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  1. #31
    Achroma = <3 Juuchan17's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    . . . I think I just had the best hour-and-fifteen-minutes of my life reading this.

    Let's see: I'm feeling sorry for poor Conway now (his family TOTALLY sucks some kind of crap) yet I was enjoying his battle with Maylene (*is now a fave character to me*), and I'm feeling like something REAL ominous is close to happening.

    I'm loving all the shipping opportunities and hints that keep showing up. Seriously, I am.

    And I think we realize how much of an idiot Paul is with his stubbornness thanks to you, but I think we all knew that. (He's so crazy.)

    This has made my night now. Thank you for the read thus far! (It's better than you hinted it would be! *huggles you*)

    - Juuchan17

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  2. #32
    Gonna be a tl;dr Master! Shinneth's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    (It took a while, but here's Chapter 9! Hope it was worth waiting most of the summer for!)

    “Some deathtrap this is,” Paul remarked with sarcasm while traveling on what was called the most dangerous and treacherous path to Snowpoint City. He was in the midst of a fierce blizzard with only a thin jacket and an ordinary pair of pants to shield his body from the coldness. Needless to say, they were quite ineffective in keeping Paul warm, but as always, Paul ignored the discomfort and pain as best he could and continued making progress up Route 216. Still, it had quickly gotten to the point where he kept his bare hands in his coat pockets at all times.

    One thing Conway was right about, though, was that Paul was the only trainer taking this path. Nothing accompanied him but the occasional ambient sound of the habitant Pokémon in the background. With the cloud cover, it was getting dark rather quickly; the further Paul progressed, the dimmer the surroundings became.

    It was then that it occurred to Paul that he would need to either complete this path before sundown or he would need to find some kind of shelter once it became too dark for him to see. Even he knew he couldn’t very well settle in an area like this. Paul couldn’t deny that the path was rather sketchy; he passed through many narrow trails with bottomless pits surrounding all sides, icy slopes, and the occasional eerie sound that Paul couldn’t quite figure out where the source was. This path was obviously either very old or very incomplete.

    After carefully stepping over a patch of ice, Paul found himself faced with a roadblock in the form of a stiff, iced-over wall of snow. By this point, Paul was well into the steepest area of the mountain range, so all he had were continuous bottomless pits on all sides (confining Paul to the straight path only). It was considerably dark, but Paul knew there was no way it could be nighttime yet. Priority one was to get past the wall of snow.

    Reluctantly, Paul drew out his very numb hands and placed them on the wall of snow. He hoped he would be able to dig his way through, or at least tear apart what appeared to be a fragile obstacle. But Paul was not pleased to find that the ice covering the snow made it very hard for him to even make a dent in the wall. It didn’t help that after several hours of traveling that Paul’s energy was very low; much lower than he thought it to be. He was unbelievably hungry but had no food in tow (as that was Conway’s job) and no form of vegetation in the area to feed on. Due to this, it was very much a lost cause as Paul continued to punch and scrape at the wall of snow.

    “At least there’s a challenge here after all,” Paul said, oddly eager to have the elements truly test him. He knew Conway overhyped this path and figured this wall of snow to be the final test before reaching a clear way to Snowpoint City. “This ought to be fun…”

    Seeing that his hands were ineffective, Paul decided to kick the wall and break through. Paul had to be careful about this, however, as there was only a small bit of land behind him to support his falling before the ominous crevices where there would be no return. It delighted Paul to see that his kick had cracked the icy barrier surrounding the snow wall. He fell down soon afterward, but landed safely on the small path of ground underneath him. Grinning at the sight of progress being made, Paul readied himself for another kick (even though he was barely able to lift up his own legs at this point). He stopped short when he heard a familiar sound out of nowhere: a Pokémon being released from its ball.

    Paul paused and turned around, seeing none other than his Weavile, who evidently went out of its ball of its own accord.

    “Wea, wea!” Weavile shouted out as its claws began to glow; it was ready to Brick Break that giant wall of snow for its trainer and honestly wondered why it was not called out earlier. Before it was able to make a move, however, Paul extended his arm forward and stopped his Pokémon. He did not look pleased with this surprise at all.

    “I don’t recall asking for your help, Weavile,” Paul harshly scolded it. “You’ve been with me long enough to know I won’t tolerate anyone coming forth without my permission. It isn’t up to you to determine when you’re needed.”

    This left Weavile feeling even more confused. It managed to utter out an inquiring “W-wea…? Vile…” before Paul interrupted once more.

    “You just don’t get it, do you?” Paul said snidely. “I decided to go up this route without any outside help. That isn’t just limited to Conway; it applies to you and the rest of the team as well. So unless you’re intentionally trying to sabotage the bet because Conway was probably far too nice to you while I was unconscious after the last Gym Battle – in which case, you might as well not even return to your Pokéball and just get out of here – I suggest you leave this to me and only come out when I tell you to from now on.”

    Even if it had recently made up for its past shortcomings by winning Paul the Mine Badge, Weavile knew how little it took to get on its trainer’s bad side. Though it didn’t feel comfortable with leaving Paul to fend for himself in these harsh conditions, Paul evidently was not letting anyone change his mind. With a look of resignation, Weavile bowed to its trainer in understanding of what it had been told.

    Most trainers would appreciate their Pokémon’s desire to help even if they did not accept it. In Paul’s case, though, only rarely would he be like “most” trainers. He looked extremely annoyed that Weavile even took a tiny fraction of his time away with its concern. “Then go ahead and return now,” he commanded, aiming the Pokéball towards Weavile and recalled it. As he put the Pokéball away, Paul took out the other five he carried with him and glared down at each one.

    “I hope the rest of you heard that,” Paul warned, still with a threatening tone. He was rather wary now, as Weavile had been with him for a while and usually knew better than to pull something like this. If Weavile would do this, Paul feared all of his more-recent Sinnoh captures would be just as foolhardy. “This is something I need to accomplish on my own, and that’s how I intend to finish out. Letting your emotions cloud your judgment will only tell me that I was wrong about any of you being worthy to travel along my side. This is your only warning.” Having finished his piece, Paul stored away the rest of the Pokéballs and hoped that was sufficient enough of a threat (that he wasn’t afraid to carry out) to keep them all hushed for the rest of this journey.

    He was losing precious sunlight over this, and with that, Paul turned back to his obstacle. As his unprotected, numb hands chipped away at the ice he cracked open, Paul was quickly finding it harder and harder to maintain perfect focus. He felt extremely tired and even a bit nauseous (which he found odd, considering how hungry he was). Still, the young trainer had traveled enough to know it was an extremely bad idea to pass out at a time like this. Paul still figured Snowpoint City to be close by – perhaps even within view after getting this wall torn down. He’d traveled so far that he couldn’t see why he wouldn’t be there by now… especially if this was the alleged “short” way to the destination.

    With that in mind, Paul continued to ignore his body failing on him as best he could after clearing away enough ice to finally dig into the snowy layer underneath. This was considerably easier to dig out, and by pushing from within the snow behind, Paul was able to take out large chunks of the icy layer that he didn’t already dismantle.

    Not far away, Conway’s Castform (in its Snow-cloud transformation) watched its trainer’s companion with extreme concern. It had been monitoring Paul’s progress nonstop since Conway sent it and Slowking off and was ready at a moment’s notice to report back to Slowking and signal it to call for help when the time was right. What was difficult about this was that Paul had traveled so far now that it was hard to determine whether or not the help from the town Conway was in would reach Paul in time should anything happen to him. Granted, with vehicles, anyone would be able to travel the distance Paul traveled on foot in a much shorter amount of time… but at this point, it was tricky.

    Castform wasn’t very experienced at this at all… but then again, neither was Slowking. Their trainer was considerably more cautious than Paul ever would be. Still, being in hearing range, Castform could clearly hear the talk-down Weavile had received simply for wanting to help. It knew things wouldn’t be pretty if it was discovered by Paul, and that was more than enough to keep Castform quiet and well-hidden enough to not arouse the trainer’s suspicions that he was being followed. Still, the Weather Pokémon could simply not comprehend why Paul behaved the way he did to his team. It went against every principle that Conway taught his most recent capture.

    It took Paul much longer than he thought it would to make a hole through the wall of snow. It got to the point where he could no longer bear to use his ungloved hands to dig away the powder and improvised through stretching out his own jacket sleeves to cover his hands, then balling both hands into fists and closing off the armholes. Though at this point this really didn’t give Paul any warmth back to his hands (nor did it make them feel any less numb), and it certainly wasn’t easy to dig with balled-up fists, Paul was unable to make any significant further progress with his fingers becoming spastic and uncontrollable. Luckily, he could feel the winds from the other side of the wall seeping through, so Paul knew he was close to breaking out.

    With his hands already formed into fists, Paul weakly punched through the snow and a new layer of ice. Now feeling the winds full-force, he knew he was close enough to the other side to push his way through with very little effort.

    As he did so, the first thing Paul did after brushing the snow off of him was to look back at the obstacle he just plowed through and tiredly smirked. “That’s the best you’ve got…?” Paul rhetorically asked, though his voice was hollow and weary at this point. Even if the pathway wasn’t as menacing as it seemed, Paul would have been just as satisfied if the rest of the way to Snowpoint City was nothing more than mere walking.

    However, as he turned around to face what was ahead of him, Paul was more than a little disappointed. He fully expected to see the city at least from a distance. In reality, there wasn’t even as much as a single light to indicate that Paul was anywhere near civilization. Due to the treacherous nature of the path, there was really only one direction to go the entire way, so Paul knew he didn’t take a wrong turn anywhere.

    But looking at it another way… as Paul was in the middle of a blizzard, the range of visibility was very low. The dense fog and large, rapidly-falling snowflakes would prove to be something that could hide a city very well until one was right in front of it. Paul simply considered this to be the case and that Snowpoint City was still just within reach, even if it couldn’t be seen. He felt terrible right now, but knew this pain would be worth it with his reward of being rid of Conway waiting in the wings. All in all, it made Paul feel great to know he could go beyond his limits and do what most trainers would never think of trying; not even for all the money in the world.

    But all of this fell to pieces – almost literally – as Paul took his first step forward. He was so absorbed with finding Snowpoint City and his survival instincts were dulled from the immense amount of physical endurance his body suffered that thinking to check the ground never came to mind. Due to this, Paul was completely oblivious that his trail continued upwards to the right rather than straight ahead… where there was no ground whatsoever.

    Well, there was ground. But said ground was a few hundred feet below where Paul had been until he took that first step. Paul barely had time to register that he’d just walked off a cliff before gravity quickly took over from there on.

    Paul made a harsh landing much sooner than he thought he would, as he landed stomach-first onto an ice-covered boulder that jutted out from the cliff. Any noise Paul had been making while falling was sufficiently snuffed out due to this, though the interruption to Paul’s fall did very little good for the unfortunate trainer. Stunned from the impact, Paul nearly slid off the boulder already before he tried to grasp onto it.

    The trouble didn’t end there. Not only was there not much of anything for Paul to maintain his hold for very long, but he was far too exhausted to even try to lift himself up, and his hands were in no condition to hang on for dear life. It wasn’t for a lack of effort, but Paul found himself unable to hold onto the boulder for any longer. He slid off and resumed falling to what seemed to be his demise.

    There were still interferences, however, but nothing that really helped at all. Paul attempted to grab onto another rock that stuck out long enough and would support his weight, but the trainer had no way to tell or control the proximity between himself and the rock. Therefore, there wasn’t ample time (not that Paul was in his right mind to judge this anyway) to discern that his hands weren’t the only thing close to the rock. As Paul leaned forward in preparation to grab the rock, he was met with a nasty surprise when the jagged edge of the rock scraped against his forehead. It was a light scrape at best, but that’s all what was needed to bring about bloodshed. This practically paralyzed Paul as he fell helplessly towards the last thing that would break his fall – yet another boulder – which would only make contact with the back of Paul’s head.

    This was enough to completely knock Paul unconscious before he finally hit the ground. His fall being somewhat-interrupted coupled with the fact that there was a copious amount of snow waiting below at least meant that the fall itself did not kill him.

    But numerous outstanding factors were about to.

    Castform quickly rushed over as it heard Paul cry out in reaction to the fall, but there was nothing it could do to reach Paul in time before he made his way to the ground. Slowking was also not far behind, having joined up with its teammate once Paul was immersed in the little cave he made from the wall of snow. Slowking calmly focused its energies in sensing out just how much Paul longer had while Castform nervously watched on below. It wanted to immediately go down to Paul and help, but there was nothing Castform itself could really do. Instead, it awaited commands from Slowking, as it knew Slowking was the one Conway confided in the most. In his absence, Conway’s Pokémon usually knew to listen to Slowking first before anyone else.

    Slowking looked rather grim as it assessed the situation and determined that Paul didn’t have much time left at all. It motioned to Castform that both of them should go down and see what they could best do to preserve Paul’s life before his fellow humans could arrive to aid him. Castform easily did so by floating its way down to where Paul fell; Slowking had to take a much less convenient route by carefully hopping down onto the slippery rocks protruding from the cliff until it was low enough to safely land.

    Just as Castform reached Paul, it was surprisingly greeted by company. After bearing the intense impact of the fall, all of Paul’s Pokémon were shaken and knew something had gone wrong. Against their better judgment, all of them decided to voluntarily come out of their Pokéballs to see what had become of their trainer. Torterra was first, followed by a very jumpy Weavile. Electabuzz and Honchkrow were next, each looking concerned, and finally Ursaring and Gliscor came out. Not all of these Pokémon were well-suited for this weather, so the harsh conditions shocked some more than others.

    What was felt equally amongst them all was the abject horror upon first laying eyes on their trainer, who was indeed down for the count and in critical condition, no less. They all circled around him, trying to figure out what they could do now that Paul could no longer help himself. None of them knew exactly where they were, how to reach the nearest town, or how to even escape the mountain range. Not that they weren’t willing to go off and find out, but none were willing to do so at Paul’s expense. Even though the trainers were vastly different from each other, Paul’s Pokémon all shared a common understanding just like Conway’s did: when in doubt, whenever the trainer cannot have a say, the Pokémon closest to him takes over.

    In this case, it was obviously Torterra whom Paul’s Pokémon knew where to turn to.

    Everyone was surprised to see Castform present, with Slowking following soon after. However, they knew this was a good thing, as it meant that they were not completely stranded and doomed to fend for themselves. Instinctively, all of Paul’s Pokémon surrounded their fallen trainer in an attempt to keep him safe and comfortable for as long as they possibly could.

    They had to be careful, though, as it was soon discovered that Paul wasn’t only bleeding from his forehead; the nasty blow he took on the back of his head was much more severe. Being the largest heat source, Ursaring was the one to be Paul’s primary cover. Electabuzz remained nearby, as it was also a warm source of fur that sufficiently blocked out the snow and wind from an angle. Honchkrow took another side while Torterra easily proved to be the biggest shield against the elements. With those four alone, Paul was protected in a circle of his Pokémon. Gliscor, while not being much of a viable heat source, tried to compensate by spreading its wings to keep away the snow that fell directly over its trainer.

    This left Weavile with no role in preserving Paul’s life. It was about to make a move until Torterra growled at it, which left the Sharp Claw Pokémon stunned enough to stay put. It turned around to face Paul’s starter, who began mumbling various patterns of its name in a way to convey a game plan that only Weavile could pull off.

    It was relatively simple: Weavile was the only Pokémon truly adept to this climate and was also the fastest Pokémon of Paul’s team. Even if it was unsure of its whereabouts, there was no denying that Weavile was the best candidate for finding civilization in order to recruit help. Slowking already expressed in its own way that Conway had been telepathically signaled to take immediate action, so the general idea was for Weavile and Castform to reconvene with Conway (Weavile for getting the help over quickly and Castform to locate Conway’s current position) and bring him to this area to retrieve Paul and take him back to the nearest town.

    The plan seemed awfully time-consuming, which was why Torterra deemed Weavile the only one worthy to pull it off. Slowking, meanwhile, would watch over everyone else and did its part in protecting Paul by forming a Safeguard barrier around everyone present aside from who would go to recruit help. The Pokémon had now done all they could for Paul: it was up to Weavile and Castform to actually save his life.

    Castform confidently attached itself to Weavile; the latter understood what was on the line and assured Torterra and the others that it could be counted on. With no desire to look at the gravely injured and ill Paul any longer, Weavile and Castform took off to perform the rescue mission.

    Indeed, it was a long day that extended well into nighttime by the time Paul was recovered from the snow and taken to the medical facilities based in Butterbridge Town: the last town he and Conway visited before taking to the caves that eventually led to Route 216. It was a close shave, but Paul was stabilized and being well-treated. His Pokémon were also being treated, as the ones who stayed behind to protect him had to go a while enduring the brunt of the blizzard for their trainer’s sake.

    It wasn’t a moment too soon when Conway was contacted by Slowking; he’d just finished purchasing his own winter outfit, for he knew it was all but inevitable that he would need it soon enough. He scrambled to put it on, as it was a full outfit that he needed in order to survive the brutally cold temperatures, and immediately took off to Route 216 after requesting backup once he met up with Weavile and Castform.

    But now that had all come and gone… it was very late at night at this point, but Conway couldn’t get himself to fall asleep until he saw for himself that Paul would make it out alright and at least wake up. For the amount of blood lost – from his head of all places – Conway very well knew this incident would haunt Paul for years to come even if he did make it out alright. The odds were still against him, but there was still a chance that Paul would recover without incident.

    Nonetheless, Conway had never before felt guiltier than he did at this moment. Castform and Slowking were still in his company, as Conway hated to be left alone in a time of crisis like this. Weavile was also still out, as it was the only Pokémon of Paul’s who didn’t require treatment due to the fact that the species was built to endure harsh conditions like blizzards and sub-zero temperatures. Like Conway, Weavile couldn’t help but feel awful for what had happened and was not content to return to its Pokéball until it was a sure thing that Paul would be alright.

    Beyond the head injuries, Paul was in the midst of stage 2 hypothermia when he was discovered. The ends of his fingers were beginning to redden, signifying the second stage of frostbite as well. The latter at least was being taken care of, though it would surely cause some pain later on in the form of blistering and skin-peeling.

    Though Conway felt terrible about letting this happen to Paul, he honestly wondered what was going through Paul’s head and how he could actually let himself get this bad. It was simply illogical. Of course, he had to go through every obstacle Paul went through initially in order to rescue him, so Conway knew Paul didn’t have many options for shelter. Still, at some point Conway liked to think that even Paul would know a lost cause when he saw one and simply turn around and head back after a while.

    Evidently, there was still much to learn about Paul, Conway realized. For the time they would be spending together, he intended to learn as much as he could… and hopefully would be able to prevent another disaster like this from happening.

    What was going on in Paul’s head was another matter entirely. Much like his brother, his brush with certain death left his mind in complete disarray. But unlike Reggie, Paul’s subconscious was not greeted by a strange spirit with his mother’s face – not that Paul would even recognize her anyway. Typically, Paul’s subconscious was littered with his own life flashing by with genuine memories.

    But there was something that didn’t quite fit in.

    It was a blurry scene, but it was obvious that the setting was within his house. Someone was speaking to him, but Paul was unable to tell who it was. What was rather jarring about this image was that the Paul seen in this alleged memory was extremely young; far too young to be able to remember much of anything, which made Paul hesitant to consider this an actual memory of his.

    He couldn’t have been any more than five years old in the scene. What was also odd was that by this point, another memory would’ve flashed in to replace what he was currently seeing; everything Paul remembered blazed by at the speed of light. But there was something about this one in particular… since Paul never remembered much of anything at such a young age, it was assumed that he was trying to figure out the meaning behind this one… and why it was so unfamiliar for him.

    Still, it was nonetheless disturbing for Paul to see himself as a wide-eyed, naïve and seemingly-sensitive little boy. The young Paul was obviously upset over something, as he was beginning to tear up and do his best to hold back from sobbing. Such emotional outbursts were an alien concept to Paul – he couldn’t even remember the last time he actually cried over anything. Even Reggie was a little disturbed over how hardened his brother had become over a short period of time.

    But now more details were becoming apparent: the young Paul was holding someone’s hand. Since he was the youngest in the household, Paul found it odd that his younger self was looking down at who he was talking to and crying over.

    Paul still couldn’t make heads or tails of who his younger self was with… whose hand he was holding.

    Just before the young Paul screamed out and flung himself against who he was with, a very unfamiliar voice got through; poignant and clear.

    … Please tell them…

    The voice was that of a woman’s. And just then, the young Paul was stunned, motionless, and just as lifeless as the hand that went limp in his grasp.

    The Paul of the present woke up just then, heaving in and out deeply as his blurred vision confirmed that none of what he saw was really happening. Not long after, Paul was shocked to see Conway leaning over him, as the sudden noise jolted his companion (who’d been waiting for this for hours).

    Despite his worries, Conway tried his best not to show Paul just how frazzled he’d been about the situation. Instead, he gave Paul a warm, reassuring smile. “Had a bad dream, huh…?”

    Even though he was awake, Paul had trouble getting a clear idea of what had happened to him… why he was stuck in bed, and why he felt like he’d just been hit by a train. “S-something like that…” he responded, though it came off sounding much weaker than Paul would’ve liked. It was then he was becoming aware of just how bad off he was. “Where… where am I…?”

    “Back in town where we started before you went on your crazy little solo mission,” Conway confirmed, now sounding a tad bitter. “I really hate myself for letting you get this bad off, but at least I had the foresight to have Castform and Slowking keep tabs on you just in case something like this happened. If they hadn’t followed you, we may have not been able to reach you in time, you know.”

    Things were finally beginning to come back to Paul, now. “… So then… Snowpoint City…”

    “You didn’t make it, no,” Conway said. “Not even close. I’m not sure how much you remember about what happened, but judging from what I’ve gotten from Slowking, it seems you fell off a cliff and sustained some head injuries before falling hundreds of feet to the ground. You were afflicted with both hypothermia and frostbite, so if you’re wondering why you feel like a wreck, then… that would be why.”

    “All that…?” At least that explained why Paul was unable to feel or control his bare hands, not to mention the fatigue, nausea, and obscured vision. “But I don’t…”

    “Don’t start,” Conway sharply ordered. “I’ve got bonafide Pokémon testimonies that confirm that’s exactly what happened to you. I will say I’m impressed that you got as far as you did, but in the end, that just made it even scarier for us when we had to dig you out of the snow. It was a race against the clock to save your life… all for what, your satisfying your ego? You should have…” Then Conway sighed, looking defeated. “… Alright, sorry. You just woke up and here I am insulting you already. Really, I am glad you made it out alive. You really scare me sometimes, you know? It’s not the personality… it’s your recklessness. I should’ve stood up to you better.”

    Though Paul could barely move, he regarded his companion’s words with skepticism. “Stop acting like you’re responsible for what I do,” he requested. “It doesn’t… make any sense; you apologizing for something I did of my own free will. You… didn’t tell Reggie yet, did you…?”

    “I didn’t,” Conway responded, shaking his head. “I’ve mostly been too afraid to do so right now. At the very least, I wanted to wait and see if you were going to recover from this before I could get myself to call him, but if you want me to go ahead-”

    “No,” Paul softly interrupted. “Don’t tell him. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him… it’s not like Reggie’s in prime condition as far as his head’s concerned, either. We shouldn’t bother him.”

    To that, Conway was confused. He obviously hadn’t been told about the conversation the two brothers had before leaving Veilstone City that led to him accompanying Paul to Snowpoint to begin with. “You… sure you’re okay, Paul? Reggie made a full recovery, remember? The only time he seemed a little off-kilter was when you kept antagonizing him with your accusations. And for that, I certainly don’t blame him for snapping.”

    “It’s not that,” Paul mumbled. “But… you said you found me in the snow, right?”

    “Um, yes,” Conway affirmed, wondering why Paul would ask him such an obvious thing. “What does that have to do with anything?”

    He really didn’t want to tell Conway about this, but Paul was hardly in the condition to have a battle of wits with his companion. “Was I… bleeding?”

    Conway nodded. “Quite a bit. Remember, I said you sustained head injuries. Both your forehead and the back of your head were busted open… we suspect you might’ve fallen over some of the rocks that were coming from the cliff you fell from. Getting hit like that… you were probably knocked out instantly before you even hit the ground.”

    This was a cause for concern. Not for the head injuries, but Paul was well beyond surprised when he realized all the visuals perfectly matched what Reggie had seen in his dream days ago… the dream that was haunting enough to change his older brother’s mind and convince him to keep Paul as far away from Snowpoint City as possible.

    “When we found you, we thought it was too late already,” Conway continued. “If it weren’t for your Pokémon taking care of you, it likely would have been, so you owe them a major thank-you for saving your life, Paul.”

    It was then that Paul noticed his Weavile was out of its Pokéball, looking down over its trainer with relief. Paul did remember how he told off this particular Pokémon hours ago, so it pained him to think he would have to apologize and thank this one. When he looked to Weavile, he simply nodded his head and mumbled something unintelligible. Weavile smiled and found this to be more than enough, but Conway was not impressed.

    “Figures,” Conway grumbled. “Even when you’re helpless in bed, you won’t soften up or be humble for even a few seconds. Weavile and Castform played the biggest part in saving your life since they’re the ones who were able to tell us where you were. Slowking and the rest of your Pokémon stayed behind to shield you from the blizzard. Because of that, all of your Pokémon are being treated right now.” He then gave a reassuring smile to Paul. “But none of them are as bad off as you. One night of rest is all they need. Same really can’t be said for you…”

    “I thought you were going to hold off the insults until I got better,” Paul criticized. Then he paused for a moment. “How… long will that take?”

    “Depends on how quickly you recover,” Conway answered, sounding unsure of himself. “Everyone’s different, so giving an approximation of time is difficult. But seeing as it took you… what, four days to just recover from a cold? I’d say you’re going to be here for a while.”

    Needless to say, Paul was heavily displeased upon hearing this. “You can’t be serious.”

    “It’s your own fault for being impatient… as always,” Conway remarked. “You can’t thoughtlessly rush into things head-on like that, you know? Something like this will end up happening, and then you’ll end up losing more time than you would have if you simply decided to wait out the storm like the rest of the world did.”

    Paul had no way to argue this, because even he could tell that Conway was absolutely right. He had been impatient and bull-headed and that was precisely why he was in this mess to begin with. “I really don’t need to hear this from you right now,” he muttered.

    “I’m not claiming that I’m innocent either,” Conway reminded him. “I should’ve stood up to you better. I mean, I’m older than you…”

    “I doubt you’re that much older than me,” Paul said. “You look like you could pass for fifteen, but you act like you’re… maybe half that.”

    Conway smirked. “So that would mean my behavior is that of a seven and a half year-old?”

    Paul quietly groaned. “Stop being a nerd, please.”

    “Well, I have to say you’re a bit off on your assumption,” Conway informed. “I mean, I always saw you as eleven…”

    “I’m thirteen,” Paul clarified, sounding annoyed. “And if you make any wisecracks about how small I am, I swear I’ll-”

    “Color me surprised,” Conway interrupted. “Wow, I had no idea we were so close.”

    Though hesitant, Paul felt he had to ask. “What do you mean…?”

    “That growth spurt must’ve been more extreme than I thought,” Conway mused. “Guess I owe that to my dad’s tallness… ah, in other words, I’m not fifteen, Paul. I am actually about five months away from turning fourteen.”

    The way Conway worded that was awkward, but Paul was able to see what he meant. “Wait… then that means we’re the same age?”

    “Essentially,” Conway affirmed. “Well, it seems I’m a few months older than you still, but you know what I mean. How interesting!”

    Paul wasn’t sure how to feel about this. He never once imagined Conway actually being in his age group.

    “Going through all those regions… yes, I suppose you would have to be thirteen,” Conway mused. “I should’ve considered that when I initially pegged you… a rare miss on my part. You thought I was two years older and I thought you were two years younger…”

    “Yes, how fascinating,” Paul said, full of sarcasm.

    Conway then looked serious all of a sudden. “Yeah, but back to what we were talking about… why are you so concerned with the details about how you were found?”

    Honestly, Paul hoped Conway would have forgotten about the original topic by now. It was times like this when he hated his acquaintance for being so… smart. “Well… you said I was found in the snow, and there was probably blood everywhere… and I looked dead already, didn’t I?”

    “That’s right,” Conway replied. “If it were me, I wouldn’t want to know about the specifics… that’s just gross. Why do you care?”

    “Because… Reggie told me that he dreamed about me ending up the same way,” Paul admitted. “Just before he told you that you were coming with me a few days ago. Reggie wasn’t going to let me go to Snowpoint City alone because he was afraid that dream would eventually become a reality.”

    This changed things. Now that Conway was aware of the dream and how eerily accurate it turned out to be, he wasn’t sure what to make of the situation… whether or not it was a coincidence or if Reggie was turning into some kind of prophet.

    “And I… let it happen,” Conway acknowledged, slumping. “I never should have let you go…”

    Paul frowned at this. “Don’t be such a sap. I made it out alive, didn’t I? And that was all because of you. That’s why Reggie made me take you along.” He winced, as it hurt to admit this out loud. “To… save me from what would happen.”

    Conway looked up, as semi-encouraging words from Paul were a rarity. “So that’s why Reggie couldn’t sleep that night… he feared for your safety.”

    “It turns out that he doesn’t remember his own near-death experience,” Paul added. “Because he claims that our mother was talking to him for the first time while he had nightmares. Apparently she was telling Reggie to protect me, so he figured this was the best way to do it.”

    Another shocking detail for Conway to absorb. “W-well… the first time, we figured it was just a near-death experience. But Reggie’s totally fine now, so… why would…?”

    Paul sighed and shook his head. “I honestly don’t know. Personally, I think he’s losing his mind. He already did so just by trying to find a new training method, so insanity seems to be the logical conclusion, right?”

    The emphasis on “logic” struck a chord with Conway as he tried to figure out how to respond. “Under normal circumstances, yes… I would agree with you, Paul.” But just then, his expressions hardened; Paul never saw Conway look this serious before. “But this obviously isn’t a normal circumstance. I mean… Reggie was right. If I wasn’t with you right now, you’d be dead in the snow. Are you so willing to brush this off as a coincidence?”

    This was a good question, Paul thought. He recalled the most recent bits of his own nightmare before he woke up… and he remembered the imagery. The younger version of himself talking to someone whom Paul could not recognize or make out, except he knew it was a woman. He only knew that because of that cryptic voice at the end of the nightmare.

    However, Paul knew this had to be different from Reggie’s situation. Reggie’s incidents all dealt with the present or future. Paul’s case was strictly the distant past… except he couldn’t remember this at all. Yet it was shown with his other memories that he recalled perfectly…

    “Paul…?” It was Conway’s voice. Paul snapped out of it and looked to his worried companion. “Are… you alright?”

    He was worried due to Paul spacing out for a moment. But Paul, in spite of his impaired judgment, decided against telling Conway about his own mental unnatural phenomenon. “… I’m fine.”

    “Well… you think we ought to tell Reggie about this?” Conway asked him. “Like… let him know that his premonitions were accurate?”

    “No,” Paul quickly said. “Let’s just keep this between us, alright? It’s bad enough that we’re having this hanging over our heads… Reggie really needs to focus on training once his hand heals up. If we tell him about this, he’ll get distracted.”

    Conway was apprehensive about the decision, but eventually nodded in agreement. “I suppose we should wait for more concrete evidence before we throw this on him. This is some pretty heavy stuff…” He looked to the side, seeming fearful of what might happen next. “You know… you haven’t eaten since this morning.”

    Indeed, one of Paul’s current issues was the dreaded hunger pangs. Much as he hated to be needy, Paul really didn’t have a choice in this matter. “That’s true… I could go for some soup…” He decided to try sitting up, but was met with an overwhelming surge of pain when he did so. Unable to bear it, Paul flopped back down against his pillow, panting.

    “Aha, Paul, I wouldn’t try that,” Conway advised as he stood up. “Let me take care of it, okay? It’s good you’re awake, but try not to over-exert yourself. You’re still pretty banged up.”

    “You seriously expect me to just lie in bed and not move?” Paul asked as he tried to control himself from writhing in pain. “How am I supposed to eat, then…?”

    Conway smirked as he went off to prepare the soup. “Do you really want me to answer that question…?”

    Paul’s eyes widened as he realized what was on his companion’s mind. “No. No. You are not…

    “Ah, life is cruel, isn’t it?” Conway said with a satisfied sigh. He went off to prepare the soup while Paul finally got a glance at the clock to see what time it was. Paul frowned as he heard a yawn from Conway clear from the other room.

    “Conway, did you not sleep?” Paul asked uneasily. “It’s… well past midnight. Nearly three o’clock.”

    “Couldn’t sleep,” Conway replied in a casual manner. “I wanted to make sure you were gonna be okay first and foremost. Like I said, I’m partially at fault for what happened to you.”

    Paul grunted in aggravation; he was not fond of that warm, safe feeling he was suddenly experiencing, akin to how he felt when he stargazed with Conway at his house. Of course, what he dreamed about still plagued him in the back of his mind, but knowing that Conway forced himself to stay up throughout the night just for his sake… it simply didn’t compute for Paul.

    “Would you please stop saying that?” Paul pleaded tiredly. “Seriously, go to bed. You see that I’m fine now, so there’s…” He winced as he finished his sentence. “… no need to worry.”

    He really wanted to word that differently, but Paul was tired himself, in addition to being in pain. The best he could manage was saying whatever came to mind. The longer he remained awake in this state, the more Paul worried that he might say something he’d later regret.

    “The soup’s not going to make itself,” Conway reminded him. “You’re pretty much immobile, so you won’t be making it. It’s no big deal, though. Just eat what you can for now and we’ll both turn in for the night. You’d better get used to this for the next few days, so try not to put up too much of a fight, okay?”

    Paul grumbled, realizing what a nightmare the next week or so was going to be. It hadn’t even yet occurred to him yet that he just lost a bet in addition to all of this. Right now, his immediate pain, suffering, and Reggie’s accurate predictions troubled him the most.

    “Try not to enjoy this too much,” Paul said through gritted teeth.

    Conway chuckled as he returned to Paul’s room at that moment with a bowl of soup in hand. “No promises.” He sat next to Paul, setting the soup on a side table nearby. Getting a spoonful ready, Conway grinned at his unfortunate companion.

    “Now say ‘ah’, please.”

    Reggie was never told about the incident. It wasn’t long by the time his hand finally healed, meaning he was back in top condition to train with his Pokémon. Though it was in his big-brother/surrogate-parent nature to always worry for Paul, he knew he’d done the best he could given the circumstances. On the positive side, Reggie had not been haunted by visions or the sound of his mother since Paul left, and while no one had a solid reasoning for why the phenomenon happened in the first place, there was hope that perhaps that one night was simply a fluke.

    The absence of the images of his fatally-wounded brother also did much to reassure Reggie.

    This time, however, Reggie was not so quick to take off to parts unknown to train. He thought he had moved much too fast when he first set out, and Maylene wanted to keep an eye on him at least until his hand healed. Just as well, though, since the daycare’s backyard left plenty of room for Reggie to train, even while Maylene had taken up at least a quarter of the field for her Gym Battle challenges.

    In fact, she was about to end her most recent challenge. Swiftly throwing her hand down, Maylene smirked as she ordered Lucario to finish off her opponent.

    “Let’s wrap this up, Lucario!” She shouted out. “Bone Rush!”

    Moments later, her opponent’s Claydol fell to the ground. The outcome was clear to all parties involved.

    “Claydol is unable to battle!” Connally, the referee again, announced. “Lucario is the winner! Ultimate victory goes to Maylene, the Gym Leader!”

    Upon hearing these familiar words, Reggie halted his training procedure to witness yet another moment of Maylene getting herself a hard-earned victory. The strength and confidence Maylene exuded did much to continuously inspire Reggie to keep up his own training; that was another reason why he didn’t stray from home. He heeded his younger brother’s words, harsh as they were… because when it came right down to it, Paul was right. Being so out of practice, Reggie was going to have to take everything he could get in order to stand a chance against Brandon. With the time limit eliminated, Reggie no longer felt needlessly pressured and genuinely enjoyed his training with his Pokémon.

    Reggie smiled as Maylene, though the winner, took on a mature stance as a Gym Leader should.

    “Your strategy wasn’t a bad one, Ezekiel,” Maylene assured, though she couldn’t hide away her happy expression. “A type advantage and very well-built defenses can go far against Fighting-type Pokémon most of the time. But you need to work around the little surprises that come at every corner as well. Improvisation skills are key,” she said, thinking specifically back to her battle with Conway.

    The sixteen year-old young man nodded and recalled Claydol back to its Pokéball. “Sorry for letting you down, Claydol. Guess I still have a lot to learn, eh?”

    Maylene nodded, but was still gentle with her words. “You’re never too old to learn new things. I’ll gladly have a rematch with you whenever you’re ready to face me again. I really want to see your true strength!”

    Ezekiel smiled wryly to his opponent. “You’ll see it next time for sure, eh. We’re gonna bring on the pain and show you what we’re made of.”

    “I look forward to it,” Maylene assured, waving goodbye to her challenger as he picked up his things and left. “Good luck! See you soon…!”

    After the young man had left the premises, Connally smiled to Maylene, fully approving of her performance today. “Yet another impressive display of your strength, Gym Leader. It seems that was the last challenger for now.”

    “Good,” Maylene said, sighing with relief. “Because I think I’m due for a break. That was the third challenger today, so I’m a little surprised I actually won that battle.”

    Connally nodded in understanding. “You’ve earned yourself a rest. I’ll be sure to inform other challengers, should any come by.”

    Maylene bowed graciously. “Thank you very much.” She left her post, on her way to rest, but quickly noticed Reggie admiring her in the distance. She stopped and smirked to him. “And how is your training going…?”

    “Just fine,” Reggie happily remarked. “I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve won again, though. You’ve been on quite the winning streak since my brother and Conway left.”

    “I suppose I have,” Maylene bashfully admitted. “The battle with Conway taught me so much, which is surprising considering he was a first-timer. Even though I’m not in my Gym, I feel like all the elements are working in my favor. I’ve seen a new perspective, and I have a purpose in keeping up your inspiration so you can train, Reggie. I really want to see you succeed.”

    Reggie let out a small laugh to that. “It seems everyone, even my dad wants me to succeed. I can’t deny it, though; you’ve been especially helpful, Maylene.”

    Maylene blushed and waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, stop! You’ve seen me win again; that’s nothing so special that you should pause your own training for.”

    “Actually, I was hoping to train with you once you’re free,” Reggie requested. “Well… not now, of course. But… you know, after you’ve rested and if no other challengers come by.”

    The way he asked it, it almost sounded like Reggie was offering to take her out on a date. The breeder had a tendency to be suggestive in such a manner while being completely unaware of how he came off to others. Maylene especially took notice to the gestures and couldn’t help but wonder what was really going on in his head.

    “I would love to,” she said uneasily, as the L-word often made the young Gym Leader overwhelmed with butterflies in her stomach whenever she heard or spoke it. She looked to her partner, Lucario, who was not recalled back to its ball. “How about it, Lucario?”

    However, Lucario simply looked away and grumbled a bit, clearly feeling a little under-the-weather.

    “What’s with Lucario?” Reggie asked. “Too tired?”

    Maylene looked to her Pokémon with concern. “Lucario’s been like that all day. Nothing a little meditation won’t solve, at least.” She then smiled. “Machoke and Meditite are both pretty exhausted as well, but that’s alright. I can still train with you while they rest.”

    “With no Pokémon?” Reggie inquired, raising an eyebrow. “Well, I guess you know what you’re doing… as long as you’re careful…”

    Maylene let out a laugh. “I do have backups, Reggie. They aren’t often brought out, but I have three other Pokémon who fill in where my main three can’t. This’ll be a good time as any to stretch out their legs, since I’ll probably need them if another challenger comes along today.”

    To this, Reggie smirked. “Three others… I’m sure Infernape and the rest will be more than happy to meet them. It’s about time for lunch, though. For both the Pokémon and us… so I’ll take a break as well.” He motioned to his other Pokémon to come along for a rest.

    “Good idea,” Maylene agreed. “We’ll get fully recharged for a nice training session.”

    Everyone returned to the house and enjoyed a good lunch. Reggie finished his quickly in order to tend to his Pokémon around the daycare center. He was in much brighter spirits since his hand healed, making it much easier for him to perform his usual tasks.

    His Pokémon patiently waited for their meals while keeping the not-so-patient young ones in order. They were kept in neat, orderly groups as Reggie fed them one-by-one. Then he finally came to the last group consisting of his Staraptor keeping a Bidoof and Kricketot in order.

    While feeding them, Reggie heard an eerie noise in the background. It was very faint, but it stood out against the ambience of mother nature. As he turned around, he immediately noticed a group of beams of light shooting up in the sky far off in the distance.

    At first, he was surprised. But Reggie quickly grew concerned when it occurred to him where the source of the beams most likely was: the meteors of Veilstone City. He well remembered a prior incident in that area not long ago when Ash and his friends were in the vicinity. The mysterious group of people in uniforms, and most notably their apparent commander with hair the color of the sea came to his mind. They identified themselves as “Team Galactic”, and though their antics had been reported in the news, their exact motives had yet to be determined.

    Reggie was about to make a move, but was startled when Lucario abruptly came outside, glaring directly at the light beams and growling.

    “Lucario! What’s gotten into you?!” Maylene was heard shouting from behind, and soon enough she tracked her Pokémon down. “Why have you been so-” She then followed her partner’s gaze up to the sky and gasp. “Oh my…!”

    “They just came out of nowhere,” Reggie explained. “Just now. It’s hard to tell, but I’m pretty sure they’re coming from the meteors.”

    Maylene nodded. “Looks like it. I think Lucario felt this coming on all along… that explains the moodiness from earlier on.”

    As Lucario continued to glare and grumble at the unnatural phenomenon, Reggie was visibly worried. “What could this mean? Do you think it could be them again?”

    “Approaching the same place twice?” Maylene wondered out loud, sounding skeptical. “In broad daylight, no less… something’s different about this incident.”

    “Oh, right!” Reggie suddenly remembered an important detail from the last incident. “When Team Galactic attempted to steal the meteors, they cut off all the power in Veilstone City.”

    Maylene looked around, shaking her head. “If this is just now happening, let’s check inside the house and see if the power was cut off again. It’s not so obvious to tell in the daytime.”

    “I’ll check,” Reggie assured, rushing back into the house. “Keep an eye on what’s going on out there; looks like Lucario may know something we don’t.”

    He reached the nearest television and grabbed the remote control, pressing the power button. Much to his surprise, the TV turned on and displayed its typical cable programming, meaning power had not been cut off at his house or any other place in Veilstone City, much unlike the last time.

    “This is different,” Reggie acknowledged, deep in thought. “But very similar at the same time… the police department’s closer to the meteor site, so Officer Jenny’s probably already investigating…”

    Suddenly, Maylene’s panicked voice was heard from outside. “Reggie…! You’d better get out here quick!”

    After switching the TV off, Reggie immediately ran back outside to Maylene. “What is it?! What happened?!”

    Maylene did not respond; she merely pointed to the sky. Reggie expected she saw a change in the beams of energy, but instead was in for a rather unexpected surprise when the entire area was shrouded in darkness. A very large object in the sky was blocking out the sunlight in this particular area… but it was certainly nothing related to Team Galactic.

    Both Reggie and Maylene knew this for certain, as it was made obvious that it was none other than the Battle Pyramid flying through the sky, apparently in the midst of descent.

    “Dad…?” Reggie wondered out loud, clearly confused. “What the heck is he doing back? And now, of all times?!”

    “You don’t suppose he came back to investigate this, do you?” Maylene asked, shrugging.

    Reggie shook his head. “Doubtful… but at the same time, I can’t imagine why else he would be here now. He knows where to find Regigigas. And he couldn’t possibly have found it already…”

    “Whatever the case, the Battle Pyramid is landing,” Maylene noted, keeping her eyes on the unique aircraft. “He obviously wants to talk to you. We should greet him, but…” The situation at hand still concerned her. “Were you able to find out…?”

    “Yeah,” Reggie affirmed. “We still have power. The cable’s still running normally as well, so I doubt this is truly a repeat of the last incident. Officer Jenny’s probably way ahead of us on the investigation.”

    “If we are needed again, at least it’ll be nice to have your dad’s help,” Maylene realized. “So we’d better go see him.” She looked to her partner, who still never took its eyes off the beams of energy emanating from the distant meteors. “Lucario, I’m sure it’ll be taken care of.” The Aura Pokémon paid no heed to Maylene’s words, which did nothing to ease her worries. “Lucario, please…”

    As the Battle Pyramid landed in a clearing not far away from the backyard, Reggie frowned. “Leave it be,” he instructed, then looking over to where the other Pokémon were at, enjoying their lunch. “Infernape,” the breeder calmly called out. “Do you mind giving us a little assistance here?”

    Reggie’s starter Pokémon looked up and was able to quickly assess the situation. With a confident look, it nodded and went over to Lucario’s side, ready to restrain Maylene’s Pokémon should the need arise.

    “Thanks,” Reggie told his starter, clearly grateful. “Just keep an eye on Lucario until we get back. We shouldn’t be long.” He then looked to Maylene. “This should do, right?”

    Maylene couldn’t help but remain slightly skeptical, but overall she knew she could trust Reggie’s judgment and nodded. “Yeah. Let’s go see what your dad wants.”

    The pair raced over to the landing site of the Battle Pyramid out in the distance. When they were close enough, they were relieved to see that someone had already stepped out. However, as Reggie and Maylene came closer, it was apparent that it was not Brandon who came out of the pyramid. Instead, it was Samuel, Brandon’s assistant, who was looking rather anxious for some reason.

    Still, Reggie recognized his father’s understudy easily. “Samuel…!” He shouted out happily. “It’s been a while!”

    “Oh, Reggie!” Samuel was relieved, hoping that he would get an audience promptly as soon as he landed. “Thank goodness you’re home. I’m sorry; this must be incredibly short-notice and somewhat-random…”

    Maylene was confused, not recognizing the young man at all. “But… you’re not Brandon at all… what’s going on?”

    “Oh, sorry!” Reggie apologized, grinning sheepishly. “Maylene, I’d like you to meet Samuel. He works for my dad. Flies the pyramid, helps with research, referees the matches…”

    Samuel smiled and nodded. “Yes, precisely…”

    “And Samuel, this is Maylene,” Reggie said as he turned to his father’s assistant. “She’s the current Gym Leader of Veilstone City.”

    Maylene humbly bowed to Samuel. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she greeted. “It must be a lot of work to follow Brandon every step of the way in his journey…”

    “Speaking of, where is he?” Reggie inquired. “Surely he would have come out by now…”

    Upon hearing that, Samuel heaved out a heavy sigh. “S-so that means you don’t know where he is, either…”

    “What?!” Reggie and Maylene cried out simultaneously.

    “O-oh, right, you probably don’t know…” Samuel figured. “It was silly of me to think he’d be here…”

    “He arrived in Sinnoh without the Battle Pyramid?!” Reggie realized, aghast. “Th-that certainly explains why you didn’t see it the night he left, Maylene…!”

    Maylene gasped, remembering that night. “You’re right! We just assumed he landed it outside the city limits… so that means…”

    “Wait, wait, hold up!” Samuel pleaded, looking confused. “Are you guys telling me you actually saw him?”

    “Of course we did; that was days ago!” Reggie explained. “He said he came here looking for Regigigas. He heard from Byron that Paul and I weren’t doing well, so he immediately came here and ended up getting the book about the Pokémon he was looking for. Since Paul and I were recovering well, dad left that night. Didn’t he tell you about this, Samuel?”

    Samuel sighed and shook his head. “Reggie, he didn’t tell me anything. He didn’t tell the other Frontier Brains anything… he didn’t even tell Scott anything. All he did was leave a note with Professor Oak and left Kanto of his own accord. He went by himself and without the Battle Pyramid.”

    Reggie’s eyes widened with horror. “He left his post and didn’t tell you guys until he was already gone?!”

    “Is he allowed to do that?” Maylene wondered, equally curious about the legitimacy of Brandon’s actions. “I mean, abandoning your post like that without even consulting the higher-ups…”

    Reggie groaned, looking exasperated. “I was so tired that night and dad worded his story in a way that made it seem like he was on some routine mission… Samuel, if I had known…”

    “Don’t blame yourself,” Samuel assured. “Brandon’s crafty like that. And normally, what he did would constitute some sort of punishment, but… Scott and the other Frontier Brains are willing to let him off if he does indeed bring back what he’s searching for.”

    “Was this really so important that he was willing to jeopardize his job for it…?” Reggie grumbled out loud. “If that’s the case, then dad has to succeed.”

    Samuel looked equally frustrated. “He’s got tenure, so I don’t think they could terminate him, but it won’t be pretty if he doesn’t follow up on his promise, I imagine.” He sighed and looked to his company. “I don’t suppose you have an idea of where he’s at now, do you?”

    “We’ve got an idea, but we don’t know exactly where he is,” Maylene admitted. “As far as we know, he’s only here for Regigigas. According to the literature, Regigigas is most likely somewhere in the mountain range surrounding Mt. Coronet. Possibly the Snowpoint City area…”

    “No approximate location, huh?” Samuel acknowledged with a feeling of dread. “It really should have occurred to me to search Veilstone City sooner than this. I just didn’t think he’d go out of his way to come back here…”

    Reggie simply shrugged dismissively. “We were very surprised to see him here, so it’s understandable why you didn’t check here first. It’s been seven years since he was here last, you know…”

    “So, if they’re letting Brandon go through with this, what brings you to Sinnoh, anyway?” Maylene asked.

    “I was sent to keep an eye on him,” Samuel reported. “We’ve heard rumors of Sinnoh’s unstable weather patterns, especially further up north, and even though Brandon can certainly take care of himself, we figured he might need the Battle Pyramid at some point. If he’s going towards Snowpoint City, then it’s probable he’ll be needing backup.”

    At the mention of bad weather and Snowpoint City in the same sentence, Reggie remembered his only little brother was out that way as well on foot. Visibly nervous, Reggie was quick to agree. “I’m glad the committee was so thoughtful, especially after what dad did.”

    Samuel scratched his head, looking uncertain. “And I thought finding your dad in the city was going to be hard… I really hope I’ll be able to find him in the mountains.”

    “Well, like I said, the Snowpoint area is where you’d want to concentrate on,” Reggie suggested. “It’s been less than a week since my dad took off, so he couldn’t have made that much progress. I wish I could help you more, but I’m sure you know better than I do how elusive dad can be…”

    “Just having a general idea of where he’s at in this region helps immensely,” Samuel assured. “It’s good to know he stopped by here for a visit for once, too. I’m sure I’ll see his mood significantly improved by the time I find him. Take it from me; he doesn’t act like it, but Brandon certainly thinks about you and your brother every day.”

    Reggie felt he could smile sincerely after hearing that. “If it’s apparent to you, then… that means a lot, Samuel. Thanks.”

    “I figured he had to be a big softie deep down,” Maylene figured, smirking. But shortly after, the smirk faded away as she remembered what was going on before the Battle Pyramid was sighted. “But I guess this means we won’t have Brandon’s help to figure out what’s going on in the city this time.”

    Samuel blinked, completely oblivious to what Maylene was inferring to. “What do you mean?”

    “Just before you came here, beams of light shot up in the sky and haven’t faded away ever since. We believe they’re coming from the meteor site further into the city. There was an incident at the same place a while ago courtesy of this group of criminals named Team Galactic. At the time, they were trying to steal the meteors,” Reggie explained, now frowning as he remembered the prior situation at hand. “I remembered the meteors glowing at one point, and the power went out across Veilstone City. While we managed to prevent the meteors from being stolen, Team Galactic got away, unfortunately. They’ve yet to be apprehended.”

    “And you said you saw the beams from all the way over here?” Samuel asked for clarification. “All that does sound pretty crazy… and I can see why you’d wish your dad was here to put an end to things. He’s pretty good at doing that.”

    Maylene pointed in the distance in the direction of where she and Reggie spotted the light beams. “We saw them right around there. It’s something unnatural for sure, because it’s making my Lucario very unstable right now, and that worries me…”

    Samuel’s gaze followed where Maylene pointed, but his expression was blank. “I don’t see anything.”

    “What?!” Reggie couldn’t believe it. He looked to where he saw the beams just recently, only to find that Samuel was right: they had completely disappeared. “But they were just there a few minutes ago…!”

    “What could have happened?” Maylene wondered out loud. “We couldn’t have imagined it… Reggie and I both saw them, and Lucario sensed them as well.”

    Samuel was helplessly clueless. “Evidently, they’ve receded. Have you contacted the police about this yet?”

    “We assumed they were already on the case,” Reggie admitted, now regretting that he didn’t do so in the first place. “Now would be a good time to call them and see what the status on the situation is.”

    Maylene nodded in agreement. “Let’s find out what exactly happened out there.”

    Indeed, the situation seemed to have already been resolved by the time Reggie and the others began their investigation. At the request of Officer Jenny herself, they left everything in the hands of the police and went about their lives, as there was no emergency at hand.

    At Butterbridge Town, Paul and Conway never noticed anything. Conway was very dedicated in taking care of his unfortunate companion, nearly tuning out the rest of the world unless he needed to eat or shower or required additional supplies to care for Paul. Of course, Paul had no choice but to accept Conway’s help.

    With every passing day, Paul felt increasingly humiliated as he slowly became able to move around on his own again. It was a long and painful road to recovery, including blistering skin due to the frostbite, but Conway faithfully remained at Paul’s side… much to the latter’s disdain.

    It took a good week and a half, but Paul successfully made a full recovery. Paul did his best to contain himself after being able to walk and move around again, but the celebration was cut short when Paul realized that he was once again stuck with Conway. He remembered that he had lost a bet.

    Conway claimed, however, that he had not yet decided on the consequence yet. After purchasing a heavy coat for Paul to wear while crossing the unavoidable cold parts of Route 216, the pair continued about their way towards Snowpoint City.

    They took an easier path this time; not the one commonly traveled, but there weren’t any death-defying stunts that needed to be performed in order to move on.

    It was still a long way to Snowpoint City, so Conway and Paul wouldn’t be reaching their destination anytime soon. Conway found Plumeria Town to be the nearest area of civilization to take refuge in as another sunset came upon the duo. Knowing how brutally cold the route could get at night, Paul agreed to rest at the town until morning.

    Plumeria Town was a modest settlement, to say the least. Though chilly and windy, it was not necessary for the boys to wear their winter gear. At Conway’s insistence, they would reside in the best resort the town could offer them. With Conway’s money, Paul couldn’t exactly refuse the offer, though he was confused when Conway was quick to take off on his own after checking in, insisting to be left alone. Uncharacteristic as it was for Conway, Paul knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth.

    Paul waited for Conway in the main lodge. Though he sat on a couch where one would normally watch TV, Paul opted for reading instead. In spite of his youth, Paul possessed the old-school way of believing too much television would rot the mind. He didn’t notice when Conway had finally entered the hotel and was thusly surprised when his older companion plopped right alongside him on the couch and turned on the TV immediately.

    “Back already, I see,” Paul dully acknowledged.

    Conway merely laughed off that remark. “I have a feeling no amount of time away from me will be long enough for you, Paul! You’re so good at hurting my feelings, you know.”

    “Not good enough, evidently,” Paul grumbled through his teeth. “What were you up to, anyway?”

    “Getting some business taken care of,” was the vague reply as Conway was more interested in sifting through the channels on the TV. “But that’s all done now. What time is it?”

    Paul sighed, knowing he wouldn’t be getting any more reading in as long as he was next to his chatty travel mate. He briefly gazed at the nearest clock before looking to Conway again. “Almost seven. Why do you-…” He canceled his question mid-sentence, replacing it with another after noticing something odd. “You went out to get berries? Is that it?”

    Indeed, next to Conway on the couch was a sack full of berries. He had picked out several types, including Pecha, Cornn, Oran, Spelon, Belue, Nanab, and several others.

    “Indeed,” Conway affirmed. “That’s why I took a while getting back here. Picking out just the right berry requires a great deal of concentration and patience. Since I know you’re lacking in the latter’s department, I decided to spare you the aggravation.”

    “How thoughtful of you,” Paul observed, though he sounded sarcastic. “But why do you need so many? It’s impractical to carry all of that while traveling, and it’s going to be an uphill journey from here on out, you know.”

    Conway nodded in agreement while continuing to channel-flip. “I shall deal with that when the time comes. Now, be a sport and watch a little bit of TV with me, won’t you?”

    Paul sighed and put away his book, knowing he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on reading with the background noise, anyway. “What will I have to sit through this time?”

    “Something relatively harmless, I assure you,” Conway replied with a grin. He sighed in relief when he finally reached the channel he was looking for. “Good; I came back just in time.”

    As Paul finally paid attention to what was on the screen, he grimaced as he first acknowledged the lady with auburn hair sitting at a desk. It wasn’t the peppy Rhonda this time, no; her hair was much shorter and in a perm to boot. Being one who shut out aspects of the outside world that weren’t relevant to him or his goals, Paul wasn’t certain who this woman was, but she seemed eerily familiar somehow. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. However, as the program started, he wouldn’t be wondering about it for long.

    “Good evening, ladies and gentleman, and welcome to another edition of the Contest Wrap-Up!” The lady greeted, full of energy and spirit. Paul’s eyes widened as he realized what this program was all about very quickly. “As always, I’m Marian, your host for this show and the host for Contests all across the Sinnoh region! We’ve had some exciting events occurring this week, so if you happened to miss out on the action, let’s go ahead and review the results, as well as the Coordinators who stood out this week!”

    It was all too obvious to Paul why Conway would want to watch this program. He looked to his traveling partner with disapproval, but Conway seemed to not notice him. Paul expected as much; the older boy was madly in love, after all. “How long does this show last, again?” He asked, sounding pained already.

    Conway merely shushed Paul as he continued to listen to Marian’s review.

    “It was an action-packed week!” Marian announced. “Our Contest in Cirribus Town brought forth some fierce competitors, but in the end, it was Zoey, a Coordinator from Snowpoint City, who came out on top over Janelle of Jubilife City! This victory has earned Zoey four ribbons, leaving her with only one left to earn before she qualifies for the Grand Festival. Having placed in the Top Four in the Wallace Cup, it’s needless to say that Zoey is a Coordinator to keep your eye on, especially if you’re aiming to enter the Grand Festival yourself!”

    Conway merely rolled his eyes at this, unimpressed. “Come on, come on…”

    “What makes you so certain they’ll talk about that girl, anyway?” Paul asked, feeling the need to get some clarification. “We could be wasting our time doing this.”

    “Quiet!” Conway snapped, though his eyes never left the television screen. “Wait until a commercial before asking questions.”

    Paul grumbled with dissatisfaction as Marian continued her report.

    “Don’t count out Janelle so quickly,” she advised. “Janelle is also a seasoned competitor with three ribbons under her belt, and rumor has it that she is registered for the next Contest, which is being held the day after tomorrow! More on that later; but all competitors should be aware that they’ll be in for quite a challenge should they cross paths with this Coordinator. Cirribus Town aside, we just recently held a contest in Chocovine Town!”

    “Ah, yes!” Conway’s eyes lit up with hope, which only made Paul confused. Still, he knew there was no point in asking about it, because he wouldn’t be getting an answer out of Conway right this second.

    Both boys took notice to the screen when it was none other than Dawn, the girl who traveled with Ash Ketchum; the girl whom Conway would never shut up about, appeared on the screen. She was seen in her usual pink dress that she wore for every contest happily accepting a ribbon with her Pachirisu and Buneary showcased alongside her.

    “The Chocovine Contest also showcased a rivalry blooming between Ursula, a Coordinator from Oreburgh City, and the young lady who won the competition and the Chocovine Ribbon, Dawn of Twinleaf Town! Dawn bravely fought against the odds with her Pachirisu against Ursula’s Gabite and came out on top! With the Chocovine Ribbon, Dawn is now only two ribbons away from qualifying for the Grand Festival! Her rival, Ursula, also has three ribbons,” Marian added; her enthusiasm never faltered. “There are many Coordinators to keep an eye on this year; some just starting out as well as seasoned veterans!”

    “My beloved Dawn has scored another victory…!” Conway cried out with happiness. “Oh, how could she have pulled off a victory using an Electric-type versus a Ground-type? I pray they’ll rerun the footage of the Chocovine Contest at some point! I simply must see for myself how she overcame the odds!”

    Paul rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’m sure that’s what you’ll be keeping your eyes on…”

    “I can admire Dawn and her contest abilities at the same time, you know!” Conway informed with a huff. Once again, he was offended that Paul would find him to be so shallow and dirty. “Anyway, now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s quiet down again.”

    Wanting the torture to end now, Paul slumped while Conway continued to watch the program.

    “Those were only this week’s events, mind you!” Marian noted. “In two days, we’re in for some action as we continue our way up north to our next destination: Plumeria Town!”

    Paul looked up just then, with his eyes widened in surprise and horror. “D-did she just say…?”

    “As always, we look forward to seeing many Coordinators show off their skills in order to win the coveted Plumeria Ribbon! The registration deadline has passed as of this evening and we see that we’ll have a large group of competitors this time around! With so many registered, we hope for an even bigger viewing audience both live at the Contest Hall and from our TV viewers like you! We look forward to seeing you there!” Marian said cheerfully. “After the commercial break, we’ll discuss the popular appeal techniques used by Coordinators this year! But right now, a word from our sponsors!”

    As the show shifted to a commercial, Paul glared at Conway. “Need I remind you that this is not your journey, Conway,” he growled lowly. “This is mine. And in my journeys, we do not watch contests, as they are nothing more than a pointless waste of time.”

    To that, Conway simply shook his head. “Well, the ‘waste of time’ is a matter of opinion, my dear friend.” Paul scowled at being called such a thing, but Conway was unfazed and continued. “The fact of the matter is that there’s no need to worry, for we will not be watching this Contest.”

    Paul was taken aback by that assurance. “So you just wanted to look at the girl on TV, then,” he assumed.

    Just then, Conway’s expressions turned dark. Even someone as hardened as Paul couldn’t help but be unnerved by the chill that ran down his spine as he looked at his creepy companion.

    “I would never miss an opportunity to see my dear Dawn on TV, Paul. It feels like it’s been forever since we last met, so I have to take whatever I can get to curb those growing pains of Dawnsickness,” Conway said with a sigh. “Besides, it helps to know where she’s been so I can get a good idea of when we could cross paths again one day.”

    Paul nodded, mostly looking uninterested. “Well, should that ever happen, how about promising to leave me alone if I can dump you off with that group?”

    Conway chuckled menacingly at the offer. “If you can convince them, I will be more than happy to oblige and take myself off your hands,” he said. “But speaking of promises…”

    “What now?” Paul asked tiredly.

    “I have decided on what the consequence will be, Paul,” Conway said softly, though his smile was crooked. “Due to your losing the bet we made, that is.”

    Paul grit his teeth, inching away from Conway just then. “It’s been so long since then… I was hoping you forgot about it.”

    “You were so bad off, I decided not to burden you with the duty would have to perform until you fully recovered,” Conway calmly explained. “See? I’m not such a bad guy.”

    “That was then; this is now,” Paul angrily pointed out. “I don’t care why you kept me in the dark this long, but…”

    Conway shrugged. “I figured if I told you early on, you would have found a way out of it by now,” he admitted. “But at this point, there’s no escaping it.”

    “Well, what is it?” Paul asked in haste. “Let’s go ahead and get it over with so we can move on with our lives.”

    “I’m afraid that will be quite impossible tonight,” Conway explained with a mocking tone of distress. “But it’ll be fine, Paul. You’ll know when the time is right.”

    Not only was it humiliating being reminded that he owed Conway a favor due to his own sheer lack of foresight and over-abundance of confidence, but it was frustrating for Paul to have the ordeal hanging over his head for yet another night. “When the time is right?! What kind of cryptic crap are you trying to pull here, Conway?!”

    “Cryptic, eh?” Conway couldn’t help but be amused with Paul losing his cool over this. “You won’t have to wait that much longer. Just calm yourself, young one; what I have in mind is quite tame compared to the other options I initially concocted within my imagination.”

    “I can’t begin to imagine,” Paul grumbled. “And no, don’t even tell me about the rejects. What do I actually have to do for you?”

    Conway simply dismissed him with the wave of a hand and stood up. “All in good time, Paul; all in good time. I think I’ll finish watching TV up in the suite, though. You can have your peace and solitude back for the night.”

    “You’re not telling me what I have to do?” Paul asked, easily aggravated over the ordeal. “Something’s going on here, isn’t it?! You’d better fess up right now!”

    However, Conway only shook his head as he made his way to an elevator. “I will tell you when the time is right; no sooner, no later,” he calmly reminded, though Conway was shocked when he noticed that upon the opening of the elevator door, Paul was standing in his way.

    “Just how much longer are you planning on keeping me in the dark?” Paul demanded to know, making sure Conway couldn’t walk past him. “You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on.”

    With a yawn, Conway merely pressed a button that made the doors open to another elevator right next to the one he was about to board. As he made his way towards the opening doors, Paul raced over to block the way again.

    “Wow,” Conway remarked with amusement. “You’re really ticked off, aren’t you?”

    “I’m serious, Conway!” Paul insisted, though probably a little too loudly. “Even if you get past me here, I’ll just follow you into our room and keep asking the same question over and over until you crack. And I know from watching the old man interview you at the hospital that it doesn’t take much to break you.”

    After briefly flinching at that memory, Conway shrugged. “Sure, go ahead and follow me. It won’t make a bit of difference, though.”

    Paul blinked at that remark, distracted enough for Conway to pass him into the elevator. The doors nearly closed before Paul snapped out of it and followed him inside. On the way up, Paul glared at Conway. “I’m not making an idle threat, Conway,” he said. “I’m not letting you sleep until you tell me what it is I have to do for you.”

    Conway smirked at that. “Don’t care to make any guesses yourself, it sounds like.”

    “Because with a mind as sick as yours, I honestly don’t want to think about the possibilities,” Paul retorted. “So spare my sanity just this once. I’d rather not have to think about this all night.”

    As the elevator dinged when the boys reached their appropriate floor, the doors opened with Conway casually stepping out and taking two keycards out of his pocket. Paul was quick to follow, matching his pace with his companion’s and never once taking his eyes off of him.

    “Well?” Paul blurted out, coming ever-so closer to losing his cool completely. “Why won’t you say anything?”

    “Here’s your keycard, Paul,” Conway told him, giving Paul one and ignoring his question. “Guess I don’t need to tell you at this point to make sure not to lose it, right?”

    Paul raised an eyebrow at Conway, unsure of why he was being advised such a thing. “We’ve got two, though. I can just use yours if I were to lose mine,” he pointed out.

    “Actually, you’ve only got one,” Conway corrected as he stopped in front of the appropriate suite’s front door. “I suspected you might try to torment me with endless questioning, Paul. So for tonight, we’re in separate rooms!”

    The younger trainer didn’t even have time to get a full sentence out before Conway slid the keycard through the sensor, unlocked his door, then quickly rushed in and slammed the door shut.

    Once it had registered in Paul’s mind what exactly happened, he growled and furiously knocked on Conway’s door. “Are you kidding me?! Separate rooms?!”

    “See for yourself,” Conway suggested from the other side. Paul looked to his keycard for a moment, wondering (hoping, even) that perhaps Conway was bluffing.

    A quick sliding of the card and resulting in a red blipping light with no sound of a door unlocking answered that question, though: Conway was indeed telling the truth.

    “Conway, I’m not in the mood for this!” Paul yelled out as he resumed banging on Conway’s door. “I can keep this up for as long as I need to as well!”

    “Gee, I’d hate for your noise to interrupt me trying to watch the rest of my show,” Conway mused in a mockingly-troubled tone. “But I’m sure the other hotel residents will call in complaint of the noise and have you thrown out before the show’s completely over. Besides, you wouldn’t want to sleep in here anyway, Paul; there’s only one bed in this particular suite.”

    Conway smirked, as the latter end of his statement immediately caused the beat-down of his door to cease… just as he expected.

    “There’s no number on this keycard!” Paul shouted out shortly after. “Which room number am I, then?”

    “Your suite’s right across the hall from mine,” Conway called back. “Number 914. Be sure to not stay up too late, Paul; we’ll need to get up bright and early if we want to make some real progress tomorrow. Plumeria Town’s the last stop before we have to enter that area of the route with strong air currents.”

    Hearing nothing other than the sound of a neighboring door opening and then closing, Conway smirked to himself; the lenses of his glasses shined with an almost-blinding light as Conway turned the first light on in his suite.

    “Everything’s going according to plan,” he said to himself, fully satisfied as he hopped onto his bed, turned on the TV, and resumed watching his program.

    The first words exchanged between Paul and Conway the next morning were as expected: Paul asking what task he would have to perform for Conway while Conway claimed that the time was not yet right. Also expectedly, Paul got very little sleep last night as he racked his brain for ideas on what Conway had in mind for him; knowing his sick mind, Paul knew he could be made to do anything. Much as he wanted to play it cool and pretend it would be a meaningless ordeal for him, Paul knew by now just how well Conway got under his skin. After all, Conway had spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of torture he would enforce upon Paul for certain. He could be crafty and creative on the spot if he needed to, so Paul had every reason to worry about what he would have to do.

    Brutal and ruthless as the young trainer was, Paul was one who stuck to his word. No matter what Conway would conjure up to torture him, Paul decided he would tough it out and endure the future consequences, whatever they may be. He did consider perhaps not being so quick to involve himself in any future bets, however.

    After breakfast, just as Paul was about to head out in the direction that would lead him out of town, he was held back by Conway’s firm grip on his jacket.

    “What’s the hold-up now?” Paul asked, heavily annoyed. “Didn’t you put a heavy emphasis about making progress on the route today?”

    “Indeed, it seems I forgot that we need to restock our supplies,” Conway said rather absent-mindedly. “How silly of me. In particular, I’m fresh out of Poffins and I need a steady supply of those for my Pokémon. That’s why I got those berries yesterday, you see.”

    Paul just stared at Conway and stiffly nodded. “Fair enough… now why didn’t you do that last night when you got the berries in the first place?”

    “We got to town late yesterday, Paul,” Conway reminded. “I barely had enough time to even get the berries I wanted before most of the stores closed for the night. The bakery was one such place that closed. If you’d be kind enough to follow me and maybe even help me out, I promise this’ll be a relatively quick and painless process.”

    With a huff, Paul folded his arms and looked away. “Why should I help you? You already know I don’t cook.”

    “I just said,” Conway said with a look of bewilderment. “Help me out and we’ll be able to move on sooner than we would if I’m stuck doing the work myself. Besides, this is a great opportunity for you to learn some cooking skills that, frankly, you desperately need, Paul.”

    Paul looked conflicted after acknowledging that. He did want to leave town as soon as possible, and he could at least admit to himself that learning even some basics of cooking would be beneficial to him in the long run. He certainly didn’t want to suffer another embarrassment like he did when he spent the night at Conway’s house and attempted to help make dinner.

    “Fine,” Paul conceded, though he staunchly refused to look anything but disgruntled about having to do such a thing. “This isn’t the favor I owe you, is it?”

    Conway just smiled and shook his head. “How many times must I remind you, Paul? You don’t ask me; I’ll tell you.”

    The younger trainer rolled his eyes as the pair changed course for the bakery.

    It surprised both boys to see that the bakery and several stovetops were occupied with trainers so early in the morning. As Paul expected, most of them were female, making him even more embarrassed to be seen in such an establishment.

    “Aw, nuts,” Conway muttered with a groan. “I was hoping we’d get here before the rush.” After monitoring the whole area, he grinned upon seeing two stoves unoccupied right next to one another. “Aha, there we go! Let’s hurry along, Paul, before someone takes it!”

    Paul grumbled unintelligible ramblings while the two scurried over to the final of the two free stoves. With Paul not knowing a thing about cooking, therefore not knowing anything about how to make Poffins, Conway had to guide him through most of the steps until Paul was finally left with his own Poffin batter simmering over the stovetop.

    “This is where patience is key, Paul,” Conway advised. “You need to stir the concoction just right so your Poffins will have the optimal texture, and therefore, a better product overall.”

    Paul dully nodded as he stirred his batter. “Sounds thrilling.”

    Conway smiled as he gently poured his pre-sliced Pecha Berry into his pot of simmering batter. Then, remembering Paul had no berries of his own, he thoughtfully dug into his berry pouch and offered him a Cornn Berry.

    “Here,” he offered, making Paul raise an eyebrow. “Since you’re just starting out, you can have a berry that doesn’t require any advanced preparation. Just pick off each little berry one-by-one and stir them in gently. It’s much less work than having to slice it up like I have to do with Pecha Berries.”

    Paul nodded, hesitantly accepting the berry and doing as Conway instructed. “And how long does it take to make these things?”

    “Not long at all!” Conway exclaimed as he stirred his ingredients at varying speeds. “The thing to remember is to not stir too slowly, or the batter will stick to the bottom of the pan and burn…”

    “Got it,” Paul cut in, stirring rather quickly as the tiny Cornn Berries swirled in and blended with the batter. However, Conway was aghast at what exactly Paul was doing, as was soon made evident when bits of batter went flying about randomly.

    “Y-you don’t want to stir it too fast, either!” Conway warned, wailing. “You’re throwing batter all over the place!”

    The atmosphere of this bakery plus the fact that Paul was still tired didn’t alert him to his own mistake until hot batter splattered across his face. He stopped abruptly as he flinched to clean himself off, but another yelp was heard that was neither his nor Conway’s.

    “Hey! Watch where you’re firing off that batter, you jerk!”

    Both boys looked over to find an angry young girl who had gotten the brunt of Paul’s negligence: batter was splattered all over her. For a girl who cared very much about her appearance, she was infuriated. But it wasn’t until her apparent Pokémon – a Monferno, no less – leaned to the side (where it was previously hidden) to glare at the offending cook that really caught Paul’s attention.

    Paul immediately stopped stirring the batter completely, staring down at the angry Monferno beside the girl. Of course, this automatically invoked memories of the Chimchar he once owned – the Chimchar that now belonged to Ash Ketchum. Before tiring of its shortcomings, Paul had one day aimed to get Chimchar fully evolved, but no amount of his brutal training made a difference.

    To this day, he still couldn’t figure out what it was he was doing wrong. But he took solace in the fact that Ash wasn’t faring any better than he did when it came to training Chimchar; if anything, Ash was doing a worse job in Paul’s eyes… if the previous battles were anything to go by, of course.

    “Ahem!” The girl coughed, specifically aiming her scornful look at Paul. “My face is up here, you pervert!” She had obviously mistaken Paul’s glance to be towards her developing chest, which she wasn’t exactly modest about showing off with her low-cut sleeveless top.

    Paul frowned as he faced the girl; interestingly enough, her short-cut, curly, fiery hair very well matched her Pokémon’s flaming tail. The contrast in the color scheme was her piercing, accusatory green eyes.

    “Don’t flatter yourself,” he assured, though not in a kind tone. “I was looking at your Pokémon.”

    “Yeah yeah,” she brushed off the assurance, completely unconvinced. “What an excuse. Just like every boy I meet. The way you’re flinging that Poffin batter around, you must be a beginner. Otherwise you’d know better than to treat me with disrespect,” she said darkly.

    Taking notice to the situation and finally making the connection, Conway gasped, drawing the attention of both the girl and Paul. “Oh, of course…! You’re Janelle of Jubilife City, aren’t you? They had footage of your Contest in Cirribus Town last night!”

    With a nod, Janelle confirmed Conway’s suspicions. “Nice to know not every guy around here is a total dimwit. So you’re aware of my status.”

    “Three ribbons, indeed,” Conway remembered. “You’re well on your way to the Grand Festival.”

    While Paul rolled his eyes, doing his best to take his mind off the situation, Janelle smirked at Conway’s compliment. “That’s right. I’m going to be in this town’s Contest tomorrow and on my way to earning my fourth. That Zoey twit isn’t here to stop me this time, so it’s a guaranteed win for me!”

    “It’s all but an inevitability!” Came another voice; another girl’s, who was cooking at the stove beside Janelle’s. “As her manager, I’ll make it a certainty that she wins the Plumeria Ribbon!”

    Paul and Conway both leaned over to see a shorter, more modest brunette with longer, flowing hair and a giant pair of glasses grinning at the boys. Beside her was her apparent Pokémon: Gible.

    After adjusting his glasses, Conway shrugged. “Okay, unfortunately I don’t recognize you.”

    “The name’s Mina!” She said adamantly. “And like I just said, I’m Janelle’s manager! I’m going to make sure she makes it to the Grand Festival!”

    “Indeed,” Janelle concurred. “See, Mina isn’t in this gig to win it for herself; she’s mowing down the competition so I come out to be the victor. The incident in Cirribus Town was just a fluke. We won’t let the same mistake occur twice.”

    Paul shrugged after hearing the explanation. “Sounds like a cheap strategy, if you ask me.”

    Conway nodded in agreement. “The true strength of a Coordinator comes from within their own being; non-reliant on the help of others. If you ask me, Mina should actually try to win for herself for once rather than be your doormat. I assure you, the competition would be much more fun that way.”

    “Ugh! As if I’m going to hear this moralistic preaching from a bunch of chauvinists again!” Janelle barked out, clearly upset with both of the boys. “What weight do your words hold, anyway? How many ribbons have you two earned?”

    Before Paul opened his mouth, Conway cheerfully replied with, “Absolutely none! We’re beginners!”

    “Excuse me, I never had the intention of being a Coordinator,” Paul cut in, sounding annoyed. “Don’t drag me into this. It’s your own fault for preaching to them.”

    “Really?” Mina sounded surprised. “Then what are you even doing here?”

    “Making Poffins for this loser,” Paul replied, gesturing to Conway. “Just because I’m making them doesn’t mean I’m-”

    Janelle smirked and pointed to Paul’s pot on the stove. “Looks more like you’re cooking up charcoal to me!”

    Paul glanced down and indeed saw that due to his negligence and lack of stirring, all of his Poffin batter had stuck to the pan and was on its way to turning black. He hastily took the pot off the heated stovetop and ditched his failed attempt at a Poffin in a nearby garbage can.

    “So your lecture is completely meaningless,” Janelle deducted as Paul returned to his station. “Our strategy is unbeatable, and newbies like you can’t do anything to prove otherwise!”

    Conway sighed in a somewhat-defeated tone before looking to the girls, shrugging. “Guess I’ll have to prove you wrong tomorrow at the Contest.”

    “… Wait, what?!” Paul was aghast; he was never told this. “You just said last night that we weren’t going to have anything to do with that Contest!”

    “Correction: I said we weren’t going to watch the Contest,” Conway reminded, smirking. “I never said anything about actually participating in it. That was the other thing I busied myself with while I was out yesterday evening,” he mentioned. “Not just getting berries… but getting Contest Passes and registering the both of us for the Plumeria Town Contest… just before the deadline.” He then pulled out Paul’s dark blue PokéDex and handed it to its owner. “By the way, I sort of took this when you weren’t looking yesterday so I could register you. Sorry about that; you can have it back now.”

    Paul could feel the color draining away from his face as the words sunk in. “Wh-why…” He sputtered out before glaring at Conway with all his might. “Why would you do this to me?! You know I’m not a Coordinator and I think Contests are a waste of time…!”

    “It may seem cruel, and I know it’ll sting at first, but I think you’ll have fun,” Conway said, sounding eerily honest for once. “Besides, not only is it too late to ditch out of the competition, but this just so happens to be the favor I have decided you must do for me.”

    It was almost too much for Paul to take; he was feeling faint. “So you mean the favor is…”

    “… You must participate in a Contest with me,” Conway finished, nodding. “And I want effort from you, dear friend, or else I’ll just register you up for more and more until you take it seriously.”

    There was a long period of silence from Paul before he managed to utter “I hate you so much.” under his breath.

    “Since the Contest is tomorrow, we’ve got precious little time to get our costumes ready, as well as choosing our Pokémon who will perform in the Appeal and Battle rounds,” Conway informed him. “But I think you and I will be the most fantastic of rivals in the Contest gig.”

    “Uh, I don’t think so,” Janelle cut in. “The Plumeria Contest isn’t meant to showcase your little debut into the profession; it’s meant to showcase my triumphant victory and fourth ribbon.”

    “Not to mention you guys decided to start out a bit late if you wanted to reach the Grand Festival,” Mina pointed out. “There aren’t that many Contests left before then, you know.”

    None of this deterred Conway from smiling, though Paul still looked as if he were ready to jump off a cliff and die for real this time. “Well, no harm in getting our feet wet!” He reasoned, completely optimistic and lighthearted. “I always dreamed of being a rival of Paul’s, and this will be my key to see what it’ll be like.”

    After a mutter of “You are so lame,” from Paul, Janelle shook her head and smirked at Conway; Mina was quick to mimic her agent’s movements and expressions.

    “Too bad, nerd,” she said tauntingly. “You’ve officially ticked me off with your preaching, so I’ll make it my personal business to crush both of you before you even make it past the Appeal round!”

    “That’s right!” Mina agreed. “Together, we’ll mow both of you down.”

    Conway did not expect things to go this way; therefore, he tried his best to remain professional while trying to fend the ladies off. “Girls, girls… honestly, don’t you think it’ll make you look bad if you set your sights on beginners like us? I mean, you’ll seem like bullies…”

    “You shouldn’t have made the mistake of throwing your nasty hot batter on me,” Janelle argued, pointing at Paul specifically. “You want enemies? Well, you’ve got them!”

    Paul scoffed at the accusation. “Like I even care what you want to prove. Even if I’m tied down to this obligation, that doesn’t make me a Coordinator. I couldn’t care less about you girls.” He sharply glared towards his older companion. “I care much more about destroying my so-called ‘dear friend’ here for lassoing me into this in the first place.”

    “That’s the spirit!” Conway said with glee, which threw Paul off for a moment. “See? This is going to be fun!”

    “Only if you’re a masochist,” Janelle cut in. “You two don’t have a choice in the matter, unfortunately. You’ve got yourselves some rivals to contend with.” Mina nodded in agreement to this.

    Conway sighed and looked up helplessly. “I really wanted this to be a special rivalry with myself and Paul… looks like we’ll have to get these two out of the way first.”

    “Don’t talk to me like I’m your pawn!” Paul shouted back. “I’ll just throw this competition in the first round and spare myself any further humiliation!”

    “Ooh, you wouldn’t want to do that,” Conway warned gently. “Like I said, Paul, I want honest effort from you. If I don’t see you taking this seriously, then consider yourself officially having a double-life as a Coordinator, because I’ll put you in Contest after Contest until you shape up. That’s the nature of the game, and why you shouldn’t have made that silly bet in the first place.”

    To that, Paul growled. He was definitely certain never to involve himself with any bets from now on. “Fine, then I’ll crush you in this Contest! Will that make you happy?!”

    “Ecstatic,” Conway affirmed. “But that won’t be happening, and you’ll have to make sure you get past these girls and…” It was just then that Conway noticed Janelle’s Monferno and smirked upon making the mental connection. “Well, isn’t this ironic.”

    Janelle was quick to look defensive; even if she’d just met this young man, there was an eerie air about Conway that was unsettling for both her and Mina. “Wh-what are you talking about?” She asked.

    Despite Paul’s gestures that tried to tell Conway to clam up about the topic, the latter took no notice to them. “My dear friend here had a Chimchar not long ago,” he explained. “It belongs to another trainer now, but the way he trained it at the Hearthome City Tag Battle Tournament, I have a feeling he was aiming to evolve his Chimchar all the way to Infernape before he changed his mind.”

    That tournament!” Mina said aloud with a gasp. “I remember that now! Janelle and I watched it on TV!”

    Paul groaned, really wanting to keep his personal details to himself, because as he expected, the girls became more and more interested in him the more they learned about his history as a trainer.

    “Hey, yeah,” Janelle realized, pointing at Paul specifically. “Weren’t you the winner?”

    “He was one of the winners,” Conway clarified, angering Paul even more. “And I was a runner-up.”

    Mina nodded vigorously, taking out a small book with notes she had written within it. “Yes, it seems that both of these boys are from Veilstone City, but they were on opposing teams. Paul was partnered with a boy from Pallet Town, all the way from Kanto.” She then looked to Conway. “And unless I’m mistaken, you were partnered with a Coordinator from Twinleaf Town; the same one who won the Aqua Ribbon at this year’s Wallace Cup.”

    Conway sighed happily upon remembering his fond memories with Dawn. “Yes, my lovely little Dawn… I’m so thrilled things have gone well for her.” He then smirked. “You’re certainly keen on memorizing details, Mina.”

    However, Mina could not bring herself to take the compliment. “It’s all part of how I lead Janelle to victory. Besides, isn’t it rather pathetic of you to join a Contest for the sake of impressing that girl? I’m sure she could find a better guy out there than you.

    “Hey, that was unnecessary!” Conway shot back, feeling offended. “I’m genuinely interested in Contests… Dawn just happens to be a big part of my inspiration!”

    Janelle rolled her eyes. “Whatever. We don’t need your life story. Mina’s an ace when it comes to digging up the dirt on my rivals, so I know she’ll do a fine job with you two without needing to ask any further questions.”

    “Does that mean you can let us finish up in peace, then?” Paul asked tiredly.

    “Sure thing,” Mina affirmed, taking her pot off the burner and turning it off. Janelle did the same for her own batch.

    Both boys looked confused, as their batter was not yet fully prepared, but soon enough the girls showed their future rivals that they meant business by dumping the hot contents of their pans over the heads of each boy, leaving them howling in pain as they sauntered out of the bakery.

    “If you thought that burned, just wait until you see what we have in store for you tomorrow, newbs!” Janelle called out tauntingly.

    Mina nodded and looked back at Paul and Conway with a smirk before leaving. “Yeah, put your money where your mouth is and see if you can defeat our impenetrable strategy! We’ll see you at the Contest!”

    When the panicking stage was over, both Paul and Conway rushed to clean themselves, certain they were covered with first-degree burns at least from the hot batter poured over them.

    “Who knew girls could be this feisty?!” Conway wailed, scrubbing his hair furiously. “Man, and I just showered before we got here, too!”

    “Will you quit being such a princess for once and focus?!” Paul growled as he cleaned himself off. “Look, I think this favor is a heinous one, but for the sake of revenge, I’ll cut a truce with you until the Contest ends. If those brats want a challenge, we’ll give them the challenge of their lives. Experienced or not, you and I both know we can out-battle those barbies.”

    Conway smirked, happy that Paul was finally getting his head into the game, albeit in these unfortunate circumstances. “I’m not one who would strike back at a woman, but for those two, I think I can make an exception. I really did want to see how a rivalry between us would work, though…”

    Paul shrugged nonchalantly. “We’ll eliminate the girls first. Provided we can do that successfully, then you can have your little ‘rivalry’ fun with me if that’s what you really want. Honestly, Conway… I’ll never understand you.”

    “Better you focus on understanding Contest basics right now anyway,” Conway pointed out. “We’ve got less than a day to go. We need to pick out our costumes, which Pokémon we’ll use, and what our strategies will be for both the Appeal and Battle rounds.”

    He was knee-deep into this commitment, Paul knew. Much as he loathed thinking about it, he would actually have to take this Contest seriously so he would be able to move on with his life and to his Snowpoint City Gym challenge.

    The rest of the day was spent preparing for the Contest. Conway had decided ages ago on which of his Pokémon he would be using, as he had on-and-off experimented with appeals, hence he was almost completely set. Once he received his outfit from the costume shop and put the appropriate seals on his ball capsules, Conway was set to focus on success.

    Of course, he did have to spare some time explaining to Paul about how Contests worked specifically, as Paul never cared to learn the details. He made sure Conway had no influence whatsoever on his decision when it came to costumes, and though it baffled him at first, he reluctantly conceded to encase two of his Pokéballs with ball capsules and seals. Paul had decided on a running theme, and was given a couple of pointers from Conway that there were two basic surefire ways of getting a good reception on the Appeal round:

    “The first thing is, own a Milotic and use it in the Appeal round. Do that and it’s virtually guaranteed that you’ll move on to the next round. My calculations so far state that no one with a Milotic has actually failed to get past the Appeal rounds before,” Conway said. “Even if Milotic just sits there and sparkles, everyone becomes enamored with it… including the judges.”

    “Thanks for wasting a whole minute of my life on your useless geek babble,” Paul muttered. “All of that is irrelevant since I don’t own a Milotic.”

    Conway blushed and nodded. “Well, that’s true! I just thought you should know… hopefully no one in tomorrow’s Contest will own one, or we’ll be in trouble. Thankfully, they’re incredibly rare.”

    “Quit wasting my time with your What-Ifs,” Paul complained. “Is there anything valuable that’s relevant to me that I need to know?”

    “Ice Appeals,” Conway said simply. “Short of Milotic, many of the most awe-inspiring Appeals have had something to do with ice. So it’s recommended that you have an Ice-type Pokémon or at least an Ice-type move on hand. Make sure you’re creative, though!” He reminded. “Many Coordinators have caught on to this, so you don’t want to be caught giving a mediocre performance. Chances are good that you’ll be compared to several other Ice-related performances.”

    Paul nodded. “Much better. I was planning on using Weavile for the Appeal round, anyway.”

    “Excellent!” Conway exclaimed, overjoyed that Paul seemed to take this a little more seriously. “Do you have an appeal in mind?”

    “I do, but I’d rather you not watch me while I practice,” Paul requested, sounding distant. “Besides, you’ve got your own appeals to work with. Don’t tell me you’re doing an Ice-type appeal too.”

    Conway smiled awkwardly and looked towards the evening sky. “Well, technically it is… ice is involved, but it isn’t the only element. You’ll see tomorrow, Paul. I think you’ll like it.”

    “You say that expecting for me to actually care,” Paul said with disbelief. “Hasn’t it gotten through your head yet? I’m only doing this because I’m morally obligated to. I’m a man of my word.”

    “And with any luck, this little lesson will prevent you from doing any more stupid stunts!” Conway said optimistically. “At least that way, you won’t be plaguing poor Reggie with any nightmares anymore.”

    Paul grumbled as he thought of his older brother. “He’d better be sticking to his training… if he’s slacking off and watching TV tomorrow, there’s a chance he might catch me on that Contest.”

    “Won’t that be an interesting story,” Conway mused. “I’m sure he’d love to know how his precious baby brother ended up in a pointless, useless Contest!”

    “That would require us telling him that his nightmare came true,” Paul harshly reminded him. “And we agreed we would keep that between us, didn’t we?”

    After a moment of silence, Conway sighed and bowed his head. “You’re right. But we’d be too obvious if we called him and requested that he not watch TV at all tomorrow.”

    Paul simply shook his head. “I’ve got a plan, so don’t worry your little head about it. Let’s just keep our heads focused in the game so we can get this over with. I want to see those two girls in tears by the time the Contest is over.”

    “For once, I agree with you,” said Conway. “They crossed the line this morning… so just keep yourself pumped up for the big day tomorrow.”

    Paul nodded to his traveling companion before looking up at the sky. “I’d like to perfect the appeal I have in mind before night fully sets in. If Ice-type appeals are as common as you say, I have to make sure mine stands out.”

    Conway smiled at Paul. Though he knew deep down that Paul was forcing himself to tolerate this tournament, it warmed his heart knowing that he was taking it better now than he had earlier. “I’ll be writing out my own strategies for the battle portion, then… would you like to join me after you’re finished perfecting your appeal?”

    “I’ll pass,” Paul said casually. “Making strategies for each other against the Gym Leaders is one thing… but don’t forget we’re actually opponents in the Contest.”

    “True,” Conway recalled, somewhat downtrodden. “But I still say we work together to take those two down… then we’ll settle the score in the finals. How about that?”

    Paul smirked. “Sounds like a plan.”

    Conway waved to Paul as he returned to the luxury hotel. “Make sure you don’t stay up too late!”

    The smirk on Paul’s face faded as he stared down at the ground. “Look at me, getting myself into this mess… I’m losing my touch.” His expressions hardened, remembering what was on the line. “No matter. I’ve got everything under control. I’ll make the best out of this bad situation… somehow.”

    The following day was bright and sunny: perfect for traveling to the remote Plumeria Town to partake in the town’s Contest. Contestants and audience members alike came in droves. Coordinators took their position backstage while the audience seated themselves in the multi-rows stands circling across the open-domed Contest Hall. The lights and decorations had all been set up; it was only a matter of time before the competition would get underway.

    Finally, the audience let out a loud cheer when the Contest judges appeared on the stage to promptly take their seats. Not far behind them was the auburn-haired beauty adorned in yellow: Marian, the announcer.

    A spotlight shone down over her; as it was an open-domed Contest Hall, the lightning was not as dramatic as is usually was in other contests, but it was more than made up for when multiple spotlights of differing colors shined down upon the glorious host after the main one.

    “As we travel northbound throughout the Sinnoh region, the elements prove to be a challenge!” Marian shouted out with her microphone. “Coordinators and audience members alike have traveled far and wide to this unique and remote location to put on a show and warm our hearts! With that said, it’s Contest Time! Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Plumeria Town Contest…!”

    As the audience cheered aloud, the participating Coordinators watched in the waiting room via several small televisions installed from the ceiling.

    Conway sighed as he watched the opening ceremony all in his lonesome, though his Castform was right at his side. After a quick glance, he noticed Janelle and her Monferno (as well as Mina and her Gible) at the other side of the room with their eyes glued to one of the many TV screens. Despite that, both female Coordinators had that look of determination on their faces.

    As for Conway, he couldn’t help but feel the jitters much like how he felt prior to his Gym Battle with Maylene. Remembering he had won that battle calmed him a bit, but a Contest was an entirely different ballgame. While he and Paul could assist each other on strategy with traditional battling, both were novices in Coordinating. It didn’t help that Paul couldn’t care less about the profession, either.

    “Guess I made it in time after all,” Paul said with a grumble, suddenly appearing next to Conway and taking a seat next to him. Weavile was also by this side. After taking a moment to analyze his outfit, Conway tried his best to not sputter into a fit of giggles.

    “My oh my, Mister Ninja!” He said tauntingly. “You ninja’ed your way here just in time! Looks like it was a tight fit. Is that why it took you so long to change?”

    Paul rolled his eyes; indeed, his costume for the contest was anything but flashy, but it certainly was drawing attention from other Coordinators, as it was outlandish: an all-black, fully skin-tight ninja uniform complete with a belt, kneepads, and other simple accessories. Most notably, Paul was able to cover most of his face with the fabric of his clothing, as if he were going out of his way to conceal his identity. Since he was talking to Conway, however, he removed the fabric that covered the lower half of his face.

    “There’s a reason I chose this outfit,” Paul calmly explained. “This is my only hope for remaining anonymous should anyone I know tune into this Contest on TV.”

    “Goodness, you’re right,” Conway acknowledged. “I even called my sister last night so I’d make sure she would at least watch the contest. I called my cousin, too… though he wasn’t home. Had to leave a message. Guess you really don’t want Reggie to know about this, huh?”

    “Not in a million years,” Paul swore. “And I’d really prefer that the idiot and his group don’t watch this trainwreck either.”

    Downtrodden, Conway sighed. “Much as I respect your wishes to conceal your mysterious double life from Ash, it would mean that Dawn won’t see me…”

    “It’s not a double-life!” Paul snapped back. “This is a one-time deal; after this, I’m never entering a Contest ever again.

    “And you really think your little ninja disguise will save you,” Conway mused, smirking. “Oh, this is going to be fun…”

    Paul shook his head and grunted. “You should talk, space geek. What’s with you, anyway?”

    Conway’s outfit consisted of a long, off-white robe with padded shirts and a belt underneath, as well as a pair of tight-fitting pants. The robe also had a hood attached, which was more than large enough to cover the entirety of Conway’s head. If one didn’t know better, one would say Conway was dressed just like a certain space vigilante; a warrior of peace to bring order to the force.

    “I am dressed so all will see the light,” Conway said mysteriously, grinning at Paul. “It is my will; my journey, young trainer.”

    “You’re not making any sense,” Paul pointed out. “Maybe I shouldn’t have asked.”

    Conway merely chuckled darkly as he refocused himself on the TV. “Much anger in you, I sense,” he told Paul quietly. “… Like your father.”

    If there weren’t so many live witnesses present, Paul sworn he would have lost it then and there and killed Conway on the spot.

    “Our winning Coordinator will of course receive the coveted Plumeria Ribbon!” Marian said in a routinely fashion. “One fifth of the puzzle all Coordinators must complete in order to qualify for this year’s Grand Festival! We’re nearing the later portion of this season’s tournament; so look alive, everyone!”

    Marian then turned to the table where the judges sat. As per usual, she introduced each one.

    “And now, it is my honor to introduce to you our panel of esteemed judges!” Marian shouted out.

    The first one introduced, as always, was a middle-aged man in a red suit and a black bowtie. He also wore one of the most coveted ribbons of all regions: the Gorgeous Royal Ribbon.

    “First up is the chief of the Pokémon Activities Committee, Mister Contesta!” Marian introduced.

    Contesta, Raoul Contesta, that is, nodded and smiled to the crowd. “It’s always a pleasure, Marian! I know with the competition heating up as the days go by that we’ll see a spectacular series of appeals and battles from these hard-working Coordinators!”

    Moving on, Marian introduced the judge sitting next to Contesta: a shorter, portly man with squinted eyes in a generic business suit. “Next is none other than the head of the Pokémon Fan Club: Mister Sukizo!”

    “Plumeria Town is… remarkable!” Sukizo said, succinct as always.

    “And finally, Plumeria Town’s very own and oh-so dependable Nurse Joy!” Marian announced, gesturing towards the modest Nurse Joy at the end of the row. She looked no different from any other Nurse Joy one would encounter in any region, though the cross on her hat was gray in color.

    Giggling at Marian’s description of her, Nurse Joy nodded and smiled to the others. “Times like this when the competition heats up are when the Coordinators bring out everything they have to the table! I’m really looking forward to this event, and I hope you all are just as excited as I am!”

    “Now that you’ve met our judges, let’s proceed onwards to the first round!” Marian called out. Just as she said that, several Coordinators in the waiting room were standing up. Taking note of this, Paul and Conway also stood up. After a brief check, Conway was curious when he could no longer spot Janelle or Mina.

    “Of course, this is our Performance Round, where one Pokémon per Coordinator puts on a show in hopes of dazzling us with their boundless talent!” Marian continued. “So please put your hands together for our first contestant…”

    As everyone eyed the curtains where each Coordinator would come out from, the curtains slowly opened.

    “Miss Mina of Floaroma Town!” Marian finished. The curtains pulled away to reveal the modest brunette still in her glasses, but now in a turquoise, sparkling two-piece dress with matching boots. Hot pink sashes accented her outfit in addition to two silver bracelets. In her hand was a Pokéball in its capsule, ready to be let out.

    “So the crony is going first,” Paul acknowledged. “This must be some part of their strategy.”

    “The order is usually randomized in Contests, Paul,” Conway informed him cautiously. “But I will admit I have a very bad feeling about this…”

    Meanwhile, Mina smirked and dashed out to the stage, throwing out her Pokéball. “Alright, Gible! On the set…!”

    After an impressive blast from the Party Seals Mina attached to her Ball Capsule, Gible did several full 360-degree spins before landing perfectly on the stage. The crowd cheered for its energetic entrance.

    “Let’s begin, shall we?” Mina suggested with a smirk. “Start off with Stealth Rock!”

    Several rocks began protruding from the stage, surprising Marian, the judges, and all of the audience members as they rose up from the ground and pointed directly at the one who summoned them: Gible.

    “Follow up with Dragon Rage!” Mina ordered, and Gible complied, spinning around and spewing flames at the pointed rocks, that seemed to be ready to attack Gible at any given moment. The rocks looked even more fearsome than before. Just then, the rocks all at once came at Gible, but Mina smirked, for this is what she planned.

    “Now, destroy them all, darling!” Mina cried out. “Spin around and crush those rocks with Dragon Rush!”

    Having been surrounded in the precarious situation all this time, Gible was more than ready to get out of the area. Enveloping itself in a gorgeous glow of blue energy, Gible jumped up and flew around the rocks in a circle, propelling itself against each rock to keep up its momentum while its pure energy turned the flaming rocks into pure dust.

    “Now clean that mess up!” Mina said. “Sand Attack!”

    Gible danced around the stage, sweeping up the powdered remains of the Stealth Rock attack and enamoring the crowd with the performance. After Gible finished, it back-flipped straight towards its trainer and both posed to signify that their Appeal was complete.

    Contesta nodded in approval of the performance. “An amazing example of how such amazing power can come in a small package! Gible was so powerful and so reminiscent of a Garchomp! Excellent performance!”

    “Not to mention, it was remarkable!” Sukizo added.

    “I’ll admit I was nervous at first, but the trust between Pokémon and Coordinator is so well-represented here that I must say that was one of the most breathtaking performances I’ve ever seen!” Nurse Joy commented. “A lovely performance of trust and power!”

    Conway intently watched Mina’s performance the entire time, looking serious. “For a lackey, she certainly has the talent to make it on her own… makes me wonder why she’s so intent on pushing her friend towards success instead.”

    “I guess we’ll see just how powerful she really is, and if she’s worth sacrificing the other girl’s career over,” Paul mused, though not nearly as immersed into this as Conway was. “And since when do they announce Coordinators by name, anyway?”

    “They… always do that,” Conway told him, blinking in confusion. “I guess you must have not known that if you were so keen on hiding your face… it’s not going to matter once you’re on the set.”

    “I’ll just have to hope no one relevant to my life is watching TV right now,” Paul grumbled just then. “Idiot ought to be training for the old man’s battle, anyway… why are my plans constantly ruined?!”

    Conway only smirked. “Impossible to see, the future is. And perhaps, even the present as well!”

    Paul glared at his companion for that remark. “No more psycho-babble out of you, loser.”

    “Now, let’s continue the show!” Marian shouted out, and indeed, the Appeal rounds continued to commence as Coordinator after Coordinator left the waiting room and reappeared on the television. Very few who already went out returned to the waiting room, so Mina was never seen again live by the boys.

    After numerous appeals, including a girl with a Dunsparce, a boy with a Qwilfish, a geek much like Conway with his Porygon-Z (which unfortunately flopped in the Appeal round when the electric attacks proved to be too much for the audience to handle), and an older woman with her Sentret (among many, many other Coordinators not worthy of note), the Appeal round was soon coming to the homestretch.

    Finally, Janelle appeared on the screen. Both boys were dead silent as they watched their ill-tempered forced-rival come out from the curtains.

    “Up next is the fiery-spirited young lady from Jubilife City, Janelle!” Marian announced.

    Janelle stepped up to the plate, ready to go. Her white trench coat lined with a golden trim and jewels all of the warm-colored hue caught the attention of many people in the crowd. Added with jewelry, a headband, an even more revealing and low-cut top, and bell-bottom pants, Janelle indeed looked like she stepped out from a time portal a few generations back.

    But the retro look was still socially acceptable, as Janelle garnered applause before even doing anything.

    “She must be one to look out for,” Conway noted. “If she’s already getting this much praise before even doing anything…”

    Back on the stage, Janelle posed before throwing out her Capsule-covered Pokéball.

    “Dazzle them, Monferno!”

    With a mix of red and blue flames coming from the Seals, Monferno burst out of its Pokéball and flew through the flames as if they were nothing. The crowd was impressed with Monferno’s endurance.

    Before it even landed, Janelle called out her first order.

    “Use Will-O-Wisp over the stage!” She instructed. “Spread it out like a checkerboard!”

    Still in the air, Monferno twirled around and summoned blue-colored small flames that surrounded the Playful Pokémon. With pure skill, Monferno aimed the Will-O-Wisp flames to form a pattern on the stage floor; most of them landed in the crevices that were initially created by Mina’s Stealth Rock appeal.

    Surprisingly, the flames that landed in the crevice continued to burn even more brightly than the ones that didn’t, which seemed to surprise the others with this flaw in logic.

    “It seems many of our Coordinators today are using the field itself as part of their strategy!” Marian noted. “Let’s see what Monferno plans to do with this!”

    “Turn up the heat with Heat Wave! Let’s make sure this fire doesn’t die!” Janelle shouted out with excitement. “And when you’ve got your stage set, do your Double Kick routine!”

    From its mouth, Monferno unleashed a powerful wave of heat that only made the fire grow larger. The flames spread to the point to where it almost seemed reminiscent of a dance floor.

    “It’s getting hot in here!” Marian remarked, fanning herself. “But look at Monferno go, everyone! No fear whatsoever in this contestant!”

    Indeed, Marian was right. Just as the stage of flames was set, Monferno unleashed a unique Double Kick routine that involved it breakdancing dangerously over the fire-tiled stage. The crowd watched in awe as Monferno expertly showed off its speed, skill, and flair within the burning depths of its innate element.

    “And we’ll finish it up with Vacuum Wave!” Janelle decided, pointing at Monferno as the dance routine came to an end.

    Monferno jumped and began to twirl around in the air, progressively faster until it was merely an orange blur in the eyes of the audience.

    “What magnificent speed!” Marian cried out.

    “Make sure that fire goes out beautifully, Monferno!” Janelle ordered. “Release your energy!”

    Monferno stopped spinning at that moment and spread its arms out forcefully to release the strong winds it had collected. The fire curved inward toward Monferno as it almost grew out of control, but was swiftly snuffed out as Monferno punched each flaming area with a wind so fierce that not a single flame could withstand it.

    Landing back onto the stage, Monferno and Janelle made identical poses, with smug and confident looks as they pointed diagonally in the air.

    After the roaring cheers of the audience died down, the judges began to give their opinions.

    “An appeal like this goes a long way in showing just how potent the combination of a Fire and Fighting-type Pokémon can be!” said Contesta. “The burning heat, Monferno’s energetic performance, and using its own power to end the show… an exciting and enjoyable watch from beginning to end! Congratulations!”

    “Hot, but still remarkable!” Sukizo complimented.

    “If there was ever a sign that the competition was heating up this late in the game, this Coordinator and her Monferno would be that sign!” Nurse Joy exclaimed. “Clearly they’re in perfect rhythm with each other and I greatly admired the performance!”

    Satisfied with the reception, Janelle smirked and nodded before turning around to return to the backstage area with her Monferno. Meanwhile, Paul and Conway seemed a little more concerned than before after seeing such a well-done appeal.

    “I guess if I had to say one nice thing about that temperamental girl, it’s that she definitely trains her Monferno better than how that moron trains Chimchar,” Paul admitted. “But that just leads to an even more depressing scenario knowing the more capable trainer is in the wrong-”

    He paused upon noticing that Conway was no longer at his side, but rather about to leave the area. “Hey, where are you going?!”

    “Haven’t you been paying attention?” Conway teased. “The Appeal round is almost over, so you and I are up next. You can stay there and watch me if you’d like.”

    “I’d better invest my time taking a nap before it’s my turn to go up,” Paul snapped back. “Break a leg out there, Conway. Really.

    “Ah, it wouldn’t be the same without your loving and caring support!” Conway cheerfully said, as if he took that as a compliment. He quickly vanished into the hallway where he would wait until he would be called out. Despite Paul’s claims, he now paid attention to the television more than ever… almost as if he were eager to see if Conway would either mess this up or perform admirably, like he did in his Gym Battle against Maylene (which he still never gave Conway the satisfaction of knowing personally).

    “Phew, what a tough act to follow!” Marian noted, still talking about Janelle’s performance. “Well, we only have a couple of contestants left before we can move on to the next round! So everyone give a big hand for Conway of Veilstone City…!”

    Conway stepped out with his head bowed down, covered with the hood. His posture straightened as two flashing glasses lens contrasted from the darkness concealing the rest of Conway’s face. The audience gasped and otherwise seemed to be startled at the sight, but Conway shook his hood off, caught his Capsule-covered Pokéball that was concealed within the large hood, and threw it out to the stage.

    “Castform, come on down…!” he announced, and in a flurry of blue and purple bubbles from the Foamy Seals attached to the Capsule, Castform came spinning out of its ball, cheering happily as it was finally able to perform in its first Contest.

    “Now, Castform, let us act quickly!” Conway advised, adjusting his glasses. “Perform Rain Dance…!”

    Castform swirled around again in a circle, swaying and making the circle progressively wider as it conjured up a white, foggy ball of energy. Upon completion, the cloud swiftly raised into the air and spontaneously brought about a shower to the entire stage, surprising everyone.

    “It seems Castform wants to rain on our parade!” Marian cried out, mildly confused. “Surely the Coordinator knows where he’s going with this…!”

    Conway only smirked and looked back to Castform, who was spiraling down back to the stage in its Rain Form. “You give me far too little credit, Marian. Castform, let’s use Weather Ball next! Make it big and aim it high!”

    Needing only a short amount of time to concentrate, a large ball of energy appeared over Castform’s head. Due to Castform being transformed into a Water-type Pokémon since it was now raining, Weather Ball consequently became a Water-type move, and therefore resembled a giant ball of water, which made the audience gape at how such a small Pokémon could create masses of energy several times its size.

    “Now… up it goes!” Conway signaled when he decided the Weather Ball was big enough, and Castform sent it flying into the air, where the eyes of the audience followed along. Weather Ball was kept in perfect form the entire time despite being made of water.

    When he decided it was close enough to the cloud that was making the rain, Conway smirked and gave out his next order. “Castform, use Avalanche! Utilize the raincloud!”

    Castform nodded and concentrated its energy as it glowed. From higher above, giant balls of snow formed above the raincloud and fell through it. Many of them poured into the Water-typed Weather Ball.

    But due to the power of Avalanche, the raincloud was naturally transformed into a cloud creating snow, and the temperature of Weather ball quickly dipped to below-freezing, making it now a giant ball of ice rather than a ball of water. With rain now becoming snow, Castform changed into its Snow-cloud form.

    The elements of nature and so many things happening at once wowed the audience for sure. Marian was glad to see that the male Coordinator had a plan all along. “Winter seems to have come early this year thanks to Castform!” she said. “What was once water is now ice and snow! And look at Castform: it looks completely different from before!”

    Those who were too occupied with what was happening with Weather Ball finally noticed Castform’s change in appearance and applauded loudly for the result. However, Conway wagged his finger.

    “People, people! I’m just not done yet!” He insisted. “The finale has yet to come! So let’s bring it to them, Castform: a full-powered Ember flurry at both our icy Weather Ball and the cloud making the snow! Let’s do it!”

    Though in Snow-cloud form, Castform was still able to use Ember perfectly well as it blew a barrage of fireballs directly at Weather Ball and the cloud. The fire shot through the clouds, quickly turning the snow back into rain (with various parts evaporating) while the fire against the solid-ice Weather Ball eventually made it explode into thousands of ice crystals. The mixture of the natural sunlight over the open-domed Contest Hall and water becoming an element in play again created a wonderful rainbow in addition to the ice crystals that slowly sprinkled onto the stage, the crowd, the judges, and Marian herself.

    “The angling turned out to be just right after all!” Conway eagerly acknowledged. “Show your glory, dear Castform! Show them how beautiful you look in a color hue!”

    Everyone was rendered speechless with the many spontaneous occurrences due to the unstable elements, but even after the raincloud dissipated and Castform returned to its natural self, it still looked adorable and almost magical as the audience watched it weave in and out between the rainbow that was created.

    Once Conway decided enough was enough, he took a bow, and Castform humbly floated down to join him. Both were met with roaring applause.

    Shortly after, it was the judges’ turn to speak.

    First, Contesta enthusiastically said, “The way Conway used the elements of weather to show us just how true beauty can be formed when mixing in opposing forces just goes to show you how beautiful our own world can be! I applaud him for pulling such a stunt, for the forces of weather cannot be so easily manipulated by a trainer or even a Pokémon!”

    “I think the rainbow was remarkable!” Sukizo said, and though he sounded no less enthusiastic than he usually did, he did seem to be moved by the performance.

    “Castform did look astonishing in all of its forms,” Nurse Joy noted. “With elements like this, many beginning Coordinators forget to showcase their Pokémon, but Conway knew by the end that Castform was the true star of the show, and they both pass with flying colors in my book!”

    “That was Conway of Veilstone City, ladies and gentleman!” Marian announced. “Only one more contestant left before we move on to the battle rounds!”

    After one final bow, Conway receded back into the curtains with Castform and looked to the waiting room, where he saw Paul getting up to leave. “Ah, good! I didn’t have to wake you up! It’s your turn now, buddy!”

    “Stop calling me that,” Paul grunted, and he wasn’t about to admit to Conway that he had intently watched Conway’s performance from start to finish. “I know I’m next. Finally, I can get this over with.”

    “Got the nerves? The jitters?” Conway asked teasingly. “You can’t deny it; all first-timers do!”

    “Except I’m not a first-timer,” Paul reminded him. “I’m just an unfortunate guy who lost a bet. But even so, if you want me to take this so seriously, then that’s exactly what you’re going to see from me.”

    Conway grinned at that assurance and lifted his hand up. “Nice attitude! One high-five for the road, then? I’ll be cheering you on!”

    It took a few moments of Paul staring blankly at Conway’s palm that he realized he wasn’t getting high-fived anytime soon, if ever.

    “You realize you’re just rubbing salt in the wound, don’t you?” Paul asked him darkly as he made his way out of the waiting room and down the hallway. Conway, however, was quick to follow.

    “No way; I really want you to perform well out there!” Conway pleaded. “You’re such a talented battler that I know you can apply your strengths to this Contest and overcome the odds! Besides, don’t remember that we’ve got those two girls with attitude to overcome in the next round! I really want you to move on with me!”

    Just then, both boys crossed by Janelle and Mina on their way to the stage. Both smirked at their rivals, seemingly self-assured that they would come out the victors the end (or at least, Janelle would be the victor).

    “Don’t worry; we wouldn’t miss your failure of an act for the world,” Janelle teased. “Better not disappoint us.”

    “That’s right; I advise against boring Janelle if you know what’s good for you,” Mina said. “If you value your pride in the battle rounds, but that’s assuming you two move on to that round in the first place.”

    Janelle flashed an evil grin and laughed out loud. “As if either even will! Come on, Mina. I’m hungry, but I don’t want to miss this.” She handed her more humbled friend some money. “Get me a corndog so I can chow down and watch this guy fall flat on his feet at the same time.”

    Mina eagerly nodded to her friend and scampered off. Conway and Paul just turned their noses up and went about their way just before the lowered curtain.

    “I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you not to pay those girls any mind,” Conway said.

    “You sure don’t,” Paul affirmed coldly. “I know they’re both even bigger losers than you are. Don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine. The sooner we get this over with, the better.”

    Conway gave Paul’s shoulder a friendly, encouraging pat as he made his way back to the waiting room. “I’ll be watching. Best of luck out there…!”

    Paul sighed after Conway finally left, taking out his Pokéball, which he also conceded to putting a Capsule and a couple of Seals on it. He briefly looked to it before pulling out his last-ditch effort in an attempt to hide his identity: a tight fabric that was tucked underneath his outfit until now that served to cover up the bottom half of his face. Knowing he would be called out by name scorned him to no end, but there was nothing he could do about it now: the curtain began to rise one final time.

    “Now, let’s hear it for our last Coordinator in this competition!” Marian exclaimed, which made Paul flinch initially. “From Veilstone City, everybody welcome Paul…!”

    A generic cheer was heard from the audience, as no one who devoted themselves to Contests had as much of a clear idea on who Paul really was as much as traditional trainers. Something about him stuck out to many people, however.

    Paul couldn’t care less of the audience’s reaction, however. He tossed his Pokéball, with his Contest Call being a muffled, “Weavile, get to first position…!”

    With large poofs of smoke coming from the seals, Weavile came out at lightning-fast speed and back-flipped its way to the center of the stage.

    Paul did not say anything to his Pokémon for the first move; rather, he posed and held his index and middle fingers out from both hands, crossing them together. Weavile seemed to understand this movement and immediately jumped up and spun in a circle while using Ice Beam.

    “Amazing!” Marian cried out. “It seems that Weavile has learned a specific sort of sign language from its trainer!”

    Indeed, this was another tactic Paul had planned to aid his anonymity: to use his voice as little as possible. There seemed to be no rule against that, though he wouldn’t be able to keep that up in the battle rounds, so he simply enjoyed his silence for as long as he could.

    Meanwhile, Weavile’s spinning was creating a giant bowl made of ice on the stage. After finishing, Weavile skated along the ice and did a spin to signify that the first stage was complete. Paul’s next sign involved him crossing both hands together before throwing them up high.

    This signaled Weavile to use Surf. Summoning massive amounts of water to partially fill the bowl, Weavile proceeded to continue a sort of skating-surfing routine where the high tides of the Surf move were instantly frozen as Weavile rode the waves effortlessly. Those in the audience who feared getting soaked were soon saved as Weavile froze the waves before they could hit anyone.

    “What precision!” Marian complimented. “Weavile’s giving everyone a very close look at just how efficient its speed and skill is!”

    The simplistic ice bowl was practically made into an ice monument as the giant frozen tidal waves gave off a very impressive and appealing look, made even better as Weavile continued to skate across its frozen terrain and emphasize its speed, precision, and ability to perform complex physical stunts; Weavile never failed to read the signals Paul silently gave him.

    Finally, he brought both hands down forcefully, signifying that it was time to end it. After charging up some power, the Sharp Claw Pokémon utterly destroyed its beautiful icy masterpiece with a flurry of Brick Break attacks which ultimately turned the gigantic sculpture into diamond dust.

    Both Weavile and Paul paused like ninjas of the dark arts to complete their performance. For a first-timer, just like Conway, Paul’s performance was well-received by the audience.

    “With a Weavile, a good Appeal should consist of moves that show off this Pokémon’s natural abilities, for they are feats not many others can live up to,” Contesta remarked. “Never before have I seen a Weavile that is not only so fast, flawless, and precise with its movements, but also creative! The unique ice rink was well-done, and even its destruction was beautiful!”

    Sukizo was still admiring the lingering diamond dust. “Glittery… and remarkable!”

    “Weavile’s experience was quite apparent in this performance,” said Nurse Joy. “Clearly these two have been partners for a long time, especially since Weavile didn’t even need vocal commands to pull off such an astounding Appeal! It was so dark and intense, but calming and beautiful at the same time! This is a great way to end our first round!”

    “And Nurse Joy is right; the Appeal round of the Plumeria Contest is now over!” Marian officiated. “And what a rush that was! Everyone, take a breather and get a snack; please be patient while our judges tally the results and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can to reveal the eight Coordinators who will be moving on to the next round!”

    As the excitement died down, Paul retreated back into the curtains and was immediately met with an ecstatic Conway.

    “You were amazing…!” He exclaimed. “You far beyond exceeded my expectations!”

    “That’s because I want this Contest torture to end with this one,” Paul replied snidely. “You said I had to put effort into it, and I’m doing so. Are you happy now?”

    “Utterly thrilled!” Conway replied. “But that doesn’t mean you get to throw the game when it comes time to battle! Remember, your Pokémon has to look cool while battling, as well!”

    Paul sighed and shook his head. “That’s assuming either of us make it beyond this round. Don’t get your hopes up. Like it or not, we’re inexperienced. But if we do make it, rest assured I’ll be ready to humiliate those girls.”

    “That’s the spirit!” Conway said with a grin. “Oh, if only it didn’t feel like an eternity waiting for those results…”

    Far, far away from Plumeria Town, a bored young man with hair the color of the sea continued his fruitless research on a task assigned by his boss: the location of the Spear Pillar. As a Commander of Team Galactic, Saturn was one of a few tasked with this mission. However, the Iron Island incident made things unexpectedly difficult for them. They at least pinpointed Mt. Coronet as the general location, but only a little less than half of the mountain had been scanned before the mission that fellow Commander Mars was in charge of fell through due to outside interference.

    Much as he aimed to please Cyrus, his leader, Saturn could feel himself almost falling asleep at the monitors. One thing he did know is that the legendary pixies of the three lakes of Sinnoh also had a connection with their ultimate goal, but said role was unclear as of this time. With a greater understanding, Saturn wondered if that would aid their search for the Spear Pillar if the three were to be captured and obtained.

    However, literature on the pixies were few and far in between. He had considered using his family, all composed of stereotypical bookworms, for assistance, but it often pained him to interact with them.

    Upon glancing at his cellular phone (which was his personal phone), Saturn realized he had missed a call at one point and had voicemail. For lack of anything better to do, Saturn decided to call his voicemail number so at least his cell phone would stop blinking its light to inform him of the unread message.

    Received yesterday at 11:28 PM,” said the automated voice before the actual message began.

    “Sloan! It feels like it’s been forever…!”

    Saturn’s eyes snapped wide open as the voice was immediately familiar to him; no one else pestered him more than his youngest cousin. He looked around briefly to be sure no other operatives were in the area before he let the call proceed. Ever since he joined Team Galactic, Saturn made it a point that he would only go by his given codename, as designated by Cyrus himself, and make sure no one else within Galactic Headquarters knew him by his given name. Fortunately for Saturn, he was alone this time.

    “Sorry to call so late… guess you’re in bed already, heh… I just wanted to let you know that I’m gonna be on TV again! Tomorrow, in fact! It’s actually gonna be a Contest this time, and I plan to win it, of course! I’d be super-stoked if you watched it!”

    Saturn frowned. “He never stops to think that perhaps I have better things to do than watch my detestable relatives humiliate themselves in this pointless world.”

    “Guess I’ll understand if you’re busy, but I know you’d at least care! That’s why you’re the best! It’s the Plumeria Town Contest, just so you know. I’m gonna be around that area for the next few days, so if you wanna call me back, just call the Plumeria Town Pokémon Center and I’m sure they’ll fetch me over! Because I wanted to tell you that Canalave’s library really got me some sweet deals on some super-rare books this time! It’s a long story, but this Uxie book is fascinating!

    Among the sentimental drivel, Saturn’s eyes snapped open at the mention of Uxie; one of the three lake pixies of Sinnoh.

    “Pretty sure it’s the only copy in Sinnoh, anyway… but you know it’s been a while since I lent those video games of mine to you, right? You’ve beaten them by now, haven’t you? I’d love to have them back whenever possible, so I’m willing to do a trade with you since I finished this book already! I think you’d really like it! Uxie’s the pixie of Knowledge, and I know we both relate to that! Anyway, I’m sure the time limit’s gonna cut me off soon, so I’ll just wish you a good night and I Love You, Sloan! Please remember to watch me in the Contest tomorrow! Until then…!”

    The message ended. But unlike with the majority of the calls he received from his cousin, Saturn chose to save this one for future reference. A dark smile crossed his face as he turned towards a television that was currently on some generic weather channel.

    “It’s been a while since you’ve proven yourself to be useful, dear cousin of mine,” Saturn said to himself in a devious tone. He flipped through the channels. “So you’ll be at Plumeria Town, you say… I think I will watch your little Contest. It’ll give me a good idea of when it will be best to give you a… suitable response.”

    Just then, he found the right channel, as Marian’s bright and sugary-sweet face popped up on the screen.

    “Sorry to keep you waiting, everyone!” She apologized with enthusiasm. “But the judges have made their decision! Everyone look to the scoreboard to see the lucky eight Coordinators who will be moving on to the next round…!”

    Pictures of each participating Coordinator were shown one-by-one in an agonizing fashion for those who were impatient. Saturn’s bored look transformed into a smile when the fourth image that appeared on the screen just so happened to be the young man who was related to him.

    “Conway,” he said in a mockingly endearing tone. “It seems I was not too late to catch you after all. This is a good a time as any to judge your other areas of expertise as well. Best of luck, little cousin.”

    Saturn’s expressions darkened further as he focused on Conway’s image on the screen.

    ( TBC )

    Chapter 19: Black Ice Battle!
    plurk | SPPF | dA | ff.net

  3. #33
    mientes Aestivate's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    You've outdone yourself this tie, Shin. x] In both length and epicness.
    I was smiling the entire time while I was reading.

    I would have preferred more of Kouhei babying Shinji, but the contest thing was just priceless.

    Don't take all summer to come with a new chapter, 'kay?
    As suspenseful as it is I don't think I could take the waiting.

    I have a gigantic desire to draw ninja!Shinji and starwars!Kouhei now.

  4. #34
    A black and white world Blackjack Gabbiani's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    Yaaaaaay! Ok so that was awesome.

    Only one little flaw stood out, but it kept happening over and over--when you end dialogue and go into a narrative sentence, don't capitalize the initial letter, because it's still technically the same sentence.

  5. #35
    Achroma = <3 Juuchan17's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    EPIC, as always, my dear writing genius. <3

    I second seeing fanart of the contest outfits too (or I might have to sketch them myself . . . XD). This is just . . . AWESOME. Body-suit Shinji-ninja??? Say it isn't so! XD

    I will admit it . . . you made me go "O____O zomg wat" at the end. THANK YOU. XD *loves you forever*

    - Juuchan17

    Completely Insane Fangirl Since Day ONE LiveJournal - DeviantArt - YouTube

  6. #36
    Le amo Conway Gato's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    Lol, I know where you got Ezekiel from. Thanks for putting Conway in, he's my favorite character. Please, please, please, please keep him. I guess I should trust you, I know you like him too. Speaking of Conway, may I add, in the anime, he's shown symptoms of vasovagal syncope. Please take note of that. Also, I'd be delighted if you replied to this.

    See you!

  7. #37
    Gonna be a tl;dr Master! Shinneth's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    (So! How about some Chapter 10 now that it's been 2 1/2 months since the last update? Hahaha. Um, there is a slightly mature scene around the last fourth of the fic, but it's nothing explicit (just heavily implied). Hopefully that's no big deal.)

    For once, it seemed that most of Sinnoh was blessed with good weather. Rays of the sun shined down on a very determined breeder in Veilstone City as he trained alongside his Ampharos and Infernape. Marowak and Lucario sparred utilizing only their Bone Rush moves while Bibarel and Swalot practiced their speed by trying to catch Staraptor.

    Specifically, Reggie decided to take a page out of Maylene’s book and attempt to become one with his Pokémon whilst training. With no aura involved, Reggie found it was harder than it looked to perfectly sync up with his Pokémon as they repetitively thrust their arms forward one at a time. Maylene had offered to help, but was turned down, as Reggie was determined to not be overly dependent on anyone; not even Maylene. With no challengers present, she decided to take up Reggie’s usual duties at home while Reggie himself trained with her Pokémon in the backyard.

    “He sure makes it look easy,” Maylene noted with a sigh as she finished up serving lunch to all of the young Pokémon residents. “I can see why he felt bad about leaving me to fend for myself out here.” She looked to her Machoke, who was not training outside with Reggie and the others, but rather cleaning up the kitchen after its partner had finished up arranging the meals.

    “Thank you again, Machoke,” she said, certainly grateful for even a little bit of help. Machoke simply smiled and gave her a thumbs-up. “Reggie did say he and the others would eat when they’re ready… I guess they don’t want to break up their momentum now that they finally got synced together.” She giggled as she went inside the house. “Until then, it shouldn’t hurt to take a break ourselves.”

    The first thing that came to mind as far as resting was concerned was to watch TV in the living room. Normally, an active girl like Maylene had more interesting ways of passing the time, but training inside the house was naturally a bad idea, and Reggie was quite specific about wanting to go about his training independently, as well as uninterrupted. The young Gym Leader was more than willing to go above and beyond for Reggie’s sake, so she opted for a surefire way of occupying herself that would be relatively quiet and out of the way.

    As Maylene turned the television on and flipped through the channels until she could find something that interested her, she instantly paused the moment she inadvertently flipped to a channel broadcasting what seemed to be a Contest. Maylene thought of her young friend from Twinleaf Town, Dawn; a beginning Coordinator who helped her immensely when she had her struggles during her early days as a Gym Leader months ago. She was sure to watch the Wallace Cup broadcast back when it aired live, where it featured Dawn’s well-overdue victory. It made her happy to know she was able to help out Dawn just as much as Dawn helped her when it came to regaining their confidence. Ever since then, whenever she was available, Maylene tried to keep up with the Contests to monitor Dawn’s progress.

    However, she found another reason to keep up with this particular Contest. It seemed that she had missed the entire segment featuring appeals, as she tuned in just in time to see the announcement of the eight Coordinators who would be moving on to the battle rounds. Hoping to see Dawn’s portrait on the screen within those eight spots, Maylene gasped as she saw two familiar faces being announced to move on to the next round. One particular face she never once imagined would be on the screen. Maylene dashed out of the house immediately as the details sunk in.

    “Reggie!!” she shouted at the top of her lungs from the house’s backyard to where Reggie was training with the others. The loudness and tone of urgency in her voice was enough to completely throw off Reggie’s momentum. “Reggie, get inside quick!!”

    She had shocked him well enough that he practically fell to his knees as he turned over to acknowledge her. He lowly grumbled in aggravation, but tried his best not to look angry at his friend, even if he had specifically told her not to disturb his training today.

    “I hope this is important,” Reggie called back, sounding uncertain. “What happened? What went wrong?”

    “No time!!” Maylene insisted. “Hurry up and follow me inside! Come on!”

    Maylene had already rushed back into the house before Reggie could ask her why. His Pokémon shrugged when their trainer looked up at them questioningly. Seeing no other choice, Reggie decided to humor the Gym Leader and simply pray there was a good reason for her completely throwing off his training. He picked himself up and dashed back into the house.

    “Maylene, what is it?!” Reggie yelled out as he made his way indoors. Having no idea where she went, Reggie logically made his way towards the living room, as he heard noise in there.

    Before he made it to the room, he could hear Maylene shout “Your brother’s in a Contest on TV!” in a single breath.

    A second later, Maylene gasped as Reggie suddenly appeared right next to her on the couch. “Record it,” was all he said.

    Maylene looked up at Reggie questioningly. “I beg your pardon…?”

    “Record it!!” he repeated in a much louder voice. “Red button on the remote control!”

    “Oh! Right!” Maylene hurried and did so; the red button stood out amongst all of the black ones, so it didn’t take her long at all to find it.

    Of course, she knew why Reggie wanted this: for evidence. Thankfully, the program still had pictures of all eight Coordinators moving on to the next round, but has since progressed to the tournament-style chart to determine the match-ups. Conway was easy to pick out from the bunch. The non-Coordinator, Paul, was quickly recognized by the elder brother, though he had to cover his mouth to suppress the laughter when he realized both the ridiculousness of the situation itself and the ridiculousness of Paul’s appearance.

    “He really thought that would fool me?” Reggie wondered out loud with a snicker. “Paul knows me better than that.”

    Maylene was amused herself, but was surprised at how giddy Reggie was upon seeing this. “Uh, sorry I interrupted your training, Reggie,” she apologized. “I just thought you’d want to…”

    “Are you kidding?” Reggie said to her, though his eyes never left the screen. “Training can wait. It isn’t every day I see my little brother on TV… especially in an event he wouldn’t be caught dead at even if he was just in the crowd.”

    “If that’s the case, why do you think he entered?” Maylene asked.

    Reggie just grinned and shook his head. “There’s no way he did it of his own free will. Looks like Conway’s in this thing, too. I’m certain he had something to do with this. We’re definitely giving those two a call after this is over. Paul obviously wanted this to be covered up or else we probably would have been notified. Good catch, Maylene.”

    The young Gym Leader looked quite proud of herself upon receiving the compliment. “It was a one-in-a-million chance occurrence. Won’t Paul be livid when he finds out we were watching him in a Contest!”

    The two particular Contest participants were watching the big screen live at the time when it was announced officially who would be moving on to the battle rounds. Conway cheered with glee upon seeing his visage among the eight who would continue, while Paul only sighed upon seeing his picture pop up soon after. Conway’s enthusiasm was more than enough for both of them, at least.

    “We both moved on!” Conway practically squealed in excitement. “Can you believe it?! Our very first Contest and we’re both moving on to the quarterfinals! Come on, Paul! You’ve got to be enjoying this at least a little bit!”

    “Not even remotely,” Paul assured him. “Besides, your excitement’s going to die down soon enough: look who‘s moving on with us.”

    Indeed, Conway’s smile slowly faded as he realized that Janelle and Mina – the two girls who bullied the boys yesterday at the bakery – also moved on to the battle rounds as planned. “Oh… I see what you mean,” he glumly admitted. “Bummer.”

    “Looks like they both were blessed with beginner’s luck, Janelle,” a nasally female voice muttered right behind Paul and Conway. They both simultaneously turned around to see the rivals they never wanted looking up at the screen and making note of the results. “More fun for us, right?”

    “I’ll look like a true veteran when we smash them both to bits,” Janelle mused, fully confident. “And then it’ll be Ribbon #4 for me.”

    Mina nodded adamantly. “After careful analysis of the appeals made by the others who have moved on, including these two,” she said, looking directly at the boys in front of her. “By statistical means, you’re guaranteed a win from your position in the A block.”

    “It’s even better with your position in the D block,” Janelle pointed out. “You’ll be able to take out everyone on the other side.”

    “I would be honored to be slaughtered by you in the finals, Janelle,” Mina assured dreamily. Said dreams were cut short when Paul inserted himself into the conversation.

    “You know, I would be immensely grateful if both of you shut your useless pieholes,” he requested as politely as he could. “If you want an opportunity to stroke your ego in the presence of some men with no prior experience, how about you tell me where to go from here?”

    Janelle frowned at being insulted, but smiled approvingly at Paul’s offer. “Certainly. Mina, explain it to him.”

    Mina looked up and put her notes away, nodding to her superior before looking to the boys. “Not a problem. As you can already see, Janelle is in the A block while I am in the D block. Conway, you’re in the C block while Paul is in the B block. There are two separate waiting rooms aside from the one we were just in on opposite sides of the building. The A and C blocks take the waiting room north of us while B and D occupy the one on the south end.”

    “Looks like we’re getting split up, Paul,” Conway realized. “Well, we’re all competitors from here on out, anyway… just hang on and we’ll reunite in the finals in no time.”

    Paul scoffed. “You say that as if I’ll miss your company.”

    “Well, just remember you’re still required to put effort into the competition,” Conway reminded him cheerfully. “If all of us win our respective matches coming up soon, then it’ll be all four of us in the semi-finals. We’re in it to take these two down, remember? If we can overcome them, it’ll be you versus me in the final match and either one of us could win a ribbon!”

    “Keep dreaming,” Janelle taunted, maintaining a dominant antagonistic air about herself. “Come on, sci-fi nerd; you’re coming with me.” With no desire to wait around any longer, she yanked Conway along by the hood of his out fit and started dragging him. “You know what to do, Mina.”

    As Mina nodded in understanding to Janelle, Conway helplessly waved a temporary farewell to his companion as he was dragged backwards to his assigned waiting room. “Best of luck, Paul!” he wished in an awkward tone as he tried to regain some control in his movement. “May the Force be with you…!”

    Paul rolled his eyes, humoring his geeky travelling companion by giving a half-hearted wave back until both he and Janelle were out of sight. He had temporarily forgotten the presence of Mina until she spoke up.

    “Ah, Paul?” Her voice was softer and lacking a bit of confidence that was just present the last time she opened her mouth. “Whenever you’re ready, I’ll escort you to our waiting room.”

    “Oh… right,” Paul responded, somewhat taken aback by the notable change in Mina’s tone after she parted with Janelle. “Lead the way, then.”

    Mina gave him a brief bow and started off in the opposite direction. “Please follow me.”

    There was an awkward period of silence as Paul and Mina made their way to the waiting room. It was welcome to Paul, yet strange at the same time. Ever since he partnered up with Conway almost three weeks ago in Canalave City, Paul felt as if his bespectacled acquaintance had talked his ear off nearly the whole time. He couldn’t honestly say all of it was bad, but adamantly believed most of it was unbearable nonetheless. Time and time again, just as Paul thought he was finally resuming his journey on his own and on his way to regaining his peacefully quiet travels, Conway found some sort of excuse to hang on to him. The faux Coordinator never would have dreamed that the Tag Battle Tournament in Hearthome City could haunt him quite like this.

    Still, after almost a month of having Conway in his life every single day, Paul was slowly beginning to get used to his presence (though he would sooner die than admit it). In certain circumstances, Conway’s words of wisdom held some weight… and that was something Paul couldn’t deny no matter how much he wanted to. After all, he wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place if Conway hadn’t proved him wrong. And surprisingly, “this mess” was superior to the alternative, which was being a frozen corpse covered in snow at the bottom of a lonely gorge in the heart of Route 216. As it played over again in Paul’s head – what he could remember of it, anyway – he could feel his heart sinking for some odd reason.

    Perhaps he didn’t want to think of it in such a way, but Paul thought back on his actions as borderline-insanity on his part. At one point, he was so eager to be ripped away from Conway that he was willing to risk his own life for the chance. Part of Paul still tried to feel that it was perfectly understandable, but now a significantly-growing side of his psyche began to regret the past actions; and not just because it had put Paul an entire week and a half behind schedule, either.

    By now, it was becoming difficult for Paul to comprehend how he would feel if he and Conway went their separate roads at this point. He wondered if, perhaps, Conway would stop following him after the Contest if he happened to win.

    Close as Conway wanted to be to Paul, the latter knew he was eternally second place to the blue-haired girl who travelled with Ash Ketchum in Conway’s eyes. If Conway were to get the idea that he could be a successful Coordinator after all, Paul speculated that it was entirely possible for the two to part ways after this. This hypothesis on future events seemed especially real when Paul remembered he had told Conway that this would be the one and only Contest they would ever dare have anything to do with. Unless he ran into Ash and the others sometime soon, Conway would have no chance of ever encountering his beloved Dawn in a Contest.

    It was then that a sense of determination felt present within Paul’s body. He was beginning to feel that perhaps, if he were to be unfortunate enough to win the entire competition, it might not be as bad lugging around that ribbon as he initially thought. He would just keep it well-hidden and discard the rest of the evidence. But if Paul winning the Contest would secure Conway’s place as his travelling mate… well, it was beyond him why he suddenly regarded the possibility of winning as not being an absolutely disgusting result.

    After the stunt that was pulled yesterday, Paul certainly wasn’t content with the idea of Janelle winning the Contest. If all four of them made it to the second round of battling, then it would be up to him to put Janelle in her place. He certainly had his work cut out for him. Now it did bother Paul that he wouldn’t be able to talk to Conway until the Contest was over. He had so much time to ask the burning question of whether or not Conway would stay on as his escort if he won this Contest, and Paul failed to take advantage of it.

    Even just within the quarterfinals, Paul felt as if the whole tournament had become a round of sudden death.

    “You’re not as similar to Janelle as I once thought,” Mina stated out of nowhere, which brought Paul back to reality. For once, he was thankful for having his thoughts interrupted.

    “What made you think we were even remotely similar?” Paul asked her incredulously, failing to see any common trait between himself and that fire-haired beast of a young lady… except, perhaps, for the fact that they both had a nerd following their every step.

    Against her better judgment, Mina blushed and looked away. “It just… I’m sorry. I felt there was a parallel between the four of us. In spite of your youth, you are the one who calls the shots in your respective duo,” she deduced. “You are strong-willed and unwavering in your position. That’s what made me believe you parallel Janelle.”

    Paul shrugged, feeling apathetic about the minion’s point of view. “Fair enough. But you’re changing your mind, you said?”

    “There is so much more to a person than such basic personality traits,” Mina explained. “We are all our own person. Having one or two general traits in common doesn’t mean you’re similar people. Janelle is so much more… talkative than you are. I’m not used to it being so quiet for this long. It’s as if you don’t want to exist, so you remain quiet in hopes that everyone ignores you.”

    “Funny,” Paul sarcastically grumbled. “I could say the same of you. You lost your fire quite quickly, but you’re perfectly capable of being every bit as annoying as your friend when you’re with her.”

    Mina nodded in agreement, oddly enough. “I can’t deny that I feel more confident and competitive whenever she’s present. I’ve been at her side for so long that it’s become strange going even a relatively short period of time without her…”

    Paul quietly swallowed in a breath as all the color drained away from his face. He was just now thinking about this subject in relation to himself and Conway; it was no doubt eerie that the strange girl beside him had very similar feelings about her own partner.

    “She’s my best friend,” Mina continued, though this fact was very obvious to Paul. Oddly, he hadn’t once wondered if Conway considered him his best friend. And just then, Paul remembered Conway and his sister, Franny, confirming that Paul himself was the first sleepover guest in Conway’s name to ever come to their home. He only now realized how truly significant he’d become in Conway’s life in a short amount of time. It was beginning to bother Paul deeply.

    “When I lacked a goal of my own, she gave me one herself,” Mina claimed. “That’s why I don’t mind managing her instead of focusing on myself. I’m doing it because it makes her happy.”

    “Conway’s into pleasing himself more than he is pleasing me,” Paul remarked somewhat-sourly. “After all, I never wanted to be here. I’m not a Coordinator. Either way, I have to admit I’m not that interested in your sob story. Psychological therapists exist for a reason, you know.”

    It seemed as if Mina was used to the harsh words, as she didn’t even flinch at what Paul said to her. “Yes, of course,” she lowly replied, picking up the pace. “We should hurry. The first round is about to begin.”

    Paul followed, but it was all but evident that his conflicting feelings on certain subjects were beginning to take a toll on his weary mind. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt so anxious over something he perceived as meaningless.

    “Say cheese…”

    “Wh-what…? Aah!!”

    Saturn almost fell out of his desk chair as his visage was captured on the camera. The camera’s owner was a chuckling, scheming female by the codename of Mars; a fellow cohort of Saturn’s. Most of the time she was an ally, but within seconds, he had become Saturn’s worst enemy.

    “Tsk, tsk… slacking off on your shift,” Mars taunted. “Is this your first day on the job? Cyrus won’t appreciate such behavior from his… how did you word it again?”

    “Preferred commander,” Saturn replied dryly. “Honestly, Mars. Are you not working a shift yourself? Have you nothing better to do?”

    Mars smirked and wagged her finger at her coworker. “Ever heard of a lunch break? I’m just earning a little bit of extra credit, if you know what I mean.”

    “So out of sheer boredom, you decided to blackmail me. I see,” Saturn acknowledged, frowning. “Think what you will, but I am watching this program for a reason relevant to our cause.”

    “What? You’re so full of it,” she teased, not about to believe him. “Just admit it. I won and you lost. Your fate is now in my hands. I can convince Cyrus that you’re worthless if I decide to share this with him in a matter of seconds.”

    Saturn grumbled as he turned around to face the television again. “As I said before, what I’m doing may normally constitute as breaking a rule. However, this is an exception. Whether or not you agree with me is irrelevant.”

    Mars frowned. Normally after this much teasing, Saturn would have broken down; he was surprisingly fragile compared to his peers. Being bullied by his two fellow female officers on a regular basis was the last thing Saturn expected when he first joined the organization. But now Mars could tell that Saturn wasn’t bluffing, thus her curiosity was piqued.

    “Fine, I’ll bite,” she conceded, rolling her eyes. “What are you watching and why?”

    Saturn smirked. The ball was in his court now. “If you agree to assist me, I will share my knowledge. Call Cyrus in if you must; I am certain he would compliment me on my impeccable work ethic, even if it is rather unorthodox.”

    As much of a nose Mars was, she greatly disliked not being in The Know. “If I assist you… what’s in it for me?”

    “We will discuss that after I explain the situation,” Saturn assured. “Are you in? I feel you are unable to resist temptation when it is presented to you. That’s always why I perceived you as the weakest amongst the Galactic Commanders,” he said snidely.

    There were a number of demands Mars had in mind, but she sighed and decided to hear out her fellow commander. “Fine… I’m in. This’d better be worth my time.”

    “Oh, it is,” Saturn promised. “So I’ll begin. It started with a phone call I missed last night. I noticed there was unread voicemail and decided to listen. It just so happened to be my cousin.”

    “The one you were talking about recruiting?” Mars wondered aloud. Saturn had at times mentioned bringing in his cousin into the organization in the past, and it wasn’t a stretch… seeing as Saturn’s parents were already longtime employees.

    Saturn couldn’t believe he almost forgot about his plans to initiate Franny as a Galactic Grunt. “Oh my, no. I never told you I had more than one cousin, did I? Thank you for reminding me about the other one… I will deal with her when the time is right. I have another cousin; a young teenager who is every bit as knowledgeable as his sister. The difference is that he travels and often collects rare and valuable books that he will let me ‘borrow’ because he holds me in high regard.”

    “So he’s unaware of what a dork you are, then?” Mars interrupted. “I can already imagine his world crashing down when he realizes the truth.”

    Saturn paused for a minute, staring hard at Mars with indignation before continuing. “… As I said, he often gives me useful books whenever he finds them. Some have even been useful in relation to the missions we’ve had in the past. In his message from last night, he confirmed that he is in possession of an extremely rare Uxie book that he found from the Canalave City library.”

    “Uxie book…” Mars repeated quietly, now looking serious. “Jupiter went nuts trying to find that book. I guess I should tell her to call off the raid she’s planning for that place. She’d be very grateful to have that book.”

    “And if we give it to her, then we’ll all get credit for Uxie’s eventual capture,” Saturn explained. “Thereby preventing Jupiter from hogging the limelight.”

    “Crafty,” Mars remarked. “I like it. So when’s the little urchin going to give you the book?”

    Saturn smirked and gestured towards the television. “He is the reason why I am watching this Pokémon Contest. He urged me to watch it. I am keeping track of time by watching him on this live broadcast. After the Contest, I was thinking of confronting him in person and perhaps ask if he would like an internship as a member of our ranks. He despises his sister, so anything to one-up her would be ideal to him. That way, we get both the book and a new recruit. Cyrus would be most pleased.”

    Mars nodded in approval. “Now it makes sense. So where do I factor, hm?”

    “I would actually like you to be the recruiter,” Saturn requested. “Brilliant as his mind can be, he is still relatively young. I will cover for you if need be, but I will also keep constant surveillance on this Contest so I can signal to you when the time is right.”

    “You want me to convince the brat to join Team Galactic…?” Mars wasn’t following. “But… he’s your cousin. I’m a complete stranger to him. Wouldn’t he be more inclined to join if you recruited him instead?”

    Saturn nodded, understanding where Mars was coming from. “Indeed… but such a thing can be remedied if you assure the boy that I sent you. He’s actually quite gullible. One advantage you have that I do not is your gender, as a matter of fact.”

    “Because I’m a girl?” Then it hit her. “Oh wait… you mean…?”

    “Now you’re catching on,” Saturn deviously murmured with a crooked smile. “My cousin has quite a weakness for attractive women. I’m certain you won’t need to do much to convince him, if that’s what you’re concerned about.”

    Mars was beginning to dread this. By nature, she was quite a flirtatious tease for a Team Galactic member and wouldn’t mind a mission involving acts of seduction under false pretenses. That’s where she excelled, in her opinion. But a relative of Saturn… it seemed to hit too close to home. She also had a bad feeling that this young, likely-unstable and hormonal teenager would not be that good-looking. That factor alone could turn her preferred type of mission into a complete nightmare.

    Sensing her hesitation, Saturn nodded to her. “You must be curious about his appearance.”

    “Yes, please show me,” she said lowly. She walked closer towards the television screen to get a good look at who she would have to seduce this time. “The uglier he is, the higher my demand for this bargain will be, Saturn.”

    “I perfectly understand,” Saturn said sympathetically. “Oh, convenience. They’re beginning the next match. It looks like my cousin is up.”

    Both Galactic Commanders turned their attention to the screen, where Marian quickly appeared to do her duty as the host.

    “Now that we’re past the B block battle, let’s determine who will be joining Janelle and Paul in the semifinals!” Marian announced. “To my right, hailing from Emeragrove Town… Riven!”

    Noticing a lack of reaction from Saturn, Mars blinked and turned to him. “You… said your cousin was in this, right?”

    “Give it time, Mars,” Saturn stiffly requested, never taking his eyes off the screen. “I will let you know when he comes in sight.”

    Just as Saturn said that, Marian introduced the second competitor.

    “And to my left, from Veilstone City… it’s Conway!”

    Saturn nodded. “Right there, glasses and all. That is my cousin.”

    Mars was beginning to wish she never snooped in on Saturn’s business today. “He’s the guy I have to hit on so he’ll give up both the book and himself?”

    “Relax, Mars,” Saturn scoffed. “Surely you’ve had uglier creatures to contend with in the past. I assure you that Conway will be putty in your hands if you strike quickly and significantly. It will be relatively painless.”

    “You’re telling me it’s more like ripping off a band-aid really quickly rather than trying to pop a zit?” Mars asked him, still not sounding up for this.

    Saturn pondered that analogy for a moment before responding. “Yes. I suppose one could see it like that. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?”

    “Alright, I saw the guy,” Mars muttered. “Now I’m going to make my demand as payment for having to smooch your dorky little cousin.”

    Quickly, Saturn slipped Mars a small picture of Conway. “Keep that for reference,” he suggested. “Now we may finalize the bargain.”

    “Let’s keep it short and sweet, then,” Mars murmured. “I have a feeling you want me out of here before the broadcast is over.”

    Saturn smirked and nodded. It was a bonus to get to put her under pressure like this. “This Contest is taking place in Plumeria Town… a bit of a lengthy flight from our secret base. Yes, it would be good for you to leave as soon as possible. I will cover for you and fulfill your demands in the meantime. I must ask that you land a good distance beyond the limits of town so as not to attract unwanted attention.”

    “Don’t talk to me like I’m some rookie,” Mars complained. “I know by heart how to handle these operations. Are you done yet?”

    After a slight pause, Saturn nodded again. “The final thing I request is to keep your priorities straight: should something go awry, at the very least, make sure you secure the book. My cousin is expendable, but that book is not. That does not excuse laziness; this is only for the direst of situations.”

    “Got it,” Mars affirmed. “Alright, then. Here are my demands.”

    She slammed down a written list of what seemed to be quite a tall order. Saturn agreed to oblige to her wishes, no matter how ridiculous they were, but he gulped when he started to read the list.

    “Pardon me,” he said nervously. “Am I not reading your handwriting correctly? That number…”

    “Oh, you’re reading it right,” Mars assured him, patting him on the head as if he were some sort of house pet. “Five-hundred.”

    Saturn dropped the list onto the desk as he acknowledged the demand. “Five-hundred pizzas…”

    “Hassle me and I’ll make it five-thousand,” she threatened. “You know how long it’s been since I’ve gotten to enjoy a good pizza. The energy shakes in the break room are so rancid,” she complained, cringing. “Don’t ask me how you’ll manage to smuggle in that much pizza into headquarters without getting the boss’ attention. The point is you get it done if you want me to make a man out of your boy-cousin.”

    “You want to have a secret underground pizza party, I see,” Saturn acknowledged. “And you have the gall to scold me for breaking the rules…”

    “Ah-ah-ah,” Mars taunted, tapping the list with her finger. “Don’t make me make an addition to that order.”

    Briefly looking back at the screen, Saturn sighed. He hated being in a vice grip like this, but didn’t want Mars to increase her order tenfold and topple over the already immensely-lopsided deal. Five-hundred pizzas all for a single book. The lengths Saturn went to please his boss knew no limit.

    “We have a deal,” Saturn conceded with a tone of disgust in his voice. “I will keep you up-to-date on the target’s status for as long as I can. Don’t make me regret this, Mars.”

    Mars grinned, now truly feeling she had a fulfilling short-term goal to work for. “You just make sure those pizzas are hot and ready when I come back.”

    As Mars sauntered out of Saturn’s working quarters, the remaining commander sighed and turned his attention back to the television, where it was revealed that Conway had just earned himself a spot in semifinals.

    “Soon, little cousin,” he whispered to himself, glaring at his relative on the screen. “Soon you will finally make all of those years of aggravating torture I spent pretending to love you worth it.”

    Back in Plumeria Town, the quarterfinals had come and gone. Janelle, Paul, Conway, and Mina all progressed onward to the semifinals. The winners from the Janelle vs. Paul and Conway vs. Mina matches would move on and battle to determine who earned their right to claim the Plumeria Ribbon. By now, all four remaining contestants had their own desire to win, whether it was painfully obvious in some cases or a quiet, coveted secret in others.

    “The time has come! The semifinals of the Plumeria Town Contest are ready to begin!” Marian confirmed, ready to introduce the challengers. “So let’s get right into it!”

    “It’s time,” Mina told Paul, who immediately sat up from his seat in the waiting room.

    He intended to make it out of the room as quickly as possible, but stopped when he sensed Mina following him, strangely enough. “What’s your deal?” he asked in a rather rude manner, though was taken off-guard more than anything else.

    “I’m aware it’s all too obvious who I want to win in this match,” Mina admitted. “But you aren’t as bad as you make yourself out to be, and for the sake of sportsmanship, I would like to wish you good luck with your battle.”

    She extended her arm towards him for a handshake. Paul simply stared at the expecting hand and at the young girl blankly before simply nodding to her and going on about his way. Deep down, he hoped his unappreciative gestures would make Mina change her mind about what she just said.

    Even he knew no one moment of mild civility to his peers could change the truth. That’s what he told himself, anyway.

    “From Veilstone City, here comes Paul, everyone!” Marian shouted. On cue, Paul walked out to the arena for the second time today. “And from Jubilife City, we have Janelle!”

    With thunderous applause came the greater of two evils. Paul looked to her with apprehension. There was nothing but full confidence on Janelle’s end.

    “Only one of these two Coordinators will be moving on to the final round!” Marian reminded the crowd. “Who will it be? In five minutes or less, we’ll find out! Counting down from three, two, one… let the battle begin!”

    Both trainers immediately let out their Pokémon.

    “Step up, Crawdaunt!” Janelle called out, releasing her Pokéball. In a flurry of lightning bolts and bubbles, the Rogue Pokémon was sent out to the field.

    “Honchkrow, stand by for battle!” Paul returned in kind, unleashing the other Dark-typed Pokémon in his team. It emerged from a plume of dark smoke that came out from the Seals placed on the Ball Capsule.

    Having seen how Janelle battled with Crawdaunt before in the previous round, Paul was quick to take the initiative. “Honchkrow! Sky Attack, now!”

    The attack would take some time to charge up. This gave Janelle ample time to respond.

    “I knew he had no idea what he was doing,” Janelle muttered, smirking. “Who would let an opening like that go by unnoticed?” After quickly going over her options, she decided on a move that she thought would certainly put a dent in Paul’s points. “Let’s stop him before he gets started!” she shouted to her Pokémon. “Crabhammer!”

    Crawdaunt’s pincers glowed with a bright white light as it approached Honchkrow and prepared for contact. Both Paul and Janelle smirked, apparently having an ulterior motive behind the moves they chose to start out with. As Honchkrow gathered its own glowing energy as Sky Attack progressed towards the peak point of its power, the two would make contact within seconds.

    “Uppercut!” Janelle ordered, sending Crawdaunt to clobber Honchkrow in an upwards strike.

    A split second later, Paul made his last decision before contact. “Dive under Crawdaunt…!”

    Janelle had apparently counted on the typical Flying-type Pokémon to fly up and away from the attack she was about to deliver. Her plan covered all directions but the one Paul ultimately chose: from below. With Sky Attack at its peak and Crawdaunt unable to jump high enough to get completely over Honchkrow, the Big Boss Pokémon knocked Crawdaunt out from under its feet and sent it toppling over front-first.

    “It looks like Crawdaunt attacked from all but one direction, and that direction was more than enough for Honchkrow to completely knock its opponent for a loop!” Marian announced. “That botched move is going to hurt Janelle early on!” And it had; a small chunk of Janelle’s points were whittled down to 89% while Paul retained his points perfectly.

    “Lady Luck seems to like smiling down on the beginners quite a bit today,” Janelle noted, obviously displeased with how her opening turned out.

    To that, Paul only shook his head and managed a small smile. “Unfortunately for you, I don’t believe in luck. I just happen to catch on quickly.” Noticing Janelle was too upset with the incident to realize Honchkrow was still behind her Crawdaunt, Paul decided to act quickly.

    “Honchkrow, let’s go!” he called out. “Aerial Ace!”

    His fellow darkly-colored teammate spun inward a bit, gracefully diving in to attack Crawdaunt from the back.

    “Sucker,” Janelle muttered. “Crawdaunt! Respond with Payback when Honchkrow makes contact!”

    She had faked out her opponent by lulling him into a false sense of security. Paul had no means of improvising before his Honchkrow landed a clean hit on Crawdaunt; however, shortly after, Crawdaunt returned the attack with double the power. As a Dark-type move, it wasn’t as devastating to Honchkrow as it would have been to a Pokémon with no resistance to the type. However, Crawdaunt made good use of its brief, fleeting moments of its advantage by grabbing Honchkrow with its pincers. With a body slam, Crawdaunt slammed the bird down.

    “What a comeback!” Marian exclaimed. “Crawdaunt’s turnabout was certainly well-planned! And how fantastic is it that a Pokémon of Crawdaunt’s build can pull off classic wrestling techniques?! Paul must be reeling after that one!”

    What Paul was more aggravated about was the fact that Marian had practically abused the usage of his name throughout this competition. If anyone he knew happened upon the broadcast, it was all but a certainty that his cover would be blown. But he tried to regain his focus, ignoring the fact that his points took a hit from the last clash, setting him down to 85%. Janelle’s points were unaffected despite being hit with a move.

    “Let’s get serious, Honchkrow!” Paul shouted, having decided what he would try next. “Use Haze on the field!”

    After getting back to its feet and becoming airborne again, Honchkrow happily obliged by spewing a dark plume of smoke all over the field, obscuring everything (including Crawdaunt).

    “Now this could be a risky move!” Marian acknowledged. “Honchkrow’s making it difficult to see on the field! What could the Coordinator be planning, and will it pay off?!”

    “What’s he trying to do…?” Janelle wondered. Paul didn’t utilize this move in his previous battle, meaning the red-hot young lady was utterly clueless as to what his motives were. “Crawdaunt, just stay put. Stay vigilant!” There was no way to get her Crawdaunt out of the obscuring smoke, leaving Paul with a free chance to strike.

    “Honchkrow, assume the vulture attack pattern!” Paul called out. “Use Night Slash and make sure you rise above the haze!”

    This was Paul’s way of playing dirty. By rendering Janelle and Crawdaunt blind, the playing field completely belonged to Paul and Honchkrow. The Big Boss Pokémon’s wings glowed in a brilliant, vivid purple color that was strong enough to remain visible within the dark haze. It dove gracefully into the haze, drive-by smacking Crawdaunt while consumed in the darkness, and finally coming back above the haze. Swiftly, it flew in circles nearby the dark fog, bringing wisps of it along. Honchkrow continued to circle around the battlefield, much like the typical vulture, and as a result, no one was able to see Crawdaunt until the haze dissipated. Crawdaunt was unable to see its opponent and Janelle was unable to see Crawdaunt. However, Honchkrow made use of the haze and formed spiral shapes, which everyone was perfectly able to see.

    “It seems Honchkrow intends to pull the curtain on Crawdaunt early!” Marian noted. “Crawdaunt must be beside itself with the inability to stand out! But somehow, Paul knew how to make Honchkrow use this to his full advantage! Just look at Janelle’s points fall!”

    That prompted Janelle to look to the scoreboard and indeed looked horrified that her points were gradually lost as Paul kept up the routine. Just as her points made it to the halfway mark, so did the time limit.

    “Alright, enough of this!” Janelle shouted. “You sadistic jerk… try getting out of this one! Crawdaunt, Avalanche! Get into position!”

    Though it was immersed in a thick haze, Crawdaunt was still able to hear its trainer perfectly fine. Without restraint, it conjured up piles of snow, surrounding the whole field and dispersing most of the haze. What little that remained gave the falling snow an interesting affect, which turned Paul’s own strategy against him. It cost him a good deal of his points, though he remained well ahead of Janelle in that department.

    However, the Ice-type move hit Honchkrow rather hard. Completely defenseless in the air, it was soundly forced back to the ground halfway covered in snow. Oddly enough, Crawdaunt was nowhere to be seen.

    “It seems both Coordinators favor to use their moves for stealth!” Marian announced after the snow had settled. “Where could Crawdaunt be?! The haze is no longer and play, and Paul paid the price for it!”

    Paul glared down at the field, clearly uncomfortable with the situation. If it were a normal battle, he wouldn’t have felt even remotely stressed out, but it was no ordinary battle. Only having one Contest battle to go by for experience, Paul was clearly feeling tense.

    “Get up, Honchkrow!” he ordered. “Crawdaunt must be under the snow somewh-”

    “Crawdaunt, Superpower!”

    Not a second later, Crawdaunt burst out from under the snow and was much closer to the still-recovering Honchkrow than Paul had thought. There was no time to shout out an order, as Crawdaunt harshly rammed into the Big Boss Pokémon and sent it skidding along the field of snow. Just after that, Crawdaunt growled fiercely, flexing its claws and briefly glowing, as if to foreshadow an ominous ending forthcoming. Reflecting well off the bits of ice that shattered off both Pokémon after impact, Paul’s points were hit hard once more, leaving him down to 40%. It was a very strong super-effective attack for Honchkrow to handle, evident when it had difficulty standing on two legs, much less being able to fly.

    “How about that,” Janelle mused. “I might just defeat him by technical knockout after all.”

    “Two super-effective attacks in a row are clearly making Honchkrow worse for wear!” Marian chimed in. “How will Paul respond to Janelle’s-”

    “Get airborne now, Honchkrow!” Paul shouted furiously. He had officially lost his patience. “We’re running out of time!”

    He was right about that, at least. A judgment would be made in less than a minute and Paul needed to act quickly if he were to succeed in defeating Janelle.

    “There’s no choice… this match will be determined within the next couple of moves,” Paul acknowledged. “Honchkrow, this is it! Keep low to the ground and use Sky Attack! Listen for my signal!”

    Honchkrow pulled itself together, readying itself for the final attack. It did as Paul instructed, keeping low to the ground while energy for the attack charged. By doing so, Honchkrow spread out the remaining snow on the field as it made a beeline toward Crawdaunt.

    Janelle smirked at the last-ditch effort her opponent brought out. “I’m not falling for the same trick twice. Nice try. Crawdaunt, fight back with Superpower!”

    Crawdaunt started to glow as well; fully ready to ram into Honchkrow and knock it out when the two would make contact.

    “Twenty seconds left!” Marian cut in. “This move will determine who’s going to the finals! It’s anybody’s game!”

    Both trainers watched closely before their Pokémon collided. Just at the last moment, Paul smirked.

    “Cancel Sky Attack!” he called out. “Veer left and strike back with Aerial Ace!”

    That decision certainly threw Janelle for a loop. “Wait, what?!”

    Massive energy was released as Sky Attack was nearing its peak just before Honchkrow canceled the move. In a split second, Honchkrow zoomed to Crawdaunt’s left side just as it moved to ram into its opponent as Janelle planned. Having missed the target, said target spared no second to slam into Crawdaunt with Aerial Ace. With brightly-shining wings, Honchkrow sent Crawdaunt sprawling helplessly into the air.

    Gracefully, Honchkrow landed at the center of the stage and posed valiantly, seeming to have acquired a taste in battling beautifully whilst Crawdaunt fell like a ton of bricks into the snow.

    “Time’s up!” Marian cried. Both competitors briefly froze in place before turning their attention to the announcer. “Oh, this is a close one,” she said, looking up at the screen. “So who prevailed in the end…?”

    Both Janelle and Paul looked up to see their progress on the screen, but their scores were so close that is was difficult to immediately tell. They didn’t have time to truly see it for themselves before their question was already answered.

    “It was Paul…! Paul and Honchkrow will advance to the finals!!” Marian revealed.

    “Unbelievable,” the cynical Paul muttered. “I train for this competition for not even a full day with no prior experience and I somehow land myself into the final round. What are the odds?”

    Janelle was dumbfounded for a while, but even after snapping out of it, she could not form words. All she could express was her raw, unadulterated anger for losing a second consecutive time to someone she despised.

    Just as Paul was about to make his way backstage, he noticed Janelle throwing a tantrum and likely making a spectacle of herself in doing so. After enjoying a couple of moments watching her squirm and whine, he decided to speak up and give out his final parting word to a girl he certainly had no desire to see again after this day.

    “What did I tell you about the concept of beginner’s luck?” Paul taunted, reminding her of the verbal exchange they had at the beginning of the battle. “It’s total bull. What you actually experienced was something called beginner’s skill. I suggest you look into that before you try to participate in any sort of competition again. It’ll at least spare you from some of the embarrassment that you’re surely getting today by being a sore loser.”

    Janelle glared at Paul as he fully turned around and walked away. Unfortunately for her, she couldn’t think of anything witty or poignant to say; he had soundly defeated her fair and square and proved her wrong. She stormed off the opposite way, muttering unintelligible things under her breath. Paul smirked to himself just before he re-entered the waiting room.

    “If nothing else, that ought to prevent her from trying to inflict first-degree burns on the people she wants as rivals,” Paul said to himself, still somewhat enthralled by his victory. “Had she not done that to me, I wouldn’t have felt the urgent need to defeat her. She very well may have cost herself the win due to acting like a spoiled brat. Oh well… the more you learn.”

    Upon returning to the waiting room, Paul first saw Mina gaping at the television monitor, still in shock of what she had seen. She snapped out of it when she noticed Paul had returned, seeming nervous.

    “O-oh! Goodness… I certainly can’t complain. You played the game well, Paul,” Mina humbly said.

    “It’s a good thing you’re more level-headed than your friend,” Paul noted casually. “I think she wants to tear me limb from limb. By the way, I think it’s your turn to get ready.”

    Mina smiled, though she looked nervous. “It’s alright. I can see this Contest really was meant to showcase you boys… since Janelle lost, I don’t really have a reason to-”

    Paul decided not to let her finish that sentence and pushed her on ahead to the exit that would lead her to the front stage. “Don’t even start with that. Get out there. Conway’s not advancing to the finals that easily. If I had to work my way up, so will he.”

    The young girl still looked apprehensive. “But Janelle…”

    “… Will have to suck it up and deal,” Paul finished for her. “She can’t make you forfeit.”

    “Actually, she’s probably marching over here right now,” Mina informed him. “You know, to drag me out of the competition…”

    Paul looked back to the door on the opposite side of the room and nodded. “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll take care of it.”

    “You’re not really thinking of locking her out, are you?” Mina asked him, worried.

    “No,” Paul answered as he made his way to the other door. He promptly locked it and started looking for things to barricade it if she was really as fearsome as she seemed. “I am locking her out. There’s a difference.”

    After turning around, Paul happened to look at the television and noticed the familiar woman in yellow was back on the screen. “I think they’re about to start the next round now. Go on out there, and don’t hesitate to make it hard on Conway, okay?”

    Knowing it was time to compete for a spot in the finals and being allowed to do so in her own right, Mina nodded to Paul with a smile and left, appearing on the television screen soon afterwards. Paul sat down and watched the screen intently, as he knew it was important in his position as a finalist to study the battling techniques of his two would-be opponents.

    This is something he did not plan on sleeping through, as he usually would do (or at least claim to do).

    “Time’s up!”

    It was Marian’s voice. Somehow, that energetic and youthful voice managed to bring Paul out of his slumber. He woke up to find that Conway and Mina were still on the screen, but had stopped their battle. Paul was too drowsy to understand the scoreboard, as at a first glance, it appeared to be too hard to tell. Both Conway’s Slowking and Mina’s Jumpluff were worn down from their brutal battle.

    “Another close call!” Marian noted. “But the Coordinator who will be moving on to the finals is… Conway!!”

    Paul’s eyes widened. Though he had prepared himself for such a scenario, it was still a lot to take. After all, both of them had never entered a Contest before. With only basic training, Paul and Conway overcame the odds and escalated themselves to the finals, where one of them would come walking out of the Contest Hall with a ribbon in their hand.

    “So our final match has been determined!” Marian announced, gesturing to the chart which displayed the full progress of the Plumeria Town Contest. “The Veilstone City boys, Paul and Conway, are our finalists who will battle for the coveted Plumeria Ribbon! We’ll begin the final battle shortly after this brief intermission!”

    Various members of the live viewing audience used this time to refill their drinks and restock their snack supply. Conway had already retreated to the waiting room opposite to Paul’s, presumably to restore his Slowking before the final battle. Mina seemingly disappeared completely while Marian was talking. She never returned to the waiting room Paul was in, so it was anyone’s guess as to her whereabouts after her loss. Still, it was safe to assume she reunited with Janelle and chances were low that either of them would remain in the Contest Hall any longer.

    Then, it suddenly hit Paul: he had slept through most of the previous battle despite intending to watch it from beginning to end. A brutal instance of irony, it was. He didn’t remember when exactly he dozed off or why, but Paul didn’t have time to worry about that now: it was time to battle. With his Honchkrow at full health, Paul walked down the short hallway that would lead to the stage.

    It had come down to this; either Conway would win and stand a good chance of parting with Paul for good after this Contest, or Paul would win and forever be haunted by the ribbon he would have to remember this day by. At this point, Paul honestly wasn’t sure which result would be the lesser of the two evils. But to settle this bet once and for all, Paul knew he had to give it his all regardless, just as Conway planned to.

    “And now, it’s time!” Marian called out after the intermission had come and gone. “Only two Coordinators remain in this competition, and it’s time to see which young man comes out on top, leaving this Contest Hall with the Plumeria Ribbon! Our finalists are both from Veilstone City, so one more time, let’s welcome Conway and Paul…!”

    Both competitors arrived on stage at the same time, coming from opposite ends. The sagely space warrior Conway looked quite comfortable and confident about his chances; he smirked upon finally seeing Paul for the first time since the battling rounds began. This was exactly what he planned for all along, and it tickled the nerd pink that it all worked out the way he wanted it to in the end.

    The ninja of the dark arts, Paul, masked his insecurities with his typical stoic expressions. Normally, one would find him hard to read, but Paul was put off when he noticed Conway still looking calm and collected in the face of adversity.

    “So, we meet again, at last,” Conway told Paul; an eerie tone was present in his voice. “The circle is now complete. In the beginning, we were but the learners. And now… we have truly become the masters.”

    “Only masters of glorified beauty pageants, Conway,” Paul countered, sounding irritated. “It’s not nearly as prestigious as you make it out to be.”

    Conway nodded, grinning at his opponent. The lenses of his glasses briefly gleamed in the sunlight. “Our opinions may clash, but that’s hardly the matter at hand now, correct? It is time for you and I to do battle and settle the score once and for all.”

    Just as Paul was about to retort, he thought maybe this was the time now to finally ask that question that had been tormenting him for this entire portion of the competition.

    “Conway, there’s something I need to ask you,” Paul said stiffly, trying to keep his tone as neutral as he possibly could.

    The older boy raised an eyebrow at his companion, now his adversary, and looked intrigued. “You wish to ask me a question?” he asked for the sake of clarification.

    Paul nodded back to him. “It’s important.”

    “Ask away,” Conway offered. Casual as he seemed, he was quite interested in what sort of question was on Paul’s mind, as his tone seemed oddly sincere.

    After taking a deep breath, Paul mustered up the will to ask the question that was both incredulous and critical to him. “Conway,” he started, sounding uneasy already; not a good sign for him. “About this final battle… if you win-”

    “The clock is set, ladies and gentleman!” Marian suddenly interrupted. “In five minutes, the winner will be decided! Gentleman, take your positions and release your Pokémon!”

    Conway shrugged at Paul, indeed helpless to fight against the way the show was run. “Guess you’ll have to ask me later,” he figured, waving to Paul before taking his position. “Remember, the Force is with you… always!”

    Paul rolled his eyes and took his position on the stage, quick to take out Honchkrow’s Pokéball. Though it frustrated him to no end that things yet again were not going his way, that anger did well enough to fuel his desire to battle.

    He was the first one to send his Pokémon out. “Honchkrow, stand by for battle!”

    Again, the Big Boss Pokémon flew out of a dark plume of smoke emerging from the Ball Capsule. It stood on the stage, primping its feathers and preparing for the final match.

    “Come forth, Slowking!” Conway shouted, tossing his Pokéball out to unleash his strongest, most trusted partner onto the stage. A flurry of stars and musical notes from the seals on Slowking’s Ball Capsule accompanied the Royal Pokémon as it proudly stood and sized up its opponent. That was quite a gutsy gesture, considering Slowking had a significant type disadvantage against the Dark-typed Honchkrow.

    “It’s Slowking versus Honchkrow!” Marian confirmed. “Who will walk out of here our winner today? Let’s find out right now! Begin the battle…!”

    The boys wasted no time going on the offensive just as the countdown began.

    “Barrel roll your way over to Slowking and use Night Slash!” Paul ordered. He had practiced various flight maneuvers the previous day, testing out how well certain attacks would show up by putting little spins on them. This technique in particular was one of his favorites and saved it specifically for the final match. As Honchkrow’s wings emanated with an eerie purple glow, streaks of that hue were left behind as it made its way over to the opponent.

    With an attack like this, Paul expected that Slowking would use Protect and already had a backup plan on standby. However, he was surprised to see Slowking stand sturdily and take the full hit. The effective attack was powerful enough to knock the tall and heavy Pokémon back, though with one foot, he remained balanced and never hit the floor. Conway’s points still slid down to 91%, but apparently presentation was important even when taking a hit.

    “Slowking just stood there and took that hit without doing a thing!” Marian announced, apparently surprised herself. “But what concentration…! A hit like that should have sent it flying like its opponent, but even on one foot, it’s perfectly in balance! It could have been much worse, but just what is this duo planning?!”

    “He’s up to something,” Paul realized. “He might even know what I’m going to do next…”

    After a short moment of bracing for whatever retaliation Conway had in mind, only to find he had none to give, Paul frowned and decided to change his plan. “Show them we mean business, Honchkrow! Cover the field with Haze!”

    Like in the previous battle, Honchkrow filled the entire stage with a dark, obscuring smoke. Honchkrow flew well above it, able to be seen, but Slowking was completely obscured just as Crawdaunt once was.

    “Hm,” Conway remarked with amusement. “Paul, did you assume I did not watch your battle with Janelle? It seems rather foolhardy for you to repeat your strategy with me, because even without having seen it beforehand, I would catch on very quickly to your motives.”

    “Don’t assume I would be so careless!” Paul shouted back. “You wanted effort, so I’m giving it to you! It’s more than what you’re doing, anyway!” He sharply looked to Honchkrow. “You need to strike with more power, Honchkrow. Dive down with Sky Attack!”

    With a nod, Honchkrow glowed brightly and dove down into its self-made realm of darkness, easily standing out with great contrast. As the attack charged itself up, the speed and force of Honchkrow’s movement was strong enough to briefly erase the precise area of Haze where Honchkrow had been, effectively blowing it off to the sides. The Big Boss Pokémon was even easier to see, and the execution of the move was already costing Conway points before the hit even connected.

    Honchkrow steadily made its way closer and closer to Slowking, who remained still in the area of Haze that had not yet been removed. Paul grew increasingly concerned at Conway’s silence, noticing his opponent’s points now had an extra 10% or so shaven off. When Paul looked away, Conway finally decided to play.

    Now use Protect, Slowking,” Conway allowed, as if he and his partner had a silent debate over what the first move would be earlier. Slowking happily obliged, covering itself in a field of energy. Due to still being obscured in Haze, Honchkrow itself did not notice the faint glow until it was too late. Honchkrow collided with the barrier, trying with all its might to break through with the extremely powerful Sky Attack, but that energy was simply reflected back to Honchkrow for being in such close proximity to begin with. Paul didn’t even realize what was happening until he heard the initial collision, and by then it was already too late.

    The collision itself shook away the Haze that had covered the scene, making it obvious to the viewers what had happened. With the same powerful energy, shining brightly, Honchkrow was thrown back across the entirety of the stage and skidded across the ground until it was right in front of Paul. The crowd reacted loudly to the unexpected twist, as did Marian.

    “And Honchkrow goes down!” she said. “Looks like Slowking had it all planned out from the beginning! That’s going to hurt for Paul and his points!”

    “Huh?” Paul didn’t even think to check, but he was more than a little intimidated upon realizing that single act had almost made him even with Conway’s remaining points. Indeed, he had every reason to be concerned about Conway as an opponent here. His timing was impeccable.

    “And now you’ll wish you had never egged me on,” Conway said ominously; his glasses flashing as he smirked. “Alright, Slowking! Let’s get this main event rolling and use Water Pulse continuously!”

    Slowking nodded and did as its trainer wished. Holding its hands up in the air, it began to conjure a shimmering ball of water. Since Conway said to keep it up, the ball was growing much larger than usual, and as Honchkrow started to recover from the last attack, Paul had a hard time keeping his eyes off of Slowking.

    “He just keeps hitting hard…” Paul noted, very wary of his opponent’s plans now. “Honchkrow, let’s not allow him to finish that up. If we can screw up Slowking’s concentration, that’ll cost Conway a good deal of points. So get out there and use Aerial Ace!”

    Now ready to fight back, Honchkrow nodded to its trainer and became airborne once again. Not bothering with time-consuming techniques this time, Honchkrow directly flew at its target with the move that couldn’t be dodged.

    “That’s the way to do it; play right into my hands,” Conway quietly coaxed, waiting until Honchkrow was at the ideal distance. “Now, unleash your attack, Slowking!”

    Water Pulse had nearly become twice Slowking’s size by the time the order was issued. Still, Slowking had no trouble lobbing the ball of water at the Big Boss Pokémon.

    Seeing a collision was about to take place again, Paul decided to make his plan specific for his Pokémon. “Don’t try to dodge it!” he mandated. “Fly right through it and keep going until you hit Slowking! That’ll score us a hit and screw up his move!”

    “The water may be denser than you think,” Conway forewarned, chuckling to himself. “Slowking, you know what to do!”

    He spoke as if he expected Paul to know what he had in mind, and had Paul watched Conway’s match against Mina, he might have known what was coming. Instead, he was letting Honchkrow dive headfirst into an unknown danger… not that Paul hadn’t ordered such a thing in the past, but now it seemed like an especially dumb move to make after Conway acknowledge Paul’s motives. Still, Paul had no time to improvise; Honchkrow dove right into that sphere of water.

    “Use Psychic around the water!” Conway commanded. “Quickly…!”

    Before Honchkrow could exit from the other side of the Water Pulse attack (seemingly not that effected by the attack itself), an outline of blue energy enveloped the sphere. As a result, Honchkrow felt as if it just flew straight into a wall and was left suspended in the water. It was very disorienting for the victim Pokémon, and it was slightly disturbing for Paul to watch.

    “Astounding!” Marian shouted. “Ladies and gentleman, I believe this is the combination Conway tried – and failed – against the previous battle with Mina! Her Grass-typed Jumpluff was able to resist the water and break out of this trap quickly, but will Honchkrow be able to do the same despite a lack of resistance to Water-type attacks?!”

    Paul was paying for his dozing off in a big way. Honchkrow looked utterly helpless submerged in Conway’s aquatic prison. Paul was losing points, but he wasn’t even paying attention to that right now. His main priority was figuring out how to get Honchkrow out of that trap.

    “Honchkrow may lack a resistance to Water-type attacks,” Paul acknowledged. “But there is an immunity to Psychic-type attacks! All it should take is a well-focused Night Slash to get Honchkrow out of there, and then this combination will be useless!”

    “You honestly think I’m going to make it that easy for you?” Conway asked him rhetorically. “Slowking, let us dazzle the crowd with your psychic abilities, shall we? That should keep Honchkrow from being able to focus until his oxygen runs out and we win by default.”

    Paul completely forgot to take Honchkrow’s lack of ability to breathe underwater into account. His Pokémon was likely in a state of panic right now; immune or not, Honchkrow was trapped with no obvious way out and no way to breathe; it would be very difficult for it to even hear any command of Paul’s this way.

    Thinking of it now, this could almost be considered a little cruel by Conway’s standards; such a plan seemed more suited to Paul’s style. It was then Paul realized how much his presence around Conway must have influenced him just as much as Conway’s presence influenced Paul himself over the past month they spent traveling together.

    However, this was no time to dwell on their partnership; Paul needed to find a way to set his Pokémon free before he lost the Contest by knockout.

    “Let’s please the crowd, shall we?” Conway suggested to his partner Pokémon. “An ordinary sphere of water suspended in midair can only hold an audience for so long. Let’s make some shapes! Continue with Psychic, please…!”

    Slowking was more than happy to oblige; using its psychic powers, the water sphere’s form began to morph into varying shapes. The audience was consistently amused with this mockery of Honchkrow while Paul’s points were going down chunks at a time as the act went on.

    “What an amazing display of power!” Marian said in awe. “But how long can Honchkrow last without any air?! If Honchkrow loses consciousness, this battle is over!”

    “Tell me something I don’t know,” Paul muttered under his breath before glaring back at the precarious situation at hand. “Honchkrow, if you can hear me, use Night Slash!”

    The lack of response on Honchkrow’s part indicated that it was unable to hear its trainer’s calls. There was nothing Paul could do for his Pokémon and it frustrated him. Honchkrow was still conscious, evident by its squirming and thrashing about underneath the water, but its energy was running out quickly.

    Meanwhile, Conway was making it all the more difficult for Honchkrow to calm down by using Slowking’s psychic abilities to elongate the thick shape of water into a thinner line shape; the reason for the larger-than-usual Water Pulse initially was obvious now. Conway needed the extra space to accommodate Honchkrow’s size within the prison of water.

    “Let’s see if Honchkrow’s up for a little jump rope,” Conway suggested to Slowking, who understood the implication. The “rope” of water was now being swung about with psychic power in the movement of a jump rope, swirling Honchkrow about all the more. The crowd loved this display of psychic prowess and Paul’s points continued to suffer for it.

    “Come on, Honchkrow!” Paul urged, unable to think of what else to do in this situation. “Use Night Slash or we’re going to lose this!”

    Yet the Big Boss Pokémon was still unable to hear Paul’s voice beyond the psychic wall and the water flowing rapidly within. This act had already brought Paul down to 25% of his points and there was still one minute and thirty seconds left on the clock. Conway’s points were remained in the realm of 80%.

    “It’s true no one act can go on forever,” Conway admitted. “Let’s wrap this up so you can rest; does that sound good, Slowking?” He didn’t need a response from Slowking to know said Pokémon was wearing itself out with this complicated combination.

    Paul was offended by this. “You think this is over already, don’t you?!”

    “I know it is,” Conway clarified, looking quite proud of himself. “You’re in a tight spot and you can’t deny it. But unlike you, I am rather merciful, so I’ll end this tirade before your Honchkrow suffocates; I believe I’ve made my point in who the better man is in this competition, Paul.” He nodded to Slowking. “Let’s finish this up with a fantastic Power Gem!”

    “Power Gem?!” Paul had learned of this move some time ago while studying up on strategy techniques. Though visually impressive, Power Gem was a simple move with no positive or negative added affect beyond the basic damage it brought… as a Rock-type move.

    As Honchkrow had a weakness for that type added with the situation it was currently in, Paul knew Power Gem would stop him in his tracks for certain. He wanted Honchkrow out of there before the move would make contact, but there was no way out of this mess. Paul was about to lose, and he was going to lose by a landslide.

    “It’s over…” Paul acknowledged quietly as a brilliant sparkling ball of amber took form in the air above the Water Pulse/Psychic combination. The younger trainer bowed his head, already admitting defeat and hating every moment of doing so. He couldn’t bring himself to watch the moment actually happen.

    What everyone failed to take into account was the fact that Slowking was juggling three attacks at once at this point. Honchkrow was pushed to its limits, but so was Slowking just by an insane amount of multi-tasking. The Royal Pokémon could handle this, but there was something it couldn’t handle:

    A plan not following the way it was supposed to.

    Just before Power Gem made contact with the bird Pokémon in the ball of water, Honchkrow itself became consumed in a dark aura of energy, prompting the audience (and Conway) to gasp. The audience knew what to expect with Conway’s plans, so Paul was prompted to look back up at the scene as well.

    The entirety of Water Pulse (and Psychic along with it) practically exploded all it once as Honchkrow shot straight out of its confinement as if the barriers were made of thin paper. The visuals of this watery, magical burst of energy were well enough to save Paul’s points from dipping into single digits and for Conway to finally suffer some point loss for his precious combination failing him at last.

    With dark energy still trailing behind the Big Boss Pokémon, Honchkrow zoomed straight up the short distance between its position in the water and the Power Gem attack and with a powerful swipe of its wing, thrust the attack up and back at the sender, covering Power Gem itself with dark energy.

    In an instant, Slowking was slammed back by a Dark-typed variant of its own attack and was sent flying onto its back while Conway’s points took another big hit.

    “I-it can’t be,” Conway stuttered, purely in disbelief. “That move isn’t learned normally…”

    Paul was every bit as shocked as Conway, and he was the one with the advantage. “Then Honchkrow learned…”

    “Sucker Punch!” Marian confirmed to everyone. “In a moment of crisis, Honchkrow summoned its energy, willpower, and determination to learn Sucker Punch in spite of its situation! Wow, you don’t see that every day!”

    “You certainly don’t,” Conway remarked, adjusting his glasses with his eyes widened. “Being backed into a corner like that… Honchkrow must really be something…”

    Paul, however, knew that this wasn’t over yet and the clock was still ticking. He had under a minute left to fell his opponent and his work was cut out for him. Conway proved to be a tricky opponent even in spite of type disadvantages.

    “Very touching, but the fight isn’t over yet!” Paul reminded everyone; especially Honchkrow. “We’ve got some catching up to do, Honchkrow!”

    Running purely on adrenaline, Honchkrow knew what needed to be done. This was one instance where having very little time left was a good thing; otherwise Honchkrow’s adrenaline alone wouldn’t be enough to keep the Pokémon going for the remainder of the battle if it dragged out.

    “While Slowking’s still out of it, let’s take it down with Night Slash!” Paul commanded, and Honchkrow carried it out.

    “Nngh! Slowking! Get up!” Conway wailed, waving his hands at his Pokémon in a panic. “Hurry, before Honchkrow reaches our side and…!”

    Too late; Honchkrow side-swiped the partially-Psychic Pokémon and promptly u-turned back to its side after connecting the hit. The blazing streak of purple light sat very well with the viewers and helped preserve what little remained of Paul’s points while Conway’s were dragged down again.

    “You’re not done yet,” Paul sternly reminded. “Honchkrow, go back over there right now and use Sky Attack!”

    Honchkrow already looked to be sick of this, but obeyed its trainer nonetheless and went back the way it came, charging up the attack.

    Slowking was quickly looking worse for wear due to sheer exhaustion as well, but Conway wasn’t having any of it. “Use Power Gem again, Slowking! It’ll reach Honchkrow before it comes at us with its attack!”

    Indeed, the crystalline amber ball Slowking formed and sent out quickly flew in Honchkrow’s way, but Paul knew how to counter this now.

    “Send it right back!” Paul commanded. “Cancel Sky Attack and use Sucker Punch!”

    Just like before, a single darkness-imbued wing of Honchkrow’s flawlessly knocked back the Power Gem attack as if it was a cotton ball and was sent back flying right at Slowking’s face.

    “We’re not falling for that again!” Conway shouted. “Slowking, Protect!”

    The barrier Slowking formed held up against the onslaught, which shattered around it into millions of sparkling pieces. Both Paul and Conway lost points as a result of the nature of the exchanges.

    But there was no time to sit back and admire the aesthetics if one was Paul or Conway.

    “Slowking, Water Pulse!” Conway cried out in desperation; there was no ulterior motive this time, as the tenuousness of the situation left Conway in mental distraught. All he knew is that this move wouldn’t be a waste of time to use against Honchkrow like Psychic would now.

    “Dodge and use Aerial Ace!” Paul also quickly commanded, opting for the speediest result rather than choosing to rely on Sky Attack again.

    Honchkrow managed to dodge Slowking’s Water Pulse with relative ease, and Conway’s points suffered for Honchkrow’s fancy dodging techniques; at this point, the backlash on Conway for his previous teasing were sending his remaining points in the danger zone.

    “Protect, Protect!” Conway panicked, but only freaked out more when he realized it failed to work this time and Slowking was completely subject to yet another hit. Honchkrow faced down the Royal Pokémon from its aerial position and swung down its shining wing.

    “Time’s up!”

    Both Conway and Paul gasped simultaneously as Honchkrow’s attack finished connecting and sent Slowking on the ground; down, but not out. Both competitors were so absorbed in the fight that it had been a while since either of them checked the status of their points.

    “What a fight,” Marian remarked. “Intense and beautiful! These two Coordinators definitely battled down to the wire; just look how close the scores were: both in relation to each other and how close both were to running out completely!”

    Indeed, both Paul and Conway’s points only barely hovered above zero, each with only a tiny sliver left shown on the screen.

    “But when all’s said and done, the winner is… Conway!!”

    Both trainers promptly fell to their knees after hearing the news. The crowd roared with enthusiasm, showing their appreciation for a long, hard battle on both ends. Excitement was in the air and everyone in the Contest Hall could feel it. Even through the television, Reggie and Maylene were every bit as psyched as the live audience. It seemed only Saturn remained calm as the finals ended. Even though his cousin came out the winner, none of that really mattered to him. All this meant was that his plan would very soon be carried out by his coworker. Saturn looked forward to seeing those results, if nothing else.

    “You mean I won…?” Conway asked no one in particular with a distant voice. “I really, really won…?”

    “He won…” Paul acknowledged, also to no one but himself. “He really, really won…”

    Both Slowking and Honchkrow were simply glad this battle was behind them now. It was going to take a while for the shock to wear off on Conway, but Paul recovered more quickly and got back on his feet. As usual, he gave his Pokémon no words of encouragement (or any words at all, really) before returning it back to its Pokéball.

    “So that’s how it is…” Paul said in a quiet voice. “Conway wins the Contest just like he wanted to… this was the best possible result,” he decided. Or at least, he tried convincing himself that was the case, but now he really wasn’t sure deep down. “It’s not like I wanted to win this stupid thing for real… Contests are pointless.”

    Still, he couldn’t resist smiling weakly at his companion, who was in tears with happiness now and gratuitously thanking his Slowking for a job well done.

    “But for something so pointless, I guess it can mean something from another view,” Paul figured. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

    Once Conway was finally brought down to reality, the award ceremony swiftly followed the battle. Mister Contesta, Sukizo, and Nurse Joy were all lined up while Conway, Castform, and Slowking stood on a podium with Marian on one side and Paul at the other.

    “And now, here’s Chief of the Pokémon Activities Committee, Mister Contesta!” Marian introduced one last time. “He has the distinct honor of presenting the Plumeria Ribbon to Conway!”

    Conway looked eager as Mister Contesta came forward and presented the case containing the twilight lavender-colored ribbon he just earned.

    “Congratulations again, sir, and much luck in the future,” Contesta wished the young man as he held out the case for Conway to reach over and pluck out the ribbon inside.

    “Oh, thanks so much!” Conway said graciously, bowing to his elder before taking what was now his: The Plumeria Ribbon. A day like this only used to come in his dreams… he only prayed Dawn was watching this moment right now and truly appreciating him for what he was: a talented competitor and a worthy rival, should the two ever meet in a Contest someday. He admired the sight of the golden medal with the two purple-hued strands hanging from it, but knew the best thing to do was to relish in his victory and hold the Plumeria Ribbon up for all to see. “How about that?! I just won the Plumeria Ribbon! My very first one and I earned it all by myself…!”

    “Cast, caaaast!” Castform cheered alongside its trainer.

    “Slowking, slow!” Slowking agreed in kind.

    Paul just smirked and shook his head. “You’re really taking all the credit for yourself, Conway?”

    Upon hearing that humbling statement, Conway smiled sheepishly and scratched his head. “Well, you did play an integral role to my inspiration,” he admitted. “You’re like my male Dawn in a way!”

    That was not a response Paul expected, and he backed away a little from Conway as a result. “Please don’t ever say that again.”

    “Sorry!” Conway apologized, though he laughed soon after. “It’s just so exciting, you know? I’m not even paying attention to what I’m saying! This is even better than when I won the Cobble Badge!”

    Paul nodded. “Well, not just because you’re doing this to impress that girl, Conway,” he said nonchalantly, which made Conway pause and look at him inquisitively. “Maylene is not that talented a trainer, whereas I am. Don’t you think you got a more worthwhile battle out of me overall?”

    “Maybe,” Conway said, smirking and purposely sounding uncertain. “But I did have a three-on-three Gym Battle with her, compared to the one-on-one battle I just had with you. It’s not such an easy comparison to make. The combination of finally getting to experience Dawn’s field of expertise and having you as a rival is what makes this so special, Paul!”

    To that, Paul just groaned. “Even when we agree, it still somehow manages to be such a headache…”

    After a brief pause of silence, Conway smiled more sincerely at his companion. “Hey,” he called out, getting Paul’s attention. “We had fun, didn’t we?”

    “Not a chance,” Paul stubbornly denied, though he smiled in spite of his tone. “I’m relieved I’m finally past this horrible obligation. I performed to your standards, didn’t I?”

    “You went above and beyond, my friend,” Conway humbly admitted. “If the time hadn’t run out before your last attack went through, you very well could have defeated me after all.”

    Holding his hands up, Paul looked repulsed by the prospect. “Don’t even joke about that, Conway. I never wanted that ribbon; I’m glad it’s your responsibility.”

    Paul just got a knowing look in response from the Contest’s winner. “You did have fun.”

    “Mowing down those girls was satisfying, at least,” Paul admitted. “But I still only did this because I’m not one who goes back on my word like a spineless coward.”

    “You had fun,” Conway insisted, shaking his head at the younger trainer. It was lucky for Paul that suddenly the press was in on this fresh victory, freeing him from the obligation of having to reply to Conway.

    Conway himself looked surprised to see a video camera aimed at him by a professional cameraman while Marian turned her attention to the scene.

    “So, Conway! As the Plumeria Contest winner, do you have any thoughts you’d like to share?” Marian asked him. “The people would like to know!”

    After a moment, Conway’s starstruck expressions sobered down into a devious smirk. Paul couldn’t help but wonder what Conway was up to as he approached the camera with confidence.

    “As a matter of fact, I would,” Conway replied calmly, before digging into his pocket and pulling out another small trinket: the Cobble Badge.

    Now Paul was even more confused. “What are you-”

    “IN YOUR FACE!” Conway shouted aloud to the camera, stunning everyone. “Are you watching this, Franny?! In. Your. Face! Just check this out…!” He thrust both the badge and the ribbon towards the camera. “I’ve now won my first Gym Battle and my first Contest all in under a month! What have you done lately that didn’t involve sitting your butt down on the couch and reading a book, huh? Oh, that’s right! Nothing!

    This left everyone but Paul confused. “Franny…?” Marian asked if she heard that correctly, a bit put off by Conway’s enthusiasm.

    “My big sister, of course,” Conway answered. “All my life she put me down for being a nobody who wouldn’t amount to anything, but she doesn’t have a Gym Badge or a Contest Ribbon to show for all of her hot air! She doesn’t even have a job!”

    Even Paul was quite shocked at the trash-talk he was witnessing. He perhaps wondered if he rubbed off on Conway a little too much…

    “So I’ve officially surpassed you, Franny!” Conway shouted at the camera, pointing dramatically. “You can’t argue your way out of this one! Sloan’s not going to want to hire you after he sees this, now will he?!”

    Back at Galactic Headquarters, Saturn raised an eyebrow in reaction to hearing his given name on live television. He was generally a little embarrassed to come from this gene pool, but watching something like this made him wish he belonged to an entirely different family.

    Meanwhile, at Veilstone City in the luxury house of Conway’s family, Franny was indeed watching this Contest as per her brother’s request over the phone and was gaping in shock for several reasons. This was definitely not a good time to have inattentive parents, because Franny definitely needed some to scold her brother for this dastardly deed.

    Further away in the same town, Maylene and Reggie were rendered speechless. Reggie wondered if this sort of wrath from a younger sibling was really how things came off between him and Paul when their relations soured. He certainly hoped that wasn’t the case.

    “Well, uh, thanks for sharing your thoughts!” Marian said awkwardly, hoping to cut him off quickly.

    “My pleasure, Marian!” Conway assured, moving close up to the camera one last time. “Much love to you, Dawn, wherever you are! Win that Grand Festival for both of us…!”

    Marian was more than eager to segue to officially closing the show. “And with that, ladies and gentleman, one more action-packed Contest has gone down on the record books! As we bring down the curtain today on the Plumeria Town Contest, I wish you all farewell, and a hope that we see you again next time…!”

    And with that, the Plumeria Town Contest was over, and now a past chapter in the lives of Paul and Conway.

    The boys left the Contest Hall and went straight to the Pokémon Center to fully restore the health of Slowking and Honchkrow from the last battle. Both were packed up and eager to finally leave town.

    “Here you are, boys!” Nurse Joy confirmed, giving them each their respective Pokéball. “Slowking and Honchkrow are as good as new. You both put on quite a Contest battle today; very impressive.”

    “Why, it was our pleasure, Nurse Joy!” Conway thanked, nudging Paul. “Wasn’t it, Paul?”

    Paul rolled his eyes as he stored Honchkrow’s Pokéball with the others. “Yes, a riot and a half,” he said tersely before bowing to Nurse Joy. “Thank you for your services.” He then looked sharply to Conway. “Now let’s get out of here.”

    Conway nodded to his companion as both turned towards the front door and started to leave. “Yes, we’ve done all we can here. If we hurry, we can reach Squallville before the sun goes down!”

    “And where will that put us in relation to Snowpoint City?” Paul asked impatiently.

    “Pretty close, believe it or not,” Conway replied after checking the map. “We could be no more than a day or two away by the time we hit Squallville.”

    “Well, next time, don’t sneak into any secret competitions before we leave,” Paul warned. “You’re very lucky that I was tied down to the obligation due to the fact that you won the bet, but I’m free of that now.”

    While Paul was right, Conway still smirked. “You’re still not rid of me, unfortunately. And while you are free from the bet, I still wouldn’t say you’ve truly repaid me for all I did for you since we hooked up in Canalave City… for that, you’d have to save my life. Twice.

    Upon hearing that, Paul growled at his traveling companion. “Don’t say we ‘hooked up’, Conway! That makes it sound like we’re going out or something.”

    “But we are going out,” Conway insisted, but couldn’t resist a small laugh. “Of town, that is!”

    That earned him a slap against the head. It felt good for Paul to finally inflict a little violence on Conway.

    Just before either of them could exit through the front doors, Nurse Joy approached the boys.

    “Oh, excuse me!” she called out, sounding humbled. “I’m so sorry to bother you on your way out, but you have a phone call from Veilstone City, Paul.”

    “Veilstone City?!” both Paul and Conway shouted in unison.

    Nurse Joy nodded, oblivious to the nature of their reactions. “A young man named Reggie… your brother, perhaps? He does look very much like you, Paul…”

    Conway began to look nervous. “You don’t suppose he saw that Contest, do you…?”

    “It… could be a coincidence,” Paul tried telling himself, but he was thinking exactly what Conway was thinking nonetheless. “Either way, we’d better not risk it.”

    “You’re rejecting the call?” Conway asked, understanding the implication. “Just leaving Reggie in the dark like that…?”

    Paul shook his head vehemently. “I’m definitely not in the mood to chat about this now if that is why he called,” he explained, looking to Nurse Joy. “Tell him I just stepped out. I’ll call him later on my own time once I reach Squallville.”

    Reluctantly, Nurse Joy nodded. “Of course, if that’s what you want…”

    “It is,” Paul coldly assured. He expectantly looked to Conway. “Let’s go.”

    Looking just as uneasy, Conway nodded to Paul and turned to leave, but paused briefly. “Nurse Joy, were there any calls for me while I was out…?”

    “I’m sorry to say that isn’t the case,” Nurse Joy reported. “Were you expecting one, Conway?”

    “Sort of,” he said softly, smiling yet looking depressed. “I thought maybe my cousin would have called by now to congratulate me… but he’s probably busy as usual. Maybe he’ll call later. Don’t worry about it, Nurse Joy.”

    Nurse Joy bowed to the boys somberly. “If you say so… good luck for the rest of your journey, you two.”

    “Thanks,” Paul said before dragging Conway out of the Pokémon Center with him. “Come on, we’re behind schedule enough as it is!”

    Now, Plumeria Town as a whole was behind them.

    Later that day, Paul and Conway made steady progress towards Squallville. The route they took required them both to pass through a few miles of frozen tundra before reaching the windy path that would take them to town, but luckily both were well-suited for the weather this time. Conway had bought Paul a thick hooded coat; a darker blue than his jacket, with a pair of cadet blue gloves. Since Paul was otherwise well-suited enough for the weather, that was all he needed. Conway, however, required a full change of wardrobe. Even his glasses were replaced by a pair of prescription goggles that functioned as glasses that wouldn’t fog up on him. His thick forest green scarf warmed his neck while his olive-colored coat kept the rest of his body nice and toasty. His gloves matched the color of his scarf while his legs were protected with a thick pair of dark brown pants and black snow boots.

    “Nice and warm now, aren’t we?” Conway taunted as they hiked their way up a mountain path. Deep snow surrounded them both, as that sort of weather was common in this area.

    Even now, snow was falling steadily and the wind was beginning to pick up, likely meaning a blizzard was coming in their direction. Unlike last time, however, Paul and Conway were well-equipped for the weather and wouldn’t need to seek shelter for hours. As long as they could still see the road, they were fine.

    “Shut up,” Paul spat back. “You look ridiculous with those things on, you know.”

    “Hey, you know I’m blind as a Zubat without my glasses!” Conway complained. “And if they fog up, I might as well not have them at all. You didn’t want me to hold you back, so I came prepared.”

    Paul just shrugged. “I didn’t know goggles like that even existed.”

    “They’re quite expensive,” Conway noted. “That’s probably why you don’t hear about them much.”

    Ready to change the subject already, Paul sighed. “I can’t believe you’re still with me after all this time…”

    “You can’t change it now, Paul!” Conway retorted cheerfully. “We’re in this together through thick and thin! Nothing’s tearing us apart! Besides, Reggie asked me to do this. I can’t possibly let him down after being treated so kindly by him.”

    There was an awkward pause before Paul could talk back. “… Is that the only reason why you’re still here? Because he told you to stick with me?”

    “What kind of question is that, Paul?” Conway asked him rhetorically. “I was with you well before he asked me to help out! I’m psyched he asked, because you probably would have found a way to get rid of me by now if you weren’t so tied down to his word yourself. But to be perfectly honest, Paul, I’ve enjoyed our time together. And if I hadn’t met you again, I wouldn’t have a Gym Badge or a Contest Ribbon right now! You’ve done more for me than you realize.”

    Paul never thought of it that way, really, but he still looked skeptical. “You won the Contest, though. You proved yourself to be a competent Coordinator, but as far as I’m concerned, we’re not going anywhere near a Contest ever again.”

    Conway just smiled contentedly. “I figured as much.”

    “But don’t you want to keep doing Contests?” Paul asked, finding it hard to believe that Conway was fine with being held back. “You like them, you’re determined to win over that girl through them… but you’re never going to achieve any of that with me.”

    “There’s always next year,” Conway brought up, not sounding bothered at all. “I wouldn’t have made it to the Grand Festival this late in the game, anyway. Did you really think I was going to up and leave you now of all times just because I won a ribbon?”

    “Sort of,” Paul admitted. “It’s a logical conclusion, I mean.”

    Conway nodded in agreement. “I suppose it is…” Then he smirked. “You didn’t want me to leave, did you?”

    “I expected you to leave!” Paul insisted, looking flustered. “I only fought as hard as I did because that was part of the deal I had with you to begin with!”

    “Honchkrow learned a new move through this experience,” Conway mentioned; Paul nearly forgot about that. “You can’t say you came out of this Contest with absolutely nothing.”

    To randomly change the main topic like that, Paul was suspicious. “What are you implying?”

    Apparently, Conway noticed the uncertainties of his companion, because he still remained calm in the face of accusation. “Nothing, really,” he said. “Nothing more than that we’ve both gained a lot through our experiences together. Maybe at some point we’ll come to that fork in the road in our lives, but right now, I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d rather be than at your side.”

    “That girl’s side would be one such place,” Paul was quick to bring up.

    “Touché,” Conway conceded. “Though who knows if she would tolerate me for long periods of time the way you do, Paul…”

    “Tolerate? What an overstatement,” Paul said, blowing off the compliment. “You’re extremely fortunate that I let you follow me around at all. I’ve just run into quite a bit of bad luck because of you.”

    Conway simply wagged his finger at Paul. “There is a stigma attached to the Murkrow species, you know,” he informed. “How long was it before yours evolved? You still had it in its basic stage during the Tag Battle Tournament, right?”

    Paul nodded hesitantly. “Yes… it evolved to Honchkrow when I battled Maylene, so it’s been that way for a while now. What’s your point?”

    “They say a Murkrow brings bad luck,” Conway told him. “Perhaps yours started a chain reaction when you met me initially in that tournament.”

    “I won that tournament,” Paul reminded him. “That isn’t exactly bad luck.”

    “But… you were partnered with Ash the entire time,” Conway countered. “And you met me, which you claim started a stream of bad luck that presumably lasts even today. Even if it was a delayed reaction…”

    Paul shoved Conway aside in retaliation. “I’m not much of a believer in superstition, Conway. You can shut up anytime now.”

    Conway took it all in stride. After all, having won a Contest was more than enough to keep him happy for a week. Still being at Paul’s side against the odds was even better. He knew in his heart that this was the perfect day he always asked for.

    “You’re right,” he admitted. “Because the power’s been inside us all this time… and it’s our friendship that made this all work out.”

    For once, Paul didn’t feel like arguing the “friendship” point. Somehow, he just felt content that he wouldn’t be finishing this journey to Snowpoint City alone after all. Conway had proven his loyalty by giving up his chance to pursue Contests (and Dawn) just to continue to stay with Paul.

    For the first time, Paul was truly impressed. Not that he would ever admit it, but he was impressed.

    “Oh my gosh, Paul!” Conway suddenly shouted out. “Look! A Pokémon swarm!”

    Indeed, it had been said on certain days, flocks of rare Pokémon would come by Route 216. Today in particular featured a group of Smoochum cheerfully making their way through the snow. This was their natural climate, so they seemed to rather enjoy their surroundings.

    Suddenly, Paul felt that respect he had for Conway dwindling already. “So what?”

    “Isn’t it cool?” Conway asked him, obviously having not witnessed such an event before, however small it was.

    “It’s just a bunch of Smoochum,” Paul tried to reason. “They’re worthless and definitely not something that’s going to put us further behind. Let’s keep moving.”

    “But I want one…!” Conway whined. “Remember when I told you I would be really psyched to have one? Don’t you?”

    Paul sighed. “Save it for some other time. You really could do better, Conway. If you want an Ice-type that badly, I’ll find you some actually worth catching later. But for now, we need to focus on reaching Squallville.” He looked up at the sky with concern. “We have no idea just how rough the weather’s going to get.”

    Logic was just one thing Conway could not fight in most cases. Giving the Smoochum one last glance, Conway hung his head and followed Paul past them. “I guess you’re right… getting to Squallville is priority one.”

    The duo continued along their path, leaving the Smoochum behind and unbothered. One happened to be paying attention; however, as she looked on towards the pair of humans until they were completely out of sight. Resigned to the fact that they would likely never be seen again, she turned her attention back towards her group and continued onwards in a different direction.

    Like clockwork, Paul and Conway came into Mars’ sight just like Saturn said they would. She hid behind a small group of trees just in case anyone passed by who might recognize Team Galactic and start a confrontation. Mars knew she couldn’t risk anything messing up her mission; a ton of pizza was on the line, and she was determined to have it no matter the cost.

    Nearby was a fork in the road, prompting the boys to stop and debate on which path to take. The helicopter Mars used to arrive in this location was well hidden further behind her, and the weather had gotten blustery enough to draw away any attention towards the slightly-conspicuous method of transportation. A small group of grunts were on standby to start up whenever Mars gave the signal.

    “If the left path is shorter, let’s take it already,” Paul complained at Conway. “Stop being such a coward and live a little.”

    “Did you really not learn from your last mishap?” Conway reminded him, very annoyed. “The shorter path is not always the best one to take. The road less-traveled always involves a risk.”

    “Life is full of risks,” Paul grumbled. “You can’t avoid them forever, Conway.”

    Conway then looked rather snooty. “Well, I’m the navigator and I insist we go right.”

    “Well, this is my journey and I say we go left,” Paul countered, not intent on letting up this argument anytime soon.

    “You’re both right, but you’re both wrong, too,” said a new voice entering the conversation. Paul and Conway quickly turned around to see Mars standing right behind them.

    As Mars was quite a looker in the eyes of many men, Conway was no exception. Dedicated as he was to Dawn, he couldn’t help but appreciate a beauty. Paul, on the other hand, looked miffed that someone was meddling in their business.

    “This doesn’t involve you,” Paul calmly told her. “If there’s something you need, go ahead and say it. Otherwise, please go about your way.”

    “You’re so rude, Paul,” Conway muttered, shoving him aside and smiling to Mars. “I’m so sorry for my friend’s behavior, ma’am! What can we do you for?”

    Mars just looked amused with the argumentative youths. “I was trying to say that you’re both right, because you’ll reach your destination no matter what path you take. But you’re both also wrong, because why hike up this mountain when you can fly over it instead?”

    Slightly fearful, Conway looked up at the sky. “In this weather…? It would be just as risky as taking the left path.”

    “There’s no risk with a helicopter, which I happen to have,” Mars offered. She had no idea that Conway would have a companion with him, but she had no choice but to improvise. “You boys want a ride?”

    “Do you take us for fools?” Paul asked her bluntly. “We don’t know you. We’re not going to haphazardly run into unknown danger for-”

    He was shoved by Conway again. “Oh, have a little faith in mankind for once, Paul!” he urged, grinning back at Mars nervously. “We should be properly introduced, though!”

    “Sure thing,” Mars said with a sultry voice. “I’m Mars. And you’re Conway, aren’t you?”

    That definitely took both boys by surprise.

    “W-wait, you know who I am…?” Conway asked in a squeaky voice. “But… how?”

    “Did you just watch the Plumeria Contest or something?” Paul asked much more casually.

    “No,” Mars responded. “But his cousin did.”

    Conway was even more surprised by this news. “Sloan watched the Contest after all?!” In a delayed reaction, he realized something else: “You know my cousin Sloan?!”

    At first, Mars didn’t answer. She never actually knew Saturn’s given name, as they were all but forgotten memories in the workplace and were never discussed amongst coworkers. She was more than a little tickled to finally know Saturn’s real name, but she held that down as best she could, since she had to pretend she knew this all along.

    “He was right; you’re quite the cutie when you’re flustered,” Mars flirted, making eyes at Conway, who definitely noticed the signs. “I’m one of Sloan’s coworkers. He really wanted me to meet you, you know.”

    “I’m Paul in case you were wondering,” Paul cut in, clearing his throat purposely.

    “That’s nice,” Mars said, brushing him off and clearly uninterested in the unforeseeable variable in her scheme. “Sloan told me about your Contest victory, Conway. He’s very impressed with your work ethic and really liked how you stuck it to your big sister.”

    Of course, that made Conway smirk. “Glad to know he saw that and liked it, then! I wonder why he didn’t call, though…”

    “He was so impressed that he sent me for you,” Mars explained. “He wants to see you in person to congratulate you. He’s also looking for a bit of help.”

    “Help?” Conway found that to be vague. “You don’t mean he wants to hire me as the intern instead of my sister, right?!”

    As far as Mars recalled, Saturn seemed to imply as much, but he still wanted the book above all else: Mars knew she couldn’t neglect that detail.

    “If you help him with this task, he certainly is thinking of hiring you,” Mars said in an alluring tone. “I’d be more than happy to escort you.”

    “Mars is an unusual name to have, come to think of it…” Paul mused.

    Simply scoffing at Paul, Mars refocused her sights on Conway, who looked as if he could burst with excitement; winning the Contest, sticking it to his sister, being praised by Sloan… potentially being hired by Sloan? It almost sounded too good to be true, but Conway had no desire to be negative about the prospects.

    “Sloan’s looking for a rare book on Uxie,” Mars told him. “He said you were quite talented in finding and knowing about the rarest books in the region. Think you can help him find it?”

    “Help him find it?” Conway said, gasping for breath out of excitement. “I… I have it right here!”

    Just as Mars wanted it; Conway dug into his carryon bag and pulled out the book on Uxie that was now legally his. “The Canalave Library actually gave this to me as a gift! He can borrow it whenever he wants! Does this mean I’m hired?”

    “Why do you need a book on a Legendary Pokémon so badly?” Paul interrogated, very much not trusting this woman as far as he could throw her. “What kind of work do you do, anyway? Even Conway couldn’t tell me that whenever he wouldn’t shut up about his cousin.”

    Mars simply smiled and gestured to the giant “G” on her uniform. “We work for the government, see? We do top-secret investigations. A lot of the work we do is confidential, so I’m afraid I can’t say any more than that.”

    “But I’ll get to find out when I get hired!” Conway cheered. “This is so the best day ever!”

    “That’s right,” Mars said, forcing a grin. “So hand over the book and let’s be on our way.”

    “I’d much rather give it to him personally,” Conway gushed, hugging the book against his chest. “I really want to make a good first impression on the job!”

    By now, Paul couldn’t take this anymore. This woman was obviously sketchy in more ways than one, and the way she kept brushing him off in particular told Paul that there was more to this woman than what appeared to be.

    “Conway, you’re too young to work period,” Paul argued. “Why would an alleged confidential sector of the government so easily hire a kid? Why couldn’t Sloan come in person to meet you?”

    “He’s a very busy man,” Mars assured him. “What are you, jealous?”

    “Suspicious,” Paul corrected. “You’re practically stealing him away with all this sweet-talk. He can’t join you anyway because he’s obligated to stay with me.”

    Conway clung to Paul’s arm; an act that, if Paul didn’t find this situation potentially risky, he would have thrown Conway roughly on the ground by now. “Oh, Paul, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” he begged. “You know how much I dreamed about this! Why would you want to take it away from me? I mean, you can come with me, and…”

    “No, he can’t,” Mars interrupted. “Sorry, Conway. I didn’t expect you’d have a little buddy with you, but due to the nature of our work, we can’t let just anyone in.”

    “Except you’re already doing so with him,” Paul pointed out. “You found us out here in the middle of nowhere! Do you expect us to believe that was just a coincidence?”

    Of course, Mars did this to prevent any interference from civilization itself. However, she was becoming annoyed at the fact that Paul was not at all taken in by her charms. Even more frustrating that Conway completely fell for it, but was being protected by Paul.

    “Kid, you’re getting on my nerves,” Mars grunted, glaring at Paul and not caring at all what his name actually was. “You’re a big boy; you can make this trip on your own. Several trainers your age do. But Conway has a date with destiny, and you of all people aren’t going to interfere.”

    Conway was coming off his high at last, being dragged back down to reality: to see his cousin again and truly achieve superiority over his sister, he would have to leave Paul behind. He already gave up the chance to be a Coordinator with relative ease…

    … This, however, was a little harder to let go.

    Regardless… Conway gulped and finally spoke up. “I can’t leave Paul behind,” Conway decided. “That isn’t the right thing to do. Is there no way to postpone this…?”

    “Sloan needs that book right away!” Mars cried out dramatically (and falsely so). “Conway, don’t inconvenience him! He just might lose his job…”

    The moral woes weighed down on Conway like a tank. Now it wasn’t just a matter of keeping Paul company and keeping him safe; Sloan’s job was now on the line, too? He had no idea what to decide on now. Either choice was going to hurt someone he cared about.

    But eventually, Conway decided on a middle ground.

    “Take the book, then,” Conway said glumly. “I’m going to stay with Paul, but if all Sloan needs is the book, then I don’t have to come along.”

    It seemed Mars didn’t care either way, because she immediately reached for the book that Conway offered her. She was so close to touching it, but then her hand was abruptly smacked away by Paul.

    “You idiot!” Paul hollered right into Conway’s face. “Do you not remember what my father was willing to go through to get that Regigigas book?! Didn’t you say this book was rare, too?!”

    “Th-the only copy in the Sinnoh region,” Conway confirmed. “What’s your point?”

    As Mars glared at the duo, backing away, Paul matched her glare with his own. “My point is that you can’t trust this woman even if she knows your cousin. You don’t even know if your cousin has good intentions because he never talks to you! I fought tooth-and-nail to keep a rare book away from my father; I’m not about to let you be so weak, Conway. Can’t you see this is a rouse?!”

    “You insolent brat!” Mars snapped, unable to control her anger now. “Do I have to fight you to keep you away?!”

    “W-wait, don’t hurt Paul!” Conway begged, standing in front of him. “He’s my friend! Even if he’s rude, that’s no excuse to fight him!”

    “Stay out of this!” Mars sharply told Conway, now shifting her attention on the boy she ignored so much. “He’s interfered enough! He’s paying the price!”

    Paul certainly looked ready to fight, but Conway still desired a truce and was shocked how quickly this sweet, cute woman turned into a temperamental witch. “But… I thought we could be friends!” Conway admitted, still with an ounce of hope in his voice. “Mars, don’t do this!”

    “We need that book,” Mars simply said. “I won’t let anything stand in my way!” She tossed out a Pokéball, ready to do battle. “Purugly, show him what you’re made of!”

    The portly Tiger Cat Pokémon came forth, eager to take out any opponent; human or Pokémon.

    However, Paul smirked at the sight. “That’s all you’ve got? I can handle that.” He took out his Pokéball… “Torterra, stand by for-”

    “Purugly, Iron Tail!” Mars interrupted loudly, not about to let Paul finish up. In a split second, Paul cried out in pain as Purugly knocked out the Pokéball containing Torterra right out of his hand in quite a forceful way.

    Paul was in too much pain to respond, grasping his bleeding, and injured hand. Torterra was never properly released, and so the Pokéball simply fell into the deep snow.

    “You’re actually willing to attack defenseless people with your Pokémon…” Conway acknowledged, now looking almost numb at the sight. “Just to get this book…?”

    “It’s amazing what we would kill to get,” Mars replied snidely. “Now, are you going to hand it over or what?”

    Conway looked hard at Mars for a long time before quickly stuffing the book safely under his shirt within his coat. He then glared. “I can see what Paul was talking about… you can’t be trusted after all!”

    “Then you’re my opponent as well,” Mars decided, nodding to Purugly.

    “You’re not getting the better of me!” Conway shouted, determined as he drew out his Pokéball. “Come forth, Slowk-”

    “Iron Tail!”

    Just like Paul, Conway’s hand was struck dead-on with Purugly’s lightning-quick attack. Slowking was not released in time, therefore the Pokéball dropped uselessly into the snow. Conway too was reeling in pain with Paul with a severely damaged hand.

    Mars just smiled and shook her head. “You kids need to work on how quickly you react to adversity. A weakness like that could cost you your life one day. As if I would waste time battling either of you… I’ll just take what I want and leave. Let’s see if working out during my break for the past few months amounted to anything… hah!

    Coincidentally, Paul and Conway were close and right beside each other, still in a great deal of pain from their hands alone. Even their gloves couldn’t endure the Iron Tail attack and it went straight into their skin. Mars saw this positioning, however, as an opportunity screamed to be taken advantage of. She rushed towards the boys; both arms held out at her sides so she could rush past Paul and Conway and club both their heads simultaneously with her surprisingly strong arms.

    Both Paul and Conway were hit dead-on, unaware of what she was really going to do. The blows to their head were enough to knock them both to the point where they lost consciousness.

    They were sitting ducks now; completely at Mars’ mercy. However, Mars never was one to stick around for long, and simply decided to get what she wanted while the “getting” was good. Unfortunately… what she wanted was now deeply lodged within Conway’s clothing.

    But then Mars realized this was actually ideal: Conway was taken out, therefore could not struggle or attempt to reclaim his book. With the book securely inside his coat, Mars could take both and leave without incident, killing two birds with one stone.

    Getting Conway meant Mars stood a good chance of getting a bonus reward from Saturn, and when it was this easy, of course she was going to go for it.

    With no trouble whatsoever, Mars secured her targets within her grasp. Both she and her Purugly sped off to the helicopter while Paul was left unconscious in the snow.

    It didn’t take long for Paul to recover, at least. But he was rather horrified when he came to and realized both Mars and Conway were gone. Mars had even taken the liberty of scattering both of their Pokéballs across the snow, as if to mean to slow Paul down if he were to wake up in time to chase after them.

    At the most inappropriate time, it hit Paul what he was actually doing when he scrambled to find his Pokéballs containing Honchkrow and Gliscor; knowing Mars was going to exit via helicopter, Paul knew his only chance at stopping her was via his Flying-typed Pokémon. But more importantly, Paul realized he was actually planning to rescue Conway. After all this time of Conway bailing him out, Paul finally meant to do him the same favor, and his automatic reaction for once was to not treat the situation as if it didn’t matter.

    Paul couldn’t deny it anymore; Conway mattered to him. Much as he said he hated Conway, the truth was that, especially after Conway proved his loyalty twice today, Paul didn’t want to lose someone like that to some wicked woman who by all means would do nothing but use and abuse him.

    He had to do something; he was too far away from civilization to call upon their help. It was his duty and his alone to rescue his… friend.

    After the shock wore away, Paul found the Pokéballs and scrambled to his feet, following the footprints in the snow and banked on the chance that he wasn’t too late to save Conway. The weather, suitably, was taking a turn for the worse.

    But Paul didn’t care; he was getting Conway back no matter what. He would not lose against this wintery weather a second time.

    The captive himself awoke in a much warmer area. It didn’t take him long to realize he was no longer outside. He looked around, dazed, acknowledging that he was in some sort of machine that made a lot of noise.

    The slight turbulence he was suddenly experiencing due to the outside weather told him he was actually airborne.

    And it hit him: he was in that fabled helicopter that Mars woman told him about.

    “Wha… what is this place?” Conway wondered dully, as he still felt dazed. He had been sitting up the whole time, but backed against a wall. “Wait, where’s… where’s Paul…?”

    “There is no Paul; only Mars,” said an extremely seductive voice. Conway turned his head in that direction and was very spooked to see Mars right in front of him, knelt down and invading his private space.

    “You…” Conway whispered in a vengeful voice. “What did you do to him?”

    Mars smirked. “He’s fine. He’s not here, but he’s fine… but he also doesn’t matter, because you’re not seeing him again.”

    Being told such a thing only angered Conway… after all this time, after feeling a real connection, he wasn’t about to abandon it. “You’re not the one who decides that, no matter how pretty you are!”

    That was the opening Mars needed to complete her job. “So,” she said, consistently keeping up that sultry tone. “You think I’m cute…”

    “That… that doesn’t matter!” Conway claimed, shaking his head and obviously a little flustered. He never had a woman so close to him before, and that was quickly becoming more and more of a distraction for him. “You’re a terrible person, and that’s what matters!”

    “If it weren’t for that kid, we’d already be good friends, Conway,” Mars told him, inching closer and closer towards him. “See, there you go, being flustered again… that’s when you’re at your cutest.”

    “You’re just using me,” Conway acknowledged sadly, now feeling ridiculously stupid for falling for her tricks in the first place. “I want to talk to my cousin.”

    Mars shook her head, resting both arms against the wall Conway leaned against, allowing her to sink closer towards his face. “You’ll see him soon; I promise. We’re on our way towards him now. But we’ve got a little time, you know…”

    Now worried, Conway looked up towards her, finding that in spite of what his mind warned him of, he couldn’t keep his eyes off this woman now.

    “Time for what…?” he asked.

    This was it: a perfect opening. He was vulnerable in spite of not having fully fallen for her. Unattractive as he was, Mars kept her eyes on the prize: the pizza. The pizza she yearned for, fought for, stole for… certainly she was willing to manipulate others for it as well, even if the prospect grossed her out.

    “This is for the pizza… all that pizza…” Mars whispered to herself, trying to imagine Conway as a giant pizza himself. That didn’t exactly work out, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort, certainly. Nonetheless, Mars bit the bullet and went for it.

    She kissed him.

    A single tear slipped from Conway’s eye; the initial reaction was that while this was his first kiss… this wasn’t how he wanted it. Every night, he yearned for Dawn to be his first kiss. He restrained himself at every opportunity to get a girl otherwise just for the sake of having a chance at Dawn, and now… his dream was shattered.

    The grunts who occupied the same room simply looked away and minded their own business; this was nothing out of the ordinary for a Mars mission, after all. Though they were pretty sure she never before roped in someone so young, they were in no position to complain about certain legal matters; Team Galactic in general was illegal.

    Mars was a little surprised seeing Conway cry a little in reaction to his first kiss. Still, she smiled at him. “What, didn’t you like it?”

    “Dawn…” Conway uttered, sounding miserable. “I wanted Dawn to be my first… this isn’t fair…”

    “I’ll be your Dawn,” Mars casually offered. “You want to call me Dawn? Call me Dawn. I really don’t care.”

    Conway winced, choking back a sob. “I-it’s not that simple…” And in spite of his sorrow, he was feeling weird… a good kind of weird. That only confused the poor teenager more.

    “It’s easier than you think,” Mars told him. “I think you want more…”

    Conway both did and didn’t at the same time; not like it mattered, because he was getting it anyway. The euphoria stunned Conway, making him unable to fight back. The hopelessness of the situation was also getting to him, as he somehow felt that things might not be so great when he could finally see Sloan after all. Reality was a harsh demon now, but what Mars was giving him was helping him forget that and relax.

    By all means, this was a nerd’s dream come true; a beautiful woman hovering over him, practically straddling him now, and showering his lips with full, sensual kisses. Conway was unable to truly see this woman as Dawn for his own sanity’s sake, so the other option was just to block her out completely. Conway had no energy left to fight his body’s desires and hope he could still retain a shred of dignity after this.

    He would be shamed to realize he even completely forgot about Paul by the time his resistance faded and he was kissing her back. This sort of pleasure was addictive and Conway was beginning to understand the thrills of the darker side of life. He didn’t have to agree with it… but he understood it.

    It intrigued him how he gained such a sense of clarity by giving in to his desires and merely kissing a woman. Such rewards made him want more of her, whether she was Dawn or not.

    Mars was gradually adjusting to this, though it frustrated her how slow Conway was at picking up the signs and following along. She pressed her body against his, ready to move on to the next step.

    The reason for all this? More than just seduction to the side of Team Galactic… that Uxie book was still lodged somewhere underneath Conway’s clothes and Mars was determined to have it in her hands. She was awkward about the prospect of undressing him, especially out in the snow and while he was unconscious. She liked getting familiar with her victims, knowing that there’s no chance they would turn on her and strike back (thereby ruining her missions) if she could earn their trust and/or adoration through intimacy.

    “You’re quite the gentleman,” Mars told him as she pulled away from him momentarily. “But I think you would like to take this to another level…”

    “Another level…” Conway almost sounded brainwashed; he was that overcome by his hormonal reactions.

    “That’s right,” Mars affirmed, unbuttoning his coat. “Another level…”

    Conway had a feeling he knew where this was going, and he wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. His body was all for it, but his mind and integrity still existed amidst all of his passion. Regardless of that, Mars resumed making out with him after finally unbuttoning his jacket completely, leaving her hands free to explore his clothes. Mars could tell by feeling around that Conway had shoved the book underneath all of his layers of clothing and it rested awkwardly against his chest.

    Nervousness was present in Conway’s voice when he felt her hands touch his bare skin. “Wait… what are you…?”

    “I know what I’m doing,” Mars insisted, grinning as she finally felt the book underneath him. Conway was simply too overwhelmed to understand what she was really doing; all he cared about was the irritation between his legs.

    Her fingers wrapped around the book, ready to slide it out from underneath Conway’s shirt, but found that it wasn’t that simple, exactly. Both of Conway’s arms had been wrapped around the book protectively. It was his last bastion of sanity at this point; if he gave that book up, there was no going back for him. Mars could sense that last shred of dignity holding that book in place. She was well beyond tired trying to break Conway into the group at her usual pace.

    As a professional in this sort of work, Mars knew what else was bothering Conway and decided to “help” him out. Some of the grunts began to look uncomfortable with the associated moaning that now took place. After flinching upon hearing Conway cry out before virtually fainting on the spot, a female grunt was surprised when a certain book was tossed into her hands.

    “Mission accomplished,” Mars said smugly, quick to stand up and move away from the boy she just tainted with her ways. “Secure that book well until we reach our destination,” she ordered, which the grunts collectively agreed to. “Tonight, we’re totally having a pizza party.”

    Just before the other grunts could break out of their formalities to celebrate the occasion, a sudden crashing sound was heard from the other side of the helicopter. It was roughly pushed in another direction, sending everyone crashing into the walls.

    “What’s going on now?!” Mars cried out.

    Paul was amazed he hadn’t collapsed due to asphyxiation yet as long as he had been running, desperate to keep up with the getaway helicopter and the two Pokémon he sent out to trash it. Paul couldn’t remember the last time he felt this scorned, but whenever it happened, he played hardball. He didn’t care what happened if the helicopter crashed, as long as Conway made it out okay.

    Much as he wanted to shout commands, Paul lacked the strength to do so, and he was much too far away from Honchkrow and Gliscor to be heard anyway. He simply had to trust that they knew what they were doing by attacking the helicopter relentlessly.

    One Dark Pulse from Honchkrow later, a hole was blown into the helicopter as it struggled to stay in the air. The hatch was blasted open and left the helicopter bare and ready to be torn to bits. Both Gliscor and Honchkrow were too busy attacking the enemy helicopter that neither realized that Conway had been resting very close to where the helicopter was blasted. That did well enough to wake him up, but he was now in grave danger.

    “Commander, he’s going to fall off!” the female grunt holding the book warned. “We have to…!”

    “I’ve got this!” Mars assured, carefully inching over to the precarious area. “We’re not losing our pizza party over a couple of sky rats…! Release the Golbat!!”

    The grunts did as commanded, unleashing a hoard of Golbat to combat Gliscor and Honchkrow. Conway was too busy hanging on for dear life to understand what was going on, and Paul’s two Pokémon being distracted did not leave him with many options as far as rescue was concerned. He still failed to recognize the helicopter’s attackers as Paul’s form of a rescue procedure, but as he was dangerously close to falling to his death, this might be understandable.

    Conway failed to realize Mars was reaching out for him, trying her best to secure their new Team Galactic crony however she could. The blizzard was rough, the Pokémon were rougher, and the helicopter was too badly damaged to take much more punishment.

    “Commander!” shouted the pilot, who was struggling to even stay in his seat, much less control the helicopter. “We have to shake those Pokémon or we’re going down…!”

    “Then do it already!” Mars ordered. “We’ll be lucky to make it back in this shape as it is…!”

    The pilot did as he was commanded; the Golbat were recalled and the helicopter swerved right and left viciously to get Honchkrow and Gliscor off the body of the machine; Gliscor especially weighed down the helicopter to the point where it was in danger of hitting treetops.

    Still, the plot worked. They were shaken off and the still-swerving body (now losing control) smashed harshly into both Honchkrow and Gliscor, knocking both out and sending them careening into the snowy depths below.

    Paul was shocked to see both his Pokémon falling from the sky. He knew they were both doing a great deal of damage by noticing the debris falling around all sides of him as he ran, but he wondered just how good a job they did. The helicopter was still airborne, but highly unstable. Paul recalled both Honchkrow and Gliscor back into their Pokéballs before they hit the ground; it was fortunate he could do that, at least, but now there was nothing he could do for Conway. Paul believed he had failed him.

    But that was anything but true; the damage Paul’s Pokémon inflicted on the helicopter was too much for Team Galactic to handle alongside Conway. Mars felt herself nearly slip off the edge and clung for dear life as the relief from Gliscor’s weight made the helicopter climb up in altitude again. Falling from the height they were at, it would spell instant death for any of them.

    A traumatizing ordeal followed by a life-threatening one was simply too much for Conway to handle any longer. He had no idea what was going on and frankly, the stress was becoming too much for him to bear.

    Mars gasped as she saw Conway practically give up; she reached out for him, but could go no further herself without risking her life. Helplessly, she watched Conway fall from the sky. The furious blizzard prevented Mars from actually seeing him crash to the ground, but she knew that was not necessary. The rich young man from Veilstone City had no hope of survival.

    But there was one thing she didn’t count on. That wasn’t just Mars not knowing the situation down below, but no one in The Know would have seen this coming:

    Paul becoming a hero at the very last second. Seeing Conway falling from the sky, he instinctively ran over to where he was destined to land. Knowing this was a massive risk in itself, Paul sucked it up - his fears, his insecurities, and his skepticism – by becoming the human cushion for Conway’s crash-landing.

    Of course, the sheer force from Conway’s landing did pretty much what Paul expected it would do: crush him. He was pretty sure he heard something in his chest crack upon impact, but he endured the pain and survived.

    This was by no means a comfy landing for Conway; body-to-body impact was no laughing matter. He still couldn’t register what happened at all, having been rendered nearly catatonic from so many drastic things happening at once. He experienced so many intense highs and lows in this day alone that Conway was certain he would die from that itself, never mind the falling for hundreds of thousands of feet to his imminent demise.

    And of all people, Paul saved him.

    The rescuer himself found himself coughing up small amounts of blood shortly afterward. He didn’t know what this impact did to him, but his pain was nigh unbearable now. Knowing what he did now, registering it… he felt both relieved and angered all at once. At least he knew not to completely blame Conway for this; he came to his senses before he was knocked out and kidnapped. Surely he remained strong on his own and stuck to his word by keeping that Uxie book from that woman…

    Paul moved Conway off of his body once he gathered enough strength and promptly shivered as he sat up, hugging himself and trying his hardest to outlast the initial pain. What mattered was that Conway survived, after all…

    Conway couldn’t bring himself to speak as he used this downtime to calm himself and realize what all happened in such a short amount of time. Fairly injured himself, he rose up and looked to Paul, gaping as he realized why he wasn’t a corpse right now.

    “P-Paul, you…” Conway started, immediately trailing off as he realized how much his fall injured his friend. Not only had he failed Paul in moral spirit, but he physically harmed him as well.

    What Paul wanted to avoid was looking weak in front of Conway. He hated appearing as such in general, but with Conway, who had become a major part of his life now, Paul felt he needed to stay strong in situations like this for both their sakes… even if his ribs were aching terribly. “Don’t… look too deeply into this, Conway. In spite of everything, I… I wouldn’t just let you die.”

    “You saved my life,” Conway told him, smiling as well as crying. “Just when I lost all hope…”

    There were no signs of a crash from the helicopter, Paul noticed. That disappointed him; he wanted to repay Mars back tenfold for what she put him and Conway through. “I should have been able to destroy that thing completely…”

    Much as Conway shared those sentiments, he felt the need to express to Paul just how thankful he was by giving him a big hug. Of course, this was the wrong move to make for two obvious reasons, though Paul was too exhausted to shove him off now. Instead, he grumbled discontentedly.

    “Paul, I don’t care… what matters is that you saved my life! I didn’t think you would…” Conway admitted. “I knew there was good in you all along!”

    “Conway, uh… mind my ribs,” Paul quietly requested. “My chest is…”

    Conway backed off instantly upon hearing that, momentarily forgetting how he noticed how injured Paul looked moments earlier. “Oh, gosh! I’m sorry! Paul, if you’re really bad off, we need to hurry and get to Squallville so we can get you looked at by a-”

    “What’s with you?” Paul interrupted. “Don’t get all panicky… we should both be fine. I must have been running for miles before I finally got you out of that helicopter… we’re going to have to backtrack anyway since that woman scattered our Pokéballs all over the snow. I only had time to get two of mine to chase that woman down.”

    That woman, Mars…

    All of a sudden, Conway sputtered into a crying fit. The past events moments ago were already haunting him, and they could certainly haunt his dreams for years to come. Paul was surprised that Conway would choose that time in particular to emotionally break down, as he hadn’t said anything that would normally spur it on. It didn’t take long for Paul to guess what triggered this reaction, though…

    “Conway, crying isn’t going to solve our problem,” Paul urged, not exactly being nasty about how he said this. “I know she kidnapped you, but it wasn’t for that long. What could have possibly happened in a short amount of time that would-”

    Conway’s crying got louder. He was losing it.

    “Will you calm down already?!” Paul growled at him. “This isn’t helping!”

    “I-I’m sorry,” Conway apologized, sniffling but still in tears. “I… I just can’t help it…”

    “You’re such a baby,” Paul said a sigh, finally summoning the strength to stand up on both feet. “Come on. It’s starting to get dark.”

    Yet Conway would not move from his position.

    “What are you waiting for?” the impatient Paul complained. “So you were kidnapped! Typical rich-people phobia, right? You lived and we still have the book! All things considered, I think we came out on top!”

    The book; the final thing that kept Conway together. What was rightfully his… and what was Paul’s symbol of trust for his companion was now in the hands of that woman and he didn’t realize it yet. The fact that he brought it up proved to Conway that Paul was very serious about not letting that book be taken away, and in the end, that’s exactly what Conway let happen.

    Conway’s silence was telling enough for Paul. He grasped his forehead, looking away for a moment for that all to sink in. “She took it from you while you were unconscious, didn’t she?”

    If only it were that simple. Much as Conway wanted to use that excuse, he knew it would do no good to lie to Paul. Eventually, it would bite him back and he would regret it more than anything. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to face his friend. “That’s… not exactly how it happened…”

    “What are you talking about?” Paul inquired, soon getting tired of Conway’s antics. He grasped Conway’s chin, forcing his elder friend to look him in the eyes, which is what Conway wanted to avoid.

    “I…” Conway couldn’t form the words in his mouth; that piercing look in Paul’s eyes meant he was near his highest level of anger. But what was apparent on Conway was the blush across his face. One would say it was due to the cold, but… Conway’s expressions combined with said embarrassment told the story for Paul.

    And when Paul realized it, he gasped and immediately let go of Conway, stepping back. He analyzed his companion fully, only just then noticing that Conway’s coat had been unbuttoned completely. His shirt underneath was wrinkled… and most notably, his pants were undone. That was the detail that bothered Paul the most, especially after scrutinizing the area and finding stains on his pants.

    Conway…” Paul whispered, taking another step back. He was disgusted, abhorred, and most of all disillusioned. He had finally put his trust in this young man… and immediately, it got them both into a cataclysmic mess.

    “Th-this isn’t what it looks like, Paul!” Conway cried out, now terrified that Paul had found out on his own before Conway could admit the truth. “I hated it! I really, really hated every second of it! There was nothing I could do…!”

    “Shut up,” Paul darkly ordered him. “Don’t talk. In fact… don’t bother talking to me ever again, you traitor.

    Conway was beside himself with guilt, but suddenly found the energy to stand on his own when he realized Paul had started walking off. “Paul, I’m telling you the truth! Do you think I would be crying right now if I liked it?!”

    But Paul could not bring himself to respond. Conway lost the book… that trust between them… all for a moment of intimacy that ultimately amounted to nothing. Consorting with the enemy, even… Paul felt so stupid for daring to believe in Conway’s integrity. The boy was shady from day one, and Paul still fell for it, he thought. He didn’t believe he would ever be able to live this down.

    “Paul, please don’t do this!” Conway begged him, only to be shoved away every time he got too close. “You’ve got to believe me! I hate myself for losing the book, too! I wanted Dawn to be my first kiss, I swear! I’m never going to get that back! Can’t you see this isn’t what I wanted?!”

    The direction Paul had been walking towards was that fork in the road where they were first accosted by Mars in order to retrieve the rest of his Pokéballs. By now, enough time had passed and enough snow had fallen that the tracks were very hard to make out, making it difficult for Paul to ascertain where they should be. He was completely uninterested in Conway’s excuses; however it happened, it happened. That’s all he cared about.

    “Mars took my first kiss from me!” Conway wailed. “My innocence! My book! Don’t make it so that she took you away from me, too! I swear I’ll make this up to you… I mean, you saved my life!”

    Paul’s eyes widened, realizing that. “… Then the debt has been repaid.”

    That made Conway stop short in his tracks. Thankfully, they were close to where they were originally now, thus Paul stopped as well to dig up his Pokéballs from the snow. “I beg your pardon…?” he asked with a sniffle.

    “You started following me around originally because you saved my life,” Paul reminded him, finally able to look him in the face now. However, he had never before looked colder. “I’ve now returned the favor… that means we’re even, Conway. You no longer have any reason to follow me.”

    “What are you talking about?!” Conway cried out in disbelief of what Paul insinuated. “I have every reason to follow you! We’re partners; friends! Besides, Reggie asked me to do this and I saved your life twice, you know!”

    Neglecting to mention that it was technically his fault that Conway was in danger of losing his life by falling out of the helicopter his Pokémon nearly destroyed, Paul found a loophole. “If you want to get technical about it, I actually saved your life twice today.”

    “What?!” Conway couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Explain yourself! That’s impossible!”

    “It’s true,” Paul insisted. “I saved you from that woman, who very likely would have killed you in the long run. If she was willing to kill me over a book, you know her standards aren’t that high when it comes to excuses for taking lives. You turned on her before she kidnapped you, so she would have done you in to keep you quiet. Then I saved your life by cushioning your fall from the helicopter. That makes two saves. We are completely and totally even.”

    Conway didn’t really want to argue (or even talk) about Mars anymore. And he could see where Paul was making his point, but still… “What about Reggie, then?! You’re just going to disobey him and go to Snowpoint City alone?!”

    “It seems I have no choice,” Paul decided. “Though it’s not like I haven’t disobeyed my brother before. Besides, what can he really do if I ditch you? He’s hundreds of miles away from us and has no real power over anything. His word isn’t law and you shouldn’t treat it as such, Conway.”

    That was another good point. Conway would just be a hypocrite to judge Paul for mistreating his brother like that; even Paul never insulted his brother on live national television.

    “Then what about our friendship?” Conway asked him; that was the last of his ammunition, too. The least-reliable one, but still, he felt he had truly gotten through to Paul for good earlier today… “Isn’t that worth anything to you?! After everything we’ve been through, you want to call it quits?!”

    Paul gestured to the background behind him. “Unless I’m mistaken, this is a fork in the road. Remember when you said we’d encounter one in our lives when it was time for us to part ways in the future?”

    “That was a figure of speech, for goodness’ sake!” Conway groaned. He was beyond frustrated that Paul was willing to go such depths to break up the duo. “Now you’re just being ridiculous!”

    “You’re the ridiculous one for ever thinking we were friends in the first place,” Paul snapped back. He had now collected the rest of his Pokéballs and was ready to resume his journey… the way he went about it originally: alone. “Now don’t follow me. I’d be happy never to see your traitorous, untrustworthy face again. If you try, I won’t hesitate blasting you until there’s nothing left.”

    “Paul…” Conway quietly pleaded, falling to his knees. “Think about what you’re doing here! Do you even realize what happened to me?! Don’t leave me alone…!” He bowed his head and started crying again, resting the palms of his hands on the snowy terrain as his head sunk below his shoulders in shame. “I… I don’t think I could take it right now, Paul! I’ll do anything you want; just don’t do this to me right now!”

    Traitor or not, Conway was upset and Paul couldn’t ignore this. Paul was only making it worse with such cold and heartless treatment, but at this stage, he couldn’t have cared less. The moment his hard-earned trust was compromised, Paul always felt his lowest. Someone was going to pay; Mars had fled the scene… that only left the one who let him down in the first place.

    All his life, since that fateful day when Reggie lost against his father at the Battle Pyramid and gave up his life as a trainer, Paul’s whole world had been shattered and it never quite recovered afterward. He had finally put his trust in Conway, and almost immediately, he regretted ever doing so… because giving Conway his trust allowed Conway to ruin Paul’s world all over again.

    Not that Paul was ever going to actually tell Conway this…

    “You only have yourself to blame,” Paul responded, turning away and walking off. “You did this to yourself. You don’t deserve my company and you know it.”

    “I can’t do anything to change your mind…?” Conway asked him, purely desperate. “Nothing at all?”

    “The only thing I want you to do is stay away from me,” Paul spat, never again looking back at the mess he left behind. “You’re dead to me, Conway.”

    And that statement said it all: as Paul continued to walk his way towards Squallville, nothing Conway said ever reached his former partner again. Conway felt like a ghost to him, now. But there was nothing he could do… nothing he could say to make this right, apparently. Conway knew he wasn’t totally innocent in all this, either, but he used every last ounce of his willpower to disallow Mars’ influence from sinking into him permanently. Now he wondered if just succumbing to her would have been a less-painful option after all.

    … Another blow followed that thought: Conway’s cousin apparently arranged for all this to happen. He had to ask himself if Sloan would really care about his grievances. All his life, he idolized his older cousin. Now, Conway felt as if his whole life was a lie.

    It was a miracle that Conway had the willpower to gather his Pokéballs, stand up, and start walking opposite the way of Paul. His so-called “perfect day” just turned out to be the worst day of his life.

    Meanwhile, Paul was going it alone. He knew he could face whatever dangers the great white north could unleash upon him all along; with or without Conway. From now on, he decided to only look out for himself. He reached Squallville with no further incident plaguing his progress.

    No matter what happened from now on, Paul knew in his heart nothing would ever top what happened today.

    Unfortunately for him, he had no idea at the time that a certain trio – one that annoyed him to no end – was headed for the same destination. Soon enough, sparks would fly again.

    ( TBC )

    Chapter 19: Black Ice Battle!
    plurk | SPPF | dA | ff.net

  8. #38
    A black and white world Blackjack Gabbiani's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    Holy cow. That was epic and awesome and win.

    That battle was incredible. I like how you encorporated your wrestling fan experience into it. And I have to say, Mina could have done worse, given that she seems to have the base personality of a Galactic grunt. All she has to do is say that Janelle is a scientific genius and she'll be set.

    And speaking of TG as I often do! Marvelous. Now I want to know how exactly Saturn plans on having 500 pizzas delivered there without Bossman finding out.

    Oh Mars. Either those energy drinks must be downright sewage or you just have really quick standards for being willing to seduce and off people. More than likely a bit of both. Gonna roll the sausage, gonna knead the dough, and then you're going to go back and have pizza (wow, I almost made MYSELF have a spittake at that).

    Poor Conway. Non-con (or dub-con depending on the perspective) and near-death in about five minutes. And Paul's gonna be staggering around with a broken rib.

  9. #39
    Le amo Conway Gato's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    Wow... poor Conway. To think, in one day, his hopes of sharing his first kiss with Dawn were shattered, Mars traumatized him in ways I wish not to mention, he was accused and abandoned by Paul, and I'm sure that incedent plus the 'not being called' incedent caused him to seriosly doubt his relationship with Sloan. Man, I hope he finds someone kind and supportive...

    Exellent chapter, by the way! Hehe, depending on who's perspective we're in, the next few chapers could be tearjerkers, couldn't they? I can also sense upcoming cofusion at the Galactic Headquarters. So much pizza, and probably other chaos.

    And now you've heard from the obsessive Conway fan who's also obsessed with your fic. And as usual, I'll probably be rereading this digging into Conway's psyche, just like I've done to the episodes he's in and the other chapters of your story. :)

    *Rereads a bit* Oh man, Mars does that to all of her victims?! That sick, sick woman.

    EXTREMELY DELAYED COMMENT: Yay! Do I see ConjunctionShipping?! I am liking this more and more...
    Last edited by Gato; 18th November 2009 at 08:59 PM.

  10. #40
    Achroma = <3 Juuchan17's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    *finally got to read this!*

    Well . . . I have to say I like where this is going. The contest was very intriguing, and I will admit I like how it turned out. Goodness, the ending and whole addition of Team Galactic in this chapter . . . you already know you made me happy, right?

    And thank you for making Mars just right in my eyes . . . XDD

    Everyone else and everything else was just amazing, overall. I now can't wait to see how things go from here! Good luck!

    Completely Insane Fangirl Since Day ONE LiveJournal - DeviantArt - YouTube

  11. #41
    Gonna be a tl;dr Master! Shinneth's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    Just a two-month gap this time! Whew. Gotta admit, this one's a little boring and a sour note to end the year with, but you gotta do what you can! My birthday's a little under a month from now, so I'll see if I can't whip up a new chapter before then, huh? Next one's where all the fun stuff stirs up. Hang in there!

    Whenever there was a blizzard about, Route 216 was no place to lose your mode of transportation. It was a harsh lesson for Galactic Commander Mars, but it was a small way of reaping what she sowed. The mission didn’t go exactly as planned, but she was fortunate enough to accomplish the most important part of the mission: obtain the extraordinarily rare Uxie book. Saturn, the one who sent her out to get it, explicitly stated that everything was expendable but that book. Now in Team Galactic’s possession, Mars was sure to get her secret underground pizza party, at least.

    On the downside, she and the small group of grunts that accompanied her were forced to trek through the snow all the way back to headquarters after their helicopter was no longer operational. Mars was far too angry with the inconveniences now to even think about how or why the rogue Honchkrow and Gliscor randomly decided to attack and nearly kill her and the others. All that was on her mind was that delicious, warm pizza that awaited her some amount of miles away… provided Saturn didn’t screw anything up, at least. She knew such a celebration went against everything her leader, Cyrus, stood for, but even the ever-dedicated Mars could no longer stand the hunger pangs. For all the work she did, for the sacrifices she made… by god, she knew she deserved all the pizza she wanted.

    “Commander, we technically failed our mission, did we not?” one of the male grunts spoke up. “We obtained the book, but lost the boy… in addition to that, we lost quite an expensive helicopter. Are we going to be punished and not receive our pizza after all…?”

    The other two grunts cringed and looked away, minding their own business. The one who spoke was somewhat a newer recruit and had this unfortunate incident as his first time working with a Commander in a mission. He was soon to learn that irritating a freezing, determined Mars was a bad idea.

    “Oh, we’re getting that pizza!” she barked back, glaring at the grunt who asked. “All of this was Saturn’s idea, anyway! If anyone’s paying for the lost helicopter, it’s him! He’s the jerk with all the money, anyway!”

    “But aren’t you below Commander Saturn, in a way?” the grunt stupidly asked. “I mean, I’ve reviewed all this… he could hold us all liable and cut away our pizza if he had to pay for the helicopter, yes? Not to mention we inadvertently killed his cousin…”

    Mars growled, hating being reminded of that. It wasn’t for her lack of trying that Conway was lost; he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. All the same, Mars gave herself a pat on the back for sucking up her pride and working with him quickly to secure the Uxie book. Had she held back, both he and book would have been lost by now. She and the other grunts would have to spend the whole night on that frozen route trying to find a corpse rather than steadily making their way home.

    “We didn’t kill his dorky cousin!” Mars spat. “It was those two Pokémon! If they hadn’t attacked the helicopter, we all would’ve been back to headquarters by now! And I’m definitely not letting Saturn get the upper-hand on this; it’s still his mess and he has to clean it up. So do us all favor and shut it, Eggers.”

    “It’s, uh… Edwin,” the grunt nervously corrected. His fellow coworkers were making gestures instructing him to shut his mouth, but he was oblivious to them. “You have to admit they’re valid points, Commander. How are you going to break the news to Commander Saturn? He might stop ordering pizza… I mean, there’s the option of waiting until he’s finished ordering, but the Commander will obviously be wondering of his cousin’s whereabouts before then. What kind of excuse can you make?”

    In spite of feeling so cold, Mars was quickly reaching her boiling point. “Shut up…”

    “You have a plan, right?” Edwin asked her, almost pleadingly. “We aren’t all going to get fired, are we?”

    “Shut up…”

    “Because I would hate to miss that pizza part-…”

    She couldn’t take it anymore. He might as well have been asking her “Are we there yet?” over and over again.

    Mars stopped, prompting the grunts to stop; all three of them looked nervous before their higher-up, who turned around and glared at the motor-mouth. She narrowed her eyes. “That’s it; you’re officially uninvited to the party. You show your face and I’ll have security lock you in the dumpster.”

    She whipped out a pen and a notepad seemingly out of nowhere. “Now, what was your name again?”

    Edwin paused before looking to the two coworkers between him. He gulped before finally realizing his situation and wised up. “Eh-… Eggers, ma’am.”

    Mars smirked and jotted that name down, then turned her back to her grunts and resumed walking. “Alright then, Eggers. You’ve just been written up for insubordination.” She chuckled to herself. “So no pizza for you… now let’s get moving! I’m not about to spend the night out here.”

    Edwin sighed a breath of relief quietly as his coworkers gave him a thumbs up for the quick thinking. The small group continued their way down the route through the night in hopes of reaching their much warmer home base before Saturn started sending out search parties.

    So Paul decided to go it alone after all.

    It had only been a few hours since the trainer parted from Conway, whom he had been with every day for nearly a month until this point. Since that fateful encounter on the way to Canalave City, the grump and the geek had been a traveling pair with a fair bit of success since coming together. Even in spite of Paul’s mishaps in the form of a severe cold, later followed by a near-brush with death after falling off a cliff and intensive physical rehabilitation, he still ended up with a Mine Badge on his first try. Conway had even greater success, not only earning the Cobble Badge (the first badge he had ever won since becoming a trainer), but the Plumeria Ribbon as well… also a first.

    Perhaps it wasn’t directly Conway’s doing, but Paul even managed to have a personal encounter with his father for the first time in four years – since the day his brother Reggie decided to retire as a trainer after failing to conquer the Kanto Battle Frontier. It had been quite an eventful month, all culminating when Paul would finally reach Snowpoint City, defeat Candice, and earn the Icicle Badge. Then, only one badge remained standing between Paul and the Sinnoh League Conference.

    But even without what had just happened to him, Paul wasn’t going to make it to Snowpoint City tonight. Very few trainers ever traveled to that location due to its remoteness and high level of inconvenience and potential danger. But those risks were what attracted Paul to that location in the first place. Ever since he was young, Paul was one who enjoyed pushing the envelope. It always helped him feel alive… and that was probably why so many other so-called “normal” activities bored him. If Paul wasn’t so well aware that knowledge was another form of power, reading likely would have bored him as well.

    Really, Paul had reasons for his superiority complex over most trainers. Not only did he read up on Pokémon battling and Pokémon itself during his free time on a frequent basis, but Paul had absorbed so much of the world’s culture and Pokémon experiences through traveling with his brother before starting his own journey. After Andrea passed away and Brandon relocated to Kanto, Reggie had no choice but to take Paul along with him for the rest of his journey until Paul himself was old enough to embark on his own adventure.

    Due to this, Paul had already technically experienced the wonders of Kanto, Johto, and Hoenn well before his journey officially started. Since Reggie had almost completed his Sinnoh adventure before his mother’s death, Paul hadn’t actually fully experienced his own region, ironically enough. But Paul figured he had an edge over many other trainers due to his abundance of exposure at his age, and for the most part, that proved to be true. The Veilstone City trainer was undeniably wise beyond his years, even though he lacked compassion. The truth was, having learned from his past, Paul was extremely goal-oriented. He had no problem following the rules for the most part, but when push came to shove, he would easily do whatever it took to win if he knew he could get away with it.

    And now, Paul realized his partnership with Conway had been a mistake all along. He was ashamed of himself for becoming so “weak”, but that was hardly his first concern right now. Paul honestly had not been feeling right all day long… even before leaving Plumeria Town.

    He had actually passed out without meaning to during the Contest. The one time he actually wanted to watch a battle of Conway’s, Paul slept straight through it. Beyond his strange feelings that almost resembled attachment to Conway, the only other oddity in Paul’s condition was his fatigue.

    It was more understandable at this point; he had practically run a marathon trying to save Conway, and was rewarded with an extremely heavy weight crushing his ribs. He knew one of them had to be cracked or broken; possibly dislodged, even. Paul knew he shouldn’t have yelled at Conway; not because it was extremely insensitive, but because it only aggravated his injury. For all this time since parting with his former travel mate, Paul periodically coughed up small amounts of blood. This wasn’t normal… and with Honchkrow and Gliscor severely injured during their rampage on Team Galactic’s helicopter, Paul knew he had to reach Squallville before even thinking about resting.

    The young trainer felt some relief when the temperature seemed to warm up a bit. It was still quite windy, but that only meant Paul was on the right track. He had finally crossed the snowy terrain and reached a rocky mountain path. Feeling weighed down with fatigue as it was, Paul stuffed away his heavy coat into his backpack before continuing on.

    Honestly, Paul came very close to ditching the coat. Every time he looked at it, he thought of Conway. Conway was the one who purchased it for him, after all. Right now, though… Paul only wanted to settle in and fall into a nice, warm bed.

    The sudden, strong gusts of wind did not affect Paul at all while he came to a corner and finally spotted a small settlement nestled between the canyons. He knew this had to be Squallville… at last. With any luck, this would be Paul’s last stop until Snowpoint City, and Paul was very eager to get this over with as soon as possible.

    It was quite late at night when he entered town. Nobody was out and about and most residences and businesses had their lights out, unavailable until morning. Only the sound of the wind was heard throughout Squallville, and it was music to Paul’s ears. He felt a little more at ease when noticing the clouds receding in the sky, letting the moon shine down over him. No nasty weather to worry about, and it was easier to see.

    His first stop was the Pokémon Center; open at all hours as always. A Nurse Joy with a tan-colored cross on her hat appeared to be the one running the facility. Business was often slow this time of day, so the nurse smiled and bowed to greet her new visitor.

    “Welcome to the Squallville Pokémon Center!” Nurse Joy said with enthusiasm. “How may I help you tonight, sir?”

    Paul stiffly approached the front desk and offered her two Pokéballs. “My Gliscor and Honchkrow were injured on the way here.”

    Nurse Joy nodded, accepting each Pokéball and handing them to her partner, Chansey. The Egg Pokémon, in “uniform” like other Chansey whom belong to a Nurse Joy, went through the motions and carted off the patients. “Your Pokémon are in good hands. Would you like to wait here, or-…”

    The young woman paused as she noticed something. “Young man, what happened to your hand?”

    That gash… the injury Paul sustained from Mars’ Purugly just a short while ago. Paul had almost completely forgotten about it due to the much more painful injuries he suffered afterward. Not wanting to make an issue of this, Paul closed his eyes and looked away, huffing.

    “Just a small accident,” he said. “It’ll heal.”

    Unconvinced, Nurse Joy shook her head. “It will need to be disinfected and wrapped to do so properly and…” She gasped. “My goodness, did you fall?! Those blood stains on your pants…!”

    Paul’s mind must have been clouded with fatigue to forget the evidence of his coughing up blood. Most of the stains ended up on the heavy coat which Paul had stashed away, but some of it also hit his pants… and his pants weren’t dark enough to completely hide those dark blotches that showed up especially well under the Pokémon Center’s fluorescent lighting.

    “Only a little,” Paul lied, hating to make a big deal out of this. He really just wanted to go to bed already and forget this day ever happened. “I just-…”

    And Paul’s own body betrayed his desires, as the young man spontaneously started to cough once more. His hand didn’t reach his mouth in time, leaving Nurse Joy to witness a nasty gob of redness hit the tiled floor. There was nothing he could say to calm Nurse Joy now. He stared, his eyes looking empty, at the splattered blood while the woman started to panic.

    “Oh no…!” she wailed. “And most of the clinics are closed for the night… I’d better call one in…”

    “N-no, no,” Paul weakly begged. “Just direct me to the nearest hotel, and…”

    Nurse Joy shook her head as she approached the nearest phone. “Sit down, young man! I know who to call in these situations, so please be compliant, mister-…” She briefly paused and calmed down, looking to her ailing customer. “I’m sorry; what’s your name?”

    “Paul,” he said with a sigh as he slumped into the closest chair he could find. He had no real way to escape this now that Honchkrow and Gliscor were secured within the center, anyway. Now that his adrenaline rush from earlier had long since dissipated and he reached his destination after hours of walking, Paul felt he could crash then and there. But he knew that would be a bad idea, considering how much this Nurse Joy overreacted just by seeing him injured.

    Looking serious, Nurse Joy began dialing for a doctor. “And who is your next of kin, Paul? How can I contact them…?”

    Upon receiving no response, the pink-haired nurse found that Paul had lost consciousness.

    “Your father… your brother…
    … please tell them…”

    With a loud gasp, Paul sat straight up from his slumber, eyes widened. He immediately regretted it. His chest was in a great deal of pain, the bright lights nearly blinded him…

    Where was he, anyway?

    “Well, aren’t you full of surprises,” an amused male voice remarked. That tone was way too familiar for comfort as far as Paul was concerned. Forcing himself to adjust to the lighting, he turned to the direction of the voice.

    “Conway…?” he whispered in disbelief.

    There was a warm chuckle before a response. There were familiar glasses, but the hair was a rusty blue with graying sideburns. It was rather all over the place and the man in question sported a complimenting, short-medium beard. He was quite tall… not exactly muscular, but not flabby and obese, either. Perhaps somewhat portly, but it was no oddity for a man of his apparent age.

    “Perhaps it’s a coincidence,” he muttered quietly to himself before looking back to Paul. “Doctor Dalton, at your service. It seems you’ve run into a bit of trouble last night, Paul.”

    “Last night…?” Paul murmured before looking to a nearby window, indeed seeing the sun rising. “Wait, so I’m at…?”

    The doctor nodded. “You passed out at the Pokémon Center; Nurse Joy gave me all the details. I came as quickly as I could, and as of right now, you are at Squallville’s finest medical facility… well, the only one, really, but it sounds better to call it the finest, don’t you think?”

    Paul looked down and frowned. He realized he was no longer wearing his regular outfit, but rather a typical thin shirt most in-patients would wear. Was he really that bad off…? “There was no need for all this…”

    “On the contrary, things would be much worse for you right now had you not come to our attention,” Dalton corrected, wagging a finger. “I don’t suppose you remember how or why your hand was injured the way it was, or how you’ve ended up with a cracked rib?”

    Paul’s expressions darkened upon hearing the confirmation. Conway’s fall cracked one of his ribs. He was coughing up blood ever since. But more than anything… it was that red-headed woman, Mars’ fault for the initial assault leading up to that event. Paul wouldn’t let himself forget that.

    “It doesn’t matter,” Paul muttered. “Not how it happened or anything… tell me how long it’ll take to heal. I’m in a hurry.”

    “I can tell you this: rushing won’t be of any help at all,” Dalton advised, though his tone was gentle and soothing. “And really, I would prefer that you stick around for a few days, Paul. In addition to the hand and the ribs, we took your temperature and you’ve got quite the fever right now.”

    It was hard for Paul not to grimace at that news. Again, he was rendered ill. Never before had Paul run into such bad luck so many consecutive times.

    “You showed signs of hallucination in your sleep,” Dalton added, going through his notes. “But the biggest concern is the regurgitation of blood.”

    Now Paul looked worried, just as he slapped his good hand over his mouth after a sudden hiccup. After removing his hand, he was not at all pleased to find it covered in blood. A small amount managed to trickle down the side of his mouth as well.

    “This…” Paul struggled to understand his situation. “It’s just because of the cracked rib, right?”

    “This is why we would like you to rest here for a while,” Dalton softly explained. “From the looks of things, you’re long overdue for a check-up as it is, but if you cooperate with us, we’ll quickly find out what exactly ails you.”

    That wasn’t exactly the answer Paul wanted. “I haven’t bothered with check-ups because I’ve been moving from region to region almost constantly for the last seven years,” he brought up, which was an accurate number combining the journey he went on with Reggie that almost immediately segued into his own individual journey that he was still on presently. “And what do you mean you’ll find out what’s ailing me? It’s obviously my rib!”

    To that, Dalton somberly shook his head. “Cracked ribs don’t cause fevers,” he said. “And unless a bone fragment somehow tore its way into your lungs, then it doesn’t explain why you’re coughing up blood, either. Unfortunately, only pain medication and extreme caution is the cure for your ribs. For everything else, we need to confirm the cause before we can treat you properly.”

    Paul did assume the cracked rib was the sole cause to his issue with the blood, especially since it only started up moments after Conway fell on him. Obviously, he didn’t believe for a second that it was the cause of his fever. Still, he sighed, knowing there was no use fighting this when it would only result in a disadvantage for him. From now on, he wanted to reach Snowpoint City with no further incidents plaguing him. If this was the price he had to pay, Paul was willing to spare what little patience he had.

    “There is something I would like to ask you, though,” Dalton told his patient, causing the latter to look up and give the doctor his full attention. “When was the last time you had a fever?”

    “Uh…” Paul was hesitant to admit the truth, but figured lying wouldn’t really get him anywhere. “About two weeks ago.”

    The doctor’s eyebrows rose upon hearing that. “Oh… that recent? Do you recall the time before that, then…?”

    Thinking back on it, Paul had gotten sick quite frequently in a short amount of time. It disturbed him to realize that. “Ah… two weeks before that, so… a month ago, roughly.”

    Dalton paused before saying another word. He jotted down some notes before looking back over to Paul. “I… see. How long were you ill on both occasions?”

    “A month ago, I had a fever for…” Paul took a moment to recall the past events. “Four days, I think. After that, the second time… ah, I think it was ten days?”

    Ten days?” Dalton sounded almost horrified. “Are there… any specific symptoms you recall that have carried on to this bout?”

    The doctor’s tone was not the least bit comforting for Paul, but he did as he was asked in spite of his newfound shakiness. “Let’s see, ah… mind you, last time I had a number of other problems at the time due to falling off a cliff some ways south of here. So I had hit my head, had hypothermia, frostbite…”

    “And that’s obviously not the case this time, it seems like…?” Dalton cautiously assumed.

    “Of course not!” Paul shuddered to think of going through that again. No matter his reasoning, Paul had gradually come to accept that his initial attempt to start off on this journey up north by himself was foolish and something to be sure not to repeat in the future.

    Especially not now; there would be no Conway to bail him out a second time.

    Just then, a nurse quietly opened the door and slightly stepped in. It was a woman, but not Nurse Joy this time.

    “Doctor, the test results have been printed out,” she quietly informed. “Would you like to see them now, or is this a bad time…?”

    “Perfect timing, actually,” Dalton assured, getting up from his seat. “I’d prefer to go over the readings outside, however.”

    Paul was alarmed by the implications. “Why can’t you read them here? They’re not my test results, are they?” And soon, Paul realized what he had just said as Dalton wordlessly walked past him. “Hey…! I didn’t authorize you to test me yet! What do you think you’re doing?!”

    Dalton simply smiled and nodded to Paul. “I’ll be back with you in a sec, Paul! Please be patient!”

    Before Paul could get another word out, the door was shut. He was now left alone to wonder what was really going on. The doctor’s reactions to his answers left the young trainer rather unsettled. But it wasn’t long before Paul suffered another incident of blood coming up where it shouldn’t normally; that did well enough to distract him as the doctor went over a series of print-outs. His expressions darkened as his eyes skimmed across as certain page.

    “Nurse, the highlighter…?” he requested simply, expecting the nurse still nearby to understand. Unsurprisingly, she did and fulfilled said request.

    She seemed rather disheartened as she watched Dalton highlight various parts of that certain page. “So, your fears are confirmed…?”

    Dalton paused before continuing. “Not confirmed as of yet,” he admitted. “But at this rate, there could be a confirmation within the next batch of results. The evidence is growing stronger; there’s no way to brush this off as a mere coincidence any longer…”

    “Pardon if I’m overstepping my boundaries, but isn’t it standard protocol to have the patient’s consent before performing these tests?” the nurse asked innocently. “How were you able to do this so early?”

    With a tired sigh, Dalton shook his head. “Last night, that kid looked so familiar… upon confirmation of his identity, I realized I worked a case on this kid’s family years ago. I was unable to help his mother, who had been sick her entire life. The widowed father went on to become very famous afterwards, and their physical resemblances are uncanny.”

    “So there is a connection to a past case of yours,” the nurse realized. “But if your primary case was the late mother, then why draw conclusions about the child?”

    “It’s quite simple,” Dalton said quietly. “His behavior early on in his life was similar to that of his mother’s around the time she was diagnosed decades ago. Even she herself expressed her concerns about this to me confidentially. She was unable to tell whether or not it was definite on her own, but one thing I’ll always remember is that she wanted to keep a low profile on that particular investigation at the risk of upsetting the father and older brother.”

    The nurse nodded in understanding. “But the afflicted son himself…?”

    “She said nothing,” the doctor sadly informed. “I believe she meant for it to be that way. She had known for a long time then of the severity of her own illness; since she was a child like he is now. If we could confirm the diagnosis, the two of us would have helped him through what would surely become a rough life afterwards. I attempted to maintain contact with the family, but the father seemed to almost completely cut ties with the outside world. My own family had something of a crisis that ate up my attention around that time, and once I finally reached their house, I realized everyone had left. I assumed that… due to the circumstances, knowing who their father became, that both moved to live in the Kanto region with him after the older brother finished with the Sinnoh League. I had no idea the two brothers had been still living in this region the entire time without their father.”

    “That seems odd,” the nurse noted. “That they would choose to remain in Sinnoh and be separated from their father…”

    Dalton sighed, apparently agreeing. “If the next test results come out positive, the question as to whether or not that young man inherited his mother’s illness will have a definitive answer. At that point… comes the difficult decision when it comes to breaking the news.”

    “If he and his brother are still living in Sinnoh, that means you should be able to reach the elder one,” the nurse pointed out. “Perhaps within their house is the mother’s last will and testament… surely that will be the solution in regards to… who to tell.”

    “That boy is an impatient one,” Dalton grumbled. “There’s no way I will be able to keep him here long enough to get those results. Perhaps to scan him if it’s done today, but he’ll certainly try to escape once he’s healed up.”

    “Hm…” The nurse walked over to a nearby billboard, staring at what had been pinned up there before finding what she was looking for. “We can find a way to at least keep him in Squallville for as long as we need.”

    She handed Dalton the paper. “Show that to him. Perhaps that will keep him around long enough for our test results to come in. We’ll contact whoever we can in regards to his mother’s will so we’ll know who to inform in a worst-case scenario.”

    The lenses of the doctor’s glasses shined as he smiled. “Brilliant. I’ll show him right now. Nurse, prepare the machine for the scan. If we can confirm the diagnosis, I’ll have another chance to do what others couldn’t for four decades… find the cure.”

    Paul was beginning to hate beds. He’d been confined to them so many times lately that he was frankly quite sick of them. The young trainer was in far too much pain to resort to drastic measures at this point. He settled for doing one of his least-favorite activities: waiting.

    The tiny slice of patience was rewarded when Dalton re-entered the room, cheerful and casual as ever. “Still in pain, I take it?”

    “Where were you?” Paul spat, quite irate with this doctor. “I never agreed to any sort of test. So I have a cracked rib; big deal. So I have a fever for the third time this month… maybe it’s just allergies. The point is, you’re going too far.”

    Dalton shook his head as he started to set up a small tray for Paul. “You have strange symptoms and you’re overdue for a check-up; I’m certain your family would be thanking me.”

    Paul raised an eyebrow at that response. “You talk as if I’m diseased or something.”

    … And Paul was right on the money about that. Dalton couldn’t help but be startled before setting a glass of water with a few small pills beside it for Paul’s consumption.

    “If you’re tired of the chest pain, medication’s your only option,” the doctor informed Paul, completely ignoring his last statement. “It’ll relax you and make the recovery much less miserable. There is one final scan we would like to perform on you before you leave, Paul…”

    “Uh, hello? Are you ignoring me on purpose?” Paul interrupted, though he did take his medication. Whether or not it was a trap, the pain was becoming too much for even Paul to bear. Anything that would dampen down that annoyance was welcome for the irritable young man. “I never agreed to any sort of test, and I’m certainly not agreeing to it now!”

    “I assure you, this scan is absolutely harmless,” Dalton promised. “The problem is that it may take a day or two for the results to become available, and I understand you’re in a hurry…”

    Paul folded his arms, nodding indignantly. “Yeah, no. I’m not waiting for that. I’ve had enough delays in my journey as it is; I’m not letting you add on to it.”

    “You should know that Squallville is hosting a competition soon,” the doctor mentioned, handing Paul the flier the nurse had found for him. “From what Nurse Joy told me, your Honchkrow especially seemed to be in rather bad shape when you brought it in last night.”

    It was hard for Paul to understand what exactly this doctor was getting at, but he sighed and decided to humor him. “You want me to enter the competition while I wait for results on a test I never consented to?”

    “Someday soon, I’ll explain everything,” Dalton promised. “Let’s just say I realized how much of a spitting image you are of your father.”

    Upon hearing that, Paul growled lowly and rolled his eyes. He hated constantly being compared to Brandon.

    “And I in fact was your family doctor many years ago before your mother passed on,” he continued. “I assumed you all had moved to Kanto afterwards, so your presence here surprises me. But having taken care of your family in the past… let’s just say I feel indebted to you. That’s why I insist that you comply.”

    The explanation calmed Paul a bit, now knowing that at least he wasn’t in the hands of a total stranger. However… “I don’t remember you at all, though.”

    “You were very young when your mother passed on,” Dalton recalled. “The entire family just seemed to disappear in an instant. I’ve since moved here since those seven years, so it is a rather amusing chance encounter, is it not?”

    Suddenly, Paul felt tired. Very tired. It had become apparent that one of the pills Paul had taken was a sedative. Dalton smirked when he received no response, turning around to see Paul had quickly succumbed to the drug. With no further resistance, the doctor was able to quickly proceed with the test that would determine Paul’s fate within a couple of days.

    It turned out the competition being held in Squallville was none other than their annual PokéRinger tournament: the sustained high winds in the area made it a perfect aerial arena for Flying-type Pokémon to show of their prowess. For a small dwelling like Squallville, this was touted as a major event and was considered the high point of their tourist season. Paul wouldn’t have known it from how empty the town was when he arrived there so late the other night ago, but needless to say he was rather startled by the contrast when he got a proper look at Squallville during the daytime after he was released by the hospital.

    For such a humble location, Squallville was abuzz with trainers coming in from all directions of Sinnoh. In spite of his distaste for such crowded atmospheres, Paul was relieved to be outside again, away from the doctors and concerned brother pestering him over the phone (as the Nurse Joy of Plumeria Town was at least kind enough to give Reggie the location of where Paul was next headed). As far as the latter was concerned, however, the call didn’t last long. The last thing Paul wanted to talk about was the Plumeria Contest and managed to completely avoid the topic of Conway with a clever lie about him being away shopping.

    Paul wasn’t sure just how he was going to deal with Reggie if he were to find out what really happened between the former duo. Until such a time, though, Paul had no problem using every lie he could think up to cover his own butt. At the doctor’s request (and Paul hated to worry Reggie anyway), Paul completely left out the details of his stay at the hospital. The doctor had his own plans for how to involve Reggie, but Paul was completely unaware of them.

    Truly, the only real reason Paul consented to participating in the PokéRinger competition was to get his mind off Conway and the Plumeria Contest that still remained fresh in his mind. Thinking about Snowpoint City only made Paul anxious, which was torture since he was being forced to stay in Squallville until his test results came in. He figured if Honchkrow could lose to Conway that it could easily lose in its scheduled battle with Candice as well, so Paul decided Honchkrow needed all of the relevant training it could get before he reached the Gym. After all, in spite of being Flying-typed, speed was not the Big Boss Pokémon’s forte. Due to the nature of the PokéRinger competition, Paul knew this would be adequate training to make up for his few days of downtime at the hospital.

    Dalton promised that he would have the results ready by the end of the day, which was conveniently around the time the PokéRinger competition would be wrapping up. Honestly, Paul didn’t have his heart in these small-time events, and therefore had nothing to lose by participating. As long as his Pokémon grew stronger and learned something along the way, Paul would be satisfied.

    He had heard much gossip about the man who reigned as the PokéRinger champion for the past four years, Provo. Not so much about the man himself, but more about his fiercely competitive Dragonite. The species itself could be a serious adversary in any form of competition, just as most Dragon-types were. Paul knew if he could get his Honchkrow to defeat something like that, he would surely be ready for anything Candice would throw at him. There hadn’t been many opportunities to get in much practice, but Paul had participated in such a competition before in other regions… and had come out as the winner, in fact. What mattered was that Honchkrow was fully healed from the wounds sustained from the battle with Team Galactic and was ready to compete.

    The festivities were quickly getting underway, meaning Paul only took a scant few minutes to observe his surroundings before taking his seat at the very back of the waiting room with the other competitors. While he was thankful to not be forced into a tense conversation struck up by a chatty stranger, there was a stranger sitting in the front row that had caught Paul’s eye. Dark hair, a bold red cap, the navy blue vest and white t-shirt…

    Just the sight made Paul feel ill. He had joined this competition to get his mind off a major annoyance in his life, only to be met by another one in his attempt to do so. Paul felt as if he had already lost… had he not taken medication that controlled his coughing, he almost certainly would have vomited blood at this point. He grasped his forehead, trying to resist the sudden bout of dizziness that came about. Paul wasn’t even paying attention to the screen everyone else was observing, which featured Rhonda of Sinnoh Now hosting the opening ceremonies. That is, until a shrill voice filled the room and shocked everyone…


    Paul looked up, gawking like everyone else in the room at Rhonda’s sudden outburst. This woman was annoying enough to listen to during the weather reports. Right here she was showing some strong signs of bipolarity.

    A hushed “Rhonda, we’re still rolling tape…” from the camera man was faintly heard, quickly getting the anchorwoman’s attention as she stopped harassing Jack, the boom operator who had accidentally dropped the boom on Rhonda’s head moments earlier… and this was hardly his first offense. She quickly, almost professionally shook off the mishap and turned around, resuming her duties on the live feed.

    “And today’s PokéRinger competition will be single elimination!” she continued, trying her best to pretend that little candid camera moment never happened. “The team who wins all their matches is the winner! So let’s get this underway!”

    The screen switched to a pan shot of the digital scoreboard.

    “The Squallville PokéRinger competition’s first match is…”

    Two images appeared on the screen, featuring the portrait shots of two boys… one very familiar, as Paul resisted his urge to growl in frustration.

    “Team Ash versus Team Taylor!”

    “Great; first match!” Paul heard Ash happily react, which further grated his nerves. It was quite a downer for Paul to realize his entire plan to move on from his past incident with Conway had been completely ruined by Ash Ketchum, as he knew it was only a matter of time before the two would cross paths again… for the first time since their last meeting near Hearthome City, where their battle resulted in Ash gaining an evolution in Grotle… though Ash still lost miserably. It wasn’t long after that day that this whole mess began for Paul… he only wished to be lucky this time and have Ash eliminated early on so that Paul could avoid facing him completely.

    Really, he wasn’t in the mood even to antagonize the trainer from the Kanto region. The competition was just beginning, and Paul was longing for the end already.

    Perhaps Taylor was a competent opponent and would have a Pokémon suitable for beating Ash’s, which Paul assumed would be Staravia. He figured that Staravia must be poorly-trained to remain in its middle stage form for this long; after all, Paul knew for a fact that Ash had Staravia as far back as when they first met in Sinnoh… back when it was a Starly that never could have lived up to Paul’s high standards.

    The grumpy trainer watched both young men leave the waiting room and take their positions. Soon, the screen showed two air balloons slowly ascending towards the sky simultaneously with the coveted ring attached to its own balloon. Paul tensed up, clearly seeing the confident Ash and his Pikachu focused and ready to compete.

    “The balloon ring has been released and the PokéRinger contestants are being raised to the official altitude!” Rhonda announced as everything came together to start the first round. Once the balloons reached the desired altitude, Rhonda made it official. “Round one, match one: START!”

    Ash was quick to get things underway. “Staravia, I choose you…!”

    “Skarmory, let’s go!” shouted Taylor, as both competitors threw their Pokéballs into the air and released their partners.

    Paul smirked, pleased with Taylor’s choice. Skarmory in general were tricky to contend with due to their unique Steel/Flying dual type. Based on what Paul recalled of Staravia’s abilities, he knew Ash had his work cut out for him. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad, and Ash would have to call it quits early…

    “GOAL…! And Team Ash moves right along to the second match!”

    Appalling. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but Taylor had been outsmarted by Ash, who used Staravia’s speed to quickly claim victory in the first round.

    This did not bode well for Paul. But there was still a chance that Ash would lose well before the finals. At least it was a certainty that he wouldn’t be facing Ash in this round…

    The young trainer and his companion Pikachu disembarked from their balloon, happy as can be.

    “Talk about overcomin’ the odds, right buddy?” Ash said to Pikachu, who nuzzled him affectionately. “That Skarmory was a tough one… we really owe Squallville’s wind helpin’ us out at the end there; if that Air Cutter didn’t miss, it would’ve been over for us for sure. We’re gonna have to remember that next time around… keep utilizin’ Staravia’s speed to dodge those attacks! I’m sure we can win this!”

    He seemed a bit more humbled than usual, Paul noted… a bit more calm and collected. He could possibly be a viable opponent if he consistently maintained that mentality…

    “Alright folks, now it’s time for our next match!” Rhonda announced, as the camera panned to the screen again. “Who are our next two teams?”

    The first portrait that showed up was an adult man, who looked rather fearsome with his Mohawk and spiked shoulder pads on his vest. The man himself was muscle-bound and his visage alone startled many people… for varying reasons.

    “Alright!” Rhonda cried. “This team has won four competitions in the past! They’re the unbeatable four-time champions: Team Provo!”

    The announcement prompted more vivid cheers from the audience, as Provo was indeed quite the popular man around town for his accomplishments. He stood tall and proud, and fully ready to make this year his fifth consecutive victory. This was the man with the Dragonite… the one Paul made sure to keep his eyes on.

    “And competing against them will be… Team Paul!”

    It seemed Paul had to step up to the plate a bit earlier than he planned. No matter; he stood up and silently left the waiting room, heading towards the position he was to take. Meanwhile, up in the stands, both Brock and Dawn were watching the match and were equally stunned to see Paul’s visage on the screen. Upon hearing the name, Ash stopped dead in his tracks, wondering if he heard that right.

    “Huh…?” Ash turned around, gazing at the screen. “It’s Paul!” This changed everything for him.

    Paul braced himself as he approached Ash, who was still standing there dumbfounded instead of returning to his seat in the waiting room. It seemed they were fated to meet again after all… but Paul just wasn’t in the mood to milk it for all it was worth.

    Ash turned around to acknowledge Paul as he heard the stiff steps approaching him, looking amused (possibly confused) rather than wary.

    “Paul!” Ash enthusiastically greeted as Paul walked right past him. “I had no idea you were entering this competition!”

    “Yeah, so what if I am?” Paul shot back, still refusing to truly acknowledge Ash’s presence and headed straight for the hot-air balloon. He may be calm and collected, but Ash was still as nosy as ever, it seemed… that was a trait that really grinded Paul’s gears.

    As usual, Ash was put off by Paul’s extremely rude gesture. “Huh…? What if you are?” he muttered to himself, looking displeased as he often did with his so-called rival. “Well, you could’ve at least said hi!”

    Paul honestly wondered why that mattered so much to Ash. Was he that desperate for Paul’s attention? He knew Ash was determined to make him believe he was truly a rival worthy of his attention and respect, but so far, Ash failed to impress Paul even remotely. The closest thing that intrigued Paul was Pikachu’s ability to use Volt Tackle and nothing more. Perhaps the acquisition of Chimchar was also a factor now… but Paul had long since kept that particular Pokémon out of his life and out of his mind.

    He jumped into his balloon as Pikachu expressed its distaste for Paul’s attitude in its own way, yet Paul continued to tune it out and prepare his balloon for its imminent ascent. Ash could feel the familiar, burning anger within him once more as he glared at his fellow trainer. He couldn’t believe anyone could possibly be this… well, cold.

    Ash formed a fist, pumping it up to show his determination to win. “Look, Paul! The next time we battle, I’m not gonna lose, y’know!”

    A likely story, Paul figured. He continued working on the balloon, trying his best to drown out Ash’s speech with… well, anything that could come to his mind, but all that he could think of was that dreaded Conway… it was a lose-lose situation, really.

    “Just you wait,” Ash grumbled, finally turning around and returning the waiting room. “I’m gonna show you how much stronger we’ve gotten since last time… you’ll see…”

    His determination was admirable, at least. But Paul knew it took much more than that to be a competent trainer, and as far as Paul was concerned, Ash was anything but. His complete lack of understanding as to how Grotle changed last time spoke volumes to Paul… that Ash was indeed a lowlife trainer that invested too much in blind faith against the odds. Paul remembered once making that mistake long, long ago… but never again. Paul refused to fall into that disillusioning trap more than once.

    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…

    “Sky Attack!”

    … 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.”

    Route 216 ended with Squallville. From now on, Paul would be reaching Snowpoint City via Route 217. It was bad enough that Paul was leaving Squallville when it was practically sundown already, but he couldn’t bear the place a minute longer. He was getting stares from every resident in town now that he made himself so prevalent in the PokéRinger contest. Word got around fast…

    So close; Paul was so close to making it completely out of town, but of course, who would he run into but…

    “Hey, Paul!”

    Paul grunted, stopped, and turned around. The absolute last thing he wanted to do was talk to Ash. Especially after what happened… Paul would sooner take Conway back than be forced into this.

    “What’d you think?” Ash eagerly asked him, still with Staraptor right behind him in addition to Pikachu on his shoulder. “Don’t you think it’s great? The Starly you didn’t care for evolved to a Staravia, and now into a powerful Staraptor!”

    By then, Brock and Dawn had caught up with Ash. The whole gang was here to annoy Paul, it seemed. He shot forth an unwelcoming glare to all of them, showing the entire group that he simply wasn’t in the mood to toy with them today; especially not after he lost.

    Paul closed his eyes and turned away from the others, only generous enough to give them one remark on the matter, which happened to double as his farewell: “It sure took you long enough.”

    At least it was a valid statement to make; in Paul’s eyes, anyway. Ash had that Pokémon as a Starly since they first met in Sinnoh, which was several months ago. It seemed to quickly move on to the Staravia form, but took an eternity to reach its final form. By comparison, Paul remembered Reggie’s Staraptor; the first Pokémon Reggie captured after receiving his Chimchar, which of course was a Starly at first. Paul wasn’t with Reggie for most of his Sinnoh journey, but it was somewhere midway into it that Reggie’s Staravia became Staraptor. Here near the end part of the journey was Ash’s Staravia now only doing the same.

    Ash may have reminded Paul of Reggie in many ways, but in other areas, the two were very different. Even in spite of the loss Paul just suffered, he did not consider Ash a competent trainer in the least. Reggie, on the other hand, Paul always saw as competent back in the day… before he gave it up.

    As Paul left Ash and the others in the dust while walking briskly towards the main path to Route 217, Ash and the others stared on.

    “Long enough…?” Ash muttered, stepping forward after absorbing his rival’s scathing remark. “Hold on a minute, Paul…!”

    There was no response; Paul merely walked on.


    Even at Ash’s loudest, he couldn’t seem to get Paul’s attention. He stepped back to where he was, gritting his teeth in frustration. He was hoping to get more than that before they parted, but had a feeling that was a loaded request for fate to follow through with.

    “He hasn’t changed,” Dawn complained, clearly disappointed. She had different, more unrealistic views on this matter entirely, which wouldn’t really surprise anyone.

    “Hey, that’s Paul for you,” Brock said with a defeated, yet lighthearted tone.

    Dawn looked ahead towards Ash, very confident. “Well, I know Ash will do great at the next Gym!” she assured. Indeed, they were headed for the very same Gym Paul was: Snowpoint’s. There was a great possibility that the two young men would meet again soon.

    “You bet, Dawn!” Ash agreed, forming a determined fist. He looked to his fully-evolved Pokémon. “And now we’ve got Staraptor! Let’s keep this up and win at the Snowpoint Gym!”

    Staraptor fully agreed. This was a refreshing turnabout for Ash and the gang. Even if Paul refused to change in spite of a technical loss in a match, Ash wouldn’t declare his victory was for naught. He wanted it for himself just as much as he wanted to prove a point to Paul; and that was where Paul fell short. One competitor put his heart into the fight while the other didn’t.

    That other, Paul, was saving his heart for a battle that actually mattered to him. As he hiked his way through the mountainous range towards Snowpoint City, soon coming back into the frosty tundra, Paul could feel that his father was somewhere nearby. And he remembered the short and sour words he shared with Brandon just before he departed from Veilstone City:

    “It’s going to be soon. We’re basically going the same way. You for Regigigas; myself for a Gym Battle. It’s inevitable. But I’ll be coming prepared. Don’t be surprised when I completely annihilate you.”

    He wasn’t just coming up all this way through a dangerous, freezing mountain range to defeat Candice the Gym Leader. Paul had a score to settle with his old man, and he knew he wasn’t ready yet if he was able to lose to somebody like Ash.

    Paul claimed he would be prepared. Now he actually had to reach that point.

    He suddenly stopped, growling as something had just then hit him:

    If he had just kept Conway with him for a few more days, he would have been rid of him easily. Dawn was surely there along with Brock, and Conway would have instantly agreed to part with Paul from there. If only he were a little more accepting… perhaps Paul wouldn’t have been trapped in that poor excuse for a hospital, either.

    Additionally… Honchkrow had learned the move Sucker Punch at the Plumeria Contest. Paul forbade Honchkrow from using that move ever again, wanting to remove all reminders of Conway from himself and his team. A move like that could have won Paul the competition, as the move was similar in execution to the way Ash used his Staraptor to win the match. Pushing the ring away constantly would have given Paul such an edge…

    Paul honestly felt he was being toyed with at this point. He wasn’t sure which stay was worse for him; Plumeria Town’s or Squallville’s. Either way, he was dead-set headed for Snowpoint City next. He didn’t care if he was forced to camp out in the snow; he didn’t want to know what horrors would await him in the next town in between.

    Much as he wanted to brush off that minor loss against Ash, Paul couldn’t help but wonder… was he on a losing streak now, if he counted the Plumeria Contest?

    Paul’s natural response at this point would be “What contest?” As far as he was concerned, it didn’t happen… and neither did today, for that matter.

    Surely, surely… it couldn’t get worse from here.

    And yet, in so many ways… it would, and not necessarily just for Paul.

    ( TBC )

    Chapter 19: Black Ice Battle!
    plurk | SPPF | dA | ff.net

  12. #42
    A black and white world Blackjack Gabbiani's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)


    I wonder if there's a medical condition like Paul's. It seems like there would be, but I can't think of it.

    Not as gripping as previous chapters, but still very good.

  13. #43
    Oh Jeebus. Mindy-chan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    Wow! Another good chapter!

    Oh, Paul juxtaposed with Ash... while I still prefer Paul and Conway, I don't know what I wouldn't give to read a bromance fic about Paul and Ash.

    He suddenly stopped, growling as something had just then hit him:

    If he had just kept Conway with him for a few more days, he would have been rid of him easily. Dawn was surely there along with Brock, and Conway would have instantly agreed to part with Paul from there. If only he were a little more accepting… perhaps Paul wouldn’t have been trapped in that poor excuse for a hospital, either.

    HAHA oh, the irony.

    Original fanart by khanshin @ deviantart / editing by Mindy

    Quote Originally Posted by Luna Tiger View Post
    Defying physics? Shipping was made to defy physics.
    Ginny @ Knight Pokemon University

  14. #44
    Le amo Conway Gato's Avatar
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    I found that chapter amusing, yet serious at the same time. I'm hoping Paul's condition isn't what I think it is... the pieces just fit well enough it makes me wonder. Paul sure has a lot going on in his head. Now I'm wondering how the doctor knows about Andrea. Darn, I'm babbling.

    So, all in all, great job! You even managed to keep me interested without a certain someone! n_n

    Oh, I watched the most recent dub episode, and I may add that like his cousin (Well, in this story), Saturn said 'appear' when sending out his Pokemon. Well, I feel good I got to share some borderline useless information. :)
    Last edited by Gato; 20th December 2009 at 03:24 PM.

  15. #45
    Gonna be a tl;dr Master! Shinneth's Avatar
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    Kentucky. The boonies.
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    Default Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

    (Hey, guys! Another two months gone by, now another chapter! I really did want to get this one out and ready before February, but those of you close to me already know why things didn't turn out that way. Sneaky, my cat whom I've loved and raised for 15 1/2 years, passed away January 15. It's been traumatic in itself to get through that. I'm a lot better now that it's done, though I still have that lonely feeling and I'm probably still grieving... still, Sneaky was with me when I decided to expand this story from its then one-shot status and was on my lap as I wrote the early chapters of my fic. He's the closest thing I've ever had to a sibling, and as this is a story that focuses heavily on that topic, I'd say Sneaky's had a nice deal of influence in my life overall, which is why I will cheesily dedicate this chapter (as well as the whole story) to his memory. Now that that's out of the way, have fun with the new turn of events!)

    “Wh-what…? My brother left town already?”

    No matter how many times it happened (and it happened fairly often), Reggie never ceased to be surprised whenever his brother left town without giving him a proper farewell over the phone. It might have been more like the fact that this was the second consecutive time in which Paul left town without a single parting word when he was usually getting much better at it since he partnered up with Conway. Of course, Reggie still had no idea that the two were separated as of now…

    Sympathetically, the Nurse Joy conversing with him on the video phone nodded in affirmation. This was the same Nurse Joy from Squallville’s Pokémon Center whom had been given word by Paul himself to send his parting words in his place.

    “He said he would definitely call you once he reached Snowpoint City,” Nurse Joy reported, trying to look and sound hopeful for Reggie’s sake. “And considering the fact that Snowpoint City is close to Squallville… I would say your brother will be contacting you sooner than you’d expect.”

    Still slightly apprehensive, Reggie nodded to the kindly nurse and looked to the box he had received over the transmitter. “I’m sure he’ll be training extensively before he takes on the Gym challenge…”

    “But he still remembered your birthday,” Nurse Joy pointed out, smiling. “Even if it isn’t until tomorrow, that’s proof enough that he cares, isn’t it?”

    “It certainly is,” Reggie agreed, unable to help but smile back. “Thank you, Nurse Joy. I apologize if he’s given you any trouble…”

    Nurse Joy had already been told ahead of time to keep the business with Doctor Dalton confidential while the case was under investigation; the doctor himself decided that he would call up Reggie to discuss the matter. Knowing this, Nurse Joy tried her best not to look nervous, as she remembered witnessing Paul’s turn for the worse in his condition a few days ago.

    “None at all! He was a courteous young man,” Nurse Joy replied with a forced laugh. “At least he was able to give you a gift despite being so far away from home.”

    “True,” Reggie considered. “I really do appreciate this… thank you for sending along the message.”

    The nurse nodded. “Have a happy birthday tomorrow, Reggie.”

    Reggie thanked Nurse Joy and ended the call, letting out a small sigh as he again looked to the package that was delivered to him.

    “Paul, something’s going on, isn’t there…” he murmured to himself, overwhelmed with the possible explanations behind his brother’s odd behavior. Just thinking about it made Reggie too anxious to open his gift yet.

    “What’s with the box, Reggie?” Maylene, suddenly entering the room, asked. It quickly caught her eye even though she was completely exhausted after facing so many challengers that day.

    Always happy to have company, especially in times when Reggie was feeling under the weather, he immediately smiled to his guest. “It’s from Paul! He went out of his way to make sure his present got to me in time for my birthday even though he’s so busy.”

    “B-birthday…?!” Maylene immediately squeaked, stepping back a bit and becoming flustered. She vaguely recalled weeks ago when Brandon visited Veilstone City and mentioned Reggie’s upcoming birthday, which she completely forgot about. “Oh my gosh, I…!”

    Naturally, it was humiliating for Maylene to forget about Reggie’s birthday of all things. After all, she had become quite smitten with him thanks to the abundance of time they spent together.

    Reggie continued to smile, appearing to be aware of Maylene’s folly but was unfazed by it. He shook his head at her, speaking gently. “You don’t need to get me anything, Maylene. You’ve already made a difference here in my time of need over the past month. I’d feel greedy to ask you…”

    “D-don’t even say that!” Maylene sputtered. “I have to get you something! I-I mean, when’s your birthday…?!”

    “Tomorrow…” Reggie innocently replied, not quite sure why this bothered Maylene so much. “But really, Maylene…”

    “Reggie, Paul’s not even going to be here to celebrate it with you!” Maylene pointed out. “I’ve been keeping you company all this time, so I should do something. Anything…”

    She seemed determined, and Reggie always liked that about Maylene. Her passion for everything she did, be it Pokémon battling or being there for a friend, knew no limit. “If you really want to, then I’d feel bad to force you to do nothing,” Reggie admitted. “At the same time, I’d hate to trouble you since my birthday is tomorrow…”

    And therefore not much time to think of an adequate gift for the young man. Maylene was stumped, not even certain whether to keep the gift completely platonic or possibly use this chance to give Reggie a solid hint about her feelings for him. But was that appropriate at all? Maylene didn’t know…

    “Aren’t you going to open Paul’s gift?” she asked Reggie, biding her time.

    Reggie smirked down at the box and shook his head. “It’s not my birthday yet, right? I’ll open it tomorrow. I’ll wait towards the end of the day… Paul and Conway should hopefully have reached Snowpoint City by then and I’ll be able to call him to thank him for the gift.” He looked up to Maylene. “And that buys you extra time to figure out what you want to get for me, if you really insist on doing that.”

    “Knowing Paul, he’ll just scold you for calling him rather than training for your upcoming match,” Maylene figured, feeling dreadful for the tons of pressure Reggie was undeniably under because of his brother and father. “He doesn’t strike me as the type who would even take a break on his own birthday…”

    “Well, you’re right,” Reggie admitted. “In past years, he’s even cut off our long-distance calls on his birthday if he was in the middle of training. He’d be very disappointed to know how little progress I’ve made since he left…”

    That wasn’t to say Reggie wasn’t taking his training seriously or was not being consistent with it, but by allowing himself to get distracted with things like watching his little brother compete in a Contest, Reggie knew Paul would not be impressed. He didn’t forget what Paul had said to him back when Brandon’s challenge was first issued…

    “I don’t care if it means you have to miss seeing me in the Conference; you need intensive training more than I need moral support.”

    “Give yourself more credit,” Maylene urged. “I think you’ve been doing a great job so far. Of course you’re not going to be ready for Brandon overnight… but you know from experience now not to overdo it the way your brother does, right?”

    That brought back less-than-pleasant memories… back when Reggie crumbled under the pressure and nearly lost his life as a result. It was a dark time, but Reggie learned from it. And at least this time… he wasn’t alone.

    “Of course,” Reggie assured. “I’ll find my own battling style… I couldn’t do it four years ago, but this time I won’t leave this business unfinished. It’s just going to be tough… and it’ll take a lot of time. I shouldn’t use my birthday as an excuse to slack off. I need to get back up to speed… once I’m fully adjusted back to the level I was before I retired, the progress will really start showing.”

    “So… you’re going to spend your birthday training?” Maylene glumly assumed. “What a sacrifice…”

    Reggie simply smiled and shrugged. “So I’m turning eighteen… that’s not such a big deal. If anything, it shows that since I’ve reached adulthood that I should start behaving like one. Part of being an adult is making sacrifices for the greater good, even on your birthday…”

    Maylene wanted to tell Reggie that he was already a master in the art of self-sacrifice ever since he took up raising Paul at the age of ten, but had no desire to dredge up those old memories for her friend. “I’d still like to give you a present. Even if you insist on training for your birthday…”

    “I appreciate it, Maylene,” Reggie thanked, staring out the window as day began to fade into night. “All I really want is a way to become stronger more quickly… but anything you’ll get me should be fine.”

    Sighing, seeing the hopelessness of getting Reggie to truly think of his own real needs, Maylene started to trudge out of the room before she stopped short, realizing something. “That’s it…”

    Overhearing her, Reggie turned his attention to the Gym Leader. “That’s what?”

    “What your birthday gift is going to be!” Maylene exclaimed, suddenly excited. “Come on; follow me!”

    She dashed outside, prompting Reggie to follow, though he was in no hurry himself. He couldn’t begin to imagine what was going on in that girl’s mind.

    Outside in the back, Maylene’s Lucario, Machoke, and Meditite were all relaxing after a hard day of consecutive Gym Battles and enjoying the dinner Reggie specially conjured up just for them. They didn’t expect to see Maylene back this soon since they hadn’t finished their meal, but the determined look on her face told them all that she was out here for a reason.

    “You’ve all done a great job adapting to the new environment while the Veilstone Gym’s been undergoing renovations, guys,” Maylene congratulated. “I know it’s been a hard day, so I want you all to get a good night’s rest early, because the real challenge has yet to come, and you won’t be able to pull it off alone!”

    “Maylene, what are you going on about…?” Reggie wondered, stepping outside and looking equally as confused as Maylene’s Pokémon. “What challenge?”

    Fully confident, Maylene turned to Reggie and grinned. “You said more than anything else, you wanted to get stronger so that you’ll be ready to face Brandon in a proper battle,” she reminded him. “So I’m going to help get you there. You can only accomplish certain things by training on your own… so tomorrow, get ready! I’m taking the day off from Gym challenges and challenging you to a six-on-six battle with me!”

    Reggie blinked. “Say what now…?”

    Maylene smirked and took out three extra Pokéballs out from her pocket. “Come out, all of you!” she shouted, tossing them all into the air. Simultaneously, the second half of Maylene’s team appeared right by her side: Hitmontop, Breloom, and Primeape.

    Lucario, Machoke, and Meditite stood alongside the less commonly-seen half of the core team and their trainer. Maylene pointed directly at Reggie, showing him her true fighting spirit at its full potential.

    “Reggie, as your birthday present, I challenge you and your entire team to a full battle!” she announced. “We’ll choose the perfect battleground and give it our all! The battle’s not going to end until one side has all six Pokémon unable to battle.”

    Of course, Reggie was beyond humbled to realize the opportunity he had been given. “Maylene, there’s no need to go all out like that,” he gently said. “I’m so rusty that I probably won’t stand a chance against you…”

    “That’s not the attitude to have!” Maylene scolded, shaking her head. “Because if you can’t beat me, you won’t be able to beat Brandon, either! This battle ought to give you an idea of how much progress you’ve made over the past few weeks, Reggie. Please accept my challenge.”

    She had a point. Reggie very much needed to get a clear idea of how close he was to reaching his previous peak and schedule out his more advanced training from there. He knew that when she was fired up like this, Maylene could be an especially fierce Gym Leader. She had come a long way from first starting out in the position less than a year ago. If he could defeat Maylene, Reggie would be able to say with certainty that he has been taking his training seriously, even if he wasn’t as consistent with it as Paul usually was.

    Reggie finally smiled, extending his arm to Maylene for a handshake. “When you put it like that, it’s pretty much an offer I can’t refuse,” he admitted. “I accept your challenge… can’t wait to see how we stack up against each other.”

    At least Maylene was able to resist the urge to blush at Reggie’s compliments and proudly shook his hand. Above all else, she wanted to carry herself the way a professional would. “Great. Then I suggest we all turn in early for tonight. I have a feeling our battle is going to be a long one… it’ll be the present that keeps on giving.”

    More than anything, Reggie was just thankful to not have to spend his eighteenth birthday alone, unlike several of his past birthdays. He understood how impossible it was to ever set up a true reunion between himself and the remains of his family (the incident a few weeks ago truly was a fluke), but having Maylene around made it hard for even Reggie to feel any pain.

    “Perfect opportunity to see how well dad’s presents have enhanced my Pokémon’s performance,” Reggie mentioned. “This was a great idea, Maylene. Thank you.”

    To see that content, relieved expression on Reggie’s face… Maylene knew she had made the right decision. She was so happy that she hadn’t caved in and tried to use this day as a cheap opportunity to confess her feelings for him. It made her feel stronger to know there was no need to rush into that sort of thing… because right now, there were so many more important things on task, and for Reggie, the last thing he needed was a complicated love life before facing Brandon.

    As Reggie gradually became a stronger trainer once more, Maylene too felt strong in more ways than one. Together, they watched the sun set on Reggie’s final day of being a minor. Things were going to change from now on, but this time, they were changing in a good way.

    It had been a brutal ordeal to walk all the way back to Headquarters, but Galactic Commander Mars was rewarded with the pizza party as promised by Saturn; the following days were rather hectic, trying to keep this away from the watchful eye of Cyrus, but the effort was worth it, as it wasn’t just Mars who was tired of the detestable energy drinks as the sole form of sustenance at Galactic Headquarters.

    Saturn had been so busy covering up the underground pizza party that he hardly had time to harass Mars over how her mission went and why an entire helicopter was lost during the entire operation. His primary concern was confirming that Mars retrieved the book, which she did successfully, hence why Saturn went along with the party. His coworker’s success combined with keeping Cyrus pleased and unaware of the activities at the lowest level of the building prevented Saturn from even remembering he had ordered Mars to seize his youngest cousin as well. Saturn had expected Conway to have tracked him down by now and irritate him to no end as he usually did in the past. The fact that he hadn’t made as much as a peep reminded Saturn that Mars never actually returned with Conway… nor did she make any mention of his unfortunate “demise”. The smell of pizza immediately distracted Mars and her coworkers and they rushed towards the party just as soon as Mars gave Saturn the book.

    A small window of time allowed Saturn to monitor the party and track down Mars so that she would be forced to give out the rest of her report. Conway probably loved pizza as much as the next kid, Saturn figured, but this was ridiculous for him to go this long without seeing his cousin. It was high time Saturn got some answers.

    Saturn used his break period to travel to the building’s bottom floor and find Mars through the mess of the pizza party that had been going on for a few days solid. Personally, the top commander was surprised that Cyrus hadn’t found out about their activities yet. To avoid to be associated with the festivities, Saturn kept himself as far away from the party as he could, but knew Mars was not the type who would leave this environment so easily.

    It was no surprise for Saturn to see a mass of Galactic grunts enjoying the pizza bought with his hard-earned money. This was where the uniforms (especially the sea green wigs) came in handy, as Mars stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the crowd with her spiked up crimson hair. This was not exactly her proudest moment, as she was in a pizza-induced food coma and as such, passed out over a table; drool hanging from her mouth and all. It appeared that she had just recently eaten an entire large pizza all by herself, but this again did not catch Saturn by surprise. Mars always had issues with self-restraint, after all.

    Easily ignoring the other festivities, Saturn made his way over to the table and sat down across from Mars, pounding his fist on the table right in front of her to jolt the young woman back into consciousness.

    Mars groaned and opened her eyes slightly, blinking before registering where she was. Upon seeing her fellow higher-up, Mars was quickly jolted out of her slumber and stood stiffly before him. “S-Saturn, what are you doing here?!” she barked out. “You’re supposed to be on Cyrus patrol!”

    “It’s my lunch break; someone is covering for me,” Saturn calmly explained whilst looking disgusted with this party in general.

    “What, now mister high-and-mighty wants a slice of the success?” Mars mused, smirking. “I thought you despised greasy food. That’s what you said, remember?”

    “Contrary to your belief, that’s not why I’m here,” Saturn denied, snobbish as ever. “It just occurred to me, Mars, that you have failed to file a full report on your mission.”

    Mars grumbled, hating to have her party dumped on by a wet blanket like Saturn. “I gave you the book, didn’t I? Can’t we skip the stupid paperwork just this one time? You know that’ll just make Cyrus interrogate us if he finds it.”

    “That isn’t what I mean and you know it,” Saturn accused, glaring at her. “I instructed you to retrieve my cousin along with the book. While I am pleased to have the book, you made no mention of Conway when you first came by. Did it just slip your mind to take him and then completely forget to tell me about this rather important detail?”

    The mention of that boy made Mars freeze up as she realized she had completely forgotten to tell Saturn about that. She was so cold and hungry from the forced walk back to headquarters that she had no desire to stick around Saturn for long; she craved her reward. Now that she engorged herself on said reward, Mars found that there was no real way out of explaining this.

    “Or perhaps you didn’t forget,” Saturn mused, narrowing his eyes. “He wouldn’t happen to be the reason why you lost your helicopter during the mission, would it?”

    “Uh, about that…” Mars stammered, unsure of how to put this delicately. “I did see him, and I had to use every nasty trick in the book to get what you wanted from him, so I definitely earned this party whether you agree with me or not!”

    Saturn stiffly shook his head. It was merciful of him to even grant Mars this party when she apparently only achieved the bare minimum of their objective for that secret mission. “Tell me where he is. I don’t recall seeing him with you and the group of grunts you took with you to the mission. Perhaps I should have noticed something was off right then and there…”

    “But you were too into that book to even notice,” Mars shot back, smirking. “Guess you were telling the truth; your cousin was expendable.”

    What Mars insinuated made Saturn’s eyes widen as he stared directly at her. “Mars, I said he was expendable if there was no way to bring him here; not to kill him recklessly!”

    “You’re not letting me finish,” Mars grumbled, looking to the side. “Even I’m not sure why things went the way they did back there… I had both your dorky cousin and the book in our possession. And you were right… that weakness for women made him an easy one to succumb to my demands. But on our way back, a blizzard kicked up and out of nowhere, a Honchkrow and Gliscor attacked our helicopter.”

    “Honchkrow and Gliscor?” Saturn wondered out loud, finding this hard to buy. “Neither species are native to the far north of Sinnoh.”

    Helplessly, Mars shrugged at him. “Ask the three grunts who were with me; I know what I saw. Those two practically tore the helicopter apart, and it was our good luck that we managed to make our landing and survive. Simply put, your cousin wasn’t so lucky.”

    Saturn was at a loss for words, only able to stare again at his coworker in disbelief.

    “I did what I could to save him, but the helicopter was in such bad shape that I couldn’t reach him,” Mars explained. “I used the Golbat we had with us to fend those rogue Pokémon off, but the damage had been done. It’s beyond me why they were so determined to take us down, but Conway just wasn’t able to hang off of the helicopter forever. He fell off.”

    “To his death, presumably,” Saturn assumed, which Mars confirmed with a nod. “So with the helicopter in ruins, you were unable to at least retrieve the body.”

    That response took Mars by surprise; she didn’t expect Saturn to be so quickly nonchalant about hearing of his cousin’s death. Then again, it was made quite obvious by Saturn himself that he couldn’t care less for Conway… “Why do you want his frozen old corpse?” she asked. “What’s the use?”

    “It’s a necessary instrument we’ll need in order to stage a more appropriate death for him,” Saturn told her. “We can’t risk the media coming upon any clues that will tie my cousin’s death to us, and the helicopter’s remains couldn’t be far from his body. We’ll have to relocate the body and dump it off far away from that route so that we could never possibly be implicated.”

    “Good luck finding it,” Mars muttered. “You’d have to dig through who knows how many feet of snow to even reach the body at this point, and everything looks the same on Route 216. And it’s going to be suspicious for the passerby residents to see a bunch of grunts digging in the snow until the end of time. What you’re asking for is unreasonable.”

    Saturn glared, unwilling to let a loose end stay that way. “Listen, Mars. You got into this-”

    “No, you listen!” Mars interrupted, standing up and pointing her finger right in Saturn’s face. “You’re the one who sent me out on the mission! If you wanted things to go your way, then you should’ve gone yourself! But if you want to take the reigns now and spend all your precious time digging for a dead body, then be my guest! I did what was asked of me and I’ve got my reward. As far as I’m concerned, I’m so done with this case.”

    She was right. It wasn’t for her lack of trying why she could only partially fulfill the mission. There was no way Mars was able to foresee the surprise attack and the helicopter being torn to shreds. Saturn sighed, turning away. “Fine. Consume this garbage until you burst; I would be more than happy to have you replaced,” he bitterly replied, nodding a farewell to her as he left the premises. He’d gotten the answers he wanted, and if Mars had no desire to cooperate with him on recovering Conway’s body, then she was under no obligation to do so. Saturn had to rectify this before it came back and bit him, he knew.

    “I’ll just hire some outside resources,” he planned. “It shouldn’t take them more than a week to recover the body and rid the area of the evidence of our presence. That way, should the latter happen first, we won’t be implicated regardless of whether or not he’s found within that period of time. After all, I shouldn’t go too long without informing my family of their loss. That in itself will be a perfect opportunity in more ways than one…”

    Saturn smirked; a mischievous glint shined in his eyes. “But I highly doubt you will be missed, little cousin,” he said in quite a devilish tone. “Regardless, I’ll put a good effort into making a suitable funeral in your honor. Then your parents will definitely be compelled to give me the rights to the rest of your belongings, including any other useful information you’re holding from me.”

    The circumstances behind Conway’s death still baffled Saturn… never before had he heard of a wild Gliscor or Honchkrow attacking man-made aircrafts with no rhyme or reason to their actions, much less the two vastly different species teaming up and doing so together.

    A Honchkrow, though… something about that detail struck Saturn as a detail he should keep in mind. He had watched the entire Plumeria Contest, but did not fully remember the details and therefore could not immediately recall that it was coincidentally a Honchkrow that Conway faced on a live national broadcast shortly before his demise. He failed to ask Mars whether or not Conway was alone at the time when she met up with the young man.

    For the time being, Saturn was far too busy making arrangements for the cover-up immediately after exiting the party. The rest of his mind was clouded up with eager fantasies of being the one to take everything Conway ever had to his name once it was all made official.

    The very much alive Conway himself had no idea what he would be coming home to. Granted, he was taking his time going back down Route 216… while Paul desired to forget their temporary partnership, Conway wasn’t so eager to let go. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if Conway hadn’t been kidnapped, seduced, and narrowly evading his untimely demise at the time; Conway was very adept in enduring Paul’s verbal abuse… and that boy had plenty to give.

    But with so much trauma hitting Conway at once, he needed someone there for him, and instead of doing that, Paul outright accused and abandoned him over a misunderstanding. He needed a few days to cope with this, realizing he was alone in the middle of nowhere with a family who couldn’t care less about his woes, and worst of all, the cousin Conway had so admired after all these years appeared to be in the same boat.

    It was a lot for anyone to take, and Conway had never before felt so weak, used, and betrayed than he had now. It seemed no one was on his side except for the small bundle of Pokémon who were resting nearby the hot spring Conway had discovered days ago to melt away his sorrows. The steaming water was not doing its job as efficiently as Conway hoped, unfortunately. He rested his arms on the rocky edge of the natural spring and moped, trying to figure out where to go from here. He had contemplated calling Sloan to confront him directly, but Conway found he had no courage to do so. After what Mars had done to him, he was certain Sloan could inflict a much harsher punishment if he felt the need.

    Slowking patted Conway on the shoulder sympathetically, really being the only one who could understand what Conway was going through by being able to read his mind. Heracross, Aggron, and Castform remained by his side as well, but only Slowking could really get him to talk in a time like this.

    “It’s been a few days now, hasn’t it?” he said with a sigh. “Guess there’s no reason to think this whole thing was a nightmare any longer… I thought this would clear my mind, but I still don’t have the faintest clue of what to do next.”

    Slowking nodded to him, apparently urging Conway to not rush and take his time. This was a delicate matter and a difficult one to take up alone. Conway needed to recharge his spirit as much as possible to take on this new obstacle in his life.

    “I know he’s practically a demon child, but I can’t help but worry about Paul,” Conway admitted, groaning. “But for all I know, he’s probably already left Snowpoint City with his Icicle Badge and on his way back down now. Maybe I should just wait…?”

    Just then, off in the snowy distance, Conway spotted a couple of men digging around the snow, slowly progressing toward his general area. With such dark and heavy clothes, they looked anything but friendly. Conway was definitely not inclined to call out to them himself even though this was the first time since splitting ways with Paul that he’d even seen another person. After the encounter with Mars, Conway was much more wary about presenting himself to strangers. He had no idea what his cousin truly was in this world. His status as a rich kid would make him an easy way for any crook to earn a nice sum of money via a ransom.

    Perhaps he was just being paranoid, but Conway had no desire to take his chances. He recalled all of his Pokémon and prepared to leave the area, only to realize there was no exit that wouldn’t completely expose his presence. For all Conway knew, he had inadvertently run in with the Sinnoh region’s Mafia whom his cousin may or may not be part of. Digging various holes around the route just reeked of suspicious behavior.

    There was no way for Conway to leave the area. And the men were coming closer, though they hadn’t yet realized someone was occupying the hot spring. Conway then realized his own carryon bag would give away his presence and hastily exited the water, carelessly flinging the bag over the edge of the hill where the hot spring was situated. Conway winced as he heard the bag open up and spill his belongings, knowing it would be quite the ordeal to sort out later, but the cold was far too intense for Conway to stay out in his trunks for more than a few seconds before he returned to the water, immersing most of his body underneath it while keeping an eye on the men. Eventually, they were close enough for Conway to overhear their conversation.

    “We’re a bit off course, don’t ya think?” one of them asked after shoveling out another deep hole of snow, looking to his partner. “Just how big a range was the boss talkin’ about? Ya’d think he’d have a good idea where that body was dropped.”

    “Wasn’t there,” his partner replied after taking a breather. They’d been at this for quite a while now. “So he’s got no clue where the kid fell off. And that might not even matter; you know how this place is… with blizzards about.”

    The first man nodded, dreading the work still ahead of them. “For all we know, the kid’s under five feet of snow. No one’s gonna stumble into the corpse and immediately think of him, really.”

    “He has his reasons, I’m sure,” the other figured, continuing to dig. “Point is, he wants that body dug up and tossed to the nearest ocean. Then no one’s gonna know what really happened.”

    All of this was matching up scarily well to what happened to Conway, and he was very much aware of this. What was especially horrifying were the numerous implications that he was presumed dead. Conway didn’t once think of how Mars would perceive his fall because he wanted to stop thinking about her completely. But thinking back on it… yes, under normal circumstances, Conway should have died from falling at such a great altitude.

    “Hope he fell in one piece, at least,” the first man wished. “Otherwise it’s gonna be a nightmare collectin’ whatever didn’t stick to him after the fall…”

    “Who knows what we’ll find under here?” the second wondered. “This place is dangerous; bet it’s taken lots of lives. So we’ve gotta confirm the identity before we go celebratin’ over dead body parts.”

    “Green hair, right?” his partner recalled. “Dorky-lookin’ glasses… wonder if those got lost too.”

    The man who kept digging shrugged, thinking back on the report. “Probably. But it can’t be too hard to identify a teen, right? I like to think we’d know a dead nerd if we came across one.”

    Conway tried his hardest not to wail in fear. It was difficult to believe otherwise: these shady men were looking for him and expecting him to be dead. He assumed well enough their “boss” was likely his cousin, whom Conway couldn’t even begin to wonder about in regards to motives. Still, this was obviously a cover-up so that Sloan could ensure that he and his “company” could not be implicated for this alleged tragedy.

    Much as he wanted to correct those men, Conway knew he would likely end up dead for real if he tried to confront them. He always had issues with properly confronting people… but this time, he had every reason to want to run away from the situation. He scowled as they came closer to the hot spring, knowing that there weren’t many places for him to hide if they actually started looking around there.

    The spring was connected to a small cove, where the water was especially warm. Presumably, this was the spring’s source. That was Conway’s only option for a hiding place, and with the way the cove echoed and rebound every noise coming from it, Conway would have to remain perfectly silent and still in order for it to work.

    “Hey, what’s that over there?” the first man asked, pointing to the hot spring, still far away enough to not notice Conway peeking out from the edge. Once Conway realized he was being pointed at, he whimpered with terror and ducked his head, trying not to flail crazily into the water as he immediately retreated into the cove.

    The other man, evidently more perceptive than the first, heard a few splashes coming from the area. It was easy to identify, but he frowned ominously. “That there’s a hot spring,” he explained. “And from the sounds of things, something may be alive up there.”

    “Ya think so?” his partner asked, squinting into the distance. “Looks like an ideal restin’ spot. Doubt the body’s there, though.”

    “But someone could have overheard us talking before,” the other mentioned, ceasing his digging and heading up towards that location. “It’s our policy to not let anyone know about us and live to tell the tale to others.”

    “Oh yeah,” the first one now remembered, smirking and following his cohort. “Well, if someone is up there, it’ll be a nice way to spice up this dull day, right?”

    Conway was in for it. He reached the cove well before either of them made it to the spring, but he was far from safe. He pressed himself against the hard, rocky wall near the entrance, hoping he wouldn’t have to risk making a noise by moving further in. He covered his mouth with his hand, not willing to risk any amount of noise escaping his lips, either.

    The two men scanned the area thoroughly once they arrived. Though Conway had covered his tracks relatively well, he couldn’t do much about the fresh footprints in the snow from him and his Pokémon.

    “Yeah, someone’s been here,” the second man confirmed. “As recently as today. Don’t think it’s a coincidence that nobody’s here now.”

    “Well, where’d they go?” the first inquired, poking the spring with his shovel and hitting the bottom, confirming that no one was hiding in that particular area. “We’ve got prints, but nothin’ else.”

    “Try poking in there,” the other man suggested, pointing to the cove. “It’s a dark cove, but if somebody’s really in there, they’ve got no place to run.”

    Pulling his shovel back to the ground, it was obvious that the first shady worker was a bit squeamish of the prospect. “That means we’ve gotta step into the water, boss. Our legs are gonna be popsicles once we get outta here.”

    The mature half of the duo just shook his head. “Tough it out; we’re professionals, remember? Let’s not risk our heads getting offed just because we were afraid to get our feet wet.”

    “If ya say so,” his partner sighed, stepping into the pool of warm, steaming water and trying to enjoy that as much as he could before the inevitable torture began once he had to get out. “Let’s see… looks like the water gets deeper in there, man.”

    Nodding in agreement, the man’s partner followed, focusing on what little he could see inside the cove while the other tentatively poked around the area with his shovel.

    Being so close to the entrance, Conway was getting a good look of that shovel nearly hitting his head. He backed up as much as he could as the man blinded by the darkness carelessly thrust the shovel into the rocky wall. Mere inches away, Conway shuddered and sunk himself almost completely into the water. That man with the shovel was heading his way while the other covered the opposite side. It only seemed inevitable that he would be found and consequently killed in this hot spring in the middle of nowhere.

    Conway was helpless to contain his fearful shuddering, knowing the end was nigh. Unfortunately for him, that caused a bit of noise as he shivered furiously in the water. The man on the opposite side of the cove heard the reverberating noise and looked over to the apparent source, though it was still too dark to see what was causing it.

    “Did you hear that?” he asked his coworker while wading over to the other side.

    Said coworker nodded. “Sure did. We’ve got a live one in here somewhere, and I think I’m pretty close…”

    No more than a few feet, really. Conway had nowhere to go without exposing himself. He knew this was the end, especially when he heard the shovel about to crash over his head…

    But it never happened. A flurry of splashes away from Conway came about, distracting both men.

    “Over there!” the man further away shouted. “Whoever it is, they’re trying to escape!”

    “I’m on it!” his partner assured, marching through the water towards the target, which was flailing and splashing towards the entrance. A few adorable chirps were heard from the splashing, making even Conway wonder what was saving his life.

    Once the splashing reached the entrance, the light shined down and revealed the culprit: a Smoochum struggling to swim in water that was relatively deep for her.

    “Aw, nuts,” the man with the shovel grumbled, easily snatching up the Smoochum and glaring at her. “We got ourselves into this over a lil’ chic like this?!”

    “They are native to this area,” the other man recalled. “This one must have gotten lost, obviously. That explains all the splashing we heard, though. That thing can barely swim.”

    It was quite the dissatisfying result. The man with the shovel eyed the Kiss Pokémon for a moment, contemplating what to do from there. “This thing’s practically harmless, right? Any point in killin’ it?”

    “Not really,” his partner replied. “But it never hurts to be too cautious. Should be an easy job.”

    “You’re right,” the other man agreed, grinning at the intimidated Smoochum between his fingers. “Alright, then. So to make this trip worth somethin’…

    Conway was horrified. He was about to bear witness to a murder of an innocent baby Pokémon and there was nothing he could do to interfere. That Smoochum had practically saved his life, and Conway felt miserable knowing he would never be able to repay that adorable Pokémon.

    But just then, the Smoochum eyed the man holding her. And before he could make a move, the capturer was overwhelmed with flying hearts as Smoochum began to blow kisses directly at his face. The man became dazed and confused, stumbling backwards into the water, releasing his hold on Smoochum as a result.

    Shock and awe; Conway was able to identify what Smoochum had just done: the Sweet Kiss move.

    “A pest of a runt, aren’t you?!” the other man shouted angrily, marching over to the general area. “I’ll teach you…!”

    But Smoochum had already started another round of her Sweet Kiss; hearts flew rampantly against the man, disorienting him. He fell against the wall, unable to focus or concentrate due to his confusion.

    Conway was amazed, but a little intimidated at the same time. He knew there was a distinct possibility that he would get Sweet Kissed into submission as well, which was something he wanted to avoid. But he smiled in relief when Smoochum (who was still on the first man’s belly) looked over to Conway and smiled at him, jumping repeatedly on the belly as if she were trying to tell him to escape while he still could.

    Not about to waste this opportunity, Conway dashed out of the cove and out of the spring entirely. Luckily, he kept his Pokéballs in the pockets of his swimming trunks and immediately released Heracross and Castform; the only two on his team who could recollect his belongings that he tossed over the cliff. He shivered while he waited, but his Pokémon were intuitive enough to know Conway needed his clothes back first. Though he was still absolutely freezing, Conway was thankful to be fully clothed again. He looked back towards the cove where Smoochum still was, seemingly keeping an eye on the men in case they recovered from their confusion.

    Piece by piece, Conway was getting his supplies back. Once he was fully packed, he recalled both of his Pokémon and once again checked the cove to see the men starting to recover.

    “Gah, no time for a chat, I guess!” he wailed, suited up and ready to bolt. “I can’t let those guys see me!”

    But Smoochum heard the young man’s concerns and took on the matter herself. She began singing with her high-pitched yet gentle voice. Conway immediately recognized this as Sing, which was a surefire way to put anyone to sleep. He covered his ears so that he would be unaffected; the other men, however, were lulled straight to sleep.

    “Quite a little miracle worker, aren’t you?” Conway complimented, now able to rest easy. “I really don’t know what to say… or even do. I owe you, Smoochum.”

    Smoochum directly addressed Conway now, firing out a fairly weak stream of snow and ice from her mouth in order to create a small, temporary path across the hot spring. She waddled over to the other side as quickly as she could, and Conway understood that she wanted to escape this place as much as he did. He extended a hand to her, which Smoochum graciously accepted by hopping onto Conway, latching herself to his arm and climbing up until she reached his shoulder where she stayed put, now contented.

    “Guess I can return the favor after all,” Conway figured, unable to stop smiling now. With his belongings gathered and the Smoochum in tow, Conway hightailed it out of the hot spring area and swiftly sped off down Route 216.

    Running so quickly down a route covered with snow and ice wasn’t exactly the smartest move on Conway’s part, but to his credit, he was more concerned with making as much distance as possible from those horrid men.

    Not exactly the most coordinated guy in the world, Conway found himself slipping and sliding down an icy plane, doing his best to keep himself on his feet as he descended at a rate far beyond what he could control. He managed to keep this up for a while as long as the path was clear, but after some time, it seemed Conway was reaching the end of a slope; at the end, he would fall some distance (not a deadly one, at least) and straight into a large pile of fluffy snow.

    Conway popped his head out from the powder, shaking the bits of snow from his hair and continuing to shiver uncontrollably as the adrenaline quickly wore off. He paused, however, and was very surprised to see that Smoochum had remained attached to him the entire time.

    “You wanted to get away from those jerks as much as I did, right?” Conway assumed, smiling at her. “I really must thank you, little one. You definitely saved my life back there.”

    The Smoochum chirped happily, showing signs of its own relief, but remained on Conway’s shoulder despite the fact that the ride was over.

    “Oh, that’s right!” Conway realized, scanning the area. “This is where Paul and I found a small gathering of Smoochum while we were traveling a few days ago. You wouldn’t happen to be part of the swarm, would you?”

    It was true; the Smoochum nodded, as she completely understood what Conway was saying. In spite of her young age, being partially a Psychic-type allowed her to easily interpret the words of humans.

    Conway continued looking around, realizing the area was practically empty; still covered in snow and ice as it was last time, but no mass of Smoochum were seen anywhere nearby.

    “Well, I do owe you for saving my life,” Conway muttered. “And it’s not like I’m pressed for time to do anything… I need to think of a plan before I head back to Veilstone City.”

    He looked down at the still-smiling Smoochum. “So while I concoct a plan, I’ll help you find your friends, alright? Does that sound like a good deal to you?”

    That was when Smoochum squealed and hopped repeatedly on Conway’s shoulder, giving the side of his face a big hug.


    This brought back rather unpleasant memories. Instantly, Conway thought of Mars again… that woman he was determined to boot out of his memories for good. But he could never forget what she did to him in that helicopter. What she did against his will… and even in spite of that, Conway hated that tiny, minuscule part of himself that enjoyed it.

    But somehow… this seemed different.

    This Smoochum was innocent. She clung to Conway and never let go; she obviously had fun on that “ride” down the mountain and it appeared that she greatly enjoyed Conway’s company.

    But more than anything... Smoochum seemed to be able to sense Conway’s inner turmoil. Falling in line with a Smoochum’s usual mannerisms, she decided to use her lips to examine her new companion. Conway froze completely and helplessly whispered a wail as he felt a pair of lips peck his cold cheek. Unlike Mars’ torture, however, this was brief and absolutely harmless. Still, it brought back rather disturbing images.

    The horrible visions dissipated when Conway found Smoochum right up against his face, cooing with affection and pecking various areas of his face, including his outrageously expensive custom goggle-glasses.

    “H-hey, don’t stain these!” he pleaded; though Conway was shaking, he could not bring himself to fling Smoochum off of him. “These are… these are quite pricey, you see. The oil stains will make it hard for me to see, and…”

    Smoochum merely giggled and gave Conway another peck on the cheek. This time it wasn’t alarming at all; Conway knew he could trust the tiny Kiss Pokémon who just saved his life; he figured that perhaps he should try being more of a gentleman in return.

    Even if Conway was convinced that those days were over. All thanks to Mars…

    “C-come on, now!” Conway urged, pulling Smoochum away from his face, but still holding the young female Pokémon firmly in his hands. “We shouldn’t dawdle. It could take a while to find your group and even longer for me to find a place to stay. I know Pokémon swarms tend to move along quickly, so it would be terrible if you were left behind, dear.”

    In spite of that, Smoochum appeared to have no concern over that whatsoever. She clung to Conway’s hands as if she had no intention of letting go. This gesture confused Conway for a while…

    … But then he smiled. Conway was a sharp one, indeed. Perhaps he was wrong about Paul, but he knew he had to be right about this.

    “Pardon me if I’m being a bit forward, Miss,” Conway began; his goggles gleaming with the aid of the small streaks of light shooting down from the massive clouds. “But are you giving me the impression that you wish to embark upon a journey with me?”

    The response was an energetic, high-pitched “Smoo, smoo…!” added with the Smoochum nodding her head vigorously. She wasn’t sure what drew her to this boy, but he seemed familiar to another one a few days ago who expressed interest in capturing one before being dragged away by his grumpy cohort. They looked exactly the same, as a matter of fact.

    Things had changed since then, obviously. That grumpy boy was nowhere to be seen. Conway looked utterly miserable and his initial reactions told the psychic Smoochum that he had gone through quite an ordeal… and it wasn’t over yet.

    She jumped from Conway’s grasp and landed on the snow, promptly hopping up and down as if to beg him to capture her. Unlike most of her group, this Smoochum rather liked the idea of having a human trainer one day. To be captured by a boy in need of emotional support… Smoochum knew she was the best Pokémon for the job.

    Luckily, Conway was perceptive enough to decipher the small Pokémon’s desires. And conveniently enough, Conway did have a spare empty Pokéball on hand. While he was packing back at home, Conway highly doubted he was ever going to actually use it, but this time…? Was he ever glad to be proven wrong!

    “You’re pretty bold about this,” Conway noted. “I like that in a Pokémon. You’ll be a perfect fit for my team.” He posed, readying his Pokéball by pressing the button to enlarge it. “Thank you again, for everything…”

    Then, he let it loose. “Now, let’s go, Pokéball…!”

    He tossed it into the air; Smoochum jumped up as high as she could to meet it and tagged the ball with her hand upon contact. She was consumed with red light and taken within. The Pokéball closed and dropped to the ground, nudging against the snow left and right a few times before the ball was closed securely; sparkles emitting from the ball to confirm the capture.

    Rather than getting hyped up like he used to, Conway calmly picked up the ball containing his new Pokémon and smiled. “And so… I’ve caught Smoochum. Just as I always wanted…”

    Conway pocketed the ball with the others, looking towards the gloomy sky.

    “That was a close call,” he reflected back on the hot spring situation. “I could have avoided that completely if I hadn’t been moping the entire time… Paul never would have done that…”

    He frowned just then; why did he keep thinking about that heartless trainer who left him in the dust when he was needed the most? Even if Paul did save Conway’s life… it was hard to call him a hero after what he had done.

    “Paul’s a jerk,” Conway confirmed with a low growl. “I withstood his attitude as much as I could… it’s no wonder he doesn’t have any friends. He doesn’t even want them! I never had a chance; I should have paid more attention to those ominous feelings I had back when he spent the night at my house…”

    But he thought about the young man a little more…

    “But even in spite of that, Paul knew exactly what to do in a crisis,” Conway sorrowfully admitted. “He’s just as capable of saving my life as I was saving his… and even though it ended up in a loss, he just moved on… kept going.” The bespectacled trainer surveyed his surroundings again; the desolate frozen desert. “He’s probably already defeated Candice by now, and what have I been doing all this time since we parted ways? Moping over what happened! And because of that, I almost died!”

    It was then that Conway realized that this incident he had gotten himself into was much more severe than he initially believed. He didn’t have Paul to help him this time… but this was something Conway simply couldn’t ignore. It was obvious to him now that Sloan was not the admirable cousin he made himself out to be; there were evil forces at work within Conway’s own family, and he had been unaware of it this entire time! It was a huge blow to his ego, but then Conway remembered…

    “I really should have seen this coming,” he muttered. “And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve got to take a page out of Paul’s book this time! Running away from the situation won’t solve a thing; I must directly confront the matter and attack it with full power!”

    He dug out his phone, but paused before dialing anything. A horrible realization dawned upon Conway just then. “If I call Sloan now… that’s like giving myself away. If he truly believes me to be dead, I’ve got to use that to my advantage if I’m ever going to get to the bottom of this.”

    Conway bit his lip in frustration and confusion, unsure of what move to make next. There were so many options… but even in situations like these, Paul always seemed quick to make up his mind. Even if it had gotten him into a few problems of his own, Paul was a very decisive young man. It was why he was so efficient in what he did, after all.

    What could he do from here… call his family, possibly, but what would they care about Conway’s near-death experience? There was Reggie, but Conway still couldn’t bring himself to face the breeder (even via telephone) and admit that he had failed in keeping his promise of looking after Paul. Calling the police wasn’t going to do much good when Conway had no idea what sort of organization attempted to kidnap him – he was pretty sure the G on their uniforms did not stand for “government”, though.

    “I’ve got to pull myself together,” Conway decided, suddenly drawing out all of his Pokéballs and sending out Slowking, Aggron, Heracross, Castform, and even Smoochum all at once. The group of Pokémon looked to Conway with confusion and/or concern, as all were well aware of their trainer’s mental and emotional anguish at this point.

    “Alright, everyone, it’s time to make a stand,” Conway announced. “I’ve let people like Paul trample over me all my life – but no more! We must figure out who my cousin is really working for, why his cohort nearly apprehended me, and why he needed that Uxie book so badly!”

    He pointed south towards yet another slippery path. “We’ll first need to conquer this route, which I know we all can do, but there is another matter at hand…!”

    His goggle-glasses gleamed at that moment; Conway’s eyes were staring hard into the eyes of his own Pokémon. “I really cannot take this on alone. And since we no longer have Paul on hand, I’m counting on each and every one of you to help me in whatever conflict I face as I come closer to finding out the truth! Because really… I remember the helicopter’s interior. It wasn’t just Mars in there… Sloan could be leading his own army for all I know. That’s why we’ll need to fight!”

    All of the Pokémon cried out in agreement, relieved that Conway was getting his head into the game. Smoochum latched herself onto Conway’s shoulder again, giving him an affectionate peck on the cheek. Again, Conway’s first reaction was to shudder and flinch, but remembered that this not Mars… and honestly, after the emotional abuse Paul put him through combined with the fact that his entire family obviously didn’t love him; this affection was rather welcome at this point.

    But as Conway lightly laughed at Smoochum’s antics, he realized something else very important:

    He did need to fight back. But with his Pokémon alone, the experience he had… could Conway really do it? Ever since he became a trainer, Conway was completely unsure of which route of expertise to take. His status as a Jack of All Trades really exposed the various weaknesses Conway possessed. All he wanted to know was that he had a strong desire to learn. Learn everything about Pokémon… though the battles thrilled him and the Contests made him happy, Conway had foregone his Coordinator option for Paul’s sake. It wasn’t exactly valid now that the two were separated, but still… Contests were not going to give Conway the strength and experience he needed to overcome his adversary. Not only that, but Contests were broadcast everywhere in Sinnoh. If Sloan were to happen upon another Contest and saw Conway competing… that would ruin his advantage.

    His battle with Maylene… that was a workout. Gym Battles weren’t televised… and Conway knew firsthand how strong Paul was and easily saw that it was largely due to his long and detailed history of facing Gym Leaders. He remembered Paul’s battle with Byron… the intensity and ingenious strategies pulled. Conway could learn a lot from Byron. And there were so many Gym Leaders out there in Sinnoh that he had not yet faced…

    Conway knew this was the only way. Standard training wasn’t going to cut it this time; he needed to work on his weakness - that being poor at improvising in the event that his plan fails – and hone the aspects of his battling style that made him a competent battler in the first place.

    So that was that: Conway chose the path of battling. More than anything, now, his greatest desire was to come strong… like Paul, much as Conway hated to admit that.

    “We’re going to need a lot of training,” Conway told his team. “Not only to defeat what stands against us, but to ensure your safety.” He had already lost Paul; he couldn’t bear to lose someone else. “So our next course of action is to return to Veilstone City. While we stock up on supplies and whatever I can get from home, I’ll be deciding which Gym Leader we’ll be facing next. That’s right: we’re going the same path as Paul! Qualifying for the Sinnoh League will prove that we’re strong enough to take on my cousin!”

    Conway had no idea just how powerful his cousin really was, but remembered admiring his Toxicroak back in the day when Sloan made a rare appearance at his house. It was definitely a Pokémon that would be a challenge at this point. Who knows whatever else he acquired…

    “While I’m there, I’m going to have to face Reggie and tell him the truth,” Conway decided. “Even if it’s going to be difficult admitting to him how badly I failed… I’m sure Paul isn’t planning on letting him know about it. He can’t be left in the dark.”

    He looked to the Smoochum who looked to her trainer with adoring eyes. “Unfortunately, my dear, I’ll have to train you as well. But I’ll make sure you’ll enjoy it, okay?” Conway patted her head, giving the young Kiss Pokémon an encouraging smile. Smoochum was easy to please, thankfully. Conway couldn’t stop his smiling when she proceeded to hug his neck; this affection was so direly needed, after all.

    “Now, onward!” Conway shouted after getting his fill of that therapy. “Everyone, return!”

    Each of Conway’s Pokémon returned to their balls, and he securely stored them over his belt. Conway grabbed his bag, looked ahead in the direction of his planned destination, and started off. He never before felt so determined and alive; this was even more poignant than his two landmark victories in the past. A mission was assigned to Conway; something that apparently only he could complete.

    As he marched on with determination and a renewed sense of who he was, Conway smirked to himself as he remembered a conversation between himself and Paul the day the two reunited:

    “Do whatever you want, but back off, alright? I don’t need a sidekick. This is my journey. You need to find your own path and stick with it, because I can guarantee you’ll never be the second coming of Wallace.”

    “I agree, sidekick definitely isn’t me. How about co-star, then? We’ll split it evenly, fifty-fifty. Sound good?”

    “In your dreams.”

    “Seems I’m a suitable protagonist after all,” Conway noted. “Whatever journey you’re embarking on now, Paul, know that I’ve finally got my own journey, too!”

    And he journeyed off.

    And what of Paul’s journey? He was so close to Snowpoint City after leaving Squallville, and he insisted to not rest until he reached that destination. He feared another stop at any other town would lead to disaster somehow.

    However, he was still experiencing disasters in his own way. Since Paul refused any form of decent refuge, he toughed out some of the harshest elements Sinnoh had to offer. He climbed, he crawled… it was very similar to his trek on the dangerous path on Route 216, as a matter of fact. But in spite of Route 217’s harsher obstacles, Paul was at least well-equipped to deal with it this time. Much as he wanted to ditch the coat that Conway bought for him, it was an utter necessity to brave the elements.

    Still, the coat was not enough to protect Paul from the various injuries he sustained while hiking up the roughest sector of Route 217. The snow was up to his waist; the blizzard just wouldn’t taper off. The wind chill itself was nigh unbearable, but Paul had self-preservation tactics this time. He knew in dire situations like these to rest in deep ditches of the snow and cover himself in order to protect himself from the wind. That in itself was a life-saver.

    Paul was willing to undergo any kind of torture just to get his mind off Conway and Ash. And this definitely kept him busy; this time, his Pokémon knew better than to come out of their own free will to help out.

    A nasty incident with a boulder and a giant shard of ice left Paul with nasty head and face injuries. Feeling the blood trickle down and freeze against his face, Paul kept his hood on at all times from that point on. He was worn and torn; beaten and battered… it certainly took him more than a day to reach his destination due to his choice to take the path often not taken.

    Paul collapsed on his knees when he finally saw a group of houses, all with distinct crimson roofs. He smirked, definitely having lost some of his sanity from the brutal journey. But by the gods, he made it.

    Snowpoint City: The City of Snow.

    Now all he had to do was find this “Candice” person and get this over with. Paul didn’t care that he was beaten and battered from the traveling; he figured if he could defeat Byron while suffering a cold (not to mention type disadvantages across his entire team), he could easily take out some girl and her fragile Ice-type Pokémon.

    Then Paul remembered the strategy that Conway had created for him weeks ago for this specific battle. The fellow trainer put immense amounts of work into creating a viable strategy for yet another scenario where nearly all of his Pokémon suffered a weakness to Ice. Paul and Conway talked for hours, building up foolproof strategies for each other. It worked like a charm for Conway when he had to battle Maylene; logically, Paul’s chances of winning were drastically increased with this strategy made from Conway and his desire to see Paul succeed in his goals. A work of their friendship…

    … A friendship that no longer existed.

    Paul hated everything that reminded him of Conway. Due to the nature of his traveling, the heavy coat was not expendable… but the strategy was, in his eyes. He pulled it out of his bag, quietly growling as his hand crushed the paper when he formed a fist. Paul promptly approached the nearest garbage can to toss the evidence of his association with that young man…

    … But before that, he promptly fell into a pit before he could reach it. Paul was practically buried in snow; it was so deep. He flailed and struggled to free himself, way beyond tired of covering himself in that powder to shelter himself as it was.

    Just then, he heard the giggles of small children. Paul turned towards the direction of the noise (still in the midst of freeing himself from the pit) and noticed a group of children ice skating. The one that led the group, however, was much older than these tykes; she had to at least be in her mid to late teens. Initially, Paul was disturbed by the way this girl dressed; sure, that sky blue sweater seemed thick enough and appropriate for the weather, but she was also wearing a tiny khaki skirt. Her striped socks only barely came below her knees, and they didn’t look thick enough to cover up her otherwise-bare legs. Her hair was long, but up in pigtails, which would do nothing to keep her warm.

    Paul couldn’t stop watching this girl so effortlessly brave the elements as she skated across the frozen pond with elegance and grace, as if she’d been doing it for years. And here Paul was, borderline hypothermia once more a concern… as well as his health.

    Indeed, what bothered Paul more than anything else… even more than Ash and Conway, was the discovery of his apparent bad health. Paul still refused to look at the test results given to him by Doctor Dalton in Squallville; he was absolutely convinced that there was nothing wrong with him.

    He’d come this far… he had endured rough journeys in Hoenn, Kanto, and Johto (though none of those regions had this arctic weather)… and even though Paul had come down with illnesses from time to time and took longer than usual to recover from them, Paul didn’t think there was anything odd about his health. Only that on occasion he would still cough up blood… that one, he still blamed Conway for it, but even more, that woman… Mars.

    Paul and Conway may have been separated now, but they still had a common enemy. The only difference was that Paul was barely involved in the attack while Conway seemed to be an essential element towards the goals of the organization Mars worked for.

    But Paul was quite self-centered compared to Conway; he was more interested in reaching his own goals than investigating a former friend’s problem.

    And now with the matter of his health… Paul would say he had no interest in reading the papers, and while there was some truth to that, the real reason was simply fear. Paul was afraid of what the test results would say about him… after all, the doctor had worked with his family, particularly his late mother, in the past. This man’s medical opinion was one to be taken seriously.

    Whenever this bothered him severely, Paul would constantly tell himself out loud, “There’s nothing wrong with me… there’s nothing wrong with me… there’s nothing wrong with me…” This was a time that called for it.

    “There’s nothing wrong with me,” Paul insisted to himself, wondering if he should toss the medical papers away into the trash bin along with Conway’s strategy guide. He had no desire to carry either document any longer. Still yet, Paul was getting worse; more blood spilled down his face… overall, he felt like he’d been hit by a car. Conway spared no expense in getting Paul the best winter coat money could buy, but even it was not invincible against the elements for a long period of time.

    As he hated to be seen like this, Paul still kept his hood on to hide his blood-streaked face. Remembering Squallville’s Nurse Joy freaking out over a cut on his hand and his coughing up of blood, Paul had no desire to properly show his face to anyone.

    “There’s nothing wrong with me!!” he shouted, perhaps a bit too loudly. Paul had managed to escape the snow pit, at least, but it was amazing in itself that Paul finally reached his goal. All he needed to do was ask any random stranger of Candice…

    “You sure about that? It sure looks like there’s something wrong with you!”

    The voice was female, and her statement was followed by a crowd of children shouting “Yes!” in agreement with her.

    Paul barely had it in him to register the fact that he was surrounded by easily imitatable children, but the older girl who stood in front of them was hard to ignore.

    “I’m… fine…” he muttered, really not wanting to have to prove it.

    “It’s not easy to get here, you know!” the girl informed him. “So it’s no surprise you’re roughed up, but it looks like you took the toughest path to reach this place. Is that true?”

    Paul, still focused on the snow (now turning red from the droplets of his blood), nodded slowly. “I did.”

    “Amazing!” the girl shouted. “You’ve got to have some mad awesome kiai to get through a path like that!”

    That took Paul off guard. “Mad awesome what…?”

    “Your kiai!” she repeated. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a person who took that path, really. Would you happen to be a trainer?”

    “That’s right,” Paul confirmed, his voice now sounding quite raspy. Perhaps he shouldn’t have yelled so loudly earlier. “I’m here to conquer the Snowpoint Gym.”

    The teenage girl squealed with excitement. The children all cheered. Paul had no idea what was going on.

    “We almost never get Gym challengers because of our remote location!” she proclaimed. “So if you made it this far, your kiai must be strong… therefore, you’re a formidable competitor!”

    Paul had no idea what this “kiai” was and he was far too exhausted to care to know. He knew this was a good sign, though, that his presence was well-received as a battling trainer. “I’ll show that Gym Leader just how powerful I am,” he claimed. “Tell me where the Gym is and I’ll go right away and win that badge.”

    “Well, of course I can tell you where our Gym is,” the girl offered. “I happen to be its Leader!”

    How unexpected that he would run right into the Gym Leader the second he entered Snowpoint City. He looked up at her, eyes widened. “Then you’re… Candice?!”

    “So you already know my name,” she noted in a sly tone. “Guess I must have some reputation. The truth is, I wish I could take on more challengers, but this is nature’s way. But since you came all this way, I’ll give you the kiai battle you want! The challenge is so on!”

    “Then let’s get started,” Paul suggested, finally able to stand up. “I made it up here by myself without using any of my Pokémon, so they’re all fully ready to fight.”

    “Without using any of your Pokémon…” Candice muttered, then squeaking and stepping back when she finally noticed the bloody snow. “Y-you’ve been bleeding this entire time! You can’t challenge me now!”

    Yes I can,” Paul asserted, stern and stiff. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

    Candice shook her head, now worried. “You don’t look so good, you know. We should at least get you cleaned up before we battle. Neither of us want to get my Gym covered with blood stains, right?”

    Reluctantly, Paul nodded. “I’ll clean up, but I expect my Gym Battle today, Candice.”

    “I understand,” Candice replied with a nod. “Look, I’ll take you to the Pokémon Center so you can get yourself decent. Nurse Joy will tell you where the Snowpoint Gym is. I’ll be going back to the Gym in the meantime!” she announced, looking towards the flock of children behind her. “I’m sorry to cut off our session so early today, kids. But you know how rare it is for us to get a challenger.”

    “We understand, Teach!” said a little boy in the crowd. “But can we watch?”

    Immediately, the other children simultaneously requested the same privilege of Candice, making her smile. “It’d be great to have an audience for our Gym Battle,” she said, then looking to Paul. “Is that alright for you?”

    “I don’t care,” Paul replied coldly. “As long as I get my Gym Battle today, it doesn’t matter what else happens.”

    “Then it’s settled!” Candice decided. She always seemed so full of energy, even in spite of the freezing temperatures. “You all get to watch! Go on ahead of me if you want, kids. I’ll come to the Gym after taking my challenger to the Pokémon Center, because I’ve totally gotta get my kiai on for this battle! It’s been way too long!”

    “We love watching you train!” a young girl with admiring eyes said. “We hope you win, Miss Candice!”

    That prompted Paul to glare at the child. Normally he wouldn’t bother to go this low, but in his current state… “I didn’t come all this way to lose.

    “You’ll see!” another boy said. “Not a lot of people can beat Candice!”

    “Settle down, settle down,” Candice urged. “Save that energy for the battle, because you’re all gonna cheer me on, right?”

    “RIGHT!” they all shouted in unison.

    Ready to set things into motion, Candice snagged Paul by the arm. “Then get going!” she instructed. “While I take this gentleman to the Pokémon Center!”

    The children ran off, heeding their teacher’s order. Paul was a bit put off by Candice suddenly grabbing him, but he didn’t mind it as much this time… Paul realized it was hurting him to even walk at this point. He truly was a mess.

    “You should have treated those cuts immediately, Paul,” Snowpoint City’s Nurse Joy scolded, though did so gently. This one bore a light blue cross and was hard at work trying to wipe all of Paul’s wounds clean.

    There were a lot more than he thought. Even in areas where the skin wasn’t broken, Paul found his arms and torso full of swollen, discolored bruises. For all Paul knew, his ribs possibly weren’t fully healed yet, and even if they were, still tender. He did experience some pain in his chest, but it was hard to identify since Paul was truly hurting everywhere. The trail he took nearly tore him limb from limb.

    “I was going to do that once I got here anyway,” Paul lied, sounding very tired at this point. “I know it looks bad, but there’s really nothing wrong with me.”

    “How can you say that when you’re in a condition like this?!” Nurse Joy asked in a panic. She really was concerned with Paul’s lack of concern for his own wellbeing. “And Candice told me you were to have a Gym Battle today…?”

    Paul closed his eyes and nodded. “After you’re done cleaning me up, I’m going to challenge her.”

    Nurse Joy sighed. With an attitude like this, she wasn’t that surprised when she learned of Paul’s future plans, foolish as they were. “I implore you, Paul, to please take a few days to rest before battling Candice,” she pleaded.

    “I’m telling you I’m fine,” Paul repeated. “There is nothing wrong with me. Just take care of my belongings while I’m gone. I’ll pick them up once I’ve won my battle.”

    Paul was completely cleaned off now, but some of those cuts refused to stop bleeding. As a result, his face was covered with bandages. In spite of his lethargic state, he had enough in him to put his jacket back on, followed by the heavy coat. He had no need to tote around his backpack just for the Gym; everything in there was useless for his cause. His Pokémon were attached to his belt; Paul felt that’s all he truly needed to defeat that spunky young lady.

    “I can’t force you to stay,” Nurse Joy acknowledged sadly. “But please come back if you’re unable to battle.”

    Paul nodded to Nurse Joy. “I will.” He then stood up, still unable to resist a wince from the still-present pain. There wasn’t much Nurse Joy could do about his bruises in a timely manner. Paul had made up his mind and was far too stubborn to go back on his word.

    Nurse Joy’s eyes widened when she noticed traces of dried blood on Paul’s heavy coat; the blood from a few days ago when he reached Squallville. She wanted to say something about it, but knew she would only be blown off.

    “Thank you for your help,” Paul told her before he left the building. It was an obviously-forced show of gratitude, but Nurse Joy didn’t particularly mind.


    “Chansey!” Nurse Joy was surprised by her partner’s sudden appearance, and even more surprised that Chansey was going through Paul’s opened backpack that he left behind. “You should know better than to invade a patient’s privacy! Now close that up!”

    The reason for said invasion soon became apparent when Chansey turned to her coworker and revealed a long, detailed statement from a certain doctor.

    “That’s…” Nurse Joy couldn’t help but break her code of honor and grabbed the document. “A statement of the results of a series of tests performed on Paul… by Doctor Dalton of Squallville…?”

    Chansey nodded, finding this information vital to figuring out Paul’s strange behavior.

    “Oh my goodness…” Nurse Joy gasped. “This… if I had known of this, I wouldn’t have let him leave!” She glumly looked towards the entrance. “It’s too late now… but it’s obvious that Paul is in denial. He’ll have to learn the hard way, unfortunately…”

    The Egg Pokémon agreed, knowing there was no way things were going to go as Paul had planned as long as he was this bad off.

    Rather ashamed of his appearance due to the bandages on his face, Paul kept the heavy coat’s hood over his head. He bowed his head, making it nearly impossible to see his face. Nurse Joy had told him earlier where the Snowpoint Gym was, and Paul was making a beeline for it. Candice was waiting for him in there, and regardless of the “kiai” she kept talking about, Paul knew he would be able to beat someone like her.

    After all, Paul found Byron to be a much more competent Gym Leader; much more of a threat. And yet, Paul still defeated him while suffering a severe cold. With this girl? Paul foolishly believed this would be a piece of cake.

    When he entered the Gym, as he expected, the battling field was an arena of ice. Unlike Canalave’s Gym, Snowpoint’s was rather straightforward in showing its main arena. Paul noticed that all of those children from earlier were in the audience seats. In the center side of the field was the assigned referee, Mr. Honcho. And finally, on the opposite side of the field from Paul was the energetic Candice, who looked frighteningly confident about her chances in this battle.

    “So you made it after all,” Candice noted, grinning. “Well, at least you’re not bleeding, but I still sense that your kiai has been exhausted just by getting here! You’re sure you wanna battle today?”

    “I’m doing this today,” Paul stated, again very stern about his stance. “And I’m doing it right now. I’ll give you the kind of battle you want, even if I’m tired. I’ve done it before; I can do it again.”

    Candice raised an eyebrow at that last statement. He had challenged other Gym Leaders like this before… perhaps he was going to be a force to be reckoned with?

    “I never did get your name, stranger,” Candice suddenly remembered. “Care to introduce yourself?”

    “Paul,” the challenger simply said. “I’m from Veilstone City.”

    Candice nodded with approval. “That’ll do. I think we can start now! The clash of our kiai is ready to begin!”

    Again with the “kiai”… Paul sighed. As it was cold being near the field of ice, Paul kept on his heavy coat for this battle, hood and all.

    “Then let us begin!” Mr. Honcho announced. “The Snowpoint Gym Battle between Leader Candice and the challenger: Paul from Veilstone City!”

    Paul was so relieved to finally have this Gym Battle started… even if he was still in massive pain otherwise.

    “This battle will be a four-on-four match,” Mr. Honcho continued, which confirmed Conway’s suspicions about the slightly unorthodox method of a Snowpoint battle. “The winner will be determined once one side’s Pokémon are rendered unable to battle! Additionally, only the challenger is allowed to substitute Pokémon during the battle!”

    “You ready to do this?” Candice asked Paul with a smirk. She had a Pokéball in her hand, having already decided which Pokémon to use first. It wasn’t the one she usually used first… but she really wanted to test Paul’s… “kiai”… by flashing out the big guns first.

    Paul nodded, also grabbing one of his Pokéballs. It took him a bit of time to decide which one to start with, as most had type disadvantages, but Paul was still conscious enough to make a solid decision on his own strategy. He completely disregarded everything Conway had ever told him. That left Paul completely without a strategy… there seemed to be many ups and downs on both sides for this battle. Paul was determined to make one Candice would forever remember.

    “Battle begin…!” Mr. Honcho called out, officially starting the challenge.

    “You think your kiai can match up with mine?!” Candice called out, throwing her Pokéball. “Show him what we’re made of, Abomasnow!

    Over seven feet tall and nearly three hundred pounds, Candice immediately sent out her trump card. The children in the audience looked on with awe and wonder.

    “Wonder what Miss Candice is planning,” one girl said out loud. “I’ve never seen her send out Abomasnow first!”

    “I think she really wants to teach that guy a lesson by taking him out in one shot,” a young boy hypothesized. “And she knows how to counter her disadvantages, so I think this is already a game over for that guy!”

    Paul glared at this challenge. It certainly would have been useful to have Magmar now… “That must be her signature,” he muttered to himself. “If she’s sending that out already, she still thinks I’m too sick to fight. She wants to make this a swift one. I’ve got no choice, then…”

    It was time for Paul to send out his counter: “Torterra, stand by for battle!”

    Countering signature Pokémon with another signature, but there was a problem; Torterra had a double-weakness to Ice-type moves.

    Originally, as written in Conway’s strategy, Honchkrow was supposed to be sent out first. But just to spite the young man he considered a traitor, Paul decided to completely disregard the strategy and do the opposite of what it suggested. The children were certainly impressed just by seeing a Torterra and realizing how massive the species really was. But they soon recognized what a poor choice this was against a Pokémon like Abomasnow.

    “What’s that guy thinking?!” another random boy in the crowd yelled out. “Doesn’t he know better?!”

    Candice simply smirked. She knew this had to be Paul’s starter Pokémon, and therefore his most powerful. But could it really show off that power with such a great disadvantage in types?

    “I like your style,” she complimented. “I certainly didn’t expect you to bring out a Grass/Ground-Type to the field.”

    “I’m just full of surprises,” Paul sarcastically replied, deciding to make the first move. “Torterra, use Stone Edge!”

    Even Torterra had no idea where Paul was going with this, but it utilized the only effective attack it had against Abomasnow. But much to Paul’s horror, Abomasnow stood its ground.

    “You can take that, Abomasnow!” Candice ordered. “Let him think that’s his ace in the hole!”

    Actually… that was the only trump card move Torterra had on hand. Frenzy Plant and Giga Drain would be ineffective… there was Crunch, which Paul taught Torterra to spite Conway, and he was originally going to teach Torterra Iron Head. It would be neutral, but Abomasnow would have to come to Torterra for it to mean anything.

    Already frustrated at how badly this boded for him, Paul called out the next attack. “Now use Frenzy Plant!”

    Even if it would be ineffective against Abomasnow, it was the strongest known Grass-type move. Surely it would do some damage…

    While the thorny roots popped out from the ice and struck Abomasnow, it still remained in fairly good shape. The power in itself was great, but not nearly enough to truly make a dent on Candice’s strongest Pokémon. Candice just laughed it off.

    “I figured you’d have some sort of unique plan if you were coming at me with a disadvantage!” she chided. “Guess you’re not in your right mind to battle after all! Abomasnow, use Blizzard!”

    Torterra was unable to move due to using Frenzy Plant. Paul growled as Torterra was hit hard by the ice storm. Paul himself had to shield his face from the frosty debris… Torterra was still in the game after all of that, but various sections of it were frozen.

    “Now use Ice Punch!” Candice commanded, causing Abomasnow to charge at the Continent Pokémon with full power. Paul had no idea how to counter this at all… even though he could have used Crunch, he completely forgot about it and had Torterra command another attack.

    “Torterra, use-”

    Abomasnow landed the hit on Torterra. It was hit hard. Paul didn’t even have the time to call for the counterattack. But now he was in desperation mode as he saw Torterra falter.

    “Giga Drain, now!” he commanded, hoping the ineffective move would at least keep Torterra alive for a bit longer so Paul could find some sort of weakness to Abomasnow, but…

    “Ice Shard, then Ice Punch again!”

    As a priority move, a gleaming spike of ice slammed into Torterra before it even got the chance to try Giga Drain. The following Ice Punch made sure of that.

    There was a thunderous thud as Torterra lost its ability to stand on its feet. It so badly didn’t want to fall so easily to this Gym Leader, remembering what Paul had said to it a month ago when he first received Brandon’s letter…

    “Don’t forget you’re going to be participating in Snowpoint City’s Gym Battle. You know what type that Gym will be, and you have your work cut out for you. Work hard and prove to me that you’re going to take these future battles seriously so I know I can count on you when we face the old man.”

    It pained Torterra to go down this quickly. But four direct hits with Ice-type moves were just too much, even for a tank like it. Paul was mortified at the sight.

    “Torterra is unable to battle!” Mr. Honcho confirmed. “Abomasnow is the winner!”

    Deep down, Torterra definitely hated itself for failing Paul after all the work its trainer had done just to get here. To be all for naught… it was very hard to swallow.

    Candice wasn’t the least bit surprised, but smiled to the children who cheered for her victory. She was completely convinced by this point that Paul was not in his right mind. She felt had he had, in her opinion, a potentially powerful kiai. But in this state, Paul was simply unable to give it his all.

    “Torterra… return,” Paul softly said; his ego now crushed completely due to the fact that his Torterra went down so quickly. The match wasn’t over yet, however. Paul still had three more left…

    “So, your strongest player was taken down in four shots, huh?” Candice asked Paul, which surprised him; that being the fact that she could so quickly identify Torterra as Paul’s starter. “I’ll make this interesting, then. I’ll take out your next Pokémon in three hits with full kiai power!”

    That taunt pushed Paul over the edge. “Oh, you will not!

    Hastily, he threw out his next competitor. “Honchkrow, stand by for battle…!”

    Honchkrow had both a disadvantage and an advantage against Abomasnow. An Ice-type weakness for Honchkrow, but a Flying-type weakness for Abomasnow.

    “Hm, a bit more sensible this time!” Candice noted. “Still unpredictable, but I bet you’ve got a trick up your sleeve.”

    “Yeah, it’s called taking down your Pokémon with Sky Attack!” Paul replied angrily. “Go, Honchkrow!”

    Sky Attack was powerful and sure to do significant damage to Abomasnow. But it was an attack that required time to charge… Candice knew how to take advantage of that: her priority move.

    “Quick, use Ice Shard!” she called out, which Abomasnow promptly followed through with. In the midst of charging the attack, Honchkrow was unable to dodge the giant block of ice hurled towards it and was slammed hard, barely able to remain in flight mode at this point.

    Paul was furious. He was not going to let Honchkrow fall so easily to an Ice-type weakness again like it did against Byron. “Get back up in the air and use Aerial Ace, come on!”

    It would be an effective for-sure hit for Paul to score, at least. Abomasnow was knocked back into a pillar of ice due to the force behind Honchkrow’s strike. It too had no desire to lose; it was already on a streak as it was with Byron’s battle and the final Contest battle.

    “Now that it’s in close range, use Ice Punch, Abomasnow!” Candice instructed, very analytical of the battle schematics at this point. Honchkrow was not nearly the tank that Torterra was, so she knew it could be taken out in three hits if she played her cards right. Paul was so dazed and controlled by his fury that he forgot to tell Honchkrow to dodge the attack… it very well could have, but Ice Punch connected… that sent the Big Boss Pokémon straight to the ground.

    Paul couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Honchkrow…”

    “Wrap it up with Blizzard!” was Candice’s final command for this round, and with Honchkrow in such a weakened state, there was nothing it could do but take the ice. It attempted to fly out of it, but that resulted in Honchkrow becoming completely frozen in a block of ice in midair.

    Of course, due to the laws of gravity, that chunk of ice fell back to the field and shattered, revealing a very knocked-out Honchkrow.

    “Honchkrow is unable to battle!” shouted Mr. Honcho. “The winner is Abomasnow!”

    Candice was right; Honchkrow was taken out in approximately three hits. And the Gym Leader knew she was right… she was proving to Paul here and now that he was not truly ready yet to face her. The only way to get that through the head of one as stubborn as Paul was to soundly sweep him in battle to prove it.

    Silently, Paul recalled Honchkrow back to its Pokéball. He was definitely on edge at this point; he had lost two Pokémon within just a few hits… while Candice’s Abomasnow remained standing in relatively good health. It was only then that Paul started to think that charging into this Gym Battle in his weakened state with no strategy and type disadvantages across his team probably wasn’t the right move to make.

    Quite simply, he had let himself be controlled by his raw emotions. His hatred for Conway and Ash were largely why he was doing it this way in the first place. Then there was his father… that in itself was a complex mess of mixed emotions. But Paul was still so weak, yet still so determined to prove that nothing was wrong with him… that he wasn’t sick like his mother was…

    He had no business being here now. But it was too late to back out, in Paul’s opinion. There was still a slim chance he could pull this off…

    “Still want more?” Candice challenged. “Because I’ll bet you that I can take out your next Pokémon in two hits!”

    There was a pattern of ridicule Candice was enforcing here for Paul’s own good. By defeating him in the most embarrassing manner possible, she would get him to wake up and realize the error of his ways. She could tell just by looking at the young man that he had a strong fighting spirit, and therefore a strong team… but he was understandably drained by his journey to get here and he refused to admit that. This here was Candice’s way of tough love.

    “Two hits?” Paul grumbled, taking out his next Pokéball. “Just go ahead and try! Ursaring, stand by for battle!”

    An essential powerhouse to Paul’s team, Ursaring was the only Pokémon without a disadvantage to Ice-type attacks. And luckily for Paul, Ursaring had Fighting-type moves in its repertoire that would easily combat a fragile Ice-type… and perhaps finally defeat that Abomasnow, at least.

    “You’re nothing but full of surprises,” Candice mused. “Not a Fire-type to be seen yet, and you’re down to two… I really like your style, Paul. Everyone else who faces me is always so predictable with their choices! And that Ursaring looks strong… better brace yourself, Abomasnow! It’s maximum kiai time!”

    Abomasnow understood Candice’s suggestion and went on the defensive, leaving itself wide open for an attack that Paul was more than happy to oblige.

    “Ursaring, Hammer Arm!” Paul ordered, which had Ursaring sliding swiftly towards the Frost Tree Pokémon. Both of its arms glowed, ready to land a heavy hit on its opponent. Candice made no order, and Abomasnow took that brutal attack, definitely feeling that one. Ursaring’s speed suffered as a result of using this move, but being so close to Abomasnow now made that not even matter now.

    “Now, finish it off with Focus Blast!” Paul really believed this was finally the time he would score a win; when the tables would turn in his favor.

    But Ursaring being this close was yet another fatal mistake.

    “Use Blizzard!” Candice shouted, and with Ursaring being so close to Abomasnow and too slow to evade the attack, it got the brunt of the frigid onslaught. And, much to Paul’s horror, the consequence of the closeness was Ursaring becoming completely frozen again.

    Just like when it was frozen solid during Paul’s match against Byron and his Steelix, which used Ice Fang at the time. That too was a fatal error that rendered Ursaring unable to battle without being able to take down a single opponent.

    “How about we close the book on this match right now?” Candice taunted. “Abomasnow, use Wood Hammer!”

    This was easy to do with an immobile target. With the grassy part of its massive arm, it was imbued with a glow of a light blue hue. Effortlessly, Abomasnow smashed Ursaring hard into the icy floor, leaving a massive crater in its wake. The ice surrounding Ursaring had been shattered now, but… the force was too much; Ursaring was rendered unconscious.

    “Ursaring is unable to battle! Abomasnow is the winner!” came Mr. Honcho’s confirmation.

    Once again, Candice was right. The third match was over in just two hits. Paul silently recalled Ursaring shortly afterward, still struggling to believe that this wasn’t just some sort of nightmare instead.

    “I think you know what’s coming next,” Candice teased. “You can guess, right?”

    Paul really didn’t feel like speaking at a time like this, but he very well knew what she meant. And he couldn’t help but notice that her Abomasnow was quietly suffering a bit of recoil damage from using Wood Hammer. That made him smirk; with his last Pokémon, he would at least be able to take down that Abomasnow.

    “You’re going to take out my last Pokémon in one hit?” he assumed.

    “You bet!” the Gym Leader confirmed. “Abomasnow’s still got some spunk! It’s just gonna take some real good timing!”

    Paul shook his head. “Good luck with that. Your Abomasnow must be running on empty by now.”

    “Underestimating my Pokémon is a mistake you’ll live to regret,” Candice warned, though still with a smile and a playful tone to her voice. “Go ahead and hit me with your best shot.”

    “Fine,” Paul grunted, sending out his final Pokéball. “Gliscor, stand by for battle…!”

    Candice couldn’t help it. She really, really could not understand what Paul was going for here, unless he had just flat-out assumed that she was a low-rate Gym Leader who could be defeated even with her own advantages. But Paul had never said nor insinuated such a thing, and yet…

    “Without a doubt, you’re my most unpredictable competitor so far,” she admitted, scratching her head. “Ground and Flying? That’s…”

    “Doubly weak to Ice; I know,” Paul replied, still sounding bitter over his inevitable loss. “Don’t think I didn’t come prepared. Now, Gliscor! Attack with X-Scissor!”

    As Gliscor flew towards its opponent, ready to mark it with an X-shaped slash, Candice nodded in approval. “Bug-type move, huh. We can take it, Abomasnow! We’re gonna need a maximum power kiai to do this in one hit, you know!”

    But of course it wasn’t going to be that difficult, as Gliscor was doubly weak to its specialty element. Still, Abomasnow was struggling to continue enduring Paul’s powerful moves. That was the other indication that made Candice recognize Paul as a seasoned competitor; he obviously put a lot of emphasis on strength and made sure to destroy every obstacle blocking his path. It was as obvious in his personality just like his battling style.

    “Don’t give it a chance to retaliate!” Paul ordered, purely desperate to take down this beast. “Steel Wing, let’s go!”

    Yet another super-effective move. Candice calmed herself, trying to time this exactly right… Abomasnow was a mere few blows from losing consciousness.

    “And finish it off with Guillotine!” The end of Paul’s three-part assault of desperation and rage. If that move connected, it would undoubtedly be all over for Abomasnow.

    “Not so fast!” Candice interrupted. “Abomasnow, give it the best Ice Shard you can throw! Make this count!”

    Once again, a priority move. Guillotine didn’t even have a chance to succeed or fail before Gliscor was pummeled with the largest block of ice Abomasnow could form.

    The full extent of Candice’s and Abomasnow’s determination to win was quite strong in the pain that Gliscor went through. Its poor position in the air left it crashing to the ground… and it didn’t get back up afterwards.

    Mr. Honcho made the result official: “Gliscor is unable to battle! Abomasnow is the winner, thus our victor for this battle is Gym Leader Candice!”

    Those words echoed throughout Paul’s mind as he suddenly looked very numb. With a blank expression on his face, he recalled Gliscor to its Pokéball. Just like with the others, Gliscor received no encouragement or compliments whatsoever. Paul felt too ashamed to even speak right now, especially when he heard the victorious cries of the children who watched the whole thing.

    After waving to her young fans, Candice smiled to Abomasnow. “That was some great work, Abomasnow! You really stuck it out and I’m very impressed. You’ve earned a good, long rest.”

    She recalled Abomasnow, then looking to the one who challenged her to the battle. Everything went exactly the way she said it would: Torterra went down in four hits, Honchkrow in three, Ursaring in two, and Gliscor with one.

    “I know you’ve got to be strong to have made it all this way, Paul,” she reassured. “And seeing the strength of your Pokémon, you’ve obviously been a trainer for a few years at least. But this was the only way to show you that just because you’ve got a lot of experience under your belt doesn’t mean you’re invincible!”

    Paul could only barely look to her, but still wasn’t responding. He just wanted to let her know that he was indeed listening.

    “Take a few days to chill and challenge me again!” she requested. “I want to see your real kiai the next time we have a battle, you got that?”

    What could Paul possibly say to that? He couldn’t argue a single word she said; she had just completely swept him almost effortlessly. And all this time Paul thought Candice would be so much weaker than Byron… it wasn’t so often that Paul underestimated a trainer so greatly. All he wanted to do now was rest; he’d officially gone well past his limit.

    … This was made even more apparent when Paul vomited out of nowhere, shocking everyone present in the arena. This was no ordinary vomit… this was blood.

    “G-geez, you’re way worse off than we thought!” Candice cried out in a panic. “Quick, we need to get him to a doctor…!”

    Paul was unable to play it off as he normally would have, as the sudden blood loss made him feel extremely dizzy, and after a few moments, he lost consciousness completely. He fell to his knees, then lifelessly right over the blood he just regurgitated. Everything blacked out to Paul; his senses completely dulled.

    Still, the first words that came to his mind after regaining an ounce of consciousness were none other than…

    “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

    Oddly enough, in his head, Paul could have sworn he had heard an unfamiliar woman’s voice say those very words simultaneously with him.

    He woke up in what should have been a familiar setting for him by now: a hospital. Once again, he was in a random bed in the usual garb worn by an in-patient… though since this was Snowpoint City’s facility, it was a bit more advanced. More out of necessity, really, considering how treacherous it could be just outside of the city limits.

    “Thank goodness… you’re awake now.”

    At least that voice was vaguely familiar: Nurse Joy. The same one who had treated him before the Gym Battle and obviously had guilt issues for not catching onto this sooner.

    “Why did you follow me here?” Paul just had to ask, confused as to how he ended up here… but at this point, it wasn’t hard for him to guess. But he would never admit his own suspicions.

    “I was wrong to look at this, but Chansey pointed it out and because I didn’t know about this, you… came very close to dying, Paul,” she explained somberly. “You vomited blood and passed out right after you lost your battle against Candice, and no one had a clue as to how or why you were in such an awful shape until I stepped in and told them. I had to, so they would know how to treat you. I’m so sorry…”

    Paul had a feeling he knew what she was talking about. But even to the very final seconds of being able to do so, Paul still dismissed the possibility. “What are you talking about? What did you find…?”

    Nurse Joy showed her discovery directly to him. “Your test results from Doctor Dalton of Squallville. I gave him a call after you left and gave me instructions on what to do in case of a likely worst-case scenario.”

    “What nonsense!” Paul shot back. It was likely the rest he finally had and the painkillers he was on that even gave him the ability to bark out at someone like this. “There’s nothing wrong with-”

    “There is very much something wrong with you, Paul,” Nurse Joy interrupted, glaring at him. “I know this must be hard to take, but you can’t keep running away anymore. If you do, you may not survive an incident like this next time! And there will be a next time, Paul!”

    Paul’s eyes narrowed at the assumption. “And what makes you so sure of that?”

    “I read these papers,” she explained. “And either you haven’t or you’ve just deeply rooted yourself into denial, but this is it: you have to have the courage to live with this for as long as you can. Paul… the disease your mother died from was genetic. And based on a series of tests the doctor at Squallville performed… the results are matching up perfectly with your mother’s from years ago.”

    “I…” Paul was speechless. He was never directly told this, much as it had been implied. “No, I just…”

    “Your mother’s disease was passed down to you since the day of your birth,” Nurse Joy clarified. “I’m so sorry…”

    Paul could no longer run away from the truth. He couldn’t pretend it didn’t exist, or that it was some strange concocted medical mumbo-jumbo to fool him into paying doctors ridiculous sums of money that he didn’t have.

    No… Paul was forced to acknowledge it from this day to the rest of his life… which if his mother was any example to go by, meant that Paul had roughly twenty years left. Twenty years of illness and pain.

    Paul was terminally ill.

    ( TBC )

    Chapter 19: Black Ice Battle!
    plurk | SPPF | dA | ff.net

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