As most of you know, I posted an A/N chapter a short while ago explaining exactly what I am about to repeat. However, it was brought to my attention that leaving A/N chapters risks the story getting taken down.

Also, I have a few reviewers who clearly never read the news about me overhauling the story and keep giving me crap about "updating" while the story never progresses past chapter 29.

SO! Here's the deal for those of you who didn't get the memo!

I'm not dropping Challenger after all this time. The bad news is that I feel I've botched things fairly badly, especially over the last few chapters regarding certain matters, which has drawn me to the conclusion that I'll need to to do a serious overhaul on pretty much the entire story. The bones of the fic need to be adjusted so the pacing and storyline as a whole fit better, so it'll be an extensive work in progress. I have no idea how long it'll take me to get it done.

I've also added Challenger to my list of fics on AO3, updating it as each chapter is adjusted accordingly. It might be easier for you guys to follow the progress of each update accordingly there. So, that's what's gonna happen. This might take a long time to adjust, but hopefully it'll get Challenger back on track.

Most of the early chapters will have only minor changes and adjustments to world-building/lore, but major changes will start taking place around chapter 11. From chapter 16 on, the story will pretty much change completely.

Updated chapters will be posted every Thursday, and I'll likely update this A/N as they're updated to keep you guys on top of the situation. As of 3/11/2021, all chapters up to 8 have been fixed. 9 will be updated on the 18th. So when you see the story "updates" and doesn't actually have a new chapter, it's because I've gone back and re-posted an old chapter that has been adjusted for the story.

Great, that's off my back! If ya don't read this and then harass me later about "fake updates" expect to be completely and utterly ignored 3

I know it's a lot for me to ask, but please bear with me!

Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Dragon Master

Ash could only stare at Lance with a look of awe on his face. This was a man who stood at the summit of all trainers in the entire world, the legendary Dragon Master who had commanded his draconic Pokemon to victory throughout a stunning career as a trainer and turned back every challenger who sought his mantle with decisive victory.

Lance only grinned and waved at them with an easygoing attitude. "What's up? That was some battle, kiddo. It's not every day I see one of Surge's take a beating like that."

"Thank you," Ash managed weakly, his eyes wide. Pikachu snickered at his trainer's awe from Ash's shoulder.

Surge snorted. "Sorry for the deception, but our 'great' Champion here wanted to watch you fight as naturally as you can. Didn't want you so starstruck that you couldn't function."

Ash managed to break out of his awe and shot Surge a dirty look. "I could've still battled just fine!"

The giant shrugged. "His idea, not mine. I got a good fight out of ya, that's all I care about!"

Lance snorted at their antics and regarded Ash again. "It was a pretty good fight. Rhydon clearly has some growing left to do, but I'm impressed with how far it's come given how long you've been training. Professor Oak mentioned it was one of your newer Pokemon."

Ash blinked. "You spoke to the Professor?"

"Yeah, he's the one who helped me track you down," Lance grinned. "You've come pretty far for a kid not even a year into your journey. He was waxing on and on about you and your rivals—Gary and Leaf, I think?"

Ash was a bit dazed at the information, but he frowned slightly. "Why were you trying to track me down?"

"Steven mentioned he'd brought you into his and Lysandre's little pet project at Giovanni's recommendation," Lance explained, regarding the boy curiously. "The other Gym Leaders gave you really good reviews when I looked into your record, but Giovanni speaking highly of a challenger never happens. He and I aren't exactly buddy-buddy, but I couldn't help but be a little interested in the trainer that caught his attention."

Ash flushed at that and looked down at his feet. "I didn't put up that great of a showing…My Charizard couldn't defeat Nidoqueen in the end."

"The fact that you pushed Nidoqueen as far as you did for a trainer your age is still nothing to scoff at," Lance told him simply, still smiling. "Giovanni's team isn't at Elite Four level, but they're the most power Gym Leader team Kanto has to offer. He can give my cousin Clair a run for her money, and that's no easy feat.

"But that's besides the point," the Champion went on, his eyes suddenly gleaming. "Professor Oak mentioned something interesting to me—I hear you've got a Dratini getting pretty close to evolving, is that right?"

Ash nodded and Lance's lips curved up into a grin. "Then from one dragon-type trainer to another, let's have some fun. Battle me."

He froze. "Huwha?"

Lance laughed at his reaction. Surge was watching with a smirk and Silver looked as stunned as Ash. "Relax, I'll go easy on you. I won't use my main team against yours—that wouldn't be any fun. I'll use a younger member that I'm still training up. I want to see how good this Dratini of yours is."

He shifted his gaze to look at Silver. "Well, that being said, I'm just as interested in seeing what Silver can do, as well. Giovanni mentioned you had a Vibrava. I didn't realize you two were traveling together, but this makes things easier in a way. I'd like to see both of you in action, so let's make things fun—we'll do a two-on-one battle. Dratini and Vibrava against one of my own."

Ash and Silver exchanged a quick glance, each of them filled with excitement and anxiousness. Ash turned back to the Champion and nodded, then watched as Lance walked to the opposite end of the battlefield. He gulped and glanced at Surge, who merely snorted.

"Don't lose your nerve now, brats," the giant scoffed, then grinned again. "I'm expecting you to entertain me!"

Ash scowled at the Gym Leader, who laughed raucously as he retreated to the sidelines to watch. He faced Lance—Lance, he thought in wonder—on the opposite end of the damaged battlefield and reached for Jasmine's pokeball. Silver joined him at his side and extracted Gawain's pokeball from his belt in turn.

Their eyes widened as the Champion released a massive Dragonite beside him. The beast was as tall as Oak's Charizard at eleven feet and was even bulkier, with tough, golden scales and blunt claws at the ends of its terribly powerful arms. Two long antennae extended from its head and briefly sparked with electricity. The deceptively small wings at its back were perfectly designed to provide the dragon all the power it needed to reach supersonic speeds in the air, and the powerful tail waving gently behind it possessed more than enough power to shatter a boulder with ease.

The Dragonite made a cheerful cry and glanced at Lance, smiling down at its trainer (who looked puny in comparison despite being tall by human standards) before looking across the field to regard Ash and Silver. It waved one of its massive arms at them and they hesitantly returned the gesture.

"Dragonite is just going to watch," Lance called, explaining the dragon's release to Ash. He clapped the huge dragon-type's arm with one hand and reached for a second pokeball on his belt with the other.

Ash watched as a great, green and black beast emerged on the field, covered in thick, armored scales. Though it bore no wings, it was undoubtedly a dragon, with a long, powerful tail, dangerous clawed arms, and a set of snapping jaws. The sides of its head were lined by matching black blades with edges of red, as though it had just slashed through an enemy.

The dragon was nowhere near as large as the Dragonite towering beside Lance, but it was still a massive creature—it stood at an easy six feet and had to weigh at least a few hundred pounds.

"Haxorus only recently evolved," Lance said proudly. "He's not ready to join my main team, but he's probably one of the most powerful Pokemon you've encountered on your journey so far!"

Haxorus snorted in acknowledgement of its trainer before roaring, shaking the air as it watched the boys with sharp, crimson eyes.

Ash stared back, unafraid. Though Haxorus was impressive, he had seen worse. He'd seen far worse. On his shoulder, Pikachu's cheeks sparked with electricity and he made a low hiss.

Jasmine emerged on the field a moment before Silver's Vibrava joined her. They both stared at the opposing dragon with awe as Haxorus observed them in silence.

"This is a teammate of the Champion!" Ash told Jasmine, who tensed at the information. Gawain fluttered his wings with nervous excitement. "No holding back! It's probably more powerful than any other enemy you've fought before!"

Silver glanced at Ash and dropped his voice so Lance couldn't hear. "We should try to take it at range. They won't stand a chance up close with that thing."

"Yeah," Ash agreed, not taking his eyes off of Haxorus as he did his best to analyze the beast in the precious few seconds before the battle began. Though he had no doubt Haxorus was capable of attacking at range, the huge claws, tail, and blades on the sides of its head spoke of a fighter who specialized in close combat. If they got too close, it would probably instantly knock out Jasmine and Gawain.

"Try to disorient it with Vibrava's sound attacks," Ash told Silver slowly. "Jasmine and I will try to paralyze it first and then freeze it. If we can shut it down, we might be able to knock it out."

Silver nodded just as Lance crossed his arms. "Haxorus is going to battle at his own pace. The first move is yours! Begin!"

Haxorus bellowed a challenge, briefly causing Jasmine and Gawain to recoil before they reasserted control over themselves. Ash immediately began issuing orders to his partner. "Agility. Thunder Wave. Don't stop moving. If it catches you, it'll knock you out."

"Gawain, get in the air and use Supersonic," Silver ordered. "Be careful."

The young dragons responded with their unique cries before they carried out the commands they were give. Jasmine disappeared in a blur of motion, circling Haxorus and launching bursts of electricity from the horn on her head. Gawain's wings vibrated and carried him up into the air as he directed a blast of sound at the great dragon.

Haxorus snorted and began to move with speed that had no place on such a heavily armored creature. In an instant, he dove away from the first barrage of attacks and charged up a sphere of emerald energy Ash recognized as a Dragon Pulse, which he fired at Gawain.

"Dragon Breath!" Silver shouted in response.

Gawain quickly shifted his attacks and fired a stream of draconic fire into the incoming Dragon Pulse, generating an explosion of energy close enough to knock him further back in the air. Haxorus looked ready to pursue his briefly stunned prey, but changed tactics and darted away when Jasmine furiously launched another Thunder Wave at him.

"Don't panic," Ash told Silver as Gawain recovered. "Focus on dodging. We won't be able to overpower it head-on."

"Sorry," Silver muttered, obviously tense. This was clearly the first time the boy had faced such a powerful enemy. Ash could sympathize, but right now the heat of battle demanded their focus.

Gawain landed briefly and glared at Haxorus, who was now in a position between him and Jasmine as the Dratini zipped around and fired lances of electricity at the beast. Silver snapped another command. "Boomburst!"

Gawain let out an aggressive cry and aimed his wings at Haxorus before unleashing a blast of noise at the beast, who snorted in response and erected a sphere of green energy to defend itself. The powerful, sonic blast was easily weathered by Protect, giving Haxorus a moment to reassess its situation. Though it was focused, it was evidently taking the battle at its leisure.

On the opposite side of the field, Ash spotted Lance nudge Dragonite, muttering something to the massive reptile. Dragonite rumbled back, but he couldn't afford to watch them for long.

Jasmine was closing in and unleashing ever-faster bursts of Thunder Wave at the beast. Haxorus waited until she was between shots and then let Protect drop. Though he was briefly exposed to Gawain's Boomburst, he ignored it for the most part and lunged out of the way of the two smaller dragons. He gained some distance and then began charging a sphere of intense, orange energy in his jaws. Lance's eyes gleamed.

Ash and Silver watched in awe as Haxorus fired the sphere high into the air, where it exploded into a rain of draconic comets that came down on the field. Ash had never seen Draco Meteor before in person, but it was unmistakable.

"Dodge!" Ash shouted.

Jasmine was a blur as she darted around the field, dancing past each of the comets and sustaining only a mild amount of damage from the shockwaves.

Gawain wasn't so lucky. Though he avoided a direct hit, one blast was still close enough to send him sprawling. The Vibrava was looking tired already—he wasn't heavily armored, and his delicate body was much more easily damaged than Haxorus' tough hide.

Haxorus looked tired after expunging so much energy to use Protect and Draco Meteor in succession, but the dragon shrugged its weariness off and straightened, only to roar in surprise as Jasmine lunged in daringly close and fired an Ice Beam directly into his face.

The crimson eyes blazed with irritation as it snapped its jaws after the Dratini, but Jasmine was so much faster that it wasn't even a contest. She blurred away and began launching more Ice Beams at Haxorus, trying to give Gawain time to recover.

Ash was in support of the change of tactics—if they didn't start trying to actually damage Haxorus, it would outlast them with its powerful bursts of draconic power. Their Pokemon just weren't suited to an extended slugfest with a fully-evolved dragon.

"Freeze it," he ordered Jasmine as she looped in a circle towards him to attack Haxorus at range. "Don't give it time to rest."

Haxorus sneered as Jasmine fired more Ice Beams, stamping his foot to summon up thick walls of stone to block the freezing rays. Ash recognized it as a clever use of Rock Tomb.

Silver answered this time. "Earth Power!"

Gawain buzzed dangerously and his body glowed with golden energy, which he channeled into the earth to shatter the Rock Tomb and disrupt Haxorus' footing. The dragon snarled, then roared as Jasmine took advantage of the opening to blast it with another Ice Beam.

Despite the layer of frost forming on its chest, Haxorus lifted a clawed hand and just smashed the ice away. It ducked under another Ice Beam and leapt back, pushing off with its powerful tail to give it a bit of extra momentum. The beast rumbled as it came to a stop and slapped its tail to the field, triggering a series of Rock Tombs to burst up from the ground and put obstacles in Jasmine's path. Now she had to really watch where she was zipping around.

Unfortunately for Haxorus, this was a field Jasmine was familiar with—she'd destroyed enough of Sobek's Stone Edges in training to know how to handle the new obstacles.

With practiced ease, Jasmine zig-zagged around the stone pillars and smashed them with Iron Tails, blowing them to pieces as fast as they were formed. Lance whistled in appreciation at the expert maneuver, especially as Jasmine wheeled around behind the surprised Haxorus and smashed the back of its head with a daring Dragon Tail. The great beast bellowed in surprise, which was only enhanced as a Dragon Breath courtesy of Gawain smote its face.

At this point, Haxorus seemed to become annoyed enough to quit messing with the younger dragons. He spun on his feet and roared, blowing the Dragon Breath away and forcing Jasmine to retreat further. His body tensed and energy channeled through him. Ash's eyes widened as he recognized the technique as Dragon Dance, but a Dragon Dance far beyond what Pyro was capable of.

No, Haxorus was done playing.

"Look out!" Ash shouted as Haxorus began to move.

Its impressive speed was heightened further now by Dragon Dance, giving it the ability to catch up with even Jasmine, albeit barely. That said, the dragon decided to target Gawain first, blitzing the Vibrava in a frenzy of emerald claws.

"Hyper Beam!" Silver shouted desperately.

Gawain managed to charge up the immensely powerful attack in time and fired it directly into Haxorus' armored stomach, but it did little more than slow the dragon down. Haxorus bellowed and crushed Gawain into the dirt with a Dragon Claw, instantly knocking the Vibrava out. Silver winced and recalled his starter.

Haxorus began to spin around just as a lance of electricity plowed into him from behind. The dragon howled in rage as the Thunder Wave took effect, but he was still strong enough to fight it off.

Unfortunately, Jasmine wasn't done.

She blasted the stunned, enemy dragon with Thunder Waves ceaselessly, determined to see it completely paralyzed before she made another move. Haxorus snarled and struggled against the debilitating attack, but even its great muscles were badly affected by the jolting electricity.

When it staggered in an attempt to move towards Jasmine, she struck.

A ferocious Dragon Tail was crushed into the underside of Haxorus' jaw, snapping his head back. Before the dragon could recover, Jasmine had backed off, launched herself into the air, and smashed the top of its head with another Dragon Tail, bringing Haxorus to his knees from the combination of the impact and the jolts of Thunder Wave.

"Ice Beam," Ash ordered, his heart racing. He refused to lose his cool. Haxorus wasn't defeated yet. They weren't victorious. "Get the legs."

Jasmine backed off and launched her freezing rays at Haxorus once more, covering the powerful, armored legs in a layer of ice that trapped it in place. Haxorus was leaning on its powerful forearms at this point, glaring at Jasmine dangerously. Its eyes gleamed.

Ash only had time to blink as the dragon lifted its tail and smashed it into the field—

A tremor splintered the earth around the point of impact all across the field, causing Pikachu to yelp on Ash's shoulder as his trainer staggered. Jasmine was hurled back by the shockwave as Haxorus was launched into the air by its own attack. They could only watch as Haxorus charged up a Giga Impact and fell back to earth.

The force of the attack absolutely shattered the field and blew Jasmine into the psychic barriers with enough momentum to instantly knock her out. Ash couldn't believe how powerful it was—Haxorus had just used the speed of its fall to give its final attack the strength necessary to defeat Jasmine. He watched as the beast rose to its feet amidst the devastation it had created. It was clearly tired, but more than capable of continuing a battle.

He recalled Jasmine as Lance did the same for Haxorus. Dragonite bellowed cheerfully.

Ash glanced at Silver, who was staring at the annihilation Haxorus had caused with wide eyes. He gave his friend a gentle nudge with one elbow, jerking Silver back to earth.

"You'll get there one day," Ash assured him.

Silver nodded, but he said nothing.

"That was pretty good!" Lance's deep voice caused the boys to spin towards the Champion as he walked around the field with Dragonite and Surge. The Dragon Master grinned at them. "You kids aren't half-bad. Like I said, Haxorus just evolved and he's not up to the standard of my main team, but he's still pretty powerful. You've clearly trained your dragons well."

The Champion paused for a moment before he went on. "Tell you what, let's get everyone healed up and then I'll give you boys some tips."

After treating the exhausted dragon types with revives and potions courtesy of Surge, Ash and Silver remained kneeled by their teammates on the sidelines of the field. Alakazam was currently repairing the devastation Haxorus had dealt upon the battlefield, but it was taking some time.

Lance had just given Haxorus a Paralyze Heal and assured them that Haxorus' thick armor hadn't been damaged enough to warrant use of a potion. The dragon would recover quickly enough on his own, and it showed in the way Haxorus held his head high and looked down on the boys with all the prideful strength of his species.

"Right!" Lance clapped his hands once Haxorus was taken care of, facing the boys as his younger dragon took its place beside the towering form of Dragonite. "You two have done pretty well with Dratini and Vibrava. They're both in good shape for their age. I was impressed with Dratini, especially. It's not often I see a Dratini fight as well as her outside of the ones trained from my hometown."

Ash flushed and looked down, smiling at Jasmine with pride. "She did all the hard work."

Jasmine trilled tiredly and rubbed her face against Ash's arm for a moment before looking back up at the massive Dragonite and getting into a staring contest with the behemoth. Ash decided to let them figure that out.

Lance looked to Silver first, who was waiting anxiously. "Vibrava is in good shape. I can tell he's not got as much battle experience as Dratini, but his power is excellent. At this point, I'd say he's got maybe another two months before he evolves into a Flygon. I'd focus exclusively on getting him more combat experience—as strong as he is, he'd be better off just training for now. His move pool is varied enough that I wouldn't worry about expanding it until he evolves. That's when you'll see his full potential come out."

"Yes, sir," Silver nodded, absorbing every word the Champion had to offer. Gawain fluttered his wings and chittered in response. Like Jasmine, he was in awe of the fully-evolved dragons staring down at their juniors.

Now Lance turned to Ash. "Like I said before, Dratini is quite well trained. She's more or less reached her peak in her current form. You could teach her a few more moves to round out her move pool a bit, but to reach the next milestone of her growth she has to evolve."

"I know," Ash agreed. "Professor Oak said she'd evolve in the next few months, probably. She hasn't started rapidly shedding, though."

"And normally I wouldn't refute the good Professor's knowledge on Pokemon," Lance grinned. "He's one of the most intelligent people I know and he's still a heck of a trainer! My Charizard got the crud beaten out of her by that monster of his when I challenged him a few years before I was Champion. She wasn't too happy about that!

Dragonite laughed at that, a deep rumbling sound that shook the earth. Lance flashed a grin at his partner before returning his gaze to Ash. "But I got off track. Professor Oak knows more about Pokemon than pretty much anyone else in the world, but I've got a bit of an edge on him when it comes to dragon types. Dratini isn't ready to evolve quite yet, but I'd say she's got maybe a month before she evolves."

Ash froze in surprise. "Wait, really?"

"Yes, really," Lance nodded, glancing back at Dragonite. "Once Dratini reach their sixth year, they're often capable of evolving immediately. The wild ones that live in colonies usually evolve right then and there—the trained ones always take longer before they reach that point. The reason why is simple; the energy Dratini accumulate as they grow accelerates if they're around other members of their species, who accumulate and emanate that same energy.

"If a Dratini is on its own—like yours—then it doesn't have another source of that energy to speed up the process of evolution and has to accumulate it all on its own. Professor Oak hasn't had a lot of experience with the Dratini line save for what he learned from raising his Dragonite. It's impressive he's learned as much as he has with just that one specimen, but Blackthorn has gathered knowledge of the Dratini line for generations."

Ash took in the Dragon Master's words steadily and nodded at the end before frowning. "Wait, then how does that speed up Jasmine's evolution? I don't have another Dratini or its evolved forms on my team."

"You don't," Lance admitted before pointing at Jasmine. "But she did—for a while, anyways. Dratini live in colonies with Dragonair and sometimes a Dragonite leader, and I know for a fact the ones living in the Safari Zone are no exception. Assuming she's been living with those other wild Dratini for the past six years before you captured her, she's got an extra boost in terms of accumulated energy over your average trained Dratini. Granted, she's a bit behind the Dratini living in colonies since you caught her before the process was complete, but she's close."

The boy glanced at Jasmine, who was trilling back and forth with Lance's Dragonite in what seemed to be quite an active conversation, if the constant flicks of their tails and Dragonite's swinging arms said anything. The cheerful behemoth nudged Haxorus in an attempt to drag the younger Pokemon into the discussion, but Haxorus snorted and just took to observing Alakazam repair the field. Not dissuaded in the least, Dragonite turned back to Jasmine and continued to speak to her while Gawain was content to listen.

"Now, I can't help you much with their upcoming evolutions other than tell you what techniques to work on," Lance said after a moment, regaining the attention of Ash and Silver. He smirked and crossed his arms. "But I can help you get started on a technique any well-trained dragon ought to know—Draco Meteor."

Their eyes widened comically for a moment before Lance laughed, grinning cheerily. "Well, that might be stretching it some. Draco Meteor is a hard move to learn and it's not something that can be done in a day, much less an hour. I'll give you guys some tips to teach it to Dratini and Vibrava, but your first step should be to teach them both Dragon Pulse. It's practically a prerequisite for Draco Meteor. Get started with that and then you can start training them to use Draco Meteor.

"Don't be dissuaded if you make very little progress at first—this is one of the hardest moves there is to learn," the Champion warned them. "I daresay neither of them will have the firepower for it until they evolve. You'll have to work hard to master it."

Ash and Silver just nodded, enraptured by Lance as he advised them. The Champion crossed his arms and smiled. "Well, let's get started. Surge and I still have a meeting to deal with afterwards…"

Lance kept them both busy for about an hour before he and Surge had to get to their business. The Champion flashed both of the boys a grin before he left. "I'll be looking forward to seeing your progress at the Indigo Conference next Summer. If you keep training properly, you'll make a good showing."

Ash was about to thank him when he frowned slightly. "Wait, Summer? Isn't the Conference not until next December?"

"Whoops," Lance muttered, frowning slightly. "Right, we're announcing that change next week."

Surge snickered and the Champion shot his Gym Leader a look between bemusement and annoyance. He cleared his throat. "Actually, we're shifting the schedule for this upcoming Indigo Conference. It was originally going to take place after the two-year season, but we're shifting it to one and a half years for just this season and the next—it's mostly due to the upcoming changes coming to the Indigo League as a whole."

"Like what?" Silver queried, curious.

"You're aware that the Elite Four comprise of the three best trainers in the region and then myself, who doubles as the strongest of the Elite Four and Champion, aren't you?" Lance asked, to which the boys nodded. He went on. "The system is good, but it's outdated for the rest of the world—we've been meaning to change it for a while now. Soon, we'll adopt the same structure for the League that the rest of the world has taken to: the four strongest trainers in the region comprising the Elite Four and then the Champion separate and above them."

"It's not just those changes that are shaking things up, though," Surge added from behind Lance. "Kanto and Johto have finally recovered completely from the Cipher Wars that devastated our trainer population. The Silver and Indigo Conferences are actually getting too full with their two-year seasons, so we're going to have a couple of staggered seasons and then shift back to the original one-year seasons."

"It's been an awkward decision to make, trying to gauge how many trainers are going to be capable of participating," Lance admitted, though his face became an ugly scowl when Surge mentioned the Cipher Wars before he relaxed again. "But this season's trainers have proven themselves more successful than we expected so early in, so we made the decision to cut the time off by six months now. It still gives you kids about a year to get some training in."

Ash nodded in understanding. It was a blow to the expected time he'd have to train, but it wasn't crippling. A year was still plenty enough for him to get stronger.

"Anyways," Lance threw the boys a cheery wave. "Good luck with your training, kids. I look forward to seeing you both at the conference!"

With that, the Champion and Surge left to Surge's office, leaving Ash and Silver to retreat from the Gym themselves.

As they exited the building, Silver shook his head in amazement. "I can't believe we just battled Lance."

"Me neither," Ash agreed, shoving his hands into his pockets as he wondered at the event. "We've got to step up our game after this."

The other boy nodded before glancing at Ash. "So what should we do now?"

"I say we stock up on supplies and get a room for tonight," Ash decided. "I can re-introduce Pikachu to the team, you can get some training done this afternoon, and we start traveling to Celadon tomorrow."

"Sounds like a plan."

That evening, Ash finally got to do something he'd been looking forward to for months.

"Pikachu," he began, smiling at the little electric type as they walked onto the field behind the Pokemon Center. "You ready to see the team again? You've got a lot of catching up to do. Everyone has grown a lot, and we've got some new members, too. You saw Rhydon earlier."

Pikachu grinned back and nodded eagerly, taking his place by Ash's feet to await his re-introduction to the team he and Pyro had started all those months ago.

Ash went in the order of his friends. Pyro emerged first and immediately brightened upon seeing his old ally, who squeaked at the pseudo-dragon. The Charizard rumbled a greeting and swished his tail happily.

Sobek was next, and the croc's dark eyes gleamed when he realized Pikachu was with them again. He even forgot to snarl at Pyro as he often did in favor of answering Pikachu's greeting with a hiss.

The three of them were the ones who had formed Ash's team at the start, and it made his heart swell to see them together again.

Espeon emerged then and Pikachu's ears pricked up in surprise when he recognized her for who she really was. He hadn't seen her since she evolved, and the difference in her appearance was drastic. Her sarcasm and smug expression hadn't changed much, though, which Ash observed with bemusement as she sat down and observed the electric type lazily. Ash could tell she was pleased to see Pikachu again, although she didn't express it like the others.

Douse was next, and although his form was also different than what Pikachu remembered, he was much easier to recognize. Pikachu squeaked at him excitedly and Douse warbled back, thumping a hand to his belly in response. The Poliwrath was clearly happy to see his old friend.

Fifth was Spectre, and Pikachu was even more surprised to see the ghost's new appearance than he had been Espeon's. Spectre was massive now, a far cry from the small, pranking ghost Pikachu remembered. The Dusclops' single eye glowed brightly upon seeing Pikachu and he made a hollow noise of greeting, waving his floating hands at the electric type in excitement. Pikachu eventually responded with a chirp, cocking his head with interest at the sight of his evolved friend.

Jasmine came next, trilling a greeting to the electric mouse even though they'd seen each other earlier while Jasmine had battled Haxorus. There hadn't been time to really greet one another back then. Admittedly, Jasmine only knew Pikachu a little from their previous visit to Vermillion, but she at least recognized him.

From there on, the rest of the team was brand-new to Pikachu, and he to them.

Arctus emerged and breathed out cold mist, tilting his head curiously at the sight of Pikachu, who squeaked to him. The cub made a friendly growl, lifting his nose up and sniffing to catch Pikachu's scent a bit better.

Last was Rhydon, who spun his drill upon being released. Pikachu squeaked up to him and garnered the attention of the massive rock type, but Rhydon just snorted with boredom and looked at Ash, curious as to why he'd been released if there wasn't a fight to be had.

Ash inwardly sighed. That was something they were going to have to work on.

"Pikachu is back, everyone," Ash told them simply, a smile on his face. The older members of the team made cheerful noises, excited to have their friend back, while Arctus looked slightly confused and Rhydon appeared as though he couldn't care less.

He took a moment to explain things to the newer members. "Pikachu was the first Pokemon I captured with Pyro. He was injured by Team Rocket a while back and had to stay with Surge for a few months, but now he's fully recovered. You guys will get to train with him and get to know him better really soon."

Arctus chuffed eagerly, always happy to make a new friend. Rhydon didn't seem all that impressed and just rumbled, bored.

"Now then," Ash's grin became dangerous and the team perked up immediately, recognizing the expression they were all-too familiar with. Even Rhydon's ears pricked with interest. "Pikachu is going to show us what he can do. He's improved a bit with Surge's Pokemon. Sobek, care to do the honors?"

The Krookodile snarled eagerly as the rest of the team cleared away from the field to give him space. With a hiss, he slammed his fist into the ground and brought up several Stone Edge spires for Pikachu. The electric type rubbed his paws together gleefully at the sight of the familiar targets.

"Let's see what you've got now, Pikachu," Ash told him, to which the mouse squeaked eagerly. "Quick Tail!"

Pikachu vanished in a blur of motion, his tail glowing silver as he channeled the Iron Tail and lunged at his nearest target. With a leap and well-timed spin, he drove the steel type attack into the stone and blew it apart, the momentum of the Quick Attack adding to the force of his technique.

As he landed, Ash barked the next command. "Volt Tackle!"

Pikachu hit the ground running and his body surged with lightning, which became a crackling cloak of electricity as the mouse picked up speed and blitzed straight through another target with explosive force, wincing only slightly upon emerging on the other side. Ash nodded in satisfaction—Surge had clearly given him some tips to reduce the recoil somewhat, but it would take more practice to really mitigate Volt Tackle's negative effects.

Now for the long-range moves. Nuzzle wouldn't test well against something that wasn't biological and he knew Pikachu was more than capable of utilizing Agility well enough. "Thunder Wave."

Pikachu skidded to a halt and unleashed a swift jolt of blue electricity from his cheek pouches, which hit his next target with practiced accuracy. Satisfied, Ash moved on to something more destructive. "Electro Ball!"

The electric type's tail went straight up as he charged a sphere of lightning around the appendage in a matter of seconds. Once it was prepared, he leapt up and with a quick flip, hurled it at the same target he'd used Thunder Wave on. The sphere drilled into the stone before exploding, sending debris flying everywhere.

"Thunderbolt!" Ash snapped out the last command. Pikachu charged up his electricity as he came back down to earth and as soon as he landed, he blasted the final target with a bolt of lightning that seared the rock and blew it to pieces.

"Enough," Ash ordered, to which Pikachu immediately came to a halt and grinned, satisfied with his work as he awaited his trainer's input.

Pikachu had grown like Surge told him. He wouldn't go so far as to say the mouse was strong enough to keep up with the monsters in his team like Pyro, Espeon, or Rhydon, but he was in a healthy position in terms of power. Ash was pretty sure he was strong enough to defeat Arctus, although it would be close—the cub had improved in leaps and bounds lately, and it wasn't like Pikachu hadn't spent all his time away training. Much of it had been rehab.

Visiting Celadon would give Ash a chance to expand Pikachu's move pool, which was still a bit shallow compared to the rest of the team, but they could get started learning other moves Pikachu was naturally able to learn now. Feint, Double Team, and Discharge were on that list, as was Thunder once Pikachu was back in shape. He'd eventually give Pikachu the Zap Cannon TM he'd given Espeon, but he wanted to get some easier moves in before he gave Pikachu something like Zap Cannon to work on.

He had a couple of other ideas he wanted to try out with Pikachu once the mouse was back in shape, but that would wait until Celadon. For now…

"Arctus," Ash announced, causing the cub's ears to perk up. "You will battle Pikachu."

The ice type growled eagerly and approached the field as the rest of the team watched. Pikachu's cheeks sparked as he regarded the cub with interest, while Arctus let out a freezing breath and crouched, ready to charge at the mouse's slightest movement.

"Go!" Ash snapped, driving the two into action.

Arctus immediately fired off an Ice Beam, which almost struck Pikachu and forced the electric type to dart to the side. He was probably surprised at how quickly the cub had attacked—Arctus had worked hard for his skill with Ice Beam. But Pikachu was swift to adapt to the technique and he slipped into Agility to avoid the icy rays more easily.

The cub shot several more Ice Beams at Pikachu as the mouse rushed in a wide circle around his foe and shot a Thunder Wave at Arctus in retaliation. Arctus snarled and jumped out of the way, launching more Ice Beams as Pikachu closed the gap. He watched the mouse close in with a gleam in his eyes and Ash smirked as he realized what was coming.

Pikachu was going in for a Nuzzle, trying to paralyze the cub so he could be finished off easier. What he didn't realize was that Arctus was baiting him in by feeding the arrogant belief that Pikachu could easily dodge the cub's ranged attacks. If there was one thing that hadn't changed about Pikachu, Ash reflected, it was his cocky attitude.

As Pikachu ducked under another Ice Beam and closed in the last few meters, Arctus swiftly reared up and slammed his front paws into the ground. A moment later, a geyser of water blasted Pikachu in the face and sent him flying in the opposite direction with a squeal of surprise. He managed to flip in the air and retain his footing as he landed, but flinched as Arctus blasted him with an Ice Beam that froze one of his legs to the ground.

The cub charged immediately once Pikachu was restrained, picking up speed quickly. Pikachu managed to free himself with a brief surge of electricity and leapt away, unleashing a Thunderbolt at Arctus to buy himself more time to escape. The cub was prepared though and tensed, taking the Thunderbolt as he utilized Endure, which Ash recognized from the faint red glow outlining his body. Arctus hadn't practiced all that much with Endure, but he could use it well enough to mitigate the pain of an attack long enough to close a gap this short.

Pikachu clearly hadn't faced an opponent capable of Endure before, and Ash snorted at the surprised expression on the mouse's face a moment before he winced as Arctus smashed the side of Pikachu's head with a vicious Ice Punch. It was payback for the Thunderbolt and it showed in how effectively it stunned Pikachu, cutting off the electric attack and allowing Arctus to cease Endure.

Arctus pounced on Pikachu in the next moment with a growl, pinning his smaller adversary down with one large paw and bringing the other up to crush another Ice Punch into Pikachu's stomach. The blow knocked the wind out of Pikachu, but it was enough to shock him back into the fight. With a furious hiss, Pikachu blasted Arctus with another Thunderbolt that had the cub recoiling and wailing.

Pikachu quickly rolled back onto his feet and leapt away from the surprisingly powerful cub, who was shaking the pain of the Thunderbolt off as he glared at the electric type. Ash smirked as Pikachu reassessed his foe—Arctus wasn't much of a threat at first glance, but he'd worked just as hard as the rest of the team and was no slouch by any means. He was undoubtedly the weakest member of the team, but he wasn't weak.

Arctus was tough, and Pikachu would not find victory if he underestimated the cub.

Arctus shot another Ice Beam at Pikachu the moment he recovered from the Thunderbolt, relentless in his pursuit of the mouse. Pikachu blurred away with a Quick Attack and closed the gap, dodging around another Brine to tackle Arctus. His momentum was enough to cause Arctus to stagger, but the cub utilized Endure again to soften the blow somewhat and retaliated with Icy Wind. The freezing blast of wind was enough to slow Pikachu just enough as he made to retreat to give Arctus an opportunity to use Slash, which sent the electric type flying back once again.

It was a tactic Arctus had picked up from Douse—attack at range, let the enemy get close, take a hit if you had to, and then pay them back with a bigger one.

Pikachu hissed as another Ice Beam flew over his head, slamming into the ground and creating a small, frozen spire where it struck. The electric type leered at Arctus and when the next Ice Beam came, he blasted it with a Thunderbolt in retaliation.

The energy surges collided in an explosion, giving Pikachu a little cover to dart in after Arctus. He charged up an Electro Ball as he went in, but Ash's eyes gleamed with interest as Pikachu's tail glowed silver with the light of Iron Tail at the same time. It must've been a new move Pikachu was working on.

Arctus glared as Pikachu closed in and barked a challenge, his body tensing with Endure. Pikachu leapt up and flipped forward to slam the attack into Arctus' head and end the fight—

Arctus jumped to the side immediately.

Pikachu had no time to change directions. His tail smashed into the ground and the Electro Ball exploded in a ferocious burst, but he didn't even have time for his feet to touch the field before Arctus, only mildly singed from the attack's shockwave, slammed into Pikachu's flank with both of his front paws as he channeled Ice Punch and crushed the electric type into the dirt.

Arctus was smart this time—he didn't give Pikachu a chance to recover and try to free himself with another Thunderbolt. No, he kept the stunned mouse pinned and charged up an Ice Beam to finish him off.

"That's enough!" Ash commanded sharply. Arctus let the energy die and stepped off of Pikachu immediately. He was tired, but he could keep fighting. He shook his pale blue fur and looked at Ash for approval, which his trainer gave. "Good job, Arctus. That was a really clever feint at the end."

Arctus chuffed with happiness and sat down to groom his ruffled fur. Ash watched the cub, immensely pleased with his growth. Arctus had already come a long way since he joined the team, and he would only grow more from here on out.

The team watched as Pikachu pulled himself to his feet, a little dazed, but not badly hurt. The only thing that might be damaged was his pride, but Ash knew that was mostly due to Pikachu's own arrogance. Being around Surge's team of belligerent electric types was both a blessing and a curse, in that they'd helped Pikachu to recover and probably taught him a few new moves like that interesting combination he'd shown before the battle ended. But they were as smug and cocky as their trainer, and while that wasn't a bad thing, Pikachu had bitten off more than he could chew in this instance.

He'd tried to overwhelm Arctus in a physical fight and lost. If he'd battled at range, he'd probably have at least paralyzed the cub at some point. Arctus was much better suited to close combat than Pikachu was—he was tougher, heavier, and bigger. His low center of gravity made it easy to absorb the tackles in tandem with Endure and retaliate with his greater physical might. The only long-range attacks he had were Ice Beam, Icy Wind, and Brine, and he almost exclusively utilized Ice Beam to attack at a distance. It just packed more raw power than his other moves.

But to get up close with Arctus exposed Pikachu to the nasty Fury Swipes, Slashes, and Ice Punches Arctus was so adept at. The mouse had deigned to pit his own strength against Arctus' without recognizing that in-fighting was where the cub's power truly lay and paid for it.

To be fair, Ash guessed that Pikachu had just been overly excited to show off to his team now that he was back, but he'd get another chance once he was in the swing of things again.

"That was great, buddy," Ash praised Pikachu, who was shaking himself and glancing at Arctus with a surprised expression. He clearly hadn't expected the cub to beat him down. "Arctus is pretty tough, huh? He's been working hard."

Arctus barked in response to his trainer and Pikachu nodded, cocking his head with interest. At least he wasn't taking his defeat personally. If anything, he seemed more interested in the ice type than anything else. Ash kind of hoped they'd develop a friendly rivalry now that Arctus had established his position to Pikachu. It would be good for both of them.

Ash looked back at the rest of the team, who were waiting for his orders now that the battle was over. He grinned at them. "Let's get to training, shall we?"

The gathering of Pokemon responded with their unique cries as the training began.

Team Rocket Executive Proton walked through the door to Archer's office as a grunt stationed outside as the guard hurriedly opened it for him. He stepped into the lavish room and paused upon catching sight of a man he had not seen in quite a while, and most certainly had not anticipated seeing again in Kanto of all places.

Archer was seated at his desk as usual, with Arianna at his side and Petrel sitting in one of the expensive chairs close by. Petrel's Zoroark was curled up on the floor beside its master and grinned at him dangerous, to which Proton sneered. It was a skilled fighter, but it couldn't hold a candle to Proton's Hydreigon.

He looked to Archer after nodding at the newcomer, who dipped his head in response. Proton cocked his head to one side curiously. "I apologize for being tardy. You caught me drilling our senior officers."

"It's of no consequence," Archer dismissed his apology. "We only had a short window for this meeting and an uncertain time frame with which to have it. It was always going to be short-notice."

The man reached to the side of his desk to pet the massive Houndoom sitting loyally by Archer. It made a pleased rumble deep in its throat at the touch, but its eyes never left Proton—even he dared not offend the powerful fire type by showing disrespect. His gaze flitted to the Mega Stone dangling from its collar and he grimaced inwardly, remembering the last time Houndoom had savaged Hydreigon.

He enjoyed his spars with Archer, but he had never won. The man was even more ruthless a fighter than he was, and much more calculating.

"What do you require of me?" Proton asked.

Archer's eyes trailed to their guest. "Our successful contribution for Project: Darkwing and the raid in Lavender Town's mountain range have borne fruit. Would you care to take over and fill us in?"

The man, clad in a dark gray and blue suit, stepped forward. The smirk on his face seemed ever-present. "It would be my pleasure. On behalf of my leader, I apologize for the delay in returning the many favors you have granted us. We wished to ensure our latest products were more advanced than the rough experiments we tested during the war. More than that, my leader wished to grant you products that suited your positions—we will not insult our allies by presenting them with something that is half-baked."

He reached into his suit and extracted three Ultra Balls from a hidden pocket. Proton's eyes gleamed with interest.

"Lady Arianna informed us that she did not need one of these at the current time," the man said with a nod to the scientist, who dipped her head in response. "But we have acquired a suitable product and ensured it will perform as expected for you, Archer. I also have two more products that are ready for Proton and Petrel."

Archer was quiet for a moment. "I take it mass production is still taking time, then?"

"Our scientists have made several breakthroughs, but in favor of caution, yes, we are taking more time," the man admitted. "Gorigan is driving the development at a satisfactory rate, but we are focusing on quality over quantity for the time being. In any case, these three products should keep you satisfied until more are prepared for you. We intend to ensure you each have at least three of our products at your disposal in the future—this is just a taste of what is to come."

"Good to hear," Proton said with a savage grin. "So, what has the Grand Master sent us, Ardos?"

Ardos' smirk became very smug indeed. "For Petrel, a Sableye."

He handed one of the Ultra Balls to Petrel, who took it and observed the sphere with interest. Ardos passed the next one to Proton. "For you, my old friend, a Sceptile."

Proton's grin became even more dangerous as he accepted the gift, more than a little eager to see what his new toy could do.

"And for the proper leader of Team Rocket," Ardos announced, placing the final Ultra Ball on the desk for Archer to observe in silence. "Cipher gifts you a Latios."

A/N: And you thought the last chapter's cliffhanger was fun XD

Surprise! Here's another chapter! I'm really cranking these out right now, must be in the mood for Pokemon with all this Generation Eight news coming out lol. Special thanks to kingkonghill for helping me work this chapter out!

As ever, please review and thanks for reading!