A/N: Life has been crazy… For those that have seen my bio, or the edited note at the end of Kanto 12, you know that my wife and I have had 4 kids since I last updated. It's been the most incredible experience in my life, and I wouldn't change anything. For those that are finding out now, I'm sorry for being gone for so long. It took a while, but it's time for the journey to begin once again. Here is Kanto 13…I hope some of you still care.

Kanto 13: Essence

He had been heading west for a little more than two days now. As Growlithe brushed up against his trainer's pant leg, Ash checked the GPS on his xtransceiver. He was surprised to see that he was not even halfway to Cycling Road.

Sure, he wasn't always the most efficient when it came to travel time. However, judging by its size on the map, it appeared as if Route 16 was one of the shortest routes in all of Kanto.

Either his pace was really that poor, or whoever designed the digital imagery on the xtransceiver didn't believe in dimensional accuracy. Not even once had he looked to see how many miles he was going to have to travel because of the likely misleading visual representation of the map.

The dark-haired boy mulled over the idea of changing plans and testing out Pidgeot's new saddle ahead of schedule, but he decided against it. Even when the scenery was as dull as Route 16, Ash loved being on the road. Despite the fact that he had seen enough of the near leafless oak trees along the rough gravel trail, his first few days since leaving Celadon had been long and full.

In terms of training, Ash and his friends had been productive.

He had ensured that both Growlithe's timely Reversal and newly learned Fire Fang weren't fortunate, adrenaline induced flukes. Gym battles could be catalysts for occasional false growth as pokemon often pushed themselves beyond their limits. When it came to Grolwlithe — in wake of his battle against Erika's vileplume — his breakthrough with Reversal and the evolution of his Bite/Ember combo into Fire Fang had proven to be legitimate.

Therefore, over the past couple of days, Ash had started to lay the groundwork for Growlithe to learn a few new techniques. He usually didn't like to overload his pokemon by learning more than one move at a time, but after doing research on his pokedex', Ash figured Growlithe could handle it. Neither technique seemed like it would be overly complicated for the puppy pokemon to add to his arsenal.

The first of the two moves was Take Down. Due to Growlithe's affinity when it came to physical battle, Ash figured that it wouldn't take long. It was just a matter of trying to limit the recoil, which Ash had experience with from when he taught Ivysaur the reckless, but affective technique.

The other move was Flame Burst, which was slightly more challenging. In order to grasp the quick hitting fire-type attack, the resolute canine needed to essentially learn a brand new approach when it came to igniting and propelling his internal flame. In comparison to Ember — which was a rudimentary accumulation of flames that Growlithe had been using as his primary long-distance weapon ever since the start of their journey — Flame Burst was a much more focused and intentional use of his natural element. It was a high velocity bullet of fire that exploded with outward breadth as it made contact with its target.

Due to the dedication that Growlithe had put into manipulating his Ember over the past three months, Ash had a feeling that Flame Burst would come naturally to his best friend. As soon as he had a good understanding of the initial approach, rapid progress was inevitable.

Even though Ash thought Growlithe wouldn't have to strain too hard to acquire both techniques, it didn't mean that they were any less important than a move with a more tedious learning curve like Reversal. Take Down would give Growlithe a neutral, heavy-hitting, physical attack; whereas, Flame Burst would provide Growlithe with the ability to both speed up and expand his flame. It was also a bonus that when performed correctly, Flame Burst could pierce through defensive techniques like Protect or Endure.

That would definitely prove useful…

Pidgeot's training had been simultaneously exhilarating and fundamental. The momentous Avian's sole objective was to get used to his new body. No matter how impressive of a show Pidgeot put on to close out his battle against Erika's Meganium, Ash wouldn't feel comfortable training him like usual until he had spent at least a week in his current form. Final evolutions were much more strenuous than intermediate evolutions. Despite what he had shown against Erika, the sadistic flying-type wasn't as confident when it came to his coordination now that he wasn't in the thick of a highly pressurized battle.

The 10-foot giant would never admit that he needed time to get used to the form that he had always dreamed of achieving, but it was rather obvious to Ash. On account of the king's nature, he had always been a uniquely gargantuan specimen.

But this was different...

This wasn't addition it was multiplication. As Pidgeot continued to get stronger, he would keep growing as well. It was essential to get the raptor-like avian comfortable in his skin as soon as possible so that it didn't hinder him later.

Clefairy was doing some minor touching up on Cosmic Power, as well as working on getting a better handle on the TM move Psychic that Ash had applied to her while training in the white room. As soon as she was done completely mastering Cosmic Power, Clefairy would give her full-attention to Psychic.

When put in contrast with how effortlessly Haunter had learned the TM move, Ash was starting to regret teaching it to Clefairy. Considering the fact that she could only mentally freeze an opponent for a few seconds, and couldn't inflict any damage, he just didn't think she was ready for it. Regardless, even if she was stuck for a while, Ash thought the best thing for him to do was to let her struggle with it.

Clefairy wasn't the type of pokemon that didn't finish something once she started it. However, sometimes it was a trainer's job to make a difficult call, and the dark-haired boy wouldn't hesitate to intervene if she didn't make solid progress after an extended period of time. He didn't want it to interfere with his fairy-type's ability to learn her natural move-set for too long. If possible, he'd like to evolve her before the League tournament.

Just like how Clefairy was putting the finishing touches on Cosmic Power, Ivysaur was getting relatively close to completing a satisfactory Sweet Scent.

One thing that Ash had learned about his saurian grass-type was that none of the status techniques that involved putting together chemicals inside of his bud were ever really complete. Ivysaur was not that much different than the scientists that Ash had seen hard at work on Silph co.'s upper levels. He was constantly tinkering with his creations.

Sweet scent was usable in battle at this point, capable of slowing Ivysaur's opponents down a noticeable degree. Ash had no doubt that Ivysaur would improve its potency over time. The young trainer would give him a few more days, since he knew his rare grass-type was currently enjoying himself, before he started to teach him his next move.

Charmeleon was in the middle of trying to figure out Scary Face — a rather peculiar status technique that slowed its target down with fear.

Despite its normal-type classification, according to the pokedex, it used fragments of dark energy to trigger a fear-based paralysis. It kind of bothered Ash that it didn't have a dark-type classification, but he decided not to get too hung up on it. He was sure that the pokemon researchers that identified and assigned typings to techniques knew way more than him.

So far, the 10-year-old boy was having a blast with Charmeleon as he tried to get a grip on using the idiosyncratic status move. They had come up with several different facial expressions paired with a multitude of postures. During these training sessions, Ash liked to release a couple of his other friends to see their reactions. It was nice to get feedback from an audience since some approaches landed better than others.

Albeit, since Charmeleon hadn't quite figured out how to access the dark energy he needed to activate an authentic Scary Face, it's not like he was getting the responses that he actually wanted. It was akin to a performance. What they were going for was a horror film, but more often than not it was being perceived as a comedy. Haunter was the most animated after each attempt. However, he didn't really give them any useful information on account of the fact that all he ever did was point and laugh. Ash could tell that it bothered Charmeleon at first, but after a while he just ignored it. It was just the apparitions default reaction to most things anyway.

Like Haunter, Wartortle didn't have to work all that hard to figure out the TM move Ash had given him— Ice Beam. As a matter of fact, the dark-haired boy had his turtle pokemon working on the preliminary stages of adding Water Pulse to his repertoire.

Ash found it kind of ironic that his stone-faced reptile was learning a technique that was almost an elemental mirror of Flame Burst— one of the moves that Growlithe was working on. It was an ultrasonic blast of water that would immediately improve upon Wartortle's already well-rounded long range battle prowess.

The goal was to execute the breakneck water technique in a way that — much like Flame Burst —would explode outward upon impact. The most interesting thing about Water Pulse was that in order for it to be most effective, Wartortle had to fight the urge to hit his target head on. When Water Pulse was aimed directly at the side of an opponent, at peak velocity, it could cause a sonic boom that had the opportunity to temporarily damage and disturb several species' inner ear. Enough affliction to the inner ear could throw off a pokemon's equilibrium, leading to confusion.

More often than not a confused pokemon was a sitting psyduck…

Since Haunter had so easily mastered Psychic, Ash decided that it was finally time to teach the ghost-type his species' signature attack — Shadow Ball. Up to this point, they had only gotten to a point where Haunter could start to form a miniature, semi-spherical, concentration of ghoulish energy. For the first time since he had become a part of Ash's team, Haunter was actually having a tough time.

The goofy apparition with a maniacal split-personality had yet to figure out how to grow the condensed ghost-type power without it losing its shape. As much as he was disgusted with himself for feeling this way, Ash found Haunter's struggles kind of relieving. It hadn't been since they were doing mental barrier training with Sabrina that Haunter had been pushed.

As much as he cared for Sabrina, it didn't sit well with him that the gym leader had without a doubt led Haunter's most challenging training sessions.

There was nothing that he wanted more than to help all of his pokemon reach their fullest potential. But sometimes it felt like Haunter's talent exceeded his current ability as a trainer. Even though he knew it was wrong to have those types of thoughts, he couldn't change the way he felt… All he could do was continue to improve himself and do his best.

Ash's first few training sessions with the newest member of his team, Eeevee, were simple and straight forward. As a matter of fact, other than confirming that the evolution pokemon had a solid grasp on her current moveset, they really hadn't been doing that much training at all. He already knew what move he wanted to start teaching her when he thought the time was right, but for now their time was better spent getting to know each other.

Given her haughty personality, Eevee wasn't exactly thrilled that she wasn't working in the same way that the rest of Ash's team was. But that was one of the reasons that he was currently holding her back.

Not only did he want to spend some quality one-on-one time with her, Ash needed her to fully come to grasp with their newfound relationship. Sure, they were friends…but they were also pokemon and trainer. Due to her complicated relationship with Ruphus, for the entirety of Eevee's life, she had primarily trained herself. That was no longer the case, and the boy from Pallet wasn't foolish enough to think that the transition would be simple.

On top of getting to know Eevee, and all of her quirks, there was another reason why Ash had been taking it easy with her…

To put it plainly, Ash didn't know what he wanted her to evolve into. He'd only had her for a couple of days after all, and he needed time to come to a decision. Some might think that it was rather early to be thinking about evolution, but he begged to differ.

There were several options. If he chose to go with one of the natural-elemental types, Ash would need to get a particular evolutionary stone. On the flip side, if he decided he wanted Eevee to evolve into one of the mystic-elemental types, he would have to train Eevee in a specific way.

Ash could already rule out a couple of them. Due to the fact that Kanto was full of competent fire-types, and he already had two, flareon would be a waste. And even though he wanted to add one more water-type to his team throughout his travels in his home region, there were a handful of others that he preferred over a vaporeon — some of which had dual typing.

He still considered jolteon an option, but it was at the bottom of the list. Ever since Ash witnessed Kent's Electivire dismantle a massive chunk of Team Rocket's forces in Saffron, he was fascinated by the elekid line. He also didn't hate the idea of adding a specimen from the magnemite evolutionary tree. A fully-evolved magnezone was known to be an absolute dual-type powerhouse.

He wouldn't mind a leafeon, despite the fact that he thought he would do just fine in the League tournament with Ivysaur as his only grass-type. At the onset of his journey, Ash had already come to terms with the fact that he probably wouldn't catch a grass-type. The fact that he came across a bulbasaur was complete and utter luck, and Ash didn't have interest in any of the other native grass-types. Wild eevee evolutions were so rare that he hadn't really even taken leafeon into consideration.

Be that as it may, his top four choices were glaceon, espeon, umbreon and sylveon. As of right now, he could only group them together. None of them had a clear lead, and all of them had a convincing argument that could sway his decision. All eevee evolutions were viable for their typing, and for that reason these four were at a premium in Ash's opinion.

His argument for glaceon was that due to Kanto's primarily warm climate, the region was nearly devoid of ice-types. There were only a handful. Of that handful, only one interested him — Lapras. But they were endangered, and Ash had already hit the jackpot on nearly extinct pokemon once with Ivysaur. He didn't want to be a pessimist, but the likelihood of it happening a second time was astronomically low.

After seeing Kent's cloyster in action, he had tossed around the idea of settling for one. But, if he was being honest with himself, the species didn't really excite him in general terms. The last thing Ash wanted to do was catch a pokemon he wasn't all in on. That just wasn't fair to the pokemon.

The smoochum line was the farthest thing from an option. For some reason they freaked him the hell out, and the jynx he saw in Team Rocket's base in Saffron didn't help its case. So, if he wanted an ice-type before the League tournament, a glaceon was probably his best chance.

Kanto did have options that he liked when it came to psychic pokemon, so if he was basing the entirety of his decision off of type scarcity, espeon wasn't the best choice. However, Ash had witnessed Sabrina's espeon — Espee — first hand. Not only was the psychic-type eevee evolution breathtakingly beautiful, but it was a dynamic and persuasive battler. He couldn't help but admire it.

Ash tried his best to make his decisions based on logic, but that didn't mean he was immune to following his gut. He wouldn't have ended up in so many precarious situations over the past three months if he always relied on sound rationale.

If he felt like evolving Eevee into an espeon was the right move that's what he would do. Ash also wouldn't let having an espeon stop him from catching one of the other psychic-type pokemon that he'd been on the look out for. He'd learned in Saffron just how devastating psychics could be. It could only be beneficial to have more than one.

Now if Kanto's native pokemon options ended up being the deciding factor, it made the most sense to go with an umbreon or a sylveon. Kanto didn't have a single dark-type other than umbreon, which Ash had always found bizarre. To make the case even more compelling the neighboring Johto region only had a few. Meaning, for whatever reason, a massive part of the eastern continent was lacking in dark-types.

Much like Sabrina's espeon, Ash had also seen an elite level umbreon trained by Kent. It moved across the battlefield like an assassin and was absolutely devastating against Team Rocket's psychics. He remembered thinking at the time that he would love having one of his own.

The desire to possibly go the direction of sylveon was pretty straightforward. Fairy-types were immensely valuable, and the world didn't have that many of them. The cleffa family were the only pure fairy-types in Kanto. There were the igglybuff and mime jr. lines, but they only carried a secondary fairy-type classification.

Igglybuff and its evolved forms weren't known to be the most adept when it came to traditional battles. They were much more popular with coordinators. When in came to the mime jr. line, Ash's thoughts were awfully similar to how he felt about the smoochum line. He just wasn't a fan…

After spending some of his time over the past couple of days weighing his options, he was temporarily satisfied that he had shaved down at least a few possibilities. However, Ash wanted to come to a decision by the time he got to Fushcia.

In the event that he did decide to go with one of the mystic-element evolutions, he would need to come up with a unique training strategy.

To achieve an umbreon evolution, Ash would have to exclusively train and battle with Eevee at night. The vise-versa was true for an espeon evolution. If he wanted Eevee to turn into the graceful psychic-type, he would have to have her train and battle solely during the day. According to the pokedex, if an Eevee pursues strength, and does not come into contact with a compatible evolutionary stone, it will likely seek power from the heavens. The determining point would be if the specimen was more influenced by the sun or the moon.

If Ash settled on a sylveon, he would have to do a lot more research. All he knew so far was that exposure to thaumatergic energy was required as well as an abundance of love. Clefairy could provide the former, and Ash could provide the latter, but it felt a little vague. If he chose to go down that route, he would have to learn more.

One final factor that Ash had to take into consideration when it came to Eevee's evolution was her opinion. What did Eevee want? Ash didn't know. He had yet to even bring it up to the young kit. He planned on providing her with the information, so that they could come up with a mutual agreement.

This was new to Ash, up to this point none of his pokemon had options when it came to evolution. All of them wanted to reach their fullest potential, and none of them had more than one path. Eeevee had several, and it wasn't going to be an easy choice for both trainer and pokemon to make.

Ash's rumination about training and eevee evolutions came to an end when he heard a low, congested voice coming from behind him, "Hey, kid want to battle?"

He turned around to face a stocky teenager with thin, developing facial hair. Ash was instantly reminded why it was really taking him so long to travel through route 16. There were plenty of trainers, and his account was still hurting because he spent all of his money at the Celadon Department store.

XXX

"Ring…"

"Ring…"

Ash looked down at his xtransceiver to see the name Sabrina Marvil appear on the screen.

"Keep working on your form," directed Ash to his water-type as he got ready to pick up the call, "don't forget to put emphasis on your lungs as you release."

The dark-haired boy was in the middle of a long training session with Wartortle. He hated for his attention to be taken away from the work that they were putting into Water Pulse, but it couldn't be helped.

It was Sabrina. It had to be important.

"Click…"

The fair-skinned beauty's face popped up on the screen. She had a slight smile on her face, which was becoming more and more common when she talked to Ash.

"Hello, Ash Ketchum. I wanted to call and let you know that it's been taken care of."

Ash raised an eyebrow as he replied, "what's been taken care of?"

Sabrina's smile was wiped into oblivion.

"Obviously the Game Corner…"

Ash smiled from ear to ear even though he felt like an idiot for not guessing what Sabrina was talking about.

"Wow, he did it…" said Ash with an astonished intonation.

"He did.." drawled Sabrina before letting out a deep sigh, "but he's facing minor consequences with the League. He didn't exactly go about it as planned."

An image of the strong, easy going, First-Class Ace Trainer popped into the boy's mind before he let out a small chuckle.

"I had a feeling he wasn't exactly following protocol," snickered Ash.

Sabrina flashed him a quizzical look before responding, "what do you mean, Ash Ketchum?"

"I ran into Andrew Gerdes the night before I left Celadon. He said he was going in by himself."

The dark-haired boy watched Sabrina's expression start to strain as she placed her hand on her forehead and shook her head, "why didn't you tell me?"

Ash rolled his eyes before responding, "come on Sabrina…I listened and stayed out of it just like you asked. Am I supposed to call and tell you about everything I do?"

"When it pertains to anything or anyone involving Team Rocket you do."

He let out a groan as he replied, "okay, okay I get it."

"Do you?" chided Sabrina with a serious expression, "if you would have contacted me, I could have made sure that over confident moron didn't take on an executive and a base full of grunts by himself."

She scoffed before continuing, "I mean how reckless can someone be…"

Ash felt a little bit of guilt well up inside him. She did have a point. No matter how strong Andrew was, he was playing with fire.

"I'm sorry," said Ash earnestly, "you're right. We're all in this together. I should have said something."

"I'll give you a pass this time," replied Sabrina sternly, "but this needs to be the last time you keep me out of the loop when it comes to developments involving the enemy. Even a chance meeting with someone like Andrew Gerdes could prove to be important."

Ash nodded, "I understand…"

He glanced over to see that Wartortle was still hard at work hastening the rate at which he expelled his internal water supply before looking back at the screen.

"Anyway, can you give me some more details?" queried Ash with a look of intrigue.

Not only was he genuinely interested, but he was also trying to take the attention away from his mistake.

"Well despite the fact that he didn't go about it the right way, the results were mostly good," Sabrina responded with a smirk and a shrug, "he took down about fifty grunts and Executive Petrel."

Ash listened intently while he thought about how incredible of a feat that was.

"There were a few Rocket causalities, but he managed to capture most of them alive," Sabrina began to massage her temples with her index fingers as she spoke, "which is kind of astonishing when you think about the the state the place was left in."

The ten-year-old gulped when he thought about the fact that people had died. Good thing he didn't try to tag along — he had seen enough death over the past couple of months.

"Was there a lot of damage?" asked Ash as he tried to shake off his intrusive thoughts.

"It was decimated," replied Sabrina curtly, "if Celadon wants to resurrect the Game Corner, they will have to rebuild it from scratch."

Ash couldn't help but think about Erika. The young gym leader sure had a lot of work cut out for her.

"Is Andrew okay?" questioned Ash, "did he have any injuries?"

"None," stated Sabrina blankly, "he completed the operation completely unscathed."

"None!?"

"Yes, none," replied Sabrina, "it appears as if I underestimated him. Last time we talked, I compared him to Kent, but I'm starting to think that he's on a completely different level."

She paused for a second as she leaned a little closer to the screen, "the league confiscated some extremely nasty pokemon from Petrel. They were even more powerful and deranged than the ones Ariana had. If he was able to handle that on top of all of those grunts, he may be on the same level as some of the Elite Four."

"Does that mean he's as strong as you?" Ash asked as he recalled the rumors of Sabrina wielding strength on par with Kanto's superb quartet.

Sabrina shrugged, "maybe… I don't know. He might be. But don't forget, even though they are grouped together by the League, the Elite Four are not all equal in strength."

She ran her fingers through her hair as she continued, "If he's around Lorelei Fritz and Bruno Yamauchi's level then he's about as strong as I am. But JR Tanner or Agatha…they are both beyond me. If he's as strong as them, then I wouldn't have a chance."

"JR Tanner? said Ash in an inquisitive manner, "But he only recently became a member."

Sabrina looked at Ash with intense eyes, "Tanner is different. He may have been recently anointed, but his talent is prodigious. If Lance is not careful, I would not be surprised if he is the Champion of Kanto in the near future."

"JR Tanner, Andrew Gerdes, and Kent Barringer—that trio all came out of Cinnabar Island the same year," she said, "they took the League tournament by storm with Tanner coming out on top. He traveled the world for years before returning to swipe the vacant spot that was about to be claimed by Koga."

As fascinated as he was by the information Sabrina was sharing about the three trainers from Cinnabar, he gulped at the mention of the poison master's name.

No wonder Koga had been extra ruthless lately. It was practically common knowledge that he had been wanting to be a member of the Elite Four for years. When Maxim Reed retired and publicly requested Koga to have the first crack at being his successor, he thought he finally had his chance. Only for it to be taken away by someone that wasn't even on his radar; a young man named JR Tanner that had won the right to challenge the Elite Four years ago, but opted to see the world instead.

Ash couldn't help but feel kind of bad for Koga. But, that didn't change the fact that he would be doing everything in his power to hand him his first loss of the League season.

"So basically, Andrew is a complete badass," said Ash. Pulling the conversation back to its original topic.

"Yes," replied Sabrina, "that is a simple way of putting it. Except I would add moronic. Andrew Gerdes is a moronic badass."

Ash laughed for a bit before getting serious again, "So what is the League going to do with Petrel?"

"Well on account of the fact that he is the first executive they have managed to capture, he'll likely be thoroughly interrogated before being thrown in prison," replied Sabrina, "the League will be trying to get as much information out of him as possible about what Team Rocket has been up to these past five years."

A smirk appeared on her face, "As a matter of fact, I should get back to trying to break Ariana's mental barriers."

Ash let out a sigh, "have you learned anything new?"

Sabrina shook her head, "Not yet…which isn't good because I'm running out of time. Eventually I'll have to hand her over to the League. I'm surprised that Kent has been as patient as he has."

"He knows how important this is," said Ash, "and he knows that the League can't take things as far as you can."

"That may be true," replied Sabrina, "but the League doesn't know about the abomination yet. They may be willing to look the other way if it means protecting Kanto from that monstrosity. Lance is a shrewd man. He knows that serious trouble is brewing — just not what it is. I sense that he will do whatever it takes to try and eliminate the problem without the masses finding out."

She continued, "if I can't get more out of her by the end of the week, I'm afraid I'll have to come clean to the League. Lance at the very least needs to know that the culprit behind the mysterious disappearances is the abomination. Once he does, I'm sure he'll let me continue to try and scrape through her mental barriers. Better yet, he'll probably let me into Petrel's mind as well. It's not like there are any stronger psychics around to ask? He won't have a choice."

"When Lance finds out, do you think he'll be able to wait for Willow's friend to reveal herself?"

"He will," replied Sabrina blankly, "it's all that we can do. Destiny has made that clear, and Lance knows better than to defy destiny. Fate is taken very seriously by the Dragon Clan."

"Good to know," said Ash while nodding his head, "I'm sure Lance will let you keep working on Ariana, but it'll be faster if you do it your way in the meantime. I shouldn't take up any more of your time."

"I enjoy my conversations with you, Ash Ketchum," said Sabrina as she formed another rare smile, "But, you're right. I must return to that wretched woman's mind. I will talk to you soon. Have a safe trip to Fuschia."

"Thanks," said Ash as he waved at the screen, "see ya later, Sabrina."

Click.

Ash took a deep breath and let out a lengthy sigh, relieved by the new knowledge that another Rocket executive had been caught and that Andrew Gerdes was okay. He may have been a bit crude, but during the little bit of time that he had gotten to spend with him, Ash had come to like him.

The dark-haired boy walked over to Wartortle — who was still firing blasts of water that hadn't quite become Water Pulse at a tree.

"Sorry, Wartortle," apologized Ash, "that took longer than I thought. Have you been exhaling through the shot?"

The turtle pokemon let out an affirmative grunt, in between attempts, as he worked towards accelerating the speed at which he propelled his internal water reservoir.

XXX

"Alright, buddy, wish me luck," said Ash as he reached down and ran his fingers through his starter's soft fur, "this should be interesting…"

Growlithe let out a jovial yip as he gave his trainer a brisk lick across the face.

Ash wiped away Growlithe's saliva as he unclipped the fire-type's empty pokeball from his belt, "I'll let you back out as soon as we land."

Growlithe didn't like to be in his pokeball while they were between cities, but the 10-year-old boy was sure that the puppy pokemon understood why it was necessary at the moment. They had nearly reached the end of Route 16 and could see the Cycling Road in the distance.

It was time.

Ash watched as the ruby red light enveloped Growlithe. As soon as his best friend had been returned safely to the confines of his pokeball, he released Pidgeot. The ten-foot avian let out an apathetic squawk. He was likely expecting another training session where all he was allowed to do was fly around and sometimes practice the techniques he had already mastered. He still hadn't completely gotten used to his new body.

Pidgeot cocked his head inquisitively though when Ash removed the depository case holding the expertly crafted saddle that Bill had made him.

"Just wait until you see what I got in here."

Ash maneuvered the menu on the depository case's touch screen, so he could withdraw the item that he desired. After selecting it, he pointed the depository case at the rough gravel that lay in front of him. Ash watched as a bright flash of blue light left behind a glorious emerald saddle made of a certain special dragonite's scales.

The flying-type glided over to the saddle before examining it with curious eyes. He proceeded to lightly peck at it a few times — a behavior that he frequently displayed when he was fascinated by an object.

"Do you know what that is?" asked Ash as he approached Pidgeot and the saddle.

Pidgeot looked at him in a way that let Ash know he was yearning for an answer.

"It's a saddle. Remember the one that Austin's F–" Ash stopped himself from uttering the name of the pokemon that had humiliated Pidgeot in the semifinal of the S.S. Anne tournament, "Anyway, with this thing we can fly together all the time!"

Pidgeot shot Ash a playful glare at the near mention of his eternal rival before jerking his neck back diagonally, gesturing that he wanted him to put the saddle on his back.

"Can you bend over?" pleaded Ash with a chuckle, "I can't reach."

He recalled a conversation that he had with Bill the other day as he hoisted the saddle onto Pidgeot. Just like his eccentric friend taught him, he centered the scaly base in between his avian's wings while checking the stitching on the seat made of mamoswine fur. Ash proceeded to adjust the length of the billet and tie down straps before fastening them around his gargantuan flying-type.

"Is that too tight?"

Pidgeot shook his head, so Ash gave the furry gullet at the front of the saddle a tug to make sure that everything was secure.

"Alright, we're good to go!" exclaimed Ash, "you're going to have to lower yourself even more for me to get on."

Pigeot bent his legs about as much as he could without lying down. That way Ash could grab hold of the saddle's gullet with both hands, using it as leverage to swing his right leg over the back of the raptor-like avian.

"Damn, that's comfortable…" muttered Ash as he made a mental note to thank Bill for a third time.

He nestled his feet into the saddle's black, metal stirrups before grabbing hold of the hand straps directly below the gullet.

"I'm ready whenever you are!" shouted Ash as he tightened his grip.

Pidgeot slowly rose from his crouched position before letting out an eager squawk as he unshackled his momentous wing span. With one downward thrust of Pidgeot's powerful wings, the two of them were airborne. As they steadily ascended, Ash watched as everything on the earth's surface seemingly began to shrink. He couldn't help but squint as he felt the pressure of the wind scrape against his face.

These were details that he wasn't able to even process the few times that they flew bareback when Pidgeot was still a pidgeotto. Back then, he was too busy holding on for dear life to pay any meaningful attention to what he was seeing and feeling.

Flying back then hurt…

This was different.

This was fun.

"You see that crazy long bridge!" shouted Ash once Pidgeot had stopped climbing and stabilized, "I need you to take us to the other side!"

Pidgeot smoothly banked left following his trainers command. As they began to pass over Cycling Road, Ash could barely make out the miniature forms of hundreds of people crossing by means of bicycle. If the dark-haired boy squinted hard enough, he could see the many battles that were taking place along the bridge. He couldn't help but feel a wave of disappointment when he thought of the missed opportunity to replenish his depleted trainer account.

"How are you feeling!?" howled Ash, "is the extra weight bothering you!?"

Pidgeot squawked in a way that communicated that he was annoyed.

He couldn't help but be amused. Even if flying with Ash on top of him was more exhausting, his friend would never admit it.

He marveled at the distance that they had covered. If Ash had crossed Cycling Road the traditional way, it would likely have taken at least a day. However, by traveling through the skies, it had only been about fifteen minutes and they were already about halfway.

"This is awesome!," clamored Ash, "We've got to do this more often!"

Pidgeot trilled, letting his trainer know that he liked that idea.

Ash spent the next handful of minutes just soaking in the fact that they finally had gotten to this point.

All of the training.

All of the battles.

All of the time spent trying to decode his avian's complicated personality.

This was a special moment. This was one of the reasons all that hard work was worth it.

The first pokemon he had caught on his journey had reached its final stage of maturation. And for the first time since it happened, Ash felt like he had fully processed that.

He gently patted Pidgeot on the back as the giant began its descent back to the surface.

"I love you, buddy," muttered Ash under his breath, knowing that if he voiced his feelings loud enough for Pidgeot to hear, it would make him uncomfortable.

As Pidgeot's feet touched the ground, Ash heard the squeaky voice of a nearby trainer.

"Hooooly shiiiiiit — that Pidgeot's huge!"

Ash couldn't help but laugh. It never got old.

XXX

"Keep your focus and pour more into it," said Ash, standing adjacent to his ghost-type.

The ominous black and purple orb slowly began to grow. But, its stability was beginning to become compromised as stray particles of energy tried to escape.

Growlithe let out a nervous howl, clearly invested in Haunter's progress with the new technique.

"You've got to visualize it in order to project," reminded Ash, as he and his pup put some distance between themselves and the small, erratic Shadow Ball, "imagine a sphere."

Haunter attempted to condense his ghoulish energy, while letting out a short guffaw. Ash still had a tough time trying to figure out what the apparition was thinking, but if he had to guess he would assume that he was frustrated. Shadow Ball was becoming excruciatingly tedious.

"It's stable again, now widen your hands."

Haunter attempted to expand his energy once again, doing his best to maintain the shape of a sphere.

Ash felt Growlithe's attention shift away from the ghost-type and move to something on their flank.

Out of the corner of his eye, the young trainer could see the form of a curious doduo poking its head out from the nearby brush. Wild pokemon typically tried to avoid them when Haunter was out of his pokeball, but every once in a while, he'd spot one that couldn't stop themselves from taking a peak at the rare ghost.

"Leave it be, Growlithe" said Ash — never taking his eyes off of Haunter.

He didn't have any interest in catching the normal/flying-type.

"Good!" Exclaimed the dark-haired boy, "I think that's the biggest one yet!"

As if on queue, the softball-sized Shadow Ball rebounded. Ash and Growlithe watched as the asymmetrical sphere liberated itself from Haunter's grasp, colliding with a tree. Hundreds of leaves fell and about a half a dozen wild pidgey fled upon impact.

Ash sighed — thankful that they weren't spearow. He never wanted to relive what happened on his first day as a trainer.

"Don't worry about it," comforted Ash.

It didn't take a paranormal expert to figure out what the dejected look on Haunter's face meant.

The specter was disappointed.

"It's going to take time. Shadow Ball is a difficult move to learn. You're doing great."

Growlithe, let out a couple of affable barks, likely seconding what his trainer said in his own language.

Haunter bobbed his whole body up and down as he let out a half-hearted laugh. Ash could tell that the only thing that would cheer him up was better results.

"Let's try it again," he suggested with an encouraging look in his eye, "remember round and steady."

With what looked to be a focused expression, Haunter got back to work.

XXX

"Well, you froze him for a little longer this time," encouraged Ash as he crouched down, looking Clefairy in the eyes.

He diverted his gaze to Ivysaur, "any pain?"

The saurian grass-type shook his head and let out a grunt.

Over the past couple of days, Ivysaur had been doing mental barrier training with the help of Haunter. Ash planned on slowly giving all of his pokemon the training that they needed to defend themselves against psychic-types at some point. Now was a good time for Ivysaur, since he was close to finishing Sweet Scent and had yet to start learning a new move.

Do to his impressive ability to concentrate at a high level — honed from countless hours of hard-work experimenting with the chemical compounds within his bud — Ivysaur was a natural when it came to creating an effective mental barrier. It was coming about as easy to him as it did with Haunter and Clefairy.

On account of the fact that Ivysaur had developed the necessary tools to at least partially protect himself from Psychic, he was the perfect partner to help Clefairy practice the TM move that had been giving her so much trouble. Haunter could do it too, but the ghost-type had his hands full with Shadow Ball.

"You've doubled the amount of time you can freeze your opponent," stated Ash as he turned his attention back to Clefairy, "eventually you're going to figure out how to inflict damage."

Clefairy looked at Ash with resolute eyes, conveying her determination. Ash really hoped she made some significant progress soon. He didn't want to have to tell her that it might be a good idea to table it for a bit.

"I think you've pretty much mastered Cosmic Power," said the dark-haired boy to the fairy pokemon, "you used it really well against that diglett."

Everybody except Pidgeot and Eevee had gotten their fair share of battles since they had been trekking east on Route 18. Just like Route 16, there were a healthy amount of trainers for his friends to sharpen their skills against.

"I want you to keep focusing on Psychic during our training sessions," stated Ash, "we should have enough live battles between here and Fuschia to keep the rest of your techniques in good shape."

Clefairy nodded in agreement.

He turned his head to his grass-type, "Ivysaur, tomorrow we're going to start working on a new move," Ash smiled before continuing, "you can keep tinkering with Sweet Scent, and I want you to practice your mental barriers with Clefairy and Haunter, but it's time to start working on something else."

The saurian gave his trainer an affirmative grunt as Ash patted him affectionately on top of the head.

"Thanks for helping out Clefairy. That's enough for now" said Ash, "as he reached for Ivysaur's pokeball, "I'm going to have Growlithe work on Flame Burst now, and I don't want you to get hit by a stray one. His accuracy is all over the place right now."

Growlithe — who was resting under a nearby oak tree — let out an offended yip

After returning Ivysaur, and directing Clefairy to take a break, Ash walked over to Growlithe.

"Sorry, buddy," apologized Ash, "we'll figure it out. It's only been a week, and Flame Burst takes a lot more manipulation than Ember."

Growlithe stood up and made his way over to where Ash had been training Clefairy. He gave Ash a look that signaled he was ready to get started.

"I like your attitude."

XXX

"Get in close and use Focus Punch!" commanded Ash, as Charmeleon expertly maneuvered around the Toxic Spikes that the well-trained nidorina had strategically scattered.

While closing the distance between himself and his opponent, Charmeleon coughed up a thick Smokescreen, slipping into obscurity. Ash was instantly reminded of the battle against Erika's tangela. Even though Charmeleon's mastered moveset was less developed than some of his other pokemon, he made up for it with his creativity.

Ash heard a loud cry that without a doubt came from the nidorina before seeing an orange glow amidst the smoke. Ash guessed that Charmeleon had hit him with a combination of Focus Punch and Ember.

Next it was Charmeleon's turn to let out painful roar. Ash couldn't see what happened, but he assumed his fire-type was alright because he could see multiple Embers flickering within the cloud of soot.

As the Smoke Screen started to fade, the dark-haired boy could finally make out Charmeleon and the nidorina. Both pokemon were panting in exhaustion with notable damage. The hidden exchange must have been brutal.

"Poison Sting now!" hollered the skinny, long limbed boy.

The nidorina bounded towards Charmeleon. Ash could see the purple poison drip from its sky blue, retractable spikes as it hastily approached Charmeleon.

"Dodge and hit it with Dragon Rage!"

The fire-type evaded to the left, just barely out of range of the sizable, toxic spikes before unleashing a salvo of purple flames. The formidable nidorina attempted to elude Charmeleon's barrage but wasn't quick enough. There was a strident yowl as the poison pin pokemon was consumed by Dragon Rage. As the violet fire dissipated, the nidorina succumbed to unconsciousness.

"Good job, Charmeleon," praised Ash, ambling towards his friend, "it was risky letting it get that close, but it worked out."

The fire-lizard raised his arms above his head, flexing in celebration.

"Your charmeleon's tough," complimented the nidorina's brown-haired trainer as he reached for a handshake, "that was fun."

"Thanks," replied Ash, "you've done a good job with your nidorina. That was one of the better battles I've had since leaving Celadon."

"She makes it easy," shrugged the kid before removing his pokedex from his coat pocket, "Nidorina wants to be strong."

"I could tell," answered the dark-haired boy, "she gave Charmeleon a run for his money."

"Are you headed for Fuschia?" asked the boy as he fiddled with his pokedex, reporting the results of the battle so that Ash could receive his earnings.

"Yup," replied Ash to the boys sound deduction.

"Are you taking on the gym circuit?"

"I am."

"How many badges?" Asked the boy, raising an eyebrow as he put his pokedex back in his coat pocket.

"Four."

"Better turn around then," groaned the boy before letting out a sigh, "I just battled Koga a couple of days ago…"

He had a slight frown as he continued, "nobody with more than three badges is going to beat that guy this year."

Ash gulped, "it's that bad..?"

"Yeah….you might want to consider looking into some of the lesser gyms."

…If he wasn't worried before, he definitely was now.

The talented young trainer and his friends would have to train hard, and strengthen their resolve, if they wanted the soul badge.

XXX

It was late.

He was warm and comfortable inside of his sleeping bag with Growlithe and Eevee snuggled up on both sides. Haunter levitated impatiently above them, anticipating the sustenance that was provided in the form of his trainer's frequent nightmares.

"So… what do you think?" asked Ash while showing the silver coated kit the image displayed on his pokedex.

She gazed intently at the screen, clearly in deep thought.

After weighing his options for over a week, and changing his mind countless times. He finally had come to a decision.

Ash hoped Eevee approved.

Several minutes passed. The sound of Growlithe's light snoring kept him calm as he waited for her response. All of a sudden, Ash felt Eevee's weight shift as she repositioned herself so that she could look him in the eye. As their eyes met, Ash gently placed his hand on the side of her soft, silver face.

"It's your call…"

She gave him a look that portrayed sincerity before nodding her head in support of Ash's decision.

"Are you sure?" questioned Ash with a smirk, "it's not going to be easy."

She divulged a quiet, raspy snarl. Her countenance portrayed conviction as she gave him another reassuring gesture of the head.

Ash's smirk turned into a big toothy grin, as he ruffled the top of Eevee's head, "Umbreon it is," his facial expression turned serious as the logistics flooded his tired mind, "which means from this point forward, we can only train and battle at night…"

Suddenly, Eevee darted away from where they lay, beckoning her trainer to follow. Ash let out a soft laugh, mindful of his slumbering starter. It was unlikely that Growlithe wasn't at least partially awake. His adroit senses didn't typically allow him to reach deep sleep while they were on the road.

Ash emerged from his sleeping bag before giving his ghost-type a guilty look, "sorry, Haunter. You're going to have to wait a little longer."

The apparition gave him a brief look — that Ash perceived as mild disappointment — before following his trainer, who was beginning to saunter over to Eevee's current position.

Growlithe remained still with his eyes closed. The puppy pokemon was likely aware of exactly what was going on, but opted to continue sleeping. Ever since Haunter began to stay outside of his pokeball at night to eat Ash's nightmares, Growlithe had become more lax. The dark-haired boy deduced that his starter felt comfortable entrusting his best friend's protection to the more than capable ghost-type.

"Only for a little bit," said Ash, directing his attention back to the shiny evolution pokemon, "it's really late, and we need to get some sleep. We can practice what you already know for a bit. But, we'll start the real thing tomorrow."

Eevee gave him a slight scowl, but didn't protest. Her rash nature made it difficult for her to resist her desires, but she would obey. After all, her new trainer was giving her everything she ever wanted. Even if she hadn't had the pleasure of witnessing the battle against Erika's daunting grass-types — a cursory gander at any of the others was enough proof to measure Ash's competency.

She cocked her head with expectant eyes, waiting for a command.

"Quick attack," declared Ash, while pointing at the dark shadowy image of a tree, "follow it up with Swift."

Like she was shot out of a cannon, Eevee whizzed towards her stationary target. It didn't take a genius to figure out that she was delighted to finally get started.

XXX

"What does Bill think?" asked Austin, leaning forward with intrigue, "I'm assuming you've talked to him about it?"

Ash sighed as he looked down at the screen on his xtransceiver, "he read the whole thing before he sent it to me…but didn't tell me until today."

"I just got off the phone with him," continued Ash, preparing to do his best Bill impression, "he said, 'I wasn't going to say anything until you started to read the bloody thing'."

Austin snickered, "that's spot on!"

He laughed before swiftly getting serious again, "I'd been avoiding it until today, but I got the feeling that I finally needed to open it. I don't know how much time I'll have for it once I get to Fuschia."

His thirteen-year-old friend placed his hand on his chin, "I don't know, Ash. I think this is one of those things that might be more important than the gym circuit. You've got seven months until the tournament…You'll get your badges. This 'chosen' thing is kind of a big deal."

"But Koga is—"

Austin cut him off, "Koga's not going anywhere. Besides, like you said earlier, even though you'll be in Fuschia soon — you'll probably need to train for a while before you face him."

He gave Ash a stern look, "and you need to finish the rest of that book."

The dark-haired boy groaned…

That was the last thing he wanted to do.

He'd only ready about fifty pages of what was a nearly two-thousand page manuscript on: creation, legends, lore, prophecy, and apparently the chose one.

So far, it had been a complete slog. The majority of what he had read had been about the universe's creation by a mysterious almighty being referenced as either 'The Original One' or 'The Creator'. Ash had a tough time believing such a creature was real. In addition, there were several historical accounts of ancient battles that seemed too outlandish to have really happened.

He hadn't read anything up to this point that even mentioned a Chosen One. For what it's worth, he had a long way to go — and he knew it was in there; Bill had emphatically assured him of that fact.

"This thing is massive!" complained Ash, "holding it up to the screen so that Austin could see, "it's going to take me forever to read the whole thing!"

"You'll get there," encouraged Austin, "just read like five pages a day, and you'll be done in no time."

"Do you even know how to do math!?" scoffed Ash, "if I go at that pace, I won't finish it until next year!"

"Pshhhh, I can do math just fine," chided Austin, "I was just trying to make you feel better."

"What would make me feel better is if I could just focus on my journey and my pokemon," replied Ash, putting his hand on his forehead in frustration, "this book and what it could mean is just too much."

"I know it's a lot. But, think of what you've already been through. If anyone can handle it, it's you."

His older friend gave him a gentle smile before continuing, "You still haven't answered my question. What does Bill think?"

Ash let out an immense sigh as he brought his other hand to his forehead.

"…He thinks it's me."

"I obviously haven't read it, but I have a feeling it is too," said Austin, "I mean you did see Hoothoot on the first day—"

Ash shook his head with a chuckle before correcting his friend, "Ho-oh — Austin, remember hoothoot are the little owl pokemon in the region you're in."

"That's what I meant," laughed the thirteen-year-old as he scratched the back of his head sheepishly, "sorry the names are so similar… Anyways, you saw it on your first day as a trainer. Plus that wicked strong ninetails told you some pretty wild stuff."

Austin shrugged before continuing, "that's not stuff that happens to just anybody."

"I know…" drawled Ash as he felt himself starting to get anxious, "but, I'm not going to give it too much weight until I read it myself. Coincidences do exist."

"They do," retorted Austin, "but so does denial."

Ash had to admit, he had a good point. Maybe he was in denial. There were so many signs. He wanted to ignore all of them. But at what point was that just running away? He'd have to face all of this at some point. It was just a matter of when.

"If anything crazy happens," said Austin, "just call me. I won't hesitate to hop on Fearow and head your way."

"But, you've got your own journey…"

"Meh, like I said earlier, some things are more important than a gym circuit. I may not be the Chose One, but I am his mentor," stated Austin with a big smile.

"Mentor!?" scoffed Ash with a smirk, "If I am the Chosen One, it would be more like sidekick."

"I repeat D-e-n-i-a-l," Austin drawled before giving Ash an offended look as he used his thumb to point at his chest, "Besides, don't forget who won during the SS Anne tournament. You're great for a rookie, and you might be the main character in some old ass book — but, I'm Austin Turner from Fuschia City."

Ash couldn't help but laugh. Austin didn't need to brag. The dark-haired boy knew how strong he was.

"I'll catch up eventually," said Ash with a shrug.

"Maybe in a million years," retorted Austin.

The two went back and forth for a couple more minutes before Ash changed the subject, "How's Johto going?"

"Pretty good," said Austin, while using his hand to stretch his neck in one direction at a time, "Johto's gym leaders are no joke. I've got two badges so far. I'm on my way to Goldenrod."

"How does that work?" Asked Ash curiously, unsurprised by how quickly Austin was moving through the neighboring region, "do you face league-registered teams until you have three badges like Kanto?"

"Only for rookies," replied Austin, "since I've already done the Kanto circuit and the Orange League, I don't get that luxury…"

He paused before giving Ash a confident smirk, "Not like I want a handicap anyways."

Ash ignored his friend's arrogant comment, "The Orange League? I didn't know you did that."

"Yeah," said Austin matter-of-factly, "I dug Cinnabar and the Seafoam islands, so I figured I'd check it out. What the hell, Ash? Did you think it took me three years to finish Kanto?"

"No," chuckled Ash, "but some trainers do the Kanto circuit multiple times if they don't feel like they're ready to leave their home region."

"Not me," replied the dirty-blonde haired boy, "Obviously, I did Kanto my rookie year. The Orange League took about six months, but I stuck around for a while afterwards. Those islands are awesome. Each one's so different—there's so much to see."

"You spent two years in the Orange Islands?!" blurted the ten-year-old boy.

"Don't knock it til you try it."

Ash shook his head in disbelief. He could understand spending a few years in a foreign region — but the Orange Archipelago?

"Trust me, Ash," said Austin with intent filled eyes, "if you ever go there, you won't want to leave either."

Ash had been debating heading to the Orange Archipelago after the League tournament in May, but he definitely didn't have any intentions of staying as long as Austin. He wanted to see the world — and the world was big.

"Have you caught any new pokemon?" Asked Ash, changing the subject. He had a feeling that if he didn't, Austin would go on about the Orange Islands forever.

"A few," replied Austin, falling for Ash's trap to redirect the conversation, "so far I've caught a houndour and a gligar."

Ash had no idea what a gligar was, but he was somewhat familiar with houndour. During the raid against Team Rocket, he had seen a couple from its evolutionary line used by ACE Trainer trainees. He'd also done some research on it when he was deciding what he would evolve Eevee into. At the time, he wanted to make sure there were solid dark-type options in Johto if he opted to go a route different than Umbreon.

He didn't like to look too far ahead, but if everything went according to plan, he'd be taking on the Silver Conference at some point next year. If he finished his first year of travels without catching a dark-type — which was almost a certainty until he added Eevee to his team — he would have prioritized catching a dark-type in Johto.

"Im not sure what a gligar is, but houndour is one of the Johto dark-types I wouldn't mind adding to my team one day," said Ash in a jealous tone, "is it as hard to train as they say it is?"

"Meh, he was for like a day," replied Austin matter-of-factly, "once I got to know him, though, he turned out to be a pretty good guy. I can't wait to introduce him to Growlithe. I feel like they'll be good friends."

A massive smile formed on Austin's face before he continued, "Gligar is a kick in the pants. He might give Haunter a run for his money when it comes to comedy."

Ash laughed. Even though it hadn't even been a month, he had missed talking to Austin like this.

"What about you? Have you caught anything since I left?" asked Austin with inquisitive eyes.

"I wouldn't necessarily use the term caught,"answered Ash, "but I did add an Eevee to my team."

"Nice!" exclaimed Austin, "we're Eevee twins!"

Ash cringed at Austin's cheesy remark, "how's she doing? When you got her for winning the tournament, it looked like she had just hatched."

"She's really young," drawled Austin, "but she's growing up fast. I've been letting her roam around outside of her pokeball kind of like you do with Growlithe."

"The more they see, the faster they grow," said Ash as he raised an eyebrow, "have you decided what you're going to evolve her into?"

"Not yet," sighed Austin, "I haven't really given it much thought. She barely knows any of her moveset. She's got a long way to go before I'd consider evolving her."

"Makes sense," shrugged Ash, "mine is actually pretty far along. We decided to go for an umbreon evolution, so I'm training her at night. Hopefully, she can finish her eevee moveset before she evolves."

"Umbreon, eh?" queried Austin, "inspired by Kent?"

"I would be lying if I said it didn't play a factor," he said honestly, "but, also it's just a practical choice with there being no dark-types in Kanto."

He paused, "plus it's badass."

Austin nodded his head in agreement, "It's a smart move. I probably would have done the same thing if I had Eevee while I was traveling Kanto."

The dirty-blonde haired teenager paused as a gentle smile formed on his face, "but I got her at the right time. It's kind of fun starting a new journey with such a young pokemon again. Takes me back to when I left Fuschia with Chikorita."

"How are you rotating your team?" Asked Ash curiously. The carry limit was something that he had never had to deal with. Ash wasn't sure how many pokemon Austin actually had, but when he added up the ones that he did know about — it came out to be more than six.

"I'm not," winked Austin mischievously, "after seeing you carry seven, I wasn't going to leave Saffron without asking Bill."

"You would…" drawled Ash, "and here I was thinking I was special."

Austin rolled his eyes, "'you got yours removed after like a month… I had to wait three years."

"Fair enough."

"You'll never know how much it sucks to have to send your friends off to a faraway lab because of a stupid rule," ranted Austin, "it's so hard to make sure that everyone gets to spend quality time with you — not to mention training becomes so complicated."

The teenager let out a big sigh of relief, "thank god, I never have to deal with that again. Besides, I don't think I could go a day without seeing Eevee. She's so small. She's so cute. She's so soft–"

"Mine's silver."

"I hate you."

XXX

"I knew it wouldn't take long before you started to get the hang of it."

Growlithe let out an affirmative howl, proud of his progress.

"Now let's do it again," commanded Ash, "remember, start with your tongue at the roof of your mouth — deep inhale — then flick your tongue with a sharp exhale."

Growlithe loaded his maw with flames before carefully following his best friend's instructions. After using his tongue to put ample pressure against the roof of his mouth, he let out an expeditious breath while simultaneously flicking his tongue, slapping the back of his bottom front teeth.

A bullet-like spurt of flames whisked towards its target before veering right at the very last second. Upon impact it dispersed, nicking the boulder that Growlithe was trying to hit head-on.

"Ahhh, dammit!" proclaimed the dark-haired boy, "we almost got it!"

They were so close…

Ash had to admit, he was impressed. He didn't think it would take too long for Growlithe to get the hang of the two moves that he introduced to him on their first day after leaving Celadon. But, he did expect it to take longer than two weeks.

Take Down was rather simple. He figured that one out in a few days. But, Flame Burst… No matter how competent Growlithe was with his Ember, he'd comprehended the subtle adjustments that the technique required ahead of schedule.

Now, they still had some minor brushing up to do. Growlithe wasn't consistently hitting a stationary target, which meant that the chances of it working in a live battle were still low. But, that would come with repetition.

What was important was that Growlithe could get his flame to spread with a delayed reflex. Essentially, he'd figured out how to expel his natural element in a way that it could expand post-release.

"You've just got to accelerate your tempo," proposed Ash, "heightened velocity will improve your aim."

The puppy pokemon nodded, acknowledging his trainer's words.

"Only a little bit," encouraged the dark-haired boy, symbolically pinching his thumb and his index finger together to indicate how close they were, "a little faster and I think we've got it."

Growlithe's gaze shifted back to the immobile target before igniting his internal flame once again.

XXX

The northwestern city limits were about as rural as Ash had expected. He could still smell the wavering fragrance of the resting paddy fields that they had just bypassed during the closing moments of their journey to Fuschia. Once they passed through the welcome gate, the most striking observation was the sheer volume of dormant cherry blossom trees that covered the landscape. Ash could imagine how beautiful it must look during March and April when they reached peak bloom.

Growlithe had been frequently pointing his snout in different directions as he blissfully sorted through the plethora of new aromas. This was a common behavior whenever they got to a new place, but Ash could tell that his pup was enjoying this moment even more than usual.

"Smells nice doesn't it?" queried Ash, reaching down and scratching behind Growlithe's ear.

As they traipsed through the rustic scenery there were dozens of old-timey shops and street vendors. Ash wasn't positive, but he wouldn't be surprised if this was what the entirety of Fuschia looked like back in the day.

He knew at some point the setting would transition into modernity. He had seen the towering skyscrapers in the far off distance when he approached the city from the hilltops. Too bad — he obviously hadn't been over there yet, but he could already tell he liked this better.

The area was notably pokemon friendly. Numerous people waltzed around with their pokemon of choice as they engaged in the aggregate of activities that gave the area character. A few of the shop owners even worked side by side with their pokemon.

Ash's favorite was an old man that ran a tofu-burger cart. He had a scraggy long beard and wore a fuschia colored head band tied around his head that read: Soul. The energetic elderly man took orders from customers as his burly machoke with a matching head band worked the grill. Ash thought about releasing Charmeleon to test out if his friend's aversion to the species had diminished at all since their talk in Vermillion, but he decided against it. He didn't want to ruin the good vibes.

There were even street performers. Ash couldn't help but smile as he stopped and listened to a beautiful young woman in traditional geisha make-up and garb, humming and chanting age-old Kanto hymns. Sitting crossed legged beside her was a hitmonlee that wore a sizable round-brimmed hat made of bamboo. The fighting-type expertly used a tool that Ash thought was called a bachi to slap the strings of its shamisen. It played in perfect harmony with its trainer's melodic singing voice.

Ash and Growlith spent a couple of hours enjoying the serene atmosphere of what he'd heard one of the many street vendors call — Old Town Fuschia — before eventually catching a taxi to the Pokemon Center.

It was only a little over a mile south of Old Town Fuschia, so they could have walked. However, Ash decided after being on the road for nearly two weeks that he would happily pay the affordable taxi fare if it meant saving his legs. After all, his trainer account was in much better shape than it was when he left Celadon. He'd participated in more battles on the way to the city of soul than he ever had while traveling between cities. He didn't have a choice—Ash needed the money, and his pokemon needed the experience.

The drive to Fuschia's Pokemon Center was pleasant. The considerate driver let Growlithe ride in the back seat, which was nice. He even rolled down the window for his friend. The puppy pokemon joyfully exposed his head to the cool breeze created by the motion of the vehicle.

Along the way, Ash enjoyed the sight of the wide-ranging bucolic neighborhoods that lined both sides of the paved road that they drove down. He enjoyed the ride so much that he was moderately disappointed when they arrived at their destination.

After paying the friendly taxi driver, Ash carefully used his eyes to survey Fuschia's pokemon center — a peculiar tradition of his. It's not like there were that many differences from city to city. The outer appearance of this one reminded him of the one in Pewter. It was about the same-size, and had a nearly identical dome-shaped roof made in the image of a pokeball.

Once Ash and Growlithe passed through the large, automated doors and into the expansive lobby, his first thought was that — although the decor and placement of apparatuses was a mirror image of the pokemon center in Pewter — the atmosphere was completely divergent.

Pewter City's pokemon center was bustling — this place was dead.

Growlithe looked up at him with a puzzled look, clearly on the same page.

Other than Ash and his pup, there was only one other kid conversing on one of the many video phones located in the far right corner of the lobby. The only other person in the room was Nurse Joy, unabashedly nodding off behind the front desk.

"Excuse me," said Ash, hesitantly, trying to get her attention.

She startled awake, nearly falling out of her chair.

"Oh my, was I asleep!?" blurted the pink-haired nurse — her face flush with embarrassment.

"Don't worry about it," replied Ash, waving his hands, signaling that it wasn't a big deal, "I'd probably fall asleep, too, if I were you."

He paused, raising a curious eyebrow before continuing, "it's quiet…where is everybody?"

Her expression shifted from flustered to frustrated in response to Ash's question.

"There is nobody," she said with a scowl, "you can blame Koga."

XXX

After having Nurse Joy restore his friends to perfect health, and grabbing a bite to eat in the cafeteria, Ash was winding down for the day. With Growlithe, Clefairy, and Eevee all piled up beside him — and Haunter floating around the room aimlessly waiting for his meal — Ash was busy looking at his pokedex, sifting through several species' entries.

Towards the end of his trip to Fuschia, he had decided that he would spend at least a couple of weeks in the city. He needed more time to prepare for Koga, and there were plenty of other things he wanted to do while he was here. The first of which was to make a trip out to the northernmost part of Fushcia where the Safari Zone was.

The famous pokemon preserve was one of the most iconic places in all of Kanto. It was a nearly 10,000-acre plot of land, purchased by an exorbitantly wealthy pokemon enthusiast named Kaiser Baboa about thirty-five years ago. Baboa turned the land into a vast, perfectly maintained habitat for a number of Kanto's more uncommon and rare species to roam.

What makes the Safari Zone unique, though, is something called the Safari Game. Typically, the point of a preserve is to protect a particular environment, and the species that call it home, by restricting access. Although he apparently is a big time proponent for ecology and pokemon well fare; Baboa is also a grand advocate in sanctifying the relationship between humans and pokemon.

For this reason, the Safari Zone was created for two purposes. The first was to regrow the population of a handful of species that were nearing endangerment at the time that the preserve was founded. And the second was to allow trainers access to the preserve — at the cost of a rather expensive ticket — to maintain the relationship between humans and the different species that the Safari Zone protects.

Simply put, each individual trainer — with a League certified license to carry pokemon — was granted permission to catch the species within the Safari Zone's parameters.

There were rules and limitations, though. Even though you could enter the Safari Zone on any day of the week, each trainer was only permitted access once every five years. Upon entry, you had a maximum of five days. After that you were forced to leave.

The Safari Game also didn't permit battling, which meant that you couldn't weaken a pokemon to improve your chances of a successful capture. You were allowed to use your pokemon for tracking and self-defense. Ash didn't know how, but Safari Zone personnel apparently had a means by which they could detect whether or not a trainer had wrongfully instigated an altercation with a pokemon that resulted in battle.

In order to catch pokemon, the preserve provided you with custom-made tools. Baboa had exclusive patents on the majority of them, so you couldn't find them anywhere else. Most famous was the Safari Ball — a capture device thats potency fell somewhere between a great ball and an ultra ball. In addition to safari balls, some of the tools available were: bait, status traps, energy rods and energy lassos.

The Safari Zone didn't provide any tools that could injure or unintentionally maim a pokemon. They were always safe, and were usually effective when used wisely.

All of a sudden — as if he had directed them to do so — Growlithe, Clefairy, and Eevee each maneuvered themselves into a position that would allow for them to take a peak at the pokedex's screen.

"Interested?" questioned Ash, slightly amused, "tomorrow we're going to try and track down some new teammates."

According to the Safari Zone website, the following evolutionary lines could be found within its 10,000-acre confines:

Chansey.

Cubone.

Doduo.

Dratini.

Exeggcute.

Goldeen.

Kangaskhan.

Krabby.

Magikarp?

Nidoran (male).

Nidoran (female).

Paras.

Pinsir.

Poliwag.

Psyduck.

Rhyhorn.

Scyther.

Slowpoke.

Tangela.

Tauros.

Venonat.

The next five days would be pivotal. They could change everything. If all went according to plan, Ash would be well on his way to assembling the team that he needed in order to perform well at the Indigo Plateau Conference.

If they went better than expected — even if he didn't catch another pokemon for the rest of his journey through Kanto — he would be satisfied.

There were three evolutionary lines that he would be hunting down. With Growlithe's nose, Clefairy's ears, and Pidgeot's ability to patrol the skies — he was confident he could at least track down two of them.

The other one was a bit of a pipe dream. Everything would have to go perfect, and a miracle would have to occur to make that happen.

Despite how frightening it would be, there was also an evolved form of a certain useless pokemon that he was banking on running into at some point during his journey. Maybe it would happen over the next five days.

All Ash knew was that there was a chance he could leave the Safari Zone with as many as four new additions to his team.

He could also leave with none… That was also a possibility.

Regardless of the outcome — he was looking forward to it.

XXX

The sun had just begun to rise when Ash and Growlithe were fortunate enough to flag down the same cab driver as yesterday. Once again his pup was permitted to share the backseat with him.

North Fuschia was something in-between Old Town Fuschia and what Ash envisioned Central and Eastern Fuschia to look like. He hadn't seen either — expect from a distance — but Nurse Joy did tell him that Fuschia gradually gets more modern from West to East until you reach the outermost city limits.

Some neighborhoods still had a rustic feel, whereas most were suburban. There were several, lush, green public parks, and an abundance of shopping centers. Traffic was much busier in this area, but it wasn't too bad. If Ash were to describe it in one word it would be: polite. This was probably the part of Fuschia that city people would want to move to once they retired. Not quite as loud and active as the inner city, but enough to do so that you didn't get bored.

The drive was longer this time. It was about forty-five minutes from the Pokemon Center to the Safari Zone Trolley Station. Ash's favorite taxi driver divulged that it was about a fifteen minute trolley ride from the station to the Admission Center. The trolley station also served as a security checkpoint. There was only one drivable road to the Admission Center, and the only way to reach it was by trolley. No one besides Safari Zone personnel were given permission to operate a vehicle beyond the checkpoint.

Upon arrival — on top of standard fare — Ash gave the driver a modest tip. He wanted to give more, but he needed enough money for a ticket to participate in the Safari Game as well as make do during the rest of his time in Fuschia. Due to his Silph co. platinum card, he didn't need much. But, he would be spending more time in Fuschia than he did most cities, so it was better to be frugal.

It was early, so the trolley station was quieter than it would be in an hour or two. At the moment there were just four others in line at a small ticket booth — the type you see at a theme park. Above the booth there was a sign hanging from a metal, pine-green, overhead covering that read: Safari Zone Trolley Station. Behind the booth stood a young brunette woman that looked to be in her mid-twenties. She had on the emblematic uniform that all Safari Zone personnel were required to wear: A tan safari hat, pine green collared shirt, a personnel issued staff lanyard, tan khaki pants and brown hiking boots.

Behind the ticket booth was a long pop-up portable table. Standing at the end of the table were two intimidating looking security guards. Each one was accompanied by a growlithe. As soon as Growlithe spotted them he began to whine and his tail started to wag with excitement — an involuntary physical reaction that he always had when he saw another member of his species.

A ways beyond the security checkpoint, Ash could see eight, open-air, pine green trolleys with tan trim. They were about half the size of a city bus. Ash knew that some trolleys functioned using a rail-system, but these were the kind that had wheels. 'Safari Zone' was printed in white along the side of the vehicle.

"Pokedex, please," said the woman working the booth as she held her hand out patiently.

Ash handed it over. She connected it to a pokedex reader before smiling and handing it back to him.

"Enjoy the Safari Zone, Mr. Ketchum. Please step forward to have your bag checked."

"Thank you," replied the dark-haired boy before sauntering over to the two security guards.

"You've got good taste," said one of the security guards, glancing down at Growlithe.

Ash watched as the two growlithe belonging to the security guards approached his pup. They both sniffed him a few times before doing the same to Ash. They turned to their trainers and gave them a jovial yip.

"You're good to go," said the other security guard, pointing towards one of the trolleys.

"Don't you need to check my bag?" asked Ash, confused.

He had already taken off his backpack and placed it on the edge of the portable table.

"Nah," said the security guard that had previously pointed, "if you can train a good looking growlithe like that you have to be trustworthy. Besides, our growlithe would know if something was off about you."

The other security guard just smiled in agreement.

Ash was kind of relieved. There were a lot of valuable items in his backpack. He didn't usually let anyone touch it other than his pokemon. However, in a case like this, the dark-haired boy was ready to oblige. His trip to the Safari Zone was way too important to let paranoia get in the way.

He let his pup play with the security guards' two growlithe for a bit, until he saw a couple of people start to board one of the trolleys.

"I know you're having fun," said Ash guiltily, "but it's time to go."

Growlithe lowered his head in disappointment, letting out a brief whimper.

It was rare that the young trainer saw his friend have such a dejected expression. Sometimes, he forgot that Growlithe was still young. It was natural for him to yearn for his own kind. If he had time before the League tournament, maybe he'd stop by Pallet once he'd earned all of his badges. It would be good for Growlithe to see his mother.

As a matter of fact, it would be nice if he got to see his mom as well. He had been keeping in touch with her via his xtransciever, but it wasn't the same.

He missed her…

Despite his disappointment, Growlithe followed Ash to the trolley that was beginning to load passengers. Pretty soon they'd be at the Admission Center — the gateway to the Safari Zone.

XXX

The admission center was essentially a massive wooden lodge. The lobby was extraordinary. Not only was it big — but the interior walls were plentifully bestrewn with numerous exquisite carvings of the pokemon of Kanto. Spread out throughout the lobby were several pieces of comfortable looking furniture that appeared to be antiques.

There were a couple of booths that Ash couldn't wait to check out. One was a necessity for him to visit before he entered the Safari Zone. The other provided information.

The check-in station looked like a reception desk at a hotel. Ash wasn't sure, but considering the staggering size of the building, he had a feeling that there were rooms available for those that wanted to stay overnight.

"I'd like to do the Safari Game," said Ash to the receptionist.

"There's three options," replied the blonde-haired man, "bronze, silver, or gold?"

"Whats the difference?" asked Ash.

"Five-hundred for bronze, seven-hundred and fifty for silver, one-thousand for gold," recited the receptionist, "bronze is twenty Safari balls, silver is thirty-five, and gold is fifty."

He gave Ash a smile before continuing, "all packages give you access to whatever tools you want to use."

"Gold," he replied.

Ash figured that the package he purchased was typically bought by trainers that were looking to catch pokemon in bulk. But he didn't care. Sure…it was pricey. But if it improved his chances of leaving the Safari Zone with what he wanted, it was worth it. He couldn't rely on battle, so he needed to give himself as many advantages as possible.

"Gold it is," stated the Safari Zone employee.

After using Ash's pokedex to process the transaction, the blonde man removed a silver key from one of his pant pockets before crouching down behind the desk. After a few moments, he stood back up, holding a small, pine green depository case in his hands.

"Fifty Safari Balls," said the employee, handing it over to Ash, "you'll want to head over to the gear booth first," he explained pointing to his left, "after that you'll register at the information booth," now pointing to the right.

Ash nodded, heeding the employee's suggestion.

After spending quite a bit of time accumulating the tools that he would need, Ash and Growlithe made their way over to the information booth. Working the booth was a muscular middle-aged man. He had a large, scruffy brown beard as well as two full sleeves of tattoos on both of his arms. His lanyard read: Walker Hughes. Walker's appearance gave off the impression that he wasn't the type of guy that you wanted to mess with. Ash had noticed him the second he walked through the door to the admission center; he was kind of hard to miss.

"Howdy, kiddo!" boomed Walker with a gigantic toothy grin, "here for the Safari game!?"

"I am," replied Ash, shaken by Walker's jovial greeting.

His mom had taught him not to ever judge a book by its cover. He shamefully thought back to the time that he lectured Charmeleon in Vermillion about his disgust for the machop line — he should be better about following his own advice.

"Good, good!" Walker exclaimed, "before we get you registered, there are a few things we need to go over!"

The brawny man reached for the over-sized tablet in front of him before pressing the power button and turning it so that they could both see. He pulled up a map of what Ash immediately recognized to be the Safari Zone. He had already studied it on his pokedex while lying in bed last night, but it would be good to get a refresher from an expert.

"There are four areas," said Walker, finally bringing his voice down to a reasonable level, "The Center Area, Area One, Area Two, and Area Three."

Ash listened intently as Walker began to point to different parts of the screen, "the dimensions on the map don't do it justice, but the Center Area is the most expansive part of the preserve. It's about 3,500-acres, and you can find quite a few of the species there."

He moved his large finger, "east of the Center Area is the 2,500-acre Area One. This is where most people like to go fishing. There's ponds and small lakes in all of the areas — but you'll find Lake Kaiser over here. If you're looking for a strong water-type this is the place to go."

"Are there any gyarados?" asked Ash.

"A handful," smirked Walker, "magikarp evolutions are random and infrequent, so there aren't a ton. But they're in there. Even the energy rods can't pull one of those suckers up, though. If you plan on going after one you got to lure it to the surface. The only way to do that is with a strong water-type of your own. Gyarados is one of the only pokemon on the preserve that Baboa is loose with the 'no battling' rule. If you catch a wild gyarados' attention, it's going to attack. There's personnel throughout the reserve to help out in case things go awry."

Walker twirled the mustache on his beard as his face got serious, "I will tell you though — what's your name?" he interrupted himself mid-sentence.

"Ash."

"Ash, gyrados aren't for the faint of heart. Once you open that can of weedle, there's no going back. It's much safer on the preserve, but there's no telling what they'll do. They're one of the species that forced Baboa to start making trainers sign waivers."

Ash knew…

He knew how dangerous they were, but he had dreams. And to achieve them, he'd have to take risks.

Moving on Walker pointed to the topmost part of the map, "the northern part of the preserve is Area Two — 2,800-acres. This is where you'll find a lot of the big game. It's pretty flat out there, so depending on what you're looking for it's not that hard to track most species."

He pointed at Area Three, "this is Area Three — 1,200 acres. I'd advise that you avoid this one."

Ash raised an eyebrow, "how come?"

"Unless you look younger than your age," stated Walker, "this has to be your first time."

"It is," answered Ash plainly with a nod.

"Ever since Baboa opened the Safari Zone, strong alphas of various species have migrated over there to test their strength. We've never figured out why. Unless, you know what you're doing, it's dangerous. When accidents happen, it's usually in Area Three."

Ash couldn't help but smirk.

Walker placed his hand on his forehead, deciphering the look on Ash's face, "Don't say I didn't warn you. Baboa doesn't believe in restricting access to any of the areas based on trainer experience. If it were up to me, someone your age wouldn't be allowed over there."

He shrugged before continuing, "but I don't make the rules. Did Sheila explain how all the gear works?" He pointed to the raven-haired woman with an athletic body-type that had helped Ash pick out the gear that was presently inside one of the many depository cases in his backpack.

"She did," said Ash, "we went over the rules, too."

"Good! Good!" cheered Walker once again raising his voice, "sounds like you were interested in a gyarados. What else are you looking for?"

"Rhyhorn, scyther, and dratini," replied Ash matter-of-factly."

"You can find some rhyhorn in Area One, but I'd recommend Area Two," informed Walker, "the ones in Area One are typically there because they weren't strong enough to keep up with the main heard."

He readjusted his safari hat as he continued, "you'll find some rhydon in Area Two, but most of them have migrated to Area Three. There shouldn't be any Rhyperior in Area Two. They only return to the main heard during mating season."

"Good to know," said Ash, "How do they evolve? Don't they need a protector?"

"Protectors are made using rhodochrosite," answered Walker with a smile, "there's a cavern in Area Three that has some. The rhydon go to the cavern when they are ready to evolve."

"What's rhodochrosite?"

"It's a rare mineral," shrugged the brown-bearded man, "that's what triggers the evolution. Turning it into a Protector is essentially just a marketing strategy."

"Gotchya" drawled Ash, "you learn something new everyday."

Walker chuckled before pointing to the western part of the Center Area on the map,"scyther can be found in every area, but most of them like to hang out in the woodland part of the Center Area. It's right outside of the entrance to Area Three. They're hard to track down, though. Only about a dozen trainers have caught a scyther this year."

He paused as he looked down at Ash's fire-type, "Look for slash marks on the trees. If your growlithe has a knack for tracking, he should be able to pick up a scent."

Ash took a mental note as he reached down and patted his buddy on top of the head, "he's got a good nose. We'll find one."

"I like your confidence!" bursted Walker, "but don't get your hopes up when it comes to tracking down a dratini…"

Ash was listening as the stoutly-built man scratched his beard, "nobody has caught one in years. They're nearly impossible to track down. Almost all of the recorded captures were in different areas of the preserve, so they don't stick to one place. They almost never leave a trace, and even if they do, their scent is so subtle that most tracking pokemon don't pick it up."

"When's the last time someone caught one?"

"Eight years ago," sighed Walker.

"Eight years!" blabbed Ash.

He knew the odds were low, but he didn't know that they were that low.

"I know it's bad…" drawled Walker, "people are starting to think the 'ultimate prize' of the Safari Zone is a hoax."

He swiped the screen on the tablet and tapped it a couple of times as he continued to speak, "they're definitely out there, though. Baboa releases at least two into the preserve every three years."

Ash did the math in his head. Since there hasn't been a dratini capture in eight years; if Walker was being truthful — and there was no reason to suspect that he wasn't — there should be at the very least sixteen members of the dratini line scattered throughout the preserve.

Ash simultaneously felt both relieved and deflated. If you looked at it one way, there were quite a few dratini out there. The problem was that nobody could find them.

"What's strange is this," uttered Walker pointing at the data on the screen, "it happened before I started working here, but if you look at the capture records for dratini, it shows that two of them were caught in the same year."

Ash's eyes widened as he read the information on the tablet.

Pokemon: Dratini – Location: Area 1 – Trainer: Andrew Gerdes.

One of the trainer's names belonged to the First-Class Ace Trainer that Ash had met near the end of his time in Celadon — the young man that had single-handedly demolished Team Rocket's head quarters underneath the Game Corner.

Pokemon: Dratini – Location: Area 3 – Trainer: JR Tanner.

The other name belonged to a member of the Elite Four. JR Tanner — the man that even Sabrina says is way out of her league.

"I don't know anything about this Andrew Gerdes guy," said Walker, "but you'd have to live under a rock to not recognize the name of someone in the Elite four."

Ash would be shocked if Walker knew who Andrew Gerdes was. First-Class Ace trainer's identities were wiped from most public records — apparently they missed this one.

"I'm pretty sure JR Tanner is only eighteen," mentioned Walker, placing his hand on his chin, "which would make him somewhere around your age when he caught that dratini."

Ash smirked as he processed the Safari Zone employee's words.

They may be monsters now, but at one point Andrew Gerdes and JR Tanner were just 10-year-old kids like him. If they were able to catch one when they were his age — outside of luck, he didn't see any reason why he couldn't.

The conversation was hastening to its conclusion as a line began to form behind him. Walker made him sign a waiver that Ash didn't bother to read before using a pokedex reader to register him to participate in the Safari Game. When the registration was complete, he pointed towards the check-in-station.

"Go see Alastair!" exclaimed Walker as he handed back Ash's pokedex, "He'll show you where to go!"

Ash thanked Walker before looking down at the Home Screen on his pokedex. The format had shifted. At the very top of the screen it read: Safari Game. In the center was a map of the preserve. There was a little blue blinking dot just below the Center Area that represented his current location. In the top right corner was a timer — 119:59:14.

Ash started to speed-walk towards the check-in station, beckoning Growlithe to follow, "let's go, Growlithe, time is of the essence!"

Growlithe let out an excited howl.

This was going to be fun.

XXX

After a brisk ten minute ride in one of the many open-air, pine green safari vehicles, the tall brunette driver named Jane — who had divulged to them that she also worked as a tour guide — dropped Ash and six others off at the the main-entrance to the Center Area.

Ash could see it from the moment they left the admission center, but it was even more imposing up close. The sleek, green metal walls of the enclosure stood at least forty-feet tall. The scope was momentous. From east to west as far as Ash could see, it laid-out along the landscape.

The access gate that stood directly in front of them was silver in color. Even though it looked nothing like it, for some reason it reminded him of a medieval drawbridge gate. Ash figured it had something to do with the sheer immensity of the walls that it belonged to. The ten-year-old boy felt like a knight, and what lied beyond the gate was what he came to conquer.

About twenty-feet from the gate stood a modular that looked paltry in comparison to the enclosure. There was a sign on the door to the modular that said: Please Bypass And Proceed To Gate. Ash didn't know for sure, but he assumed that there was someone inside the modular that operated the gate.

As they approached the gate he released Growlithe. Ash had been asked to return his starter so that they could fit more passengers in the safari vehicle. A couple of months ago, Growlithe could have sat on his lap, but now he was too big for something like that.

"It's big isn't it," said Ash as he watched his friend look up at the enclosure with wonder in his eyes.

They got to within a bus-length of the gate before they heard a deafening mechanical sound. It slowly swung open, gradually revealing a vast open plain.

"Kind of feels like when we're leaving a city," said Ash to Growlithe as they passed through the gate.

Growlithe barked in agreement, looking up at his trainer.

Ash and Growlithe put some distance between themselves and the group of people that they had entered with. He only had five days, so he didn't have time for small talk. If he had to communicate with Safari Zone personnel so be it, but this was an experience that he wanted to have with just his pokemon.

They had already seen a few species, namely nidoran and paras. There was a pair of the poison-type mammals — one male and one female — drinking out of a small watering hole, and he spotted what looked like a paras in a shallow brush. He'd seen a couple of pidgey and spearow, but they technically didn't count as Safari Zone pokemon. There was an obvious reason why there were no winged flying-types listed as inhabitants of the preserve. They could not be bound by the enclosure.

To be honest, he didn't expect to see much where they were. It was only common sense to assume that most pokemon would avoid getting too close to the preserve's parameters.

They didn't have enough time to explore everything, but Ash decided he would remain on foot for a short while. Of the pokemon he was searching for, only scyther could be found in the Center Area. Walker said that there were some castaway rhyhorn, but Ash didn't want to leave the Safari Zone with a runt. In an hour or two, he'd take to the skies on Pidgeot. For now, he'd see what was going on in the biggest part of the enclosure

XXX

It had been about an hour since they passed through the gate. Ash and Growlithe had just finished taking a break to eat. At this point, they had seen tons of pokemon with very little variation. They'd come across more nidoran than Ash could count. There had been a few nidorino and nidorina that they watched from a distance, but opted to steer clear of. Ash didn't think it was a good idea to approach anything that wasn't in its primary stage unless he wanted it.

Although they weren't nearly as common as the heard of poison-type mammals that called this area their home, there were quite a few doduo and dodrio. Even though he wasn't interested in catching one, he found watching the wingless evolutionarily line highly amusing. It was one thing to watch a doduo's heads fight — it was another thing to watch a dodrio's heads bicker — but it was laugh out loud comical to watch them in a flock. So many heads — so many squabbles.

The brush was getting thicker as they headed north — so you really had to look — but they had spotted a few more paras. He imagined that there were parasect amongst the brush too, but he had yet to catch a glimpse of one. The most noteworthy pokemon so far was a lone cubone napping on top of a boulder. It didn't move an inch as they sauntered by it.

They'd passed by quite a few ponds. Ash considered testing out the energy rod he had gotten at the gear booth, but decided against it. He'd wait until he got to Area One to go fishing. Besides, he highly doubted that Safari Zone personnel would put anything of interest in ponds this close to the main gate. The last thing he wanted to do was waste time reeling in magikarp and goldeen.

As for the scenery, Ash had come to a conclusion. Plain lands weren't all that interesting when you knew they weren't occupied by pokemon that you wanted. After feeling like he had given the southernmost part of the Center Area a sliver of a chance, he returned Growlithe before releasing his massive avian.

"Hey, buddy, ready to go flying again?"

Pidgeot squawked with passion as he observed the expansive scenery.

XXX

Due to the auspicious nature of flight, Ash and Pidgeot were able to survey most of the Center Area in good time. Flying at a low altitude, they caught a glimpse of several more species. The central and northern plains were inhabited by a heard of tauros that was grand in numbers. They stampeded across the flatlands, leaving a cloud of aggravated dirt and brush.

Just like Walker disclosed, littered amongst them were some unremarkable grazing rhyhorn. From a birds-eye view, it was hard to fully grasp their height, but Ash could tell by their girth that they were meager for their species. He would have to go to Area Two to find the type of specimen that we wanted.

All up and down the eastern portion of the Center Area were more members of the — male and female — nidoran evolutionary lines. He didn't have to ask one of the many Safari Zone employees, patrolling the preserve, to know that the poison-type mammals dominated the Center Area's population.

Pinsir could also be found to the east. It was interesting to see so many of their horns poking out of the tall grass, but he would leave it at that. A lot of people viewed the stag-beetle pokemon as being in a similar tier to scyther when it came to bug-type supremacy in Kanto. Ash disagreed profusely. Scyther was way more versatile with its dual-typing, and it could evolve into scizor. He had no desire to train a pinsir anyway. Their floor may be high, but the species' ceiling was stunted by its inability to evolve.

He hadn't had Pidgeot fly them to the western side of the Central Area yet. They would head that way to try and find a scyther when Ash decided it was time to check out Area Three. According to Walker that's where they liked to reside.

Presently, they were beginning to inspect Area Two. When they flew over the sprawling game fence that separated the Center Area from Area Two, Ash could make out the looks of several astonished trainers and Safari Zone employees in reaction to Pidgeot. Many pointed and pulled out their binoculars at what was likely a once in a lifetime sight. A pokemon with the king's nature was incredibly rare after all.

The southernmost part of the area that held a lot of the big game was somewhat hilly for a ways. However, as they made their way further north it became flat again. It was nice to see a change in scenery for a moment, but he wasn't surprised. Large species preferred level plain lands. It was easier for them to maneuver.

They'd flown over a court of khangaskhan. The hefty marsupials were the only pokemon within the enclosure that were still considered endangered by pokemon researchers. It had taken a lot of time and effort — by a lot of people — to resurrect the species that had almost gone extinct forty years ago. Some believe they were the deciding factor when it came to Baboa's decision to purchase the land.

The land that the Safari Zone now occupied has the greatest population of kangaskhan in all of Kanto. It wasn't until fifteen years ago that Baboa made them available to capture on a limited basis. To this day, all trainers were only allowed a lifetime capture limit of one when it came to the parent pokemon.

Due to their scarcity, Ash was tempted to catch one. However, they weren't natural battlers; they were instinctual nurturers. The only time they engaged in battle was when the pygmy joeys that dwelled in their pouches were threatened. He could respect their way of life, but he only knew how to train pokemon that sought strength.

The moment that Ash caught a glance of the rhyorn heard, he beckoned Pidgeot to land. They settled on a spot behind some unoccupied brush about a hundred yards shy of the rock-types. Due to his avian's size, most pokemon would have already been aware of their presence. But, rhyhorn were known for being nearsighted, so they should have gone unnoticed at this distance.

"Thanks buddy," lauded Ash as he gently stroked the plumage on his flying type's chest, "feel free to roam, but don't fly too far in case I need you. It's time to get serious."

Pidgeot waited for Ash to release Growlithe and Wartortle before unshackling his wings and taking to the skies.

"Growlithe. Wartortle," said Ash, getting his starter and water-type's attention, pointing through the brush at a large group of horned rock-plated mammals.

"We're gonna catch one of those."

Growlithe looked at him with intent, while Wartortle showed a glimmer of emotion within his detached expression. When it came to his turtle pokemon that was significant improvement. One day, Ash hoped he could dig out even more of his buried personality.

"There are rules in this place," said Ash to Wartortle, "we can't battle them. We have to use tools."

Wartortle was one of the few members of his team that didn't have prior knowledge of where they were and what they were doing. Ash was never confident when it came to deciphering Wartortle's thoughts, but he figured he was likely confused.

"Think of it like a challenge," smirked the dark-haired boy, "we're not allowed to use any attacks that make direct contact with any of those rhyhorn. Sounds tough doesn't it?"

Wartortle nodded his head.

"But, I've got a plan," said Ash as he removed the depository case that held his safari tools from his backpack.

He withdrew some rhyhorn bait in addition to one of the status traps that he picked out. Rhyhorn were grazing pokemon, so the bait was a mix of fresh grass and legumes. Sheila — the woman that worked the gear booth — told him that this particular mix of loose verdant grass was more potent than anything that grew naturally on the plains. It would get their attention. It was currently in a large vacuum sealed bag, so the rhyhorn had yet to smell it, "this'll draw one in."

He then showed them the circular, frisbee-sized, pine green device. Minus the fact that it had a screen, it sort of looked like an oversized smoke detector. In addition to the display, there were three button — one to initiate the installation, the other two to set a timer, "this will make it stay put."

Ash scratched the back of his head before continuing, "it's full of a gas that can briefly paralyze one of those guys."

He noticed a look of unease on Growlithe's face.

"There's no pain," said Ash, smiling to ease Growlithe's uncertainty, "it just freezes them for couple of minutes."

Growlithe's expression softened in response to his trainer's words.

Ash understood. Battling was one thing, but pain inflicted by human technology was different. It didn't sit well with most people, so it definitely was spurned by pokemon. For that reason, the Safari Zone was applauded for designing tools that were safe. Battling was prohibited for a reason. Baboa didn't want to see any pokemon get hurt within the confines of the enclosure.

"Wartortle," said Ash looking him in the eyes, "once I figure out which one we're going after, it's your job to lure it away from the heard."

The turtle pokemon nodded as he listened.

"Since their eye-sight is bad from a distance," informed Ash, "they startle easily. You're the best on the team from long-range."

The Rhyhorn line was known for being a tough dual-type battler. In Ash's opinion, its fully-evolved form rhyperior was the most devastating ground/rock-type in all of Kanto. If you didn't have the type-advantage, they were difficult to beat even at their primary stage. However, their eyesight was a genuine weakness. It got better when they evolved into rhydon — and was essentially a non-issue at the rhyperior stage — but it could be exploited in earnest while it was still in its rhyhorn stage.

Ash's plan was to have Wartortle use a high-pressure Water Gun directly behind one of the rhyhorn. With his turtle pokemon's insane accuracy, it should be a cinch. In theory, it would startle the targeted rhyhorn, causing it to flee. Rhyhorn didn't have great quick-twitch, side-to-side, mobility; so, whatever direction it was facing is where Ash would set the trap. Even if it stopped short of the trap — once it settled down — Wartortle would use Water Gun to open the seal on the bag of bait. Which would be placed in proximity within the status trap's 12-foot radius.

…Like most important things in life, the key to everything was timing.

He went over some more additional details of the plan with Wartortle. Since tracking wasn't necessary, Growlithe only had two jobs — moral support and to safeguard Ash if the plan turned out to be a dud. Protection was all that he expected from Pidgeot, who circled above them — the raptor-like avian didn't do moral support.

For the most part, this would be up to Ash and Wartortle.

"Now, it's just a matter of picking one out," said Ash as he peaked out from behind the brush.

XXX

It was late afternoon.

They had been observing the heard for hours. Size, nature, tendency, plate structure, signs of evolution — all factors to consider before making a decision.

It was important to remember that although rhyhorn typically moved in a heard, they weren't necessarily pack-oriented by nature. They roamed together for the sake of convenience, instinctually recognizing that strength was in numbers.

Loyalty to the group wasn't a factor. A male rhyhorn took care of its mate if they had one. The same could be said for a female rhyhorn and its young. Outside of that, the group lived amongst each other without really living with one another.

This was a very important fact when considering the strategy that he'd come up with. Some pokemon groups defended each other, rhyhorn typically didn't unless they considered one family.

Ash didn't want to tear up a family if he didn't have to. His mom and pokemon meant everything to him. He would be wrecked if he lost one of them, so he would try not to do that here.

There were a few rhydon, and Ash had to admit that they were tempting. But there was something about them that gave him a feeling it was a bad idea. As he watched them, he noticed that one of the rhydon's nature seemed overly passive. It was subservient to the other rhydon. The other rhydon looked strong, but that made him question why it wasn't in Area Three. It made him think that it preferred being the strongest in the heard rather than seeking its highest potential. That was a red flag. They could be mates, which would give it a reason to stay in Area Two, but that was all the more reason not to go after one. He wouldn't want to ruin something like that.

Ash had thought about going to Area Three to go after a more ambitious rhydon, but he knew it was better not to. It would take way more preparation to catch one, and he only had so much time. He was going to need every second of the next four and a half days if he wanted to achieve all four of his objectives. He could be selective, but with a hard time limit, he couldn't afford to seek perfection.

Fortunately, there were a handful of rhyhorn that were impressive. And one in particular stood out from the rest.

He'd made his choice.

"That's the one," pointed Ash.

Wartortle nodded and Growlithe looked ahead with eager eyes, acknowledging Ash's decision

The desired rhyhorn had kept to itself from the moment that they arrived. It wasn't too far from the group, so Ash wouldn't consider it a loner. But, there was enough distance from the other members of its species to where it was advantageous to the plan.

However, regardless of convenience, that's not why he wanted it.

This rhyhorn was a little bit bigger than the next closest in size. Its spikes were massive and its claws were sharp like blades. The dual-type's plate structure was bulky and rugged — its impressive girth indicating that under its armor was considerable muscularity. The horn above its snout was long and notched, which signaled that it was male as well as battle tested. Last but not least, its back legs were substantially bigger than the others — a sign that marked its body's preparation to stand on two legs. It was nearing evolution.

Ash watched as the rhyhorn keenly stared at a large boulder as if in contemplation. Every few minutes it would lope towards the large rock while leaning its body to the right or left. Every time right before it collided with the boulder it came to a stop. It took a while, but the dark-haired boy finally figured out exactly what it was trying to do. Rhyhorn was one of the pokemon he wanted to catch even before he left Pallet. There was a difference between pokedex knowledge and practical application. But, he had studied it and knew its moveset. If Ash had to bet the rhyhorn was trying to teach itself Drill Run.

While nearly every other member of the heard was busy grazing or resting, this one was training.

"That's my kind of pokemon," said Ash to himself, yearning to add the diligent beast to his team.

A big toothy grin appeared on Ash's face as he turned his attention to his turtle pokemon, "I'm going to do my part. Find a good spot and wait for my signal, Wartortle."

His countenance shifted, portraying seriousness, "Growlithe we've got to be quiet. Prepare yourself if it doesn't go as planned."

Ash and Growlithe proceeded to slowly make their way to their destination, crouching in attempt to conceal their presence. As the brush thinned, Ash had to lower himself into an army crawl to stay out of sight. His heart pounded as they covered ground. He couldn't tell if he was nervous or if it was the thrill of the hunt. Every so often he peaked his head out from the brush to see if the heard had noticed him.

So far, so good…

His breath was heavy from exhaustion, and his elbows were irritated from the crawl. Due to their gradual approach, it took what felt like forever to get to their destination. But, Ash didn't care.

They had made it.

They were about fifty-yards from the boulder. Ash confirmed that the rhyhorn was still trying to figure out how to enact Drill Run, while making sure that they were directly in line with what he expected to be its path.

He pressed the installation button on the status trap. Two sharp prongs protruded out from the device. With the help of the prongs he used his weight to push the trap into the earth's surface. Once the trap was set, he placed the bait. He was careful to make sure that there was enough distance between the two that the status trap would go unnoticed. For good measure, he covered the device in the plain land's dry grass.

He anxiously set the timer on the trap to two minutes. Ash needed enough time to get out of its range before giving Wartortle the signal. Growlithe watched with concerned eyes. Ash could tell that the device still bothered him. Typically, he would have comforted him, but right now they needed to move fast and stay quiet. While putting enough distance between themselves and the trap, Ash counted down in his head:

A minute thirty.

One minute.

Forty-five seconds.

Ash raised his left hand up as far as he could out of the tall grass, giving the signal. He placed his other hand on one of the empty safari balls clipped to his belt. The young trainer briskly glanced down to see that Growlithe had braced himself. His eyes darted up to find that Pidgeot was circling above them alertly.

Hopefully, Wartortle had—

It sounded like a grenade had gone off. Ash covered his ears as the boulder exploded, sending debris in every which direction. In wake of the rubble, a pissed off stone brute barreled straight ahead. It moved like a freight-train bucking its head with ferocity.

Ash gulped…he'd hate to be on the other end of that.

It made it about three-quarters of the way to the trap before stopping in confusion as it looked for the culprit.

Shit — He thought it would sever more of the distance.

They didn't have much time.

Ash wished the sound of the eruption didn't break the concentration of his mental timer.

Wartortle needed to—

He heard a whistling sound cut through the air as a bullet-like streak of water made contact where Ash had placed the bait. He shifted his line of sight to its source. Wartortle had done a good job of placing himself in the rhyhorn's blind-spot. The turtle pokemon was crouched down in the brush about twenty yards across from Ash's position. From the look on the rhyhorn's face, either Wartortle still remained incognito, or he didn't care anymore after picking up the scent of the bait.

The hulking ground/rock-type hastened its pace, making its way towards the potent grass and legumes. Out of precaution. Ash and Growlithe were careful to stay out of site. However, he didn't think it really it mattered. Judging by the entranced look on the rhyhorn's face, it was bewitched by the aroma.

Ash adjusted his line of sight towards the heard. They were beginning to stir, reacting to what must have smelt pungent to their kind. The dark-haired boy internally sighed. An exploding boulder hadn't gotten their attention, but a bag of grass more than fifty yards away — Welp…gotta love it.

Clack — when the trap went off the targeted rhyhorn was just barely in range. A cloud of dark yellow gas bursted from ground. It briskly enveloped the anterior half of the brutish, stone mammal. It thrashed for a short moment before falling to ground with a resounding thump. Following impact, it gyrated against the earth's surface, attempting to fight the paralysis. In concurrence, Ash recognized the repetitious sound of booming foot-steps.

…The heard.

They had to move fast. Ash and Growlithe surged out of the tall grass. In a dead sprint, Ash unclipped a safari ball, hurling it through the dissipating artificially enhanced stun spore. It made contact with the lashing rhyhorn. The radiant red light from the capture device encompassed its target, swallowing its form

Rattle

Ash peaked in the direction of the incoming heard.

Rattle.

He prepared to return Wartortle and Growlithe, who were readying themselves for battle.

Rattle.

He put his fingers in his mouth, whistling for Pidgeot.

Rattle.

From a peripheral view, he saw two nearby safari cars headed his direction.

Click.

He hurriedly returned Growlithe and Wartortle before watching the safari ball begin to gleam in an intense white light.

Transfer.

Suddenly, he felt the recoil of Pidgeot's powerful gust collide with the ground directly behind him. Ash winced as he was catapulted into the air before unpleasantly thudding against the saddle. Ignoring the temporary pain, the dark-haired boy reflexively grabbed ahold of the handle straps before adjusting his body into the proper position.

Ash briefly pumped his fist in celebration before looking down at where he previously stood. There were two safari vehicles that had already parked in his previous location. They had released two powerful looking poliwrath that were redirecting the heard with Hydrop Pump. One of the Safari Zone personnel looked up at him with his binoculars. Ash could see the typical look of bewilderment at the sight of Pidgeot before the man gave him a thumbs-up.

Maybe, he hadn't been in as much danger as he thought he was…

After briefly pondering how the duo of employees responded to the scene seemingly out of nowhere, Ash processed his accomplishment. He couldn't help but smile when he thought about Rhyhorn. The dual-type would be safely waiting for him when he returned to the Admission Center when the Safari Game was over. He was slightly disappointed that he couldn't meet him sooner, but there was nothing he could do about that. The Safari Zone transferred all captured pokemon to the Admission Center in order to input them into their records. It was standard procedure, and Ash had been warned about it by the gear booth worker Sheila.

"Thanks for picking me up!" exclaimed Ash as he stroked the back of Pidgeot's neck.

The raptor-like avian let out a passionate squawk as they continued to ascend.

Ash pointed in the direction of Area One, "head east! We got a big fish to try and catch!"

One down.

Three to go.

XXX

To be continued…

XXX

A/N I was rusty at first, but ultimately, I like where it went. I hope you enjoyed it because I certainly had a great time writing it. See you next time.

And this time…next time will be sooner.

Thanks for reading!