Since it's been a while…

Ash Ketchum, having challenged the Indigo Conference and finishing as runner-up, has turned his eyes to Hoenn. Unfortunately after settling a cataclysmic dispute between the Moltes, Zapdos, and Articuno living at the Shamouti Islands he's been warned by Lugia of a Legendary Awakening on a scale Ash can't imagine. But now Ash and his friends are in Hoenn and have finally arrived to Rustboro and met Steven Stone, their mentor for the rest of the year.

I figured I'd go ahead and say that most of this chapter is somewhat similar to last chapter in that it's a lot of training and some examination at pokemon biology and society…more exposition than I would prefer but I'm kind of a nerd for that stuff and really enjoy writing it. If that's not your cup of tea you can always skim, although I do think this is important for the story as a whole. Primarily I want to show the basics of Steven's training so that it's easier to just breeze over the boring stuff in the future.

For those of you that don't enjoy that quite as much, don't worry. The plot is finally rolling and we'll get some action soon…ignore the fact that I've been saying that for several chapters now. Apparently I'm terrible at pacing.

Also, thanks for everyone who's reviewed, favorited, followed, or otherwise supported this story. If you have the time check out Traveler's TVTropes page!

I've ended up splitting this chapter in two after a lot of deliberation. The next chapter will be out within a few weeks or so. As a result this chapter is a little imbalanced but I would like to think it's interesting enough to keep your attention…at least until the fun stuff comes in.

Enjoy the ride!

"I suppose I should introduce you to the rest of my team," Steven nodded to himself. "You've still only met Metagross, correct?"

"Yes," Ash frowned. He leaned up against Nidoking's sleeping form. It'd been a long day, mostly consisting of Steven talking to him about some of the plans for his training and what he wanted to accomplish. In all that he'd been so distracted that he hadn't even thought about the rest of the former Champion's teammates. "I've seen your battles though."

Steven shook his silver head. "Those are out of date. It's been more than a year since I've had a match recorded. I can assure you that my team has grown much more powerful in the meantime."

Ash raised an eyebrow at that. After seeing some of Steven's bouts he could hardly imagine the Steel Master being even more impressive. He'd been an iron wall before, capable of weathering almost any kind of assault. Now Ash couldn't even imagine what Steven had evolved into.

Indeed. I only hope that they do not all match the Juggernaut. If so our spars will be rather short affairs.

He snorted at Dazed's comment. Aside from Seeker who was curled up on Bruiser's chest and Aron who rested near his feet she was the only one of his friends still awake. She wasn't capable of true sleep, so once she'd returned to consciousness she found her rejuvenation in sapping the energy from the dreams of the rest of the team. They were so exhausted that they'd never woken up in the first place.

Ash refocused his attention on the clearing Steven had them resting in for the night. The Steel Master raised his first pokeball and tapped a release, allowing a terrible beast clad in black and silver armor to materialize. Horns jutted from its head and its maw opened and closed with the telltale scream of metal grinding against metal.

"This is Aggron," Steven declared as the huge creature stretched its heavy limbs. It towered at a massive nine feet once it straightened to its full height and regarded Ash and his team with baby blue eyes that acted as the one chink in its defenses. Aggron's gaze flitted from each of Ash's team to the next, though it lingered on Aron in particular. "He's my second oldest teammate. I actually caught him deep in the Dewford caves…he was eager, but he made sure that Metagross and I proved our worth before he allowed himself to be caught."

Aggron snorted, the air sounding like a whistle as it flowed through his nostrils. Aside from shifting to stay a little closer to Steven – Ash noticed that it was still several feet higher than Steven on Metagross – it was almost perfectly still. It was like a statue carved from steel…powerful, impenetrable, and resolute.

He allowed his admiring glance to rest on the behemoth. Ash couldn't help but compare Aggron to Aron…it was hard to believe that his youngest friend would one day become a similar creature, a veritable king amongst steel-types.

Aron keened happily to Aggron and Ash lightly pat his shell with a quick smile. Aggron deigned a low groan in response, though the whole earth vibrated in resonance with the deep call. Ash just kept a comforting hand on Aron as the little steel-type got into a staring contest with the Aggron – he'd let them work that out.

No, he was more focused on the next creature that materialized next to Steven. The large bird scratched at the soft earth irritably as its neck twisted to and fro, finally settling its rapt attention onto Ash. Its eyes narrowed and the razor sharp beak snapped open before it squawked, unimpressed.

Ash frowned at it, unafraid of meeting its eyes. The Skarmory's talons tore into the ground again, tensed, and it flared its wings threateningly. Each feather flashed brightly in the lights Steven had set up around the clearing, showing the potential to blind an opponent in the shine of the midday sun. He crossed his arms, feeling the shocks and heat of the Feather as it flared to life.

Skarmory fluttered the wings again, allowing the razor-like feathers to scrape against one another in a high screech that felt as though it would split Ash's ears. He just stared at it.

"That's enough," his teacher cut in from his seat on the powerful Metagross. It wasn't loud, but he brooked no argument. "Skarmory, stand down. He's a friend."

Skarmory's wings settled by its side but it eyed Ash with disdain, snapping its beak open and screaming at him one last time before it fluttered into the air and landed on one of the gnarled branches of the ancient trees this training ground was home too. It was almost invisible outside the domain of the artificial lights, the only sign it was present the brightly gleaming eyes that reflected the electric torches.

"Skarmory was my third. We found her near Fallarbor in the middle of an ash storm," Steven reminisced. "We ended up walking into her cave while we were trying to find shelter. She didn't like that too much but once my team and I proved we couldn't be forced away she decided we might be with her time. As of yet I don't think she's too disappointed."

The aforementioned steel-type rustled at that, the slight screech that cut through the air claiming agreement. Ash couldn't help but smile at that. Irritable as the Skarmory seemed, he could still compare her to many of his own team. He wasn't blind to the fact that they weren't overly fond of strangers.

"Next is Claydol," Steven announced as he released the odd creature. Ash couldn't help but feel his mind flash back to his battle with Giovanni – a cold presence roared in his mind at the thought of the Rocket, not all of it Mewtwo – and he remembered how adaptable the thing had been. At that point he'd never encountered anything like it. Even now that combination of beams was impressive. It would certainly be a tricky one to battle.

He glanced at the strange creature. It was more or less identical to Giovanni's, though perhaps a little darker. Claydol held itself in the air almost perfectly, completely lacking the slight wobble most levitating psychics failed to remove. The only movement it had was a slight rotation that allowed its body to spin constantly, its faces all seeing the entire world at once.

Ash felt the slightest brush of a foreign mind, alien and warm and many, against his own before it recoiled. His blood flushed cold, though the feeling was banished by the Feather's heat. He frowned and glanced to Dazed, whose eyes flashed as she stared the powerful psychic down.

It looked like they were having quite the conversation. Dazed rarely kept her telepathy active with other pokemon for so long.

"—in the desert near Lavaridge," Steven was saying. Ash shook himself out of his distraction and focused. "It was just a Baltoy then, not especially powerful and essentially trapped in time. If I hadn't passed by and unintentionally activated it then Claydol might have stayed in stasis for an eternity. Claydol's a bit odd, but I promise that it will prove to be a good and patient friend. It will be taking a prominent role in your team's training."

Ash nodded along, pleased. It could be disconcerting to be around such a strange creature but he'd been amongst much worse company. Even if it wouldn't attempt to communicate with him at least he knew it was willing to help his friends.

He really couldn't ask for anything else.

The next appeared in a brilliant flash of light that practically exploded from the Ultra Ball Steven held in his hand. It was a fierce creature he recognized almost instantly. The new arrival had a stocky, heavily plated body. Combined with its bipedal stance it reminded him vaguely of Dragonite with how its tail slid out from underneath it, though the similarities ended there.

Where Dragonite was sleek, meant for diving deep into the ocean in search of prey, Armaldo was heavy and rough. It still held a streamlined design meant to allow it to take full advantage of its amphibious nature but the armor was disproportionately heavy, acting as its strongest defense.

Armaldo's claws were massive things, almost as large as a Kingler's primary claw. Each was more than capable of punching through steel without too much effort and he knew they could crack apart armor just easily.

Red and white fins on its neck flared threateningly as its cold eyes perched upon the sides of its head regarded him warily. The claws clicked together, as though Armaldo were itching to tear him apart.

He didn't have to look to know that Dazed's eyes flashed threateningly at the dangerous fossil pokemon. His team didn't take kindly to threats, especially those from Champion-level fighters.

At this point those were practically the only threats that mattered to him.

"Armaldo!" Steven barked, raising his voice for one of the first times since Ash had come to know him. The heavily armored insect clicked its claws one more times, blinked, and finally stood down. His mentor shook his head, obviously used to this display. "My apologies. She's very protective and not especially fond of outsiders. I promise she'll warm up to you eventually."

Ash met Armaldo's eyes, though he bent his neck just a little bit to show some respect. He knew that it would be hard to earn her friendship but he had no doubt that he'd get there eventually. To be honest he had to. She'd no doubt be heavily involved in training Anorith.

And that brought up another question. "Will Anorith be safe with her?"

Steven's mouth turned downwards and he thoughtfully stroked his clean-shaven chin. "To be honest I'm not entirely sure. Armaldo weren't necessarily aggressive with one another but they are known to display territorial tendencies. They weren't particularly attentive mothers either…I've thought about it and I think we'll just have to give Anorith's training a lot of oversight."

"I was planning on that anyway," Ash shrugged. He wasn't about to leave his future teammate unsupervised around a potentially dangerous Champion-level fighter. That was a recipe for disaster. "Would she even be able to help Anorith early on?"

"Definitely," Steven said. "If anything she'll be good for socialization…Anorith were communal creatures and any kind of familiarity will be agreed with. I'd like to get Anorith started on some basic maneuvers and techniques any Armaldo should know once she reaches two months…the sooner the better, I think."

He nodded. Ash could agree with that.

Still, he couldn't help but be distracted by Armaldo as it retreated back to Steven's side, almost touching Metagross. The metal behemoth showed no sign of even recognizing that Armaldo was there, instead opting to stand silently as seemed to be its norm.

Armaldo never allowed him to leave her eyes. They were trained on him like Plume with a Caterpie.

He needed to make sure he never turned his back on her.

"And finally, Cradily," Steven motioned out into the dark forest that surrounded them. Though he didn't actually release it, Ash couldn't help but notice that Steven tapped one of his pokeballs at the mention of the ancient creature. "He's actually been here this whole time…Cradily isn't much for traveling so I've left him the responsibility of watching over this training ground. Come on out!"

Ash squinted into the darkness, doing his best to seek out the old green fossil. He didn't expect to have much luck but –

A heavy weight landed upon the soft soil of the forest around twenty feet away. Too close for comfort. He scanned the shadows but he had about as much success as he'd expected. That was to say, none.

Allow me.

Ash nodded and didn't fight the mental jab that directed him to a spot far to his right, almost outside his field of view. It seemed so clear now, like he was some kind of idiot for not noticing it in the first place. He wordlessly thanked Dazed and focused upon this new arrival.

Cradily watched him silently, two of its tentacles coiled tightly to a massive branch that had managed to support its heavy weight. The rest were folded and held compact to its neck. He knew that they were essentially the same as any modern grass-type's vines – they were just such a useful appendage that they'd essentially remained unchanged since they developed in protograss-types two hundred million years ago.

His eyes were drawn towards the large yellow eye markings on its skull. If it weren't for his own knowledge of Cradily and the low-light conditions making its luminous yellow eyes quite obvious in the crescent-like opening on Cradily's head he would've been fooled.

He held back a flinch as one of Cradily's tentacles uncoiled and extended over to him. The innocuous petal-like appendage gently poked him as though it were truly fascinated with him. Ash thought it was just idle curiosity until the tentacle tapped the spot where the Feather had bonded into the skin of his chest. It recoiled as though seared with a great fire and quickly returned to Cradily, which examined him with renewed interest in those old eyes.

"Armaldo and Cradily were gifts from my father when I entered the Ever Grande Conference for the first time," his mentor reminisced. There was a smile on his lips that took years of weariness away. Ash wondered just what Steven had done to add what seemed like a decade to his refined features. "They were a tough pair at first but I like to think we grew on each other quickly. Armaldo's fierce, as I'm sure you've noticed. She's strong and independent. She's in a strange world but she's claimed it for her own."

"Cradily," Steven's smile grew wider as he motioned to the still creature, "Is more of the strong, silent type. He's happy to sit around soaking up the sun but when it's time for action you won't see his equal. I'd say he's probably the second most dangerous on the team right behind Metagross – and that's not really a fair match considering Metagross is more than a match for Lance's Dragonite."

Ash raised an eyebrow at that. Metagross was a monster, certainly – in the videos he'd watched of Steven's battles it had been responsible for a disproportionate number of knockouts before it was subdued – but so was Dragonite. Dragonite was too fast to hit on its worst days, able to take more damage than most rock and steel-types, and hit harder than a Steelix juiced on Rare Candy.

"I feel like Lance might dispute that," he drawled. If Lance had one failing it was his pride. And that pride shone strongest in his dragons, which he commanded as though they were just an extension of his self. When most trainers struggled desperately to earn the respect of a single dragon Lance casually demanded it from many. He wore it as a badge of honor and wanted the whole world to know it.

"Oh, I'm sure he would," Steven agreed readily. There was just the slightest hint of a smirk playing over his features. "He's never been one to take a loss well, much less once he became Champion."

Steven looked thoughtful for a moment. "Though I suppose he's been even less familiar with the feeling than before once he took up the Champion's Mantle. Perhaps I should have taken him up on that battle while I was last at Indigo Plateau…"

"There's always next time," Ash pointed out while struggling to contain a mad grin at the thought of the Champions having it out. They were opposites, really. Lance depended on his overwhelming speed and maneuverability. For all he loved coming down with all the power of a hammer it was the fact that his Dragonite were so damned hard to hit that made him the Champion he was.

Steven had shown him his hand with Metagross. He'd already had an idea of what he was capable of but Steven had refined those abilities down to pinpoint precision. He favored a tireless steel wall, one capable of absorbing and redirecting every attack imaginable until the perfect moment to strike with overwhelming force came along.

Careful, Friend-Trainer. Hypersalivation has been known to indicate madness.

He just rolled his eyes at Dazed's helpful remark. He should have expected that from her. She seemed to enjoy making that little quip.

"Perhaps," Steven mused, sliding off Metagross at last. Armaldo nuzzled into him, looking as happy as the warrior clad in hard carapace could be when the man affectionately rubbed her head. "It's been years. I'll admit he beat me rather soundly last time, but I've grown since then. He has too, certainly, but his duties limit his training time."

"I thought you beat him."

"Metagross beat Dragonite," his new mentor corrected. After a moment he added, "And Dov as well. If I remember it was that Kingdra of his that finally shut Metagross down…their styles tend to be quite effective against Metagross. They can't beat Metagross at Metagross' own game of precision. But with enough raw power even Metagross can be overwhelmed."

Ash snorted at that. He had a hard time imagining the metal behemoth ever being confronted with the feeling of being overwhelmed. The titan had singlehandedly stopped all of his friends in their tracks.

He'd never thought they'd feel so helpless again, not after training so hard with Lance. Lance had transformed them from what they were, compressing a year of progress into a wonderfully brutal month of exertion.

It wasn't even that he was surprised. He knew that any Champion-level fighter was beyond his family's capabilities at the moment in a one-on-one scenario, let alone the cornerstone of the team. But he'd still thought he'd be able to take down at least one with his entire family, even if it was Steven's strongest.

Saph had taken most of his primary fighters to bring down, but he'd thought that was due to his friends being unsuited to fighting her more than anything. She wasn't quite up to par with the rest of Lance's team thanks to her youth. The young Dragonite didn't hit as hard as the rest of Lance's team and lacked the steel hard scales to tank the sort of hits Ash's team could easily dish out.

What she did have was the incredible speed and maneuverability of Dragonite that allowed them to travel the world in a single day if they so pleased – though that was an extremely rare case, Ash vaguely recalled – and lent them their well-deserved position as one of the ultimate flying and dragon-type pokemon.

Metagross had disproved that. It really was a ridiculous pokemon, even for one of its insanely powerful species – like Steven had told him on the way back from the Sevii Islands, a single Metagross could annihilate a town in the old days. The titan that had demolished his team could have casually taken down a city, he bet.

Psychic powers at least as strong as those of Sabrina's Alakazam, a body as physically powerful as any normal Machoke and more durable, and the intelligence and processing ability proven to be around the level of modern supercomputers.

Combine that with more than a decade training with one of the mightiest trainers in history and modern technology to supplement its repertoire of techniques and you had a juggernaut on your hands. That strength and versatility combined with its impossible reaction time was a force to be reckoned with.

Not to mention Ash had quite a few suspicions about how it had reacted so quickly on the battlefield. He'd already learned that Metagross could use telepathy, although Steven's hadn't yet graced him with a conversation.

"So I just have to hit it really hard?" Ash snorted. Steven smiled, though raised an eyebrow when the younger boy hesitated for a moment. "What is Metagross, by the way?"

"I thought that would be obvious," his mentor drawled, looking inordinately pleased with himself. Ash could almost feel Dazed roll her eyes from beside him.

"No," he frowned, "what does Metagross like to be called gender-wise? All of my friends are a bit more…biological."

Steven's eyes lit up, though Metagross seemed disinterested as ever. "That's very polite of you, Ash. Metagross appreciates your interest."

Ash looked at the still, silent Metagross disbelievingly. Metagross didn't bother looking back.

"Metagross, as you're already aware, don't have genders as we do," Steven lectured, ignoring the odd look on Ash's face. Ash snapped his focus on his teacher. He was plenty appreciative of having a real expert's input. "You know they reproduce through budding most of the time and fragmentation when necessary thanks to the very long speech my father so thoughtfully provided earlier. That's lent itself to several unique behaviors and cultural phenomenon, especially with their colonial lifestyle."

"Most Beldum and Metang just see themselves as an extension of the hive. Beldum have practically no personality and are essentially drones to mine ore, gather resources, and maintain the colony. Metang are exponentially more intelligent thanks to the combined neural network of the fused Beldum," Steven said in full professor mode. "They're also more advanced psychically and act mostly as managers. They essentially direct groups of Beldum and ensure the colony's running as it should."

"Metagross are few, but what they lack in quantity they more than make up for in quality," the silver-haired man affectionately pat Metagross' crest. The steel-type's eyes shut and Metagross leaned into the former Champion's touch. "They are the colony's defenders and managers. In most colonies there are no more than five – the Hive, the Claw, the Shell, the Eyes, and the Ancient. What do you think they do? It's fairly self-explanatory I believe."

Ash rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He'd read about Metagross but he never saw anything this in-depth in the PokeDex archives. "The Hive is probably something to do with maintaining everything, right? Does it manage the Metang?"

Steven nodded and motioned for him to keep talking.

"The Claw and the Shell…" Ash muttered. "That sounds like one of them attacks and one of them defends."

"Yes," Steven agreed. "The Claw is responsible for attacking outside threats and ensuring the safety of the hive, although it normally just manages small groups of Metang and Beldum to ensure the colony has sufficient protein and food stored away. It's the hunter, essentially. The Shell protects the colony itself from attack – it can commandeer the minds of all Metang and Beldum and coordinate them to eliminate any threat or force them to flee if necessary."

Ash nodded that he understood before he continued. "The Eyes…I would've thought it watched out and kept an eye on everything. No pun intended. But if the Claw takes care of outside threats –"

Steven cut him off. "You're on the right track, Ash. But you're thinking too simplistically. Don't think of everything in terms of attack and defense. There's more to life – and Metagross – than fighting."

He frowned at that, though he chose not to respond to the criticism, and thought back to the original question. "So the Eyes don't just watch for threats, but everything?"

"Everything," his mentor agreed. "They're often excellent sensors and skilled in mental manipulation. Although the former Eyes of my family's colony received quite a bit of information from us they also maintained a network of pokemon informants. That's fairly normal for Metagross colonies, with the exception of the human influence. But what's truly impressive is the extent of its neural network."

"What, could it see through the eyes of the others?" Ash inquired, inwardly annoyed at the unintentional pun. He hadn't even realized it until after he said it. Not that Steven seemed to take note of it besides a slight quirking of his lips. "With their skill I'm sure they can shape psychic bonds without too much trouble."

"You're getting there," Steven said. "As I said before, Eyes was an expert in mental communication. I don't know of anything else in the world that had the range or skill it did."

Perhaps I should correct his ignorance.

Ash didn't flinch at the mental roar that made his blood run cold. He just steadfastly ignored it and tried to do the same to Metagross and Dazed, both of whom watched him carefully. One with open curiosity – the most he'd ever seen Metagross emote – and one with concern.

"—it developed several proto-Beldum to the point where it could form a psychic bond with them and had the Claw and the Claw's Metang plant several dozen of them throughout western Hoenn. Back when the colony was still active Eyes could use them as a relay, enabling it to have psychic influence throughout hundreds of miles. Primarily it used this as a way to gather information from the minds of passing humans and pokemon and to discern new areas to gather resources – Eyes warned my father of much, and had Pierce not been a traitorous bastard the Rockets never would have known to mask themselves with ghosts and dark-types," Steven ended with a furious hiss.

He looked at the man, not used to seeing such open emotion from the normally composed man. That must have been where Metagross picked it up from…although Ash supposed that being a metal titan that didn't actually have a face might play into it as well.

What the Eyes of the Stone colony had done was impressive too, of course. Ash didn't know that much about advanced psychic techniques – though he should remedy that so he could help Dazed – but he knew enough to know it would've taken amazing skill and focus to project psychic energy from such a huge distance.

And Metagross didn't even need the absurd power of a Legendary to do it either. All it needed was its own skill. Ash thought that that was much more impressive than being born with all of that ability –

Ash smirked at the furious hiss of icy fire in the back of his mind as Mewtwo's mental presence voiced its displeasure at his jab, though grimaced when that ever listening presence reminded him that it had more power over his body than he did.

Even as Steven brooded silently with the rest of his team and Metagross, Dazed, and Claydol watched him, Ash's heart literally stopped.

It happened instantaneously. His pulse, that little beat that had been with him for as long as he could remember, was conspicuously absent and in a matter of moments he felt that terrible burn of asphyxiation grasp him.

His chest exploded with Fire from the Feather as he tried to gasp but couldn't and with pain from his chest too and it felt like his heart was wrapped in a vice and he couldn't see – why wasn't Dazed helping him and why didn't Steven or the others notice his chest bursting into flame the Feather shocked him with Lightning and his vision went black

Everything was fine. His heart beat normally. His blood wasn't still like thickening magma. His chest no longer hurt and the Feather simmered down to its normal barely-there glow.

Steven looked at him, not even aware of the silent death Ash had just gone through. "Now, Ash, I believe you have one Metagross left."

He nodded silently – his face wasn't even pale and he displayed no sign of stress thanks to the psychic specter that haunted him.

With my power I parted the ocean to its deepest depths and entombed Fire within. What do you think one human's heart is to me?

Ash couldn't grit his teeth thanks to Mewtwo's influence and did his best to rise out of the unnerving calm that had fallen over him. "The Ancient, right?"

"Right."

"It's probably the leader. The others are leaders in their own right, but I bet the Ancient leads the entire colony," Ash said slowly. He was glad to lose himself in the pondering. It was better than the bloodcurdling experience he'd just escaped from.

What do you speak of, Friend-Trainer?

Later, he thought, and felt Dazed's worried mental touch slip away. "The Ancient is probably ancient, too."

"You need to stop doing that," Steven laughed. Ash blushed. "But you're right. It's oftentimes the oldest and most experienced Metagross in the colony. Before our colony was devastated Ancient was almost six hundred years old. It was actually the same Ancient my ancestors befriended when it was Eyes. Now Ancient is my father's Metagross."

Ash could see Steven's knuckles clench white, though the man didn't comment on it again.

"Ancient is the role of the supreme leader and keeper of knowledge in the colony," Steven started. His voice was unnaturally controlled, though it loosened as he fell into the scholarly speech. "The Ancient has knowledge from tens of thousands of years ago – each Ancient stores knowledge in a single proto-Beldum hidden in the hive. It's like a memory bank for hundreds of thousands of memories and experiences. It contains raw information on the progress of the colony throughout the ages. When the Metagross in the role of Ancient is psychically connected to the memory bank it is essentially the Ancient, channeling the knowledge and experiences of countless Metagross."

Steven grimaced suddenly. Ash started forward, slightly worried, but then the silver-haired man sighed, "I really am turning into my father, aren't I? Mother was right, I suppose."

"Ash," Steven said seriously. Ash blinked and listened. "If I ever go on like that again, kindly tell me to shut up."

"Okay," Ash said just as sternly. He really, really wanted to smile at that. "Even if you're being informative?"

His teacher nodded. He still looked like he'd just swallowed the black broth. "Especially if I'm being informative – I'd rather see Groudon and Kyogre clash again before I ramble on about everything like my father."

He snorted rather unceremoniously at that, despite the sudden call of the Song at Steven's words. "Don't make promises you don't intend to keep."

Steven started at that, a grim shadow falling upon his face. "I suppose you're right. Lance did say you always had a way of lightening up any situation."

Ash smiled. "I remember him mentioning that once or twice."

The older man smirked back and nodded, though he said nothing. They fell into a companionable silence that Ash was more than comfortable with – unfortunately, he had to be the one to break it this time.

I'm shocked, Friend-Trainer.

He rolled his eyes as he asked, "So what was the point of all of that?"

"I said all of that and I didn't even answer your actual question," Steven sighed. "Mother would be so disappointed. Well, let me fix that."

"What I was trying to get at was that as a hive culture each evolutionary stage has its own role, which directly affects what they preferred to be called. Their status as a colonial organism with one overlying mind formed from several less developed neural networks –" Steven caught himself, or appeared to, and nodded thankfully at Metagross. "Thank you. Now, as I was saying, the fact that they're made up of several organisms makes them a bit different when it comes to personal identity."

Ash nodded. That made sense. He'd picked up on that himself without the help of any long-winded explanations.

"Generally, all members of the line address themselves as 'we'. They have their own identity as a Metang or Metagross but respect the many that makes up the one. The Metagross that have a position, however, generally refer to themselves by their title. Third-person isn't quite as odd to pokemon as it is to us."

And that sounded familiar too. Most pokemon didn't seem big on the concept of names. Even Dazed rarely referred to anything by a human given name – she even called him Friend-Trainer. Ash was an afterthought at best.

"You probably noticed that when you were talking to –" Steven didn't finish that and just kept talking. "Well, you probably noticed it. There is one exception to the rule, however. The –"

"Ancient," Ash finished for him. Steven seemed inordinately pleased with his answer.

"Exactly! See, Ancient doesn't just consider itself the sum of its parts. Not the Metang that fused to create it nor the Beldum that fused to create the Metang. Not even the rest of the colony it controls. When Ancient speaks it doesn't speak as a part of the colony as the rest do – it speaks for them all. And, as such, it is the only one in the colony that refers to itself as –"

"I."

Steven smiled. "Indeed. You understand now. Now, Metagross is no Ancient. Metagross is still considered part of the colony – and Metagross is. When I'm dead and gone Metagross will return and perhaps become Claw. But for now it only speaks for part of the colony, the part that made up the Metang that makes up Metagross. And so Metagross knows themselves as we, and you can refer to Metagross as they."

Ash dipped his head in acknowledgement. It was a bit convoluted and probably not that important in the long run, but he was glad he'd learned. Knowledge didn't always need a purpose behind it.

Besides, it was interesting.

"Now, I believe that's enough for one night," Steven declared. Metagross slowly levitated. "It's getting late and we're waking up bright and early tomorrow. Gather your team and get some rest. You know where to find me if anything comes up."

He nodded and smiled at the man as Steven waved him goodnight. Steven's camp wasn't too far away, just about a hundred meters. They wouldn't need to have separate camps forever but Steven wanted to let the territorial members of his team get used to Ash.

Knowing how some of his friends could get Ash agreed. It'd be best if neither group were very hostile to the other.

Still, one thing was bothering him…

"Steven!"

The man turned to him, barely visible in the darkness. "Yes, Ash?"

"How did Metagross block Infernus' flames?"

He couldn't see for sure but Ash was fairly certain Steven was wearing a smug smile. "Think on it, Ash. You're a smart kid."

Ash just shook his head and relaxed as best he could, although their talk and the events of the day had left him plenty to think about. Especially the one with the dark passenger hiding away in his mind…

With that he absentmindedly rubbed at the Feather embedded into the skin and muscle of his chest. He instinctually knew where to tap the parts dominated by Fire and Lightning, respectively. Ash took a moment to thank them.

When Mewtwo had stopped his heart in a petty show of force – he couldn't help but flinch when he realized what he'd just thought, though thankfully there was no mental roar as there was a few minutes before – it was only the Feather that tried to help him. Steven, Dazed, all the others…they were blinded by whatever mind trick Mewtwo employed. Even Sneasel, who was his only remotely effective protector against Mewtwo.

The Feather had tried to save him. It had responded to him when he needed it most. Fire had tried to sear his body back to life with its molten heat. Lightning had surged through his heart in an attempt to shock it back to beating.

His fingers burned pleasantly as he brushed over the Feather and he even smiled as Lightning surged through him – the familiar Truth and Concept blurring through his mind comfortingly – and he felt every hair on his body stand on end for a single moment.

He sent one last thought of gratitude to both of them and allowed his hand to fall away from the constant reminder of the Birds.

Ash sighed. He could already tell that he wouldn't be getting to sleep on his own tonight. There was too much to think about and too little time.

"Dazed? Would you mind helping me?"

Of course, Friend-Trainer. Sleep.

XX

He fumbled for his pokeballs as he was jerked asleep and held aloft by a colossal force. Ash snarled instinctually and snapped his eyes open, well aware that anything that disturbed him should have been crushed by his friends by now.

"Gah!" He snapped once he realized he was being held upside down. It took a moment to realize considering it was almost pitch black outside. "What's going on?"

"How did Metagross stop Magmortar's fires yesterday?" A calm, composed voice asked. It came from behind him. Ash tried to struggle against the psychic bonds that held him but couldn't even budge. Not that that was a surprise as clarity returned.

"Steven? What –"

"I asked you a question," Steven's voice cut. "Answer it."

He shook himself awake, a little wary of this Steven. He'd learned the man could be harsh yesterday in the speech he'd given him after their battle but this was more along the lines of what he'd expect from Lance, Bruno, or Surge, not the soft-spoken Steven Stone.

"A psychic field?" Ash began uncertainly.

"Are you asking me a question or are you answering mine?"

Ash grimaced and continued, though he was starting to feel a bit sick as the psychic grip slowly began to spin and jerk him around to throw him off. Combined with his grogginess and the terrible feeling of getting nowhere near enough sleep he could barely think, let alone "It was some sort of shield. But not just a shield…there was something else."

He couldn't hold back a yelp as he was suddenly doused with a bucketful of icy water that immediately woke him up. Normally he wouldn't even mind the cold water in Hoenn's heat but the late night – or early morning, he really couldn't tell which – chill made it a lot less appealing.

"There, that should wake you up. Metagross was thoughtful enough to drain as much heat as possible from it. Focus."

Ash scowled but had to admit the ice water had served its purpose, though it was cold enough that he briefly felt himself become one with it as the frozen water touched him.

"Metagross didn't just use a shield. It was able to neutralize the flames before they even reached the shields but still need to maintain one to protect themselves from the heat. It was always centered around Metagross, not where the fire would be like the rest of Metagross' shields. And the vegetation around Metagross wasn't burned very badly."

Steven didn't do or say anything as Ash pieced all the observations he'd made during their battle to finally determine what exactly that was. He had his fair share of theories but saying it aloud like this made it easier.

"There was concern for the heat but the fires snuffed out before they even reached Metagross. And when Infernus teleported nearby Metagross he couldn't breathe…a vacuum?"

"Correct!" Steven congratulated him happily. Metagross turned him to face the former Champion, though Ash barely caught a glimpse of the silver-haired man before the contents of another bucket of ice water were cheerfully dumped on him. "There's your prize!"

Ash glared at Steven sullenly, more annoyed at the sensation of remembering Winter as the cold merged with him than the actual act.

"Oh don't be like that," Steven laughed. Ash was fairly sure he heard the loud, piercing screech of a very amused Skarmory. He didn't think the metallic raptor was too fond of him. "This wasn't even my idea in the first place. I'm just humoring Lance."

"Thanks," Ash retorted drily, more than a bit annoyed at both Steven and the Dragon Master who had put the silver-haired man up to this. Steven thankfully walked over and caught him just as Metagross released their hold on him. "So a vacuum?"

"Yes," his mentor nodded more seriously. "Good job on piecing that together. It's a technique my father and I worked out for Metagross. Once my team was first determined to be at Master-level and I set my sights on the Champion's Mantle I decided it was time to make Metagross everything they could be."

Ash nodded slowly, almost stunned at the concept. It wasn't something he'd ever heard of. It was dangerous, unpredictable, and a threat to almost every fighter in existence.

He loved it.

"How does it work?" Ash asked. "It has to be some sort of psychic ability. Metagross can't learn any flying-type techniques to create that effect. I can't think of any, at least."

"Correct," Steven smirked. "It's fine psychic manipulation on a scale I doubt any other living pokemon could accomplish. I doubt anything but a Master-level psychic could perform and none of them are suited to it like Metagross is."

Well, he couldn't argue that. Metagross still had to breathe but not nearly as much as others. He'd imagine it was fairly draining to hold their breath for so long and still fight but their stationary tactics probably helped to negate that.

"It's a simple concept," the older man explained. "Push all the air away, keep it away, and you've got instant resistance to one of the worst weaknesses of a steel-type. That it also makes it impossible for almost any pokemon to effectively fight Metagross at melee distance is a bonus."

"It's not perfect though," Ash stated. It wasn't contesting Steven. It was a fact.

Steven nodded. "You're right. It's not perfect, but it's about as close as we can get. Extremely effective. But yes, convection is the major flaw. Even though the fire itself dies out and loses a lot of its ability to transmit thermal energy there was still a blast of fire around thirty feet away from Metagross. That's a lot of heat, plus the combustible liquid fire-types use to shoot their flames is still hot and headed for Metagross. That heat is what the shields are for."

Ash nodded slowly, processing it all. It was too bad none of his friends would be able to learn it…Dazed might, but he wasn't sure if she'd be able to hold her breath long enough to find a use for it.

Plus he was pretty sure that it wasn't good for living things to be in a vacuum if they weren't protected somehow. Not that he was an expert or anything.

"So Metagross is safe in the vacuum?" He voiced his concerns. "And how long can Metagross maintain it?"

"Almost indefinitely," Steven replied. Ash thought the man sounded just a little smug about that. "It's somewhat draining but Metagross has high endurance. And it's not a total vacuum – there's a small pocket of air that Metagross is able to maintain underneath their body so they can breathe."

Ash raised an eyebrow. Psychic powers were notorious for being based upon focus, willpower, and ones own capacity. Only the best of psychics could perform multiple actions simultaneously. "And Metagross can maintain that? That sounds like a lot to keep track of."

"There are a lot of advantages to Metagross' computing capacity. Four brains are better than one, especially when each has exceptional ability on its own."

Yes, Steven was definitely smug now. There was no mistaking that. It was well-deserved pride bordering on arrogance. That wasn't to say it wasn't unfounded…pride at least had something to back it up.

It was no wonder Metagross was such a powerful psychic. Ash knew they were well known for being skilled and powerful – renowned for it in battling circuits, even – but he wasn't sure it had ever been pushed to such a degree as Steven's Metagross.

"Is there anything Metagross isn't good at?" Ash asked half-jokingly. It was frustrating fighting something that seemed to have every single one of its weaknesses nullified or worked around. The only weak point he'd found so far was ghostly energy and dark-type energy but Metagross was fast enough to escape even that usually.

"Not really," Steven freely admitted. "Metagross are some of the single most gifted pokemon found in nature. Even if they lacked any psychic capability at all they'd still be formidable with their raw physical might. Their extreme intelligence, analysis, and reaction time are almost unnecessary."

Well he could definitely agree with that.

"And with their psychic abilities…" Ash trailed off, already knowing the answer.

"They might as well be unstoppable to the unprepared," Steven agreed readily. "And in the case of my good friend Metagross, those who have spent months preparing. With Metagross' arsenal, training, reaction time, and the ability to manipulate their body with their psychic abilities they're by far my strongest teammate. The rest of my little family are certainly powerful in their own right, but it's Metagross who has cemented my position."

Ash scowled as he realized the enormity of the task that had been set before him. Steven gushing over Metagross and revealing the full extent of its abilities made it very clear how it had managed to take down Dragonite and Dov. That inhuman precision was dangerous. He'd seen himself how Metagross could snipe a fast, agile flier from the sky.

This was irritating. Ash trusted his team. He knew they'd triumph over Metagross eventually, but for now it seemed like climbing a mountain with nothing but his own limbs.

It felt like he'd been hammered with the sheer superiority Metagross had naturally. Oh, he knew they had worked tirelessly for the seemingly endless power they now wielded. Nothing could reach this level without discipline, impossibly long and hard work, and more pain and hardship than most could imagine.

But with all these natural advantages…

Steven had already mentioned the power Metagross earned by its sheer physiology. Intelligence, physical and psychic power, reaction time. But his Metagross possessed even greater talents thanks to its great experience.

Impossibly huge psychic power he'd never seen from an "ordinary" pokemon. Shields based on precision rather than area covered. Excellent tracking and evasion abilities. Nullification of virtually all of its possible weaknesses.

He wanted to beat it now more than ever.

"And there was me thinking Alakazam was the strongest psychic-type," Ash laughed.

"You aren't wrong," his mentor cut in. Ash paused and looked at him like Steven hadn't just spent the last five minutes gushing over his Metagross. "What? Metagross have more power than the majority of Alakazam and can perform several tasks at once but they aren't as versatile. See, that's the real weakness of Metagross and one that I've spent my career tearing out."

"What, trying to make Metagross versatile? It seemed to me like you succeeded," he snorted as he remembered the many ways Metagross had pounded his team into the ground. Speaking of his friends, where were they? It wasn't like them to not have practically attacked him now that he was up or actually attacked Steven for messing with him.

Steven frowned. "To a point, yes. But not as much as I'd like. See, Metagross is excellent at what they do. The best in the world in my own humble opinion –"

Ash couldn't help but bark out a laugh at that. Steven ignored him and kept talking.

"—but Metagross isn't perfect. See, Metagross is very good at most things but they lack that creative edge to push them forward. They're logical to a fault. It almost always works but it holds Metagross back in the highest levels of competition."

"Can I get some examples?"

"Of course," Steven agreed. "See, Metagross doesn't improvise. They work off of habit and an assessment of what will work best according to their own experience. It's generally fine. But faced with a challenging foe Metagross wouldn't know what to do besides try the same tactics over and over again. A blunt instrument, much like you now."

Ash frowned at that assessment of himself but didn't argue. Now wasn't the time.

"An Alakazam would try some creative use of psychic powers. They would weave an illusion or manipulate the mind if they could. Maybe even use an unexpected combination. Metagross? They are manipulators of force. Physical psychics. Precise users of force, perhaps, but that's their true specialty."

"Remember what Metagross did during your battles? It's all revolved around application of force via psychic energy. All psychic abilities are, technically, but I think you understand what I mean.

Metagross projected force to hit exactly where they needed to. They projected force to stop your team's attacks whenever it was required. They manipulated their body with precise application of force to avoid attacks or enhance their own. The only reason Metagross is as versatile as they are is because I spent a lot of time working with them to improve that."

Ash nodded. He did understand. It was fairly simple once they got to the issue, although he couldn't complain about Steven elaborating. Sure, he was getting the idea that Steven liked to hear him self talk, but he did appreciate the information. It showed he cared at least.

"I think you know what I mean," Steven sighed, winding down a bit. "Metagross almost solely use physical abilities to bludgeon their opponents and avoid damage. It's not their first reaction to engage mentally – not usually – despite how effective they can be with their unyielding mind. Alakazam have their own weaknesses, but altogether they're a match for most Metagross. The one in front of you being the exception, of course."

"Of course," Ash agreed with a snort. "So how did you fix it? I wasn't expecting most of what Metagross could do. Gravity is devastating."

"Isn't it?" Steven smiled. He coughed embarrassedly. "Well, I did manage to make quite a bit of progress with Metagross but we've found a more convenient solution in the meantime. It allows us to blend my own knowledge and relative versatility with Metagross' own talents. Without it Metagross wouldn't be quite as effective or quick to act with unexpected solutions. Can you –"

"Psychic link," Ash cut him off. Steven looked surprised, though pleased once the shock went away. "The Unovan trainer I battled in the Conference, Grey, used one with his Beheeyem."

His mind flashed back to that battle and Ash couldn't help but grin. It had been brutal and savage at parts – he hated remembering Infernus casually roasting one of Grey's pokemon alive – but overall it had been satisfying. Grey wasn't someone Ash would be friends, acquaintances, or even someone he had to see once every few years with but there was something compelling about battling someone like that.

Someone who loved it just as much as he did.

"Hmm, I'm surprised he managed. It's advanced, although Beheeyem are rather skilled with the mental arts…" Steven continued muttering to himself.

"Steven?"

"My apologies," Steven said quickly. "I was just thinking."

Ash blinked. "I could see that."

"Now, I feel like I've burned quite a bit too much daylight already," his mentor sighed. He looked mournfully up at the sky, which had only just barely begun to display the first hints of dawn. "We've got a lot to do, Ash. I'll take you to check out some of your own training and then we'll make a round and see how your team is settling in."

He nodded. That was acceptable. Still, he was a bit interested to see what setup Steven had in mind for his team.

When he asked that Steven just smirked.

"You'll see."

XX

It was finally dawn. Though the sparse forest in which they stood was cast in a faint, almost blue light as the sun made its presence known Ash could feel the heat and humidity brimming. He rubbed his eyes tiredly – once he was able to check his PokeNav he'd found at he'd only gotten about five hours of sleep.

That honestly wasn't too bad for Ash. When he had a strict travel schedule he'd been able to operate on just three or four hours for several days straight as long as he took naps whenever they stopped. It wasn't healthy but it worked. Dazed just had to make sure he had plenty of time to recover when the need for haste was gone.

He had the sneaking suspicion that Steven wouldn't be giving him too many breaks today. To be honest he had no idea what was coming. Steven had been quiet as he led Ash to his own camp atop Metagross' back.

Ash was slightly annoyed at having to walk but didn't say anything. He certainly wouldn't want anyone else riding Plume. Steven wasn't being rude – knowing their teams it was more concern for Ash's safety that kept him off the steel behemoth.

"Here we are," Steven said cheerfully and slid off Metagross with practiced ease. He landed lightly on his feet and took a moment to brush his long hair out of his eyes as Ash caught up. "I know you're tired but I'm going to need you to pay attention here. It's important. Metagross?"

He nodded and took a moment to focus on the Feather embedded his skin. Ash smiled at Fire and Lightning as they surged through his body, casting aside his exhaustion like a gale threw away a layer of dust. Lightning especially wound through his body, though it calmed once Ash noticed Metagross staring at him.

Metagross watched him for a few more seconds before its eyes flashed a brighter red and a mat five feet by five feet unraveled and laid itself before the small group. Steven tapped a button on his suit and instantly several items materialized onto the square.

Ash had to hold back a grin once the nature of the assorted pads and helmet became obvious to him, though he wasn't quite as enthused at the implication of the small, compact stun gun or the long, thin baton that looked like it could be flicked open to a much longer length, almost to the point of being a spear. The twin prongs that extended from its end like tiny blades didn't help that imagery.

"You know these aren't toys," Steven said quietly as he suddenly stepped forward, clasping the baton and expertly flicking it so that it extended to roughly three feet. He eyed the prongs measuredly, as though a tiny bolt of electricity would jump between them. "That's good. These are weapons."

"So this is the training you were talking about," Ash muttered. "Combat?"

Steven nodded. "It's ugly, but I think it's necessary and so does Lance. The battles you'll be involved in aren't like what you've faced before in the Sevii Islands. You won't be mopping up a handful of untrained Rocket grunts or act as the backup. You'll be leading the charge."

Ash's face was like stone. He wasn't afraid of combat or risking his life, but somehow this seemed so much…uglier than stopping Mewtwo or the Birds. It would be a return to bloody struggle between mortals where every second was another opportunity for lost life.

"I'll be there, of course, but I don't want you getting hurt," or killed went unsaid by the silver-haired man, "simply due to chance. If there's a hope that I can avoid it then we'll chase that hope."

"What do I need to do?" Ash asked quietly. He would listen, and he would listen well. His life and the lives of his friends might depend on it.

"The two of us will be assisting League forces in cracking fortified Rocket positions during your time in Hoenn. We're two powerful assets who can overwhelm most defenses with ease," Steven grimaced. "And these are the remnants of the Rockets in Kanto. They're fiercer, less organized. It's a dangerous, wily Rocket that survived Lance's wrath when he realized that Mewtwo was no longer protecting them and they've done a good job of hiding themselves away until they could grow in strength."

Ash raised an eyebrow. "What happened to them being Poochyena still trying to grow some teeth?"

"They still are," the former Champion returned passively, though quickly enough that Ash could tell he'd touched a sore spot. "Though they've hidden away and have begun to build up power they're still not a threat. We've begun to catalogue their bases and are preparing our own actions. There are also several groups who are providing, well, unexpected assistance. It's welcome but considering who it's coming from…"

"And who would that be?" Ash cut in. He needed to learn about this. The most important part of fighting your enemy was to know them first.

Steven frowned, as though he were deliberating. Finally he shrugged. "Two paramilitary organizations that have been active in Hoenn for nearly two decades now, Aqua and Magma. There's a few others involved in the fight but those are the major players that aren't affiliated with the League."

"Aqua and Magma?" He tried the names out. Odd choice of names for an organization but at least it was better than Team Rocket he supposed. And with their duality… "They're related somehow?"

"Not that we know of," Steven confessed. He didn't seem pleased about that. "We aren't even sure who their leaders are or what their motives are. They've been suspected of shady activities in the past but we've never been able to definitely prove anything. We've tried to keep an eye on them but the Ever Grande League just doesn't have the manpower to track those organizations, especially when they haven't even done anything for certain."

Ash frowned. The Indigo League would've been keeping track of those groups like a Fearow eying a Caterpie. After Team Rocket emerged from nowhere a while back as a fierce, relentless criminal group with maneuverability and planning good enough to mark the first real internal threat to Indigo for a century the Indigo League would never make that mistake again.

They would always be vigilant.

"What else is there to know about them?"

Steven sighed and shook his hair out of his eyes. "Too much to say now. I'll forward it to your PokeNav, alright? You can look over the information tonight. I'll make sure to attach other relevant information about the Rockets as well. We don't have time for me to explain everything now."

Ash nodded. He could accept that. He wondered what Dazed would think of it – she'd be reading his mind while he read the actual message, of course.

He suddenly felt very lonely. This was the first time he'd been alone without any of his friends in…how long had it been? It must've been before he started his journey. They were almost a part of him now, attached by an invisible tether that kept them nearby.

He didn't like them being away. After what he'd seen – well, without his family he felt naked. There was always Nidoking listening for threats or Plume scouting or Torrent standing guard. Dazed to banter with and stand as his silent guardian. Infernus always ready to erupt from his pokeball with a roar and gout of flame. Bruiser and Seeker always cheerful and reliable…Tangrowth doing his best to be friends with everybody no matter what. Sneasel to watch grow up and Oz to see grow into her new family.

Without them he was just Ash, a twelve-year old boy who couldn't really do much of anything. A boy who was missing his greatest friends and family.

It was like someone ripped a part from him. He wasn't complete. This silence, only being around Steven and his own team…it was unnerving.

"Ash," Steven's words prompted him to force his mind away from those depressing thoughts. "When you wear these, remember that they aren't to protect you from pokemon. They're there to protect you from the collateral damage of their attacks. The best thing you can do for your own safety is to rely on your team and stay back. Do you understand?"

"Yes, I understand," Ash couldn't help but frown back. It was nice to know Steven cared enough about him to hammer that point in but he needed Steven to realize he wasn't a complete idiot. He had no illusions about his ability to survive even a weak pokemon intent on killing him.

Steven's shoulders relaxed a bit. "Good. This is high quality equipment but if a pokemon wants you dead…well, you're going to die. This equipment buys you time and shields you from shrapnel and secondary effects. You get hit by an attack full on and all this will do is prolong your life a few more seconds. It keeps me from worrying about you getting suffocated by a Gengar or getting a rock shoved through your side but that's it."

Ash nodded again, the reality really setting in on him. He'd faced lethal situations before – more than most, for sure – but a battle really was something different. Usually he just had to stay out of the way of Legends and hope their elemental cloaks didn't rip him apart. In combat he'd actively have dangerous, high-level trainers doing their best to take him out.

"This is the Electrike Shock Baton," Steven demonstrated by making a few quick jabs with the extended length of the weapon. "It's manufactured by a subsidiary company of Devon. This won't stop a ghost or any truly strong pokemon, but if you're dealing with weaker pokemon it can at least hold them off and buy you time. Tougher fighters like rock and ground-types will just shrug it off – if you see them, run."

"You don't have anything to deal with those?" Ash raised an eyebrow. "I thought the League would be ready for anything."

"Ghosts wouldn't even flinch – and that's if you managed to hit them. Look, these produce high amp and high voltage. Penetrating power and capability for actual damage. But that really doesn't mean anything if you're dealing with a mature pokemon. All you can do is stun it and hope you can either escape or one of your friends sweeps in."

Steven frowned as he suddenly remembered something. "And I'm definitely not giving you cryo or pyro grenades. I'm not authorized to give you that training and there's too much opportunity for friendly fire besides."

Ash slumped just a bit. He'd actually really wanted to try one of those out. Something about having that capacity for direct destruction rather than needing to ask one of his friends for help was appealing.

"Look, I'm going to train you in what's practical," Steven explained. He didn't seem too surprised at Ash's disappointment. "These electroshock weapons are easy to train with and maintain. But more importantly they're effective. And it's not all I'll be teaching you – see?"

With that Steven unclipped a small appliance from his belt that Ash hadn't even noticed before. It was almost like a spray bottle, though clearly designed for distance.

"I have Pokemon Spray," Ash snorted. It was basic equipment, like Repels. You couldn't fight pokemon off with a knife, after all, so that was relegated almost solely to being a survival tool. Spray was basically an absolute last resort if you were caught off guard by an aggressive wild pokemon. The composition was almost identical to Repel, though far more concentrated and enough to blind and overwhelm most pokemon. It was generally more effective than electroshocks for survival – shocking a pokemon would just leave it really, really angry once they recovered.

Spraying it with the Occa berry extract generally just made it want to get as far away from you as possible.

"This is a bit different – a bit more range," Steven said, spraying a thin line of liquid and aerosol directly at a tree about fifteen feet away. He couldn't help but squeeze his eyes tight as he felt them start to water at the painfully spicy scent. "It'll distract almost anything. It lets you actually assist in a fight by distracting pokemon and it's certainly not standard equipment – it's my own contribution."

"Thanks," Ash said gratefully as Steven tossed him the device. He examined it closely, though he quickly turned his attention back once Steven sheathed the baton and picked up the ranged stun gun. "I'll be using that too, then?"

"It's just another option," his mentor clarified. "It's better to have this than nothing. Obviously rely on the Devon Occa Spray when you can but if it comes down to you and an enemy pokemon this is better than nothing."

Ash shrugged at the small device, which Steven didn't even bother demonstrating. That would be good for one use and then he'd have to take off sprinting or hope one of his friends intervened. Neither the stun gun nor the shock baton would do more damage than even a moderately powered electric attack.

Mostly it was there for shock value. Ash's lips quirked up at that.

"And my personal favorite, the uniform!" Steven grinned, unraveling the clothing with a small quick flick of his wrist. It was a plain, tan uniform that was lightly padded in several areas such as the shoulders and torso, though not enough to severely restrict mobility. Ash also noticed that the material it was made of looked suspiciously similar to Steven's suit – not in color, but definitely in texture.

Steven caught Ash's knowing gaze. "Oh, you noticed? Yes, my suit and all League combat uniforms are created from Ariados silk. It's strong, durable, and tough enough to protect you from just about any minor explosion or attack. It'll keep you alive, at any rate."

"And the helmet?" Ash asked as he stepped forward to pick up the helmet, which was such a dark grey to be almost black. A barely noticeable antennae rose from its right side, hidden underneath the top layer. Its eyes were glossy black, though he thought he could see a tint of red whenever he caught it from an angle.

Aside from that it had a small respirator in the mouth area and he could see where it sealed down onto the combat uniform. It was clearly a gas mask, probably designed to prevent an enemy Gengar or other ghosts from just flooding into the area and suffocating the wearer. Not to mention there were all sorts of things you wouldn't want to breathe in during an all out battle scenario.

"The Mk. II Aron Ranger Helmet contains a built-in radio, protects you from blunt force trauma, shields your eyes, and ensures you don't breathe in anything too nasty," Steven listed off as though he'd memorized it straight from the manual. Knowing him, he had. "It's a personal gift from me so you could get a cooling system in it as well. Trust me, you don't want to approach a battle with a hot head."

Ash stared at Steven suspiciously after the play on words but when the man didn't even give a hint of a smile Ash figured it was just an innocent mistake.

"Every day we'll get you accustomed to working in uniform," his mentor declared. "You'll need to be ready when we are called to attack Team Rocket and able to focus without distractions. I'll do my best to get you competent with your aerosol and electroshocks too…though hopefully you'll never need them."

He nodded with that, completely agreeing. Ash would really not get involved in the battle himself. If anything was strong or quick enough to make it through the perimeter forged by his friends…well, he'd rather not be the one to face them down.

"How good are you with them?" Ash asked. He had a hard time imagining Steven as any sort of truly martial figure. The man had always seemed like a general to him, like he stood far, far away and managed everything from a distance. Not at all like Lance where the giant of a man would be in the middle of everything screaming and shouting his heart out if he could. "I mean have you used them before?"

Steven frowned. "Let's just say I've gotten my fair share of practical experience in and leave it at that."

Ash nodded, properly rebuked. He knew how it was to want to avoid bringing up bad memories.

The older man sighed at the look on Ash's face. "Take a minute to put these away in one of your storage compartments. They're your responsibility now. Once you're done we'll make a round of your team's training. We'll start on personal combat tomorrow."

"Sounds good," Ash agreed as he set to work. He didn't really think too much as he quickly completed the task he'd been given. All he wanted was to see his friends again…though he couldn't help but be curious as to what each of them would be set up with.

All he knew is that it couldn't be easy. Steven wasn't an easy taskmaster.

XX

"I asked Aggron to take Nidoking and Aron and try to find where they need to develop," Steven declared as Metagross came to a stop. Ash grimaced when he came to a stop. The area was just rugged enough to make it a challenging hike – well, at least if you weren't riding a levitating metal giant – and he found himself unnerved by the complete absence of any other pokemon in the area. He couldn't hear a single Taillow chirp or Wurmple rustling curiously through the grass.

They knew what was here and they were terrified of it.

"I doubt that'll be too hard to figure out for Aron," Ash snorted. "He's only trained for about a week. I've got my own ideas for Nidoking."

"Oh?" Steven smiled at him from atop Metagross, who seemed intent on looking down upon the training site that Aggron led. "Do tell, Ash."

"I've sort of figured that Nidoking's never going to be like Infernus or Torrent. He just doesn't have that raw power," Ash sighed, despondent. "He's strong, but I've been trying to take him in a different direction. I've got to let him develop in his own way instead of trying to push him down the same path as the others."

Steven nodded, listening attentively.

"Nidoking's strength is in his versatility," he muttered. "You saw it when he went up against Metagross yesterday. Remember Triad?"

"Ah yes," his teacher nodded. "I'm sure Lance would be pleased to see his technique used by such an effective wielder. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery."

"It's effective," Ash shrugged and said no more on the topic. "But I'm trying to think of ways to help Nidoking catch up…he won't be a powerhouse but he can be just as dangerous. I think he might have the control for Dig at this point…"

The silver-haired man smiled. "A useful technique, though not without its weaknesses. We can discuss that at another time, though. At the moment I'm more concerned with Aron."

Ash turned sharply to look at the older trainer. "Aron? Why?"

Steven rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a moment before he explained.

"Aron is completely untrained right now beyond a few training exercises you've put him through," he said. They walked forward a few more feet and Steven gestured towards the unveiled great pit rent in the earth where Aggron stood with Nidoking and Aron. Even here the hulking steel-type's size was evident – he towered above even Nidoking, who was becoming quite the large specimen of his breed. It looked like he was growling something to the two of them. "In other words he's ripe to be molded into any style we want…even the unimaginable."

"Watch!" He ordered and tapped one of his storage compartments, releasing a large metal rod he unceremoniously hurled down at Aggron. Ash blinked when it simply stopped several feet away from Aggron's bulk rather than clanging uselessly against the armor. "See?"

Ash stared, doing his utmost to comprehend what had just happened. Aggron hadn't used unexpected psychic abilities to do that. There was no sign of the ethereal glow that always accompanied the use of psychic power. The thought of an Aggron being that strong of a psychic was almost unfathomable to begin with.

His mind rapidly dashed through the sorts of techniques Aggron could learn. Knowing who his teacher was he'd been sure to memorize them during his time in Hoenn. Despite that there remained little that could possibly be responsible.

It wasn't a flying-type technique. Ash couldn't think of any way air could keep the rod as eerily still as it was now. The rod was similar to Aggron in that way…neither so much as twitched. If someone wasn't aware of what Aggron was it could easily be mistaken for a terrible steel statue of some fearsome creature.

He could accept that it was just a strange use of psychic powers if there had been at least some sort of glow. Even extremely specialized, elemental use of psychic powers like with Stealth Rock were obvious.

Aggron could learn Magnet Rise, but that was raw and completely unrefined compared to this. And he'd never even heard of it being applied like this. All it had ever been able to do was keep the user aloft for a minute or so and even that was shaky.

Then again he'd come to realize that most of the truly powerful pokemon had ventured into skills deemed impossible. They excelled at some aspect of combat or technique and used it to crush all that stood in their way. He should know better than to dismiss any possibility by now.

"How?"

Steven smiled. Ash got the feeling that he really enjoyed showing off what his team had achieved…not that Ash was any different. "Think on it for a while. If you can't figure it out by tonight I'll help you out."

Ash sighed but didn't press harder. It was clear Steven preferred that he worked it out himself. And to be honest he couldn't even say he disliked that – there was always a certain satisfaction in doing something without the help of another.

"Let's move on and leave them to their session," Steven spoke up, gesturing for Ash to come along. "As you can see, Aggron has some relatively unique abilities that took a very long time to learn. It didn't help that he began learning them long after he'd mastered most of his abilities…I'm hoping that Aron, as a blank slate, will be able to adapt to them much more quickly and master them to a degree Aggron can't."

"He still needs to learn how to fight normally," Ash pressed. While he found the idea of Aron mastering whatever peculiar ability Aggron possessed appealing he wouldn't sacrifice basic skill in combat for that sort of specialization. It only seemed that it would be useful against steel-types at the moment, though he imagined plenty of other avenues would become obvious once he understood more about it.

"Of course, of course," Steven waved his concerns away. "Don't worry about that. He'll be as combat-ready as we can make him. He'll just have a little more on his plate than he would otherwise."

Ash nodded, letting Steven know he wouldn't argue further. He trusted the man more than almost anyone else – he'd saved his life, after all – but that didn't mean he wouldn't press if he felt concerned about something. Steven knew a lot and clearly had more experience but he wasn't omniscient.

He'd have to keep that in mind as they worked through the rest of the team.

XX

"Most of your team won't be doing anything too fancy during our time here," Steven announced from atop Metagross. The man absentmindedly drummed his long, thin fingers against the titan as he spoke. "I just need to make sure they're up to my standards before we begin focusing on more advanced and demanding exercises."

"Control?" If there was one thing he knew Steven wouldn't find wanting in his team it was power. He had to admit he favored it.

"Control," Steven nodded, a shimmering blue shield appearing slightly above his eyes as they walked into an open clearing alit with the first light of dawn. "They're…unrefined. As I mentioned yesterday your team is very wasteful. In some ways it works – as I said, Kingdra are relatively effective against Metagross precisely because of that – but they could all use a bit of focus. If you got into a battle of attrition there's no way your team would be able to sustain themselves for long."

Ash snorted and shook his head. He doubted Infernus would agree with that. Infernus was a stamina monster. Even as a Magmar he could take hits and rise up again and again long after he should have collapsed. As a Magmortar he held seemingly endless energy – it didn't hurt that the more fire he used the stronger his body got as the environment shifted into his favor.

"Who are the rest of my friends paired up with?" Ash asked after a long silence. He didn't feel quite as naked without his team anymore but he still felt an itch at being apart from them. The Feather searing into his chest like a livewire didn't help.

His teacher didn't answer for a moment, deep in thought. "Hmm…let's see, Nidoking and Aron are with Aggron, obviously. Hypno, Electabuzz, Magmortar, and Kingdra are with Claydol. Tangrowth is with Cradily. Pidgeot and Zubat are with Skarmory, and Sneasel and Machoke are with Armaldo."

Ash held a moment of silence for Claydol. He liked the odd pokemon so far and he'd have to apologize to it later for having to deal with Infernus…and not just Infernus, but an Infernus who had suffered a one-sided defeat the day before and was certain to be in a foul mood.

"When will I get to see them?" Ash couldn't hold back the growl that erupted from deep within his throat. It wasn't right for them to be apart.

"Soon," Steven reassured him quickly. He sent a wary glance at Ash. "Don't worry, this won't be a regular occurrence. I just wanted to see how they'd handle being away from you…trust me, I don't want to have to go through the hassle of separating them from you again."

He smirked at that. Ash wished he could've seen Steven trying to get Nidoking or Dazed away from him…they tended to act as his shadow. Nidoking especially was adamant about never leaving Ash unguarded, though he reluctantly accepted Dazed as a suitable substitute when he had to sleep.

"If I might ask, what on earth made Nidoking so protective? Even Aggron never defended me so fiercely," Steven asked quietly. He didn't look at Ash, instead opting to stare straight ahead as Metagross slowly meandered through the clearing. Ash followed, though he almost froze at the question.

The spot in his chest where Mew had pierced his heart with a beam of psychic energy burned hot and he grimaced. He hadn't told many people that he'd actually died in the battle with Mewtwo. Only Agatha really knew…the rest wouldn't handle it well.

Just the thought of telling his mother what happened…

Ash shook himself back from those dark thoughts. "New Island."

Steven's slate eyes widened in understanding and he nodded sharply. "Ah. That's reasonable, then."

There was a long, uncomfortable silence after that as they walked through the training grounds. Ash distracted himself by marveling at the huge variety of damage that had been done to the land. It was irreparably scarred by impossibly powerful attacks, though it didn't deter local wildlife from setting up in some of the spots.

"Let's return to the camp. Normally I'd have you undergoing physical training, but for your first day I'd rather test your knowledge instead," Steven smiled lightly. "Naturally I can't expect Lance to have taught you too much but who knows? Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised."

Ash felt a dangerous grin come across his face at the challenge.

Steven certainly knew how to motivate him.

XX

"I'd have Infernus use Fire Blast," Ash declared, his mind sluggish. They'd been doing this for hours and he'd watched the sun rise high into the sky and come down again. They had breaks every forty-five minutes or so – Steven had said pushing Ash for any longer would just be a waste – but then they'd immediately go back to work.

"Why?" Steven asked, watching him impassively. There was no sign of approval nor disappointment in his cool features. Ash didn't know how he did it – the moment they were back he'd slipped into this cold, calm state that left Ash feeling as though he were constantly walking down a very narrow, unsteady bridge whenever he tried to answer the question.

Ash frowned. "At the distance you described there's no way it could miss. It's slow but there's no way a Slaking could dodge, especially after using Hyper Beam like you described. Plus it would help keep Slaking overheated and give Infernus more time to work before it was able to retaliate."

Steven finally nodded as Ash finished his assessment of a mock battle. The older man had run through dozens at this point, forcing Ash to consider every move and its outcome. Despite that it always seemed like the older man was able to pick out some flaw in everything Ash did, though as he came to learn Steven's expectations it became much more manageable.

He rubbed his aching temples. This much mental focus was difficult. The blasted Hoenn heat and humidity didn't help, though he didn't notice it nearly as much anymore. After the long weeks training before he met Steven he'd managed to adjust to it a little bit.

"I think that will be all for the day," Steven said after a moment. His lips quirked up into a smile and he shifted a bit from where he sat on Metagross. Ash idly wondered how he could still feel comfortable up there after spending almost all day on the titan. They didn't look like a nice seat. "You pleasantly surprised me, Ash. There's always room for improvement but you've gotten the hang of thinking things through."

Ash nodded tiredly. "Will we do this everyday?"

"Of course!" Steven chirped. Ash grimaced and the man finally laughed. "Oh, don't give me that look! I promise it won't be so grueling. We covered a lot of the basic stuff – like how much you knew about the physical effects of techniques on a variety of different pokemon – and it's clear you know the Pokedex inside and out. We'll stick to the mock battles and a few other hypotheticals from now on, I promise."

He let out a sigh of relief. The quizzes hadn't been terrible but Steven had quickly made the questions harder and harder until he had to think for at least one or two minutes before answering.

At this point it felt like no stone had been left unturned. Steven had tested his knowledge of pokemon care, their abilities, their physiology, what habitats they lived in, what techniques were favored by what families, and several other categories that made his brain hurt just thinking about them.

That had been in the first two hours. Ash absentmindedly took a swig of water, glad that Steven ensured he always had plenty. If he hadn't stayed hydrated his mouth and tongue would feel drier than a desert with all the talking he'd done.

He went ahead and rubbed his jaw a bit too, wincing at the stiffness. Ash had probably talked more today than he had since coming to Hoenn. Considering Daisy had enjoyed poking and prodding him for conversation whenever she could that was honestly impressive.

"Take a rest until your team returns," Steven said sympathetically. His face had slackened from the hard lines it had held during training into the somewhat softer visage of the man Ash knew. "I know this schedule is demanding but I promise it will pay off. By the time we leave her in a few weeks you'll notice the difference."

Ash nodded gratefully and relaxed. He quickly pulled out his PokeNav and checked his messages. It felt like it had been a while since he'd been in contact with his mother and everyone else. Besides, it was too dark right now to read Cynthia's book. He'd have to wait until Infernus or Dazed got back to make a light.

XX

Ashy,

I hope your first day is going great! I know you might be too busy to read this but just know I'm thinking about you!

Goldenrod's fantastic. Classes have finally started and it's amazing! I'd forgotten just how exciting it is to go and hear from real experts on the field…though none of them are quite as good as Professor Oak!

But even aside from classes there's so much to do. Movies, shows, just exploring the city…I love it here. I know you like your woods and mountains but you should come by sometime if you're able! I've love to see you again…it's not quite the same sending messages.

Your Uncle Spencer's been a wonderful help showing me around when he's not off researching the Unown. It's really fascinating stuff though and I can't fault him for spending so much time on them, especially now that I'm able to help with Molly! Those Unown really live up to their name!

I know I've said it before but you'd really love Molly. She's a sweet little girl and smart too! She's so young and I'm already able to start teaching her to read! It's really easy when I use the Unown carvings Spencer keeps everywhere…she's seen them all her life and she picks up on it so quickly!

That's enough about me – I know I'm not that exciting! How are things with you, Mr. Elite Four Ketchum? I know you're with Mr. Stone now but how is he? I'm sure he'll be a great teacher and if he isn't just let me know and I'll see what I can do!

I hope everyone's doing alright! I know you said Sneasel is being nicer which is wonderful. Isn't it great watching your baby grow up? But it does sound like Bruiser's been good for him! I have to admit I miss the big guy and cute little Seeker too…they were such a joy to have around the house!

I'll cut this a bit short. I know you have a lot more important things to do than talk to your mom! Try not to push yourself too hard and say hello to everyone for me! I love you!

Love,

Mom.

XX

Guess who just got his fourth badge in Johto? This guy! I beat Jasmine with just Charizard. I actually felt kinda bad for beating her so bad but who cares? I'm awesome! Amelia had way more trouble than me. I thought she was gonna lose.

Amelia here, that's because I don't have a stupidly powerful Blaze ability that makes pretty much any steel-type useless against you. And Jonathan almost lost Charizard to her Steelix so I don't think he has room to talk. Plus we met Gary.

And it's Jonathan again. That fight was crap. I swear the jerk was tracking us or something! There's no way he would have just conveniently been waiting at the end of that route after we kicked the crap out of a ton of trainers. I caught a Houndour by the way. She's badass.

He's trying to change the subject. He's just mad he lost.

I don't think it counts as losing when my team was halfdead alredy from fighting so much that was complete crap and next time I fsiht Gary Im gonna beat the crap out of him like he beat the crap out of my team

He gets passionate.

It's not passion I'm pissed off because Gary was somehow waiting for us and still got all cocky about beating me when Charizard was barely conscious and the rest of my team was tired and Ash if I don't beat him I demand you stomp him with that super strong Magmortar.

Ash smiled at that. He of all people knew that Gary could show up at the worst of times. Plus he really wasn't opposed to getting in another battle with his former rival…

Anyways, that's all that's been going on with us. I'm guessing you're on some top secret mission for the League or something? I know you said you were training until you met Steven again. Say hi to him for us by the way! We didn't really get to see him since Mt. Moon.

Yeah! Steven's the coolest. Also ask him if he could take me as his apprentice because I can't find a Master to save my life. Why'd you have to go to Hoenn Ash? If you were with us we'd probably run into a Master like every other day. You seem to know half of them anyways.

Alright well we'll cut this short! I bet you're super busy. Good luck!

What she said. How's that Aron you caught coming along? Aggron are super cool and I can't wait to have Charizard beat it up!

Jonathan and Amelia

XX

Ash,

How's my favorite trainee doing? Steven told me you performed well in his trial yesterday. The fact that you pushed Metagross so far is seriously impressive. It's not easy for me to admit, but last time we fought Metagross got the better of me. It took Mael using Draco Meteor to finally finish the blasted thing off. After that the rest of his team fell like Ledyba. He still beat me but just know he's not unbeatable. I'd like to think I'd prove the stronger after all this time.

Steven's not quite as focused on growth through combat like me. That's not his prerogative. That doesn't mean he won't have you challenge him. And because of that I'd like to give you some advice now that Steven's had his fun:

DO NOT fight on Steven's terms. His whole team is designed to counter trainers like us, Metagross being the prime example of that. You and I hit hard and fast. We tend to overpower our foes through elemental force and attrition. Not many can keep fighting long when they're dodging or nullifying everything our teams throw at them.

Steven and his Metagross are one of those. Attacks just wash off its shields. It can track and shut down fliers with ease. It conserves as much energy as possible with those tiny shields. You will never win just through tiring it out…not without sacrificing your entire team.

Trying to beat Metagross – or any of his team, really – with raw power just won't work. It's like trying to break a steel ball with a hammer. It'll crack eventually but it's just not worth the effort.

No, he's learned to counter us well. I suppose you have my time in Hoenn to thank for that. Drake always loved seeing me get frustrated trying to pound Steven's team into dust…it's really been too long since I paid the cranky old coot a visit.

Their weakness isn't a physical thing. I daresay Steven's nullified those entirely. He's a master of techniques and has pushed his team past limits most would never even realize.

Steven's weakness is that he's just as cold and rigid in battle as the steel he's mastered. He isn't as flexible as we are. Our mutual friend is clever enough to get by but he relies on preparation, planning, and the encyclopedia he's shoveled into his skull.

From what I've seen exploiting that psychic link he has with Metagross only deepens that weakness. Sure, he gets a bit more time to think and has a great awareness of the battlefield, but it also limits his creativity. A psychic link goes both ways, though he likes to pretend it doesn't.

Now my advice…I'm tempted to let you figure everything out on your own. I know you're smart and clever enough to have worked it out all ready. But with how Steven can be I figure I'll be nice.

Topple that house of cards he's built. Just because they're cards made out of metal and stabilized by Metagross' psychic powers doesn't mean anything! Catch him off guard, disrupt his plans, and take a picture of his face when his prized Metagross falls flat.

I'm serious about that by the way. I still owe Steven for that little prank with the capes…

I think that's about it. I just wanted to check in with my favorite trainee. Steven's a harsh taskmaster but he does care about you and will do a great job of guiding you along your path. You'll find him to be a good friend.

I'll be in contact for the remainder of your time in Hoenn and look forward to hearing back from you. I would send you more information on your responsibilities and the tasks you'll face in Hoenn but I'm allowing Steven to take over for the moment. He loves that stuff.

Good luck,

Lance

P.S. Bruno wanted to congratulate you on the progress of Bruiser and his Rampage. Steven himself told me of its effectiveness against Metagross. Despite what it looked like Metagross was pushed hard in your battle.

Keep up the good work.

Ash smiled when he finished the letter. Lance always was good at lifting his spirits up. Giving him a veteran's insight into Steven's mindset was quite the treat but to be honest he just found it to be a relief that his family had pushed Metagross. After seeing it seemingly shrug off everything he'd been worried of just how far the gap was.

This…this made it manageable.

So he smiled and relaxed. That was the last of the messages left for him. As he typed his response he couldn't help but allow his mind begin to weave strategies based around facing down and neutralizing Metagross.

It might be a good while away, but it was attainable. And he would win.

XX

"You're back!" He cheered as his team arrived into their camp. Steven didn't look up from his own PokeNav, though he smiled at Ash's exuberance. Ash couldn't find it in himself to care and cast his own PokeNav aside as he rushed over to his team.

Steven's team passed by without a care in the world. Most looked rather satisfied with themselves.

"How was it?" Ash asked, noting that Steven and his team were already headed away to give them some privacy. He went ahead and guided them over to the rather Spartan camp. Aside from his bedroll and the food he'd prepared for his friends there was nothing to differentiate it from the surrounding environment.

Nidoking just grunted softly and paused to lightly bump Ash with his armored shoulder before he curled up at the trainer's feet and closed both eyes. Ash blinked and cocked his head. None of his team had any obvious injuries.

Do not fret, Friend-Trainer. We are merely exhausted. Though we did not battle our exercises were…demanding.

Ash nodded in sympathy as he glanced around and saw just how tired his team was. Even Infernus, bountiful fountain of limitless energy he was, sagged slightly. That didn't stop him from flashing Ash a savage grin and flaring up a bit, of course. He just grinned back and dipped his head in acknowledgment…if even Infernus had lost all spirit he'd really be worried.

"Control?" He asked. His team nodded back. Ash shook his head ruefully. With Steven it was no surprise. No doubt the former Champion wanted to maximize their productivity over the next few weeks.

As well as rigorous mental exercises – no doubt the Brute was beside himself in disappointment. I doubt he's ever considered using his mind.

Ash rolled his eyes and snorted at Dazed's barb. He supposed she'd never be too tired to take a shot at Infernus. She quickly sobered up.

Mentor was adamant that we possess a plan for every eventuality. It was an interesting day, albeit a difficult one. I was impressed with Mentor's ability to maintain simultaneous telepathic contact with each of us.

"All four of you, huh?" Ash muttered and eyed Dazed, Infernus, Oz, and Torrent. Claydol must have pushed them hard. He couldn't help but smile at Torrent when the Kingdra straightened under his gaze, refusing to show any sign of weakness. "Good job, everyone! I know it's been hard but you'll be seeing the results in no time."

There wasn't too much response to that, although Tangrowth gurgled happily – in fact, he seemed to be in the best shape of them all – and held Aron up so the little steel-type could hear better. Ash grinned at Aron, whose sky-blue eyes had started to droop from fatigue. Their newest friend just wasn't accustomed to this sort of intense training.

Though he had to admit that the rest weren't doing too much better. There was a huge difference between physical exhaustion and the headache inducing mental fatigue that built up from the sort of training Steven was instilling in them. That wasn't to say they'd escaped physical exhaustion – he could easily see the weariness that engulfed their bodies from the long hours of control exercises.

They needed rest. Ash doubted tomorrow would be any easier and it was already dark. He'd like to be awake before Steven came by. They'd most likely be up at around the same time, or maybe earlier if Steven was disappointed by their progress.

It was only eight at night but he didn't care. It was a long day for all of them and he'd rather have too much rest than too little.

"Get to bed!" He ordered, not unkindly. His friends were all too eager to oblige. Bruiser had already collapsed and Seeker was happy to stay perched on top of him, wings held tightly to her body. She looked like she didn't even want to flutter over to say hello at the moment. "Torrent, Infernus…come with me. I want to talk to you for a minute."

The targeted pokemon nodded, though Infernus couldn't help but snort a bit of fire. Ash frowned as he turned to Dazed, silently giving her permission to put the rest under. It was just unfortunate that Sneasel wouldn't be able to take advantage, though Ash knew he'd never had any trouble sleeping. Half the time it was all the little dark-type wanted.

He stepped off into the forest. Infernus and Torrent followed, the latter careful to extinguish any cinders left behind by the Magmortar.

Ash crossed his arms. "How are you two feeling?"

Torrent dipped his head in what Ash knew to be his equivalent of a shrug. Ash sent him a smile. "Good. How about you, Infernus?"

The Magmortar growled, heat radiating off of him in steady waves as his anger flashed. It was clear he didn't appreciate the reminder of his one-sided bout. Ash grimaced as he felt the Feather flare in tune with Infenrus' fury…his awareness only grew as the fallen leaves around them crackled and twisted as the hints of fire licked at their shells.

"Enough," Ash whispered and it was over. Infernus lowered his head. He eyed the Magmortar measuredly. "I know it's frustrating but we will beat Metagross. We just weren't ready for it. We've never fought a truly defensive fighter like that before. But now we know what to expect."

Both of his friends nodded in sync with one another. Ash looked from one to the other. "I brought you two out here because you're going to be key to that. Torrent, you're going to be the only one who can really damage Metagross for the near future. Bruiser can as well but he has his own issues to work through. I'll talk with you later about what to start working on but I wanted to give you a heads up."

Torrent nodded. He bowed to Ash one last time before he followed the unspoken dismissal. Ash watched his massive form silently levitate through the light limbs and branches of the sparse forest before he turned to Infernus, who glowed even with his great power restrained.

"You're angry."

Infernus' nostrils flared but he didn't do anything. Ash smiled. "Good."

He took a step closer. Ash had to fight to ignore the heat that poured from Infernus' body. "I've already told every one of you that I'm proud. Each of you fought as hard as you could against an overwhelming opponent." His lips quirked up as Infernus growled softly. "But I know you – that's not enough. You didn't have a chance, did you?"

The Magmortar really did snarl at that, though not at Ash. No matter how furious he was he would never do that. Ash knew that as certain as he did that Infernus had surrendered godhood at Ash's request.

"Metagross is immune to fire," Ash stated. He almost laughed at the roar that rose up in Infernus' throat before the Magmortar thought better of it. To Infernus, who had been as one with Fire, that was almost a personal offense. "They can take the air out of an area, cut off the oxygen supply so any fire will just sputter and die."

Infernus' mouth twisted up into a sneer. Despite himself Ash could easily see the glow emanating from his friend shine ever brighter and the heat grew even more intense…if this kept up Ash would have to back off.

He was only human.

Ash met Infernus' directionless glare and grinned savagely. "But Metagross isn't immune to heat. They might not burn, but they will melt."

Infernus smiled back.

XX

"How are you feeling?" Steven chortled as they came to a stop. The man had discarded his standard suit for once, opting for a grey tank top and black running shorts instead. He kept laughing as he clapped Ash on the back. "Stand up. If you stay hunched over you won't breathe as well."

Ash nodded but couldn't help the slight bend in his shoulders as he wheezed in a desperate attempt to get rid of the fire in his chest. Sweat covered him with a slight sheen and he was certain he'd need to have Torrent help him get in a shower tonight. That wasn't even close to a priority right now though – he was a bit more concerned with the heavy lead that had made its home in his limbs.

"Three miles!" Steven grinned. He was breathing normally, used to hard exercise in the hot and humid air. "We'll make an athlete out of you yet. You did alright, though we'll have to work on that time. Thirty minutes won't cut it."

He didn't respond as he collapsed against a blissfully cool tree trunk and closed his eyes as a faint feeling of nausea swept over him. His body was rebelling as best it could against the unexpected exertion. This wasn't quite what he'd expected during their slot devoted to physical training…he understood that he would need to be in good shape for field work but he hadn't realized just how unforgiving Steven would be.

Lance had him work with his pokemon when they climbed Mt. Ember but he felt that the Indigo Champion did that more for his own amusement than anything. Sure it helped with their bond and was an interesting exercise but it wasn't strictly necessary. He'd just been trying to get Ash involved.

Steven was getting him into shape. Ash wasn't unhealthy by any means. But building up endurance for long days of walking wasn't quite the same as running several miles, let alone in this unfamiliar climate. All he could be grateful for was that it was still fairly early in the morning – they'd started just after dawn broke and most of the team had been sent to work with Steven's pokemon – and that it wouldn't reach the miserable temperatures he'd see in midday.

"Just be glad Lance wasn't able to give you standard Elite Four physical training," his teacher smiled as he watched the exhausted boy. "I know he had you climbing on Mt. Ember but when it comes to fitness he's brutal. He's the one that got the National League to raise the fitness requirements for relevant Elite Four and Gym Leaders."

Ash just barely nodded. He wasn't much interested in talking at the moment, though he exhaled in relief when Sneasel, the only one of his friends to join him on the run, blew a small gust of icy air onto him. His sweat felt like it froze over and it might've been the most wonderful feeling in the world.

"Drink up!" Steven tossed him a bottle of water. Ash quickly snatched it out of the air before Sneasel could do anything with it. He'd seen the way his friend's eyes longingly tracked the bottle…Sneasel always had enjoyed freezing the water inside the bottle and watching it explode. "You'll want to stay hydrated. Hoenn's humidity isn't doing you any favors. Just wait until we do this in full gear!"

He just grunted and uncapped the bottled water before he lowered it down to Sneasel, who greedily drank it up. The dark-type was in perfectly good shape but Ash knew he'd have a much more demanding day. This was just a warm-up – Sneasel had loped alongside him with ridiculous ease. He was pretty sure Sneasel was laughing at him.

Sneasel was kind enough to leave the water ice-cold once he'd had his fill and eagerly clambered up onto Ash's shoulder, hissing a bit as he almost slid off from all the sweat. Ash just laughed and scratched his friend as he took a few swigs of water. No need to rush.

"Sneasel is in excellent condition," Steven noted with interest. He was wise enough to stay away from Sneasel, however. No matter how interested the former Champion was he knew just how quickly a Sneasel's ire could be raised. "You must train him extensively. I've met Weavile with less stamina."

Ash couldn't help the laugh that burst from his throat at that one. He didn't even care that Sneasel hissed and clenched down on his shoulder more tightly or that his throat seared with the noise. "Let's just say I've found a good way to motivate him."

Steven eyed him curiously but didn't press. Apparently he wasn't sure it was something he wanted to know.

"It's just a fun game we play," Ash snickered, though he was sure to rub Sneasel's ears affectionately to appease his friend. Steven nodded slowly.

"I can't say my team's ever been much for games," The silver-haired man confessed. Ash saw his eyes flit upwards. "And I'm certain they'd end up being a bit too…competitive."

Ash shrugged. "It's all about finding the right one."

Steven smirked. "Perhaps." He stroked his chin. "You know, I'm feeling a bit competitive myself. What do you think about making a bet?"

"What bet?" Ash eyed the man warily. He knew Steven enough to know this would be interesting.

"We're going back. I'll give you a five minute head start on the journey back to the camps," Steven started. "If you win I'll have Claydol teach Hypno a rather powerful technique of mine a few months early. If I win…well, we'll try and work a few more miles in. It's been a while since I've gotten to stretch my legs."

Ash frowned. On one hand he seriously doubted his ability to beat Steven in any sort of race. He didn't have that much endurance or speed and Steven seemed to be deceptively athletic underneath that suit of his. He lacked the sheer mass and bulk of Lance but he had a sort of wiry strength to him.

On the other he'd be doing a disservice to Dazed if he didn't at least try. It would only be him being punished if he failed.

He eyed Sneasel. Besides, Steven didn't outline any other rules. His friend might just be able to leave some obstacles to slow the man up a bit. It just might equalize this.

"Let's do it."

XX

Ash ignored the fire in his lungs and weight in his limbs as he ran back to the campsite. He needed to hurry back lest Steven overcome him through sheer physical superiority.

Sneasel dashed alongside him, turning to fake a yawn at Ash every few seconds. Ash just snorted and shook his head – sweat flicked to the side and he grimaced at the raw feeling in his throat. That wasn't something he'd expected when he'd started this race.

He couldn't even spite Sneasel for making fun of him. Not after he'd put his friend through much worse for the sake of training. Besides, Sneasel had considerately frozen essentially half the forest behind them to slow Steven's progress.

If he didn't feel absolutely terrible he would've grinned as Steven's small campsite came into view…only to stop and stare as he saw Steven casually sitting on his bedroll sipping water and tossing scraps of meat to Skarmory. The great steel bird eyed Ash and seemed distinctly satisfied even before it snapped another thrown snack out of the air.

"Ah, Ash!" Steven smiled softly as he looked over at the approaching pair. "I've been expecting you. Take a rest…you'll need it before we continue."

Ash's eye twitched. He didn't bother asking how Steven had arrived. His bearer stood before him, clad in armor of shining steel and armed with razor-sharp talons and a beak that could pierce and pry open stone with little effort.

"Good, I don't need to explain," The older man laughed as he rose in a single, smooth motion. Metagross appeared from behind him near silently, hidden by the foliage. Ash scowled as he walked over and sat on a tree trunk that had been felled by one of Steven's teammates. His black-furred companion quickly clambered up into his lap. "I'll admit you were clever using Sneasel…I'd hoped you wouldn't forget his skills. You're resourceful, though I'd advise you to be a bit more observant next time."

"You don't have to worry about that," Ash muttered. He couldn't exactly be angry at Steven for flying back on Skarmory but he was still a bit irritated. That he'd be wasting time running until Steven got bored rather than doing something productive like training either himself or his team. "I've learned my lesson."

Steven nodded, serious once more. "In that case stay down. We'll run when we check on your team but if you've learned your lesson there will be no need. Just stay observant. Things are rarely as they first appear."

Ash snorted. He knew that better than anyone. Since becoming a trainer he'd seen entire sides of the world he'd never have imagined. The Legends weren't what he'd expected when he first stepped out of Pallet.

Despite that he nodded along to humor Steven. It was a valuable lesson, regardless of how annoying he found it. He'd do well to focus what wisdom he'd gained onto mundane matters as well as those of Legendary proportions…he supposed it was just a bit hard for him to take these issues as seriously after watching the devastation of a single Bird.

Steven rolled his shoulders as he glanced at Ash. "My point is made. I won't keep up these little tests for much longer. I'm just trying to breed good habits – if you run in without thinking you might get yourself and your team killed. I've seen too many people hurt from simple lack of forethought to risk you and your team." He grimaced, as though remembering a memory best forgotten. "Just keep it in mind for when we start running through mock battles and other scenarios. I know this sort of twist is annoying, but the experience will serve you well in the future."

"Thanks," Ash dipped his head. He idly traced small designs in the dirt. A few miniature versions of his team packed together. A double helix. "I know it's valuable." He considered the silver-haired man for a moment. "So who taught you all of this? I doubt you just figured it all out on the road."

"You're not wrong," the older trainer drummed his fingers across his thigh. He didn't look at Ash, opting instead to stare off into the forest. Metagross' massive bulk cast him in shadow, though the glowing red eyes distracted Ash somewhat. "Let's see…it should be said that I spent a fair amount of time with the Elite Four from a relatively early point as a trainer. After I placed in my first Conference I received an invitation to Lavaridge to train under Fino Moore."

Ash frowned…that name sounded familiar. He knew that was a member of the old Elite Four here. But if he was right then that definitely wasn't a Steel Master. Fino Moore was the complete opposite, in fact.

When he voiced those thoughts Steven graced him with a laughing grin. "Ah yes, I wasn't sure if you'd recognize the name. He's retired from public life nowadays, though I try to keep in touch. How much do you know?"

"He's a Fire Master formerly of the Elite Four," Ash recited from one of the League archives. "He was one of the first of the Ever Grande Elite Four and his cornerstone was a Typhlosion," he finished, struggling to remember any more. The man had been a footnote mostly. It didn't seem like he'd done much of anything notable other than that.

"That's plenty," Steven shook his head. "He was retired from the Elite Four by that point but he was still well-respected as the Lavaridge Gym Leader. Fino took me under his wing and taught me much of what I know. I'll admit it was probably the hardest thing I've ever done – training under a Fire Master pushed me to my brink at times."

Ash nodded along, grateful that he wasn't a specialist. They might make it to the rank of Master more frequently but he couldn't imagine how frustrating it would be to be faced with your natural weakness every time you sparred. Steven was annoying to face since he could shut down almost everything but at least when he beat Ash's friends down it wasn't through mere type advantage.

He eyed Steven as a thought suddenly popped into his mind. "You developed your Vacuum technique there, right?"

Steven grinned, obviously pleased. "Indeed. It was just about the only way to equalize things between us…relatively, of course. Fino was my greatest challenge for years – I can honestly say I was prouder when I defeated him for the first time than when I claimed the Champion's Mantle."

Ash couldn't help but nod along absentmindedly. He knew for a fact he'd relish the defeat of his own Master.

The former Champion smiled at Ash – a real smile, not just a satisfied or wry or confident twist of his lips. "I think he'd like you. We'll have to swing by sometime."

His eyes lit up. "Think he'd be willing to battle? Infernus would love that!"

His mentor chuckled and rose in a single smooth motion. "Always so eager for a fight. He might just humor that – Fino's a gentle man at heart, but his team's always enjoyed a good spar. You have a long way to go before you match him, though."

Ash matched Steven's motion. "I could say the same with you," he rolled his eyes and took a moment to adjust his cap, "but that won't stop me. How can we get better if we don't try?"

"A good attitude," was his response. Steven smiled brightly and gracefully climbed Metagross to adopt his normal seat. Ash couldn't help his grimace – he had the nasty idea that he knew where this was going. "Let's put it to work, shall we?"

And with that simple sentence a very long, very painful day began again.

XX

He eyed the brush warily as he heard a great thunderous roar that sounded all too familiar. The acrid scent of hot, oily smoke graced his nose and he grimaced. Ash rose to his feet in an instant, worried about whatever on earth had frustrated Infernus this badly.

Normally he'd be a bit more relaxed. Ash trusted his friend just as much as any other member of the team, if not more so. But the fact was that Infernus was still being a sore loser over his loss to Metagross – though he couldn't complain considering how relentlessly he was training – and not exactly enjoying the tame nature of Steven's training. Even after nearly a week they hadn't progressed beyond very light spars. Lance's training was a lot more appealing to Infernus.

He placed a palm against Torrent's smooth chest as the Kingdra's snout pointed fiercely in the direction of the noise. "Relax," Ash shook his head. "How about we see what's going on first?"

Torrent reluctantly back down and his chest relaxed a bit. That didn't keep him from keeping dangerous scarlet eyes narrowed. Ash just shook his head. Torrent had been so relaxed earlier too. He'd been released from training for the day in order to spend some time with Ash.

Ash just crossed his arms and look levelly into the woods. He cocked his head. There was plenty of smoke but very little heat. More surprising, there wasn't any fire. And when Infernus was angry…

Well, he should probably try and see if Steven would consider training somewhere other than a forest at some point. Infernus was strong enough to be a walking fire hazard already. The randomly charred and ashen clusters of trees dotting the training ground were a testament to that.

His patience was finally rewarded when a giant, gray clump of something he couldn't quite make out burst from the foliage in a rage, tearing apart trees like they were toothpicks and roaring something that got Torrent's attention.

Finally the dust and splintered wood cleared.

He blinked and heard a deep, unfamiliar rumble from beside him he was pretty sure was Torrent laughing.

Infernus glared at the Kingdra, quite literally steaming mad. Sneasel popped up behind the Magmortar snickering madly, though he seemed to enjoy perching himself on Infernus' massive shoulder. It wasn't often he could even bear to be around the fire-type. Thick fur and heat weren't a good combination.

Ash couldn't really find it in himself to say anything.

He'd never seen his friend so…damp. The normal fires that flickered and jump with Infernus' every twitch had died, reduced to little more than tiny wisps of smoke that fought fiercely to escape past the water on his skin. He wasn't quite small, but without his fires he lost some of the normal height and bulk he claimed otherwise. He was still an absolutely massive pokemon but Ash thought it almost sad seeing him so, well, pathetic.

Mud clung to Infernus' upper body, stifling any chance of Infernus getting out of this easily. It was smeared all over him, mostly clumped up on his shoulders, chest, and back spikes as well as his head. That looked to have been thrown off for the most part, though, and his head and shoulder flames had essentially baked the mud onto him. The spots where it had been slung off in Infernus' frantic charge was steaming.

Infernus was quite literally dripping and nothing he could do seemed to change it…he wavered slightly, as though drunk, and blinked slowly before he toppled forward. Sneasel hissed and yowled as he barely clung on and spitefully dug his claws in deep to the tough hide.

"Infernus!" He rushed forward with a cry and stabilized the huge warrior. Infernus growled something, though it didn't even sound angry. The Magmortar shook his head sleepily and leaned onto Ash…unfortunately he was still much, much hotter than Ash's body could handle easily and the boy hissed as his hands were seared. "What happened?"

The Brute lost his patience and thought it a good idea to attack Mentor rather than complete the assigned exercise.

A voice like velvet whispered into his mind, amused.

Ash turned to face Dazed as she made her appearance, ignoring the burning in his hands even while the Hypno shielded him from Infernus' heat. He didn't even respond, too worried about Infernus' state. He hadn't seen him this exhausted since –

He grit his teeth to avoid going back to those thoughts. He needed Infernus to return to him.

Fire awoke in him and he felt the Feather melt deep into his chest as he felt his veins burn white-hot. He hissed in agony – he wanted to scream – but it was gone as soon as it had begun.

Infernus' eyes snapped wide open and he stood away from Ash, eying the burns on Ash's hands with something hard to place with the sudden glow of his friend's fire-patterned skin. The Magmortar grumbled a bit and stood straight, revitalized despite the water and mud still clinging to his suddenly revitalized form.

He wasn't sure what had just happened but he felt the Feather retreat, its job done.

Dazed, joined by Oz, said nothing.

"Sit!" Ash ordered Infernus as the fire-type seemed to remember whatever had done this to him. He'd been a few seconds away from taking off, ignoring that even with the Feather's help he'd be worn down by his low temperature in a minute or two.

Infernus obeyed without question.

"Alright, what happened?" Ash folded his arms and looked down on his friend. Infernus grumbled something and he was pretty sure he heard Sneasel snickering from wherever he'd scurried off to. He could downright feel Torrent's deep rumble from his side, so close they were almost touching. The noise practically vibrated his bones.

The Magmortar just scowled and renewed his efforts to reignite his fires to their true strength. Ash could tell Infernus didn't enjoy feeling like that any more than Ash did.

"Dazed?" He knew he wouldn't get anything out of Infernus. Aside from acting like a sullen child he figured he'd need Dazed's help to get any more than a very basic understanding.

Dazed's eyes were turned up. Ash looked at her oddly – she was actually beaming. He'd grown used to the quick eye-smiles she liked to give whenever he did something right in her eyes, but this was something else. She wasn't just happy – she was just as amused as Torrent.

I wish I could project memories.

Ash scoffed. "I do too. We can work on that later. How about you tell me what happened first."

His friend finally sobered up just enough to continue, though her pendulum still leapt to and fro oddly quick. Ash could spy little distortions in the air nearby, subtle reminders of the force just waiting to be channeled.

He shook it off and turned.

Mentor did not appreciate the Brute's continued disruptions. Mentor is patient, but I believe the Brute was too blind to appreciate Mentor's ability. While he futilely attempted to burn Mentor with his flames, Mentor opted to quench them with a nearby pond.

The trainer cocked his head. "An entire pond?"

Yes.

There was more smug satisfaction in that word than Ash had imagined Dazed was capable of. He shrugged it off – he'd accepted Infernus and Dazed would never be particularly close.

Then he frowned. "How did Claydol levitate that much water at once? I could see Metagross doing it, but –"

Mentor didn't levitate it!

Ash blinked at the high-pitched projection. He couldn't even remember the last time she'd exercised anything less than perfect control over her svelte mental voice. Then what she said actually caught up with him.

"Explain, please."

Dazed polished her pendulum with trembling fingers, her eyes wide as she recalled the scene. Ash couldn't help but smile softly, ignoring his concern over Infernus for the time being.

The pond simply…appeared. As though teleported. The Brute was dry one moment and as you saw him earlier the next. I would not have thought it possible! Mentor's skill is phenomenal!

Ash nodded along, pondering the implications of that…he wasn't sure Dazed was capable of something on that scale yet, but the sheer potential was too dizzying to pass up. He'd honestly never even considered utilizing remote teleportation…generally teleportation was only used to transport the user. A person or thing could be carried alongside the user, of course, but it was immensely more difficult. He actually had a lot of respect for the Alakazam specially trained by the League for that purpose. His lip curled up in a slight sneer as he realized he even had to include Bob the Alakazam in that category.

He shrugged it off. Now wasn't the time. He was more interested in just how to help Dazed develop that ability – he could think of so many uses just off the top of his head it wasn't even funny.

He'd need to think on this.

"Wake me up an hour early tomorrow, please," Ash decided, grinning despite the lack of sleep he'd have to face. Dazed more than matched it with an upturn of her eyes. "I think we have some work to do. Let's keep Steven out of the loop for now…I'd like to see if we can replicate it without his help."

Of course, Friend-Trainer. I look forward to training with you. I have no doubt that we will discover the true potential of this ability for ourselves.

She was already back to normal. Ash shook his head with a quick laugh. It was nice seeing her slip a little but he had to admit it was a bit shocking. Still, he appreciated the short glimpse past her disciplined walls. "It'll be fun. Can you alert the others? I'd like to start getting a little more work in on top of what we have during the day."

Sneasel audibly whined at that and Ash's keen ears heard him scurry off into the woods. He snorted.

It will be done. I believe we must return to Mentor, Friend-Trainer. I would not like for our training to be disrupted for so long. Mentor merely desired that we ensure the Brute's well-being. Farewell.

"Bye, Dazed, Oz," he directed to the Electabuzz. She nodded to him and whirred back, flashing Infernus one last satisfied smirk before she followed Dazed back to their training grounds. "I'll see you both tonight!"

When they were gone he met Infernus' eyes. His friend watched back for a moment before looking away. Ash sighed. "If you try to fight Claydol, make sure you win next time alright? You'll be coming with Dazed and I when we start training tomorrow. Steven's not going to know what hit him!"

Infernus grinned back fiercely and nodded, though he winced as some of the damp mud fell from his face. Ash chuckled. He just couldn't take Infernus seriously like this. "Alright, sit still. I'm going to try and break some of that caked mud up."

The Magmortar was surprisingly obedient. Ash unsheathed his knife and looked over to Torrent, who was silently levitating behind him. As always the regal dragon looked back expectantly.

"I'm going to need you to cool us both down. He's too hot for me to touch," Ash explained. Torrent dipped his head and gently blew a billowing gust of icy air that sent shivers up Ash's spine – the sudden flash of Ice enveloping him didn't help. Infernus resolutely bore the chill in stoic silence, perhaps accepting it as a punishment. "Thanks, Torrent."

Ash shook his head as he dipped close and enjoyed being able to be this close to the Magmortar without having some part of him set on fire. Infernus was…well, Ash would never say he was harmless, but he wasn't an automatic death sentence like this. It was a nice change, though so foreign Ash wasn't sure he was comfortable with it happening more than once a year. Plus he really didn't want to see Infernus so powerless.

There was an oxymoron if he'd ever heard one.

With that he started to work on the mud. Infernus could have clawed it off himself but Ash figured he would give the fire-type even more time to cool off from the little incident with Claydol. It would take him some time to regain his strength but that might actually be a good thing knowing his friend's temper.

Shattering the shell apart would've been child's play for Dazed as well but he doubted that would have helped anything. Best to just let them ignore each other.

It was quick work. Infernus had heated the clay and mud to the point it was extremely brittle. He didn't even bother trying to pry it apart with a blade – Ash got to the point where he pretty much smashed it apart with his knife's handle. Soon enough Infernus was free – all he had to do was fire up and boil the water into steam.

"Go have fun," he waved his friend off. Infernus grinned and backed away a safe distance before he roared mightily and spat a gout of flame dozens of feet into the air, quickly matched by twin streams of fire from his cannons that let everything around them know Infernus was back. He grimaced as droplets of sweat dripped down his back in response to the sudden flare of heat.

In the next instant Infernus was gone with a crack and blinding flash of light, leaving Ash and Torrent in peace.

Ash shook his head. That was one of the stranger situations he'd needed to deal with. Still, it was entertaining nonetheless. Not to mention he had some new training ideas for Infernus and Dazed. He couldn't wait to get started, especially with the juicy nugget of potential Claydol had so carelessly shown.

Now that was unlikely. Ash snorted, amused. Knowing Steven he'd put his money on the idea that Claydol had done that on purpose. Steven always seemed to have everything planned – if he really wanted to keep a technique out of Ash's hands then Ash wouldn't even know it existed.

No, it was just better to assume that chance was pretty much nonexistent when Steven was involved. If there was one thing he'd learned this past week it was that Steven liked to be in control – variables weren't something he encouraged.

He returned to the small stump he'd been perched on before and relaxed a little. No need to be too stressed out while he reviewed the dossiers Steven had sent him. They were frustratingly vague, however. Magma and Aqua had managed to hide themselves quite well.

The League didn't even know what their leaders looked like, just their names – Maxie and Archie, respectively. Not quite what he'd expected from the leaders of paramilitary organizations. Actually, he could imagine boys named Archie and Maxie in his old class at Pallet.

Ash couldn't help but belt out a small laugh at that. He shouldn't take them lightly. He could probably beat them both in a battle, but that wasn't where their power was. There was something that made them respected by their men and capable of leading shady organizations and he would be sure never to forget that.

Still, it was frustrating. Magma was suspected of corporate espionage, fraud of all sorts, poaching, illegal mining operations, and a host of other crimes that just left him shaking his head. Ash knew the Hoenn League wasn't understaffed but this seemed like a big deal.

If Lance was here he would have led the Elite Four on the warpath, bringing all of his power to bear against these rising threats the moment he knew what they were. Ash wished he could see it – he'd never truly gotten to see his mentor in action. Lance was right at home on the battlefield, forcing his might upon his foes and shaping the world around him, but all Ash had ever seen was the one-sided battle against Mewtwo.

It left a gnawing hunger deep inside the pit of his stomach. If Ash ever wanted to beat Lance then he needed to know what the man was truly capable of. Training with a boy who needed most of his team just to face one of his weakest fighters didn't really showcase that.

Torrent butted his mighty head against Ash when he saw his expression sour. Ash laughed and patted his friend once he'd righted himself. "Everything's fine. I'm just not too happy about going against some of these people blind."

His friend rumbled agreement. Torrent was always a bit on the cautious side since he'd been a Kingdra. He was more than happy to fight but had developed the same ruling instincts after evolution as Nidoking had. The difference was that Torrent's process was quite a bit smoother…Nidoking wouldn't be as calm and level-headed as Torrent for a while yet.

Ash shook his head and went back to reading on his PokeNav. He held back a grin as he saw Torrent glance up at a lone Cascoon hiding up in a tree. The immobile pokemon glared back balefully and Torrent finally snorted, amused at the creature's insolence.

He frowned as he reread Aqua's information. At least they didn't seem to be suspected of crimes against pokemon like Team Magma. Overall they either hid their operations in the archipelago well or had other avenues. They were even more mysterious, if anything – Ash couldn't even fault the Ever Grande League for that. It must be nigh impossible to track Aqua in the archipelago they made their home in.

Plus it seemed like they'd actually made some contact with the League in the past. They didn't have real relations but they'd been known to deliver poachers to League outposts in the islands and known members had claimed several bounties on criminals hiding out in what was suspected to be their territory.

Of course, he didn't actually care about those two organizations that much. His knuckles whitened as he scrolled down to the last of the major criminal organizations the League was actually concerned about. An icy flush of hatred from the back of his mind joined his anger and he couldn't even find it in himself to force it down.

Torrent eyed him for a moment before he went back to sniping individual leaves across the clearing with tiny bursts of water.

Ash relaxed. He could tear the Rockets apart in the future. But first he needed to learn about them. These were Steven's personal notes he'd written on the situation. They weren't as formal as a real report but they were more than satisfactory.

Team Rocket

Operations: Origins in Kanto, significant presence in Johto and formerly the Sevii Islands. Made forays into Sinnoh but were quickly rebuffed by operatives under the direction of Elite Four Lucian. Cynthia took Lance's advice and authorized lethal force against them as soon as they were discovered.

Hoenn: Brief presence in Hoenn for several years. Team Rocket was based primarily in the archipelago. After growing in strength under their commander, they moved operations into the mainland and established several bases before they were discovered. I fixed it.

He would've grinned at the suddenly informal note if he hadn't known the story behind it.

Former Status: Eradicated, splinter cells swiftly absorbed into criminal underground or apprehended by the League.

Current Status: Regrouping. Several small bases established in archipelago as well at least one larger one we don't know the location of. Have tagged severable notable Rockets and have compiled sufficient data to engage when we are prepared.

Recent reports suggest a splintering in the Rockets that have fled to Hoenn. Not unexpected for a criminal or terrorist organization that has splintered. Viridian's Giovanni was lost as a leader. Power struggles were expected amongst the survivors.

Two primary factions have emerged. Currently unaware of motives of each, only that they are in conflict as we have observed several skirmishes between previously friendly groups. Pitched battles are rare. They know they cannot afford to operate in the open.

We are aware of the leader of one faction, the Rocket formerly known as Executive Archer (see notes, pg. 118 section b) which seems to operate more openly. Still avoids direct conflict but seems to be the stronger of the two based upon observations of skirmishes.

The other is currently unknown, though suspected to be an Elite Rocket known as Domino (see notes, pg. 119 section c) who was noted to be close to their former leader. Perhaps trying to gather a group based around the old ideals? Could be using relationship to Giovanni to inspire and rally.

Suspected sources of income for both seems to be assisting other sources of organized crime at the moment, lending their reputation to bolster smaller operations. Poaching is confirmed based upon the recovery of several petrified pokemon – J? – and several Rangers' accounts of running them off.

Note – several breeding facilities have been hit, suspected to be inside jobs. Seem to have kept strategies from Pierce.

Facilities compromised: Verdant Plains (Shroomish, Nincada, Oddish, Lotad), MINE (Geodude, Aron, Sandshrew, Rhyhorn).

Wattson's pet project was also raided. Rockets have a confirmed source of Magnemite and Voltorb on top of other pokemon, which could potentially have been auctioned off in addition to broken. Need to ramp up security at other sites in order to avoid future assaults, especially as they become desperate.

Ash tore his gaze away from the text, disgusted. Cold and hot fury intimately raged together. He hated Team Rocket. They hurt the helpless and had kidnapped potentially hundreds of pokemon away just to be their damn slaves.

He remembered his brief look at a Rocket lab and shuddered. Nothing else he'd seen in his adventure, no matter how great and terrible, could ever quite make his skin crawl like that had. So many pokemon rendered helpless and resigned to death and madness – even Infernus had been counted amongst them.

It very nearly made him sick. That his – no, he wouldn't call him father. Giovanni was not his father. The only thing that tied them together was genetics. Ash didn't have a father and he was perfectly fine with that. His mother was all he needed.

How sweet.

Ash didn't even pay the mocking words any notice. He just couldn't care less what Mewtwo had to say at the moment. A smile ghosted over his lips as he felt a stab of displeasure in the back of his mind but the world remained blissfully silent.

He shook his head and suddenly put his PokeNav away. Ash looked up to Torrent as yet another tree collapsed in the distance as its thin trunk was split in half by the bored Kingdra's water gun. Torrent graced him with a dip of his head before he turned back to his game.

"Let's take a break," Ash suggested. Torrent turned, scarlet eyes locked on the trainer. He couldn't fault the Kingdra for that – it was rare that Ash called for a break this early. "I can't focus," He said in way of explanation. "I think I remember seeing a pond not too far from here…"

Torrent's eyes lit up and Ash knew if he backed down now it would be like kicking a Skitty. A very large, armored, several hundred pound Skitty that could also destroy most of this forest in an afternoon.

He grinned and rose. Technically he was on break anyways. A few minutes at the pond wouldn't hurt – and even if it did he'd think it more than worth it just to see Torrent so carefree.

With that he headed off, brushing aside limbs and narrowly dodging a Slakoth covered in concealing moss that blinked up at him. Ash gave the creature a wave and a wide berth as Torrent floated up behind him. No point in provoking the Slakoth – they could be aggressive.

The journey went by quickly. Ash could say a lot of things about this forest – not all of them good, considering how hard it could be to run in – but it was peaceful. The native pokemon had finally returned after a few days, finally comfortable with the intruders on their land.

Sure it could be a bit inconvenient for all involved – Sneasel absolutely loved chasing Zigazagoon and Linoone, though he never pushed too far, and Aron had somehow made friends with a Shedinja during one of his breaks – but overall it breathed a bit of life back into the world and made Ash realize just how off it had felt when they'd first arrived.

Besides, how could he deny Torrent his very own fan club? He snickered to himself quietly from his seat against an oddly massive pale tree as Torrent basked in the attention of a dozen water-types – Marill and Azurill, a lone Masquerain, and even a tiny Horsea that looked like it might start worshipping his friend right there.

Plume could learn a thing or two about preening from him, Ash thought. He just shook his head and watched the scene with a smile.

He'd needed this.

XX

"Take a day off. There's no point tearing you down if you'll never have a chance to build back up."

That was what Steven had told him and Ash was determined to make the most of it with his friends. So he'd lead the group far, far away from Steven and the small, elite core of the Steel Master's team on their legs. For once he was just as tired and bruised as they were. Steven didn't skimp on any aspect of their physical training, though at least now Ash had finally adjusted.

And apparently Lance was a hundred times worse. Ash shuddered at the thought of getting the full Elite Four experience back in Indigo – Lance had graced Steven with his presence soon after the younger man had become Champion and worked him into the ground. Steven had reminisced plenty of times of days without sleep, forced marches, and eating the black broth that Lance practically shoveled down his throat during the initial phases.

More than that Steven wouldn't say. Apparently Lance had decided that the standard ACE training "wasn't demanding enough for a Champion of Steven's obvious caliber" and drafted up a new program just for him as long as he'd been Champion.

In contrast, a bit of running and working out in a muggy forest seemed downright humane in comparison.

Ash shrugged his thoughts away. He wasn't going to spend their break thinking about training. This was time for his team to make up for the scarce amount of time they'd gotten to spend together as of late. It was hard to talk much when they all collapsed the minute they returned to camp, though Ash tried to stay up a few minutes with a few of his friends every night.

Just because they were being exhausted didn't mean that was an excuse to let their bonds weaken. His team was his family and he'd face whatever he had to if it meant spending time with them.

He was distracted by a hard round head butting against his leg. Ash winced before he looked down and graced Aron with a smile. "What's up?"

The small steel-type looked at him with wide blue eyes and warbled lightly at him before pulling himself up on his rear legs and resting most of his substantial weight against Ash. He had to reach out for a tree to stay standing but thought it was more than worth it. "You want up?"

Aron nodded quickly, his big head shaking all over the place. His tongue lolled out the side of his mouth and he licked Ash's shorts cheerfully. Ash frowned and patted the steel dome of his friend's head as he considered it. He'd held Aron in his lap before but there was absolutely no way he would be able to pick him up. Not right now, at least.

Inspiration struck him. Before he could even ask Dazed helpfully wrapped Aron in a gentle blue caress of psychic power and pulled him into Ash's arms smoothly. Aron squirmed and relaxed into Ash's arms and warbled again as he hid his face in the boy's chest. Ash grinned helplessly and nodded at Dazed thankfully as she kept Aron wrapped up in a shell. At least this way he was light enough to actually carry.

A small, furry body latched onto his shoulder a second later and he turned just enough to know it was Seeker contentedly perched onto him. Even a few weeks ago she'd never be out in the daylight but since Ash didn't wear a jacket anymore for her to hide in she'd had to adjust. It wasn't easy but with the help of the forest's shade she was able to make do.

"How's everyone feeling?" He looked out at his friends around him. They were all out, even Infernus. Between levitating Aron and constantly smothering any fires left in the Magmortar's wake Dazed was much to busy to reply.

Most just grunted, still exhausted. Steven had ramped up their physical training considerably. His team didn't even come close to moving around as much as Ash's, but they were still able to run his team into the ground through forcing them to dodge or engage them for long periods of times. Just trying to survive the hail of shrapnel, energy beams, and boulders was a workout in itself. Plume was by far the best since Infernus and Dazed had been forbidden from teleporting in their normal sessions.

Unfortunately for her, Skarmory seemed to have taken Plume's ability to actually dodge, dip, dive, duck, and dodge again as a personal challenge. So, naturally, it had taken to showing her just why Flash Cannon in the hands of a master was just as dangerous as a Hyper Beam. It had taken Ash more than an hour to pick out all the shrapnel in her wing, though he'd only been half-finished when Dazed casually lifted the small bits of metal out with a thought.

He smiled at Tangrowth's excited gurgles and held one of his vines that reached into Ash's hand. Tangrowth had taken to Cradily's lessons especially well…he could be exhausted but a quick nap in the sun was all he needed now to be completely refreshed.

Oz whirred suddenly from behind him, his hair raising on end as he felt the crackle of electricity nearby. Even without trying she could always make her presence known. He turned to her. "Oz? What is it?"

She just shrugged her burly shoulders and hesitantly reached forward to Aron, though she flashed her fangs at Ash in a savage smile once he gave her a cheerful nod. Aron whined happily as he felt one of his favorite caretakers – Oz had a special place in his heart since she'd taken to finding little pieces of scrap and old, broken pokeballs for him to nibble on – pat his domed head and slip an absolutely massive Chesto Berry into Ash's palm.

Aron quickly took to attacking the offered fruit, his rasping tongue shredding apart the tough exterior in just a few seconds.

Ash nodded to Oz in thanks. Aron was taking the training the hardest out of his team. He wasn't as developed or robust yet so his muscles were getting broken down every day with barely enough time to rebuild. At least the Chesto Berry would keep him busy and give him some time to wake up.

"How's your training been?" He offered as they walked. Most of his team was contentedly silent but he was more than happy to take advantage of Oz being more social. She just offered a shrug and a half-hearted buzz. Ash frowned. "I know it's not very exciting. It'll help a lot though. Is Claydol a good match?"

Oz whirred an affirmative, actually smiling at the mention of the odd pokemon. Ash still hadn't gotten to speak with it since Steven tended to separate their teams once training was over. Still, he could tell that it was pretty friendly. Only Infernus didn't get along with the strange creature and Ash had a sneaking suspicion that he was just holding a grudge against Steven's whole team at this point.

"Good," The trainer hummed. He took a moment to step over a thick root that jutted across two trees. "I know it isn't easy but you looked good last time Steven and I checked. Lightning Bolt sure seemed easier."

The Electabuzz nodded, tail twitching happily. A light buzz rose from her throat, probably the closest she could get to purring. Ash grinned and reached out to brush her thick, charged fur with his fingers. He liked seeing her like this.

He cast an aside glance at Nidoking, who stoically plodded alongside him. Ash snorted when his first friend simply plowed right through a tree rather than dipping around it. Nidoking didn't even slow down.

Ash stepped over a few long slivers of wood from Nidoking's incident and turned back to Oz. She held Aron protectively in her furry arms, though he seemed content to just nuzzle into her chest and take a snooze. One of her thick fingers idly brushed over his domed head affectionately.

His mouth opened but he shut it without saying anything. He would leave them in peace. Ash's keen gaze caught sight of Plume as her shadow lazily passed overhead.

Searching for Aron's next meal, no doubt.

Ash smirked at the mental chuckle of Dazed, though she showed no physical reaction. Thankfully he hadn't had to talk to Plume again about bringing Aron "gifts". That whole situation was one he'd rather avoid.

Nidoking grunted and brushed a blunted claw against the trainer's arm. Ash jerked out of his trance and grinned when he saw that they'd made it to one of the rivers that had carved its way through this land. It was almost picturesque. "Thanks, Nidoking."

His friend nodded and fell into his silence again. Ash watched him for a moment, a little concerned about his introversion, but didn't say anything. Nidoking would be fine. He always was.

Ash found himself a bit more occupied with his friends – Seeker just curled deeper into his neck as they stepped into a spot of sunlight. He was pretty sure she was asleep. It'd be another few hours before she'd be comfortable.

Seeker's fur was soft as he ran his fingers through it. She chittered happily at his touch and relaxed almost imperceptibly from whatever little bit of stress she'd been carrying with her.

As for the others…well, it was about what he'd expected. Plume landed on a particularly sturdy branch above him. She'd arrived so fast he hadn't even realized it until he heard the concerned creaking of the branches above. She wasn't really paying attention to him, too busy preening and cleaning her feathers from whatever muck they'd carried out.

Torrent made a beeline to the river, naturally. Tangrowth followed him, bounding to and fro on his big red feet. Ash smirked. A few of the wild pokemon would be making a new friend today whether they wanted to or not.

Bruiser had found himself a comfortable stump to sit on. He followed Sneasel's movements carefully as the dark-type dashed after Tangrowth, probably trying to ensure he wasn't making any mischief. Tangrowth certainly wouldn't be the one to do it.

Aside from Infernus quickly shaping himself a magma bath a short distance away – Dazed projected a long-suffering sigh as she set to preparing psychic barriers around it – there wasn't much movement. Most of his friends were content to just relax and catch up on their sleep after the hard days of training.

He himself remained standing. Ash quickly set about preparing a lunch for his team. They'd worked impossibly hard and for hours longer than he'd normally expect. He was proud of them – they more than deserved this rest and he'd do everything in his power to make it the best one they'd ever had.

Plus he doubted they'd get another day like this for a good while. Steven was likely preparing an even more grueling schedule so he'd have to make this day off count.

And he did. His friends were happy, he was happy because they were happy, and he knew they were more than ready for whatever lay ahead.

XX

"So do you think this will work?" Ash cocked his head at the odd scene in front of him. It wasn't even dawn yet. Were it not for the brilliant glow Infernus cast the clearing in he'd be completely blind.

Nidoking just grunted beside him and shrugged his heavy shoulders. Ash fought down the urge to yawn.

He checked his PokeNav. 3:09. They'd pay for this the next day – well, today – but he had no doubt it was worth it. If they wanted to challenge Steven anytime soon they'd need this extra training. It wasn't like they were skimping out on sleep too badly. Ash had figured they usually went to bed around eight o' clock or so. Seven hours was acceptable in his book.

The problem was that adding this training on top of the rest of their very, very busy schedules wasn't even going to be remotely fun.

"Dazed?" He called out to the lone figure across the clearing. The side he could see was bathed in Infernus' light. Her eyes snapped open and he could see a fiery glow behind them.

I am ready, Friend-Trainer. I will alert the others when the Brute may not take any more.

Ash raised his head grimly. If Infernus hadn't been so firm he'd never have gone this far with their training for a while yet.

After Infernus' misadventure with Claydol they'd started out training Infernus' weak spots. He was fairly resilient in the face of water already, but Ash judged it to be the most glaring of his elemental weaknesses since he could just teleport out of the way of rock and ground-type techniques.

He could with water-type techniques as well but those were the ones that would significantly weaken his power if they hit. Infernus couldn't really do anything about that – his body would always be weak to water – but Ash figured it would be good training in increasing his body heat. Training his control over that would let him boil the water off as steam, ensure he wouldn't be sluggish from the cold, and also go a long way in making Infernus at least somewhat effective against Metagross.

The first morning was fairly simple. Ash and his team had woken up an hour early and headed to a clearing to test things out. He'd only had a little bit of time that day but he'd learnt some very valuable lessons:

His first lesson was that teleporting anything other than yourself was stupidly hard. They'd made zero progress.

His second lesson was that Infernus apparently had no sense of self-preservation when it came to covering up weaknesses…not that Ash was surprised. Infernus had somehow managed to antagonize Torrent to the point he was essentially drowning under the wave Torrent had hurled at him.

True to form, Infernus was still grinning madly even after he was left a smoking heap on the ground.

And now they'd somehow come to this.

"Nidoking, take your place," He intoned wearily. Nidoking nodded and shifted to the right, forming a triangle between himself, Torrent, and Sneasel. They were each about a hundred feet apart from one another. Infernus stood in the middle, uncharacteristically still and silent. His fires burned hot in preparation – he almost looked like he'd grown another foot thanks to the grasping tongues of his shoulder flames. "Begin!"

The temperature in the clearing dropped thirty degrees in a second. Three nearly identical jets of jagged, wildly arcing Ice Beams struck Infernus at once, freezing his limbs and essentially leaving him a giant ice cube from how much ice he was covered in. Ash could see the air take on the dull grey of frost. White spines grew from around Infernus, reaching and spreading as best they could across the ground. Grass was painted a brilliant white, preserved in a frozen shell.

Ash stood with crossed arms and stared. Infernus' icy prison showed no signs of melting. His friends had done their job well – he shivered and couldn't help but step back as the creeping frost finally drew near.

He felt it blend with him, felt a part of himself shriek with the howling of a blizzard in the face of Ice. It was freeing – he was the Ice just as he always had been.

A moment later he clamped down on the odd euphoria. He couldn't be distracted.

This wouldn't kill Infernus. Ash wouldn't agree to anything with that risk. Not for training at any rate. But it definitely wasn't good for him – downright agonizing, most likely. Ash could still remember Infernus in the Seafoam Caverns while they ventured to the bottom floor. Sure he could fight it, but he was also terribly affected by the overpowering cold. It made him sluggish and weak and dumb. As they neared Articuno's nest Ash had only been able to keep him out for minutes at a time.

Ash sighed. It wasn't exactly a fair comparison. The weight of Articuno – of Ice – filling those caverns and freezing them in a way natural law would never allow just wasn't the same. Infernus could handle three Ice Beams, no matter how powerful.

That didn't stop him from being worried. He didn't want his friend exhausted for the rest of the –

There.

A glow emerged from within the ice. He caught sight of a humanoid figure shining within the whiteness even as the first drops of the spawned ice began to slough off the crystalline prison. Though it was slow, it was there.

It took only a minute. At first Infernus' progress was slow, just weakening the solid ice as much as he could through sheer heat alone. Ash grinned as cold water ran down the sides, slowly freeing Infernus. His friend stood completely still, eyes shut tight as he focused everything he had on heating up – on manifesting the fire within.

And then it was over. All that was left of the ice and frost was slush and Ash had to wipe a few beads of sweat from his brow. The forest seemed to cling to the great heat that had just been revealed, forcibly crushing it to the ground.

He stopped tugging at the collar of his shirt as he grinned wildly. "Good job! You'll be ready in no time if you keep this up."

Infernus grinned savagely from where he'd stumbled and spat a long, thin tongue of flame high into the air. The forest lit up around them at the sign of the hot fire, though in mere seconds it lost the fuel to live.

Ash eyed Infernus carefully. It was impressive how quickly he'd melted the ice that had solidly encased his entire body – fighting back his own exhaustion and dampened might all the while – but there were signs of improvement. They'd stick at this point for now, but –

He froze as clapping sounded around the clearing.

"Good show!" Steven smiled lightly. His eyes were far too bright for anyone this early in the morning. Even Ash's eyes were just a tiny bit bloodshot – getting up at this hour left him a little tired no matter how much sleep he got. Ash nodded, though scowled when Steven cheered, "I'm sure he'll be ready for Metagross in no time!"

The trainer froze for a moment and sighed. "Can I hide anything from you?"

"No," his mentor intoned solemnly. Then Steven brightened back up – Ash couldn't help but resent him a little for being so perky. He really, really wanted to go take a nap right now. "You should know better than that, my painfully naïve student."

"Painful is right," Ash muttered before shrugging it off. "So why'd you come by?"

"I was just impressed with your initiative."

Ash raised an eyebrow. He felt like most of his team did as well. "Oh?"

"Very much so."

He had a bad feeling about this as Steven smirked. The man was enjoying this.

"I underestimated you," his mentor shook his silvery head. "If I'd known you'd be getting up this early I'd have started like this from the beginning. A nocturnal schedule doesn't sound too bad, does it?"

Ash just sighed. Doubly so when the rest of Steven's team appeared behind the former Champion. Metagross was as inscrutable as ever but he felt a distinct note of irritation aimed at his team…Skarmory especially had a vicious glare. It seemed like they didn't appreciate their own sleep getting cut short. "Of course not. I'm looking forward to it."

Steven's lips quirked. "Good. Now, since you took the liberty of getting up early today let's get started. Make sure you and your team are properly fed. Meet me at my camp in thirty minutes. I don't think we've ever gone on a run this early before…"

And with that his teacher left. Ash rolled his eyes as he barked orders out to his team. Best to get ready quick so they could take their time eating.

It was going to be a long day.

XX

They were two weeks in.

The grueling schedule wasn't so bad anymore. They'd adjusted, even if Ash still felt like he had a headache every night from all of the battle scenarios Steven ran him through. At least the quizzes had stopped for the most part. Steven seemed rather content with his competency in that area.

He rubbed his eyes in an attempt to scrub some of the exhaustion out. It wasn't too bad but it did mean that he felt like he had a twenty pound weight strapped to his chest all the time…and a few weights on his eyelids as well. Steven made sure he had plenty of time to rest, especially since Ash started waking up early to train, but that didn't stop the fact that his young body was getting a harsh wakeup call.

At least Steven didn't actually start training at three o' clock in the morning like Ash had feared he would. As far as Ash could tell Steven had shown up the one morning to mess with him and left him alone for the most part after that – he still grimaced remembering how sore that first day had left him. He'd only just come to adjust.

"You don't look half-bad," He heard Steven remark. The former Champion stroked his chin – Ash noticed the first signs of silver stubble dusting his calm features – and finally smiled. "Who would've thought League apparel was a good look on you?"

Aron nodded cheerfully along. His tongue fell from his mouth and his sky blue eyes were bright as they followed Ash as his trainer stretched. Ash sent a grin Aron's way and waved, laughing a little when the steel-type warbled back.

"Quite," Steven quirked his lips. Ash grinned back at the man. His mentor had relaxed a bit. They were still very much on business terms when they were training but Steven would slip a bit…not that that was always a good thing. Steven seemed to enjoy watching his student's spirits dim after every particularly demanding exercise.

He took a moment to adjust the dark grey helmet to a more comfortable position. It didn't last long since the helmet was sealed onto the tan armor he wore, but it was a nice bit of relief.

Overall he felt…cool. It was a weird thought – Ash hadn't really cared about that sort of thing in a long time – but Steven had given him a mirror and he liked this look. After all, how many twelve-year-olds could say they had their own set of combat armor?

Ash wasn't a huge fan of the shock baton or the Devon spray Steven had gone on and on about for a little while but the armor itself was nice. It fit almost perfectly – Ash still had no idea how they'd gotten that right – and seemed built for him.

Then again, he supposed it was.

It was a relatively light and unrestrictive suit of hard, thick material he thought was plastic of some sort covered by a thick weave of Ariados silk. Only his chest, legs, and arms had real armor over them. The rest was protected mostly by the Ariados silk that made up the outfit. That'd keep his non-vital areas safe for the most part.

But what really impressed him was how flexible it was. The pads looked like they'd be a bit heavy from first glance but he barely noticed the weight at all. He knew it wouldn't save his life from a direct attack but he could move and run almost as well as he could normally.

His personal favorite was his helmet. The dark grey didn't blend in too well in Hoenn but if he was wearing this then he wouldn't be too concerned about that. It had a very light cooling system – he had no idea how Steven made that work – that kept him from overheating as well as a radio system Steven made them work with constantly.

"Alright, enough admiring yourself," Steven teased. He hefted a shock baton and flipped it on. Ash heard the tiny buzz and grimaced. It was hard to enjoy this part of training. "Get yourself ready. This is your first day in full gear and you need to make sure you adjust."

Ash nodded stoically and flipped out his own baton. It was shorter than Steven's but he knew it would serve its purposes just as well. He ensured it was flipped to the lowest possible setting. These were designed for pokemon, after all. Even the lowest setting could still cause a decent bit of pain…to a human, at least. It wasn't debilitating but Steven thought it would work well as a learning incentive.

"En garde!" Came the mocking cry as Steven swaggered closer and closer. He was confident. Ash would've called it arrogance save for the fact that Steven could back it up. Steven wasn't an expert but he was no slouch. "Remember, don't overthink it. Just act!"

Steven's baton batted Ash's aside with ease and proceeded to lightly tap the boy with it. He grimaced as the electricity surged into his body and Lightning came unbound but ignored it. Instead he put some distance between him and Steven. The older man's longer reach was just ridiculous.

He dipped forward and jabbed, barely catching the edge of Steven's suit as the older man jerked away. Steven had technique but he certainly wasn't very graceful. Ash pressed, jabbing faster and fast and deftly rearing back whenever Steven saw fit to stab at him with the barely sparking prongs. Once it shocked his shoulder but it only surprised him, really.

Despite the slight pain Ash had a smile on his face. It was odd fighting for himself with none of his team at his back – unless you counted Aron grinding out cheers for him in the back – but at the same time just a little satisfying…even if he wasn't really any good at it. This wasn't where his training was.

Ash panted as the weight of his gear made itself known. Their little dance had dragged on for a good while now. Steven barely seemed winded, having moved as little as possible, but Ash could feel sweat rolling down his back and neck. He grimaced as Steven quickly stepped forward, jabbed the hand holding his baton, and quickly swiped his legs.

He stared up at the sky. Ash heard coughing and dimly realized it came from him. A callused hand was offered to him and he took it. After a second of vertigo he was back up on his feet and staring dazedly at his teacher.

"Fun, isn't it?" Steven chortled. His eyes were bright and he lightly flicked his baton rhythmically into the air. Despite himself Ash grinned back. "Lance and I used to fight each other with these all the time," his mentor reminisced fondly. "He always beat me black and blue but it was always in good fun. I supposed he had to be better than me at something."

Ash barked out a laugh. "I don't know if he'd appreciate that."

Steven rolled his eyes and smirked. "Trust me, Lance has a better sense of humor than that." His face fell as he stroked his chin thoughtfully. "You did well, though I admit I'm mostly pleased you actually attacked. That was the point of this exercise – you have to be aggressive in defending yourself. That I got to shock you was just a pleasant bonus."

"Of course it was," He scoffed. Ash retracted his baton with a flick of his wrist once he'd switched off the power. "So all I had to do was hit you?"

"Indeed," was the response he got. Steven seemed to have cooled off. "You'll never get into a fight like this unless something is very, very wrong. Normally your team should have subdued any trainers in the area – it's certainly a lot easier than making you fight them, not to mention it's an easy way to shut down an entire team. Many are trained rigidly. Without direction they fall apart."

He nodded – at least he didn't have to worry about that. His team were formidable fighters in their own right. Ash directed them but a lot of his emphasis, which was doubled down on by Lance, went towards training his team to fight without his input unless he intervened.

"Let's get some water," Steven dipped his head towards a small cooler he'd left by his sleeping roll. "It's going to be a long day. We'll run the circuit to check on your team and then –"

The hairs on the back of his neck rose as Steven's pale face turned ghastly white. His teacher's slate eyes hardened to chips of steel and his knuckles were clenched as tightly as physics would allow. A ferocious snarl rose on Steven's face and were Ash any lesser human he would've backed away.

As it was he watched Steven warily even as the man cycled through a whole kaleidoscope of emotions. To be honest he wasn't sure humans were supposed to turn some of those colors.

"What –"

"Quiet!" Steven raised a hand. He sounded eerily calm. Ash allowed a grim mask to fall over his tanned features. That was the kind of calm that came before a storm of epic proportions. Steven's hard eyes shut and he fell completely silent, though Ash could see the tension just waiting to be released into an explosion.

Metagross appeared as if from nowhere, materializing behind Steven. Their red eyes melted to the color of blood and a furious glow shone behind them, the most emotion he'd ever seen from the behemoth. Steven turned to the steel-type and nodded at some unheard query.

"Yes! Recall them all immediately. Ash's team as well."

Ash could feel the questions practically burning at the tip of his tongue but restrained himself. Whatever this was, it was serious and he needed to trust Steven to handle this.

Steven whipped in his direction. A fiery red glow shone behind Steven's pale eyes and Ash dimly realized he'd entered into a psychic link with Metagross.

"Get your helmet back on!" His mentor – no, this wasn't Steven Stone. This was the Ever Grande Champion who had torn Drake the Dragon Master from his gnarled throne and claimed it for his own. This was the man who had hunted his traitorous cousin across regions in order to bring him to justice. "Pay attention. We don't have much time."

Ash was still. He had to fight the ridiculous urge to salute.

"Ancient has contacted me. The colony is under attack," bit out his commander. There was death in his eyes. "The Rustboro Gym and League are mobilizing, but they are too slow. It is up to us. Prepare yourself. We're going to battle."

"Yes, sir," Ash muttered under his breath. It wasn't even sarcastic. "Will we have –"

Juliet the Gardevoir, apparently Steven's personal teleporter, manifested immediately. She stepped primly between the humans as though she had been there from the beginning, just waiting for the show to start before she could walk from behind her curtain.

"Juliet will take us where we need to go," said the Champion. He looked as though he were fighting the urge to rush off into battle with just Metagross at his side. Then again, Ash thought, those two would probably be more than enough. "Ancient is feeding me information on the attackers. There's little of use yet. They are fairly powerful and coordinate several teams of dark-types and bug-types in order to subdue and capture…"

At that point Ash realized Steven wasn't even talking to him. No, this was just Steven trying to logic his way through this mess.

A crack sounded throughout the small camp – Juliet glared at a spot – and Ash grinned as he felt a familiar heat manifest itself. Infernus let out a low growl, a feral grin on his wide face as his fires flared up.

He must've been waiting on something like this for weeks.

"Infernus!" Ash cheered despite the seriousness of the situation. "We –"

"Recall him immediately," Steven commanded. Ash hesitated for just a moment before Infernus disappeared in a flash of light. "Metagross and Claydol have briefed them. They know as much as we do. Time is of the essence."

He nodded grimly. Ash allowed his mindset to fall into the same place as it had during the Shamouti clash or when he fought through Zapdos' Storm with Surge and Brock.

Right now he wasn't a trainer. Right now he was a soldier.

The rest of his family flooded in quickly. Juliette vanished for a few moments and appeared in a flurry, carrying a slower member of Steven's and Ash's teams each time. They were all swiftly recalled and in what seemed like no time at all yet far too long they were ready.

He felt that familiar ball of excitement and fear and savage fury rear up inside him, screaming to get out and do what they needed to do.

He clenched his fists. Now was not the time.

A slim, albeit heavy, hand rested on his shoulder. Ash looked up. Brown met steel, which softened for just a moment as some of the fire fled. "Stay safe, Ash. I know you can handle yourself, but just know that I'll be right there. We're going to win."

Ash nodded and returned the gesture with a grin of his own. It was hardly even forced now that the drums of battle boomed beckoning.

And as they emerged many miles away with nary a flash of light or crack of thunder, Ash knew in his heart of hearts that he was ready.

A/N: There it is! Sorry for the long wait. It's been a very, very long few months in my life and a lot of circumstances have arisen. That's no excuse for how late this chapter is, especially after I'd promised monthly updates. I'll be doing my utmost to maintain that schedule from here on out…I have a lot of catching up to do.

Anyways, I hope you enjoyed it. I know there isn't a ton of action but I hit 40,000 words and realized I needed to split these chapters up unless I wanted what was probably a 60,000 word chapter. On the bright side there's a good chunk of the next chapter finished so I'll try to pump out an update as soon as possible.

Thanks for your patience. I hope you enjoyed the chapter! Please review. I always appreciate hearing your responses and as always am more than happy to discuss any part of the chapter or story overall. I really enjoy getting feedback – discussions with all of you have really helped to shape Traveler deeper than it ever would have gone otherwise.