"All right! Time to win my next badge!"

Iris rolled her eyes, and Cilan chuckled, but Ash was too fired up to care. They had done loads of training, and he knew Oshawott and Tepig could do it. Pikachu rubbed against his cheek, tail twitching with excitement, and Ash reached up to stroke his head.

"Yeah, we'll visit the Battle Club after."

They could try out Torterra's new tricks, but first they had a badge to win. Ash took a breath, and pushed open the door, only to blink.

"I thought this was the Gym?"

What was it with Gyms in Unova? First the Striaton one was a restaurant, now this one was a museum? Ash scratched his head, but before he could say anything a bespectacled man in a suit approached.

"Welcome to the Nacrene City Museum," he said. "My name is Hawes. I hear you're here for a Gym Battle?"

"That's right," said Ash slowly. "Nurse Joy told us to come here, but, uh…"

He trailed off with a shrug. Hawes chuckled. "Don't worry. This is also the Nacrene City Gym."

"And I'm the Nacrene Gym Leader."

Ash looked round to find a tall woman striding towards them. She looked Ash up and down and nodded. "I'm Lenora."

She held out a hand, and Ash shook it. "I'm Ash Ketchum, from Pallet Town in Kanto, and this is my partner, Pikachu." He paused long enough to let Iris and Cilan introduce themselves before continuing, "We've come to win our second badge."

"You're confident," Lenora noted, with a smile. "I like that." She clapped him on the shoulder and turned away. "Come with me."

Ash exchanged a grin with Pikachu and followed her through the museum and into a room filled with what looked like very rare and very expensive books and papers. Lenora turned back and folded her arms.

"How long have you been in Unova, Ash?"

"A few weeks," said Ash, after a moment's thought. "I've been travelling with Iris and Cilan and it's been great so far!"

"I'm glad to hear it," said Lenora. "But you still have a lot to learn about Unova and it's history." She tapped one of the books near to her. "You sure you don't want to do some studying before you face me?"

Ash's instinct was to say no. He wasn't a novice when it came to Gym Battles, and he was itching to get started, but if he had learned anything over his journeys it was that Gym Leaders usually had good reasons for asking challengers to do something. He sighed and grabbed for the book she had indicated, only to jump back as lifting it activated a hidden staircase.

"What?"

Lenora chuckled. "It's a little test I like to do. Some trainers will look for a book they want to read, rather than the one I show them, but you get right to the point." She grinned at him as she lead the way down to the arena. "So that means I'll have to see how well you deal with some of my tricks."

Ash grinned back at her. "We can handle anything you throw at us."

Lenora's eyes gleamed, and Ash felt a fierce rush of anticipation. This was going to be fun. He started to head for one of the boxes, only for Lenora to call him back.

"Don't rush into things, Ash. Take a moment to study my Pokémon first."

"I didn't think you'd tell me what they were," Ash admitted. "Do I have to send out mine too?"

"If you want to," said Lenora, with a shrug. "You don't have to though."

Ash nodded, and reached for his Pokédex as her two Pokémon appeared. Watchog he recognised from his battle with Trip, but her other Pokémon turned out to be a tough-looking Herdier that promptly bounded over to say hello to Pikachu. Ash checked the entries for both of them and nodded. "They look pretty tough." He gave them both a scratch and straightened up. "I'm ready."

Lenora nodded. "Good. Hawes will be the referee."

"Good luck, Ash!" Iris called. Sandile sat by her feet to watch, and Ash waved at them before refocusing on the battle.

"Oshawott, I choose you!"

His Water-type appeared in a flash of light and waved his scalchop. Lenora called back Watchog and Herdier set himself, all his former playfulness vanishing. Hawes looked between the two of them.

"This will be a two-on-two battle," he said. "Both the challenger and the Gym Leader may switch Pokémon at any time. Now, begin!"

"Use Razor Shell!"

Oshawott sprang forward, scalchop raised, but Lenora just smiled. "Roar."

Oshawott had time for an indignant squeak before he was pulled back into his Pokéball, and Tepig was sent out instead. The little Fire-type looked around with a start, and Ash winced.

"Sorry, Tepig, I didn't expect that. You okay?"

Before Tepig had a chance to reply, Lenora switched her own Pokémon. "Mean Look."

Ash groaned. Tepig flinched, and Lenora smirked. "Let's see how well you handle this, Ash. Watchog, use Low Kick."

Watchog darted forward, but Tepig's training took over and he vanished underground. Ash shook himself. This hadn't been the plan, but he'd never been that fond of relying solely on plans anyway. "We can do this, Tepig. Now!"

Watchog tensed, and leapt to the side as Tepig shot up but Ash had expected that. "Use Iron Tail!"

Tepig caught Watchog a glancing blow, sending the Normal-type stumbling sideways, and Ash didn't waste the opportunity. "Flame Charge! Build up some speed!"

"Not bad," said Lenora. "But we've still got some tricks. Use Thunderbolt."

"Dig!"

The flames faded as Tepig vanished underground again, and Ash let out a relieved breath as the Electric attack grounded harmlessly into the dirt. Tepig popped up behind Watchog, and this time the Normal-type didn't turn quite fast enough to dodge the Flame Charge that sent him flying back.

"Yes! Keep it up, Tepig!"

Tepig did so, moving faster and faster as the effects of his speed boosts took effect, but Ash kept alert. Lenora was planning something.

"Confuse Ray."

"Dodge it!" Ash yelped. He wouldn't be able to switch out if Tepig got confused. Tepig lurched to the side, but it was harder to steer at the speeds he was moving and Watchog followed up with a Thunderbolt that sent the Fire-type tumbling across the floor.

"Tepig!"

"Thunderbolt again!"

"Block it with Iron Tail!"

Tepig spun, deflecting the worst of the electricity off into the distance, then used Dig again. Ash let out a breath. "Good. Get ready to use Flame Charge when you can."

There was a moment where nothing happened, then Tepig erupted from the floor directly beneath Watchog. He was surrounded in flames, and the Normal-type went flying. He hit the ground hard, and was promptly hit be a second Flame Charge and Tepig came hurtling back round.

When the dust settled, Watchog was clearly out for the count.

"Watchog is unable to battle," Hawes confirmed.

"Very good, Ash," said Lenora, as she recalled Watchog. "You've trained your Pokémon well. But I think we've still got some surprises in store."

Ash didn't doubt it. Herdier appeared again, growling this time, and Lenora spoke as soon as Hawes gave the signal, "Retaliate."

"Watch out!" Ash yelled, but Herdier moved with startling speed and Tepig was unable to dodge in time. The blow landed with massive force, and Tepig was out cold before he hit the floor.

"Retaliate is a move that lets a Pokémon take revenge for a fallen teammate," said Lenora, as Ash returned Tepig.

"Right," said Ash with a grimace. "It doesn't matter. Oshawott can do this."

Oshawott took his cue and burst from his 'ball to face down Herdier with a scowl. Hawes called for them to begin, and Ash didn't waste any time.

"Razor Shell!"

Oshawott lunged forward, scalchop glowing bright blue, but Lenora didn't bat an eyelid. "Protect."

Oshawott bounced off the glowing shield with an indignant yelp, and Lenora continued, "Take Down."

"Remember what we talked about!" Ash yelled, and Oshawott jumped back and fired a blast of Water Gun. It wasn't enough to completely stop Herdier's charge, but it did slow the Normal-type down enough that Oshawott weathered the blow fairly easily. "Awesome, now use Icy Wind!"

"Shadow Ball!"

The two attacks collided in mid-air, and Ash squinted through the resulting mist. "Stay alert, Oshawott. Get ready with Ice Aqua Jet."

Oshawott nodded, then immediately launched himself into the air when another Shadow Ball came hurtling out of the mist towards him. Herdier followed up with a Take Down, but Oshawott's unorthodox manoeuvre had taken him surprise and he wasn't able to change direction fast enough to avoid Oshawott's attack from above.

"Yes! Now follow that up with Razor Shell!"

Oshawott did so, and Herdier fell back with a pained bark. Oshawott followed up with an Icy Wind, but Herdier caught that one on another Protect and Lenora nodded.

"Shadow Ball, and keep them going!"

"Use your scalchop," Ash called, and winced when one of the attacks got through Oshawott's guard. "And Water Gun."

They really needed to get Counter Shield working properly. He might have to swap Torterra out for Buizel again soon. Oshawott recovered enough to block the next few Shadow Balls, then his eyes widened as he saw Herdier barrelling towards him.

"Water Gun!" Ash yelled. "As much as you can!"

Oshawott braced himself and fired the most powerful stream he could manage, but it wasn't enough. Herdier forced his way through, and Oshawott went flying.

"Hang in there, Oshawott! I know you can do it!"

This wasn't good. Oshawott wasn't as tough as some of Ash's other Pokémon. The little Water-type staggered back to his feet, but he was breathing heavily and only just managed to dodge a follow up Shadow Ball.

"Yes, that's great!" Ash called. "You can do this, Oshawott!"

Oshawott glanced back, and Ash blinked at the gleam in his eyes. His usual playful demeanour was nowhere to be seen, and Ash nodded back. "Yeah, that's it. Get ready."

"Be careful, Herdier," Lenora called. She smiled. "It's nice to see your Oshawott finally getting serious."

Ash smiled back, but kept his eyes on the battle. Both Pokémon were injured, but Oshawott was still winded and he was the less experienced of the two. They had to finish this fast.

"All right, Herdier," said Lenora. "Finish this with Giga Impact!"

"Aqua Jet to dodge," Ash snapped. "But not the same way as last time."

He couldn't be any more specific without giving the plan away to Lenora, but they had practiced this with Gible and Pikachu, and Ash trusted Oshawott. His Water-type shot a wary glance back but held his ground until Herdier was right on top of him before skidding off to the side in a spray of water. Herdier was unable to turn in time to follow, and by the time he managed to stop Oshawott was on top of him with a Razor Shell.

"Protect!"

Herdier caught the Razor Shell, but Oshawott had been ready for that. He immediately lashed out again, and this time Herdier wasn't able to shield in time. The Razor Shell hit home and Herdier hit the ground hard.

For a long moment there was silence, then Hawes nodded.

"Herdier is unable to battle. Ash is the winner!"

"All right!" Ash sprinted onto the field and caught Oshawott into a hug. "You were amazing, Oshawott."

Oshawott was breathing hard, but he offered Ash a tired smile. Ash patted his head. "You get a good rest now, okay?"

Oshawott vanished into his Pokéball without arguing, then Ash staggered as Iris pounded on him the back. "Nice work, Ash!"

"You did very well," Lenora agreed. She had returned Herdier too, and now stood watching Ash with open curiosity. "I must admit, Ash, I didn't expect you to be able to adapt so well. Roar and Protect usually throw new trainers off guard."

"That's because he's not a new trainer," said Iris proudly. "This is his fifth time doing the Gym circuit."

Ash scratched his head as Lenora and Hawes both blinked at him. "Yeah, I started in Kanto, and went on to Johto, Hoenn, and Sinnoh."

Lenora cocked her head to one side, her dark eyes assessing. "But Tepig and Oshawott are new captures, if I'm not very much mistaken."

"That's right," said Ash, with a nod. "Part of the fun of travelling is catching new Pokémon and making new friends." Pikachu chirped agreement, and Ash reached up to stroke his ears. "That's why I use new Pokémon to do the Gym Challenge. Pikachu and the others have had plenty of practice already."

"I see," said Lenora. "That's a very good way of doing things. I hope you're not neglecting your other Pokémon though."

Ash shook his head. "I'm trying not to! I've been rotating them out, and Pikachu is always here." He patted Torterra's Pokéball. "We're gonna go to the Battle Club later so we can get some more training in."

Lenora quirked an eyebrow. "The Battle Club? What's wrong with here?"

Ash blinked, then grinned. "Serious?"

"Absolutely," said Lenora. "After that battle, I'm very interested in seeing what your more experienced Pokémon are capable of." Her eyes gleamed. "And I won't have to take it easy on you."

"That would be awesome!" Pikachu nodded vigorously, cheeks sparking, and Ash glanced back at Lenora. "I've got Pikachu and one of my other Pokémon with me."

"That will be fine," said Lenora, with a nod. She retrieved a Pokéball from her belt. "In the interests of fairness, here's one of my stronger Pokémon."

She tossed the 'ball into the air. Ash blinked. "An Audino?"

Audino looked rather offended by his surprise, and Lenora chuckled. "They're not just used by Nurse Joy." Her dark eyes gleamed. "Now then, shall we do this?"

Pikachu answered for them. He leapt from Ash's shoulder into the arena, landing lightly on all four paws, and Ash grinned. "Let's go!"

"I believe that's my job," Hawes murmured, but he was smiling as he waved his hand.

Lenora smiled at him, then her expression turned focused. "You know what to do, Audino."

Audino nodded. Light rippled over its body, but Ash was already giving instructions of his own. "Try a thunderbolt, Pikachu!"

Pikachu nodded, and fired a powerful burst of electricity. Ash watched closely, but Audino didn't even try to dodge it. Instead it braced itself, and grunted as the Thunderbolt knocked it back a step.

"Nice one," Ash cheered, but his triumph faded as he realised Audino was still standing. More light rippled over its skin, then it straightened up and waved happily at Pikachu.

"Oh," said Cilan from the sidelines. "Audino are healers."

Lenora smirked. "Heal Pulse and Calm Mind is a powerful combination."

"Yeah, that's tough," Ash agreed. "But we're not out of tricks. Pikachu, use Iron Tail."

Calm Mind wouldn't do anything to make physical attacks hurt less. Pikachu blurred forward, tail flashing silver, but Lenora didn't even bat an eyelid and Ash frowned.

"Be careful, Pikachu. They're planning something."

Pikachu chirped, then shot forward. At the same moment Audino drew in a deep breath and launched a ferocious blast of flames.

"Pikachu!"

Pikachu jerked to the side, Iron Tail fading as he used a burst of Quick Attack to get out of the way, but he wasn't quite fast enough to dodge all the flames and the fur along his left side was singed when he finally came to a halt. Ash breathed out a sigh.

"You okay, Pikachu?"

Pikachu flicked his tail and flashed a quick smile, and Ash nodded. "Good. Keep using Quick Attack when you can."

Pikachu nodded, then immediately put the advice into practice by blurring out of the way of a Blizzard. The attack was powerful enough that Ash had to shield his eyes from the ice and snow being thrown up, and he winced. He hated Calm Mind.

There was one benefit though, and Ash didn't waste time. "Now, Pikachu!"

Pikachu was already moving. Taking advantage of the momentary cover provided by the mini snowstorm he raced around the arena and slammed home an Iron Tail. Audino gave a cry of pain as it stumbled, and Pikachu jinked out of range before it could retaliate.

"All right! Keep it up, Pikachu."

"Well timed," Lenora agreed. "Now, let's see how you cope with this. Audino, make yourself heard."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ash demanded. "Watch out, Pikachu."

Pikachu tensed, paws flexing in the dirt as he got ready to run. Audino drew in a deep breath, then unleashed a Hyper Voice that made Ash cover his ears. Unable to avoid the powerful sound waves, Pikachu was sent tumbling back across the arena.

"Pikachu?"

Pikachu regained his feet, but he was shaking his head dizzily. Ash bit his lip, trying desperately to think. Ranged attacks wouldn't work, but Audino had enough different moves to make it tricky to get in close.

Lenora had definitely been holding back on him before.

Then again, Pikachu was a lot tougher than Tepig and Oshawott too. Ash took a deep breath, and spoke quietly, knowing Pikachu's ears were sharp enough to hear him.

"Hyper Voice only works the direction they're facing, and you're a lot faster than they are. Keep moving and try and get behind them."

"Hyper Voice again," Lenora called.

Pikachu took the advice and bolted off to the side. The outer sound waves caught him and sent him stumbling, but it didn't stop him and he hit Audino hard enough to send the bog Normal-type crashing to the floor.

"Yes! That's much better! Now, follow it up with Volt Tackle!"

"Fire Blast," Lenora snapped, but Pikachu was already charging back in. A corona of electricity formed around him and he launched himself through the flames with an explosive bang.

"Pikachu?"

"Audino?"

Ash squinted through the smoke. He couldn't see or hear anything. "Pikachu?" he repeated. "You okay, buddy?"

There was a pause, then the smoke cleared enough to reveal Pikachu passed out on top of an equally unconscious Audino. Ash scratched his head. "Huh. Wasn't expecting that."

Lenora shook her head. "It's been a while. You've trained your Pikachu very well."

"Your Audino is awesome too," said Ash. He walked over to retrieve Pikachu, and was joined by Cilan.

"I'll take him, Ash. Pansage will have him up and about in no time."

"Thanks, Cilan."

He returned to his side of the arena as Lenora returned Audino and selected another Pokéball. "Are you ready to continue?"

Ash nodded and took Torterra's 'ball. "Ready!"

Torterra burst from the 'ball, and gave a low growl that Ash felt rumbling through his sneakers. A flash of light on the other side of the arena coalesced into a tall deer-like Pokémon with pink flowers weaving around its antlers. From the sidelines Cilan gave a low whistle.

"That is one beautiful Sawsbuck."

Sawsbuck tossed her head, and Lenora stroked her neck fondly. "She is, isn't she? Don't be fooled though, she's becoming an excellent battler." She ran an appraising eye over Torterra. "Torterra looks to be in perfect condition."

"Thanks," said Ash. "I caught him in Sinnoh, last year. This will be our first battle in Unova."

Lenora smiled. "Then we had better make it a good one."

She nodded to her husband, who raised a hand. "Are both of you ready? Then begin!"

Adrenaline flood Ash's body. "All right, Torterra, let's show them how strong you are! Let's start with Energy Ball! And you know what to do."

Torterra nodded. A ball of brilliant green energy formed in front of him, then instead of releasing it he leaned forward and swallowed it whole.

There was a pause.

"Ash," said Cilan. "Did Torterra just eat an Energy Ball?"

"Yep! Pretty cool, right?"

"...Why?"

Ash had to laugh, but Torterra answered the question for him. Green light flooded his body; the leaves on his back grew in lustre and volume, and his whole body flowed with power.

"Okay," said Iris. "That is pretty cool."

Cilan was too busy gaping to comment. Lenora cocked her head to one side. "Fascinating. You are full of surprises, Ash."

"And we're not done yet!" said Ash. "Go, Torterra!"

Torterra summoned another Energy Ball, even bigger and brighter than the first, and launched it at Sawsbuck with a force roar. Ash grinned, but then he caught the faint smile on Lenora's face, realised Sawsbuck wasn't even trying to dodge, and his anticipation faltered.

"Hang on..."

The Energy Ball struck head on, and did absolutely nothing.

Ash's jaw dropped. "What?"

That wasn't fair! Torterra stamped one foot on the floor, his entire body shaking with indignation, and Lenora shook her head. "You're not the only one with tricks."

Ash stared at her, then at Sawsbuck. The big Grass-type even seemed more energetic than before, and Ash groaned as he worked it out. "Sap Sipper!"

Sawsbuck tossed her head, scattering a few loose petals around her, and Ash gritted his teeth. "No more Grass moves, Torterra."

Boosting Sawsbuck's attack one was quite enough. Ash ran through his options, and nodded. "We can still do this. Use Curse."

Torterra grunted, but did as he was told. Lenora smiled. "That's our cue. Horn Leech."

Sawsbuck immediately lowered her head and charged, surprisingly quickly for such a big Pokémon.

"Bite!" Ash snapped, but he wasn't fast enough. Torterra grunted as the Horn Leech slammed into his side, and by the time he lurched round Sawsbuck had skipped out of range.

"It's okay, Torterra," said Ash firmly. "Keep using Curse." He glanced over at Lenora, and lowered his voice. "And Rock Polish. Get ready to use Bite the next time she comes in close."

Torterra rumbled acknowledgement, and light flickered over his body. Ash kept one eye on Sawsbuck, saw Lenora whispering her own instructions, and nodded. "Get ready."

Paying attention paid off. This time when Sawsbuck closed in Torterra met her with snapping jaws and forced her to back off. She darted back to a safe distance, and Ash seized the opportunity.

"She's not getting away that easily! Use Earthquake!"

Torterra reared back onto his hindlegs, then came down with an almighty crash. Ash nearly lost his footing, but Sawsbuck took the full force of it and she stumbled to her knees.

"Now, use Bite!"

Torterra lurched forward, picking up speed quickly as repeated Rock Polish boosts took effect, and the Dark-type move struck home. Sawsbuck gave a cry of pain, but was still fast enough to land another Horn Leech that forced Torterra to retreat. Ash frowned as the damage Torterra had inflicted healed, then mentally kicked himself.

"Synthesis!"

Torterra glowed briefly, and Ash smiled when he saw some of the battle damage fade. Lenora gave a rueful chuckle. "I had a feeling he knew that."

"It's a good move," Ash agreed. He was feeling optimistic; Torterra looked healthier than Sawsbuck did, but he wasn't going to give Lenora a chance to even the odds. "Earthquake again!"

"Bounce!"

"What?"

Sawsbuck crouched, then sprang high in the air. She cleared the Earthquake completely, and landed right on top of Torterra.

"Torterra!"

Through the dust Ash saw the green flash of another Horn Leech before Sawsbuck once again darted back to safety. Torterra pushed himself back to his feet with a visible effort, and Ash winced in sympathy.

"Are you okay, Torterra?"

He was on the verge of ordering another Synthesis when Sawsbuck wheeled round and came charging back in, and changed tack at top speed. "Rock Climb, now!"

Torterra lowered his head and charged, and Ash saw Sawsbuck's eyes widen a split-second before the churning ground sent her stumbling. Torterra picked up speed, claws flashing and lengthening, and hit Sawsbuck hard enough to send her flying into the wall. She stirred weakly, then collapsed to the ground.

Torterra waited a moment, just to be sure, then gave a satisfied nod. He was breathing heavily, but stood tall and proud as Ash ran out onto the field.

"That was awesome, Torterra!"

He flung his arms round his friend's head, and Torterra butted him fondly in the chest. Ash smiled. "Thank you," he said softly.

Torterra smiled up at him, then let out a long breath and returned himself to his Pokéball.

"Well done, Ash," said Lenora. She replaced her own Pokéball in her pocket, and stepped out onto the arena. "You're trained your Pokémon very well."

"Thanks," said Ash. "Audino and Sawsbuck were both awesome too."

Lenora chuckled, and patted him on the shoulder. "Well, you've certainly earned your Basic Badge."

She held out the shiny badge. Ash took it gratefully, then there was an excited squeak from the sidelines and Ash turned in time to catch Pikachu out of the air. His starter nuzzled into his cheek, and Ash hugged him tight.

"You were great, buddy."

Iris and Cilan joined them with their own congratulations, and Ash closed his fist around the badge in his hand. He'd won his second Unova Gym Badge, and Torterra had won a tough battle. They were definitely on the right track.


"That's wonderful news! I'm so proud of you, Ash."

Ash blushed under the praise, but he smiled. "Thanks, Mom."

Mom beamed at him from the screen, and Professor Oak leaned into view. "It sounds like you're making excellent progress, Ash. Oh, and Torterra's settled back in nicely."

"Thanks, Professor," said Ash, with a nod. "Yeah, we're heading for Castelia City next."

"Ah yes, Burgh. A Bug-type specialist, and a very talented artist, if I recall correctly."

Ash shrugged, but Cilan had already brightened. "That's right, Professor! I've wanted to visit his gallery for years; it's going to be incredible to see it in person."

"After we've got my badge," Ash interjected.

Mom and Professor Oak exchanged amused looks, but Cilan just smiled. "Of course."

"Yeah," Iris chimed in. "Pikachu would zap us if we tried anything else."

Mom laughed. "He hasn't changed a bit," she said fondly. "And what's this I hear about you all waiting for eggs to hatch?"

Iris grinned. "I can't wait! Axew was a baby when I got him, but I've never raised one right from an egg before."

"You'll be just fine," said Mom. "Ash will help you, and I'm sure Cilan has raised young Pokémon before too."

Cilan nodded. "Not as recently as Ash though."

Ash blushed again, and Professor Oak cleared his throat. "Is that why you didn't ask me to send another Pokémon over?"

"Yes," said Ash. "The egg will make six, and I think they're all gonna hatch soon." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm kind of lucky that Sandile still hasn't decided if he wants me to catch him yet."

The Ground-type had seemed impressed by the battle with Lenora, and Torterra especially, but he hadn't made up his mind. Professor Oak nodded, then yawned. "Well, it's getting late over here. It's was good to hear from you, Ash, and congratulations again on your second badge."

"Call again soon," Mom added. "And be careful, all of you."

"We will," Ash promised.

Iris sighed as the call ended. "Your mom is really nice, Ash."

Ash smiled. It always made life easier when his friends got along with his mom. He picked up his bag, and held out an arm for Pikachu to climb up.

"How far is it to Castelia City, Cilan?"

"At least a couple of weeks," said Cilan. "And we have to travel through Pinwheel Forest too." He frowned at Ash and Iris. "We'll have to be careful. It's very easy to get lost in there."

Ash waved a hand. "We'll be fine, but we'd better get moving. I want another Gym Battle!"

"You literally just had one," said Iris, but she picked up Axew and started for the door.

Ash checked to make sure that Sandile was keeping up, and settled his bag more comfortably on his shoulders. Cilan looked around rather ruefully as they made their turned onto the street leading out of the city.

"It's a shame we didn't get to look around a bit. Nacrene City is renowned for its art culture."

Ash frowned. He had no knowledge of art whatsoever and he was desperate to get on with his Gym Challenge, but they had only been in the city a day. It wouldn't hurt to spend a bit of time looking around, and there was always the Battle Club. When he opened his mouth to say as much though, Cilan shook himself.

"But Castelia City is wonderful too, and it's been years since I last got a chance to visit. I think you'll like it there, Ash."

"I've never been anywhere I didn't like," Ash admitted. At least not when someone had tried to kill him. He hesitated a moment, then glanced at his friends. "And it really is okay if you two want to stay anywhere longer. There's months before the League starts."

Iris nudged him in the ribs. "What a sacrifice," she teased, but then her expression turned serious. "Thanks, Ash. I haven't done much travelling outside my village and Opelucid."

Ash smiled at her. "Travelling is the best. So, D'you want to stick around for a bit, or..."

Both of them shook their heads. "I'm curious about Castelia," said Iris. "And we're already on our way now."

Cilan nodded agreement, and Ash grinned.

They left the city streets behind as they turned onto the path leading west, and Ash breathed in the fresh air. He'd meant what he'd said, but there really wasn't anything like being on the open road. A flock of Pidove flew overhead, and Ash tilted his head back to watch them. He never had gotten round to capturing a Flying-type...

Then the peace of the afternoon was interrupted by a soft beeping.

"What's that?" Iris asked, but Ash was already shrugging off his rucksack.

"It's an egg incubator. One of them is ready to hatch!"

He almost ripped his bag in his excitement, but his own egg canister still lay dormant and he sighed. "Not mine."

"Or mine," said Iris a moment later.

The two of them looked at Cilan. The older boy swallowed, then lifted his own canister out of his bag with utmost care. The light on the top was flashing bright red, and Iris bounced up on her toes.

"Is it hatching now?"

"Yep!" said Ash. "Get it out, Cilan."

Cilan nodded. He sat down under the nearest tree, grabbed a blanket from his bag, and settled the egg very carefully in his lap. Ash dropped down next to him. "I can't wait to see what it is!"

"Maybe it'll be a Dragon-type," said Iris. She paused, glee fading. "Or an Ice-type." She shuddered. "I hope not."

Ash grinned at her. "Maybe yours will be an Ice or Fairy Pokémon," he teased, and had to choke down a laugh at the glare shot him.

Cilan spared them a small smile, then there was a dull crack and his whole attention snapped back to the egg. A large crack had spread across it's surface, and as they watched it rocked once, twice, then abruptly split in two.

Inside was a little purple feline. It stretched and yawned and blinked up at them with enormous green eyes.

"It's a Purrloin!" Ash exclaimed.

And it was incredibly cute. A piece of shell was still perched on top of its head, and it wobbled when Purrloin turned towards Ash's voice. Iris gave a muffled squeak of excitement, but Ash's own delight faded as he looked at Cilan.

Cilan, who had gone completely rigid, and was staring down at his new Pokémon in what looked like utter terror.

Ash swallowed. This wasn't good. Purrloin was a baby, and needed warmth and reassurance, but Cilan's face had drained of colour and he was beginning to shake, and even as Ash watched Purrloin's eyes narrowed in confusion.

Iris' smile had faded too, and her eyes were darting between the two of them. She shot a quick look at Ash, mouthed 'do something', and Ash swallowed.

"Cilan," he whispered. "Snap out of it."

Cilan blinked, but otherwise didn't respond. His eyes didn't leave Purrloin. Ash chewed on his lip. Maybe he should separate them, get Purrloin something to eat and give Cilan time to get used to the idea, but even as he leaned forward something stopped him.

Cilan loved Pokémon, and he had said himself that he didn't want to be afraid. This was the best opportunity they were ever going to get. He just had to get Cilan to see that.

"Cilan," he hissed. "It's a baby, and it needs you, so help it!"

"I don't know, Ash," Iris murmured, but just as she started to move forward Cilan stirred.

He looked down at Purrloin, at the way it was staring helplessly up at him, and his petrified expression cracked slightly. His hand shook as he reached forward, but he didn't hesitate. Purrloin sniffed warily at his fingers before ducking its head in for a stroke, and Cilan's face eased into a tiny smile.

"Hello there," he said softly. "My name is Cilan. It's a pleasure to meet you."

Purrloin purred, eyes closing as she leaned into his touch, and though his fingers were still shaking Cilan continued to stroke her fine fur. Iris watched with wide eyes, and Ash let out a long breath, and the two of them shared a smile over Cilan's head.

There was a lot of work to do, but it was a start.