Sorry."

"I suppose it's fine. You have more a right to say that than anyone else I can think of," his mentor actually laughed after a moment. "Mega Evolution is one of our best kept tools. Before the Last War it was known only to a scant few. The Draconids and the leaders of Sootopolis guarded its knowledge in Hoenn. But Kalos…well, the Lumiose League has incorporated it into their traditions for centuries. It was their greatest weapon against the National League when we stormed Unova, a way to balance our numbers with their raw power. And, in defeat, it was their way of setting us all on equal ground. A peace offering like none we'd seen before."

Ash nodded, enraptured, but decided to interrupt before Steven could wax on any longer. "But what is it?"

"An excellent question but unfortunately we still don't totally understand it," Steven shook his head. Knowing Steven that drove the former Champion absolutely crazy. He wasn't one to enjoy unknowns. "From what we do understand it's a temporary transformation spurred on by the input of energy from what we call a Key Stone," the man flipped the inside of his lapel out to reveal the strange piece of jewelry hidden within, "which reacts with a Mega Stone unique to every pokemon in order to induce the Mega Evolution. There's steady research into the process but considering how closely we guard the knowledge…"

"It's basically going nowhere," Ash finished just a tad bitterly. He wasn't too dissimilar from Steven or Professor Oak in that he liked to know what was going on. Then again considering what sort of entities he found himself consorting with on a regular basis he might be able to get one of them to reveal the secrets. "So who gets it?"

Steven's spirits lifted a bit with that. "Each region's Elite Four and Champion are provided with Mega Stones and Key Stones by the Lumiose League should they hold a pokemon with the potential for Mega Evolution."

"So they don't all have the ability?" Ash raised an eyebrow. That seemed a little strange. He'd have thought they all had that power.

"Theoretically they do," Steven nodded. He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "But in practice the Lumiose League has only unearthed a small number of Mega Stones."

Ash leaned in, his curiosity more than obvious. His hands shook just a little. Even the heavy presence infesting his mind didn't dare to interrupt. "Where do they come from? None of this sounds –"

"Natural?" Steven smirked. Ash dumbly nodded. "That's the current theory. I don't know who or what could have made them, however. We've found our fair share of strange artifacts before, but this isn't like an invention of a psychic commune. With the resurgence in the Legends we've considered them but haven't proven anything. Perhaps the Aur –" he cut himself off very quickly.

"Who?"

"Nothing you need to concern yourself as of yet. I still have to have a few secrets of my own," came the useless response. Ash scowled. He'd have to find a way to draw it out of Steven.

Ash didn't say anything for a while as he puzzled over the new information. Steven hadn't really bothered to piece too much together for him. He'd answered his questions and given him tantalizing little hints of knowledge but he knew the former Champion well enough to know that he wanted Ash putting this mystery together himself.

There was a lot to think about. He'd be up all night pondering over all this.

But there was only one real question he had left. It was potentially the most important of them all.

"Will I get access to it?"

"In time," came the quick reply – too quick, in Ash's opinion. But Ash didn't press. Not yet. "You're still in training," Steven explained. "When you're more experienced I will likely be the one to train you in its use. We have an Aggronite and Pidgeotite stored away somewhere…" he muttered. "And there might be others for your team given time."

"Understood," Ash dipped his head. He wondered just what Aron and Plume would like Mega Evolved. It was such a foreign notion to him that he couldn't even hazard a guess.

Steven watched him blankly for a few moments. Claydol just kept casually spinning around. Ash wished telepathy wasn't crippling to him right now. It had been an interesting psychic to talk to and he wouldn't mind getting to know it in a more casual setting.

Claydol had definitely caught Dazed's attention, Ash smirked.

"I think it's best we talk about your plans for your team another time. We became more sidetracked than I'd anticipated," Steven admitted. Ash nodded – he had enough to think about already with the revelation of Mega Evolution. His whole worldview was practically shattered.

He stood and took just a moment to stretch. They'd been sitting longer than he'd realized. Oz offered a bulky forearm he gratefully took. His body was weaker than the norm thanks to the potions still burning through his system.

To be honest it was probably about time he got to bed. At the very least he needed to put this in his notes and start listing out everything he'd noticed from the Mega Evolved Metagross. From what Steven said Metagross would revert to its normal state sooner or later but he'd like to have an idea of the power granted Mega Evolution granted.

"One last thing before you leave, Ash," Steven sounded almost hesitant. He was a little too still for Ash's liking. "What was it I saw yesterday? Your Feather – I could feel the power emanating from it. Your eyes burned like a psychic's. I had no idea it could hold such a direct influence in the world."

Ash was silent. The Feather jolted and burned him in equal measure. He even felt pleasant cold lace through his veins – the frozen touch of Ice rather than Mewtwo's malignant breath. It was something he'd felt far less than Fire or Lightning but it was welcomed all the same.

"I wish I could tell you. This Feather – even I know nothing about it beyond what you already know," he admitted. One of his hands brushed it unconsciously. Ash couldn't help but take comfort in its warmth. "They don't give up their secrets easily."

"That they don't," Steven agreed with a note of exhaustion. He took a longer sip of his drink and looked deep into the dark liquid. "Good night, Ash."

"Good night," he repeated as he walked past the quiet man. Sneasel lazily hitched a ride on Oz as she passed, though was quick to sheathe his claws after a deep whir erupted from Oz's throat. Tangrowth didn't seem to have any idea what was going on and just tried to snake a tentative vine towards Claydol.

"We'll be leaving for Slateport tomorrow," the former Champion said to him as he passed. Ash didn't pause – he'd seen it coming. He was fine with it. It didn't seem like there was much more to do in Rustboro, to be honest. "Make sure you're ready to leave by sunrise. I'd like to get there by noon."

He nodded. That was about what he'd expected. Steven was the type to feel like he wasted the day if he didn't get up by dawn. And, much to Ash's annoyance, he was rapidly becoming the same way.

Oh well. He couldn't complain too much. They did have a lot to do.

Besides, he couldn't be too disappointed. He'd heard good things about Slateport from Lance, though those were mostly about the girls there. But he knew their Summer Festival had started just a few days ago so that made him a little more interested than usual. Who knew what kind of strong trainers might flock there? Ash would be lying if he said he wasn't looking forward to a good fight.

But for now he could put that out of his mind. He had other things to think about.

And no matter what happened Slateport awaited him.

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