Disclaimer: I do not own anything that is part of the Pokémon franchise. The rights belong to Nintendo, Game Freak and Creatures. I shall only use elements from the franchise on this piece of fan fiction for non-lucrative purposes. Make sure to read the A/N at the end of the chapter and do not go to my profile before reading the chapter to avoid spoilers! You have been warned!

This is the Reviews' Answer Corner. I will take some of the reviews you posted on the previous chapter and answer them.

Because of the amount of time between updates, the Reviews' Answer Corner will make its come back on chapter seven. As a matter of fact, should I even bother with this? Give me your answer in the reviews section.

Oh. In case you forgot, which is the most likely scenario…

Igneel – Charmeleon

Zephya – Pidgeotto

Rexus – Nidorino

Titania – Clefairy

Abzu – Totodile

Alright, now, enjoy the chapter!

Chapter Six: The Road to Vermillion

After the award ceremony ended and everyone left the Nugget Bridge Arena, Ash found himself approaching the namesake of the premises that had seen his first truly major and public victory as a pokemon trainer. With the event having started not too long after lunch and having lasted almost five hours, the sun was almost completely set over the horizon as twilight made its presence known.

The gold nuggets that adorned the railings and gave name to the bridge he was only a few dozen yards away from reaching glinted with different orange and purple hues as they reflected the light of the setting sun and the darkening sky.

After the anger Ash felt towards Paul Shinji left him when he delivered a well-deserved retribution, pure elation and satisfaction had been the most prominent emotions left within him. There was also a healthy dose of worry for Leaf and her ivysaur but Ash had been unable to go in search of his best friend because he had been immediately dragged away by the eager and gleeful reporters for interviews.

For almost thirty minutes, Ash had tried his best to not make a fool out of himself as he answered all the questions sent his way. He honestly wasn't sure whether or not he had been successful on that endeavor.

After the interviews the award ceremony was next and that was when Ash had finally a chance to speak with a visibly subdued but no-longer-crying Leaf, albeit briefly. When he asked her about Forest, her ivysaur, he had been relieved to hear that its injuries had looked worse than what they had actually been. Leaf's starter was still going to take a few days before he was completely healed though.

He'd only had time for that before he, Paul, Leaf and Gary had been directed towards a podium to receive their rewards. As the first-place winner of a minor tournament, Ash had been given a gold medal that had the symbol of League engraved on one side and the words 'Nugget Bridge Tournament' on the other. Paul had been given a silver medal as the runner-up and Gary and Leaf were given a bronze medal each for reaching the semifinals.

Throughout it all, Ash had noticed that even though Paul had appeared mostly stoic, he had caught the occasional glances, tightened fists and clenched jaws that were the telltales of Paul's real emotions. Gary had just glared at him heatedly with a red face. And Leaf, even though she had been clearly worried about her pokemon, had smiled genuinely at him and clapped along with the crowd and the other competitors that had stayed to watch the whole thing.

Ash had easily shrugged off the first two. It wasn't his problem that Gary got mad over him beating what likely had to be his two strongest pokemon with just Zephya and it also wasn't his problem that Paul got what was coming to him due to being a cruel asshole with his tactics.

He had returned Leaf's smile with a grin of his own.

After the award ceremony was done and as the spectators had begun to vacate the premises, Leaf had told him she wanted to meet 'in private' with him tomorrow. Not knowing what it was about nor having a reason to refuse her, he had told her about the spot he had spent the previous five days training his pokemon and how to get there. After telling him she would be there at around mid-morning and thanking him, she'd bid him a hasty goodbye before hurrying out of there, likely because she'd wanted to go back to her injured pokemon as soon as possible.

Ash could understand that. If any of his pokemon had even been remotely close to that level of injured he also wouldn't want to leave their side.

"Don't think just because you lost to the same guy in the finals that I did on the semifinals that you are better than me, asshole!"

"…Idiot. I didn't even speak to you."

"You were looking down on me! I saw it! And who the hell are you calling an idiot, huh?! Do you know who I am?!"


"Stop ignoring me, dammit!"

Ash paused, blinked twice in bewilderment and stared at the utterly ridiculous scene that was happening right in the middle of the Nugget Bridge. Gary looked like was doing his best impersonation of an angry primeape and looked ready to start spewing flames from all of his facial orifices while a visibly annoyed Paul was trying and somewhat succeeding on remaining stoic.

It was the Sinnoh native that noticed him first.

Paul's eyes narrowed. "Ketchum…"

Gary's head sharply turned towards where Paul was looking and he growled when he saw Ash there. Seeing the gold medal hanging off his neck only reminded him of his humiliating lost against someone he always thought was beneath him. While he knew that Ash overall potential as a trainer was above average, for his grandfather's sponsorship demanded no less, he still thought that he was the better of the two.

Today he had seen that it was not the case. Still, he refused to accept that a no name like-

"Currently, you are better than me and your pokemon are stronger than mine."

While Gary turned towards Paul with wide eyes, Ash merely raised an eyebrow at him.

"I think that was left pretty clear earlier," said Ash with a shrug of his shoulders after a moment. While he no longer felt the intense anger towards him, that didn't mean that he was suddenly going to like Paul and become friends with him just because he stated the obvious. Truthfully, unless Paul showed him that he was different than what his actions today indicated, Ash doubted he would ever get along with him.

Other than a clenched jaw and a twitching eyebrow, Paul didn't show any reaction Ash's words. "We are going to meet again. And when that happens, I will be the better trainer with the stronger pokemon."

"You do know that I will continue to get stronger and better as well, right?" Ash asked him with genuine curiosity as he shoved his hands into the pockets of his pants. It seemed like him defeating Paul so soundly only ignited the fires of rivalry within him.

Paul shook his head as he uncrossed his arms and imitated Ash's actions by shoving his own hands into the pockets of his pants. "It doesn't matter. Next time we face each other, whether it's another tournament or a random encounter on the road, I'm going to be the winner."

Ash gave him an even look and inclined his head slightly. "You are welcome to try."

With another twitch that betrayed his inner annoyance and irritation, Paul scoffed before turning around and started to make his way towards Cerulean City. Gary growled and glared after him when Paul didn't even spare him a second glance.

Ash sighed tiredly. "Do you want to say something to me too, Gary?" He asked him. He just wanted to go back to his room at the Pokémon Center, release his friends from their pokeballs, congratulate them properly for achieving their first major win and then pass out for at least ten hours. He was fatigued, both mentally and physically, and he just wanted to get this over with.

Gary turned towards him and his expression wasn't his usual smug one. Ash could only see anger and resentment on his face. "Don't you think that just because you got lucky with that freak bird of yours that you are better than me, ya hear me?!"

Other than the slight annoyance he felt at Gary calling Zephya a 'freak bird', Ash was merely unimpressed by this and his expression bared it all to Gary. "Mhm. Got it. Is that all?"

Gary gnashed his teeth together at utterly uncaring response he got. He pointed dramatically at Ash. "Today you just caught me off guard! Next time we meet, I'll show everyone that you aren't better than me! I'll teach you not to look down on me! Next time It'll be me that wins with only just one pokemon, ya hear me?!" He shouted before not giving Ash a chance to actually respond as he turned away and ran towards the city.

Ash watched him go with a flat expression for a few moments before giving a tired sigh and looking up to the darkening sky. He didn't know why but he had the feeling that by winning against them in the manner that he did only resulted in Paul probably becoming worse than what he already was and Gary becoming even more annoying.

After a few moments he shrugged his shoulders and began to make his own way towards Cerulean. That just meant that he was going to keep beating them until both Paul and Gary realized the futility of their actions as they continued to go forward. By this point Ash had a one hundred and thirty-six winning streak and he planned to keep it like that for as long as he could.

Besides, there was no way in hell that the first time he ever lost would be to the likes of Gary or Paul.

It was around nine in the morning of the next day and Ash was sitting on the shore of the small pond that had been witness to his own training and that of his pokemon for the Nugget Bridge Tournament. He was wearing black shorts, a plain red shirt and he had taken off his sandals so he could put his feet in the cool, soothing water of the natural pool. He was basking in the tranquility of nature as he waited for Leaf to arrive.

He had released his pokemon the moment he arrived earlier. After there being essentially no true amount of relaxation since leaving Pewter City and then going on to not only win their second major badge but also their first ever tournament, Ash felt that they deserved at the very least two full days of just doing nothing before going back at it. That would give him enough time to make a decision on whether to go to Celadon City or Vermillion City next.

Ash heard a purr coming from his lap and he looked down at his starter. Igneel was sprawled face down on the grassy floor next to him with his head on his lap and all his limbs laid limply on the ground. If it weren't for his currently half-lidded eyes, lazily wagging flaming tail and the occasional pleasured purrs he would release due to him scratching the 'spots', Ash would have confused him for a pile of flaming dark red goo. He was sure many of the spectators and trainers from yesterday would be extremely surprised to see the ferocious and dominant charmeleon in his current state.

A shift from his other side made him take off his attention from Igneel and towards Rexus, who had moved from his spot of laying at his side so he could lean forward and drink from the clear water of the pond. Even though he was clearly relaxed, his still oversized ears would occasionally twitch as they caught the sound of this and that. With a smile, Ash fondly thought that Rexus would never stop being the tiniest bit paranoid.

He heard some splashing from the pond and he looked first towards the shallowest part of it only to withhold a snort of amusement. Zephya was currently using the water to clean herself while Titania was helping her. The reason why he was amused rather than just extremely glad and happy that two of his pokemon seemed to become the best of friends, was because every now and then Zephya had to chirp sharply at Titania because she would accidentally pull too hard on her feathers since she would get distracted by what was happening at the center of the pond.

And Titania's distraction was caused by Abzu, who was playing a game of tag with a poliwag, a wooper and an azurill. This time Ash couldn't contain his snort, which got him brief looks from Igneel and Rexus. Abzu had been just tagged and the gleeful small blue croc was chasing the other three pokemon, who suddenly looked frantic and a bit fearful since it seemed like Abzu wanted to tag them with his teeth.

Honestly, Ash cherished and loved moment like this with his pokemon the most. 'Maybe it's because we spend most of our time training and battling. That's not necessarily a bad thing though. The more we work and the more we push ourselves make moments like this more enjoyable. Maybe even something to look forward to after each of our short-term goals are accomplished,' he thought to himself in retrospection.

Delia had taught Ash that while it was good to have long-term goals, the best way to go about reaching them was to set short-term ones that eventually built uptowards accomplishing your biggest dream. And for Ash that was becoming the best Pokemon Trainer in the world and for the entire world to recognize it. That meant becoming even better and stronger than the current Champions of all the world regions.

Realistically, Ash knew that it would be years before he got good and strong enough to even begin contemplating seriously challenging the Regional Champions and their Elite Four. Ash wasn't stupid nor was he impatient. Early on he had been taught by both Professor Oak and his mother that good things came to those who waited and bid their time as they focused on growing at their own pace. That lesson was the main reason why Ash was taking his time with traveling and training his pokemon.

If yesterday's tournament was anything to go by then doing so was most certainly paying off.

Anyways, Ash's longest-term realistic goal was completing the Kanto Gym Circuit and reaching as far as he could in the Indigo Conference that was going to happen in a bit more than twenty months from now. Ash knew that even with almost two years of training and experience under his belt the chances of him actually winning a Regional League Tournament such as the Indigo Conference on his first ever try were basically nonexistent.

A Regional League Tournament was the biggest event of each region and it gathered the best pokemon trainers from all over the world to not only test their mettle against each other but to also earn the chance to eventually challenge the members of the Elite Four to an all out six-on-six battle for their spot. And let it be said, that in more than a decade, since the retirement of the Phantom Mistress, Agatha Lovecraft, and Lance Wataru's ascension to Champion and the joining of the Kanto and Johto regions, no one has managed to go past the first Elite: The Lady of Darkness, Karen Umbra.

However, like how it was with the Waterflower Sisters, instead of discouraging him and serving as a deterrent, the knowledge of the challenges he would have to face and overcome in order to accomplish his dream was merely fuel for his determination.

'One day the whole world will know my name,' he thought to himself with conviction. 'I just have to start small. First, the badges of all the major gyms in Kanto. Then, the Indigo Conference. After that…'

That was when his moment of introspection was cut off as Rexus ears suddenly gave a particularly sharp twitch and his entire body tensed before he stood up and faced south, bristling as his barbs and spine prepared to start secreting poison. Igneel gave a growl before he also shot to his feet and got ready to scare off anyone that dared to bother them.

Knowing who it likely was, Ash stayed calm as he twisted his body a bit and faced towards the direction his two most protective friends also faced. When he saw a familiar pretty face framed by brown hair covered by a white hat, he smiled as he patted Igneel on the shoulder and Rexus on the part of his flank where he didn't have poisonous glands. "Calm down, guys. That's Leaf, a friend. Play nice."

Igneel and Rexus immediately calmed down at his words and even moved away a bit to allow Leaf to approach him. They stayed close though and didn't take their slightly wary eyes away from her.

The moment she stood merely a few feet away from him she gave a smile as she eyed both Igneel and Rexus first and then the rest of his pokemon. Ash followed her gaze and he noticed that Zephya was looking directly at them without blinking and Titania was also looking their way but with a cute expression of curiosity that was enhanced by the fact that most of her body was tilted to one side. And finally, having stopped playing, the only part that could only be seen of Abzu were his eyes and snout as the rest was submerged underwater. His playmates were looking at him in confusion, likely due to his sudden change in attitude.

Leaf grinned down at him. "Your pokemon are very loyal to you. Even your totodile, which I know you got less than a week ago."

Ash snorted and shook his head fondly. "Overprotective bunch, that's what they are," he said and rolled his eyes when both Igneel and Rexus made sounds of disapproval and denial. He caught Zephya making her equivalent of a huff before she looked away. A sharp chirp later and Titania was back to happily cleaning off her feathers individually. Since Titania had been the one to offer her help, Ash wasn't worried about it being bullying from Zephya to the fairy pokemon. Zephya wasn't the type and Ash felt that despite her happy-go-lucky personality, Titania wouldn't put up with something like that.

Leaf chuckled as she watched Abzu return back to his game of tag. "I actually find that to be kind of cute. My pokemon are just like that," she said before perking up a bit and turning towards him. "Do you think your team would mind if I released my pokemon? I don't want them to be cupped up inside their pokeballs when I am outside like this," she spoke to him with a slightly hopeful tone.

Ash smile and shook his head. "Nope. Go ahead. They won't mind," he said before adopting a pondering expression. "Though Titania might try to force them into becoming friends and play with her and Igneel might try to goad one of them into a fight just for the hell of it," he warned her with an amused expression. His lips twitched when Rexus huffed and walked back to his right to lay down again.

She looked towards the charmeleon and stifled a laugh at the interested look he was giving her five pokeballs now. "I think Silk won't mind your clefairy that much. And I got a feeling that your charmeleon and Chuck will get along just fine," she said dryly before chuckling as she reached for her pokeballs. "Oh, well. Come out everyone!"

Five flashes of bright white light later and her ivysaur, mankey, spinarak, hoothoot and psyduck appeared. The first thing Ash noticed were the lighter patches on the ivysaur's hide that indicated that his burns had been healed but those zones had yet to acquire their previous level of toughness. Other than that, her four other pokemon didn't show the signs of the battles they had yesterday, even if he knew some of them had taken a few solid hits.

Leaf smiled brightly at them as she clipped her pokeballs back to the magnets of her trainer belt. "Alright everyone. We'll be taking it easy today and Ash and his friends here will keep us company," she said and motioned towards the other pokemon around her. "Make sure to behave yourselves and be friendly… I'm talking to you, Chuck," she finished at the end by leveling her mankey with a stern gaze.

The pig monkey pokemon merely snorted. A deeper snort was then heard and both Ash and Leaf watched with exasperation as Igneel began to goad Chuck with a reptilian smirk and challenging eyes. The mankey responded with a huff as he began to flex. A few taunting growls and snarls and aggravated chuffs and screeches later and the charmeleon and mankey began to walk away, their intentions to duck it out with one another very clear to everyone.

More than one set of eyes were rolled when they saw that.

"Why am I Not surprised?" rhetorically asked Ash in a sarcastic manner as he watched the rest of Leaf's pokemon go on about doing their thing. The hoothoot, Owly, flapped his short wings and flew towards where Zephya and Titania were and began to wash himself as well. Zephya merely glanced at him as Titania gave an enthusiastic greeting, which Owly replied by blinking slowly and not looking away from them even as he continued the process of cleaning himself.

"You know? Something tells me that despite going off to fight, those two are going to get along the best out of all of our pokemon," she said with amusement as she watched Donny, her psyduck, hop into the water and swim towards were Abzu and the other water-type pokemon were back playing tag. Her lips twitched upwards when Donny was accepted by the others and began to quack merrily as he chased them.

"I just hope Igneel takes it easy. Today is supposed to be a day off," he said and watched in interest as Silk, Leaf's spinarak, skittered towards Rexus, whose ears twitched before turning in the direction of the spider, and chittered softly but excitedly at him. Rexus responded with a few grunts and chuffs of his own.

Ash blinked and turned away from the apparent conversation between the poison types when Leaf sat down next him on his left side and submerged her own feet in the water after having removing her sneakers, socks and hat. Forest carefully walked until he stood next to his trainer and with a bit of a grimace laid down himself carefully on Leaf's left.

"He should be back to one hundred percent in two or three days," explained Leaf when she noticed the look Ash was giving her starter. She smiled at him when his eyes flickered towards her. "Thanks for worrying about him," she told him softly as she reached towards the ivysaur and lightly rubbed the spots that weren't injured. That resulted in Forest making a few sounds of contentment as he closed his eyes.

Ash shook his head a bit as he leaned back, supporting his weight with his arms. "No problem," he said and after a short pause he smiled a bit sheepishly. "Reflecting on it a bit, I think I went overboard yesterday. Sure, Paul is an asshole that could have won without doing what he did, even the crowd from yesterday didn't take long to realize that thought I think their reaction was more because of his attitude than his methods, but…" he trailed off, not knowing how to explain what he was thinking without coming off as an insensitive moron.

Leaf's lips twitched upwards as she regarded him with some amusement. "… a battle is a battle, right?" She said wryly and chuckled while shaking her head when Ash nodded a bit guiltily at her. "I know that, Ash. To tell you the truth, even though I'm glad you demolished him, I wasn't even that mad at Paul. Like you said, he is an asshole and I doubt I would ever get along with him in the future, but his tactic was a solid one that I can even see the two of us using," she admitted to him.

After a moment of reflection, Ash nodded his head in agreement. The two of them were well aware that if it had come to it, Ash wouldn't have hesitated a second to use Igneel against Forest, which essentially, was the same as Paul using a fiery explosion to deal with the ivysaur. However…

"I know… I know. It wasn't him using that tactic that got me mad," said Ash with a frown as he looked at the pokemon enjoying their time inside the pond. Rexus and Silk, the spinarak, were amiably conversing and he could her the faint sounds of combat coming from where Igneel and Chuck, the mankey, had disappeared to. "It's just that I can kind of tell that he only sees pokemon as tools and means to an end. He doesn't see in them intelligent creatures with feelings and dreams of their own. Heck, I can go as far to say that there was some maliciousness in what he did to your ivysaur yesterday."

Leaf nodded at him in easy agreement. "I know. To be honest, after yesterday, I don't know whose teeth I want to kick in more from Paul or Gary," she told him with a nasty grin and the two of them shared a laugh at that. After a moment Leaf sobered up and looked at him in the eye. "Can I ask you something and you promise to answer me as honestly as you can?"

Ash straightened up at bit and nodded at her without breaking eye contact. "Of course. Go ahead."

"Am I a bad trainer?"

Ash almost physically stopped himself from giving an immediate answer since he knew that Leaf wanted a serious and honest answer from him. Even though his answer wouldn't have changed, he took a few moments to carefully choose his words. Eventually, he shook his head in the negative. "No. I don't think you are a bad trainer at all, Leaf. Quite the contrary actually. You managed to reach the semifinals yesterday without losing a single pokemon. Honestly speaking, had I faced Paul on the semifinals and you Gary, the final would have been between you and me without a doubt."

Ash paused and then gave a sheepish smile as he rubbed the back of his head. "However, I don't think I'm the best person to ask that. I have the same amount of time as a trainer as you so…"

Leaf sighed, looking like a small weight had been taken off her shoulder, and smiled prettily at him. "I know that but I still wanted to know what you thought. It matched almost perfectly what my parents and Professor Oak told me when I asked them yesterday after the tournament," she admitted to him before looking down at her ivysaur as she continued to rub the spots that haven't been injured on his hide. "Do you think you can help me improve?" She asked him with a voice that was a bit small and held and undertone of nervousness.

Ash blinked and tilted his head to the side as regarded her with a confused expression on his face. "Um, I think you need to be a bit more specific with that, Leaf…"

She took a deep breath before turning towards him and looking at him with a mildly flushed face. "Can I travel with you for some time?" When she saw Ash's eyebrows rise into his hairline, her blush increased in intensity as she became a bit frantic. "It's not like I want to spy on you or anything to get an advantage or whatever!"


"I'd just like some training tips and learn something from watching you battle, that's all!"


"And I think that taking my time just like you would be beneficial because-"


She paused mid-rambling with her face now almost resembling a tomato and blinked in surprise when she saw Ash's face with an expression of amusement as he chuckled. Immediately knowing that it meant his acceptance of her request and that he found her flustered state adorable, Leaf did the mature thing and stuck out her tongue at him, pouted petulantly and looked away from him with huff as she crossed her arms.

Ash shook his head fondly. "I'll be leaving the day after tomorrow. Me team and I will be taking two days off after the constant traveling, training and battling we have done since leaving Pewter City. Tomorrow I'll be going to the Cerulean PokéMart to get my TMs and restock on supplies. Wanna come?"

After a long moment, without turning to look at him, Leaf nodded her head. "… Okay." Despite behaving as if she was annoyed with him, which she kind of was, Leaf had a massive grin on her face that made her pink cheeks ache a bit as she resisted the urge to wrap her best friend in a full body hug and smooch him to death. The thought only made her feel even more embarrassed though it didn't stop her fantasizing.

Ash chuckled again before turning towards the pond just in time to see Titania attempting to join the game of tag that was still going between the water pokemon, with Abzu for some reason being the only one seemingly against it, though his reasons didn't seem spiteful or anything like that. Honestly, he looked more nervous than anything else. Zephya and Owly, the hoothoot, had already finished their self-cleaning and were already roosting, each one in one of the nearby branches. Rexus and Silk were still chatting amiably with one another and he could hear Chuck screaming followed by snickering from Igneel as the sounds of battle continued.

If this was an example of what to expect from Leaf joining him on his travels, he could see himself getting used and even enjoying her company.

Ash had a thoughtful expression on his face as he idly sat in one of the many couches of the lobby of the Pokémon Center. He was waiting for Leaf to come down so they could go to the Cerulean PokéMart in order to get/buy TMs restock on supplies when he received a call on his X-Transceiver from Professor Oak.

He picked it up and smiled politely at his sponsor, mentor and grandfather figure. "Good morning, Professor Oak. How are you doing?"

He returned the smile with one of his own. "Good morning to you as well, Ash. Other than a bit sleep deprivation, as usual, I am feeling excellent. How about you?" He asked him curiously, even though a knowing smile slowly began to appear on his face.

Ash saw the expression on his face and his own became a weird mix of bashful and prideful as he rubbed the skin between his nose and upper lip with his index finger. "Well, since you probably saw the Nugget Bridge Tournament the day before yesterday, I'm pretty sure you can tell how I'm doing, Professor Oak."

Professor Oak gave an amused chuckle as he nodded his head. "Indeed, Ash. First off, I wanted to congratulate you on that flawless win. Truthfully, after seeing the level of the competition during the first round, I thought that only my grandson, Leaf and that Paul youngster from Sinnoh would have given you an actual battle but after seeing the final match I both underestimated you and overestimated those three," he said, his tone proud and filled with praise.

Ash straightened it up subconsciously and he gave Oak a grateful expression. "Thank you, Professor Oak. That means a lot coming from you."

The old professor waved his words off easily before giving raising a critical eyebrow at him. "Yes… though you won, I believe forfeiting your pokemon after beating Paul's just to prove a point and get some kind of retribution on Leaf's behalf was a bit much, wouldn't you agree?"

Ash blushed a bit in embarrassment, feeling chastised, and he looked away with a bit of a grimace on his face. "I know. I already spoke with Leaf and even she thinks that it was a bit much even if she's glad that I beat him how I did. I don't regret it one bit but I will try to reign myself better in the future. I'm very well aware of the fact that if I hadn't been so much stronger and better overall than him, what I did would have resulted in me losing."

One needed to remember that despite his apparent maturity, intelligence and talent, Ash was still a thirteen-year-old young teen filled to the brim with raging hormones that messed with his emotions and judgement big time. What Professor Oak and his mother had taught him had most certainly taken root inside his mind and subconsciousness, yes, but he was still prone to emotional responses when they were sufficiently stimulated. He was human and thus wasn't perfect by any means.

Oak relaxed his expression and an approving smile replaced it. "I'm glad you can think back on your actions with an objective perspective, realize what you might have done correctly or not and learn from those experiences so you can grow further as a person. Delia and I most certainly did a good job with you," he said with a kind of self-satisfied grin that softened a bit after a moment. "I also wanted to thank you."

Ash got over his embarrasment quickly at those words and blinked confusedly at his sponsor. "Thank me? What for, Professor?"

"For beating Gary how you did during the tournament," he said simply and he chuckled in amusement at Ash's incredulous look before he elaborated. "While I don't see him changing his more… unpleasant and irritating disposition anytime soon, he's become more driven ever since you beat his two strongest pokemon with just one of your own. It's not much, but it's a step in the correct direction for Gary. He seems very determined to beat you as soundly as you did him."

Ash closed his eyes, looked up and groaned. "Why me…" He lamented. While he had been expecting something among those lines after Gary's parting words to him, it seemed like it was worse (better?) than he thought. He shook his head and deadpanned at Professor Oak. "That just means I will have to keep getting stronger and better to make sure Gary doesn't beat me then."

Oak grinned at him in a cheeky manner that somehow wasn't out of place on his wizened face. "Welcome to the perils and perks of antagonistic youthful rivalry, my boy. Ah… doesn't it take me back…" The old man finished his words with a wistful tone that had traces of melancholy and a tiny bit of regret.

Ash wondered for a moment what exactly Professor Oak was thinking about regarding his past before calling for his attention. "Is there anything else you needed, Professor?"

The elder Oak blinked a few times before shaking his head and composing himself, adopting a mildly embarrassed expression as he coughed into his fist. "Ah. My apologies, Ash. Lately I've been reminiscing more about the past. But that's me being the old man that I am," he waved it off with a hand motion before regarding Ash with a smile. "Before I get back to work, I wanted to make a suggestion regarding your next destination."

Ash raised his eyebrows at him and his eager and excited expression was the only response Professor Oak got from him.

The old Professor chuckled at Ash's silent urging. "The St. Anne will be docking on Vermillion City's harbor in about a month from now. It's a luxurious steamship, or S.S. for short, that goes around the world constantly and it will stay there for a week or so during its annual stop in Kanto. It will hold a League Official Tournament for all C-Ranked trainers and/or those that have three or four badges before it departs for Johto. Even though I know Delia wouldn't mind buying you the ticket that you'll need to get on the ship in the first place, you'll find that the requirements to enter the tournament are a bit more… peculiar."

Ash leaned forward a bit, clearly displaying his interest and curiosity.

Professor Oak smirked at him. "If you manage to defeat Lt. Surge, who has been ordered by the League to… dial it up, so to speak… you will get a ticket for the St. Anne and will be registered for the tournament automatically. I don't know the exact details, since I'm not a member of the Indigo League Tournament Organization Committee (ILTOC), but I think it has something to do with only the best of the best being allowed the chance to participate."

Ash returned the Professor's smirk right back at him. "Well, if wouldn't be an interesting tournament if just about anyone could enter, right?" He questioned rhetorically and earned a satisfied and agreeing laugh and nod from his sponsor. When the old man finally calmed down, Ash raised an eyebrow at him. "I take it that Gary will be heading there as well?"

Oak nodded his head. "That'd be correct. I told him I would tell you about it and he correctly assumed that you would also be interested. He said something about 'proving who's the superior trainer' between the two of you before he hung up," said Oak wryly as he shook his head with fond exasperation.

Ash's smirk became a savage grin. When he saw it, Professor Oak couldn't help but be reminded of the expression his own charizard would make whenever an exciting and possibly tough challenge was ahead. Knowing that it wasn't uncommon for trainers to unconsciously imitate their pokemon and vice versa after some time have passed, he didn't pay it a lot of mind as he focused on Ash's next words.

"You better tell Gary that he needs to step up his game if he wants to beat me. At the pace I'm setting for myself, it'll take me roughly a month to get to Vermillion. I won't be slacking off on training and battling with my pokemon and he shouldn't either. Otherwise what happened during the Nugget Bridge Tournament will repeat itself," said Ash with a confident expression on his face.

Professor Oak chuckled once again before nodding at him. "Will do and duly noted, Ash. Now, I must get back to my work. It's always pleasant speaking with you, my boy. Until next time," he said before giving him a short wave and promptly disconnecting the call.

Ash brought down his hand, closed his eyes, sighed deeply and leaned back comfortably into the couch.

A few minutes later, Leaf finally came down from her room and, looking visibly chirper than the day before, approached the seemingly napping Ash with a pretty smile on her face before tapping him repeatedly on the shoulder. "Hey, slakoth. Get up. We have some breakfast to eat, sights to see and TMs to get!" She told him excitedly as she switched from tapping his shoulders to jabbing her slightly sharp nail into his cheek.

Ash, who had been deep in thought, merely opened his eyes and regarded her with some annoyance. "It's not even been a full day yet and I'm already regretting agreeing to travel with you," he told her flippantly and he rolled his eyes when she merely stuck out her tongue at him playfully. He stood up, stretched his arms a bit and regarded her thoughtfully.

Leaf clasped her hands behind her back and tilted her head curiously to the side at the look Ash was giving her. "What?"

"Before you decided to come with me, what were your plans for when you left Cerulean City?" Asked Ash.

Leaf blinked before shrugging her shoulders. "I was planning to head to Celadon City. I was going to try and see if Erika could give me some pointers regarding Forest after beating the Celadon City Gym. Maybe even try my hand at getting one of the fable pokemon prizes of the Celadon Game Corner. There was also the Celadon Department Store as well…" she trailed off when she noticed the slight frown that marred his features. "… why?" She asked him tentatively.

Ash shook his head and smiled slightly at her. "I just spoke with Professor Oak a few minutes ago and he told me about something interesting. C'mon. Let's go get breakfast and I'll tell you all about it," he told her with a grin as he turned around and began to make his way towards the cafeteria of the Pokémon Center.

A curious Leaf followed after him.

Leaf had a bleary eyed and sleepy expression on her face as she regarded her best friend and now traveling companion with a significant amount of annoyance. "Just what the hell possessed you to wake me up at five in the freaking morning and then force me to walk for an hour before stopping in the middle of nowhere?"

Ash regarded Leaf with a patient expression on his face. "I don't normally wake up that early but I wanted to put some distance between us and Cerulean City before the morning training session." They were now in a plain with a few trees and boulders not too far off the main road of Route 5. It was the perfect spot to get some training done before proceeding to travel south properly. Ash smiled cheekily at her. "Don't worry. You'll get used to it sooner or later."

Leaf groaned and she looked like she wanted to strangle him. After a moment, she shook her head and sighed in resignation. "Well, I did ask for it so I guess I can't really complain, can I?" She spoke wryly before shrugging her shoulders and regarding him curiously. "What are we going to be doing?"

"We usually use the mornings to train the moves and techniques they have already learned so they can master it and/or to gain experience using the mastered moves and techniques via sparring against each other or practicing them repeatedly. The evenings are for learning new moves and techniques. Also, I make sure that each member of the team battles at least thrice every day against the pokemon of other trainers that are the same rank as me," explained Ash.

Leaf blinked repeatedly in surprise before whistling appreciatively. "Oh, wow. No wonder you dominated the Nugget Bridge Tournament. What are you? Some kind of machine?" She asked him teasingly at the end with a sly look.

Ash blushed a bit at the correctly perceived compliment. "A-anyways, even though it might not look like it, my schedule gives more than enough time to dedicate to eat, rest, research about my team so I can train them in the most efficacious way possible and write daily for Professor Oak's report."

Leaf looked a bit embarrassed as she sheepishly scratched the back of her head. "Um, while I do train and battle with my pokemon daily when we are on the road, I'm not really that organized. I mostly just go with the flow," she admitted with what looked like a bit of shame.

Ash nodded at her with a reassuring smile. "And that's not a bad thing at all. You went with what you felt most comfortable with and it has clearly yielded results. However, I find that a schedule and some discipline make for bettle results. You don't have to perform the same thing every day, but I believe that whatever training you do, if you do it at set hours, along with resting, traveling and battling, it's the best way to become a better trainer."

Seeing how he managed to win the Nugget Bridge Tournament without losing a single pokemon, Leaf knew for sure that there had to be some truth to Ash's words since his results spoke for themselves. She nodded at him in understanding and promised herself that even though she won't be imitating what he did completely, she at least was going to develop a schedule to do whatever training she could come up with from now on.

"What are you going to be doing then?"

Leaf pondered for a long moment before nodding to herself. "I feel that some of my pokemon have yet to master their current moves and techniques so I guess we'll be working on that before I teach them any new ones," she said and smiled widely at Ash's approving nod. She raised an eyebrow at him curiously. "What about you?"

"I'm going to teach them the TMs I picked up and have them spar and practice with them until they master them. After that we'll work on combination techniques and learning a few more moves," said Ash musingly at the end before nodding to himself in acceptance to those plans. He then looked at her directly. "Training sessions last for no more than two hours. I'll be stopping around eight to get breakfast and get ready for traveling."

Leaf gave him a mock salute. "Roger that!" She exclaimed before sticking out her tongue at him, giggling and then jogging away to her 'side' of the plain.

Ash just shook his head fondly and watched as she released her ivysaur, mankey, spinarak, hoothoot and psyduck before she began talking to them. Some of them seemed a bit confused while others (Only the mankey, really) seemed excited at what she was saying. They eventually nodded at her in understanding before they moved a few yards away on every direction before they began to practicing their moves. Forest, the ivysaur, still needed at least two more days to recover completely so he laid down at Leaf's feet. Ash could feel its determination and resolve to become better and it seemed like Leaf did as well, since she crouched down and rubbed his forehead with a fond expression on her face.

Knowing that she could handle things perfectly on her own, Ash turned away and walked to his 'side'. After deeming that he was far enough from where Leaf and her team were doing their own training, Ash shrugged off his back pack, opened it and reached for the case that contained the TMs that were in his possession. He flicked it open, showing that he was in possession of nine of them.

Ash reached down to his belt and grabbed Igneel's warmer-than-normal pokeball. For his starter, he had picked up Brick Break. It was a fighting-type move that not only enhanced his forelimbs but also the chest and back muscles that were used to move said limbs. This was what Ash was thinking of when considering methods of enhancing Edgeclaw further… and if he was honest with himself, that was not going to be where he put a stop to it. There were at least two other moves that he would be getting his starter to learn in order to develop Igneel's go to close-combat techniques.

After using TM31 on Igneel, Ash grabbed Zephya's pokeball. For her he grabbed Aerial Ace since that was the best technique that she could learn that would not only improve her speed but also her air manipulation skills as well. The technique not only allowed her to reach speeds beyond what the human eye can follow momentarily but it also used air currents to do so. It was the perfect thing for her considered her preferred way of battling and what he had planned for her in terms of further development.

When he was done using TM40 on Zephya, he reached for Rexus' pokeball. For him, Ash decided that the best technique he should initially learn would be Protect at the moment. Why? Rexus was, and would continue to be, a mostly stationary and reactive fighter due to the way he was developing. It was because of that precisely that Ash felt he needed a completely defensive technique just in case. That wasn't going to be the only move Rexus would learn before reaching Vermillion City though. It was nigh time that he got some proper variety and long-range moves after all.

When TM17 was successfully used on Rexus, he moved onto Titania. For her, he chose Light Screen. The reasons were obvious. Since she was going to be a mobile, long-range tank, she needed to have a defensive technique that focused on preventing damage from long-range attacks. Not only that, but since Light Screen was a psychic-type move, he could begin developing Titania's psychic potential as well. She still needed to master dazzling gleam and fairy wind though. That meant she was going to have her work cut out for her before she learned a bit more variety.

After TM16 was spent on Titania, Ash grabbed the slightly humid pokeball that belonged to Abzu. He had picked up Water Pulse for him but he was going to give him Scald as well. Abzu had already mastered the techniques he already knew the moment he joined him during the days before the Nugget Bridge Tournament, so it was time for him to learn new ones. Water Pulse would be an excellent technique that Ash could see being used in different manners after reading about its concept and the burning effect of Scald was just simply too good to ignore considering that it came from a water-type move.

When he was finally left with the Stone Edge TM and the other two permanent ones he had bought using thirty thousand of his credits, Ash quickly discarded the used TMs and put back everything else inside his bag and strapped it on. With a practiced movement that wasn't too far away from being second nature, Ash released his team in a bright flash of white energy.

Igneel, Rexus and Abzu roared their greetings at him. Zephya chirped in a dignified manner. Titania giggled happily before floating towards him and wrapping her stubbly arms and legs around the outer side of his leg with a squeal. While Igneel and Rexus gave snorts of varying degrees of amusement at Titania's actions, Zephya glared and chirped disapprovingly at her. Abzu didn't seem to care, as he curiously looked around, always excited to see new things surrounding him.

Ash, getting used more and more to her antics, simply smiled down at her patted her head. "Hey, Titania. It's nice to see you… even if it's only been about an hour since we last saw each other," he added at the end with an amused tone.

Titania just hugged his leg tighter.

Ash just sighed and shrugged his shoulders. "Oh well…" He trailed off before looking at Igneel, who was now giving his arms, which were currently glowing with faint, transparent white light, a curious expression on his reptilian face. "I see that you noticed you have a new a move. It's called brick break. I used a technical machine to teach it to you but you still have to master it though. You'll work on that during the mornings and afternoons so you can improve Edgeclaw with it, okay?"

Igneel grinned at him, nodded his head and growled in approval as the flame of his tail flared a bit.

Ash returned the grin with one of his own before he turned towards Zephya, who cocked her head to the side elegantly as she regarded him patiently. "I also used a technical machine to teach you a new move, girl. It's called Aerial Ace and you should be aware of what it can do," he said and smirked when she cawed and flapped her wings a bit, generating a light breeze with the motion as she nodded at him, her eyes gleaming. "Like Igneel, you'll work on mastering it and then implement it into your Jet technique to improve it even more before doing anything else."

Zephya simply nodded and chirped at him before she went back to looking at Titania, who was still affectionately hugging his leg, in disapproval. If Ash was reading his second friend right, it was likely that Zephya felt that Titania should handle herself with more class and dignity. Or she was just jealous. He couldn't really tell. Maybe an unholy combination of the two?

Shaking his head with a chuckle, he focused on Rexus. "The new technique at your disposal is called Protect. It creates an energy barrier around you that, well, protects you from all kinds of attack. It's very draining but mastering it will provide you with benefits beyond simply having a powerful defensive technique you can fall on if you are about to be overwhelmed. That's the only thing you'll be working on until you master it."

Rexus regarded him almost thoughtfully, his ears twitching a bit, before nodding in understanding with a huff as his front legs dug slightly into the ground beneath him.

He then looked down at Titania and rubbed the top of her head tenderly as he addressed her. "Your newest technique is called Light Screen. It lets you create a barrier of psychic energy in front of you that can protect you from long range attacks. Not only that, but we can also start developing your psychic potential as well. When you master it, along with dazzling gleam and fairy wind, we'll work on other things, alright?"

Titania giggled, nodded almost her entire body happily before she tightened her hold around his leg and began lovingly nuzzling against it. Ash just looked down at her with a fond expression and a chuckle.

Taking his attention away from Titania after a moment, he gave his attention towards Abzu. "I actually used two technical machines on you, buddy. Scald, which I got from the Cerulean Gym when I defeated Misty," he said and chuckled as Abzu's eyes lit up before visibly smirking and a sound that sounded like snickering came from his chest. He recalled Misty saying that she never took a liking to Abzu and Ash could kind of start inferring as to why. "And Water Pulse. There is a lot I want you to work on before we reach Vermillion City but we'll start there."

Abzu opened his maw wide and made a squawking sound towards Ash before grinning at him and hopping from side to side a bit. That made him look almost like he was dancing. While that was amusing, Ash focused on the little bumps that he managed to catch a glimpse of when Abzu opened his mouth. He knew that a totodile came out of its egg with just a few teeth and that it was when the rest grew out completely that indicated they were ready to evolve into croconaw.

Judging by what he just saw and the knowledge he already had and was steadily increasing about the totodile line ever since Abzu joined his team, it was likely that Abzu would be ready to evolve in two weeks, three at the most if he put him under a diligent schedule of training and battling combined with a healthy diet and plenty of rest, which Ash was going to make sure he, and the rest of his team, got. He was going to make sure Abzu was the strongest and healthiest he could be as a totodile before he evolved though.

With an eager grin, Ash addressed his team. "Just like in Cerulean, apart from facing the Vermillion City Gym, we are going to also participate in an official Pokémon League Tournament. We are still one rank below what is required to be able to participate but we also have a month to reach it. That means that while we will continue to train very hard, we will be battling other trainers even more," he said and his grin widened as his fist tightened determinately at his side when eager and enthusiastic sounds were the response of his team to his words. "That's what I like to hear! I won't be slacking off in my own training either! Let's get it!"

Ash had a small smile on his face as he watched the fight unfolding in front of him not too far away. Leaf, who stood by his side, had a very focused frown on her pretty face as her eyes never left that of her pokemon.

Chuck, her mankey, was facing Igneel… again. And, unsurprisingly, the fight was going against the pig monkey pokemon.

"Keep it up, Chuck! Work around Igneel and look for an opening!" Shouted Leaf in an encouraging tone as her tightened fists were held close to her chest.

Ash didn't say anything and merely continued to watch the fight.

Igneel's arms were glowing with a faint white light as he enhanced them with the fighting-type energy of brick break. Chuck's forepaws and lower limbs were glowing white as he used karate chop and low kick to enhance himself. The two pokemon were exchanging blows, countering and dodging as they battled up close.

While it was obvious that Chuck had more raw skill and ability as a pure fighting-type than Igneel, who was only a fire-type, that was the only advantage that the mankey held over the charmeleon. Even though Chuck possessed a relatively great amount of physical strength when taking into consideration his overall size, as a second stage pokemon Igneel actually matched it thanks to his own training and currently being enhanced with a fighting-type technique.

Igneel was also both bigger and taller than mankey, giving him not only a weight advantage over the pig monkey pokemon but also an advantage in reach, both of which were very influential when it came to fighting up close. Igneel was also faster than Chuck and was used to dealing with pokemon faster than himself. And finally, Igneel was simply more experienced than the mankey.

This meant, that while fighting Chuck was merely beneficial for Igneel so he could train up his finesse, control and raw fighting skill, for Chuck, fighting Igneel was more than just a difficult challenge. Enhanced not only with the power of karate chop and low kick but also with fury attack, Chuck was giving it his all to barely match Igneel. If the increasingly frustrated light in narrowed red eyes was anything to go by, Chuck was getting angrier as he continued to fail on getting a solid hit on his opponent.

As one the most naturally aggressive fighting-type pokemon, characteristic shared with the pangoro native to Kalos, mankey enjoyed the thrill of a worthy challenge even more than other fighting-types. However, that same aggressiveness worked as a double-edged sword in some cases. For example, the angrier Chuck was getting because he couldn't get a hit in, the more desperate and sloppier he was getting with his fighting.

The fire lizard had a smirk on his face but his eyes were serious as he was focusing on keeping up brick break while fighting the very maneuverable, ferocious and unpredictable mankey. He matched the pig monkey pokemon blow for blow when they met head on, their fists clashing with small shockwaves of displaced air and energy. Whenever Chuck would attempt to kick him, Igneel would either dodge, block or counter using his superior weight, height or speed and whenever Leaf's mankey attempted to get him from behind after using a bit of skillful footwork, Igneel would use his tail to smack him away before turning towards him.

That was something that Ash noticed Igneel was starting to use more often when he fought up close: his tail. When he flared up the flame on the tip of it, the attack could actual make some decent amount of damage and it had the advantage of being quite unpredictable to be suddenly attacked with it during a fast-paced face-to-face fight. Since he hadn't given the idea to Igneel, he'd guessed that this new development was due to Igneel's own instincts.

Since he didn't restrain their nature, his pokemon were more in tune with their instincts, which Ash felt would be better in the long run if he managed to combine a Pokémon's natural instincts with mastered techniques, strategies and tactics gained through experience. Needless to say, he was more than pleased with Igneel's self-improvement.

Ash winced a bit when Igneel sent Chuck flying away after hitting him directly on the chest after opening up the defenses of the pig monkey pokemon with a well-placed counter.

Leaf looked worried towards where the first pokemon she ever caught landed on a heap. "Chuck! No! Are you okay?!" She made to run towards him to check on him. From where she stood, she could see that he had slightly burned fur and more than a few bruises from being hit by Igneel so many times. While her mankey was improving by leaps and bounds with the increased training regime and discipline over the past week, plus his daily sparring with Igneel, she still didn't like seeing her pokemon get hurt.

"I think we can say that brick break is mastered. Let's work now on improving edge claw with it," he said to Igneel, who nodded with a smirk as he stopped using his newest technique, and sighed before turning towards where Leaf was hurrying in the downed Chuck's direction. "Hey! I think we should-"

Ash stopped talking, and Leaf stopped moving towards mankey, when said pig monkey pokemon suddenly shot up to his feet with the angriest and most frustrated expression the two of them had ever seen. Chuck began to furiously hop around and wave his arms as he gave a high-pitched scream… that began to deepen as his body was engulfed with a bright white light and began to grow.

Idly, Ash noticed how all the other sounds of their pokemon training stopped as they all likely focused on Chuck's sudden, but not necessarily unexpected, evolution.

After his body tripled in size, with his arms and legs becoming longer and more muscular and tail seemingly disappearing into his body, a very much still angry and frustrated primeape stood there. Chuck angrily snorted and smacked his forehead with his 'gloved' hand before shooting towards Igneel with a glowing fist at speeds that were significantly faster than before.

Igneel only had time to blink and brace himself before he was sent flying via a similar punch to the one that finally sent Chuck over the edge enough to trigger his evolution.

"Wow…" muttered Leaf with wide eyes before a grin settled on her face and she fist pumped with both arms and began to cutely jump up and down. "Yes! You finally evolved, Chuck! Now teach that ridiculous overgrown and overpowered lizard what you are really made of!"

Chuck's response was to angrily snort and scream as he raised his arms above his head and flexed, his muscles bulging as he showed off the new power that was at his disposal.

Even though Ash was happy for his best friend, he couldn't help the way his eyebrow twitched as he regarded her primeape. "First her hoothoot a few days ago and now Chuck?" He asked with some exasperation as he looked up to where Zephya and Owly, the now noctowl, were resuming their airborne spar.

With Owly now being almost as tall as Zephya, but with a thinner build overall, the two of them were perfect sparring partners even if their battling style differed greatly from each other. While Zephya's fighting style was all about speed, physical attacks with a high amount of momentum behind them and long-range attacks and Owly's revolved more around long-range attacks and indirect manipulation using his psychic abilities, the basics behind how bird pokemon fought were still the same.

Ash shook his head, crossed his arms and turned towards where Igneel had landed. "You okay there, bud?" He asked with some concern only for Igneel, who had been dazedly laying his stomach, snarled and shot to his feet with all his teeth showing and his tail flaring brightly behind him.

When Chuck snorted and growled at Ash's starter, Igneel's only response was to activate Scorchbite and Edgeclaw, the corner of his mouth leaking darkness and flames as his claws glowed brightly and lengthened.

While Leaf cheered her pokemon on, Ash felt like facepalming. He was just glad they had the foresight on stocking on many medical supplies for their pokemon and that there were quite a few small towns with PokéCenters and PokéMarts on the route they will be taking towards Vermillion City. They were not going to put a foot within Saffron City after all, even if Ash momentarily had the desire to test himself against Sabrina to see the current gap between them.

However, since he and Leaf were on a deadline, his impulsive desire was crushed and discarded. Instead, they focused solely on training and battling.

Much to his disappointment, Leaf had decided to not travel with him all the way up to Vermillion City. While she was going to hit every major Kanto gym, which included the one in Vermillion, just like him, she believed that the best course of action for herself would be to go to Celadon City, challenge Erika and hopefully get at least some pointers from her on how to correctly train Forest, her ivysaur. It made sense, considering that Erika's venasaur was considered to be the strongest grass type trained pokemon in both Kanto and Johto.

Since other than a gym battle, the only other reason they would be going to Vermillion would be for the tournament that was going to be held on the S.S. St. Anne. And with Leaf being sure that she was not going to be able to reach C-Rank in time for participating, going there for her would be moot and not as beneficial as it would be if she went to Celadon. Ash understood and even agreed with her decision and reasoning. That didn't mean that he had to like it.

Besides, even if it hadn't been stated explicitly, the two of them knew that travelling together was going to be a temporary affair. Ash liked Leaf and enjoyed her company and the sentiment was wholeheartedly returned by his best friend, but their approach to travelling and training was simply too different for them to be one hundred percent comfortable as travelling companions.

"It's been a week and I can already see the benefits of training and travelling the way you do, Ash. Owly finally became a noctowl and the rest of my team are on a level I believed would have taken them at least three weeks to reach. I will continue applying the things regarding battling and training, that's for sure, but I'll do it my way," she had told him with an apologetic smile the evening of the day her hoothoot evolved into a noctowl when they broached the subject of them eventually parting ways.

Ash could respect that and was glad that Leaf would be taking something positive of their time together. Even he had to admit to himself that his pace and methods were not for everyone. He turned away from the slugfest between Igneel and Chuck, which was decidedly more even now, and focused on the rest of his team as he recalled how much they had advanced in the past ten days since they left Cerulean City.

'It took Zephya almost an entire week to master Aerial Ace but she managed to do so without too much difficulties since she was only focusing on that training wise. Other than her drills to keep up the proficiency she has gained with her moves and techniques, she is now working on adding Aerial Ace to Jet. I don't know how long that's going to take but I'm sure she'll get it done before we reach Vermillion. After that, I think she'll only need to learn Steel Wing and work on increasing her overall power and strength until she evolves into pidgeot,' thought Ash as he looked as his pidgeotto and Leaf's noctowl going through complex aerial manouvers as they tried to hit each other.

Zephya wasn't going to be evolving any time soon but Ash liked to plan and be prepared as ahead of time as he could in a way that allowed him to not be caught off guard but also didn't take away from him the ability to adapt and improvise in case of any eventuality.

Ash turned towards where Rexus was training with Forest, Leaf's ivysaur, who had made a full recovery eight days ago and had joined training with an eagerness that had surprised Leaf. Ash watched as Forest opened his mouth and formed a swirling sphere of green energy with a yellow core that he launched directly at Rexus.

His nidorino responded by grunting and creating a protective barrier in the shape of a dome in front of him that was colored a transparent light green.

The Energy Ball connected with the Protect and the air was displaced a bit as a small explosion resulted from the collision, dark smoke obscuring Rexus from view for a moment. When it was dispersed, a slightly panting Rexus was revealed standing strong behind his defensive dome of energy, which looked just a tad weaker after withstanding Forest's attack.

A moment later Forest launched another Energy Ball and Rexus did his best to use Protect to defend against it.

Ash smiled and gave an approving nod. 'Rexus is very close to mastering it. Protect isn't supposed to be used continuously like that but the strain that doing so puts on Rexus' reserves also serves as good training to increase the amount he has and the control he has over it. Hmm, I think I'll consider it mastered when he can withstand five Energy Balls from Forest without faltering. After that I'll teach him Thunderbolt and Ice Beam to give him more long-range attack options.'

After watching Rexus for a bit, he turned towards where Titania was training with Silk, Leaf's spinarak.

He watched with a mix of amusement and satisfaction as his clefairy giggled in delight as she used her almost perfected Light Screen to stop Silk's Signal Beam, the bright blue rectangular construct of psychic energy only faltering slightly as the bug-type energy in the shape of a thin beam failed to break it despite clearly putting everything she got into it.

But that was to be expected. Not only had Silk only learned Signal Beam a few days ago, but Titania also had more overall experience and strength than her bug-type training partner. The fact that she been using and training her newest move for more time than Silk was also a significant factor to keep in mind.

Nonetheless, Silk wasn't deterred at all and she continued to launch Signal Beam after Signal Beam at Titania's Light Screen, the clefairy just giggling and squealing, her brightly glowing blue eyes making the scene as cute as it was unnerving.

'It didn't take long for her to master Dazzling Gleam and Fairy Wind,' Ash thought with pride and fondness as he looked at the more affectionate member of his team. 'And it won't take her long to master Light Screen as well. Like Rexus, she's going to learn Thunderbolt and Ice Beam once she's done with her defensive technique to give her more variety at long range.'

Giving Titania and Silk one last look, Ash finally focused on Abzu and Donny, Leaf's psyduck.

Curiously enough, both Abzu and Donny were working on the same moves: Scald and Water Pulse. Like him, Leaf had received TM55 from the Cerulean Gym and she had bought TM03 at Ash's suggestion.

His totodile and Leaf's psyduck were having a mock battle only attacking each other with streams of scalding water and swirling spheres of water and energy. Also, while they trained to master those techniques, they were also working on their reflexes and evasive manouvers as they tried their damnest to not be hit by their opponent's attacks. While as water types the damage won't be that significant, the force behind the attacks still hurt.

Ash snorted as Abzu 'danced' away from the path of Donny's Scald and retaliated with a Water Pulse before falling to the ground. 'I know he'll be able to fight like that as a croconaw but I don't think it will be possible as a feraligatr. Mmm, oh well, it works for him now so we'll cross that bridge when we get there. Anyways, I think it's safe to assume that Scald and Water Pulse are mastered at this point. I'll have Igneel teach him Metal Claw so he can eventually learn Edgeclaw once he-'

"C'mon, Chuck! You can do it! Show him whose boss!"

Ash's thoughts were interrupted by Leaf's encouraging and almost desperate shouts. Turning towards the battle between his starter and Leaf's newly evolved primeape, he saw that Igneel and Chuck, both covered in many types of injuries, were pushing against each other, clawed and gloved hands locked tightly together, their arms glowing with their respective strength enhancing technique as they pushed against the other in a contest of strength which Igneel was slowly but steadily losing…

… until he gave a draconic smirk before hitting Chuck in the face with a point-blank Flame Burst that knocked it out cold almost immediately the attack hit.

"Hey! That's cheating, you stupid fire lizard! It was supposed to be hand-to-hand only!"

Igneel's response to Leaf's indignant shout was a snort and a roll of his eyes before uncaringly shrugging his shoulders before he sat down to catch his breath. When it looked like Leaf was ready to go towards his starter to beat him herself, Ash sighed and massaged the bridge of his nose in a clear sign of exasperation.

Ash knew that if it weren't for how grateful she was and the clear results his methods had on her pokemon, he'd be lacking a charmeleon on his team.

A scorned Leaf was something to be feared after all.

It's been almost two weeks since they left Cerulean City. Had Ash and Leaf only focused on travelling and taken the normal route towards Vermillion City, meaning Route 5, stopping at Saffron City and the Route 6, they would have been nearing said port city by now. However, because of the route they have taken and the pace set by Ash, they were now just a bit more than halfway there.

Since Ash was also on a deadline and neither of them wanted to go to Saffron City yet, they have been following the path towards the south taken by the North Blue for the past two days, always keeping it within sight to their right so as to not go off route. If Ash wanted to participate in the SS St. Anne Tournament via winning at the Vermillion City Gym, he needed to take the fastest route towards Vermillion City.

Speaking about participating on the tournament, Ash had not lacked off in the past twelve days when it came to training and battling other trainers to reach C-Rank.

At D-Rank each pokemon participating in a battle was 'worth' forty ranking points and eight hundred credits. In order to make the most of each battle against other trainers he made sure they were all D-Rank just like him. In summary, he participated in more than sixty battles and won all of them, naturally. At the moment, he was pretty close to the mark of ten thousand ranking points.

And let's just say that if Ash kept the pace up, he was definitely going to be participating in the next tournament. Not only that, but the amount of training and battling he had been doing was draining his supplies a bit more than what he had calculated so the amount of money he was earning kind of made up for that. It was also a good thing that there were a few towns with PokéCenters and PokéMarts in between Cerulean City, Saffron City and Vermillion City so he wasn't exactly 'in danger' of running out of supplies.

Despite that, Ash hadn't slacked off with his responsibilities regarding being a trainer sponsored by professor Oak. He had been diligently working on his fourth report every night. Speaking of which…

"So…" Ash trailed off as his eyes flickered towards Leaf for a moment before focusing on the path ahead. Chuck, her primeape, was walking by her side while Abzu was walking by his. While Chuck would randomly punch a tree they were passing by, Abzu would chew on them until he bit through them or Ash called for him to catch up. The rest of his teeth had finally grown out and his aggressiveness was an all-time high. Abzu was just one step away from evolution.

In hindsight, perhaps having those two out at the same time while traveling wasn't the best idea…

Zephya, like always, was also flying overhead serving as their scout. Even though their sense of hearing was equally developed, Zephya's eyesight was superior than Owly's, Leaf's noctowl, by a wide margin. There was also the fact that Owly preferred being inside his pokeball unless it was dark or they were indoors.

"Did Professor Oak notice I helped you with your last report?"

Leaf crossed her arms and raised a sarcastic eyebrow at him. "Do you even have to ask? He's Professor Oak. Of course, he did," she told him with some exasperation as she rolled her eyes at him. "Now I have to keep up the same quality as that one for the rest of my reports. Thank you very much, Ash," she gave him the stink eye, though there wasn't really any heat behind them.

Ash ignored Chuck's glare, which was very heated, with the ease of remembering it being beat down by Igneel time and time again and shrugged his shoulders. "Don't blame me. You are the one who asked for help," he said, sternly tapping Abzu's snout when he looked ready to jump at Chuck and bite him for glaring at him, and raised an eyebrow when she groaned at the reminder. "Besides, you took notes on the advice I gave you. You just have to the same thing from now on."

"I know, I know," Leaf groused as she turned her 'despairing' eyes towards the waters of the North Blue. "It's just that it means more work for me," she said and Ash could almost hear her pout.

Now it was time for Ash to roll his eyes. "I can see I've been wasting my time with you. Your work ethic sucks," he said, his voice mockingly disgusted as he stared at her playfully.

Leaf turned sharply towards him, her pout turning into an angry expression that wasn't entirely fake. "Well, excuse me if we can't all be workaholic machines like you, Ash!"

Ash just laughed it up and after a moment Leaf sighed in exasperation before she joined in his amusement. As they continued to converse and bicker with one another, Ash and Leaf enjoyed the scenery around them.

The areas around Route 5 and Route 6 were mostly made out of plains, small hills and patches of woods. The North Blue was the main water body but there could be found a few ponds and small rivers here and there as well. It was because of the fair amount of diversity of these areas that many pokemon could be found here. Luckily, or not depending on your perspective, most pokemon around these areas were very pacific in nature and didn't approach humans unless they were threatened or were feeling particularly territorial that day.

Leaf, in particular, was a bit disappointed since she was looking for another pokemon that caught her eye so she could complete her team. Ash, for his part, didn't mind whatsoever the relatively small amount of wild pokemon encounters. He knew that any pokemon with the right training and encouragement could become a fierce and powerful combatant but he was a bit more… picky… with the pokemon he chose for his team. If he wanted to be the best of the best, he needed to catch, train and bond with the best of the best after all.

It wasn't too long before midday/lunch time that their enjoyment of the scenery was interrupted.

Ash looked up when he heard Zephya cawing sharply three times. "That's the signal for when there's another trainer right ahead of us," he said before turning towards Lead with an excited smirk on his face. "Let's see if they are up for a battle!"

Abzu roared his agreement as hopped from one foot to another as he eagerly followed after his trainer.

As Ash upped his pace, Leaf sighed and rolled her eyes as she followed after him. As much as she enjoyed everything pertaining to being a pokemon trainer, sometimes Ash's enthusiasm for battling and training, no matter how cute it made him look, became just a bit too much. "C'mon Chuck. With any luck, you'll get to battle too," she said, earning a snort and a flex from her currently strongest pokemon.

It only took them about ten minutes to find the trainer Zephya had spotted. It turned out to be a young teen that had to be pretty close to their age. He had tanned skin, green hair that was spiked backwards with a fringe falling in between his narrow eyes. He was wearing an orange and black shirt blue shorts and matching sneakers. Judging by the way he was staring at the waters of the North Blue not too far away from the shore, it was likely that he was looking for a water type pokemon.

A sandslash and a hitmonchan stood by his side as they also stared at the water.

"Hey there! How is it going?!" Ash called out from a prudent distance away. It wouldn't do to be attacked by surprised protective pokemon after all. He raised his hands in a none threatening manner when the trainer and his pokemon turned towards him sharply at the sound of his voice and the pokemon adopted protective stances in front of him at the sight of him, Leaf, Abzu and Chuck.

The teen looked at them a bit reservedly as he stood behind his pokemon. "What's up? I'm just looking for water pokemon," he said, eyes looking up and widening significantly when Zephya came down and perched herself on a nearby branch behind Ash and co. "Holy shit! That's one big pidgeotto!" And kind of familiar too. He could swear he'd seen it before…

Ash smirked a bit and he could almost feel Zephya preening. "She gets that a lot," he said before nodding upwards to them, his expression turning challenging. "You and your pokemon look tough. Care for a battle?"

At that, the teen and his pokemon relaxed visibly. He returned Ash's challenging expression with one of his own. "Sure. But I'm kind of busy and it's almost lunch time so I can only afford to use two of my pokemon," he said before pausing for a moment and raising a questioning eyebrow. "Am I fight only you or is girly over there interested too?"

Ash's response was to turn questioningly towards Leaf.

And her response was to motion towards Chuck, who was snorting and snarling and almost vibrating in place as he stared at the hitmonchan. Said pokemon was staring right back at Chuck with a glaring expression as it psyched itself up by jumping from foot to foot.

The teen chuckled. "I guess that answers that," he said with a shrug. "Let's have them go a it first. You can call me A.J."

"My name's Ash," said the black-haired teen as began to move away to put himself at a safe distance from the upcoming battle. He snorted in amusement at the sight of an annoyed Abzu doing the same, clearly having wanted to go first. He knelt down and scratched him by the ridges on his back, making him close his eyes in pleasure and visibly relax. "Don't worry, bud. You'll get to fight too," he assured him.

"And I'm Leaf," she said as she stepped back a bit. She pulled out league issued tablet as Chuck aggressively stepped forward while snorting, flexing and smacking his chest with his gloved hands. "Standard one-on-one rules?"

A.J. nodded as he pulled out his own tablet. "Sure," he said, going through the process of setting up the official trainer battle as his hitmonchan stepped forward and went a short and skillful set of footwork and jabs as it glared at Chuck. A.J. put his tablet away after a moment. "You ready?"

Leaf did the same and nodded, expression focused as she got her head in the game. "Yeah!"

At an unspoken signal, the two of them started the battle.

"Mad bulk and get in close, Chuck! Overwhelm it!"

"Agility guard and focus, Hitmonchan! Mach it!"

With critical and objective eyes, Ash watched as Chuck launched himself at his opponent after using Bulk Up, Rage and Focus Energy to enhance himself overall and then Karate Chop and Low Kick to enhance his punches and kicks. The hitmonchan also enhanced itself overall, Ash could only tell that it was with Agility and Focus Energy with certainty, and its gloved fists but stayed on the defensive.

The two fighting-type pokemon met each other in a barrage of mighty and skillful enhanced blows. Using his savage fighting style, Leaf's primeape tried to overwhelm A.J.'s hitmonchan, whom, for its part, used its refined fighting technique and footwork to keep up with its opponent.

'This can go either way,' thought Ash as he absently continued to pet Abzu, his attention completely on the battle happening a few dozen yards in front of him.

Chuck was faster, more unpredictable and more aggressive than the hitmonchan, but said punching pokemon not only matched its opponent strength but also had more reach and its fighting style was more refined. That resulted in an even match up when it came to sheer battle prowess. Chuck would attack with punches and kicks coming from seemingly every direction but the hitmonchan's refined boxing style and superior reach allowed it to evade, parry, block and/or counter most of the attacks directed its way. In response, Chuck either evaded or ignored when his attacks were countered and continued its onslaught unimpeded.

Every time an attack was parried or blocked, the air was displaced a bit and a small shockwave of transparent energy would be produced originating from the point of contact between the two fighting pokemon. It was obvious that if the flow of the battle didn't change, it would quickly become one of attrition…

A.J., it seemed like, read his mind in that moment.

"Feint! Vacuum Wave!"

The hitmonchan suddenly stopped its movements right when it was going to block one of Chuck's punches, forcing the primeape to overextend its swing. Since the pig monkey was also in the air in that moment, he didn't have the footing that would have allowed him to correct his form and prevent what happened next. With a smirking expression on its face, the hitmonchan sent a straight jab directly towards Chuck's body, sending him flying away with a focused blast of pressurized air.

Leaf put on a distressed expression on her face. "No! Chuck!"

Just like his pokemon, A.J. was smirking victoriously. "Let's go, Hitmonchan! Finish it with Focus Punch!"

Since it had been using Focus Energy since the beginning of the battle, the hitmonchan only had to get into a stance for a moment until its right fist was glowing a bright orange before launching itself towards the slowly rising Chuck at decent speeds.

That was when Leaf's distressed expression turned into a devious grin. "Revenge toss, Chuck!"

A.J.'s eyes widened as his previous expression was wiped off his face. "What?! No! Hitmonchan!"

But it was too late. Chuck's eyes snapped into furious focus the moment the hitmonchan reached him and cocked its arm back to deliver its attack. With a furious scree,, Chuck ducked under the Focus Punch and hooked its right arm under the hitmonchan's armpit as he jumped up, taking the two of them more than twenty meters into the air. Up there, Chuck's body began to glow as he started to spin around, a screaming hitmonchan incapable of doing anything to stop it.

After a moment of continuous spinning, Chuck released his hold on the hitmonchan with a screech and sent it plummeting towards humid and rocky soil. A.J.'s hitmonchan collided with the ground with a resounding and painful thud and the air from its lung was expelled forcefully and not a moment later, before it could even regain its breath and attempt to stand up, Chuck landed on top of it and began to punch all over its face and chest with Karate Chop enhanced punches.

A.J. quickly recalled his pokemon with a surprised and resigned expression on his face. "Holy crap! I wasn't expecting that!" He exclaimed as he fished out his tablet and began to accept hi defeat.

Leaf allowed her mildly injured pokemon to celebrate via snorting, grunting and flexing before she returned him to his pokeball. "Thanks! It's a technique that we've been practicing recently precisely to surprise opponents," she chirped happily as she pulled out her tablet and accepted her win.

A.J. nodded. "It certainly worked. Besides, I think I should've continued attacking with Vacuum Wave so it's my mistake. Good battle, girly," he said before turning towards the black-haired teen with a smirk and a raised eyebrow. "Now let's see if your pal over there can give me as good a fight."

Leaf's lips twitched upwards as she giggled. "Oh, I'm sure he can~" she said in a sing song voice as she began to walk towards were Ash had been standing.

"Good battle. Chuck is sure getting better and better," he said as he raised his hand towards her.

Leaf rolled her eyes but smiled good naturally as she gave him a high-five. "Thanks. I guess getting beat up multiple times every day by your ridiculous starter does have its results," she said with exasperated amusement before giving him a serious look. "Don't go easy on him. He's good."

Ash nodded as he walked pass her. "Yeah, I saw. Wasn't planning on it," he said before reaching his side of the battlefield and directing Abzu to stand in front of him. He brought up his X-Transceiver and sent out the battle request towards 'Arnold James'. 'Hm. That explains A.J,' he thought before raising an eyebrow at him. "Standard rules, right?"

"Yeah!" His opponent quickly accepted the battle request and pocketed his tablet as he motioned for his sandslash to step forward with a grin. "Just so you know, Sandslash right here is my starter and my strongest pokemon. I hope you're bringing you're A-Game, otherwise you're going down." As if to emphasize his point, the sandslash's spikes bristled as it hissed aggressively and brandished its gleaming claws.

Ash smirked in excitement as Abzu responded snapping his jaws and snarling is it got into a low stance. "Oh, don't worry. My entire team is my A-Game."

And that was the signal for the battle to start, apparently.

"Dance! Curl! Roll spin!"

Ash's eyes widened a bit when the sandslash first used Swords Dance, then Defense Curl and finally an unholy combination of Rapid Spin and Rollout to shoot itself towards Abzu at blurring speeds. "Scald! Get out of the way!"

Abzu carried out his instructions before Ash finished the first word. A stream of pressurized scalding water, so much that the air around it wavered due to the steam, was shot towards the incoming sandslash directly from Abzu's opened mouth. Even though he was more or less expecting it, Ash was still a bit surprised when his opponent's momentum was barely stopped by Abzu's attack.

Despite sharing his trainer's emotions, Abzu still had the presence of mind to stop his attack and hop out of the way just before he was hit. A.J.'s sandslash, despite being thoroughly wet and steaming, showed the skill and control it had by swerving around Ash so as not to hit him and turning towards Abzu's new position. The sandslash couldn't really see him but it could sense where he was standing thanks to its connection to the earth as an earth-type.

Ash decided to capitalize on that.

"Jump back and pulse barrage! Aqua Jet!"

Hopping back to put more distance between them, Abzu opened its great maw wide and quickly formed a swirling sphere of pressurized water and light blue energy that he launched directly at the incoming sandslash. The water attack hit directly with a small explosion that while barely noticeable, still resulted in slowing down the speed of sandslash's movement and spinning.

Abzu managed to launch three more water pulses that were weaker and smaller than the ones he was actually capable of doing normally before he landed, slowing his opponent down even further. The moment he touched the ground he cloaked himself in water and light blue energy that swirled around him and shaped itself vaguely into the form of a drill before he shot directly towards the still incoming sandslash.

'Holy crap!' Exclaimed Ash mentally when he saw the two pokemon colliding with seemingly the same amount of force despite all of Abzu's previous attacks connecting. The air was displaced as a shockwave originated from the point of contact before the two pokemon were launched back, both of them landing on their feet and glaring heatedly at the other.

Abzu was panting a bit and he actually looked a bit hurt form the collision. A.J.'s sandslash, even though it was also breathing a bit heavily, fairly burned by Scald and just wet overall by the amount of water attacks it received, looked more annoyed than anything else. The difference in level between Abzu and the sandslash was quite obvious…

… and it seemed like A.J. was very well aware of it. His grin was smug. "Your totodile ain't half bad, dude, but Sandslash isn't going to be beat just with type advantage! Tunnel slash!"

When the sandslash used dig to disappear into the ground, Ash got a fairly good idea of what it was about to do. "Jump away, Abzu! Don't stop moving!"

The totodile did just that and not a moment later the sandslash exploded from the ground beneath where Abzu had been just standing, body covered in a brown aura and brightly white glowing claws twice as long and sharp as before. The mouse pokemon glared at the big jaw pokemon in annoyance before it dived back into the ground.

As Abzu continued to successfully, but barely, evade sandslash attacks, Ash allowed himself to relax a bit and think. What Abzu was currently doing was basically his 'hopping dance' that he did most of the time every day when he was outside his pokeball, so at the moment he wasn't sapping his stamina. Quite the contrary, actually. One could even say that he was resting. Ash knew, however, that he needed to do something if he wanted to win.

'Abzu is significantly weaker than his opponent and if A.J.'s words are anything to go by, it was specifically trained to withstand water attacks and I'm inclined to believe him after I saw it shrug off Abzu's attacks despite them clearly doing some damage. I doubt Scratch will do anything and Abzu just started learning Metal Claw. We'll have to get in close for Bite then but that's going to be risky,' he thought furiously, no once taking his eyes from Abzu was he continued to jump around the battlefield evading the attacks coming from beneath the earth.

Before Ash could come with a strategy, A.J. seemingly got tired of the game of mouse and croc. "I'm sick of this! Sandslash! Sand tomb! Trap it!"

Ash's eyes widened and he couldn't say or do anything as the sandslash came out of the ground while Abzu was still in the air, a dozen or so meters away from where the totodile would land. It eyes and body glowed brown as it pressed its body to the ground and the area surrounding the spot Abzu would land became quick sand. Predictably, the moment Abzu couldn't change directions after jumping and when landed he was trapped in the quick sand.

"No! Abzu!" Shouted Ash as the sandslash dived into the ground once again, resurfacing a moment later right beneath the trapped and struggling Abzu, making the totodile give a sharp cry of agony as it was hit not only with the power of Dig but also twice with Slash. Ash watched almost helplessly as Abzu landed on a heap a few meters away in front of him face down, body limp.

A.J. smirked smugly as he saw this. "Well, I guess that's my… win…" he trailed off when he saw Abzu's body twitching before his eyes snapped open and with a pained expression on he began to push himself up with shaking arms. A.J.'s eyes widened in disbelief. "You've got to be kidding me…"

Since Abzu was facing away from him, Ash couldn't see his front but he could see that droplets of blood falling in between Abzu's legs. Considering the attacks the sandslash had used, he had a fairly good idea of the kind of injury Abzu had to have on his chest. Even though his friend seemed ready to keep fighting, Ash wasn't about to let that happen in his condition. He raised Abzu's pokeball. "Wait. I forfe-!"

That was when Abzu snarled and then roared in defiance and fury as his body was covered in a bright white light. All eyes widened as they stared at the evolving pokemon as Abzu grew in size and mass and slightly changed shape.

Ash was the first to get out of his stupor. He grinned in excitement and lowered Abzu's pokeball. 'Finally!' He thought to himself just before he heard his pokedex beeping from his pocket and the words that from it in its mechanical androgynous voice supremely sounded sweet in Ash's ears.

Totodile has evolved into Croconaw! Upon evolution, the moves Scratch and Bite have advanced to Slash and Crunch respectively. Upon evolution, Croconaw has learned the move Ice Fang.

The bright white light dispersed as the process of evolution was finally completely and there stood Abzu, now a croconaw, seemingly without any fatigue whatsoever as he snarled, the sound significantly deeper and more intimidating than before.

Despite retaining the same bipedal crocodilian appearance, Abzu had changed noticeably after evolving. Now as tall as Igneel but with a stockier build, he had well-developed, rounded jaws with two fangs visible in the corners of the lower jaw even when closed. His eyes were still red with black markings around them. There were three clusters of red spikes on his body: one with three points on top of his head, one with two points between his shoulders, and a diamond-shaped one near the tip of his tail. While most of his body was still blue, the lower jaw was yellow and there was an asymmetrical, yellow-and-blue pattern around his chest that resembled spotted skin.

"Oh shit!" A.J. paled a bit and his sandslash took a step back, neither of them as sure of their victory as they were as before.

Ash also noticed that Abzu wasn't bleeding anymore, which meant that evolution had accelerated the healing process of his previous injury. He pumped his fist and grinned savagely. "That's it! That's what I'm talking about! Let's do this Abzu!"

His newly evolved croconaw matched his expression, revealing the rows of sharp fangs with tips slanted backwards like barbed fish hooks and roared.

"Sandslash! Swift! Then dig!" Shouted A.J., his voice a bit panicked. After seeing the inside of that croconaw's maw, he didn't want his starter anywhere near it.

"Counter with pulse barrage!"

The body of the sandslash glowed white before it spun around and launched several stars made out of white energy that homed in on Abzu. The mouse pokemon didn't even wait to see if its attack had any effect before it dove into the ground using one of the previous holes that were already there.

In response to the incoming attack, Abzu followed Ash's instructions and quickly formed and launched as many water pulses as energy stars were heading his way, destroying all of them before they even got close. Ash noticed that not only did Abzu form them faster than before, but each water pulse he launched just now was stronger and bigger than his normal ones before he evolved.

That gave him an idea.

"Full power water gun trough the nearest hole! Then aqua jet! Finish it with ice fang!"

A.J.'s eyes widened at that. "No! Sandslash! Get out of there!"

Despite the short moment it took for Abzu to reach the nearest hole dug by his opponent, it wasn't enough time for the mouse pokemon the get out of the small tunnel system it made before Abzu spewed a massive stream of pressurized water into said hole. In naught but a moment the impromptu battlefield became a field of geysers as highly pressurized water was spewed from each of the holes.

Almost immediately a screeching sandslash was launched to the air by one of the artificial geysers.

Abzu cloaked himself in water and light blue energy that shaped itself into a drill that wasn't as vague as before timing it right and launching itself towards the falling and flailing sandslash that couldn't do anything to prevent an aqua jet using Abzu from ramming directly into it. The force and momentum of the attack carried then forward even after it lost its power and Abzu held on tightly to the sandslash as they rolled on the ground after they landed dozens of meters away from their point of collision.

Abzu pinned the sandslash to the ground before opening its maw wide, his fangs glowing with icy energy as he got ready to finish the battle once it for all. The sandslash, very tired and significantly injured, could only widen its eyes as it saw Abzu's maw aiming for its head…

… only for it to close around empty air with a snapping sound and a sharp exhalation of icy energy.

A.J. had quickly returned his starter before that happened. "Holy shit! That was close!" He exclaimed, watching with wide eyes as Abzu realized that he'd just won before he reared back and roared in victory, revealing a scar in the shape of an 'X' right in the middle of his chest.

Ash was also grinning… until Abzu's suddenly rolled backwards and he fell forward, clearly unconscious. Ash didn't waste any time to return him to his pokeball. The state of stasis would keep him safe until he could give him first aid and check for any injuries that would need professional attention at a pokemon center.

Ash smiled down at the slightly damp pokeball. "You did it. I couldn't be any prouder," he whispered to it fondly before pressing it to his forehead for a moment and then putting in on its spot on his belt. He looked up to see A.J. approaching him with a resigned but satisfied expression on his face.

"Gotta admit, that was the most intense battle I've had so far," he said once approached and sighed as he pulled out his tablet and accepted his defeat. "It was mostly luck at the end when your totodile evolved out of nowhere but there's no denying you've trained him well. Hope we can do this again some time," he said and extended his hand towards the black-haired trainer.

Ash briefly checked his winnings from the battle before accepting A.J.'s handshake. "I can say the same. I knew that Abzu was close to evolving but I couldn't have known he would do so now so it is what it is," admitted Ash easily before smiling challengingly at him. "And yes. Let's battle again when we are both stronger."

A.J. grinned right back at him. "That's what I like to hear!" He declared before turning towards the approaching Leaf. "And that goes for you to as well, girly! I'll battle the both of you and win!"

Leaf nodded at him with a smile. "Sure. I'll be looking forward to it."

A.J. then bid the goodbye before releasing a beedrill, the sight of which made Ash twitch and Zephya screech in aggravation, and a relatively massive raticate and walking away up stream. From what they could hear before he got too far away, he was going to try and catch a water type before lunch.


Ash turned towards Leaf with a raised eyebrow when he heard her trailing of with a teasing tone of voice.


She smiled cheekily at him. "Congrats on the lucky evolution and the lucky win."

Ash's eyebrow twitched. "Did you really have to say 'lucky' twice?" He asked in annoyance and sighed when she happily nodded without a shame. "You know what? I don't care. Abzu evolved and a win is a win. My streak is still going strong. Two hundred and three strong."

Leaf raised an amused eyebrow at him before contorting her face into an arrogant sneer and raising her head to look down at him from above her nose and crossing her arms. "The only thing I can see going strong is your sheer dumb luck, Ashy-boy," she said in near perfect imitation of Gary's nasally voice.

Ash made a choking sound as he almost fell down to the floor before turning a disbelieving look in her direction.

Leaf couldn't help it and she began to laugh out loud.

Ash groaned and scowled at her. "I will forever regret travelling with you, Leaf."

Leaf was laughing so hard she was bending forward and hugging her abdomen.

"I'm not joking." Ash's scowl became an almost petulant pout.

And that only made Leaf laugh even louder.

"Hey, Zephya! Help me out a little!"

Zephya, who secretly agreed with Leaf's assessment and approved of her teasing, rolled her eyes and flapped her wings so she could back to her domains, promptly ignoring Ash's whining. It wouldn't do for her Ash to get a bigger head than the one he already had after all. While pride was encouraged, arrogance was unbecoming.

Two days after their meeting with A.J. and Abzu's evolution, on the day that marked two weeks since they left Cerulean City, Ash and Leaf made it to the Pokemon Center located north of were Route 6 started and west of the starting point of Route 7. This marked the spot where they would be going their separate ways but neither of them was thinking about that now.

Ash and Leaf walked up the counter and smiled at the Nurse Joy manning it. "Good afternoon!"

She smiled politely at them. "Hello. What can I do for you?"

Leaf unclipped her five pokeballs and put them on the counter. "We have been traveling, traveling and battling almost nonstop for the past two weeks. While I'm sure none of my team members is seriously injured, it wouldn't hurt to give them a thorough check up just in case."

Ash also put his five pokeballs on the counter. "It's the same for me, but, my croconaw evolved two days ago during a battle after receiving a nasty slash from sandslash that left a scar. I gave him first aid immediately and even though he seems fine I haven't allowed him to train or battle in the past two days. I'd like the opinion of an actual expert in pokemon health before I possibly put him at risk."

That meant that in the past two days Ash had only used Igneel, Zephya, Rexus and Titania in battle but he 'compensated' by battling and winning against more than a dozen trainers in the past two days. The thought put a smile on his face.

The smile of the Nurse Joy became positively beaming. "Ah! It's so wonderful to see young trainers that care so much for they pokemon!" She exclaimed, her eyes briefly flickering to the side to a rambunctious group of trainers that were laughing and making a lot of noise on the lobby, before she focused back on them. "Would you like rooms for the night as well?"

Ash and Leaf had caught Nurse Joy's wandering eyes but didn't comment on it and just nodded at her question. After she took their IDs and handed them their keys for their rooms, she put their pokeballs on labeled trays and took them with her so she could give their pokemon a complete check up and whatever treatment they needed.

Knowing that they weren't going to have to wait that long, Ash and Leaf made their way to the lobby to get comfortable. As they passed by the rambunctious group Nurse Joy's eyes had wandered to, they heard one of them bragging about the number of pokemon he has caught and the fact that he has one every battle he's been in ever since he started out as a trainer around the same Ash and Leaf did.

While Ash ignored it completely, Leaf couldn't help but looking at him and then rolling her eyes before ignoring him and the group.

The two of them made themselves comfortable in one of the double couches and awkwardly refused to look at each other as they avoided talking about the subject they knew they need to talk about in the very moment.

Leaf, actually being the bolder of the two when it came to matters like this, spoke up first. "So… I'll be going to Celadon City tomorrow while you'll be going to Vermillion City," she said bluntly, leaning back and looking towards the ceiling.

"Yeah," said Ash with a sigh as he mirrored her position. He paused before adopting a sheepish and embarrassed expression. "You know, whenever I said a regretted or would regret making the decision of traveling with you, I was only joking."

Leaf snorted and rolled her eyes. "Of course, I know, dummy. I also know that you can't live without me and your heart will break every morning when you notice I'm not traveling with you anymore," she told him cheekily but only Leaf knew that she was actually talking about herself. She sometime thanked Arceus the fact that Ash was denser than lead.

Now it was time for Ash to snort and roll his eyes. "As if. Just so you know, I'm glad I can finally stop holding back with my training and battling so you can keep up. As a matter of fact, I think tomorrow will be… liberating."

Leaf scowled and glared at him. "Ass!" She exclaimed before she hit him in the shoulder.

Ash mock winced and glared back at her a he gingerly held his shoulder. "Hey! Don't abuse me, woman! I'll report you to the authorities!"

The two of them glared at each other for a moment before they burst out laughing. Neither of them knew that the other was thinking the same as the other in that exact moment. 'It's moment like this that I'll miss the most.'

Said moment, however, was going to be interrupted in quite the unpleasant manner.

"Well, hello there, cutie~" Said someone smugly in a failed attempt of sounding suave and smooth. Ash ad Leaf stopped laughing and turned towards the source only for Ash to raise an unimpressed eyebrow and Leaf to mentally groan when she saw that it was the trainer of the rambunctious group that had been bragging about his 'accomplishments' when she and Ash had been passing by them.

He looked to be their age, with fair skin and wavy blue eyes held up by a pair of sun glasses perched right above his forehead. He was wearing a pink shirt, a brown cowboy vest, bright blue jeans and brown dress shoes. His expression reminded Ash and Leaf of Gary as he looked at Leaf with amorous eyes.

It had Leaf almost gagging and Ash suddenly feeling like he wanted punch his teeth in.

Leaf's strained polite smile was more of a grimace. "Um, are you speaking to me?"

"Well, you are the only cutie around here as far as I can see so yes, I'm speaking to you," he said before running his hand through his hair and flicking them before extending said hand towards her. "My name is Damian, the number one undefeated rookie trainer!"

Leaf looked like she wanted to sick Chuck on his hand.

Ash barely managed to withhold his snort.

To not come as impolite, Leaf reluctantly decided to give her own name. "And, erm, my name is Leaf." She made no attempt to take her hand in his.

That didn't matter because Damian took one of her hands in between his, almost invading her personal space.

When he saw that, Ash's building amusement died off and a protective and possessive feeling fueled by anger began to build up within his chest as he glared at Damian with a scowl on his face,

"Leaf! What a beautiful name for such a beautiful lady! I noticed you right away the moment you entered through the doors and my heart was immediately taken!" He declared before Leaf yelped in surprise as he yanked her up to her feet. "What don't you leave that mediocre trainer and travel with me instead? I'm sure it will be worth your while," he said, wagging eyebrows suggestively.

This time around, Leaf did gag as she tried to pry her hands off his. While she wasn't weak by any means, as a male, Damian naturally had more physical strength than Leaf and with the hold he had on her hands she couldn't pry them off.

"Get your hands off her."

An irritated expression appeared on Damian's face as he turned towards the source of growling voice… "And what are you going to about it if… I… don't... want… to…" … only to tilt his head back a bit and look into the glaring red eyes of one annoyed Ash Ketchum, whom Damian noticed was a couple of inches taller than him, not to mention noticeably more fit.

Damian gulped and got his bravado back as he tightened his hold on her hands. "This is none of your business! Get lost!"

Ash saw Leaf wincing a bit and he snarled, his expression making him look like Igneel. "I said…" He reached forward, took hold of one of Damian's wrists and squeezed. "… get your fucking hands off her!"

Now it was Damian's turn to wince as Ash's actions forced him to release Leaf. The moment he did so, Ash released him, making him give a sigh of relief… until Leaf promptly kicked him in the balls, unceremoniously sending him to the ground with a hoarse squeal of agony as he cupped his crotch and writhed in pain.

"Don't you ever touch me again, asshole!" She growled down at him with a heated glare before she began to walk away. "Let's go to our rooms, Ash. I don't want to be here anymore."

Nodding, Ash first glared down at Damian and then what seemed to his group of friends/traveling partners/followers since they had stood up aggressively when Leaf righteously retaliated against Damian. At the sight of his glare, all of them gulped and backed off.

Ash snorted in derision, much like Igneel would, before he turned around and followed after Leaf. Even though she seemed mad, with reason, he was sure that it won't be long before the two of them would be laughing about this.


At the sound of the strained voice, Ash paused before he turned around and raising an eyebrow at the slowly standing up Damian. He felt more than heard Leaf pausing and also turning around behind him.


Damian glared at him. "I will now allow a fucking nobody to embarrass me like this! I challenge you to a battle!"

Ash shook his head and crossed his arms. "As much as I would like to humiliate you even more, my pokemon are being checked over by Nurse Joy at the moment."

"Likewise," said Leaf dryly from where she stood behind him.

Ash smirked. "If you want a battle, you'll have to wait till tomorrow. Even if Nurse Joy gives me the all good, I already promised my team no more battling and training for the day even if I'm sure they wouldn't mind curbstomping your smug ass."

As he slowly recovered from Leaf's blow to his family jewels, Damian's expression became more indignant and furious as he also registered Ash's words. "Oh, don't worry. I can wait. Tomorrow we'll see who's going to be curbstomping who" he hissed before turning around and walking away towards his friends.

Ash snorted and turned around only to find Leaf staring intensively up at him.


He raised an eyebrow at her tone. "Yes?"

"Crush him."

At Leaf's 'request', he couldn't help but grin ferally. "Gladly."

The next day, as they stepped outside of the Pokemon Center, Leaf was laughing uproariously and Ash had a satisfied grin on his face.

"Did you… did you… see … his face… when you beat… all six… of his pokemon… with just… Igneel?" She managed to get out in between her peals of laughter as she held her already aching abdomen and tears were already gathering at the corner of her eyes.

Ash chuckled and nodded. "Yeah. It was pretty funny," he said and his grin widened a bit more. "And it was even funnier when all his 'friends' left him when they realized that he was only just all talk. I can tell he's never trained a single of one of his pokemon. Heck, I'd be surprised if he actually caught them himself."

When he said that, Leaf began to laugh even louder and Ash joined in. Factoring in his joy was that after that battle, if could call it that, he needed just a little less than fourteen hundred ranking points to reach C-Rank.

The merriment continued on for a long moment until both Ash and Leaf noticed that they had reached the point at which they would need to go their separate ways. That sobered the two of them pretty quickly.

Surprisingly, it was Ash who spoke first. "I guess this is it," he said awkwardly as he rubbed the back of his head.

"Yeah…" Leaf trailed off before turning towards him. "What are your plans?" They both knew she already knew them and that this was just her attempting to extend their time together just a bit longer.

Ash could appreciate and share the sentiment so he gladly indulged her. "I don't think I'll be spending more than two weeks in Vermillion City. After that I'll head to Celadon City to beat Erika. I'm not sure where I'll be going next though. What about you?"

Leaf smiled at him. "After I beat Erika, I'll spend as much as she'll have me, if she agrees, under her wing learning everything I can about how to best raise and train Forest. After that I'll head to Vermillion City to challenge Lt. Surge. After that I'll head to Fuchsia City to challenge Koga and check out the Safari Zone."

Ash nodded. "That sounds like a good plan. Perhaps I'll do the same after I beat Erika," he said with a shrug.

Leaf's smile wavered a bit. "Mmm, with any luck, we'll meet each other there."


After a moment of awkward silence, Leaf sighed, stepped toward Ash and wrapped her arms around his neck. Not at all surprised, knowing that Leaf was very touchy feely when she got emotional, Ash returned the hug and wrapped his own arms around her mid-section.

"Thank you, for everything, Ash. I mean it," she told him thickly into his ear as she tightened her hold around him.

Ash smiled and responded in kind. "No problem. Anything you need, just ask."

"I'll hold you that," she said before releasing him from her hug and stepping back. She rubbed away the tears that almost fell down her face and glared seriously at Ash with slightly blushing cheeks as she put her fists on her hips. "Now, don't be a stranger, okay? I expect a text every other day and a video call at least once a week, you hear me?"

Ash made the show of rolling his eyes and waving it off as if her request was an annoyance he was reluctantly agreeing to. "Yeah, yeah. Sheesh, you are worse than mom."

Leaf's eyes twitched. "That's because we both know that if it were for you, you would disappear for months on end without contacting anybody," she got out through gritted teeth as smiled sweetly at him in a strained manner.

Ash adopted an offended expression on his face. "That's…" he began to say, paused, considered her words, shrugged and nodded without shame. "… not entirely untrue."

Leaf groaned in annoyance and rolled her eyes at that.

The two of them locked eyes and began to laugh as they exchanged one last 'moment' before the parted ways for the foreseeable future. On an unspoken agreement they decided that it was best to part ways on a happy note than a sad one. They owed each other that much at the very least.

Other than med school kicking my ass, lack of muse, time and motivation for writing, a sickness called Ludwig's Angina that literally almost killed me and real-life shenanigans, I have no excuse for my lack of everything regarding fanfiction during the better part of eleven months.

On that same note, I found myself growing up a bit (mentally. I actually lost forty pounds or so in less than a month while I was sick) and I suppose it will be apparent as you read this chapter. With that being said, I have to admit that I was rereading A Hero's Will and Ambition a month ago and found myself cringing multiple times… on every single chapter.

What I'm trying to say is that I think I'm going to rewrite it. It will have the same concept, story arcs and everything that made it so popular but with an 'I Ate Your Muffin' that is admittedly more mature and less prone to doing things because they seem cool and more because they make sense and fit the story I want to tell. I would also write it up until the end of the USJ arc and publish a chapter every other day but we'll cross that bridge if we get to it.

While I make that decision (With your help. I'm going to put a poll on my profile tomorrow), I'll be posting updates for this and/or Journey of the King: The Will of D. You know I'm a slave of my muse and when it returned yesterday it had Pokemon plastered all over it.

With that said, I hope you enjoyed the chapter, feel free to point out any error and I'll be seeing you whenever (if) I post a chapter for any of my stories again… just kidding… I hope.

Muffin out!