Ash stared at the fortress the children had constructed out of piles of rubbish and rubbed the back of his neck.
"You gotta admit, it's impressive."
He was trying to breathe lightly, but it wasn't doing much good. Pikachu and Axew had both taken cover in his backpack. Iris had a hand over her nose and mouth, but still managed to glare at him. "Its terrible!"
"You didn't have to come," Ash pointed out.
"No, but you were going to with or without us," said Cilan. "And we want to help."
Ash smiled at his friends. Neither looked particularly enthralled by the prospect of venturing into the impromptu junkyard, but they weren't backing down. Ash wouldn't have chosen to spend the day convincing a group of kids that they couldn't barricade their teacher out either, but there was a Pokémon involved and if he could help then he was going to, and Iris and Cilan didn't seem to be going anywhere. Maybe he was rubbing off on them.
Smiling at the thought, Ash walked forward until he could shout up to the treehouse.
"Hello?" he called. "Anyone up there?"
"No!" someone shouted back. Ash grinned, and a moment later there was the sound of a muffled scuffle before someone else shouted,
"We can't do that," Cilan called up. "But we don't want to fight either. Can we come up and talk to you?"
A boy poked his head out. "Why should we let you?" he demanded. "You'll just try to take Trubbish away!"
"We won't," said Ash. "I promise!"
He might be able to understand that the kids' precariously balanced mound of rubbish was unstable and potentially dangerous, but there had to be an alternative to not letting them see Trubbish any more and Ash was going to find it. Iris was nodding next to him.
"We all promise! We're not gonna do anything except talk!"
The boy hesitated, then vanished. There was a long pause, but Ash was optimistic. He had been one of these kids, and he would have done anything if it meant he got to stay friends with a Pokémon. He knew they would too.
After a minute, the boy from earlier stuck his head out.
"Okay, you can come up," he said. He didn't sound happy about it, but Ash didn't care.
They climbed up, Ash and Iris at top speed and Cilan following rather more carefully. The smell got steadily worse as they neared the treehouse, but Ash's excitement at meeting a new Pokémon was stronger and he pushed on. He couldn't wait to meet the Pokémon that had gotten these kids so fired up. He pulled himself into the tree house and was immediately surrounded by children half his size.
"You can see him," the ringleader said. "But remember you promised!"
Ash held up his hands. "I know. We just wanna meet him."
"Move over will you," Iris called, and Ash turned to pull her up. She blinked at their welcoming committee, then shrugged and squatted down. "You kids did all this for a Pokémon? That's pretty cool."
"It was Avery's idea," said one of the girls, and the boy they had been talking to puffed his chest out proudly.
"Yeah! Because Trubbish is great and if Daniela can't see that then we're not gonna listen to her any more!"
Ash scratched the back of his head. "I don't think Daniela doesn't like Trubbish," he began, but that was as far as he got before he was drowned out by a chorus of protestations.
"She took him back to the junkyard!" Avery shouted. "She took him away from us!"
Ash exchanged a look with Iris, but Cilan shook his head. "Not because she doesn't like him," he said gently, "but because she was worried about all of you."
Avery stamped a foot. "We're fine! It's Trubbish that's in trouble!"
"What do you mean?" one of the other boys asked at the same time. He quailed under the glare Avery gave him. "I mean, we don't care!"
Cilan sat down next to Iris. "I mean that Trubbish like being around rubbish," he said to the boy. "And she was worried that it would make you sick."
"It doesn't make Trubbish sick," said Avery stubbornly.
"Larvesta can live in volcanoes, but that doesn't mean humans can," Iris pointed out.
Seeing Avery and the others glare at her, Ash stepped in again. "Hey, do you think we could meet Trubbish?"
The children hesitated, but Trubbish settled the matter by waddling forwards. Ash patted the little Poison-type. "Hey there. You've got some really great friends here, haven't you?"
Trubbish squeaked happily, and the children visibly swelled with pride. Ash smiled. "I've got an idea."
"Well, Ash," said Daniela. "I wasn't expecting this."
Ash grinned. "But it works!"
"Having a special area set aside for Trubbish means that they can see him regularly, and it will help them learn how to care for Pokémon like that," Cilan explained. "But because it's separate from the school you won't have to have all that garbage everywhere."
"And this place won't smell so bad," Iris muttered under her breath.
Ash's grin widened as Daniela and Karena exchanged glances. Finally, Daniela smiled. "I suppose we can see how it goes. You did get them to clear away the mess they made in the playground, so I can let them keep Trubbish around if they promise to take care of him properly."
"Thanks, Daniela," said Ash. "They really care about Trubbish."
"Thank you," said Daniela, with a laugh. "I don't know what I would have done without you three."
"And I've thought of the perfect way to thank you," said Karena.
"That's really not necessary," Cilan began, but he fell silent as she stepped aside. Karena smiled.
"These are some of the eggs from the daycare that are close to hatching but haven't been claimed by trainers. You may choose one each."
Ash's jaw dropped. "You're giving us Pokémon?"
This was the best reward ever. Iris was bouncing on her toes with delight. "I wonder if any of them are dragons!"
She dashed forward to examine the eggs, Ash right behind her, but Cilan hesitated. "Are you sure about this?"
Karena patted his shoulder. "You three went out of your way to help us, and I can see that you all take excellent care of your Pokémon. It would be good to know that these young Pokémon are going to a loving home."
Cilan held her gaze for a moment, then his face split into a brilliant smile and he stepped up to join Ash and Iris. Ash grinned at him and turned his attention back to the eggs. "I don't know which one to pick!"
There were seven eggs on the table, and every one of them contained an amazing Pokémon. How was he supposed to just pick one? Iris chewed on her lip for a moment, then shrugged. "No way of telling what they are, so I'll take this one!"
She picked up one of the eggs and her eyes widened. "Wow! It feels warm!"
"That's because it's close to hatching," said Karena, with a smile. She opened one of the hatching containers and showed Iris how to secure it safely. "It's hard to tell for sure, but all of these should hatch within the next week or so."
Cilan chose his own egg after a moment's thought, and Ash finally picked up the one in the middle.
"I'll take this one!"
It didn't matter what he ended up with; he had never met a Pokémon he didn't like. He couldn't wait until it hatched. Karena helped him and Cilan settle the eggs properly and waved away their thanks.
"You're doing me a favour too, really. Take good care of them."
The three of them said their goodbyes to Karena and Daniela and the kids, but they were barely out of sight of the school before Pikachu suddenly tensed on Ash's shoulder. Ash paused.
"Something wrong, buddy?"
Pikachu jumped down to the ground. His ears stood straight up, but he seemed more curious than worried. Axew scrambled out of Iris' hair to join him. Iris frowned. "What's going on?"
Ash shrugged, but Pikachu had focused on a bush by the side of the path. He scampered over, only to suddenly lunge to the side as a rock came hurtling out.
Pikachu landed easily and fired off a Thunderbolt. Ash ran forward, expecting to find whoever had attacked to be unconscious, but instead a Sandile sauntered out of the bush. Ash skidded to a halt.
"Hang on. You're that Sandile we met before!"
The sunglasses gave it away. Ash jabbed a finger at him. "Why did you attack Pikachu?"
Pikachu backed him up with an indignant squeak. Sandile yawned, showing off a remarkable amount of teeth, and growled at Pikachu. Pikachu cocked his head to one side, then threw up his paws with a huff. Ash frowned. "You want a battle?"
Sandile nodded. Ash exchanged an exasperated look with Pikachu. "Ask next time! Don't just attack!"
Sandile huffed and waddled over to a clear space. Ash looked at Pikachu. "You wanna do this?"
Pikachu eyed the waiting Sandile. Iris folded her arms. "What's his deal? Did he really just follow us all the way from the hot springs just to battle Pikachu?"
"Guess so," said Ash. He didn't mind, he was always up for a battle, but he didn't like being attacked out of nowhere. "Pikachu?"
Pikachu sighed, then dropped onto all fours and glared at Sandile. Ash shrugged. "Okay then. Ready, Sandile?" Sandile nodded. "Then let's do this! Quick Attack!"
Pikachu dashed forward, dodging another Stone Edge with ease and hitting Sandile hard enough to send him flying back into a tree. Sandile recovered quickly and promptly vanished underground.
"Careful, Pikachu! Remember what we've practiced."
Gible and Infernape used Dig often enough that they had plenty of opportunities to develop counter-measures. Pikachu closed his eyes, sensing the vibrations in the ground, then jolted to the side just as Sandile tried to attack.
Pikachu leapt into a somersault and slammed home the Iron Tail before Sandile could work out what was happening.
"Nice one! Keep it up!"
They were a bit limited without any Electric attacks, but Pikachu was doing just fine. Sandile fired off another Stone Edge, but Pikachu spun and shattered it with another Iron Tail before it could make contact and launched into another Quick Attack that sent Sandile flying back into a tree.
"Remind me to never get Pikachu mad," Iris muttered.
Ash smiled as he watched Sandile slowly drag himself upright. The Ground-type looked like he was regretting all his choices. He made no move to attack again, and when Pikachu glanced back Ash nodded.
Sandile eyed them for a moment, then nodded. He growled something to Pikachu, and seeing Pikachu finally stop bristling Ash guessed that it had been some sort of apology. Pikachu climbed back onto Ash's shoulder, and after giving him a stroke Ash crouched next to Sandile.
"Are you okay?"
Sandile nodded, then blinked when Iris shoved a Sitrus berry in front of him. "Here! You'll feel better, promise."
Sandile eyed them, then took the berry with a nod of thanks. Ash hesitated, then reached out to rub Sandile's head. "Why did you come all this way? Was it really just to battle Pikachu?"
Sandile shrugged, but didn't seem to be meeting Ash's gaze. Ash opened his mouth, then closed it again. It had been several weeks since they had helped out the Sandile at the hot springs, and they had come a long way since then. Why would Sandile come all this way just to battle Pikachu?
"I have no idea what's going on, but I'm assuming you did something to help out?"
"Yeah," said Ash, with a smile. "It was nothing. We were happy to help."
Cilan looked between Ash and Sandile and shook his head. "I don't think Sandile thought it was nothing."
Iris blinked, then grinned. "And I bet he didn't just come to battle Pikachu either."
Ash stared at them. Pikachu sighed and rubbed against his cheek in agreement, and Ash turned to smile at Sandile. "Hey, wanna come with us? Y'know, instead of following us? I could catch you if you want."
Sandile hesitated. He cocked his head to one side, dark eyes flickering from Ash to Pikachu and back again, but otherwise didn't respond. Ash scratched his head. "Do you want to go back home?"
That got a response. Sandile shook his head vigorously, and Ash sighed. "Then I don't get it. What do you want?"
Sandile shrugged. Cilan looked between the two of them. "All right, let's try something else. Sandile, are you interested in Ash and Pikachu?"
Ash frowned, then blinked when Sandile nodded. Cilan hummed. "Okay, but you don't want to be one of Ash's Pokémon?"
Sandile shook his head, but noticeably slower than he had responded before. Pikachu chirped and Ash nodded. "Does that mean you might be interested in joining me one day?"
If he did then it would be awesome. Sandile was tough and smart and would be a great addition to his team. The Ground-type held his gaze for a long moment before nodding, and Ash broke into a brilliant grin. "That would be so cool!"
"But that doesn't tell us what he wants to do now," Cilan pointed out.
Iris rolled her eyes. "Why doesn't he just come with us? Not as one of Ash's Pokémon, but just to see what kind of trainer he is?"
Ash was about to dismiss the suggestion when he noticed the way Sandile cocked his head to one side. "You want to do that?"
Sandile glanced back at Pikachu and nodded. Ash grinned and gave him a scratch on the eye ridge. "Then it's great to have you with us!"
This was going to be interesting.
Tepig vanished underground just in time to avoid Oshawott's Razor Shell. Oshawott pouted, then went tumbling back as Snivy lashed out with her vines.
"Stay alert, Oshawott," Ash reminded him. Oshawott nodded, and launched himself upright with Aqua Jet as Tepig burst from the ground and went after Snivy. Ash nodded to himself. All three of them were doing well.
An explosion sounded behind him and Ash glanced round as Iris cheered.
"Yes! That's much better, Axew!"
Gible grumbled in agreement as he dragged himself out of the crater, then he ducked to the side as Pikachu blurred past him and launched himself at Excadrill. The Steel-type blocked his Iron Tail with a clash of metal, and Ash rubbed his ears.
Iris grinned at him. "Did you see? Axew's got so much better at Dragon Rage!"
"Yeah, he has," Ash agreed. "But I'm not surprised, he's been working really hard. Both of you have."
Iris waved a hand. "He did all the hard work."
"But you're the one who got him this far," Ash pointed out. He nudged her. "I've raised baby Pokémon before, and it's hard. You've done a great job with Axew."
Iris coughed and looked away. Ash grinned. For someone who was so proud of her Pokémon she was really bad at accepting compliments.
A growl of frustration rumbled through his sneakers and Ash headed over to where Torterra was training. The big Grass-type tossed his head and Ash patted him.
"No luck with Rock Polish yet?"
Torterra growled again. Ash sighed. "C'mon, Torterra, you've only been working on it for a couple of days. It's okay. I know you'll get it, just like you got everything else that you've been working on."
Torterra sighed, but he looked a little mollified. Ash scratched his head. "Don't worry. You'll get there. I know it."
He could understand his friend's frustration. Ash had convinced him to learn Curse to take advantage of his added bulk, but Torterra had been much more interested in Rock Polish. It was hard work; Ash had called Brock for some advice, but putting it into practice was proving a bit more complicated. Ash glanced round for some inspiration and his eyes fell upon Sandile.
Sandile had kept his distance since they stopped for the evening, but he had been watching everything with interest. Currently he was half-buried in the sand by the fire, but his dark eyes were fixed on Torterra. Ash crouched next to him.
"Hey, Sandile, could you help us out for a minute?"
Sandile raised an eyebrow, and Ash elaborated, "See, we're trying to learn Rock Polish, but sometimes it's easier to pick up new moves if you're using them in an actual battle. D'you think you could give us a hand?"
Sandile hesitated, then glanced at Torterra. The big Grass-type let out another rumbling growl, and finally Sandile pulled himself out of the dirt and padded over to them. He looked up at Torterra without a trace of intimidation, then flicked his tail and vanished underground.
"What-" Ash began, then Sandile popped up behind Torterra, nipped at his ankle, and disappeared underground before Torterra could even begin to turn around. "Oh, I get it. Torterra, use Rock Polish!"
Torterra set himself, but his concentration was broken when Sandile reappeared long enough to land another Bite before darting away again. Torterra let out a frustrated growl, and Ash patted his head. "C'mon, Torterra, you can do this. I know you can."
Torterra nodded and closed his eyes. A faint light flickered over his body, and when Sandile next poked his head up Torterra was able to spin fast enough that Sandile vanished without landing another attack.
"Yes, that's it! Keep it up, guys!"
Torterra wasn't much faster than he had been previously, but it was a definite start. Ash noticed that Sandile had started moving more quickly too, and he grinned. This was working out well.
Then Sandile used Bite with a little more force than before, and Torterra let out a roar of pain. He reared back and came down with enough power to make the ground shake. Both Ash and Sandile were sent flying, and in the distance Iris let out a yell.
"What was that?"
Ash shook his head and scrambled to his feet. "I think…Torterra, was that Earthquake?"
Torterra nodded. Ash beamed at him. "You never told me you'd learned that!"
This was great news. He had been meaning to teach Torterra a good Ground-type move, but he had never got round to it in Sinnoh. It seemed Torterra had taken matters into his own hands. Maybe Donphan had helped. Ash shook himself and gave Torterra a hug.
"That was awesome, buddy!"
Torterra leaned into him with a soft hum. Ash patted him, then swayed as Pikachu's familiar weight landed on his shoulder. "Hey, Pikachu, didja see? Torterra knows Earthquake!"
Pikachu chirped and jumped from Ash's shoulder to Torterra's back. Ash stepped back then looked down at Sandile. "Are you okay?"
The little Ground-type nodded, but his attention was on Torterra. Ash looked between the two of them, then smiled and crouched down. "D'you want to learn Earthquake too?"
Sandile hesitated, then jerked his head in a sharp nod. Ash grinned. "Then I bet Torterra can help you. Right, Torterra?"
Torterra nodded. Ash sat back and risked a quick pat to Sandile's head. "See? We'll all help each other get stronger."
Sandile looked up at him, expression assessing, but before he could say anything there was a cough and Ash looked round to find Cilan watching him. The older boy gave him a small smile. "I don't suppose I could get a warning next time you try large-scale attacks? Dinner was nearly ruined."
Ash felt his cheeks heat up. "Sorry, Cilan."
"It's okay," said Cilan. He smiled at Torterra. "It felt like a powerful attack. You've trained Torterra well."
Ash felt the smile fade from his face. He looked down, unsure how to take that, then blinked when Cilan rested a hand on his shoulder. "Ash, you are a good trainer. Just the fact that your Pokémon are determined and disciplined enough to train and improve their skills even while you're not around proves that."
Torterra gave a low rumble of agreement, and Ash finally let himself relax. "Torterra's always been really focused," he said. "Ever since he was a Turtwig. He's awesome."
And from now on, Ash was going to make sure that he was the trainer Torterra deserved.
"That was so good, Cilan!"
Cilan laughed. "I'm glad you liked it. There's more than enough for seconds too."
Neither Ash, nor Iris needed any further encouragement. Cilan checked that all their Pokémon had eaten their fill, paying particular attention to Sandile, before rejoining them.
"Have you thought about which Pokémon you're going to use at the Nacrene City Gym, Ash?"
Ash swallowed his mouthful of food and shook his head. "A bit. She uses Normal-types, right?" At Cilan's nod he scratched his head. "Okay. The thing with Normal-types is that they can usually use moves of lots of other types too." Norman had taught him that lesson back in Hoenn. "So I need to make sure they're all ready for anything."
Oshawott looked up and bounded over to him. Ash laughed. "You want a go, right?"
That was fine, but Ash would have him spar against Pikachu for a bit first, just to get him used to Electric attacks. He let his eyes wander over the rest of his Pokémon. "Hmm. Snivy or Tepig?"
Tepig was less experienced and could use the practice, but he had fought in the last Gym Battle. Maybe he should let Snivy have a go.
"Either of them could win it," said Iris. "They've both gotten really strong."
Tepig beamed at the compliment. Snivy just flicked her tail, but Ash could tell that she was pleased. Ash scratched his head. "Do either of you particularly want to do it?"
Both Pokémon nodded, then frowned at each other. Ash had to laugh. "Okay, we'll talk about it. We've still got a couple of days before we get there." Pikachu let out a huff, and Ash gave him a stroke. "You don't need any more practice with Gym battles," he told his starter. Pikachu scowled, but relented when Ash pushed another helping of food in front of him. Cilan chuckled.
"It might be time to pay another visit to a Battle Club," he suggested. "It would give Torterra a chance to practice his new moves too."
"Yeah, that'd be great!"
"In the meantime, Pikachu, you could always battle Excadrill again," said Iris. She lowered her voice as she glanced over at her oldest Pokémon. "I think he was getting a bit bored going easy on Axew."
Pikachu's eyes lit up and Ash grinned. "Sounds good to me! We can always do with practicing against Ground-types."
Iris grinned back, but before she could say anything Ash's Xtransceiver started to beep. Ash answered it, and Professor Juniper appeared on the screen.
"Ash," she greeted him. "It's good to see you."
"It's good to see you too, Professor! Is everything okay."
The professor's expression turned slightly sheepish. "Everything's fine, except I realised that I forgot to give you a case for your Unova badges."
Ash blinked, then smiled. "That's okay, Professor. I can pick one up in Nacrene City."
"Oh, is that where you're headed next? Excellent, that makes things much simpler. Another of my beginner trainers is there right now, and she has already agreed to deliver a case for you."
"That's nice of her," said Ash. "Thanks for sorting that out."
"My pleasure. She was a little unclear about whether she would wait in the city or start making her way towards Striaton, but you should run into each other within the next couple of days."
"We'll keep an eye out," Ash promised. "Thanks again!"
He ended the call and looked at his friends. "That's cool. I wonder if she'll be up for a battle?"
His friends exchanged an amused look. "You have such a one-track mind, Ash," said Iris fondly.
As it turned out, they ran into the professor's acquaintance the following afternoon. Literally.
"I'm so sorry," Bianca kept saying, as she helped Ash dust off his clothes. "I didn't see you there."
"It's fine," Ash coughed. Pikachu and Tepig were both glaring at Bianca, but Ash waved them down and held out a hand. "I'm Ash. Nice to meet you."
"Likewise," said Bianca cheerfully. She peered through her large glasses at Cilan. "I know you! You're one of the Striaton City Gym Leaders." Cilan nodded with a smile and she turned her attention to Iris. "I don't think I know you though."
Iris shook her hand. "I'm Iris. I'm travelling with Ash."
"That's nice," said Bianca. She rummaged around in her bag and presented Ash with a shiny new badge case. "Here you go, Ash! One case, delivered as promised."
Ash set his Trio Badge in it and admired it for a moment before placing it carefully in his bag. Now that was out of the way though… "Hey, Bianca, how do you feel about having a battle?"
Iris snickered under her breath, but Bianca beamed. "Sure, that sounds like fun!" She grabbed a Pokéball from her bag and held it up. "And it'll be great timing! I just caught my second Pokémon this afternoon!"
Ash froze in the act of reaching for Torterra's Pokéball. Bianca was older than him, closer to Cilan's age if anything. How could she only have two Pokémon? Cilan, though, was studying her.
"That's a great accomplishment! How long have you been a trainer?"
Bianca put a finger to her lips. "About a month?" She pulled a face. "I wanted to start years ago, with my friend, but my dad wouldn't let me. He said it was too dangerous with Team Plasma running around, but they were defeated ages ago and he still wouldn't let me start until now." She shook her head and grinned at Ash. "And now I'm finally on my journey and I'm having the best time and I can't wait to get the League! So let's battle and I'll show you how good I am!"
Her enthusiasm was infectious, and Ash met her grin with one of his own. "That's awesome! Then let's have a great battle." He looked down at his newer Pokémon, only for Pikachu to tug on his hat with an indignant squeak. Ash squinted up at him. "Huh? You want a go?"
Pikachu nodded firmly, cheeks sparking, and Ash rubbed the back of his neck. "I guess you haven't had many battles so far," he agreed. He glanced it Bianca. "Would it be okay if Pikachu battled your starter? He's mine, and he wants a good fight."
"That's fine," Bianca agreed. "My starter is really strong too."
Pikachu huffed, and Ash placed a restraining hand on his back. There was always the chance that her starter was strong enough to beat Pikachu. Not much of a chance, but still... He shook himself and looked at his Pokémon. "Okay, who wants a go?"
Oshawott, Tepig, and Snivy all raised their hands, much to Ash's complete lack of surprise. Iris giggled. "They all love battling as much as you do."
Ash smiled. He couldn't argue with that. Bianca had only had this Pokémon for a couple of hours, so Snivy was probably a bit too strong, and Gible and Torterra definitely were...
"Oshawott," he decided. "Ready to go?"
He had done a fair bit of battling, but he was still the least experienced of Ash's team. Oshawott answered by bounding into the clearing. Bianca moves to stand opposite and threw her own Pokéball to reveal a fluffy grey Pokémon.
"Ooh, that's a Minccino!" Iris exclaimed. "He's so cute!"
Minccino preened and flicked his tail. Ash checked his Pokédex quickly and nodded. "He's a Normal-type, so watch out."
Oshawott nodded. Cilan stepped between the two trainers. "I'll referee. Are you both ready?"
"Use Hyper Beam!" Bianca cried.
"Dodge it," Ash called, but Minccino was looking blankly back at his trainer. Ash shrugged and decided to take advantage of the confusion. "Razor Shell!"
Minccino started to dodge, but Oshawott was used to training against Pikachu and Snivy and the blow sent Minccino flying back into a tree.
"Water Gun," Ash ordered, and the shaky Normal-type hit the ground again.
Bianca scowled. "Right, try this. Attract!"
The familiar hearts swirled out, struck Oshawott, and did absolutely nothing. Ash coughed. "Oshawott's a boy too."
"Come on," Bianca whined. "Fine. Use Tickle!"
Lulled into complacency, Oshawott was slightly too slow to dodge the lashing tail and he collapsed on the floor in fits of laughter.
"Much better!" Bianca cheered. "Now Double Slap!"
Ash winced. "Get out of there with Aqua Jet!"
The unexpected attack sent Minccino tumbling off and Oshawott landed on the other side of the clearing. He danced away from another attempted Tickle and Ash thought fast. "Razor Shell, then Ice Aqua Jet!"
"Ice what?" Bianca demanded, but Oshawott was already moving. The powerful attacks struck home, and by the time he was finished Minccino was out cold.
"All right!" Ash cheered. "Nice work, Oshawott."
Oshawott beamed and jumped into his arms for a hug. Bianca returned Minccino with a scowl. "You're good," she admitted. "But Pignite is way stronger. This match is going to be different!"
Pikachu grinned and leapt from Ash's shoulder into the clearing as Bianca's starter appeared opposite. Ash blinked at him, then at Tepig. "Is that what Tepig evolves into?"
"Yep," said Bianca. "Isn't he awesome?"
"Yeah," Ash agreed. He smiled at the gleam in Tepig's eyes as he stared at his future evolution, but a quick check of his Pokédex confirmed his suspicions. "He's a Fighting-type too, Pikachu."
Pikachu nodded and turned back to Pignite, cheeks sparking. Pignite slammed his fists together, sending sparks of his own up into the air, and the two Pokémon grinned at each other. Cilan glanced at Ash and Bianca and nodded.
Pikachu blurred away with a burst of Quick Attack, but Pignite kept coming and Ash could see him picking up speed. "Iron Tail!"
After all these years, Pikachu knew exactly what he meant. He spun, tail flashing silver, and swept Pignite's feet out from under him. The stocky Fire-type hit the ground with a crash and Pikachu leapt away and fired off a Thunderbolt.
"Great work, Pikachu!"
Bianca scowled. "We're not done yet! Pignite is tough."
Pignite nodded, already staggering to his feet and setting himself ready. Bianca pointed. "Show them your Heat Crash!"
Pignite nodded and launched himself into the air. A blazing corona surrounded him and he landed back in the middle of the clearing with a deafening explosion.
"Woah!" Ash gasped. "Pikachu!"
Bianca grinned. "Heat Crash depends on weight," she said. "The heavier Pignite is compared to the target, the more damage it does."
Ash paled. Pignite had to be about ten times heavier than Pikachu. He squinted through the smoke. "Pikachu? You okay?"
There was a long pause, during which Bianca's smirk grew, then a yellow blur bounded out of the smoke.
Pikachu chirped happily. Ash laughed. He should have known Pikachu was too fast to be hit by something like that. Bianca's jaw dropped and Pignite stared, and Ash didn't give them a chance to recover. "Then it's time to show them what you can do. Use Volt Tackle!"
The resulting explosion was even more impressive than before. Ash squinted through the rising dust and smoke until it cleared enough to reveal Pikachu standing on top of an unconscious Pignite.
"All right! That's awesome, Pikachu!"
Pikachu hopped from Pignite to the ground to Ash's arms in a series of flowing leaps and Ash huge him tight. "You were great, buddy."
Pikachu gave a satisfied chirp and climbed onto Ash's shoulder for a rest. Ash focused on Bianca, who was crouched next to Pignite, and walked over to join her. "You were right," he said. "Pignite was really tough."
"Not tough enough," said Bianca with a sigh. She returned her partner and stood up. "How is that Pikachu so strong?"
Ash stroked Pikachu's soft fur. "We've been travelling together a few years," he said. He paused, but he would have liked to know this sort of stuff when he first started his journey and he had to say it. "It looks like you need to sit down with your Pokémon and work out exactly what moves they know though."
Bianca gave a sheepish nod. "I get a bit carried away sometimes."
Cilan cleared his throat. "You and Pignite do work very well together," he said. "From a Connoisseur's point of view, the two of you form a wonderful partnership."
That brought a smile back to Bianca's face. "We do, don't we?" She patted Pignite's Pokéball. "And we're going to keep getting stronger. Our next battle will be very different, Ash!"
Ash grinned at her. "I can't wait."
"Maybe catch a few more Pokémon too," Iris suggested. "Pignite and Minccino are cool, but you really need more options. I mean, look at all the Pokémon that Ash has."
Bianca looked round at the watching Pokémon and nodded. "Yeah, I get it." She nodded to herself. "I've got a lot of work to do." She grabbed her bag and hoisted it onto her shoulder. "And I'm going to get started right away. You'd better train hard, Ash, because I'll be ready for you next time!"
Ash barely had time to wave before she was out of sight. Iris shook her head. "She's enthusiastic."
Ash had to laugh. He walked back over to his Pokémon, intending to evaluate Oshawott's performance a bit more, but the look on Sandile's face made him pause. The little Ground-type was staring up at Pikachu with wide eyes, and on impulse Ash sat down next to him.
"What did you think of the battle?"
Sandile met his gaze for a moment, before looking away with a shrug. Ash smiled and scratched his back. "We've been training together for a long time."
Sandile said nothing, but he looked thoughtful. Ash patted him once more then blushed as his stomach rumbled. Cilan shot him an amused look. "We might as well stop for the night," he said.
Ash grinned. A good battle was the best way to work up an appetite. Pikachu nuzzled into his neck and Ash let himself relax. He had really awesome friends.
"So, Ash," said Iris, after they'd finished eating. "Have you decided who to use in the Nacrene Gym?"
Ash leaned back on the grass and thought about it. Oshawott needed the experience, but otherwise he would be happy for either Tepig or Snivy to have a go. They both wanted to, and it would be good practice for them…
"What's the closest Gym after Nacrene?"
Iris and Cilan looked at each other, then Cilan spoke, "Probably Castelia. The Leader, Burgh, specialises in Bug-types."
"Huh." Ash looked at Tepig and Snivy again. Tepig would be perfect for that. He was opening his mouth to say as much when Snivy let out an imperious chirp. Ash blinked. "Wait. You want to do that one?"
She nodded, and her tail briefly flickered white as she charged an Aerial Ace. Ash fought down his initial protest and thought about it. She was a Grass-type, but moves mattered more and it wasn't a bad idea for Pokémon to get used to battling when they had a type disadvantage.
"Are you serious?" Iris demanded. "That's a terrible idea!"
Snivy scowled, and Ash shook his head. "Maybe not. She did do pretty well against Trip's Whirlipede, and she could use more practice against Bug-types. And I'll be using Tepig as well, so she'll have back-up."
"It could work," Cilan agreed. "It's good to have a way of dealing with a Pokémon with a type advantage, but you really need to test it in battle to make sure you can rely on it."
Ash nudged Iris. "Y'know, Glalie is always available if Axew wants to practice Iron Tail…"
"Shut up," Iris grumbled. "He can practice Iron Tail fine on his own." She frowned at Snivy. "You're really going to do this?"
Ash glanced at Snivy, but he already knew what her answer would be. She nodded firmly, and Ash smiled. "Yeah. So Oshawott, Tepig, you're going to be battling at Nacrene, okay?"
Both of them voiced their agreement, but Ash wasn't finished, "So I want you both to have a go at battling Pikachu, Torterra, and Gible."
Tepig's jaw dropped slightly. Oshawott squinted up at Torterra, then tried to hide behind Excadrill. Ash chuckled. "Don't worry, it's just so you're ready for surprises. Normal-types can learn Electric, Steel, and Ground-type moves too, y'know."
Tepig nodded, accepting that reasoning. Oshawott looked less pleased, but Ash was unmoved by the beseeching look he received. "It's good training. C'mon, you can go against Gible first."
Gible gave a toothy grin that didn't seem to reassure Oshawott in the slightest. Ash gave Oshawott a light push in the direction of a nearby clearing, but paused to have a word with Gible, "Don't use Draco Meteor or Dragon Pulse, okay?"
Gible nodded and waddled after Oshawott. Ash glanced down at Pikachu. "I want you to battle Tepig. You know what to do."
Pikachu chirped acknowledgement and bounded off in the opposite direction. Tepig swallowed, and Ash crouched to give him a quick scratch. "Don't worry. This will help you get stronger, I promise."
Tepig didn't look completely convinced, but he followed Pikachu without complaining. Ash wasn't worried. Pikachu had as much experience battling as he did. He knew how to help Tepig get stronger and boost his confidence at the same time, leaving Ash free to concentrate on Gible and Oshawott. Not that he didn't trust Gible, but he didn't have the same experience with younger Pokémon that Pikachu did, and right before a Gym battle wasn't the time to take risks.
As he got up though, he noticed Snivy looking a little disappointed. Ash chewed on his lip, then headed over to Iris.
"Hey, are Axew or Excadrill free for a battle?"
Iris followed his gaze, then smiled. "I'll sort something out," she promised. "You go make sure Oshawott's okay."
"Thanks, Iris," said Ash. Snivy caught his eye and gave a slight nod, and Ash patted her head before heading over to where Oshawott and Gible were waiting. Ash smiled at them. "You guys ready?"
Both nodded, Gible rather more quickly. Ash nodded. "Then let's go."
Gible promptly vanished underground. Oshawott pouted, and Ash shook his head. "Normal-types can use Dig too. Come on, you know how to deal with this."
Oshawott sighed, but he did use Aqua Jet to launch himself into the air in time to avoid Gible's attack.
"That's it!" Ash cheered. "Now use Razor Shell!"
Gible blocked that with Iron Tail and hit out with a Rock Smash that sent Oshawott tumbling back.
"Remember to use your scalchop to block physical attacks," Ash called. "Or you can use Water Gun to keep him away."
Oshawott nodded, and put the advice into practice by firing a jet of water when Gible came charging in again. Gible went flying back, and shook off the spray with an indignant yelp before charging forward again. This time Oshawott blocked with his scalchop, and turned it into a Razor Shell on the backhand, and Ash nodded.
Gible vanished underground again, and Ash nodded to himself. Oshawott was doing well. He couldn't wait to get his next badge.
Thanks for reading! Any feedback would be appreciated.