Essence

Ash has always wanted to be a pokemon master. When the time comes for him to pick out his first pokemon, he shocks Professor Oak with a peculiar request. One thing leads to another, and he ends up with a loyal Growlithe. How will this unique situation affect the boy's destiny?

https://www.fanfiction.net/s/11113835/1/Essence

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18. Kanto 6 Part 2

After listening to Wallace's proposition, they could use every bit of extra power that they could acquire…

As Squirtle emerged from his shell, Ash approached the somewhat disoriented water-type. Although it wasn't nearly as bad as when Ash had first started teaching Squirtle Rapid Spin, the stony-faced turtle was still battling the dizzying side-effects. The pokedex revealed that Squirtle's internal recoil would go away in due time, albeit Ash hoped it dissipated sooner rather than later. Rapid Spin would be a formidable technique once finished, and Ash wanted nothing more than to have it as an option against Team Rocket.

"Is it becoming more natural?" asked Ash with a curious eye. "Are you feeling any better?"

Squirtle nodded his head before tensing his leg muscles in preparation to launch into another Rapid Spin.

"Stop, Squirtle," commanded Ash. "Take a breather. Rest is part of the process. We'll pick it up again in a couple of minutes."

The turtle pokemon let out a noise that was similar to that of an aggravated groan before relaxing his contracted muscles. It was pretty apparent that Squirtle wanted to continue to develop Rapid Spin. Nevertheless, Ash knew what was best. It wasn't beneficial to continue to procure any more disequilibrium within Squirtle's vestibular system. A few moments rest, to gain sufficient balance, would be the best course of action.

"Don't complain," muttered Ash lightly, "you know I'm right. There's plenty of time left in the day. No need to spin yourself sick."

For a short moment, Squirtle looked at Ash inexpressively before obediently sitting down cross-legged. It was rather clear that Squirtle was annoyed. The water-type had a lot of pride, and he didn't like the fact that he was being slowed down on account of something trivial like dizziness.

"Two minutes," said Ash, "that's all I'm asking for. After two minutes, you are more than welcome to start at it again."

Squirtle's agitated eyes seemed to lighten a bit. He could wait, two minutes wasn't very long after all.

"You've got quite the iron-willed water-type," snickered Wallace with a smile. "He definitely has the drive to be a great one."

"That's for sure," answered Ash as he turned away from his squirtle. "Iron-willed and poker-faced, those two words explain Squirtle in a nutshell."

The turtle pokemon crossed his arms and followed their conversation with his eyes. His vision was still a little blurry because of all of the Rapid Spins. However, with every second that passed by, he was starting to feel a little less flushed. The recovery time was most definitely diminishing. Soon it would be vacant, leaving him capable of using Rapid Spin at will without any repercussions.

"Ash, can I talk to you real quick while Squirtle's resting?" asked Wallace as he grasped the ten-year-old's shoulder.

"Of course…what is it?" asked Ash with a curious disposition.

"I just want to talk about your role in this operation," said Wallace. "Are you sure you're up for it? I'm aware that I have given you and Austin a lot of responsibility, but I don't want you to feel like you're obligated to participate. The ACE trainer trainees are more than strong enough to handle your team's job on their own.

"To be quite frank, they don't need you or Austin. That being said, no matter your age, you have a right to help. You've been exposed to Team Rocket; you've seen what they can do. Ash, you no longer are oblivious to the anguish of this world. A pokemon trainer that has seen the face of evil and chosen not to run can no longer be looked at as a child."

Ash didn't think twice. "I want to help. Even if they don't need me, I need to be there. I'm strong enough to fight."

A small smile formed across Wallace's face. "That's what I thought. You're a brave kid, Ash. No doubt about it."

"Thanks," muttered Ash as he bashfully scratched the back of his head.

Even though Ash was nervous, he was kind of looking forward to taking on Team Rocket. The ten-year-old boy needed to face them. He needed to confront the fear that was welling up inside him. The past three days had been brimming with intrusive thoughts and anxiety. Ash needed tomorrow in order to cinch his nerves. The anticipation was killing him. Until he came face-to-face with the organization that mercilessly blew up the SS Anne, he wouldn't be able to step forward with confidence. Simply put, this was a test. Destiny was testing his fortitude. How would he fare? He had to know.

Ash's thoughts were interrupted when he saw Squirtle stand up out of the corner of his eye. Although his facial expression was lifeless, the turtle pokemon's eyes portrayed vigor. He was ready to continue his training.

"Well, that's all I had to say," muttered an amused Wallace. "I'll let you get back to your training."

"Alright," answered Ash, "thanks for your concern, Wallace. It means a lot."

"Concern comes with friendship," replied Wallace as he began to make his way back to the gym's lounge.

"That's for sure," replied Ash before Wallace's proximity grew too far to speak in his natural intonation. In precedence to Wallace exiting the gym's tile based arena, which Sabrina had given him permission to use, Ash had an idea, "Hey, Wallace, wait up!"

Right before exiting the expansive room, the turquoise haired Champion briskly turned around. "What is it!?"

"Squirtle's a water-type, and you're a water-type master!" howled Ash—hands wrapped around his mouth like a megaphone

Wallace started to walk back towards Ash as he guessed the boy's forthcoming request. "And…?"

"Could you give me some pointers, Wallace?" queried Ash with conviction.

"I was starting to think you'd never ask," said Wallace with a smile. "Of course, I'd love to help."

"What do you say, Squirtle?" questioned Ash. "How would you feel about some pointers from the greatest water pokemon trainer on the planet?"

Squirtle's facial expression depicted indifference, albeit his eyes gleamed with interest. Ash had spent enough time with his water-type to know that he was excited. It was time to master Rapid Spin and procure as much wisdom from Wallace as possible. They would need it against Team Rocket.

XXX

"Who would have thought that the Saffron Gym had rooms?" questioned Austin as he threw himself onto one of the two twin beds.

"Not only is this a gym, but it is also my home," answered Sabrina tonelessly, "I had this room arranged for you two last week. As I said earlier, I have been aware of your arrival for quite some time."

The room was medium-sized and rather plain. Ash didn't mind the lack of embellishment, though. At least he had a bed to sleep in. Well, even if he didn't stay at the gym, he would have slept fine. Their original plan was to stay at the Pokemon Center. Even Bill was unaware of the fact that the Saffron Gym had rooms that they could stay in. In fact, Bill was offended that Sabrina hadn't mentioned it to him before now. It was pretty clear that Sabrina either didn't like Bill or highly enjoyed messing with him. Whatever the case, it was amusing.

Other than the two twin beds, the only other noteworthy things in the room were a small portable desk that supported a desktop monitor and a quaint, frizzy, purple rug in the center of the room. As Ash sat down on his one person bed, he sighed. The lack of sleep, over the past couple of nights, had him instantly yearning to crawl under the covers. If Austin didn't mind the ethereal presence in the room, maybe Ash would let Haunter eat his dreams tonight. A dreamless sleep sounded pretty good to the tired ten-year-old.

"I'll leave you two to settle in," said Sabrina with vacant eyes. "My chef will have dinner ready shortly. Feel free to use the computer if you wish."

"Sounds good!" blurted Austin as he stretched out in his bed.

"Thanks, Sabrina," answered Ash, "how will we know when dinner's ready?"

The dark-haired boy hadn't had anything substantial to eat since breakfast, and his stomach definitely wasn't happy about it. It was blatantly clear that everyone in the room could hear his belly's pleas for sustenance. However, there were no reactions from Austin or Sabrina. The psychic virtuoso didn't really show any emotion towards anything, and Austin had no room to judge. His stomach was protesting just as loudly maybe even more so.

"I'll send Wallace or Bill," replied Sabrina monotonously.

Ash affirmatively nodded his head as Austin gave Sabrina a dopey thumbs-up.

"Okay," said Sabrina as she began to back out of the room. "I am going to go now. I need to have a quick conversation with Wallace and Bill concerning tomorrow. There are a lot of components of this plan that still need to be put in motion."

"Alrighty," drawled Austin, "see you in a bit."

Ash simply waved, not seeing the need to say goodbye with his words. Sabrina was probably reading his mind anyway. Besides, it wasn't like anyone was actually going anywhere. They would all be reconvening soon for dinner, which Ash couldn't wait for.

After Sabrina left the room, there was a brief moment of silence before Austin spoke up. "So, what do you think, dude?"

"About?" queried Ash, even though he was rather certain he knew what Austin was talking about.

Austin emitted an exasperated sigh. "This plan…I can't get my mind off of it. There are a lot of ifs and not a lot of facts. I'm a little worried, aren't you?"

"Yeah, I am," replied Ash, "but it's the best course of action. We don't have very much information to go off of."

"I know…" drawled Austin, "but still...Team Rocket's been dormant for a long time, who knows what they have at their disposal? We can't take them lightly. I know you and I should be up against grunts, but how can we know for sure? We've got to be ready for anything."

"I agree," answered Ash, "that's why we've got to stick together like Wallace said. The trainees should be able to take on anything that's out of our league. If we have each other's backs, we should be fine."

"To be honest, it's not us that I'm worried about," said Austin.

"Huh?" questioned Ash—confused. "If you're not worried about us, what are you worried about?"

"Everyone..."

"Everyone?" asked Ash, "what do you mean everyone?"

"Well…" mumbled Austin, "if things go awry, who knows what kind of damage will be accumulated. Ash, were in the middle of a freaking city. Think of all the people. We may know that the location of the warehouse they are holding Robert in is isolated, but what about the other hideout? Where the hell is it? We're relying on Growlithe and any other ACE trainer trainees' tracking pokemon to find it."

He paused.

"Dude, what if it's in the middle of the city? What the hell do we do then? So many people could get hurt. Pokemon battles are one thing, but this is different. Our pokemon are going to be fighting with all they got. The aftermath could be catastrophic."

Ash was surprised to say the least. Austin was usually calm and level-headed, but right now the teenager was legitimately distressed. He was thinking of things that Ash hadn't really considered beforehand. They hadn't even talked about these different scenarios in the meeting. All of their discussions had implied that Team Rocket was probably hiding out in the outskirts of the city. If they were located in the heart of Saffron things could get really ugly.

This was a top-secret operation...not even the League knew about it. Ash assumed that Sabrina had yet to inform the ACE trainer trainees; they hadn't arrived after all. There were a lot of ifs, ands, and buts—almost nothing was concrete. The citizens had no idea what was about to happen. Team Rocket had no idea what was about to happen. And unfortunately, they themselves had no idea what was going to happen. There only edge was that they knew there would be a battle. Hopefully, it didn't come with too many repercussions.

"All we can do is fight and protect what's in front of us," muttered Ash, "the rest will just have to fall into place...it has to. Because, honestly, we won't know the answer to any of it until it's staring us straight in the face."

Austin released another long sigh, "I guess you're right…I mean, no matter what, the plan we have is all we've got. Worrying about it doesn't really do us any good."

"Exactly," replied Ash.

"But…" bemoaned Austin, "there is one thing that's been eating at me for the past couple of days. It's really freaking me out."

"What is it?" asked Ash as he sat up on the edge of his bed.

"Err…it's just," mumbled Austin, "Why do you think Team Rocket is so desperate to get their hands on the Master Ball? What kind of messed up motive could they possibly have?"

Ash had thought about it briefly before now, but had discarded the thought immediately. Whatever reason Team Rocket had for destroying the SS Anne and infiltrating Silph Co. couldn't be all that rational. Although it would be interesting to find out if they had a concrete plan for the almighty capture device, Ash sort of just figured that they were after it for power's sake.

"Do you think that they're after it with something specific in mind?" asked Ash.

"I mean, why else would they go after it?" questioned Austin as he pulled on his hair. "Why would they choose now to reveal themselves? There's got to be a reason. Why would they go to such lengths for the Master Ball? They freaking kidnapped Robert Montgomery, Ash. And in order to do it, they blew up the damn SS Anne. Who in their right mind does that for a capture device? No, I don't believe it. There's something bigger going on here. They're after something, and it doesn't stop at Silph Co. There's something specific they need the Master Ball for…but what is it?"

"Now that you mention it, why would they—"

Austin's eyes lit up as he interrupted. "Shit! Shit! Shit!"

"What!?" blurted Ash unable to ignore Austin's course language. "What is it!?"

"I hope I'm wrong…" bemoaned Austin, "but it's the only thing that makes sense."

"Come on. Tell me," implored Ash, "what is it?"

"...I have a feeling they're after something Legendary…"

"Legendary? But Legendaries are legendary for a reason. They're supposed to be nearly impossible to find let alone catch."

Austin shook his head. "It doesn't mean it's impossible. People have captured some of the lesser Legendaries before."

"I know that, but—"

"Ash, why else would they need the Master Ball?" interjected Austin. "Think about it. After all of the heinous things they've done over the years, they disappeared. All of a sudden, they're back and they're after a capture device that is exponentially stronger than an ultra ball. Dude, they're going to freaking use it to catch a Legendary. What other explanations are there?"

Ash had to admit, Austin's logic made a lot of sense. Moreover, if Austin was right, their mission just became a lot more pivotal than it already was. That was a scary thought. A lot rode on this top-secret operation. If Team Rocket got their hands on the Master Ball, not only would they acquire an almighty capture device, but they would also hold the key to wielding any pokemon that they desired. They had to warn the adults; they needed to know.

"We have to go tell Wallace!" spluttered Ash. "You're right, there's something more to this plot."

"Don't bother," said Austin with a sigh. "He probably already knows…"

Ash raised an eyebrow. "If he knows, why wouldn't he have told us?"

"Because," said Austin as he rolled his eyes, "no matter how much they praise us for being strong, for our age, they can't help but see us as kids. They probably didn't want to worry us. Ash, there is some weird stuff going on here; so many questions. Sabrina, Wallace, and Bill are aware of the stakes that are involved with this mission. They have to be, especially Sabrina. That woman is too strong of a psychic to not be aware of all of the scenarios. Despite the risks, there's a reason she is going along with Wallace's plan. I'm worried because of the people, but so is Sabrina. This city means everything to her. She wouldn't let us fight in it unless she had no other choice."

Ash took a deep breath before answering. "Dammit, Austin, what have we gotten ourselves into?"

"I don't freaking know," answered Austin, "but whatever it is, tomorrow's just the beginning. Wallace was lying. There's not a storm coming. There's many…"

Ash had a short moment to soak in Austin's comment before there was a loud knock on the door. It caused both boys to jolt on account of the intensely foreboding conversation.

"Ash, Austin—supper!" bellowed Bill's boisterous, well-cultured voice from the other side of the door.

Ash stood up from his bed and walked over to the door. He proceeded to open it, revealing Bill's normal chassis and depiction. He had gotten rid of the disguise, for now, choosing to roam the gym in some casual garments. Ash thought it was strange seeing Bill in normal attire. Including the disguise, he'd never actually seen the man wear anything close to the word casual.

"So that's what you normally look like," drawled Austin as he lifted himself out of bed.

"Yup," replied Bill, "believe it or not, I don't always look like a bloody munter."

"What does that even mean?" asked Austin with a curious eye.

"Don't worry about it," replied Bill. "You're too young to comprehend my intelligent articulation."

"That's not true," said the familiar, silvery voice of Wallace as he suddenly entered the room. "I'm just as old as you, and I don't understand half the words that come out of your mouth."

Wallace was wearing the same semi-formal attire as earlier, albeit his long turquoise colored hair had been tied back into a ponytail. His demeanor looked tired; Ash figured that the quick meeting the Champion had just had with Sabrina and Bill had exhausted him.

"Maybe I just have a phenomenal vocabulary," replied Bill in a snooty voice. "You should probably brush up on your word choice. Spend some time in a dictionary or better yet a thesaurus. It would do wonders for your intellect."

"What's the point in that?" asked Austin, "if nobody else understands what the hell you're saying."

"Not to mention the fact that I'm pretty sure some of the words you use aren't even real words," inserted Wallace.

"Psht, whatever!" blurted Bill. "Anyways, we should probably head over to the dining hall before Sabrina skewers us with her mind."

Ash had to admit, he was amused by his friends' peculiar antics. However, he couldn't help but dwell on what he and Austin had spoken about earlier. Is it possible that Team Rocket was planning something even bigger? We're Bill and Wallace keeping information from them? Or, at the very least, fabricating the truth in order to squelch their anxiety?

Ash was brought back to reality as Bill waved a hand in front of Ash's bemused face.

"Hello…earth to, Ash," drawled Bill in attempt to procure the boy's attention. "You've barely said two words since opening the door. Is something wrong?"

Wallace gave Ash a curious glance while Austin shot him a look that portrayed disconcertion. It was rather apparent that Austin knew what was troubling Ash and didn't want him sharing their conversation from earlier.

"Err…yeah. I'm fine, just tired," lied Ash, "can we go eat now?"

Bill shrugged, whereas Wallace gave Ash a look that depicted that he knew Ash wasn't telling the truth.

"Yeah, let's go!" exclaimed Bill with excited eyes. "I'm bloody starving!"

As they exited the room, Austin quietly whispered something in Ash's ear without Wallace and Bill noticing. "Keep our conversation between us."

Ash understood Austin's reason for staying quiet. Although Ash didn't actually think that Wallace and Bill would take them off of the mission if they were to disclose that they were aware of Team Rocket's true intention, it was still possible. If Austin's assumption was correct, and Team Rocket was after a Legendary, than this business about Team Rocket wouldn't be solved after Silph Co...Team Rocket had a deeper agenda, and their return would most likely result in many more operations such as this one.

Despite the fact that Ash and Austin were a part of this mission, it was highly unlikely that Wallace and Bill would want them to get further involved with stopping Team Rocket, especially when they weren't there to watch over them. After this top-secret mission, Wallace would be returning to his home region of Hoenn, and chances are, Bill would be heading back to his lighthouse in order to resume studying Dragonite.

Simply put, Wallace and Bill had to be worried that Ash and Austin would want to help. Therefore, they were not only keeping the boys in the dark on account of their adolescent mental fortitude, but they were also trying to ensure that their vendetta against Team Rocket didn't cause them to do anything stupid in the future.

It all made sense. However, it was a bit idiosyncratic. It's not like Ash planned on traveling around the region in search of leads on Team Rocket. He had a journey to get back to after all. In addition, Austin was competing in Johto this year. Ash assumed that the chiseled faced teenager would be heading back to the foreign region as soon as things in Saffron were cleared up.

Of course, Ash would help if Team Rocket tried to wreak havoc in front of his face or if his help was requested of by the League—which was highly unlikely. But, he'd have to be an idiot to try and take Team Rocket on alone. No. If it were up to Ash, his maladjusted connection with Team Rocket would be severed after tomorrow. He just wanted to resume his travels with his pokemon. Hopefully, things would settle down after Saffron City.

Ash snapped back to reality as the smell of a home cooked meal wafted down the hall and into his nostrils. He'd almost lost track of his surroundings on account of his racing thoughts. Ash decided, then and there, that thinking could come later. Right now, he had an empty belly to appease.

XXX

After getting one of the best night's sleep he'd had since starting his journey, Ash stood up from his bed and stretched. His muscles ached—an unfortunate side-effect of the grueling past couple days of travel.

On the foot of the bed lay Growlithe whose eyes were barely open. Ash could tell that the pup was reluctant to get up. Floating by Ash's side was a jolly Haunter: the reason behind Ash's fantastic night's slumber.

Austin agreed to let Haunter stay outside of his pokeball while they slept, although there was one condition. Haunter had to eat the teen's dreams as well, which wasn't much of a problem. Going off of the good-natured ghost's chipper mood, Ash had a feeling that everything went well.

In addition, Austin was still snoring away like a congested walrein—which meant that Haunter had done his job. Like Ash, the teen hadn't been getting very much sleep since the SS Anne. The damage that was done to their minds was most evident in their dreams. Where, without Haunter's help, they had no means to protect themselves from their minds.

"Growlithe, time to get up," said Ash as he sifted through his backpack in order to change his clothes.

The puppy pokemon emitted what sounded like an annoyed groan as he slowly stood up from the foot of the bed. Haunter proceeded to float over to the lethargic canine with a giant smile on his face. Ash couldn't help but smile as he watched his goofy ghost-type gently pet Growlithe on the head with his shadowy hand. On account of Haunter's unorthodox behavior, Growlithe's expression lightened up. The charismatic poltergeist had quite the knack for putting the puppy pokemon in a good mood.

Ash smiled at his two friends before diverting his attention towards solely Growlithe. "Can you wake-up Austin? I would have had Haunter do it, but I don't think that would go over too well."

Growlithe nodded before gracefully leaping off of the bed. Haunter simply laughed, more than likely musing over his idea of waking the sleeping teenager up.

As Ash finished getting dressed, by placing his Pokemon League cap over his messy hair, Growlithe used his tongue to wake-up his trainer's friend. It took a couple rounds of Austin slapping his own face, in response to the tickling sensation of Growlithe's wet tongue, before the sleeping trainer finally reemerged from comatose.

"Err…what the hell, Growlithe?" mumbled Austin. "Stop…"

"Wake-up, Austin," chuckled Ash, amused by the teenager's reaction, "it's time to get up. It's seven o'clock. Wallace wanted us up by six-thirty."

"I don't see him," groaned Austin as he concealed his face underneath the bed's covers, "if it was that important for us to get up so early, don't you think he would have come and woken us up already?"

All of a sudden, as if on cue, the door to the room turbulently swung open causing Ash and Austin to flinch.

"I've let you two sleep in late enough!" howled Wallace slightly out of character. "Come on, it's time for breakfast!"

After shaking off the surprise, Ash shrugged indifferently. He was already ready after all. Austin, on the other hand, had covered his entire body under the covers in order to hide from the inevitable.

"I hate everyone!" hissed Austin, causing Ash and Wallace to break out into laughter. "You guys are seriously the worst!"

"I told you six-thirty," said Wallace with an amused smile. "How am I the bad guy? I let you sleep in."

"You don't have to be so freaking loud," groaned Austin. "It's common courtesy. Being a Champion doesn't give you free reigns to be an asshole."

"Whoa there, buddy," said Wallace in between surges of laughter, "watch your language."

The Champion proceeded to walk over to Austin's bed and impetuously rip the covers off of him. As the comforter wafted throughout the air, Austin's livid facial expression was revealed. He was curled up in a ball and appeared to be as angry as an enraged primeape. His face was about as red as the scarlet colored pajamas that he wore.

"You are literally devil…"

"You're acting like an idiot," said Wallace. "Ash is already ready. Hurry up and get dressed, or I'll send Swampert in to teach you a lesson."

Austin turned pale at the mention of Wallace's monstrously powerful water-type, "Fine, but don't be surprised if I'm mad at you all day."

"I could honestly care less," replied Wallace. "Once the operation gets started, you won't have any time to think about your animosity towards me."

Ash leaned over and pet Growlithe as Wallace and Austin continued to bicker. After petting his puppy pokemon, the dark-haired boy gestured for Haunter to float over to him.

While ignoring Wallace's lecture to Austin, Ash spoke quietly to Haunter. "Hey, Haunter, can I ask you something?"

Haunter's countenance changed from amused to bemused as he listened attentively in precedence to Ash's forthcoming question.

"I was actually going to ask you this yesterday, but I forgot," muttered Ash as he patted the corporeal ghost in between his upper spikes. "I remember reading somewhere that ghosts can conceal themselves within a being's shadow. Well, I was wondering if you could spend the day in mine. That way you can watch my back. If any hostile Rocket's try to sneak up on me, you can knock them out however you see fit.

Haunter didn't hesitate. With a mischievous grin painted across his face, he frantically nodded his body up and down. The ghost-type then proceeded to disembogue a cacophonous array of laughter before launching his body towards the floor. Within the blink of an eye, Haunter was gone, phasing into an incorporeal reality by means of Ash's shadow.

As Haunter disappeared, the ten-year-old boy suddenly felt a slight chill. It was strange and somewhat alien, reminiscent of the feeling he had in Lavender Town, when he was inside of the Pokemon Tower. Except this time, it felt more internal, almost like a connection of some sort. It wasn't a bad feeling. In fact, he felt safe. He felt like he had something watching over him.

"Weird," said Ash. "Is that feeling coming from you, Haunter?"

Ash watched as Haunter's hands suddenly emerged from Ash's faint shadow. The friendly ghost-type proceeded to pull himself out of the grounded obscuration, revealing his now corporeal face. His smile stretched from one side of his ghostly mug to the other. Ash wasn't quite sure, but it appeared as though Haunter was enjoying being attached to his shadow.

"This is actually kind of cool," muttered Ash as Haunter once again faded into his shadow.

"That it is," inserted Wallace, having finished up scolding Austin. "That was a good idea, Ash. I feel a lot more comfortable leaving you alone now. Haunter's formidable; he should be able to do a good job of protecting you from any grunts."

"Yeah, dude," said Austin, finally fully awake, "good idea. I'll have Golduck put up a barrier as well, and nobody will be able to touch us."

Wallace scratched his chin as he mused. "Yeah, that should be a strong enough defense. Just remember, Team Rocket's pokemon of choice are usually poison-types. At least, that's what all of the old records say. They could have restructured and revamped their resources. However, after seeing that Rocket's arbok back on the SS Anne, I highly doubt it. That guy was a little higher up than a typical Rocket grunt, too. I doubt the Rockets that you'll see will be that strong. Maybe a few, but the ACE trainer trainees will be able to handle anyone that you can't. The real problem is going to be the executive, Ariana, and whoever is with her. Sabrina and I should be more than enough, though."

"We'll be fine," said Austin with a smirk. "Remember, I'll be there. Also, I made a couple of switches back at the Pokemon Center. I've got my strongest team with me, so Ash and I will be able to handle anything that Team Rocket throws at us."

"Good. I'm glad you're confident," stated Wallace. "We'll discuss the rest later. For now, let's go to the dining room. Sabrina's chef made us some tofu and rice balls."

"That sounds awesome!" blurted Ash as beautiful images of broiled tofu and onigiri flowed throughout his mind.

"Hell yeah, it does!" exclaimed Austin. "Just let me get dressed, and we can go."

"No way," replied Wallace. "You can catch up when you're done. Ash and I are leaving. We gave you plenty of time to get ready earlier."

"Seriously, man…" groaned Austin with a furrowed eyebrow. "Not cool."

Ash laughed as he led the way through the doorway. "See you in a few, Austin. You better hurry before we eat all of the onigiri."

"And the tofu…" crooned Wallace as he followed Ash out of the room.

"Yup, it's a fact. I hate you guys…" whined Austin while slouching his shoulders and hanging his head.

XXX

After eating breakfast, everyone gathered in the conference room to review the plan one last time. Ash could feel the nervous energy in the room. If it weren't for the fact that his best friend, Growlithe, was right by his side and one of his strongest pokemon, Haunter, was residing within his shadow, Ash would likely be completely unglued.

Wallace's goofy attitude from earlier had been replaced by an austere disposition. The Champion's brow rested lower than normal, and his expression was devoid of his typical friendly smile. Wallace's entire countenance had shifted back to resembling the form of the man that had incapacitated the Rockets aboard the SS Anne and willed thousands of passengers to safety.

For the first time, Ash saw the Champion wearing, what the dark-haired boy assumed to be, his battle attire. Wallace wore his typical colors, however, his clothing was made out of a sleek material that appeared to be easy to move in. He wore a satin, white-based, button-up shirt with a streak of turquoise shooting across the front. His pants were smooth and lilac, covering the entirety of his long legs. Wallace's shoes were white, elegant, and athletic looking. Ash assumed that they were well-equipped for running. Last of all, his outfit was topped off by a long, lustrous, white cloak that adhered to Wallace's shirt. Ash had to admit, it looked like a cape. However, now was not the time to give the Champion a hard time.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ash could see Bill holding his hand over the lower half of his face in order to keep his mouth shut. Despite the fact that he most likely wanted to make a snide remark in regard to Wallace's cape, even the pokemon researcher was able to sense the pressure in the room.

Bill was wearing casual clothing. He would be staying behind at the gym after all. The pokemon researcher didn't have any pokemon of his own to use in battle. Besides, they needed someone to stick back and work as a communication link. Someone had to perform the duty of keeping each team informed on the other's status.

Sitting at the head of the conference table was Sabrina. As usual, her disposition was empty of all emotion. Howbeit, considering the circumstances, she appeared to be much more foreboding. Like Wallace, she was wearing her battle attire. It was hard to see because of her current positioning, but Ash had gotten a good look earlier during breakfast.

The foundation of her outfit was a black, skin-tight jumpsuit that emphasized her above-average curves. The jumpsuit was accessorized externally by a long-sleeved, glossy, burgundy, turtle-neck shirt that stopped just below her chest, leaving the black material over her skinny stomach visible. At the end of both sleeves were two bright yellow stripes that contrasted nicely against the burgundy. She wore a short mini-skirt over her jumpsuit that matched her crop top.

In addition, just like her shirt and skirt, her long leather boots were burgundy. Rising up and out of both of her low heel boots was a piece of bright yellow cloth that covered her knees. Ash couldn't quite tell if the cloth was annexed to the boot or if Sabrina was just wearing really long socks. The most interesting part of Sabrina's outfit, though, was the obnoxiously thick metal bracelets that were bound to her wrists. Ash wasn't positive, but he had a feeling that they served a unique purpose because of their machinelike resemblance…

After taking a good look at Sabrina and Wallace, Ash was sort of upset that he didn't have a cool outfit to fight Team Rocket in. Thankfully, he wasn't alone. Austin was forced to partake in the mission wearing his travel clothes as well. Speaking of Austin, the teenager was finally in a better mood. It had taken him all of breakfast to get over how Ash and Wallace had woken him up this morning. In Ash's opinion, the chiseled faced teenager was being melodramatic. However, Ash couldn't help but be amused by it. The whole situation was utterly hilarious after all.

Anyways, the first to speak up was Wallace. As they sat around the conference table, the Champion cleared his throat before addressing the group.

"Alright, I think we should begin by reviewing our main objectives," said Wallace as he rested his elbows on the table.

The Champion paused for a brief moment while setting his eyes on Sabrina. "Sabrina and I will be leading an attack on the warehouse that they're keeping Robert in. We'll only be taking ten ACE trainer trainees with us. We're going to keep our operation small. Our pokemon should be more than strong enough to take out Executive Ariana and whoever is with her."

"Are you sure you shouldn't take more men?" asked Austin. "All we really know is that Mr. Montgomery is in the warehouse. We have no clue how many men Team Rocket has inside."

"Ten is more than sufficient," inserted Sabrina. "Anymore would just get in the way. The Champion and I are good for at least a hundred grunts each, probably more."

"Damn, one hundred…" drawled Austin, "that's a lot of pokemon."

"I said one hundred grunts," replied Sabrina monotonously. "That's assuming they each have at least three pokemon."

Ash and Austin's jaws simultaneously dropped. If what Sabrina said was correct, the two masters' joint power was worth more than six hundred Rocket pokemon.

"However, they probably won't have nearly that many men," informed Wallace. "Remember, we think they are trying to limit the amount of grunts that are aware of Robert's location. My guess is that they will have a smaller team of lesser ranked Rockets accompanying the executive. Nevertheless, we'll be fine. Sabrina and I will take care of them."

"Okay," muttered Austin, "so if you guys have your end on lock, why don't we just move on to ours?"

"I was getting there," retorted an annoyed Wallace, "but I'll let Sabrina explain your mission. You'll be more likely to listen and less likely to interrupt if it comes from her."

"I can't argue with that," blurted Austin as he humorously winked at Wallace.

The Champion rolled his eyes in response to Austin's comment while Sabrina spoke up.

"Well, the first thing I would like to discuss is the fact that the ACE trainer trainees arrived in Saffron earlier this morning and have been quietly made aware of the plan," informed Sabrina. "They have three arcanine and four growlithe on hand. So, Ash Ketchum, your growlithe will not be alone while tracking down the hidden hideout."

"Gotchya," answered Ash, with a nod, before leaning down and petting his best friend behind the ears.

Growlithe responded by licking Ash on the hand as he lay down by his trainer's feet.

"I have a quick question," said Austin, interrupting once again. "I promise I'll shut up after this one, though."

Sabrina replied before Austin even had a chance to verbalize his question. "Good question, Austin Turner..."

Ash had to say, the whole mind reading thing was beginning to become rather normal—which was a surprise. The ten-year-old boy never, in a million years, would have guessed that Sabrina's ability to snatch thoughts harmlessly from their minds would ever cease to be anomalistic.

"The reason why the Champion and I deem it safe to inform the ACE trainer trainees is because of their irrelevance amongst the rest of the League. To put it bluntly, it's highly unlikely that Team Rocket would go through the trouble of infiltrating such low ranks, too much risk for such little gain. In addition, to be safe, I have already done a detailed examination of all of their minds. They are, in fact, clean of corruption. There is nothing to worry about. Was that answer sufficient enough for you, Austin Turner?"

"Um…yeah, that was good enough for me," replied Austin—impressed by Sabrina's thoroughly efficient answer.

"Anyways," said Sabrina, "now that Austin Turner's curiosity has been resolved, I would like to be able to explain your mission without being interrupted."

"Sure," answered Ash.

"Fair enough," replied Austin.

"So, the first phase of the operation will be for you two boys to rendezvous with the fifty ACE trainer trainees that will be accompanying you on your mission," stated Sabrina.

Ash listened attentively as Sabrina continued.

"The ACE trainer trainees are currently stationed at Silph Co. in order to maintain our oblivious ruse," said Sabrina. "After we are done with our meeting, I plan on sending one of my alakazam over to pick them up. There has been no movement within the city, so we assume that we have time before Team Rocket strikes. The alakazam that I send over will be dropping off both of my mr. mime, who will be left with the task of creating a believable illusion."

She paused.

"With ten trainees accompanying Wallace and I and fifty trainees joining you two that should leave twenty trainees to man headquarters. My two mr. mime will have no problem making them look like eighty. They've been trained to perform illusions way more difficult than mere augmented replication."

Sabrina ran her fingers through her hair while she zeroed in on Ash.

"Once the Ace trainer trainees get here, Ash Ketchum, I would like you to introduce yourself to the other growlithe and arcanine trainers. You will be working directly with them. With the help of the other canines, your job will be to lead your team to the hidden hideout. In case I didn't clarify this yesterday, this whole thing is possible because of the stray Rocket that we captured. We will have the tracking canines pick up the grunt's scent. The grunt should have left a trail, and the growlithe line is the only species capable of finding it and following it back to its highest duration point within the city—which should be the base."

Once again, Ash leaned over and scratched Growlithe behind the ears. His friend had been given a lot of responsibility, and Ash wanted to make sure that he was being as supportive as possible. Today was a perfect opportunity for the fire-type to prove his worth as a leader. Ash had no doubt that the puppy pokemon would take this chance and run with it.

"Although we are going through the trouble of creating a large scale illusion at Silph Co., our hope is that this battle will never reach the building. Once you track down the hideout, you are to waste no time. Leave all of the psychic pokemon to the ACE trainer trainees, and make sure that Haunter and Golduck protect both of you from any psychic incursions. I doubt that any of the psychic pokemon they have are individually formidable, so you should be fine. The trainees will be able to handle them."

Even though he was nervous, Ash was confident that he and Austin would be safe from any psychic attacks. Haunter would have type advantage and would be dwelling within his shadow, whereas Golduck would be protecting them with psychically induced protective enchantments. They would be fine. Ash's only worry, concerning psychics, had to do with his other pokemon. They would be fighting outside of Ash and Austin's protection, and the dark-haired trainer had yet to help them procure the mental barriers necessary to fend off psychics.

"Do not fret, Ash Ketchum," stated Sabrina, clearly reading his mind, "The trainees' first task will be to incapacitate the psychics. Amongst their pokemon are formidable dark-types. Psychics are difficult to train correctly. I doubt that Team Rocket has taken the time to train each and every psychic to a level in which they can overcome distinct type advantage. More than likely, they are working with quantity and not quality. The trainees should be able to make quick work of them, so that you can battle the grunts' pokemon without having to worry about the status of their minds."

Ash nodded in response to Sabrina's reassuring words. Out of his peripherals, Ash saw Austin's attentive disposition. The teenager's eyes were fastened on Sabrina as she carried on.

"Even though we can assume that there are many Rockets stationed at the hideout," articulated Sabrina, "we have no way to make a significant estimate on their numbers. I'd assume there are at least a couple hundred, but who knows. There could be more, there could be less. Just be careful and take out as many as you can. I've analyzed these trainees. They're stronger than I originally assumed. Your mission should go smoothly. Once you've wiped out the base, restrain the grunts. Bill Montgomery will be briefing you on our status. Once the Champion and I give you the clear, contact Saffron's Police Department, they will help you take the Rockets into custody."

Sabrina proceeded to casually rest her chin on her palm. "That is the entirety of your mission. Now would be a good time to ask questions."

Just as Ash was about to open up his mouth to speak, Bill said his first words of the entire meeting.

"In regard to the communication link, Austin, do you have a mobile phone that I can contact just in case you get split up from Ash? I have everyone else's numbers memorized."

Austin nodded before answering, "Yeah, I've got a pokegear. I'll give you my number after the meeting."

"Great," replied Bill while restlessly tapping his fingers on the table.

Judging by his demeanor, Ash could tell Bill was extremely nervous, which made sense given the fact that the focal point of this mission was to rescue his father. However, Ash thought that the young pokemon researcher was handling the present circumstances well, especially since he was typically overdramatic.

"That's all I have to say," muttered Bill, "other than, good luck. Also, I'll be sending you updates via text messaging. It'll be easier on you if you don't have to answer a bloody phone during the mission. Just send me information whenever you can. That way, I can keep everyone in the loop."

"Gotchya," muttered Ash.

"Will do," answered Austin.

"Absolutely," replied Wallace.

"I'll be using long-distance telepathy," retorted Sabrina with a blank expression, "but, nonetheless, you will be updated regularly."

"Whatever floats your boat," replied Bill as he leaned back in his chair and winked at Ash. "Now, resume your Q&A. Sorry for interrupting, Ash."

"It's fine," said Ash. "I only have one question."

"What is it, Ash?" asked Wallace, chiming back in.

"Where is the captured grunt being held?" asked Ash curiously. "How far do we have to go in order to get a reference scent? The stronger the scent…the easier it will be to track. It makes the most sense for us to pick the aroma up directly from the source. A secondary item, like an article of clothing or something else that he's touched, will make finding this hideout much more difficult."

Ash paused to look down at his partner, who was comfortably nuzzled up against his leg, before continuing, "Growlithe could track it down either way, but the potency of the scent will quicken the process. Especially, since we're tracking something complex like duration. This guy could have wandered all over the city before you arrested him—which means his scent will be scattered all over the place. We're going to need as good of a sample as we can get. Growlithe should be able to lock onto the place where this grunt's scent is most potent, but in order to be efficient, he'll need a strong reference scent."

In antecedence to giving Ash a verbal response, Sabrina casually pointed down at the ground.

"Holy crap, he's in Hell!?" blurted Austin with wide eyes. "You killed him!?"

For a split-second, the room was silent before Sabrina replied. "No, Austin Turner, he is not in Hell. There is a cellar underneath the gym. The grunt is being held in there."

Ash couldn't help but laugh at Austin's hilarious outburst, especially when put in contrast with Sabrina's deadpan answer. Wallace and Bill joined the fresh faced boy as they too got a kick out of the teenager's humorous upheaval. Austin's face turned red in response to the laughter. It was rather apparent that he was embarrassed.

"It was an honest mistake," mumbled Austin in between forced laughter. "I didn't know the gym had a cellar. How was I supposed to know that you were pointing to a freaking basement?"

"Fair enough," inserted Wallace in between laughter, "but what would make you think she was pointing towards Hell. I mean, why would we kill our one and only hostage? That doesn't make any sense."

"Screw you, Wallace," groaned Austin, his face as read as a tomato due to embarrassment. "I swear you're out to get me today."

"I see the mystique of being a Champion has faded away," said Sabrina as she glanced over at Wallace. "These boys treat you more like an older brother than a man of power."

Wallace scratched the back of his head as he sighed. "Tell me about it…"

As much as Ash was enjoying the comical display, he wanted to hear what else Sabrina had to say about the captured Rocket. He cleared his throat in order to garner everyone's attention. "So, Sabrina, will you be taking us down to the cellar once the trainees arrive?"

"Yes," replied Sabrina as she gave Wallace and Austin a devastating look that beckoned them to shut up, "that was the plan. Once Yin picks up the ACE trainer trainees, I will take you and the other canine trainers down to the cellar to pick up the scent."

"I assume Yin is your alakazam," answered Ash.

"That is correct," replied Sabrina. "Yin is one of my alakazam. She is rather adroit when it comes to large-scale teleportation, although she has a long way to go before she is up to par with her father."

"Her father?" questioned Bill with a look of intrigue.

"Yin is the daughter of my strongest alakazam, Kaz," said Sabrina. "All of my alakazam are related in some fashion."

"I thought your league registered team is an abra and a kadabra?" questioned Ash. "Just how many pokemon belonging to the abra line do you have?"

Sabrina answered the question without a moment's hesitation. "I have four alakazam, three kadabra, and three abra, so ten in total.

"Damn…" drawled Austin. "That's a lot of psi pokemon."

"They're my favorite species," replied Sabrina with a small smile on her face. Ash was surprised, it was the first time the gym leader had legitimately smiled since he'd met her. "They have been cherished by my family for centuries. I could never have too many of them."

"Wow!" blurted Bill. "You must really love them if they got you to smile. I didn't even know you were capable of such a thing."

"Shut your mouth, Bill Montgomery, before I turn your mind into mush," hissed Sabrina as her disposition suddenly became as cold as ice.

In response to Sabrina's intimidating display, Bill slouched back in his chair and looked away from her. For the first time, Ash saw the otherside of Sabrina: The cold, witchlike gym leader that sends hundreds of trainers home devastated each and every year. It was blatantly obvious that Sabrina was the kind of person who you didn't want as an enemy. Ash almost felt bad for the Rockets that would be forced to go up against her today.

"Relax, Sabrina," inserted Wallace in a soothing tone, "I'm sure Bill didn't mean anything by it."

In subsequence to Wallace's gentle tone, Sabrina relaxed in her chair. "Yes, I apologize. My emotions are a complex subject. I'm afraid much has been sacrificed in order to obtain my power. I do not respond well to jokes concerning my exterior disposition."

"Good to know," replied Bill with a nervous intonation. "I'll refrain from saying them then. However, I don't have that much control over my thoughts."

"I do not get offended by distasteful thoughts," retorted Sabrina. "Even I struggle with unwanted and uncontrollable thoughts. It is part of what makes us human. A thought is a thought. It is merely information and says nothing about your character. What you do with that thought is who you are."

"Makes sense," said Bill before trying to divert the conversation. "So, does anyone else have any questions, or has everything been addressed?"

"I do," muttered Austin as he goofily raised his hand.

In antecedence to Austin's question, Ash looked at his shadow, which was being delineated upon the wall. It was strange that within the outlined obscuration resided one of his friends. The initial odd perceptual feeling that Ash had gotten from his ghost type's emergence into his shadow had lessened dramatically—almost to the point where Ash sometimes forgot that Haunter was even there. From the outside, it was basically impossible to tell that something existed within his shadow. The shape of his shadow had remained the same. The only difference was the minute hint of dark purple that Sabrina had pointed out to him during breakfast.

Ash's rumination was precipitously interrupted by Austin's query.

"Are there any specific parts of the mission that you want us to report to Bill?" asked Austin in a serious manner.

"Only the bare minimum or if something goes wrong," retorted Wallace as he looked Austin in the eye. "We want to know when you arrive at the hideout and when your objective is complete. However, let us know if something is askew. Otherwise, we will just assume that everything went according to plan."

"Alrighty," answered Austin as he glanced over at Ash. "I don't have any more questions. What about you, Ash?"

"Nope," replied Ash while shaking his head. "I'm good. I think I've got a pretty good understanding of what's going on."

"What about you, Sabrina?" asked Wallace with a raised eyebrow. "Is there anything else you'd like to add?"

"Negative," retorted Sabrina with a blank expression. "I'm ready to go get Yin. It's best we don't waste any more time."

"Agreed," inserted Bill as he stood up out of his chair. "Meeting adjourned?"

"Meeting adjourned," reciprocated Wallace with a smile. "Now let's take care of business."

Ash leaned down and petted the tuft atop Growlithe's head before flashing him a smile. "You ready, buddy? It's time to find out just how tough we actually are."

Growlithe replied with a firm, dauntless grunt.

XXX

As Ash and Growlithe stood by the outer rim of the arena, there was a sudden, expansive light that illuminated the entirety of the Saffron Gym's main hall. When the bright light faded, a crowd of red was left in its wake. Ash stared ahead in awe of the display. Fifty plus men and women that wore the same fashionable, pristine, red uniforms were scattered amongst the gym's battlefield.

Although all of the ACE trainer trainees wore the same stylish outfit, they were all diverse in their individual appearances. There was a wide spectrum in terms of age. Some of the trainees were teenagers, while others were middle-aged. In terms of gender ratio, it appeared that there were more males than females. However, it wasn't a significant contrast.

Because of the fact that none of them visually displayed any kind of adverse physical reaction, Ash assumed that the trainees had been regularly exposed to teleportation as part of their training. Either that or they were all really good at hiding their displeasure...

Moreover, this was the first time that Ash had gotten a chance to see Yin. The female alakazam stood aloof amongst the crowd, holding her two spoons causally by her side. Back on the SS Anne, Ash had been impressed by the gaggle of kadabra that raised the psychic barrier for the single-elimination tournament. However, Sabrina's alakazam was even more impressive than all of them combined.

Yin stood about five-feet tall, and she was humanoid in body structure. The most notable physical feature on Yin was the long mustache that protruded out of both sides of her thin, protracted snout. He wasn't positive, but he thought he remembered hearing somewhere that the mustaches of female alakazam were significantly shorter than male alakazam. However, that bit of information was misleading because Yin's mustache was still substantial and immense in comparison to anything a human could grow.

Yin had two lanky, ear-like spikes that extended out of the back of her head. Ash couldn't spot any outer apertures amidst the two growths, so he was curious as to how alakazam actually perceived sound. Protecting certain sections of her yellow, skeletal body was a brown, armor-like integument that enshrouded her chest, shoulders, forearms, and knees. Yin had three digits on each of her extremities, and although her hands were devoid of claws, her feet had three sharp, white claws that protruded from her toes.

In addition, Yin clenched onto her two large, silver spoons like her life depended on them. Alakazam were well known for their fascination with metal spoons, which they used as amplifiers for their psychic power. It wasn't unheard of for powerful psychic pokemon to use some kind of conduit to help them focus their power. Alakazam used spoons, hypno used pendulums, starmie used a jewel, etc...Ash didn't know the specifics, but it was a common feature amongst psychics.

The fact that Yin was able to teleport so many people at one time was extraordinarily impressive. A mature alakazam was said to be easily capable of teleporting more than one person at a time, but this was simply astounding. She had teleported more than fifty trainers at once, and the female alakazam didn't look the least bit exhausted. Ash wondered just how much she truly was capable of, although it was kind of overwhelming to think about, especially when he factored in the idea that she wasn't even Sabrina's most powerful alakazam. Kaz could probably perform feats exponentially more profound.

Ash's intramural rumination was cut short by the sound of Sabrina's voice reverberating within his head. Sabrina's telepathy was much gentler on his mind compared to the ancient clefable back at Mt. Moon, which was his only other experience with the supernatural communication method. Sabrina's toneless voice was soft, but clear. It didn't grate against his psyche, like the clefable's telepathy had, and it didn't feel nearly as intrusive.

"Salutations, ACE trainer candidates," said Sabrina over her cerebral intercom as she stepped out in front of the crowd. Prior to Sabrina's greeting while the teleportation had taken place, Ash and Growlithe had been standing next to Sabrina, Austin, Bill and Wallace.

In response to Sabrina's telepathy, Ash watched the numerous ACE trainer trainees begin to speak amongst themselves, until one of them eventually stepped forward. He looked to be in his late teens, and he had long, black hair that was tied back into a pony tail. His face was sculpted and unlined, whereas his body was thin but athletic looking. The trainee's most distinguishable feature was his bright, yellow irises that were similar to that of a foreign luxray…

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