Dinner at the restaurant was…well, Ash was sure it was fine. He talked about his freshly caught Gengar, but he barely heard any more conversation. He didn't remember much of the food, but it tasted fine. He asked Brock if he'd come up with any new strategies for training, and he told him…something about Muk and Shadow Punch. Maybe he needed to pay a little more attention to Muk? When Misty had asked about his alone-day, he made up some story about a weird art gallery he thought would be cool but turned out too morbid for him. That was close enough to the truth, wasn't it?
Now that he thought about it, he'd acted more than a little distracted that night. But at least everybody thought it was about the tournament. He had another fight…wasn't that right? Yeah, he had one more fight that wasn't Paul or Alessa. He'd have to think about how he'd approach this girl. If he lost before the tournament was over, before he at least got the chance to face Paul…
No. No, that wouldn't happen. He'd face Paul. That much was certain. And then he'd face Alessa, come what may.
There were no nightmares that night.
While most participants of the Lily of the Valley conference trained their Pokémon at home or were confident enough to think the early rounds would be training enough, there was a huge training facility in town for visitors. It looked like another skyscraper from the outside, with a stylized flower coming out of a Pokeball as it's symbol. Each floor had a simulation room that could perfectly mimic any of the stadium fields, wide enough to hold a triple battle. The bottom ten floors were open to the public and almost always full, and every floor above could be reserved for a day or the entire tournament for a substantial fee.
Ash had managed to purchase one of the upper rooms for the entire tournament. It was expensive, and Ash had already used up a lot of money to get his Mom a nice hotel room. Luckily, he managed to use a few commercial endorsements to get some extra cash – apparently some advertisers felt he looked like the archetypical trainer and was perfect for their ads. On his way to the elevator, he turned to see a poster of him smiling and holding up a can of Hoopa soda. The drink for trainers everywhere, endorsed by the boy that embodied trainers everywhere. Chuckling to himself, he walked past and went to the elevator.
His Pokémon were waiting for him on the 18th floor. He'd long since established how important this tournament was, so he trusted them to train on their own time, or at least relax between supervised training sessions. The training facility guaranteed their safety, and considering the security measures in this place (he had to pass one DNA scanner to enter the building, another to board the elevator and another to stop at his floor) he was sure they were safe.
Everybody was excited to see him when he disembarked. Gliscor and Gabite (Who had evolved during a recent training session) nearly jumped on top of him when he arrived. Muk promptly jumped on him the second Ash had shaken the last two off. Sceptile and Infernape looked up from their game of rock-paper-scissors to wave hello. Everyone else just chirped happily, except one.
Ash looked to the side. Lurking off to the side and watching intently was Houndoom. A few weeks after he'd returned home from…the incident, this Houndoom had just appeared at Oak's Lab. He seemed to stay away from everyone and wouldn't let Ash or anyone else catch him, but he seemed to have appointed himself as the watchdog of Ash's Pokémon. Ash liked to think this was the evolved form of the Houndour he had saved at the water tower.
Once he'd finally got out from under Muk, Ash picked himself up. "OK, guys. Hello to you too." Ash dug into his bag and took out the Pokeball. "So, let's get to business. I know this is really, really last-minute, but this is Gengar. I caught him last night."
The ball popped open to reveal the floating Ghost Pokémon. Gengar looked at the group of Pokémon waving hello to him and grinned even wider. While he was annoyed that he wouldn't be able to prank random passersby now that he was a trainer's Pokémon, something told him that this was going to be fun. Though that Houndoom glaring at him from the side made him very nervous…
The introduction was smooth enough, so Ash relaxed a little. "He's new, so I'm going to be paying special attention to him for just a little bit, just so I can get a hang of battling with him. But don't think I'm going to ignore you or stop training you. It's going to be a hard couple weeks, and I need all of you to be ready…"
Ash froze up. Ready for what? Ready for Paul, for the final fight of the tournament, or for…no. They didn't need to know about Alessa. All they needed to know was that they needed to be stronger for the conference. That was all that mattered right now. Just keep focusing on the tournament, he kept thinking to himself. Don't think about her. Not now.
Ash shook his head clear to see that all his Pokémon were looking at him with concern. He smiled wanly. "Sorry…kinda phased out for a second. Nervous about the next fight. Speaking of which, I think she prioritizes defense over offense, so here's how we're gonna go about fighting her…"
It was a good thing Ash had come when he did, because if he had come a few minutes later, he would've likely run into Paul again. And neither of them would've been happy to see each other.
Normally, Paul wouldn't have bothered about Ash. He was just another trainer to beat. Their 'rivalry' was completely one-sided. There was no question at all who was the better trainer. Paul simply used more effective tactics, better training, stronger Pokémon. Ash was just another naive, lazy, softhearted simpleton.
Which is why the advertisement on the first floor irritated Paul so much.
Paul knew how advertisers worked. If they couldn't convince a well-known celebrity to endorse their product, they would use someone who represented – or just looked like they represented – the majority of the customers. This guy is you, they said. So you'll agree with him about buying our product.
And the idea that ASH represented the majority of trainers everywhere just…bothered Paul.
He wasn't jealous that Ash got the role, mind you. It was a stupid ad on a poster, nothing more. What bothered Paul was that it set a terrible precedent.
Why was ASH the archetypical trainer? The lazy, self-righteous twit that Paul had massacred at the lake? The boy who wouldn't understand how to bring out the true strength of his Pokémon if you hit him over the head with the right methods? He'd still clung to his laughable ideals even after Paul had definitively proven him wrong again and again. No sensible trainer acted like he did…no sensible trainer should've acted like he did. So why was HE the one chosen as the 'quintessential trainer'?
Was that what the majority of trainers out there were really like? Childish buffoons, spoon-fed platitudes about how winning didn't really matter? Irresponsible slackers with no focus and no real drive to succeed? Stuck in a limbo of mediocrity because they're too afraid to do what it took to push themselves forward? Was Paul the exception?
The worst part was that Paul could believe it. Too many trainers he'd faced were the same. Praising their Pokémon even when they failed utterly. Dismissing his training methods as cruel and unusual even when they saw the results for themselves. Being more concerned about their friendships that their alleged dreams.
Even Cynthia, somebody he'd once admired, echoed their sentiments. Out loud, anyway. There was no way someone espousing that childish philosophy could've gotten her Pokémon that powerful. Her 'advice' was hollow, something that echoed popular sentiment that wouldn't let weaklings accept that they just didn't have the skills to succeed. Something good for kids like Ash to hear. He knew she had to have trained her Pokémon like he did. In some way, at least. It was the only explanation for how she'd beaten him so thoroughly despite how strong he was.
Paul shook his head clear. He couldn't dwell on past losses. He just needed to think about his future victories. And he WAS going to win. He was going to change everything.
There would be no false modesty. No phony philosophies. When he won the tournament, when he defeated the champion (and he would, he knew Cynthia's strategies inside and out), he was going to show the world what it truly took to succeed. What it really meant to be a Pokemon master. He would be the archetypical trainer. Not Ash.
Paul stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for his floor. The door shut, blocking Paul's view of that poster. Sometimes Paul wished he was willing to put up with the amateur trainers that frequented this floor, just so he could accidentally destroy that stupid smile on Ash's face.
Then again, it would be a lot more satisfying to destroy that stupid smile on his face in person when the tournament was over.
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