When One Door Closes, Two More Open

On the first day of his journey with his rebellious starter, Ash befriends a Spearow and a Rattata. Ash is seriously injured by Pikachu after saving the young spearow from a Thunderbolt, but the Spearow, her flock, and the Rattata save his life. With not one but two new starters, a strange new ability to understand Pokémon, and a calmer and smarter attitude, a new journey begins.

https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10779528/1/When-One-Door-Closes-Two-More-Open

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7. First Loss and Forging Your Path

Hi all! At a reviewer's request, I'm putting down the current list of Ash's Pokémon.

Fearow- Kiara

Rattata- Trevor

Mankey- Judy

Beedrill- Venom

Ash likes to have his Pokémon out of their Poké Balls, and space permitting, they'll be out as much as possible. I'm sorry if that gets confusing. Just let me know if there's any problems.

The reason Ash is so mellow and almost too perfect is because he's scared NOT to be. Due to having no friends as a child, he's trying his best to keep those he's got, and he fears abandonment. Once he starts learning that he can make mistakes and people will still care about him, he'll loosen up some and start developing more of a personality.

Okay, the Pika Poll on Pikachu's fate is now:

Fate One(Spearow Flock deals with him): 3 Votes

Fate Two: (Rangers get him, Pikachu will meet up with Ash and apologize, but still not be on his team): 8 Votes

Fate Three: (His fate remains unknown): 1 Vote

Pikachu's fate is in your hands, so review with what you want Pikachu's fate to be. The winning fate will be decided after Ash gets all his Badges.

I'm leaning in between either an extension of the carry limit(suggested by CharmedMillie) or a Mega Stone(Suggested by Guest98l01) Please, my lovely reviewers, let me know what you think!

         

"I can't wait to get to Vermillion City." Misty said eagerly. "They have a luxury cruise ship and I have to see that!"

"That's nice, Misty." Ash mumbled distractedly.

"Are you even listening to me?" Misty demanded, elbowing him.

Ash jumped and turned to look at her sheepishly. "Huh? Sorry, Misty. What were you saying?" She rolled her eyes at him.

"Someone has his head in the clouds today." Brock teased. "What were you thinking about so hard?"

"The Vermillion Gym. I was trying to figure out how to beat Lieutenant Surge's Raichu." Ash told them, looking slightly nervous when he said the word 'Raichu.' "Our Dig strategy isn't going to work since the Gym has a solid floor and I doubt Trevor's going to want to burrow through that. Plus, I doubt Lieutenant Surge is going to want several giant holes in the floor."

"Yeah, that would be bad." Trevor responded, picturing the floor collapsing under them.

"Kiara and Venom, you two have a type disadvantage against electricity, so you two are going to have to sit this one out. That leaves either Trevor or Judy, now how should we…"

"Ash, calm down." Kiara, who was flying overhead, told him. "We have a few weeks to think up a strategy." She knew this Gym was going to give Ash a bit of a problem. She had seen his face when he mentioned Lieutenant Surge's Raichu.

"Getting some more Pokémon might be a good idea." Misty suggested. "And you'll have to train really hard."

Ash nodded. "I know I will. Lieutenant Surge was a commanding officer in the war. He's really, really good, especially with Electrics and he's got to know a ton of battle strategies. He was one of my idols when I was younger. I really respect him."

"That's how you knew about him even though you didn't know the Leaders of the Cerulean Gym." Brock realized.

"Yeah. I've always looked up to him." Ash confessed.

As they rounded a bend in the road, a young boy with a Rattata by his side came up to them. "Hey. Would any of you like to have a battle with me?"

"Sure." Ash told him. "Hey, Venom, you up for a battle?" he called to his Beedrill, who was following behind them.

"Always." Venom said, moving to Ash's side.

The boy looked intimidated by the Beedrill, but continued anyway. "Rattata, go!" The Rattata stepped forward. "Use Quick Attack!"

"Dodge and use Twineedle, Venom!" Ash ordered. Venom dodged easily, then swooped at the Rattata, striking it twice. Due to the Rattata's low level, it was a one hit KO.

"Oh no! Rattata!" the kid cried. He recalled the small rodent to his Poké Ball. "You did a good job, Rattata." he murmured. The kid handed Ash the prize money. "You're a great trainer. I bet you could even beat AJ."

"AJ?" Ash asked. For some reason, the name sounded really familiar…

"Yeah. He lives right over there." The kid pointed behind him. "AJ trains savage Pokémon. He even built his own Gym. And he's never lost a single match!"

"Let's do it, Ash!" Judy said excitedly. She was eager for a battle, since she hadn't gotten to fight in the last Gym.

Ash too was eager. AJ sounded extremely tough, and Ash wanted to see if he could beat him. Plus, maybe he could figure out why the name seemed so familiar.

…...

Following the directions the kid had given them, Ash, his friends, and his team walked over to the Gym. It looked extremely professional and well made. An electronic scoreboard overhead read 98 Wins to 0 Losses.

"Wow." Misty breathed. "Ninety-eight wins. This guy's going to be tough."

"I know." Ash murmured. "But I'm still going to give it a shot."

"Are you my next victim?" a kid with black and green hair, an orange and black shirt, and blue pants asked, walking up to them.

"Are you AJ?" Ash asked.

"Yes, that's me." AJ said. "You looking for a match?"

Ash nodded. "Yes, I am."

"Well, prepare to lose. Beating chumps like you is my hobby." AJ taunted as he gestured Ash and his friends into the gym.

Ash bit back the retort that desperately wanted to come out, doing his best to shrug the insult off. He had learned the hard way that insults only got worse if he rose to them. Ash's Pokémon glared at AJ, and Brock and Misty exchanged concerned glances.

The Gym was well designed inside as well, with a dirt battle arena. "Wow…" Ash murmured.

"Not too shabby at all." Misty approved. This was almost as well built as one of the Pokémon League Gyms.

A Butterfree flew down to them, grabbing AJ's backpack off the ground and taking it into the tent. "What's in the backpack?" Ash asked curiously.

"The wild Pokémon I just caught." AJ replied. "There's a bunch more in the tent. And then some."

"Can I see them after the match?" Ash requested.

AJ shrugged dismissively. "If you want." He climbed up the steps to the arena carrying a brown whip. "So which Pokémon are you going to choose for my ninety-ninth win?"

Ash decided not to respond to that and just walked up into the arena.

"This will be a one on one match. Are you ready, kid?" AJ asked, wondering what was up with this kid, and why he wouldn't rise to his taunts. Most other challengers did, and it usually worked one of two ways. They would either give AJ a halfway decent challenge, or they would be so angry and arrogant that they'd do something incredibly stupid. So, what would this kid do?

"I'm ready whenever you are." Ash replied.

"Let's get started then." AJ said, throwing out a Poké Ball. His starter, a Sandshrew, appeared.

"A Sandshrew, huh?" Ash murmured. He looked over at his team. Kiara or Judy would probably be the best choice. And he could tell that Judy really wanted to be in this battle, so…

"Judy, I choose you!" Ash called. She gave the Mankey version of a grin and climbed into the arena.

"Sandshrew, go!" AJ ordered, cracking his whip near the Sandshrew.

"Judy, use Karate Chop!" Ash called. She ran at the Sandshrew, Karate Chop at the ready.

"Rollout!" AJ commanded.

"Jump over it, Judy!" Judy did, the attack missing her by centimeters.

"Good tactic, but not good enough!" AJ said. "Sandshrew, turn around!" Unbelievably, Sandshrew turned on a dime, heading straight for Judy.

"Block it with Karate Chop!" Ash ordered. Both attacks connected, and both Pokémon went flying backward.

Judy fell, but got up quickly. "Wow, that Sandshrew is fast…"

"Use Earthquake, Sandshrew!" AJ commanded.

"Judy, jump off the ground, quick!" Judy got off the ground just in time. Ash had to grab onto the side of the arena to keep himself from falling.

But AJ was prepared for Judy's tactic. "Use Rollout while she's in the air!" Sandshrew slammed into Judy, sending her flying. She landed hard on the ground about ten feet away.

"Judy!" Ash called in concern. She got up, groaning. "Ow… I'm not out yet, Ash!"

"Use Rollout again, Sandshrew!" AJ ordered.

"Block it with Karate Chop!" Ash called, knowing there was no time to dodge.

Judy struck the Sandshrew, but the force of the Sandshrew's attack was too much for her. She fainted. AJ's scoreboard went from 98 to 99.

Ash rushed onto the battlefield to check on Judy, spraying one of the Revives he had bought using his Gym winnings and a Super Potion on her. She groaned, sitting up. "Did you get the name of the Rhyhorn that hit me?" she joked.

"I'm sorry, Judy." Ash said softly. "I messed up with the strategy. You did great out there though." He was disappointed because he lost, but more scared of how Judy would react to it. What if she hated him?

"Hey, it's no big deal." Judy reassured as Ash helped her up. "Losses happen. My daddy always said that you learn more from your losses than your wins. We'll just have to train harder for the next time."

Ash gave a small smile, glad she wasn't mad at him. "Here. I'll put you back in your Poké Ball so you can take a rest."

"No thanks, I'm good." Judy replied quickly, shaking her head. She hated being inside Poké Balls, though she put up with it for Ash's sake. It was boring and lonely in there.

Ash nodded, understanding the problem, and put the Poké Ball back. He sprayed another Potion on her, just to be safe, then turned to AJ. "Thanks for the battle." he said, handing AJ the prize money.

AJ looked at him strangely. "That's it? No whining? No protesting? No accusing me of cheating?"

Ash gave him a confused look. "You didn't cheat. You beat me fair and square." And a teacher at Ash's school had always said that whining and protesting if you lost was the sign of a very poor sport, and that a good trainer should always have good sportsmanship, win or lose. Both Ash and Gary had got a very firm talking-to once about whining because they lost a match. The man had been one of Ash's favorite teachers, and Ash took his words to heart.

AJ stared at Ash for a minute, feeling some respect for his latest challenger. The kid might be inexperienced, but at least he was a good sport. And Ash had given him a decent challenge. "What's your name?" he asked.

"I'm Ash."

"Well, Ash, I have to admit you're not half bad. You actually gave my Sandshrew a workout." AJ stated. Ash wasn't quite sure how to take this backhanded compliment. "But I can see where you made your error. You trained on Attack and Speed, but neglected Defense, didn't you?" It was a rookie mistake that most trainers made, especially when they were first beginning. They taught their Pokémon new attacks and leveled them up, but forgot the importance of teaching them how to take a hit.

Ash had to admit that was true. He helped his Pokémon with learning new moves and boosting their Attack, and he worked especially hard on Speed, but besides having his Pokémon battle against each other, he did not do much training on Defense. "How did you get your Sandshrew's Defense so high?"

AJ smiled. He kind of liked being a role model to the less bratty younger kids. "Come in and see."

…...

Unbeknownst to the group, Team Rocket was spying on them from the trees during the battle. "That Sandshrew would make an excellent gift for the boss." Jessie mused. They had been wanting to get revenge on AJ for ruining their plans at the Pokémon Center anyway, and the bonus their boss would give them for such a tough Sandshrew would make their revenge all the sweeter.

"We should grab it." James said.

"Looks fat." Meowth stated, looking through his binoculars. "You two gotta carry it."

"Oh, great. Those other twerps and their crazy Pokémon are here." James groaned. They still had bruises from the last time…

"Well, we'll just grab them too. Put that smarty-pants Rattata and that vicious Fearow, Beedrill, and Mankey in their places." Meowth growled. "We can give them to the Boss as a bonus."

They thought of that for a few minutes, a thought bubble appearing over their heads. They pictured Giovanni, the head of Team Rocket, running frantically from Ash's vicious Pokémon. "I'm being chased and it's all the fault of Jessie, James, and Meowth!" the boss cried. "They're not only not getting a promotion, they're going to be FIRED! And they'll have to pay for my hospital bills!"

Team Rocket looked at each other in alarm. "Nah." they said simultaneously.

"They're really too common to be worth capturing anyway." James added quickly. "And we want only top-rate Pokémon."

"Yeah, let's steal the other twerp's Pokémon." Jessie decided. "He's got to have a lot of rare and valuable Pokémon. And the Boss will give us a big raise!" They cheered quietly, then had to hide behind the trees, as Trevor, hearing the slight noise, glanced over to see what it was. Thinking it must have just been a wild Pokémon he heard, Trevor turned away after a minute, and Team Rocket very nearly sighed in relief. After the group went into the tent, they began putting together a plan to ensure they would capture AJ's Sandshrew without getting pecked, karate chopped, stung, or bitten.

…...

Ash recalled Kiara before they entered the tent, not sure if it would be roomy enough inside for her to fit comfortably without knocking something(or someone) over. But the tent was a lot bigger on the inside than it looked from the outside, so he let her out once again. The Butterfree from earlier was battling with a Beedrill, and a Rattata was jumping through flaming hoops. At the center of the tent was a massive pool.

AJ turned to his Sandshrew and slipped some sort of device over its head. "Now it's time for some serious training! Get in the pool!" he yelled, snapping his whip at it.

"Hey!" Ash objected, about to charge forward and stop AJ from hurting the Sandshrew. Brock grabbed Ash's arm, not wanting his young friend to get into a fight with a kid that was much bigger than he was while defending a Pokémon that may not even need defending. This made Ash pause and stop to think. The whip, while being snapped near Sandshrew, hadn't actually touched it. And Sandshrew, who was climbing up to the diving board, didn't seem upset or scared.

"Sandshrew, dive!" AJ ordered.

"On it!" Sandshrew said, leaping into the pool face-first.

"Nice dive." Misty stated, awed.

"Won't the water hurt your Sandshrew?" Ash asked, worried about the Sandshrew. He was relieved when Sandshrew climbed out, unfazed.

"You're looking at the only Sandshrew in the world that's strong enough to withstand water." AJ said proudly. Looking at Sandshrew, he snapped, "Get back in the water!" Ash flinched, both at the tone AJ used with his Pokémon and his harsh training methods. Kiara too looked a little uncomfortable, as did Venom. Trevor and Judy seemed a little unsure, but not as worried as the others. Sandshrew was completely unbothered though, and simply climbed back up on the diving board and making another spectacular dive.

"Good job." AJ approved. He pointed to an area where two Rattata were waiting, and Sandshrew hurried over.

Ash noticed the device Sandshrew was wearing; multiple metal straps connected to a circular metal piece on Sandshrew's stomach. "What's that?"

"It's a strength intensifier." AJ told him.

"Who invented it?" Brock asked.

"I did." AJ said proudly. "It's my own secret weapon for unleashing a Pokémon's powers." He turned to where Sandshrew was curled into a ball, rolling between two Rattata. "Sandshrew, pick up your pacing!"

"Why are you so tough on Sandshrew?" Ash asked softly.

"I have to be tough." AJ assured. "But I ask no more of Sandshrew then I do of myself. The very best."

"But you aren't nearly as tough on any of your other Pokémon."

"That's because Sandshrew was the first Pokémon I ever caught." AJ explained. "I will never forget that moment." His eyes took on a faraway look. "We promised to do whatever it took to become the greatest Pokémon trainer of all time. Nothing would stop us from reaching our dream no matter how difficult our path. Enduring harsh storms and raging winds, we've sacrificed everything to achieve our dream. And it worked. We're an unbeatable team. And when we reach one hundred wins in a row, we're going to compete for Badges and become the greatest Pokémon Master there ever was!"

"Why are you waiting for one hundred wins to compete for Badges?" Ash asked.

"Because I don't want to be merely "good" but the best." AJ said fiercely. "And if I want to become a Pokémon Master, I have to train like a Pokémon Master."

Ash nodded. "I see your point." He did, but AJ's methods still bothered him a little. Did AJ really care about his Sandshrew, or just about winning?

"Your Pokémon are all in great shape, AJ." Brock said, walking over. "What type of food do you give them?"

"My own special recipe. C'mon, I'll show ya." AJ told him, opening a large cabinet filled to the brim with jars of labeled Pokémon food. As AJ and Brock discussed Pokémon recipes, Ash walked over to Kiara, who was lying down and watching AJ's Pokémon train.

Checking to make sure AJ wasn't listening, Ash crept up to Kiara's side and whispered, "What do you think about this?" He scratched her side as he talked, trying to make it look like he was simply spending time with his Pokémon.

"I think that strength intensifier looks uncomfortable." she murmured as she watched Sandshrew and Judy, who had joined in on the training, lift weights. Venom was talking to the Beedrill, and Trevor was watching the Rattata.

"I agree, but I meant AJ's training methods. Do you think they're a little… harsh?"

"Yes I do, but his Pokémon seem okay with it, and that's what counts." she replied softly. Neither she or Ash noticed AJ watching them out of the corner of his eye.

"I guess you're right." Ash whispered.

Venom, having only been a short distance away, overheard. "I can ask them if they're okay if you want me to." he called. Ash gave a slight nod, not wanting AJ to overhear. Venom whispered the situation to Ash's Sandshrew.

Sandshrew walked over to Ash. "I know AJ's methods seem harsh, but he's a good trainer. He cares about us. And we care about him." he reassured. Ash let out a soft sigh of relief.

"Hey, Ash, can you come over here a second?" AJ called. Ash walked over and AJ led him to a private corner of the tent. "You're one of those Speakers, aren't you?" he whispered.

Ash backed away a step nervously. "I-I don't know what you mean." he lied.

"I mean, you can understand Pokémon. And you're a terrible liar."

Ash was scared. He had accidentally revealed his ability to a complete and total stranger! How could he have goofed this bad? Ash's Pokémon saw his distress, and rushed over thinking AJ was threatening him. Misty and Brock noticed as well, and went over to see what was going on. "What's the problem?" Misty asked.

"He knows." Ash whispered.

"Chill out. It's okay." AJ reassured. "My little cousin can understand Pokémon too. I'm not going to tell if that's what you're scared of." Ash relaxed a little and so did his Pokémon. Kiara could tell that AJ was telling the truth, and reassured the other three.

"Thanks." Ash whispered. "Misty and Brock know, but I'm trying to keep it a secret from the rest of the world. I guess I'm not very good at it." he admitted. "But how were you able to tell?"

"I started to suspect when I noticed you whispering to your Fearow. The fact that you kept looking over to see if I was watching meant you had something to hide. Your nervousness is what ruined your charade. And when my Sandshrew walked over and started saying something to you, I knew for sure. Don't act so obvious that you're hiding something, and be careful where you're talking to your Pokémon if you want to keep your ability secret." AJ advised.

"I can't believe I messed up that bad at keeping a secret." Ash muttered. He'd have to be a lot more careful from now on.

"Most people either won't notice or won't care." AJ reassured. Ash reminded him a bit of his little cousin, of whom he was very fond. "A lot of people talk to their Pokémon even if they can't hear the responses back like you can. Plus, some Speakers have even gone public with their ability and don't bother to hide it. I think you're wise to try to keep it a secret, though. Criminal gangs like Team Rocket could try to exploit it, so be careful."

"I will." Ash promised. Then the mention of Team Rocket made him realize where he had heard AJ's name before. "Hey, AJ, were you the one who defeated those Team Rocket goons that were trying to rob the Pokémon Center in Viridian City?"

"Yeah, that was me." AJ said. "How'd you know?"

"Heard it on the news." Ash replied.

AJ rolled his eyes. "Those guys were complete idiots. One of the easiest battles I've ever had."

What none of them knew was that said idiots were outside, and were doing the finishing touches on their plan to steal AJ's Sandshrew. They had gotten a hollow red ball to hide in so they could sneak in and grab Sandshrew without getting creamed. Thankfully, they were too busy arguing about possible changes to their motto and making their own theme song to hear Ash and AJ discussing Ash's ability.

Inside the tent, a bell rang and AJ turned to his Pokémon. "Okay, you wimps get a fifteen minute break!" AJ called. Once again, Ash flinched at the tone, even though he now knew AJ cared about his Pokémon. All of AJ's Pokémon laid down to rest, panting. All except Sandshrew fell asleep.

AJ led Ash, Brock, and Misty to a closed off area in the tent where his inventions were stored, showing them some of the training equipment he used and even giving them a peek at his newest inventions. Kiara, Venom, and Judy followed, but Trevor was curious about something else. He went over to Sandshrew as Sandshrew was taking his strength intensifier off. "Can I try that on? I want to see how it works."

Sandshrew shrugged. "Sure." He handed the strength intensifier to Trevor.

Trevor tried to pull the stretchy metal bands of the suit over himself, but failed, getting himself tangled. He tried to struggle free, only getting himself more stuck, until he was in the shape of a ball. Rolling around frantically and hoping to find Ash so that his trainer could rescue him, he yelled, "Help! I'm in a predicament!" Well, he tried to, but the words didn't come out too well, considering that his face was pressed into his stomach. Sandshrew laughed, rolling into a ball just like Trevor.

Team Rocket rolled in with their protective ball. Managing to roll over to Sandshrew and grab him, they got to their feet dizzily and ran out the door, nearly bumping into the side of the tent on their way out.

The bell rang, and AJ walked out of the back area, followed by the others. "Time's up! Back to work, all of ya!" he yelled. His team woke up and quickly went back to their exercises. Then he looked around, confused and starting to get worried. "Where's Sandshrew? And what's your Rattata doing?"

Ash saw the purple ball that was Trevor rolling around madly. "Trevor!" he cried, running over to his starter and trying to detangle him. "What happened?" Kiara, Judy, and Venom ran over to help, trying not to laugh at Trevor's predicament. Both Ash and Judy tried tugging at the metal, but the only result they got was Trevor squeaking in pain.

"Here, give it to me." AJ said, pressing the secret lever that opened the strength intensifier and untangling Trevor. He set Trevor gently on the ground, and the dizzy Rattata tried to take a few steps before falling.

Ash scooped up Trevor, hugging him. "Are you okay?"

"Can someone stop the room please? I want to get off." Trevor groaned, the room spinning around him from all the rolling he had done. After a minute, the dizziness subsided, and Trevor looked up at his concerned trainer. "I'm fine now, but that's the last time I try on a strange device to see how it works." He looked at Kiara, Venom, and Judy, who were all barely holding back laughter.

"Well, they say curiosity killed the rat, or at least got him all tangled up." Judy teased.

"Well, at least he had a ball." Venom laughed.

"Venom, that was the worst pun I've ever heard." Kiara stated, shaking her head. Trevor glared at his teammates, though he was more embarrassed than angry.

"Thanks, AJ." Ash said.

"No problem." AJ replied, still looking around for Sandshrew. "Trevor, have you seen Sandshrew?" he asked, having heard the Rattata's name.

Trevor shook his head. "The only thing I saw was my own stomach."

"You haven't?" AJ asked, the confident trainer looking more afraid than anyone had ever seen him. "Sandshrew! Where are you?" he called.

"Maybe he ran off because-" Misty started. She was trying to say that Sandshrew had run off to get a drink of water or go outside, but a panicked AJ thought she meant something entirely different.

"Sandshrew wouldn't leave me! We've been together a long time! Sandshrew wouldn't break the promise we made, not after everything we've been through, not before our hundredth victory!" AJ's voice was wavering between angry and terrified. It was obvious to all that he was afraid Sandshrew truly had left him.

"AJ, that's not what I meant!" Misty protested. "I meant maybe he had to go outside or get a drink of water."

"His drinking bowl and litterbox are inside." AJ told her, looking sheepish at his outburst. He went outside the tent anyway, looking around. "Sandshrew!" But Sandshrew wasn't anywhere to be found.

"Did you find him?" Ash asked as the group walked outside.

"No." AJ whispered.

"AJ, Sandshrew wouldn't leave you." Ash reassured. "When we were talking, he told me that you were a good trainer, that he cared about you and you cared about him. He wouldn't have said that to me if he was running away."

AJ gave a faint smile at that, but his expression soon turned back to worry. "Then where could he be? It's not like Sandshrew to just wander off." He went back inside the tent and told the rest of his team, "Move it. We need to go find Sandshrew."

"Maybe one of them saw something." Brock suggested.

"They were asleep when we came out of the back room." AJ said.

"I might have seen something." one of AJ's Rattata put in hesitantly. "But it was so weird that I may have just been dreaming. A giant red ball with arms and legs grabbed Sandshrew and ran out of the tent. And there was this little purple ball that was rolling around screaming…" Trevor turned red at this.

Ash relayed the Rattata's words to AJ. It was the only clue they had. AJ looked at his Rattata strangely. "I KNEW I needed to add less Bluk Berries to your food…"

"Actually, there may be something to this." Trevor murmured. "Who do we know that uses ridiculously complicated plans to steal Pokémon?"

Ash's eyes widened as he translated Trevor's words for AJ. "Team Rocket!" he realized.

AJ stared at him. "You think Team Rocket grabbed my Sandshrew?"

"Who else would think up such a strange plan?" Misty said. "We've dealt with them twice now. Let's just say their methods are off the wall."

"We've got to find Sandshrew!" AJ said frantically. "Beedrill, Butterfree, patrol the air; see if you can spot either them or their balloon."

"Venom, Kiara, help them, but be careful!" Ash told his Fearow and Beedrill. Everyone rushed off to search for AJ's kidnapped Sandshrew.

…...

Meanwhile, Team Rocket, who had run a short distance away, stopped to catch their breath.

"Those clowns will never find us." Jessie said.

"I'm exhausted." James panted. "You take the bag now."

"But a real gentleman always carries the bag." Jessie replied sweetly.

"Is that so?" James retorted, pushing the bag at Jessie. "Well, as you know, I'm no gentleman!"

Sandshrew burst out of the bag as they were fighting, knocking Jessie and James over, and rushing back towards his trainer, unknowingly dragging Meowth with him.

…...

As the group exited the tent, hoping to find Sandshrew, Sandshrew found them first, rushing towards them and accidentally knocking over Ash in his panic. Sandshrew leapt into AJ's arms, and AJ hugged him tightly. "Sandshrew. I'm so glad you're okay!" Sandshrew licked AJ's cheek, happy to be back in his trainer's arms. AJ's other Pokémon crowded around them, relieved that their friend was safe.

Judy helped her dazed trainer up, and Ash smiled to see AJ and Sandshrew reunited. Despite AJ's tough training methods, it was obvious that AJ cared for his Pokémon very deeply.

"Hey, what's this doing here?" one of AJ's Rattata asked, prodding the knocked out Meowth that Sandshrew had dragged in with him and yanking at the gold coin on Meowth's forehead.

"It's Team Rocket's Meowth." Ash said, walking up to them and leaning over Meowth.

"Obviously." the Rattata said, rolling his eyes in a manner that reminded Ash of Trevor. Ash blushed, feeling a little stupid.

Ash probably shouldn't have got so close to Meowth, because when the Scratch Cat Pokémon opened his eyes, he panicked and clawed Ash right in the face. Ash cried out in pain, covering his face. As you can imagine, this enraged Ash's Pokémon.

"Hey, where am? What's going on here?" Meowth asked, looking around and seeing everyone glaring at him. He barely evaded a Karate Chop from a very angry Judy, and was struck by several pecks from a pissed off Kiara. He ran screaming, Ash's Pokémon and AJ's chasing after him.

"How am I going to get out of this mess?" a scared Meowth wondered aloud as a Twineedle from Venom missed him by millimeters.

"Prepare for trouble!" a welcome voice, well, only welcome to Meowth, announced. It was Jessie.

"Make it double." James's voice added. Meowth ran up to Jessie and James, hiding behind them. "Use the old motto!" Meowth said.

"To protect the…"

"SHUT UP!" Trevor yelled, charging at them. Those three had almost killed two of his friends; now he was out for blood. Ash's other Pokémon followed, shocked at the demeanor of the usually level-headed Rattata.

"Don't ever interrupt the motto!" Jessie yelled, releasing Ekans as James released Koffing.

Ash was about to send in Kiara to help Trevor, when AJ blocked him. "I'll take care of this. They grabbed my Sandshrew; now I'm gonna get my revenge. Sandshrew, go!"

"You get the ball of gas; I'll get the overgrown worm?" Trevor asked.

"Deal." Sandshrew replied. Ekans and Koffing growled at being insulted.

"Ekans, bind that rat now!" Jessie ordered. Trevor nimbly dodged the attack, and Ekans ended up tying itself into a knot. Trevor used Hyper Fang, knocking the Snake Pokémon out in one blow.

"Nice!" Sandshrew said, impressed.

"Thanks." Trevor told him. "Your turn."

"Koffing, Sludge Attack!" James commanded. Koffing shot off a black ball of ooze. Sandshrew rolled into a ball and spun, deflecting the sludge. "Meowth, don't just stand there!" James yelled.

Meowth ran onto the field, batting the Sandshrew ball around playfully.

Trevor shook his head. "Okay, that's just pathetic."

"Stop pussy-footing around!" Jessie shouted at Meowth.

"Just "biting" my time." Meowth replied, sinking his fangs into the Sandshrew, then screaming in pain. Trevor rolled his eyes.

"Finish them! Sandshrew, Fissure Strike!" AJ yelled.

"You might want to move." Sandshrew advised Trevor. He leapt in the air and spun, diving headfirst towards the ground. Trevor moved to the side and out of the way as Sandshrew punched the ground. A crack began forming, small at first, but quickly getting larger. One of Ash's feet was near the crack and he almost fell, but Judy grabbed him, pulling him to safety.

Dazed and bruised, Meowth, Koffing, and Ekans pulled themselves out of the split. "That's it! I forfeit the match!" Meowth cried, running away, Ekans and Koffing quickly following behind him.

"Come back here!" Jessie yelled, running after them.

"Meowth, where are you going?" James called, following.

"To write us a theme song!" Meowth shouted back.

"Not that again!" Jessie groaned as Team Rocket disappeared into the distance.

"Um…" Trevor started.

"I really don't want to know." Judy said, shaking her head.

"We did it!" AJ cheered. "We reached victory number one hundred!" The scoreboard changed from 99 to 100.

"How'd you change the scoreboard?" Misty asked, befuddled. That was the second time the scoreboard had changed without any buttons being pressed on it.

"Remote control." AJ replied. He turned to Sandshrew, hugging him. "Today, all our sacrifices and hard work have finally paid off! Now we can start winning our Badges!"

Outside the gym, the group said goodbye to their new friend. "Once I come back here, I'll be the greatest Pokémon Master of all time." AJ said, looking one last time at his Gym.

"Some day we'll meet again at the big Pokémon League competition." Ash said, holding out his hand.

"Make sure you're in tip-top shape." AJ told him, shaking Ash's hand. "Because I only want to beat expert trainers."

"It's a deal." Ash said. "But watch out! Next time, I just might beat you!"

"He's tough, but pretty cool." Misty put in.

"Looks like you found another rival." Brock told Ash as they watched AJ walk away.

…...

That evening, Ash was quiet and contemplative as he snuggled into Kiara's side and scratched Trevor's back as the Rattata lay on his lap, eyes closed in bliss. He watched Venom chase Judy around. Judy had thrown a clump of grass at Venom playfully, starting the combination tag game/wrestling match. Misty was sitting on the picnic blanket reading a magazine she had brought, and Brock was fixing dinner.

Brock left his pot of soup on the fire to simmer and walked over to Ash. "You okay? You've been quiet all evening."

"Do you think I need to be more like AJ to become a good trainer?" Ash blurted out. Trevor opened his eyes and stared at his trainer in shock. Venom and Judy heard the outburst, stopped their game, and went over to their trainer. Misty set down her magazine and listened.

"Ash, you already ARE a good trainer." Kiara reassured, nuzzling him. The others nodded. "What makes you think you aren't?"

"I messed up today, and Judy fainted because of it." Ash replied softly.

"Hey, I lost too. Does that make me a bad Pokémon?" Judy asked.

Ash looked at Judy in horror. "Of course not! You're a great Pokémon!"

"And you're a great trainer." Judy said firmly. "Like I said before, losses happen. They were more experienced than we were. We'll train, and get stronger and more experienced."

"Ash, you don't need to be exactly like AJ to become a great trainer." Brock assured. "Every trainer has a different training style, and personally, I don't think AJ's style fits your personality at all. If you want to learn how to improve your Pokémon's defense, I'll teach you some of my techniques, but don't try to be someone you're not."

"And if you tried using a whip like AJ, you'd probably whack yourself right in the eye." Misty teased, trying to lighten Ash's mood. Plus, that was probably true. Her raven-haired friend was definitely not the most graceful person in the world. Ash laughed a little at that, knowing she was right.

"And frankly Ash," Venom added. "I'm glad you're not AJ, because I don't think AJ would put up with me and my wierdness." There was laughter in his tone, but also sadness. Venom had never really fit in with his hive. This group was the only real friends he ever had.

"Oh, Venom, you know we love you, wierdness and all." Kiara said. Ash, Judy, and Trevor nodded, smiling at the Beedrill. Venom brightened at that and smiled back. Kiara turned to Ash. "And Ash, win or lose, we'll still think you're the greatest trainer ever." She knew that was why the loss had bothered Ash so much; that they'd think less of him or reject him for having lost a match. Mentally, she cursed Pikachu and Gary for bringing Ash's confidence so low that he feared his own Pokémon would reject him over a measly battle or a tiny mistake.

Ash smiled, hugging his team. "Thanks. And Brock, I'll take you up on your offer."

"I'll start teaching you Defense techniques tomorrow." Brock told him.

"And Ash? There's another reason I'm glad you're not AJ." Trevor said. "I'd really rather not get my head stuck in one of those stupid Strength Intensifiers again."

Ash burst out laughing, then managed to compose himself enough to tell Brock and Misty what Trevor had said, which sent the whole group into fits of laughter.

Once everyone calmed down, Brock went back to his soup and Misty to her magazine. Now that Ash had cheered up, Judy and Venom returned to their game. Then Judy had an idea.

"Hey Ash!" she called playfully. When he turned to look at her, she threw a soft clod of dirt at him, hitting him in the shoulder.

Laughing, Ash gently pushed Trevor off his lap, getting up and running after Judy. "I'm gonna get you for that!" He managed to get close to Judy, and dived to catch her, only to have her dodge, and he landed flat on his face. "I'm okay!" he yelled, getting up and chasing after a laughing Judy again.

"Wait for me!" Venom called, scooping up Trevor gently with the side of his arm needles.

"Hey! Put me down!" Trevor shouted, wiggling.

Kiara started laughing, then chased after Venom. "I'll save you, Trev!" Brock and Misty watched with smiles on their faces. It was nice seeing Ash actually act like the ten year old kid he was. Misty and Brock let out their own Pokémon as well, and a huge game of tag started, which Misty joined in on. After an hour and a half of playing, Brock called everyone over for supper, and the game was reluctantly put on pause. After dinner, the game started up again, Brock even joining in this time. It lasted until it was too dark to see, and after Ash managed to run facefirst into a tree, the game was called off, and everyone soon hit the sack.

…...

There are many training styles, and many paths to the Pokémon League. Ash would find out through experience that though listening to the advice of others will always help, in the end, the path you choose should be the one that feels right for you, not always the one that is right for another trainer, because every trainer is different. He would find his own path through wins and losses, highs and lows, but no matter which one it was, his Pokémon and his friends would always be by his side.

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