Night has fallen in Rustboro city, and after the excitement of exploring a new town had died down, Ash and Co retire to their rented rooms for the night to rest up for a long day of... school tomorrow?
"I wonder what's going to be in that battling class," Ash wonders aloud, kicking his shoes off and flopping back onto the fluffy hotel bed with a relaxed sigh. Pikachu hops up to rest beside him with a content "Pika..." and a smile.
At the other bed, Brock lays out his sleeping clothes and carefully sorts through his bag. Lotad and Forretress' pokeballs sitting by his backpack. "Hard to say, Ash." The older teen mulls over his next words. "Different regions have different styles. Kanto experts have always been big on straightforward power, and Johto is much the same since they're neighbors. I have no idea how high-level Hoenn trainers like to battle."
Ash hums in thought and glances at the old CRT TV on the stand before the beds, a smile coming to him. "Hey, I bet we can find out a little of what we're in for," he says, reaching over Pikachu to the nightstand and grabbing the TV remote. A flick of the power button later, and the TV buzzes to life, opening on some cheesy soap opera.
There is a knock on the door as Ash cycles through the channels, and Brock pauses sorting his things to turn and open the door, revealing May, Torchic, and Max. The latter of the trio is closing their room door across the hallway.
"Hey guys, what are you up to?" May asks, stepping in with Torchic held in her arms. Max follows in shortly after.
"Trying to see if there is a League channel here," Ash answers, intently flipping through his hundredth channel. "Me and Brock were talking about that Trainer School and how different regions like to battle, and I figured what better way than to see what we're in for tomorrow than to watch a few Hoenn trainers duke it out."
Max hops up to sit next to Ash as the older boy groans when he passes the same grainy infomercial about evolution stone jewelry again. "Here, let me," Max says, taking the remote from Ash and looking it over, quickly finding a 'guide' button. A few presses later, and the TV is set to the local pokemon news channel, which is in the middle of an irritatingly upbeat advert about PokeChow. "Easy."
"Ah, oh. I knew that," Ash sheepishly rubs the back of his head and looks away.
"I've only watched dad battle a few times, but he liked to throw tricks into his battles to trip up challengers," May sits on Ash's other side. She strokes Torchic's head, electing a pleased coo from the chick that makes her smile. "I dunno if everyone battles like that, though."
The too-cheery commercial ends, and the screen cuts back to the news, drawing everyone's attention.
"Welcome back, I'm Katrina Ortega, and this is Rustboro Pokemon News, your source for local news and info," an attractive young anchorwoman behind a desk on the screen says with a wide smile. "Tonight, recent reports made by the Pokemon Rangers confirmed the felling of an ancient Evertree in the Petalburg woods, displacing a number of pokemon colonies, a Treecko colony included. Trainers in the area are advised to avoid any Treecko they encounter, as several have undergone stress evolution into Groviles and are acting in a hostile manner towards people and other pokemon." The young woman quickly flips to another page on her desk. "The Rangers are working to pacify the upset pokemon, and have had their eyes on this particular tree for some time, knowing it to be a falling risk. They ask for any information regarding the tree fall if there were anyone to witness it."
"That huge tree falling is what scattered the Treecko?" Ash asks no-one in particular, his shoulders slumping. "What rotten luck." Pikachu pats his trainer's arm with a tiny paw in consolidation.
"Now, onto our top story tonight," the anchorwoman shuffles the papers on her desk once more. "Gym Leader Roxanne says the new League year is off to a dynamic start, as many talented trainers have challenged her, including both of Professor Birch's new Lab Trainers. Professor Birch's own son, Brendan Birch, and the more mysterious Lee Henson, both battled Roxanne's true team and now have a Stone Badge to show for their incredible efforts."
Behind Katrina, a portrait of a grinning Brendan Birch is displayed, and beside that, a black portrait with a question mark is unhelpfully put up.
"Wow, I didn't think Brendan would come so far already," May comments with a blink. "He's way different from when we were kids."
Max snorts. "No comment on your boyfriend, Mr Lee? Owowowow!" The young boy quickly regrets the taunt when a fuming, red-faced May reaches out and yanks his ear.
"True team?" Ash questions aloud. Before anyone can answer, the anchorwoman continues.
"Mister Henson's battle was not televised, and the footage of the battle is the property of the Rustboro Trainer School, but Mister Birch's battle was, and what a spectacular battle it was. Here, we'll go over the battle one more time."
The newsroom fades out in favor of a video, showing the Gym, Brendan, and Roxanne from a number of angles. Ash, May, Brock, Max, Pikachu, and Torchic watch raptly.
"Not so fast. Geodude, Magnitude!"
"Hang in there, bud! Just remember our practice!"
The crowd roars.
An explosion and screams.
"Nosepass versus Mudkip, begin!"
A boulder is shattered by a headbutt, and everyone bellows in sync.
"I'm sorry, Mister Birch, but I won't drag this out. Nosepass, Rock Tomb!"
"Mudkip just evolved!" A commentator gasps. "The tables have turned!"
The crowd erupts into chanting. "Marshtomp! Marshtomp! Marshtomp!"
"Hell yeah! Now thats what I'm talking about! Marshtomp! Rush him down!"
A thunderous explosion. A battered but unbowed Marshtomp stands and roars.
"Nosepass is unable to battle! Marshtomp and Brendan Birch win! The challenger is the victor!"
Cheers drown out everything else.
The video fades and returns back to the anchorwoman, but no one in the hotel room bothers listening to her, all of them processing the battle they just witnessed.
'What was that?' Ash wonders, blinking. An unpleasant feeling he has no name for stirs in his stomach. 'That was way more intense than any of my first Gym battles. That was like a late Gym or even a League match! And personal team? What does that mean?' He looks up at Brock for an answer, but the Rock specialist is lost in thought.
"Wow..." May murmurs after a long moment. "Is... Is that normal? How extreme that was?"
"That was like watching dad battle someone," Max says, looking dumbfounded. "But I thought Roxanne was the weakest leader..."
Brock shakes his head. "Gym Leaders, at least in Kanto and Johto, and apparently Hoenn, have two teams. One is their personal team, and if their personal pokemon are too powerful, the Pokemon League gives them a weaker team of rental pokemon so new trainers have a fair chance, but..."
The former Gym Leader looks back at his younger companions with an uncharacteristically severe face. "If a Gym Leader feels a challenger would be too strong for their League team, they can use their personal pokemon. The average Gym Leader's team is usually much more powerful, ranging from above average to Elite."
"Then... when we battled back in Pewter," Ash begins, looking to Brock with a troubled expression. "Were those your pokemon?"
Brock hesitates. "Yes, they were my pokemon..."
"But..." Max leads from the sidelines.
"...But I was by far the weakest Gym Leader in Kanto, and thus was not issued a rental team," Brock reluctantly admits.
Ash's mouth opens as if to speak, but shuts with a click of his teeth. Beside him, Pikachu wears an expression of bold-faced surprise.
May takes in Ash's visage with concern. "Ash? What's the matter? Is that a good thing that it's easier?"
"After everything we've done, I was treated with kid gloves this whole time?" The young Ketchum breathes in disbelief. He looks back to Brock, hoping for some kind of reassurance, but the tanned teen just seems confused.
"Ash...Did you not know?" Brock probes, taken aback. "I...I thought you knew? Oh shoot, Ash! I'm so sorry! I would have said something if I had known! Honest!" Brock holds his hands up in a preemptive gesture of surrender. "I thought you were okay with it!"
Ash reels back as if physically struck. "Wha...Why would I be okay with that?!" He barks back in a rare moment of anger. As quick as it came, the anger is gone, replaced with hurt. "I...I thought I was making progress, that we were making progress..." He holds his head in his hands and shakes it. "Am I doing something wrong?"
"Ash," Brock starts gently. "You just started your third year as a trainer and already you ranked high in both Indigo and Silver. Higher than some people who have been trainers for a decade. That is progress. No one becomes an expert trainer in such a short time." The instant the words left Brock's mouth, he regretted them.
The younger trainer looks up, brows furrowed. "Then how did Brendan and Lee force Roxanne to take them seriously? Both of them just became trainers a few months ago."
He gets no answer.
The boy abruptly stands, swaying a bit when the sudden action hits him with a wave of vertigo. "I need some time to think..."
No one stops him when he slowly makes his way to the door, but Pikachu does hop to his trainer's shoulder without anyone, Ash included, impeding him. He and Pikachu slip out of the room without any of Ash's usual exuberance.
Sans the low whirr of the air conditioner, the hotel room is silent.
"Do we know if that Lee guy really is a new trainer?"
Both May and Brock turn to Max, who has his wide eyes glued to his PokeNav screen.
"Why do you ask that?" May questions, but inwardly, wonders the same herself.
In her lap, Torchic looks up to his trainer with an inquisitive chirp.
"Oh! You probably only met him briefly, Torchic," May replies, looking down at the young Fire-type. "Remember the trainer with the burns and the Vulpix back in Professor Birch's lab?"
Torchic furrows his brow, then recalls the person and pokemon in question with an affirmative chirp.
"Well, do you think he's a new trainer? Or that Vulpix is new to battling?"
May gets a very swift shake of Torchic's head as an answer.
Max pauses whatever is playing on the PokeNav in his hands and turns to his sister and Brock. "The news said the footage of Lee and Roxanne fighting belonged to the Trainer School, so I went to their website and found it... If Brendan is learning from him, it explains why he got so strong so fast..."
Both Brock and May peer over his shoulder as he presses 'play'.
"Corvisquire, charge up Steel Wing...and move in with Extremespeed."
It's not long before May and Brock's eyes are as wide as Max's.
Just outside in the cool Hoenn night, Ash and Pikachu peer up at the starry sky, both quiet and deep in thought.
"Have we been doing something wrong this whole time, buddy?" Ash wonders aloud, not taking his eyes off the sky.
"Pi, Ka!" Pikachu vehemently disagrees with a shake of his head.
"But all those Gym Leaders not taking us seriously, and that Zinnia lady too! She didn't think we were worth her time!" Ash grits his teeth before taking a breath and calming down. "It's just frustrating, Pikachu. I know we've gotten so far, but it still feels like we're running in place. First Gary, and now Brendan...and Lee."
Pikachu lets out a quiet whine and nuzzles his cheek to Ash's, making the boy's cheek tickle from Pikachu's resting electric current.
Ash reaches up and places a hand on Pikachu's other cheek in a facsimile of a hug. He turns his gaze down at the ground, his hat casting shadows over his eyes. "We've done so much. Two leagues, the Orange Islands, the legendary trio, Lugia, Mewtwo, Entei, Alto Mare, and everything else, but we're still no closer to the top in the long run..."
Boy and pokemon remain so for several minutes as Ash's free hand clenches tighter and tighter. Finally, Ash looks up, eyes blazing with an intensity that would make a grown Dragon-type pause. "Fine then! Challenge accepted! We'll just have to train harder and give it our all! No more second fiddle for us! I'll become a Pokemon Master no matter what!" He yells, voice echoing in the empty street.
Lee looks up from the campfire in the middle of their clearing as something jolts him to the core, his eyes jumping to Vulpix's instantly. "Love? Did you just feel fate breathe down your neck? Because I did, and I don't fuckin' care for it."