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TEEN: Travels of the Trifecta!

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 )
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.
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.
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. :)
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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 )
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

I think I nearly jizzed when I saw the little fanfiction alert in my email a few hours ago. Chemistry homework could wait for all I cared. My mind is still blown by the sheer awesomeness of your fic, Shin, so I'll just spurt out whatever comes to mind before I resort to a complete and utter mind blank. I swear I nearly cried right where you ended off with chapter 12. I had a feeling it was terminal illness, but for Paul to have it is just so surreal. Your battles are just so full of awesome and epicness and win; you have a wonderful skill of completely captivating your reader. The notion of the term "tl;dr" would be completely exempt in regards to your fic. In short, you are quite definitely one of my favourite writers here, and I'll be loyally reading every other chapter you produce. Keep writing, and I'm so, so sorry to hear about your cat. :( I hope he rests in peace.
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

Cried? Really? Meanwhile I was laughing like the diabolical person I am... of course I had this planned for ages. XD But it's awesome that it turns out to be a nice plot twist (guess it'll explain his offstandish behavior whenever I adapt DP128 and 131-132?), so thank you~! Guess in a way it's a form of karma, considering Paul had finally rid himself of Conway in the most dastardly way possible and was so convinced that he was going to progress as he planned... only for it to go all wrong, and while Conway's still suffering, he's finally found a path for himself (his recent status as a League candidate in the latest anime OP convinced me to have him running around winning badges, at least). They'll reunite... at some point... and it'll all be hilarious.

I expect 13's going to be every bit as eventful, and I'll finally be able to use that chapter title I thought up half a year ago... ♥
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

Thank you! I was having a pretty bad day up until now. Seriously, thanks. So, onto reviewing. So, as mentioned before, Paul's terminally ill... I practically brainwashed myself that wouldn't be the case, but things will certainly be interesting. Great job with Smoochum, too. A first I was a bit nervous about its upcoming presence, but I didn't need to worry! It was really nice hearing things from the Pokemon's point of view. Speaking of which, Torterra's was... poor Torterra. Oh, how could I forget the pizza-fied Mars? I would have laughed so much if my brother wasn't next to me. And, so sorry about this, I must mentioned Conway. At least he's... happy may not be right, but... there's no better description I can think of. Also, did he practically break the fourth wall?

Anyways, great job! (Here, let me release the two smilies who were trying to escape throughout this review). n_n XD

Um... on a last note, sorry about Sneaky... I've known for a while, but... Sorry, not too good at... using words...
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Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

Cried? Really? Meanwhile I was laughing like the diabolical person I am... of course I had this planned for ages. XD
I can sort of understand you there. Whenever I cause any pain or suffering to a character in one of my own writings I’d be idly grinning away at the notion, whereas a reader however would be crying through it. I’m actually not that much of a Paul fan at all (at least, I wouldn’t fangirl over him by any chance); so for you to actually make me feel any sympathy towards him is saying a great deal about your calibre as a writer. :)
But it's awesome that it turns out to be a nice plot twist (guess it'll explain his offstandish behavior whenever I adapt DP128 and 131-132?), so thank you~!
Aww, you’re welcome. :) He did seem a little weird during those few episodes, not to mention that the writers conveniently left out our fandom’s daddy theory (...D8<), so I’m more than eager to see your take of it.
They'll reunite... at some point... and it'll all be hilarious.
Yes, yes indeed. 8D
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

Uh...long time reader, first time reviewer here. So hi! Please excuse my impending long-windedness.

Y'know, it was this story that got me interested in Paul as a character. Before, I just thought "ugh, what a boring, generic jerk" and now he's one of my favourites. Well, in a love-hate sorta way, at least =P. How much has my opinion changed? Enough to make me want to watch episodes in the BF and Sinnoh storylines (no prizes for guessing why I didn't before). Still not keen on it, but hey, at least my finger isn't hovering over the mute button so much.

Oh yeah, I'm here to review, aren't I? Anyhoo, I'm surprised that no-one else has written an AU with the idea that Paul's the spawn of the Pyramid King. Really, with all those people suggesting the theory ever since we first got a glimpse of Paul, you'd think more people would've run with it. Oh well.

Ack, I should cut to the chase already. Maylene having a crush on Reggie is not only plausible, but oh-so-adorable. Can't say I blame her. Aww, now that's a good idea for a present there, Maylene! I also noticed that she has a Hitmontop and a Breloom. Taken from the Platinum rematch, I assume?

Oh Mars, you and your priorities. Cyrus would be horrified. Except not, what with the whole "trying to kill my emotions" dealio. The stark contrast between Mars and Saturn is, as Sukizo would put it, remarkable! Makes me wonder how Mars got her position in the first place. Then again, maybe it's for the best we don't know.

Poor Conway. Poor, poor Conway. I just wanna give him a hug, but I doubt he'd react well after what he's been through. Aww, the mental image of a Smoochum swimming is too cute for words.

As for Paul? Still laughing at the idea of him falling into a snow pit. At least he thinks that Candice isn't exactly dressed for the weather. I don't get it myself.

My reaction to the kiai thing was pretty much the same as Paul's. "Mad awesome what now?"

Oh, the irony. Paul's being just as stubborn as Ash, if not moreso. Scratch that, even Ash wouldn't try to push himself that much.

See, Paul? This is what you get when you don't take time to recover and clear your head. I think that battle did a great job of illustrating that fact. There's just something satisfying about humiliating and/or torturing your favourite characters, yeah?

I knew the terminal illness was coming. But that last scene still made my jaw drop. Regardless, it's an interesting thought. Anything in particular that inspired that? And do you have a specific illness in mind?

I'll backtrack a bit. I still had to blink at the last few lines. If someone can tell you what will happen in a story, and still maintain the emotional impact when it actually happens? In my opinion, that is the sign of an excellent writer.

Whoa, I really make rambling an extreme sport. Just one last thing I wanna say: you have my condolences. May your cat rest well.
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

Gato said:
Also, did he practically break the fourth wall?

Well, Team Rocket can, so why not Conway? Actually, it's sort of a "yes" and "no". Since he's directly responding to a conversation that did take place early in the fic and all, I worded it oddly enough to where it can be interpreted both ways. XD I do not expect to abuse that, though.

@Crysta: Ahaha, I remember you. Your short LJ entry always popped up whenever I put my fic through search engines, and it's really damn flattering to know this stuff can change people's minds. And I only say that because I'm like sure there's been someone who hated Conway who now loves him due to the fic, same with someone who didn't like Brandon, and probably other people who initially didn't like Paul as well. Admittedly, from what I've seen, he's... not well-represented in the fanfiction. I can think of maybe two other stories where he's actually in character.

Either way, I love getting questions and thank you for all the thoughts and breaking out of lurkerdom to give them to me! Now let's see what I can do~.

I also noticed that she has a Hitmontop and a Breloom. Taken from the Platinum rematch, I assume?

Most def. Added Primeape so she would have six, and after looking at what was left over, I honestly couldn't see what else she would have (beyond Makuhita/Hariyama, but since Paul has one of those already...).

Crysta Blade said:
I knew the terminal illness was coming. But that last scene still made my jaw drop. Regardless, it's an interesting thought. Anything in particular that inspired that? And do you have a specific illness in mind?

Ahhh, the million dollar question. Really, I'm sort of a know-nothing when it comes to medical stuff and have BSed it this entire time. I was banking on some stupid made-up disease since Pokemon canon comes up with that crap all the time. I know people elsewhere guessed TB and lung cancer... I'm pretty sure it's some kind of cancer.

I'm trying to think back when I decided to have Paul terminally ill... it was probably around the time that I made him sick the first time. People were really amused with it and I had tons of fun writing about Paul going through that torture, so I dragged it out by getting him sick again and again until bam, he realizes he's gonna die in a couple of decades.

In a way, that really helps to up that impatience of his, since his time is officially limited when it comes to achieving his goals. It gets Paul to look at things from a different perspective (or it will, anyway), as he gradually shows more of his personality in DP128, especially his weaknesses. He's a slow learner for sure, but a good shock to Paul's world gives that prickish protagonist an extra challenge to overcome; something that really hasn't been done by many people before. And I think I established by now that Paul takes after Brandon while Reggie takes after mom. This is where I start twisting it a bit, pushing the bold statement into a gray area by making Paul sick like his mom and Reggie healthy and strong like Brandon. And gradually, over time, more of this shows.

But yeah. All in all, not much inspired this move, I don't think, above the reactions from readers early on and my personal sadistic enjoyment. Pff, how silly.

Man, all you guys are great. :') It really makes me happy to see how people are thoroughly enjoying the story after all this time. And thanks for the cat condolences; that was one of the hardest things I ever had to go through, but life experiences are like that. My cat died in the best possible way and he's definitely resting in peace. My mom and I nearly broke our backs making sure of that. Thanks again!
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

Ahaha, I remember you. Your short LJ entry always popped up whenever I put my fic through search engines,

Meep. You caught me! *shifty eyes* But seriously, it's real nice that you remember me.

and it's really damn flattering to know this stuff can change people's minds.

As I recall, I found your story around the time the Snowpoint arc was announced in Japan. Before then, Paul didn't really capture my interest.

Admittedly, from what I've seen, he's... not well-represented in the fanfiction. I can think of maybe two other stories where he's actually in character.

Sad, but true. I am stunned by all the "Draco in Leather Pants" treatment he gets in a lot of fanfic and I think to myself "huh? Don't the rabid fangirls usually go for someone a bit more, you know, attractive (Paul definitely got a lousy deal in the genetics department)?" Is it because some see him as a bad boy? Or is it that he's just so much like Silver (another one who cops it)? Whatever the reason, I can't say I agree with it.

I start to wonder if those fangirls would move to Silver if he ever had a proper animé appearance. Odds say yes, but if he did show up, it'd take the heat off Paul a bit.

Either way, I love getting questions and thank you for all the thoughts and breaking out of lurkerdom to give them to me!

Ehehe, no problem. I am kinda shy, so whenever I pluck up the courage to say something, I get really wordy. Perhaps it's a sign that I really need to write my own fanfic.

Most def. Added Primeape so she would have six, and after looking at what was left over, I honestly couldn't see what else she would have (beyond Makuhita/Hariyama, but since Paul has one of those already...).

Makes sense. Though Primeape I don't think has been on the show that much, so that works out well.

Really, I'm sort of a know-nothing when it comes to medical stuff and have BSed it this entire time. I was banking on some stupid made-up disease since Pokemon canon comes up with that crap all the time. I know people elsewhere guessed TB and lung cancer... I'm pretty sure it's some kind of cancer.

That's okay, my knowledge of medicine extends only to what I've seen on TV, and lord knows how accurate that is. True what you say about canon. There are times when I go "bzuh?"

As for what it could be, I wouldn't have a clue. All I've got is that the illness results in eventual multiple organ failure, which killed Andrea and will eventually kill Paul...Whoa. I just realised how morbid my mind can get.

Then again, there could possibly an illness with the same symptoms that Paul has. Hey, if there's something out there that can cause one to believe that everyone's singing (I watch too much Scrubs), who knows?

I'm trying to think back when I decided to have Paul terminally ill... it was probably around the time that I made him sick the first time. People were really amused with it and I had tons of fun writing about Paul going through that torture, so I dragged it out by getting him sick again and again until bam, he realizes he's gonna die in a couple of decades.

Characters exist for our own amusement, regardless of how sick and twisted it may be. =P I guess I find satisfaction in someone like Paul no longer being in control. Might be the whole "how the mighty have fallen" thing. And I get the urge to point and laugh at him like I'm Nelson Muntz. Haw-haw! ...'Kay, that sounds a little twisted.

But yeah. All in all, not much inspired this move, I don't think, above the reactions from readers early on and my personal sadistic enjoyment. Pff, how silly.

Works for me! The more you like a character, the more you hurt them, right?
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)


I have been in the process of reading your (extremely long, might I add) chapters over the past few days, where I've had off from school. And frankly, there was nothing I would rather do with that time!

Alright, I admit it. The thing that first drew me in to the story was the presence of Conway. He's just a great character. And I'm pleased to report that you kept him wonderfully in that character the entire time, and even drew up a lot of new information that never occurred to me but actually fit in perfectly! (Such as Team Galactic and his connections with them. <3) I'm also very happy with your Paul. I have only had the pleasure of roleplaying with another person who uses him flawlessly, so I can't contribute to your Paul In Leather Pants discussion, but I do know that you did play him perfectly well! Cruel enough to make me think "Oh, yeah, definitely Paul" but also headstrong enough for me to mentally scream "YOU MORON!"

The whole illness thing wasn't much of a reveal, since it became pretty clear to me after Paul got sick the second time that there was something seriously wrong with him, and that was sort of solidified when you explained his mother's death. So I can't say it was a perfectly-executed avalanche of foreshadowing, but it was certainly fascinating to watch. XD

All of the canon characters were kept perfectly in line - no simple feat, I tell you, being a person who roleplays and writes about canon characters all the time - and the plot is believable but just Galactic-y enough to keep me thinking "Yeah, this is totally something Saturn/Mars/Magneton Man Cyrus would do". I love how you made Mars' primary motivation pizza, and not to mention her borderline-sadistic feminine skills. |3 Saturn is good, too, though I do think he ought to lose his temper just a little more often. He did it quite a lot with Charon around in The Gateway to Ruin! or whatever that Looker-fu episode was called. |3

I also envy your ability to write battles and long chapters. Long chapters because, well, I was 'brought up' in fanfiction at a place where the character limit was 20,000, and like all little kids back then I thought the character limit was God when it came to fic length. So I was writing four-page chapters for a lot of my early existence... yikes. I'm breaking the habit and getting uo to around eight pages, but I'm still in awe of you. And battles... I am an epic failure at battles, even now, and you execute them so perfectly that it really seems like they've been ripped directly out of the more epic parts of the anime. And for that, I salute you. Again.

And oh yeah: did I mention Conway? 'Cause it's a real pain in the tail to find some decent works on Conway.

All in all, THIS FIC IS SERIOUSLY AWESOME! No amount of words could explain how cool this story is, so I'll just shut up now with a "Keep writing already!"
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

I was hoping for an update, but alas.
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

I was hoping for an update, but alas.

Yeaaaah... it's been over three months by now, ahah. Chapter 13 is almost done (it's around 17k words currently, which is roughly as long as the previous chapters have been); I just have maybe a quarter of the main scene left to write and then a short scene to wrap up the chapter. Main reason this has taken so long is A) Spring hates me and wants me sick every week, B) My cross to bear as a female every month hasn't been treating me much better, C) I've invested 185 hours into SoulSilver if that's any indication of where a lot of my attention went, and D) I finally got a job after three years of failure. It's also my first full-time job and in the government, no less, so I've had to focus on getting used to a normal sleep schedule for once. This is actually a very good thing because I'm able to write the fic at work (since there's a lull in the workload and I'm not even registered in all of the systems yet, so there's not much work I've actually been able to do on my own). So within a week, the fic jumped from 7 pages to 30.

At this rate, I ought to have the chapter done and up sometime this coming week unless my body refuses to let me do anything productive as it often does during "that time". But I should have something to buffer the pain this time around, so that will hopefully remedy that issue. I was hoping to get it done this weekend, but like I said. Feeling like crap, and forcing myself to write like that is going to reek of crap-writing that was phoned in. I really do want to get it done by the end of this coming week, though, since Super Mario Galaxy 2 is due to come out a week from now unless I'm mistaken... and if it's as awesome as its predecessor, that will become the game that sucks up all my time for certain. The original's music was actually a big source of inspiration during certain scenes in Chapter 8.

But yeah, 13 is forthcoming. Just to let you know ahead of time, Paul is hardly in this chapter. He's got one 4-page scene and I plan to give him another small scene at the end, but that's it. This mainly centers around a Reggie/Maylene scene (since so many people wanted to see that battle, which I initially never planned to write out) that will serve as Reggie's motivation to go to Snowpoint City, and more importantly Conway dealing with his family ordeals that sets the stage for his journey's beginning. Even though I consider the chapter Conway-centric, it almost feels like Maylene's really the one on center stage since she's been in both of the major scenes of this fic. Which is just as well, since I don't expect Maylene to appear again for a long time after this chapter. That's probably another factor as to why this chapter's taken so long; while Paul and Conway are very easy for me to write, Reggie can be tricky and Maylene's flat-out difficult.

Anyway, I'll be eager to start 14 not long after I finish this since it's the last chapter before the A Pyramiding Rage! adaption and it'll serve as the official appearance of Barry in the fic. So I'm still fully on-board with this, believe it! It's just been quite an eventful bundle of months in my life. First the cat dying, and now I'm suddenly employed.

... Meh, I wanted to write today, even, but I dunno if I can get myself to do it. So I might as well respond very belatedly to all this other stuff that came months ago!

Giratina! said:
Saturn is good, too, though I do think he ought to lose his temper just a little more often. He did it quite a lot with Charon around in The Gateway to Ruin!

I made a note of that since there's quite a bit of Saturn in this chapter as well. He's an even bigger douchebag in addition to that, and I do plan on adapting The Gateway to Ruin! when the time comes. ♥

Giratina! said:
I was 'brought up' in fanfiction at a place where the character limit was 20,000, and like all little kids back then I thought the character limit was God when it came to fic length.

Huh, really? Wonder what kind of place that was. I was brought up writing fics on Wordpad and later MS Word where no such limit ever existed and I'm pretty sure any forum I visited in the past didn't have limits like that, either. Then there was ff.net, so the only place so far I've known to be a total bitch about character limits is Serebii's forums (and deviantArt too). And yes, it is a pain in the ass to fragment my chapters over there. So I guess I was raised without much discipline in regards to story length. XD And look what that spawned into. Total monsters.

Crysta Blade said:
I start to wonder if those fangirls would move to Silver if he ever had a proper animé appearance. Odds say yes, but if he did show up, it'd take the heat off Paul a bit.

I... agree with that. Paul's definitely an acquired taste as far as the looks go (haha, Reggie ended up being the cute one). Fangirls just make the best of what they have, but if there was a proper Silver, then yeah, Paul would be quite royally ignored.

Also, even more belatedly:

Crysta Blade said:
I'm surprised that no-one else has written an AU with the idea that Paul's the spawn of the Pyramid King. Really, with all those people suggesting the theory ever since we first got a glimpse of Paul, you'd think more people would've run with it.

Not a day goes by that I don't ask myself that very same question. Most rumors this old usually have tons of fanon backup (can't imagine how many stories there are with Professor Oak being Ash's dad), but I've done my fair share of looking, and beyond the occasional fanart, there's really no material based off that theory at all. Not so sure about the other languages, but this fic's gotten a lot of recognition from both French and German fans despite it being purely English, so that leads me to believe that it really is scarce. Weird...

Alrighty, I'll just cross my fingers and hope for the best, because I want this chapter done as much as you all do, I'm sure. I did go out of my way to make a new banner for the fic a while ago just to prove that I am really still working on it, swear to god. XD So yeah, the wait won't be much longer!
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

(Alright! Here's some actual content for you guys! Sorry it took so long, seriously.)

It had only been hours ago since Paul was directly confronted with the truth and was forced to accept it no matter how hard he tried to tune it out.

Though it would be stretching it to say that Paul had fully accepted it at this point. He wasn't aware of it, but Paul had just passed through the first stage of grief: denial. The Veilstone City trainer would have to be as dense as Ash Ketchum to not realize earlier what was really going on. Paul suspected something might be wrong with him ever since he first set foot into Squallville. Truthfully, his problems had started well before then, but until that point, Paul had honestly believed it was just bad luck.

His deteriorating condition recently was a cause for concern, however. Much as Paul constantly tried to shove it out of his mind and focus on other matters, a tiny cloud of doubt dwelled in the back of his mind. With the doubt soon came the fear; that was the element that sent Paul into denial in the first place. Not merely out of fear itself… but due to the fact that Paul hated being afraid of anything.

To him, it was a most despicable and unforgivable weakness. It was one of many reasons why he never meshed well with Chimchar, a Pokémon that had shown honest fear plainly on its face since the day the two crossed paths. Fear was a great element in why Paul loathed his father with open intensity, the irony being that his old man was the bearer of the Brave Symbol. The reason for this alleged hypocrisy in Paul's eyes? That was rather complicated… but it all lied within the circumstances of his family's falling out once his mother passed on.

There was little Paul could do about resisting the fear of sharing his mother's fate; it was a perfectly normal (and especially understandable) thing to be afraid of. But once more, Paul rarely thought that "normal" behavior was acceptable. As the Pyramid King's son, he at least shared his father's view of always striving to go above and beyond. Not just as a Pokémon trainer, but also as a human being. That's where the similarities in their philosophies end, however.

All in all, it turned out that there were in fact many things in life that were simply beyond Paul's control. Paul was forced to live with the consequences of his ignorance and figure out where to go and what to do from here. But as the news was still fresh in his mind, Paul had no desire to speak to anybody at this time. While he was still in Snowpoint City's hospital, he was considered an AWOL patient, having left his bed during a rare moment where he was left alone after stabilizing and ultimately holed himself up within a bathroom stall.

It wasn't exactly the best hiding spot, but the weakened Paul's abilities were even more limited than they usually were. The drugs were likely the cause of that, good as they were at keeping Paul's pain to a minimum. Additionally, Paul was not ready to face the world yet in light of this news. The most comfortable place at this point for the young man was a small space that would drive a claustrophobic person mad; a lifeless environment so that Paul could concentrate and make sense of his current position. Still, even with the comfort of solitude, Paul shivered uncontrollably with the chilly floor and air. He propped himself up completely over a covered toilet, hugging his knees and resting his head against them. Paul was beside himself in pure anguish. Not knowing what to do only brought forth more unwanted fear. What he did know was that it would only be a matter of time before he was found and forced to come back into the real world. Paul prided himself on being decisive… but this was the one time where he found himself overwhelmed with doubt and completely without confidence. As such, making a decision… was difficult now. Paul used to not fear making the wrong choice, as long as he made the effort to stick with one rather than floating about indecisively like certain people who recently traveled by his side. A wrong choice still accomplished more than not making a choice at all, Paul thought.

For once, Paul truly feared the consequences of a wrong choice here. Being told so firmly and directly of his physical frailty shattered his very essence. If only he could get the privacy he needed in order to concentrate…

"Hey, Paul! You in there…?"

While Paul expected someone to barge into the facilities looking for him, Paul did not expect that someone to be a female… much less a familiar-sounding one.

Mainly, this was due to the fact that this was the men's bathroom. The spirited Gym Leader, Candice, was either completely oblivious to her blunder or disregarded it for the sake of her priority in searching for Paul.

This was what made it obvious to Paul that the entire hospital must be looking for him now; he didn't even remember Candice coming over for a visit.

"Awfully quiet in here," Candice muttered, surveying the surroundings. "Searching thoroughly is always priority one, though. I'd better not leave a stone unturned." She specifically eyed the stalls.

Paul sighed. It was as if the gods were mocking him, seeing how often he would be met up with the very last person he wanted to speak to at the worst possible time. Ultimately, Paul found it better to ward Candice away now than having her open the door and giving her the full view of what he had become. In spite of his suffering, Paul was still able to convincingly pull off his usual rude and uncouth act. "You shouldn't be in here."

Candice gasped and turned to the stall where the voice came from. It hadn't been that long ago since the battle at Snowpoint Gym and the low-pitched voice was clearly distinguishable. "Paul…? Is that you?"

"You're looking for me, right?" Paul asked in an accusatory tone. "The whole hospital must be by now. Though that doesn't explain why you're here."

The Gym Leader had gotten word on Paul's diagnosis when she arrived, so she knew this was a situation meant to be taken seriously. "I was coming by for a visit to see how you were doing," she told him with full honesty. "What happened at Snowpoint Gym really had me worried. But just as I stepped through the doors, the staff told me you had gone missing, so I volunteered to help them find you."

"I need some time to myself," was Paul's simple explanation. "So if you wouldn't mind, don't tell anyone where I am. You see now that I'm fine… I'll return to my room when I'm ready."

Candice's expressions faltered a bit as she began to feel conflicted. Now that she knew of his condition, Paul's actions were a little easier to understand. "I'll talk with the staff on your behalf about giving you some alone-time," she assured. "But I can't just leave you here, Paul. They told me everything… about how sick you are. And I'm really sorry to hear that…"

She carefully inched closer towards the stalls in hopes of cornering her challenger, but Paul could both hear her steps and see her shadow coming towards him; he knew what Candice had in mind. "Don't come any closer!" he threatened, raising his voice dramatically.

"Ack!" Candice froze just then, startled at the viciousness of Paul's tone. There was an awkward moment of silence before the Gym Leader found her voice again. "L-Listen, Paul… let's not make this difficult, okay? How about we just…"

In spite of his physical state (not to mention being medicated), Paul was still sharp enough to formulate a plan for keeping Candice away. "No! No negotiations!" he insisted. "If you were told everything, then you know my life is already forfeit. Make one wrong move and I'll make sure my life ends by my own hands before the disease ever gets a chance."

Candice couldn't believe what she was hearing. The very mention of suicide had her mind on high alert, which made it difficult for her to stay put as Paul instructed. "Wait, no! Paul, don't-… please, you've got to think this over!!"

Paul smirked, not surprised how easily Candice was fooled into believing his words. After all, most threats like this were hard to disregard whether or not they were genuine. "I have been. Why else would I go through the trouble of escaping my own bed and all the way here? It's hard to pull off suicide when I'm so heavily monitored."

"You can't mean that!" Candice cried out. Now she was a little too afraid to leave the restroom. "I know this has got to be hard for you to live with, but you can't give everything up now!" She frowned. "You're too strong a person to be thinking like that…"

"And you would know, wouldn't you?" Paul snidely replied. "Don't act like you know how I feel; you're not the one who's going to die at age thirty."

This was getting too intense for Candice to handle on her own. Never before had she ever dealt with suicidal opponents. It wasn't adding up in her head why Paul would resort to this so quickly, but Candice realized it would be unwise to overthink this.

"Paul, we're trying to help you," she pleaded. "We can make the best of this, I promise! You just have to believe in us…"

"Believe?" Paul scoffed, having abandoned that practice years ago. "What good is that? I'm still going to die. I'm warning you, Candice: back off or this knife goes right through my throat."

Of course, there was no knife. Paul was still bluffing.

"H-how did you get a knife?!" Candice wailed, looking very nervous at this point. "Don't…!"

Paul was unable to stop smirking, as he actually felt joyous to be toying with the Gym Leader that just wiped the floor with him earlier that day. "In a hospital? It's easier than you think as long as you don't get caught. Now stop asking stupid questions and do as I say."

"I-if you're serious about this," Candice stammered. "How can I be sure you won't kill yourself the second I leave?!"

"Guess you'll just have to trust me," Paul slyly replied. "But I'll end it here and now if you don't leave, so you really don't have any options."

As Candice slowly backed away, an idea suddenly struck her. "No… there's another way." She brought out one of her Pokéballs and tossed it. "Sneasel, I need your help…!"

The sound of a Pokémon being released from its ball was alarming for Paul, as his first assumption was that she was going to take him back by force. "Call it back!" he barked, genuinely threatened. "This is your last warning!"

Candice had a feeling this would make Paul overreact and was quick to hush him. "It's not what you think! I'll leave, but only if my Sneasel can keep an eye on you so I know you won't try anything while I'm gone."

"Is that all?" Paul warily asked, not sure if he should go along with this. "I don't want it any closer than you are right now. If you'll concede to that, then we have a deal."

"Fine," Candice agreed, stiffly nodding her head. "But Sneasel will go in there if you try to hurt yourself, alright? … I'll give you your privacy now."

It wasn't exactly what he wanted, but Paul could at least live with the compromise if he didn't have to personally deal with Candice's Sneasel. "Go ahead," he affirmed, frowning and glaring daggers at the floor where he could see the two shadows. To his relief, Candice was sticking to her word and leaving the vicinity.

He let out an exhausted sigh once he was certain that Candice was no longer in the restroom. Thinking back on it, Paul couldn't believe he actually resorted to empty suicidal threats to earn these extra few moments of solitude.

It seemed to not make much of a difference regardless, as Paul was no more collected when he was finally taken back to his room than he was when he first ran off to begin with. Candice wasn't there to witness this, but was able to at least negotiate with the doctors to give Paul a private recovery room.

Much as it helped Paul to finally have some alone time for himself, it was still going to take a couple of days for this to sink in. It would only get worse from there; Paul couldn't imagine how he was going to break this news to Reggie. He was glad to at least have gotten the birthday present out of the way, but sooner or later, he knew his brother was going to be calling every Pokémon Center in the region trying to track him down.

In the smallest of ways, luck seemed to be on Paul's side this time. Reggie had not been making any calls for the next few days, and the cause of that was… believe it or not, Maylene. The full battle that occurred on Reggie's birthday resulted in a tie. A desire to see a more conclusive result spawned a series of matches between Reggie and Maylene through the next few days, as they both gave it their all to prove their battling superiority. Maylene proved to be an extremely fierce opponent with her full party out, and Reggie knew he would not be ready to move on to the next level of his training until he could overcome Maylene. The Gym Leader was not going easy on him, either. Her burning desire to make this "birthday present" count for Reggie kept her fighting spirit strong.

After another long and drawn-out full battle, Maylene and Reggie were down to their final Pokémon: Lucario and Infernape. Reggie's starter had the type advantage, but had been intermittently in and out of the fight since it began, and therefore had sustained quite a bit of damage already. It suffered fatigue while Lucario was relatively fresh, but was willing to fight it out to the bitter end.

"This time, we're going to have a definitive winner," Maylene confidently stated. "And once this battle ends, you'll know whether or not you're ready to move on to the next level of training."

Reggie nodded, smirking. He was thankful to be gifted with natural-born strength that allowed him to hang in there this long. "I'd like to think you've got a plan for us," he mentioned, gesturing to Infernape. "Because I've got the advantage right now."

"By type alone, maybe," Maylene noted, now smirking herself. "But Infernape's been in and out of this since the beginning. Lucario's fresh. We're definitely going to outlast you."

Lucario was focused against its opponent, who was staring Lucario right in the eye. Infernape knew a good, direct Blast Burn or two could end this. It was just a matter of playing it smart, which Infernape hoped Reggie would be able to do in spite of his tired state. But Lucario had the perfect move to stop Infernape in its tracks and stall for time. Maylene was definitely going to make use of it.

"Let's not hold back, then," Reggie instructed Infernape, now determined to outlast the Gym Leader. "Infernape, Focus Blast!"

"Lucario, Aura Sphere!" Maylene was quick to counter. The moves were similar in type and execution, but while Focus Blast was easily the more powerful of the two, Aura Sphere had flawless accuracy and did not require as much downtime to charge. Before Infernape was even able to completely launch Focus Blast at its opponent, it was already met with another ball of energy crashing against it, threatening to throw both back onto Infernape.

This was a strategy that could easily make or break a competitor if it was not handled quickly. Both sources of energy clashed against each other and would eventually create a devastating explosion upon Infernape, who was trying to keep Aura Sphere at bay with the energy it had collected for Focus Blast. But at this point, Infernape's strength was failing. Reggie knew the results would be disastrous if he didn't act fast.

"Infernape, redirect the flow of the energy and make an arc!" he shouted out, not completely sure if that would get his starter out of there completely. "That should get you out of there!"

Infernape grunted as it tried out Reggie's theory. Maylene stared in awe, as she had seen similar strategies pulled off against her from past competitors who had plans for countering her Lucario's Aura Sphere. The energy was bent upwards towards the sky, forming a magnificent arc of unstable energy. With the majority of both attacks directed out of the field, Infernape attempted to break itself from the energy, only to be knocked back by a small explosion at the tail end of the arc before the energy from both attacks soared into the sky and created a much larger explosion, blinding both trainers for a short moment while the energy remnants subsided.

"That was really good," Maylene complimented, though still a tad smug. "But it looks like Infernape still sustained damage. If I had sent anything other than Aura Sphere, it might have gotten of scot free. But Aura Sphere is difficult to neutralize."

Reggie nodded cautiously, eyeing Infernape and seeing it was still able to battle, but it definitely felt that blow. "Aura Sphere can't be dodged in most cases," he remembered. "Even if I can absorb it into another attack and send it away…"

"That's the power of Aura!" Maylene exclaimed. "It's too strong to just disappear like that. By connecting to that Focus Blast, it connected to Infernape itself. There was no way you weren't going to sustain damage, Reggie."

"I'll keep that in mind in the future," Reggie assured her. "Infernape, let's try more direct attacks from now on."

As Infernape nodded to its trainer, Maylene had a serious look on her face. She didn't even need to face Lucario, as both were perfectly on the same page. "It's time, Lucario…"

Thrusting an arm forward, Reggie shouted out his next command. "Now, Close Combat!"

With its amazing speed, Infernape quickly closed the distance between itself and Lucario and proceeded to bombard it with every ounce of energy left in its body. However, Maylene smirked, knowing this to be ideal for her counterattack.

"Lucario, Bone Rush!" she commanded, watching her partner form a bone-shaped Aura-made weapon that would unleash a series of super-effective moves upon Infernape at the end of every punch and kick. Reggie frowned knowingly; that Ground-type move was the one way Lucario would be able to take out Infernape in a short amount of time. While Lucario was easily taking damage with the powerful Close Combat attack, it seemed closing in on Lucario left Reggie and Infernape not much better off than they were from a distance.

But beyond the type clashes and stamina differences, there was one other thing that gave Reggie the edge overall: rusty as he may have been recently, Reggie was the one with the most overall experience. Maylene didn't have four regions' worth of adventuring, and while she had Lucario since she was very young as a Riolu, Reggie and Infernape had eight years of experience. The wisdom and tactics Reggie developed over time simply outclassed Maylene's, and not only by age differences alone. The real Reggie; the one who had been fighting before going against Brandon, would have easily defeated Maylene by now.

The fact that Maylene had Reggie on the ropes numerous times to the point where he couldn't yet score a decisive victory over her told the Breeder that he still had a long way to go before he would be able to ascend beyond his limits. But the two had been battling for a long time by now; after so many ties, it was high time to end this and determine whether or not Reggie was ready to move on.

"Stay calm!" Reggie called out to Infernape, watching his starter counter every super-effective blow with its own. The heat naturally coming from Infernape's body additionally made the situation especially uncomfortable for Lucario. Maylene was dreading the moment that Reggie was going to call for a Fire-type move… as strong as she knew he was, it was obvious that distance didn't matter at this point. Stalling with Bone Rush was all she could really do until Infernape would finally wear down. But she knew she'd have to be quick in taking Infernape out, because she was so very aware of Infernape's special ability: Blaze.

Where Paul had trouble invoking Chimchar's Blaze ability the whole time he had trained it, the elder brother had no problem at all keeping Infernape under control in spite of the rage and power that came with desperation. But to be fair, Paul was similarly able to handle the Grass-type equivalent of Blaze, which was Overgrow, in times of Torterra getting into a pinch. Though Paul wouldn't admit to it out loud and made sure to make it seem like Torterra was of no greater importance than anyone else on the team, a bond did exist; had they not become so close, Torterra never would have been able to achieve the ultimate power of Frenzy Plant.

It was the Fire-type equivalent of Frenzy Plant that Maylene knew was coming; it was just a matter of when. Fighting-type moves were bad enough on Lucario… she wasn't sure how long Lucario would hold up against the flames. Maylene could already tell Lucario was already suffering with Infernape's natural heat. "Push it back, Lucario!" she instructed. "Infernape won't last long; take advantage of Bone Rush's range!"

Indeed, Maylene and Lucario were well-trained in their own way and knew how to improvise certain attacks. The energy bone Lucario continued to wield thus grew longer, giving Lucario a bit of space as Infernape was pushed back considerably. Upon seeing Infernape's flames burst dramatically after a fierce screech from it, Reggie knew this was the pivotal moment: Blast Burn by itself was immensely powerful. Charged up even further with Blaze made Blast Burn something that would easily be too much for Lucario. The risk to this move was one Reggie was all too familiar with: Infernape would be rendered immobile and helpless for a period of time once this was executed. As this battle depended on the brutal strength and speed aspects of the Pokémon… not to mention Infernape simply did not have the time to spare on being forced to rest, it was all but a certainty that if Blast Burn missed or failed to knock out Lucario here and now that the victory would be Maylene's.

The time seemed right; Reggie had a natural talent of being able to tell when a Pokémon was hanging by a thread. He had to be absolutely sure that Blast Burn would finish the job, which is why he held back on it until now. Infernape smirked at Lucario while simply taking the Bone Rush blows; Maylene's connection with Lucario alerted both Gym Leader and Pokémon as to what was forthcoming.

"Uh-oh…!" Maylene gulped. Getting Lucario in too close would end it for sure, and after a certain amount of distance, Bone Rush was no longer feasible. Other than dodging, Maylene had no idea how she would counter an attack like this, and even then… Blast Burn was extremely difficult to dodge. She had nothing but hope and luck to bank on.

"Infernape, it's time!" Reggie announced; there was no room left for any doubt to be had. His stance was valiant and focused… there was no question that he knew what he was doing.

Infernape's flames burst from its head and tail as it glowed with a red hue. The power it was about to unleash would be unreal.

"Get ready, Lucario," Maylene warned, really having nothing more than that to offer her partner that it wouldn't already know.

All charged up, Infernape gestured to Reggie to show its readiness. Pumping a fist in the air, Reggie decided to make it official. "Now, use-…"

Nothing followed that other than a rather unexpected sound…

The phone from indoors was ringing.

Everyone on the battlefield looked surprised, except for Reggie, whose immediate instinct was to rush into the house and answer the call. Upon seeing this, Maylene slumped and heaved out an exhausted sigh. "You've got to be kidding me…"

Lucario was no less exasperated while Infernape busied itself with trying to calm down. When the straits were this dire, the battle couldn't simply be resumed like this and still be realistic. The tense final moments simply couldn't be broken up by anything, lest the entire mood of the battle be ruined.

"Another draw again…" Maylene bemoaned, taking a seat on the ground. "And I was so sure that this time…" Would be different, she would have said if her lack of energy hadn't held her back to allow anything more than another frustrated sigh. It was true at this point; Maylene was ready to take a loss over one more tie. Even though it seemed to be all but certain doom for her and Lucario… nothing could be proven until it actually happened.

Reggie was just as frustrated over the ordeal; he was more eager than anyone to see this battle's outcome. He too knew the battle couldn't really be picked up at this point. Still, he shoved annoyance to the side for professionalism's sake and brought out a smile as he answered the call.

A young male trainer was on the receiving end, no older than Reggie's little brother. "Oh, Reggie! I'm glad you're around… usually you're real prompt with the phone, y'know?"

It was hard for Reggie not to crack a very nervous grin at that remark. "Yeah… sorry about that; I was outside, so it took a little longer than usual…"

Now that his mindset was back to his natural ways, the perceptive Reggie blinked in surprise as he recognized this caller: one of his customers. "Wait, now I remember! Alex, right? You and your family went vacationing in the Hoenn region…"

Alex nodded. "Yup, that's me. It was awesome and a real change of scenery. Thanks again for agreeing to take care of my Sunkern while we were gone."

"You made the right choice," Reggie assured him. "Snowpoint City is no place to leave a baby Grass-type unattended. So you're ready to pick the little guy up?"

"Actually…" The hesitance in Alex's voice did not bode well for Reggie, and he could tell that immediately. "It turns out that we had a huge blizzard overnight and now I'm sort of trapped in the house. It may be a while before we can get ourselves shoveled out, so could you maybe…?"

Reggie blinked. Snowpoint City residents were used to this kind of weather; if it was a serious case for them… "You mean…" He pointed to himself. "Me?"

"If it wouldn't trouble you," Alex requested. "They're getting the roads cleaned up a lot faster than the neighborhoods, so I don't think you'll have any trouble getting up here and dropping Sunkern off at the Pokémon Center. That's usually the place they clear out first…"

Though Reggie had delivered Pokémon to their trainers personally before, this was still a tall order. It would take a few days, even by car, to reach Snowpoint City from Veilstone, especially if the weather wasn't cooperating. This was something that would undoubtedly blow away at least a week's worth of training he could get in at home.

But what was Reggie going to do, turn the kid down? Paul's had even crazier requests before… and Reggie simply couldn't neglect his duties when he was needed the most. Sure, they have been taking a backseat to the training so far… but this was not something Maylene would be able to do in Reggie's place. And he wasn't going to force the poor kid to struggle all the way down the mountain by himself… no, once again, Reggie had to set his training aside for a greater purpose.

"Then don't worry about it," Reggie cheerfully accepted. "I'll head off right now so you can get your Pokémon back as soon as possible. Sunkern's missed you terribly as it is."

Even though Reggie knew he was making the right choice, he still felt a little bad. He knew his father likely would have urged the kid to go through the trouble of getting it back himself… but Reggie was better than that. He decided he would just have to make up for the loss of time by training even harder once he got back. Most of all, he just hoped Maylene would be able to take care of the place completely by herself.

"I really appreciate it, Reggie," Alex thanked, bowing his head. "I'll look forward to hearing back from you! Just be careful, okay?"

"Of course, of course," Reggie said with a laugh, waving off the concern. "Like I said, there's nothing to be worried about. I'll let you know when I make it up there."

"Good luck, then! Bye!" And thus the call ended. It slowly sank into Reggie what he just agreed to… and he really hated to inconvenience Maylene by making her take on both full-time Breeder and Gym Leader duties, but he honestly didn't know who else he could trust the place with. Thankfully, she had been learning a lot by watching his example… a little faith was all that was needed.

Reggie stepped outside again, immediately regretful when he was faced with an exhausted Maylene still sitting on the ground, Lucario forcing itself to meditate, and Infernape still antsy from all that pent-up energy. By taking that call, he also caused yet another indecisive result in battle. It hurt even more when Maylene spoke up…

"It's alright, Reggie, really," she promised, still a bit breathless. "We can just try again tomorrow. I know you can't just ignore calls like that, but I think next time we can-…"

"Maylene," Reggie gently interceded. "It's going to be a while before there's a "next time". I'm sorry."

That was not the kind of response Maylene expected; it actually worried her to see such a somber look on her friend's face. "Reggie, what happened?" she asked, desperate to know. "If it's something serious, by all means…!"

"It's not exactly… serious," Reggie admitted. "But it's going to require me to leave town for a few days. And I know you'll say that you'll do it in my place, but this is really something only I can do."

"What are you talking about?" Maylene inquired, knowing Reggie must have a reason for assuming right off the bat that she couldn't pull something off for him. "Just go ahead and say it."

"There's a kid's Pokémon I've been taking care of while he and his family vacationed in Hoenn. Turns out they just recently got back… and now he's snowed in, but he's unable to pick up his Sunkern on his own," he explained, still with a look of guilt on his face. "I've done deliveries before, but never this far from home, really… the kid lives in Snowpoint City."

Maylene nodded. "I can see why you'd do that… but Reggie, that's going to cut into your schedule and I promised that I would cover for you…"

"The fact of the matter is, Maylene, that you're too young to drive," Reggie pointed out almost humorously. "And there's no way I'm letting you go by foot. It took quite a bargain just so I could let Paul go. And you have to remember what I've been saying…"

Maylene uneasily shrugged. "You've been saying a lot lately…"

"True," Reggie agreed. "But I even told dad this… that whether or not I beat him in battle, I'm going back to my life the way it is now. For something like this, I'm still always a Breeder before a Trainer nowadays… and remember what I said before my birthday?"

"That reaching adulthood means you have to grow up and make certain sacrifices for the greater good," she paraphrased, still getting the general message. She understood why Reggie wouldn't let her go on such a dangerous journey… it was a bit flattering, actually, but still frustrating knowing how long she would have to wait before they could battle again. "I get it… you need me to take care of things here while you're gone, right?"

Reggie nodded. "That's what you signed up for. You've just had my help up until this point. But at this stage, I think you're ready to handle it all by yourself."

"Of course!" Maylene agreed. "I assumed I would be doing that from the very beginning until the accident… don't worry, I can do the job."

"I just hope business doesn't get too heavy on both ends," Reggie said, clearly worried about worst-case scenarios in all areas. "It won't be easy being a Breeder and Gym Leader full-time. If there was another way…"

Maylene just waved off the concern. "Hey, I've been getting stronger all this time, too! And getting used to the housework like this… I'm sure I can juggle the two jobs around and perform to both your standards and mine."

It was hard to try and tell Maylene otherwise; Reggie knew there was no other choice. "I promise we'll have our decisive battle once I get back."

"You may get rusty if you go that long without training," Maylene mumbled, staring at the ground. "You were so strong today… and I really think you would have won. You would have proved yourself worthy of advancing to the next level… and this could set you back more than you think."

"I'll take every opportunity I can to make sure my team stays sharp during the trip," Reggie assured her. "That's why I'm taking them all with me. At least that's six less mouths for you to feed, right?"

Maylene nodded. "You may need them along the way if it's going to be a rough ride. Besides, you deserve some company for such a long trip. But I'll hold down the fort while you're gone!" After a cheesy salute, she then looked inquisitive. "Uh… when exactly are you leaving?"

"Today," Reggie responded, promptly recalling Infernape back into its Pokéball. "As soon as possible, really, so I'm going to start packing up right now."

Maylene was surprised at first, but knew why Reggie was ready to quickly get this over with. "Well, let me at least help out with that so you can get on the road quicker," she offered, to which Reggie nodded in response. As he walked back into the house, Maylene stood up and looked tiredly down at Lucario.

"Even if it won't be for that long, it'll feel lonely without him around here," she admitted, though it wasn't like she needed to tell Lucario this. Lucario knew all too well about the deep feelings its trainer held for Reggie. Suddenly, Maylene's stomach started to grumble, which made her blush.

"I'm not sure what I'll miss more… him or his food!"

It was adjustment everyone had to make, but at least it was just temporary.

Saturn was so grateful that Conway's parents were… lacking in parenting skills, so to speak. Any reasonable parent would have tried to find out where their son would be after a week or more of no contact, but the fact that Conway's mother and father were so inattentive was truly a blessing for the Galactic Commander. Conway's older sister was less so… but loathed him so much that she was glad to have not heard from him in so long. She really did not appreciate being dissed on live national television by him.

Before Saturn knew it, a week had passed since Mars informed him of his cousin's apparent demise and it was time to check on his group of back-up men outsourced from Team Galactic. By now they would have had plenty of time to scour Route 216 from top to bottom to remove all traces of the Team Galactic helicopter from the scene of the crime and found his cousin's body. He promptly gave them a call right on schedule.

"It's been exactly a week now; the week in which you were tasked to clear out the crime scene on Route 216," Saturn informed them. "What is your status?"

"All remains of the helicopter have been destroyed and removed from the premises as you requested," came the answer of the head of the contracted men to clean up Team Galactic's mess. "Unfortunately, we never found a body that matched the description you gave us. I assure you our search was very thorough."

To have things not completely go Saturn's way was frustrating at best. "You're absolutely certain all of your men knew exactly who to find? I'm having trouble believing that you honestly failed to find a corpse in a week's time in a concentrated area."

"Route 216 isn't exactly so straight and narrow as you believe it to be," the man challenged. "Getting rid of the helicopter was a relatively simple task, so you have my word that we put forth all our effort into finding that body."

"You're all worthless," Saturn spat. "Absolute trash… such reputable men as yourselves only getting your job half-done!"

"We did everything in our power," was the tired response given to Saturn. "At this point, I would say the body may have been discovered by someone else prior to our search… or possibly a Pokémon, in which case I highly doubt there's much of anything left to find."

Saturn's eyes narrowed; while not having a dead body to go with, the hypothesis did give him an idea. "The wildlife indigenous to that area… I would not put that out of the question."

"If I may, sir," the man interjected. "Even with the job only "half-done" as you claim, the most important part that was accomplished was remaining all traces of Team Galactic having ever been in this area. There's nothing left for you to worry about in regards to your organization."

That much was true. Saturn was much more concerned with getting the blood off Team Galactic's hands than actually finding his cousin's body. "Your failure has still caused me an inconvenience, so do not expect your payment in full. I will commend you for keeping your priorities straight, at the very least. But I highly suggest hiring more competent men in the near future."

"Then we are dismissed from the job?"

Reluctantly, Saturn sighed. "It would be a waste of time and money at this point to keep going if what you say is true. But something you said has given me an idea how to get around that minor problem, so I will deal with that accordingly. But I reiterate: I expected perfection from your men. Therefore I refuse to pay you the amount I originally set. I strongly urge you to not press the matter; you will regret it, and that I can assure you."

"My men will be punished as I deem adequate," the mysterious man promised. "But you are fortunate to have such a large organization to hide behind on your own ungrateful behalf."

To that, Saturn merely scoffed. "I will not resort to bickering with you. I will have your check delivered by the end of the day, but now I need to make preparations to make up for your ineptitude. This call is over."

Saturn promptly slammed his cell phone shut, grumbling to himself. He soon realized that he did not work hard enough in securing his privacy, as he soon heard a familiar, feminine giggle coming from behind him.

"So, what're you gonna do?" the woman teased, revealing herself to be Mars, of course. "Call me nosy all you want, but you're just plain stupid to do things like this while I'm on break."

"I thought you had no interest in pursuing this any further," Saturn said to her, clearly annoyed while walking back to his station. "But thankfully, I have no need for you any longer. Well, that's partially true."

"Huh?" Mars paused, blinking. "What are you talking about?"

Saturn smirked; how he loved getting the upper-hand on his coworkers. "Consider your little "breaks" over with, because I'm finally going to make use of all the vacation time I've accrued since my arrival. I will need that time off in order to seal the deal once and for all. You, Mars, will be the one handling my job during my absence."

Mars was of course taken aback by that. "Wait, what?!"

"You deserve the extra workload, considering that very expensive pizza party you enjoyed this past week," Saturn reasoned with her in his own petty way. "While our name is in the clear over this accident, my relatives will find it rather conspicuous of me to be absent for my cousin's funeral, considering my "significance" to him."

"I doubt that Cyrus would let you off work for such emotional purposes, Saturn," Mars speculated. "But then again, you're just doing it to cover your butt rather than grieve…"

Saturn nodded. "I will have to explain myself to Cyrus very soon. Right now I must create a believable story in regards to the circumstances of my cousin's death. Since I have no body to work with, I'll simply have to go with the "his remains were torn apart by wild Pokémon post-mortem" excuse as to why I'll have nothing to show for at the funeral… which I must plan myself."

"So you're going to conjure up fake "remains" if you have to?" Mars wondered out loud. "Gross… but ingenious."

"If necessary," Saturn calmly responded. "I must identify myself as one who did not witness his death, but was the closest of his kin to the area to be taken in to identify said remains. Then a forged autopsy report will explain the rest. Once that's set in motion, I'll inform my relatives of the news and insist on arranging the funeral myself."

Mars simply shrugged. "For a relative you don't care about, you sure are going out of your way to give him a proper send-off."

Saturn let out a particularly evil smirk just then. "Exactly. That's what I want them to believe… that I was so torn over his death that I wanted to honor his memory personally, since his parents would be too distraught… or simply too stupid to manage the funeral themselves."

"There's got to be a motive behind this," Mars muttered. "What's really going on, Saturn?"

After a brief pause, Saturn gave her a smug reply. "Believe it or not, this stunt will aid our cause. If I sell myself to be the one most torn over Conway's death, then I can easily fool his parents into allowing his belongings to be passed down to myself. His books, his computer… annoying as the brat was, he was quite intelligent. He had a very important book that is relevant to Team Galactic's goal. Just imagine the kind of information we could find within the rest of his belongings…"

"A whole treasure trove of information for Team Galactic's benefit, huh," Mars realized. "So that's why… that little geek probably has even more information stored that would aid Team Galactic and he never would have realized it."

"Indeed," Saturn affirmed. "It isn't so much a "personal vacation"… more like an undercover assignment that will both aid us and get this issue off my back for good."

Mars gave her coworker a sly smile. "Killing two birds with one stone."

"Perhaps even three," Saturn vaguely mentioned before changing the subject slightly. "This is why you will need to take care of my department in my absence. If you attempt to sabotage me, you'll live to regret it the rest of your life, Mars."

"Oh, Saturn, you're so paranoid," Mars casually teased. "As long as I don't have do deal with your mess any longer, whatever. Now that I've met the kid, I know there's a lot of potential in your family that's just waiting to be taken advantage of."

Saturn stiffly nodded while taking out his cell phone again. "So we're understood. Now excuse me, as I need to set a few things into motion before going to Cyrus to take my temporary leave."

Mars just shrugged and waved him off; she knew enough now and had no desire to stalk him for potential blackmail any longer. "Have fun pulling one over on your family, then," she said as a farewell message. She thought perhaps she could at least agitate Jupiter a little in Saturn's absence.

Meanwhile, Saturn returned to his desk, writing out his To-Do List before dialing a number. He was disappointed to only reach the voicemail after so many rings, but collected himself for the heavy message he was about to send.

"Francine, this is your cousin, Sloan. I'm calling to regretfully inform you that Conway, your brother, was found dead in Route 216 over the past week or so. I just identified his remains… you'd probably rather not see them, but do inform your parents as soon as possible and let them know that I already have preparations for his funeral underway. You need not do anything more than grieve; I shall be the head of his proper sendoff. I will arrive at your house tomorrow so that we may discuss this further, and I will do whatever I can to ease the pain of this most unfortunate loss. Until then, dear cousin. Stay strong."

It was a message that Franny would indeed get later on once she checked her voicemail. And even though she openly admitted her hatred for her brother… she found herself tearing up as she listened to the entire message over and over again, finding it hard to stand all of a sudden. She slumped against a nearby wall, shaking while feeling an empty, horrible feeling in her gut.

Her brother died before the two could ever reach even ground… the last time Franny saw her brother alive was on television, where he loudly proclaimed his hatred for her all across the Sinnoh region. Still, even Conway's dysfunctional family seemed to have the ability to grieve.

And soon enough, the message spread through Conway's family across Veilstone City. It was mentioned in the local news once Saturn orchestrated the perfect report on the alleged tragedy.

As a result, Conway was not dead just to Paul… he was dead to the majority of the Sinnoh region. This would prove to cause complications when Conway, still very alive, finally returned to Veilstone City after a lengthy trip down the mountain range.

"Home sweet home," Conway bitterly muttered as he crossed the city limits in the dead of night. Once he was out of the mountains, Conway was able to travel easily even without the aid of daylight. Of course, Conway couldn't even be graced with a beautiful night sky tonight; it was completely covered by clouds. Not a soul seemed to be in sight outdoors… not that Conway wanted to make himself obvious; he was still understandably paranoid about the men who were hunting him down further up north. His logical conclusion was that they very well might know where his city of origin is and try to hunt him down there. Needless to say, Conway was being very discreet about his return.

"Good thing I've already decided on a path now," he realized. "The last place I want to be is home, really… but it'll just be temporary… no more than a day or two."

He then saw Reggie's house in plain sight; it was a place Conway had to pass by in order to return to his neighborhood, but he suddenly felt conflicted.

"Reggie deserves to know," Conway muttered. "That I failed… and I couldn't look after Paul anymore. I'm sure he's doing just fine on his own, but I broke the agreement I made with Reggie. And being the utmost gentleman, I must dutifully apologize for my ineptitude."

It had been such a long walk home… Conway wasn't sure where to head first, but a sudden strike of lightning followed by an immediate downpour made Conway cry out like a frightened child and ran for shelter to the nearest location of his choices: Reggie's house.

He immediately opened Reggie's door (conveniently unlocked already) and slammed it shut after he was fully inside. Though fairly wet, Conway was relatively fine… he simply had a phobia for sudden disturbances such as thunderstorms. Not to mention the paranoia of being hit by lighting one day, possibly made worse after meeting Reggie who was struck by lightning before…

After a few moments of heaving for air, Conway's belongings slid off his body and to the floor. Though Paul's family lacked the wealth that Conway's possessed, Conway couldn't help but feel comforted within this residence. Reggie went out of his way to make his simple home a pleasant one, whereas Conway's house always came off as virtually soulless.

"Sorry I broke in, Reggie…" he panted. "It was just a… random impulse."

He blinked after a moment of silence and got a good look around the house, realizing there was no Reggie to be seen.

"How odd," Conway remarked. "Where could he have…?"

It wasn't long before he did notice there was another living person in the house. Maylene was in the backyard, gathering the baby Pokémon indoors as the storm hit. But she heard the slam of the door on the other side of the house and immediately felt tense.

Once the Pokémon were secured, Maylene rushed inside the house to immediately confront who just came in unannounced. She was stern, strong, and ready to fight if it was a burglar, but she stopped dead in her tracks when she found quite a recognizable person standing confusedly by the front door.

Conway was not surprised to see Maylene still here, but couldn't comprehend her silence, nor the expression of abject fear on her face.

"N-no… no way…" Maylene whispered. "I'm seeing things… or maybe…"

"Pardon…?" Conway didn't expect this sort of tension the moment he stepped in. But within the next second or two, all would become clear as Maylene shrieked in pure and utter terror.


"Ghost?!" It was Conway's mild phobia of Ghost-type Pokémon (or maybe just Dusknoir… or the little girl who nearly dragged him to the underworld during the week of summer school) that prevented him from immediately realizing Maylene was talking about him. Looking just as freaked out as Maylene, Conway looked left and right, too nervous to move any one way. "Where?! When?! How?!"

Maylene screamed again; her feet quick to move, yet she couldn't get herself to go anywhere. "Oh no, why now?! How could I get Reggie's house possessed?! I'm a Fighting-type expert; I can't do a thing against ghosts! What am I gonna do…?!"

"Where is it, where is it?!" Conway cried out, desperate to rush to safety. "Right behind me? And you can't do anything about it?!"

After a short moment of crying longer, she realized the situation at hand. "Don't tell me… you don't even know?!"

"What am I supposed to know?!" was Conway's panicked answer. He suddenly had no desire to stay here for much longer.

There was a feeling of dread within Conway when Maylene ultimately pointed straight at him. "You're the ghost! You don't even realize that you passed on?!"

… And all of a sudden, Conway felt like ramming his head against the wall for not catching the implication sooner. "Wait. You think I'm the ghost?"

"Don't try to trick me!" she warned, still fearful. "It figures… once I finally came to accept it, you'd come and haunt me!"

"Accept what?!" Though Conway had a bad feeling right after asking that. Like his worst nightmare had just become a reality… "How did you even come to the conclusion that I died?!"

Maylene watched enough movies to come to stereotypical solutions to how to handle human ghosts. Conway was not coming off as hostile, so she decided present nearby proof in the form of a newspaper. "I saw your name in the obituary section this week! It was mentioned briefly in the news… but above all else, this just came in the mail the other day ago!"

She took out an envelope and pulled out a dark-colored card. "An invite to your funeral."

It was a complete shock to his system; for all the time Conway had to think about his situation, he never once thought that, since his cousin assumed him to be dead, that the rest of the world would jump to the same conclusion.

"It's bad enough that they didn't say a word about Paul!" Maylene cried out. "Who's to say he's not just like you, either?!"

"I would say that if that were the case, Paul and I would be "haunting" you together," Conway cynically speculated. "Though much as he hates me, perhaps not. Well, I can't blame you for believing in all of that… I didn't think my cousin would care enough to try and pass me off as dead to the entire world."

The Gym Leader still looked suspicious of him. "Prove you're alive, then!"

And to that, Conway blinked. "You really still think I'm a ghost… well, alright. You probably heard me slam that door. Why would I do that when I, as a ghost, could just go straight through it?"

"To get my attention!" Maylene accused. "That's not like you."

"I was startled by the thunderstorm," Conway calmly explained, though clearly annoyed. "Speaking of which, if I were a ghost, I wouldn't be soaking wet right now. Water would go straight through the ectoplasm… not to mention I still have a pulse, I don't even look dead, I have both a shadow and reflection… Maylene, I could go on all night. But aren't you able to sense life forms like your Lucario can?"

For all of the terror she went through just then, Maylene completely forgot that she could do that. "Ah, that's true…" It didn't take long for her to realize that there was absolutely nothing wrong with Conway as far as his aura was concerned. "Oh… goodness. Then that means…"

"You should probably get Reggie in here so he can hear all of this as well," Conway suggested. "I'd rather not go through this hysteria a second time… and I came here to speak with him anyway. I figured he would have shown himself by now after all the noise we made…"

Maylene shook her head. "Sorry, but Reggie left days ago for Snowpoint City. Not for the reason you'd think… he left just before your death reached the news. It'll be a while before he can return. I tried to see if I could call him once I learned about what happened to you, but he's on the road right now where there's bad reception. Now tell me where in the world Paul is, because that was another thing I was worried sick about having to break to Reggie once I got the chance."

"That's what I wanted to talk to him about," Conway explained, nodding. "There's a good reason why everyone thinks I'm dead… and normally, I would be, but Paul prevented that. He's fine as far as I know, but… the circumstances of the situation made it so that he refused to let me proceed any further along with him."

"So then you two…" Maylene slowly realized. "You're not traveling together anymore?"

Conway bowed his head regretfully. "I wanted to apologize to Reggie for being unable to fulfill his wishes, though I believe Paul is alright and probably reached Snowpoint City days ago. We were quite close by the time we split up…"

"Now that I think about it…" This seemed to explain something else for Maylene. "That must be why Paul kept saying you were still asleep in a hotel room or went shopping all that time when you normally joined him whenever you guys contacted us…"

"Right," Conway muttered in affirmation. "He wanted me out of his life so badly that I'm sure he didn't even want to discuss the matter with either of you over the phone. That being said… I'm sure you would like a more thorough explanation as to why everyone believes me to be dead, right?"

Maylene nodded. "That would be appreciated… the sooner we get this mix-up corrected, the better."

The very idea of that immediately gave Conway bad vibes. "Maylene… before we jump the gun on anything, I'll ask that you let me explain the situation in full first."

Conway was about to rest on the couch until he felt his stomach growl with hunger, to which he just looked awkward about. "Oh… right. Traveling works up the appetite. Is there anything to eat around here?"

Even though he had just been to Reggie's house once before, he felt welcome enough here to casually make his way over to the kitchen and immediately hunt for food. Maylene groaned quietly in agony over the topic of food; it was torture for the Gym Leader and her appetite to go without Reggie's cooking.

"Um… I'm not exactly that good of a cook, I learned…" she hesitantly admitted before gesturing to the stove, where upon lied a messy pot of some diabolical concoction of something that might have resembled a failed attempt at "dinner" a few days ago. Since then, Maylene relied completely on ordering out. "Reggie made sure the kitchen was well-stocked with stuff to make dinner before he left, but I overestimated my ability to do it right by myself. You must be exhausted, so I'll just order a-…"

"Actually, it would be my pleasure to whip up a dinner," Conway offered as he immediately started taking ingredients out. "Busying myself like this will help me to remain calm." The eerie smirk on Conway's face again made Maylene feel a bit uncomfortable, but she figured a genius like him would likely not set the kitchen on fire.

It was her dreadful withdrawal of Reggie's cooking that really made her allow Conway to have complete freedom in the kitchen.

Over the dinner table (something Conway wasn't quite used to), the two had dinner while Conway gave Maylene the full exposition of the dreadful things that happened that fateful day after the events of the Plumeria Contest. He spared no details (aside from one certain part that Conway would never be able to live down), giving the young Gym Leader every bit of his point of view in addition to what he could make of Paul's. Needless to say, Maylene was on edge during most of the story, particularly right when Conway described Mars' appearance. Something sounded all too familiar about the uniform…

"That's just… awful," was Maylene's first reaction once Conway finished detailing the remainder of his misadventures on Route 216 after splitting up from Paul. "I always knew Paul was cruel, but he's a monster for leaving you there like that!"

"At this point, it's not a detail I'm so willing to challenge," Conway glumly admitted. How he wished his main concern would be something that was now so trivial. "True, it was a lot to take in for me at that time… but I suppose for someone like Paul who had such a hard time trusting me, it was disturbing for him to realize that my family is not only connected to some evil organization… which makes me look bad already, but I betrayed his trust by giving in to Mars. The details of which I'd… rather not disclose. Let's just say I didn't really have a choice."

That was the most mature and level-headed way Conway was able to interpret that dark time. For once, he didn't whine or cry about it, nor did he mope. He still felt just as awful as ever about it, but the events that happened afterward and Conway's resolve had effectively hardened him. Not to mention this turned out to be a much bigger disaster than even he expected.

Maylene frowned when Conway mentioned Mars again, recalling the eerily familiar details about her. "So you still don't know who Mars and your cousin are really working for?"

"I was so blind," Conway self-criticized. "Thinking my cousin was so great and all, it didn't hit me at the time how suspicious she really looked. Paul was right about my tendency to be a gullible fool…"

"Don't be so hard on yourself," Maylene pleaded. "I want to help you figure this out. You won't get far in your plans if you can't figure out where he is or who he's working for."

Conway sighed, knowing Maylene had a point. Charging in recklessly without any knowledge about his cousin was a one-way ticket to failure. "You seemed intrigued when I described Mars, Maylene."

"I've got a suspect in mind already in regards to what kind of organization your cousin's really involved with," Maylene noted ominously. "White and gray suits… the strange, futuristic style…"

"The giant yellow "G" emblazoned on so blatantly…" Conway added tiredly, which in turn made Maylene's expressions darken considerably.

"It must be them," she decided. "Conway… that woman and your cousin… they're affiliated with Team Galactic."

Maylene seemed certain of it; for once, she did not doubt her own intuition. She had every reason to suspect that organization had something to do with this; the Gym Leader knew from experience just how twisted such villains really were. Nothing else so perfectly matched Conway's description…

"Huh?" Conway was taken aback, as he apparently wasn't even close to coming to the same conclusion.

"Remember a while back when the power throughout Veilstone City was completely cut that one night?" she asked. With Conway residing in this city as well, had he been there at the time, he would have likely remembered the incident.

It only took a moment for Conway to think about it. "That rings a bell… yeah!" He sounded angry just then. "I was so close to installing some new software that night that took well over an hour to load! I had to do it all over again because of that cut in the power!"

"That was Team Galactic," she informed him. "At that time, Ash and the others were with us. I came with them to investigate… Reggie was even involved, and then Officer Jenny identified them. This "Mars" you're talking about wasn't there as far as I could see, but there was a commander who stood out. He had a really smug attitude and blue hair."

That detail in particular worried Conway. "Blue…"

"And he had a Toxicroak," Maylene added. "While the grunts all had Golbat, their leader gave us a lot of trouble with his Toxicroak…"

"N-no," Conway stammered. "My… my cousin has a Toxicroak! You're saying you saw him that night!"

The glint in Maylene's eyes; her determination to see those criminals get their comeuppance… she seemed much harsher than usual, but she couldn't let this go. "That's what I believe," she admitted. "Though I can't prove it, there's really no other explanation…"

"Then Sloan's responsible for the power going out that night!" Conway cried out, wanting to deny this, but in his heart, enlightened as he had become… he was no longer blind to his cousin's methods. But it was still a lot to stomach. "Why in the world would he do that?!"

"You must have not seen the news the following day," Maylene noted, knowing this incident was quickly made public after the fact. "Team Galactic was attempting to steal the meteors from the site at the center of the city. We managed to prevent that, but they got away from us. Their actions have been few and far in between since then, though I think a few weeks ago they were involved in a serious incident at Iron Island."

This was heart-breaking at best for Conway. "I idolized Sloan while he was a criminal all this time?" Even though he did nothing wrong, Conway couldn't help but feel immensely guilty over this.

"We may have a chance to confront him," Maylene brought up, remembering the invitation she received. "I heard that the funeral that's being arranged for you has been done so by him. That means he'll be there during the services…"

"When is that scheduled for, actually?" Conway wondered, curious about what his own funeral would actually be like. It was one of those things commonly thought about by others who wondered how much they really meant to their friends and loved ones.

"Tomorrow morning," Maylene answered. "We need to expose your cousin for the fraud he is, so I'll definitely attend the funeral so I can identify him."

The thought of rushing in and attempting to conquer Sloan at the funeral still didn't sit right with Conway. He shook his head in disagreement. "You should go, but I want you to keep a low profile, Maylene. I'll go as well, but I don't plan on "crashing the party", so to speak."

Maylene frowned, wondering what was on Conway's mind now. "You've got another idea?"

"First of all, don't blow my cover," Conway instructed. "It's best that Sloan continues to believe me to be dead. I'll have a much better shot at taking him down later on."

"How do you plan on keeping him in the dark alone? Once we clear it up, he'll find out eventually…" Maylene mentioned, still not following his line of thought.

Conway looked to the side. While he had the base idea for a plan to take down his cousin, the news of his alleged death spreading was something he hadn't counted on at all. Certain plans would have to change. This lead to Conway being forced to make some very difficult decisions.

"I really should alert my family to this somehow," Conway realized. "If I was oblivious to this, then my parents definitely don't know anything about it either… oh no, and Sloan said he was soon going to recruit my sister as an "intern" at his job…"

"We can't let her be taken in by Team Galactic," Maylene immediately proclaimed. "You shouldn't even let this event happen. Go home right now and prove to your family that you're still alive!"

Though he knew Maylene's intentions were for his own benefit, Conway simply could not agree with her command. "It isn't that simple, Maylene. You have no idea how unreliable my family can be… I can't trust them with anything. I'll take down Sloan before that worst-case scenario can even happen, but in order to do that, he can't know I'm still alive. My family has too many ties to this city for them to keep it confidential, not to mention they're pretty incompetent to begin with."

"Then you still want your mom, dad, and sister to think you're still dead, Conway?" Maylene asked him incredulously. "That means you can't go home! So where will you go and what will you do?"

"Maylene, I honestly don't have all of the answers for you at this time," Conway patiently informed her. "This was a very unexpected turn, so I'll have to adapt my plans accordingly tonight and see what happens at the funeral so I can look for an opening, or… or something."

The young Gym Leader couldn't fault Conway for not having it all planned out yet. She couldn't even begin to imagine how she would handle a situation like this. "What was your plan before you got here?" she asked.

"Relatively simple," Conway said with a shrug. "Gain more power by challenging Gyms across Sinnoh… at least enough to qualify for the Sinnoh League, and at that point I'll know I will have the strength to take Sloan down should it come down to a battle. That's why I don't wish to take immediate action. But my "death" being spread out across the region is going to make being out in public a little difficult. That's why I'll need to find a way around this while maintaining my stealth, hence why I cannot simply go around telling the people in my life that I'm alive. If my cover is blown, Sloan might track me down and make sure I actually die next time."

"It's already pretty late," Maylene pointed out, yawning. The dinner was a great relief (though Conway was not quite as talented as Reggie) and the food coma was settling in. "We ought to get as much rest as we can if you're serious about pulling this off."

Again, Conway could not bring himself to concede to Maylene's wishes. "There are a few things I need to take care of before even thinking about resting, Maylene. You should go ahead and turn in, though. There's no need for you to be awake for what I need to do."

That almost sounded suspicious to Maylene. "What… exactly are you going to be doing at this hour?"

"Securing the position I'll be at during the services," Conway replied. "Where will it be held?"

"In… your house's backyard, actually," Maylene awkwardly replied. "I thought that was kind of strange place to hold a funeral, but then I remembered the reports saying that your body was never found, so I guess there's no point of going to a graveyard if there's nothing to bury…"

There was an awkward period of silence between the two as Conway processed that. It was yet another unexpected kink in his plans. "This could either benefit me or prove to be disastrous. That leaves no room for error in this mission."

"A… a mission?" Maylene echoed. "Just what are you going to be doing there?"

Conway simply waved her off dismissively. "You let me worry about the details, Maylene. For now, you should get in as much sleep as you can. By the time you wake up, you'll find a list of instructions I'll wish for you to follow if you want us to succeed in this little espionage expedition."

"Espionage?!" Again, it took Maylene a moment to comprehend Conway's strategy. "You're going to spy…?!"

A smirk crept its way into Conway's expression. "Like I said, my dear. Details; my prerogative. Getting a good night's rest is yours, because I'll require you to be alert in order to carry out the instructions I'll be leaving you."


Conway stood up from his chair at the table, placed his empty plates into the kitchen sink, and started to head upstairs, ignoring Maylene's concerns. "You think Reggie will mind if I raid Paul's closet just for tonight?" he asked. "I'm going to need a disguise so I can get the components that I need."

"Uh…" Maylene honestly had no idea, though Reggie was about the most agreeable person on the planet, so more likely than not… "I suppose he wouldn't." She was really beginning to wonder what Conway had in mind at this point.

"Splendid," Conway eagerly remarked, helping himself to Paul's room. Maylene looked on helplessly as she was about to enter Reggie's bedroom, assuming Conway would be occupying Paul's for the night at some point.

"Guess there's no changing your mind, is there?" Maylene wondered out loud. With no response from Conway, she shouted to him just before he shut the door to Paul's bedroom. "Be careful!"

"Will do!" was Conway's actual response, muffled due to the door being closed, but Maylene was able to make it out well enough. She sighed before resigning herself to her designated bedroom.

"I think I've got a headache," she muttered to herself before officially turning in for the night.

Conway, meanwhile, had no intention of going to bed anytime soon. He was busy making a perfect combination of clothes that would conceal his identity to the general public. Experimenting with various different styles, Conway sighed to himself a little; he was eerily good at holding up that calm and confident front against Maylene. The truth was that his head was hurting just as much, if not more than the Gym Leader's with everything that came at him tonight. While there was a semblance of an adapting plan to handling this funeral of his, Conway was going purely by instinct when it came to what steps to take in order to make it all work in his mind. He didn't have the time to look over absolutely everything from a logical standpoint; this was a point in his life where he just needed a bit of self-confidence in his abilities in order to keep himself safe. It was hard to find that confidence after everything that happened to him, but Conway shoved aside his woes for the sole purpose of setting his hastily-made plan into motion.

"I'd better get used to this, and get good at it," he said to himself glumly. "There's no telling how long I'll have to hide my identity…"

He didn't even think about how amusing it was that he was using Paul's belongings for the most essential of necessities of his mission. Paul would no doubt be infuriated if he found out, but Paul was experiencing something very different at the time and was so far away from his former traveling partner now.

Interestingly, though Conway and Paul's incidents weren't very similar to each other, the most crucial detail was on both their minds at the same time: figuring out how to keep themselves alive long enough to make a difference.

As morning came, Maylene woke up very early as usual. She had prepared for this funeral ahead of time while she still believed Conway was dead and had an appropriate outfit ready to put on. She gave herself enough time to tend to the Pokémon and put up the notice that both the daycare center and temporary "Gym" were closed for the day due to the funeral.

Upon crossing by the dinner table, Maylene spotted a note along with some small, unfamiliar technological devices. As Conway promised, he left very specific instructions for Maylene to follow once she arrived at his house, and most measures seemed to be very time-sensitive, so the Gym Leader didn't have much time to think too hard about where Conway was going with these measures. Sure enough, though, he was completely absent from the house. Maylene sighed, shrugged, and took everything that Conway left for her, being sure to keep it all well hidden while she followed the first written instruction:

1. The funeral starts approximately at 9:00 AM. Take everything with you and make sure it's hidden from plain sight. Arrive at my residence no later than 7:30; you'll receive more specific instructions from me personally until my family wakes up and the guests start to arrive.

The following instructions were going to be long-winded if Conway had to explain them, and he knew somewhere down the road he would have to explain them to Maylene. Therefore, looking at them ahead of time wouldn't allow Maylene to make much sense of what needed to be done afterwards.

Knowing there was no time for dawdling, Maylene actively attempted to find Conway the second his house came within her viewpoint. Unsurprisingly, he seemed to have hidden himself as he was not standing out in the open at all… but even Maylene knew that would be a dumb and risky idea. Knocking on the front door of the house obviously wasn't the answer…

"Ah, there you are. Good timing, Maylene."

That was Conway's voice. He still couldn't be seen, but the direction his voice came from alerted Maylene to a giant tree that grew in the backyard of Conway's house. The entrance to the backyard was protected by a tall fence, but the immensely huge tree – the same one Conway and Paul used to easily get outdoors the night the latter came over to spend the night – was positioned in such a way that someone physically inclined might be able to access the backyard by jumping up and climbing it. It appeared the voice was coming from that direction, but Maylene had a hard time imagining how Conway would have managed to pull himself up there.

"Are you really all the way up there?" Maylene whispered back, knowing it would quickly raise attention to the outside world by speaking up this early in the morning.

"It's easier than you'd think," he replied. The tree was very good about hiding every part of his body. "I know it would be no small feat for you, so go ahead and help yourself up. Just be careful."

Though cynical, Maylene conceded to this, though not without muttering a cynical "No kidding; I'd really be giving myself away if people knew I was climbing up here…"

"Luckily, I've been monitoring what's been going on indoors for quite a while now, and it appears that no one has actually woken up yet," Conway reported, pausing as he saw Maylene effortlessly leap her way up to Conway's level in a very short amount of time. "Oh, you even dressed for the part. Good thinking, Maylene."

Maylene looked awkward at that statement. "Er, my mom picked this out for me. That was before you even came back, Conway."

Slightly embarrassed to be this careless in his thoughts already, Conway simply smiled and nodded. "Oh, of course. You wouldn't have had time to improvise this well…"

"I shouldn't stay up here long," Maylene informed him. "Your family's going to wake up at some point. Have you even gotten any sleep…?"

To that, Conway let out a yawn, which was already a bad sign to Maylene. "A little," he said. "But by the time I was finished with everything, I was closer to here than Reggie's, so I've been camping out in this tree. Don't worry; it's not the first time I've done so."

"And what have you found out?" the Gym Leader asked. "Because a lot of these instructions are incredibly vague…"

"I couldn't be too specific before leaving the house," Conway informed her. "And once I left, I didn't have time to come back. You'll probably want to give these modified ones a look-over before too long," he advised before switching out her first sheet of instructions and replacing it with something a little more detailed. "They might find it conspicuous of you to be reading something during the ceremony."

Maylene gulped as she skimmed past the modifications. "You want me to memorize all this now?"

"By all means, if you can reference it in a subtle way, I suggest you do so," Conway advised. "I would say your main concern is to maintain the acting role of a grieving Gym Leader, but you've got a natural flair for being shy and meek during times like this, so you only need to probably at least pretend to cry when the others do."

That was a very odd assessment Conway just made, Maylene thought."I'm not even going to ask… but yes, naturally I'll act as if yesterday never happened."

"Thankfully, as long as I hold my position, I should have no risk of being seen by anybody," Conway informed her. "This tree's positioned at the top corner of the right close by this house. It's big enough and thankfully it's summer, so as long as I remain quiet, there's virtually no risk of being discovered from up here."

"So you're basically saying to worry about sticking to the plan rather than what you're doing," Maylene summarized. "Fair enough. What else have you found out?"

Conway gestured over to the back yard, right over to where over a month ago, he and Paul stargazed while creating each others' strategies. The lawn was no longer bare, as there was a podium in place before several rows of fold-out chairs.

"It seems my family set things up ahead of time… probably so they could get more sleep in today," he hypothesized. "If Sloan's heading the ceremony, then he'll be the one up there doing the talking for most of it, if not the entire time. With the help of my Pokémon, I was able to bug that podium."

"Bug it?" Maylene asked, completely unfamiliar with the term. "What are you talking about?"

It wasn't much of a surprise to Conway that he would have to explain this. "I told you I intend to do a little spying. I want to keep tabs on Sloan in particular. Though this position is great for stealth, it's bad for overhearing anything he says. Those little gadgets I left on the table for you to take… those are for my ability to keep up to speed with the situation without having to ask you for updates constantly, which wouldn't work out at all for this situation."

"So if you, uh… "bugged" the podium, why did you leave me with these in the first place?" Maylene fairly asked. "I don't know all that much about technology, so I'm more likely to screw that part up than help out…"

"A good spy knows his target won't stay in one place," Conway said with a smirk. "The most important bugs are the ones I need you to attach to Sloan personally, which I'm unable to do."

While it made sense, Maylene had no concept of what she was supposed to be doing. "And how am I going to attach one of these bug things to Sloan without him noticing…?"

"You've seen that they're quite small," Conway displayed, pulling one out to show her again. "I had to leave them on the instruction sheet just so you'd see them without missing them. I'd preferably like it if you bugged his backside or shoulder rather than his arms, since he may be quick to notice it that way. I'd attempt this simply by waiting until his attention is with someone else, then just tapping him from behind and asking him where the bathroom in the house is or something."

"These things don't exactly stick on to anything, though," Maylene pointed out. "And I'm sure he'd notice if I tried slipping it into his pocket or something…"

Conway gleefully held up the solution with a single index finger, though Maylene could barely make it out due to the lack of daylight and being covered in the tree. "The most effective remedy is a sticker. A small, round, transparent one so that it can go unnoticed without relying on the color of his suit, which I haven't a clue of what it'll be. These stickers are double-sided, so they'll be easy to keep on your finger and easy to leave off on him."

Maylene understood this much and nodded. "Got it. So you just need me to bug him?"

"And whatever car he comes from," Conway added. "It might be easiest to do that on your way out. The next main thing you need to do is when you are granted access to the house upon asking for the location of the bathroom."

"There are… three sets of directions here," Maylene stated uneasily, reviewing her instruction sheet. "Why is that?"

"My house has three bathrooms," Conway replied. "One belonging to my parents, one that my sister uses, and the smallest one is mine."

Maylene frowned. "If your cousin's going to give me directions anyway, what's the point of giving me these?"

"They're directions to my room from each bathroom's position," was Conway's answer… his tone darkened a bit, which was yet another element of the young man that made the Gym Leader uncomfortable. "By all means, use the bathroom time as an opportunity to review your notes as well, just so long as you reach my room and open this window without being caught."

He pointed to a window that was actually very close to the two of them. "This is of the utmost importance."

These supposed flaws in Conway's plan, only to turn out to be something else entirely were beginning to take a tax on Maylene's mind (and likely her sanity as well); once again, she had another question that Conway saw coming from a mile away. "But… you could reach this from the tree yourself. Why didn't you open it?"

"I didn't want to risk getting caught breaking into the house while everyone was asleep," Conway explained. "And while it is easy for me to reach from this tree, I can't open it normally from the outside. Not without breaking it, anyway, which would definitely compromise my stealth if I resorted to that. It's important that I am able to access my room during the ceremony, Maylene."

"Why is that?" Maylene hated to keep asking questions, but she felt it was best to do it now rather than wait too long and try to figure it out for herself.

"I've developed a plan that adapts to this new situation of mine," Conway said vaguely, and kept it so. "It just so happens to involve getting access to my house one last time. I'll go into detail once we're back at Reggie's; we're running out of time."

Maylene looked around and nearly panicked, thought made sure not to accidentally fall out of the tree. "Oh no… did I waste too much time?"

"We're doing fine, actually," Conway remarked. "But before too long my parents will have to wake up and attend this ceremony looking proper. They care very much about their appearances in public. I have most other places of interest bugged already; I just need you to take care of Sloan, whatever car he leaves in, and preferably my room once you access it. Just for the sake of covering all my bases."

"And act sad and fake-cry… that's really it?" Maylene asked. "You know we could bust him today… with so many people around, he might be helpless."

Conway sternly shook his head. "I may have seen my cousin's true nature now, but I would still not underestimate him. It's best to bust him with incriminating evidence rather than what everyone else will see as mere conjecture; especially my parents. That's my purpose for making sure his actions from now on will be monitored. Then when the right time is at hand, my cousin won't be able to escape persecution by negotiation or running away."

"You've been busy to make it this far, I can tell," Maylene noted. "Is there really nothing else I can do for you?"

"I don't plan on staying in this city much longer after today," Conway admitted. "At least Reggie's place is a safe haven for me as long as you're willing to keep this confidential…"

"Of course I will," Maylene assured, very stern about her promise. "Especially if this is for the sake of taking down Team Galactic once and for all."

This at least relieved Conway; Maylene was a very honest girl and he knew that from experience, so he knew her words were genuine. "Then our rendezvous point will be back at Reggie's house. The only other things I can think to tell you are to be sure to leave as early as you can once the ceremony ends. That will be your best chance to bug Sloan's car, and with your duties as Gym Leader, my family will easily let you slide out if you express the need. Finally… please keep an eye on my sister for me."

Maylene blinked. "Your sister?" She had heard of Franny from Conway before, but never formally met the girl…

"Much as I dislike her, I don't wish for Sloan to take advantage of her like he did with me," Conway explained, filled with resolve. "If he takes Franny away into Team Galactic, it might be impossible to reach her… and that organization will be one more member strong."

His intentions were understandable, but Maylene nodded with clear hesitance. "It wouldn't be my business to intercept their conversation since I don't really know either of them, but I'll do what I can. The thing I'm most worried about is if your cousin will recognize me from the prior incident…"

"There's a chance," Conway admitted. "But he's in no position to do anything to you here. Just don't act like you're on to him and he shouldn't have any reason to deal with you unprovoked."

"Right… of course," Maylene acknowledged. What would be even more difficult than pretending to mourn for her would be to control her anger when it came to the man who already committed crimes in her city and got away with it… something she regretted to the present day. But this wasn't about her; this mission was to set Conway's plans into motion so that the Galactic commander would be taken down in the future along with his comrades.

"It's almost eight," Conway reported, checking his watch. "Make good use what's left before showtime."

With a respectful nod, Maylene gave one last direct look at Conway. "Best of luck, then…"

"Just do what you do best and nothing can go wrong," Conway cheerfully reminded her. Though to Maylene, that was just it… doing what she "did best" was the last thing she thought she should be doing. Still, with no more time to debate, Maylene silently nodded and slipped out of the tree and back to the ground, thankful that no one was around to see her do that. She distanced herself, though kept an eye on the house from a nearby convenience store. Maylene had just enough time to get in a good breakfast that would help her function better all around in addition to reviewing her instructions.

Conway was back to looking serious and worried at the same time once he was alone again, sighing as he heard the faintest ringing of his parents' alarm clock from within the house approximately one hour before the beginning of the ceremony. This was by far the tensest hour of his life.

By the halfway point, Conway's parents were up and about, ready or close to being so as he saw them make the finishing touches on where the ceremony would be held, which was little more than just a few dark floral decorations and what appeared to be a small table standing right in front of the podium which held both an urn and a recent picture of Conway himself. The star of the show himself muttered to himself up in the tree something about how his rich parents could choose a funeral of all things to be cheap about.

The first car pulled into the driveway of Conway's house and parked approximately after three quarters of the hour passed. With binoculars, Conway immediately felt livid when he saw his cousin step out of the car shortly after. Maylene started off towards the house just then on reflex upon seeing the first car park at the house.

An interesting detail to be discovered here was that, while similar, Conway and Maylene recognized Sloan/Saturn in different ways. Conway immediately knew it was Sloan when he stepped out, and it turned out that in his Sloan persona, Saturn did everything he could to naturally alter his look without going overboard. His hair remained the same color, though it was worn completely down rather than curved up into to two sides. The other major detail that "separated" Sloan from Saturn was the thick, round-shaped glasses. Much like his relatives, once upon a time Saturn too was visually impaired. Though he had acquired contact lenses (and later got his eyes laser-corrected) since joining Team Galactic, in the presence of his family, he continued to wear fake duplicates of his old glasses.

Maylene managed to reach Conway's house just before any other cars pulled up after Saturn's. She took a deep breath, having mentally rehearsed her "lines" before getting here. She fully expected to see Saturn and was a bit surprised to see the man answering the door to appear similar, but not exactly the same as she had planned. The glasses in particular almost made Sloan to appear as a kinder, gentler soul. Though Maylene knew from the get-go this must be a rouse, she could see now how Conway had been so easily fooled into thinking his cousin was a good person for all these years.

Saturn, on the other hand, was quick to recognize Veilstone City's Gym Leader, but restrained himself from a negative reaction, especially after seeing what appeared to be obliviousness on her face. "May I help you…?"

"Um, hi… am I at the right place?" Maylene asked him, holding up the invite she received. "For the… funeral?"

"This is the address," Saturn calmly replied, letting her in immediately upon seeing the invitation. Much as Saturn loathed seeing her here, he felt that with this disguise that he would throw her off so that she would become irrelevant as a threat to his plans. "And who might you be? I'm afraid it was my aunt and uncle who sent out the invitations, and seeing as I haven't lived here in years…"

"Ah, that's understandable," Maylene forgave him easily. "I took up the position only less than a year ago… but I'm Maylene, Veilstone City's present Gym Leader. Conway challenged me to a battle a month ago and won his very first badge. So I… I really wanted to pay my respects. I thought he was destined for great things…"

Thankfully, Saturn only knew Maylene as the fierce battler who almost ruined his plans and therefore found no real oddities with the way she spoke to him. "As the saying goes… the good die young," he replied, sounding somber about it. "Pardon me for being so rude; I'm Conway's older cousin, Sloan. I was the one who was first informed about the tragedy, so I took it upon myself to arrange this funeral aside from the smallest of details. Aunt Irma and Uncle Harold have simply been too devastated this week since they heard about it…"

"I can't imagine what they're going through right now," Maylene sympathized, though she was quite literal about this. Conway had anything but good things to say about his family… she really had no idea what kind of people she was about to meet. "But you did them a big favor by taking the reigns."

"Well, Conway and I were always close regardless of distance, so it's the least I could do," Saturn explained rather humbly. "I really should have visited more often, but unfortunately, this is not a world where we can simply turn back time and correct our errors…" There were some genuine feelings behind that particular statement; Saturn despised the flaws of this world, which was one major reason why he joined Team Galactic in the first place in their pursuit of creating a new world that they themselves could mold. "It will be a short while yet before we begin outside, Miss Gym Leader, so help yourself to the hors d'oeuvres in the living room."

Maylene smiled nervously and nodded. "I just had breakfast before coming here, but if you insist…" It was just her good fortune that she had a large appetite. She wandered over to the living room where various appetizers were set up in every corner of the house. That experience was awkward at best… Maylene expected she would have trouble containing her rage, but now she just felt confused.

Saturn greeted other guests as they arrived, none of which Maylene was familiar with, and she doubted that Conway was, either. These were all associates of Conway's parents, most of whom never even met Conway in person. She only scarcely saw Conway's parents in the background all this time and Franny was nowhere to be seen. While she had this time to herself, she gave her instructions a quick look-over again.

2. Attach the first bug to Sloan via physical contact. Preferably, tap his shoulder to ask for permission to use the bathroom before the ceremonies begin.

Maylene waited for more guests to fill the house before attempting this. While Saturn was socializing with his aunt and uncle's friends and coworkers, Maylene took a deep breath to prepare herself. She knew she had to make this precise without arousing suspicion. The bug was well attached to the transparent sticker, which was positioned at the tip of her index finger. In spite of the fear of potentially screwing this up, Maylene gave the disguised Galactic commander an awkward tap to his shoulder, applying perhaps a little more pressure than she should have. Saturn turned around abruptly, startling Maylene with his stern and expectant expression.

"Yes…?" he addressed her, rather put off by how hard she poked him.

"Uh, sorry about that!" she immediately apologized, bowing her head. "I-I just wanted to know if I could maybe use the bathroom before we begin…?"

Saturn nodded stiffly. "The nearest one is down this hall to your left," he instructed, pointing in the appropriate direction.

"Th-thanks, I won't be too long," Maylene assured, hurrying towards the bathroom. She looked ecstatic once she checked her index finger and found no trace of the stickered bug any longer; step two was officially complete. The Gym Leader was just as ignorant as Paul when it came to large houses with multiple bathrooms, so she wasn't sure how she would ascertain the specific one she was going to. While walking down the hallway, it just then dawned on Maylene how massive Conway's house really was.

Once she reached the bathroom and locked the door, the only thing Maylene could think of to confirm her exact location was to check the contents of the bathroom. An especially large one with products for both men and women would indicate Conway's parents' bathroom. A medium-sized bathroom with solely feminine utilities equates to Franny's bathroom, while the smallest one of the bunch with only masculine products would of course mean Conway's bathroom.

This bathroom was quite large… easily the largest Maylene had ever seen. She confirmed that she was in the master bathroom and quickly referred to her directions. The young Gym Leader scowled as she found that she was in the bathroom the furthest away from Conway's bedroom, but calmed herself and looked carefully down both sides of the hallway after exiting the bathroom to make sure no one was around before she started to search for Conway's room, as instructed in step three:

3. Use this bathroom break to find my room using the directions below depending on which bathroom you were sent to. Keep yourself hidden and inconspicuous and enter my room as quickly as you can. Open the window towards the tree outside and bug this room as well just to be on the safe side.

Maylene passed by Franny's quarter of the house and stopped short, backing up against the wall as she heard someone exit her bathroom. Chancing a small peek, Maylene found that it was none other than Franny herself who came out and slowly made her way down the hallway in the opposite direction of the Gym Leader. Maylene allowed herself a small, quiet sigh of relief before moving on to Conway's bedroom. She remembered that she would have to keep an eye on Franny throughout the ceremony and make sure she didn't fall into Saturn's grasp.

Unfortunately, just as Maylene reached Conway's room, Franny soon found her cousin to be standing close by.

"I was wondering when you'd come out," Saturn told her, maintaining a gentle and sympathetic attitude. "You've been taking this especially hard, Francine."

Franny had a hard time facing Saturn, being called out in such a way. She shook slightly, trying her best to keep her strong feelings from coming to the fore. "It's fine," she insisted. "There's nothing that can be done now… except this."

"That's very professional of you," Saturn complimented. "But believe me; we will make the best of what we have left. That's what Conway would want us to do."

"What do you mean?" Franny asked him, still sounding a bit sour about the whole ordeal.

Just then, Saturn checked his watch and frowned. "The explanation will have to wait. It's time to begin. Would you follow me after we finish laying your brother's soul to rest? I think it's high time we thoroughly discussed that promise I once made to you a long time ago."

Franny's eyes opened wide as she realized what Saturn was talking about. She immediately nodded, almost in disbelief. "O-of course I will, Sloan!"

Saturn nodded and let out a smile as the two made their way outside. "Good, good…"

By the time they were out of sight, Maylene came out of Conway's room after successfully opening his window and attaching a bug in a strategic area. She completely missed the exchange between the cousins, but knew she was pushing it for time, and thus raced down the hallways in order to get to the backyard as quickly as she could. It was time for step four of Operation Tom Sawyer.

4. Forget yesterday. Here, you still believe me to be deceased and should behave as such. Don't hesitate to cry; I promise I won't make fun of you for it.

… This was why Maylene found Conway to be such a painfully awkward person to be around for a long period of time. Part of her was about to break into a sob anyway just because of the mental stress she had gone through over the past night. She wasn't sure how much more of this "spying" she could take. Maylene didn't even want to know how Conway was keeping himself sane in spite of the insanity that just unfolded in his life.

"Look at me, watching my own funeral," Conway mused to himself as he watched the crowd pour out from the house and sit down before the podium through his binoculars. "Figures that everyone here except Maylene is a total stranger… mom and dad's friends."

He thought it over… of course, Conway could help but be a little excited to watch his own funeral, but knew the perfect one would be much more elegant and all of his peers would be there… even Paul.

"What I wouldn't give to see Dawn as the Becky to this funeral of mine," he wished with a sigh. That was pretty much what was keeping him grounded at this point: hopeless fantasies beyond his reach. "For her, I might actually entertain the thought of crashing the funeral…"

Conway was only going to sit in on a little bit of this ceremony, as he needed to use the emptied house as an opportunity to get his end of the mission accomplished. As such, he tried not to get himself too caught up in his Dawn fantasies.

Saturn caught Maylene bringing up the rear as the seats outside filled up quickly. "Indigestion problems, Miss Gym Leader?" he asked. Maylene wasn't sure whether or not to take that question seriously, but she didn't want to risk being casual with him. "You were in the bathroom for a while…"

"Umm, yeah," she answered uneasily. "I'm so new at this whole Gym Leader thing… I can't help but wonder how many times I'll have to go through with this as long as I carry the title…"

"I suppose I cannot expect perfect professionalism out of one so young," Saturn agreed. "But it's important to experience such unpleasant times to strengthen your own resolve. This… this is reality at its darkest, Miss Gym Leader."

It was disturbing to hear such talk, and even worse to pretend to play along without completely losing it.

"I-I'm so sorry," she apologized, squirming. "I'll try to do better, I promise!"

Saturn was not impressed with seeing such a fierce battler look so frail and weak at such a time like this. He had much higher standards for someone he thought posed a threat to this scheme, but Saturn merely sighed and went ahead of Maylene. "Take your seat. It's time to begin."

Much as Maylene wanted to look back at the tree where Conway was hiding, she knew better than to be distracting in such a way. The only seat left was in the front row… right next to Conway's immediate family members.

Conway's parents seemed rather distant while Franny looked even more unpleasant than usual to be around. As Maylene awkwardly took the final vacant seat, which landed her right next to Franny, she thought about her next task…

5. Keep Franny away from Sloan. Or at the very least, interact with her and try to subtly discourage her from listening to anything Sloan says about that intern job he promised her. If my sister joins Team Galactic, it will only be that much harder to take them down.

This was going to be difficult for Maylene to pull off. She had never formally met Franny and thus had no business speaking about personal subjects to her directly; logically, Maylene shouldn't even know about Saturn's intentions for Conway's sister… bringing these topics up so forwardly and suddenly would immediately put Franny on the defensive; vile as she could be, she was still every bit as perceptive and intelligent as her little brother.

Not to mention the funeral was about to finally start. Maylene couldn't strike up any sort of conversation with Franny while Saturn gave the eulogy. At the very best, the young Gym Leader attempted to make eye contact with Franny, but Franny seemed to be in another world entirely. She seemed so worn down and stressed out… much unlike her parents, who were professionally stoic.

"Where is fancy bred? In the heart or in the head?" Saturn began; his tone soft and thoughtful. "A line from my cousin's favorite movie. Incidentally, as he and his family already knew, the true source is the Shakespearean work, The Merchant of Venice. I remember the last time I spoke with Conway in person; I asked him precisely what sort of answer he had for this inquiry."

Thanks to the bugged podium, Conway was getting a crystal-clear reception of every word Saturn spoke. He already struggled to control his anger. "That was my favorite movie when I was seven, that liar… and he never talked to me about Shakespeare!" He kept his voice down as much as he possibly could, but Conway knew this was the true test he had to face: see how long he could bear to listen to his cousin's lies that would highlight the deception he was under for so many years while still controlling his temper.

"But Conway was never simple-minded, not even in his youth," Saturn claimed. "His answer to the question was neither, saying that fancy is actually bred in your senses… sight, touch, and hearing, specifically. From there, the heart and the head develop the impressions there. One may have more power over the other, but the bottom line is that I always knew my cousin was destined for greatness… Conway reached a level of deepness most adults could never hope to achieve. Never before have I felt this sorrowful for being wrong."

There was a twig in Conway's hands, bent upwards and very close to snapping.

"For all that Conway had done for me, it was my personal mission to ensure his victory in winning the affections of the little red-haired girl he had sought after for so long…"

The twig snapped. Red hair… Conway knew exactly who Saturn was talking about. A topic most sensitive to him, Conway was well on his way to beginning to lose it. Maylene looked confused at this particular part as well.

"Another life ended far too soon," Saturn continued, undeterred. "Only now do we see how truly flawed this world can be; what justice was there in taking Conway's life? We all wish to turn back time and save his life, but our world does not, nor never will work that way. The best we can do is carry out the wishes Conway had while he was alive." He turned to his extended family. "The ones who truly suffer are my unfortunate aunt, uncle, and Franny… their only child left. Every day, they must live their lives and endure their loss… and simply pray that their remaining child will not become a victim of cruel fate as well."

Conway wasn't sure how much more of this he could take, though it was supporting his suspicions about his cousin's ulterior motives. But sooner or later, he would have to cut himself away from this distraction…

"We are gathered here today in remembrance of a young man we all felt would assuredly meet with success," Saturn pressed on; by now he had very well gotten the attention of his aunt and uncle, who were breaking down into tears at this point. Franny was always listening to him, and by this point tears were welling up in her eyes as well. "What remained of his body and very soul is now in the form of ashes within this urn. A young man like himself would not think to make his own written will, of course, but my crystal-clear memory of all the times I've had with Conway will tie up the loose ends remaining in the final chapter of his life."

This is exactly what Conway counted on: Saturn taking advantage of his lack of a last will and testament.

"In all the years I've spent with Conway, there is one thing I know to be true," Saturn said, then suddenly gesturing towards a certain area. "Like most free spirits, Conway would not want to be kept within the confines of this urn for all eternity. And so, at the end of this ceremony, we will free his soul at last; spreading his ashes around this tree, where he so often loved to be over the years."

That was something Conway did not count on. And now all of a sudden his hiding place and stealth would soon be compromised if he didn't get out of there. But with everyone looking at the tree now (Maylene in particular fearful, wondering if Conway had actually planned this out), Conway couldn't quietly sneak into his bedroom window just yet.

"But before that, let us all close our eyes and pray for his unfortunate soul," Saturn instructed, which took the crowd's attention away from the tree. "It's a pity we can do little more for him at this point, but let us wish him the best in the afterlife."

Now that the attention was off the tree, Conway knew he had to act now. He wasn't sure how much more of this nonsense he could bear to listen to from his cousin as it was. Hastily, he packed all of his belongings into his carryon bag that were utilized for this personal mission of his and started going further up the sturdy branch that led to his window.

Checking quickly to see that no one, especially Saturn, was looking in his general direction, Conway tossed his bag through the window before scrambling up into his room himself. It was hard for Conway to believe in anything other than what he suspected from the beginning: Saturn filling his eulogy with lies, nonsense, and blatant sucking-up to his parents… he would not do that without a reason. In his particular situation, remembering what he suffered during the encounter with Mars, knowing Saturn's tendency to not return the things Conway lent him over the years…

And by bringing up the lack of will, Conway could draw no other conclusion; Saturn was trying to seize everything he ever owned. For what purpose, Conway wasn't sure… he didn't know very much about Team Galactic at all, let alone their aspirations.

There was no way Conway would be able to save all of his belongings, but he knew he had to at least secure the things that could not be replaced.

Sympathetically, he patted the top of his monitor the way one would normally pet a dog or cat. "You've been a loyal companion for all these years," Conway said, actually speaking to his computer. "But that's why we have these things called "backup discs" – to preserve your soul until you're reincarnated into a new computer," he said gleefully, pulling out a backup disc he had made not very long ago. "Much as it pains me to depart from you… maybe one day we'll meet again."

Conway wished he could feasibly wipe his computer clean during this timeframe, but such a thing would immediately tell Saturn that tampering of that degree done preemptively might make him believe that Conway was alive after all, which was exactly what Conway wanted to avoid. It would also take too long; the best Conway could do was encrypt some files – something more realistic and natural that he would do before his death – and move on to his valuable books and other assorted belongings. It wasn't long before Conway's bag started to get heavy and over-packed… and it wasn't easy for Conway to get himself to stop, knowing that this may be the last time he'd see anything he didn't take with him.

But there were other essentials he needed to take with him, and this would be his one and only chance to seize the assets. Conway winced as he forcibly removed himself from his own room and dashed over to the kitchen, raiding the refrigerator and cabinets of anything edible that was suitable for this weary traveler.

The final and most important thing Conway needed from his house lied within, surprisingly, his parents' bedroom. He happened to know exactly where they were, too: the bedside drawer, top shelf. Conway stared hard at what he found, as expected… his parents' credit cards. They weren't ones that were used often, so Conway could easily take two or three and his absent-minded parents would be none the wiser. This was, of course, the most important acquisition of Conway's, as this would still give him access to his parents' money and allow him to anonymously charge his parents for anything he bought while on his journey. Financial stability was an essential; Conway wasn't ready for poverty. Perhaps it was a bit low to resort to this, but Conway saw no other way to keep himself afloat financially.

"This is it," Conway sighed, taking a few select credit and debit cards and slipping them into his pocket. "No turning back, now."

His half of the mission was complete. While Conway felt terrible about this in spite of his sour sentiments towards his family, their superficial and obviously timed emotional moments during the ceremony (as Conway stated before, he bugged the entire front row of seats the night before, and was thusly able to hear the rest of his family as well as his cousin) was heart-breaking; even in the wake of their son's death, his mother and father could only think of looking good in front of their peers. Franny's silence was telling enough for him, though he still hoped Maylene could keep Saturn away from her.

Conway no longer had any reservations about keeping his status a secret from his family; never before had he needed more definitive proof of what he always believed: his own family never really loved him. And if that was the case… there was no time like the present to informally disown himself from this disgraceful family of his.

"I've seen enough," Conway decided. "Maylene… I trust you'll do whatever you can to accomplish your mission." As he opened the front door, the morning sun's light glared against his glasses. "This is the last time I'll set foot here."

As Conway walked off, never to see his house again as far as he was concerned, he carefully made his way back to Reggie's. Meanwhile, back at the funeral, the ashes had been spread. Formally, it seemed to be over, but that's when the crowd started to get chatty like they would at any other gathering. Saturn especially, as he spoke mostly to his aunt and uncle, handing them a suspicious document.

All but Franny managed to strike up a conversation with somebody, whether it was related to Conway or not. Maylene found her perfect opportunity and approached the mourning sister of Conway.

"A-are you holding up alright?" Maylene awkwardly asked her as she came close by, which almost startled the older girl before she resumed looking cold and unreadable. "I'm… sorry, I just couldn't help but notice…"

"You're our city's Gym Leader," Franny acknowledged without a lick of emotion in her voice. "The one my cousin defeated a month ago…"

"Ah, yes," Maylene affirmed. "That's why I was invited here…"

Franny sharply glared at the younger girl. "Then I don't want to hear another word from you. Because of you, my brother was able to win a Gym Badge that she showcased on live national television. That's the last time I saw him, you know. On television, where he mocked and ridiculed me."

It seemed as if Maylene was not going to get very far with this step of the mission after all. "I… did hear about-…"

"What did I just say?!" Franny shouted at her, rapidly losing her cool. "I don't want to talk about it! There's nothing you can do to change it! I can't believe my parents even invited you here!!"

The fit that Franny threw attracted the attention of quite a few people, but most importantly Saturn himself, who instantly glared at Maylene for trying to get close to Franny. He wasn't about to take any risks by letting her stick around any longer.

Very briefly, Saturn looked to his uncle and aunt and nodded to them before taking the document back. "Thank you very much," he whispered. "Now, allow me to handle this."

As Franny ran off to cry in her own privacy, Saturn approached Maylene and looked most displeased with what she inadvertently caused.

"I-I'm so sorry!" Maylene apologized, bowing her head. "I just wanted to see if she was okay! I didn't mean to upset her; I swear…!" Maylene herself was about to break down just from the stress of keeping this secret from all these people… and Conway's own family as well.

"Even so, it may be best that you take your leave early, Miss Gym Leader," Saturn coldly suggested. "Before you start getting even more unpopular around the most important financial bodies of Veilstone City."

Leaving early… that reminded Maylene of the final step she was left before reconvening with Conway at Reggie's house.

6. Be sure to bug Sloan's car before you leave. Take any opportunity available to leave first so that you won't be caught red-handed.

It appeared that Maylene would be unable to reach Franny after all. Much as it pained her to disappoint Conway, she knew when it was time to stop pursuing an unreachable goal. At least, not at the risk of blowing her cover and ruining her chances to finish the last step of the mission.

"I understand," she said, still in a very apologetic tone. "I guess I do have to move on and do my job, too… just… let her know I meant no harm, okay?"

"Of course," was Saturn's stiff reply. "Now, you know the way out, I presume?"

Maylene nodded. "Yes… I'll be on my way now." She quickly approached the tree where "Conway's" ashes were spread and bowed down respectfully. "Sorry for causing a disturbance. I'll miss you, Conway."

She looked up for just a moment and saw that Conway had already left his post. This was at least a good sign… so far. Maylene sighed and left the "festivities", so to speak, and came out of the same front door Conway himself left from not long ago. She remembered the first car that arrived in the parking lot, and since she was the first visitor to arrive, she knew this had to be Saturn's car. With no trouble at all, she bugged Saturn's car and walked briskly back to Reggie's, still with the weight of failing to get through to Franny over her shoulders.

Franny tried; she really did. Unlike her attention-deficient parents, the advent of Conway's death was a daily torment for her to endure. Deep down, she did care about this and was torn to shreds when she realized she would never be able to make amends with Conway when they would grow up. But being the stable-minded one of the family, or so she thought, she couldn't show any signs of weakness. She refused to let her emotions control her actions… these were traits Saturn saw firsthand, and that was what convinced him that his other cousin would be just as valuable as a Galactic grunt.

He was quick to track his other cousin down, who had broken down into tears, but kept her crying as quiet as she possibly could so as not to attract attention from the side of the house that Conway was previously hiding around while he was in the tree. Franny didn't move when she realized when she wasn't alone… because she saw her cousin as her only hope for getting through his horrible loss.

"I'm impressed you lasted as long as you did," Saturn complimented as he took a seat next to her on the ground. "You needn't feel ashamed."

"I can't believe my parents invited her here!" Franny cried out in agony. "All that plays in my mind over and over again is what Conway said to me on the TV! He died hating me and nothing can bring him back-…"

Saturn looked to his cousin sternly. "Francine. I believe now is the time to discuss the promise."

"How can I even think about that now?" Franny asked, sniffling. "I can't be a good intern if I'm torn up over a stupid thing like this…!"

"That's where you're wrong," Saturn corrected. "Where I work… we can help you. You can learn to control your emotions. Work will get your mind off this loss, and I believe this is what Conway would want, correct? He would want you to move on."

Franny helplessly looked up at Saturn. "Sloan… he hated me. And… I hated him, too. He wouldn't want the best for me! And it isn't like we can ask him now!"

"Join me," Saturn gently urged. "Because I promise you with my very own life that we can achieve what you just said was impossible."

Upon hearing that, Franny's eyes opened wide, amazed and aghast at what she was hearing. "You mean… bring him back from the dead…?"

Saturn smiled at her. "Where I work, we're creating a new world; one without the flaws and evils that have ruined this one. Francine, Conway will be in that new world, and you may reunite with him and tie up all of the loose ends between the two of you."

This honestly sounded too good to be true, but Franny never knew a time where Sloan lied to her before… "Sloan, you… you're serious, aren't you…?"

"On a day such as this, I could not possibly be more serious," Saturn assured her. "I am not content to say goodbye to Conway forever today. You certainly aren't, either."

"What have you got planned…?" Franny asked him. "I… I want to know!"

Saturn smiled again. "All of your questions will be answered; that I can assure you." He stood up, extending a hand to his cousin. "I've seen it firsthand today that you are ready for recruitment, Francine. This is the day you've been waiting for, and starting with today, we'll work towards reaching Conway directly again in our new world. What holds you back here?"

For once, Saturn had a point. Franny was very eager to leave the house as soon as possible, even when Conway was still "alive". She was always interested in the internship promised to her, and now hearing about how it could solve all of her problems… there really wasn't much to convince her not to accept Saturn's offer; she cared for her parents about as much as Conway himself did, and in her moment of weakness and desperation…

She took Saturn's hand and stood up alongside the Galactic commander, hugging him… which was a little unexpected for Saturn.

"Get me out of here, Sloan," she breathlessly requested. "I want to see the new world as soon as possible."

While Franny hugged him, Saturn smirked; the gentle visage of Sloan no longer very present in his face. "Of course, my dear. And worry not; I'll take care of all the traveling expenses."

The deed his aunt and uncle just signed earlier indeed entitled Saturn the rights to all of Conway's belongings for putting on what they thought was a very deep and moving eulogy. With Conway out of the picture, his belongings at Saturn's disposal, and finally recruiting Franny into Team Galactic, Saturn was more than happy to finally rid himself of that lingering feeling of unfinished business. This time, he came out on top in spite of the messes that occurred.

Another victory for Team Galactic.

"So Franny was unreachable after all, huh?" Conway acknowledged with a sigh after he and Maylene reconvened at Reggie's house. "Don't be so down on yourself, Maylene. I'm surprised the plan actually went this well."

Maylene blinked. "What do you mean?"

"For such a hastily thrown-together plan, I didn't expect perfection," Conway explained. He was already setting up a new disguise for himself to sneak out of Veilstone City with. "But now I can keep tabs on Sloan wherever and whenever until he finds the bug while I go out and gain the strength I'll need to defeat him personally."

"You shouldn't try and take him on all by yourself," Maylene scolded. "He's dangerous. But I can't believe how… nice he seemed until the end of the reception."

Conway nodded. "If he hadn't been telling so many obvious lies during that eulogy, I might have started to doubt your testimony, Maylene. But worry not; I refuse to behave so recklessly in this situation. I've come too far to screw it up now. But I appreciate everything you've done for me, Maylene. I couldn't have pulled this off without you."

"I still wish I could have done more," Maylene mumbled. "But you know you're always welcome here, right? Even if you can't go home for a while, you'll always have a home here, and I know Reggie would say the same."

Suddenly, Conway looked a little doubtful. "I forgot… he'll be gone for a while. It would be difficult for you to keep this kind of thing from him… you think he would keep this to himself?"

"I know he will," Maylene assured, nodding. "He and I fought off your cousin together, so we both understand the severity of your situation, Conway. He wouldn't tell a soul."

"Good to know," Conway said, sounding much more relaxed now. He proceeded to tie his hair up and put on a Newsboy cap. "Now I can finally start the journey…"

Maylene blinked at this. "So what are you going to do now?"

"Like I said before, I don't stand a chance against Sloan presently," Conway reminded her, putting on a high-collared jacket and replacing his regular glasses with sunglasses. "So how do I go about becoming stronger? The answer is simple: I must train my Pokémon and test their strength against Gym Leaders across Sinnoh."

"So you decided to do Gyms even though you won that Contest?" Maylene brought up, still highly curious of what Conway was up to.

"Much as I enjoyed that, Contests focus more on aesthetic appeal and style rather than battling strength," Conway said with remorse. "Not to mention they're all televised, and if I'm going to keep up this pretending-I'm-dead charade, I need to avoid recorded events as much as I possibly can. Thankfully, Gym Battles aren't like that."

Maylene was beginning to follow… "So that's why you're dressing weird, right? So people won't recognize you?"

Conway felt that blow to his ego after hearing that. "Weird? I thought this might look cool…"

Wisely, Maylene decided not to press the matter. "Er, right… right. You look… cool." It was so hard to sound honest about it, though. "When will you know you're ready, then? You know, to settle this once and for all?"

"When I qualify for the Sinnoh League," Conway answered. "So that means I've got seven badges left to earn."

"Even so, you're registered for the League under your name, Conway," Maylene pointed out to him. "How are you going to bypass that?"

To that, Conway grinned and held out his Trainer ID, which now sported a picture of a disguised Conway with his name altered to Colin. "You wouldn't believe how easy it is to hack into the system, Maylene."

"You altered your ID by yourself?" Maylene was aghast. Things like this just seemed like magic to her.

"And I even managed to retain the Cobble Badge I earned from you in the data," he gloated with a smirk. "Of course, there are still a few kinks to work out… but this will be enough to fool the majority of the region for now until I can get this completely reconfigured."

The young Gym Leader groaned a little, rubbing her head. It had been a long day… "Why do I have a feeling that what you're doing is illegal?"

To that, Conway just laughed it off. "Oh, it probably is, haha… ah, yeah, it's probably illegal."

The gleam in Conway's shades made him no less creepy than when he had his normal glasses on. Maylene couldn't believe how outrageously uncomfortable Conway could make her; she felt bad about it, but she was almost eager to get him out of the house at this point. "So, uh… which Gym Leader do you plan on facing first?"

"It's best to go with convenience until I can settle into this "new life" of mine," Conway told her, all packed up and ready to go. "The closest Gym from here is in Pastoria City, so it looks like Crasher Wake will be my next victim."

The way he said "victim" with the confident "hm" he added afterwards… he was getting creepier and creepier.

"That fake name sounds familiar," Maylene noted. "… Oh, wait, that's right. That's the name you tried to trick Brandon into believing was yours!"

Memories of that incident significantly snuffed out that bravado of his. "Ah… well, yes," he admitted. "Call it a stroke of inspiration… or just the first thing that came to mind again. I wonder if I should give this Colin gimmick a fake accent…"

Maylene held her hands up, not wanting to be the test subject for this. "I'd just focus on trying to distinguish Colin from yourself in more important ways for now! Maybe once you're far away enough from Veilstone City, you won't even have to bother with a disguise anymore. It's not like you're famous and people who aren't local from here are going to remember you from a brief mention in the news a long time ago…"

"Mm, perhaps," Conway agreed. "It would be convenient to be myself while not being myself. There are many things I'll need to commit to memory."

Conway grabbed his belongings and started to walk for the front door, while Maylene stood up promptly. "You're going now…?"

"Might as well," Conway figured. "Time's a-wasting. I could get most of the traveling out of the way in a day or less if I head off now. I must thank you, Maylene, for all of your assistance. I wouldn't have been able to get this far without you."

Awkwardly, Maylene nodded to him. "Really, it's just relieving to know you're alive after all. That makes life easier for me already. Just be careful, alright? Don't hesitate to call me or Reggie if you ever need help," she instructed. "After all, we're all you've got to go to right now."

Conway looked away, thoughtful about this. "Right… I won't inconvenience either of you too much; cross my heart. I'm pretty sure I can handle myself well on my own." He smirked to himself. "If I can survive a month of being with Paul, that qualifies me to survive just about anything, right?"

That made Maylene laugh a little. "Guess you've got a point there." This made her realize something. "So, um… about Paul, if he comes here and asks about you…?"

"That won't happen," Conway coldly cut Maylene off. "Long before any of this reached the rest of the world… I was already dead to Paul. He'll be content to keep it that way."

With that, he opened the front door and stepped out while Maylene watched him until he was no longer in sight. Then she promptly slumped against the side of the door frame.

"I can't believe I'm saying this," she muttered. "But I think full-time double-duty Gym Leader and Breeder duties were less stressful than… this. Unbelievable…"

Much to Maylene's relief, the following days would comparatively be much less hectic for her. Though it was still a struggle without having Reggie on hand, it was a cakewalk compared to the situations both Conway and Paul faced.

"Here's your medicine; be sure to read the instructions and follow them accordingly," said Snowpoint City Hospital's pharmacist, handing Paul a bag containing quite a few bottles of various pills. "Do you have any questions?"

Paul, now back in his regular clothes and seemingly on his way out of the hospital, was told to stop by this area before leaving the building. After having a few days to cool down, he was a bit more in control of himself, though he was still far from well. "What if I don't take them?" he simply asked… and somehow still came off as rude as the pharmacist frowned.

"If you don't take them, you'll end up back here within a few days… only in the morgue rather than the emergency room," she said in a flat tone. "It's bad for your health to question the hospital at a time like this, so if you want to stay away from this place, you might want to consider just doing what you're told for once."

It seemed within a few days that Paul already developed a bad reputation amongst the hospital staff for his attitude… especially with all of the extra perks he was given considering his situation. Still, Paul hated even having to be here in the first place, so he was ungrateful regardless of the fact that this hospital saved his life.

Though he crumbled half of the bag with his shaking wrist, Paul remained calm and nodded to her. "Very well." That was all he said before leaving the pharmacy area. Finally, Paul was free to roam the great outdoors again.

It wasn't easy convincing the doctors to let him go about his way, but Paul's stubborn nature reflected Brandon's in that it was essentially never-ending. Eventually, one opposing force was going to fall, and when it came to debates, Paul was rarely the one that fell. Thankfully, he had leverage as a terminally ill patient to let him live out his "dreams" and "enjoy" his life for the short time that he still had it.

The only issue would be the hospital bills and the cost for the medications. Without the proper insurance, Paul knew those would be huge bills coming up on Reggie's doorstep one day… bills he wouldn't be able to pay off by himself. Then Paul would have to explain these bills to Reggie, and eventually Brandon as well, since he'd ultimately be footing the bill. For everything that happened since he split up with Conway, Paul wasn't ready to disclose any of that to anybody just yet. It would be a long time before he could bring himself to outright admit what has effectively weakened him.

Much as it irritated Paul to take so much medication at once, it was at least effective in doing its job as the constant pain plaguing Paul for weeks dulled down significantly. But now Paul had to deal with a different kind of pain… the sting of defeat.

After nearly getting himself killed to reach this city, Paul was outright floored by Candice. Snowpoint City's Gym Leader tried multiple times to contact Paul after their short encounter in the bathroom, but Paul refused to see her. Now that Paul understood the severity of his situation, he knew that he had limitations he had no choice but to accept and adapt with.

Determined not to give up now, though he wasn't yet sure why he insisted on pressing on in light of this life-changing news, Paul resolved to train his Pokémon and develop his own strategy against Candice with the same four Pokémon he used last time. Clearly, Paul understood that his judgment was clouded in light of his bad health last time. Though he knew the Gym Leader wouldn't be so willing to pretend that battle never happened…

In spite of the fact that dusk was swiftly approaching and the area was covered in a thick fog that granted a very limited range of visibility, Paul pressed on through the city until he found Candice and her Abomasnow practicing various moves. Not far away, there was a building that happened to be very easy to climb. Even in his weakened state, Paul managed to reach the roof without much trouble as he glared down several feet below where he could barely make out Candice's figure… though Abomasnow's was a bit more apparent. "Candice!"

"Huh- wha…?!" Candice turned around towards the direction of the voice, but found nobody behind her. The voice seemed to echo… but that voice was very familiar. "Oh… is it…?"

"Yeah, it's me," Paul replied snidely. "I just wanted to let you know that I plan on challenging you to a rematch in a few days. I've been released from the hospital, so don't bother worrying about my health."

That cinched it for Candice. "Paul! So it is you… where are you, anyway?"

"That's irrelevant right now," Paul said; his tone sharp, yet controlled. "I'm going to train and develop a new strategy against you, so prepare yourself."

Candice wasn't sure why Paul insisted on speaking to her from such a distance, but he sounded healthy enough and he was making sense. It was hard to argue with him. "Well… I'll definitely do that, then! I look forward to battling with you again for sure. I'll finally get to battle the real you!"

"You will," Paul affirmed. "But I have a favor to ask of you."

This was an unexpected twist. "Uh… a favor?"

Paul had thought back on past events long enough to remember something important about the time he spent in Squallville. "There's a good chance you'll come across another challenger soon," he informed her. "And I happen to be familiar with him… I can't stand him."

"You don't say…" Candice muttered awkwardly, put off by Paul's blunt and brutal honesty. "Then what's the favor got to do with this?"

"I would prefer you not mention me under any circumstance," Paul requested. "In fact, you don't even know me. You've never met the real me, so wipe that previous battle from your memory."

Candice wasn't sure how to interpret this. "Wait… you want me to forget about you? But how exactly can I do that?"

"Just pretend you never met me," Paul coldly instructed her. "I don't want him knowing about what happened to me… he's nosy and annoying and it's none of his business, so I want you to keep everything about our encounters confidential. He's my age, had dark hair and a red cap and travels with a Pikachu. He'll have two other traveling companions with him. So if you come across that group, keep your mouth shut when it comes to me."

"Wow, you're really serious about this," Candice remarked. "Well, if that's what you want, Paul…"

"Don't even address me by name," Paul cut her off. "As far as those people are concerned, we've never met. I won't act familiar around you, either. Do you swear you'll remember to do this if you come across him?"

Candice still wasn't really sure why Paul wanted her to go out of her way to lie like this, but who was she to judge? She had a feeling Paul naturally had a lot of enemies and that their conflicts ran much deeper than they would appear to be. "Well… in light of what's happened and all…" Candice sounded unsure of herself, but shook her head and stood firm from then on. "You've got my word; Gym Leader's honor. Just promise you'll be careful while you're training, alright?"

Paul was a strange and mysterious figure to Candice. In spite of all their interaction, she never could get a good, clear look at his face due to either the bandages or blood that often covered his face when they met, as well as the distance between the two when they battled and when they conversed in the hospital with a bathroom stall between them. In spite of that, it was difficult to just forget about him, but Candice figured it shouldn't be too hard to feign ignorance of his existence when it came to a certain future challenger from the Kanto region…

"Fine," he agreed. "Then we'll meet again soon… but it will be the first time you really meet me. Don't forget that."

Paul hopped off the building from the side opposite of Candice before she could respond and sped off, passing the city limits and stopping to rest in the woods. Now that he knew it would be no easy feat to defeat Candice, much less with his weak-to-ice team, Paul knew where to focus to keep his mind off his impending doom.

"Three days," he decided to himself. "That's all the training I'll need in order to defeat her… as long as I'm still alive, I won't lose like that ever again."

In due time, promises to yourself would come to have very little meaning, as Paul would learn. But for now… he at least had the motivation to accept his cross to bear as one who would die much sooner than his peers.

Regardless of that, Paul was not yet completely through with his stages of grief. And unbeknownst to Paul, his father was inadvertently closing in on him.

Paul no longer wore the winter coat Conway purchased for him. Now that Paul was in the city where the climate was at least a little more stable, he could get by with his jacket alone. The coat was now enduring the same fate as the strategy Conway wrote out for him; shoved into his backpack… shoved into obscurity.

As always, Paul shoved the past behind him in order to focus on what lied ahead. Now that he experienced firsthand how challenging Candice really was, it was obvious that this battle would be just as much of a struggle as it was against Byron with type disadvantages… now likely even more of one since Paul's team was plagued with severe weaknesses to Ice-type attacks as opposed to simply just being ineffective against it, which many of the Pokémon's attacks were. This was going to be nothing like the battle with Byron.

But now it was clear to Paul what this all really meant to him now: defeating Candice would prove to him (and assumedly others) that his terminal illness could be kept at bay long enough for him to prove his competence.

Anger associated with Paul was pretty much a given; though he restrained it for now, that particular stage of grief was well underway, with the Bargaining stage beginning to seep in as well.

These stages combined were going to have some… very interesting results down the road, to say the least.

( TBC )
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

Yay! An update! My running commentary begins...now.

It all comes back to bravery (and by extention, fear as well) here, doesn't it? A reoccuring theme of sorts.

Very grateful for authors like you that give Paul a legitimate reason to angst, unlike an awful lot of writers who go "lol Paul be emo". What show were they watching? 'Cause it sure ain't the same show I've seen.

Holy...Whoa. Really didn't see that one coming. Candice handled that situation very well. Ack, I'm at a loss for words here.

Ah, I'm very happy that you acknowledged the need for a strong bond when in comes to the Starter's ultimate moves. 'Tis a pity the animé hasn't done the same, I think there's a lot of potential in the idea. It'd really be something if it was established that trust was needed for the moves. And when Paul comes along with his Frenzy Plant Torterra? Questions would be raised.

Dang, and I was getting sucked into the battle, too. Isn't it marvelous that the phone always picks the worst time to ring?

Nice use of canon's reasoning, there. Of course, there'd have to be some reason (besides "because the plot said so") for Reggie to head up to Snowpoint.

"I'm not sure what I'll miss more… him or his food!"
Pfft. Never change, Maylene.

Yeah, you are nosy, Mars. Have more work to do as a reward.

That's a grand plan you've got there, Saturn. Very calculated.

And here comes the grief. Funny how things work that way. You hate someone, but when something happens to them, the hatred starts to fade.

Lovely continuity on both counts (the lightning and the ghosts).

Oh Conway, why so neurotic?

Uh oh, a zany scheme is brewing.

I get the feeling that when Paul finds out that Conway used his clothes to stop a villain, he'll miss the point.

"Well, I sort of borrowed your clothes...But I had to! I needed to stop my cousin!"

"You borrowed my clothes!?"

Really feeling sorry for Maylene for having to take part in the aforementioned zany scheme.

Yeesh, that was a close call.

The Merchant of Venice, huh? So you view the Pokémon world as mostly like ours, too?

"For all that Conway had done for me, it was my personal mission to ensure his victory in winning the affections of the little red-haired girl he had sought after for so long…"
Oh no, he didn't!

Shoot, another close call.

I talk to my computer, too. And by talk, I mean shout abuse at it when it crashes.

Well, I suppose even the best laid plans don't always work 100%.

To that, Conway grinned and held out his Trainer ID, which now sported a picture of a disguised Conway with his name altered to Colin. "You wouldn't believe how easy it is to hack into the system, Maylene."
You're not kidding there, Conway.

I'm loving the frankness of the chemist there. "Oh, if you don't take your meds? You'll die."

It seemed within a few days that Paul already developed a bad reputation amongst the hospital staff for his attitude…
Oh, that doesn't come as a suprise. Paul sure likes to be difficult.

And we have setup for the mini-arc. Most excellent.

...I think I should stop yapping now, lest I keep going forever.
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

n_n' Heh, sorry for not reviewing yesterday... Anyways, thanks for updating!

Okay, with that over, here goes! That was a great chapter, for starters. Pretty much the whole time I was reading that, I could hardly control my laughter (Hopefully that effect was intentional..?)

As someone else mentioned, you're awesome at writing battles! They're incredibly creative, I can't help but wonder how you think of them.

Liked the new demension of Franny, by the way. You've proved that she isn't completely heartless. XD Actually, everyone was great in this chapter...

On a final note (yes, I know this review is awkward), my favorite scene had to be the ghost scene. That time, controlling laughter was just too hard. n_n

Anyways, thanks. For updating, and also replying to my review that last time (that made me feel incredibly good).
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

Ah, I'm very happy that you acknowledged the need for a strong bond when in comes to the Starter's ultimate moves. 'Tis a pity the animé hasn't done the same, I think there's a lot of potential in the idea. It'd really be something if it was established that trust was needed for the moves. And when Paul comes along with his Frenzy Plant Torterra? Questions would be raised.

I keep holding out hope that they will delve into that subject in the anime soon, like whenever Infernape learns (or had better learn) Blast Burn. That would be the best time to start going into that subject, and then Ash/Brock/Dawn remember Paul's Torterra knows Frenzy Plant and they're like "... HUH."; really, for a show that's so up on promoting love and friendship, you'd think they would seize the opportunity to play up those ultimate moves a bit more considering the requirements in the game.

Even funnier when I think, as far as the games are concerned, Frenzy Plant is a pretty useless attack for Torterra to have based strictly on its stats since Frenzy Plant's a special move. People often say Paul represents that soulless side of the fandom known as the metagame, and while I agree with that to an exent, Paul would be better off giving Torterra Seed Bomb or Wood Hamer for the STAB Grass-type move. Not to mention Earthquake (though I think I heard that move in general is sort of banned in the anime). Yet in spite of the ever-changing moveset amongst Paul's team, Torterra included, it seems to have always had Frenzy Plant since its debut in the anime, so the fact that Paul insists that Torterra sticks with that move is pretty amusing. Of course, anime logic and game logic rarely ever mesh anyway, but the ultimate moves really should be an exception to the rule. D/P's been a bit more faithful to the games anyway, so I really do expect them to address this before D/P ends.

Nice use of canon's reasoning, there. Of course, there'd have to be some reason (besides "because the plot said so") for Reggie to head up to Snowpoint.

When DP128 first aired before it got subbed, I was afraid they weren't going to give Reggie any reason at all to be there, which is just ludicrous considering Reggie's kinda got a job and all and Veilstone City's way way far off from Snowpoint. "I just finished delivering a Pokemon I was taking care of back to its trainer" at least covered that, but it still seems like a stretch since it just seems douchey to make Reggie go up all that way just to make a delivery and it raised the question of who the hell is taking care of the baby Pokemon back home (though at least the fic has that covered). But this was something that also made me glad I forced myself on hiatus last year when the episode was announced a couple of months before airing; I never would have counted on Reggie being in Snowpoint, so all that extra time I had came in handy and probably saved me from another potential plothole.

I get the feeling that when Paul finds out that Conway used his clothes to stop a villain, he'll miss the point.

"Well, I sort of borrowed your clothes...But I had to! I needed to stop my cousin!"

"You borrowed my clothes!?"

Ohhhh yeah. That's sort of what'll play into when they eventually reunite like seven chapters from now; Paul's going to see some douchebag in his clothes and explode when he finds out it's Conway who raided his room and did god knows what to it while Paul was gone. Some things just won't ever change between those two.

The Merchant of Venice, huh? So you view the Pokémon world as mostly like ours, too?

More or less. One-off comments in the dub insinuate as much and they were pretty loose about making real-world references back in the old Kanto days unless I'm mistaken. Well, there's also that and "Lightning American" Lt. Surge and French Fantina from the games (I think the Gen I games outright stated the spaceship model in Pewter City's museum was the Spaceshuttle Colombia before that tragedy occured some years later). I had this funeral plot point planned since this past summer, and Blackjack suggested I throw in a Tom Sawyer reference or two... which was way too hard to resist, so while I went that far, I decided to throw in a Willy Wonka and Shakespeare reference as well.

And we have setup for the mini-arc. Most excellent.

Yup. All that's left is reuniting Brandon with his Battle Pyramid, which is the purpose Chapter 14 primarily serves aside from Barry's debut. Because of that, I'm praying next chapter won't be as long as the others since it's really just filler biding time for the adaptation. It's been a long time since Brandon's had a major role in the story (Chapter 7, I think), so I guess 14's going to also serve as a warm-up for getting used to writing him extensively again.

Needless to say the next bundle of chapters are going to be very heavy in the Paul/Reggie/Brandon content, so much that I think it'll necessitate Conway's story to be held off after the end of the next chapter until the Paul/Ash full battle finishes up. But that'll at least be a nice way to cheat in giving him a badge or two without having to write out the gym battles.

So yeah, for those curious about what Paul's actually afflicted with, one reader from FFN gave me a suggestion that seems to really fit the bill so far: Chronic granulomatous disorder. So that may be the best bet if I decide not to make Paul's disease a fictional one. I think I'll put off the confirmation for a while since we're coming up on some major plot-oriented chapters very soon, but that's definitely a higher candidate over "some kind of cancer".

I plan on starting Chapter 14 very soon, probably by the end of this week. I promised a friend a while ago that I'd get the 15th chapter done by her birthday in August, so I'd like to mow down this chapter as quickly as possible without making it a crappy stall for time so I can spend the summer focusing on what will be the most significant chapter in this story since the tenth one. It's going to require me to watch A Pyramiding Rage! a bajillion times to get the script accurate, but that should be a lot more fun than when I had to do the same with Pursuing a Lofty Goal!.

Thanks for all the feedback! I really appreciate it!
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

I keep holding out hope that they will delve into that subject in the anime soon, like whenever Infernape learns (or had better learn) Blast Burn. That would be the best time to start going into that subject, and then Ash/Brock/Dawn remember Paul's Torterra knows Frenzy Plant and they're like "... HUH."; really, for a show that's so up on promoting love and friendship, you'd think they would seize the opportunity to play up those ultimate moves a bit more considering the requirements in the game.
Love and friendship being strong themes in the animé...I can't believe that the thought never crossed my mind! That's perfect! Yeah, the writers are missing something big here. If the twerps knew that little detail, Ash would be bugging Paul about it every time they crossed paths.

Blast Burn on Infernape is inevitable in my eyes; Frenzy Plant's been covered and Barry's Empoleon is packing Hydro Cannon.

Even funnier when I think, as far as the games are concerned, Frenzy Plant is a pretty useless attack for Torterra to have based strictly on its stats since Frenzy Plant's a special move. People often say Paul represents that soulless side of the fandom known as the metagame, and while I agree with that to an exent, Paul would be better off giving Torterra Seed Bomb or Wood Hamer for the STAB Grass-type move. Not to mention Earthquake (though I think I heard that move in general is sort of banned in the anime).
I suppose it's sort of understandable that people think a 'serious business' Trainer like Paul is mocking the competitive side of the series, but how can that be a parody when there's nothing to suggest he's to be taken anything but seriously?

Anyway, Paul wouldn't get anywhere in the metagame with some of the moves his Pokémon use. Focus Blast Ursaring? Blizzard Weavile? He'd be laughed out quick smart. I don't remember Hyper Beam/Frenzy Plant/etc being used by competitive players, either. Eh, the writers probably don't pay much attention to base stats. They might be taking base power at face value.

Regarding Torterra, I reckon Wood Hammer would be tricky due to lack of mobility. Though the writers aren't shy of having the same move being executed or adapated in different ways, depending on the situation and the Pokémon (Silver Wind had one look used by May's Beautifly and another from Drew's Masquerain). There's nothing stopping Seed Bomb, though. As for Ground moves, with Earthquake not an option in the show (wasn't it last used by Ash's Tauros in the Battle Frontier?)...there's no real other physical Ground attacks that'd be useful on Torterra.

When DP128 first aired before it got subbed, I was afraid they weren't going to give Reggie any reason at all to be there, which is just ludicrous considering Reggie's kinda got a job and all and Veilstone City's way way far off from Snowpoint. "I just finished delivering a Pokemon I was taking care of back to its trainer" at least covered that, but it still seems like a stretch since it just seems douchey to make Reggie go up all that way just to make a delivery and it raised the question of who the hell is taking care of the baby Pokemon back home (though at least the fic has that covered).
Well, it worked! Although a bit of fridge logic hit me: why couldn't one of those Poké Ball transfer machines be used? Now I just think since Poké Balls weren't mentioned, it wasn't an option for one reason or another.

Ohhhh yeah. That's sort of what'll play into when they eventually reunite like seven chapters from now; Paul's going to see some douchebag in his clothes and explode when he finds out it's Conway who raided his room and did god knows what to it while Paul was gone. Some things just won't ever change between those two.
I nailed it. Niiice. Now that I think about it, I can't picture much variety in Paul's wardrobe.

More or less. One-off comments in the dub insinuate as much and they were pretty loose about making real-world references back in the old Kanto days unless I'm mistaken. Well, there's also that and "Lightning American" Lt. Surge and French Fantina from the games (I think the Gen I games outright stated the spaceship model in Pewter City's museum was the Spaceshuttle Colombia before that tragedy occured some years later).
Good to know I'm not the only one. But it's also reasonable for people to think otherwise; real world references are all but dead now. I don't think there's anything post-Kanto (in both games and animé) that suggests it. Hmm... from what I remember of watching the odd Japanese episode here and there, Fantina used a lot of gratuitous English. Different languages, same thing. *shrugs*

So yeah, for those curious about what Paul's actually afflicted with, one reader from FFN gave me a suggestion that seems to really fit the bill so far: Chronic granulomatous disorder. So that may be the best bet if I decide not to make Paul's disease a fictional one.
*reads article* Whoa, what a stroke of luck. It fits amazingly well. That reader certainly did their research.

I plan on starting Chapter 14 very soon, probably by the end of this week. I promised a friend a while ago that I'd get the 15th chapter done by her birthday in August, so I'd like to mow down this chapter as quickly as possible without making it a crappy stall for time so I can spend the summer focusing on what will be the most significant chapter in this story since the tenth one.
Ooh! Sounds great! I'll still be reading...and making overly long comments!
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