Suffocating air, hot and oppressive with humidity, draped over him like a blanket. That alone was enough to confirm Bob had whisked him off to Hoenn instead of dumping him in the ocean somewhere.

He might have preferred the ocean.

It would be a fair bit cooler, though at least now he felt comfortable enough to draw on Ice's freezing presence without Articuno figuratively breathing down his neck. His body cooled to a comfortable range immediately, though he had to balance it with a trickle of Fire. The time he'd invested in controlling the Concepts left it almost a matter of reflex.

Ash took a deep breath as he appeared in front of the Rustboro Gym. A few trainers wandering into the Gym flinched at his sudden appearance, but scurried away at Bob's glare. Part of Ash wanted to pop in and give Aron a chance to test out his six weeks of training, but the long line stretching out of the plain building dissuaded him from that.

Rustboro was widely considered one of the more accessible Gyms, so it was always pretty popular for new trainers. It was only a few months into the Ever Grande Conference's season, so Ash estimated they had just hit the mark where most young trainers felt confident enough to tackle their first Gym.

Is this to your satisfaction, O Great Elite Four Ash?

Bob's snide words ruined his good mood in an instant. "Yes," he bit back a cutting retort and exhaled. "Thank you for taking me."

The Alakazam's bristly mustache twitched. His eyes flashed, yet no words filled Ash's mind.

He waited for a moment, then Bob finally shook his head. Ash sensed a tug (a spoonful from an ocean) and Bob twisted seamlessly into thin air. It was like he'd never been in Rustboro's bustling brown streets at all.

Ash just shook his head. Bob had set his standards pretty low when the Alakazam just silently vanishing was an actual improvement.

Once Bob was gone, Ash released Tangrowth and Aron to accompany him on his journey to Steven's apartment and unclasped the cape before it would attract too much attention. He smiled as they both blinked at the sudden rush of hot, moist air - Aron immediately perked up and offered a passing teenager a cheerful warble. The girl happily waved back, glanced up to Ash, then froze. Her eyes grew wide, and Ash decided now was a good time to make his escape.

It didn't really bother him, but Ash knew everyone and their mother recognizing him would get old really quick. He was perfectly happy being a random trainer.

So he dipped his head to the teen, spun on his heel, and marched in the vague direction of Steven's apartment. He'd looked up the instructions ahead of time, even if he'd have to bust out his PokeNav to navigate the last stretch.

Tangrowth and Aron happily followed behind him - the grass-type had already wrapped several of his strong vines around Aron to give him a lift and hold him a few feet above the ground. Ash wasn't eager to have more attention sent their way, but one glance at Tangrowth dancing down the street and Aron's stubby little legs waving as he tried to swim in the air dissuaded him from putting a stop to it.

Tossing his anonymity aside was a small price to pay if it kept his friends happy.

On the bright side, it also posed a strange enough sight that all the passersby gave them a wide berth as they made their way into the depths of Rustboro's dense downtown area. Ash couldn't help but look up in awe at the skyscrapers and vast malls, hotels, and even a few indoor stadiums used for training camps and tournaments. He knew there was a massive trainer school somewhere in Rustboro for local kids, but didn't know where it was located.

Cities weren't his favorite, but he couldn't deny the sheer scale of some of them could leave him a little stunned. There was just so much. He could probably wander these streets for hours and still find new things to investigate. It was definitely a lot easier to find random metallic snacks for Aron around here…

He couldn't wait to find Steven and make their way through the rest of the region, but for now he was perfectly happy to enjoy the walk (and let Tangrowth and Aron satisfy some of their curiosity) through the city.

The extra vacation time he took was nice, but he had no doubt Steven was going to push him hard to make up for every spare second of it. Not that he hadn't put plenty of long hours in with the Elite Four...

Just the thought of training left his eyes alight with anticipation.

Let Steven throw whatever he wanted at them.

His friends would triumph.

XX

Aron recognized the door of Steven's apartment well enough to lovingly bash his head into it and loosed a long, keening cry. When Steven didn't immediately open the door and lavish attention on the little steel-type, Aron squeaked and headbutt the door again.

It shook on its hinges this time, and Ash was quick to put a stop to it… part of him was afraid Tangrowth would join in and try to help if Ash gave him another moment or three to think it through.

"Easy." Ash knelt to rub Aron's dome. He wasn't sure if the steel-type could actually feel it, but it seemed to comfort him regardless. Aron plopped down on his haunches and a forlorn whiff of air left his nostrils. "He'll be here soon."

Tangrowth stepped in to comfort Aron, happy to wrap a vine around his friend, and Ash rose back to his feet now that the crisis had been handily tied up.

The seconds ticked by.

At long last, the door swung open. A familiar silver-haired figure in a dark suit greeted them with a smile. "Ash! Tangrowth! Aron! Come right in - ow!" Steven winced as Aron lovingly smashed his head into the former Champion's leg. "No, I'm afraid I don't have a treat for you."

Aron peered up at Steven with big blue eyes. He moaned pitifully. That brought a hint of a smile to Steven's reserved face. "Fine, fine. Perhaps I have one laying around."

That perked Aron right up, and he was perfectly happy to run right past Steven into the apartment. "If you don't have one, I can cover it."

Steven sighed. "No, no, I'm sure I have a few pieces of scrap in some drawer or another," he looked fondly after Aron. "He's gotten quite big. You've kept up with your training, then."

Ash nodded as Steven led him into the living room. It was just as opulent as he remembered: gleaming granite countertops, thick grey rugs that probably cost more than Ash's entire house in Pallet, and marble slabs laid everywhere that the granite didn't cover. There were probably thousands of rare and beautiful stones (and some rather plain rocks that Ash suspected were the most valuable of all) locked up in some display cases that had been newly put up.

Of course, there was something new.

"A piano?" Ash blinked at the sight of the sleek black instrument in an unoccupied corner. He knew less than nothing about music (except for the flute, of which he knew precisely nothing about) but the sight of the fancy black piano was enough to impress him. It looked like one that would be playing in a gigantic orchestral hall. He turned his head to his teacher. "I didn't know you played."

Steven chuckled, then swept over to the instrument. His fingers swept over the keys in a practiced manner, playing a quick melody with zero effort. Aron perked up, recognizing the sound of metal...or, in Aron's mind, snacks. After a moment he forgot the hunger and bobbed his head to the music instead.

"Only a little. One of those things my family pressed on me as a boy. Pierce was always -" he shook his head with a grimace. "Nevermind. It's not for me.."

"Who, then?"

"A friend who will be visiting in the coming months," Steven said offhandedly. "We're still working out all the details, but I thought this would be a nice surprise."

Ash just nodded along and plopped down on one of the couch cushions he favored. Aron had already curled up nearby on a fuzzy bed that practically swallowed him whole. Tangrowth waddled in behind them, curious vines brushing over everything to refamiliarize himself. He kept a close eye on his friend, but Steven's past rebukes had taught Tangrowth to be gentle here.

And since Ash would be the one who'd be paying for any 'accidents', he was sure to stay on top of things.

The Elite Four salary was nice, but not nearly enough to cover anything in Steven's home. That was money that could be spent on TMs, or better food for his family, or...well, anything else.

"How was your vacation?"

Steven smiled as he sat down on the opposite side of the sofa. None of his team were out (unusual for the Steel Master) but the man seemed completely at ease. Remaining so comfortable with his team stuck away in their pokeballs was completely foreign to Ash. Maybe Steven had left his team to train somewhere?

"It wasn't much of a vacation, to be honest," he admitted with a laugh. "Rocket raids targeting breeders, Aqua and Magma rallying support...it's a mess, honestly. Hoenn's developing into a powder keg and it seems every two-bit rogue wants to be the spark that sets it off."

His eyebrows raised. The Rocket raids were expected, unfortunately. "Aqua and Magma are paramilitary, right? Why haven't they been shut down?"

The former Champion's mask twitched to reveal a twinge of frustration. "They're still hiding in the shadows," Steven waved the question off. "Whoever's organizing them, they're good. They're operating through proxies: sympathizers, agents, and the like."

Ash nodded. "I remember the dossier," he said slowly. "Aqua's based in the archipelago. Hard to pin down. But what about Magma? They're linked to a bunch of corporations, right?"

Steven sighed. "Some of the largest. Quite a few in Rustboro. Not Devon, of course!" He was horrified even having to entertain the thought. "I've been making my own inquest. Magma is pushing for greater expansion of land; land that we wouldn't have to compete with native pokemon for."

He frowned "Wouldn't that be a good thing?" Ash thought for a moment and scowled. "What's their plan?"

"We know they're linked to some promising research in land reclamation. Building artificial islands, draining areas, and such. Plenty of people say Hoenn has too much water," Steven shook his head. "More land is always nice, especially when there aren't pokemon already living there, but those land reclamation strategies always lead to conflict with local pokemon. The new land occupies space formerly claimed by wild pokemon, and humans attempting to displace them sours the League's relationship with other groups of wild pokemon."

Steven exhaled, but was still plainly frustrated. "The process is inefficient at best, and potentially ruinous at worst. Which is why it's rather worrying that their shell companies and supporters have gathered so much funding recently. Magma paints a grand picture, one that's too good to be true. And it is."

Ash would be lying if he said he knew anything at all about raising new land, but at least he knew conflict with local pokemon was a bad idea. It tended to end badly for the humans involved.

There were a lot of wild pokemon, and trained pokemon weren't always willing to go against their free counterparts.

"If they need to make islands, I could loan out Infernus to them," Ash offered with a half-smile. "It might make a nice challenge."

Steven stroked his chin and hummed. "Who knows? Some competition might do them some good."

Then the man chuckled and the illusion was broken. "Aqua might have something to say about that," his good humor vanished all too soon. It left him looking much, much older… and Steven still looked better than the hollowed out Lance. "Reports have been pouring in by the day. Recruitment drives, more frequent patrols, new networking with wild pokemon communities. It's a mess."

"Sounds like they're stepping in to do the League's job," Ash observed. Based on all his reading from Cynthia's books and the journals Elder Yari had given him, this wasn't going to end well.

Steven's grimace deepened. "Yes, you could say that. The Rockets," he spat the word like a curse, "running amok is just incentivizing the people of the archipelago to take things into their own hands. Team Aqua is happy to direct them. We do all we can, but we just don't have the manpower to secure the archipelago and the mainland."

Silence. The utter weariness in Steven's words spread to Ash. He felt the man's exhaustion. Steven was worn to the bone.

"Any help from the other Leagues?" Ash asked. "That's what the National League is for, right?"

Steven waved the question off. "Some, but nowhere near enough. They've helped where they can. But Indigo is still reeling from Greenfield, and after everything else in the last year they're in no place to help. Lance insisted on sending a few Ranger teams," Steven added fondly. "Cynthia's sent all she can spare, but Sinnoh has its own problems. Kalos did spare a squad of ASTRE trainers to help with Durand - their ACE equivalent," he explained at Ash's curious expression.

He smiled at the mention of the Sinnoh Champion, but was quickly distracted. "What sort of problems?" He asked, a bad feeling settling in his gut. Sinnoh was the land of mysteries, after all, and he had the nasty feeling that quite a few of those mysteries were about to crawl out of their dens. "Legends?"

"No, I'm sure you'd have ended up there if it was a Legendary issue," Steven smiled wanly. "You seem to make a habit of that."

Ash winced. "Fair point."

"Just unrest," Steven sighed. "Doomsayers, people stirring up fears, factions seeking to take advantage of the unrest. All the usual. Sinnoh's an old land with a long memory. Everyone has some old score to settle with everyone else. The Lake Orders have been growing more active as well."

He nodded along. Yeah, he could see how this might be growing into a problem. Greenfield had proven to the world that times were changing. Even if it wasn't fully known that the Legends were back, any groups who did have access to that information (or who just saw an opportunity to exploit) would be making their moves early.

It didn't bode well.

"So Sinnoh can't send too much support without stretching themselves too thin and leaving themselves wide open," Ash summarized. "Which is just Hoenn's problem already."

"Well put." Steven measured him up with an interested look. "We can't ask our allies to sacrifice their own security for our sake. The world is turning quickly, and we all have our own problems."

He reached down to rub at Aron's smooth head. "I'll help however I can."

"I hope it won't come to that," Steven shifted in his couch. Ash thought he looked distinctly uncomfortable. "You do need to learn proper paperwork procedure. With our rangers focused primarily in the archipelago, I might have you fill in occasionally."

Ash lit up. "As long as I can help."

Steven sent him a look. "These are routine missions. No Rockets. You'll be scouting out areas, engaging wild pokemon, and the like."

His mood dropped. Oh, he was still interested. It would present a new challenge, if nothing else. But it still left a sour taste in his mouth. He'd partially chosen Hoenn because Steven told him about the Rockets here. And after learning about what the Rockets did to the Oaks…

He needed to fight them.

Ash would help however he could, but he would really, really like it if part of that entailed ripping the heart out of these new Rocket factions.

The tension lingered for a moment. Even Tangrowth gurgled unhappily and reached out to wrap them all up in a hug. As Ash comforted his friend and tried to reassure him everything was fine, Steven cleared his throat. "We should go over our schedule."

Ash gave up on trying to convince Tangrowth to relax, and instead just leaned into the rubbery vines hugging him tightly and laid his arm over one of them. He waited patiently for Steven to continue.

"Greenfield was an...unexpected delay," Steven chose his words carefully, and ignored Aron as the little steel-type licked at his suit leg. His fingers interlocked and he leaned forward just a hair. "It's done you well," a smile graced the reserved man's face, "but it means we'll need to accelerate a few things."

"Like what?"

"We'll be stopping by Mauville tomorrow for you to meet Wattson. I think you'll like him," Steven spoke of the man rather fondly. "He and his wife have graciously offered to let us stay with them for a night. I originally planned to spend a week in Mauville with him, but I think you'll be better served by us advancing more quickly to Lavaridge."

Ash's eyebrows shot up. "What do you have planned up there?" He thought for a moment. "Your old teacher is there, right? Fino Moore?"

Steven's lips twitched upward in a smile. For a moment Ash felt the Master's pleasure at Ash recalling that detail. "Yes, he's currently working with his granddaughter, Flannery. She's taken over the position for him, but he's still preparing her fully for the role."

Fino Moore was a Fire Master and a former member of the Ever Grande Elite Four after the Last War. Ash couldn't recall any particular details, but he knew the Master had taken over the Lavaridge Gym Leader position as a sort of retirement. It was a similar story to Blaine's, although from what little he knew about Fino, the man seemed more...adjusted.

He'd taught Steven, after all, and Ash couldn't imagine Steven learning well under Blaine's 'gentle' tutelage.

"Sounds good," Ash said, then smiled. "I can't wait to battle him! I know Infernus needs a good fight. Karen's Houndoom did a number on him."

"He might be willing," Steven chuckled. "It might take some convincing, however. While I would like you to meet Fino and Flannery, we'll only be stopping in Lavaridge for a brief period. I plan on spending a month near Mt. Chimney. The plans you've shared for your team seem promising, but they'll need time to lay a foundation."

As much as Ash agreed (and reveled at the thought of having nothing to do for a month but train, fight, and spend time with his team) he couldn't help but grimace at the reminder of his last training trip with a Champion at the base of a volcano…

"Nothing lives in Mt. Chimney, does it?"

Steven frowned. "Not that I know of. There is a thriving community of fire-types that lives around the volcano, but it only has a small Magmar and Magmortar population. Competition is fierce."

Well, that was something to look forward to. Infernus would love that. It also wasn't quite what he wanted to know. "When I trained with Lance, he decided to go fight Moltres," a little surge of anger bubbled in him, fueled to greater heat by the Feather. "No plans for that, right?"

The former Champion blanched. "What - no! To the best of my knowledge, Moltres has never visited Mt. Chimney. I would certainly never attempt to battle it."

He relaxed. Steven was too level-headed for something like that, but it was probably better to check. "Do you already have a spot picked out?"

"Indeed," Steven pulled up a detailed map of Mt. Chimney and its surrounding lands on his PokeNav. Ash leaned closer to look at the area Steven gestured to with his pointer finger. "See this area here? It's situated between several of Mt. Chimney's surrounding mountains, and has quite the interesting collection of minerals…"

Ash couldn't help but smile as real enthusiasm filled Steven's words, and the rest of the day passed by in a blur of planning, speculation, and preparations.

He was back, and Ash couldn't wait to see what Hoenn had in store for them.

XX

...as such, Mauville City is considered one of the premier centers of innovation in the Hoenn region. Although Rustboro is home to many of the eminent technology companies in the world (such as the famous Devon Corporation), it is in Mauville where these trailblazing technologies are implemented and put into practice.

Much of Mauville remains similar to any other city you might find in Hoenn. Due to its central position, Mauville has become a crossroads of trade, communication, and travel in Hoenn. Modern Mauville is built upon ruins of a major stronghold of the Volumo, and existed for some time as a relatively small town before it was revolutionized by Gym Leader Wattson into the innovatory force it has become today.

Gym Leader Wattson's premier achievement is a massive center in the city, called New Mauville and dubbed as 'The City of the Future' that has incorporated fantastic designs from all corners of the globe. Gym Leader Wattson began his work after his early years spent revitalizing LaRousse City and shaping it into a technological wonder. Of particular influence was Kalos' famed Lumiose City, which Gym Leader Wattson visited in the aftermath of the Last War in order to promote peace and cooperation between the former enemies…

"You're fully packed?"

Ash hoisted his pack over his shoulder and nodded. He looked to Dazed and felt her mind separate from his own. His vision swam for a moment. She always immersed herself deeply within his thoughts when he was reading for them. "I'm going to return you now, alright?"

Of course, Friend-Trainer.

He smiled at her and recalled her into her pokeball. "Ready."

Steven nodded, then squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Juliet appeared a moment later, her scarlet eyes widening for just a moment at the sight of Ash. She dipped her head and bowed just an inch, her spindly frame draped in her outer 'gown' of protective skin.

Salutations. It is a pleasure to meet you again, Trainee Ash.

"Likewise," he smiled at Juliet. She'd already cut the mental connection, which was quite the courtesy for most psychics. Not many cared enough to stop invading his privacy. Then again, she could just find being in his head unpleasant.

Juliet's eyes flashed a brilliant pink, then her features twisted with something resembling displeasure.

Bob appeared a moment later. Steven's apartment was growing rather cramped as the Alakazam teleported in. He gripped his spoons tightly in his hands as his frustrated gaze took in everything around him.

Elite Four Ash. What a pleasure.

He ignored Bob. Part of him took pleasure in the irritation rolling off Juliet. Steven had a pack of his own ready (he'd just spent close to an hour scanning his collection of stones and carefully selecting three rocks to stow away in the bag) and seemed the picture of cool professionalism. He offered Bob a stiff nod.

"Juliet, have you shared the location?"

Her eyes flashed pink, and Steven appeared satisfied. "Excellent. Let's be off."

Ash barely had a moment to blink before they were whisked off to Mauville. He was practiced enough with teleportation not to stagger, but it was still quite disorienting. What struck him first was the sound: thousands of people all around, bustling and milling about whatever fancy shopping center they were in. It rose up several levels, and they'd teleported near a balcony that overlooked the entire modern complex. At least the balcony was separate from the rest of the complex, so nobody passed around them.

He didn't have long to stare at the countless shoppers, flashing neon lights, or the dizzying variety of restaurants, street performers, and even a few small battling rings occupied by young trainers.

No, it was pretty difficult to ignore the short, wide old man who practically tackled Steven in a hug. "Steven! Juliet! My friends! Come in, come in," the man Ash recognized as Wattson ushered them in with a booming laugh. He found himself liking the man already. "It's been too long!"

"It's good to see you as well," Steven smiled and shook Wattson's hand. The Gym Leader was only a few inches taller than Ash, so the slim former Champion towered over the squat man. Wattson had a presence to him, though - a wide frame, wider smile, and boundless cheer made him larger than life in his own way. "How have you been?"

"Better and better every day!" The deep laugh lines around Wattson's eyes crinkled until they resembled deep canyons. He spared an adoring look to the woman on his right, who reached forward to loop her arm in Wattson's and reached out to shake Steven's hand. "Sophia and I have been busy keeping Mauville running, but the projects have been coming smoothly."

Ash took a look at 'Sophia', whose name he didn't recognize. She only looked a few years older than Steven, perhaps in her early thirties, and had long pale green hair, matching eyes that were very kind, and elegant features. Of course, what really stole his attention was Wattson's brown-sleeved arm wrapped comfortably around her waist and the matching plain platinum bands on her and Wattson's ring fingers. Wattson's was slightly more ornate, with an oddly familiar many-hued stone set inside.

Steven's small smile widened as he gestured to Ash. "That's wonderful to hear, particularly in such troubled times," his smile momentarily faded, but soon recovered. "I don't believe you've had the pleasure of meeting Ash."

He flushed as both Wattson and Sophia's eyes took him in with more interest. "Nice to meet you," Ash said in clipped tones, then offered his hand like Steven had. The contact was uncomfortable, but something about Wattson managed to put him at ease.

"A pleasure, an absolute pleasure!" Wattson beamed as he grasped Ash's gloved hand in his own large one and nearly tossed Ash off-balance with his enthusiasm. As he got closer, Ash got the distinct whiff of ozone's familiar scent drifting off the old man. "We've heard so much about you!"

Ash shifted uneasily, then Sophia cut in. "All good things!" She smiled as radiantly as her...husband? He would have to check with Steven about that. "Little Tate and Liza couldn't stop gushing about you, and I haven't seen Brawly so excited in ages."

He offered a smile back, though he was still reeling from the overwhelming positivity. It was like standing too close to the sun - of course, that just left him thinking of Wes in the Tin Tower and his mood soured. "Glad to hear it."

"But we'll have plenty of time to catch up later!" Wattson's chest rose and fell with a loud bout of laughter. He clapped Steven on the back and practically dragged the silver-haired man into the apartment behind him. Sophia smiled at Ash and beckoned for him to follow - Juliet drifted along behind him like she was gliding above the air, though Bob had already teleported away. "Let's get you situated - I'm afraid you two will have to share the guest room, but I was able to find some stones you might be interested in looking over before we go to this excellent new pasta joint on the first floor…"

As overwhelmed as he was, Ash couldn't help but lighten up as Wattson's good humor and the soft, inviting atmosphere of the very nice suite (it could give Steven's apartment a run for its money, though instead of cold granite and modern minimalism this one embraced piles of pillows, scented candles, and warm tones that reminded him of springtime) set him at ease.

It reminded him of home.

XX

Lunch was a raucous affair, somewhere between the Elite Four dinners and the wild brawling of the Wataru in their Blackthorn compound. Oh, there were no fists being thrown. Not with Steven around. There weren't even barbed words or pointed jabs.

The battle here was fought on entirely different terms: sappiness.

"My Wattson increased the output of the complex by 38% with minimal environmental impact!" Sophia gushed, tossing her shimmering green hair over her shoulder to look at the beaming old man with blatant admiration. Their fingers were intertwined atop the spotless brown table of their fancy booth. "All sorts of investors have been popping up recently to see about settling down in Mauville. I don't know where the city would be without him!"

Wattson's broad smile stretched wider and he lifted Sophia's knuckles to his lips. "And I couldn't have done it without you, my love! Why…"

Ash's nose wrinkled and he leaned closer to Steven. The couple were too wrapped up in their war of directing more and more aggressive compliment at the other to pay either of them much mind. "Are they always like this?"

"Always," Steven sent a fond look at the couple. He was reserved, of course, but in the subtlest set of his shoulders, the upward tilt of his lips, and the openness of his frame, Ash could sense that Steven was comfortable.

It was entirely different than how he was around Lance - less guarded, like he wasn't having to keep watch for any jokes or hold others in his arsenal. When Ash thought of it that way, it reminded him a little of his and Gary's dynamic.

"It's rather sweet, isn't it?"

Steven's words just dialed Ash's discomfort up a notch. He picked at a tiny imperfection in the smooth plastic coating of the table with his nails. Anything to avoid watching the overwhelming dose of sugary affection from Wattson and Sophia, even if that didn't spare him from hearing it.

He was glad they were happy, but he couldn't shift the itching their display left under his skin. The urge to get up and walk away. The urge to stuff his ears and look away. The urge to go fight.

It was weird seeing people in love like this.

Ash had certainly never been exposed to that kind of affection.

Juliet's dulcet tones chimed in his head. The Gardevoir rested at the end of the table - apparently she had some history as Wattson's former teleporter, and both were happy to catch up.

Their love is pure.

With that, she cut the connection. Ash again found himself appreciating the gesture. He could care less if Dazed lived within his head - Ash embraced the contact, in fact - but there were some things in his skull he'd rather not escape.

And the less time Juliet spent in his head, the less likely she was to run afoul of its other occupant.

A storm gathered in the back of his mind.

The Gardevoir does not deserve my attention.

Only Ash did, apparently. The thought left Ash with a twisted frown, though Mewtwo didn't react. He just slipped away to do...whatever it was when he wasn't sending a tendril of his awareness through Ash. That was a train of thought better left alone.

He quickly flattened his expression out when he caught Sophia's concerned look.

"Ash!" Wattson's eager shout dragged every eye in the restaurant to their isolated booth. Ash shrank under the attention and did his best to keep Steven (who had kicked up an animated conversation with Sophia) between him and the crowd. Unfortunately, drawing eyes to the former Champion of Hoenn probably wasn't doing much for their anonymity. "I've heard that an amazing Electabuzz has joined you!"

That brought a spark to him. "Electivire now," Ash corrected as his thumb brushed over the pokeball. It trembled slightly at his touch. "Her name is Oz."

"Oz… ozone!" Wattson guffawed. "I can't wait to meet her. Could I trouble you for a battle later? It's not often I get a chance to battle against one of the vaunted Indigo Elite Four!"

Ash cracked a smile. "Sounds good to me. I was hoping to ask you a few questions."

The old man's bushy eyebrows rose. "Oh? Consider me curious!" Wattson leaned forward and jabbed a finger at Sophia vividly catching up with Steven on some story or another. Ash heard lots of five and six syllable words that his brain couldn't make head or tails of, and quickly turned back to the old man. "Those two are going to be talking about Devon's new products for hours. It's excruciating. How about we run to the Gym while they catch up?"

His smile widened and he pushed his empty plate away.

"Let's go."

XX

"Magnet Rise!" He commanded. Aron warbled happily and lifted off the tight-packed dirt of the Mauville Gym's battlefield as brilliant yellow sparks arced off of him in a blazing shower. The little steel-type held it for nearly ten seconds, his stubby legs 'swimming' in the air, until Ash gave the signal and he landed with a heavy thud. "Great job, Aron!"

His friend's rasping tongue greedily lashed at the tiny chunk of polished metal they'd grabbed from Steven's apartment, easily tearing strips from the snack. Ash left Aron to his metal and looked up to Wattson, whose eyes were practically ablaze with delight.

"Wonderful! Wonderful!" Wattson repeated himself, locked on Aron. The ear-piercing shrieks and scrapes of his tongue shredding the metal didn't seem to bother the old man in the least, though Oz had plugged her ears with her tails from where she stood at Ash's side. "Most never take Magnet Rise so far. Steven told you about this?"

Ash nodded. "Yes," he recalled Steven's Aggron and its absolute control over metal. "He showed us how his Aggron did it and gave us some pointers. I've been focusing on Aron's conditioning mostly," he admitted. "Magnet Rise was too draining for him at first. He could do it, but just in short bursts."

Wattson scratched his bushy beard. "Yes, that's one point where Aron's mass will work against him," he observed. Ash dipped his head in agreement, smiling softly as Aron contentedly gnawed on the scrap metal. He was small, but Aron packed a lot of weight into that package. It was one of the reason a regular charge from the steel-type was so devastating. "End goals?"

"Easy use of projectiles," Ash thought back to Steven's Aggron manipulating those metal rods so well. Not easy to use in a regulated match, but devastating outside of it. "We might be able to use Automize to give him something to work with. It also opens up some options against certain steel-types, and once he's mastered it I'm hoping it'll increase his agility."

"There's an idea!" Wattson clapped his hands together with a roar of laughter. "Ah, to see an Aggron sailing through the air… that would be quite the sight!"

Ash snorted. "That's what I'm hoping for," he measured Aron up quickly. He was already physically powerful thanks to his conditioning - his armor gave him good resistance against most attacks, and once he built up speed his charges could be devastating. Right now he was only good for straight lines, however. But Magnet Rise (or at least the skills resulting from mastering it) might open up all sorts of possibilities. "If he can learn to maintain it for longer…"

Wattson chuckled again. "You'll have another monster on your team," he said, full of good cheer. The Gym Leader took a moment to admire Oz and reached out a large, callused hand. "Speaking of which… may I?"

He looked to Oz, who had unplugged her ears now that Aron was done with his snack (and had wandered off to sniff around the battlefield for anything else interesting he might find) and nodded after a moment. Her tails swished, spraying sparks with each movement, but she stilled as Wattson moved closer to inspect her.

"Excellent. Excellent!" Wattson clapped his hands together and let out another roar of laughter. Ash couldn't help but smile along with the cheerful man. He had circled around Oz to examine her shaggy fur, cordlike tails, and powerful muscles that flexed beneath her sparking coat. "Impressive size, exceptional capacity, and lovely fur! You're quite the beauty, Ms. Oz."

She whirred at the compliment, baring her blunt teeth. It seemed like she was in total agreement.

Ash certainly was.

Wattson circled back around to face them. Both his hands were stuffed into his pockets and something beyond good humor and boundless cheer fell over him: the competitive spirit every good trainer had in spades. "I don't know about you, but I'm positively amped to see what you can do!" He directed at Oz. "My old friends would never forgive me if I didn't give them a shot at you!"

A deep whirr, like the guttural hum of a generator, burst from Oz's coat as the sharp tang of ozone filled the air. Ash breathed deep until it filled his lungs. Lightning filled him, and the world slowed to a crawl. "We're ready!"

"Excellent! Let's get this show on the road!" Wattson jogged to the other side of the battlefield with deceptive speed while Ash and Oz strode over to the trainer box closest to them. "How would you like to do this? Single battle? Double?"

He didn't hesitate. "Single," Ash said. Oz had fought plenty of strong opponents during their weeks at the Plateau, but she hadn't had a chance to face down a strong electric-type since those first days of her evolution against Surge. "You ready?"

Oz's heavy hands curled into fists, then crackled with blinding electricity. She pressed her fists together, and a thunderclap burst forth to rattle Ash's bones.

Ash would take that as a yes.

"Aron! Over here!" He said. Ash snorted as his friend quickly rushed over to plop next to Ash's feet as fast as his stubby legs would take him. "Let's cheer Oz on, okay?"

A flash of light caught his eye and he felt his heart pound as one of Wattson's most famous pokemon appeared on the opposite side of the field: Manectric. The canine pawed at the earth with its blunt nails and bared its fangs at Oz as its pale mane crackled.

He also noted Manectric's stomach bulged a little more than he'd last seen it in an old video. Manectric certainly didn't miss any meals. Ash knew it had been an integral part of Wattson's team for decades now, but it seemed Manectric was enjoying their partial retirement as much as the man himself.

That didn't mean it would be any less of a threat, though.

A Grumpig waddled out to rest next to the sidelines with two of its kin for support. Its black pearls pulsed with an inner light for just a moment as a gruff, domineering voice echoed within Ash's skull.

Begin!

Manectric stretched for a moment, briefly yawning, then paced as it analyzed Oz. Wattson was saying something to it, but kept his voice too low for Ash to hear.

"Fire off a weak Thunderbolt," Ash ordered. "Let's test its resistance."

Oz nodded, tails flickering, and punched forward - as she did, a thin lance of electricity blasted off her fist to land against Manetric. It easily absorbed the Thunderbolt, stretched again, and began angling itself closer. Every step was graceful and measured, though beneath its thin layer of fat Ash could see its muscles bulging with each movement.

Manetric wasn't vulnerable to electric-type attacks, then. No surprise there. It had literal decades of experience fighting other electric-types. Something like Lightning Bolt would have enough raw power and concussive force to deal some serious damage, but that would exhaust Oz if she had to keep it up. Her stamina was much, much better now, but that didn't mean they could afford to waste energy against a seasoned opponent like Wattson and his Manetric.

Before Ash could call out their next move, Manetric made it for them. It howled, a deafening roar that sent thrills of excitement pumping through Ash and Oz both, and its eyes flashed an electric blue that beckoned forth images of dancing lightning in black storm clouds. The crackling of its fur steadied for a moment as an ephemeral second skin of smooth psychic power layered over Manetric.

Agility.

"Steady!" Ash barked as Manetric shot forth with deceptive speed. Its generous belly didn't slow it down a bit as it shot forward like a bolt of lightning. Oz didn't even try keeping up with it - his friend was by no means slow, but her added bulk had taken off some of her agility. She could move when she needed to, but keeping up with a nimble opponent wasn't playing to her strengths. "Defense."

Oz's muscular shoulders tensed. Her tails thrashed, spitting showers of glowing sparks, and electricity danced between her antennae. Manetric ran circles around her almost lazily, appearing more as if it was taking long, easy strides rather than sprinting at a breakneck pace.

Manetric had pulled this off a thousand times before, and would do so a thousand times again.

Neither combatant would be felled by electricity. They'd entered this game at a mutual disadvantage, but Manetric and Wattson had known that before it had even started. Manetric opened with a searing gout of orange flame as it came to a momentary stop, bracing itself against the packed dirt to change direction.

The Flamethrower bled plumes of greasy black smoke as it blazed forth, igniting eagerly to devour Oz whole. She waited motionless as it grew closer and closer -

It was a nice attempt, Ash thought as Oz's Light Screen easily absorbed the Flamethrower, but it was too bad for Manetric that Oz's primary opponent for the last few weeks had been Infernus.

Manetric's Flamethrower might as well have been a firecracker for all the good it did.

Manetric snarled, then repeated the same tactic. On and on it went, spitting Flamethrower after Flamethrower in the hopes of wearing down Oz's defenses. Wattson egged Manetric on in the background, hollering orders one after another until Ash and Oz could barely understand them anymore.

"Steady!" He repeated. They both knew it would be useless to try and chase Manetric down. If she tried running it down with Quick Attack it would just exhaust her and leave her easy pickings. He couldn't help but think back to Michael's Jolteon's tactics back in the Conference. That said, Manetric had already abandoned trying to bait the cool-headed Electivire into that tactic after spitting flames from just a few feet away had failed. "Wait for it…"

"Now!"

At Wattson's command, Manetric reared back its head with the beginnings of a Flamethrower, its maw glowing hot and molten beneath the rippling heat -

And, just as Ash had expected, it took advantage of Oz's reaction to the pattern to rush in close. Its previous speed was nothing compared to this, a lazy stroll meant to invite complacency. He could hardly track Manetric with his eyes (though with Lightning inside him he knew where the electric-type was) but felt a deep measure of satisfaction as Manetric's fangs that were alight with psychic power shredded Oz's Light Screen with little trouble.

Manetric's eyes gleamed victorious, then crossed with confusion as Oz split into two the moment her Light Screen was broken. The canine went wide, jaws snapping into the wrong copy, but its nose twitched and it locked onto the real Oz. Manetric landed heavily, stumbling a bit, and the molten golden power of a Hyper Beam collected in its maw -

It was too late.

Oz barreled into Manetric as a black-gold blur. Her mass sent their foe sprawling, but before Manetric had even smashed into the ground one of her massive hands had already snatched Manetric up by the scruff. It was still dazed and rattled when Oz held it aloft with a single hand, then reared her other fist back. Her fist blazed with the white brilliance of a Brick Break, and just as she forced forward to smash her opponent apart the Manetric was snatched away by a flurry of red light.

A moment later it was gone, returned before the final blow could be dealt.

Silence. It was broken moments later by the deep belly laugh that Ash was growing accustomed to.

"Stupendous! Stupendous!" Wattson clapped madly. His grin was so wide it looked painful, but that didn't stop the cheerful Gym Leader. Aron perked up at the clapping and warbled happily to Oz, who looked quite satisfied with the bout. "I'm afraid it's been a while since we've had a challenger like you come through!"

"It was a good match," Ash said, and Oz rumbled her agreement. A few weeks ago it might have been closer. But with Oz's full potential unleashed… "Manetric didn't have many options."

Even through the haze of victory, there was a faint dissatisfaction. They needed to fight.

The Gym Leader waved Ash's platitudes away. "Bah! We've just let ourselves go a little. Manetric's belly is catching up to mine!" Wattson bellowed out another deep drum of laughter. "We'll have to go through the wringer. Still," he scratched at his beard, "I'm afraid the rest of my team won't be a match for someone like Oz!"

It was a compliment, but Ash and Oz both wilted.

"Unless…" Wattson's bushy eyebrows furrowed. "Well, do you promise not to tell anyone?"

"About what?"

"This!" Wattson raised his hand to expose his wedding ring. Ash's eyes were drawn to the shimmering stone set inside, and his mind was filled with images of Steven turning Metagross into even more of a monster.

His eyes lit up with the anticipation of a real fight. "I promise!"

Wattson chuckled. "Excellent. Excellent!" He held a pokeball aloft and released an old Ampharos. Its eyes narrowed at the sight of the hulking Electivire before it and the red orb on its tail pulsed so brightly that it nearly scarred Ash's eyes. It couldn't hold a candle to Zapdos' fury, though, and he held strong. "Are you ready, old friend?"

Ampharos squealed loud enough to make them all flinch, and mirth colored Wattson's eyes. "Wonderful!" With that, the stone set in his ring blazed. Light burst forth like water from a geyser, brighter than Ampharos' tail, and rainbow tendrils dug into Ampharos until the electric-type was consumed in a furious collection of reds, purples, pinks, and oranges just like Metagross had.

The unearthly power swelled, building to a peak, then vanished in a moment.

He frowned as Wattson sagged from the opposite side of the arena, drawing in ragged breath after ragged breath, but after a while the man recovered and all that was left to look at was the new Ampharos that stood proudly before him.

Despite its confident bearing before, Ampharos had carried obvious marks of age: milky eyes, little tufts of bright yellow fur that never wanted to stay flat, a posture with the faintest hints of sag, and little grey flecks of fur all over.

Now it appeared as it once had in its prime. Ampharos stood straight and unbent. Billowing clouds of fine white wool burst from its skull and tail, building up charge with every movement. The wool around its tail was embedded with countless little red orbs just like those on its tail, and shone with brilliant light as electricity surged from the new Ampharos.

"Are you ready?" Ash directed to Oz. She cracked her knuckles, baring her teeth, and he knew it was on.

Begin.

Tension bled into Grumpig's harsh telepathic words. It knew the clash it was about to witness.

"Close the distance!" He bit out just a moment faster than Wattson. Oz wasted not a moment - she didn't bother with her standard tactic of unleashing a Flash. Ampharos' eyes were well-adapted to resisting intense light.

No, she shot forth in a blurred Quick Attack. Wind whipped wildly around Oz as she bore down on the woolly Ampharos in the span of a single second - Ash wasn't sure what benefits came from the Mega Evolution, but he doubted that it would be any more vulnerable to raw electricity.

Ampharos seemed keen to prove that assumption correct.

It bleated furiously (much more intimidating than it sounded) and reared its head back even as Oz closed in. Ash shouted a warning, but Oz was on it even as a swirling sphere of familiar green-blue energy burst into existence from Ampharos' snout. The Dragon Pulse manifested spectacularly quickly and with tremendous force, and Oz only had a moment's notice to manifest a shimmering Light Screen before Ampharos unleashed the draconic attack.

He staggered backward, protected from the raw force of the detonation by the squad of Grumpig's hasty psychic interference. Ash couldn't help the smile that stretched across his face at the site of Oz forced back by the attack. It hadn't seriously harmed her, but the Light Screen was hard-pressed to stand against Ampharos' might and only blunted the damage.

After weeks of constant combat with the best the Indigo League had to offer, Ash was confident in saying Ampharos' raw power could challenge one of Will or Karen's pokemon. Maybe not for long - he wasn't sure how long it could maintain the Mega Evolution - but for now it commanded incredible strength. Each attack was a vicious hammer blow capable of shredding right through shields.

With its skill, experience, and new strength, Ash might have expected it to outcompete Oz.

Unfortunately for it, Oz was resistant to its greatest strengths.

Unfortunately for Oz, so was Ampharos.

Then again, it never hurt to check. "Thunderbolt!" Ash barked. Oz didn't hesitate to hurl off a powerful blast of crackling electricity that speared into Ampharos, only for it to utterly shrug it off.

Whereas most electric-types were able to absorb or manipulate excess electricity away from their bodies, Ampharos just took it. The creature barely reacted beyond a brief grunt. Some of the electricity had gotten through, but its resistance was more than just the natural abilities of an electric-type...

"Keep it up!" Ash raised his voice to be heard above the din of combat as Ampharos fired off a second Dragon Pulse. Oz was prepared this time, however, and avoided wasting the energy on another Protect with a quick leap - it left her vulnerable to Ampharos, but she spat off a Thunderbolt to stymie Ampharos. The attack didn't so much as scratch Ampharos, but it still bought a moment's respite for Oz to come crashing down. "Quick Attack!"

Before Oz could execute his command, Ampharos bleated again, eyes harsh and cold, and its gems dimmed. A faint pulse of nausea leapt through Ash as a foul presence washed through them. The wizened old Ampharos' eyes lost their sheen and went grey and flat as storm clouds as what he knew now as Distortion bled from its crackling form.

A deceptively small orb of not burst from its mouth. It erupted with incredible speed, though at least it didn't make Ash sick to look at like Karen's techniques did. The ghastly orb wasn't pleasant by any means, but it was just a shade of what it could have been.

"Protect!"

Oz already had the same idea. Her eyes were awash with red-hot fury that wouldn't be out of place on Infernus' snarling visage. She raised her thick arms as if bracing them, then manifested the soft green glow of Protect to shield herself from the nauseating Confuse Ray.

And as she erected the aegis, the Confuse Ray struck. Its foul power seemed to wash over the Protect like a black-purple miasma and greedily gnawed at it. A thrum of concern filled him as the unearthly powers of the Confuse Ray ate tiny holes in the shield…

Then it was gone, annihilated by its contact with reality.

Relief filled him (and Oz too, he knew) in an instant. Even the empowered Ampharos' Confuse Ray had nothing on the meanest of Karen's team, probably just enough to stun Oz or leave her sick. After experiencing the terrifying ability of a Dark Master over...and over...and over again, this was a joke.

It sure felt good to stop it in its tracks, though. A few weeks ago, the Confuse Ray might have spelt Oz's doom, or at least given Ampharos an opening to land a few powerful blows.

Now?

Now Oz burst forth with a wild howl. She appeared absolutely beastly as she rushed Ampharos in a rush of black-gold fury. Electricity burst from her shaggy fur even as sparks sprayed from her flailing tails - Ampharos took a step back at the sight of her, but steadied itself as resolve filled its every muscle.

"Low Kick!"

Oz struck out with one of her powerful legs the moment she closed the distance. Ampharos cried out as its legs were kicked out from under it, shattering its foundation and sending the creature crashing to the hard floor of the battlefield.

His friend lashed out with a fist, only to be sent back coughing as Ampharos' tail twitched and sent out thick globs of sticky cotton that clung to Oz's fur. It stretched and grew tauter with every movement, the Cotton Spores heavily restricting Oz's movement. She snarled, lashing forth with a flaming fist that spewed smoke in thick streaks, but Ampharos pulled away. Most of the Cotton Spores burst into flame and seared her, but she'd dealt with worse every time she fought Infernus.

Her aggression cost her.

Ampharos squealed as yet another Dragon Pulse slammed into Oz, the fearsome detonation going off in a green flash and thunderclap that left Ash's ears ringing. The worst was shielded against by another Light Screen, but she flew backwards and landed heavily to Ash's desperate calls and Wattson's uproarious laughter.

"Good man! Now...Outrage!"

Their foe's eyes blazed red, pulsing with the sanguine light as though every blood vessel in Ampharos' eyes had burst at once. Its muscles bulged as draconic fury pounded through its skull and wreathed it in a flickering aura that danced like flame. Ampharos' mane billowed outward, kicked out by the aura, and Ash only had a moment to admire the sight before it attacked.

Something ate at him. The enhanced electrical resistance, the new emphasis on draconic techniques, the affinity for the destructive power. It all painted a dangerous picture, and he had to wonder just how significant the changes of Mega Evolution could be.

Then Ampharos shot forth, and Cynthia's words cut to the forefront of his thoughts.

Why did he take such pleasure in the battle turning against him?

In his heart he already knew the answers. Because he loved the thrill of a good fight. Because it pushed him and his team farther than they could push themselves. Because it meant he might lose.

Because it was fun.

"Protect!" He commanded. Ash's command jerked Oz out of her stupor. The adrenaline pumped through her veins, electricity surged around her, and she howled her challenge even as she erected the protective barrier not a moment too soon: Ampharos smashed into it with a roar like the crack of lightning even as the rebounding force shoved it back.

Oz barely scrambled to her feet in time to plant herself firmly in the face of Ampharos' next charge - the electric-type's gems pulsed brilliantly as power blazed about it, and electricity lashed like whips at the battlefield around it. The dirt was pockmarked with black scars and tiny pits where each bolt landed.

Ampharos bowled into Oz and both went tumbling back. "Grapple it! Keep Ampharos pinned!" Ash's voice bit out, piercing her ears even amidst the struggle. Ampharos tried to stand up and make another charge against the downed Electivire, but it was here that Oz's evolution truly came in handy.

Another pokemon, even most electric-types, would be stunned and overcome with the power bursting from Ampharos' every hair. The electricity was overwhelming, calling to Ash even from this distance. Its muscles were obviously amplified by the Mega Evolution and Outrage, but Ampharos just wasn't built for brawling. Charging, sure. Strikes, yes.

Grappling in the dirt against a vastly heavier, stronger opponent?

Even Ampharos' wrathful draconic aura wouldn't help it here.

Oz weathered the electricity (even if it took a toll on her despite her increased capacity), took the punches (but earned a bloody nose for her trouble), and never, ever let go. It took all her strength to subdue the bucking and bleating Ampharos, muscles straining beneath the demands, and even with her tails helpfully wrapped around Ampharos' limbs to reduce its leverage, she nearly lost her quarry several times.

Ampharos tried every dirty trick in the book to escape and continue the fight. It smashed its head into Oz's face several times, nearly breaking her grip twice, but it was too maddened by Outrage to think. In its right mind and listening to Wattson's frantic commands, it would have just manifested a Confuse Ray or blasted a point blank Dragon Pulse to separate them.

Not in its frenzied state, though. Raw physical power would never win out, and it was tiring quickly.

It was only when Oz took a page from Infernus' book that the fight truly ended, though. As soon as Ampharos' vain struggles were flagging, she pressed onward. Ash grinned madly as her fists burst into roaring flame as she subdued the mighty Ampharos. The heat wouldn't do much to it normally (not with the draconic qualities it seemed to have taken on), but with everything else it sealed the battle.

After nearly a moment of their exhausting bout, Wattson recalled Ampharos. A moment later he was teleported just next to Ash, scratching his chin and beaming. Oz laid limp, not unconscious but utterly drained by her injuries, the overpowering bursts of electricity that had wracked her form, and simple fatigue.

"She's something special!" Wattson laughed madly. His hands were stuffed deep in his pockets as he admired Oz. "We're no Steven Stone and Metagross, but Gallo and I are quite the pair ourselves."

"Gallo," Ash tested the Ampharos' name, "He fought hard. Plenty of my team would have had a hard time," he admitted. Most just weren't equipped to deal with the sheer amount of electricity thrown around by the powerful Ampharos. "Oz and Gallo canceled each other out. She didn't have an easy time of it."

Wattson's smile widened. "She didn't," he sent a look to where she still laid panting on the battlefield. "Gallo's electricity did a number on her. He still has it!"

"I didn't expect that," Ash admitted, though he had to hide a snort as Aron sprinted over to lick at Oz. Hopefully he didn't get a nasty shock. He peered over at Wattson. "She's not immune, but Gallo got right through it."

Wattson looked particularly pleased at that. "He has his ways. Old boy packs a good punch for fifty-nine. He's still got a decade or two left too."

Ash snorted. "Maybe more than that if he can keep that up."

The Gym Leader's radiant smile dimmed somewhat. "I hope so," he sighed, then jerked to attention as Oz lumbered to her feet and limped over. Her fur was scarred and ripped, seared by her own Fire Punches as well as Ampharos' vicious attacks, and a trickle of blood still dripped from her broken nose. He'd have to spend some time cleaning her up later.

And despite her beaten, bloodied form, Oz had never looked happier. She carried Aron's dense little body with ease, hefting the wriggling steel-type into the cradle of her elbow. Her tails were proud and erect behind her, sparking gently as they swayed slightly with each step.

"You did it," Ash's smile stretched wider. She whirred proudly - smugly, even. "How does it feel?"

It only took a glimpse of the earnest, well-earned pride shining from his friend to know the answer. She clutched Aron tighter even as she beamed at Ash, clenching her other mighty hand into a fist.

Their eyes met, and Ash knew her satisfaction as his own. The sweet rewards of a hard-fought battle. The relief at proving that she was strong. The relief in facing a great foe and conquering it.

Oz looked away as two newcomers entered the ring and the vibrant emotions faded away. He shook himself free of them, then perked up at the sight of a slender silver-haired man and Sophia's painfully bright cheer as she sprung into the Gym.

"We thought we might find you here," Steven took in the wreckage with something resembling satisfaction. "I see you've already wrapped things up."

"The kid's a natural!" Wattson clapped him on the back, though gently enough that it didn't nearly send him flying like Lance's did. He still grunted, though Oz reached out to steady him. The Gym Leader sent him a concerned glance as electricity danced through his system, but he didn't even notice it beyond a tiny surge of energy. "And Ms. Oz is a real beauty! She left Gallo seeing stars."

Sophia laughed and tossed her long green hair. "That grumpy old man needs to be knocked down a peg every now and then," she said to Oz. "We'll have to treat you tonight! My Wattson makes the most wonderful -"

It left him feeling a bit guilty, but Ash tuned Sophia out as she listed off all the Gym Leader's talents and the two made dopey eyes at each other. Still, Oz seemed pleased with the arrangement. That meant Ash was happy.

As for Aron...well, he was always happy.

"Well, why don't we head back?" Steven smoothly cut in before either one of the couple could go on for too long. "It'll be nice to get your opinion on Oz's development, Wattson. I haven't had the chance to observe her yet…"

XX

The next morning found them all just north of Mauville. It was still grey and dull, colors muted and flat without the sun present to draw out their richest hues. Mist still hung over the grass like a cool blanket and only the faintest streaks of red and gold peeked over the horizon in the east.

He could still spy the sophisticated white-walled complex of classy stores, fine dining, and premier apartments that Wattson had developed over the last decades even from this distance. It was a brilliant contrast to the otherwise dull, mundane high-rises and office buildings that dominated the Mauville skyline. Outside of Wattson's innovations it remained a rather average city.

At least they'd been able to grab a quick breakfast with Wattson and Sophia before leaving. He didn't mind trainer meals, but Ash also wouldn't say no to free food. They'd had to keep it quick, but it still left Ash a little disappointed that they wouldn't be able to live in Mauville for the original week. And after they'd eaten it had all been a blur as the rest of them split off from Sophia.

She had some sort of appointment with someone from LaRousse City, with a few more arranged with a variety of investors from Rustboro and Lilycove who were interested in expanding their operations into Mauville.

It was a booming city, one that was likely to overtake the other urban centers of Hoenn over the next few decades. Its convenient location meant all sorts of people were likely to travel through, and Wattson's focus on accelerating Mauville into the new millennium attracted all sorts of far-sighted individuals.

Wattson and Sophia weren't quite as excited about these particular investors as he'd have expected, but he just chalked it up to being early in the morning. He'd say the same for Steven, but it was hard enough to read the Steel Master normally.

"Stay safe out there, you hear?" Wattson bellowed out a laugh. A few trainers passing by on the road were startled, then scurried along when they saw it was Wattson and his Magnezone. Manetric and Ampharos were still at the Pokemon Center, unfortunately. Ash was just glad Oz's injuries were largely superficial. "Don't let old Steven Stone drag you into trouble."

Ash was pretty sure Wattson was joking, but Steven still had the decency to look mildly abashed.

He hadn't had quite enough time with Wattson to feel comfortable with him - nowhere near the comfort he had with Pryce, Morty, or Surge - but he still offered the man a small smile and a dip of his head. "It's been nice meeting you."

"Indeed! Indeed," Wattson chortled. Magnezone's eyes listed aimlessly to the left, utterly disinterested in the happenings of the well-worn path. "Perhaps you'll come by again one day."

Ash's lips curled up. "Maybe I will."

"And you! Steven Stone, the second Ever Grande Champion!" Wattson shoved a large finger into Steven's chest. "I expect you to visit again soon. Sophia and I need your slick, big city business savvy to keep our heads straight with all this new money coming in."

Steven reddened and did some strange cross between a nod and shrug, then threw in a croaking sound for good measure. The Gym Leader chortled and clapped him on the shoulder. "Good man, Mr. Stone!" Wattson bounced around to look at Ash again. "Give Ms. Oz and Mr. Aron my regards! It'll be a fine day when they master those techniques."

He appreciated that Wattson said when, not if.

"Well," Steven coughed as a small group of trainers stopped nearby to gawk at the group. One had a camera and surreptitiously (well, the guy thought so, anyways) snapped a few pictures as their Mankey tugged at the boy's long blonde hair. "I suppose we'd best be off. It's been a pleasure."

"Go on!" Wattson waved them off with a laugh. "I'd best be getting back to the Gym anyways. I've got quite a few challengers waiting on me. Apparently one of my overly enthusiastic trainers decided to share the footage from our battle with a few friends," he looked displeased for the first time since Ash had met him. "I'd best sort the whole mess out."

Ash dipped his head, Steven finished his farewells, and with a wave they plodded down the road. Ahead of them laid the endless green plains of central Hoenn, and beyond that the faintest shadows of the cluster of mountains which sprawled out around Mt. Chimney.

He paused only to release Sneasel, Plume, and Nidoking. Plume was a speck in the sky in no time at all. She ascended thousands of feet higher than Skarmory, who shimmered like a star as rays of sunlight scattered off its steely wings.

Nidoking's nostrils flared and he snorted at Steven, whose lips twisted up into a half-smile. The poison-type's eyes squeezed shut as the sweet air laced with the aroma of grass, countless flowers, and the long stretches of meadows and fields that began almost as soon as Mauville ended.

"We're ready."

"Excellent," Steven nodded. His long fingers almost reached for Metagross' pokeball, but hesitated. In the end, he didn't release anything. Ash supposed they had attracted enough attention without any of Steven team adding fuel to the flame. "Well, let's be off. It will be a long journey."

A thrill of anticipation raced through his chest as he looked at the plain road which shot out in a straight line to the north. It was full of traffic even in the early morning, though Ash noted there were quite a few more trainers rushing in than leaving at this hour.

No teleportation, no flight. Just Ash, his friends, and Steven trekking their way to Lavaridge.

This was how it was supposed to be.

XX

North of Mauville was hardly the most hospitable area of Hoenn. It shifted into an uneven, hilly landscape composed largely of rocky ledges, foothills, and deep valleys within just two days. They were already venturing into the very base of the craggy mountains which dominated the western reaches of Hoenn. Mt. Chimney rose high above them all, belching smoke and ash like the maw of an enormous beast, though it was so distant that all Ash could see was the faintest plume of soot billowing forth on the horizon.

"Mt. Chimney's going off."

Steven cast a quick glance up at the distant sky. His eyes crinkled even as Claydol floated alongside him. "Yes, it's been active for the last few months. There have been frequent seismic events. Still quite minor, but slowly increasing in intensity. It's been quite fascinating, honestly!"

I doubt the locals agree.

"Don't worry so much," Steven waved off Claydol's concerns. "Psychics will keep us updated. It hasn't caused any serious issues so far. No one's been displaced, and it's absolutely historic." He hesitated. "Admittedly, the recent migration of Absol to central Hoenn is somewhat concerning, but we have systems that will give us forewarning of anything major."

Ash nodded along, though in truth he found himself distracted. Ever since they'd left Mauville he couldn't fight the little knot of anxiety building up in his gut. It wasn't quite overpowering, but it felt as if another grain of tension was piled onto the rest with every step north he took, looming like an executioner's axe over his neck.

The frustrating part was that he shouldn't feel this way. What was there to be worried about? Lavaridge sounded like a beautiful town, and Steven had shared enough stories about his old mentor Fino Moore that Ash was more intrigued by the prospect of meeting the man than nervous.

But the tension just kept mounting. Step after step until it had built up to a point that was much, much more difficult to ignore.

He hadn't shared it with Steven. Even the prospect left his stomach rolling. Steven was unflappable and calm as Suicune. Mentioning his anxiety - anxiety that was here for no good reason at that - to his teacher held no appeal for him.

"We'll be steering clear of the Arid Zone," Steven commented. It thankfully snatched Ash from his troubled thoughts. "There are a few sandstorms rolling through. Hiking through these hills is a chore as we get closer to Lavaridge. Normally I cut through the Arid Zone on my way. Sand is coarse and irritating, but nothing Metagross can't handle. Claydol always enjoys our visits."

"I wouldn't mind swinging through at some point," Ash said. "I've never been to a desert before," he scratched his chin thoughtfully. "How did it even get here? There's nothing like it anywhere else in Hoenn."

Steven's eyes lit up. "I'm glad you asked!"

Claydol's voice rang in his mind.

Oh dear. You've done it now. Would it be rude if I returned to my pokeball?

He barely hid a snort as Steven began. "It's a rather unusual geographical development," Steven admitted. "Rain shadows are a normal occurrence, of course, and that's largely what it is. Moisture swept in from the west coast is blocked by the Chimney mountain range, which has resulted in the Arid Zone. Smaller mountains on the eastern side of the Arid Zone block rain from that direction as well. The result is an extremely dry desert biome which has a unique assortment of minerals, rock formations, and pokemon."

"So what's unusual? Everything sounds pretty standard so far." Ash commented as he stepped over a small tree trunk that had fallen into the trail. A flicker of movement on a high ridge to his left caught his attention; he frowned at the sight of a white-furred figure looming over the road. He'd caught sight of quite a few Absol on their journey so far. Apparently they'd started migrating towards Mt. Chimney over the last few days.

Maybe that news was responsible for his anxiety? Absol were sensitive to things like seismic events. It was worth a thought, but Ash knew in his bones that it wasn't the answer.

"It's less the existence of the Arid Zone, and more the fascinating circumstances behind it. Surviving records from Volumo indicate the Arid Zone's existence and that of the Vesto culture that dominated it, but geological evidence suggests a rapid expansion in the last thousand years. Devon's research indicates that the rate of desertification has picked up by three to four percent per year in the last decade," Steven's eyes gleamed brighter than ever, though he was stumbling over his words by the end and had to take a moment to cough.

"The mountains are also growing at an exponential rate relative to normal mountains. Some in the Chimney range grow more than two feet a year, and have maintained that rate for centuries! On average, mountains increase in height less than an inch per year. It's absolutely unique, and combined with the recent geological activity it points to groundbreaking discoveries just waiting to be made."

Ash nodded along. It seemed simple enough so far. "Any idea what causes it?"

Steven deflated, though still spoke more passionately than Ash had ever heard him. "Well, yes, but nothing concrete. Hoenn lays over a massive hotspot and has a history of volcanic eruptions, but aside from those general trends we haven't been able to pick out anything unique enough to warrant this incredible growth. Even standard volcanic conditions don't present anything like this."

His face loosened just a tad. "I'll be collecting samples and conducting my own research while we train in Forina, however. Metagross is quite excited to investigate the area." Steven frowned. "Of course, the researchers investigating the Legends fear that it might be related to Moltres' recent activity. We have no evidence to support this, however."

Ash blinked. That wasn't exactly a word he'd easily apply to Metagross. Most of his experiences had revealed nothing more than a dispassionate mind like a steel trap. Even battle seemed more of a task for it than anything capable of eliciting true interest. Still, if it was mentally connected to Steven then he could see how there might be some overlap.

As for the Moltres theory...well, he might have to run some tests of his own when they reached Mt. Chimney.

"So the people there don't have anything to worry about, right?"

"Not that we know of. Mt. Chimney is an active volcano, but it tends to have regular, controlled eruptions. That's not a given, of course, but our readings don't suggest any changes on that front."

He nodded, satisfied. As long as he didn't have to worry about the volcano going off while they trained under it..

Steven's earlier words dragged his attention, however. "Forina," the name rolled off his tongue pleasantly. "That's that place with all the rocky spires, right? Southwest of Mt. Chimney?"

"Correct," Steven seemed pleasantly surprised. A look of fondness washed over his pale features and took years off him. "It's one of my favorite training grounds. The landscape is beautiful there, and the sandstone pillars are incredible to behold. Fino and I spent a lot of time there when I was a young trainer."

Ash grinned. "I can't wait to see it."

"You'll like it," his teacher said firmly. "We'll be stopping in Lavaridge first, of course. We'll need to restock. I'd also like you to meet Fino."

Fire stoked the heat in his blood and the pounding of his heart. His hand reached down to Infernus' pokeball, which stirred at the brush of his fingertips. "We'll end up fighting him sooner or later."

"Agreed," Steven chuckled. "You need more experience facing Masters. No doubt your Magmortar will draw his eye."

"So he's still a Fire Master?" Ash pressed hastily. Even more excitement bloomed now and his words came out faster and faster. "Not like... not like Blaine?" He measured his words carefully. Blaine's reputation was undaunted, but there was no denying he'd fallen far from his peak as the Fire Master of Indigo.

Steven paused mid-step. "No. Not like Blaine."

The vehemence left Ash blinking, but he was quick to catch back up to Steven's side. "So what's his specialty? Lance has his hit-and-run, you focus on defense, Cynthia…" Ash trailed off, uncertain how he wanted to finish that statement.

In the end Steven finished it for him. "Is frighteningly good at anything she touches?"

"Yeah. That."

"All Masters tend to specialize. Many won't be recognized by their fellow Masters until they haven't just developed a command over the type, but have added to it. Creation is the highest stage of learning," Steven fell into his role as a teacher all too easily, especially when he had such a rapt listener. "Fino chose not one, but two areas to focus his mastery."

Steven had his whole attention now. "And what are they?"

"Opposite ends of the fire-type: overwhelming firepower, and laser-tight focus. Most tend to view them as disparate, yet Fino saw the underlying unity and the ways in which each style could blend into the other," Steven coughed as he realized he'd veered off track. "My apologies. He grew up in the shadow of Mt. Chimney, and began to model his team after the volcano itself. Immense destructive capabilities, secondary effects, and explosive force. Experience tempered him and led his team to embrace a more refined approach. Not just an eruption, but one capable of mimicking the intensity of a plasma cutter."

Ash nodded along, his own experiences filling in Steven's words. It was easy to imagine Infernus as taking the volcanic approach now, even if he'd taken steps to focus and hone that power to sear away any waste or inefficiencies. They had a long way to go on that front, however, but in the end he knew they'd master the 'plasma cutter' approach just as Steven's old master had.

Still, neither quite sat right with him. Infernus was more than a volcano or torch. His ambitions weren't so humble. No, all he could think of now was Infernus glowing too brightly for the eye to bear, Infernus erupting with supernova force, Infernus sailing through the sky like a comet…

Infernus wouldn't be a volcano or a plasma cutter.

He was born to be a star.

"Now," Steven continued, blind to the whirring gears in Ash's mind, "I wouldn't mind discussing a few more of his techniques and teammates in the meantime. I'd hate to give you an advantage, but I have no doubts you'll pull his recorded battles tonight regardless…"

Ash smiled as they began the climb up yet another steep hill.

Steven knew him too well.

XX

For a week they climbed endless hills and mountains, navigated mountain passes, and found themselves giving other trainers a wide berth when possible. Ash had taken on most challengers, but a few lucky rookies found themselves facing down Steven Stone himself. He didn't think it was a coincidence that most of those young trainers tended to have a Geodude, Aron, or Nosepass tagging along.

Steven's discomfort was obvious, but at the same time Ash was able to detect a kernel of satisfaction when he sent the trainers along with a few nuggets of wisdom and a Potion or two. To be honest, he thought the whole experience brought back fond memories.

It was dirty, difficult traveling and Ash wouldn't have traded it for anything in the world. Mt. Chimney's vast plumes of ash marked a constant for them to travel towards, and setting off after it each morning (several hours after Ash and his team had woken up for some predawn training) proved satisfying.

Watching it steadily progress and grow larger and more daunting only left him more eager to live in its shadow.

And through it all, he felt nothing from Fire. A faint growth, like a sluggish heartbeat, but if anything it felt muted. Almost as if the Feather felt the same nauseating anxiety as Ash did.

Still, it was difficult to shake the swelling fear that lived deep-seated in his gut. He'd grown accustomed to it, but sometimes he could swear the land itself was breathing like a slumbering beast. It wasn't something he could hear, exactly, but something he knew. At times (usually when Steven was lecturing) he couldn't fight the urge to reach down and hold his hand to the warm earth just to make sure it wasn't rising and falling.

So far it hadn't. It still wasn't quite enough to convince Ash that he was just being paranoid.

Paranoia wasn't always unreasonable, though.

"Lovely, isn't it?" Steven smiled as they passed through central Lavaridge. Ash shook himself out of his morbid thoughts and offered a nod to Steven. It was nice. He took a moment to assess their surroundings. A draw on Lightning let him take it all in within a second, though it took some unexpected effort to actually channel the power.

That left him frowning.

Standard town. More colorful than most towns in Kanto for sure, though. Most of the shops and stalls lining the streets were full of vibrant reds and oranges and yellows which contrasted nicely to the earthy tones of the homes and buildings behind them. There were a few tall office buildings towards the downtown area in the distance, but for the most part buildings were built low and sturdy.

His eyes landed on a particular sign outside an open, warm shop that was labeled 'Jagged Pass Adventures: Kid-friendly Training Camp!' along with rates, brief descriptions of activities and locations they'd see, and a few other details he didn't care to dissect. Ash just smiled and moved on as he thought back to the camp Professor Oak had run a few years back.

What really dragged his attention were the countless restaurants, diners, and patios they passed. Most was standard fare for Hoenn, but the sheer choice was still dizzying: fancy pasta restaurants offering everything from a dozen dishes he couldn't pronounce and fine wines produced in Lavaridge's southern territories to plain old spaghetti, others with a dozen customers dining out front eating only a variety of salads, and even one specializing in Kantonian cuisine.

After a long week of trainer meals, protein bars, and some hearty (albeit plain) soup that Steven provided, Ash was tempted to follow the call of his grumbling stomach and sit down. Bruiser didn't seem quite as interested, but his nostrils did flare open whenever an especially delicious aroma drifted their way.

Maybe later. They had business to attend to.

Still, all in all he actually enjoyed it. Lavaridge felt alive. The uncharacteristic chill in Indigo had kept most people indoor when he'd visited cities like Blackthorn or Lavender...although there were plenty of good reasons to stay off the streets in Lavender.

He snapped back to attention and glanced over to a straight blue stream that trickled alongside the road and divided Lavaridge in twain . It ran down from the famous Lavaridge hot springs, which drew in tens of thousands of visitors each year from Hoenn and beyond. Apparently the hot springs that welled up from the earth near Mt. Chimney was one of the main causes for Lavaridge's settlement.

Bruiser seemed just as interested. He craned his neck to take in all he could, though blinked as a young boy, perhaps six, smacked into his leg. The child scrambled back, mouthed 'wow!' at the sight of Bruiser's powerful form as the Machoke grunted an apology, then caught sight of Ash. His eyes bugged and his tiny hand went to his mother's yellow sundress. "Mama! It's Ash Ketchum!"

"That's nice, dear," the frazzled blonde woman said without looking. Her attention was focused entirely on the wailing red-faced baby in her arms, although a tiny Spoink nestled alongside the baby did its best to soothe it with tiny flashes of dancing light and soft coos. "Come along, Aldo. Mama has a lot of errands to run. If you're good I'll buy you that training magazine you've been wanting…"

The boy protested, but his mother's firm grip (and a warning flash from Spoink) whisked him away with no trouble. Bruiser watched him go with a fond look in his warm gaze, and it was that look which pushed Ash.

He offered a strained smile and a half-hearted wave before the boy was whisked off into the crowd. The boy gasped, and the last he saw of Aldo was a radiant grin.

It was a minor gesture, the barest acknowledgement, but one that meant the world to Aldo. A second of effort and the world was a slightly happier place.

And even so, it was Bruiser's approving look that filled Ash's own chest with warmth.

Of course, with so many people around it was only a matter of time before the moment was shattered.

"Lava cookies for sale!" A wrinkled old woman crowed at them, waving a small plate of wafers in their face. He took a quick glance at the small speckled orange-brown treats, then shook his head once Bruiser indicated he didn't want any. "They're delicious!" She waggled her thin white eyebrows at Steven then growled under her breath. "But not as delicious as you…"

"We'll take three!" Something like recognition sparked in Steven's eyes. He lit up at the sight of the lava cookies and was already reaching for his wallet. He didn't even notice the disturbed looks sent his way by Ash and Bruiser. For his own sanity, Ash chose to believe Steven just didn't hear the vendor over the hustle and bustle of the crowd. "Actually, how much is the whole plate?"

The old woman perked up like a Sharpedo smelling blood. "The whole plate? Oh, I couldn't! What about my other customers?" She made a big show of moaning and groaning. Steven's easy smile didn't fade, but Ash rolled his eyes. Even Bruiser huffed. "But for you, my strapping young silver-haired debonair dreamboat, I think I can make an exception. How does a hundred sound?"

She really was a Sharpedo. Her prices were just as vicious, anyways. Ash wouldn't have paid fifteen for the whole lot, and even that was pushing it. This was why he liked stopping by stores with set prices. Haggling was a pain.

Ash couldn't even believe his eyes when Steven actually forked over a few bills and traded the vendor for the full plate of hot lava cookies. He took the plate from Steven, still drowning in disbelief, and just shook his head.

Apparently haggling wasn't just an annoyance to Steven - he didn't think the former Champion had even heard of it.

"Thank you," Steven offered the Sharpedo-in-human-form a polite smile. "They smell wonderful. It's been a pleasure doing business with you, miss."

"Oh no," the vendor purred. She toyed with a lock of her frizzled white hair as she devoured Steven with her eyes. "The pleasure was all mine, Mr. Stone. I hope you enjoy my sweets."

At least Steven had the tendency to blush this time. He practically dragged Ash and Bruiser away through the streets of Lavaridge. He only paused to snag a lava cookie and pop it into his mouth. "You should both try some. They're rather good. I used to eat them all the time when I trained here."

"You realize you just got scammed, right?"

Steven stopped mid-bite. He had to admit it was nice to see the man caught off guard. "Oh, yes. Of course."

And now it was his turn. "That doesn't bother you?"

They were approaching the Lavaridge Gym now, or would be once they broke through the great mass of people and pokemon heading to and from the hot springs. The Gym was nestled nearby, laid up against one of Mt. Chimney's foothills. It was built at the end of a plain dirt path lined by great oaks, with a red roof and plain white walls.

Unremarkable, efficient, and practical. Just the way a Gym was supposed to be.

"I have my reasons."

"Okay," Ash nodded. Even he knew it wasn't convincing. "So you were scammed intentionally?"

"No!" His teacher protested, then stopped. "Hmm. I suppose that's accurate. Although it's less with intention and more so awareness. Despite what Lance may tell you from his time in Hoenn, I do know when I'm being taken advantage of."

Well, that sounded like something to pry out of Lance when he next saw him. He let it go for now. "So why?" He was genuinely curious. Ash took a moment and thought deeper. Why, why, why? "What do you get out of it."

That must have been the right question. "A few things. The vendor recognized me. She knew money was no concern. I don't mind paying more than my fair share every now and then. Overpaying on occasion has earned me a reputation for generosity."

"Or shows you can be taken advantage of." Ash had to point out. Bruiser nodded along with him.

Steven laughed as they walked the last stretch to the Gym. "That too. It's not a bad thing to be underestimated, however. If someone enters a negotiation believing you to be gullible and out-of-touch, it can play to your advantage."

It made sense, but personally Ash would rather not deal with all of that. "I get it."

His teacher hesitated for a moment. He seemed to choose his next words carefully. "I'm also aware that I have something of a reputation for being stiff. Reserved, especially compared to Champions such as Wallace or Lance," Steven admitted. "I don't mind, but it led to some unflattering depictions of me in the media during my tenure as Champion. Selectively showing vulnerability and intentionally making small errors in judgment such as back there have helped me counteract those claims to a degree."

In that moment, Ash thought a little too much of the Metagross was showing in Steven. Still, his heart went out to Steven. It didn't seem like it bothered him too much, but he couldn't even imagine having the media going after him like that. They were bad enough when they were just curious.

Just as they were about to enter the Gym, the doors flew open with a crash.

"Is that...no, it can't be! Steven Stone and Ash Ketchum?" Someone cried. Ash flinched even as Bruiser stepped in front of him and squared up. "I can't believe it!"

Thankfully there weren't any crowds of trainers waiting outside to be alerted. Lavaridge tended to be reserved for mid-season. Strong trainers would trickle in and out at will to collect the Heat Badge, but the Gym had a reputation for chewing overambitious trainers up and spitting them right back out.

No, the only ones out here were Ash, Bruiser, Steven, and the tiny group that had burst out of the Gym. He took the first of them in easily: a thin, bespectacled older man with curly grey hair. Flanking him was the fierce cream underbelly and sharp eyes of an aged Typhlosion and a red-haired girl perhaps two years older than Ash.

"It is you!" The old man cried with an easy, joking smile that reminded Ash too much of Sneasel for his liking. He clapped his hands together with a barking laugh. Typhlosion mimicked the gesture (and the laugh too), while the teenager just went red and looked vaguely embarrassed.

"Fino!" All the stiffness evaporated from Steven in an instant. He rushed forward to engulf the old man in a hug, which the Fire Master was only too happy to return. They parted soon and Steven looked to the girl next with a bright smile. "And how have you been, Flannery? It's been some time! I've heard quite a few stories about how far you've come."

Flannery's foot scuffed the concrete as she shifted awkwardly, but Ash could tell she was pleased. "I've been good, Mr. - Steven," she corrected herself. "Been busy, that's for sure. It's been an adventure getting the Gym set up!"

"And she's done a wonderful job!" Fino doted on his granddaughter in a way that reminded Ash far, far too much of his mom. He looked away. "But I've been terribly rude, haven't I?" The Fire Master smiled at Ash. "It's a pleasure to meet you, young man. My name is Fino Moore, the nominal Gym Leader here in this beautiful city."

Ash shook his hand briskly. "Ash Ketchum, and this is Bruiser." He gestured to the Machoke, who respectfully dipped his head to the older man. The flames blazing from Typhlosion's neck like a collar dimmed just a tad. Fino's statement sparked his curiosity. "Nominal Gym Leader?"

"My name's on the paperwork, and that's about it." He said breezily. Typhlosion snorted at that. "The one putting in all the sweat and tears is this young lady," Fino looked pointedly at Flannery. "Flannery, dear, you should introduce yourself to our guest."

She winced. Before he knew it, Ash's arm was being ripped out of its socket a moment later as the fire-type specialist yanked his hand up and down. "Greetings! As the acting Gym Leader of Lavaridge Town, I am honored to welcome you to my city!"

Fino bit back a sigh as Ash blinked. He drew his crushed hand back and opened and closed it just to get the blood flowing. "Happy to be here."

Flannery pulled her hand back like she'd been burnt. He was mostly sure he hadn't drawn on Fire, so Ash had to assume she was just as uncomfortable as he was.

"No need to be so formal," Fino chided gently. Flannery's gaze locked to the ground almost immediately, at least until the Fire Master's finger pushed her chin up so that she was looking him in the eyes. "Our League was founded by Drake the Dragon Master, not Ms. Glacia. We've never been a group to stand on ceremony."

The moment Fino said his piece, Flannery drew in a deep breath and turned back to Ash. "Sorry about that. Can I try again?"

He was still a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing, but nodded nonetheless.

"Hey, I'm Flannery. Nice to meet you!"

They shook hands again, but this time it didn't leave Ash feeling like Bruiser had just squeezed his hand to pulp. "I'm Ash. Nice to meet you too."

"Better," Fino said. Flannery stood taller. "Perhaps a bit too casual. Well enough for meeting Mr. Ketchum here, but if we were dealing with a more official visit you might want to strike a balance in your approach."

"Yessir!" Flannery saluted. "Gotcha. I'll do better next time."

The Fire Master smiled, then turned back to Steven. "You know how glad I am to see you, Steven. You've been run ragged as of late. I'm glad to see you looking so well," he hesitated. "You were scarce on the details. Business or pleasure?"

Steven shook his head. "A bit of both. As mentioned, we'll be training near Forina for a month or so. I wanted to make sure you didn't mind us moving in, and also to see if there was anything we could do to help out."

"Of course I don't mind you training here!" Fino scoffed. He reached up to scratch his cheek as he measured their group up. "There is something you could help us with, however."

Flannery leaned forward, eyes gleaming. "The Eruption!"

Ash's stomach sank, though an even greater part of him practically frothed at the mouth. On one hand, it sounded like a Legend. On the other, it might be a great fight. "The Eruption?"

"An impressive Torkoal specimen that lives in the area," Steven informed him. "Quite peaceful - friendly, even - but it's been known to cause accidental damage as it wanders its territory around Mt. Chimney." He looked to Fino and Flannery. "Was there another attempt to catch it?"

That drew a laugh from Fino. "Oh, no. Thank goodness! The old beauty is just stirring. I'd hoped for you to check on her," the Fire Master bit his lip. "She shouldn't be too hard to find from the air. We just can't be too careful these days…"

"Of course," Steven agreed. "We'll find her."

"Thank you," Fino said. "It's a small thing, I know, but we appreciate it. One less thing for our Gym Trainers to worry about. We'll feel better with you two around to keep an eye on things."

"Happy to help."

Fino looked rather pleased at Ash's words, then perked up. "There's the issue of payment, of course! I can't possibly ask you to take on my Gym's responsibilities without compensation. That wouldn't be fair."

Steven frowned. "You owe us nothing -"

A shake of Fino's grey head cut Steven right off. "Oh no, I won't hear it. Now for you," he measured Steven up, then tapped a storage compartment on his waist to release a massive textbook. It was easily as thick as Cynthia's books, and looked like the type that required a magnifying glass to read its text. "Luckily for you, Mr. Stone, I've planned on giving you this for ages."

The Steel Master perked up. "The eleventh edition of Exploring Hoenn's Geology? This hasn't even come out yet!"

Fino looked as happy to have given the gift as Steven was to receive it. "This old man has his ways," he chuckled, then pointed to Ash. "Since I haven't known you for...oh, sixteen years now, I'm afraid I don't have your gift picked out yet."

He cracked a smile. "That sounds reasonable."

"I thought so. Now, what can I offer you?"

There was only one thing Ash wanted.

"Battle me."

Steven chuckled.

Flannery gawked.

Typhlosion perked up.

Fino's eyebrows rose high. "Well," he offered Ash a satisfied smile. "I'd say that's well within my ability to offer. We have a good bit of work to deal with...hmm, how about I meet you in three weeks? I'll visit you in Forina."

"Can I come? I've gotta see this!" Flannery blurted out, then seemed to curl up on herself when all eyes turned to her. "If that's not a problem."

"Go ahead," Ash said distractedly, his mind already turning the situation over. Two weeks meant more time to prepare his team, but also some time for Fino to catch up on Ash's tactics. Perfect. That just meant he'd have to push harder than ever to meet the challenge. "Sounds good."

Fino and Typhlosion nodded as one. "Is three-on-three acceptable?"

Ash deflated. "Only three-on-three?"

"I'm just afraid they'll have to rewrite the maps if we use our full teams!" Fino said slyly. "I've heard quite a bit about that Magmortar of yours. I assure you that you won't be disappointed."

His fingers traced over the pokeballs on his belt. "You'll need to be ready for more than just Infernus," Ash glanced to Bruiser. His friend offered a determined nod. "I'll be waiting."

The Fire Master clapped his hands together. "Don't let Steven go soft on you, you hear?" Fino's eyes gleamed with laughter. "I won't be holding back, and I'd be so disappointed if you did."

Ash's smile widened to the point it ached. "That won't be a problem."

Fino measured him up. "I didn't think it would be."

A firm cough interrupted them.

"If you two are quite done," Steven drawled, "I'm afraid that we'll have to get going. We have a lot of supplies to stock up on."

The fierce glint in the Fire Master's gaze faded. "Oh, very well. Flannery and I need to prepare for the next bout of challengers anyways. Her last challenger was quite inconsiderate and left all sorts of holes in our arena."

"How rude of them."

"Well, enjoy your stay in Forina! We'll see you soon."

With those ominous words, Fino, Flannery, and Typhlosion all retreated into the Gym. The last thing he heard was from Flannery. "He's not really going to battle you, is he?"

Steven seemed quite pleased with how things went. He checked the time on his next-gen PokeNav. "We'd best be off. Every second wasted buying supplies is one less second you have to prepare for -"

"Let's go."

The former Champion chuckled, then followed Ash and Bruiser as they strode back towards the town center. All thoughts of fancy city food were thrown behind them.

They had a battle to prepare for.

A/N: And that's that! This chapter took a bit longer than expected. I spent the first few weeks of January working on my original novel, which made switching back to Traveler a bit difficult! This was supposed to be released on Monday, but unfortunately severe winter weather and power issues pushed it back a few days.

Anyways, I hope you enjoyed the chapter and our return to the Hoenn region! There was a lot of set-up, but things will be moving quickly as we jump back into Hoenn. I'm very excited to get through next chapter and beyond!

I'd love to see your thoughts in a review!

If you are interested in joining the Traveler Discord, please go to m on. There's a free link there that will allow you to join.