Ash frowned. His conversation with Larvitar wasn't going at all like he imagined it. Larvitar wouldn't respond to any of the questions Ash asked, he only partially acknowledged the rest of the group, and he wouldn't stop staring.

The rock type locked eyes with Ash the moment he was released from his Poke Ball and wouldn't stop staring at him. Now that he thought of it, he wasn't sure that Larvitar took his gaze off any of the team.

He initially took the gesture as curiosity, but the emotion in his red eyes didn't look anything like curiosity. Larvitar's eyes were just a bit too wide for him to just be curious and his posture was far too tense.

Ash had seen Larvitar's expression and body language in Pokemon at the lab countless times before and recognized the emotion as fear. Fear wasn't something often seen in Pokemon; but the rock type was definitely afraid, if him watching them with a sense of paranoia was any indication. Ash nudged Larvitar's food dish closer to him, trying to coax the rock type into eating.

Larvitar flinched and cloaked himself with a surge of energy from Iron Defense in response to the sudden movement. He scurried away from the bowl and stumbled backwards from tripping over himself.

Ash groaned and hid his face with his hands. So much for the description of the Larvitar species in the Pokedex. Larvitar was hardly what anyone would call a tiny, indestructible dinosaur.

Larvitar was starting to wear on him with his timidity and it was taking every ounce of self-control for him not to scream in frustration. Ash shook his head and took a deep breath to try to relax. It wasn't Larvitar's distrust of him or the team that irritated him – it was that Larvitar was practically afraid of everything that moved.

He saw newly hatched Pichu and Rattata with more courage.

"Come on, Larvitar, you have to keep your strength up. Will you eat something, please?" Ash pleaded. Larvitar eyed the bowl with suspicion and shuffled forward to examine his food dish only to take a step backwards again.

Larvitar was tougher to feed than a paranoid Pidgey. He turned to his other team members and watched them take bites of food from their dishes. He was certain that if Larvitar could see the others eat or eat with the others that he would open up to them a bit.

Ash corrected himself. Maybe that was too ambitious of a goal and unrealistic an expectation at this point – getting him to not fear his food dish was more realistic goal.

Aurora looked up from her dish to give Ash a sympathetic look since she had tried coaxing him into eating as well to no avail. "Any other ideas?" Ash whispered to the Alolan Vulpix.

Aurora gave him a skeptical look questioning him for even asking the question. He supposed Aurora was right – they had been trying for a good fifteen to twenty minutes to get him to eat.

Orion whinnied after finishing up his food and looked up from his dish to give Ash a sympathetic look as well. Even the carefree Ponyta had paid attention long enough that he acknowledged Ash's efforts. Orion whinnied a second time and stomped a hoof on the ground to get Ash's attention.

"What is it?" the trainer asked.

Orion stared at Larvitar intently, causing Ash to give the hyper Ponyta an incredulous look. "You really want to try?" he snorted.

Orion huffed at him and bobbed his head before trotting over to Larvitar's food bowl. The rock type gurgled at Orion and cloaked himself with Iron Defense.

Orion towered over the food dish and growled vehemently at the bowl. Ash stared at the fire type with his mouth agape as if he had lost his mind. The Ponyta ignored the glare and spewed a small cloud of embers on the ground a few feet from the bowl all while staring down the bowl to intimidate it. Larvitar stared at the fire type with admiration and relief like he had been rescued from a threat.

Orion pushed the bowl towards Larvitar and gave him a friendly whinny. Larvitar reluctantly took a large bite of food.

Ash raised an eyebrow. What exactly did he just watch? Had Orion just threatened a food dish?

Larvitar let out a contented grumble and took a larger bite. His eyes lit up as he savored the food and swallowed it. One bite led to another which led to another until he was finally eating his food at a steady pace.

He wasn't going to question the intimidation tactics used by Orion, even if they were somewhat insane. If indulging in Larvitar's paranoia helped coax him into eating then the tactics had worked. And he had to admit, Orion's idea was pretty creative. Whatever it took to get the shy rock type to come out of his shell would further his growth.

Orion was good with people – or Pokemon in this case. He was growing into the leader he needed Orion to be.

Ash flashed a thumbs-up to the fire type. They were making progress, even if it was just a step at a time, and that was all Ash could ask for. Maturity. They needed to be stronger, faster, and smarter going forward on their journey. Pewter had taught him that much.

Ash chuckled as he meandered down the winding path that was Route 3. He couldn't help but feel that he had traveled Route 3 before. As a result, the lush green forest around him and winding dirt road didn't seem all that special.

And the more he thought about it, the more logical it was that he would feel that way. In a sense, he had traveled Route 3 before.

While certain peripheral aspects of the paths would change such as scenery, most of the roads in Kanto were simple dirt trails that connected cities together. After a while, all the paths felt the same unless they passed some substantial landmark.

Not that he could complain, being outdoors was better than sitting in a stuffy hospital room with nothing to do. It was great to breathe fresh air, to stretch his legs, and to hear the soft squawk of Pidgey.

Ash missed the sights and sounds of traveling and judging by the ecstatic expressions of his two eldest team members they missed their freedom as well. Even Larvitar seemed to be enjoying it albeit with his usual air of caution – the slightest sound, sudden movement, or shadow would still cause him to freeze in place and cloak himself with Iron Defense.

Fortunately, after some exposure to the team he seemed a bit more at ease much in part due to Orion's gesture during their break. Hanging around the team and having Orion show Larvitar how to eat from a bowl had apparently convinced him enough that the group wasn't a threat. Larvitar even seemed to tail Orion relying upon the fire type for protection.

A long period of silence amongst the team was soon interrupted by a shrill bark from Aurora and an excited whinny from Orion.

Both Larvitar and Ash flinched, neither of them expecting the sudden noise. The trainer from Pallet Town froze as he looked ahead to the massive mountain looming in the distance. Fifteen minutes into their trip and the group was finally approaching their destination.

He couldn't help but stare at the mountain with a sense of awe. Mt. Moon was far more amazing to see in person. Television and photos simply didn't catch the stunning color of the mountain's snow-capped peak, or the lush green pines growing up and around the base of the mountain.

He looked forward to exploring the caverns of Mt. Moon and seeing the mountain up close. And at the pace they were traveling at, it was only a matter of time until they reached Mt. Moon to view the mountain in its entirety.

The mountain wasn't the only distinguishable landmark either. Ash was nearing the halfway point evidenced by the silhouette of the Mt. Moon Pokemon Center. He squinted and shielded his eyes from the sun as he looked towards the fast approaching building.

Even from this distance, he could tell that Mt. Moon's Pokemon Center was huge – much larger than the average Pokemon Center. If anything, the medical facility was closer in size and design to a resort than the traditional hospital layout the facilities were typically known for.

He expected the facility to be big since he had looked into information regarding Mt. Moon on his Pokenav before the group started their trip, but it happened to be another one of those things that had to be seen in person to truly grasp the concept.

According to the web, the extra space was necessary since Pokemon trainers weren't the only people that frequented the Mt. Moon Pokemon Center. Tourists would flock to Mt. Moon to explore the numerous caverns of the mountain and adrenaline junkies would visit to ski the slopes accessible at some of the elevated portions of the mountain. Some brave travelers would even climb Mt. Moon to view the bodies of water located near the top of the mountain.

It was for that reason that Ash couldn't help but feel something was off when he noticed that there were very few people out and about at the Pokemon Center. He imagined that the Pokemon Center would be packed due to heavy tourism. The weather was favorable and it was midday which left little excuse to why the place wouldn't be hopping with activity.

He glanced over at a trainer standing beside a scaly reptilian Pokemon different than any Kanto Pokemon that he had ever seen – it definitely had to be something foreign.

Ash raised an eyebrow at the guy's choice of apparel after giving him a once over. If he didn't know better, the guy copied the fashion of explorers in video games and film. A closer examination caused a manic grin to form on Ash's face as he recognized the trainer by his spiky brown hair.

He couldn't pass up this opportunity to poke fun at his rival.

"Hey, Dr. Jones, have you found any artifacts yet?" Ash asked with a smirk.

The trainer turned to face him, scowling at him as he tilted his head. "I'll have you know this is the latest designer fashion!" he began only to stop in mid-sentence upon recognizing Ash. "Hey, Ash, how are ya?"

Ash shrugged off the question. "Good, just remind me not to take fashion tips from you." he snorted.

Gary waved off the remark dismissively and folded his arms. "Jealous that I can pull off the adventurer look while you try your best to look like a metrosexual city slicker? I think Sinnoh wants its fashion style back."

Ash raised an eyebrow. "At least I don't look like a grave robber, but what would I know about fashion since I spend most my time training with my team. Maybe if you spent more money and time on your team you wouldn't be a second rate trainer."

"Ouch, you're really going to go there?" Gary began. "In my defense, I need to look good. You know what they say – dress good and you feel good, feel good and you battle good...maybe that's why you choked last time we battled."

"That's not how I remember it, Gary."

"Can't help it your memory is crap, Ash," Gary replied as he tucked his hands into his pockets. "So you can't just be here to make bad one-liners and lame attempts at comebacks, there's gotta be something you want to talk about."

Ash folded his arms and glanced down at the reptilian Pokemon staring at him like he was trying to burn a hole through him. Gary pointed to the scaly Pokemon and smirked. "I suppose I should introduce you to this guy, right? This is Jangmo-o,"

Ash nodded, waving to the reptile and getting a friendly hiss in reply. "He's not a species native to any of the regions I'm familiar with, where did you get him?"

"Of course he isn't from here," Gary remarked. "I did a little wheeling and dealing with a breeder that moved to Alola sometime back. He managed to ship me in something from Alola as a favor for sending him in a few TMs from Kanto. Can't let you be the only one with an exotic Pokemon."

Ash rolled his eyes. Of course, Gary would send for something from Alola because of Aurora. He supposed he should have been flattered. "So that's what this is about? Trying to keep pace with me?"

"Not exactly, I wanted a dragon type and one that isn't so well known around here. It's always fun to throw something at trainers that they aren't prepared for." Gary explained. "So have you managed to get your hands on anything good lately?"

Ash tilted his head. "Why should I tell you? It's more fun to throw something at trainers they aren't prepared for."

Gary leered at Ash for using his own words against him. "Whatever, it probably won't matter, I'll stomp whatever you added to your team anyway. It'll be more of a challenge that way." Gary fired back, waving his hand back and forth dismissively before changing the subject. "What brings you here anyway?"

"I'm headed to Cerulean and the Mt. Moon path is the quickest route to Cerulean." Ash explained.

Gary raised an eyebrow and tilted his head. "Ash, no one is getting to Cerulean through Mt. Moon."

Ash nodded. "What do you mean no one is getting to Cerulean through Mt. Moon? Brock and Flint told me that it would be fine."

"Well, I thought you'd notice that almost no one is traveling this route; but I suppose you haven't heard the news. Brock and Flint gave you old news, Lance forced a shutdown of Mt. Moon travel until everything regarding the Team Rocket incident at Pewter can be investigated."

Ash scowled at the unpleasant memories of a ruined museum, the crushing weight of metal grinding against his bones, and a heartless Team Rocket executive escaping; but quickly recomposed himself. "You are kidding me."

Gary shook his head. "Afraid not, they even kicked me out and I have connections that I tried to pull on them. They're serious about whatever happened in Pewter, not that I can understand. What could they have possibly stolen from the museum, paintings?"

Ash swallowed and sighed at the thought of the pamphlet of the meteor exhibit shown to him. Definitely a legitimate question that he wasn't sure anyone had any true answers for considering when Ash had asked Flint a similar question it had left him speechless.

"Yeah, pointless right?" he replied, feigning a laugh after getting lost in his thoughts. Gary gave him a confused look for spacing out, but didn't press.

"So exactly what are guys like us supposed to do until they open the route up again?"

Gary smirked and unclipped a Poke Ball from his belt. "Don't know about you, but I know one thing to do – I want my money back."

Ash gave Gary perplexed look, caught off guard by the shift in topic for a moment before finally catching on. "Eager to extend your losing streak, huh?"

"Hmm, is your memory going bad, Ashy-boy, because that's not how I remember it. I remember the best trainer in Pallet Town establishing who was the best between two rivals."

Ash snorted and broke down into a fit of laughter. "Now I know you're losing it because Aurora and I smoked you."

Gary ignored the barb and looked up at the sun. "Hmm, it is sort of hot out here," he remarked. The mouthy trainer reached into his backpack and tossed a water bottle to Ash.

Ash caught the bottle and shot Gary a look, prompting a mischievous grin from the trainer.

"Drink up, Ash, you definitely need to rehydrate because the heat has made you delusional."

Ash shook his head and tucked the water bottle into his pocket. He reached for a Poke Ball clipped to his belt as Gary followed suit. The time for one-liners and comebacks was over – they probably used up all their best ones anyway. From here on out they would have to speak with their skills as trainers – something Ash was looking forward to.

He always liked a challenge.

He unclipped the Poke Ball and tossed it into the air. Orion emerged onto the battlefield in a blaze of glory from his mane burning bright as the sun. The Ponyta erratically trampled the ground with his hooves.

Gary raised an eyebrow. "Ponyta, huh? Guess, I'll get to use him early then," he remarked, giving his dragon type a quick nod. "Jangmo-o, let's show 'em what we got."

The scaly creature grumbled softly, bowing his head to Orion before tensing up. Jangmo-o silver scales groaned like metal scraping against itself as Jangmo-o weaved back and forth, causing his scales to clatter. Ash raised his Pokedex to scan Gary's dragon type, causing the screen to light up and display a picture of the dragon.

"Jangmo-o, the Scaly Pokemon – Jangmo-o will never show an enemy its back in battle. Ancient warriors liked Jangmo-o for its valiant disposition and made it one of their own." the robotic monotone of the Pokedex droned.

Ash nodded to Orion and felt a familiar surge of adrenaline flowing through his veins from his building excitement of the upcoming battle. Jangmo-o was just the type of opponent the Ponyta would enjoy. The dragon happened to be something as noble and determined as Orion was. "Ready for a duel with a dragon, Orion?" he whispered.

Orion bobbed his head and snorted, clearly amused with the idea of fighting a dragon type.

"Your move, Ash, Jangmo-o doesn't like striking first. He finds it dishonorable."

Ash raised his eyebrow at the request. Pokemon that liked to start a battle on the defensive wasn't something he had ever heard of before, but he wouldn't question it. The first strike would let them test their opponent's defenses.

Ash flashed a thumbs-up to Orion, prompting him to spew a cloud of hot ash mingled with flames at his opponent. Jangmo-o dropped his shoulder and charged straight into the attack. The dragon shrugged off the burning embers and rammed into Orion – at least he would have if the Ponyta hadn't rebuffed his attack with a kick to the head that rebuffed his opponent and launched him backwards.

Jangmo-o's scales rattled with the sound of grinding metal as the dragon skidded backwards. The dragon grunted at Orion and bowed his head again, seemingly complimenting the fire type for his quick counter.

"Armored Slam!" Gary exclaimed. "Hit him from long range if you miss."

Jangmo-o cloaked himself – more specifically his scales – in a faint shroud of greenish-yellow light and lunged at Orion again, prompting Orion to sidestep the attack. Jangmo-o skidded to a halt and whipped around before opening his mouth. A weak blast of pressurized air slammed into Orion's face, staggering the fire type momentarily with the gusts.

"Armored Slam, follow it up with another Dragon Breath if it misses!" Gary commanded, putting Ash and Orion on the defensive once again.

Orion grunted as Jangmo-o channeled a weak current of energy into his scales again and rammed into one of his legs to try to trip the Ponyta up. "Growl!" Ash countered.

Orion whinnied at the top of his lungs and used Jangmo-o's proximity against it by whinnying as loud as he could, staggering the scaly Pokemon momentarily.


The sound of oxygen reacting violently with fire echoed through the air. Orion's mane burned even brighter than usual before the fire spread across his entire body. The Ponyta galloped towards his foe and dropped his shoulder.


The sound of Orion slamming into his foe and rattling his scales from the impact caused both trainers to wince and cover their ears from the sharp sound accompanying the impact.

Despite taking a hard hit from a flaming Orion, Jangmo-o stamped his front feet into the ground to stop his skid.

Ash clenched his fists in frustration. Just how durable was Gary's Jangmo-o? They had dished out an Ember, a kick to the head, and a Flame Charge and all three proved to be as useless as a Magikarp's splash.

"Dragon Breath!" Gary exclaimed, prompting his Pokemon to attack again.

Jangmo-o opened his maw and spewed several bursts of wind aimed at Orion.

Ponyta stoked his flames even more. More heat, more adrenaline translated to more speed – in an instant Orion galloped away from the blasts of air and became nothing more than an orange blur zigzagging across the battlefield to avoid subsequent gusts.

"Orion, Ember!" Ash ordered.

A swirling blast of fire poured from Orion's mouth. The Ponyta bathed Jangmo-o and the ground around him in fire and ashes. A faint flicker of greenish-yellow light shimmered from within the inferno, prompting a scowl from Ash.

That was definitely Protect if he had ever seen it, albeit a fairly weak version of it. He thought he had noticed it when Orion had unleashed his first Flame Charge. It just wasn't what he expected since it didn't look like the standard shields most Pokemon generated.

"Flame Charge!"

Orion streaked ahead, galloping towards Jangmo-o at full speed. His flames glowed even brighter than before and his hooves burned distinctive footprints into the ground from the sheer heat radiating from him. The Ponyta dropped his shoulder again and threatened to ram Jangmo-o a second time.

"Jangmo-o, Armored Slam."

Jangmo-o's scales pulsated with light as he lunged forward to meet Orion head on. His scales clanged with the sound of metal once more from ramming into Orion. Orion winced, having the wind knocked out of him from such a violent collision.

Jangmo-o hadn't escaped from the collision much better than Orion had if his panting was any indication. Using Protect even in a limited way was draining, although the amount of times it was used allowed Ash to piece together Gary's strategy.

Gary was simply reinforcing Jangmo-o's natural armor – not that it would do them any good. His shield would soon meet the point of a powerful spear.

"Flame Charge!" Ash exclaimed.

A third Flame Charge caused Orion to glow with the intensity of miniature sun with Orion pushing himself to his utmost limits. The Ponyta thundered towards Jangmo-o like a freight train rolling down the tracks and split himself into three copies with a single application of Double Team to catch both Gary and Jangmo-o off guard.

Orion dropped his shoulder and slammed into Jangmo-o, but much like before the dragon didn't even bother trying to avoid the attack – not that he probably could anyway given Orion's speed. Jangmo-o's scales shimmered with the light of Protect before he tensed up and braced for impact.

Jangmo-o winced and tumbled across the ground from the brutal hit. Charred scales broke off from the dragon's body and soot marred his complexion. Jangmo-o grunted, stumbling and falling back down when he tried to stand up.

Even with the absurd defensive capabilities provided by the combination of Jangmo-o's scales and Protect, the dragon still wouldn't get up so after a hit like that. Sure, the dragon could reinforce his defenses to virtually make himself into a stone wall but what was that in the face of Orion who had practically turned himself into a living missile?

Unfortunately, the use of that much energy in one burst had worn out the energetic Ponyta leaving him standing only by his sheer willpower. That, however, wasn't what surprised him. Ash was far more surprised by the fact that Jangmo-o was still standing. Despite taking a direct hit from a blazing Orion, Jangmo-o willed himself onto his feet and grunted his approval to Orion.

Ash cursed under his breath. "You've gotta be kidding me,"

He had hoped that Orion could repeat his strategy at Pewter regarding dealing with armored Pokemon. Intense heat could bypass armor from time to time if the fire was hot enough. While the plan had worked to a certain extent, what he hadn't accounted for was the dragon getting up for more.

"It's going to take more than that to end Jangmo-o!" Gary taunted. "Dragon Breath!"

A weak wisp of pressurized air whizzed towards Orion, only for the Ponyta to dart away and rush his opponent.

"Ember!" Ash ordered.

Another cloud of embers and fire poured from Orion's mouth while he circled his foe to attack from every angle. The flames were stronger due to the Flame Charge having increased his body heat; however, the gained strength from those boosts were quickly dwindling.

Jangmo-o took the hit head on again, nullifying some of the fire and heat with Protect. That didn't change the fact that Protect was apparently a fairly taxing move since it seemed like Jangmo-o had completely spent himself trying to block Orion's attack if Jangmo-o's heavy eyelids and wavering legs were any indication.

Intuition told him that the fight was almost over and he had won. It was for that exact reason Ash was now unnerved by Gary's devious grin.

"Work Up, finish them with Dragon Breath!"

Ash felt his heart sink upon hearing the command. Gary was playing him from the get go. Jangmo-o stomped the ground in excitement and flickered with a faint glimmer of light. The dragon gained a short-lived second wind from the adrenaline boost of Work Up and opened his jaws to unleash a mighty burst of pressurized air far stronger than the previous versions upon Orion.

The gale lifted him off the ground and threw across the battlefield like a rag doll. Ash winced as Orion's legs bent in ways he was certain the Ponyta species' legs weren't supposed to bend. He instinctively reached for Orion's Poke Ball and pressed the button on the front of it, causing the red beam to draw the fire type back into the Poke Ball.

"Get some rest, Orion, you did well out there." he whispered before clipping Orion's Poke Ball to his belt.

Ash shook his head and clenched his fists in frustration at getting caught off guard. Having Work Up left as the ace in the hole was a clever strategy from Gary, even if he wouldn't admit it. The adrenaline boost was something he definitely hadn't accounted for.

Fortunately for Ash, the trick would be a solo act since Jangmo-o used up everything he had left and collapsed from exhaustion. "Jangmo-o return," Gary muttered, withdrawing his now unconscious dragon type. "You've done more than your fair share of work."

Gary reached for another Poke Ball and pressed the release button nonchalantly. A craggy behemoth emerged from the Poke Ball in a flash of light and let out a bassy roar that would make even a Mightyena shudder. It scanned its surroundings rapidly with a distrust in its eyes reminiscent of paranoid Nidorino guarding their territory.

The behemoth scuffed the ground with its bulky front legs, leaving deep ruts in the ground where the creature had dug into the ground.

Ash recognized the Pokemon instantly as Rhyhorn due to his battle with Brock's Rhyhorn. However, it was clearly bulkier than Brock's Rhyhorn. The stone plating on its side was thicker, sharper, and more jagged. Touching the beast in the wrong way would cause the stone to cut into your flesh.

Despite the size of the Rhyhorn, Ash wasn't convinced that the rock type was older than Brock's Rhyhorn. Its stone body lacked the chips and scratches in its armor an older Rhyhorn would have.

And its temperament was worse. The rock type acted like it was just recently hatched and Gary's irritated expression seemed to reflect that.

"Stay focused," Gary instructed, almost chiding the rock type before turning his attention to Ash. "Not getting any younger over here."

Ash reached for Larvitar's Poke Ball and unclipped the red and white orb from his belt. He tapped the release on the front of the Poke Ball, prompting Larvitar to emerge from the device in a flash of crimson light.

The small, stone golem emerged from the orb and grumbled in discomfort upon eyeing Rhyhorn. A shimmer of light radiated from Larvitar's rocky armor and signaled his use of Iron Defense. Ash was starting to second guess his decision to choose Larvitar for the battle.

"No way, where did you find one of those?" Gary gasped.

Ash ignored the question and smirked at his rival exasperating Gary further.

"Not even a hint?"

"I guess you could say I found it." he replied, intentionally giving the most superficial answer he could craft.

Gary leered at him. "Oh come on, what kind of answer is that?"

Ash snorted. It clearly was the smart answer. Not only had it riled up Gary, but it would prevent a tidal wave of further questions that he was neither allowed nor inclined to answer.

"Hey, Larvitar," Ash called out, prompting the rock type to turn to face him. "Can you beat that Rhyhorn for me?"

Larvitar's eyes bulged at the very thought. The rock type gurgled and gave Ash an incredulous look like the trainer had lost his mind.

"You can do it, Larvitar, you're the best suited to beat Rhyhorn." Ash encouraged, pausing momentarily. He saved his best motivational tactic for last, even if it was very underhanded.

"Besides, his Jangmo-o beat Orion."

The rock type grumbled and his eyes narrowed to slits at the remark. Larvitar let out a frustrated gurgle at the thought of his protector falling in defeat.

The idea worked. He was banking on Larvitar's admiration of Orion after the food bowl incident and him bonding with the fire type over the incident.

"Iron Defense then chomp down on Rhyhorn with Bite." Ash whispered.

Larvitar sent a lethal glare at Rhyhorn and cloaked himself in the shimmering light of an Iron Defense before rushing his foe.

Larvitar's plodding footsteps made his movement incredibly predictable. Gary didn't even have to issue an order to avoid Larvitar. Rhyhorn, as dopey as the species usually was, even had the common sense and reaction time to move out of the way.

"Horn Attack!" Gary ordered.

Using Larvitar's own momentum against it, Rhyhorn bull rushed the rock type and thrust his horn into Larvitar's back after picking up some speed. A loud crack reverberated through the air from stone colliding with stone. The impact toppled Larvitar and sent him tumbling across the dirt.

"Horn Attack, again! Ram him, Rhyhorn!" Gary exclaimed.

Larvitar let out a disoriented gurgle not only from being punted halfway across the battlefield but from rolling through soot left from Orion scorching the ground.

The tiny stone golem rubbed at his eyes to try to wipe the soot and dust away only for Rhyhorn to thrust his horn into Larvitar's chest. Fortunately, Larvitar cloaked himself in a familiar light as he channeled a weak pulse of energy through his body to reinforce his armor.

Again, stone crashed against stone, resulting in an audible crack. Ash winced at the small fissure in Larvitar's armor from impact even after the tiny golem had reinforced his armor with Iron Defense; however, the nightmare was far from over. Rhyhorn lifted Larvitar off his feet and threw him into the air. Larvitar landed with a thud and skidded across the dirt.

"This is your Larvitar? You got an awesome Pokemon like Larvitar and it turns out like this?" Gary jeered. "Finish this with Bulldoze and if Larvitar's still standing end the fight with Horn Attack."

Ash gritted his teeth at the snide comment. He had hoped to use Larvitar's jaws to force Rhyhorn into submission by cracking his armor, but Ash didn't quite factor in the speed differential.

Larvitar let out a panicked gurgle as the earth trembled around him from a weak set of stomps from Rhyhorn.

The hesitation opened up another opportunity for Gary and his Rhyhorn to land another Horn Attack with Rhyhorn at full stride – or at least it would have if Larvitar hadn't caught Rhyhorn's horn with his jaws.

Larvitar chomped down hard creating a loud snap. Tiny fissures were visible in the tip of the rhino Pokemon's horn from the crushing force produced by Larvitar's stone crushing jaws.

Rhyhorn roared in fury, forcing both Ash and Gary to cover their ears. The rhino Pokemon did the unthinkable and jumped before landing on his horn to crush Larvitar under his weight to force him to let go.

Larvitar gurgled in terror as he felt the weight of Rhyhorn on top of him. His scarlet eyes lacked the bravado and determination they had just mere moments ago. Instead his bulging eyes showed nothing but fear.

Rhyhorn went berserk, clearly out for revenge after the incident. He stomped the ground again with his front legs and sent violent tremors through the ground. Larvitar stumbled from the earthquake only to get rammed again and thrown up into the air.

Even Gary winced. "Rhyhorn!" he scolded, trying to get his berserk rock type under control.

Rhyhorn ignored him and stamped the ground again, this time sending a tremor through the ground that even caused Ash and Gary to lose their balance.

Larvitar landed on his face with a loud thunk that kicked up dirt and dust only to be further rattled by the seismic waves.

Ash swore under his breath. Even against an inexperienced opponent, Larvitar was simply no match.

And to think he was supposed to be keeping Larvitar out of harm's way. He had put his most inexperienced team member up against a rampaging beast.

Perhaps he should have just gone with Aurora.

Ash suppressed the urge to shout at himself for his own ignorance. For the first time since the Pewter Gym, Ash made the smart move.

A crimson beam of light pulled Larvitar back into his Poke Ball, prompting a scowl from both a charging Rhyhorn who stumbled forward trying to stop himself and Gary who was completely perplexed.

"What is that?" Gary gasped.

Ash frowned. "Larvitar and I concede." he muttered, a sense of disappointment seeping into every word of the utterance.

Running felt so unnatural, but sometimes the only option was a retreat.

Gary leered at Ash. "For Mew's sake, you can't run from a Pokemon battle!"

Ash ignored the remark and reluctantly took out a hundred dollars from his wallet to give to Gary while doing his best to remain gracious. Nothing stung quite as bad as losing to his rival.

Gary swatted his hand away. "Is this some sort of reverse psychology? What in Distortion is your deal? It's like you're trying to ruin this for me."

Ash shook his head. "Larvitar isn't exactly experienced, I thought he could handle Rhyhorn but he was completely outclassed by Rhyhorn's skill set. Larvitar can't maneuver well enough for this and doesn't have anything he can really do to damage Rhyhorn other than Bite."

Gary reluctantly took the money and begrudgingly shoved it into his pocket. "I hate your guts, you know that? I swear you know how to take the joy out of this every time."

Ash snorted. At least Gary wouldn't get any satisfaction out of this win. "You're supposed to, we're rivals."

Gary snickered. "Well, you know what this means?"

Ash gave him a puzzled look.

"I'm two up on you."

Ash gritted his teeth and punched Gary in the arm as hard as he could.

"Ahhh!" The Oak shrieked.

A flock of Pidgey scattered from the trees in panic, flying away in a panic from Gary's cry.

"What in Distortion was that for?" Gary demanded.

"You had it coming for being a jerk." he replied. "Now, we probably should head to the Pokemon Center."

"I mean considering the beating that your team took…" Gary taunted only to earn another punch in the arm. "Ow!"

"Just shut up, will you?" Ash groaned.

He knew then and there that it was going to be a long trip back to the Pokemon.

Ash's eyes widened upon entering the Pokemon Center. Seeing the Route 3 facility from the outside was one thing, but seeing the inside of the Pokemon Center was something completely different.

He couldn't help but notice the generic appearance. At this point he was convinced the league ran the place like a franchise fast food chain and made them resemble each other to a certain degree.

The interior design was fairly standard for Pokemon Centers with the same pale white walls common for the medical facilities of other areas. The slate-gray tile was a change, but aside from the floor everything else was cookie cutter.

What was different; however, was the lobby's size. Luxurious couches and recliners spanned from one corner of the room to the other.

Glass coffee tables with decorative rocks between the sheets of glass sat in front of the couches while small wooden stands sat alongside the recliner chairs.

Fifty inch televisions hung on the walls.

The few people in the lobby gave him weird looks for staring, prompting him to snap out of his fixation on the room.

"Haven't seen a Pokemon Center before?" Gary chuckled.

"Not like this, this is like a five star resort."

"I've stayed in better." Gary replied while giving a dismissive wave. "Kalos might be full of spineless pansies; but they do know how to build resorts."

Ash rolled his eyes both at the insult and his dismissal of the building. Of course, Gary had stayed in better places but for him this was a new experience.

Both trainers meandered to the front desk. Ash looked down at the sign on the counter and rang the bell.

Nurse Joy emerged through a pair of swinging doors and the hallway to the hospital part of the building.

"Hello, how may I help you?" the pink-haired nurse asked.

Ash and Gary both placed all three of their teammates' Poke Balls on the counter, making sure to keep the capsules separate to avoid confusion.


Ash reached for his Pokedex to present his ID with Gary following suit.

Nurse Joy gave Ash's digital ID a once over. "Okay, I'll run through a basic checkup."

Ash nodded. "Thanks."

Nurse Joy smiled at him. "Of course," she replied before turning to Gary. "And you?"

Gary presented his ID, eliciting a perplexed look from Nurse Joy. "Oak, like in Samuel Oak?"

Gary's eyes lit up from the recognition. "That's right, I'm the great Gary Oak. Just your average humble prodigy from the town of Pallet…"

Ash groaned and sneaked away to the cafeteria. Nurse Joy had unleashed a monster by asking the infamous question of Gary's heritage and he certainly wasn't going to stick around for the egotistical monologue sure to come.

The thump of Rhyhorn's heavy footsteps echoed in his mind while he slurped down one last bite of miso. Thoughts of Larvitar flying through the air and landing with a thud flashed before his eyes.

Ash crinkled up the plastic wrapper of his plastic cutlery into a ball and threw the wadded plastic into his now empty bowl.

He wasn't necessarily angry or even frustrated, but disappointed. He was not disappointed at his team or his effort. Mew knew that they tried and always gave their all.

He was, however, disappointed in himself and his judgment. He had no business sending Larvitar out to handle Rhyhorn regardless of its experience since Larvitar had little to no battling experience.

What was he even thinking?

That was the problem, wasn't it? Ash wasn't thinking lately. At best, he analyzed a situation at a surface level before running ahead at full steam without regard to the ramifications of his actions.

Larvitar had been roughed up badly because he hadn't given the situation enough thought and Pewter was an even bigger example of him not weighing a situation properly.

He wasn't necessarily ready for dealing with the Rockets, but jumped into the fray anyway. His poor judgment showed itself again when he gave up his element of surprise in his confrontation with the Team Rocket executive and it resulted with him being crushed.

Ash shook his head. Had his win against Brock made so arrogant that he thought he was invincible?

In his arrogance, he forgot a simple lesson: measure twice, cut once. Professor Oak used the phrase during a fencing project for the corral to remind Ash and Gary to make sure their measurements were right before cutting the material for the fence posts.

He needed to be more cautious going forward and give situations more thought. It would save him and his team a lot of trouble.

"I have arrived so your life just got better!"

Ash rolled his eyes as Gary meandered over to the cafeteria table and sat down with a bowl of steaming soba noddles.

"No need to shower me with praise," Gary chuckled, prompting a glare from Ash.

Gary raised his hands in a defensive manner. "Hey, don't kill me alright! What's with you anyway? You look like you're trying to solve a puzzle over here."

"Just thinking about our battle."

"Well, I'm not sure what there is to think about because I kicked your…" Gary began only to stop himself once Ash clenched his fist. Even if he was across the table, he wasn't going to risk getting punched again. "Alright, alright, I'll stop."

"I don't think Larvitar was quite ready for that."

"Fair enough, but if I'm being completely honest neither was Rhyhorn. I mean, you probably noticed I am working on his temper," Gary said, pausing momentarily to slurp down a few noodles. "He rampages if he gets rattled. Tried having Magby beat some sense into him, although he's so hardheaded it doesn't really work."

Ash snorted. "So he takes after his trainer?"

Gary shook his head. "Ha," he scoffed. "If only your battling was as good as your put downs."

Ash opened his mouth to fire back, but opted to concede the match and change the subject. He was out of good remarks, at least for the moment.

"That battle showed me everything I'm going to have to work on with Larvitar."

"I've got a workout regimen for Rhyhorn. Asked Gramps for advice training a rock type. Probably won't be completely perfect for Larvitar since he's got a different body type and stuff, but the basics will help."

"Thanks, I appreciate it."

Gary held back a snicker. "Since it's painfully obvious you don't have a clue how to raise Larvitar and I don't want a rival that can't raise a Larvitar right, I figured you needed the information."

Ash frowned. He was back to insults again? He knew it was sort of a chess game between them, but he certainly hadn't seen it go on this long before. "Well, it really works if Rhyhorn is any indication." he retorted with a smirk.

This time Gary was forced to concede the match and change the topic. "So, you still want to head to Cerulean?"

"Yeah, but I'm going to have to wait. Why? Did the league open things up again?"

"No, I just had an idea." Gary replied, a mischievous grin forming on his face.

Ash frowned. He definitely didn't like the smile on Gary's face. He looked like an absolute madman.

"That's never a good thing, Gary."

"You haven't even heard me out yet!" Gary spat, throwing his hands up defensively.

"What are you thinking?" Ash sighed.

"Remember the time we used our smarts to sneak into Gramps' lab and grab those fossils out of the cabinet to take a look at them?"

Ash hung his head low in shame. Not their finest moment considering the scolding they got since the professor's video recording equipment had seen them. "Yes, why?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

"You'd say we're good at sneaking, right?"

"Uhh, where are you going with this?"

"I want to go back to Mt. Moon to explore the caves and you want to get to Cerulean, instead of waiting around why don't we just sneak past the league patrol?"

Ash gave him an incredulous look. "There's no way I'm doing that."

"What's the worst that can happen? We get caught and they probably scold us a bit or think we're tourists or something."

"Didn't you try this already?"

"Yes, but last time I intentionally sought out the patrols to see what was going on and tried to use my credentials to get them to let me stay. This time we evade the patrols entirely. We've got the teams to do it. My Magby can throw up smokescreens and you have some good team members right. That Alolan Vulpix of yours has to have something good up its sleeve."

Ash groaned. The last thing he wanted to do was get chewed out by league officials. "Absolutely not,"

"So you're telling me that you'd rather wait around here, Ash? Arceus, you're boring."

Ash ignored the barb and took a deep breath. He weighed the situation, creating a mental list of pros and cons. In a sense, Gary was right. There wasn't a lot the league could do even if they caught them.

They could fine them and chew them out but that was about it.

It was also probable that Flint, Brock, or both were running the blockade. They had instructed him to continue towards Cerulean.

They'd likely let him pass and even if they didn't want him traveling Mt. Moon under the new orders, it was at least worth checking. Heck, if worst came to worst they could play it off as they were unaware of the league orders.

Besides, there was no telling how long the shutdown would last and Ash was fairly interested in exploring the vast labyrinth of caverns at Mt. Moon.

It gave ample opportunity to see new geological structures or things he had only read about and even gave him a chance to see wild Pokémon unique to the area.

"Come on, last chance Ash." Gary teased in a sing-song voice.

Measure twice, cut once.

Ash reluctantly nodded. "Fine, I'm in but you have to promise me not to attack any league personnel and to follow my lead when we get to Mt. Moon."

Gary opened his mouth to protest. Ash cut him off before he could get started.

"Do you really want to get us thrown in jail or something?" he asked, mustering up the sternest tone he could make.

Gary snorted. "Fine, it's a deal! Tomorrow morning we leave for Mt. Moon! Our Pokémon should be ready by then. With our skills combined we'll be unstoppable."

"Let's just hope it doesn't come to that and we just get through without any trouble."

Gary gave him a dismissive wave. "I dare the league to throw everything they got at us! I bet they won't even know we're coming!"

Ash groaned and rubbed his temples. Gary's excitement to break laws disturbed him. What had he got himself into?

Ash made sure to wake up earlier than Gary to ensure he had sufficient time to tie up a few loose ends before heading for Mt. Moon.

The first of those things was obviously breakfast both for himself and his team. They would need the energy for the trip should Gary's plan fall apart and end with them running from league officials.

Ash paled at that thought. Was it too late to back out now? He clenched his fists. He wasn't indulging those thoughts.

The first step of his preparations was complete judging by his teams' empty food dishes. In fact, Aurora and Orion has moved on from eating to enjoying themselves by finding ways to keep themselves occupied.

Aurora pounced a ball of ice like a Meowth playing with a ball of yawn, causing it to skid across the ground. She chased after the makeshift toy and hit it with her paw to knock it up in the air just to watch it hit the ground and shatter.

Ash laughed as she repeated the game by creating another ball of ice with Ice Shard and kicked it around. She certainly loved finding creative ways to play with ice or play on ice.

A sharp whinny turned his attention to Orion as he galloped in a circle and spewed weak wisps of fire up into the air to watch the dying embers flutter to the ground.

Unfortunately, Larvitar apparently regressed back into his usual shy and withdrawn state by resigning himself to a distant spot away from the picnic tables where the team had congregated and stared at the sky.

"Hey, Larvitar!"

The cheerful greeting caused the rock type to fall flat on his face from trying to run away.

Ash paled. Not exactly the best idea given Larvitar's dislike for surprises. He leaned forward and helped Larvitar back onto his feet. Larvitar let out an appreciative grunt to Ash for helping him stand up.

Ash smiled at the timid rock type. "Sorry about that," he muttered before kneeling down beside Larvitar. "How are you doing?"

Larvitar turned away, refusing to make eye contact. That was definitely something he hadn't seen before from Larvitar. Just how much damage had the loss done to Larvitar's already fragile confidence?

"I just want to talk."

Larvitar ignored Ash and shuffled away from him, seemingly trying to put as much distance between himself and his trainer as possible. Ash stood up and stopped Larvitar by standing in front of him so he couldn't leave.

"Larvitar, maybe you don't want to talk about the battle; but maybe you could at least humor me and tell me how you're doing?" he asked.

Larvitar gave a contented grumble in reply. Ash shook his head at the tonal whiplash. He wasn't buying that cheerfulness for a second.

The slumped posture and the reluctance to speak were the same emotions he felt after his failure in the Pewter Museum raid.

However, most telling of all were the drops of moisture on the ground in front of Larvitar.

"You're upset about the loss, aren't you?"

Larvitar fixated on the sky, pretending to not even hear the question.

"You're not the only one frustrated, you know, I'm pretty frustrated as well. I don't like losing either." Ash said, sat down beside him and wiped away Larvitar's tears. "I also don't want you to get the idea the loss was your fault. It's my fault we lost, I underestimated our opponent; and I haven't spent as much time working with you as I should. Would you please forgive me for that?"

Larvitar let out a friendly gurgle in reply. Ash could tell Larvitar hadn't shed his melancholy mood quite yet. He was still slumping and wouldn't look at him, but progress was being made. He wasn't crying and gave a friendly reply. That had to count for something.

"We'll learn from this. Next time we face an opponent, we'll win for sure, Larvitar." he encouraged.

Ash frowned after using Larvitar's species name to address him. It felt so impersonal and distant compared to when he spoke to the rest of the team. It was just another reminder of the fact Ash hadn't spent nearly enough time with his new teammate.

He hadn't even offered him a name.

"Larvitar, I never even thought to ask; but would you like a name? The rest of the team has a name."

Larvitar finally turned to face him and gave him a quizzical look. Ash could practically see the gears turning in his head over the offer. Larvitar grunted in agreement.

Ash absentmindedly rubbed his chin while in thought. What exactly would you name a Larvitar afraid of his own shadow?

He grinned. It wouldn't do to give Larvitar a name, what he needed was a goal and he had the perfect goal.

"How does Titan sound?" he suggested. "Titans are people or things with very great strength, intellect, or importance. Sounds worthy of a mighty Tyranitar, wouldn't you say?"

Larvitar gave Ash an incredulous look, skeptical of the name choice. Even he was aware of his own shortcomings.

"Our goal is to improve, right? You might not see yourself as strong now, but the team and I are going to make you stronger."

Larvitar perked up at the thought, his crimson eyes burning with passion after giving the idea some thought. Larvitar stamped the ground out of excitement and finally voiced his agreement with the name.

Ash hacked and sputtered from the dust kicked up from Larvitar stomping the ground. "Then Titan it is," he wheezed.

"You two done with the sentimental crap? Anymore of that and I might gag."

Ash wheeled around to look behind him to see Gary leering at him. Larvitar flinched and cloaked himself in light, caught off guard by Gary's arrival.

"Don't pay attention to the loudmouth. He's a big marshmallow once you get to know him."

Larvitar gave an amused grunt at the description.

Gary's eyes narrowed and his face contorted into a scowl. "I resent that remark."

Ash's lips quirked upward. "You resemble that remark."

"Whatever, ready to go?" Gary huffed. There was an air of impatience lingering in his every word.

"Yeah, I'm ready, just waiting for you to get your lazy carcass up. Better question is whether you're ready."

Gary winced. "Of course, now let's get a move on, daylight is wasting!" he exclaimed before leading the way towards Mt. Moon.

So much for him calling the shots, although he supposed he only requested Gary listen once they got to Mt. Moon. He hoped the technicalities didn't come back to hurt him somehow, but that was a bridge he'd get to when he got to it.

Ash took a moment to clean up and put his teammates' food bowls away in his backpack before slinging the bag over his shoulder. He motioned for his team and walked at a medium-slow pace to allow Titan to keep up. His eyes shifted to the silhouette of Mt. Moon and took a deep breath.

Mt. Moon and the adventure surely waiting there beckoned for them.

Author's Note: Alright folks, sorry for the ridiculous wait on updating this chapter but this was one of those chapters that did not want to be written. Not only did I have a lot of curveballs from life that took my attention off this story, but my last attempt to write this chapter got deleted when my laptop decided to crash and delete the chapter last year. But hey, on the bright side, I like this version better.

I really wanted to give Ash's newest team member, Larvitar, some development since he hasn't gotten much attention and figured this was the best way to do it. Plus, I was due for a rival battle.

I want to give shoutouts to A Wordsmith, Mateusz, Professor Seanic, and The Straight Elf for letting me pester them for ideas when this chapter just would not cooperate. Wouldn't have gotten this chapter finished without your help.

God bless, Rock of Ages 7 signing off!