"It is an odd thing, but battles 'tween Pokémon take much longer than they did in my time," Kari said, as they walked along a forest path with a faint chill in the air. "It is, perhaps, an artefact of the times."

"What do you mean?" Ash asked, curious.

"In the days when serious battle was norm rather than exception, the goal was to render a foe incapacitated by any means – no matter whether the fight was fair or not. But I much prefer the way it is done now."

"Yeah, I can see why..." Dawn winced. "But, wait, weren't there duels and things?"

"Certainly… but most of the fighting was not duelling, and the duelling was not always an even match either."

"This is getting kind of grim," Pikachu pointed out.

"Yeah, Pikachu's right," Ash agreed. "So, uh, what-"

He paused.

"Did you hear something?"

"Yeah," Buneary agreed, lifting one of her own large ears. "It's coming from that way. Sounds like someone moving fast… it started just now, though."

"What is it – or I guess, uh… who is it?" Dawn asked.

Buneary's answer was interrupted by a crashing sound, and a teenager a little older than Ash came running out of the trees.

"Hey," he said, panting, and put his hands on his knees to recover from what had clearly been quite a sprint. "Look, do any of you guys have Pokémon? I need to deputize some help."

"Yeah, we've got Pokémon," Ash replied. "What's the problem?"

The teen looked up, actually seeing them for the first time, and blinked. "Oh, hey, aren't you Ash Ketchum? Yeah, I guess you certainly do have Pokémon – uh, anyway, what I was going to say was – I'm Kellyn, Top Rank Ranger, I don't know if you remember me, we met when..."

Kellyn blushed. "...when we thought you were stealing a Raikou… anyway! There's a problem, and I need some help with it, and I guess you're the best choice!"

"What sort of problem?" Lucario asked, then immediately held up a paw. "No, wait, don't tell me, let me guess..."

His eyes glittered an azure Aura blue. "Someone's kidnapped a Riolu. You've come to get help, from us, because the kidnappers are too dangerous for you to take on alone – they're working for the mysterious Pokémon kidnapper, Hunter J. And we're going to find this Riolu, proving who we are with a specially carved wooden figurine, and help get him home, but along the way we'll weather several attacks by J's henchmen and she'll try to incinerate us. Ash will win the trust of the Riolu and he'll go home grateful. How am I doing?"

"Well, uh..." Kellyn gave him an odd look. "Yeah, a Riolu has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers are dangerous. But it's a female Riolu, not a male, and it's definitely not Hunter J."

He held up his Styler. "It's the first thing Solana said they checked – she's still in prison, and so are all her henchmen."

"Did I get the figurine right, though?" Lucario asked.

"No, though I did get given a painting one of her friends did of her," Kellyn replied, showing it – a beautiful picture in watercolours, showing swirls of blue around a Riolu as she formed an Aura Sphere between her paws.

Lucario frowned. "That's strange. I'm usually right about things like this."

"How did they kidnap her?" Brock asked. "I thought the Lucario Kingdom was pretty protective of their children."

"I'm not sure, sorry," Kellyn said, spreading his hands. "It was a village right near the edge, though – I think."

"Actually, do they know about it?" Ash asked. "Pidgeot, can you check?"

"Wait, what do you – whoah!" Kellyn yelped, as Ash's Pidgeot emerged from her Pokéball and shot off at high speed. Wind buffeted them all, and Dawn raised her arm in front of her face.

"I forgot how fast Pidgeot accelerates..." she said. "What if the Lucario Kingdom already knows, and Kellyn is who they asked for help?"

"Then she'll just come back and say so," Ash replied, shrugging. "It's worth a try, right?"

He turned to Kellyn. "Any idea where they might have taken her?"

"Well, last news we had, they were headed east," Kellyn replied.

"I'll look," Latios volunteered.

"...okay, I really should have been ready for this kind of thing," Kellyn laughed. "Your Pokémon team is crazy..."

As he spoke, Lucario closed his eyes, and leaped to the top of a tree. There was a crunch of branches which indicated he perhaps should have done that the other way around, then he steadied himself and began scanning the area.

"Ah," he said, after a long moment. "Never mind, Latios – I see them. About a mile that way."

"Let's go, then!" Ash said, and set off at a run.

Brock held out a hand. "Ash, wait – oh, never mind. Kellyn, do you have a Pokémon you can ride on?"

"Ranger," Kellyn reminded him. "Not yet, but if there's a wild one around I'm your guy."

"It's probably best if Latios just gives you a lift," Dawn suggested. "Togekiss can handle me, and Brock's got Flygon – right?"

"I've got Zorua, too, if we need her," Brock pointed out. "Sort of an emergency measure, though."

"Can Zorua fly?" Kellyn asked, interested. "I never knew that."

"Technically she shapeshifts into something and that flies, but that's right," Brock confirmed. "Her illusions are solid, and most birdlike Pokémon just fly by physically moving air and by having wings, not by special powers."

"We should probably catch up with Ash before he gets there," Dawn pointed. "I think he might be halfway already..."

"Can one of you shut that Riolu up?" the leader of the group of thugs demanded. "Hey, boss, how long do we have to handle this thing? And how come we can't just put it in a Pokéball?"

"Pokéballs break, moron," the boss on the other end of the radio replied. "You've got the handcuffs on, right?"

"Yeah, but it's kicking us," the thug sighed. "Okay, whatever. Throw it in a bag with Stunky, that should shut it up."

There was a flash as one of the thugs sent out their Stunky, who yawned before letting off a truly hideous smell.

"Ah, come on, man!" another member of the group gagged. "In the bag, in the bag, not out of the bag!"

"I don't see how it's that bad-" Stunky's trainer began.

"You can't smell!"

"What do you think of that?" the thug asked Riolu, getting a head-shake and a groan. "Then you'd better not make any more fuss, or we will put you in a bag with that Stunky."

"Hey, uh, boss?" the final thug asked. "My Croagunk's looking nervous."

"What now-"

Croagunk promptly discovered why he was nervous, as a Bone Rush attack clonked him on the head. He went sliding backwards, then lashed out with a Vacuum Chop that knocked a branch off a tree.

"Attack!" called the trainer with a Stunky, and then all the Pokémon were sent out at once. A Skuntank, another Croagunk, two Purugly, a trio of Golbat, a Murkrow, and six Houndoom from one thug who had a theme and wasn't going to let it go.

"Is that one of those Lucario?" the Houndoom thug asked. "I heard they're really protective of-"

"Shut it!" the leader replied. "Now, find it!"

The Golbat took off, flapping into the air, then there was a BOOM and they all crashed back to the floor with electrical energy fizzing over their wings.

"Okay, um… that's not a good sign," the boss admitted. "Houndooms!"

"It's Houndoom, boss, that's the plural as well as the-"

"I don't care about plurals, find me who did that!"

The Houndoom pack whined for a moment, then set off – each one in a different direction.

"Aura Sphere!"

One of the Houndoom came back, much faster than it had done, and every other Pokémon the thugs had opened fire at that area of the forest at once. Two of the other Houndoom came running back to add the force of their Flamethrowers, and after ten seconds or so the head thug waved his arm.

"Okay, that's enough! I think we got it – him – whatever!" the leader said.

There was a whoosh of air, and one of the other thugs yelped.

"That Riolu just vanished!" he said. "What happened – huh?"

A trainer came running up. At first glance he looked like a joke, wearing an odd floppy hat and archaic-looking blue clothes – turned-down boots, even! - and with a strange-looking staff across his back.

At second glance, he seemed to have one hand on the hilt of a sword, which was even odder.

Then a Lucario stepped out of the brush, falling into step with the trainer without missing a beat, and a Pikachu jumped from the Lucario's shoulder to that of the trainer.

"Look, can you guys just give it up?" the trainer asked, stopping. "We can get the police to pick you up, they do it a lot."

"Boss! Boss!" the Murkrow cawed. "Danger danger!"

"Get him!" the boss shouted.

Ash unsheathed Kari, flipping her upright, and charged her with Secret Sword. She flared a bright orange-gold in moments, deflecting the initial storm of attacks launched at him by the various Pokémon the thugs had out, and the surrounding trees whipped back and forth from the blast.

Lucario darted forwards, hammering a Houndoom with a Sky Uppercut and launching him high into the air, then pivoted to drive his elbow into the solar plexus of one of the thugs. As he collapsed, wheezing, from a blow Lucario had carefully pulled to just incapacitate, the Fighting-type whipped around and grabbed the tail of a Skuntank before it could spray at Ash.

The Skuntank chuckled, and fired a blast of pure stink directly at Lucario. "Bet you can still smell, Steel-type!"

Lucario indicated his muzzle, where two little blue fields of Aura covered his nostrils.

Skuntank blanched under his fur. "Oh-"

Lucario spun, and hit a Purugly. With Skuntank.

As he continued using the swearing Poison-type as a flail, Pikachu jumped into the air and onto the nearest Houndoom. Crackling electricity dancing down his legs and tail into the Fire-type, immobilizing it with a Thunder Wave, he jumped off and smacked the boss thug with a powerful burst of electricity – knocking him unconscious, but also making his small radio explode.

"Whoops?" Pikachu asked, not sure himself if that was technically deliberate or just something he hadn't cared about, then shrugged and blasted another of the Houndoom.

The second Purugly tried to jump Ash from behind, and Infernape hit it with a Fire Punch before Blaze Kicking it into the air and dousing it in Flamethrower. It hit the ground with a whumph, raised its head, and decided the best thing to do in this situation would be to pretend to be knocked out.

The Houndoom who'd also been caught in the attack snarled, then bounded towards Ash – daring Infernape to come and intercept him. Instead, Infernape just watched – confident in the abilities of his trainer – and Houndoom's snarl turned into a frown just before Ash brought him up short with a cloud of Seeker Spheres.

Shaking off the blue explosions of light which had peppered him, Houndoom began to howl – and got flattened by Lucario, using him as a platform to jump after the Murkrow.

"I surrender! I surrender!" the Murkrow pleaded, and Lucario examined him for a few seconds before nodding and descending again. Murkrow did a double-take, seeing Lucario using jets of blue Aura to fly, and shook his head in astonishment.

"Is that everyone?" Ash asked, looking around.

"I think so on my end," Pikachu reported, giving a final dose of electricity to the last Houndoom.

"I've got the Stunky contained," Latios reported. "And the Riolu's okay."

"You..." the last thug standing said, and took a swing at Ash. Kari flicked up, making the thug flinch, then she carefully replaced herself in her scabbard and smacked the thug across the back of the knees with it, flooring him.

Unsheathing herself again, she hovered back to Ash's hand.

"Got the last one," Lucario reported. "And I think I found which Pokéballs the Skuntank belong to."

Returning them, he looked around before crouching.

"Are you all right?" he asked the Riolu, as Latios set her gently down.

"Well… yes, now," the Riolu replied. "I've been scared, but – can you do something about these handcuffs?"

Lucario used Sacred Sword, cutting the chain with a single swipe, then carefully cut into the lock until they fell off her wrists.

"Thank you," she said. "Who are you people?"

"All right, here we go!" Kellyn said, adjusting himself a little, and readied his Styler. "Capture on!"

Zorua flared her wings, letting Kellyn jump to the floor, and the Top Ranger flicked out the capture disc of his Styler to orbit the clearing.

Then he stared.


Togekiss came in to land next to him, and Dawn slid off. "Yeah, I wondered if this would happen."

Kellyn's capture disc completed a circuit of the clearing, flashing as it made a gallant attempt to resonate with all the Pokémon inside at once, and the Ranger quietly stopped it moving.

"We only took a few minutes," he said. "How did you..."

Kellyn paused, then shook his head. "I'm really kind of used to being the one who shows up when things are dangerous, not just after everything's sorted out."

"Yeah, by this point we're the same," Brock contributed. "Well, Ash is, the rest of us follow him around."

The Ranger nodded. "Well… good, then? I guess? If there's no more peril, I mean."

He turned his Styler back to standby mode, then unslung his backpack to get the watercolour out. "So we just need to make sure this is the right Riolu, and then we can get her back to where she's supposed to be."

"Yes," Riolu nodded firmly, looking up from the painting.

She returned her gaze to it, and touched it with a smile. "I remember this..."

Then she looked at Ash "But I still don't know who you are. I didn't know anyone could do things like that."

"You'd be surprised, we met a Fighting gym leader recently who's pretty good," Brock told her.

Riolu blinked. "...wait, I haven't learned how to make humans understand me yet. How did you..."

"Aura," Lucario told her, going to one knee next to her. "My trainer, Ash, is a particularly skilled Aura user, and he's trained his friends well enough to at least understand Pokémon themselves."

"But… wait, how good is he at using Aura?" Riolu asked. "I saw him use an Aura Sphere!"

"I think I've got a few tricks he doesn't have yet, and he's got some moves with his new Honedge – Kari – which I can't match," Lucario told her. "But… well, he's good."

Riolu absorbed that.

"Are you one of the Riolu I heard get sent out by the Kingdom?" she asked, then blushed slightly. "Or – I mean, were you? You're obviously not a Riolu now."

"That's right, I was," Lucario confirmed. "How are you feeling, by the way?"

"I… okay," Riolu said, a little dubiously. "I still feel like I made some kind of mistake, to be caught..."

"You shouldn't feel that way," Lucario told her. "I don't mean it's wrong to feel that way, because you've been through a lot – I mean you don't need to worry that that feeling might be right."

He leaned back a bit. "I remember feeling the same way, when I was kidnapped myself. Of course, that was by Hunter J, so I felt helpless as well – which, again, isn't something to be ashamed of. In my case I got frozen into a kind of living statue, which..."

Lucario stopped, seeing the baffled expression on Riolu's muzzle. "I'm not really helping any more, am I?"

"I'm having trouble with the bit about living statue," Riolu admitted. "With me it was handcuffs, a sack, and a Stunky."

"Criminals these days," Buneary sniffed. "No style."

That provoked a startled giggle from the Fighting-type.

"All right, so the Lucario Kingdom is that way," Brock said, a couple of minutes later. "It shouldn't take long to get there."

"Not so fast!"

A loudspeaker-amplified voice made the whole group jump, and they turned around to see where it had come from…

...which, as it turned out, was a giant robot. Specifically, a giant robot made to look like an Eevee, complete with large pointed ears and a tail.

"Oh, not the Rockets again," Dawn groaned.

"No, actually, it's not them," Ash supplied, checking with Aura sight. "And it looks like there's more robots over that way..."

The ground shook as more of the giant Eevee-bots came running up, as the first speaker continued to chuckle.

"That's right!" the voice said. "We were hoping to do this the quiet way, but you forced our hand!"

"...who are you guys?" Kellyn asked. "Do I know you? You're not Pokémon Pinchers, right?"

The giant robot Eevee shook its head.

"You've got to hand it to them, that was impressive," Pikachu pointed out.

"Team Dim Sun? Go-Rock Squad?" Kellyn listed off. "You're not Team Debonairs, are you?"

"No!" the Eevee replied, indignant. "Why has nobody ever heard of the Eeveelution Rangers before? It's such a catchy name!"

"Probably because Eeveelution actually means all the Pokémon who evolve from Eevee," Brock said. "It's technically a colloquialism, but it's very common and it's entering official usage more and more."

"And because we're the Rangers!" Kellyn added, indignant. "Pokémon Rangers have had that title for hundreds of years!"

There was some muffled whispering, amplified by the speaker system so they could all hear it – though only the occasional phrase could actually be made out.

"...told you you were the only one-"

"-enough! We built these things to-"

"-just activate them and get it over with!"

The Eevee robots flashed, and each of them shifted in form – one of them developing a series of spikes, each tipped with a rocket launcher, and the plating turning over to show yellow Jolteon-style colours. The next lit up red as a flamethrower in the tail tip activated, the one beside that switched to an amphibious configuration, and before ten seconds were out the friends faced a force of eight Eeveelution mechas.

"That was unexpected," Infernape said. "It is, right? This isn't just normal these days?"

"No, I think this is pretty unusual these days," Ash replied.

The Flareon focused on them and unleashed a torrent of flame, which Latios shielded against with a flare of psychic energy. Buizel shot into the air a moment later, getting height for an attack run with his Aqua Jet, and the Jolteon targeted him with a barrage of missiles.

Ash swept his hat off and gave it to Riolu. "One of those might have psychic powers. Wear this so they can't just grab you."

Riolu stared at him, then at the hat, and nodded firmly.

"Quilava, handle that Leafeon robot!" Dawn called, then blinked and facepalmed. "Sometimes I can't believe the things I say..."

Quilava chuckled, then broke into a run. He whistled sharply, and Mamoswine came thundering up behind him as a support. As the Leafeon's tail flicked across, sending a shower of sharp-sided shuriken towards the two of them, Mamoswine used Powder Snow to coat them in instant frost and render them less dangerous.

He hooted, and Quilava jumped into the air – letting Mamoswine catch him on the Ice-type's left tusk, to go from there in a scrabbling run up Mamoswine's side to the top of his furred body.

The Mecha-Umbreon tried to intervene, but Brock's Steelix Mega-Evolved in a flare of rainbow light and charged – forcing the faux Dark-type to focus on defending itself – and Mamoswine thundered closer to the Leafeon, before digging in his tree-trunk legs and skidding to a halt.

Quilava jumped off, increasing his momentum and using Mamoswine as a springboard, and rolled once before sliding under the robotic Leafeon and using Eruption.

Flames burst out, roaring around the robot, and Quilava kept moving to avoid the big robot falling on him.

Except that it didn't.

"That's not fair," he complained, then jumped out of the way as the scythe-like end of the tail slashed at him. "Yipe!"

"I think it might be not flammable," Buneary contributed, landing next to him after a Bounce. "Why would they make a robot specially flammable?"

"It's a Leafeon," Quilava pointed out the obvious. "That just doesn't seem fair..."

Mamoswine tried the rather more direct approach of body-charging the robot, trying to knock it over, and the brown-socked robopaws fended him off with powerful blows. Some of the smaller 'leaves' on the robot turned out to be weapons platforms of their own, and Mamoswine bellowed as he took hits from them.

Quilava ran forwards again, using Smokescreen this time. "On my way!"

As Mega Steelix charged at the Umbreon, a purple gas hissed from vents on its shoulders.

Mega Steelix paused in his charge, baffled, then shrugged and continued on. Rolling a little to dig one of his spikes into the ground for leverage, he twisted around – tail lashing out with surprising speed – and wrapped the rock-and-steel of his lower body around the waist of the Umbreon robot.

Steadying himself for a moment, as the robotic Umbreon fought to free itself, Mega Steelix winced at the sound of metal claws scraping against his crystals. Then he flexed in one convulsive movement, lifting the Umbreon mecha into the air and slamming it down upside-down.

"...uh..." Zorua began, her Tyranitar disguise fizzling out as she stared. "Did you just…"

"What?" Mega Steelix asked, before using Dragonbreath to blast away at a weapons hatch as it opened. The weapon – which looked like a bolas – exploded before it could be used, and Mega Steelix looked at his teammate again. "Something wrong?"

"You just suplexed a giant robot!" Zorua said, one paw waving.

"Geodude taught me," Mega Steelix explained. "I don't really get many chances to use it, though..."

"I can see why!"

The roboUmbreon took this to be a good moment to set itself on fire, ruining the theme it had going, and Mega Steelix headbutted it twice before releasing himself from it and blasting it with Sandstorm.

"I'll just… go over here, shall I?" Zorua suggested, loping for the edge of the sand so she could bring her disguise up again.

The CyberJolteon fired streams of missiles from all its spines, each salvo flying up into the air before twisting around and coming crashing down towards Ash, Brock and Dawn.

Aura flaring, Ash swept Kari in precise arcs with her blade glittering a bright gold. Secret Sword beam attacks licked off, two or three a second, and each one cut through several of the faux- Pin Missiles to destroy them before they could get close.

A few slipped past, and Pikachu handled those. His cheeks flashed and spat sparks as he used bursts of chain lightning to strike down the leakers, and a continuous rumble of small explosions sounded as human and Pokémon kept their friends safe.

"Do either of you guys remember running into these people before?" Ash asked, not taking his concentration off what he was doing. "Or hearing about them?"

Searching… search complete, Dexter stated. It seems that this group has been involved in a few mercenary operations before. They tend to rely on fairly normal thugs for most of their work, but if things get serious the robots turn up.

He paused, then continued. It also appears that they may be what happens when the Rockets don't buy up every giant robot that comes on the market.

"Huh, how about that..." Dawn said, blinking. "I guess that's a good example of an unexpected consequence?"

"That sounds like a good name for it," Pikachu agreed.

The SylveonZord crouched, four mechanical tendrils coiling, then lashed out with two at Flygon and the other two at Latios.

The psychic-Dragon dodged nimbly upwards, changing his course in a way nothing else could imitate, but Flygon couldn't manage anything like the same manoeuvre and one of the tendrils ensnared his tail.

The servomotors retracted the tendril with a sharp movement, pulling him down despite the best efforts of his wings, and Latios blasted the tendril with a Dragon Pulse – aiming some way away from Flygon himself – only to discover that the tendrils appeared to be immune to Dragon-type attacks, as they continued pulling Flygon down unabated.

Eyes flashing, Latios instead exerted his psychic powers on the tendril itself to unroll it and free his fellow Dragon. Flygon squirmed as he felt Latios fight against the mechanical strength of the robot, then used Sand Tomb on himself to get a tiny bit of extra lubrication. That done, he slipped free just before another tendril managed to grab him.

"This is tough," he said, gaining height. "They're just enough like Pokémon to confuse us!"

"Yeah, no kidding," Latios agreed. "I don't know if there's someone actually in there, either, they seem to be shielded."

"All of them or just the Umbreon?" Flygon asked.

"Yeah, I know… feels like cheating."

Riolu watched the fighting, wincing as Lucario got smacked in the side by the tail of the CyberGlaceon, then breathed a sigh of relief as he rolled with the impact and avoided any serious harm. But the robots were fantastically tough, and it was taking even the outrageous Pokémon team on display here to make much headway.

Then a nearby branch shot into the air.

Confused, Riolu looked up at the branch – hovering there, before it fell to the ground a moment later – then looked around at the battlefield, to see if anything might have caused it. As she did, something else next to her – a rock – lifted up, hovered for a moment and fell.

That time, she spotted it. The red gem on the forehead of the WalkerEspeon flashed, then dimmed, and the ground next to her shook slightly.

Telekinesis! Right, the Aura user – Ash – had warned her about that. But if it wasn't working… did that mean it was the hat he'd worn that was protecting her right now?

She wondered how he'd made it.

Kellyn ran along the grass, his Styler controls in one hand. The capture disc spun around the edge of the clearing in epicycles, giving him a picture of the available Pokémon in each section as he reached it, and he considered each one without slowing.

He needed to look for just the right – there!

The capture disc's speed didn't change, but it began making much tighter circles, completing each one in less than a second. Kellyn's fierce determination came over the link in one direction, and the willingness of the Pokémon he'd found in the other.

Two Aron, and a covey of three Staravia. It would be tricky, but it should be enough.

"All right!" he said, and the Staravia looked up at the sound of his voice. The one in front, the female, gave a determined nod, and Kellyn waved his hand.

"Let's go!"

One of the Staravia took off, offering both feet, and Kellyn jumped up to grab them. The other two picked up an Aron each before following, wings whirring to keep up as they all headed for the nearest robotic Eeveelution – the CyberGlaceon, shooting at Lucario with blasts of bitterly cold liquid that froze instantly.

Kellyn landed with a whung on the spine of the robot, and went flat to increase his contact area and let him hold on better. The two Aron arrived a moment later, and Kellyn judged the situation for a moment before pointing.

"There!" he said, and one of the Aron saluted with a little tink noise. Then it bit into the hull, tearing up a gobbet of metal and swallowing it, and the other one did the same thing.

It didn't take long for them to produce a hole big enough, and Kellyn slid inside with the two Steel-types following him into the robot's interior. There was a walkway inside, and Kellyn frowned for a moment before pointing. "That looks important."

Aron used Head Smash, breaking it, and the CyberGlaceon staggered sideways as something stopped working for a moment.

The shower of attacks from the electronic Jolteon stopped, and Ash took a deep breath before looking around at the general situation.

The Espeon was busy with what was probably Zorua. Latios and Flygon were keeping the Sylveon distracted. The Glaceon appeared to be suffering some kind of internal failure, and a couple of the others were having big problems.

But that still left at least two, and the Leafeon was bounding towards the group at speed – then pounced, an enormous robotic leap which carried it into the air. It hung there for a moment, about to drop onto Ash, Brock and Dawn, and Ash raised Kari to block the tons of metal as best he could-

-and a red beam of light flashed in from his left, slamming into the Leafeon's rear haunches and knocking it away from a collision course. Bits showered over the grass, and the robotic Leafeon crashed to the ground with a fizzle of something important breaking.

A moment later, Ash's Pidgeot flew overhead with the great white shocks of her wings-of-air trailing vapour, pulling up and around to make another pass.

"Pidgeot!" Ash called, delighted.

Then the cavalry arrived.

Much to the surprise of just about everyone involved, the cavalry was literal. Four big Rapidash chargers came galloping in from the same direction Pidgeot had come, Lucario riding on their backs, and the head one conjured a Bone Rush bone eight feet long before pointing it at the side of the robotic Vaporeon. The impact produced a crash they could hear over the sound of combat, and it knocked the Vaporeon sideways hard enough to make it stagger and nearly fall – and by the time it had recovered, two of the Lucario had taken their Rapidash steeds up onto its back and begun smashing away with diamond-hard hooves and Force Palm attacks.

"Is that the Lucario Kingdom?" Brock asked.

"I guess so!" Ash replied, as another six Lucario came over the crest of the hill. These ones were on foot, not mounted, but they moved with a bounding grace that seemed at once silken-smooth and whiplash-fast – and their first act was to hurl synchronized Aura Spheres at the Flareon, hammering it with powerful impacts, before getting in close for a barrage of hand-to-hand attacks.

As ten Lucario – nine of the reinforcements and Ash's own – combined their efforts, and Pidgeot hammered down another Aeroblast to stop the Jolteon from attacking, the tide of battle turned in a moment. The tenth Lucario from the new arrivals, the one who had ridden just beside the lancer, had his Rapidash ally take him over to Ash before dropping down and giving Ash a respectful nod.

"Sir Ketchum," he said, then gave similar nods to Brock, and Kari, and Dawn. "Sir Slate. Dame Burns. The lady Berlitz. Our thanks for aiding in the return of our lost child."

"My lord," Riolu said, bowing.

"You're the lord of the Lucario Kingdom, right?" Ash checked. "Does that mean you're a king? I don't really understand much about how it works – sorry."

"Formality is a hobby, though a much-loved one," the Lucario told him, with a small smile. "We will not think less of a hero such as you for missing the forms, when the deeds are in place."

The phone rang.

A man picked it up. "Report."

There was a pause, then he sighed. "It's so hard to get good contractors these days… I paid for you because you were supposed to be the best of what's left."

Another pause.

"Then you'll have to be satisfied with half down. Incidentally, don't bother calling again."

The man rang off, then called for his secretary. "Rowena. Dispose of this."

She took the mobile phone from him. "Immediately, sir. Will that be all?"

"No. Take the Eeveelution Rangers off our contact list. They've proved they can't be relied upon."

"Is this about the Riolu project?" Rowena asked. "So they failed?"

Kodai nodded. "They did, I'm afraid. Still, I see no negative consequences coming from this."

Rowena nodded, and left the room – toying with the phone as she did so.

It was a pity Kodai's plan hadn't worked. Kidnapping a Riolu wouldn't have worked for long – trying to gaslight an Aura-using Pokémon could never last – and it might have caused enough trouble for his operations to permanently ruin his facade as a legitimate businessman.

Absent that, she had to keep working for him – waiting for him to make a slip up she could use to bring him in.

The life of an undercover agent was… complex. Especially when working for a precognitive.

The CyberGlaceon fizzed, sparked, and finally stopped moving.

A door opened up, and Kellyn emerged – with a dazed-looking man in front of him, held in an arm bar. The two Aron he'd recruited waved to him, then set off for home.

"Is that the last one?" he asked.

"It appears so," said the nearest Lucario. "Fine work, Ranger, and our thanks."

The Lucario reached past him into the CyberGlaceon, selecting a length of metal, then bent it into a knot and tied the mech pilot's arms behind him.

"The police are on their way," she added. "I imagine they'll be interested to find out who caused all this."

"They probably will, yeah," Kellyn agreed. "If they can go all the way to the top, that's even better, but just these guys should be good enough."

His capture disc flicked back into his hand, and he stowed it in the styler itself before walking back over to the other humans – picking his way past the score-marks left by the battle.

As he got closer, he overheard a discussion going on between Dawn and the head Lucario.

"...you said lady Berlitz," Dawn was saying. "I was just wondering what you meant by that, because… honestly, I do know someone who might have made me a lady without my knowing about it."

"I understand your confusion," the Lucario noble replied. "But it was merely a courtesy, I am afraid. To the best of my knowledge, you remain a commoner."

He paused. "Would you rather not be?"

"...I think I'll pass," Dawn decided. "At least, I don't want to be given an honour like that just for the sake of being a Lady."

"Your bravery has earned you the accolade, but I respect your decision," Lucario said, then greeted one of the other cavalrymon as she alighted from her Rapidash. "My dear. I assume you and my Lancelot have dealt with the foe?"

"All are in our custody," she assured him, then turned to Ash. "Sir Ketchum. I wished to make known to you our heartfelt gratitude for your fine stewardship of the Lucario who has been your companion. From all accounts, including his own, you have been a shining example of trainer, protector, ally and friend."

Ash blushed slightly. "I… thanks. I just did what anyone would, if they could, and because I've got stronger Pokémon and stuff like Aura powers it just means I can help out more. And it doesn't get in the way of doing what I want to, so it'd be wrong for me to not get involved."

"A truly noble attitude," the lady commented. "And one all too few aspire to, let alone achieve… but one I hope that our lost child, now returned, will take to heart."

She turned, then looked back.

"You have done us a great service today – all of you. If you call upon the Lucario Kingdom in your hour of greatest need, we will come to aid you."

The police helicopters were already visible in the distance, and with all the Eeveelution Rangers present already caught the Lucario turned to leave. All four of the cavalry remounted their Rapidash, the lord taking their rescuee up to ride with him, then tapped her gently on the head.

"Oh!" she realized, and passed the hat back to Ash. "This is really cool. How did you make it?"

"I didn't, I sort of inherited it," Ash replied. "It belonged to Sir Aaron."

Riolu's eyes went wide.

"It seems we're meeting quite often," the courier Lucario observed.

"More often than most Pokémon whose eggs you convey?" Ash's Lucario asked.

"Much more," she replied. "I suppose with your trainer it's all but inevitable. My lord and lady asked me to convey their thanks for your letters, though."

She nodded and left.

Once she'd gone, Ash's Lucario sighed.

"Problem?" Pikachu asked.

"I just… I forgot about this," Lucario admitted. "Or, not forgot, but I didn't think it through. I was the one who was kidnapped last time, and Hunter J was the one who did it – I thought that with me obviously not there and Hunter J in prison it wouldn't happen again. So I didn't warn the kingdom, because I forgot that the person who was responsible wasn't Hunter J but whoever hired her."

"Still, at least you helped a lot in making that better," Pikachu pointed out, then chuckled. "Plus, now you have the proper fighting-a-robot-Pokémon experience. That's something you team newbies haven't experienced as much."

Lucario, who was technically Ash's fifth team member total this timeline, gave Pikachu a tolerant glare. "You realize Squirtle's going to be all over this the moment he hears the words 'giant robot', right?"

Jessie bounced the Pokéball on her palm. "That's one problem out of the way."

"I ain't sure Yanma counts as a problem," Meowth replied, a bit dubiously.

"No, Yanma isn't the problem, the problem is that someone else might get Yanma before we did!" Jessie countered. "It's a legitimate concern."

"It's one confused Bug type, is what it is," Meowth pointed out. "None of us has explained why we're all interested and stuff."

"Oh, yeah, good point," Jessie admitted. "But that can wait until we see the Twerps again. It's much easier to explain when you can show examples."

Shrinking the Pokéball and putting it in her pocket, she switched it out for another one and sent out her Dustox.

Dustox said something, and Meowth cleared his throat. "She says she ain't gonna mind if you say it gotta wait another few months..."

Jessie smiled, then shook her head. "Thanks, Dustox, but… you should go. You've got a life to live."

She touched Dustox' antenna ribbons, then the little box of electronics she'd asked for from Professor Oak. "Just don't forget to take these."

Dustox flared her wings, and spoke again. Then she picked up the Pokéball, and the transceiver, and flew into the sky – meeting up with her mate, the same male Dustox she'd met the last time around.

"Are you all right?" James asked. "You seem sad."

"No duh," Jessie ground out.

"James, you might wanna stop makin' a point of it," Meowth said. "Or we might end up bein' the ones who are sad..."

"Hey, Growlie?" Carnivine asked.

Growlie made an inquiring rrowl, rolling his muzzle to look at Carnivine without actually getting up.

"You've got a significant other who came back in time, right?" the Grass-type checked. "How do you handle it? I'm wondering how Dustox is going to cope."

"I'm not really the right Pokémon to ask about that," Growlie replied, yawning a little, and reluctantly rose to his paws. "It's true that Ninetales definitely got Reminded, and I didn't, but we didn't actually know one another before – I think I saw her once, but neither of us had evolved. So there wasn't really any baggage in it… we just met one another, and liked one another, and… well, abandoned the fight, really."

He chuckled. "The restaurant was very good, though. We still go back there – anyway, for Dustox it's different because they had a life together and she's the only one who remembers it. I'm sure they'll work it out, but… yes, it's different, and I could see how it would cause some strain."

Carnivine nodded. "Okay. So who would know?"

"I think Ash's Butterfree is the best one to ask," Growlie mused. "He's got kids now, and his mate's the same shiny Butterfree this time as last time – or so Ninetales tells me, anyway."

Shaking his head, he padded off. "I think I'm going to see if Audino's finished with dinner yet."

"...so I was thinking there has to be some kind of secret conspiracy to do something on the moon, which got leaked, which is why they suddenly revealed the moon base!" Barry explained. "They couldn't have built it that quickly, but they said they had so they could avoid looking like they'd built this without telling anyone for months!"

"Why are you talking to me?" Paul demanded.

Barry blinked, visibly not understanding the question, then just as visibly decided to ignore it entirely. "And most of the world just accepted it, which gave them a perfect opening to follow through with their real plan!"

Against his better judgement, Paul asked the obvious question. "What real plan?"

"...isn't it obvious?" Barry asked. "It's to have a cool moon base and do space stuff in it! Conspiracy just means you're hiding it from the public and you're doing an organized plan… at least I think that's what it means… hmmm, maybe it does need to involve a crime, but in that case the conspiracy was to avoid having to pay for the land!"

"All right, even I know the land the lunar dome is built on is leased from a Cresselia," Paul pointed out. "How does that fit-"

"That's just what they want you to think!" Barry said, very promptly. "It's all part of their plan! I don't know what the plan's for, or why nobody involved has said anything, or why they've kept it secret, but there has to be a plan!"

Paul just shook his head, thoroughly done with this conversation.

"Can we get back to the Pokémon battle now?"

"What?" Barry said, then nodded. "Oh, right! Yeah, we can do that!"

"Good," Paul replied thankfully. "Head Smash."

Cranidos thumped into Barry's Heracross, both of them hitting a nearby rock wall, and Barry winced as cracks formed and stones tumbled down.

"Bit more to the left next time," Paul advised, as Cranidos retreated, then Heracross came out swinging in a counterattack. "Now, Iron Head."

The two Pokémon crashed into one another, neither one being much injured, and their trainers concentrated on the battle – both looking for an advantage.


Do not provoke Lucario.