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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22. Kanto 7 Part 2

The ten-year-old boy had yet to get a clear visual of Sabrina, Kent, and Ariana because the smoke was too thick to see across the entirety of the large intersection. He was able to spot a shadowy obscuration that appeared to be a small group of people accompanied by three other strange figures that he assumed were pokemon.

Ash wasn't able to verify their identities, although he had a tough time imagining that anyone other than Kent, Sabrina, Ariana and their pokemon would choose to be in the thick of all of the destruction.

As he gradually got closer to the blurred figures, he began to pick up the sound of muffled conversation. At first, he couldn't make out anything specific that they were saying. However, he was able to comprehend that two of the voices belonged to Sabrina and Kent.

In addition, there was a third voice that was female and deranged.

At first, Ash didn't recognize it. He assumed it belonged to Ariana, but his memory of Ariana's voice was smooth and sultry. This voice was debased and rough, although it did bear a slight resemblance to the SS Anne's beautiful emcee. The more distance Ash covered, though, the clearer the conversation got. It also helped that the discussion seemed to be intensifying. Voices were being raised, and tempers were starting to flare.

"Let me ask you something!" hissed the voice that Ash assumed belonged to Ariana, "how did you become aware of the operation?"

"That's none of your business, trash," replied the disembodied voice of Sabrina while Ash and Charmander continued to draw closer to the scene.

"Let me guess," spat Ariana over the sound of crackling fire, "Robert Montgomery was aware of our pursuit of the Master Ball the entire time! Dammit, I knew this plan wasn't worth the trouble!"

"Like I said," Sabrina scolded in a no-nonsense tone of voice, "You are not welcome to speak until we interrogate you."

"Ah..." drawled Ariana, "but, Sabrina, you don't understand. It's not like an interrogation will do you any good. You won't get anything out of me. My mind is secure. Even a psychic of your level cannot breach my mental barriers."

"Are you sure about that, Ariana?" questioned Sabrina. Her voice was beginning to become clearer. Ash could tell that he and Charmander were getting close. "I'm not sure you comprehend what I am truly capable of. Given time, there has never been a mind that I have not been able to rip information from."

"Psht, compared to what I've been exposed to," laughed Ariana in a sadistic manner, "your psychic abilities are child's play!"

"What are you talking about?" Interjected Kent as Ash got close enough to get a visual of the two masters and Ariana. "Sabrina is the strongest human psychic in the world. There is no mental barrier that she cannot penetrate."

Once Ash was close enough, he saw that Kent, Sabrina, Arcanine, Umbreon and Kaz stood over Ariana who was an absolute mess. Physically, she appeared the same as she did earlier. Her makeup had been replaced by a thick layer of soot, and her body was covered in burn marks. Her clothes were tattered, and her hair was all over the place.

The Rocket executive's body had also been, to some degree, disabled. At some point, Sabrina and Kent had set her, now limp, body up against a brick-wall belonging to one of the few buildings that had yet to catch fire. Because of the way her arms and legs lay utterly lifeless, Ash assumed that Sabrina had turned off all of the nerves below her neck.

It was still evident that she was an attractive person, but with her façade dropped, she no longer seemed like the same woman that was once the presumed figurehead of the SS Anne. Even though Ash had already accepted it, he was still shocked that Ariana truly was a high-ranking member of Team Rocket. Not just that, but the sheer amount of evil and corruption that was evident within her countenance was unlike anything he had ever seen before.

Just by the way she looked at Sabrina and Kent, Ash could tell that she was evil beyond understanding. Ariana made the other Rockets he had seen look like cuddly teddiursa. The executive had fully engrossed herself in darkness. Her entire existence depicted sin and immorality. He could see it in her devilish eyes. Ash got the creeps just by being around her.

Ariana's eyes lit up with recognition the second she caught sight of Ash and Charmander. Sabrina and Kent turned around to acknowledge Ash. Neither seemed shocked by his arrival, although Kent gave him a curious look. He was probably wondering where Austin was.

"HaI know you!" blurted Ariana with a deranged smile, "You're that boy that came in third in the SS Anne tournament! Err...what was your name again?"

"Ash Ketchum," replied the dark-haired boy without a hint of hesitation.

Despite Ariana's frightening presence, right now, she was hardly threatening. Her pokemon had been defeated, she had been restrained by Sabrina, and he was under the supervision of two masters.

There was nothing for him to worry about. Ariana had been finished. By the end of the day, she would be locked away. There was no reason for him to conceal his identity. Besides, it's not like Ariana didn't know who he was anyways. She did say that she recognized him after all.

"Ah, yes, Ash Ketchum," replied Ariana with a creepy smile, "That's right, the boy with the promising Pidgeotto. I remember looking at you and thinking, 'damn, it's such a shame that a boy as cute and talented as you has to die,' but it looks like everything worked out in the end. You got off in time. What a relief."

'What a relief!' thought Ash to himself as he tried to think of a response. This woman was absolutely insane. She wasn't just evil, she was disgusting. Her sense of morality was twisted beyond understanding. Was this what Team Rocket was really like? An organization made up people like this?

"What's with the long face?" questioned Ariana with a peculiar, concerned expression. "Oh, I know! You're unhappy with your life! Why don't you join Team Rocket!? We always find a way to have fun, and we can always use new, talented recruit—"

Ariana's mouth involuntarily slammed shut. It was rather obvious that it was a result of Sabrina's ability to control the human body with her psychic powers.

"That's enough!" blurted Sabrina in an edgy tone as she closed her fingers, "I've heard enough for now!"

In concurrence with Sabrina's words, Ariana's upper body dropped heedlessly to the ground. She was no longer conscious. Her mind had been sent into a forced coma on account of Sabrina's rage.

"Are you okay, Ash?" asked Sabrina.

"Yeah," replied the ten-year-old boy as he felt Charmander brush up against his leg, "I'm fine."

"Dammit," cursed Kent under his breath, "that woman's a freaking psychopath. Are you sure you're alright, Ash?"

"Yeah, I think so," replied Ash as he used his shirt to wipe the sweat from his eyes.

"Good," answered Kent, "Now, where's Austin? We need to get out of here. We've been exposed to these conditions for too long. Ariana's interrogation can wait until later. Let's go get Austin. All of us need a trip to see Nurse Joy ASAP."

Ash nodded his head as he tried to make sense of the situation. Everything was happening so fast. He was having a tough time keeping up with all of it. But, then again, maybe that was because of all of the toxins from the smoke. His mind definitely wasn't as sharp as usual.

"I'll show you the way," replied Ash shakily. "Austin's not far."

XXX

A couple of days had gone by since they had captured Ariana and thwarted Team Rocket's plan to steal the Master Ball. Ash had spent those days at the Pokemon Center, where he along with Austin, Kent and Sabrina had been getting treatment from Nurse Joy in the hospital wing.

Although none of them had legitimate carbon monoxide poisoning, it was necessary for them to get a few days of oxygen therapy in order to get their breathing back to normal. Considering how long they had been exposed to the nasty conditions of Saffron City's decimated northern district, Nurse Joy stated that it was a miracle that none of them were in a more critical condition.

The only one of them that wasn't ready to be discharged was Austin, who had lost a severe amount of blood after being cut by Ariana's weavile. Saffron City's Nurse Joy had treated Austin's laceration with a regenerative potion, which reminded Ash of his favorite Joy. She had used the same concoction on the second-degree burn he had gotten from accidentally touching Charmander's tail-flame.

Much like Ash's burn, Austin's wound had healed almost instantaneously upon contact with the regenerative potion. Ash hadn't actually been allowed to be in the room with him when it was applied, apparently Nurse Joy had rules prohibiting it, but Austin had shared the painful experience with him afterwards.

Ash didn't really need to be told, though. He remembered the pain from when his burn had been healed. It was short, but nearly unbearable. It definitely wasn't an occurrence that Ash wanted to repeat anytime soon.

Regardless of the fact that Austin's wound had been healed, he had still lost a ridiculous amount of blood, which was the only thing keeping him from getting released from the hospital wing.

Nurse Joy and her staff had performed a blood transfusion immediately after the wound had been healed, and they were now keeping him under their surveillance to make sure that he didn't have any kind of adverse effect to the donor's blood. It seemed like standard protocol for the most part. Austin didn't look to be having any negative effects, so Ash was sure that they would let him out at least by the end of the week.

At this point, there was really no need to be worried about Austin. When they had first arrived at the Pokemon Center, by means of Kaz's Teleportation, everyone was tense because of the wound's severity and the need to find a compatible donor for the blood transfusion.

Fortunately, modern medicine could work miracles, and the hospital had compatible blood stored away. Ever since the blood transfusion, Austin had been just fine. As a matter of fact, the teen was actually in rather high-spirits because of how badass his new scar was.

Regenerative potions could quicken the healing process, by nearly a hundred-fold, but they couldn't eliminate any scarring that would have taken place in subsequence to the body's natural recovery process. Simply put, Austin now had a dark, jagged scar that occupied most of his right arm. Ash had to admit, it was cool looking. It definitely put the slight discoloration on his right hand to shame.

Outside of Austin, everyone else had already made a full recovery. Sabrina and Kent were discharged yesterday. Nurse Joy had healed all of their first-degree burns with low doses of burn heal, and after nearly twenty-four hours straight of wearing rebreather masks, their breathing had gone back to normal.

Ash had just recently been discharged about an hour ago. After getting his minor burns healed, he required nearly forty-eight hours of oxygen therapy. Nurse Joy hadn't fully explained why he had to have twice as much oxygen therapy as Sabrina and Kent, but he figured it had something to do with how much bigger and mature the adults' lungs were.

Whatever the case, Ash didn't really mind the time spent in the hospital wing. Even though he didn't necessarily like the vibe of his boring, colorless hospital room, he did get to rest quite a bit, which was something he was in dire need of. Ever since the SS Anne, sleep had been like a foreign concept to the ten-year-old boy. He felt like he slept more the past couple days, in the Pokemon Center, than he had throughout his entire journey.

He hadn't been allowed to leave the Pokemon Center, so any time he felt the need to train, Nurse Joy would stop him. Essentially, he had been forced to get rest, which was exactly what he needed. It helped take some of the pressure off of his compulsive urge to train his pokemon.

When he first found out that he would have to stay at the Pokemon Center, Ash was worried because he thought that he wouldn't be able to spend time with his pokemon until he had fully healed. His apprehension was quickly subdued, when Nurse Joy allowed some of his friends that had been healed by Nurse Joy's restoration machine to rest with him in the rather large, but boring, hospital room.

Charmander and Clefairy had been with him ever since he had started his oxygen therapy. Nurse Joy had run their pokeballs through the restoration machine when they had first arrived, and they were immediately allowed to join him in the hospital room. The majority of the damage that they had taken during the mission was healed simply by the idle time spent in their pokeballs. Any remaining injuries were completely taken care of by the restoration machine.

Nurse Joy had zero qualms about Clefairy's presence in the hospital room, but she was a little bit weary about Charmander because of his tail-flame. However, Ash promised her that Charmander would be extra careful not to get close to anything flammable. The flooring was tile, so he didn't have to worry about catching that on fire. Ash made sure that the fire-lizard didn't venture near any of the medical equipment or anything made out of cloth. Saffron's Nurse Joy seemed to be a sucker for friendship between pokemon and their trainers, so she eventually agreed.

Haunter had also been with him ever since he had been admitted into the hospital wing, although he didn't think Nurse Joy knew this. The ghost-type hadn't taken any damage during the mission, so he didn't need to see Nurse Joy as a patient. Ash decided that the best plan of action was to allow Haunter to dwell within his shadow while he stayed at the Pokemon Center.

The general public wasn't too keen on ghosts, and although Nurse Joy probably had to treat one every once in a while, they were rare enough to surprise someone even as knowledgeable about pokemon as her.

For the most part, Haunter spent the last couple days hiding within Ash's shadow during the day and coming out at night. Ash had used his time in the hospital wing to help Haunter understand the severity of killing. It would be hard to make any progress with his ghost-type's flaws until he was able to train again. Haunter's murderous switch was only flipped when Ash was in danger, and right now, there was no way to simulate that.

Ash hoped that his talks with Haunter were helping, but he had a feeling that they weren't. Haunter's typical personality was good-natured and humorous. Ninety-five percent of the time, Haunter was incapable of excessive savagery. The Haunter Ash needed to deal with was the one that came out when he was in danger. It acted on an entirely different set of morals.

Ash theorized that when Haunter's eyes turned red, his personality completely morphed. His kind and impish self blacked-out, allowing the murderous fiend inside of him to surface. Ash needed to find a way to help Haunter get a grip over his alternate personality, but he wasn't willing to tackle that obstacle until he left Saffron after his gym battle with Sabrina. Ash needed to be in a place of seclusion, with all of his pokemon's support, before he faced that demon. Until then, quality time with his friend was the only therapy he could think of.

Growlithe and Ivysaur had been permitted to join him as of yesterday. They were pretty exhausted from the mission and needed some extra treatment from Nurse Joy in order to get them healthy. Both were still slightly sore, but by the time Ash left Saffron, they would be more than ready to battle and train again. Neither would be involved in his gym battle against Sabrina, so there was no need to push them.

He may have Ivysaur work on Razor Leaf while Clefairy and Haunter were getting trained by Sabrina to put up mental barriers, but that was about as much as he would allow Ivysaur to do. Growlithe, on the other hand, would be completely out of commission until they left. The pup was still trying to get the hang of Reversal, and the fighting technique was way too physically taxing for Growlithe to practice until he had recovered completely.

Growlithe definitely wouldn't be happy about his lack of activity, but he would have to get over it. The pup was still young after all. Ash didn't want to push him too hard. Rest was an important part of the training process, and Growlithe definitely needed it after his strong effort against Team Rocket.

The only two pokemon that Ash hadn't been able to see much of over the last few days were Pidgeotto and Wartortle.

He wasn't able to spend any time with Pidgeotto for obvious reasons: the avian was too big to stay with him in the hospital room. Not just that, but Ash didn't really trust him not to break anything. The last thing Ash wanted was to have to spend all of his earnings from the SS Anne tournament on replacing some expensive medical apparatus.

He trusted Pidgeotto with his life. However, destroying things was the avian's greatest skill. Squeezing the giant avian into a room full of equipment, worth tens of thousands of dollars, didn't really sound like a smart idea.

The reasoning behind Wartortle's absence was due to his new evolution. Nurse Joy had volunteered to do a check-up on Wartortle to make sure that no complications had occurred throughout the evolutionary process. According to Nurse Joy, she hadn't found any problems thus far. However, they still hadn't finished doing all of the tests. Hopefully, all of the testing would be finished soon.

Apparently, Wartortle was beginning to give the medical staff trouble. He was reluctant to get checked up on in the first place. Ash had seen him for a short while, right after he had been treated with Nurse Joy's restoration machine, and the turtle pokemon was not very happy. Ash was the only human that Wartortle trusted after all. There was no way that he was going to allow a stranger to do tests on him under his own volition.

The only reason Wartortle eventually agreed to do the tests was because Ash had talked him into it and even with Ash's persuasion, it had been a difficult task to get the stony-faced turtle pokemon to oblige. It wasn't until Ash had explained that a thorough check-up would help hasten his time away from training that Wartortle finally gave in.

Now, after two days of tests, Wartortle was once again giving the medical staff a hard time. He was over all of the rudimentary physical tests and mental examinations. Ash figured that Wartortle would probably be mad at him for a couple of days once the tests were over, but Ash didn't really care. As long as Wartortle was healthy, the ten-year-old boy was okay with a few days of his water-type's expressionless anger.

In some ways, all of the news about how difficult Wartortle was being actually relieved Ash. He had been worried that Wartortle's emotions would deteriorate even more after evolution, but apparently those were just misguided fears. Wartortle hadn't changed a bit, which put a smile on Ash's face. No matter how difficult Wartortle's personality could be, it was always pleasant when a small bit of emotion breached his hardened disposition. Those were some of Ash's favorite moments.

Even though Ash loved getting a chance to rest and spend time with some of his pokemon, the highlights of his time at the Pokemon Center were the few times that Wallace, Robert, and Bill visited him.

The first time that they came to the Pokemon Center, they were forced to visit Ash, Austin, Sabrina and Kent separately. It was only a couple hours after they had arrived at the Center, and they were all prohibited to leave their rooms because of the extensive, initial round of oxygen therapy.

So, unfortunately, there was no way for everyone to meet at the same time. Instead, Ash had been visited personally by the trio of famous adults, which actually made him feel slightly special.

He was just a ten-year-old kid after all. The fact that three of the most famous people in the world had come to check on his wellbeing meant a lot.

Ash felt a bit overwhelmed when they first entered the room. Wallace was extremely worried. He questioned Nurse Joy, who had accompanied them into the room, about nearly every little thing involving Ash's treatment. It wasn't until Nurse Joy told him that he would make a full recovery in less than forty-eight hours that Wallace finally relaxed a little bit.

Ash had already been under the impression that Wallace was protective over him. Some people might disagree on behalf of the fact that Wallace allowed Ash to partake in the entirety of the mission. However, Wallace had made that decision because of his personal beliefs concerning trainers in general.

They did not live in a world for the weak. If they did, children would not be allowed to leave home at the age of ten.

Any kid that was brave enough to go out on their own journey was capable of making their own decisions. It's not like they weren't informed of the dangers that could take place while they traveled the world, and it's not as if League distributors gave out a starter to any kid that turned ten. A child had to qualify, and Ash was one of those kids that had made the cut.

He had made his own choice to help save Robert, and Wallace had respected that. If the decision was based off of feelings, Ash assumed that Wallace wouldn't have allowed Ash to take part in anything.

In just a short amount of time, Ash had become Wallace's friend, and friends were supposed to protect each other. The dark-haired boy had a feeling that Wallace had exposed Ash to a difficult situation, under appropriate supervision, so that he would know how to handle tough circumstances on his own.

Wallace was aware of the fact that Ash was traveling alone, and the ten-year-old boy had already procured quite the knack for getting himself caught in crazy circumstance. The Champion had used this opportunity to help Ash learn how to react under a high amount of pressure, and it had worked. Ever since the capture of Ariana, he had felt more confident than ever.

Wallace may have put him in danger, but he had also helped him learn how to overcome dangerous obstacles in the future. For that reason, Ash was thankful for what the Champion had done for him. In the past week, he had learned and matured a lot. Hopefully, his newfound sense of courage translated to his pokemon as well...

Although Wallace was intensely worried, compared to Bill his composure was serene. The pokemon researcher came into the room an utter crying mess. Between being reunited with his father, and seeing Ash with a rebreather mask on, Bill was full to the brim with all kinds of conflicting emotions.

Ash had always known Bill as a dramatic person, so he wasn't necessarily surprised. Howbeit, he'd never seen a grown man cry so much in his life. It was kind of hard to bear. The famous researcher was almost impossible to understand on account of his sporadic, trembling voice. Not to mention the fact that Bill didn't know where to unload all of his emotions. He bounced back and forth between Ash and Robert like a hyperactive pichu as he discharged a flurry of uncontrollable feelings.

It wasn't until Robert had finally beckoned him to calm down that Bill stopped running around the room like an over-emotional teenage girl.

Speaking of Robert, Ash couldn't even begin to explain how relieving it was to see the CEO of Silph Co. safe and sound. Not only was Robert one of the most important people in the world, but he was also the final product of a successful mission.

They had stopped Team Rocket from acquiring a capture device that would further their twisted plot of evil. They may not have been sure what their reasoning was, but it was clear that Team Rocket had a purpose for their attempt at stealing the Master Ball. Once Sabrina was healthy enough to interrogate Ariana, more answers would be unveiled. However, for now, just seeing Robert in one piece was an accomplishment in and of itself. His safety was a monumental victory.

Ash wasn't just happy to see that Robert was physically okay, but he was also thrilled to find out that Team Rocket hadn't managed to do any noticeable damage to his psyche. Robert was in as high of spirits as ever and didn't seem to have been phased in the slightest by the chaos that had occurred over the past couple of days.

The ten-year-old boy was aware that the CEO of Silph Co. was probably putting up a strong facade. There was no way that he hadn't been affected by the kidnapping at least a little bit. Nevertheless, the fact that he was able to put one up at all, in Ash's opinion, meant that he would be just fine.

Robert Montgomery would overcome any kind of trauma that he had accumulated over the past week. He was a strong man. The only way that Team Rocket was going to do him in was if they killed him.

Even though Ash loved seeing Robert, the old man's disposition portrayed that he was even more excited than Ash. From the moment he stepped through the door, he showered Ash with all kinds of heartfelt thanks.

The famous CEO even went as far as to say that he had a reward waiting for Ash at Silph Co. headquarters. Ash had no idea what it could possibly be, but he couldn't wait to find out. Apparently, Austin was getting a reward for his courage as well, so as soon as the teenage boy got discharged from the Pokemon Center's hospital wing, they would be making a trip over to headquarters in order to pick up their gifts.

Throughout their first visit, there was no talk about Team Rocket and Ariana. Ash tried to bring it up a couple of times, but each time Wallace quickly diverted the conversation. It was pretty clear that Wallace wanted to avoid talking about such matters at the time. He probably didn't want Ash to worry about anything too arduous for the rest of the day. In Wallace's mind, the ten-year-old boy had probably already been through enough.

It wasn't until yesterday that they finally discussed some of the details concerning the aftermath of the operation. At this point, the most intense part of the oxygen therapy treatment was over, so everyone was finally able to gather in the same room.

They chose to meet in Austin's room because he was the worse for wear. It had been less than twenty-four hours since he had his blood transfusion, and although he could move, it probably wasn't the best idea for him to be overly active.

Nurse Joy was able to hook Ash up to a mobile treatment machine, so he was able to get his oxygen therapy while he was in Austin's room. He felt kind of strange walking around with a rebreather mask, but if he took it off he would have to stay in the hospital wing even longer, and he definitely didn't want that.

At this point in time, Sabrina and Kent had already been discharged from the hospital wing, so there wasn't anything restricting them from moving about as they wished. It was nice being able to see everyone in the same room, especially after having been involved in such a perilous mission.

The first thing that they had discussed throughout the oddly located meeting was what had taken place on both teams' ends during the mission. Wallace was the first to share as he recounted the events that had unfolded at the warehouse.

Right off the bat, Wallace had explained that the warehouse was unexpectedly housing an entire base full of grunts. They had originally thought that Ariana's group would be small, but that wasn't the case. Going off of what Wallace said, Ash didn't think that there were quite as many grunts at the warehouse as there were in the underground hideout. Howbeit, there were definitely more than expected.

Ash didn't know exactly how many pokemon Wallace and Sabrina used to take down the base, but as Wallace told the story, he continuously referenced three pokemon: Swampert, a gyarados, and a pokemon called Milotic, which Ash was unfamiliar with. However, by the way that Wallace talked about this so called Milotic, Ash guessed that it was one of the Champion's strongest pokemon.

Every once in a while Sabrina would interrupt in order to explain things from her point of view. The pokemon that she mentioned were three of her alakazam: Kaz, Yin, and Yang, Yin's brother. More than likely, these three alakazam were the same alakazam that Sabrina used during her battle against Ariana, which unveiled the identity of the male alakazam that had faced off against Ariana's foreign feline.

With the help of the ten trainees that accompanied them to the warehouse, they easily wiped out all of the grunts. However, during that time, Ariana used all of the chaos as a distraction and escaped. Wallace explained that his initial reaction was to drop what he was doing and chase after her, but then he realized that she had left Robert behind—tied up and blindfolded. Since one of the main objectives was to recover Robert, Wallace was forced to stay behind as Ariana fled via a stupidly fast motorcycle.

Ash was surprised that Ariana had left Robert behind. After the lengths at which they had gone in order to capture him, it didn't make any sense that she would let go of him so easily. The only explanation that the dark-haired boy could come up with was that the preservation of Ariana's knowledge of Team Rocket's plan was more important than the acquisition of the Master Ball. She must have prioritized her escape over the retainment of Robert Montgomery. If that was the case, whatever was locked within her mental barriers was obviously extremely pivotal to Team Rocket.

Wallace proceeded to explain that once Robert's safety had been confirmed, Sabrina used her empathetic clairvoyance to track down and teleport to Ariana's location.

At this point in time, Sabrina interjected in order to briefly explain to them what had happened at the beginning stages of the battle in Saffron's northern district.

According to Sabrina, Kent, Ash and Austin had showed up not too long after the battle began. Sabrina told them that at the start of the battle she was taken by surprise by all of Ariana's dark-types. She wasn't able to read Ariana's mind to find out what pokemon she had, so she was hit hard by the full extent of the type disadvantage.

Sabrina admitted that she was relieved when Kent showed up. Ash had a tough time believing that Sabrina wouldn't have defeated Ariana in the end. Nevertheless, if they hadn't shown up when they did, the battle definitely would have been drawn out a lot longer and the repercussions could have ended up being way worse.

Once Kent's name was mentioned by Sabrina, the first-class ACE trainer took that as his cue to share what had happened next from his point of view. Kent gave a brief summary of what had occurred at the underground hideout before picking up where Sabrina left off. He explained that while he sent out his arcanine, electivire, scizor and umbreon, he asked the boys to stay behind and watch.

Ash thought he could sense a slight hint of guilt in Kent's intonation as he talked about leaving the boys behind, probably because of the fact that they got ambushed by a couple of grunts.

Ash didn't quite understand why Kent felt bad about it. It's not like anything bad happened to them, albeit Haunter's murderous outburst.

Anyways, Kent elucidated the rest of the events that had unfolded, up until their brief stab at interrogating Ariana, before Sabrina got frustrated and knocked her out. Throughout the end of Kent's recollection, Bill continuously pestered him about what had happened to Ash and Austin while he was taking on Ariana's pokemon. That's when Kent gave Ash an opportunity to share what had happened from his point of view.

Ash told them about how the Rockets had attacked them, but left out the part about Haunter's barbarous episode. He watered down the story and shared with them that Haunter and Golduck merely took out the raticate before incapacitating both of the grunts. Ash gave Austin a look that portrayed for him to go along with his fabrication, and Austin instantly obliged.

Ash could also tell that Sabrina was aware of what had really happened. She depicted a subtle hint of curiosity when Ash's story strayed from the truth, but elected not to say anything. When it came to things like this, Sabrina understood. She probably deduced Ash's reasoning and confirmed it as logical. Ash just didn't want Wallace and Bill to worry about Haunter's presence on his team and didn't want Kent to be aware of Haunter's internal demon.

It was highly unlikely that they would do something right now in regard to his ghost-type's infernal shift in behavior, but Ash sincerely doubted that Haunter's abominable freak-outs would go away anytime soon. Until they finally resolved this issue, Haunter would be looked at as a liability to anyone that didn't truly know him. Wallace and Bill were protective of Ash. Who knows how they would handle Haunter if they found out that he had an alter ego that was capable of murder?

Once Ash had finished explaining what had happened, while he and Austin were separated from Kent, his mentioning of the two Rocket grunts that Haunter had disabled sparked Sabrina to bring up a new topic of discussion.

When Kaz had teleported Sabrina, Kent, Ash and Ariana over to Austin's location prior to teleporting them to the Pokemon Center, they had taken the two Rocket grunts with them. Ash didn't think too much about it at the time because of how disoriented he was, but almost immediately after they arrived at the Pokemon Center, Kaz, Sabrina and the three unconscious Rockets vanished.

It wasn't until Ash had finally come to his senses after a couple hours of oxygen therapy that he actually took the time to theorize about what Sabrina had done with them. His initial thought was that she teleported them to the Saffron City Police Department, but it didn't take long for Ash to discard that idea.

There was no way that Sabrina would hand over Ariana to the League before she got a chance to examine the executive's mind under her own terms. No. More than likely, Sabrina would take Ariana to a place of seclusion, where she could interrogate her at her own pace.

Although the number of casualties was minuscule, Ariana's presence in Saffron City had caused a massive amount of destruction, and nothing meant more to Sabrina than her city. Sabrina wanted to know what Team Rocket wanted with the Master Ball before she allowed Ariana to be dealt with by the law.

The twisted Rocket executive had caused too much damage to Saffron and had kidnapped probably the most important person in Sabrina's life: Robert Montgomery. There was no way Sabrina would mindlessly hand over Ariana on account of the League, the gym leader wasn't that selfless.

Taking all of this into account, Ash was almost certain that he knew the location of Ariana and the two grunts. Sabrina had most likely taken Ariana to the cell where the Rocket with the deranged mind was being held, within the Saffron Gym's basement.

Ash had a feeling that Sabrina not only took Ariana there for interrogation, but she also wanted to perversely fulfill the fragmented Rocket's wish to see Ariana. That Rocket had pissed Sabrina off with his mindless babbling about killing everyone important to her. Sabrina had already lost her parents; her emotions weren't stable enough to handle words like that in a placid manner.

Ash suspected that Sabrina wanted to destroy that deranged Rocket's sense of reality by throwing his erroneous goddess in the same cell that he resided in. Sabrina might have a soft spot for those that she cares about, but Ash could tell that the opposite was true for those that opposed her.

He had seen the ferocity that could breach through her expressionless countenance when she was mad. It reminded him of his Haunter. It was like there was a demon pushing up against Sabrina's conscious psyche just waiting to get loose, and when it did, it would go absolutely crazy, until everything that threatened her was bereft of life.

Ash's hypothesis was at least partially confirmed when Sabrina explained that she had Ariana and the two grunts detained underneath the Saffron Gym. Ash had a feeling that everyone else, other than Austin and him, already knew this.

All but Kent simply nodded.

Although Kent didn't say anything, Ash could tell that he was frustrated. He was a first-class ACE trainer after all—a man that had devoted his life to taking care of the League's dirty work. Kent likely didn't agree with the fact that Sabrina was holding onto Ariana for the time being, however, there was nothing Kent could do about it. If it weren't for Sabrina, and the rest of the people in this room, Kanto would be in a lot of trouble.

Simply put, Kent didn't have the right to disagree with Sabrina's judgment. Everyone here had covered the League's ass. The League had failed to handle things on their own; Team Rocket had bested Kanto's government. It was the Champion of another region, a gym leader acting on her own accord, a famous pokemon researcher, and a couple of kids that had thwarted Team Rocket's plan.

The League had become lax while Team Rocket had gone into hiding. That was likely to change. Champion Lance couldn't just sit back idly after the SS Anne's destruction, Robert Montgomery's kidnapping, and the devastation that had come to pass in Saffron City. The people would demand that something be done, and Lance would be expected to get off of his throne, at the Indigo Plateau, in order to put a stop to all of the chaos that had taken place over the past week.

Ariana was just an executive, Team Rocket wouldn't go away until they were decimated in full. Hopefully, Sabrina was able to dig out their true goal when she was healthy enough to examine Ariana's mind. Until then, there was nothing they could do but remain alert.

Once Sabrina finished explaining that she would be investigating Ariana's mind as soon as her psychic powers had fully recovered, the conversation shifted into a discussion concerning everyone's individual, forthcoming plans.

Wallace started the new conversation off by telling everyone that he would only be staying In Saffron for a couple more days. The Champion had to get back to his home region. He had spent way too much time getting involved with Kanto affairs and needed to get back to Hoenn.

However, despite his need to get home, he didn't plan on leaving Saffron's northern districts up in flames.

Apparently, the water-type specialist had spent the past few days having his pokemon work on putting out the fires. He had the help of the Saffron City Fire Department, but they weren't nearly as adroit as Wallace. He did have some of the strongest water pokemon in the world at his disposal after all.

So far, they had eliminated any immediate threats of the raging fires spreading into other districts or the northern routes outside of city limits. Nevertheless, a good chunk of Saffron City's upper terrain was still up in flame, and the city could definitely use a Champion's help.

Wallace did say that Champion Lance had contacted the League officials in Saffron and had offered to send out Gym Leader Misty, in addition to the other Waterflower girls, to help deal with the fires. But, Wallace told him that it wasn't necessary. The foreign Champion didn't have a problem with staying to finish the job.

Besides, Ash had a feeling that Wallace wanted to stay and make sure that Ash and Austin were okay. They had become good friends, and Wallace probably wasn't comfortable leaving them while they were in the hospital.

Ash definitely didn't have any qualms about it. He would miss Wallace, the Champion had become one of his best friends. The longer Wallace could stay the better. It would be ideal if Wallace would be able to watch his gym battle, but Ash doubted that would happen.

The dark-haired boy still had to teach his pokemon how to put up mental barriers, and that would probably take more than a couple days. By the time he was prepared to battle Sabrina, Wallace would most likely be gone.

Ash would still be keeping in frequent contact with Wallace via his xtranceiver, however, he had no idea when he would able to see him in person again. Hopefully, it wouldn't be too long. Wallace did have to govern a foreign region, therefore, there were no guarantees.

Sabrina was the second to share. Other than a few details about how she needed to go over the missing persons' list and damage costs with Robert, as well as some of the other League officials that were stationed in Saffron, the information Sabrina shared was a lot less depressing than Wallace's impending departure.

Sabrina would be spending the next couple of days resting at the gym. She had exerted a lot of her psychic power during the mission, and she needed to lay low for a little bit in order for it to replenish. She planned on doing so while teaching Ash how to put mental barriers over his pokemons' minds.

Her pokemon could perform all of the external psychic exposure, so there would be no need for her to use her power. As long as she didn't have to delve into her psychic abilities, she would be able to get all of the rest she needed in order to properly dissect Ariana's mental barrier.

The psychic virtuoso also explained that she wanted to help Ash's pokemon acquire the mental barriers as fast as possible. She knew that he wanted to resume his travels and understood that he couldn't do that until she gave him a gym battle. Sabrina wanted to repay Ash for all of the care that he had shown Robert and her, and she knew that giving him her near undivided attention, over the next couple of days, was the best gift that she could give him.

Ash didn't have any qualms about it. He couldn't wait to get back to training.

Once Sabrina was done sharing her plans, Kent spoke up.

According to the first-class ACE trainer, his next few days were going to be busy. Kent was under direct orders from the commander of the ACE Corps to stay in Saffron City for the next week, or so, in order to clear up the mess that Team Rocket had made.

He would be interrogating some of the grunts that they had detained after the mission – particularly the ranked Rocket – on account of the fact that the League believed he was the highest ranking captured member of Team Rocket's forces. The League had yet to become aware of Ariana's presence within Saffron. Kent, as well as the trainees, had promised to keep their mouths shut unless the League started to get suspicious.

None of them felt comfortable lying to the League, and Ash couldn't blame them. Withholding information was difficult enough. They were supposed to be the dogs of the League, willing to do all of the dirty work. Holding a secret from the very thing that they were sworn to protect sounded torturous.

However, it was the best course of action. Sabrina needed to be able to use her methods at her own pace in order to successfully rip Team Rockets plans from Ariana's brain. Kent was fully aware of this fact, which was why he was willing to go to such lengths to allow Sabrina to have her way.

Apparently, Kent's interrogations would begin as soon as two more high-ranking members of the ACE Corps arrived in Saffron. Ash didn't know if they were first-class ACE trainers like Kent, but Ash assumed that they were strong. After seeing how powerful a mere trainee was, anyone that could assume the role of an ACE trainer had to be skilled.

Because Kent would be busy attending to League duties for the next week, he made it known that chances are he wouldn't be seeing any of them anytime soon. Ash understood, but that didn't change the fact that he was a little sad. In just a few days, he had grown to like Kent. Hopefully, their paths would cross again…

Later today, Robert would be returning to Silph Co. headquarters so that he could address his company. During their meeting, Robert had tried to elucidate his company's current status. Due to obvious circumstances over the past week, Silph Co. had been operating under the impression that their CEO was dead. After the SS Anne catastrophe, Margaret Montgomery, Robert Montgomery's wife, assumed the role as interim CEO.

Robert explained that if he were to actually have died, Margaret would have ran the company until Bill decided that he wanted to leave the lighthouse and take on his father's legacy. When Robert mentioned this, Bill cringed, so Ash could tell that there was a lot of discomfort regarding this topic.

Anyways, immediately after Robert's rescue, he had informed his wife that he was still alive. Ash sort of wished that he could have been there for that scene; he was a sucker for that sort of thing. Besides, Bill most certainly had been there. Knowing his friend's tendency to be over emotional, it without a doubt had to be entertaining. Watching Bill's exaggerated displays was one of Ash's favorite things in the world. It was just way too amusing.

Other than Margaret, only a few high-ranking Silph Co. employees had been made aware of Robert's survival. Margaret Montgomery had ordered a press-conference that was to be broadcasted worldwide, which would be taking place later today. Robert seemed to think that it was a little much, but his wife insisted. According to Robert, Margaret Montgomery was the most dramatic out of the bunch.

Ash had a tough time believing that anyone could be more dramatic than Bill, but then again, his unusual behavior had to have come from somewhere.

Nevertheless, regardless of how they planned on making the announcement, Ash knew for a fact that the world would break out into a momentous celebration. Before Robert Montgomery's supposed death, he had been one of the world's most adored people. As soon as everyone knew that he was alive, not only would he be looked at as a charitable visionary, but he would also be seen as a hero.

Not only had Mr. Montgomery survived the SS Anne, but he had also endured a kidnapping devised by Team Rocket. His strength and perseverance had proven to be just as strong as his empire was gracious. He was a billionaire that people could actually look up to. Robert had already been practically worshipped by the world's populace, and that reputation would only grow.

The more Ash thought about it the more he felt bad for Bill. His friend had a lot to live up to. It was situations like this that made Ash kind of relieved that he didn't know much about his father. High expectations from others had the potential to forge a person's destiny, especially the expectations of a father-like figure.

Of course, deep down inside, Ash wished that he knew his father. However, at least he didn't have the pressure of living up to someone like Robert. He could become whoever he wanted to be without the nuisance of having someone constantly breathing down his neck. Then again, maybe thoughts like that were just his way of coping with the fact that his dad had never been around.

Anyhow, the pressure that followed having a father like Robert Montgomery was just something that Bill would have to deal with. He would be fine. Despite Bill's melodramatic personality, he was a strong man. If anyone could live up to Robert Montgomery, it was Bill.

Speaking of Bill, once Robert had finished explaining his upcoming agenda, Bill proceeded with his own.

Bill planned on sticking around Saffron for a little bit in order to help out his father. Robert had all kinds of obligations and delegations to take care of so that he could maintain good relations with a plethora of his business partners.

The pokemon researcher wanted to help Robert with some of his forthcoming duties. It was the least he could do. His father had been through a lot, and he wanted to be there to help.

Besides, it's not like Bill didn't have the time. The pokemon researcher's only present responsibility involved observing and examining Dragonite back at the lighthouse. Although Dragonite was a high priority to Bill, he could wait for a couple more days. The massive genetic phenomenon wasn't going anywhere.

Another reason that Bill wanted to stay was for Ash. He planned on volleying his time back and forth between Silph Co. headquarters and the Saffron Gym. Bill wanted to be able to provide Ash with company while he was training with Sabrina. Austin would be in the hospital, Wallace would be tending to the fires, and Kent would be busy with League matters. Bill didn't feel comfortable leaving his friend alone with Sabrina for that long.

Bill also explained that he wanted to hang around and see Ash's gym battle. He didn't think he would get another opportunity to see Ash battle before the League conference. Now would be the perfect time for him to see his friend battle in person. It was also worth noting that Bill was most likely yearning for Sabrina's defeat.

Over the past week, it had become vividly clear that Sabrina and Bill didn't get along. Their unusual animosity towards each other had only grown since Robert had been rescued. Bill wasn't joking when he said that Robert considered Sabrina a daughter. The CEO of Silph Co. treated Sabrina like she was just as big of a priority as Bill, maybe even more so. She was the apple of his eye—the daughter he had never had, and it pissed Bill off.

Bill wanted Sabrina to lose to Ash desperately. The dark-haired boy could tell. Although he didn't want to win for the same reasons, Ash couldn't wait to battle Sabrina for a chance at the Marsh Badge. It had been a long time coming.

After Bill finished talking about watching Ash's gym battle, nearly everyone else blurted out their apologies for not being able to attend.

Austin was bound to the Pokemon Center's hospital wing, for at least two more days, and that was only if everything went perfectly. Nurse Joy estimated that he would be in the hospital for two to four more days. That would give his body enough time to adapt to the foreign blood that was now coursing throughout his veins. So, even before he had gotten an apology from his recovering friend, Ash was well aware that he most likely wouldn't be able to come.

Of course, Kent wouldn't be able to make it, which didn't surprise Ash in the least bit. And Robert probably wouldn't be attending due to everything that he had to take care of over the next week. Ash hadn't been expecting Wallace to be able to come, which was still up in the air, but he was desperately hoping that the foreign Champion would be able to find the time to show up.

Ash knew that Wallace had a ton of obligations to take care of in Hoenn, but that didn't change the fact that they had been through a lot together over the past week. No matter how many times Ash rationally thought about Wallace not being there, it still upset him. Austin was already being forced to miss the match. It wasn't fair that Wallace was as well. But, then again, life wasn't fair. So, how disappointed could Ash actually get before he had to admit to himself that his expectations were too high?

Ash accepted everyone's apologies and explained that it wasn't that big of a deal, although it was a slightly bigger deal than he was making it out to be. He then went on to explain his plans beyond his gym battle with Sabrina. Everyone knew that he would be training with her over the next few days, so there was no need to go into detail about it. How Sabrina chose to train Ash was up to her.

The ten-year-old boy shared that as soon as his gym battle was over, and he and Austin had visited Silph Co. headquarters in order to tour the building and to pick up their rewards, he planned on traveling to Celadon City.

Celadon was only about a week's walk west, and although there weren't too many wild pokemon that interested Ash indigenous to the area, it was said that some wild abra and kadabra roamed in between Kanto's two biggest cities. Ash was in need of a psychic-type, and ever since he had seen the kadabra aboard the SS Anne, the species had garnered his interest.

Sabrina's powerful specimens only heightened his desire to train one of his own, although chances of that were still low. Abra and kadabra weren't common pokemon by any means, and their ability to read minds and teleport made them excruciatingly difficult to catch. This gave him all the more reason to let Haunter travel in his shadow during the trip. The poltergeist's Mean Look would be essential if Ash wanted to capture a psi pokemon.

Another thing about the trip to Celadon that really excited Ash was the fact that there was said to be a lot of powerful trainers that could be found trekking between Celadon and Saffron. Route 7 was a long and busy route that was frequently used not only by trainers looking to battle, but also merchants.

Located in Celadon was the famous Celadon Department Store: the largest shopping center in all of Kanto. It put the average pokemart to shame and was labeled as a place that all pokemon trainers had to visit at least once while they were traveling through Kanto. Due to the department store's presence, all of Celadon's encompassing routes were packed with traveling merchants looking to sell their goods to one of Celadon's many buyers.

Ash couldn't wait to visit the Celadon Department Store. One of the reasons that he had spent such a minimal amount of money during his journey was in anticipation for Celadon. He planned on getting his friends all kinds of TMs and rare items that could boost their already potent potential.

However, despite all of the fun and self-betterment that a trip to Celadon offered him, his main reason for visiting Celadon was the gym leader, Erika Mori. Erika was well known as one of the weakest gym leaders in Kanto and served as Ash's best option to pick up his fourth badge.

After his battle against Sabrina, the gloves would be coming off in regard to his gym battles. No longer would gym leaders be required to use a specified team, and no longer would they have to compromise their strength. Some of the more powerful gym leaders might still decide to do so, but there was no guarantee.

Erika was a good up and coming gym leader, but she was by no means a prodigy like Misty Waterflower or Brock Slate. Erika would hopefully be a good warmup for some of the more formidable gym leaders, such as Koga and Giovanni.

Moreover, Ash would have a good matchup against Erika. She was a grass-type specialist, which meant that he had a lot of pokemon with type advantage. Ash wasn't quite sure how many pokemon Erika typically used for battles with more than three badges, but most gym leaders used three or four.

If it ended up being a three-on-three battle, Ash would use Growlithe, Charmander and Pidgeotto. All three of them would have a significant type advantage, and Charmander had yet to compete in a gym battle. Ash wanted to give him the opportunity to prove his strength against Erika. Growlithe and Pidgeotto were no brainers. They had the advantage and were some of his most experienced pokemon.

If the battle ended up being a four-on-four, he would probably use Ivysaur. The typing would be neutral, and Wartortle would be at an extreme disadvantage. He could use Haunter or Clefairy, but they were battling in the gym battle against Sabrina, and he would like to give some of his other pokemon an opportunity.

Anyways, once Ash had finished explaining his plans to go to Celadon, he received a surplus of comments from just about everyone in the room. None were negative, almost everyone seemed to think that Celadon was a good, rational choice.

The only, somewhat, negative response came from Wallace, who warned Ash not to underestimate Erika.

His argument was that, although she was young and inexperienced, she was still a gym leader. Gym leader's were expected to be strong and had to oversee whichever city that they were appointed to. In terms of sheer size, Celadon was the biggest city in Kanto. If Erika managed to become the gym leader of such a prodigious city, she couldn't be that bad.

Ash agreed with Wallace, but also thought that he was telling him to be a bit overcautious, probably because Wallace was a water-type specialist. Water was weak to grass, which is probably what was causing Wallace to speak so circumspectly.

When everyone in the room finished chiming in to give their two cents, Austin coughed to grab their attention.

It took a few moments for everyone to quiet down, but eventually they all ceased their chatter in order to hear what Austin had to say.

Austin refrained from any talk involving his time in the hospital. Everyone knew that he would be there for a few more days, and Ash figured he probably didn't want to talk about it anymore.

Like Ash, he shared his plans for after Saffron.

After Ash and Austin's upcoming trip to Silph Co. headquarters, Austin planned on flying Fearow back to Johto. Austin had a journey to resume, and he no longer could afford to hang around Kanto.

Ash would have been worried about Austin during the flight over to Johto, but he had seen Fearow fly. Austin's fearow was a master at manipulating air currents. It wasn't like flying on Pidgeotto, where he had to hold on for dear life while battling the atmosphere's turbulent wind.

Once Austin got back to Johto, he planned on taking on the region's gym circuit. Judging by Austin's team, he couldn't have been in Johto for too long before the SS Anne. As far as Ash knew, Austin didn't have any pokemon native to Johto, albeit Meganium, who was actually his starter.

He might have a badge or two, but Ash didn't really know for sure. He had never asked, but he guessed that Austin didn't have any. Knowing Austin, he would have most likely bragged about them if he did.

It didn't take too long for Austin to finish sharing his plans, and once he was done, they all chatted for a little bit longer before everyone went their separate ways.

Ash wasn't quite sure what everyone else did after the meeting, but he spent the rest of yesterday in bed relaxing with his pokemon. The meeting hadn't been too long. However, he was still trying to recover from the conditions of Saffron's northern district.

One more day of rest had proven to be the perfect cure for Ash's exhaustion. Now, he and Growlithe were standing in front of the Pokemon Center's front desk waiting for Nurse Joy to finish retrieving Wartortle's pokeball. He had already received the rest of his friends' capture devices at various points throughout the last couple of days.

As Saffron's Nurse Joy swung open the doors to the hospital wing, there was a subtle smirk that appeared across her face. It was a look that depicted amusement. Ash and his friends had put the Pokemon Center through a lot over the past couple of days, and she had handled it extremely well. Ash liked her, although not nearly as much as the Joy that had saved Charmander.

"Your Wartortle's just fine, Ash," said Nurse Joy as she shook her head in bewilderment. "There were no hiccups in the evolution, and he's definitely adjusted well to his new body. Of course, the squirtle to wartortle transformation isn't necessarily a difficult one. Things will be a lot different if he ever evolves into a blastoise, but still, he has adapted better than most."

"Good," said Ash as he reached out to grab Wartortle's pokeball. "Did his behavior ever get any better?"

"Nope," replied Nurse Joy with a shrug while handing the pokeball over to Ash, "but I assume you've got a good handle on him. He wasn't awful, although it's pretty apparent that he only listens to you. The only way we could get him to do any of the tests was if we mentioned that it was what you wanted."

The dark-haired boy smiled at that. It seemed as though he hadn't lost Wartortle's respect amidst the evolution after all. "Yeah, things weren't always that way, though. It took me longer than I would have liked to get him to listen to me."

"I bet," said Nurse Joy. "Once you get them under control, though, pokemon like that are usually some of the most enjoyable personalities to train. I'm sure you guys will have fun together."

Ash's smile stretched even further while he clipped Wartortle's pokeball to his belt.

"Anyways…" drawled Nurse Joy, "All of your paperwork has been processed. You're good to go. I believe Sabrina said something about heading to her gym as soon as you're discharged. Am I correct?"

"Yeah," said Ash as he adjusted the straps on his backpack before fixing his cap, "I'm heading over there right now."

Nurse Joy nodded her head while another smirk formed across her pretty face, "Good luck."

A simple good luck wouldn't have been strange, but the way Nurse Joy said it sent a deep tingle down Ash's spine. It was the kind of feeling that you got when you knew something arduous was in your near future.

"The gym battle is not for a few days," answered Ash with a gulp, "today's just training."

"I know, and like I said," retorted Nurse Joy in the same odd intonation, "good luck. You're going to need it."

"Err…thanks, I guess," groaned Ash as he started to back away from the front desk.

"Bye, Ash," said Nurse Joy with a smile and a wave. "Have fun. Don't forget to see me before the gym battle. I'm sure you're pokemon are going to need the rest after what Sabrina has in store for them."

"Bye, Nurse Joy," stammered Ash as he turned around and headed straight for the door.

As soon as he exited Saffron's oversized Pokemon Center, Ash lowered his line of sight to Growlithe who was looking up at him with concerned eyes. "Dammit, buddy. What the hell have I gotten myself into?"

Growlithe simply shook his head, clearly just as worried as Ash.

The ten-year-old boy took a big breath before releasing a heavy sigh. He had a feeling that Sabrina had more planned for him than he had originally expected.

XXX

Unfortunately, it took Ash and Growlithe nearly four hours to get to the Saffron Gym. Along the way, the dark-haired boy half-expected Sabrina to teleport to his location, but then he remembered that Sabrina was currently resting her powers.

Several times, during his expedition across the city, Ash thought about calling one of his other friends that were in Saffron for a ride. However, he ultimately decided not to bother them. They were busy, and he could use the exercise. It was good for him after being cooped up in a hospital room for so long.

By the time he finally reached the gym, he was out of breath and exhausted. He would be just fine, but he could definitely still feel the after-effects of the ample dose of carbon monoxide. Nurse Joy had warned him that his respiratory system would be weak for a few days, so he wasn't shocked.

Even though it was arduous, there were parts of the tiresome trip that he enjoyed. Hee got to see a lot of the sections of Saffron that he hadn't previously been to. Before today, Ash had seen all of Saffron's northern and southern districts. During the walk over to the gym, he finally got an opportunity to experience almost everything else, most notably Saffron's busy central districts.

The core of Saffron was so much different than the rest of the city. It was bustling and wild—full to the brim with all sorts of activities. There were hundreds of shops, thousands upon thousands of preoccupied people, and the buildings were all massive in size and scope. Life in Central Saffron was the perfect example of what most people stereotyped the city life to look like.

Despite all of the entertaining people and intriguing shops, by far the coolest thing Ash experienced was getting up close to Silph Co. headquarters. He didn't go in or anything like that; he wanted to wait until Robert's tour, but it was still an awe-inspiring sight. The skyscraper was absolutely gargantuan, and Ash nearly strained his neck when he tried to look straight up its imposing face.

Ash couldn't wait to go inside after Austin got discharged from the Pokemon Center. The thought of possibly getting to go to the top made the ten-year-old boy giddy. He wasn't exactly in love with heights, but flying atop Pidgeotto had dampened any fears that would have previously caused reluctance. Going to the top of Silph Co. headquarters wasn't typically allowed by the Montgomery's; there were way too many risks involving potential terrorist attacks.

However, it was rumored that the view was amazing for those few that got the chance. Hopefully, Ash's growing relationship with the family would make him one of those lucky exceptions.

Other than Silph Co. headquarters' staggering immensity, Ash's favorite thing about Central Saffron was the tantalizing scents coming from all of the districts various hole in the wall restaurants. The food at the Pokemon Center was alright, but it was nothing in comparison to the food that he smelt as he walked amidst the heart of the city.

He thought about stopping to eat several times, but there were just way too many choices. By the time he finally came to a decision, he was almost at the gym. He figured Sabrina would have something for him to scarf down, so he chose not to spend the money. He'd be leaving for Celadon in a few days, and his money would be better spent on travel supplies.

Even though there were a lot of things that he loved, there were also some things that Ash didn't care for about his expedition through Saffron's most active districts.

Throughout his journey, Ash had started to get used to the concept of large crowds of people, but this was over the top. Central Saffron was ridiculously congested.

In some of the busiest areas, it was hard for Ash to even walk without bumping into somebody. He was constantly rubbing shoulders with people, and Growlithe was starting to get anxious in the midst of the sea of people.

Despite the fact that Growlithe's social anxiety had almost completely diminished, Central Saffron was not a comfortable environment for the pup. Growlithe was on edge, constantly darting his eyes back and forth due to the many noises and emotional scents.

Ash thought about returning him, however, he elected not to. Central Saffron was the ultimate test for Growlithe. If he could persevere through it than he could handle being around just about any number of people. Essentially, it was his final round of Exposure Therapy.

Another thing that Ash didn't enjoy was the random outbursts of fear that some of the citizens displayed. He had been told back at the Pokemon Center that there was a very short missing persons' list. Most of the fires in the northern districts had been cleared up, and there was only a slight haze of smoke drifting throughout the air in Saffron's core.

Most of the people were relatively calm about what had happened the other day. Ash assumed that the majority of the chaotic aftermath had been taken care of while he was at the Pokemon Center. However, every once in a while there would be a random breakdown or panic attack that took place in the middle of the streets.

It made sense, there had been a big battle in the city a couple of days ago. Nevertheless, it kind of left Ash unsettled. The concept of peoples' loved ones losing lives and citizens living in fear didn't bode well for Ash's mind. It made him hate Team Rocket even more.

Be that as it may, he kept his head up and continued to walk.

There had been some rocky moments, but eventually they made their way through the crowd and to the gym.

Now, Ash stood in front of the familiar Saffron Gym, with sore legs and an exhausted Growlithe, as he tried to calm down his wild breathing.

To the northwest was an ominous, orange glow that could be seen over the horizon, blanketed in a cloud of murky smoke. It belonged to the site of the fires that were still raging in Saffron's northernmost territory.

Ash assumed that Wallace was probably over there right now working to put out the fires. The Champion most likely had his band of powerful water-types exhausting their internal water reservoirs in order to squelch the widespread flames.

It was a nudge up against Ash's pant leg from an anxious Growlithe that got Ash to focus his line of sight back on the gym.

Between being teleported directly from the Pokemon Center into the gym's interior or rushing to leave before the mission, Ash hadn't really gotten a chance to examine the Saffron Gym's exterior appearance until now.

It was a very bizarre looking building. From what Ash could tell, its primary structural shape was that of a dome. It was large in expanse, and its walls were painted a serene indigo blue that matched the building's interior tile. In the center of the dome were two large arching doors. They were made out of some sort of fine, silver alloy that shimmered as Ash stood in front of the building.

What made the building standout, though, was the extensive, violet roof that seemingly swallowed the dome shaped structure. It waved across the top half of the building before jetting outside of the main structure's breadth and plummeting into the ground, creating what appeared to be several pointed pillars.

The Saffron Gym's overall image gave off an extraterrestrial-like feel. Its abstract design didn't look like anything that a human would construct.

Once Ash had taken in the outlandish exterior of the gym, he made his way over to the front door. Due to all of the chaos that had ensued over the past couple of days, there were no impending challengers like there were at the Vermillion Gym.

Then again, the reason for the long line to battle Surge was the prize: the SS Anne ticket. Gyms weren't usually that congested, although they tended to get busier as the League tournament neared.

As expected, when Ash got close, the double doors instantly opened and receded into the walls. Unless the being trying to open them was a machamp, or something else with otherworldly strength, doors made out of such a heavy substance couldn't be moved manually.

He thought about the possibility that the doors had been opened psychically, but that would probably get old for whoever had been issued the rudimentary task. More than likely, the double doors opened and closed using some kind of automated system.

As Ash entered the Saffron gym, he quickly discarded his current train of thought. Leave it to him to waste time mulling over how a door worked. Good thing Sabrina couldn't use her telekinetic powers right now. Otherwise, she probably would have judged his thought patterns as trivial.

The Saffron Gym didn't have a lobby like other gyms. On the other side of the front door was a long, eerie hallway. It wasn't eerie in the same way that the Pokemon Tower had been back in Lavender Town. What made it strange was the odd lack of décor, or anything else for that matter, that existed throughout the corridor.

The vibes that he got from the Saffron Gym's lengthy entryway didn't surprise Ash, though. As a matter of fact, he didn't expect anything else. It's not like it contradicted the rest of the gym that Ash had previously gotten a chance to see. The entirety of the Saffron Gym had the same uncanny feeling. It was only heightened because, this time, Ash and Growlithe weren't with Wallace, Austin and Bill.

It was just Ash, Growlithe, and the sound of their footsteps as they passed by the several grey pillars that cascaded from the roof into the indigo shaded tile. It didn't take long for them to get to the end of the hallway, where it opened up into the gym's vast, torch lit arena.

In the center of the marked arena sat Sabrina, depicting a countenance that was utterly poised. She sat cross-legged as her eyes were closed. It was rather clear that she was entranced in a deep meditation.

The closer Ash got the more uncomfortable he felt. The dark-haired boy wasn't quite sure what to do. He didn't want to interrupt Sabrina's meditation. It just didn't sound like a good idea. Normally, he would have expected Sabrina to sense that he was coming, but her present lack of psychic power made him hesitant.

"Hello, Ash Ketchum," articulated Sabrina, moving nothing but her jaw to speak. "What took you so long? I figured you would have gotten here a long time ago. Nurse Joy called the gym saying that you had left hours ago. You must have walked, am I correct?"

Ash let out a sudden sigh of relief the second Sabrina spoke up. Since she had been the first to initiate interaction, he no longer had to worry about how to garner her attention. She must have heard him as he walked down the hall. Going off of the fact that she had to think about the means of which he had arrived at the gym proved that she was still resting her psionic prowess.

"Yeah, I walked," replied Ash as he closed the distance between himself and the fair-skinned beauty," Wallace is busy putting out the fires, and Bill is with his dad. I didn't want to bother anyone for a ride."

"You could have taken a taxi," answered Sabrina as she opened her distant pink eyes, "they don't cost that much in Saffron."

"Ah, that's okay," said Ash with a wave of his hand, although he was kind of upset that he hadn't thought of that before, "I needed the exercise. Besides, Growlithe and I got a chance to see all of Central Saffron."

"Oh, I see," retorted Sabrina with a blank face. "How did you like Central? It's a bit overcrowded in my opinion, but there are a lot of marvelous things to see. Did you get a good look at Silph Co. headquarters?"

Although Sabrina didn't show it with her emotions, he had spent enough time around her to know that she would if she could. Her love for Saffron was evident in the way that she diligently asked questions about it. It was clear that Ash's opinion of Saffron meant something to her. It was times like this where Sabrina seemed like just another person, going about her life in a very human way.

"I liked it a lot," said Ash with a grin. "The people were a bit overwhelming, but other than that it was awesome. Getting up close to Silph Co. headquarters was amazing. I can't wait to go inside and see it for myself."

A rare smile formed on Sabrina's face before she answered, "Ah, yes, Robert's taking you and Austin Turner on a tour at the end of the week. He's really excited about it. I spoke to him this morning, and all he talked about was giving you two your gifts. You would never guess that today is the day of his worldwide press conference."

Ash let out a chuckle in response to Sabrina's comment before carrying on the conversation, "He's definitely an interesting guy, that's for sure. By the way, what time is the press conference, again?"

"Tonight at seven," retorted Sabrina as she slowly stood up from her spot on the ground.

As Sabrina stood up, he was able to get a good look at her attire. She was wearing an outfit that was similar to the one that she wore the first time that Ash met her. She had on a lavender spaghetti strap tank-top that showed her slender midriff, and black skinny jeans. Sabrina wore tennis shoes that coordinated with her tank-top, and fastened around her waist was her prototypical fully loaded trainer belt.

"As a matter of fact, I will be attending it," added Sabrina.

Ash's entire face lifted as a thought phased through his mind. "Can I come?"

"I do not believe that would be wise," answered Sabrina as she ran her fingers through her blowout styled hair.

"…Why?" questioned the ten-year-old boy with a furrowed brow and a frown.

"Because you would procure too much attention," said Sabrina in a monotonous intonation, "trainers your age aren't invited to events such as this one. All of Saffron's League officials will be there, and it is going to be broadcasted worldwide. I love Robert, but he can be compulsive. He doesn't think before he acts. If you were there, there's a possibility that he would do something stupid like introduce you to the world as one of his rescuers."

She paused.

"If he were to pull a stunt like that, you would instantly become a target of Team Rocket. Right now, they don't know who you are. Ariana may know that you helped thwart Team Rocket's plan, but she isn't in any position to report to her boss that a couple of kids have played a major role in stopping them. The last thing you want is for Team Rocket to become suspicious of you. It would throw a wrench in your plans to have any resemblance of a normal journey."

Ash gulped. He hadn't thought of that. "Err…you're probably right. I think I'd rather stay here."

"That's what I thought," retorted Sabrina. "Anyways, you look hungry. How about I have my cook make you a late lunch before we start our training?

While talking to Sabrina, he had nearly forgotten how hungry he was. As the idea of food percolated within his mind, his stomach put forth a sound that was oddly similar to an angry ursaring.

Sabrina simply shook her head. Ash wasn't sure, but he thought he could see a slight hint of amusement in her eyes.

"I take that as a yes," said Sabrina before walking towards the hallway that led to the kitchen. "Follow me."

Ash let out a brief giggle before he looked down at Growlithe, who glanced up at him with genial eyes, "Come on, buddy. It's time to eat."

Growlithe replied with a jubilant yip.

XXX

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