"You know, there's an important question we haven't considered yet," Lucario said, tying a napkin around his neck.

"There is?" Dawn asked. "Like what?"

She took a ladle of the soup Brock had made, tasted it, and smiled. "This is great! Good work, Brock!"

"I aim to please," Brock replied. "Do you think it needs more pepper?"

"It's fine as it is," Dawn assured him. "Anyway, Lucario, what is that important question?"

She looked worried. "It's not something to do with some other weird threat we forgot about, is it?"

"No, don't think so," Lucario replied. "I mean, maybe there is, but I'm not the one who'd know. No, it's a different question."

He picked up his knife and fork and pulled his own plate towards him. "The question is-"

"Hold on, why are you eating it like that?" Dawn asked, thrown. "That's the nutritious Pokemon food that Brock makes, right?"

"Yes?" Lucario asked, knife and fork poised.

"Well… are you sure that's going to work?"

"I'm not sure why it wouldn't," Lucario said, loftily, and stabbed one of the hard balls with a fork. It promptly went zipping off across the campsite, and Gabite bit it out of the air.

"That's why," Dawn explained.

"I might need to use a spoon," Lucario decided. "Perhaps I can add milk and turn it into a cereal?"

He got up to go jump into Ash's bag, but Dawn held up a hand. "No, wait, I still want to know that question."

"Oh, well, simple enough," Lucario told her. "The question is… how exactly are we going to make our appearance at the Lily of the Valley conference? There's a lot of opportunities."

"You mean turning up on flying Pokemon, or by having Suicune and her brothers just run us across the water?" Dawn checked.

"That's just the start of it," Lucario replied, making a gesture. "We could have Giratina rip a hole in space and walk out. We could teleport in via Mewtwo, or arrive by rocket courtesy of Mewtwo. We could ask Arceus to help out."

He shrugged. "The possibilities are endless."

"Well, not quite endless, but as a Coordinator I get what you mean," Dawn agreed. "It does kind of mean showing off, though."

"Good point, showing off isn't the way we do things," Lucario agreed. "Showing off happens around us, but that's sort of natural."

He paused. "I think that's how it works?"

"Probably," Dawn shrugged.

As Lucario went to get some milk, Ash was halfway through his own bowl of soup and checking something with Dexter.

"Okay, so… if we don't count Legendary Pokemon for a moment, that means I have… forty two Pokemon," Ash said. "And if we get all the way to the end of the tournament, there's only spots for about twenty eight Pokemon."

He shrugged. "It looks like some of you guys are going to have to stay out of this one."

"We're sort of used to that idea, to be honest," Pikachu said.

"No, we're sort of used to that," Buizel corrected him. "You've always been with Ash. Also I think you didn't count right, Ash, Pikachu's a Legendary Pokemon as well."

"Pardon?" Pikachu asked intelligently, then remembered. "Oh! Well… yes, I have been in a legend, but I don't think that's how it works."

"What do you think the difference between Manaphy and Phione is?" Buizel asked. "About half of the Legendary thing is semantics."

"I'm not really sure that's how it works, but it is a good point," Ash frowned. "And I kind of think I might need to bring on at least some Legendary Pokemon, they're part of the team too and if anyone's going to be able to deal with a Legendary Pokemon without it being unfair then it's trainers in a Pokemon League."

"I'm still kind of proud of our fight against that Latios," Pikachu mused. "I'd do better now though, right?"

"Right," Ash agreed. "You train against Pokemon like Latios now, and… yeah."

"Standards do seem higher than last time," Buizel observed, then shrugged. "Well, let me know if you need me."

He took off in a whoosh of Aqua Jet, somehow managing to avoid getting either Pikachu or Ash wet.

"I'm sort of wondering if maybe I should pick randomly," Ash frowned. "It's kind of hard making choices like this, because just about everyone wants a go."

"To be fair, according to Ivysaur there are some really big battles that happen around Professor Oak's ranch, and in Samiya too," Pikachu noted. "So they're not going without any chances to let off steam..."

His voice trailed off.

"Why is Lucario pouring milk onto a plate?"

Ignore it, Dexter asserted. He just wants attention.

"I thought he just wanted lunch," Ash guessed.

The next day, just before eight in the morning, Ash and his friends – both human and Pokemon – arrived at the Lily of the Valley conference.

"I still think we should have taken the opportunity to arrive in a more spectacular way," Lucario said, following Ash down the gangplank of the ferry.

"You and Ash spent half the journey training on the water," Brock pointed out. "And then the other half running to catch up with the ferry. That's not exactly not spectacular."

"I didn't fly in, though," Lucario riposted.

"Are you actually wanting to make a spectacle, or are you just being funny about it?" Latias asked, drifting invisibly down alongside the gangplank.

"...after due consideration, I have decided that the answer to that question is 'yes'," Lucario replied.


Everyone looked around, to see Molly waving from a little copse of trees.

"I was wondering if you wouldn't make it," Molly explained, as they got closer. "I've been waiting for this Pokemon League for ages!"

"We were only a week or so late for qualifying for the last one," Sylveon agreed. "But it's meant we had loads of time to train!"

"How long have you been here?" Dawn asked them.

"We got here last week," Molly replied. "That's the whole family! We've got a hotel room, and Mom and Dad are doing their work out of it. Mama, Papa, and my brother kind of have to spend a lot of time doing Suicune, Entei and Raikou work, but I still see them more than normal now."

"I guess that means you know exactly what you need to do to get into the tournament," Brock guessed.

"That's right!" Molly agreed. "There's a lot of trainers this year, so you need to register, and then you need to do a kind of qualification thing so they can pick the top sixty-four."

She turned halfway around, then beckoned. "Come on – the desk is this way!"

There were two pleasant-looking receptionists at the entrance, but when Ash came in the door they took one look and one of them picked up a phone.

"Is… something wrong?" Ash asked, confused.

"Don't worry," the unoccupied man said. "She's just following the instructions we got. I assume you're Ash Ketchum?"

"That's me," Ash agreed. "And I'm here to register for the Sinnoh League Conference!"

"We know," the man told him.

"It's not like there's another reason you'd be walking in here, Ash," Pikachu pointed out.

"Okay, okay, I get it..." Ash chuckled. "It is okay for me to register, right?"

"Of course, I'll just start taking your details down," the man told him. "Ash Ketchum from the town of Pallet… can I check which badges you have?"

Ash showed the eight badges arranged neatly on the inside of his jacket, and the clerk took them down one at a time.

A nearby door opened as he was about to finish, and Mr. Goodshow came through. "Ah, Ash! It's been a long time!"

"Yeah, since the Hoenn league, right?" Ash replied, thinking. "That was the one that got cancelled because of the meteorite."

"Exactly!" Mr. Goodshow agreed. "And I do hope that no such catastrophe strikes this time… I might even not cancel the League straight away, and merely postpone it."

"I think cancelling it was probably a good idea," Brock said. "If the worst had happened then cancelling as soon as possible could have saved lives."

"Well, I for one hope we don't have to test that," Mr. Goodshow said. "Anyway! Have you registered?"

"I'm just doing it," Ash said, looking up, and the clerk glanced down at his keyboard and punched one final key.

"And you're done," the clerk told him.

"Really?" Ash asked. "But… you didn't ask me anything..."

"You seemed busy," the man explained. "And all the other questions I might have asked you I could get online."

"Oh, great," Dawn said, trying not to giggle. "Ash's entry as written by Barry. Have you said he lives in space?"

"No?" the clerk said. "Should I?"

"It's just a joke about one of our friends," Lucario assured him. "So, what's the preliminary round?"

"That's not necessary for you, Ash," Mr. Goodshow told him. "The idea was to try and make sure that we didn't have to only take the first sixty-four people who showed up, by taking as many as turned up and then cutting them down to sixty-four with a preliminary round."

"So what is the preliminary, then?" Dawn checked. "Is it a one Pokemon a side battle, or something?"

"No, actually, it's a sort of challenge," Mr. Goodshow explained. "We're having some Ice-types make big, standard sized ice blocks, and all the trainers have to destroy them as quickly and spectacularly as possible – that's how we'll decide!"

He waved. "But you don't need to do that, Ash."

"What about if one of us wants to?" Lucario said. "It's going to be hard enough satisfying enough Pokemon."

"Lucario's got a point," Ash agreed. "Plus, I kind of want to see how I do at it. I think I know who to use, too."

"It's not going to be a Legendary, is it?" Pikachu asked.

"No, actually," Ash replied. "So, does that sound okay?"

"Well, far be it from me to deny people a spectacle!" Mr. Goodshow decided.

Not long afterwards, Brock and Dawn had taken their places in the stands – along with quite a lot of spectators.

"This seems somehow unfair to someone," Primeape observed, looking left and right along the row at dozens of Ash's Pokemon – some of them like Snorlax taking up considerably more than one seat, and with the Tauros quintet standing determinedly on thin air.

At least the really big legendary Pokemon like Lugia were watching from inside the Reverse World, which saved on space a bit.

"Maybe it is, but what can you do?" Torkoal asked. "We all need somewhere to sit as well."

"I didn't say I minded," Primeape told him. "It's actually kind of funny..."

There was a hissing skoom from over on the other side of the arena, and Primeape glanced at the Fire-type next to him. "That sounds like you when you're practicing."

"It sounded like steam, is what you mean," Torterra replied, looking more closely. "And… huh. That's a Heatran. I didn't know anyone except Brock had one of those."

"That actually happened last time around," Infernape informed them. "Not sure what happened to the Heatran, though, we never battled it."

He nudged Primeape. "Look, there goes Ash."

"Are you ready?" one of the facilitators asked.

Ash nodded.

"Then begin!"

Ash threw Quilava's Pokeball, and the Fire-type emerged before balling up and using both Flame Wheel and Quick Attack. Her firefur blazed up to a brilliant, almost eye-hurting intensity, and she punched straight into the middle of the ice block.

Once there, Quilava kept spinning, but stopped moving forwards and waited a second or so so that she sank a little deeper into the block – out of a direct line from where she'd gone in.

She let her angle of rotation drift so she was spinning on her 'side', and spiked her Flame Wheel again – the heat stabbing out on a horizontal plane into the ice, weakening it a little.

Then she used Eruption.

The ice block exploded all at once in an orange-cored spray of fragments and splinters, bits going everywhere and melting as they went from the radiant heat Quilava had pumped out in that single massive burst of flame.

There was a yelp from the facilitator, who dove for cover, but Ash stayed where he was – as the fragments from below where Quilava had used Eruption sprayed out across the floor in a splitterplish of cold water, while the fragments from above Quilava all went nearly straight up and rained back down as orange-lit slush.

Neither set of fragments reached quite as far as where Ash was.

Quilava spun for a moment longer where the ice block had been, then landed, bounced in the puddle a few times, and slowed her spin to a halt once a little patch had been heated up enough to be comfortable.

"What do you think?" she asked.

"Great work!" Ash replied. "I haven't destroyed many large structures, though. Pikachu?"

"I liked it," Pikachu confirmed. "With hindsight maybe you should have gone in the top, but that's about my only complaint."

Quilava nodded, looking around critically. "It may be my only go this League, but I think I can be proud of it."

"I'm kind of surprised that they don't just let Ash through to the finals," Dawn said, looking down into the arena.

Ash had Absol out at the moment, and she was dodging and weaving with balletic grace through a shower of Air Slash and Bug Buzz attacks sent down by an overhead Yanmega. It was a mark of the Dark-type's skill that she made it look easy, as well – even though she had the ability to sense coming disaster, honed to a razor's edge, her opponent could still change his mind about where he was sending the attack until the moment he actually fired it.

Absol was almost impossible to pin down, however, without a single wasted footfall. Her horn-blade shimmered faintly with rainbow light as she kept cycling through elemental blade attacks, only choosing which one to use when an attack was too hard to dodge – which was when her claws dug in for stability and she swept her head across to deflect the attack easily away.

"Keep it up!" the Yanmega's trainer called, as his Bug-type got faster and faster. "You'll beat her eventually!"

"I think people would consider it unfair if Ash got to skip," Brock mused. "You'd still end up with people who couldn't reach the final, it's just happen a different way. This way at least there's a battle… and an impressive one, as well."

"Good point," Dawn agreed – they'd already seen Tobias was in the tournament this time, and while his Darkrai hadn't just used Dark Void it had still ended the battles in seconds with barrages of Dark Pulse and Ice Beam. "I do wonder what Absol is planning, though."

As she spoke, Yanmega used Ancientpower. Absol promptly switched her blade to Sacred Sword, slashed at the incoming attack, and sliced it in half – then slashed again with a different move, and this time the two half-rocks exploded into a cloud of rock dust.

The cloud hid Absol from sight, and Dawn leaned forwards a little to see what was going on. Then a flaming blade beam flicked out, catching the circling Yanmega a glancing blow, and there was a crash from inside the dust plume which made it rise up for a second time.

"Oh, I think I see," Brock said.

"I don't!" Skarmory disagreed brightly. "What's going on?"

"Absol is keeping the dust cloud going," Brock explained. "And by now Yanmega's speed boost has got him moving so quickly that it makes it so he has to keep following the same path inside the stadium, so it's predictable – look, he's shedding speed now."

"Blow away the dust, Yanmega!" Ash's opponent called, and the Bug-type fired off a Sonicboom. Almost before it had left his wings, though, a Vacuum Wave went flashing up and blocked the attack.

Yanmega flew a bit higher, firing off two Air Slash attacks this time, and Absol countered them both with a single wide swipe of a Flame Blade.

Then she came back into view again – Bouncing, launching herself incredibly high into the air. She rose to the same altitude that Yanmega was already at, horn flaring, and flicked downwards with an Ice Blade that split suddenly into three just as Yanmega was starting to dodge.

"Okay, so some of that was like what I thought it was doing," Brock said. "But the rest of it wasn't."

He waved at the battlefield, where Absol landed daintily on all four paws and Yanmega crashed next to her – just far enough away that she didn't get hit. "What I missed was that she was waiting for a situation where she could Bounce without being seen and Yanmega was moving slowly enough to dodge."

Ash's opponent recalled his Bug-type, then rummaged around for another Pokeball, and sent out his third and final Pokemon of the match.

"I don't think I've seen one of those before," Dawn frowned.

Absol pulled her feet up under her body, shifting her weight slightly as the Sirfetch'd opposite her raised his leek in salute.

"Good day," he said, flexing the wing holding his shield a little. "I believe we will be fighting today."

"Out of interest, is your trainer one of the ones who only catches Flying types?" Absol asked.

"He thought he was going to be, but I'm actually Fighting type," Sirfetch'd replied. "It must be the wings, they're dreadfully confusing."

Raising his leek to a ready position, he adjusted his stance so his shield was ready to block.

"First Impression!" the other trainer called, but Absol had begun reacting before he'd even given the command.

Her horn lit up with an Air Slash, this one held to energize her blade instead of fired off, and she twisted her horn to block as Sirfetch'd brought his leek down in an overarm strike. The two weapons made contact with a crash of impact and recoil, sending Sirfetch'd weapon recoiling upwards, and Absol began to follow up before switching into attacking Sirfetch'd's shield.

The impact made her horn buzz, but that was the better option compared to letting him clout her with the shield.

Fighting a battle with chance-dancing could lead to odd things like that… not that Absol had much time to get philosophical, dancing back out of the way as Sirfetch'd drove the tip of his leek into the ground before flicking a shower of sand and dirt in her direction.

He immediately followed that up by lashing forwards with his leek, using it more like a lance than a sword and keeping most of his body hidden behind his shield. Absol moved back, giving ground rather than spend all her time blocking – with how quickly he could move the tip of the leek, it was a choice she had to make – and tried sending a Psycho Cut in his direction, but he blocked it with the hard edge of his shield.

Even though it hadn't worked, Absol had had to try it. Not trying would have left her uncertain about whether the simple solution would work, so trying was what let her be sure it wouldn't work, and if she thought about that in too much detail she'd give her more of a headache than merely the result of using her horn to fence and joust with a Fighting-type.

Ash watched closely, trying to keep an eye out for if Absol was going to get into some kind of trouble and when he'd need to help her out.

She was using Psycho Cut, but then Sirfetch'd switched to Night Slash and Absol had to quickly switch her attack to one that faced off against it better – X-Scissor, specifically. That only meant that Sirfetch'd could in turn start using Brave Bird, charging in with the tip of his leek at speed and then swinging it around to try and catch Absol in the side.

"What kind of weaknesses does a Sirfetch'd have?" Ash asked. "This is the first time I've battled one."

I already told you they're Fighting-types, Dexter replied. Apart from that, well, they use a sword and a shield.

"So nothing big," Ash summarized.

"She could try fire," Pikachu pointed out.

"Good idea," Ash agreed. "Absol, switch to Flame Blade!"

Between one step and the next, Absol's horn burst into incandescent yellow-orange flame. She flicked her head sharply across, sending a wave of sharp flame across the glass, and Sirfetch'd retreated behind his shield to avoid the hit.

Absol sent another attack out, this one slicing top-to-bottom instead of left-to-right, and Sirfetch'd lifted his shield up and dodged quickly out of the way. A golden corona built up around him as he moved, stayed there as Absol's next blade beam struck his shield and deflected away, then he stabbed forwards with his leek and sent a pulse of golden light forwards.

"That's right!" called Liam – Sirfetch'd's trainer, who was pointing. "Sky attack again!"

Now Absol was having to play defensive, no longer the one with more range on her attacks, and the golden flashes of light and flame poked and probed towards the flashing Night Slash she wielded in her defence.

"Absol!" Ash called. "Close in!"

Absol wheeled on one forepaw, turning so suddenly that Sirfetch'd's latest attack just outright missed, and charged in closer to her opponent. Sirfetch'd stabbed twice more with his leek as a lance, then adjusted his grip a little and readied his shield – this time sweeping his leek around as a sword, a high-speed Close Combat attack which Absol had to leap over rather than take the blow directly.

"Circle him!" Ash added, and Absol swerved again to run around Sirfetch'd at about the same distance as the length of his leek. Her horn flared as she flicked off one attack after another, sparks flaring from the impacts of attack on defence, Sirfetch'd turning to take each blow in turn on his shield and retaliating with his leek.

That made things harder for Absol, who had to pick every second between using her horn to block or using it to attack. Ash could see her making the decisions as they happened, sometimes ducking to slide just under the sweeping blade or blocking it with a bang that didn't just halt her in her tracks but actually sent her sliding backwards – only to promptly start running in the other direction instead, turning the force of the impact into a boost to her new movement.

"Why hasn't she..." Pikachu began.

"It's not like she's forgotten," Ash replied. "I bet she's got it all worked out."

"She's starting to get tired!" Liam said. "Now – Meteor Assault!"

Sirfetch'd moved his shield into a protective position, and raised his leek high into the air. It glowed, energy concentrating around it, and Sirfetch'd waited for the ideal moment before grasping it with both wings and bringing it down with enormous force.

Absol was a little way off facing him head-on at the moment he brought it down, but that also made it harder for her to dodge. If she'd been facing him directly she wouldn't have had to move far to one side or the other, while if she'd been moving at ninety degrees to him then she would have been able to either sprint at maximum speed or skid to a halt and perhaps avoid the blow. But this was neither, and the Meteor Assault came crashing down to a ground-shaking impact on Absol's blue-glowing horn.

The force of the impact lifted Sirfetch'd off the ground and drove Absol's paws at least an inch into it. Then, less than a second later, a purple crescent of energy slammed into Sirfetch'd and knocked him rolling backwards.

Absol's horn was still glowing with Sacred Sword. But her tail blade – the one she hadn't used in the entire battle up to this moment – was lit up with the violet energy of a Psycho Cut, and she lashed out a second time and then a third to knock his shield away from his wing and send it spinning away.

"Well, this is awkward," Sirfetch'd said. "It seems you have the best of me."

He spread his wings slowly into the air.

"Ugh..." Liam groaned. "Yeah, Sirfetch'd is right."

"I think that was your first actual Pokemon League battle, right?" Keldeo asked.

"Yes, my intended battle in Hoenn sort of got cancelled," Absol agreed.

She took a sip of an iced drink, then looked down at where the current battles were taking place. "Everything going okay in Unova, by the way?"

"So far, but Ash is on his way there before long," Keldeo said. "So, you know what that's going to be like."

"Only in a very general sense, really," Absol shrugged.

She reached up a paw and felt her horn. "By the way, I encourage you to never take a Meteor Assault to the face. It hurts a lot."

"I'll be sure to remember that," Keldeo promised.

He frowned. "Why did you, though?"

"I've got a horn and a tail, he had a sword and a shield," Absol explained. "I needed to do something to let me get the advantage, and… well."

"If it were me I'd have just sprayed him with water," Keldeo said.

"Hey, there goes Molly," Dawn pointed, drawing their attention to one of the trainers walking out onto the field – Molly Hale, just as she'd said. "Wonder who she's using?"

Molly promptly answered that by sending out a Girafarig as her first Pokemon, who faced off against a Crobat. She gave Girafarig a quiet instruction that Absol didn't quite hear, then – to Absol's surprise – Girafarig started firing Psybeams from its eyes.

Both sets.

"That's a new one on me," Keldeo said, his thoughts echoing her own.

"Oh, come on!" Martin groaned.

Ash's opponent looked at his Maractus, then at the Latias floating serenely in front of Ash, and rubbed his temples. "This is going to be so hard..."

He pointed. "Pin Missile!"

Latias rolled sideways, out of the way of the original barrage of high-speed pins, and the shield protecting the audience rippled faintly from the shots that went past to reach the backstop. Maractus tracked across, though, smoothly changing her angle, and some of the Bug-type attacks were on target – though Latias' shield rippled as well as it stopped them in place.

Apparently deciding that meant it was time to start actually fighting, Latias zipped forwards before swerving away just short of actually contacting Maractus. Her shield took several more hits in quick succession, and a few of the Pin Missiles broke through, but Maractus got hit by a wave of compressed air curling off Latias' wing and rolled over backwards.

"Up you get!" Martin encouraged. "This may be a Legendary, but we're not going to give up just yet – Bounce!"

The Grass-type took off like a coiled spring, managing to entirely avoid being hit by Latias' next attack – a beam of Extrasensory which blew a divot out of the ground – and threw a Seed Bomb at the top of her arc. It didn't burst anywhere near Latias, but neither Maractus nor Martin had really expected it to hit such a high speed Pokemon and at least it had meant they'd avoided that attack.

"Keep up those Pin Missiles," Martin advised, then interrupted himself. "No, wait, Sunny Day! She can't dodge a laser beam!"

The Cactus Pokemon landed, rolled, and used Sunny Day. The sun immediately seemed to brighten, and Maractus' flowers spread a little before she began to fire Solarbeams upwards.

"And Synthesize if you're feeling under stress!" Martin added, noticing with annoyance that Latias was managing to – mostly – dodge the Solarbeam attacks.

He'd never seen a Pokemon that manoeuvrable. It was like most of the time she was flying sideways, and maybe that was the sort of thing you had to expect from a psychic dragon but still.

"Wow, Ash, this is kind of… not a very nice move," Dawn said.

She glanced at Brock. "Right?"

"I'm not so sure," Brock replied, leaning forwards a little.

"Well, I suppose he isn't having Latias go Mega, or immediately blowing up that half of the field, or something," Dawn said. "But Ash doesn't like overwhelming people with something stupidly powerful..."

She trailed off, and looked at Brock. "You know something."

"Yep," Brock agreed, sitting back again. "I'm sure of it now. You're right, Ash wouldn't do that… and he's not."

"Good thing too," Latias squeaked from the seat next to Dawn. "It wouldn't be very polite."

Dawn looked at the empty space next to her, then out into the arena.

"...oh, I see..."

High overhead, at nearly the very top of the stadium, Noctowl orbited inside a cloak of invisibility.

The Maractus he was fighting used Petal Dance, sending a barrage of energized leaves up towards his fake Latias, and he made 'her' skid sideways to avoid most of the attacks. A few of them did impinge on the space defined by 'her' psychic shield, and Noctowl added a ripple effect on the shield as well as cloaking the leaves that had got through.

"They say it's an easy job to fight when you're an illusionist," the Flying-type mused, having his virtual Eon Pokemon fly around and begin charging up an attack – lining up the timing so that she'd be between him and Maractus at just the right time. "But they don't say it involves a lot of bloody complicated thinking all the same."

He fired a Moonblast, wrapping it in illusion to keep it entirely invisible until it passed through pseudo-Latias – then having it suddenly appear, looking as if she had been the one to fire it instead of it coming from much higher overhead.

"After this one I'll have earned my cup of tea, I can say that much," the eccentric Noctowl chirped.

Several minutes later, Martin's last Pokemon – a Staravia – was down and out, and he sighed.

Then stared, as Latias vanished completely – and Noctowl came flying down from the roof of the arena.

"Oh, great, now I look stupid," he summarized. "Well, at least it was still Ash Ketchum who beat me."

"I never really thought about the kind of hard challenges that a trainer with really strong Pokemon has, before," May said, leaning back on her pool chair.

"What do you mean, Mama?" Manaphy asked.

"Well, look," May told him, waving at the giant screen Ethan was projecting over the Samiya main pool. "Ash is in the Pokemon League up in Sinnoh, right?"

"Yep!" Manaphy agreed.

May began to count off on her fingers. "If Ash uses his really strong Pokemon and completely flattens his opponents, then that's not fair. But if Ash uses his less famously strong Pokemon and still completely flattens his opponents, then that just seems like he's boasting."

"Ohh… I see," Manaphy said, watching the screen.

Ash's Donphan was battling against an opposing Golem, the two Pokemon rolling past one another one moment and crashing into one another the next, but it was easy enough to see that Donphan was getting the upper hand. Even though he had less mass, he was able to manage a greater speed and hit just as hard, and on top of that he was spitting out Seed Bomb attacks in the middle of his Rollouts that didn't always hit Golem but never seemed to miss by much.

"And if Ash has his weakest Pokemon battle, then he might not win," Manaphy added. "So… it's more of a problem in the first bits of the Pokemon League, before he starts to face really strong trainers?"

"That's it exactly," May agreed.

"But most trainers would love for those to be the problems they have to deal with," Max pointed out.

"Well, that's true as well," May said.

She glanced over at him. "How's Deoxys doing, by the way?"

"Pretty well," Max replied. "I explained how the point of going down a waterslide is that you can enjoy feeling weightless and then hit the water, and he seemed sort of confused about the weightless bit – probably because he can float around anyway. But the water thing interested him-"

Deoxys-orange used Gravity.

He only used it on himself, but the result of that was that instead of hitting the water like normal at the end of the slide he hit it like he'd fallen out of orbit. Water went everywhere, nearly soaking May and Ethan until Manaphy quickly stopped it with his hydrokinesis – and Max wasn't so lucky, ending up utterly drenched.

Enjoyment, Deoxys-orange declared.

"I'm glad you enjoyed it," Max said, shaking his head. "Did anyone see what happened to my glasses?"

"So… next time, it's going to be Paul, right?" Brock asked, that evening.

"Yeah, that's who comes next," Ash agreed. "It's going to be a weird battle."

"A weird battle," Pikachu said. "As opposed to… what? The usual perfectly normal battles where Noctowl cosplays as Latias for the whole thing?"

"He wanted to do that one," Ash shrugged. "I think maybe he could have left a couple more clues, but if Martin had used Dark Pulse that would have helped him out."

"That's not the point I'm making," Pikachu pointed out. "I'm saying that I've been travelling with you for over a third of your life, now, Ash – it's getting close to half – and I have no idea what qualifies a battle to be weird or not weird any more."

He waved his paw. "At least for this one you're mostly planning on using the Pokemon you caught in this region, even if that category includes at least one Legendary Pokemon – possibly several because I'm not even sure what the GS Ball counts as now."

"He's got a point," Dawn told Ash.

She picked out a piece of Pokemon food and threw it, and Skarmory ate it out of the air with a crunch. "Nice catch!"

"Well… okay, yeah," Ash admitted. "But it's going to be weird because this… uh, well, it feels weird?"

"I think it counts as weird if you paint yourself blue and go out and fight one of Paul's Pokemon," Lucario said.

"What, like… someone from ancient Galar or something?" Brock blinked.

"I was going for Lucario," Lucario clarified. "Don't worry about it. Just a silly thought."

"Anyway, uh..." Ash began. "I guess I don't need to worry about anyone being exhausted by battling Paul?"

"There is that," Dawn agreed. "It's nice to have that sort of leeway."

She threw another treat for Skarmory, then looked down at Ash's Absol. "Any idea if Ash is going to win?"

"It doesn't work like that," Absol replied. "Partly because at least one person losing counts as a disaster for them, and partly because complacency is a thing."

"So if Ash thinks he's going to win then he's less likely to try hard enough," Dawn replied. "But that would mean that if Ash doesn't think he's got it in the bag then he's more likely to win – which would mean, now you've told us that, that because he's less confident he can be more confident?"

"This is usually the part where I stop thinking about something," Piplup advised her. "Before long you tie yourself in a knot."

Dexter beeped.

You have one thousand, seven hundred and forty-two new messages.

"Wait, what?" Ash asked, fumbling Dexter out of his pocket and opening him up. "Did I forget to check them for weeks?"

Of which one thousand, seven hundred and forty-one are fan mail, Dexter added. To which I am sending the standard reply. I just wanted to see how you'd react.

Ash sighed in relief. "I thought I checked them this morning, but..."

He shook his head. "Who's the other one from?"

In reply, Dexter brought it up on the screen.

It was from Casey, who'd managed to get herself involved in some kind of trouble in Almia. She and her team had sorted it out again, but it had meant that they'd all been too late to take part in the Sinnoh League.

She also said her Zapdos was interested in some kind of battle with Ash.

"That might be interesting," Pikachu said, tapping his cheeks. "After what happened at Volkner's Gym I'm all for showing I'm still up there as Electric-types go."

"Didn't you already do that when you launched Raichu through the roof?" Lucario asked. "I actually like the sound of having a battle myself. I can see if I can work out electroredirection."

"That's not worked so far," Pikachu pointed out

"Yes, but I was thinking of trying it against an easier target slash seeing if greater danger would unlock something, delete whichever is inappropriate."

"We'd have to ask her to turn up at Crown City, right?" Ash said, thinking about their schedule. "Or she'd have to come to Unova."

"Hey, Ash, what about if you get Noland and James to show up as well?" Dawn asked. "That way they'd have a Baccer team."

"Are you allowed to fly with the ball in Baccer?" Ash frowned.

"I think you're allowed to in soccer," Brock mused. "That's why they call one of the positions the wing."

Pikachu raised a paw. "Is that a terrible pun or just the truth?"

"Don't ask me, that's not one of my sports," Lucario shrugged.

Searching back through the origin of the words, there's a linguistic connection, Dexter told them. A wing was any fast moving group, and a group on the sidelines or flanks was a fast moving group – so it got called a wing.

"Great, so now it's not interesting any more," Pikachu lamented.

"I think finding it out can be interesting," Brock said. "That just depends how you view entomology."

I think you mean etymology, Dexter corrected. Entomology is the study of Bug-types.

"I thought that was etiology," Geodude said. "Or, eh, theology."

That second one is just the study of Ash's team at this point. The first one is about how things came to be.

"So just the study of Ash's team at this point," Lucario summarized.

"And Molly's Eevee, don't forget her," Ash pointed out. "Speaking of which, Molly's made it to the last eight as well."

Correct, Dexter agreed. The way the matches have broken down, you will battle her in the semi-finals.

"That's just another reason to beat Paul, then!" Ash decided.

"You'd think that 'wanting to win the League' would be a good enough reason," Lucario chuckled.


And I'm moving on to the Sinnoh Conference.

Ash does have kind of a tricky problem here.