Back in the stands, Dawn and Brock were still aghast upon realizing Paul was indeed present in this competition.
“Whaddya know, Paul’s in the competition too,” Dawn mumbled unenthusiastically. Her Piplup glumly concurred.
“Knowing him, I would guess he probably enter to raise his Pokémon’s level,” Brock assumed, calmly assessing the situation.
Dawn looked down as she held Piplup close to her, frowning. “But what kind of Flying-type Pokémon does Paul have?” she wondered. She thought back to the last time the group encountered him, and then remembered the last battle… it hit her just then. “That’s right…! Honchkrow!”
The balloons and ring began their ascent as Rhonda kicked off the next round. “Now that both second-match contestants are in their places… START!”
Indeed, Paul proved Dawn right as he threw out his Pokéball. “Honchkrow, stand by for battle!”
“Dragonite, let’s go!” Provo shouted, unleashing his mighty beast of a Pokémon… Paul had a tough opponent on his hands for sure.
Back in the training room, Ash was certain to intently watch this battle. “It’s Dragonite versus Honchkrow,” he acknowledged, knowing this would be quite the explosive clash. He looked on with concern as the match began.
Honchkrow took the initiative, flying towards the ring first.
“And Honchkrow zooms to the ring!” Rhonda shouted out.
“Honchkrow’s gotten a headstart, but Dragonite’s faster!” Provo proclaimed, not looking worried in the least. He thrust his arm into the air to give out his first command: “Dragonite, Dragon Pulse!”
While Dragonite charged up a bright blue blast of energy, Paul was quick to respond. “Dodge it!”
Speed might not exactly have been Honchkrow’s forte, but it was able to successfully dodge the attack with ease. Moments later, Honchkrow snagged the ring and began its descent before Dragonite could even reach the Big Boss Pokémon.
“Get going, and use Fire Punch!” Provo ordered, determined to catch up. Dragonite obeyed the command and rushed at Honchkrow, flames emanating from its left fist.
Again, Paul put Honchkrow’s speed to the test. “Dodge it!”
Honchkrow heeded the order, zipping away mere milliseconds away from Dragonite’s flaming fist. The ring was still in Honchkrow’s possession.
“Dragon Rush, now!” Provo cried out, appearing to be annoyed at being unable to land a hit on his opponent thus far. Equally frustrated, Dragonite rushed at Honchkrow once more, coming down like a comet from outer space. The brightly-colored energy surrounding it proved to be a brutal hit as it finally connected against Honchkrow’s back. The conflict shocked Honchkrow enough to accidentally lose control of the ring.
“Wow, what a powerful move!” Rhonda marveled as the ring flew across the air. “And a clean hit as well!”
There was an opening, and Provo wasn’t about to let it slide past him. “Get it, Dragonite!” he cried out.
Honchkrow was able to recover from the hit in time to heed Paul’s next order. “Take back the ring!”
Both Pokémon raced neck-and-neck to claim the ring, but once again, Honchkrow managed to outspeed the Dragon Pokémon and reclaimed the ring. This did not deter Provo, however.
“Alright, use Dragon Rush again!” he exclaimed, prompting Dragonite to charge up to smack into Honchkrow once more. Paul wasn’t about to let him catch up again, though; at least battles like this were doing their job in keeping Paul focused on something else completely.
“Sky Attack!” Paul ordered, and thus Honchkrow was also soon glowing with energy in hopes to outspeed Dragonite once more.
“Honchkrow’s fast, but my Dragonite’s faster!” Provo exclaimed, which made Paul raise an eyebrow. He was certain that Provo had already said that just moments ago, only for Dragonite to be outrun by Honchkrow and proven wrong. Perhaps he was trying to convince himself…?
Just then, Paul felt a change in the direction of the wind current, which distracted him for a bit.
“Huh…?” Paul took a moment to estimate the new direction of the wind, realizing that he could use it to his advantage if he played his cards right. He quickly looked back down to where the action was, getting an idea. “Ride the wind to dodge it!”
It worked. Honchkrow was quickly picked up by an upper draft, momentarily confusing Dragonite well enough for it to be hindered by the same air current, being tossed up beyond its control.
“Wha-…?! What the?!” Provo’s surprise was the perfect opening for Paul to wrap this up. Sky Attack finished charging, allowing Honchkrow to slam into Dragonite with an especially brutal hit from the backside. The force was powerful enough to send the Dragon Pokémon careening into the ground, knocking it out.
“And Honchkrow’s powerful Sky Attack ends the battle!” Rhonda announced, making the result official. Just to rub salt into the wound, Honchkrow tossed the ring straight to the goal, as if to cement the result for good.
“Goal!” Rhonda hollered. “Team Paul has surprisingly defeated the competition’s favorite, Team Provo, and moves on to round two!”
Paul’s nonchalant expression appeared on the screen, clearly showing his lack of heart in this competition as a whole. Provo and Dragonite proved to be quite the disappointment for Paul; he expected a much fiercer performance from a consecutive four-time champion.
“Wow, Team Paul did it with one hit!” Dawn marveled, staring up at the screen along with Brock. This was proof enough that Paul was the sheer, dominating force he always had been, and would be a true obstacle for Ash if the two were to clash.
Brock stared on, having deeply analyzed every twist and turn of the battle. “Well, one of Honchkrow’s abilities is called Super Luck,” he explained to Dawn. “And Paul used it to their advantage, and struck Dragonite’s weak spot.”
Indeed, that single hit from Sky Attack was of the critical variety. Paul had utilized the power of the wind to strengthen the already-powerful move and let gravity do the rest. It was the best example of one particular saying… the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
While the downtrodden Provo disembarked from the balloon and recalled his Dragonite, Ash looked on from the waiting room… and he appeared to be very worried. After all, it was Honchkrow he battled the last time he and Paul crossed paths… and he could never forget the devastating way Honchkrow defeated Grotle; to the point where Ash’s Pokémon had to be sent to the emergency room as quickly as possible.
“Paul’s good at this,” he muttered, with Pikachu cautiously agreeing. Ash loathed the idea of Staravia suffering the same fate in this competition… never before had Ash been more driven to win this. Not only to prove a point to Paul, but to assure his Pokémon that Paul was not as invincible as he appeared to be.
The irony was that Paul appeared to be anything but invincible once he was back on solid ground. After recalling Honchkrow, he grasped his temples and quickly got out of sight so he could ride out this new wave of pain that coursed through his body. Even though he had been well medicated, Paul never quite felt the same after that Team Galactic incident. He felt even weaker than usual, and briefly Paul wondered if his stay at the hospital had anything to do with it. Who knows what they did to him there…? He was angry enough that they had the gall to sedate him just to be able to perform their latest test… and they were so hush-hush about the whole thing. Paul knew something else had to be going on; he figured most doctors wouldn’t freak out this much over a cracked rib and a fever.
Doctor Dalton was due for quite the scolding before Paul left Squallville today; that much was for certain.
“And the next match is… Team Steveland versus Team Jamus!” Rhonda announced, which allowed Paul to take a breather and relax before the next round. Honestly, to the Veilstone trainer, neither of the men on the screen looked to be legitimate future threats.
He took his sweet time returning to the waiting room, being sure to avoid Ash at all costs now. There was nothing Paul had to say for him, anyway… to him, it would all be a waste of time. Even though his match with Provo was relatively short-lived and simple, it took quite a bit out of Paul. The stress, the altitude which he was at, the strong air currents… after what Paul had been through, this was anything but relaxing for the frazzled young man.
Paul was definitely mentally kicking himself for ever letting Conway join him in Canalave City. Since then, it seemed nothing had quite gone right, and Paul’s physical conditioned worsened with every passing day.
Almost as if he were in a long, drawn-out process of dying.
As the competition continued, both Ash and Paul moved up the ranks step-by-step. Though Paul was weakened with his previous mishaps, he had the endurance to pull through it and compete with the strength and fierceness Ash and the others recognized him for.
Paul hated believing in concepts like fate, but had a feeling that he was meant to compete with Ash in the finals here. Why? He wasn’t sure. He only knew it was a very odd coincidence that the two crossed paths in a remote location such as this. It showed that Ash too must be on his way to Snowpoint City… though Paul never bothered to ask. It was just a safe assumption, knowing how far up north they were.
Even though Ash could only ever draw with Paul in battle at best, Paul could feel the growing anger emanating from the young man. Perhaps with enough raw anger, he might be an interesting challenge for once, Paul figured. He doubted that time would come in this competition, but perhaps it was another step up towards a proper rivalry between the two.
But honestly, Paul could do without it. He felt he had proved himself superior many times already; what will one more win do but once again reinforce that “fact”?
Surely enough, fate seemed to play a role today…
“Alright, everyone!” Rhonda shouted. “We’re coming down to the final round! And our two finalists are…!”
The board showed Ash’s portrait, followed by Paul’s. “Team Ash and Team Paul…!”
In the stands, Brock and Dawn looked on with hardened stares. Both of them had that gut feeling that it might end this way. Destined to cross paths, indeed…
“So Ash and Paul made it to the finals,” Dawn noted, sounding worried. “Amazing…” Her Piplup concurred.
“No doubt this will be a fierce battle,” Brock assured. “I had a feeling it would come down to this…”
Dawn nodded, looking uncertain of herself. “Same here,” she agreed. “The last time they battled, it ended in a disaster, even though Turtwig evolved to Grotle…”
“Not to mention Ash has yet to properly defeat Paul in battle,” Brock mentioned, recalling all of the times they clashed since the journey in Sinnoh began. “It’s always been either a loss for Ash or a draw.”
“He’s gotta be hungry for victory by now,” Dawn figured, sounding a little more determined. “I know I would be, against someone like that… Ash has to win, Brock!”
The former Gym Leader sighed, looking on to the field. He had paid close attention to Paul ever since the group first encountered him… he was an interesting case, to say the least, but Brock knew there was more to Paul than what there seemed to be. It wasn’t surprising that Ash and Dawn seemed unaware of that, but that’s what Brock was there for… to pick up on the details and make sense of them. But Paul? He was the equivalent of a Rubik’s Cube… not that it deterred Brock, but he knew there was much more about Paul to learn. Until they could completely understand this ominous foe, he would be nigh impossible to beat.
But anything could happen… Brock knew that. He didn’t want to give Dawn false hope, but didn’t want to depress her, either. He chose his words carefully.
“We’ll see what happens,” he finally told her. “Ash definitely seems to have the drive and the spirit today… and so far, he’s kept a level head. If he keeps that up, he could surprise us.”
Brock looked to Dawn, smiling. “We’ll cheer him on and let him know we’re supporting him every step of the way.”
“You bet!” Dawn enthusiastically replied. “With our backup, Ash can’t lose!”
Brock could only hope that would be the case. He was tired of seeing Ash down in the dumps after every loss to Paul.
Meanwhile, the two lone remaining competitors were just about ready to board their balloons. But first… Ash felt the need to speak out one last time against the trainer he saw as his rival.
“Paul, let’s do this!” Ash challenged, with Pikachu backing him up. Paul turned around to acknowledge Ash, but remained silent.
Time seemed to stand still as the two had their wordless standoff. Yes, it certainly did feel like fate.
But Rhonda was quick to move things along. “So now we’re down to the final around! The question is, which team will be crowned our winner?”
Already ascending in their balloons by this point, Ash and Paul continued to glare at each other without exchanging a single word. Paul had to admit that Ash seemed especially focused today… and with good reason. Ash remembered the emotional turmoil he went through when Grotle was needlessly hospitalized. While he accepted his own faults as a trainer for being ignorant to Grotle’s changes, Ash found it difficult to forgive Paul for what he had done.
It was time to settle this.
Ash was quick to make the first move, throwing his Pokéball. “Now, Staravia! I choose you…!”
“Honchkrow, stand by for battle!” Paul called out almost at the same time. Both Pokéballs unleashed the Flying-type competitors.
Simultaneously, both made a beeline for the ring, though Staravia seemed to be the faster of the two…
“And Staravia takes the lead!” Rhonda announced just as Staravia snatched the ring.
Ash was thrilled. “Staravia, great!” he cheered, though Paul was determined to cut the victory short.
“Use Sky Attack!” he called out, and within seconds the Big Boss Pokémon was glowing with that strong, familiar energy again; Staravia was the imminent target.
Relatively calm about this threatening move, Ash had an idea. “Staravia, counter with Brave Bird!” he yelled, and promptly the Starling Pokémon built up energy that made it literally seem that it was on fire.
The fire soon dissipated into sparkling blue energy as Staravia reached full power. The powerful flying attacks made an explosive collision, shocking the audience as the smoke obscured much of the air. But Staravia was soon seen falling back, clearly injured by the contact, but was still in possession of the ring. Still, it was sent flying back beyond its control, worrying Ash and Pikachu both.
“Staravia, no!” he cried out, apprehensive when Honchkrow emerged from the smoke looking relatively unscathed.
Paul decided to not let this opportunity go to waste. “Night Slash, go!”
With a single glowing wing, Honchkrow was once again in pursuit of the ailing Staravia, who struggled to regain control of its movement. Ash only hoped Staravia was able to heed his orders in this state.
“Now, dodge it with Quick Attack!” Ash commanded, which Staravia clearly heard and regained its focus. Just before Honchkrow could slam its wing over Staravia’s head, the Starling Pokémon flew up and over its much larger opponent. Honchkrow quickly turned around, not even taking a moment to be surprised or dumbfounded by Staravia’s sudden dodge.
Ash thought he had a chance here… “Staravia, head for the goal…!”
And so it did, but Honchkrow was in hot pursuit of its opponent, and Paul certainly wasn’t letting Ash off that easily.
“Dark Pulse, now!” Paul ordered, which Honchkrow immediately followed. It spewed a beam of dark, purplish energy straight at Staravia, landing a direct (and critical) hit. Finally, the hit was strong enough to force the ring out of Staravia’s beak.
“Staravia!!” Ash cried out with concern, but was relieved when Staravia quickly reclaimed the ring. It resumed its path towards the goal, but Honchkrow was still right on Staravia’s tail, close enough for another devastating attack to hit.
“And Staravia dives straight for the goal!” Rhonda shouted out. It seemed Staravia had a clean shot at victory, but just then, the wind picked up and changed direction once more. A sudden upper draft forced Staravia back up and away from the goal, startling Ash as well as the crowd.
“And it’s another sudden wind gust!” Rhonda needlessly pointed out.
Paul immediately took advantage of the situation… he was quite the opportunist when it came right down to it. “Ride the wind and use Aerial Ace!” he called out. He knew utilizing the wind’s power was a very handy tool for his previous victories in this competition. Even though Ash had maintained possession of the ring almost the entire time, Paul remained calm, knowing all would fall into place in his favor if he granted just the slightest bit of patience (much as he hated to do so).
Staravia, still stunned with the upper draft pushing against it, was a sitting duck for Honchkrow’s can’t-miss attack. It was brutally shot upward after the collision. By this point, Ash too was contending with the upper draft that made it hard for him to concentrate as well. He could see that this was no place for Staravia to be, and in order to win, he would have to get Staravia out of there somehow.
“Hurry, Staravia!” the young trainer urged. “Get out of the wind and head for the goal!”
Easier said than done, really. Staravia did its best to focus, but found it hard to move in just about any direction with a wind as powerful as this consuming it.
Paul too experienced the powerful upper draft from his balloon. Firmly gripping his hands on the edge, he maintained focus on Honchkrow at all times, ignoring the chaos completely. “Use the wind to your advantage with back-to-back Aerial Aces!”
He figured if it worked this well, why not abuse it as long as Staravia was trapped within the wind, rendered helpless? Honchkrow darted upward, charging up and preparing for another brutal impact. Ash was tired of being a slave to the wind, however.
“Dodge it!” he thoughtlessly commanded, forgetting that Aerial Ace was a move that guaranteed a hit. But to everyone’s surprise, Staravia was able to use the wind in a unique situation to make Honchkrow miss every attempted hit. Honchkrow really had no more power over the wind than Staravia did, and was unable to maneuver around Staravia within the current.
But it became overconfident, and sadly, by the third go-around, Honchkrow brutally nailed Staravia right where Paul wanted it. The ring was knocked out of Staravia’s possession again… and this time, Honchkrow was the one who claimed it.
The birds glared at each other, knowing this was far from over.
Paul had no interest in this developing rivalry, however. “Honchkrow, now head for the goal!” He was ready to wrap this up and get out of town as quickly as possible. Paul certainly wouldn’t shed a tear if he never saw this town again; he couldn’t imagine who would willingly live here, really…
Honchkrow made a beeline for the goal as the roles were reversed. Now Staravia was the one who did the chasing, and Ash wasn’t done with Paul yet; not by a long shot.
“Use Aerial Ace and get that ring back!” Ash shouted, determined and focused once more.
The considerably quicker Staravia whirled around and picked up speed while approaching Honchkrow with a build-up of energy, ready to return the favor.
“Dodge it!” Paul commanded, figuring it could work for him if it could work for Ash. Honchkrow ducked underneath Staravia at the last second, letting the Starling Pokémon zoom straight past it.
Ash was quick to pick up on this and continued his assault. “Use Quick Attack and fly down!” The idea was to use the clever maneuvering to get close enough to Honchkrow to snag that ring back, apparently. Staravia looped around and darted in a zigzag motion toward the opponent.
The two birds did not collide, but that was not Ash’s intention in the first place. Staravia simply flew downwards, passing by Honchkrow and was conveniently close enough to snag the ring just like that, giving Staravia the advantage and the homestretch towards victory. It was a big surprise for Honchkrow to be tricked like that, and Ash was ecstatic.
“Awesome!” he cheered. “Now head straight for the goal!”
Following Pikachu’s encouraging cries, Staravia did just that; the goal seemed so close now. It was only a matter of time…
… For Paul’s Honchkrow to counter-attack seemingly out of nowhere, landing yet another critical blow on Staravia.
Ash was horrified, watching his Pokémon go down. “Staravia, no!!”
And Paul wasn’t done yet. “Night Slash!”
Honchkrow loomed behind the injured and seemingly-unaware Staravia with its glowing wing once more, but Ash wasn’t going down so easily.
“Counter it with Quick Attack again!” Ash cried out, hoping Staravia had the strength to keep this up. And luck was on his side today, for Staravia did recover in time to stop itself from falling and suddenly change direction, heading straight for the charging Honchkrow. Perhaps it was Honchkrow’s good luck that allowed it to dodge that potential nasty collision; Staravia shot like a bullet past the Big Boss Pokémon. Ash was effectively stunned.
“We’re not falling for that twice,” Paul said flatly just before Honchkrow caught up with Staravia and slammed it viciously with Night Slash.
Staravia was thrown down straight into the ground, cracking it and skidding off some ways before finally stopping.
It was a tense and stressful battle to even watch, if Brock and Dawn’s reactions were evident.
“Wow, Honchkrow dodged Quick Attack,” Dawn said breathlessly; her eyes glued to the scene.
“This is not a good thing,” Brock told her. “If Quick Attack won’t work, Staravia hasn’t any other moves that can match Honchkrow’s speed.”
Staravia was down, but still had the ring. However, Honchkrow loomed over menacingly, and things were not boding well for Ash at all. Even Paul was a bit impressed with Honchkrow’s abilities today. He usually relied on Weavile for unbeatable speed; as far as standard Flying-types go, the Honchkrow species was on the lower end of the totem pole as far as speediness was concerned. Perhaps the long road to recovery inspired Honchkrow to put more effort than usual into this match, and for that, Paul was pleased.
Ash’s balloon lowered so he could properly communicate with his downed Pokémon. He knew in his heart that Staravia just wasn’t done yet in spite of how it looked.
“Show ‘em how strong you are, Staravia!” he shouted in desperation. Following Pikachu’s cries, Staravia opened an eye and twitched, regaining its ability to move. There wasn’t much left in the tank, but Staravia itself knew it couldn’t allow itself to quit and let Ash down again. It knew as well as the rest of Ash’s Pokémon how badly Paul got to him, especially after a fresh loss. Grotle was completely torn up for failing to win the last battle for Ash, and honestly, Staravia couldn’t blame it. The last thing it wanted to see was Ash’s hopes and dreams crushed once again by the rude and callous rival.
Said rival also descended on his balloon, leveling with Ash. “Pathetic,” he remarked. “Just how can he honestly think encouragement could do a thing?!”
That was something Paul truly hated about Ash; his ridiculous beliefs that included nonsense such as the idea that encouragement and undying faith can help one win in any scenario. Paul felt he knew that better than Ash ever could; after all, he was very familiar with this line of thought. It’s the very same that Reggie possessed back then when he was still a trainer, and to a degree, still holds today.
But Paul knew it was a flawed philosophy inside-out. Reggie’s loss to Brandon four years ago proved that to him well enough. He honestly didn’t care whether or not Ash suffered the same fate later on down the road, but Paul felt tormented by the avocation of it alone. Memories of the past haunted him… it was why Paul didn’t like being around Ash for too long. To him, Ash was merely another Reggie who hadn’t yet experienced his career-ending defeat… but Paul knew it was imminent. He didn’t know or care when, but was certain that was to be Ash’s ultimate fate.
And now, Paul was ready to show Ash a preview of that upcoming misery by defeating him once more. “Wrap it up with Sky Attack!”
It seemed to be the end. As Honchkrow charged up, the audience looked on with bated breath.
“Honchkrow mercilessly unleashes Sky Attack on a motionless Staravia!” Rhonda announced in a dramatic tone. “Is this it for Team Ash?!”
Ash growled in frustration upon hearing that, unwilling to let it end this way. Not after what happened last time… Ash was determined to save Staravia from the fate Grotle suffered at the hands of Honchkrow.
“YOU CAN DO IT, STARAVIA!!” Ash screamed out; what was always his last resort in encouraging his Pokémon.
And surprisingly, it worked. Staravia regained its strength and took to the air just before Honchkrow made contact with the severely weakened Pokémon. No one seemed to expect this.
Honchkrow looked up in confusion as Staravia, still with the ring tightly clenched with its beak, flew higher into the air and was suddenly consumed with an unusual, blinding glow.
“Oh man!” This wasn’t something Ash planned, but he had an idea of what it might be. Paul stared on silently as the entire audience witnessed a metamorphosis of sorts taking place. Staravia’s wings grew significantly larger, as did its tail feathers.
“Is that what I think it is?!” Dawn wondered out loud. Piplup was equally curious.
Brock smiled knowingly. “Staravia’s evolving!”
Indeed, the glowing figure of Staravia was transforming into something else entirely. Ash’s encouragement gave it the strength to will itself into an evolution. And suddenly, for a very good reason, Paul felt a bit of déjà vu. After all… it was in the middle of a battle when Grotle evolved, and against Honchkrow, no less. Paul was a little amused to see this sort of incident happen once more under his influence.
This was a familiar face for Paul to see once the evolution was complete… after all, his brother possessed one of the same species and it was a very valuable member of his team back in the day: Staraptor.
Ash’s Staraptor proudly sailed across the sky as the others marveled at the sight.
“Staravia evolved into Staraptor!” Ash said with awe, taking out his PokéDex to analyze his freshly-evolved Pokémon. The entry reported:
“Staraptor, the Predator Pokémon. Staraptor has an aggressive temperament, and will bravely detect enemies that are far bigger than itself.”
Staraptor showed off its aggression by growling fiercely at Honchkrow, who it was face-to-face with at this point.
Just because his opponent’s Pokémon evolved didn’t guarantee a win; Paul knew that very well. He pulled it off once, and knew he could do so again with ease if he just remained focused.
“Just stay calm!” Paul advised, showing nothing but disdain for Ash’s achievement. “Night Slash!”
Honchkrow knew to take this seriously; both wings now glowed rather than just one. It charged at Staraptor, but Ash felt rejuvenated with the excitement of Staraptor’s long-awaited evolution.
“Staraptor, dodge it now!” he yelled out, which Staraptor followed through with ease. It appeared Staraptor’s evolution really upped its overall speed, which would be difficult for the overworked Honchkrow to compensate for. And Honchkrow certainly did put all of its effort into its attack, slashing at the Predator Pokémon repeatedly with all its might, but Staraptor outmatched its foe at every twist and turn.
One brief pause in Staraptor’s movements to relish in its apparent victory was cut short when Honchkrow finally landed a hit, knocking the ring clear out of its beak. As it fell, Paul was quick to urge Honchkrow to pick up the slack and finish this match before Staraptor could overwhelm the competition.
“Get that ring!” Paul yelled, now unable to help feeling a bit anxious over this ordeal. It was definitely making his stomach flip-flop, but for now, he had no choice but to endure it.
“Grab that ring before Honchkrow!” Ash followed suit, matching Paul every step of the way now. Both birds rushed for the ring, neck-and-neck. As the two side-glanced at each other, a fight suddenly broke out. Simultaneously while approaching the ring, Honchkrow and Staraptor circled each other, exchanging blows in an attempt to throw the other off track.
It was quite distracting, but Paul figured Honchkrow had the right idea and decided to make Staraptor’s defeat a sure thing. “Night Slash!” he ordered in timely fashion, as Honchkrow landed a fierce hit with its foe in close range. The temporary stun Staraptor suffered after gave Honchkrow the time it needed to zip ahead, but it was hot on Honchkrow’s tail once it realized what was going on.
Thanks to Staraptor’s speed, it wasn’t long before the two Pokémon were once again neck-and-neck, and yet another brawl broke out in mid-descent. This time, however, Staraptor was bringing something different to the table: fierce kicks from its legs that landed particularly harshly upon the Big Boss Pokémon. This wasn’t something Ash had planned, as he looked on, rather dumbfounded at the new element added to the fight.
The audience too noticed the change, and Dawn was quick to point it out. “Look at that!”
Paul was taken aback by this. “What…?!”
“Staraptor knows Close Combat!” Dawn exclaimed, properly identifying the technique.
“Right!” Brock confirmed. “Close Combat’s a Fighting-type move, and it’s super-effective against Dark-types like Honchkrow!”
It helped that Close Combat itself was a fiercely powerful move, evident as Staraptor finished up with a devastating right hook from its wing, knocking Honchkrow silly. It fell back, awaiting further orders while Ash gushed at the fact that his Pokémon not only gained an evolution, but also a new move.
“That was so awesome, Staraptor!” Ash congratulated, overjoyed with the results even though the battle was not yet over. “You can use Close Combat!”
He pointed out to the field valiantly, remembering that there was still a ring that needed to be captured and secured into a goal. “Alright! Keep it up and get that ring!”
Staraptor agreed and resumed the battle, flying towards its objective. Paul was quick to react to this, determined to prevent Ash from coming out of this battle with all good news. “Honchkrow, get the ring first!” He was honestly running low on clever ideas at this point, running on pure desperation and refusal to lose to the Pallet Town trainer. He had gone this long undefeated by Ash, and wasn’t about to let that streak end here.
But try as it might, even as Honchkrow darted straight for the target, Staraptor easily made it to the ring first and headed its way towards the goal.
“Night Slash!” Paul called out as the chase resumed.
“Dodge it!” Ash instructed, which Staraptor again did with relative ease compared to how it fared against Honchkrow as a Staravia. Staraptor managed to loop around and end up right behind Honchkrow, leaving the latter wide open for an attack. Ash was keen on the details for once and took advantage of this. “Alright, use Brave Bird!”
The very move that Paul’s brother taught this Pokémon was working wonders for Staraptor’s performance. It was at this point in battle where Brave Bird came in handy, as though it also damaged the user; the end point of the battle usually nullified that drawback.
As Staraptor charged forth, bursting with energy, Paul knew it was wise not to ignore the potential of such a devastating move. “Sky Attack!”
Honchkrow whirled around, enveloped with energy as it came straight towards Staraptor. An explosive collision resulted in their clash, sending the ring out of Staraptor’s grasp and way out beyond the range of the explosion. It was heading straight towards the goal, and it was anyone’s game now; whoever could recover from that latest crash.
“Get that ring!!” both Paul and Ash cried simultaneously. As a result, Honchkrow and Staraptor burst forth from the smoke, with Honchkrow slightly ahead of the game.
This confused Dawn after seeing Staraptor easily run circles around Honchkrow. “So why is Staraptor lagging behind…?” she wondered.
“It must be from all the damage it took earlier,” Brock assumed. “Remember, Brave Bird damages the user as well as the target. Sky Attack doesn’t have a drawback like that… With everything that’s gone on in this battle, as long as it’s been dragged out, Staraptor’s probably reached its limit.”
“Then Ash and Staraptor are going to…?!” Dawn was too horrified to finish her sentence.
“It’s not over yet,” Brock calmly reminded her. “But the end is nigh.”
Rhonda seemed to notice that as well. “The ring is falling right near the goal! Whichever team grabs the ring first will be our big winner!”
Paul smirked, as it appeared to be obvious that Honchkrow would get it first. Staraptor was simply too tired to keep up at this point, and knew he had it in the bag. For all of the torment he’d gone through in the past month, the thought of putting Ash in his place as the “worthless trainer” he deemed the so-called rival to be was a huge relief. If nothing else, it proved to Paul that he himself remained a competent trainer.
But Ash was not satisfied with this. He was not going to throw in the towel just yet. He felt this was when Paul would get a little preview of his imminent comeuppance. This wasn’t a traditional battle and Ash knew that Paul likely wouldn’t count this battle regardless of which way it went, but that didn’t deter the Kanto trainer from giving it his all. If nothing else, it would prove that Paul was not the invincible trainer he made himself out to be.
“Ah, Staraptor! You can do it!” he yelled. “Get that ring and put it on the goal!!”
It wasn’t very much of a specific order, but Staraptor inherently seemed to know just how to win this match. With its last ounces of strength, Staraptor pushed itself right in Honchkrow’s personal space, extending a wing past the Big Boss Pokémon. Thanks to the evolution, Staraptor’s wings were long enough to smack the ring further away from Honchkrow. The ring went flying as a result.
It flew straight into the goal.
After a moment of silence, a roaring cheer emitted from the audience. The scoreboard confirmed it, and Rhonda did the same seconds later. “GOAL…!! And the winner is Team Ash!”
Upon hearing those words, Paul was overwhelmed with a deep, dark feeling in his gut. The adrenaline rush had worn off and consequently, Paul felt like a wreck. Not that this was a surprise…
After all, he had just lost. To Ash, of all people.
While time seemed to freeze in that moment of dread for Paul, Ash felt as if he were on top of the world.
“We did it, Staraptor!” Ash cheered. Pikachu called out to it in its congratulatory way before Staraptor flew over to its trainer, overjoyed that it succeeded in pulling off what seemed like a milestone for Ash.
Admittedly, Brock could not have predicted that it would end this way. And neither could Dawn, as she looked up at the winners with admiration. “I thought Staraptor would’ve used its feet instead of its wing to hit the goal!”
“Leave it to Ash to surprise you every time,” Brock remarked, joyous himself that this day would end on a happy note. “I hope he remembers this the next time he and Paul have a traditional battle.”
“You’re right,” Dawn agreed, nodding vigorously. “Paul may have a good strategy, but Ash is the one who surprises everybody!”
But Brock knew Paul would learn from this as well. This would be his warning sign; to step up, or soon face a real defeat by a trainer he despised. Such signs were taken seriously by Paul, if his past loss to Cynthia was any indication.
Honchkrow was already earthbound by the time Paul fully descended upon the balloon. He shook off his discomfort, hardening himself for any potential encounters as a result of his status as a runner-up. Not to mention Paul felt the need to scold Honchkrow for failing him twice in a row.
“We didn’t win because your reaction time was too slow,” Paul harshly criticized, humbling even the massively egotistical Honchkrow as it bowed its head in apology to its trainer. Paul disregarded it (as he often did) and recalled Honchkrow back into its Pokéball. Once he stored it away, Paul looked up to see Ash, Pikachu, and Staraptor all facing him on the other side of the field.
But with no interest whatsoever to speak with the winners most of all, Paul turned around to walk off before Ash could get a word in edgewise. Ash stared on without saying a thing; judging from Paul’s reaction, Ash wasn’t quite certain what to make of this victory. Like before, he figured since this wasn’t a real battle that Paul would quickly forget this event ever happened. Similar to the Hearthome Tag Battle, Paul did not have his heart in the PokéRinger competition; at least, not until it came down to the wire and Ash was getting the better of him.
However, even Ash figured Paul had no interest in the prizes to be won; the year’s worth of Pokémon food and the title of an honorary citizen of Squallville. Neither of those seemed to be up Paul’s alley, so Ash assumed the same as Brock: Paul only entered this to strengthen his Honchkrow. Once again, an encounter with Paul brought forth an evolution in Ash’s team. Every form of competition held a special place in Ash’s heart… and he figured in some way he should be thanking Paul for inadvertently strengthening his team.
In the end, though… Paul was simply a jerk. A jerk that needed to be taken down, Ash believed, by a caring and loving trainer such as himself. To open his eyes and let him see the error of his ways… that was an important goal of Ash’s he meant to achieve while he was in the Sinnoh region.
Then, Ash registered the screeches and cheering in his ears. He smiled ruefully, looking to his two Pokémon. This was a time to celebrate, he knew; not behave like Paul would have.
While the closing ceremonies were being set up, Rhonda noticed Paul, the runner-up, leaving the arena entirely. For the entire time since she had been announcing the competition, she couldn’t help but feel there was something familiar about that boy. He had a rather striking appearance… always hungry for a potential scoop, Rhonda made a mental note to research that young man. She knew the celebrities of Sinnoh liked to be reclusive, and Squallville was quite definitive of the word.
Did it seem desperate? Yes. But by this point in her career, it was evident that Rhonda had little shame to spare.
Several citizens across the Sinnoh region watched the live broadcast and were satisfied with the action that was brought by the contestants. As Ash was being handed his certificate and Pokémon food, reactions were being made… some different from others.
In a small settlement called Shelter Town, where the entire area was covered with a thick layer of snow, there were some amused remarks coming from the local diner; a simple establishment of a twenty-four hour, all-day breakfast diner that had been running for decades. The menus remained simple and straightforward throughout the years, and the usual customers were often truckers whom needed a place to recharge their energy to complete a long drive.
He wasn’t a trucker, but Brandon surely did more work than anyone else in the diner to get here. Additionally, thanks to his appearance, he blended right in with the crowd. Climbing and scaling the mountains by foot, Brandon inched ever-closer to Snowpoint City. He had been to this small town before, amused that it, unlike other Sinnoh locations, hadn’t changed a bit since he last came by. It was a welcome break from his adventure, and surely enough, there were people in the diner who recognized the Pyramid King, crowding around him as if they were attempting to resemble a posse of some sort. Brandon merely grinned and let them have their way. A small television was installed on the ceiling, often showing sports events to entertain the customers. Sure enough, what was just wrapping up was the PokéRinger competition.
Brandon had watched the entire thing. The second he saw his son on the screen, he was glued to his seat.
“Looks like your son didn’t win, Brandon,” one of the truckers slyly remarked. “He ain’t at your level yet, huh?”
Brandon bowed his head, speaking calmly. “He did very well to reach second place, but the kid needs a lot of work. It’s no surprise he didn’t win… I happen to know the winner as well.”
“You do?!” many of them shouted in unison; just as many in disbelief.
“I do,” Brandon assured with a nod. “Ash Ketchum from Pallet Town… one of the few trainers who can boast the accomplishment of conquering Kanto’s Battle Frontier.”
There were gapes all around.
“Yes,” he stiffly affirmed. “That means he has defeated even myself in the past. He turned down the opportunity to become a Frontier Brain in favor of pursuing this region’s riches and experiences. Can’t say I blame the kid, really.”
Brandon was very talented in hiding it, but he was rather giddy about seeing his son and Ash collide in battle. Just weeks ago when he was still in Kanto, he expressed an interest of seeing a rivalry between the two. He analyzed their expressions throughout the battle, coming to the conclusion that the two have indeed met before.
It just seemed all too perfect.
“So Brandon, is it true you’ve got legendary Pokémon on your team?” another trucker asked. “Because you know we wanna see ‘em, and if a kid like that can beat you, then maybe you’ve lost your touch, old-timer!”
The Frontier Brain’s eyes narrowed at the suggestion. “You believe that? It sounds like you want to battle me.”
“Hecks yeah I wanna battle!” the same trucker shouted. “Don’t we, guys?!”
The others hollered in agreement, prompting Brandon to stand up and head for the front door.
“Then let’s make it so,” Brandon offered, rather generously. He often refused traditional battles from strangers these days, but he felt if some Sinnoh citizens honestly felt that way about him that they must be shown otherwise. “A triple battle. Three of you step up to the plate and send out one of your best Pokémon against three of my best.”
There were various reactions to this challenge, most along the lines of “He’s crazy!” and variations of the saying. But eventually, three challengers emerged from the crowd, staring straight at Brandon with a strong competitive will.
Brandon nodded to the challengers and stepped outside. Following him was virtually every person in the diner, not about to miss on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this.
Just like it was obvious which three Pokémon Brandon sent out, the outcome of said impromptu battle was also fairly predictable.
In the end, Brandon left Shelter Town with a satisfied smirk on his face. At least one settlement in Sinnoh knew the Pyramid King still had it after all these years.
Paul was ready to leave Squallville like yesterday. He looked up expectantly at Doctor Dalton, wanting the test results and earning his freedom from this secluded village.
Dalton, however, was slightly hesitant about it, and for good reason. But he knew in his heart that this was the best he could do for the young man at this point.
“As promised,” he said softly, handing Paul a stapled batch of paper. “It’s up to you, what you want to do from here.”
Not-so-softly, Paul snatched the paper and carelessly stuffed it in his backpack, much like in the harsh manner that he stored away his father’s letter a month ago. “I’m leaving,” he said. “And that’s that.”
“Of course,” Dalton consented with a nod. “But you have our number now… if you have any questions…”
The doctor was startled when Paul quickly turned around and left the facility without even as much as a farewell. Once he was out of sight, Dalton turned away and sighed, muttering quietly.
“Oh, Miss Andrea… you were right. He is stubborn like you.”