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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56. The Top 16 Part 1

Ash stepped into his assigned house quietly. He still wasn't sure what he was going to say to Jonathan. It wasn't as if he was sorry for beating him. This was just a chance to make sure Jonathan didn't get too upset with him for his loss.

"Ash, is that you?" Amelia asked tiredly as she stepped in from the kitchen with a glass of water. She had already changed into her pajamas, so he assumed that Jonathan was back. If not she would be out looking for him. "I'm guessing you're wanting to talk to Jonathan?"

He gave her a brisk nod.

"You might want to give him a while to cool off." She warned, a troubled expression on her face. "He's really mad. I haven't seen him like this since he lost to Paul."

That made him frown. He didn't expect someone like Jonathan to take his loss well, but he'd expected real anger even less.

Amelia caught his expression and raised her hands up calmingly. "He's not mad at you! Well, he is a little, but that's just his pride acting up. He's mostly mad at himself. Jonathan hates losing anyways, and he really thought he could beat you…"

Ash hummed thoughtfully before he nodded again. He turned around and walked back out the door, but not before he looked back to Amelia. "I'll be back later. I shouldn't be more than an hour or two."

"I'll try and cool him off before you get back." Amelia called out after him. Ash's response was another nod and slight smile before he shut the door and headed off into the night.

It was empty, but soon the hordes of spectators would leave the four lesser stadiums and return to their homes or go out for celebrations. The older trainers would join them, most likely. He'd heard Fergus and Corey talking about how easy it was to get free drinks during the Conference proper after they'd left the Opening Ceremony, so he didn't feel like he had too much to gain by joining the festivities.

But for now he was free to wander to his heart's content. His mother had told him the general location of the house she and Professor Oak would be staying in, so he wasn't flying blind. Since it was in a guarded part of the Indigo Plateau, restricted to League personnel and those invited or given access, he could just get real directions when he actually got there.

He glanced around the isolated streets as a thought struck him. There were almost no other humans wandering around, although he did see a few wild Meowth and Rattata running around every now and then. They were probably in better health than most trained pokemon given how much food was being dropped everywhere.

In the darkness the sun wouldn't bother either Seeker or Sneasel. Seeker had been cooped up in the house for the last few weeks and had been forced to stay in her pokeball or Ash's dark room almost the entire time since Jonathan and Amelia moved in. They weren't very good at keeping the blinds closed, which was a terrible problem for the sensitive Zubat.

Since Sneasel had been well-behaved since his last match he would let him out as well. Ursaring had beat some common sense back into Sneasel for him, so at least one good thing came out of that match. It spared him the trouble of finding an isolated area to do it himself, at least.

Seeker squeaked happily when she felt the crisp night air brush across her fur and only paused for a moment to latch onto Ash's chest affectionately before she took off, fluttering and dancing around in the dark air above him. He could hear the rapid clicks of her echolocation as she scouted out the area and felt free for the first time since they had arrived at Indigo Plateau.

"Stay close." He called out to her with a wide smile. Ash knew he didn't need to worry about Seeker straying too far. She was much less timid than the first time they'd met and could actually face unfamiliar pokemon and humans without trying to put Ash and the rest of the team between them, but she still preferred to be in close proximity.

The Zubat clicked and flapped her way through the air, brushing close to Ash so that he would know she heard. Ash smiled at her one last time before he grew serious and released Sneasel. He couldn't say he was too happy when Seeker automatically kept a longer distance between them.

Bruiser had shielded her from Sneasel's worst traits with judicious threats and actual executions of violence against the dark-type but she knew enough to be wary of the conniving creature. It was in his nature to prey on the weak and Seeker's timidity made her his ideal victim.

"No!" Ash sharply rapped Sneasel's furry head with his knuckles when his sharp eyes locked onto Seeker with glee. Sneasel whined piteously at Ash and looked at him with unnaturally wide eyes until the trainer sighed and motioned for him to climb up to his preferred position around Ash's neck. "Leave Seeker, alone, alright? You fought incredibly well against Ursaring, but I'm not about to let you mess with a teammate."

Sneasel whined again, but when Ash twisted his neck around to try and fix him with hard eyes he relented and went lax as he hung around Ash's neck. His soft paws clenched tightly around him but without any ill intent. The dark-type just wanted to stay as close as possible.

"That was your last battle in the Conference." Ash said after a few minutes of comfortable silence had passed. He knew he was getting close. The League Village was small, even if it had as many houses and restaurants packed into it as possible.

He cut off the anticipated whine with a frown to Sneasel, who had slunk up so he could actually look at Ash while they spoke. "Don't start that. It won't work on me." A slow smile spread across his face. "I'm not quite as easy to manipulate as Tangrowth, even if that may come as a surprise to you."

Sneasel hissed in a manner akin to snickering and waited as patiently as he could for Ash to continue. The slight scratch he got around his feather for his efforts didn't hurt either, Ash was sure.

"You're a lot stronger than you used to be, but you aren't ready for this." Ash said bluntly. "These are the Finals. I doubt this next round will be too much more difficult than the last few have been, but I can't risk our team's victory. After this round we'll be facing one of the top Top 8 trainers in Kanto and it'll only get tougher from there."

"Just focus on your training." Ash said as Sneasel remained silence. "You've got the potential to become just as strong as anyone else on the team, you've just got to fight for it. Nidoking started off the same as you and look at where he is now. You have to play catch-up, but I know you can do it."

Sneasel perked up with interest at the remark about Nidoking and whined with interest. Ash looked back just to make sure that his youngest friend had gotten the rest of the speech as well before he answered that. He was comforted by the resolve in Sneasel's keen eyes, reflected with the same intensity in which he usually pursued his favorite "toys" like Seeker and Jonathan's Spearow.

"You didn't think Nidoking was always as strong as he is now, did you?" Ash asked amusedly. Sneasel just hissed at Ash's faux condescending tone. "He was always tough, but he wasn't always strong. When he was a little Nidoran all that kept him going in fights was his willpower. He would take hits until he couldn't go anymore and then keep on fighting."

"And Torrent used to be smaller than you ever were." Ash reminisced fondly. Sneasel jerked, as though he couldn't equate the monstrously powerful Kingdra he had always known to anything lesser than he was. "He was just like Nidoking, though. No matter the odds he always pushed forward – he saved my life once when any other Horsea would have been swept away by the storm. He evolved for me."

Sneasel listened silently. Ash realized that they'd never told the youngest member of the team much about their history together. He'd probably picked up a few stories, but Ash had never sat down with the dark-type and regaled him with the challenges they'd faced before he was born. They'd always been so busy…

With that in mind, Ash resolved to fill Sneasel's curious little mind with as many stories as he could possibly cram in between now and the time he got to the gated area of the Village. Once he'd finished the rest of what needed to be done for the night he'd get back to Sneasel. He deserved to know more.

"Did I ever tell you how I got your egg?"

XX

"Identification, please." A stoic ACE trainer greeted him as he walked up to the gate. He had it ready. His mother had told him that he'd need it to get in once she sent word to the gate to give him access. "Head on through. Don't cause any trouble."

Ash just nodded at the woman and stepped through the tall iron gates as they slowly opened, revealing rows of massive houses that were the size of two or three of the lavish homes given to the competitors. Anybody that lived here was either very wealthy or very powerful.

There were several guards patrolling the premises and even more pokemon. They were mostly dark-types, ghosts, and psychics. He assumed that the psychics were specially trained to work with the dark-types and ghosts. It could be difficult for them to sense their surroundings otherwise.

"Seeker, I'm going to recall you, alright?" He said quietly to the air above him. Ash heard a few understanding squeaks before he tapped the button on her pokeball that briefly illuminated the night in a brief red flash. "Sneasel, don't mess with anything."

Sneasel, who had been rather quiet as he listened to Ash's stories, hissed and burrowed his way deeper into Ash's shoulder. Ash felt confident that his friend would be on his best behavior for the rest of the night.

"What's up, loser?" An obnoxiously familiar voice asked as he continued walking down the well-lit street towards the address his mother had sent him several minutes ago. It was just as caustic as ever but seemed to lack some of the venom he'd come to associate with his rival. "Here to see Gramps?"

"And my mother." He ground out as he nodded. Gary stood before him, his sleek Umbreon by the other boy's side.

Gary just gave him the same arrogant smirk that seemed to be his only expression. "Heh, can't go a day without seeing mommy, can ya?"

Ash didn't rise to the boy's bait and frowned at him with impassive eyes. Gary didn't even give a hint that he cared and just smirked an even more infuriatingly obnoxious manner as he lightly patted behind Umbreon's soft ears.

"What is it you want, Gary?"

"Just scouting out the competition. You have no idea how bad I want to get paired up with you. You aren't the only one that's gotten stronger, you know. I'll give you a beat down you'll never forget!" Gary laughed wildly, the sound echoing throughout the street.

Ash raised an eyebrow. Gary was very cocky for someone who'd fled both of their previous two battles. "Are you sure? My record says otherwise."

"That record doesn't matter anymore." Gary spat. His Umbreon's hackles rose a little bit at his acidic tone and bared its sharp fangs, which prompted Sneasel to finally pull himself off of Ash's back and hiss at his fellow dark-type. "You aren't the only one who got special training! I haven't been sitting around for the past few months waiting to fight you. I've been training and preparing the whole time!"

"It won't be enough." Ash said softly, although he inwardly bristled at the mention of his "special training". Had Professor Oak told him about it? Gary scowled at him, fury in his eyes. It seemed that he'd taken his string of losses to Ash rather personally.

Gary crossed his arms and stayed exactly where he was: Right in Ash's path. "You're pretty cocky, you know that? I'll just have to knock it out of you. I don't care if we battle against each other in the Conference or not! We're going to settle this before we go back to Pallet."

Ash took a step forward. Gary didn't back down. "I'm looking forward to it. Now get out of my way. I have much more important things to do than hear you whine."

The other boy's eyes narrowed dangerously, but he shook off his anger. "Whatever, loser. We'll see who's talking by the time this thing is over. Smell ya later!"

He frowned at Gary's obnoxious laughter as his rival swept past him, bumping into him as he did so. Ash didn't bother rubbing the pain out. It was minor.

"I'm proud of you." Ash said to Sneasel, who had kept his ire to a minimum. He didn't even lash out at Gary with his claws as he shoved into Ash. He'd just given him a deep growl and hissed hatefully. It seemed that he didn't like Gary any more than Ash did. "You're getting a lot better about staying in control."

Sneasel preened at the compliment and his fur, which had puffed out in response to Umbreon's raised hackles, slowly lowered as he returned to his previous position loosely hanging around Ash's back.

Ash glanced at the direction Gary had come from and ran the address through his head again. He needed to hurry. The roars from the Stadiums, omnipresent during the day, had started to die down. Soon the streets would be clogged with revelers.

Lance was one of the people Ash looked up to more than any other, but he would have to take a page out of Steven's book in this case and not get caught up in all the nonsense.

Nothing good came from it.

XX

After a few more minutes of searching he finally found the address he was looking for. It belonged to an absolutely massive house with "Oak" emblazoned over the entrance gate. The home dwarfed even the others around it, but through presence rather than size. Although built with the same rich wood used to raise the other homes, this house felt far older. More stately than lavish.

He felt out of place as he knocked on the door. Ash knew that the Professor was incredibly wealthy thanks to the revolutionary inventions such as the Pokedex he had created, along with many improvements to existing products such as pokaballs, potions, and other medical tools, but he had never really seen it displayed so obviously.

Professor Oak normally showed his fortune in other ways, far more subtle than most others with his resources. The Corral, home to many hundreds of pokemon researched and cared for by Professor Oak and his aides, and his huge laboratory in Pallet Town were all personal projects of his, even if he was given vast funding by the League as well.

Pallet Town itself was a personal project of Oak's, now that Ash thought about it. He'd wanted somewhere small and private to work, a haven for scientific advancement and the natural world that Oak loved, so he created it for himself.

His thoughts were interrupted as he heard the familiar voice of his mother cheerily call out, "Hold on! I'll be right there."

"Hello?" His mother asked before she looked down and realized who was at the door. A smile cracked her face and, before he knew it, Ash was trapped in one of the familiar crushing hugs. He returned it happily for a scant few moments before his mother released him and impatiently ushered him into the magnificent atrium of the house, which opened up to reveal more of the old home. "I'm so glad you made it! I was afraid that you'd get caught in the rush before you'd get here."

"There's a while before the last battles end." He replied as he stepped across the threshold. "I didn't expect this place to be so big."

"Isn't it beautiful?" His mother sighed as she looked around with starry eyes. "I remember when Professor Oak brought me and Spencer here for the Conference one year. I think it was the second year we were with him."

She trailed off for a moment, thoughtfully tapping her chin as she lost herself in memories. His mother finally shrugged it off and cheered up again. "It doesn't really matter, I suppose. Now, how have you been? We haven't talked in a while. Did you remember to –"

"Yes." He rolled his eyes and cut her off before she could even begin her joke. "I do know how to take care of myself, you know."

"I'm just making sure. You are my baby boy, after all!" She laughed and led him up stairs covered in an elegant carpet patterned with the repeating symbols of fire, ice, and lightning. Stylized depictions of Moltres, Articuno, and Zapdos were spaced out, although Ash knew from experience that they were rather inaccurate. "Now, answer the question, please. I've been waiting to hear about it for weeks!"

Ash frowned as he thought. Finally, he resolved on an answer. "It's been different."

His mother sighed at the laconic, almost having expected it. "Details?"

"There's a lot of people." He said thoughtfully. "It's so different from being out in the wild. There it's just quiet. Only me and my team for miles around. I could keep them all out and talk to them whenever I wanted. We were free. Here we always have eyes on us. There are rules. People actually recognize us now, and I don't like it."

"It's just a part of growing up, Ash." She replied as they reached the top of the stairs. His mother turned to the left and he followed, intent on hearing her words. "You might be young, but to the world you're an adult. You're able to compete with the best and now everyone knows how special you are."

His mother sighed and glanced back at him and spoke again to try and lighten the mood. "Your battle with Jonathan was fantastic, by the way! I've never actually gotten to see you battle before, now that I think back on it."

"Thanks." He replied, a light smile on his face. "I'm going to go talk to him after this. He doesn't take losing well."

"I can only imagine." She said drily. Ash hadn't been very close to Jonathan or Amelia before they left on their journey together, but Pallet was a small town. If she didn't know the other boy from running the restaurant there were a dozen other ways she might have come into contact with Jonathan.

Footsteps. Sneasel hissed and peered up over Ash's shoulder, attracting his mother's notice for the first time. Her eyes widened in delight at seeing the small, surly dark-type. She had no fear of Sneasel. She knew how to calm him down: Nidoking, Torrent, Dazed…the list went on and on. All his mother had to do was mention one of their names and Sneasel would stop whatever ruckus he was causing – mostly because he knew she wasn't bluffing.

"Ah, Ash! It's nice to see you again." Professor Oak said pleasantly as he stepped into the hall. He'd abandoned his usual lab coat for a plain, button-down shirt. Not exactly casual, but a nice change on the older man. "Gary was just here, you know. I'd hoped he would stay to meet you."

"Don't worry. I met him." Ash frowned as annoyance at his rival flashed across his eyes. His mother, who had plucked Sneasel off of his back and had reduced him to a grudgingly purring blob of black fur, caught the expression and rolled her eyes. "He was as pleasant as ever."

Professor Oak sighed. "You're too harsh on him, Ash. I know Gary can be," Oak struggled to find the right word, "abrasive at times, but he's gotten much better. He's grown a lot."

"Maybe around you." Ash replied as he remembered the conversation with Gary. "I didn't notice a difference."

"I just want you to give him a chance and a bit of time." Oak told him seriously. "He stayed around Pallet for about a month while you were gone last time. I finally got through to him. I don't think you'll be best friends anytime soon, but you can at least respect each other."

Ash stared at the Professor, who seemed almost desperate for him to try and mend his relationship with Gary. He thought it odd, but shrugged it off. Oak had been hurt by Gary's behavior during their first year of training more than anyone. His esteemed rival hadn't visited often, although it seemed he changed a bit while Ash wasn't around.

He sighed. Ash would at least try not to keep a cool head around Gary next time they met, so long as his rival didn't antagonize him.

He'd do it for Professor Oak.

"Fine." Ash relented. "Don't expect a miracle, though. I don't think our recent meeting made us warm up to each other."

"That's more than enough for me." Professor Oak smiled. "All I ask is that you make an effort. I'll have a talk with Gary as well."

He gave the Professor a short nod and he and his mother followed as Oak waved them into a small lounge area. There was a huge TV that took up a good portion of one of the walls and several plush couches and chairs.

"Take a seat." He motioned to the numerous pieces of furniture with a casual flourish. Ash and his mother happily accepted. It felt like he'd been on his feet forever. "I suppose we should hurry this up. You said you wanted to stay out of the celebrations, correct?"

Ash nodded. "I'd rather not be around a bunch of drunken idiots. They're bad enough without the alcohol to help them out."

"I think you're being a bit harsh." His mother laughed with her hand over her mouth. Professor Oak just snorted with an amused smile on his face. "They're perfectly harmless…for the most part."

He shrugged unapologetically and looked over to Professor Oak, who looked as though he were about to say something.

"You need to stop hiding your strength." Oak began sternly. Ash frowned at him. This wasn't what he'd expected. It was rather abrupt, to say the least. "I know that you're confident in your skills. You have a right to be. There are only a handful of competitors capable of posing a challenge to you at this point."

Ash continued to watch the Professor, who was very serious about this. He didn't know why, but if Oak thought it was this important he should listen. It wasn't something he actually needed to hear, though. He'd already resolved to use his friends to their utmost potential in the coming battles.

"I just wanted to keep people from considering me too much of a threat." Ash explained to Oak. "I wanted them to underestimate me. I know I can't do that anymore – nobody's going to underestimate somebody who made it to the Top 32."

"Yes, yes." Oak waved his explanation off. "I'm aware of that. I just want to reinforce that knowledge. There have been far too many overconfident trainers that have lost earlier than they should have thanks to trying to use only the necessary amount of power. I don't want you to suffer that fate."

He smiled in thanks to the older man, but it twisted into a frown soon after. His mother watched him concernedly, an eyebrow raised in concern. "What is it, sweetie? Is something wrong?"

"When I met Gary, he mentioned that I wasn't the only one who'd received special training." He quoted and watched closely as Professor Oak's face colored a bit. It looked like his suspicions had been right. "Anything you want to tell me?"

Professor Oak shrugged apologetically and tried to ignore the surprised look his mother levelled at him. "Gary came to me for help. It was the first time he'd actually come back to see me. He'd reached his limits on his own and needed me to assist him – and it was my chance to finally get through to him. I've seen too many trainers ruined and corrupted by a lust for power to allow Gary to set his feet on the same path."

Oak sighed and leaned back into the soft cushions of his chair. He groaned in relief as he did so. "I was going to offer the same opportunity to you when you returned from your mission with Lt. Surge and Brock, but Lance contacted me first and spoke to me about his intentions. You would grow more with him than with me, so I said nothing."

"You could have told me that you were training Gary." Ash frowned, although he didn't show any hint of anger. Just disappointment. "He knew about my training but I was left in the dark."

"He didn't know the full extent of it." Oak corrected, although he had the good grace to look abashed. "I just told him that you were training with a rather powerful trainer and that he needed to focus to keep up with you. You were his motivation."

"I was going to tell you soon – tonight, in fact." The Professor assured him when he saw that Ash's frown remained steady on his face. "I'd meant to bring it up earlier…but, well, there never seemed to be a good time for it."

Ash just nodded and slackened his facial expression. He couldn't say that he was happy with Professor Oak never mentioning the fact that he'd trained Gary, but he would live with it. Besides, it would just give him more satisfaction when his friends beat his rival's team into the ground.

When Oak noticed Delia's frosty look – apparently she hadn't heard anything about it either – he raised a rough hand to placate the Ketchums. "I admit that I made a mistake. I didn't mean for it to seem like I was hiding one of Gary's advantages from you. Keep in mind, however, that he does not know the full extent of your strength either. There's a balance between the two of you."

He just hummed his acknowledgement, still not happy but somewhat understanding. Ash didn't want favoritism from Professor Oak and didn't expect it when matched up against Gary. But he would have preferred that Oak have kept them on equal standing. It was righted now, but Ash wasn't sure he would have come to anticipate Gary as a major threat had he not

Ash knew this could prove to be interesting. He'd expected Gary to be a worthy opponent. He had never expected him to be on a level even close to his own after he'd trained with Lance.

Now things might have changed. He didn't know how hard Oak had trained Gary – he knew the Professor was constantly busy with his experiments, work for Silph Co. and whatever it was he did for the League – but he knew that Gary would have improved greatly even if Oak just had Dragonite and Arcanine battle him constantly.

Lance had been correct in his claim that raw combat was the truest path to power – at least for teams like theirs, which relied on the direct approach and techniques to crush their foes. It had made Ash's friends strong. They knew their weaknesses and compensated. They learned their strengths and emphasized. Their bodies and powers were honed and sharpened as they fought Lance's monstrous team, each a match for a small army in the olden days and still formidable enough to keep Team Rocket hiding in the shadows in this modern world.

Experience and strength built up were nothing without proper training and technique, of course. Ash doubted Gary's training had been as thorough or complete as his own, considering that the Indigo Champion had focused all of his energy and resources on him for a month, but it still placed him as a credible threat, capable of trading blows with him longer than most at the very least.

The television's volume suddenly exploded in a cacophony of cheers and blaring music, instantly drawing the attention of the room's inhabitants. It looked like the last battle had just been completed in the Rock Stadium and the ceremonial end to the Preliminaries had begun.

"I should go." He directed to his mother and Oak, who gave a brief nod back. Ash really didn't want to get caught in the rush. "I think Jonathan should have cooled off by now."

"Visit soon!" His mother exclaimed as she pulled him into another tight hug, although this one wasn't quite tight enough to crush his ribs. "We'll be watching you, don't worry."

Ash smiled slightly but didn't say anything. His mother didn't expect him to.

"Keep pushing." Oak advised him, as though he were speaking from experience. "Lance has made you one of the top competitors here, but soon you will meet your match. Several trainers, once powerful forces in the battling scene, have returned to the Conference after a long absence. I believe that they can equal or defeat you, if not easily. You've attracted more eyes than you know, my boy. Don't allow yourself to be cowed."

"I won't." Ash swore to the Professor, forgetting some of his earlier annoyances with the man. He glanced again at the screen, where people were beginning to file out of the massive stadium. "I'll try and visit when I find the time. Probably tomorrow."

He took another moment to say his goodbyes before he stepped out of the room and headed down the stairs. As he stepped outside into the crisp night air, drowned in artificial light, he began to map his way to his own home.

The Stadiums' lights began to dim and he could hear the roars of thousands of people talking, even in the relatively isolated Village he had found himself in.

Ash picked up his pace and scratched Sneasel behind his feather. His friend had been oddly quiet in the home, even after he'd jumped back onto him from his mother's comfortable grip.

He couldn't hold back a soft smile when he glanced back and saw Sneasel's head buried into his shoulder, eyes closed and soft paws unconsciously clenching and unclenching, although his wicked claws did not extend. Ash lightly stroked Sneasel's forehead, eliciting a tired growl from the dark-type, before he set off into the bright night.

XX

"He's up in his room." Amelia pointed him in Jonathan's direction from where she sat on the couch watching the TV and sipping on a glass of water. It was the news coverage of the Indigo Conference, which was showing what was left of the competition and their teams. Ash would just look it up on the computer later. Much more efficient. "Jonathan should be fine by now."

"Thanks." He said tersely as he headed up the stairs. Ash had returned Sneasel to his pokeball long ago, once the sleeping dark-type had begun to slip off of him. Normally he'd let his team out the moment he returned to the house, but Ash figured they could wait a few minutes. They'd be bored by his conversation anyway.

Ash didn't knock. He opened the heavy wooden door silently and stepped in with no hesitance. There was no time for it.

Jonathan sat cross-legged on his bed, a deep frown on his face as he seemed to stare off into the endless reaches of the universe. Spearow, who Ash had seen only a handful of times, perched atop one of his shoulders, careful to keep its sharp talons from gripping too tightly.

"Hey." Jonathan said finally. Spearow stared at Ash with its sharp eyes. He didn't know it well enough to determine if there was any hostility in those eyes.

"Hey." Ash replied. He remained standing and crossed his arms. He'd known that this conversation would be necessary but he still didn't know what he was supposed to say. It seemed to be a recurring problem as of late.

They were silent for what seemed like an eternity. Ash just waited, never moving. Humans were complicated. He'd most likely make things worse if he tried to start this exchange.

"I thought I'd put up a better fight than that." Jonathan grumbled. "I thought I'd gotten strong enough to beat you, dammit!"

"You miscalculated."

"Damn right I did." Jonathan gave a short, barking laugh. For some reason Ash didn't think it was genuine. "You're the one I spent the last few months preparing for, you know. Not Gary, not even that jerk Paul. Ever since that battle on the St. Anne, right before we got split up, I wanted to beat you more than anyone else I've met. I guess I'm not even close to being as strong as I thought I was."

Ash folded his hands behind his back and regarded the other boy, who seemed to be awash with anger. Not at Ash, but at himself. Somewhat surprising. He'd half-expected blind anger.

He pondered how to approach this. What would Lance say?

That was a terrible idea.

What would Steven say?

"You aren't." He agreed, although he inwardly flinched at how it came out. Perhaps he had unconsciously decided on the Lance approach after all. Jonathan scowled at him. It looked like that comment had yanked him out of his sullen shell. "But I think you can be. You just need to keep training –"

"All I've been doing for the past year is training!" Jonathan exploded. Ash stared at him, unimpressed. He calmed down slightly but his face was red. "I've gotten a bit more experience, but I haven't gotten stronger in months! I've just fought the same people over and over and I don't have anything to show for it."

Jonathan breathed heavily as he glared at Ash. "How'd you get so strong, huh? You were always good, but I didn't think you'd be this far ahead of me. You made my team look like they were freshly hatched!"

"I trained a lot. Experimented with techniques a bit." Ash replied tersely. "I had good Masters. Bruno, for one. Seek out a teacher if you want to become stronger. I wouldn't say that there's a limit to how strong you can grow without a teacher, but after a certain point your growth will slow."

That was the truth. He'd still grown before Lance's training, but after Bruno's training it was slow. Increases in ability were more due to innovation in his techniques or experience adding up rather than growing in strength. It was very minor.

Lance had given him power along with giving him all the time he wanted to create his own techniques. He was one of the greatest catalysts for Ash's success in the Conference so far.

"I did something like that already." Jonathan muttered with a fierce scowl. It was decidedly unintimidating on the other boy's soft features. "While we were in Fuchsia I found this old Master of the fire-type. He was pretty weird, but he knew his stuff."

"And?" Ash prompted after Jonathan was silent for several seconds. The boy seemed rather annoyed at recalling the memories.

"He taught me a lot. I just had to pay him almost all of my money first. Everything I'd been saving up since the St. Anne. I still owe Amelia some money for buying my supplies back then." Jonathan admitted with a frown. "He's the reason Charizard's as strong as he is. That old man taught us Blast Burn and helped me harness Blaze. Without him I wouldn't have stood a chance against people like the ones I've fought here."

Ash nodded, well aware of how much training under a Master could improve a pokemon's abilities. The Master that had helped Jonathan seemed to be worth the cost. He wasn't sure how much money Jonathan had parted with, but he'd pay almost any sum to learn Blast Burn. The fire-type variant of Hyper Beam was an exceptionally rare technique, held almost exclusively by Fire Masters who jealously held their knowledge from all other trainers.

He had to repress a grin at the thought of Infernus with Blast Burn. Even Dragonite or Dov would shy away from that kind of power.

"You don't have to train under a Master. Just find a powerful trainer willing to take you under their wing." Ash shrugged. Jonathan looked slightly rebellious, so he continued with a frown. "You aren't really thinking about trying to train yourself to a higher level, are you? It's certainly possible, but at this point it'll take months of dedicated training to grow substantially stronger. You aren't a rookie that can improve in leaps and bounds anymore. You can grow, but there's a limit."

"Shut up, Ash." Jonathan growled halfheartedly. Ash supposed something he said might have offended him. "You think I can't do it? I don't need a teacher. I'll become strong on my own!"

Ash stared at him again, disbelief in his eyes at the other boy's impassioned words. He knew what he was talking about. Why couldn't Jonathan see that? "You'll grow strong…eventually. You'll be strong after you've sacrificed months and months to nothing but training."

His eyes narrowed and he repressed a grin as inspiration struck him. It seemed that spending so much time around the Indigo Champion had gotten a bit of the legendary trainer's personality to rub off on him.

"And quite frankly," he continued as the Feather pulsed against his chest and the spirit of Lance was channeled through him, "I don't think you have the balls for it."

"Wha –" Jonathan said dumbly as his jaw dropped. Ash supposed he couldn't blame him. Even he was slightly shocked at what he'd just said. "What?"

"You heard me." He pressed on, blood hot with the heat of the Feather. "You aren't dedicated enough. You like to play at being a trainer, but I don't think you'd actually be willing to really fight for your power."

Jonathan still stared at him numbly, as though he had never even expected this coming from Ash. There were the beginnings of anger on his face, as though he had suddenly remembered that he was supposed to be mad.

"How much have you trained?" Ash raised an eyebrow as he taunted Jonathan. He couldn't say he really felt comfortable doing this, but the Feather's heat urged him on. This was what Lance would do.

When the other boy made to spit back an answer, Ash cut him off. "Probably barely any compared to most trainers our age. You have Charizard and Gyarados, along with plenty of other powerhouses. Most pokemon that have been training for years can't stand up to them. You did well, but they could be much stronger if you didn't rely solely on their natural strength."

"So again, you don't have the dedication to be as strong as you want to be." Ash concluded with narrowed eyes. "You're weak."

"Shut up!" Jonathan roared, his fists clenched until they turned white with stress. Spearow clucked disapprovingly and fluttered off of the boy as he shot to his feet and glared at Ash with pure fire in his eyes. "I am strong! My team is strong!"

"You have the potential to be strong." Ash corrected. "More potential than most people can dream of. Your team could make it to the Top 16 easily next year if you just applied yourself. If you find in yourself the willpower to train yourself and your team for months on end or the willingness to get over your own pride and find a real, dedicated teacher that doesn't just want to take your money and throw you away I think you could take next year's Conference by storm."

Jonathan sat back down. His face was still red with anger but he didn't look as though he were about to throw a few punches at Ash. That was a good sign.

"You really think that?" He asked. Ash nodded. "…Fine."

The boy growled again as his glare renewed, although without the malice it had held before the boy had seen through Ash's words to find their true intent. "You might be right, but just wait! I'm going to catch up and beat you one day!"

Ash smiled and turned around as Spearow fluttered back onto Jonathan's shoulder. He was ready to leave. The Feather pulsed heavily from its position in his chest, in rhythm with his heartbeat. It might just be a trick, but it felt…happy?

Before he could step out, Jonathan called out his name. Ash turned his head so that he could see Jonathan out of the corner of his eye. He had calmed down a bit and seemed to have returned to the brooding state he'd been in initially.

"…Thanks."

Ash just flashed a slight smile back to the boy and stepped out of the room. It was getting late and he'd like to go to sleep. He would wait until tomorrow to speak to Jonathan again. He knew the importance of gathering one's thoughts.

XX

"How's it going?" Amelia yawned to him as he tiredly stalked down the stairs. She and Jonathan were already eating their breakfasts, twin bowls of cereal. Jonathan's looked like a Snorlax would struggle to finish it and poured cereal onto the ground with every movement of his spoon, but Ash had learned to ignore that.

"Fine." He said as Sneasel leapt onto his back and the rest of his team followed behind him with the notable exception of Torrent and Dazed. Torrent refused to get up this early if it wasn't an emergency or if they were traveling and Dazed had fallen into a meditative trance. She'd probably be staring into the lamp's dim light for another hour before she was ready to leave.

Jonathan stared up at him uncomfortably for a moment and opened his mouth as though he were about to say something, although it snapped shut when Amelia grimaced at the sight of half-chewed cereal and flicked him on the forehead.

"What was that for?" He grouched and glared at the girl, who sniffed and looked away. Jonathan growled in annoyance and choked down the rest of his food before he looked up at Ash again. "Yo."

"Jonathan." He acknowledged as he rooted around for anything that might look good. Oz brushed past him, careful to avoid touching him as electricity rushed through her coat. Ash just smiled at her as she walked by and glanced around at the rest of his friends, who had immediately headed for their own food bowls. It looked like one of the other tenants had considerately filled them up already. "Feeling better?"

The other boy was quiet for another moment. Amelia just stared at the TV, apparently trying to give the impression that she wasn't listening.

Her acting skills needed a lot of work.

"Yeah." Jonathan mumbled. "I have a lot to think about now."

He nodded and went back to rooting around in the cupboard. It seemed that he'd already eaten his way through most of his favorites – or else Sneasel had stolen them just to annoy him.

Regardless of the cause, this needed to be remedied. Immediately.

For now he went ahead and pulled an inferior brand out. No point in going hungry.

"Are you doing anything today?" Amelia asked.

"I'm going to visit my mother and Professor Oak again." He responded promptly as he filled up his own bowl. Sneasel attempted to reach out a stealthy paw and grab some of it for himself, but Ash absentmindedly smacked the soft appendage away. "Then I'll come back here and look up the competition."

"What a surprise." Jonathan commented with a roll of his eyes. Amelia just flicked him again. "Meh. You want to go meet up with our parents, Amelia? They'll probably leave soon since we aren't in the running."

"Yeah." Amelia said back. "What else do we have to do? It's not like we can train anymore."

Ash listened closely. The conversation had spun away from him, which he was grateful for, but Jonathan's reaction was something he was interested in. An unplanned test.

He was not disappointed.

"What're ya talking about?" Jonathan said loudly. "Of course we can! You want to get better, don't you? If we want to tear the competition apart next year we've got to get a move on!"

Ash smiled.

XX

His battle was about to begin. It would be of an altogether different sort than the Preliminaries. Six-on-six. Full teams arrayed against one another, each one of the best in Indigo.

He turned away from the computer. Ash had gotten to the staging area of the Indigo Stadium extremely early. His side was completely empty. There were far fewer battles now that most of the competition had been wiped out.

He'd taken the time to check up on his opponent, who had been revealed to him earlier that day.

Jessica.

It was a surprise, to say the least. He knew she was still in the running and was apparently a favored and very popular contender, but he'd never actually thought about battling her. He hadn't even had time to watch one of her battles, in fact.

That was a mistake he had been making up for the last two hours. He'd watched every video of her battles in this Conference and looked up the pokemon she'd entered. Being able to look up her team was a great benefit of making it to the Top 16, even if he didn't know which she would use in this battle.

Looking her up had been a good decision. Jessica and her Persian had torn their way through the Conference with contemptuous ease thus far. It had taken all three pokemon of her last opponent, a fellow rookie named Ritchie, to actually knock it out for good. And those three pokemon had been a Charizard, Pikachu, and a Fearow.

She was strong, but Ash was confident in his friends. He hadn't expected to face an opponent as strong as her until the Top 4, but he'd make do. His stay in the Conference wasn't done yet. Neither Ash or his friends were ready to bow out now.

Besides, what would Lance say if he didn't get past the Top 8? The Indigo Champion would most likely be exceptionally disappointed unless it were a battle against a truly outstanding opponent.

Jessica was very powerful, but he didn't think she was of the caliber that would excuse a loss to Lance.

No, he would win this.

"Are you ready?" He murmured to Nidoking, who he'd released earlier for some company. His voice echoed throughout the empty staging area, a reminder of how far he had come.

Nidoking grunted softly and tapped Ash's forehead with a dull claw. Ash smiled and patted his friend's heavily plated shoulder to return the gesture of affection.

"I don't know why I bothered asking." He laughed. "Of course you are. We are. We've come too far to lose now, haven't we?"

His first friend bared his fangs at him and growled in agreement, his eyes fierce. Nidoking's spirit was more than a match for Ash's own.

"Ash Ketchum, please report to the Indigo Stadium!"

"It's time. Let's do this." He said with a grin, the Feather's heat flowing through him in tune with his heartbeat. Jessica wouldn't know what hit her.

XX

He stared across the massive expanse of the ancient Indigo Stadium, every crevice and crack etched into his memory from countless hours of observation. Part of the field had been converted into a small lake, large enough for a Gyarados to move in comfortably, and there were parts that held spires of rock and patches of forest.

Most of it, however, was in its standard form: A perfectly flat battlefield that was massive enough to dwarf any of the lesser Stadiums in which he had already battled.

Jessica stared back, a slight smile on her face. Her giant of a Persian stood next to her, lazily surveying the arena. It didn't look like it wanted to battle.

The woman noticed him looking at her and gave him a cheery wave. Ash wasn't sure if she considered him a legitimate threat or not. Hadn't she heard about Jonathan's battle?

It didn't matter. If she didn't take him seriously then it would only aid him. He would take advantage of that arrogance while it lasted.

"Begin!" The referee shouted to the two opposing trainers as they prepared to battle for a position in the Top 16.

He was the one to send out the first pokemon. Ash knew that Jessica would most likely have something to counter any one of his friends, but he felt that his own team could match her without excessive difficulty.

There was a reason Jessica had so many fans in the crowd that voiced their approval for her during her return to the Conference. She didn't have a monolithic reputation that preceded her like Michael and the competitor from Unova did, but she was very talented. Her Persian could attest to that.

Persian. Marowak. Leafeon. Ninetales. Primeape. Magneton. Starmie. Miltank.

It certainly wasn't the largest team he'd seen, but he knew that each and every one of her pokemon was a credible threat. She had made it to the Top 16 her first year of training and could only have grown stronger since then.

Nidoking appeared in a flash of light, ready for battle. His horn dripped a single drop of poison as his narrow eyes glared over at Jessica.

She leaned up against the railing and pondered Nidoking with a smile on her face. Jessica casually raised a pokeball up and tapped the release to show Starmie. It was what Ash had expected. Starmie was the best counter for Nidoking she possessed.

Starmie's second set of "arms" wriggled slightly as it appeared and analyzed Nidoking. Its jewel shimmered and glowed with a rainbow hue as it made a strange groaning sound.

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