A/N: Hey guys! Sorry for the absence. Whoever said Senior year is the easiest deserves a punch in the face.

As an apology: enjoy this chapter, which clocked in at 15, 891 words. Oh yes. I'm as shocked as you are.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

The next morning, Ash allowed himself to sleep late and rise slowly, treating himself to a hot and cooked breakfast when he finally deigned to crawl from his sleeproll. The scare from last night had lost some of its terror with the coming of dawn, though he was still wary about releasing the Gastly from its Pokeball. Although he had worried that Tank would still be harboring some unease, the stalwart Pokemon proved him wrong once again; instead, the little Pokemon woke up as reluctantly as usual, consumed a few granite rocks, then began wandering around the clearing as though the events of last night had never happened.

Still, though. Ash scraped his compact metal spoon along the bottom of the ready-to-eat meal bag, gathering up the last steaming drips. His mind was working far away from his body. How would he even ensure the Gastly's obedience? It wasn't as though Tank or he could punish it if things went astray. Not that he even wanted to hurt it; despite the fright it had given him, the Gastly was just behaving as was its nature.

He could release it at noon, when it would be weakest, and make a break for it; or maybe he could simply donate it to a Pokemon shelter. And yet both options rubbed him the wrong way and put the sour taste of defeat in his mouth. After living in denial of his mother's death for months, he had promised himself that he would never run away from anything again. Not to mention, he doubted the shelter workers would very much appreciate having a wild and dangerous Gastly foisted into their hands.

So he was stuck with it.

Sighing, he cleared up his messes and scattered the remnants of the cooking fire.

Erring on the side of caution was generally a better idea; he would think about his options for the rest of the day and perhaps confront the Gastly tomorrow if he came up with a solution. Tank heeded Ash's beckoning whistle and trotted to his side, ready for a new day of walking.

Ash soon found that battling was an effective way of clearing his mind. When his pulse was racing, the worry of imminent failure sharp on his mind and the exhilaration of landed attacks warring for dominance, there wasn't time to stress over his predicament. Tank faithfully kept up his winning streak. His worst injury was one of slighted pride when Ash had to spend thirty minutes grooming the sticky silken threads of a Caterpie's string-shot from his armor.

Truthfully, Ash also didn't mind accumulating the Pokedollars in his wallet. He counted them out with reverence. Never before had he held so much money all at once. Because his mother had been a single parent, and the job market in Pallet wasn't exactly stellar, money had always been spent carefully. They hadn't been dirt-poor but Ash could remember a few instances of being envious of the other kids' brand-name clothes or toys.

Before leaving, Professor Oak had slipped a folded up catalogue of Pokemart items into his pack and so Ash took the time to plan his future purchases out carefully. A small footnote on the last page advertised a string of sales and coupon deals after subscribing, and Ash decided to mail off his subscription at the next Pokemart. After all, every Pokedollar mattered. Trainers could save hundreds of Pokedollars a year if they simply kept an eye out for the advertisements and special offers.

At the moment, it seemed that Potions and Paralyze Heals were marked down the most. Ash circled them with a black marker and tucked the catalogue back into his bag.

Feeling a somewhat-gentle nudge against his leg, he looked down. Tank was polishing his head on the edge of Ash's jeans. One eye was scrunched shut in pleasure, but the other was open and suspiciously fixed on Ash's pack, where Gastly's Pokeball had been stuffed last night. Ash exhaled heavily and thrummed his fingers on his thighs. He supposed the best time to confront the Gastly would be now, after he and Tank had slept and eaten and were at full-strength for the day. Meanwhile Gastly would feel weakened by the sunlight. And if worst came to worst, Ash could simply recall it. Now that Gastly had been captured, it could be recalled into the Pokeball at any time.

He crouched down and stroked the Aron's head. "Hey buddy, I'm going to release the Gastly now. If it won't listen to me, then I'll recall it. Are you okay with that?"

Tank huffed irritably at the mention of the ghost-type Pokemon, but bumped his head against Ash's shin in begrudging acceptance. The metal plates on his belly extended somewhat with a soft click.

Before he could talk himself out of it, Ash retrieved Gastly's Pokeball and thumbed the release button. Tank trotted a few steps away so that any ensuing battle would leave Ash unscathed.

He held out the Pokeball and pressed the trigger.

In a blinding flash of red light and the crackling smell of ozone Ash had come to associate with Pokeballs, the amorphous shape of Gastly quickly assembled. Tank began growling low in his throat, eyes narrowed to fierce blue slits.

For a moment, nothing happened; Gastly seemed to be facing away from them, the looser particles of its body buffeted by the slight breeze. Then, as Ash watched in fascinated disgust, one eye slowly bubbled to the top of the swirling epicenter with a loud sucking noise. It looked around, fixated on Ash, and blinked. Its other eye joined it a minute later, swimming around the gaseous matter before settling into its rightful place. The fanged smirk sprouted soon after.

"My name is Ash Ketchum," he started out strongly, in a voice as steely as the little Pokemon on guard beside him. "I caught you last night. If you want, you can be a part of my team." He hesitated for the briefest moment, wondering how much he should divulge about himself, then figured that if he expected to trust the Gastly in the future then it needed to trust him as well. Knowing someone led to trusting them. "I want to become one of the strongest trainers in the world… but I also plan to track down Team Rocket and—"

—At the mention of Team Rocket, the Gastly's eyes flashed crimson and its body ballooned in size. Multiple fangs unsheathed themselves from its jaws and a high-pitched hiss like escaping gas emitted from its gaping maw. Ash froze, unsure of what had set it off and if it was going to attack. Tank pawed the ground, equally surprised.

However, it seemed that the Gastly's anger was not directed at Ash himself. Rather, the Pokemon gnashed its teeth furiously and its large eyes glowed with nightmarish malice, but it stayed relatively in place all the same.

Ash reworked his few sentences through his mind, running through them to find out what had triggered the Pokemon. It hadn't reacted when he had extended the invitation to be a part of his team, but at the soonest mention of Team Rocket, it exploded into powerful anger. Even now the seething hatred rolling off it physically affected its aura and Ash felt slightly nauseous.

"Do you know Team Rocket?" he asked tentatively.

The Pokemon's glowing eyes snapped to his face with eerie intensity, as though it had forgotten his presence. But after a second, the Pokemon spun its head in a slow nod.

Clearly, it wasn't a positive relationship—as though those mindless thugs could have a positive relationship with any of their Pokemon.

Ash felt a small kindling of understanding form between them.

"I want to beat them," he shared quietly. "They—they took something precious from me, something I'll never get back. I want to get strong enough so that nothing like that will ever happen again."

At the mention of becoming strong the Gastly's eyes flashed in interest and its enormous tongue lolled out.

Ash held up the empty Pokeball to emphasize his point. "If you travel with me, I promise that we'll reach that goal together."

Deep in thought, the Pokemon rolled from side to side, returning to normal size. After a moment, it nodded.

Relief overwhelmed him. Now that he wasn't so worried about fending off the ghost/poison type, he could actually think of the possibilities it presented as a teammate. He pulled the Pokedex out and flicked it to the scanning option.

Gastly seemed familiar with the process and held still so that the Pokedex could get an accurate read on it.

"Gastly, the Gas Pokemon. Gastly is largely composed of gaseous matter. When exposed to a strong wind, the gaseous body quickly dwindles away. Groups of this Pokémon cluster under the eaves of houses to escape the ravages of wind."

After another moment of processing, the Pokedex added, "This Pokemon is a male and knows the moves: Hypnosis, Lick, Spite, Mean Look, Curse, and Night Shade."

Ash tucked those stats away for further thought. "Do you want to return to your Pokeball? I bet the sunlight is making you feel uncomfortable."

The Gastly flew backwards, wagging his head—or rather, his entire spherical body—from side to side. Ash frowned. "Then… do you want to stay outside?"

Again, the Gastly shook his head before turning tail and soaring away, passing through the trees as though they didn't even exist.

Shocked, Ash scooped up his backpack and began to chase. Tank, who had settled since the Gastly had likewise calmed himself, began trundling after him as fast as his stubby legs could carry him.

"Hey!" Ash called out, leaping over a fallen log. He could just make out a waving purple trail of gaseous matter darting through the forest gloom ten meters ahead of him. Had Gastly been lying? Was the Pokemon really just making a run for it? "Hold on a second!"

When he leapt off a short ridge, he landed in a nest of Caterpies. Their mouthparts wiggled in shock, and Ash apologized mindlessly before stumbling to his feet and sprinting off. Behind him, he heard a thunderous crash as Tank tripped right over the ledge and face-planted into the nest. The angry din of the Caterpies receded behind him as Ash kept running. He wasn't worried about Tank; he knew the Pokemon could handle himself against the bug types.

The Gastly stayed obnoxiously close enough that he could keep up without losing sight. After a few minutes of running, though, Ash had to halt, out of breath and sweating. He leaned against a mossy tree trunk and gasped for air.

It seemed, however, that the Gastly had reached his destination. Beckoning Ash by rolling his body backwards, he flew in tight circles above a hollow stump. Warily, Ash wiped the sweat from his forehead and walked over.

The stump was deeply hollowed out. Gastly compressed his mass and lowered into the cavity. Ash blinked and squinted to see through the purple haze of his body. Objects seemed to be lying at the basin of the hollow.

"Is this where you've been living?" he asked. The stump was positioned under the arching, leafy branches of an oak tree, thus deeply shaded. It would have been a perfect hideaway during the afternoon, when the sun was strongest.

The Gastly cackled softly in answer and lifted himself from the hollow.

Now Ash could see the objects more clearly.

A framed, dirty photograph and a very old and battered Teddiursa plush.

"What's this?" he murmured to himself, leaning forward for a closer look. The Gastly's mass rippled and he paused, silently asking for permission. When the Pokemon blinked one eye, he took that as a go-ahead and slowly lifted both items from the stump.

The photograph was smudged and the protective glass covering it was cracked in several places, but the image it held could be made out clearly enough. A young girl, obviously a trainer by the distinctive Pokeball-themed hat on her head and the special belt hung around her waist, was grinning at the camera with her tongue stuck out. The Gastly mirrored her expression beside her. Ash flipped the photo over. May 7th, 2010, it read, and then, underneath that, Almost ready to take on the first gym with Shade!

The Teddiursa plush—a common toy for young children—had one ear stitched back on and one eye was dangling by a few threads. Though it had obviously been well-cared for, the test of time had worked upon the stitchings until stuffing poked through the little gaps.

"Were you… did you have a trainer before?" he questioned slowly, brushing away a smear of dirt with his thumb.

The Gastly gave a warbly giggle, but the noise seemed sad and hollow. The Pokemon extended a gaseous tendril and surrounded the two items, reverently lifting them into his own body so that they floated behind his semi-transparent face.

"Did Team Rocket steal you from her?" Ash asked, unsure of whether or not he should pry. There had to be a reason behind the Pokemon's sheer hatred for the criminals.

Gastly deflated, sinking so that he barely levitated over the ground. His eternally-grinning mouth rotated smoothly until it was a drooping frown instead.

Ash inhaled deeply and sat back on his heels. Well, that complicated things. He should have known something like this had happened when Gastly reacted so negatively to the simple mention of Kanto's most notorious gang. Team Rocket was deeply involved in Pokemon trafficking and seemed to hold a special affinity for dark and poison types. A Gastly, a Pokemon infamously difficult to safely capture, would have been a prize catch in the eyes of a grunt.

His eyes slid back to the girl in the picture. 2010 was nearly six years ago… where was this girl now? Somehow, he had a feeling that she was no longer alive. The Gastly ejected the picture frame from his body and stared longingly at the old image. Ash ached with sympathy. It was difficult to keep his darker thoughts from building up again as he watched the Gastly play with the Teddiursa's limbs. Those bleak months following his mother's murder… the anger inside him… the way that sometimes, at night in the hospital, he had been so sick with grief and anger that he had been made physically ill from it.

But that had been nearly a year ago. And while that rage hadn't dulled any, he had finally learned how to push the anger down so he could focus on other things.

'Revenge,' as they say, 'is a dish best served cold.'

"Will you let me hold onto these so you can go back to your Pokeball and rest?" Ash said, swinging his bag off his shoulder and opening the top flap. The Gastly lowered his face and peered suspiciously into the bag. Ash watched the Pokemon rearrange his rolled up sleeping bag until it had been pushed into a sort of nest, into which the Pokemon carefully laid his precious burdens.

Then the ghost drifted backward and allowed himself to be withdrawn into the Pokeball. Ash quickly miniaturized it and held the small red-and-white sphere in his hands introspectively. It seemed strange that just an hour or so ago he had been fearful of the ghost Pokemon's reaction to being caught. Now he was being entrusted with the most valuable possessions the Pokemon had.

A branch cracked loudly behind him; Ash spun on his heel and broke out into surprised laughter as Tank finally made an appearance. The little Pokemon was stumbling and tripping every other step, tottering to either side as the mass of silken threads that had encapsulated his body overbalanced his stride. Caterpies, weak as they were, produced infamously sticky threads, and apparently didn't appreciate their nest being barged in upon.

As covered in the silk as he was, Tank could have seamlessly blended in with a flock of Mareep.

Clipping Gastly's—or Shade's, as was the name written on the photograph—Pokeball onto his belt, Ash brought his pocketknife out and set to work sawing the distressed Aron free from his restraints.

They broke through the last fringes of Viridian Forest after another two days of hard travel.

Shade had proved to be just as invaluable as Tank—when he actually chose to follow Ash's directions. Apparently receiving the Pokemon's most precious items didn't mean Ash was yet respected as a leader. Perhaps Ash was used to being in control of a baby Pokemon like Tank, who had imprinted on him from hatching. Of course Tank would listen to Ash's orders; he was the only parental/friend figure he had really ever known.

But Shade had been trained by another person—maybe even more, if the Rocket grunt that had stolen him had bothered to give him any training. Techniques that Ash would never have thought of seemed to be commonplace strategies for the ghost type, like putting the target to sleep with Hypnosis and then terrifying the unconscious Pokemon into a frenzy with Night Shade.

Shade was also particularly vengeful towards flying types. Their access to moves like Gust made it difficult for him to hold his body together. When Ash had pitted him against a Pidgey in a battle, the ghost type had immediately used Curse, a move he had yet to unveil. At first, nothing happened except for Shade's gases growing marginally fainter. But a minute into the battle, the Pidgey seized up for no discernible reason and collapsed while Shade watched smugly.

His bloodthirst was slightly disturbing, driving home the fact that Ash knew next to nothing about controlling and training ghost-types. Fortunately, the Pokedex had access to an assortment of training books for sale, so Ash added a promising one—Raising Ghosts; Nature vs. Nurture—to his digital library.

Another problem he had encountered was that Tank seemed to hate Shade on sight. Ash had hoped that the young Pokemon would be able to let go of their less-than-stellar first meeting and accept Shade as a teammate, but apparently Tank could hold quite a grudge. Whenever Ash released them at the same time, Tank stuck close to Ash's side and raised the plates on his stomach in a threatening manner.

While Tank viewed Shade as his archenemy, Shade did not return the sentiment; instead, he regarded Tank with only cool amusement. Ash had caught the Gastly pulling silly, exaggerated faces in Tank's direction more than once already. The teasing, while doing no physical harm, seemed to insult Tank's already impressive pride.

Suffice to say, Ash had firmly talked Tank down from launching an angry and ineffective Mud-slap a few times already.

All of this to say, Ash was very exhausted and operating on a short fuse when their feet finally struck against actual paved roads once again. He was certain the smell of woodsmoke from his campfires had ingrained itself into his clothes, and he was looking forward to an actual hot meal at a PokeCenter.

As they walked the short road (three and a half miles) that fed into Pewter from Viridian Forest, Ash began reviewing his strategies for Pewter City Gym once again. Tank had a type advantage over Pokemon like Geodude and Graveler… except he currently knew no Steel-type moves. According to the Pokedex, Aron could learn Metal Claw at a young age, but the fact remained that Tank was still under a year old. Hopefully Ash would somehow teach it to him before they challenged Brock.

Shade, on the other hand, had access to a godsend combination: Hypnosis and Night Shade. If Tank couldn't learn Metal Claw in time, Ash decided he would use the Gastly to fight instead. Lick could also prove useful. The move worked by the ghost Pokemon delivering a shock of otherworldly energies straight to the victim's nervous systems, administering a mild toxin as well as potentially leaving the Pokemon paralyzed.

Dusk began to set in as the surrounding geography became increasingly rugged and mountainous. Fields of half-buried boulders studied the sloping landscape. Ash eyed them speculatively. He was aware that Geodude often concealed themselves into the earth as rocks. Since Brock used one on his team, it would be good practice to fight some of the wild ones and perfect his strategies.

Shade grew perkier as the sun went down. Like Tank, his white eyes glowed brightly in the darkness. His gaseous body blended faultlessly with the shadows until it seemed that a floating face was drifting along behind Ash. Occasionally the ghost Pokemon laughed softly to himself. The first few times, the scraping sound sent a chill skittering up Ash's back, but soon enough his subconscious designated it as another one of his friends' distinctive noises, like Tank's grumbly purr.

Exhaustion made itself known in the cramps in his thighs and calves and by the ache in his feet. Strategizing could wait until tomorrow, he decided as the first twinkling lights of Pewter emerged over the crest of a hill and he began the walk to the distant red roof of the PokeCenter.

Ash was so tired that he could barely remember registering himself at the PokeCenter for the next three days when he woke up the following morning. Tank was sleeping by the side of his bed, as usual, but Shade was nowhere to be found. Ash wondered if he should be worried, then decided that Shade had probably found a shadowy spot to lurk in in order to avoid the strong shaft of sunlight piercing the curtains. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. The wooden flooring was cold under his bare feet.

He yawned, stretching, and—

—something icy and cold rolled over his ankles, disturbingly akin to the feeling of slimy flesh. Ash shrieked and scrambled backwards on the bed, his heartbeat a jackhammer pace in his throat. The commotion knocked Tank right out of his deep sleep and he leapt up, a half-charged Mud-slap forming sloppily in his jaws.

Delighted cackling echoed from under the bed and Ash's fright melted into acute embarrassment. Shade slithered out from underneath the box spring a moment later, sporting a grin so wide that it curved like a crescent moon nearly right off his spherical body.

His embarrassment quickly turned to anger, and Ash opened his mouth, a dozen furious shouts ready—but then he noticed the piercingly watchful gleam in the Pokemon's eyes as he silently awaited Ash's reaction. Suddenly Ash was reminded of a scene from his childhood; taking a cookie and stuffing it into his mouth despite his mother warning him not to. He had wanted to see if he could get away with it without being punished or how severely his mother would punish him at all.

In all likelihood, Shade had been stolen from his original trainer and then probably abused by whatever Rocket grunt had him after. Though he didn't like his methods, Ash couldn't really blame the Gastly for testing the waters and working out what merited a punishment versus what didn't.

Fortunately for Shade, Ash was neither abusive nor a Rocket Grunt.

He inhaled deeply and then let the breath go.

"Please don't do that again," he said quietly. "I don't mind you sleeping under the bed, but that kind of scare is not the best thing to wake up to."

Shade went still, staring intently at Ash's face as though expecting for him to yell "Sike!" and attack. Ash let him stare to his content until Shade became satisfied with what he saw and sailed away to inspect the room. Taking that as a sign he had handled the encounter correctly, Ash looked down to where Tank was yawning and stretching out his body. He leaned down and scratched the jutting backspike. Tank's azure eyes lidded and he melted beneath the touch. Ash smiled.

"Breakfast?" he asked, and Tank perked right back up.

He mentally added Pokefood to his checklist for the PokeMart. Letting Tank's body sift through the minerals in rocks and stones seemed to work okay in the wild, but there would be instances where such resources were not immediately available. Ash needed to pick up a bag of special Pokefood for both Tank and Shade.

After indulging himself in a steaming hot shower and an equally hot breakfast, Ash felt human once again and left the PokeCenter in a fantastic mood. He had recalled Shade into his Pokeball to avoid overexposure to sunlight, but Tank plodded happily beside him.

Locals of Pewter dressed in sensible, subdued clothing. Pewter was one of the most northernmost cities in the Kanto Region, and temperatures averaged between fifty and sixty degrees Fahrenheit in the summers. Ash felt warm enough in his vest and jeans, content with the fact that he had a raincoat and a jacket in his bag in case the need arose.

Pewter City was actually rather small, certainly no bigger than the sprawling mass of Viridian. The southern half of the town was comprised mostly of a housing district. The Pokemon Gym, its architecture obtrusively modern and gleaming, acted as the heart of the city. Higher up on the mountain terrace was the National Kanto Pokemon Museum. Ash's guidebook praised it as one of Kanto's unique gems, so he slotted in some time out of his schedule to visit it after stocking up at the PokeMart.

While waiting for the cashier to return with his small list of items, Ash finished filling out the magazine subscription. The cashier accepted the envelope with a thank-you and kindly helped him load away the items into his pack. Once again, Ash was amazed at the technological advancements made by society as item after item was swallowed up without increasing the size or weight of the bag at all.

The total came out to be less than he had predicted, most likely due to the handful of clipped coupons Ash had passed over the counter. He was certain the magazine would more than pay back its sign-up fee as similar offers began rolling in.

Tank and Shade seemed happy enough with the quality of the food. Ash noticed that Tank simply scarfed his portion down at breakneck pace, while Shade surrounded the pellets with his mass. Fascinated, Ash observed as the shadows of the pellets blurred and dissolved when Shade's unique body matter stripped them of their nutrients and broke them down into usable chemicals. The gas cloud increased slightly in both intensity and density and Shade giggled to convey his satisfaction.

After Shade had finished consuming his food, Ash recalled him. Due to the highly toxic nature of the gases that made up their bodies, Gastly were often discouraged from being released in confined spaces or public areas. Ash didn't want to get kicked out of the museum just because of Shade's mischievous antics.

The trek up to the museum was surprisingly laborious due to the town's somewhat severe incline. Tank bounded up the flat, wide steps cut into the hill with surprising grace. Pride glowed warmly in Ash's chest even as he wheezed after the energetic Pokemon. Two weeks ago, Tank would have had to hobble up each stair and probably collapsed from the effort after only a few minutes. Now he could keep pace with Ash easily. The scope of his growth was already incredible.

The Museum was a sprawling, two-story structure. The entrance was built on a stone dais, shaded by a roof upheld by several elaborately-carved marble pillars. Ash flipped his Pokedex to the picture-taking mode and turned the camera around, kneeling down in order to take a picture with Tank. The steel/rock type clearly had no idea what was going on and let out a questioning chirp as Ash captured the image. In the picture, Tank's upturned face was barely in the frame because of his shortness while the top half of Ash's head had been cut off.

It was perfect.

Chuckling, Ash saved the image and went into the museum.

A blonde-haired receptionist waited at the front desk. She greeted him politely and Ash passed over the fifty Pokedollar entrance fee. The ticket was a bit pricey, but since the museum was Pewter's only tourist attraction besides the Gym, Ash supposed it was a necessary pain.

Inside of the museum, the architecture was just as regal as the outside. The yawning ceiling was covered in one massive painting—an image of what seemed to be ancient Pokemon fighting each other. Exhibits on display in glass cases were marked off by red ropes, and obsidian plaques with gold lettering were mounted everywhere to explain what was on show.

This early in the afternoon, not many tourists congested the massive room, so Ash moved freely from one exhibit to another. Several of them were intriguing, including an enormous chunk of black, reflective stone (a moon rock, according to the plaque) placed on a pedestal, as well as a few ancient fossils.

So engrossed in the tablet containing writing in a long-dead language, Ash didn't notice Tank's slow, sneaky crawl to an exhibit featuring a line of gems sparkling on a roll of velvet. The small Pokemon's attention was enraptured by the metal table of the leg. He looked left, checking to make sure his trainer wasn't paying attention, then stretched out his jaws cautiously, taunted by the shining metal…

Ash startled as a male voice laughed nearby. He turned, absorbing the situation in one second, then resisted the urge to smack himself in embarrassment.

Tank was growling crossly as he was gently nudged away from his meal by a tanned stranger.

"That's not for you, buddy," the man said, smiling in amusement. His eyes were lightly closed as he stroked a hand down the steel plate covering Tank's back. "I don't think you want to get your trainer kicked out."

Ash rushed over. "I'm sorry," he apologized, grunting as he pulled Tank's considerable weight further away from the display. "I fed him before we came, but he can be a bit of a glutton."

The man stood up and stretched. "Well, Aron can certainly eat a lot." He nudged the pouting Pokemon playfully with his foot. "You'll notice that he eats even more as his evolution approaches. They need to store enough minerals in their body to convert to the extra mass. This little guy still seems pretty young, though. And last I checked, Aron weren't native to Kanto. You from Hoenn?"

Ash shook his head. "No, I was born in Pallet Town. Tank hatched from an egg and I chose him as my starter." He paused, then realized that he hadn't introduced himself. Extending a hand to shake, he added, "My name is Ash, by the way."

The man grinned and shook his hand. His skin was dry and covered in a film of dust, but Ash didn't mind. Arceus knows how much dirt he had accumulated himself during the trek through Viridian Forest.

"Nice to meet you. My name's Brock."

The name hit him like a lightning bolt, and Ash could have smacked himself again. "You're the gym leader!" His guide book detailed the gym, but it had been on the cheaper image and lacked any pictures. Ash could list all of Brock's Pokemon but until now couldn't put a face to the name.

Bashful, the gym leader rubbed the back of his head. "Yep, that's me."

Ash was suddenly speechless. He hadn't expected to see the man until challenging him at the gym. Now that his plans had gone awry, he was at a loss for words.

"I'm going to challenge you in a few days," was all he could think to say, and he couldn't quite help the questioning lilt that twisted his statement.

Brock laughed and jammed his hands in his pockets. "Great! I'll be looking forward to it." He gestured to Tank with a nod of his head. "Is that your only Pokemon?"

Ash subconsciously brushed his fingers across Shade's Pokeball. "No, I have another. A Gastly."

Brock seemed impressed. "Wow, you've got quite the handful on you, don't you? Those Pokemon are pretty difficult to raise correctly."

Ash burned with defensive embarrassment. He knew Brock didn't mean anything by it, but he couldn't help but momentarily question his own capabilities as a trainer. It was true; raising an Aron the right way was hard enough without adding an unruly Ghost-Poison type to the mix. And Ash wasn't even a seasoned trainer yet.

He took a moment to calm himself before answering. Being sarcastic certainly wouldn't endear him to anyone, and Ash found himself actually wanting to impress Brock.

"I'd be open to any tips," he admitted. After all, Brock was a renowned Rock-type specialist. While Aron weren't native to Kanto, the fact that the gym leader recognized one on sight meant that he must have encountered it before.

Brock scratched his chin, accidentally transferring a smudge of dirt to his chin in the process. "Hmm, well I can't really help you out with the Gastly. But I do have a few tricks for Aron." He grinned. "Does your Aron know the move Metal Claw yet? I expect you'd want to get as much type-coverage as you can."

Hardly daring to believe that the man was offering what he was, Ash shook his head slowly. Would the gym leader really teach Tank the move Ash badly needed in order to challenge the gym? What did Brock gain by it?

Brock clapped a hand on his shoulder. A small cloud of dust flew up from the impact. "Well, then! Why don't you meet me at my gym this evening and I'll go over a few things with you?" He gestured sheepishly at his dusty clothing. "I was outside a little while ago training when the curator called me in to analyze a new arrival. Give me a little time to clean up and have some dinner."

Still shocked at how approachable and down-to-earth Brock was, Ash nodded mutely. Brock heartily shook his hand once more, reminded him again to meet him outside the gym, and then left.

Tank snapped out of the happy daze Brock's scratching had put him in and scrambled upright. Ash fixed him with a warning look and Tank drooped mournfully as he remembered nearly taking a hunk out of the table—something Ash had expressly forbidden.

But his crushed look bothered Ash after a few prolonged seconds, and he grudgingly petted the corner of Tank's jaw to show all was forgiven. Tank rumbled appreciatively and brightened up, preening his left foreleg as though nothing had ever happened.

Deciding that he had seen all there was to offer, Ash exited the museum. By now, it was late afternoon and the sun had passed its highest point. The warmth of the gentle rays was welcome after the purified chill of the museum.

He stopped at the Pokecenter for a late lunch and then got back on the main road that connected Viridian Forest and Pewter, wanting to check out the rocky terraces that he had observed before. The walk took twenty minutes. Ash's feet complained cantankerously, still sore from the trekking he had done through the Forest. Once the blood got flowing, however, the pain began to dull. Tank seemed unaffected by the amount of exercise they had undergone recently. Even though his hefty weight drove his feet into the loose, gravelly earth and turned every step into a yank-and-step process, he remained cheerful.

Once they had reached the series of ledges, Ash sat down on a nearby rock and caught his breath. The land before him was severely sloped downwards from this point on, barren of trees and studded copiously with rock formations. Dark v's circled far overhead, most likely Pidgeys and Pidgeottos waiting for any unlucky Rattatas to emerge from their nests.

Ash noticed several odd paths that had been carved in straight lines right down the ravine until they disappeared from sight. Vaguely, he remembered reading something about Golems' tendency to form such grooves from repeated rolling down mountainsides. Sure enough, he caught a glance of a bent and half-broken caution sign, warning of Golem paths. Ash had seen such signs before, usually on roads that cut through mountains or hills.

Luckily, Golem at this time of year migrated to the very peaks of mountains where they gorged themselves on rocks and boulders.

"Okay, buddy," Ash said, "you're going to use Headbutt on the rocks that I tell you to, okay? Some of them might turn out to be Pokemon, so be careful."

Tank chirped confusedly. Clearly the little Pokemon was wondering how rocks could be Pokemon. Ash was forcibly reminded once more of how young Tank was. Unlike naturally-born Aron, he had not grown up under the guiding influence of a mother Aggron. Thus he had never grown up in a mountainous habitat, where Pokemon like Geodude and Graveler were extremely common.

Ash couldn't wait until Tank evolved into an Aggron. They had earned the title "Kings of the Mountain" for a reason.

He was jolted from his musings where his seat jerked beneath him. Ash fell backwards and landed hard on his back. The impact punched the breath from his lungs and he scrambled away quickly.

His "seat" shook itself, sending a spray of dirt in every direction. A roar that sounded like the piercing echo of a landslide battered Ash's eardrums and he jumped to his feet.

The Graveler that Ash had unknowingly sat upon was enraged. It lumbered out of the pit where it had been sleeping and clapped its four hands together menacingly. As aggressive as it seemed to be, it moved slowly, and Ash seized his chance.

"Harden!" he commanded. Tank retracted his head slightly and stiffened his muscles, posture entirely defensive. The Graveler fell forward, smoothly tucking into a roll. It shot forward at incredible speed, aiming straight for the Pokemon that had challenged it.

"Headbutt!" Ash shouted. Graveler were able to move with shocking speed once they shifted into their preferred method of locomotion—rolling. If Tank couldn't halt that momentum in its tracks then he'd never be able to keep up.

Unflinchingly, Tank buried his back legs into the earth for support and launched himself forward with head tucked and glowing with reinforced energy. A sound like a thunderclap issued from the collision as the Graveler shot right into the attack. The momentum flung both Pokemon back, but Graveler was sent soaring for an impressive distance before bumpily landing, whereas Tank only slid a few feet. Shards of rock peppered Ash's body and he covered his face. Tank didn't seem to be hurt, so they must have chipped off from the Graveler's body.

In a bolt of clarity, Ash remembered that their bodies were composed nearly entirely of dry rock and stone, held together by sand that allowed for easier movement. If something hit them hard enough, they could shatter. Being the hardy Pokemon that they were, this didn't kill them, but did force them to retreat in order to rebuild their rock armor.

While the dazed Graveler was still getting up, Ash called out, "Mud-slap!"

Tank obeyed promptly. The wave of wet mud hit directly where Ash had wanted it to—in the rocky Pokemon's joints, where it mixed with the sand and bogged down its limbs.

"Headbutt again!"

Tank charged, domed head extended. The impact wasn't as loud as before, but it still sent the Graveler bouncing backwards and threw a cloud of dust in the air. This time, when the Pokemon staggered to its feet, there was a large crack splitting down the left side of its round body.

Ash waited, ready for the Pokemon to go on the offensive once more, but it seemed the Graveler had had enough. With an angry and pained snort, it pitched itself backwards and rolled away down the hill. Several "boulders" unfolded sleepily as it rocketed past, revealing themselves as Geodudes, and then uncaringly went back to sleep. Ash marked their positions mentally.

Tank growled, scraping a furrow into the earth with his left fore-leg. Pride oozed from his arched back and upheld head.

Ash's heart was still beating crazily, the mad adrenalin of the sudden encounter burning through his veins. That was the first Pokemon that had ever attacked them out of the blue. Suddenly, Ash realized just how powerful the beings were—when their collisions sounded like thunder and they could simply shrug off devastating wounds like paper cuts. And that truth reinforced how utterly fragile and helpless humans were in comparison. Ash could have been completely crushed by a single one of Graveler's attacks.

People died every year in Pokemon-related incidents, of course, but generally those were because of training-accidents or the human had done something to provoke the Pokemon. Rarely did Pokemon actively seek out humans to attack, and those that did were generally marked as a danger to society and either rehabilitated or put down for the safety of nearby towns.

The other Pokeball clipped to his belt wriggled once. Ash looked down in surprise, having almost forgotten about Shade. He released the gas Pokemon carefully, unsure of what he wanted.

As the red energy coalesced into the flickering form of Shade, the Pokemon's eerie grin and wide eyes appeared first. Ash jumped backwards as the ghost-type rushed him, cackling. Just when he thought he was going to accidentally inhale some of Shade's toxic gases, the Pokemon drifted away. laughing hysterically.

Ash thought about yelling, but remembered the scene from this morning and restrained himself with difficulty. The adrenalin from the fight that had just been calming down ratcheted up again uncontrollably; he couldn't help it. Humans were instinctively programmed to react with a fight-or-flight response when rushed by a lethal Pokemon.

"Hello, Shade," he spoke after taking a few seconds to relax himself. The Gastly seemed thrown off by his calm demeanor, but Ash's determination to be a better trainer than the ghost-type's prior one was only strengthened. Shade had become accustomed to certain reactions from his previous trainer—anger and abuse. When Ash didn't behave that expected way, it made his actions difficult for Shade to understand. He must have thought Ash's kindness was for some other secret, selfish motivation.

Ash wasn't sure how long it would take to break Shade of that way of thinking, but he was willing to wait.

"Did you want to train too?" he asked, figuring there was a reason the Pokemon had made it clear he wanted out of his Pokeball.

Shade dispersed his body and reformed forty feet downhill, bent curiously over one of the mounds that Ash had noticed earlier to be a Geodude. He wasn't sure how he knew that it was a Pokemon and not simply part of the landscape, but chose to watch curiously.

Giggling malignantly, Shade lowered himself until his gas cloud had absorbed the exposed part of the Geodude's body. For a long moment, nothing happened, and Ash began to wonder if Shade's attack was effective at all. But then the Geodude's buried form shifted once, then twisted again in growing discomfort.

Ash was alarmed. In the wild, Gastlys killed their prey primarily by suffocation or poisoning. While Ash understood that this process was simply the way of life, Shade certainly had enough Pokefood in Ash's bag to last weeks. There was no need for lethal force. Perhaps this was how Shade had been "trained" to act towards any enemy.

"Shade, that's enough!" He called out sharply. It was the first time his tone had been anything but neutral towards one of his Pokemon, and the surprised expression on Shade's face reflected that. He lifted himself from his helpless victim and floated sullenly away.

Meanwhile, the dazed and weakened Geodude lumbered out of its pit and wobbled, scarcely able to magnetically hold itself aloft. It limped fifty feet away from its former home and re-buried itself.

Ash was angry. He understood that Shade had been trained differently, and that Pokemon would undoubtedly get hurt in their battles, but needless violence disturbed him.

Shade's body collapsed into a gaseous trail and slithered through the air, manifesting quickly next to Ash's tense body. He was still pouting, as though Ash had unfairly torn a favorite toy from him.

"That wasn't fighting," Ash told him flatly. "That was suffocating a victim until they were unconscious—or worse. If you're going to travel with me, that kind of thing is not allowed in battles or training. Ever. Okay?"

Shade rolled his eyes.

Tank growled and stamped his foot once. A nearby rock that had been loosened by the earlier encounter with the Graveler rattled and lifted off the ground for a split second. Distracted from his lecture, Ash stared in amazement at the small display of power. Due to Aron's partial typing of rock, they were gifted with a small measure of control over the ground, but Aron hadn't yet given any signs of harnessing this potential. Even Shade appeared to be impressed before he quickly banished the expression from his face.

Ash wondered if this meant that Tank was getting close to learning Metal Claw. Thinking of the move suddenly reminded him of his earlier promise to Brock. He pulled up the clock function on the Pokedex and breathed a sigh of relief. He still had a little over an hour until his meeting time with Brock. It took twenty minutes to get back to Pewter, which left him some time to shower off the dirt and sweat and rest a little.

As the afternoon was beginning to wane, he decided to leave both Shade and Tank out of their Pokeballs, even though he was still a little upset over Shade's bloodthirsty nature. But punishing the Pokemon by isolating him wouldn't accomplish anything—or at least Ash thought so. Perhaps Shade was simply acting out of boredom. If Ash let him out more, maybe he would start to settle.

Behind him, he could hear Tank and Shade bickering. Ash sighed and stretched his arms. Looked like he had his work cut out for him to force Tank and Shade to realize they were part of the same time.

Ash had only been waiting on the steps outside the gym for ten minutes when Brock appeared. A Geodude levitated behind him, flexing its two arms proudly. Shade, who had been playing in the shadow cast by the building, floated over curiously. Tank had been sprawled at Ash's feet, crunching on a rock, but he sat up at Brock's approach.

"You ready for this?" Brock asked, his trademark friendly grin still warming his face. Ash nodded quickly and shook Brock's hand once again.

"Good," said the gym leader. "Because I'm not gonna go easy on you just cuz you're a kid."

He stepped past the young trainer and opened the gym doors. Ash quirked a brow in confusion. He'd thought Brock would take him somewhere out in the wilds, where they could privately train. But then again, the gym had been modeled to include rocky terrain and was closer to the PokeCenter in case anything went wrong.

Ash recalled Shade and took his first step into a Pokemon Gym.

He had expected for the gym to open right up into the battlefield, but instead they were greeted by a small antechamber. A bored, slightly overweight man in a nice suit with an official League brooch pinned to the lapels of his jacket was leaning against a massive grey pillar. Ash recognized him from the videos he'd seen when he was younger of televised gym battles. The man, along with his seven other brothers, were the gym guides. Their job was to occasionally referee the battles, give hints to the challenger, oversee general maintenance in the gym, and chisel the names of the victors into the statues. It was a very honored and sought-after position.

He was propped up against one of the ceremonial gym pillars—two massive hunks of marble carved in the shape of a roaring Rhydon, the Indigo League mascot. Around the lower half of the statues, hundreds of names had been carved into the marble in tiny uppercase letters. Some had been worn away by time, especially those higher on the list, but the more recent names gleamed proudly.

Ash knelt down to examine the latest recipient of the Boulder Badge.

Underneath "Caya Simmers" and "Matthew Jackson" was the name "Gary Oak".

Ash recoiled slightly in surprise.

He knew Gary had left on his journey weeks before Ash, but for some reason he hadn't really thought about what progress Gary had made. Maybe before his mother's passing, Ash would have been obsessed with it, but ever since he'd woken up to the real world, such rivalries felt exhausting and petty. Gary would rub his progress in Ash's face the next time they met, of course. Even though Gary had tried to be more patient and kind after Ash's mother was killed, he had no doubt tired of treating Ash with kid-gloves and would be back to the "smell ya later" arrogance that marked his character.

Brock noticed him looking and frowned. "Oh yeah, Gary Oak. Professor Oak's grandson. His Squirtle was strong, but his trainer's attitude needs some definite improvement. Almost didn't want to give him the badge, but he won in the end, after all…" He shook himself and the frown gave way to the smile once more. "Well, that challenger's long gone by now. Let's focus on the here and now, eh?" He snapped his fingers and called out sharply, "Ronald!"

The gym guide, who had not been bored so much as dozing, snapped to attention, throwing up a goofy salute.

"I wasn't sleeping, sir!" he said immediately. He spoke in a deafening shout. "Just merely resting my eyes, sir!"

Brock shook his head, smirking. "If you say so. Would you mind getting the battlefield floor ready? Tier 1, please."

"Yes sir, Brock, sir!" the guide said, and after a polite bow, scampered off to complete his given task. Ash suppressed a smile with difficulty. Apparently, the gym guides really did have the unique character they were renowned for.

"Ronald's a bit… eccentric, should we say," Brock explained as they made their way across the antechamber at a more leisurely pace, bypassing the secretary's desk. Ash supposed he would only have to register his visitation when he officially challenged the gym. "But he means well, and he's good enough at his duties, so I like having him on staff."

"What does Tier 1 mean?" Ash asked, remembering the phrase Brock had used.

"Ah, that." Brock absentmindedly stroked a hand over the following Geodude's head. The Pokemon closed its eyes contently. "There are different surfaces for the battlefield. Tier 1 is the most plain, with just a boulder or two on an otherwise flat rock surface. That's for new challengers like yourself. A simple terrain, to get used to the rhythm of battling, you know? Environmental manipulation will come later. Newbie Pokemon aren't strong enough to master that level of skill yet. Tie 2 is like Tier 1, but more uneven and with a greater number of boulders. And so it goes, up until Tier 5, where seismic activators can set off random miniature tremors and change the field entirely mid-fight."

That sounded incredibly intense. Ash's eyes were wide in amazement. "When do you use Tier 5?"

Brock's grin broadened and his eyes opened slightly, revealing a burning twinkle in the mocha-colored irises. "Oh, that's especially reserved for the challengers who have already beaten the gym before. You see, I have a few teams. All gym leaders do. One is the team I use to battle new trainers. The other is my serious battling team, the one I fight with when somebody comes back for a rematch after beating all the gym leaders."

The competitive shine in Brock's eyes served as a reminder that while Brock was often dismissed due to his low rank, being crowned a gym leader was nothing to laugh at. Ash would have bet all the money he had that Brock could wipe the floor with the newbie "victors" if he used the team that had carried him to the upper echelon of trainers in Kanto.

Ash's respect for him ratcheted up. It probably wasn't easy going from being regarded as one of the strongest trainers in Kanto to being dismissed as the "easiest" gym leader.

"That's awesome," he shared, certainly impressed. His desire to beat the gym challenge increased, if only so he could come back one day and challenge Brock to a no-holds barred fight.

Brock chuckled and flicked Ash's hat playfully. "Maybe if you get strong enough one day we'll have a battle on it. But for now…" he pushed open the doors leading to the gym's massive battlefield. Protected lights snapped on automatically and Ash winced at the bright glare. "Let's focus on that Aron of yours, hm?"

Ash nodded and calmed himself, reaching for the level of focus he needed when training or battling. Tank, who had been somewhat intimidated into silence by the huge room, chirped and trundled forward.

"Geodude, if you would please?" Brock gestured to the field. His Pokemon drifted forward, pounding its knuckles together once. Brock motioned for Ash to take his place at the far end of the field and walked across to his own marked-off box. "Let's have your Pokemon demonstrate the moves it knows to see how far along it is. My Geodude may be the most inexperienced member of my team, but he can certainly handle whatever you throw at him."

"Okay," Ash answered. He waited until both Pokemon had gotten into position before ordering, "All right, Tank, let's start with Harden!"

Tank's body rippled with energy as he tightened every muscle in his body as if anticipating an impact.

Brock nodded in approval. "That's good form. Harden is useful when there's an incoming attack and you have no chance of dodging. It sort of makes up for Aron's mediocre speed. You might also want to use it at the start of a battle, before either side can start firing off attacks—you'll find that Aron can weather an enormous amount of damage, but it never hurts to have some padded insurance. Next move?"

"Mud-slap on the Geodude!" Ash ordered. Tank obeyed, forming the sphere of earth energy in his mouth before hurling it downwards. It collided with the terrain hard and sent up a spray of mud. The Geodude couldn't dodge the fan in time and was coated in the heavy mixture. It grunted and began wiping the mud from its body before it could interfere with its vulnerable joints.

"Mud-slap doesn't do a lot of damage, but it serves as a nice distraction and gets in between the armor of many rock-types, which is why they hate it. And anything that impairs your opponent's vision is always nice," Brock coached. "I wouldn't rely on it too much to carry you through battles, though. In the long run it's an ineffective attack. What else?"

"Tank knows Tackle and Headbutt, but they're sort of similar. Headbutt's more powerful, though," Ash explained, giving the go-ahead to his Pokemon. Tank rushed the Geodude, who raised a craggy brow. It was clear that the Pokemon could have dodged the attack but instead chose to remain still. When they collided, a thunderous clap of sound rang through the gym and both were pushed apart forcefully.

"Your Pokemon needs better speed if he wants that attack to access all the power it's capable of," Brock chided. Ash winced but knew it was true. He had become accustomed to Tank's natural advantage against most of the trainers they had gone up against. But against a foe like Brock, who utilized the defensive rock types, such a carefree approach wouldn't cut it.

"Okay, that's enough," Brock said, and stepped out of his marked area. Ash relaxed, assuming that the demonstration was over. "Like I said, your Aron has good form in his moves and seems pretty tough even for his age, but you'll need a better movepool and something to counter his low speed. Metal claw gives you more versatility and another close combat move other than headbutt."

He clapped a hand on Ash's shoulder and steered him to an exit in the back corner of the gym. "Why don't we take this next part outside?"

Wary but still eager for the older trainer's guidance, Ash followed his direction. Tank trotted at his heels.

The exit opened up to a sort of backyard for the gym, comprised of many little terraced ledges. Since the gym had been built in the side of the mountain, the yard was sloped dramatically upwards.

"We've tested your Pokemon," Brock said, beginning to hike a little ways up the steep incline. "But we haven't tested you as a trainer yet. Go stand over there." He gestured to the left side of the yard. Even though he was confused, Ash obeyed. To his surprise, the terrain was more difficult to traverse than he had anticipated. The earth was extremely loose and crumbly here; every step sank in the aerated soil a good inch and slid due to the angle. He slipped several times and was only saved from embarrassing himself by Tank's steady press against his legs.

"All trainers need to be strong themselves in order to raise strong Pokemon. Your Pokemon can only grow as much as you can. If you're weak or indecisive, you'll fail in battle time and time again," Brock shouted across the distance between them. His hands were cupped around his mouth to help his voice reach. "This is especially true for trainers of rock-type Pokemon. If you're not balanced—if you're not "solid" yourself, then you won't command their respect at all!"

Ash wasn't entirely sure what Brock was getting at, but thought he understood the gist of it and nodded regardless. Brock seemed to sigh before snapping his fingers. Geodude jerked to attention.

"Geodude, use Magnitude!" He ordered.

Ash stepped back in surprise as the ground beneath him started to shake. The loose earth seemed to swallow his feet and he flailed, falling forward clumsily. Tank was perfectly composed next to him, easily able to hold his ground, but Ash couldn't seem to stand up straight for the duration of the low-powered attack.

When it finally ended, Ash was a panting mess kneeling awkwardly in the soil. There was something frightening about the very earth beneath your feet betraying you.

Brock, on the other hand, seemed as unbothered as Tank. "Balance yourself," he advised. "Geodude, Magnitude again."

Ash barely had the time to stand upright before the shaking began anew. His feet vibrated and the severe angle of the yard didn't help matters. He swayed, overbalanced to his right, and fell, rolling a few feet down the hill before digging his hands into the ground and pulling himself to a halt. Tank growled in concern.

Though he was uninjured, Ash's face was burning in embarrassment. He couldn't believe how easy Brock made it look to stand so steadily when the soil was bucking beneath him like a Ponyta.

"Get up, try again," Brock ordered. His face, so warm only moments ago, was hard and unsympathetic. "You want to get strong, don't you? I heard about what happened in Pallet a few months ago. That was a terrible thing. But if you don't get a grip on it, it's going to throw you as easily as this magnitude. Try again."

Ash couldn't focus properly, instinctively angry at Brock's mention of his mother's death and suddenly barraged by the grief-filled memories it summoned. When the next magnitude rocked its way through the ground, he barely lasted a second before going down hard.

"Are you a trainer or aren't you?" Brock yelled. "Use your Pokemon! Make me stop! Magnitude, again!"

Ash swayed, but this time wrenched himself away from another fall in time to command breathlessly, "Tank, Mud-slap!"

The Aron, who had been watching him in helpless concern this whole time, turned his furious attention towards the enemy Pokemon upsetting his trainer. Mud flew from the attack, scoring a hit directly on the Geodude's stony features. The Pokemon flinched and scraped at its face, but its hands were roughly-shaped and lacked the finesse needed to scoop the mud from the pits of its skin where mud had settled in globs. The magnitude abated slightly as its attention was split.

Seizing his chance, Ash planted himself more firmly in the earth and ordered, "Headbutt!"

Tank charged across the shifting earth so easily it might as well have been still. His attack connected squarely with the blinded Geodude's face and knocked it out of its magnetic levitation. It landed heavily and its natural weight drove it a few inches into the soft soil.

The force behind the Headbutt had stunned it, but it wouldn't hold for long. Ash needed to press his advantage, but how?

"Tank, try Metal Claw!" He shouted desperately. He'd shown Tank a few short videos on Pokemon using the move but that was the extent of the preparation they'd done for it. Hopefully Tank would have seen enough to be able to emulate the move and apply it in battle.

Without questioning him, Tank growled and charged the fallen Geodude. His back legs, short as they appeared, were as powerfully compact as the rest of his body; they launched him off the ground and let him achieve a surprising amount of height. Ash caught a glimpse of pure white energy gathering at the tips of Aron's front legs.

Aron didn't naturally have claws. They had no need to, when their bodies could withstand nearly any attack and a single charge packed enough power to flip a truck. That was the one hurdle that every Aron needed to circumvent in order to master metal claw. For most Pokemon, Metal Claw worked by lengthening, sharpening, and reinforcing their claws all at the same time until they were harder than steel and could pierce diamond. However, the technique was different for Aron, who had no natural claws to fortify.

Instead, they needed to control the steel caps of their feet and twist them into the crude imitation of claws. It required the Aron to have a measure of control over the organic steel of its body plating. Ash hadn't been sure Tank was old enough to accomplish the feat, but as he watched, Tank came down like a silver bullet on the hapless Geodude, "claws" shining brightly as they slashed into the rocky form.

"Yes!" he cheered as the dust that had been kicked up settled to reveal a triumphant Tank crouching over an unconscious Geodude. The fallen Pokemon disappeared a moment later in a cloud of red energy that was sucked back into its Pokeball. Brock's eyes were closed and he was smiling again, countenance completely relaxed and warm—a stark contrast to the seasoned trainer he'd revealed himself to be moments ago.

"I knew you'd pull through," he chortled. "Nothing like a little trash-talk to raise the fighting spirit, eh? And look—the moment you got serious and focused, Tank learned Metal Claw."

Ash had run out to the middle of the yard, where Tank remained with his chest puffed out. He knelt next to his Pokemon and threw his arms around Tank's neck. In return, the steel-type nuzzled him gently. His steel head felt cool and smooth against Ash's flushed skin.

"I knew you could do it, buddy," he whispered. Tank closed his eyes and rumbled.

"Work on Metal Claw a bit more and you should be set to challenge the gym," Brock told him, his footsteps crunching through the gravelly earth. He squatted on his heels and likewise began lavishing the rock/steel-type with praise. "You've got a very good Aron. You should be proud."

"I am," Ash said warmly. Then he frowned, remembering his earlier thought. "Why would you help Tank learn that move? It's really effective against your Pokemon, so what do you have to gain by teaching it to a future challenger?"

Brock raised his tanned hands in defense. "Hey, I never taught him it. I just gave him the extra push he needed to get there on his own. And besides, one of the gym leader's duties is to guide trainers and encourage personal growth. We're supposed to be difficult, yeah, but not impossible. Or at least that's what I think."

The older trainer blushed sheepishly. "And…I may have been a little bored lately."

Ash chuckled, then stood up and stretched. The sun was starting to set, a sinking ball of flaming orange hovering low over a distant mountain ridge. Streaks and chevrons of orange and pink glowed radiantly around it and ignited the swathes of clouds into color. It was the most magnificent sunset Ash had seen in a while and for a moment he simply stared at it, feeling refreshed.

"Well, I better be getting back to the gym. It was a pleasure meeting you," Brock said. Ash saw him suppress a yawn and smiled.

"You too. Thanks for all you've done," Ash said sincerely. He clasped hands with Brock and they shook once before breaking apart.

"So I guess I'll see you sometime tomorrow for your official challenge, huh?" Brock asked as they carefully slid down the hill to the gym's back entrance. He held the door open for Ash and closed it securely after they had passed through.

"I think so," Ash said. "Like you said, I want to work on metal claw a bit more and work with my Gastly as well."

"Well, as far as I know I don't have any challengers in the evening time slots," Brock told him. They were making their way back through the gym's main battlefield. All of the minimal damage that Tank had managed to inflict upon the controlled environment had vanished. Ash frowned, chalking it up to the advanced technology available to gym leaders.

"I'll keep that in mind," Ash answered. They said their goodbyes at the gym's entrance and Ash walked out. Whatever the purpose of Brock's exercise had been, Ash was left feeling more sure of himself than before. Through their practice fight, he had demonstrated that he was capable of controlling his Pokemon and guiding them to victory. He also felt a measure of inner peace. Although it had hurt at the time to be reminded of his mother's murder, what Brock had said was true—he couldn't let his strong hatred for Team Rocket overcome him to the point where he couldn't think clearly anymore. Ash had already experienced that sort of mental loss once and he promised himself he would never sink that low again.

They had a quick meal at the PokeCenter and Ash decided to turn in early. He left the shower running for Tank, who had become very prideful over the state of his armor and demanded to be cleaned up. When he came back in to brush his teeth, Tank was rolling blissfully in the light spray, allowing it to rinse off the mud and dust. When Ash dried him off with a towel, he nearly shone.

Ash set his alarm for early in the morning and settled in the bed. PokeCenter beds were comfortable but not anything spectacular—although he supposed anything was considered luxurious next to camping out in the wild. Slight scuffling sounds reached his ears and he assumed Tank was settling down on the floor to sleep, but the next thing he knew, a great weight had launched itself upwards and landed on the mattress beside him. Ash was lucky Tank had missed his legs or he'd be developing a very nasty and large bruise.

He raised himself on his forearms. "You want to sleep in the bed?"

The Pokemon gave a single grating click as an affirmative and collapsed gracelessly, already half asleep. Smiling, Ash burrowed back into his blankets and was just entering a light doze when he remembered Shade. He frowned and sat upright. It wasn't fair of him to allow Tank free reign but keep Shade cooped up in his Pokeball. Though the Pokemon could be malicious at times, none of his pranks towards Ash had been made with lethal intent and Ash trusted him enough to be able to control the gaseous matter of his body.

He grabbed the Pokeball from the nightstand and released the catch mechanism.

Shade's eyes burned in the darkness and that same eerie feeling of other-worldliness that accompanied him swept over Ash. He brushed it off after a moment.

"You can lurk under the bed tonight, if you'd like," Ash offered hesitantly. He was hoping that Shade would recognize it as the peace offering that it was. Fortunately, the ghost-type seemed rather intelligent. With a delighted cackle, he zoomed right under the bedframe and melded with the shadows.

Ash wasn't sure if Shade actually slept at night or not. That was when he was most active, but Ash wondered if Shade was really able to stay in place without getting bored for hours on end or if he wandered while Ash slept. Since Shade hadn't done anything last night when he had accidentally been given free reign, Ash decided it was okay.

That matter settled, Ash was finally able to relax. He laid back down and nuzzled his head into the pillow. So much had happened today and Tank had made serious improvements. Ash had no doubt that they would be able to challenge the gym tomorrow—and win.

However, if he kept thinking of the battle tomorrow, he would never get to sleep, so Ash forced the matter from his mind and soon drifted off to the sound of Tank's light snores.

This time, when he woke up, the very first thing Ash did was wiggle silently to the edge of the bed and slowly lower himself until he could see under it.

Shade wasn't there, and Ash breathed a sigh of relief. Being scared that way yesterday had taken years off his life. Ash wasn't looking forward to a repeat experience. The coast was clear, however, so Ash shoved Tank until the Pokemon woke up mid-snore and sat up, face stretched by a splitting yawn. Ash could hear muted crashed coming from the private attached bathroom—this PokeCenter seemed affluent than the Viridian one—and assumed Shade was playing around behind the closed door. He had better get up and put a stop to whatever Shade was doing in there before the PokeCenter charged him for damages.

Sighing, he stumbled upright and plodded to the bathroom. He still felt sore, but hopefully that would dwindle as his limbs became accustomed to vigorous exercise.

"Shade," he said warningly as he neared the bathroom. "If a single thing is broken in there, may Arceus have mercy on your soul."

Was that a decent threat? Did Gastly have souls?

He shook the errant thought from his mind as all activity in the bathroom ceased. For a long moment all was quiet—and then Shade burst into a thunderous racket.

Ash flung open the door.

Shade levitated there in a perfectly neat and orderly bathroom, an "innocent" smile crinkling his wide eyes and stretching his mouth. Several objects still vibrated softly as whatever energy had encompassed them faded. Ash dragged a hand down his face in defeat. Though it was obvious Shade must have been doing something, at least he could reverse or fix his damages.

"Out," Ash grumbled, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. Shade didn't want to push his luck; the ghost sailed past him with a leery smirk. Before Ash had finished closing the door after him he heard Tank's irritated growl and Shade's interested chuckle.

Tank was possibly one of the best matches Ash could have picked for Shade. Even though his attacks before had been completely ineffective (not anymore with the addition of Metal Claw to his arsenal), Shade was almost just as inefficient against the Aron. Poison-type moves didn't affect steel-types. Even Gastly's signature attack of suffocating their victims was nearly worthless, as Aron could go up to nearly an hour without breathing. It was an ability they had developed due to tunneling or eating their way deep into mountains, where pockets of smothering gas could be released, or where rockfalls and landslides could collapse without a moment's notice.

An ideal match for Shade would have been another ghost-type or a dark-type Pokemon.

Ghosts were effective against one another because they were the only types of Pokemon able to harness and wield their brand of peculiar energy. So even though a Gastly could dematerialize its body at will, and render itself invisible in shadows, a fellow ghost-type would be able to track and attack it easily. Because of their cruel, mischievous base nature and general rarity, ghost-on-ghost battles were some of the most highly-watched and brutal battles in league-sanctioned events. Only dragon-on-dragon fights drew more money.

Ash started up the shower and waited for it to get warm, cranking up the spray to block out Tank and Shade's bickering.

The sun was shining strongly as Ash finally took the last few steps up to the gym. He chose to take it as a good omen and tried to unknot the bundle of nerves that had twisted in his stomach.

It was five o'clock. Ash had figured he might be arriving a little earlier than Brock had recommended, but he would rather be early than late on such an important day. And who knows? Maybe Brock would finish his battles earlier than expected.

For the first time in what felt like a long time, Ash was completely alone as he crossed the threshold. Tank and Shade had been withdrawn into their Pokeballs. Taking advantage of the free time left to them earlier that day had done wonders in their training, but Ash wanted his fighters to be as fresh as possible for the match. Since Pokeballs preserved their Pokemon in perfect stasis, he had let them rest for a time before recalling them.

Even though it was for their betterment, Ash couldn't help but feel naked and helpless without his hardy friend by his side—or even the playful (occasionally obnoxiously so) Shade looming over his shoulder.

The same secretary from yesterday looked up from her paperwork at Ash's entrance. She smiled kindly and motioned him over.

"Ah, you're that young trainer from yesterday, aren't you?" she asked warmly. "Brock talked a lot about you today, says you have a lot of potential. He's been looking forward to your match."

Ash blushed shyly at the praise. In his town, he'd never been the best of anything—the prodigious Gary had stolen that title from him. To hear an adult notice his talents was more gratifying than he had imagined it would be.

"Thank you," he said demurely as he started the paperwork. The secretary helped explain some of the clauses—the agreement not to sue if serious injury or death was incurred on either side, the fixed income ratio for prize money either side would forfeit upon losing, and so on—until he only had to sign his name at the bottom of the form to finish it.

The agreements he was signing off on seemed callous and unforgiving at face-value, but Ash knew that Pokemon dying in battles, even gym ones, was incredibly rare. Especially in gym battles, actually, where the experienced leader's Pokemon knew exactly how much force to apply without crossing into lethal territory. In addition to that, Pokemon were incredibly hardy, far more than some of their appearances would suggest. Blows that would kill or otherwise incapacitate a human could be merely shrugged off by a Pokemon in the middle of a battle.

"You can take a seat until I notify you that he's ready," the lady told him after he'd handed over the finished docket. A copy of the form would be sent to all of the gyms in Kanto. Even if Ash never challenged another gym in his life, they would hold onto the information just in case. His signature was legally binding in all copies of the form.

The battlefield doors opened and Ronald waltzed through, humming to himself. The secretary looked up at his entry and asked, "How did it go?"

"Oh, the kid won. Had a decent Charmander on her. You know how those battles go when the little bugger knows metal claw."

The secretary hmm'd sympathetically for Brock and went back to work. Meanwhile, Ronald noticed Ash sitting in the waiting area and smiled widely.

"Hey, kiddo! You taking on the gym?"

Ash nodded, still caught up in the small exchange he'd overheard. Metal claw really did seem like it was the key instrument for non-water or grass types to defeat Brock.

"Well," the guide sang out as he dropped into the seat next to Ash. Its legs wobbled perilously under his bulk. Ash tried to hide his uncomfortable flinch at his proximity. After his mother's death, exuberant and joyful people had been difficult to be around for long as Ash had come to find them emotionally draining. He was doing much better now, of course, thanks to Mary and Espeon's counseling, but sometimes he still found himself intimidated by such characters. "Are you looking for any hints?"

"Not really," Ash said quickly, "Brock and I—"

"Of course," the man bumbled on as though he hadn't heard Ash, "Brock is a rock-type specialist. If you're not careful he'll grind you up into dust! Grass and water-type Pokemon are your best bet."

Ash's eye twitched and he leaned farther away, understanding that it might be best just to let the guide ramble. "Okay, I'll keep that in mind."

Ronald beamed as though Ash had just professed his sincerest thanks for his help and got back up, ambling over to the secretary where they talked in low tones. He seemed like a rather simple, but as Brock said, well-meaning individual. Ash couldn't help but wonder if the rest of his brothers acted the same way.

He didn't have to wait nearly as long as he thought he would. What little time he sat there was spent messing around on the Pokedex and reading up on Kanto-native Pokemon. The minutes passed quickly until a soft chime jingled from the secretary's computer and she motioned him in through the enormous doors.

Ash entered just in time to catch the last dent in the battlefield being smoothed out by the underground controls. He looked at the spotless area curiously, wondering what Pokemon could have made such an impact. Brock's Geodude certainly wasn't powerful enough.

Brock was sitting by the side of the field, a safe distance away from the flashing signs signalling that construction was momentarily under way in order to restore the terrain to its former order. He was sweating lightly. The air temperature was rather warm.

The leader perked up when he noticed Ash standing there.

"Oh, hey Ash! Come on in! Just giving the field a last few fix-ups and then we'll be ready to go. That last challenger's Charmander was more powerful than I would have guessed it to be."

Well, that accounted for the elevated air temperature. Charmander's tail-flame could raise a room's temp. nearly five degrees, depending on their health and emotional status.

Ash gave a thumb's up to demonstrate his understanding and sat down to wait. As the whir of the underground generators began to decline, Brock released his Geodude. The Pokemon seemed slightly battered, deep claw marks scored into its craggy body.

"There you go, hold still," Brock soothed as he brought out a spray-bottle from his jacket pocket. Recognizing the trademarked Potion, Ash watched in interest as the gym leader lightly spritzed the groaning Pokemon's body with the medicine. Potions functioned by delivering a shot of energy to the Pokemon's nervous system. This energy was immediately used by the Pokemon's cells to heal from sustained damage. Even as Ash watched, the cracks sealed over.

They were another ingenious, if not expensive, sample of how far technology had progressed.

"Okay!" Brock said, dusting his hands off on his pants. He stood up and stretched. "Last battle of the day! You still up for another round, Geodude?" he directed to his Pokemon. The rock-type grunted and beat its hands together.

A woman dressed in black-and-white referee clothing likewise stood up from where she had been resting in the empty bleachers. She was rather pretty, something Brock seemed to take special notice of as his posture melted into a look more soft and mellow.

"My beautiful Sammy," he cooed as the referee assumed her place at the side of the field. "Are you ready?"

Distaste crossed the referee's aristocratic features. "Of all the gym leaders in Kanto, I get stuck with you," she hissed in disgust, then added sharply, "And I've told you before, it's Samantha!"

Ash winced at the acidity of her tone, though the situation was rather humorous. He hadn't known about Brock's apparent amorous streak.

The tanned gym leader pouted miserably for a second before he shook himself out of his heartbroken daze. "Okay, then, ready when you are."

Sniffing haughtily, the referee threw her arm out dramatically and spoke in a raised voice for Ash's benefit. "Ash Ketchum, from Pallet Town, challenges Gym Leader Brock Harrison for the Boulder Badge! This will be a two-on-two battle! Medicinal items are prohibited from use during the battle! Time-outs are also illegal and will result in a forced forfeit! Do both combatants acknowledge these terms?"

"I do," Brock said lazily, with the air of one who's said the words far too often for them to hold any meaning anymore.

"I do," Ash mirrored quietly.

The referee swept her arm to the left. "Then let the match begin! Gym leader, release your Pokemon first!"

"All right, then!" Brock shouted, smiling widely. "Geodude, you're on!"

The Pokemon grumbled its battle-readiness and levitated forward onto the field. Ash fingered the two shiny Pokeballs at his hip and thought. He didn't know what Pokemon Brock used as his second combatant. But he did know Geodude, enough that he was willing to save Tank from spending himself in the first fight. After all, if Tank had knocked it out easily enough yesterday, then Ash should be able to take it down with Shade as well.

"Okay, Shade," he said, and thumbed the release on the Gastly's Pokeball. "This one is yours."

The ghost/poison-type looked far too gleeful as it manifested from the red cloud.

"You can have the first move, Ash!" Brock yelled across the field. His arms were crossed confidently and Ash grinned. Battles up until this point had been easy, due to Tank's type advantages and Shade's craftiness. But now, this was a fight that would actually test how well Ash could command his Pokemon against an experienced expert. Now he would know if his wins up until this point had been luck or actual skill.

"Night Shade!" he ordered. The special attack had a complete advantage over the Geodude, whose moves were primarily for close-combat. In addition, Geodude's signature move Defense Curl would be useless, because Shade wasn't inflicting physical pain. Night Shade was all mental.

Shade's eyes swirled and pulsed with eerier power. His fanged grin widened until it revealed the red insides of his mouth, very much resembling a bloody gash in the midst of the gas mixture. Brock recoiled in surprise. Perhaps he hadn't been expecting the Gastly to be strong or old enough to know the move. It was the single instance where Shade's previous master had done Ash any favors.

"Rollout!" Brock shouted quickly, but Geodude was too slow. Its squinty eyes filmed over in horror as an unimaginable terror appeared before it, an illusion crafted by the gleeful Gastly. Short, squealing grunts began tearing from its mouth as it wobbled and swayed. In its frenzy, it beat itself over the head multiple times. Tiny rock fragments rained down from the blows.

"Snap out of it!" Brock ordered, but it was as if Geodude couldn't hear. Shade began lazily sailing in circles around the helpless Pokemon, giggling softly. Though his body was made of gas, his cloud generally hovered around four-and-half feet in height and width. Compared to the foot-tall Geodude, the contrast seemed mockingly strange. It was a chilling sight, and Ash was suddenly thankful that Shade was on his team.

"Geodude, listen to me. Whatever you're seeing is not real. We're in a battle. Can you hear me?" Brock urged, but his tone was different, more collected and soothing than before. Ash frowned as the Geodude actually faltered and blinked dazedly, brought out of its fugue by its trainer's gentle voice. Was this what Brock had meant in his whole speech about stability? Remaining steady and focused under pressure?

"Lick," Ash said. Shade rushed in like a shadow and suddenly an enormous pink tongue lolled out and lathed over the Geodude's entire body in one upward swipe. Geodude shuddered as it was draped in strings of saliva. It had been weakened by its frenzy during Night Shade and, by unknowingly beating itself, had exposed chips in its body. The toxin in Shade's saliva acted that much quicker for it.

Geodude managed one weak jerk towards Shade, as though trying to perform Rollout, but it could not hold itself aloft. It crashed to the ground and stayed there in an unconscious heap. Face down, it was indistinguishable from any other rock dotting the field.

Brock seemed like he couldn't decide if he wanted to smile or frown. He recalled his fainted Pokemon without further dramatics. "I'm proud of you, Geodude," he muttered to his Pokeball. Ash saw it wiggle once before it was returned to its slot on Brock's belt.

"Okay, Ash, try this one on for size!" he yelled, flinging his Pokeball into the field. The catch opened and an enormous amount of red energy zigzagged onto the field. Ash's eyes widened as he was suddenly engulfed in the shadow of a leering Onix. It could have leaned over and swallowed him in one gulp. His heart instinctively skipped a beat and endorphins flooded his system.

Strangely, they cleared up the reactionary fear and let him think. Onix was much too big for the toxins in Lick to take effect quickly—which they would need to if he wanted to finish the battle before Onix could get one or two hits in. And now that he had exposed Shade's main offensive move, Night Shade, he doubted Brock would let it happen again.

He withdrew Shade.

"Ohoho!" Brock said, delighted. "And here was me thinking you weren't even going to use your Aron at all, even after the training!"

Ash gritted his teeth as Tank appeared in a flash. The small Pokemon craned his head back at a humorous angle in order to fully see his opponent. His clear blue irises widened in shock. Onix was the biggest Pokemon either of them had seen to date, but Ash was confident in his friend's abilities.

"I move first this time!" Brock told him. Ash wondered if Brock had volunteered to let Ash go first for the battle with Geodude on purpose, so that he could have the first move with his main battler. "Onix, use Rock Tomb!"

The gigantic rock snake reared back, increasing its height even more. Now Ash understood why the gym's ceiling was so high. Its roar was simultaneously like the low rumble of a landslide and the spitting hiss of an Ekans. Tank could only stare in confusion as the floor began to tremble underneath it.

Before Ash could call out a counter-attack, chunks of solid rock tore themselves free from the ground and levitated upwards. Onix's beady eyes glowed with geokinetic power.

"Tank, Harden!" Ash quickly interjected. There was no way Tank was going to be able to dodge that barrage of boulders. He'd have to trust in Tank's defensive capabilities. Even so, the anxiety returned in his stomach.

Tank obeyed unquestioningly, apparently sensing the fruitlessness of a dodge. His limbs retracted into his compact body until he resembled a silver bullet with a single protruding spike.

The boulders, without warning, shot forward and smashed into Tank from a multitude of angles, effectively entombing him and hindering his movement. Ash bit his nails nervously.

"Tank?" he called out carefully once the dust had cleared. Brock seemed to be at ease with waiting for the outcome.

A cheerful chirp, though muffled, filtered from somewhere within the heap of rock. Ash was astonished. For a moment there, he'd thought Tank was done for, but he barely even seemed hurt. A harsh glow shone from between the cracks and Tank burst through the heap a split second later, sending shattered bits of flint and shale flying. Ash protected his face with his arm, grinning helplessly.

Tank perched himself atop the pile. A long, thin scratch had sliced down his right flank, but that was the only visible marking Ash could see, and even the scratch didn't seem too bad. He realized dimly that Tank had used Metal Claw to break free from his prison.

Brock looked like he was going to say something, but Ash wanted to press his advantage while Onix was too surprised to react. Thankfully the huge Pokemon seemed rather dumb and slow.

"Metal Claw!" he shouted breathlessly.

Tank's position atop the pile had elevated him closer to the Onix's broad head. His leap didn't take nearly as much exertion as it would have if he had attempted from ground level. The sharp glowing claws formed easily and Tank managed to get in two swipes directly between its eyes that had crossed while trying to follow his trajectory.

The Onix flailed in pain. Deep gouges had been scored on its sloping forehead. The pain upset its balance and it fell forward, smashing onto the battlefield. Tank landed solidly in front of the Onix, his feet smashing a good few inches into the ground.

"Tackle!" Brock shouted.

"Headbutt!" Ash immediately countered.

Both Pokemon rushed each other, although Onix was slightly disoriented from the direct hit. The sound of the collision they created sent out a concussive blast the stirred Ash's bangs underneath his hat. Onix's massive form sinuously slid backwards, carving a furrow into the earth. Its crown was deeply fractured. The wound seemed serious but judging by the twitches Onix made, Ash knew it was alive. It might have taken a lot of damage but the species wouldn't be so feared if they weren't resilient.

It seemed Tank was fast enough after all.

Where had Brock even gotten an Onix, anyway? Didn't they burrow close to the center of the Earth? They rarely broke the surface.

"Onix is unable to battle. Victory goes to the challenger!" The referee shouted. She seemed rather unfairly gleeful that her gym leader had lost. Considering how much flirting she tolerated though, Ash supposed he could understand the sentiment.

Brock reappeared when Onix's slumped form was broken down into red energy and sucked back into the Pokeball.

He didn't seem to be too upset about losing. "Great job, Ash. You capitalized on your Pokemon's advantages and used your surroundings. You deserve the Boulder Badge." He pulled his arm back and threw something with surprising skill over the ruined battlefield. Ash bounced it clumsily between his hands before managing to grab it firmly.

The pendant glittered softly in his palms. It was rather simple and unextravagant—an octogonal obsidian gem with faceted surfaces. Still though, Ash could barely keep his fingers from trembling as he worked the needle through his jacket and closed the safety lock. It sparkled in the gym's fluorescent lighting.

All of his mother's strict lessons on manners came back to him and he bowed at the waist. "Thank you, Brock. I couldn't have done it without your help."

The older teen, almost a man, really, shook his head good-naturedly and jammed his hands in his pockets. "Naw, kid. You would've gotten it eventually. I just boosted you up a little." He had left his marked area and begun walking around the field's perimeter, completely relaxed now that the thirst for battle had faded. Ash patted Tank one last time and recalled the tired Pokemon to give him a rest.

Brock walked with him to the gym's entrance.

"How'd it go, Champ-to-be?" Ronald asked happily as soon as they made it to the receptionist room. He was kneeling before the Rhydon statue, a delicate chisel in one hand and a name half-carved into the marble. Assuming it must be the trainer who had won before Ash's arrival, he peered closer and could make out "Leaf G—" before Ronald shifted positions and ended up blocking the rest.

Brock grinned and flicked the bill of Ash's hat. "He passed with flying colors. Add his name to the list."

Ronald pumped his fist. "Oh, yeah!" In an excited whisper to Ash, "I knew you could do it, kid, the moment I saw you, I said to myself, 'Ronald, that kid's gonna be the champion one day, just you wait,' and sure enough, here yo—"

"Ronald," Brock said exasperatedly.

Ronald blushed. "Not—not to say it was an easy feat beating you, sir, no, not at all. I bet you made him work for it, huh? Made him beg for you to go easy?" He gave a strained chuckle, sweating nervously.

Brock smashed the palm of his hand into his face, as though he keep wipe away the mental exhaustion.

Ronald bobbed his head repeatedly. "Right, sir, right, I'll, uh, I'll get back to chiselin' and whatnot." He dove back to his task with all the seriousness and focus of an Alakazam. Ash could barely hold back his laughter. Even Brock seemed to be smiling slightly underneath his shielding hand.

"Well," he sighed, facing Ash, "it was nice meeting you. You gonna come back for a rematch when you're stronger?" he asked hopefully.

"Definitely," Ash grinned. They clasped hands seriously for a moment, but then Brock smirked and pulled him in for a noogie. At Ash's annoyed struggles, he laughed and said, "I can't help it! You look so much like my younger brothers when you pull that tough face!"

Red as a firetruck, Ash shoved him off and stumbled away, straightening out his rumpled clothes with affronted pride. The receptionist muffled a giggle behind a dainty hand and Ash worked hard to hide his pleasure. He'd never had a sibling before, and after Gary had declared him a weird outcast, none of the town kids wanted to play with him. Being treated like a little brother was both annoying and… really, really nice.

There was still an hour of good daylight left when Ash finally left the gym. He stopped by the PokeCenter long enough to gather his belongings and enjoy his last quality meal before embarking on the longer road to Cerulean.

The badge might have been simple, but it shone in the rays of the sun well enough.

A/N: Ronald is my Samwise Gamgee and I love him.

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