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TEEN: Travels of the Trifecta!

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

I'm baaaack!

Yeah, yep. Failure's a good word for that day.

When it comes to shelter, what's better than a flying pyramid?

Brandon was not very used to working with the oven.
Four words come to mind here: accident waiting to happen.

Reggie was a natural at cooking, having won regional fairs with his talents.
That's a nice touch. I can totally picture him doing something like that.

Not very homely and a mite awkward since what went down earlier is probably gonna come up over dinner. Ah, here it is now. Brandon won't be seen the same way again by some.

Uh, Brandon? Don't think destiny will cut it as an excuse. In Paul's eyes, at least.

"And it's amazing that you bonded with it, but... this whole quest was just a double-edged sword from the beginning. Helping Regigigas endangers us, while helping us would have endangered Regigigas."
Yeah, it's a situation with no perfect solution. Either way, someone loses.

I'd be more concerned about the Battle Frontier committee believing that whole story. Then again, if Brandon can capture three legendary Pokémon, protecting another one doesn't seem as farfetched.

This is a precious piece of Sinnoh's history, barely hanging by a thread. Ordinary construction workers won't understand that...
Now I'm picturing some builders going 'steady, steady... *loud crash* Bugger. There goes the rest of the temple.'

"You leave worrying about the temple to me and Maria," Brandon assured. "Because you two have more important things to do than worry about my problems."
Here's the problem, Brandon: this whole rebuilding the temple problem could go wrong and cause more problems, thus making it your sons' problem. But maybe some sleep will help make things seem less problematic ...Okay, clearly my brain's favourite word today is 'problem'.

Oh, hello! Someone is having doubts about beating Ash like he's done before on multiple occasions. Though if he saw how the last Ash vs. Brandon match played out, I wonder if he'd see things differently.

No matter how old he got, there were childish moments Paul would continue having for years to come.
This line made me smile. I pity everyone who had to deal with Paul when he was little. Am totally picturing a hellraiser here.

Something about that statement rubbed Reggie the wrong way, even if it was a compliment.
Brandon does have trouble with not insulting others when he gives a rare compliment to someone, doesn't he?

"The connection with those three... seems a tad rigid."
Understatement of the century, this is. And didn't she only find out about the connection that night?

And with that, a scene change! Hmm... so Conway's attempting to confront his fear head-on? This'll be interesting. Provided that Fantina stops by on a whim.

A Rollout Lickitung... I see where this is going. Pity Barry doesn't.

Just pay attention and you'll learn how important it is to be precise in your move execution.
Listen, Conway. You're asking Barry to pay attention? I admire your optimism.

"Sloppy, huh?" Barry never was that good with taking criticism. "This coming from a guy who won't even throw a real punch. You're one to talk!"
Pfft. Oh, Barry. Your strange brand of logic never ceases to amuse me.

"Just look behind me: I'm teaching Lickitung physical attacks. Remember what I said about paying attention?"
Bahaha! Nice one!

Now I gotta wonder: what does Barry consider a normal wake-up time?

Conway rolled his eyes and sighed, silently scolding himself for not realizing earlier that Barry needed constant activity in order to learn.
Or something shiny. I daresay some practical application is in order.

Barry's stomping the ground now? A bit like his gameverse counterpart's Platinum animation, perhaps?

Barry pointed at Conway in dramatic fashion. "You're gonna lose even worse than I did with an attitude like that!"
Ha! Famous last words! And the whole dramatic pointing canon brings never gets old.

Rollout as throwing a large rock in the air... that's an interesting take on the move. That wouldn't have occurred to me.

Ahaha! Always funny to hit Barry with a dose of reality.

Barry's whole fining schtick makes me wonder, if he managed to actually fine someone, what would he do with the money?

"Pray no one ever battles you in the morning," he teased. "It would be a train wreck.
Oh man, that would be a sight to see. What could possibly go wrong? Well, moreso than usual.

Ohhh, I see why you did what you did with Rollout earlier. Always good to have variations on the same move.

"If you paid attention to how she dresses and if you've ever seen her in a Contest, odds are she's going to battle with a Pokémon she's blatantly a fan of.
Sweetie, you're asking if Barry paid attention. What do you think the answer's going to be?

"You're certain you're not a witch? Because... wow."
Oh, how nice. That reminds of that saying that goes something like 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'. I suppose the same applies for any well-planned out strategy.

Barry will be looking quite the fool in three, two, one...

Lickitung, I truly believe the sky is the limit for you! Never give up; you can do this!"
Laughing at how cheesy this sounds. Go beyond and reach the heavens! Anyway, now I'm wondering if there's some sort of magic-esque property to faith and trust in the Pokémon world. Hmm...

Ouch. It's sort of like extreme pinball what Lickitung was doing. Ah, the mental pictures. And ooh, scary shiny glasses moment!

Considering what just happened, yeah, Barry, I'd say Conway doesn't mind using you as target practice.

Lickilicky time! If its... uh, performance in the Sinnoh League is any indication, poor Fantina won't know what hit her.

Conway's really throwing his parents' money around, huh? I wonder if they'll notice.

Now, what's Paul up to? Sharing a bed with his brother? Aww, so cute! I wish I had a camera! Speaking of which, the possibilities for blackmail... =P

The way the Battle Pyramid landed was perfect for watching the sunrise.
Hm, now that you mention it, you'd get some wonderful views from it, wouldn't you?

On top of all that, Paul didn't know what drove him to become a Pokémon Trainer. There was revenge, but nothing else apparent.
Apart from the revenge motivation, what else has he got? And revenge alone wouldn't explain him becoming a Trainer in the first place. Like I said in an earlier review, was it because he wanted to be like his brother until that incident? Gosh, I wish canon covered this.

Looking at the scenery out of a window is amazing, isn't it? Great to just lose yourself in the view and let your normal thoughts wash away. I love it!

That's a good point there: natural talent means nothing without passion.

Another good point: Brandon's locked into his position now.

Sounds like Brandon's catching onto the fact that Paul's hiding something. And knowing him, he will find out eventually.

Heh heh, Paul's acting like Brandon won't be a challenge without the statue trio. Considering the guy's been a Trainer for over three decades...

"You'll find out," Brandon said with a grin. Of course he was going to keep Paul in the dark, as he knew how shocked his son would be once the mystery was finally solved.
Okay, I'm foreseeing a trollish answer to this.

Brandon's getting some ideas, eh? I wonder what he's planning...

"You're loyal to your work... it's a shame Reggie and I never see this kind of effort from you when it comes to our family."
I know that the truth can hurt, but still... Ouch.

Because Brandon had a strong doubt of Paul being the one to bring about the next generation...
And thank the gods for that! It'd be the equivalent of pressing the apocalypse button despite a large sign stating 'do not touch: this button triggers the end of the world'.

I pity Reggie's future wife. Paul'd be the brother-in-law from hell.

"What I hope for more than anything is that you defeat me before you enter that rite of passage,"
I get the feeling that will happen in the next few years for Paul.

The Battle Pyramid has one of those healing machines now? Coolio! Have we seen those machines in canon, though? I can't remember.

Oho, Brandon's picking Paul's lineup for the upcoming battle? Most interesting. Makes me wonder how the battle against Ash in the Sinnoh Conference would've went down if Paul had used those same six. Ah, what could've been...

Mm, fighting against a type disadvantage and working around it is always a valuable skill. Of course, you need to know when that's not an option.

Now then, back to Hearthome. You'd think Fantina would at least put up a timetable or something to let challengers know when she's available. Irresponsibility at its finest.

Who needs television when you have Barry for entertainment? =P

He took a mental note there and then: never take Barry along on any stealth missions.
Hahaha! A good idea!

"Now come out of there and fight like a man! I'm gonna beat you this time!"
There's a joke to be had here about Fantina's serious case of man-face, but I won't be making it. =P

Well, you would need a happy place if you had to deal with Barry.

Tactical lie, or just being economical with the truth.

Ahaha, oh, I can imagine Conway's tone during all of this. Like he's talking to a small puppy. Considering he's talking to Barry, that isn't too far from the truth. =P

Speak of the devil. Conway really is treating Barry like a puppy!

The stars must be in alignment because Fantina's actually at her Gym! Haha, oh, her timing could not be any better.

I just wanna take a moment to say I really love your narrative style. It's like you sorta make comments on what's happening. Okay, that doesn't make much sense, so I'll pick some examples.
Sure, Barry wasn't the brightest crayon in the box,
One of Conway's favorite things about being with Barry? The fact that the Twinleaf Town trainer made it too easy.
Yes, Conway actually threw the chocolate piece several feet away from him.
Fantina was fully dressed for the day in her usual gown with her hair done up in its usual style... something that must have taken well over an hour to do each day.
See what I mean? Does that make any sense or am I just talking nonsense?

You're busting out the ol' French, eh? I haven't studied that since I was like fifteen. I am gonna be so very lost!

Uh, Conway? This is Barry we're talkin' here. He's impossible to forget. Unless you use some sort of memory drug, I guess.

"Of course she remembers me!" Barry proudly affirmed. "I left the biggest impression on her than any other challenger; isn't that obvious?"

Fantina wisely chose not to make a remark to Barry's obvious overstatement.

That's right, Conway, suck up to Fantina so Barry looks like an idiot... well, moreso.

Good thing Barry can't understand a lick of French, or Conway would really be in for it.

"Now wait a second here!!" Conway never thought he'd hear such words in that order spill out of that boy's mouth.
Again, *snerk*

Feeling a little awkward there, Conway? Now now, save any freakouts until after the battle, please. It could be worse: the place could be like the Old Chateau!

Yeah, the carnival attraction comparison's a good one for Drifblim.

Well, each Gym's got to something to stand out; to give a unique challenge. And since this canon doesn't keep the games' puzzles/apprentice Trainers...

This whole scene makes me think of how it was a shame we didn't see more of Conway, the whole panicky, neurotic side to him especially.

With Barry, the crash part of 'crash course' is especially apt.

Oh I bet Paul's absolutely thrilled with idea of his training starting with helping one of the people he hates the most. Also, it's nice to see unconventional forms of training like this. If only the games did stuff like this...

Yeah, Paul's health issues aren't going to remain a secret for too long, will they? The truth will come out at some stage.

Anyway, back to the Fantina battle! And the reason for Gengar's popularity is true in competitive game circles, too. It's possibly popular with the Ghost Leader/Elite 4 because there's not many options in the the type, but I digress.

'Scout' Gengar's moves? Weird word choice, it's more of term fitting to the aforementioned competitive gaming circles.

Night Shade's power was directly connected to the inner strength of its user.
Ah. Now I like this line. It describes the effect of the move well for this continuity. I mean, how confusing would 'damage equal to user's level' be?

with Payback, its power doubled if the opponent struck first.
Hmm... now I'm wondering about how that'd work. If the move is used within a certain timeframe after the user's been hit, it's more powerful, maybe?

You gotta wonder how high the damage bills for Pokémon Gyms would be with all the explosions and slamming into walls and so on.

Dontcha just hate Hypnosis?

Oh. Oh. That explains the 'scouting Gengar's moves' thing. Four move limit, huh?

While the intellectual one of the duo did try to filter out Barry's nonsense
So about 95% of what he has to say, then?

Mm, Conway needs to come up with workarounds for Hypnosis pretty darn quick. But I don't think it's impossible. It's times like these when you don't mind Gengar's Psychic weakness, huh?

Ah, Protect. Don't you just hate when this gets in your way? And I'm totally not giggling immaturely at the 'naughty, naughty boy' remark, I promise!

His strong mental connection with Slowking allowed him to silently signal his Pokémon to wait for Night Shade to hit first;
A very welcome touch. It's a shame we haven't a Psychic type on the main cast (there was Starmie, but...); I love the idea of communicating that way with a Psychic type and I'd like to see this more often in canon.

Why such a drama queen, Fantina?

Essentially, Barry's calling hax here, isn't he?

Nice reference to the TM Crasher Wake gives out in the games.

After tucking the Pokéball away, Fantina looked to her opponent.
This begs the question: where would she keep her Poké Balls on her person? On second thought, maybe I don't wanna know.

Back to the brothers and ah, Paul's getting sloppy. Oh dear. He's got so much to think about, though. It really says something when he's concerned he'll lose to Ash, despite the track record.

"That is what you need to be saying to me right now," Paul criticized,
Uh, Paul? You know as well as I do that your brother's not the critical type. Besides, you seem to be doing a good job criticising yourself anyway.

...The rest of this battle isn't going to end well for Paul, is it?

and carry on the legacy as he wished to do - in the most disrespectful way he could, of course,
He would, wouldn't he? Oh, the mental images I'm getting!

There's no easy way out of this for Paul, is there? Even if he's successful as a Trainer, how long will that last before his condition worsens and ends that? The only certainty is a bleak future.

Nice transition with Dark Pulse, there.

Being a foreigner, she was not completely familiar with a Pokémon like Slowking and was overdramatically horrified when she found that she would be unable to confuse it.
Pfft. Overdramatically is the only way she knows how to do things!

If Conway has to deal with Barry's yapping for the rest of his Gym Battles, I think he ought to invest in a muzzle.

Hm... the ol' do-I-save-my-last-fresh-Pokémon dilemma.

Barry, just stop pestering Conway lest you the victim of nerd rage. And that ain't pretty.

I doubt Mismagius is getting back up after Outrage of all things. Yeowch.

Barry's quieting down now? That's new.

On that note, strange how Fantina's ballgown design incorporates Drifloon/Drifblim's cross thingo, yet her highest-leveled Pokémon in the games is Mismagius (Gengar in Platinum's rematch). Odd.

All going downhill for Paul now, huh?

That'd be right: when Paul finally gets the criticism he asked for, he doesn't take it well.

Now that's better. The purple jerk we know doesn't let forgone conclusions stop him!

It must be frustrating for Paul, knowing that a Trainer who he considers inferior is able to something that he can't (draw out Chimchar's Blaze). Pride would be the only reason that he's not able to say 'you know what? That idiot might actually be onto something after all.'

and during an incident where the young Paul had gotten himself in a scuffle with a few rowdy kids
Why do get the feeling the other kids weren't the ones to start the fight?

Now then, back to that Gym Battle. Barry, take a chill pill, will ya? Save your energy for your next battle against Fantina.

Ominous Wind? Against a Normal-type? Uh-oh, I think I can guess what Fantina's banking on... And it will work. What can go wrong (for Conway at least) will go wrong and all.

And of course Conway took that possibility into account. Wouldn't have it any other way!

That was going to be nearly impossible to dodge, especially since Lickilicky was a huge target that had just finished copying all of Drifblim's enhancements to itself.
I gotta wonder: how would a Pokémon dodge something like Psychic, that can get you from any range?

Oh, nice one! Unusual strategies such as that are always welcome.

"Unbelievable. He's using his nerd powers and he's succeeding?! Something is so not right here."
...Oh, Barry. XD

That poor Drifblim. If being on the receiving end of Lickilicky's Lick was anything like what happened to Ash's Gible in the league...

"T'at Lickilicky shall never reach you no matter 'ow 'ard it tries!
Famous last words!

He loved having an excuse to prattle on about the things he knew that not many others his age (and in this case, his elders) did.
Eheheh, that sounds like me!

Where would a Pokémon battle be without explosions, am I right?

Whoa! What a close battle!

Ooh, a Team Galactic interlude! Coolio!

But you will let down your boss, Jupiter. Uxie would've already made a connection to Brock before you get there.

Haha, sucks to be you, Mars!

If a week with the troll that is Commander Pluto isn't enough to drive Saturn mental, nothing will.

And the battle between the brothers is nearly done, I see. And bloody hell, that's one powerful Blast Burn!

It has all come crashing down now? Damn.

Well, if Paul's broken up about Torterra being hurt, then we can't say there's absolutely no connection. There is one, despite being very faint.

"Sounds like you've been down this road before,"
Oho! Most interesting...

It's sort of sad that it takes a bad situation to bring this family together.

Oh, Brandon and Reggie wouldn't be able to begin to imagine what Paul's hiding. When that day arrives... misery all around.

Is that the 'unfamiliar feeling' I spy? I think it is!

All in all, this part was very well done. It does a great job setting up for a change in Paul's character, unlike canon which felt the 'okay, I kinda-sorta respect you now' thing made sense. I felt that it did not, so this a real treat.

You're just jealous, Barry. =P And you lost to Fantina again? So not surprised.

"It's true I wanna get out of here... I really want to beat Fantina, but if I've lost to her this many times, I gotta be doing something wrong, right?"
Oh, now he gets it.

Come to think of it, Barry would likely faced off against some of Fantina's other Pokémon, right? Her main Pokémon took quite a beating earlier that day, after all.

I'm... not exactly sure what Conway could hope to learn from Barry.

"By the way, you looked really mad at me during that Gym Battle, you know?"
No, really? For a guy who's always in a rush, he can still be so slow. And putting a Post-It on Barry's head? Yes please!

"So you're kinda like a spy, is that what you're saying?"

"... Yes, let's go with that,"
Explanations: wasted on the stupid.

Yes, Barry. This is the part where he he tells you he's evil. Honest to god...

Ooh, drama! Though I gotta wonder how long it'll take for Conway to realise Dawn can be oblivious, too.

I just realised: Barry's essentially giving Conway advice about his love life. Surreal or what?

Barry with a credit card. There are so many reasons why this is a bad idea...

Hm, the last paragraph or so does stand out, being a departure from the story's usual style, but I can't say I blame you for that. I would've done the same thing if I was in that position.

In the end, another wonderous addition! It took me some time to get through it, but I don't regret a single second! Two thumbs up!
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

Oh boy! My favorite time!

Now I'm picturing some builders going 'steady, steady... *loud crash* Bugger. There goes the rest of the temple.'

Pretty good interpretation of what goes on in Brandon's head! He's like his jerkass son in the respect that he'd soooner take matters into his own hands rather than "trust" that someone else can do it right.

Oh, hello! Someone is having doubts about beating Ash like he's done before on multiple occasions. Though if he saw how the last Ash vs. Brandon match played out, I wonder if he'd see things differently.

That was one thing I wanted to include this chapter, but decided to save for later. I do plan on Paul finding out exactly how Ash beat Brandon at some point, and when he does, he'll be calling bullshit just like all of the real-life viewers of the battle did. But you know what's really funny? That scenario was almost totally replayed in Ash and Paul's last battle with Pikachu and Froslass; only difference is that Froslass didn't use Recover or any other move to restore her health while Pikachu was in that block of ice, hence that win was not a total DEM. Needless to say this is gonna help a little bit in restoring Paul's confidence, given that it's prettty shot dead by this chapter's end.

This line made me smile. I pity everyone who had to deal with Paul when he was little. Am totally picturing a hellraiser here.

I want to find an opportunity to showcase this, too. One thing I'm gonna stress in this story is that while the death of his mother did affect Paul negatively for the long-term (and Reggie's retirement made it even worse), Paul always has and always will be an acquired taste, to put it nicely. To put it more honestly, he was a little monster even before his mother died. Only real difference was back then, Paul was a bit more eccentric and smiled a bit more often. Outside of that, the nasty streak was pretty much bred into him by dear ol' dad (and this was back when they got along).

And with that, a scene change! Hmm... so Conway's attempting to confront his fear head-on? This'll be interesting.

And the real question that I failed to answer here that I'll definitely cover at the next opportunity is: even if Conway beats Fantina, does that automatically mean that his phobia is completely gone forever?

Now I gotta wonder: what does Barry consider a normal wake-up time?

That's kind of an inadvertent subtle characteristic I've instilled in Conway; you'd think types like him would be night owls, but he's consistently gotten up very early in the morning most of the time in the story and never complains about it, whereas Paul was more of an 11 AM-or-later guy, which is what I'm at least seeing with Barry. For the energy that guy has, he's gotta sleep like the dead to recharge, I imagine.

Ohhh, I see why you did what you did with Rollout earlier. Always good to have variations on the same move.

Amusingly, this scene was structured based on my misinterpretation of the move. It's been a while since I've seen Rollout executed in the anime, so I just assumed it would play out similarly like the animation in the games. Once I paused my writing to look up the move mechanics, I realized there was never a time in the anime that Rollout was depicted this way, and apparently it's always been a Pokemon balling itself up and rolling around (how does that make it a Rock-type move in the anime, I really wonder). Luckily I wasn't too far into the scene where I couldn't work around it. It's rather amusing how that came about, though.

Laughing at how cheesy this sounds. Go beyond and reach the heavens! Anyway, now I'm wondering if there's some sort of magic-esque property to faith and trust in the Pokémon world. Hmm...

It's like some sort of routine failsafe for Ash in the anime, at least. His screams of encouragement always seem to give his Pokemon a second wind to turn a battle around. I think I've seen Barry utilize it too, and there are probably even more characters that have relied on that backing to win a match. Anime physics, man. There's that and the abuse of dodging and all sorts of ridiculous nonsense... so yeah, I was totally making a crack on that.

Conway's really throwing his parents' money around, huh? I wonder if they'll notice.

Give it a few chapters, and this'll be biting Conway back in a manner that will be quite familiar if you ever watched Home Alone 2.

Apart from the revenge motivation, what else has he got? And revenge alone wouldn't explain him becoming a Trainer in the first place. Like I said in an earlier review, was it because he wanted to be like his brother until that incident? Gosh, I wish canon covered this.

Yeah, this is something that never really got cleared up in the show. We had Brandon asking Paul outright why he battles, Paul never answers, and the matter is never brought up again. So I guess I'll have to fill the gap! Good point about emulating Reggie, though. Paul definitely admired his brother and followed in his footsteps right up until Reggie retired, at which point Paul completely turned around and threw away everything Reggie taught him. Then it was his way or the highway from then on out with the revenge motivating him from there. So the issue lies in that short period of time between Paul swearing off everything Reggie taught him and the revenge consuming him. Not to mention Paul completely lacks his own original motivation; the main problem. Pre-retirement, Paul was doing this for Reggie. Afterwards, the revenge is clearly focused on Brandon. Even though Paul generally comes off as a selfish guy a lot of the time, he's pretty much living for his family, especially after this disease pops up. But with all that alone, you'd think Paul would have just quit once he realized this. Yet he hasn't, for some weird and mysterious reason that I'm still developing!

Sounds like Brandon's catching onto the fact that Paul's hiding something. And knowing him, he will find out eventually.

He'll find out long before Reggie does for sure. Eventually a few select individuals will be trusted by Paul to keep it to themselves. In Brandon's case, it'll be Paul's own special little challenge issued to him. It's sort of unfair telling your dad "Hey, I'm gonna die in my thirties and I'll spend the rest of my short life sick and in pain. But you have to overlook that and battle me fair and square anyway!", but then again, so is battling your son with legendary Pokemon, har har. But it does say something that Paul would trust Brandon with the truth more than Reggie.

Okay, I'm foreseeing a trollish answer to this.

I figured I gave it away with the out-of-left-field Regice mention, but there is a little more to it. I'd like to get to at least one side-story of Brandon's youth where he obtains his starter done before the ultimate clash of the story commences and Paul finds out what that starter is; kinda delving into the "destiny" bit Brandon rambled about that'll make a little more sense if it's explained before that battle.

And thank the gods for that! It'd be the equivalent of pressing the apocalypse button despite a large sign stating 'do not touch: this button triggers the end of the world'.

I pity Reggie's future wife. Paul'd be the brother-in-law from hell.

Reggie's future wife is a pretty foregone conclusion even though there won't be much of it shown mutually in the story as far as I can see, but by the timeskipped epilogue I've already planned for Reggie to make up for Paul's lack of participation in making the grandkids for Brandon by having at least four kids, most likely more once I have stuff finalized. Luckily for the wife-to-be, Paul's not going to be living nearby 25 years from this point in the story... and in Paul's case, I see only one pairing prospect for him in this story and it's not someone he can exactly make babies with. And if people stalk me enough and have seen the character list recently, it'lltake all of two seconds to figure out what might be in store for Paul's future.

Really, bleak as this story is, the ending I have in mind couldn't be more cheesy and gooshy.

I get the feeling that will happen in the next few years for Paul.

But of course! Even I'm not patient enough to write him failing for years on end.

The Battle Pyramid has one of those healing machines now? Coolio! Have we seen those machines in canon, though? I can't remember.

A few times, I believe. I think they're pretty generic and subtle, which is why they aren't easy to recall.

Oho, Brandon's picking Paul's lineup for the upcoming battle? Most interesting. Makes me wonder how the battle against Ash in the Sinnoh Conference would've went down if Paul had used those same six. Ah, what could've been...

Would've been better in some aspects, I think. Namely Paul's Ninjask and his retarded moveset. Really, Agility and Giga Drain? Why not just put Ursaring in there. With Drapion and Ursaring combined, Paul probably could've decimated Ash's team with very messy results. I have a feeling his reserves probably could've accomplished more than Aggron and Gastrodon did, too.

Now then, back to Hearthome. You'd think Fantina would at least put up a timetable or something to let challengers know when she's available. Irresponsibility at its finest.

Perhaps that's not a custom in her country of origin. XD

I just wanna take a moment to say I really love your narrative style. It's like you sorta make comments on what's happening.

Haha, I'm flattered. I do take a lot of liberties with my narrative, mainly because I'm sacrificing a few styles for this story that I used to do for others I've written, such as actually "vocalizing" a character's thoughts that always happen in this show with the echo/reverb effect and all. Not sure how obvious it was, but in the adaptations I've done so far, every scene where a character was thinking rather than speaking was altered to be from a narrative perspective rather than the character's. In other stories I've done it the traditional way with the italics and single quotation marks rather than doubles used for actual spoken dialog. I forget what made me decide to not do it this way for this particular story, and while it can be tricky to work around those thoughtful scenes, I do enjoy the commentative narrative that's subtle enough to not completely shatter the fourth wall.

My main concern is how I'll handle flashbacks. For Brandon especially, I've planned flashbacks to flesh his character out, but I'm still unsure of how to handle that. But I've already decided that they won't be able to fit in Trifecta, so they'll have to be separate side-stories. That way, once I establish a time and setting, I can write it in the same narrative I use for this story. But this is definitely something new, or at least out of the ordinary for my writing style. I'm glad it works, so I appreciate you taking the time to let me know. ♥

You're busting out the ol' French, eh? I haven't studied that since I was like fifteen. I am gonna be so very lost!

You're better off than me; I learned Spanish in high school instead, so I had to rely on ol' Google Translate for the French. Thankfully the romance languages have some vague similarities, so I think it's adequate considering my resources...?

Feeling a little awkward there, Conway? Now now, save any freakouts until after the battle, please. It could be worse: the place could be like the Old Chateau!

Conway would never survive that place. Never.

Well, each Gym's got to something to stand out; to give a unique challenge. And since this canon doesn't keep the games' puzzles/apprentice Trainers...

A pity for the former; Gyms would be a breeze for Conway that way.

Oh I bet Paul's absolutely thrilled with idea of his training starting with helping one of the people he hates the most. Also, it's nice to see unconventional forms of training like this. If only the games did stuff like this...

Instilling a bit of realism in the training gig, so to speak. I think I looked to Dragonball Z for that inspiration, actually; some of the most significant training that boosted strength there was intensive exercise under hundreds of times Earth's normal gravity. It seems kinda simplistic, but it yields great results, so I figured that was a good enough way to get Reggie established to be way ahead of Paul at this point, who can't really train this way consistently due to his own limitations.

Oh. Oh. That explains the 'scouting Gengar's moves' thing. Four move limit, huh?

Couldn't help but notice that for the most part, the DP anime has adhered to the four move limit rule. A lot of people think it's dumb, and maybe it is silly, but I kinda like that homage to the games. It just shows how far this series has come since the original series which deviated so far from the games in many aspects... even ignoring type immunities and whatnot. There's still some odd ends in the series now, but I like how it's homaging the games more and more as the years go by. I'm sure my attempt to explain that four move limit is silly and farfetched, but now no one can say I didn't try!

There's no easy way out of this for Paul, is there? Even if he's successful as a Trainer, how long will that last before his condition worsens and ends that? The only certainty is a bleak future.

Yup. Even when things start getting better for him, and even when he starts to subtly change into a relatively civil person, he'll always have that grim reaper looming over him, waiting to end it all in an untimely manner. And since he's not much for the blind faith or hope that things will turn out alright in the end, he's feeling pretty powerless. And despite that, he just continues to fight. Kinda depressing, huh?

It must be frustrating for Paul, knowing that a Trainer who he considers inferior is able to something that he can't (draw out Chimchar's Blaze). Pride would be the only reason that he's not able to say 'you know what? That idiot might actually be onto something after all.'

It's a veeeeeery long and drawn-out process due to Paul being in denial, of course. He tends to be that way about a lot of things in his life. The beating-Brandon thing is the catalyst, I believe, in finally getting Paul to see Ash in a different light. Though those parallels to Reggie are still present and always will be.

Why do get the feeling the other kids weren't the ones to start the fight?

Paul IS a city kid. :p And that city spirit was still fresh in him at that time. I kinda imagined it might've been a group of some really douchey juveniles picking fun at him and Reggie for being mom-less (some kids out there really will go there) and Paul just immediately going on the offensive, but of course getting his ass kicked until Infernape saves the day.

I gotta wonder: how would a Pokémon dodge something like Psychic, that can get you from any range?

Could depend on the power of the Pokemon using Psychic; if the target's strong-willed, and especially if it has a type advantage, it'd be able to overcome it before the attack actually does any damage. Not so much a dodge as it would be a resist, I believe.

Well, if Paul's broken up about Torterra being hurt, then we can't say there's absolutely no connection. There is one, despite being very faint.

Thus starts the part of the story where Paul actually admits to caring for his Pokemon! He'll strengthen his bond with Torterra, form bonds with the others, and his reward for that will be getting to kick Ash's ass in a battle.

All in all, this part was very well done. It does a great job setting up for a change in Paul's character, unlike canon which felt the 'okay, I kinda-sorta respect you now' thing made sense. I felt that it did not, so this a real treat.

Thanks! Yeah, while I liked the subtle development concept on Paul (and I was so thankful he didn't do a 180 and change completely by the end), they should've done a bit more exposition. Then again, the anime wouldn't have the nads to put Paul through the kind of torture I'm putting him through to spark that change. ♥

Come to think of it, Barry would likely faced off against some of Fantina's other Pokémon, right? Her main Pokémon took quite a beating earlier that day, after all.

Most likely. Interesting point to make, though, as Conway's going to be battling quite a few alternative team-ups for his future Gym Leaders for various reasons, but most of all for my benefit of getting to write battles with different Pokemon.

I'm... not exactly sure what Conway could hope to learn from Barry.

Honestly, he doesn't know, either. XD He just knows when there's a will, there's a way.

Hm, the last paragraph or so does stand out, being a departure from the story's usual style, but I can't say I blame you for that. I would've done the same thing if I was in that position.

And I plan to make up for that next chapter completely. Safe to say I won't begin the next chapter with the straight adaptation right off, but I'll be sure to cover any points worthy of note that might've happened over the next eight days. Miraculously, Paul's going to get by this whole time without having his secret exposed. He's likely put as much effort into hiding that as he has been training in general, so even after he's straightened out and ready to battle Ash, Paul's still going to be very doubtful of his chances just because his condition's already getting in the way of his progress.

It'll be a long-term concern, of course. I'm still working on that plot point a bit; particularly how Paul will perceive his loss to Ash in the League and whether or not he'll blame his illness for not giving it his all. But honestly, given the kind of battle they had, I'd say Paul will have reached a point where he can cope with the pain and battle just as he did before misfortune befell him. Beating Ash at Lake Acuity may just be the thing that gives Paul that tiny bit of hope that he'll never admit to having.

Thanks for all the input! It's super fun getting these, really!
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

I must say, nice work on the latest chapter...you've handled the backlash of the Paul/Brandon battle well. Taking the emotions Paul felt from the battle and channeling it into anger at his father for his mistakes (over the regis) before finally collapsing upon realizing his non-existent bond with pokemon.

Reading this gives me an idea on why Paul lost to Ash in the league. Although he prepared for Ash in the lake battle by training and strategizing, when it came down to it at the league, Ash had what Paul didn't - a reason. Brandon asked Paul why he decided to go down the Pokemon path and Paul didn't have an answer, and he still didn't when he faced Ash at the league. That's why we never found out. He went into the league with skills and experience but no legitimate passion, leading to his defeat by Ash; who did have a passion, and utilized it via infernape's blaze to win.

Your fic's good stuff, keep it up.
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

Well, Shin, since I've been rereading your story I've decided to do a little something per chapter, as I go through.


Chapter one only gets one, since it was so small, but there will be two or three per chapter.
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

(And over half a year later, I update with the new chapter! Yeah, I'm hoping that never happens again. But this was yet another adaptation chapter. For TWO EPISODES. And real life is horrible. But it's here now and the NEW-new longest chapter of the fic so far. So have fun with that; next chapter will conclude the Snowpoint Saga, finally!)

"We've got him now; Marowak, use Earthquake and follow up with Double-Edge!"

"… Ursaring…"

Progress had been made with Paul and Reggie's intense training that lasted over a week's time. In times like this, though, the improvements were not at all obvious. It seemed, more or less, that Paul was exactly as weak as he'd been when the training commenced.

Once the fateful day was waiting in the wings within a mere twenty-four hours, Paul and Reggie bid their father and his associates farewell and departed northbound to Lake Acuity. Reggie's van proved to get his brother to their destination more quickly than rival Ash Ketchum's method of transport: by train. Granted, there had been an unscheduled stop and some suspicious shenanigans along that trip. Ash and company even got the privilege to meet the private detective, Looker. At that point they were unaware that this would not be the last time they'd meet… as it was shown that the delay of the train was the doing of the northbound Team Galactic.

Not that any of this was relevant to Paul; he was merely thankful to have reached Lake Acuity first. This gave him the opportunity to get some last-minute training with Reggie in, which was what they were doing right now. Nurse Joy of the Lake Acuity Pokémon Center graciously allowed the two to use the open field near the building to have a quick battle while they waited for Ash.

While Paul was grateful to have one last opportunity to prepare, his morale remained just as dead as it had been for the past week. Despite the progress he made, Paul never once defeated Reggie in any of their practice battles. From the looks of things, Paul was about to lose this battle as well.

Reaction time went against the broken trainer once again as Ursaring was slammed hard by two strong, brutal attacks in succession. Paul looked away with shame, unable to bear watching the Hibernator Pokémon falling to the ground with a tremor-inducing thud. No doubt it was unable to battle.

"Excellent job as always," Reggie congratulated his Marowak, giving an approving nod. However, upon noticing the massive damage he'd done to the battlefield itself, Reggie quickly became flustered. "Oh… wow… we still don't know our own strength, it seems…"

That didn't particularly bother Marowak, of course. Seeing the results of using its power to its maximum potential did much for the Bone Keeper Pokémon's confidence. Unlike his brother, Reggie's progress had been quite noticeable and even the modest Pokémon Breeder couldn't honestly be down on himself and his chances against Brandon when all signs were telling him that he undoubtedly had achieved the level of power he once had going into the Kanto Battle Frontier before he was even fifteen years old. With that hurdle overcome, Reggie would only get even stronger from here on out. The fact that Brandon went out of his way to commend his firstborn son for his progress (something that rarely ever happened in the eighteen years Reggie had been alive) meant that things were undeniably looking up for the Pokémon Breeder at last.

On the flipside, there was Paul… the past half-month for him had been little more than an unglamorous losing streak. Since the day Paul was forced to participate in a Pokémon Contest – just before he and Conway went their separate ways – the crueler of the two brothers hadn't won a single battle.

Granted, Paul made it all the way as a runner-up in his very first Pokémon Contest before losing to his former companion; most trainers who actually aspire to be Pokémon Coordinators rarely perform that well on their first Contest. Paul not only achieved a fantastic rank despite his lack of love for this potential career path, but he did so having less than a day's time to undergo a crash course in how Pokémon Contests work. In that timeframe he also had to pick the two Pokémon he'd be using in his appeal and battle rounds, create a visually stunning appeal to get past the preliminary round (a true feat for Paul since he wasn't exactly the creative type), adjust his battling style to fit better with the Contest constraints, and make a strategy on the fly to combat the Coordinators much more experienced than him in order to get to Conway in the finals.

Had the two rude girls he met the day before the Plumeria Contest not gotten under his skin, Paul might have not had the drive to overcome the odds. Still, it was a pity he cared so little for Contests… this was the high point of Paul's slump, undoubtedly. Perhaps it didn't help that the experience was still a humiliating one for Paul, and throughout the whole thing he was televised. Since Reggie and Maylene caught the broadcast and identified him, Paul would have a very difficult time living this down for years to come. If nothing else, he could take solace in the fact that it seemed Ash and his friends didn't catch sight of the Plumeria Contest; otherwise Ash or especially Dawn would have mentioned it at some point during the two days they had the opportunity to do so.

The next loss on the streak was also a point where Paul was still performing decently despite this taking place shortly after his illness began to make itself known. Again, Paul made it all the way to the finals in Squallville's PokéRinger competition and even managed to make short work of the man perceived as the biggest threat given his status as a multi-time PokéRinger champion. That earned him some credibility, especially in the eyes of his father who watched the competition on TV (something Brandon neglected to bring up to Paul for all the time they spent together). Still, to Paul it didn't mean that much when it was Ash who ultimately defeated him and won the whole competition. That was the very first time Ash made a decisive win over Paul in anything; the fact that it wasn't a proper battle, however, allowed Paul to cope with the loss without too much trouble. Like the Contest, Paul didn't have much heart in the PokéRinger competition, so arguably he wasn't trying his best. There were more pressing matters on Paul's mind at the time, and this was before Paul had prescribed medication to deal with his body's aches and pains that came and went throughout that day. The more Paul thought back on that particular loss now, though, the more concerned he became with Ash's growing abilities as a whole.

Things really went downhill when Paul finally made it to Snowpoint City. Though Paul's landslide loss to Candice was mainly on account of the fact that he was exhausted, severely ill, impatient, and lacking a strategy (being too prideful to consider using the one Conway helped make for him), it had been a long time since Paul last had his entire team utterly decimated by a Gym Leader… who used only one Pokémon to do all that. Paul wrongly assumed Candice would be a much easier challenge than Byron and paid a heavy price for his arrogance. Not only did he lose against her in front of several children who mocked him from the very beginning, but the moment Paul's last Pokémon was rendered unable to battle was the moment his illness took precedence over everything else in his life… whether Paul wanted it that way or not.

Three humiliating losses in, Paul could no longer run away from the fact that he'd be losing more than just his pride if he continued to push himself too hard. The diagnosis of his terminal illness forced the young trainer to take time out of his training to take care of himself.

However adversely this affected Paul, he was not deterred to press on without a change of plans. Once he was released from the hospital, he spent the next few days training so that he would be able to defeat Candice next time. But before Paul had the chance to break his losing streak, there was Ash Ketchum, in his way as usual. Because of him, the battle was postponed, and Paul felt a piece of his pride wither away and die when he learned that Ash had already defeated Candice… on the first try… and that victory put Ash ahead of Paul in badge count. Paul couldn't remember if that was ever the case since their Sinnoh journey began, but it was yet another reason to be nervous of Ash's progress. Still, Paul retained the ever-slightest bit of optimism that Ash wouldn't get in his way the following day, he'd defeat Candice in their rematch, and his losing streak would end.

And then Pyramid King Brandon came in to say hello.

This was combined with the surprise of having Reggie's company (thus putting Paul under pressure he couldn't afford to endure, considering everything he was keeping a secret from his family), then becoming enlightened of Ash's Battle Frontier accomplishments – including the defeat of his own father before the rivals ever crossed paths. By now Paul's pride was being met with killing blows at every corner, overwhelming the troubled trainer with doubt. There was a chance to redeem himself, Paul believed… and it conveniently tied in with the promise he made with his father in Veilstone City. He wanted to show Ash and Reggie firsthand that he could do anything they could (or couldn't, in Reggie's case). This seemed to be the ticket out of Paul's rut for certain.

But ultimately, this resulted in Paul's most devastating defeat yet. In front of his rival, his rival's friends, his brother, and the Gym Leader who shut him down once already, Paul was soundly beaten by this own father without defeating any of his Pokémon. As if that weren't bad enough, Paul's greatest weakness was exposed during that battle… and it was something that couldn't be merely brushed away. With no clue as to what motivated him now beyond revenge, Paul felt completely helpless, and that was reflected in how he battled for the majority of the ten-day period before his scheduled full battle with Ash.

There was only one way to see any positives in this low period of Paul's life: when he finally stopped holding back his sorrows and broke down into a sobbing fit during the first day of training. That moment was the lowest Paul could get, meaning from then on it could only get better. To a degree, things did improve. Though he still couldn't defeat his brother, Paul's Pokémon were indeed growing stronger with each passing day. Strategies were tossed around as well as techniques and move experimentations; safe to say Paul had been preparing much more thoroughly than Ash for the upcoming battle.

Ever since Paul was found to be unwell by the doctors of Squallville, he was in complete and utter denial of the whole thing. It was easier for him to say there was nothing wrong with him, even though Paul knew deep down that wasn't true. He isolated himself from not only Conway, but everyone else as best he could. He left the medical facilities of Squallville at the first opportunity, barely said a word to Ash during the PokéRinger tournament, and took the dangerous, rarely-traveled route to Snowpoint City just to avoid the rest of the world. The last thing Paul wanted was complete strangers making comments about how "sick" he looked. Whatever they claimed about him, Paul wasn't seeing it, but only because he didn't want to see it.

Anger was second nature to Paul even without his grievances. He was quick to fly into a rage both in his battle with Candice and Brandon. Paul was even savage enough to feign suicidal tendencies just to get Candice out of his hair. At the same time, when Brandon came into the picture after Ash revealed his victory over the Pyramid King, Paul saw a small window of opportunity for bargain; after all, if an overly-emotional novice like Ash could defeat Brandon, then logically Paul ought to be able to do the same. For a short time he thought that perhaps he and Reggie overestimated the challenge ahead for them. If Paul could defeat Brandon and endure the trials brought about by his faulty genetic code, then Paul could believe himself to be in not such a bad state after all. Though a far-fetched one, it was a bargain that Paul could not pass up.

Unfortunately, the trainer in turmoil could not hold up his end of the bargain. Paul's anger – his rage – completely consumed his entire being. All Paul could think about as he faced his father on the battlefield was how much he hated the Pyramid King. Try as he did to turn that hatred into power, it backfired on him… and in the end, Paul was made out to be the fool. Anger clouded his senses, preventing him from acting reasonably or giving up when it had already been clear that Brandon had won. Paul was perfectly capable of doing that much with Cynthia – surrounded by snotty young trainers as spectators who mocked the cocky challenger all the while – and overall he carried himself very professionally back then when he surrendered after losing four of his six Pokémon to the Sinnoh Champion.

When it came right down to it, Paul more or less lost to Brandon for the same reason as his brother:

Neither were able to fully view the Pyramid King as a Frontier Brain; a challenger; an opponent.

All they saw facing them on the battlefield was the stone-cold glare of a father who refused to acknowledge his own flesh and blood; not even when he was needed the most.

Brandon's situation only made Paul angrier, just after the brief moment where the rage subsided and the second son started to see his father in a different light, even expressing concern for his wellbeing when they learned about the tragic events at the Snowpoint Temple. One night to sleep off the anxiety brought about the calm before the next storm in Paul's dramatic saga of grief. He managed to hold a civil conversation with Brandon for the first time since he could remember. Knowing that he had his family supporting him for this upcoming battle with Ash brought great comfort to the conflicted trainer.

Then reality dealt him another harsh blow as it was shown that Reggie had become vastly more powerful than his little brother. True as it may be that the brothers were in this together, there had always been a subtle sibling rivalry even since the two were toddlers… though inarguably this "rivalry" was felt much more strongly by Paul. Being the little brother of the equation, of course Paul inherently felt the need to prove something to Reggie. But Reggie was about the most passive big brother anybody could meet – it seemed everyone who came across both Reggie and Paul would quickly note the vast differences between them. Truly, at first, Ash and his friends were stunned with disbelief from the very idea that the two were even related. At least they vaguely shared some of the same genetics based on appearance, though there was no debate as to who was the better-looking brother – Reggie, naturally. Paul put little to no importance on appearance to begin with, so being inferior in this department didn't really bother him… annoying as it had been in the past to see Reggie get all the attention from the occasional passerby in town because of his looks matching his sweet and innocent nature.

To be fair, Paul had every reason to believe that in terms of power with his Pokémon team, he must have been close to Reggie's level. Reggie hadn't actively trained in four years, though a minor bit of training was part of his job as a Pokémon Breeder – but in that case it was to keep the baby Pokémon fit, in shape, and capable of defending themselves. Paul was two Sinnoh Gym Badges and six Battle Frontier Symbols short of matching Reggie's accomplishments exactly. In the grand scheme of things, that wasn't much given the twenty-four badges Paul already earned from previous regions (including the Indigo, Silver, and Ever Grande Conferences). Six Sinnoh badges put Paul up to thirty total against Reggie's thirty-two. Since Paul had been training practically every day from the very moment he became a Pokémon Trainer onward whilst Reggie spent the past four years doing nothing to hone his skills, it was perfectly reasonable for Paul to believe he stood a chance in surpassing his brother. If he could at least prove to be a better trainer than Reggie, then he'd be content. All other aspects of life that Reggie was superior to his brother in would be irrelevant.

But now it had been over a week since the two started training for the upcoming battle ahead. After the first major loss, Paul's willpower shattered as he sunk into a deep depression. It had been a challenge to hold all of that in while being surrounded by several of his peers, but realizing how weak his connection to his own starter was what finally broke Paul down. Though he hadn't faltered with his training, with every defeat Paul suffered to Reggie as the days went by, his misery intensified. Everything seemed absolutely hopeless now… the day before, Paul even wondered if there was a point to any of this. Suffering loss after loss, Paul was unable to see that light at the end of the tunnel. Surely, having hit rock bottom now, he'd be seeing signs of things turning up. The fact that his Pokémon were growing stronger considerably through this lengthy training session was lost on the listless young man. Reggie (or Brandon) would shake Paul out of his daze just to keep him going, but even the family's efforts couldn't keep Paul grounded permanently.

Since the day Paul went back to traveling solo, his life had been full of strife and suffering. The long road of woe and heartbreak seemed to be without end. There were just too many problems weighing Paul down for him to focus for a good deal of the week…

… And all that was left for Paul now was to accept the terms forever imposed on his life. But Paul was never one to merely "accept" things such as weakness, ineptitude, or failure. In the past, he was quick to release his Pokémon back into the wild if any of them exhibited such unforgivable traits. Was this karmic retribution for those Pokémon, for Paul to embody all of the traits he loathed above all else? Genetically, Paul was the definition of weakness. Nothing he could say or do would ever change that, for this label was imposed on Paul the moment he was born.

Now Paul wondered how his late mother coped with this disease… how long she went about her life before her body's limitations chained her down permanently. He was too young to truly remember his mother prior to her death, though the dream he had weeks ago after suffering a near-death experience seemed a little too familiar and a bit too real to be a mere hallucination. Since having that chance reunion with his own family doctor from years past, Paul had been thinking of his mother far more than ever before. She was truly the only person who Paul could have turned to for aid in this matter, but obviously that would not be feasible now. But after thinking about her this much, he couldn't help but ask himself… just how much did his mother know about his health? If this disease could be passed down genetically, certainly there must have been some concern from both parents way back when they considered having children.

It was easy to assume that with Reggie being born completely disease-free, Brandon and Andrea's fears were put to rest, which would explain Paul's existence even if he wasn't as fortunate in his genetic inheritance. But what made them bold enough to have Reggie in the first place…? Whenever Paul was ready to come clean with the truth to his family, he would be sure to ask Brandon these questions. Now that the family had finally grown closer, hopefully Brandon would be more willing to talk about the past and his late wife. It wouldn't be any easier to talk about for the aging trainer even after a few years short of a decade have passed, but logically it should be best to talk about the largest loss of his life – millions of times more painful than the loss of Regigigas and its cohorts – to the only two people in the world who felt the exact same pain as he did. As Reggie would adamantly agree, this was a topic had wrongly been pushed aside for a long time. Where the one who followed in his mother's footsteps wanted to remember Andrea fondly, talk about her, and believed embracing her memory would be the best remedy for moving on, Brandon and Paul believed the opposite.

Ironically, the Pyramid King who represented the Brave Symbol was the one who thought the best way to come to terms with the untimely loss of his wife was to run away from it all; distance himself from everything that reminded him of his one and only lost love. However, he did at least remain brave in one particular way: Andrea had known of her fate since she was younger than Paul was now, but she purposefully hid it from her peers mostly for the same reasons her son did. But by her late teens, she confessed her secret to Brandon. The two had known each other since they were old enough to be Pokémon Trainers, and over the years they became rather close. As they matured, so did their feelings. Andrea kept quiet about her fate, fearing Brandon would turn away from her and go astray for obvious reasons. It was selfish yet understandable, but the moment Brandon started talking to her about marriage and children, Andrea knew she had to come clean. Then the future was put in Brandon's hands, but the choice he made was lead by his heart as he came to understand that even an incurable disease wouldn't come between his feelings for the only woman he ever fell in love with. Children were an obvious concern still, as both wanted at least one or two.

Another of many unrevealed details Brandon withheld from his sons during their time together was how the two came to be; Reggie was every bit as aware as Brandon that his mother was sick during his childhood, though he found out through observation first before being told. If Paul was curious about how they came to be just now, rest assured Reggie had been wondering that for a much longer time and still wanted that answer himself. It was hard to be patient for Brandon sometimes… but it was evident that the Frontier Brain may be the only way Paul could get any form of closure in regards to his fate. His father was the key to the ability to truly accept the burden; Paul just hated it whenever he needed his father. A pity he developed that sort of trait when a parent should always be counted on regardless, but this family, even with all their progress made, would never truly be normal.


Paul blinked, snapping out of his daze to look to his brother, who was suddenly right next to him. "Hm?" He had no idea what just happened.

"You did it again," Reggie pointed it out, smiling warmly. "Today's the day, Paul… there really is no time to get lost in thought now. I think we've got just enough time to squeeze in one more practice before Ash and the others get here; what do you say?"

Overcome with the sudden irrational fear that Reggie was onto his secret, Paul shied away from his brother, looking down hatefully. "Do you even want me to win, Reggie…?" Another thing he had doubts about during the week.

"Would I have spent more than a week training you all this time if I didn't?" Reggie softly assured him, patting him on the shoulder. This question, while coming out of left field, wasn't exactly an unexpected thing for him to hear from his little sibling. Even Reggie knew of Paul's jealousy issues, and bore witness many a time to his less-than-pleasant nature brought about by it. Paul never had one nice thing to say about Ash for all the time they talked about him, and once they were in Ash's presence together, Reggie could see just how steep this rivalry was. Rarely did Paul let himself be bothered by another trainer, much less one he deemed inferior to him. If just being around Ash made him that antagonistic, Reggie could imagine Paul expected one of his only allies in life to treat the young man with the same vitriol.

But that simply wasn't in Reggie's nature, especially if Ash hadn't really done anything wrong. Even so, jealousy flared in Paul at the very thought of Reggie being civil to those people, let alone being considered a friend. In his state, Paul's tolerance was particularly low now, so he was not about to accept anything even remotely like treachery from his own family.

"Fine, whatever," Paul quickly relented. He only did so because he agreed that his final moments before the match shouldn't be squandered; never before had he dreaded the prospect of battling Ash so much. And this was not dread of the "oh, this is a waste of time" caliber like it usually was; obviously even now Paul feared that he would lose to his rival today for the first time in a real traditional, decisive battle. It was hard for the coldhearted teen still to rely on his own judgment after everything that had happened; he still wasn't sure what was what anymore and what exactly this disease was doing to make him suddenly inept.

Though still miserable, the only thing that resembled obvious progress to Paul outside of his Pokémon's levels was how it was easier for him to keep himself under control. In other words, he found himself able to control his emotions. It took that breakdown where Paul had been holding everything back for the longest time to make it possible: it was painful, but liberating.

"Only… that may be impossible to do here," Reggie muttered as he took a good look around at the bang-up job his Marowak had done to the field. The last Earthquake attack really shook up some unstable ground, and consequently the entire field looked like a tornado had hit the place. "Wow, I really do need to be careful from now on," he realized, looking concerned. "This would take all day to fix up to the point where you and Ash could battle here…"

"Then we obviously need to relocate," Paul decided, already packing up and ready to move. "Come on; we don't have time to fix this."

Reggie followed suit, but looked a bit guilty in doing so. "I feel bad dropping this responsibility on someone else, but I guess we don't have a choice. Let's get your Pokémon healed up first; we can tell Nurse Joy to relay the news to Ash when he gets here so he'll know where to find us. At this point, there's no sense in roughing up your team just before he gets here, so we'll just settle for routine training from here on out. We can find a nice place right next to the lake to battle at, and…"

"Can you not walk and talk at the same time?" Paul interrupted, already having his brother's belongings packed up as well. "Let's go, already."

Impatient as always… Reggie just laughed awkwardly as he went over to take what was his and walk off with Paul towards the Pokémon Center nearby. "Somebody sounds anxious, aha…"

Paul refused to respond to that. As the two stepped into the Pokémon Center, a certain agitated Meowth burst out of one of the bushes that encircled the trashed battlefield. "How're d'ose two related? They ain't even close enough ta' be adopted bros…!"

His comrades, lowly Team Rocket grunts Jessie and James were quick to pop out at the same time and clamp the Scratch Cat Pokémon's mouth shut with their hands.

"Pipe down before I relate to the idea of zipping your mouth shut!" Jessie threatened. "Now try and adopt some stealth!"

"As if you smotherin' me's good fer my health," Meowth muttered as he freed himself from his teammates' grasp.

James was never as much into asserting authority as Jessie; as such, his eyes were often wandering elsewhere for opportunities to aid their mission. He was quick to spot one right in front of them. "Speaking of our health, I do believe I see an opportunity for some income."

"Income, you say?" Jessie was immediately interested, ceasing her feud with Meowth immediately to look around for what James had in mind.

"D'en let's seize tha' day!" Meowth proclaimed. As he looked around, he immediately had his doubts. "Hang on, what're ya implyin'?"

Now that no one was out to spot them, James stepped out of the bush and pointed directly at the disaster area before them. "Do you remember what the rude twerp's brother said? This mess here is our ticket to one hefty paycheck!"

"Of course your idea is manual labor," Jessie muttered; her spirits dampened. "And since we're beggars, we can't be choosers."

"If it's inspiration you need, remember just one thing!" James sung out. "We're here in Sinnoh to give Team Rocket a name. And no matter how many times we're blasted off, we will never be defeated when it comes to our work ethic!"

Meowth smirked, agreeing with his comrade. "D'at's what da' boss likes most of all! So get wit' da' program, Jess; we gotta do what we gotta do!"

Though Jessie was enough of a tyrant for her one vote to count for triple in these situations, for once she considered the logic behind this move… the only thing that could really sway Jessie into going along with the others was her hunger. Right now, Jessie's stomach decided to betray its own host and go along with the boys this time.

She sighed with resignation. "As long as we don't have to deal with any twerp interference, I suppose this is a time that calls for getting our hands dirty… just let me do the negotiating, though. You two couldn't haggle us a salary that could earn our stomachs anything more than crackers for dinner. I'll make sure we dine like royalty tonight!"

"D'en we got our plan!" Meowth conceded, ready to get to work.

"To our disguise stash!" James announced, as their very unconvincing (yet highly effective) disguise routine was always step one in all of their schemes.

While the trio made arrangements and were well underway to earning themselves an honest paycheck, the "twerps" they so dreaded to deal with (yet their long-lived desire to capture that special Pikachu and present it to their boss kept them nearby them most of the time regardless) had just arrived to the site of Lake Acuity; the area's Pokémon Center was within view.

Ash Ketchum, with Brock and Dawn backing him, was ready to face his rival. Already having a technical win against him recently under his belt in addition to the pitiful state Ash had seen Paul in while they visited Brandon made Ash feel a bit lucky today. He knew it wouldn't be easy to do so, but having witnessed Paul at one of his lowest points and finally knowing how that cold, calm demeanor of his could break… for the first time in ages, Ash truly felt like this would be the day he would finally defeat Paul in a traditional Pokémon battle. He knew Chimchar was ready too, and together they would both finally prove Paul wrong in every slanderous thing he said about the two in the past.

It had been a long time since he last had a full battle as well; seeing one not long ago made Ash even more eager to get this battle underway.

"Finally, Lake Acuity. Wow…" Ash marveled, giving the area a look-around. It wasn't common for Ash to pause and take in the scenery before engaging in a long-awaited battle, but this time was a bit of a special case. Pikachu also appreciated the view from its partner's shoulder.

A soft lake breeze blew by the group before the significance of this place was realized by Dawn. "Ah… you know, I just remembered; there's supposed to be a legendary Pokémon at Lake Acuity as well."

Brock smiled at the mention. "That's right, Uxie. Yeah."

"Right," Ash recalled from the time he was at Lake Valor after having seen the vague visage of Azelf, where then Dawn confessed of her own similar experience at Lake Verity at the beginning of her journey with Mesprit. Knowing the legendary pixies were out there somewhere watching over them… "And that means Uxie could be watching Paul and me when we're having our battle!"

Pikachu uttered a thoughtful "Pika…" at Ash's postulation. Before anyone else could chip in, Ash quickly realized something else.

"Hey, let's get over there!" he called out to his friends. "If I know Paul, he's already waitin'!"

With a follow-up from his Pikachu, Ash and his friends made their way along the perimeter of Lake Acuity, approaching the Pokémon Center. Each mind was filled with anxiety and curiosity as to how things would turn out by sundown.

"Make sure they're fine, please?"


The Nurse Joy of Lake Acuity (bearing a golden yellow cross on her cap; likely an homage to Uxie, who was of a similar color) smiled with a nod. "Of course; I'd be happy to." Her Chansey was also eager to serve, right behind her partner.

As Nurse Joy took the tray of Ash's five Pokéballs (plus Pikachu) to check up on, Brock zoomed to the front to intervene… to the surprise of nobody whatsoever.

"Won't you please make sure I'm fine too?" Brock begged as if his life depended on it. "Or maybe I could just make sure you're fine instead!"

Also to the surprise of no one was Brock howling in pain as he felt a sharp pain in his side (usually better than where he usually got punishment) and fell over. Ash and Dawn expected this to be Croagunk's handiwork when they saw the Toxic Mouth Pokémon already out with a Poison Jab charged just for its trainer. But to their surprise, for once, Croagunk wasn't the one laying down the law on Brock this time; Nurse Joy's Chansey had beaten Croagunk to the punch – literally – and was the one to tame Brock for today. She looked positively exasperated at the aspiring Pokémon Breeder who fell flat on his face as he reeled in pain.

"Sorry," Nurse Joy awkwardly apologized. "But Chansey can be quite aggressive towards people who approach me in a certain way…" Unlike most of her kin, this Nurse Joy seemed more wary of people who might try to pursue her.

"Huh…" Ash remarked as he watched Croagunk drag the immobilized Brock off, anyway. As his mind wandered, his eyes snapped back to Nurse Joy as an important question came to him just then. "Uh, Nurse Joy, do you know if a trainer named Paul from Veilstone City's gotten here yet?"

"As a matter of fact, Paul already arrived here earlier and I'm taking care of his Pokémon right now." Or at least the ones Paul and Reggie had on hand that weren't participating in the battle and left behind with her for the time being…

That's all Ash needed to take action. "Cool! I need to go find him, pronto!" Even though they wouldn't be battling yet while Ash's Pokémon were being refreshed, Ash never wanted to pass up on an opportunity to talk to his less-than-social rival while he waited. Eager to see Paul after the ten-day gap, he immediately set off outside to find him.

"Oh, wait…!" Nurse Joy called out after him. "You don't know where the battlefield is!"

But it was too late; Ash had already left the building.

"What is it about that guy that makes Ash so excited to see him?" Dawn muttered. "He must know by now what Paul's going to say to him, most likely…" Her Piplup was equally confused on the matter. She'd have to wait for Brock to recover before following Ash out, however.

Meanwhile, at the original designated battling area – still a mess as it was earlier – a certain trio in construction worker garb made their presence known as they got to work.

"Tada…!" a triumphant disguised Meowth slid in next to the sign they placed to make the public aware of the battlefield's condition.

"A likely response to a "Help Wanted" ad!" Jessie exclaimed, shovel in hand.

A dump truck came into the scene, driven by James (adding a fake mustache to his disguise). "Now we've jot a job; I'm glad!"

"Dig that dirt!" Jessie proclaimed; indeed, this was their opportunity to subtly cite their team motto and they were certainly going to take it with no one around to see them.

"Dump that truck!" James followed along, shifting the dump truck's drive into reverse.

"Back 'er up, just a tad!" Meowth said next, signaling the dump truck to position itself just right.

Jessie kneeled down to poke at the damaged ground before continuing the "motto", as they thought of it as. "Demolished battlefields can be bad for one's health…"

"But one man's problems can bring another man wealth!" James chimed in.

"Demolition and construction; you leave it to us!" Jessie said with sheer confidence.

James rhymed along in a low, assured tone. "Just show us the money and we'll make all the fuss."

"With Jessie…!"

"And James, too!"

"Meowth, without foi'ther ado!"

The trio made their final epic poses.

"Clean up the mess and build in its place!" Jessie began the final part.

"We're Team Rocket!" James proudly sung out; no twerps and Team Rocket being relatively unknown to Sinnoh made this a much safer thing to say out loud than in past regions.

"In your face!" all three finished in unison, just as the dump truck James was driving (before jumping out to pose with his compatriots) dropped a mound of dirt on the ground just behind them as a finishing touch.

The merry work was cut short, however, as an all-too-familiar voice of a young teen boy was heard loud and clear in the area. "Hello…?"

Sure enough, Ash of Pallet Town himself showed up before the trio, still in search of Paul and more than a little confused at the sight of heavy-duty construction work. Meowth's impulses often overrode his logic; this was one such time.

"A twoi'p mess!" he uttered in horror before Jessie and James quickly clammed his mouth shut before he could completely blow their cover. Thankfully for Team Rocket, their adversary of many years remained to be a slow-witted one.

"Twerp…?" Ash echoed back Meowth's accent-mauling utterance of the word. As always, these three seemed vaguely familiar to him, but he'd never be able to put his finger on it on his own.

Though dull-witted herself at times, Jessie was quick to cover for Meowth in more ways than one. "He meant why you trekked here is anyone's guess!" she hastily explained.

Seeing the mess about, it finally became clear to Ash that this was no place for having a battle. "So the battlefield's not ready yet?"

"Sorry, sonny!" James apologized; his voice altered to sound more like an older man's. "Won't be ready for two or three days."

By this point, Dawn and a recovering Brock managed to rejoin Ash just in time to hear the news.

"Battling day-in and day-out has pummeled this place to a battle pulp," Jessie further explained just in case her twerp foes tried to be difficult about this. "So we're sprucing it up in one go!"

"Better take yer battlin' business elsewhere," Meowth advised, free to speak again.

"Whoa… now what do we do?" Ash wondered out loud. He understood well enough that he couldn't battle Paul here; the fact that Paul was nowhere in sight proved that he had already relocated. But with no indication as to where he might've gone, Ash was now helpless at to what to do next.

Brock and Dawn didn't have any bright ideas of their own, but luckily for them, an answer came from another source.

"Ah, you must be Ash from Pallet Town!"

The gang turned towards the direction of the voice, finding a young adult male looking near Reggie's age with short, forest-green hair and what appeared to be a referee's uniform.

Ash stiffly nodded at the stranger. "That's me, yeah."

"I've been waiting for you," the man explained. "The name is Olivier, and I'm a traveling referee. I got a call from Reggie a few days ago asking me to come to Lake Acuity and officiate the Pokémon battle between you and Paul."

"Great; but the battlefield's closed," Ash pointed out, still downtrodden over this unfortunate circumstance.

Yet Olivier remained undeterred. "Don't worry. Reggie told me he's got a backup plan just in case."

"Huh?" Ash didn't expect this… then again, as the whole battle was Reggie's idea, it made sense that his preparations covered absolutely every possible scenario.

"Since this battlefield's no good, Reggie already chose another spot for you and Paul to battle. It's actually right by the lake not too far from here; about northwest from where we are now. Keep running in that direction and you can't miss them."

With that, Ash brightened up considerably. "Hey, thanks! Can we go there right now?"

"Feel free to," Olivier offered. "I'll be right behind you guys in a minute; I've just got some last-minute preparations of my own to make and then we'll have your battle underway."

"Sounds like the battle's still on," Brock acknowledged. "It's already noon, Ash; we'd better hurry."

Ash nodded, fully on board with any course of action that involved rushing. "Alright, then! We'll meet you over there, Olivier! Thanks for the tip!"

"Ah, your Pokémon, Ash…!" Dawn cried out the reminder just before Ash could speed off and out of sight again.

"… Oh! That's right!" Ash froze in place before laughing at his own impatient nature, scratching the back of his head in embarrassment. "Not gonna be much of a battle if I don't have my Pokémon with me, huh…"

Dawn just smiled and shook his head. "Better not give Paul another reason to diss you."

"They're probably ready to go by now," Brock figured. "So let's pick them up and head out."

"Right; let's get a move on!" Ash agreed as he and his friends dashed back towards the Pokémon Center. This left Olivier to ponder his own matters while the nearby Team Rocket could easily overhear him.

Olivier looked up in at the sky, searching his mind for ideas. "Now where am I going to find someone to operate the scoreboard on such short notice…? I couldn't possibly drag Nurse Joy away from her Pokémon Center when she's got so much on her hands already…"

"I smell another one-time salary opportunity, my fellow men," James quietly muttered to his teammates. Meowth and Jessie nodded, though the former looked doubtful.

"It'd be a lot more glamorous than diggin' up da' dirt, but we ain't gonna be done with dis' job for a while, Jimmy. Battle's probably gonna reach its conclusion by da' time we fix dis' kinda mess," he brought up.

At the thought of a more "glamorous" job, however, Jessie was quickly on board with James' idea. "The dirt's not going anywhere, and one silly battle ought to be only a brief cut into our work time. We'll just tell the nurse we're going on break and then it's onwards to more success."

"Brilliant ploy," James complimented. "And with our endless source of disguises, it should be a cinch to take on a second job."

Jessie smirked, stepping forth, looking to her comrades as she continued to keep her voice down. "Let me get this referee's attention," she requested before raising her tone, directly addressing Olivier. "Excuse me, sir! I believe we can be of some assistance to you."

Olivier turned his attention towards Jessie, looking confused. "You can? But… aren't you all busy as it is?" He pointed towards the ruined battlefield.

"It's not "us" we mean, but some freelance friends of ours!" James explained.

"It'd be our pleasure to fetch 'em for ya," Meowth offered with a smirk. "Who else in da' middle'ah nowhere's gonna be available at dis' hour?"

"You're sure they wouldn't mind?" Olivier asked them, sounding a bit unsure. It just seemed too convenient….

Jessie shook her head. "They're but a hop, skip, and a jump from where we are now; dirt poor as they are!"

"So poor they can't even afford a car," James bemoaned. "We implore you to give them a chance so that they may have the means to have a feast, if only for a night!"

"Oh, I didn't know they were destitute," Olivier apologized, now much easier to convince. "If they're available, by all means call them over."

"Then don't move one inch; we'll bring them to you!" all three shouted together as they zoomed off towards the Pokémon Center to give Nurse Joy their excuse, then make a detour back to their hiding place in the bushes for a quick change of wardrobe.

James smirked as he pulled out the disguise chosen for their short tenure as Olivier's assistants. "I've been saving these old duds for a rainy day," he said with a small hint of eagerness in his voice. "These bring back so many memories…"

Meowth looked up at the bright blue sky while he got into his matching disguise. "D'ere's barely a cloud in da' sky today… ya know that, right?"

"Please," James calmly urged. "Don't spoil the moment."

"Now, Electabuzz! ThunderPunch!"

Since relocating to a quaint spot right next to Lake Acuity, Paul had been diligently training his Pokémon and – much like Conway did with Lickilicky – ensured that their moves were mastered just in time for the full battle. Reggie watched his little brother closely as he relaxed on a small, cozy hill of grass right behind the action. With approval, he nodded upon seeing Electabuzz land a solid punch to the ground below it. Despite electricity being ineffectual against Ground-type Pokémon, the actual ground was still vulnerable to the unbelievable power and force coming from a concentrated hit. A small but clearly visible crater was made from the imprint of Electabuzz's fist and the raw energy from its lightning-charged punch caused a small fissure, loosening the ground in the vicinity and compromising its sturdiness. It was clear that Electabuzz could use the ThunderPunch move to its full potential in any given situation now.

"It's amazing that you've been able to perfect your Pokémon's moves in just ten days," Reggie commented, and this time he wasn't sugarcoating it just to make Paul feel better. Though the younger brother hadn't won in any of their matches during that ten-day period, Paul's Pokémon did vastly improve in other ways. This demonstration proved it, and without a direct defeat blinding Paul to his Pokémon's progress, he himself could finally see that his team did become significantly more powerful since his embarrassing loss to his father.

Paul couldn't argue it now; he'd been down on himself and his Pokémon for the majority of the ten days of training, but seeing how far his Pokémon had come made him think back on the events back then, and why he worked so hard to get where he was now. Reggie looked mildly concerned as another gentle lake breeze blew against Paul; his hair slightly disheveled by the light wind.

"I remember what you said ten days ago," Paul finally said to his brother, still not looking him in the face.

What Reggie said to him echoed in his mind for each passing day since he said it: "Hey, Paul! Do you think there's any chance that you and Ash can treat us to a full battle?"

This was said mere minutes after Paul was soundly defeated by his old man in front of a group of his peers. The overall poor performance was something that Paul still had difficulty in living down; understandably so, as he held so much contempt against the Pyramid King for years upon years. His long-awaited chance to show the Pyramid King what for being squandered due to his own ineptitude and the fact that he couldn't hide it from anyone left a scar on Paul's self-esteem. Every defeat against Reggie after that did nothing to heal that wound… and never before had Paul felt so lowly about himself. Even now, he continued to think of himself as pathetic; just as – if not more so – than all of the unworthy Pokémon he had released over the years.

"So why have a battle now?" Paul asked Reggie. It was obvious to the elder brother that Paul was still unsure of himself after all this time. His fear to face Ash of all people was also picked up on by Reggie. That was one major reason why Reggie requested this battle: to get Paul to overcome this fear bred by his horrendous losing streak. The last thing Brandon would accept from either of his children was their fear, so naturally that was the first thing that needed to be rectified before any other flaw of the trainer.

However, Reggie decided not to say that out loud; acknowledging such a thing to Paul would likely make him overly-defensive, and riling up such emotions would only distract him during the battle, just as they had with his father. He settled for the motivational reason instead. "It just seems like your battle with Brandon had a major effect on you," he said gently.

Understatement of the year, that was. Paul was very aware of this, too. However, he resisted the urge to interrupt his brother with a sarcastic remark.

"Now seems like the perfect time," Reggie finished. Of course, Paul expected a bit more than that as he found the strength to give his brother a hard stare.

Reggie never liked it when Paul did this; this was not unlike Brandon's stone-cold looks he would give his own sons without hesitance. The Pokémon Breeder held out both hands in his defense; his composure quickly dropping. "W-well, that's the biggest reason, anyway. Look, Paul, there's obviously more to it… but if you thought about it hard enough, you'd probably figure it out completely in a heartbeat. However… this is the wrong time to be asking that question; it's even worse to dwell on it."

Well, Reggie did have a point. Brandon's words of how Paul's emotions betrayed him on the battlefield were also constantly on his mind. It was understandably hard to keep those emotions fully under control (especially when he had so much already repressed and bottled up), but over time Paul accepted this as yet another challenge. This was a challenge that would no doubt set him apart from the average trainer, and even with Paul's doubts about Ash, one thing that could never be doubted was how prone Ash was to emotional reactions. Routinely, Paul used such tactics to defeat him in the past. His lack of doing so in the PokéRinger competition may very well have been a factor in Paul's first technical defeat to the Kanto native.

With any luck, if Paul could control his own emotions, it would be a cinch to use that to his advantage. The strategy Paul slowly built over the course of the ten days (without Reggie's help) centered on this. It was a gamble, but not necessarily a risky one in Paul's opinion.

"Fine," Paul conceded as his cold glare at Reggie faded away, much to the latter's relief. "After the battle, then."

Reggie nodded. "That should be fine. But for now… just remember what Dad said, okay?"

"Couldn't forget even if I tried," Paul assured him, his tone now even and stern. For these last few moments before the battle, now that Paul's Pokémon were set, all that remained was Paul becoming completely and totally in control of himself.

Minutes from now, what he learned in this ten-day period would be put to the test.

Back at the Pokémon Center, Nurse Joy already had Ash's Pokémon fully recovered by the time he and the others returned to retrieve them. All of them were out of their Pokéballs now; each one eager for the battle ahead of them.

"Your Pokémon are all ready for your battle," Nurse Joy told the equally-eager teen. "Now everybody's in tip-top shape."

To show that, each Pokémon let out their own cry of triumph, much to the amusement of their trainer and his friends.

"Thanks, Nurse Joy," Ash gratefully told the ever-helpful woman no matter where he was in any region.

"You all sure look confident," Dawn noted as she looked at each of Ash's Pokémon. "You're ready to battle for sure!" Her Piplup agreed as well. "And you can count on us to cheer you on big time!" Piplup was also on board with that promise.

"Thanks, Dawn. And I'm gonna win this, too!" Ash assured her. This was the first time in ages that Ash was this confident about defeating Paul. "Just as soon as I defeat Paul and his Pokémon, he'll have no choice but to finally give me a little respect for my training style!"

That was something Ash longed for since the day he met the most serious rival he ever had. Despite the controversy, Ash couldn't deny that Paul had to be doing something right with his training to get as far as Ash himself over the years. Naturally, he expected the same courtesy from Paul since he's witnessed Ash's competence as a trainer over the several months they've known and battled each other. Even Gary wasn't this difficult to come to terms with. But after seeing Paul at his lowest when he watched the battle against Brandon, Ash couldn't help but feel lucky this time. This time things would be different, and Ash was bound to learn much from this battle; both for himself and Paul.

"So let's move it!" Ash declared; he'd been quite impatient since coming to the Pokémon Center. "We'll show Paul what we've got and give him a taste of what we can really do!"

The group of six Pokémon cheered again in unison; each one feeling the same as their trainer, including the eagerness and impatience. More than any other, though, Chimchar felt these emotions so very strongly as he continued to hop and cheer well after the others had stopped. The reason for the abundance of enthusiasm was obvious, of course.

"Wow, Chimchar. You're all fired up, aren't you?" Ash remarked with amusement. He smiled upon hearing the tiny, but fierce "Char!" from his Chimp Pokémon.

"Watching Chimchar reminds me of what Cynthia once told us," Brock said thoughtfully as he watched Chimchar continue to hop, completely anxious for the battle to begin.

Dawn looked to Brock, knowing what he meant. "You mean when she said "When every life meets another life, something will be born"…?"

"Right," Brock affirmed. "But that's not all; she also spoke of a larger-than-life destiny waiting for Chimchar… and that Chimchar is the touchstone for Ash's and Paul's relationship."

But right now, Ash wasn't even listening to his friends. He was still fully focused on getting his Pokémon's morale boosted to its maximum. "Everybody ready?" he asked them one last time.

Their prideful cries filled the small lobby of the Pokémon Center; that was all that Ash needed from them. It was time to move on out and give it their all… just to prove to Paul that they were all worthy adversaries.

"Here they come!"

Reggie could see their figures in the distance. He was now eager to finally get this battle underway. "Time's up, Paul!"

The bitter younger brother rolled his eyes before pulling out a Pokéball. "Electabuzz, return," he calmly said as the red beam of light sent the Electric Pokémon back to its resting place. Paul then turned to see for himself the trio that he loathed for so long coming into full view as they dashed over to meet the two siblings.

As always, there was never a pleasant greeting from Paul. A chilling silence (besides the outdoor ambience) was the only "greeting" Paul liked to give these people. He and Ash stared at each other for the moments of remaining silence… this time, Ash wasn't letting Paul's cold-hearted nature affect his bright and cheery demeanor.

Luckily, Reggie was there to break the ice this time. "Thanks for coming, Ash. Welcome!" he greeted, standing up to walk towards the group. "I really believe the two of you were destined to battle each other this way."

"The two of us…?" Ash asked him. Still a kid who mainly focused on the simple things in life, thinking little of the greater meanings behind the trials of his journeys, it was a certainty that Reggie would have to explain his beliefs thoroughly so that they wouldn't go right over Ash's head.

"You see, you and Paul are completely different, and yet you're a lot alike, too," Reggie stated; this much wasn't lost on Ash. The young teen from Pallet Town himself stated this to Paul a while back when they crossed paths shortly after the Wallace Cup. "Both of you wish to become strong with your Pokémon, yet your training methods are at opposites. So as long as you're both this tuned into each other and also have the desire to become stronger, I think a full battle between you is unavoidable."

So far Reggie wasn't being difficult to comprehend, even for Ash. "As rivals, you need to know each others' current strength. You need to know how powerful each other has become, and that will lead to your own evolution as a trainer."

The last part, however, Ash took a little bit too literally. "Wait, me? Evolve?"

"You too, Paul," Reggie assured his little brother, who looked around without paying much mind to what Reggie said. Now that Ash was here, his eye would always be on the ball.

"So, where do we battle?" Paul asked him; his casual tone indicated that he didn't take much of what Reggie said to heart.

"Right here," Reggie answered.

Ash looked around the area. "Right here? Really?"

"Well, we can't use the field at the Pokémon Center," Reggie pointed out. "So I thought it might be nice to give it your all in the great outdoors!"

Never mind that they would've been outside anyway even if their original battlefield was usable, but that location didn't possess the kind of background scenery the new locale had, close to Lake Acuity as they were now.

"Sure!" Ash agreed, eager to get started. However, he was considerate of what Paul wanted, too, seeing as he never looked happy about anything. "How's it sound, Paul?"

Paul closed his eyes, trying not to be frustrated with Ash and his constant attempts to be casual and friendly with his adversary. "It doesn't matter to me."

Glad that Paul wasn't going to be difficult about the minor details, Reggie looked ready to get things started. "That settles it," he decided.

"Good! We're all decided!" a familiar voice shouted from high above the others. The group looked up to see Olivier in a hot-air balloon already on its descent to the ground.

Reggie was glad to see the referee he had called for days ago was punctual and prepared. "Ready to referee?" he asked, just to be sure.

Olivier hopped out of the balloon once it landed. "I sure am!" he said, looking back at the large air balloon basket behind him. "And now, for my help!"

On cue, a trio wearing all-black stagehand outfits normally used in kabuki performances (which were traditional forms of entertainment in the oriental region of Johto) emerged from the balloon. Yes, Team Rocket even fooled Olivier with their change of clothes despite having the exact same voices as the trio of construction workers he spoke with before. Not that this was anything new… but it had been a long time since these particular disguises were last used; three years ago, way back when Ash was in the middle of his first journey in Kanto.

"Yes sir!" all three called out in unison, ready to make even more money than they expected.

Meowth pressed a button on a control panel within the balloon. "Helpin'!" he chimed in as the hot-air balloon suddenly transformed itself into a digital scoreboard, similar in appearance to those used in official League Conferences. The group came closer to the contraption, watching in awe.

"Wow, awesome!" Dawn said with awe. "What's that?" Her Piplup of course was also curious.

"It's a portable reference monitor," Olivier explained to her before looking back to Team Rocket. "Okay, team! All set?"

"Right! Couldn't be any more setter!" they announced.

They flipped the power switch, and instantly the scoreboard was live. Portraits of both Ash and Paul were visible with six round Pokéball dots halfway covering each portrait – each circle represented the six Pokémon for both teams, though the actual Pokémon portraits would not be shown until they were sent out onto the field. All that would be needed was a stadium full of ecstatic people for this to look exactly like a Sinnoh League battle.

With that, everyone took their positions. A convenient bench sat nearby the balloon where operations were held, which was where Brock, Dawn (with her Piplup), and Reggie took their seats. Jessie, James, and Meowth remained behind the balloon to keep track of the battle statistics, of course. Olivier took center position at the side of the battlefield as all referees did while Ash and Paul took their places on the opposite ends of the field, several yards apart from each other.

It was finally time for the battle to get underway.

Olivier shouted out the obligatory announcement. "Representing Kanto is Ash from Pallet Town; representing Sinnoh is Paul from Veilstone City! We now begin a six-on-six full battle! There is no time limit and both sides may exchange Pokémon freely as desired. The battle will be over when all six Pokémon on either side are unable to continue. We will now use Coin Toss to see who will mount the first attack!" He looked to each trainer; Dawn was ready with the Coin Toss application on her Pokétch. "Alright then, trainers! Heads or tails; what will it be?"

"I call heads!" Ash immediately shouted back.

"Then tails!" the apathetic Paul conceded; they always seemed to take the same side of the coin every time they battled.

The two rivals had another unnerving stare-off as Dawn flipped the digital Magikarp coin on her Pokétch application. The mere seconds it took for the coin to land on a side seemed to drag on forever; Ash and Paul both were anxious in their own way to start the battle. Ash's eagerness was always more obvious in plain sight, and it was that demeanor – wearing his heart on his sleeve – that would put Ash at a disadvantage here. Paul spent ten whole days disciplining himself emotionally; what Brandon suggested he focused on improving turned out to be very useful advice not only for Paul's defense. Seeing that Ash still remained unrestrained with his emotions in addition to Paul figuring that Ash was likely a bit more cocky than usual after seeing his rival at his lowest during the battle against Brandon, Paul was now able to see a giant weak spot on Ash himself. And like the Pyramid King, Paul planned to ensure his victory by ruthlessly taking advantage of Ash's weakness.

All Paul needed was to believe in his own abilities now; with his self-esteem this low, he couldn't afford to let his emotions betray him again. The potential disaster would be something Paul might not be able to recover from.

Ash of course was not thinking this deeply, but he was definitely more self-assured after seeing that it was possible to break that cool, stoic demeanor of his rival. Disturbing and heart-wrenching as that was to watch, Ash figured to a lesser extent he too could finally achieve victory if he could get Paul to lose his cool in the middle of the battle. This time, Ash was giving it his all to the highest degree possible.

Finally, the digital coin landed.

"Heads!" Olivier confirmed. "So Ash has the honor."

Everything was set; all that remained was for Ash to make the first move. He looked to Pikachu, hardly able to prolong the wait any more. "Okay, Pikachu! Let's do this!" he said, raw determination flaring up within him.

Following a concurring, energetic "Pika!" from his partner, Ash drew out his first Pokéball, pressing the button once to enlarge the sphere to its actual size. Paul was dead silent as he awaited the revealing of his first opponent while it was equally quiet with the group sitting on the bench. Dawn held her hands together in her lap with anticipation; her nerves rattled with the excitement about to unfold. She also didn't forget how frighteningly out of control Paul was when she last saw him battle… the up-and-coming Coordinator prayed that Paul heeded the advice given by the Frontier Brain who resembled him; she didn't like the idea of Ash having to face that enraged, desperate Paul she saw ten days ago one bit.

At last, the Pokéball was thrown in tandem with Ash's battle cry. "Alright! Buizel, I choose you…!"

"Torterra, stand by for battle!" Paul followed immediately after as both trainers unleashed their chosen Pokémon onto the field.

The Sea Weasel Pokémon's "Buibui!" battle cry sounded pitiful to the thunderous, low-pitched roar of Torterra. Already, this scenario didn't look favorable to Ash.

"Torterra, huh…" Ash muttered, clearly apprehensive about his chances with this type of match-up. Even if Paul's performance had been less than stellar lately, Ash still intended on taking this battle seriously. Though Buizel could likely out-speed the Continent Pokémon in any situation, this was still Paul's strongest overall.

"Hm." Paul gave Ash a look; he expected some reckless command from his rival by now, but it was clear that Ash was uncertain about how to handle this right away. This, however, was Paul's intention for showing off his strongest Pokémon first; to shake Ash up and inflict the self-doubt that Paul himself had been suffering with for weeks. It was impossible to tell with Paul's consistently stoic expression, but he was glad to give Ash a little taste of the torment he'd been through.

In the background, the Team Rocket trio sang out "A button here, button there!" as they punched in the data required to update the digital scoreboard – appropriately, pictures of Buizel and Torterra appeared in place of the top Pokéball of both columns of six in their respective trainer's corner.

"Alright, let the battle begin!" Olivier announced, and all eyes went on Ash as he was expected to make the first move… and here he was uncertain already.

Ultimately, Ash decided he would show Paul just how much he had matured as a trainer by thinking through his problem and choosing the logical route for once. He held out Buizel's Pokéball once more. "Buizel, return now!" he shouted; the red beam of light emitted from the Pokéball, hitting Buizel and successfully recalled it back into its Pokéball. As he did so, Ash returned Paul the hard stare he'd been receiving this whole time.

Paul found this vaguely intriguing; he even felt a little déjà vu, as this was precisely his first action when his battle with Brandon began. He suspected Ash's reason for doing this was the same as his own.

Dawn was shocked; the similarity between this and the beginning of the battle she witnessed over a week ago was lost on her. The disguised trio at work, having not seen that battle at all, was reasonably surprised to see Ash's first move be a switch-out.

"Having second thoughts is usually not the twerp way," Jessie noted, unable to make a guess at why this was done.

"How does he change his mind when he has none?" James wondered out loud; he merely assumed Ash to be too incompetent to approach a battle any other way than head-on.

"I was lookin' forward ta' watchin' Buizel kickin' someone else's booty fer a change," Meowth grumbled with disappointment. Wobbuffet (also mysteriously in a matching disguise) appeared out of its Pokéball to give its usual unwarranted "Wooooh-buh!" input afterward.

Back on the battlefield, Ash looked down apologetically at Buizel's Pokéball. "Buizel, I really wanted to battle with you," he honestly expressed. "But the thing is, Water-type moves don't really work well against Torterra…" Paul overheard this, increasingly self-assured that he correctly guessed why Ash recalled Buizel immediately. Though lacking a true resistance to Water-type moves thanks to its dual Ground-typing, Torterra's defenses were so sturdy that most neutral moves remained to be about as effective as the type of moves it resisted. That was precisely why Paul recalled his Magmar when his battle versus Brandon began; Regirock was a very sturdy tank of a Pokémon and resisted Fire-types, hence why Paul decided not to waste his time. It was actually a bit refreshing to see Ash playing the game the way a "normal" trainer would for once.

"… So hang tight till the next time," Ash assured Buizel's Pokéball as he pocketed it, pulling out a second – this one containing a more suitable opponent for Torterra. He threw it, calling upon another dear friend. "You're up instead! Gliscor, I choose you!"

The enthusiastic Fang Scorp Pokémon cried out upon its release, very eager to make Ash proud. Paul took note of the fact that Ash possessed the exact same species of Pokémon as he did. Even with a bit of a disadvantage in type now, Paul knew his way around a Gliscor simply by all the time he invested training his own. And like his father, Paul was not about to back out and recall Torterra simply because the tables turned on him in regards to type. He wanted to make it so that type would be as meaningless to this battle as it was in his battle against the Pyramid King.

Meanwhile, Team Rocket got to work to update the monitor; the picture of Buizel was grayed out to show that it was still usable, but presently inactive. The full-color picture of Gliscor appeared right below Buizel's portrait.

"Paul, remember Gliscor?" Ash asked his rival, giving him a wry smile as he sounded awfully confident about his chances here. "You met it back when it was still a Gligar."

Indeed, Paul did remember that weak crybaby Gligar that his Gliscor defeated with ease. Back then, Paul already figured the little Gligar was part of the pack his Gliscor once led before its capture and used that to his advantage, which worked beautifully for him. Seeing the rarely-successful Guillotine move take down a weak Pokémon so soundly satisfied Paul ever so much. The fact that Ash managed to get that Gligar to evolve was no surprise to Paul by now; he expected it.

This would be the moment that Paul would return Ash's question with a rude remark. But today, Paul was rigid; testing himself as much as he was testing his opponent. Controlling his emotions was a key concern here, so even though it was very tempting, Paul held himself back from saying a single word to Ash about the matter. His expressions did not change at all… this was something Paul wanted to maintain for the entire battle and prove to Brandon that he could pass this test… even if he wasn't present to see him do so.

"Wow, the taller twerp seems to be tongue-tied," James noted, as he and the others had seen Paul and witnessed his past heartless actions enough to expect a response as much as Ash did.

"Better gagged than grouchy," Jessie said, preferring Paul's silence to his past behavior.


Though Paul's lack of reply was off-putting, Ash figured he was simply waiting for the first move – the battle still hadn't actually started. Done with the small talk, Ash finally took action. "Gliscor, now! Sand Attack!"

Paul couldn't believe Ash still had his Gliscor using that move; it was the same opening Ash had this Pokémon use during their last battle when it was a Gligar. It didn't help then; why would Ash think it would make a difference now? This just went to show how opposite Paul and Ash were when it came to training and battling style.

Still, Paul expected Ash to have learned from his miserable past failure. Since he obviously hadn't, Paul intended to do much more than punish him – he'd tear a page out of Brandon's book and completely mess with Ash's head, to a much higher degree than ever before.

"Terra!" Paul's Torterra readily grumbled, seemingly able to sense what Paul had in mind. The two were equally stoic, steady, and calm as Gliscor beat its giant pincers into the ground, kicking up massive dust clouds to obscure the vision of both the opposing Pokémon and trainer. Reggie winced as he tried to get a good look of his brother's stance, though it was hard to see. What he had said in the past turned out to be very astute, however: Paul and Torterra were perfect matches for each other and Reggie knew Paul's starter would be the most difficult Pokémon for Ash to take down.

"Using Sand Attack was a wise move," Reggie mused, a bit more appreciative of the technique than Paul was.

"Ash has battled against Torterra several times in the past and watched it in battle as well," Brock told him. "He really knows Torterra's moves, so he's blocking its vision."

Aside from Electabuzz, Torterra was the Pokémon of Paul's that Ash was most familiar with. The fact that it was Paul's starter made Ash all the more interested in finding ways to defeat it, despite the obvious advantages it had against Ash's starter. But Ash was also very appreciative of Torterra after it went out of its way to help his Grotle. It was a bit bothersome for Paul, actually, that Ash cared this much about what Torterra did.

After many moments of concentration, Paul called out the first move that came to mind when he finally decided to strike back. "Giga Drain!"

Torterra hollered as he rose up; the rocks protruding from its shell glowed in a bright green color. Beams of the same hue emitted from these rocks as they rose up to make an arc before rushing downward back into the low-visibility range to capture Gliscor. However, Gliscor jumped and flied up into the sky over the dust clouds to evade the attack, leaving the beams with nothing to hit but the solid ground. The plucky Gliscor taunted its earthbound opponent, as dodging Giga Drain didn't even make it break a sweat.

Torterra glared up at Gliscor, a low and annoyed "Terra…" heard by Paul.

"It worked; Torterra missed," Dawn pointed out.

While Dawn was glad for that, Brock was a bit grimmer about how this turn played out. "I have a sneaking suspicion Paul used that attack knowing it was going to miss," he muttered. Dawn and Piplup stared at Brock, completely oblivious as to why Brock would believe such a thing, but Reggie seemed to be on the exact same page.

"I think you're right," Reggie said. "Purposefully while still in that Sand Attack…"

Dawn still didn't understand the motive. "But why…?"

"To try and get Ash to let down his guard a bit," Reggie answered for her. "When an opponent's attack misses, a trainer can get too comfortable mentally." This was a topic he and Paul had gone over a few times during their ten-day training period, but it was also something Paul and Reggie both learned from personal experiences over the years.

Ash, of course, was just as oblivious as Dawn as to where this was going. "Now, Gliscor! Use X-Scissor!"

Gliscor crossed its pincers together, forming an X-shaped charge of energy as it proceeded to dive-bomb its very large opponent. The hit was direct and super-effective; the highest pressure point of the attack being right on Torterra's forehead. The force of the blow was strong enough to even send the Continent Pokémon skidding back a few feet despite weighing nearly seven-hundred pounds. This was where Reggie's training paid off inadvertently; normally Paul would have been at least a little shocked to see any attack coming from something Gliscor's size or smaller to have the power capable of pushing something as large and heavy as Torterra back a notable distance. But from the very first day of training when Reggie's Infernape – even smaller in size than Gliscor – knocked Torterra back nearly a mile with Blast Burn, this was nothing by comparison. Paul maintained his calm, cool demeanor even when green sparks of the failed Giga Drain came out from Torterra's shell-embedded stones.

Gliscor backflipped its way to its original position on Ash's side of the field, quite proud of the damage it dealt to Torterra in just one blow. A surprised "Pika?" was uttered by Ash's little yellow companion, mirroring Ash's own surprise of the first clash.

"Check that out; Torterra took it!" he exclaimed. Very few of Ash's Pokémon were ever this sturdy, of course. But this did hearken back to the night when Ash's Grotle received a personal lesson from this particular Torterra. The elder Pokémon taught its fellow species the important trade-off that occurred when Grotle lost its speed – a considerably increased endurance that should never be ignored. Much as Ash appreciated what Torterra did for Grotle, the trainer himself still didn't have a full understanding or appreciation of how far a top-notch defense can go. Paul, on the other hand, always knew better with his starter and always made defense the emphasis on its training. Years of defensive focus made Torterra able to take a direct super-effective hit and still stand with relative ease.

While Ash's mind often wandered as he battled his rival, Paul remained completely focused as he called for the next attack. "Frenzy Plant!"

Torterra's entire body emitted a strong glow before it summoned numerous thorn-covered roots from the earth below. They rose up, only to arc downwards like the last attack and collectively struck at Gliscor.

"Awesome," Dawn marveled at the attack, as did her intimidated Piplup.

"Frenzy Plant is the most dynamic Grass-type move with all that sheer power on tap," Brock commented. It was obvious to him that Paul put a lot of work into mastering this attack.

"Yeah, but it's a risky move, too," Reggie informed them, sounding concerned that the risk would not pay off this time.

Ash was well aware of Frenzy Plant's capabilities. He wasn't about to let his Pokémon take the brunt of that hit. "Now…! Up, Gliscor!"

Once more, Gliscor jumped into the air and soared high up to miss the initial blow of Frenzy Plant and also raised its altitude so that it would remain well out of the attack's range. Torterra flinched as the roots receded back into the ground.

Dawn took immediate notice of this, looking concerned. "Torterra's in trouble," she acknowledged.

"That's the risk of Frenzy Plant," Reggie said with a nod. "After the attack, Torterra won't be able to move for a while."

It didn't strike Ash at all how odd it was that Paul would act so carelessly; all that mattered to him right now was that Paul left a wide opportunity for him to counterattack with no possible repercussions due to Torterra's immobility. "Now's our chance!" he realized, smirking up at Gliscor. "Use Fire Fang!"

The Scorp Fang Pokémon readied itself for another quick descent as flames poured out from its mouth. After a steady swoop downwards, Gliscor collided with its target and bit the bulky quadruped with its fiery fangs. Black plumes of smoke emitted as an explosion was heard, caused from the damage Gliscor had given Torterra. One direct super-effective hit following another in quick succession was enough to make Torterra moan out in pain.

Brock was alert to the sound. "It felt that!" he exclaimed as Gliscor emerged from the dark smoke, gracefully soaring back into the air to distance itself just in case Torterra might recover earlier than expected and counterattack. But… it didn't. Ash saw no reason not to go in and land another blow; one thing he did know very well about Pokémon with high defensive capabilities was that it seemed to take forever to get them incapacitated. Even if Torterra might be able to move by this point, the sounds it made and the critical hits it sustained encouraged Ash to rush into the next attack head-on once again.

"Use X-Scissor!" he called out, which Gliscor heeded. The way Gliscor attacked was exactly the same as previous times, and Paul took note of this mentally. He found it pitiful that Ash honestly seemed oblivious to the fact that his Gliscor was highly predictable in its move execution. As usual, after the direct hit from the super-effective Bug-type move, Gliscor immediately flew away from the vicinity and back into the air. Small, shimmering green sparks crackled all over Torterra's immense body, showing everyone just how badly weakened the Continent Pokémon had become.

"Yeah, that worked too!" Ash celebrated, so proud that Gliscor was making a much better impression against Paul now. "Gliscor, let's do one more attack," he told his high-flying friend, seeing that it wouldn't take much more than that to completely take down the strongest Pokémon Paul had to offer. It really did seem to be his lucky day. "Steel Wing; let's go!"

Gliscor charged in yet another time, now with its wings glowing in preparation to deal the final blow. Torterra looked terribly weak and vulnerable, but Paul paid close attention to each and every detail of this battle. He listened, and he waited.

A weak, barely-audible grunt from Torterra made Paul's eyes snap wide open; this was the signal he needed. The perfect time to strike back was now.

"Torterra, Crunch!" Paul quickly commanded, throwing Ash off guard. Just as Gliscor collided into Torterra's sturdy backside with its Steel Wing attack, Torterra bit down hard on the Scorp Fang Pokémon's long, vulnerable tail that hung right in front of Torterra's face. While Gliscor got the hit in, it obviously wasn't enough to take Torterra down and its cries of pain alerted Ash to an unpleasant turn of events.

"Gliscor, no…!" he cried out, never before imagining that Gliscor's tail could be targeted like this. It quickly became obvious to Ash that Gliscor was unable to escape the grasp of Torterra's jaws as he watched it struggle in vain.

Dawn was also shocked by how quickly Paul turned the match around. "Gliscor got caught!"

Paul allowed himself to smirk at the twist he just pulled off. It was a very eerie expression, however… not that it was ever pleasant to see Paul smile in the past, but this time coupled with the fact that he'd been dead silent since the match began (aside from calling out moves), only offering this gesture to show the others that he was still human at least was one that sent a deep chill down the spines of Ash and friends.

It was easy to see why Paul was smirking, however. He had let Torterra take all of this abuse only so Ash would become overconfident and start slacking off on his strategy. His overly-cheerful rival was every bit as arrogant as expected, which made this moment all the more satisfying; seeing the horrified look on Ash's face made Paul eager to horrify him even more.

"Now, Giga Drain," Paul calmly ordered his Torterra, which it happily obliged to. This time, the green beams of light emitting from the rocks on Torterra's shell reached their target with no trouble at all; Giga Drain wrapped itself completely around Gliscor and began to sap the unfortunate captive of its power, which would serve to heal the injuries Torterra sustained and rejuvenate its power. Hearing the cliché "Oh no!" from Ash was music to Paul's ears.

"Gliscor, your power's being drained!" Dawn needlessly shouted out what was painfully obvious to everyone in attendance. "You've gotta get away; quick!"

Even with Piplup aiding Dawn in moral support, Gliscor's efforts to break free were all in vain. Ash's overly-cheery, carefree attitude cost him dearly, and now he was unable to concentrate on anything other than getting Gliscor out of the trap. "Come on, Gliscor!" he urged. "Stay strong!" Pikachu rooted for its comrade; that was all it really could do.

"So this is what Paul was after," Brock quietly realized. "If Torterra became immobilized from the Frenzy Plant, he knew Ash would unleash a barrage of close-ranged attacks…"

Reggie looked to Brock, fully serious right now. "Right. Paul is well aware that Ash knows Torterra's battling style, so he formulated his strategy around that. For all the times they've battled before, Paul figured Ash likely wouldn't stray from his own general battling style… which he believes centers on offensive, fast-paced, close-ranged attacks."

"Paul would be right about that," Brock affirmed. "For all the years I've seen Ash battle, that style hasn't changed very much at all."

Dawn listened in on Reggie and Brock's conversations, which helped her understand what was going on out there a bit better… though it didn't help at all to ease her nerves. "Oh man…"

Hopeless as it appeared, Ash wasn't going to give up to Paul without trying. "Hang in there, Gliscor! Use Fire Fang!"

Gliscor had been rendered almost completely immobile, but there was nothing impairing the movement of its head. It was still able to utilize Fire Fang, and by doing so, it only took one bite into the beams of energy to disrupt the energy transfer, shorting out Giga Drain completely. The burn was still felt by Torterra; enough so that its powerful jaw opened up, freeing Gliscor's tail and allowing it to escape back over to Ash's side of the field.

"Way to go!" Dawn cheered; her expressions brightening at seeing Ash able to overcome the odds. However, this was hardly a cause to go overboard on a celebration, as it quickly became obvious once Gliscor landed on the ground that the damage had been done. Gliscor was gasping for breath and looked just as weak as Torterra had moments ago. "Ah! Torterra's Crunch did lots of damage," she acknowledged.

Ash wasn't about to send Gliscor back into danger again; not in the condition it was in. "Okay, Gliscor; return!" he decided, recalling his weary friend back into its Pokéball.

"I know this battle's just getting started, but I can hardly breathe just from watching…" Dawn muttered, looking down at her equally-shaken Piplup.

"It's only going to get harder to watch from here on out," Brock told her.

Knowing that as well, Dawn took a deep breath, trying to steel herself against the intense battle she was watching. "Right; I get it," she assured the aspiring breeder. "No need to worry… we can tough it out; me and Piplup both."

"Take a good rest," Ash told his Gliscor before switching out the Pokéball with another. Before throwing it, he gazed at the battlefield, hearing the much louder and deeper panting of Torterra, who was also worn down from the match despite being able to regain some of its health back. Ash had never seen Torterra pushed this hard, and yet its trainer paid no mind to this at all. It bothered Ash to see this… though honestly, by now it wasn't surprising.

Still, Ash wondered why Paul refused to switch when odds were low that Torterra would be able to put up a fight against whatever opponent it would have to face next. Why would Paul carelessly leave his first Pokémon to fall like this?

Whatever the case may be, Ash was already tired of questioning it. He just wanted to teach Paul a lesson for months of humiliation. "Now, it's time to finish this thing up!" he said out loud, hoping saying such a thing about Torterra would get some sort of reaction against Paul, but even that had no effect on his stoic rival. "Staraptor, I choose you!"

As Staraptor was sent out, Gliscor's image on the scoreboard was grayed out while an image of Staraptor appeared below it.

Reggie was caught off-guard by seeing a Pokémon the same species of the first one he captured with his starter eight years ago. He smiled, as this Pokémon was definitely familiar to him. "Staraptor must've evolved from the Staravia I battled once, right?" he asked just to be sure.

"Right," Dawn confirmed. "It even beat Paul's Honchkrow in a PokéRinger match."

That was a genuine surprise to Reggie. "Wow, Paul's Honchkrow?" he said, almost in disbelief. "That's pretty amazing. I wonder why Paul didn't tell me about this… I would've liked to watch that. I'm pretty sure those events are televised…"

"Maybe Paul didn't want you seeing him losing to Ash," Dawn mused, particularly catty as she said that. But she quickly regretted it, realizing who she was mocking Paul to. "Er, I mean…"

Reggie was pretty good about not taking offense to anything negative said about his brother. Protective as he was, Reggie was fully aware of just how off-putting Paul could be, and just how expertly he could bring out the worst in people. "I-it's alright; I know how easily he can get under anyone's skin."

Meanwhile, back on the battlefield, Ash smirked as he just knew the sight of Staraptor would get some kind of reaction out of Paul – given the recent history that transpired right about the early part of Paul's losing streak that was much longer than anyone was truly aware of. But Paul still retained a perfectly calm and neutral presence… and it was beginning to frustrate Ash that he couldn't do what Brandon did with ease. Ash figured he'd just have to knock Torterra out to get that barrier to break. "Alright, Brave Bird!" he shouted, going straight for his Staraptor's most powerful attack to bring an end to this.

The Predator Pokémon charged its energy while making a beeline for Torterra. Once again, Paul waited and listened before taking action. Timing was an important element to Paul's approach to this battle – it was the best way to get an emotional reaction out of Ash and further throw him off his line of concentration. Torterra looked back to its trainer; Paul understood that was the signal to counter now. "Use Stone Edge!"

"Ah!" Ash completely forgot Torterra could learn Rock-type moves that were especially dangerous for his Staraptor. "Stone Edge, why…?"

Rocks from around the area began to levitate and orbit around Torterra in several different rings, as if Torterra was a massive planet itself. They all fired at once directly at Staraptor, who was too close and locked into its attack pattern to break out in order to dodge. Staraptor suffered a critical hit; the power behind the blow was enough to send Staraptor crashing into the ground.

"Staraptor, no…!" Ash panicked; he worried that one attack was enough to severely injure it. Both Paul and Torterra looked on sternly at their opponent on the battlefield as the dust cleared. Staraptor was still able to battle, but just barely, evident as it struggled to stand on its feet… much less fly.

"Wow, that was super-effective," Brock noted. "That's the reason Paul didn't switch Pokémon." Ash wasn't the only one curious about that, apparently.

Paul finally recalled Torterra after that, prompting Ash to glare. It seemed Paul was always one step ahead of him in these battles, and this one was no different. Whatever power Brandon had over Paul that made him lose his touch, it was obvious that Ash didn't have it.

While Ash couldn't hazard a guess as to what Paul was up to, Reggie read into it effortlessly… hardly a surprise considering the amount of time he'd trained with his brother. "There's no doubt in my mind that Paul was expecting Ash to bring out Staraptor next," he said. "That's why he used Stone Edge to stop Staraptor's Brave Bird and all of Ash's continued assaults as well."

Curiously, he looked to Brock and Dawn. "Do either of you know if Ash came up with a battling strategy for today? Like maybe switching which Pokémon he was going to be using against Paul?" The fact that Reggie was familiar with all these Pokémon (or their pre-evolved states in most cases so far) from when Ash and the others first met him in Veilstone City wasn't a good sign; Paul was even more familiar with Ash's team without a doubt, which made it no wonder how Paul was able to easily assume which Pokémon Ash would send out depending on his situation.

"No, I think Ash was planning on using those six Pokémon right from the beginning," Dawn answered; she was pretty sure that was Ash's intention. She recalled hearing him say at some point during their journey (she forgot when exactly) he was determined to show Paul how strong he was, and he'd do so using only the Pokémon he'd caught from Sinnoh besides Pikachu… to show Paul he wouldn't have to resort to using his more powerful reserves caught from other regions. He wanted to do this to assure each of his native Sinnoh Pokémon that they were every bit as worthy as every other Pokémon Ash had caught in the past regardless of how much weaker they were presently.

"You see, except for Pikachu, Ash got all of his Pokémon after coming here to Sinnoh," Brock further explained, making Reggie's grim expression harden.

"I knew it…" he muttered. "Paul picked his Pokémon line-up based on all the previous battles he's had against Ash." This was a lie, since Brandon was the one who decided on what Pokémon Paul would use in this battle, but naturally Reggie wasn't going to let anyone catch on to their connection to the Pyramid King, as that would go against Paul's wishes. Brock already had a strong suspicion that there was more to their relationship than Reggie let on; that hadn't changed in the ten-day period, either. Still, even if Brandon hadn't been involved in deciding what Paul would have on his team, Reggie knew Paul would've organized a similar team – if not the exact same six he had now – because he was aware that Paul had been rotating his Sinnoh captures and reserves since the beginning of his journey here. Ash was part of the reason why Paul was insistent on doing this a bit more frequently than usual.

Even if Reggie was happy for Paul doing so well, he did still feel for Ash and his obvious frustration right now. "That's why he can predict with such accuracy what Pokémon is coming next."

"Weavile, stand by for battle…!" Paul called out, unleashing a member of his team that he had a rather polarizing relationship with. Ash had seen Paul's Weavile before a few times, but never battled it. He was of course always interested to battle it, though he wouldn't have expected Paul to have one. The two trainers weren't opposites only in personalities and training methods – their taste in Pokémon, despite sharing some of the same species, were also at opposite ends of the spectrum. As it was just seen, Paul was at his best with sturdy Pokémon like Torterra. Though slow and often weren't the ones to land the first hit, they were able to take a lot of punishment before going down. This gave Paul plenty of time for a strong counterattack; the reason why he favored Pokémon that still possessed great offensive power. Defense was just as important as offense in Paul's mind, so the fact that he owned a Weavile was odd, given that their defenses were extremely weak despite their strong offensive power.

Paul admittedly caught this Pokémon as a Sneasel and didn't really know the species well until after he caught it. He'd been tempted many times to release it, especially since it didn't fare quite as well as the others under his training (though never as abysmal as Chimchar). But he had caught a very good Sneasel; its speed was amazing, especially compared to the slow-moving Pokémon Paul possessed, and it was a very hard hitter. Reggie assured his brother that variety on his team was important and urged him strongly to keep it. After evolving it with Brandon's help, Paul was even less inclined to let it go. But after it had lost so easily against Cynthia's Garchomp (which it had a massive type advantage over), Paul had a hard time forgiving its loss. The fact that Weavile alone couldn't get him the Gliscor he wanted months ago (since Electabuzz was also needed to aid in its capture) was another reason for Paul to look down on his poor, bumbling Pokémon.

After failing in catching the boat Paul was late for, which caused him to have that unpleasant reuniting with Conway, that was nearly the last straw. Initially, Paul really did want to release Weavile then and there, but Conway's presence (and nagging) caused Paul to put it off. Instead, he'd just threaten Weavile with an immediate release if it failed at any point during his battle with Byron… but of course, instead of that, Weavile was the reason why Paul won the match. Over time Paul had been increasingly reluctant to go through with the release, which was why he decided to at least be fair and save Weavile for last since there was no way it would win if it were to battle right from the beginning with Paul having no intention to switch out at all. After going against the odds to win Paul the Mine Badge, a short time later Weavile played a major role in saving Paul's life.

That almost completely erased Paul's disdain for his Pokémon, despite stubbornly pretending he didn't care for it. Now Paul was giving Weavile a chance to put Ash in his place. Truly, Weavile was a Pokémon more along the lines of what Ash would prefer; hard-hitting and fast. Even if they weren't inherently strong, Ash managed to work with his Pokémon and make them all strong in their own unique ways. It was a bit risky to make Ash face a Pokémon that he would be more accustomed to training, but Paul figured it was worth at least trying. Thanks to Torterra, Ash had already revealed a good chunk of his team early on in the battle. With Paul assured that he knew what Ash's other two Pokémon were, he allowed himself to experiment a little. Even if Weavile lost, Ash would still be playing into Paul's trap.

"Second helping, coming right up!" the working trio sang as they got to work. As the scoreboard was updated to gray out Torterra's picture and reveal Weavile in the active slot, Paul was slightly surprised to see Ash not making a move to recall Staraptor.

The Predator Pokémon was still struggling to get up after that critical hit from Torterra's Stone Edge. "Staraptor, can you still battle?" Ash called out to it. Staraptor nodded to Ash before finally managing its way back up into the sky. So Ash was sticking with Staraptor after all.

Paul wasn't sure at first why Ash would let Staraptor stay in since Flying-types were weak to Ice-types, but as he mentally went back and recalled his last battle with Staraptor, Paul remembered that was when the evolution was triggered. Staravia became Staraptor during the PokéRinger match, and its renewed strength managed to out-muscle Honchkrow into winning the tournament. Staraptor learned a new move upon evolving that day… a move that dealt a good bit of damage to Honchkrow: Close Combat.

That was a Fighting-type move; the one type Weavile had a double-weakness to. With its pitiful defensive power, Weavile wouldn't last long if it took a blow like that. Now Paul understood why Staraptor was being kept in; he also understood that he would likely lose this match if he didn't switch out, but Paul didn't want to give Ash any clue that deep down, his rival was still nervous. Even while doing just as Brandon said and keeping his emotions in check, that couldn't change what Paul was feeling deep down. In any case, he remained firm and just decided to do his best. There were still ways for Paul to break down Ash's confidence with Weavile.

"Alright, then Quick Attack!" Ash commanded. It was a priority move… Paul could have overrode it, but he decided not to make his advantage obvious right away. By using Staraptor, Paul figured Ash would try to overcome him with speed, but he would be in for a nasty surprise soon enough.

Weavile briefly looked back at Paul, who had nothing to say to it. The stone-cold gaze Paul was giving the Sharp Claw Pokémon seemed to be telling enough what Paul expected it to do. Crossing its claws together, Weavile managed to buffer the attack as Staraptor collided with its target. The force of the attack was enough for Staraptor to push Weavile back a good distance; even after Staraptor flew back and away from Weavile, it still skidded back a few extra feet before finally stopping. Weavile managed to take an attack without being brutally injured, but Paul paid no mind to that. Seeing the force of a mere Quick Attack push Weavile back that far showed him just how physically strong this bird was. Close Combat really would take his Weavile out with ease.

"Use Swords Dance!" Paul decided to enhance Weavile's own physical prowess, shown as Weavile's claws came apart and glowed in a dark purple hue, lengthening until Weavile's claws resembled giant scythe blades. Feeling the power course through its body, Weavile proudly slashed into the air and posed with eagerness; something Paul greatly struggled not to roll his eyes at.

Dawn watched Weavile, completely clueless. "What's that…?"

"It's called Swords Dance," Reggie explained for her. "And it increases its user's attack power."

Ash had power on his side, too, so he wasn't too concerned with this. "Now, Aerial Ace!"

Staraptor soared high into the air before making a turn to descend, planning to practically dive-bomb Weavile with the attack. This was an attack that had to be interrupted severely in order to miss or fail, so Paul attempted to do just that. "Blizzard!"

Though a special attack, Blizzard was still a very damaging move with more brute force behind it than any other move of its type. The fierce subzero winds coming from Weavile plus the chunks of ice and snow that came with the attack were more than enough to slow Staraptor's progress down significantly. This gave Paul the extra few seconds needed to interfere with Ash's attack.

"Now use Metal Claw!" he shouted; Weavile promptly followed through. Its claws glowed once more (brightly this time) while waiting for Staraptor to move in. Just as Ash was certain his Pokémon would land a hit, in mere milliseconds everything changed when Weavile managed to leap up and over Staraptor just as they were about to make contact. No ordinary Pokémon could have made a move so quickly when an opponent was practically right in front of its face well within reach. Weavile didn't jump completely over Staraptor like a hurdle, though; instead, the Sharp Claw Pokémon latched itself to Staraptor's back… the group watching the action could hardly believe it. The motions were so fast and so fluid that their eyes could barely follow. But it made one important obvious now…

"Weavile's faster than Staraptor?!" Brock cried out in shock. This revelation was not lost on Ash, and he was equally horrified to see the truth right before his eyes. This was the nasty surprise Paul wanted to spring on the lot, and just hearing the aspiring Pokémon Breeder holler that from the distance made him want to grin. While on top of Staraptor, Weavile landed two brutal Metal Claw hits on the most vulnerable part of Staraptor's body before jumping off, leaving the Predator Pokémon to crash-land on the ground.

Though Weavile was exceptionally strong compared to the average breed, it remained to be one of the more dim-witted members of Paul's team. As such, Paul actually needed to stay on this Pokémon's case in order to keep it from losing its attention span. "Go after it, Weavile!" Paul yelled at it; probably the most emotion he'd shown since the battle began. "Quick!"

The flustered Weavile did as commanded with haste, though it approached its prey in a rather flashy manner – doing so in a series of fancy backflips instead of just running at Staraptor, which would have been the fastest option. Though Dawn was in panic over Staraptor's predicament, she couldn't help but notice how stylish Weavile was in its pursuit. If in some strange, alternate universe that Paul would be a Coordinator instead of a battling Pokémon Trainer, she thought Weavile was sure to be one of the shining stars of his appeals. The Plumeria Contest was something she was completely unaware of, and thus Dawn would never realize the irony of her thoughts.

Paul was about to yell at it again, but he overheard Ash throwing in a desperate command. "It's comin'; Close Combat!"

"Metal Claw, now!" Paul called back, not really thinking about anything other than getting some sort of attack in before Staraptor could recover and take Weavile out swiftly with the attack he dreaded was coming sooner or later. It might've made more sense to go with an Ice-type attack while Staraptor was still on the ground, but either way Weavile stood a good chance of being overpowered since both Ice-type and Steel-type attacks would be overpowered by the Fighting-type Close Combat.

With its claws glowing again, Weavile struck at Staraptor; the latter of whom was already up on its feet and ready to counter. Ash's Pokémon hovered slightly over the ground as the two opponents engaged in a duel with their moves. After one brutal Close Combat smack from Staraptor's wing, however, Weavile found itself missing several of its hits despite being naturally faster than its opponent. Only one hit was needed to disorient Weavile, making its superior speed a non-issue as Staraptor landed several more blows on Weavile before knocking it back some distance away. Red sparks were showing around Weavile, showing the severe damage sustained.

"Staraptor… it has the advantage," Reggie understood. "That's a super-effective move. Even being weak to Blizzard, it's still better off than Weavile."

The Close Combat assault continued with Weavile being smacked around left and right; too hurt to retaliate on its own.

"Blizzard…!" Paul called out, this time in desperation. He'd gotten his point across, but he was not blind to Weavile's condition and knew it was no longer useful. This was likely to be Weavile's last chance to land an attack, and Paul knew it.

"Brave Bird; let's go!" Ash followed up. Knowing Staraptor needed to make some distance to charge the attack, he smirked as he watched the Predator Pokémon fly well out of Blizzard's range, evading it completely. While Blizzard kept going, Staraptor was sure to already be charged with energy before swiftly descending right in Weavile's direction. This way, the energy allowed Staraptor to easily crush the snow and ice threatening to pelt it and leave the Sharp Claw Pokémon completely defenseless as Staraptor landed a direct hit on its small, black opponent with its strongest attack.

The resulting collision triggered an explosion; one Staraptor was quick to fly away from, but not completely unscathed. It twitched, feeling the resulting recoil weaken it… as nearly all extremely powerful attacks had some sort of drawback to them. The smoke cleared away quickly this time, showing a critically-damaged Weavile unable to even open its eyes as its limp body swayed from one side to another before finally collapsing.

"Weavile is unable to battle, so Staraptor is the winner!" Olivier made official. On the scoreboard, Weavile's image not only grayed out, but its details disappeared until only a silhouette of its shape remained in the frame. This was to show that the Pokémon in question was defeated and unable to be called on for the remainder of the battle.

Proud of its victory, Staraptor landed directly in front of Ash to receive its deserved praise.

"Staraptor, you were awesome!" Ash congratulated; Pikachu also gave Staraptor props for defeating a Pokémon that it not only had a type advantage against, but a disadvantage in speed as well. The Predator Pokémon let out a well-deserved cry of victory.

"Alright!" Dawn cheered; her spirit now revived thanks to the battle's end result. "That's one Pokémon down!"

At the very least, Paul expected this would happen. He silently recalled Weavile back into its Pokéball and tucked it away. While normally cold, callous, and unhesitant to take his anger out on a Pokémon of his for failing, Paul continued to be sure to show no emotion whatsoever. He was the first one to lose a Pokémon this time around, but that was also the case when he battled Brandon. Being shaken up that early on doomed him for the rest of the battle… Ash was a witness to that, in fact. This was a brutal test for Paul to endure, but the ten days he spent disciplining himself went a long way… and even though Ash was currently in the lead, the training already showed results in Ash being thrown off guard a few times already. This early on, Paul already ascertained what Ash's entire team was before they were all revealed. That would mean Paul's comeback was a definite inevitability.

Though Ash was surprised to see Paul so nonchalant about being the first one to have a Pokémon fall in battle, he glared and mentally reminded himself that this battle was still just getting started. This was not the time to be celebrating already; not when he saw just how talented that Weavile was. If Staraptor hadn't learned Close Combat, it undoubtedly would have lost this match. This win was nothing more than a lucky circumstance for Ash; already nearly losing two Pokémon to Torterra alone made him dread thinking of the four Pokémon Paul hadn't revealed yet.

"Finally, a Pokémon hits the dirt," James commented.

"But if ya think da' twoi'p's runnin' happily in da' park, think again," Meowth said, noticing Ash's very short-lived celebration.

Jessie hung her head; the brutal nature of the battle's beginning was already taking a toll on her weary, overworked mind. "Ahh, I'm ready for a battle nap…"

Ash saw no sense in keeping Staraptor out any longer; taking a hit from Stone Edge right off greatly weakened his Pokémon already. The stress of this delicate situation with Weavile was almost too much for Ash to bear. "Alight. Staraptor, return!" he commanded as the Predator Pokémon was recalled. Ash looked down at Staraptor's Pokémon with relief. "You deserve a good rest."

"Electabuzz, stand by for battle!" Paul was heard from the distance, unleashing the third member of his team.

"Grotle, I choose you!" Ash followed up; this was a strategic choice based on type, as Ash knew Electric-type moves wouldn't work well on Grotle, whose defenses were enhanced since evolving despite losing a great deal of speed. Grotle was to Ash as Weavile was to Paul – though as a Turtwig, it was a speedy Pokémon like the rest. Now Ash was forced to carry on with a Pokémon that he wasn't very good at training or battling with.

Both Electabuzz and Grotle's images appeared on the third and fifth slot respectively on the trainers' scoreboard. Staraptor's image was grayed out. It really was telling who had the advantage here, since Paul fully expected Grotle to be on Ash's roster. With only one Pokémon left unveiled, and knowing how insistent Ash was on proving his point with a certain Pokémon that became the focus point of their rivalry… yes, it was painfully obvious who the last Pokémon was. With only half of his team unveiled, Paul could now build supplemental strategies on the fly.

Meanwhile, Ash was frustrated when he realized Paul wasn't going to switch out despite his disadvantage on the field now. He couldn't understand why, and he had no idea what Paul would have in store for him in regards to his last three unveiled Pokémon. "An Electric-type… what's he up to?!" he muttered under his breath. Since Paul was making no move to attack, Ash decided to take the initiative. "Alright, Grotle! Energy Ball!"

Grotle quickly charged and launched a shining green Grass-type attack of the special variety straight at its target. Paul watched the attack quickly make its way over to his side of the field; he waited for the right moment again, as he knew exactly what to do here. "Light Screen; let's go!"

Electabuzz spread out its arms, forming a bright box of light around itself. The attack collided into the odd shield formed around the Electric Pokémon; damage was taken, but it was obviously minimal as Electabuzz didn't even flinch. In fact, it even grinned at how unfazed it was by Grotle's attack. The box dissipated afterwards, but this wouldn't be the last time it would be showing up.

"Electabuzz took Grotle's Energy Ball!" Dawn exclaimed, because like many things in this battle this wasn't making any sense to her. Even with Light Screen's interference, Electabuzz was hit with the attack…

"Light Screen is a move that cuts the effect of special attacks down by half," Brock informed her. "Energy Ball is a special attack, so Electabuzz barely felt it."

Just then, Paul recalled Electabuzz, shocking Ash and a good deal of the onlookers.

"Paul's switching Pokémon already?" This was getting to be a headache. Ash knew Light Screen would render Grotle's Energy Ball almost powerless, so with that kind of advantage, why did Paul choose then to switch out? Unfortunately, even Pikachu was just as clueless about the rival's motives.

"Honchkrow, stand by for battle!" Paul yelled, showing off his fourth Pokémon. The scoreboard was quickly updated to show Honchkrow being active on the field and Electabuzz reserved for later. Paul saw no harm in showing off another Pokémon this soon, because this matchup was one that was sure to play in his favor. It was one that had happened not too long ago, as a matter of fact. Knowing Ash's emotions weren't nearly as controlled as his were, Paul figured Ash would be making an extremely dumb choice here in the next few seconds because of this.

Honchkrow stared down at Grotle from its high position in the sky. Grotle was glaring back, and when Ash noticed this, he knew this was about to get ugly. "Uh-oh… Honchkrow…"

Reggie looked curious as to why there seemed to be such bad blood between these two Pokémon, so Brock was quick to fill him in. "Those two Pokémon battled against each other before, and right in the middle of the whole thing, Turtwig evolved into Grotle."

"Ah, now I see," Reggie understood, nodding. "Then Grotle's angry reaction goes back to that battle. Even so, it wouldn't be a good idea for Ash to keep Grotle in there…"

"Because Honchkrow's got the type advantage, right?" Dawn asked. "In the last battle, there wasn't much Turtwig could do against Honchkrow except dodge, and after it became Grotle, that advantage was lost, too."

Reggie couldn't believe Paul never filled him in on any of this… then again, he sort of could. Paul never was one to talk about the specifics of his journey unless Reggie was very insistent about getting to know them. That was something that helped Paul keep his horrible secret off his brother's mind all the past week. "Yeah… but that's not all," he finally said to the young Coordinator. "Remember last week when Paul battled Brandon, what Brandon said to Paul after the battle was over?"

It didn't take Brock long to recall this. "That his emotions betrayed him… Paul couldn't control them, which was why he lost to Brandon so badly."

"Right; it's important to know when you're beat," Reggie affirmed. "Paul was so stubborn back then, feeling that he had something to prove… even if we all knew a lot earlier than he did that his efforts would be futile. I guarantee it; if Ash doesn't switch out now, you'll be seeing the exact same scenario again."

"Oh, Ash," Dawn said tiredly. "I really hope he doesn't play into it. He should've learned from that, too!"

Ash was obviously apprehensive about leaving Grotle out there against this particular opponent. The last battle ended in a pretty traumatic way; the last thing Ash wanted was to see that happen again. But Grotle seemed to know Ash would be having doubts here, so the Grove Pokémon looked back to its trainer, eagerly insisting it be kept in this battle. Even in the face of danger, Grotle still wanted revenge no matter what.

Seeing that confidence easily convinced Ash to let Grotle stay. "Alright, Grotle! You're on! It's time to show those two what you've got!"

"Wha…?!" Dawn was aghast. She really thought Ash would have known better… "But Honchkrow's got the advantage because of type! Ash, what are you doing?!"

With this decision, Ash had sealed Grotle's fate; Paul knew it, and even he couldn't help cracking a wry smile at this. It felt so good to be the one running this battle after all the losses he suffered.

"Grotle, Razor Leaf!" Ash commanded, determined to knock the Big Boss Pokémon right out of the sky. Through an attack that wouldn't have much effect, this would be little more than a pipe dream. Without fear, Honchkrow dove in straight at Grotle, effortlessly dodging the barrage of leaves.

"Night Slash!" was Paul's call. He decided he'd toy around with this match, even only briefly… this satisfactory match-up and the memories of the days before Paul was held back by his crippling disease were too precious to let go.

The right wing of Honchkrow glowed a dark purple color as the airborne Pokémon landed a direct hit upon its earthbound opponent. Honchkrow was considerably powerful, given that the neutral hit still sent the hefty Grotle skidding back a few feet. Still, with enhanced defenses, Grotle was able to shake it off and press on. It wasn't about to go down this quickly against Honchkrow; not with the powerful motivation called revenge keeping the Grove Pokémon going.

Ash was relieved, seeing how it wasn't so bad after all to have an aspiring tank on his team. "Alright, Grotle! Energy Ball!"

The overconfident Kanto native had forgotten an important detail when he made this move; something that would aggravate him even further. While Grotle's attack made a direct hit on Honchkrow, it remained almost completely unaffected not only due to Honchkrow resisting the type, but the familiar box of light reappeared after the attack made contact.

"What the…?! Light Screen?!" Ash forgot the crucial detail to this move, being far too absorbed in Grotle's determination for getting back at Honchkrow to pay it any mind.

"So I guess the effects of Light Screen must carry through to the next Pokémon," Dawn said as she studied the battle. "Is that right?"

Brock nodded. "Not only does Honchkrow have a type advantage, but with Light Screen still in play, it decreases the damage from Grotle's special attacks." He did not like where this was going; Reggie was absolutely right about Grotle being doomed to lose if Ash chose to keep it in. "Paul's goal is obviously to overwhelm Ash."

"He wants to overwhelm Ash…?" Dawn echoed; when she thought about it, it made a lot of sense that this would be the case.

Reggie's eyes remained focused on the battlefield. "Yeah," he grimly affirmed. "I wasn't certain until now… but Paul really did learn his lesson from last time."

Paul wasn't paying any mind to what the spectators were gabbing about. Once he got to work in battle, his commands were swiftly carried out and very professional in nature. "Now use Haze!"

As Honchkrow covered the battlefield with plumes of dark smoke, Dawn had to speak her mind of something she felt very strongly from what she had seen so far. "You know, now that you mention it, Paul's battle style seems different from usual."

"That's true," Brock agreed. "Normally the battles we've seen Paul in are ones where he's busy polishing his Pokémon's moves or when his complete objective is testing their strength."

"Razor Leaf; let's go!" Ash was heard in the smoggy battlefield. Though Grotle expertly shot its attack through the Haze, it missed Honchkrow by a mile.

"But it's not like that at all today," Brock finished.

Though Reggie was happy for his brother, he still felt bad for Ash being completely taken over like this. It really was no different from Paul and Brandon's battle as far as one-sidedness went. "A Pokémon battle will test both a trainer's intellectual ability as well as judgment," he stated; since this was the first full battle between the two, it was easy to see why Paul was behaving differently this time, especially after what he suffered through. "Yeah, Paul has dissected Ash's battling style that keeps Ash from battling soundly… and that means Paul's going at it with nothing less for his goal for a 100% sure win."

This battle truly highlighted how much Paul took after Brandon. When he put his mind to it, Paul really could be every bit as fierce, fearless, and stoic as his father in battle. Just as Brandon's ability to read his son like a book enabled him to decipher Paul's battling style very quickly – which ensured his own victory – Paul had battled Ash enough to predict his every move, knowing his unbridled emotions and attachment to his Pokémon was a huge detriment to his potential as of now. Even though Paul had grown to respect the bond between trainer and Pokémon over the past ten days, he still wouldn't be overt about it. He wasn't really sure if it was his success in bonding with his Pokémon that made him so much stronger now or if it was merely Ash being easy to predict, but either way Paul finally realized what was accomplished with all his training. Even though he never could overpower Reggie, both himself and his Pokémon continued to become stronger and more well-rounded individuals for it. As many trainers would say, there's not much to be learned from winning; it was through losses when lessons were learned. Paul had spent a grueling three weeks doing nothing but lose every single battle he engaged in; only now could he see just how much better he and his Pokémon had become.

"Grotle's taken a lot of damage," Ash grumbled. Things were stacked so heavily against him that he knew Grotle would be knocked out soon unless its health could somehow be preserved. But that served as the perfect incentive to call his next strategic move. "Use Synthesis!"

While the Grove Pokémon stood tall to absorb the sunlight available to it, Paul was quick to find a nice way to make this backfire. "Now, Sky Attack, quick!"

Even if this required a bit of time to charge, it wasn't like Grotle was going anywhere. It had to stay stationary in order to recover health. This was another example of Paul excelling using the knowledge of his opponent's species based on his experience with the same kind of Pokémon. No doubt he had learned much from raising Torterra, and that included what was the best way to restore health and when. Really, Paul never saw much point in bothering with weather-dependent moves like Synthesis when Absorb, Mega Drain, and Giga Drain could restore ample amounts of health at any time during battle that would only serve to the user's benefit and the target's inevitable defeat.

"Oh no!" Dawn called out, looking fearful of what was about to happen. "But Grotle hasn't finished recovering yet!"

Honchkrow was charging up much faster than Ash expected it to, leaving him to growl quietly as his frustration escalated. He had no choice but to cut Synthesis short, or else face the consequences of a seriously powerful super-effective attack. "Now Grotle, use Rock Climb!"

It was disorienting for Grotle to halt its own recovery process in order to be able to prepare for the attack it was about to take, but in the nick of time it was able to extend its front claws and rise up on its hind legs to prepare for Honchkrow. With Honchkrow already engaged in attack mode, Paul allowed himself to be completely bewildered with Ash's choice of move for Grotle here. Rock Climb? Really? Paul couldn't fathom why Ash taught Grotle this, and he wouldn't be finding out anytime soon.

Though Grotle was in prime attacking position, this really wasn't the right move to counter with; Honchkrow easily overpowered its opponent with Sky Attack upon collision. The force had them both skidding across the ground an even greater distance than before, kicking up a huge dust cloud inadvertently. Not long after that, Honchkrow flew out of there looking relatively unscathed as it cried out in triumph. Evidently, it accomplished what it was set to do.

The same could not be said for Grotle, who was visible after the dust cleared: knocked over and immobile.

"Grotle is unable to battle and the winner is Honchkrow!" Olivier announced.

James sang along as he updated the scoreboard. "Bringing into action both twerps a Pokémon writer!" And so Grotle's image faded into a monotone silhouette, just like Weavile's.

"Grotle, return!" Ash recalled his unfortunate longtime Sinnoh partner back into its Pokéball. "You really battled well," he assured it, even though Grotle didn't make much of a dent in Honchkrow's health at all. He looked to Paul, unsurprised that he refused to congratulate his Honchkrow for a job well done, while said rival silently chose to recall Honchkrow at this time.

"Ash miscalculated the timing on when to use Synthesis," Reggie stated with a heavy heart; having grown lately to trust his instincts more, he was not surprised to find that he was precisely right about Grotle having no chance in there.

Dawn looked at Reggie, not sure what he was getting at. "Huh?"

"Using healing moves leaves your Pokémon completely vulnerable," the breeder told her. "Consider your opponent's condition; then use it…. Or be an easy target like Grotle."

Brock agreed completely. "It sounds like Ash is feeling a lot of pressure," he figured.

"You think so?" Dawn asked him. Brock had been very skeptical of Ash's decisions since the beginning, though in normal circumstances Brock was always supportive of his friend. Still, it didn't make him unable to see where his friend was screwing up.

"Ash wanted Grotle to defeat Honchkrow so badly that it clouded his judgment," Brock reminded Dawn. "That's what Reggie was getting at earlier when he mentioned Paul and Brandon's battle; Paul was blinded by revenge and his desire to prove a point to Brandon, Ash, and Reggie, which prevented him from seeing the bigger picture. Even though Ash watched that battle, he failed to pick up on Brandon's moral of the story…" Brock hated to be this negative, but every bit of what he was saying was true. "But Paul clearly did. So if Ash keeps going on like this now, he'll have to learn about keeping his emotions under control the same way Paul did… with a crushing defeat."

"Ah…" Dawn had nothing to say to that. She chose to look on at Ash worriedly, as she obviously didn't want Ash to go through that. It was haunting enough seeing how frighteningly out-of-control Paul was; it was beyond even the creative Dawn's imagination to envision Ash in the same scenario.

The shaken Ash was conflicted with indecision now. He'd have a hard time forgiving himself for failing to avenge Grotle, but he was snapped out of his trance when he felt a pair of small, determined hands grasp a small part of his jeans. Looking down, Ash saw Pikachu all fired up. Its gestures were obvious indications that it wanted in on the action, immediately.

"Huh? You wanna get in the battle, Pikachu?" Ash asked him, now fully hesitant to make any rash decision without thinking it over.

"Pika-Pikachu!" was the response; a very assured one. After seeing Grotle fall to Honchkrow again, Pikachu was angry. This was the perfect opportunity to let out its anger.

Ash always liked seeing this kind of spirit in his team. Even if he wasn't in high spirits himself now, Ash still had his Pokémon and he had to keep in mind that he was doing this for their sake. From now on, he'd have to play it smart so that Grotle's loss wouldn't have been in vain. "Yes!" he said, allowing Pikachu to step forth. "Then you get in there, buddy, and show some of your power! Now let's move, Pikachu!"

"Pikaaa!" Pikachu dashed to the frontline. Sparks of electricity emitting from its cheeks showed the Mouse Pokémon's readiness to fight.

Paul knew this was coming sooner or later; Pikachu was first and foremost the sure bet to be in any iteration of Ash's team. Being undeniably his rival's strongest, Paul made sure to formulate multiple strategies on that particular Pokémon. For this occasion, he decided to step up his mental game on Ash and show him something that would surely surprise him. "Magmortar, stand by for battle!"

A large, bulky figure was unleashed, casting a shadow over the tiny Pikachu while murmuring its name. As expected, there was shock and awe… and Ash knew immediately this Pokémon was a lot smaller the last time he saw it.

"Magmortar," he muttered, biting his lip. "Man, he really evolved his Magmar!"

Paul owed Reggie some deep gratitude for being able to have a Magmortar in the first place; it was one of many things accomplished during the ten-day training period. Since it had taken the most punishment in the battle against Brandon as a Magmar and desperately needed special training due to being a fairly recent capture of Paul's (to replace Chimchar, of course), Reggie made sure to bring it up to speed, and thus came the giant beast seen at this moment. Just seeing Magmortar stand tall and proudly before Ash's modest little Pikachu reminded Paul that he and his team truly had come much further along in their training than he gave credit for.

Magmortar stared down at its opponent and the opponent's trainer, calmly uttering "Mag…" while waiting for orders. For its atrocious performance against Brandon, Magmortar strongly desired to make up for that letdown here and now. Though big and ominous, Magmortar was relatively calm compared to most of Paul's large Pokémon; basically like Torterra, only without the seniority.

Ash had a hard time shaking off the initial fear coming with seeing this newly-evolved Pokémon. At a loss for words, he could only quietly utter the fiery beast's name with bitterness, as if he were cursing the Pokémon before he looked intently back to his Pikachu. "Pikachu, now don't let your guard down!" he warned.

While Pikachu looked back to give its trainer an affirmative "Pika!", Dawn pulled out her PokéDex to learn more about what Ash was getting himself into.

"Magmortar, the Blast Pokémon and the evolved form of Magmar. It launches fireballs that can reach temperatures over three-thousand six-hundred degrees from the ends of its arms and lives in volcanic craters."

"Geez," Dawn mumbled. "I can't even imagine something that hot. That'd be enough to evaporate the whole lake…" Paul's Pokémon never failed to disappoint in having unnerving PokéDex entries, it seemed. The young Coordinator looked to her fellow spectators, having another question for them. "Since Paul knew that Ash was going to use Pikachu, why isn't he using a Ground-type Pokémon like Torterra instead?"

"He may be thinking using a Ground-type won't matter, because Ash could simply switch Pikachu to a Water-type like Buizel at any time," Brock speculated. "I can't remember the last time I've seen so many switches in one sitting, but obviously it's become an important part to both Ash and Paul's strategy."

Reggie looked on at the battlefield, deciding to share his thoughts as well. "Yeah; both don't see the harm in switching in and out on a whim so long as that privilege is available to them, and it allows for both of them to alter and adapt the strategies they've thought up before the battle so they can be utilized to their maximum potential," he correctly assumed. "But Paul's not just thinking about types; he's thinking two steps ahead. I'm certain he realized just as we did how meaningless type matches were against someone like Brandon, so there's no doubt in my mind my brother's intention is to recreate that scenario for Ash. I'm sure as the battle progresses, we'll find out why Magmortar's up."

Brock was highly aware of how frequently Reggie was referencing that battle. What he was saying made sense to the aspiring Top Breeder, of course, but his hunch in regards to there being a more complicated backstory to Brandon and the small family he defeated with ease than Reggie was letting on was stronger than ever. Brock was not blind to the very apparent hatred in Paul's eyes as he battled the Pyramid King. It just seemed far too extreme for a mere desire to do what his brother couldn't… after all that, Paul not only learned his lesson, but he was implementing strategies similar to Brandon's own in order to win this battle. If Paul hated the man and had no connection to him whatsoever other than just seeing him a couple of times before, why would he do this?

Not only that, but the more Brock watched Paul in action here, the similarities in his mannerisms and stance to the Pyramid King's became more obvious. Brock strongly felt this couldn't merely be a coincidence anymore, and once this battle was over, he was intent on getting a straight answer out of Reggie if only to put those suspicions to rest one way or another.

"Pikachu, let's go!" Ash shouted, now that the Magmortar revelation had finally sunk in. "Quick Attack, now!"

The hefty Magmortar had no chance of outdoing Pikachu in a match of speed, and Paul knew that. Priority moves like Quick Attack especially made such an idea even more ridiculous, so Paul allowed for Magmortar to take the hit, which it did so right in the chest. Pikachu had pounced on the Blast Pokémon in hopes of knocking it over, but while the force of Quick Attack was enough to force the foe back a small distance, stumbling backwards the whole way, Magmortar remained standing without too much difficulty. Magmortar smirked at the futile effort, and this gesture confused Ash. The reason for this became apparent moments later after Pikachu rebounded off the big belly of Magmortar and back to its side of the field.

A shrill cry from Pikachu was heard as a spontaneous combustion of flames engulfed Pikachu's entire body for a brief few seconds. All present but Paul and his Pokémon were taken aback by shock, but who could blame them?

"Pikachu…!" Ash wailed, immensely worried and confused as to what just happened. Thankfully, the torment didn't last for long, though the flames were damaging enough to wear Pikachu down to the point where it had to lay upon one knee for support.

Dawn especially had never seen a phenomenon like this before. She had doubts that this was anything normal. "Magmortar hasn't done a thing, so what's going on?" she asked, distressed.

"That's Magmortar's ability called Flame Body," Brock explained, as he was quick to identify what would cause this otherwise illogical event. "When a move that makes direct contact hits Magmortar, there's a chance its opponent will get burned."

Shocking a large group of people like this – Ash especially – was enough to draw out that creepy smile of Paul's again. He honestly couldn't remember the last time he felt so self-assured… normally, Paul was like that almost all the time, but after his life had thrown so many horrendous things his way, it was impossible to maintain that confidence. At a time like this, Paul even forgot that he was ill.

Much as Ash hated to be having second thoughts already about his choice to send Pikachu into this battle, the sight of his first Pokémon struggling to stand back up after being burned like that made him want to reconsider. "Pikachu, are you alright?" he called out; Ash suspected Pikachu wouldn't quit this soon, but he wanted to see his Pokémon prove to him that it was still able to fight.

Pikachu called back an affirmation as it managed to force itself to stand, then poised itself for whatever attack Ash would call next.

"Alright," Ash conceded, though he had a bad feeling about what he was doing here. "Then Pikachu, Thunderbolt!"

As a seasoned veteran of Pokémon battling, Pikachu's Thunderbolt attacks were now strong enough to actually tear through the ground. There was a reason why Paul took an interest in that Pokémon, after all, but Paul had no intention of letting his Pokémon simply get hit again.

"Magmortar, Flamethrower!" he commanded, certain that this would cause a nasty explosion. Even with all the progress made, Paul didn't expect Magmortar to overpower Ash's strongest Pokémon, but at the very least it was strong enough to match its Flamethrower's power with Thunderbolt's. The attacks collided in the center of the field, triggering a blinding explosion shortly after. While Ash flinched and shielded his face from the carnage, Paul's stance didn't change a bit. Even with his hair being blown back by the force of the combined attacks, Paul didn't even bat an eye at the sight.

"Man, that's powerful," Ash quietly commented as the chaos finally dissipated. He was quick to react once it was safe to move around in the battlefield again. "Alright, Volt Tackle; go!"

That was the attack Paul took great interest to, as it was a rarity to see even within the Pikachu species and its relatives. At the speed Pikachu was going, Paul didn't have the luxury of waiting for the right opportunity to strike. But that was fine; for this Pokémon, Paul had a different approach in mind. "Use Rock Tomb!"

Using one arm, Magmortar's cannon charged with energy and quickly fired off small Rock Tomb blasts in spurts. The rocks planted on the battlefield served as obstacles for Pikachu, who was too engaged in its straightforward attack to dodge them all. Luckily for Ash, Pikachu was strong enough to simply burst through these rocks thanks to the strong barrier of electric energy charged around Pikachu's body every time Volt Tackle was performed. Across the battlefield, Pikachu was able to burst through several Rock Tomb obstacles, but doing this over and over took a toll on Pikachu's stamina. With Magmortar almost within reach, the last obstacle was a significantly larger rock to break through. However, Pikachu had completely lost its momentum as its energy dropped, and instead of bursting through the final rock, the obstacle simply repelled Pikachu back a few feet.

Volt Tackle was cancelled out by the physical strain, and if that weren't unfortunate enough, Pikachu was suddenly engulfed by the flames again. The sight and Pikachu's screech of pain was hard to watch for several of the spectators.

"Pikachu, ya gotta hang in there!" Ash pleaded, clearly desperate to keep his Pikachu from being knocked out this early on. Ash's words of encouragement always seemed to serve as a convenient second wind for any of his Pokémon. Pikachu managed to stagger back up; safe to assume it was officially furious at this point.

"Did you see that?" Jessie asked her companions in awe; for all the times Pikachu had fried her and her group for years, it was hard to believe that same Pokémon they sought after for so long was getting tossed around this easily.

James was just as aghast. "That's enough to give me nightmares!" he wailed.

"Use Smog!" was Paul's next order. Just like Honchkrow with Haze, Paul intended to lower the visibility range of the battlefield. Magmortar did this by blowing out the slightly toxic smoke from its mouth.

With Ash feeling somewhat of a second wind as well, he was determined to not let Paul get away with this, so with a certain gesture to Pikachu, he shouted out his next move to make this ploy backfire. "Pikachu, Thunderbolt!"

Instead of using the attack the way it normally did, Pikachu executed the move by dropping down to the ground and spinning its body rapidly, as if it were breakdancing. Paul kept his eyes on this execution, as it was something he'd never seen before. Instead of the usual burst of ground-breaking lightning, a vortex of electricity formed over Pikachu as it continued its movements. Gaining control of the air as long as Pikachu remained spinning, this odd rendition of Thunderbolt in vortex form managed to clear up the battlefield completely.

"What…?" Paul was in control of himself well enough to not completely drop his composure, but he understandably couldn't help but gape at this foreign technique. He would obviously have to find another way to pull off his next intended move.

This performance got a simultaneous "Wow!" from the Team Rocket trio. This seemed to be more along the lines of what would be seen in a Contest, truth be told.

"Pikachu used Thunderbolt Counter Shield, awesome!" Dawn marveled at the sight. Being a Coordinator herself, she especially liked this technique that was created from a combination of Ash's Contest experience and his inspiration from when he first met Fantina.

"That's amazing how it totally got rid of the smog!" Reggie said almost excitedly. Given how ominous this battle had been for poor Ash, it was nice to see the boy from Pallet Town still had a few tricks up his sleeve.

"It's really both an offensive and defensive move," Brock told him. "Ash developed it when he battled Fantina at Hearthome Gym."

Just as Reggie thought quietly to himself that this "Counter Shield" technique would actually be very beneficial for his brother's battling style, said brother was thinking the exact same thing as he closely studied the Counter Shield right up until Pikachu was finished. He wisely chose not to have Magmortar attempt to disrupt it, and so the Blast Pokémon maintained its distance.

Ash was about to brag to Paul about his innovative technique, but that was cut off as he heard Pikachu screech again, being afflicted with its burned status once more.

"Oh…!" Dawn almost hopped up out of her seat in surprise; those flames always came out when she least expected them to. "Pikachu's still burned?!"

"It's Magmortar's Flame Body," Reggie reminded her. "The Burn effect is still going on, and it won't wear off over time." The Pokémon Breeder was back to his somber, serious self as the adrenaline from the Counter Shield excitement wore down. "This is looking bad," he admitted. "The longer this battle continues, the greater the disadvantage for Pikachu."

Brock was also back into his serious, realist point of view. "That Burn will keep sapping away Pikachu's energy bit by bit, and on top of that, a burned Pokémon can only attack with half its physical strength. Paul's made sure that there'll be no way Pikachu can battle to its full potential."

"Magmortar, Flamethrower!" Paul called for, ready to take that pesky Pikachu out after he was done considering the mechanics behind the technique it just displayed. With both of its massive cannon arms, Magmortar unleashed a massive wave of fire coming straight for Pikachu.

"Use Iron Tail from above!" Ash countered, not about to subject his Pikachu to any more fiery torment. Pikachu managed to jump high into the air just as the flames smothered the area it had previously stood at. Its tail charged the energy quickly, and with a fancy twirl, the Mouse Pokémon landed a direct hit right on stop of Magmortar's head. Again, Paul saw no point to dodge when Pikachu was so fast and his Magmortar was a very huge target. That simply couldn't be helped.

Though Magmortar was knocked back considerably, reeling with the pain from that sustained blow, it still remained solid on the ground with its two feet. As Pikachu comfortably landed back on its side of the field, the Burn took precedence once more. Though brief, the pain inflicted was great… and after so many times with that, Pikachu had lost a considerable amount of energy, hunching over as it struggled to remain on its feet.

A very worried Ash could no longer stand to see this happening every other time Pikachu landed an attack. It was time to switch. "Quick, Pikachu! Come here!"

"Pika…?" Pikachu wearily looked over to its partner before scampering over to his side. "Pikapi?"

"You battled hard," Ash commended. "So get some rest, 'kay?"

That wasn't exactly what Pikachu wanted, but it could understand why Ash insisted on this. With a little reluctance, Pikachu conceded to rest up. So long as it wasn't batting, Pikachu wouldn't be burned at minute intervals.

"Now, Buizel! I choose you!" Ash hollered, letting out a Pokémon that had seen virtually no action so far. As much as it loved to fight, Buizel was pleased to finally have its turn.

"The twerp's sealing the deal with a Water-type!" James sung out as he and his comrades updated the scoreboard.

"Putting it onscreen!" the other two announced; Pikachu and Buizel's images swapping their active/inactive statuses.

Dawn smiled, happy to see the Pokémon that was once under her ownership out and ready to get in on the action. "Buizel, you can do it!" she cheered on. Even if Buizel was no longer hers, Dawn would always feel close to it. Fellow Water-type Piplup also joined in on the cheering.

"Aqua Jet…!" Ash yelled, determined to take the Blast Pokémon down. Having an advantage in type now, he was in fairly good spirits. Magmortar had already taken ample amounts of damage from Pikachu…

Immersed in a stream of rapid water summoned all on its own, Buizel made a beeline for its target and collided into Magmortar's chest for a direct, super-effective hit. The force behind Aqua Jet was enough to push Magmortar back a bit, though it remained sturdy in its stationary position. Not being a complete dimwit with the memory of a Goldeen, Ash knew from previous examples in this battle alone that it was unwise to stay in close proximity to Paul's Pokémon for long. Ash decided to put a bit of distance between the two Pokémon while continuing with the full assault. "Water Pulse!"

Buizel hopped back with finesse (possibly force of habit from its initial training with Dawn) as it got out of Magmortar's range of reach, summoning a glowing ball of water that the Sea Weasel Pokémon quickly slammed onto the ground. The spherical form of Water Pulse burst with the force of hundreds of popping water balloons, resulting in a massive tidal wave coming straight for Magmortar.

"Now, Rock Tomb!" Paul calmly ordered, deciding this to be a good time to try out one of his failed strategies with a different approach.

With precious little time before the water would collide into the Fire-type, Magmortar rapid-fired a series of giant rocks protruding from the ground to form a makeshift shield large enough to cover its massive girth.

With Buizel in the fray now, Dawn was especially paying close attention to every little detail of this battle, and she was notably surprised that Magmortar did not simply fire those large rocks at Buizel instead. They were strong enough to short out Volt Tackle, so she figured there was a good chance they'd be able to break up the mass of water coming its way as well.

"They're using Rock Tomb as a shield…!" Brock realized, though this wasn't too hard to figure out for anyone watching this battle.

Ash simply smirked; he could see what Paul was going for here, supposedly, but his arrogance and confidence took precedence over what else was going on in his mind as he thought he had Paul cornered at last. "That move's got no chance against a Water-type attack," he boasted. "Alright Buizel, use Aqua Jet!"

In a way, Ash was correct. The Rock Tomb shield was already taking a beating from the Water Pulse barrage; Aqua Jet was a more direct and concentrated attack… and since anything Rock-typed (moves or Pokémon) was vulnerable to Water-types, the shield definitely wouldn't hold up for long. Once Buizel made contact with the shield within its Aqua Jet, the shield burst into rubble, just as Ash had planned. To the surprise of Ash and Buizel, however, their target was nowhere to be seen behind the makeshift shield. Buizel slowly looked up from where Magmortar should have been, only to see its calm, collected trainer staring right back at it as he called for the next attack. "Smog; let's go!"

"Oh no…!" Ash was caught off-guard again. The fact that Paul wasn't looking anywhere but at his opponents didn't give away Magmortar's position until it was too late.

Buizel noticed a shadow cast over itself; one much too large to be considered its own. Finally looking up, the Sea Weasel Pokémon could only utter a flabbergasted "Bui?!" when it realized Magmortar was airborne and already in mid-descent. This was what Paul was trying to accomplish with Magmortar a bit earlier. From the Blast Pokémon's mouth came another burst of thick, obscuring smoke. This time the target Pokémon was caught up in it, wincing from the toxicity of Smog, which Buizel was forced to inhale.

"Buizel!" Ash shouted helplessly as his mind rushed through his myriad of strategies to find a way out of this. This folly was all on Ash for being overconfident again; no doubt about that.

"That Rock Tomb wasn't just a shield; it was for keeping Buizel from seeing what Magmortar was up to!" Brock exclaimed, as even he was startled by Paul's newest strategic move.

As Magmortar landed safely on the ground near the weakened Buizel, it was suddenly recalled back into its Pokéball.

"He's switching now?" Ash wondered out loud, clearly unable to keep up with his rival.

"Ursaring, stand by for battle!" Paul called, unleashing his ill-mannered powerhouse this time. Team Rocket updated the scoreboard to reflect this, and by this point they were becoming annoyed with the frequent switches throughout this full battle. However, Ursaring was Paul's final Pokémon revealed, so now the bitter rival had laid all the cards out on the table for Ash to see. But Paul obviously had no concern for this; he'd been holding Ursaring back this long for a reason.

Ash wasn't too terribly concerned; he'd seen Ursaring in action so many times that he didn't expect there would be any surprises to be had this time. "Buizel, use Water Gun now!" he yelled, hoping to restore his Pokémon's momentum.

Buizel shot a stream of water from its mouth, keeping its distance from the Hibernation Pokémon while doing so. If nothing else, Ash still remained focused on the fact that he needed to focus on attacks capable of being used from a distance in order to evade Paul's more devastating attacks. He didn't want any of his Pokémon trapped in the position his unfortunate Gliscor was in.

"Ursaring, Hammer Arm!" Paul figured Ash was wise to his strategy of the aforementioned regard, but that was something he could easily work around. Ursaring knew from the tone of its trainer's voice that this Hammer Arm was not meant for Buizel directly (otherwise it would have to charge right through the brutal water to reach its target); instead, this move was intended for disabling the oncoming attack itself.

This was shown with the roaring Ursaring charging its right hand with the energy needed for Hammer Arm, then winding up as if it were a baseball player up to bat, finally swinging forth its arm to collide with the Water Gun attack. The white-hot energy from Hammer Arm triggered a brief, blinding flash when the two attacks made contact; when the steam cleared up, it was apparent that Ursaring merely flung the attack away with one hand and effectively evaporated most of it in the process. Paul would have preferred that Ursaring simply smack the attack right back at Buizel, but this merely made the quiet trainer understand that there was always room for him and his team to grow stronger. Controlling the energy behind Hammer Arm and perhaps a bit more finesse in Ursaring's throwing ability would give Paul the results he wanted… but that was for another day. For now, Paul relished in Ash's look of abject horror as he watched what had happened here.

"How did he counter Buizel's Water Gun?!" Ash wailed, no doubt worried about how he'd be able to make a dent in Ursaring if it could negate long-range attacks.

"Now, Bulk Up!" Paul decided next, sternly watching his Ursaring clutch its fists together before throwing its massive arms up in the air with a mighty roar. A reddish aura enveloped the Hibernation Pokémon's body… and Ash knew what this meant.

"Ursaring just raised its offense and defense," he acknowledged, sounding worried at first… but this fight had just gotten started, and his Buizel was still in fairly good shape to battle. Figuring there was no point in worrying too much, Ash cast his concerns aside and let out a cocky smile, shaking his head. "Ah, who cares? Buizel, Aqua Jet!"

Paul was not the only one who found Ash to be a complete and utter fool for saying that; Reggie and Brock disapproved of this as well, and even Dawn was showing a bit of cynicism after hearing that remark. It eerily reminded the rookie Coordinator of her own overconfident, unassuming attitude when she first started her journey… and Dawn quickly learned the hard way how that attitude would get her nowhere.

For every time Ash said a stupid thing, Paul was all the more determined to punish this so-called rival of his. "Ursaring, Slash!"

Like a bottle rocket, Buizel blasted off within its watery encasing. Both Paul and Ursaring watched and waited carefully, with the latter pulling its arm back again while its claws lengthened considerably within a glowing aura. Buizel made a direct hit against Ursaring's chest, slowly forcing its much larger opponent back, though Ursaring easily managed to stay solidly on its two feet. Buizel was too involved in its attack and Ash was too focused on pushing that mammoth of a Pokémon off its feet to realize Ursaring was still charging its attack. Paul's fists tightened ever-so slightly as the perfect time to attack struck him and his Pokémon simultaneously. Ursaring glared down at the Sea Weasel Pokémon pushing against it with all its might, only to be fiercely cut and thrown back by a direct hit from Slash.

Dawn winced as she watched Buizel being send flying back; its Aqua Jet being forcibly canceled in the process. "Oh no…! That had to hurt…"

"Mm," Brock solemnly mumbled. "Ursaring's attacks are a lot more powerful after using Bulk up first."

Buizel was thrown back hard enough to be sent tumbling its way back towards Ash on the ground before flopping over on its belly. That "fairly good shape" Ash thought Buizel to be in was no longer the case, but to the Sea Weasel Pokémon's credit, it was still able battle… despite being critically injured.

"Focus Blast!" Paul was heard calling for, as he obviously wasn't giving Ash or his Pokémon an inch of breathing room between these attacks. Paul wasn't letting Ash off that easy after his stupidity quota for the day had been exceeded. The growling Ursaring formed a small sphere of devastating concentrated energy; even if this took a bit of time to prepare, Buizel wasn't exactly in prime condition to dodge like it usually was. Even after Focus Blast was lobbed by Ursaring, Buizel was just then finally getting to its feet from the previous attack.

Ash wasn't going to let it end like this. "Quick, Buizel! Use Aqua Jet!"

Situations like these were pretty common for Ash, be it a Pokémon battle or going against the forces of evil. This was why he put speedy Pokémon in such high regard – someone like Grotle wouldn't have been able to do anything in this short frame of time except take the attack and faint. But Buizel, banged up though it was, still had enough energy to retain its speediness. Paul blinked as he witnessed Buizel doing something odd, and yet strongly familiar. Buizel didn't take off in Aqua Jet like it had done several times already, but instead spun itself on the ground in an odd breakdancing-esque style much like Pikachu had done earlier with Thunderbolt. Instead of a vortex of lightning, though, Buizel formed a tall, enduring waterspout.

Focus Blast collided into this strange rendition of Aqua Jet, but Ursaring's attack couldn't overpower the waterspout. Instead of merely dispersing the attack like Pikachu did with Smog, the results were much more effective with Buizel: Focus Blast's impact was absorbed, and then the energy itself shattered from its compacted spherical shape. The remains of Focus Blast were reflected by the waterspout, leaving only one place for these small but numerous shots of energy to go: back to the Pokémon who sent it in the first place. Consequently, Ursaring was pelted by its own attack, which dealt notable damage due to Ursaring's status as a Normal-type. It was painful enough for Ursaring to howl in pain as it tried to hold up its arms to shield itself from the multiple blows – it was probably beneficial for Ursaring to take the attack this way opposed to its normal, concentrated form.

Paul would have been angry over this, but truthfully it was twists like this that kept the battle interesting for him. Not to mention he was learning some valuable things about Ash's battling style by enduring this; the similarity in Buizel and Pikachu's deviations from their usual moves weren't lost on him, and Ash inadvertently made it even easier for Paul by confirming it through his bragging.

"So tell me, Paul, how'd you like a taste of our little Counter Shield?" Ash called out to him, both sounding and looking smug. "Pikachu's not the only one who can use it."

Paul had overheard the spectators discussing something by that name just a little while ago when Pikachu did this, so it was a certainty that this was the name of the method Ash had just used twice on him: Counter Shield. Being given two opportunities to study this original technique was more than enough for Paul to learn when to anticipate it, be it later in this battle (but would Ash be dumb enough to use it thrice in one battle against him?) or in the future… namely the Sinnoh League. Ash clearly taking pride in Counter Shield was simply a sign for Paul to take advantage of that whenever the time came. For Ash's taunt, though, Paul wasn't giving that rival the satisfaction of knowing he'd been taken off-guard.

When Ash realized he wouldn't be getting more than a neutral "hmph" out of Paul, he set his mind back on business. "Buizel, Sonic Boom!"

Buizel quickly charged up the energy in its tail, and with a twirl, it released the waves of energy right at its target. Paul was quick to counter it. "Ursaring, Hammer Arm!"

This time, Paul's tone indicated that this attack be focused on the Pokémon instead of the attack. So Ursaring charged across the battlefield and through the Sonic Boom barrage. To Ash's surprise, Ursaring seemed completely unfazed by the impact as it took no toll whatsoever on Ursaring's power or speed. The Hibernation Pokémon then leaped up towards the unsuspecting Buizel, landing a clothesline punch on its target before its feet touched the ground. At such a close range, the hit was strong enough to make Buizel leave a steep imprint of its body shape on the ground, where it wearily lied as a result of a close-range Hammer Arm blow.

Seeing Buizel effectively flattened on the ground was reason enough for Ash to panic. He took out Buizel's Pokémon to order a hasty retreat. "Buizel, return…!"

Before Ash could utilize the Pokéball's recall device, however, he saw Buizel stand right back up as if that Hammer Arm attack did nothing to it. The Sea Weasel Pokémon was obviously faking that and was in a great deal of pain, but the last thing it wanted was to be sent back to its Pokéball again. Still troubled with pride issues and being one of Ash's feistiest Pokémon of the Sinnoh team, Buizel was determined to end it all here and now without prolonging things any longer. After standing back upright, it looked back to Ash, giving the shaken trainer a grin and a very bold thumbs-up gesture.

Ash smiled knowingly, pocketing away the Pokéball. "I gotcha," he understood. "Aqua Jet!"

With gusto, Buizel charged at Ursaring within its swift stream of water. Even with all the power it could still dish out, Paul knew denial when he saw it. After all, Paul spent weeks being that way; all the more reason for him to put that Buizel out of its misery.

"Focus Blast!"

Ursaring formed another ball of energy and casually launched it straight at Buizel. Both the attack and the target were coming straight for it, so it was fairly obvious when and where to launch the counter. Ash prayed that Buizel would dodge, but no such luck… it turned out his own Pokémon's overconfidence turned against the trainer this time.

"Buizel…!" Ash cried out as he helplessly watched the Sea Weasel Pokémon directly hit with Focus Blast, triggering an explosion between the two colliding attacks. Unable to do or say anything about the situation now, Ash could only watch as Buizel (still within its Aqua Jet) crash-landed on the ground. The power of Aqua Jet's stream pushed the unmoving Pokémon forward a couple of feet before the water dissipated. The dust clouds kicked up from the harsh impact cleared out quickly enough to reveal Buizel completely incapacitated.

"Buizel is unable to battle and the winner is Ursaring!" Olivier announced; his official tone almost forcibly cold and professional. On the scoreboard, Buizel's portrait became a monotone silhouette just like the other Pokémon unable to battle.

Dawn looked on at the scene, notably downtrodden. "Poor Buizel," she muttered with sympathy. Since Buizel was once her Pokémon, it was understandable that she would be especially disappointed with its loss.

"Alright, Buizel! Return!" Ash called, doing his best to remain strong as his fallen comrade was sent back into its Pokéball. "Thanks, Buizel. Now you take a good rest," he gently urged, never failing to give his Pokémon credit where it was due. Ash never did like how Paul outright refused to do the same for his own, but for now, there was a bigger problem hanging over Ash's head.

Paul was now ahead of him statistically.

"Buizel was eliminated because of Ash's poor judgment," Reggie told the others.

"You're saying Ash should have had Buizel returned the time before?" Brock asked, referring to when Ash was about to do just that before Buizel decided for him what move to make.

Reggie nodded to this, leaving Dawn even more worried for how her friend would endure the rest of this battle. Now with the numbers stacking in Paul's favor in addition to other numerous advantages, even she could tell things were bound to get only worse from here.

"Now, Staraptor! I choose you…!" Ash called for his next Pokémon… while he sounded undeterred by the loss of Buizel, there was no doubt he was forcing himself to repress these feelings so that they wouldn't impede his ability to battle. For this round, Ash wanted to take every opportunity available to him for his Pokémon to attack, so he was quick to issue out the first order. "Use Aerial Ace!"

As a move that couldn't miss (barring any interference), it was usually a smart choice to start with. As Staraptor swiftly approached its target, however, Paul was intent on causing such interference. "Ursaring, counter with Hammer Arm!"

There wasn't enough time for Staraptor to dodge the counter and consequently got a stiff smack for its troubles. Luckily for Ash, Staraptor was able to recover from this hit within a matter of seconds so that it could land its own hit on the Hibernation Pokémon - directly on its face, no less.

"Focus Blast!" Paul commanded next, not the least bit affected by what just happened. Staraptor had quickly retreated back into the air after landing its hit on Ursaring and was still in the midst of doing this after Ursaring had flung upwards a concentrated, high-powered attack coming right for it. Though Staraptor possessed a very respectable top speed, it was unable out-fly the velocity rate of the ball of energy that had Ursaring's sheer physical strength to credit its maintained high rate of speed. Focus Blast collided with Staraptor, and though it was a hard hit to take, it quickly recovered enough to maintain its position in the air. That didn't make Ash any less frustrated, however, as at this point Ash had run fresh out of clever strategies and could only rely on his own instincts from this point on.

"Close Combat…!" he yelled, knowing this was sure to do something due to being a Fighting-type attack.

"Ursaring, use Slash!" Paul had no intention of letting Ash believe any longer that he had even an ounce of control in this battle. Both Pokémon charged at each other with their full-powered attacks with Ursaring winning out in the power clash. Staraptor was knocked back like a ragdoll by Ursaring's Slash – knowing this Pokémon had nothing left to impress him with, Paul decided to take the initiative to end this pointless match. "Hammer Arm; let's go!"

Using both arms this time to execute the attack, Ursaring perfectly timed how long to charge the attack and when to strike. With Ash dumbstruck in the presence of such raw – yet controlled – power, he could only watch as Staraptor was brutally clubbed into the ground.

"Staraptor, no…!" Ash hated feeling so helpless, but in times like these his shouts of encouragement were all he really had to offer for his team. Sometimes, that would be enough. This time, however… it just wasn't Ash's lucky day.

More dust was kicked up as a result of the last attack; Ursaring was an absolute beast and its brutality displayed here reminded Ash just how dangerous this Pokémon was before Paul captured it. That was but a fleeting thought on the young trainer's mind; he squinted to see past the dust before it cleared out. Just as before, Ursaring had thrown Staraptor so forcefully that the impact left an imprint of the victim's shape on the ground. There was no questioning it – Staraptor was done.

"Staraptor is unable to battle and the winner is Ursaring!"

"Staraptor, return!" Ash recalled yet another fallen friend back to its Pokéball. "Thanks a lot, Staraptor; get some rest." It was getting increasingly difficult for Ash to keep that uplifting spirit of his going. Hearing the sound of Ursaring being returned to its Pokéball thankfully snapped Ash out of what would have been a downward spiral of worrying and self-loathing… yes, dense though Ash may be, he was far from oblivious of his blunders here.

"Electabuzz, stand by for battle!" Paul commanded, casually sending out his very effective Pokémon providing that value defense for the team.

Ash frowned as he took a moment to think this over; Electabuzz had been a very tricky opponent in this match, so he had to carefully consider his remaining options. "Okay, if it's Electabuzz, then Chimchar – I choose you!"

While Chimchar was finally sent out, unveiling the obvious final Pokémon on Ash's side, Team Rocket became much more cheerful with their work while they updated the scoreboard. Having seen the abuse Chimchar endured while it was still Paul's Pokémon and Meowth especially having a heart-to-heart with this Pokémon in the past endeared the morally ambiguous trio to the Chimp Pokémon.

"Yeah, Chimmy's at da' plate!" Meowth sang out.

"Chimchar will be great!" James concurred.

"A fiery Chimchar challenge; I can hardly wait!" Jessie gushed.

The scoreboard was changed as all three confirmed it: "Information update!" But this grueling work was wearing the trio down at this point, as all three heaved out a sigh once their part of the job was done.

Just the sight of its former trainer did much to fuel Chimchar's resolve; it raised a fist at Paul, barking out at him… but Paul knew this reunion was inevitable. They hadn't seen each other since before Paul's life started spiraling out of control. Now that Paul had hit rock bottom, he made sure to fortify his emotional resolve against this particular Pokémon. He knew it was Ash's intention to defeat him with Chimchar and consequently prove him wrong for all the negative things he'd said to Chimchar in the past. Paul had long since deemed Chimchar a worthless waste of his time… and even though he'd lost a considerable amount of his self-esteem over a short period of time, Paul's stance on Chimchar's potential remained unchanged. It would be foolish to let his guard down now, though. Paul would approach Chimchar in battle with caution, just as he did with the rest of Ash's Pokémon. Nothing would change here.

"Here we go!" Ash hollered; his determination restored. "Flamethrower!"

Chimchar fired streams of flames from its mouth that quickly approached the Electric Pokémon, but Paul knew exactly what to do once more. "Protect!"

The barrier of light easily negated Chimchar's attack, and Paul was quick to take initiative. "Now, Light Screen!"

"Huh? Another defensive move?" Dawn wondered out loud. She had noticed throughout the battle so far that Electabuzz had done very little on the offensive front – each time it was called out, it was to reinforce Light Screen. The rookie Coordinator could see that much, but the agitated Ash wasn't as quick to catch on. He gaped as Paul immediately recalled Electabuzz after Light Screen was restored.

"Another switcharoo!" James exclaimed, exasperated as he and his companions updated the scoreboard.

"D'ese buttons are killin' me!" Meowth complained.

As Jessie tiredly muttered "I need a finger massage…", the image of Electabuzz grayed out back to inactive status.

"Whoa, Electabuzz first used Protect, and then Light Screen on top of that," Brock noted. "Paul's been consistent about maintaining a strong defense with Electabuzz…"

"Right," Reggie agreed. "I'm certain Paul's strategy all along was to first use Protect to cover Electabuzz and then Light Screen to cover his next Pokémon." After all, Reggie was the one who taught him that trick.

"Torterra, stand by for battle!" For whatever reason, Paul saw it appropriate to send out his starter next. Though Torterra was talented in looking just as fresh and fierce as it was in the beginning, the truth was that Torterra wasn't in the best of shape. Normally, Paul would have hesitated to send Torterra in again – especially against an opponent that has the type advantage – but Torterra had its ways to level out the playing field. Over the past ten days, Paul learned to shove aside his pride and openly show his first Pokémon how much he truly cared. Paul fully trusted Torterra now, and he'd show it with a new technique Torterra mastered with its trainer's help.

Since Ash had no idea what happened to Paul during that time, he couldn't hazard a guess as to why his rival chose Torterra at all. "Paul knows we have the advantage, but he's still usin' Torterra," he acknowledged. Instead of taking the time to ponder why, Ash chose to press on. "'Kay. Use Flame Wheel!"

While Chimchar picked up speed, shifting into its Flame Wheel approach and made a beeline for its very large target, Paul found this the right moment to show Ash just why Torterra was here. "Stone Edge, now!"

"Dodge it!" Ash called, mentally scolding himself for forgetting that Torterra knew a Rock-type move that had great potential for damaging Chimchar. Thankfully, Chimchar had more than enough speed to evade Torterra's attacks with ease and did so by veering out of the path of the attack, continuing its pursuit.

Now was the time to unveil the nasty surprise. "Change up!"

No one but Reggie knew what this phrase meant, as it wasn't the name of any attack. However, Stone Edge was still active, even if it was missing the target by a mile. The crowd gasped as they witnessed the barrage of rocks suddenly curve around and change direction, now coming at Chimchar from behind.

"It changed direction?!" Dawn cried out; Ash was at a loss for words as he watched Torterra control the flow of its attack.

"The ability to control Stone Edge is just incredible!" Brock said in sheer awe; never in all his years of traveling with Ash had he seen nor imagined something like this… or even believe it was possible.

Reggie, the only calm one of the spectators, simply nodded his head. "This technique is a difficult one to master and it's not a trick many trainers think is possible. It took days for Paul to master it, and he even managed to put his own unique touch to it."

"I can see how it'd be hard to learn," Dawn understood as she studied the motion of the rocks; specifically the way they curved in their directional shift. "It almost looks like how a move might get messed up if it got interfered with Psychic or something."

"Funny you should mention that," Reggie said with a smile. "Paul told me that was his main source of inspiration… an old friend showed him the versatility of Psychic and he decided to emulate its effects without actually utilizing the move."

Both Dawn and Brock looked to Reggie; this was news to them.

"An old friend, you said?" Brock asked the Pokémon Breeder for clarification's sake.

"That's right," Reggie said, closing his eyes as he smiled. He wouldn't say any more than that; though Paul still had mixed feelings and didn't want other people knowing of his association with a certain intellectual trainer, Reggie was happy to see the signs.

Paul was missing Conway's company.

"I didn't think Paul had any friends," Dawn murmured, trying to imagine what sort of person would want to be in Paul's company… and even more, Paul willing to accept that.

Attentions were diverted back to the battle as Stone Edge eventually caught up with Chimchar and collided with it, causing a good deal of damage to the Fire-type. Skidding across the ground while reeling from the impact, Chimchar stopped itself, finding Torterra standing there close by. The two former teammates had a brief staring contest before Ash called for the next attack.

"Flamethrower, go!" Ash would soon regret that decision, as the flames did make contact with Torterra, but the glowing box of light appearing around Torterra to buffer the attack reminded Ash that Light Screen was still in play. Even with a type advantage, Torterra would be hard to damage unless Ash stuck with physical attacks only. "Oh, man!"

Paul once again trapped Ash in an unfavorable situation.

"Light Screen halved the damage from that Flamethrower," Brock acknowledged. "Chimchar has an advantage as a Fire-type, but this is getting difficult now."

"On top of that, there's the danger of getting hit with Stone Edge if Chimchar gets too close, leaving both Ash and Chimchar with precious few options," Reggie reminded; he was much quicker to access the situations here than anyone else. Regaining the power he once had years ago and now excelling beyond that, Reggie's instincts as a trainer were sharper than ever.

Chimchar and Torterra had another stare-off as Ash dealt with the mental debate that was giving him a headache. Seeing that Paul wasn't making a move proved that he was the one in control of this match. Whatever Chimchar threw at Torterra, the Continent Pokémon would counter at Chimchar's expense. Still lamenting the rash decisions he made that cost him Buizel and Grotle, Ash decided to play it safe for Chimchar. "Chimchar, return for now!"

As Chimchar was recalled, Jessie leaned out from her position to protest. "HEY! Make up your mind!"

"The challenge of manual labor," James said loathingly as he updated the scoreboard. "We're on!"

"Gliscor, take over!" Ash called, unleashing his Gliscor back on the field. Ash was sick and tired of Paul one-upping him in every match, and his impatience was showing as he talked to himself about how he would handle this. "Of course, I know Torterra's protected by Light Screen, but Torterra also took a lot of damage." His big, smug smile was visible to Paul, who continued to keep himself reserved as he watched Ash make a fool of himself.

"I'll finish it off in one shot!" Ash boasted, looking to his Gliscor. "X-Scissor!"

Once again, Paul calmly waited for just the right moment, when Gliscor zoomed in at a range that left the Fang Scorp Pokémon vulnerable to a counterattack. He and Torterra were on the same mental wavelength, so when Paul commanded, "Frenzy Plant!", Torterra already knew exactly what to do.

Torterra glowed, summoning the gargantuan thorn-adorned roots from the ground that collectively aimed in one direction instead of wildly spreading around in random directions. The roots of Frenzy Plant effortlessly captured Gliscor in midair – leaving Gliscor helpless – as soon afterwards the roots tossed Gliscor even higher into the air.

But since Gliscor was not in control and couldn't fly its way out of this, the mighty toss from the strongest Grass-type attack sent it flying back much higher than Gliscor ever flew. Even Ash and Pikachu's cries for Gliscor to persevere weren't enough. With one ground-shaking collision, Gliscor's condition was immediately identifiable.

"Gliscor is unable to battle! The winner is Torterra!"

After Olivier's announcement, the scoreboard updated again to confirm Gliscor had been eliminated.

"Gliscor, return now!" Ash held back his feelings of dread long enough to thank his Gliscor. "Now you get a good rest. Thanks…" He didn't even want to look at the scoreboard, but Ash couldn't help but gaze at Torterra, still standing firmly as it had been since the beginning of the battle. "Torterra was Paul's first Pokémon," Ash quietly recalled to himself. "Man, Torterra is strong… and it doesn't even have to move to do what Paul needs it to do. How does he do that?" Ash, the one who preferred fast-paced offensive Pokémon and strategies couldn't comprehend how an opponent could be so strong and efficient when it remained stationary the entire time.

Ash's thoughts were interrupted by Pikachu, who obviously wanted to return to the battlefield and fight for Ash's honor.

"That's great, Pikachu," Ash commended. "But Electric-type moves won't work." For all of his poor performances and rash decisions, Ash at least hadn't forgotten the basics… such as Torterra's partial Ground-type making it immune to Pikachu's most powerful attacks.

This, however, did not deter Pikachu, as it sounded very insistent with its "Pikapika!" remark.

Unsurprisingly, Ash ultimately caved in to his Pokémon's desires without considering the consequences. He put his energetic smile back on to encourage his partner. "Okay, then everything's on your speed and your Iron Tail!"

Pikachu eagerly took its place on the field, shouting its name with pride as it crouched down into its attacking position. Ash couldn't help but be intrigued with this matchup: Starter versus Starter. Even if Torterra had a type advantage, Pikachu's speed and agility would prove to make the Mouse Pokémon a difficult target to hit.

"I'm countin' on ya!" Ash cheered, more and more looking forward to this unique battle of clashing styles between each trainer's first Pokémon. Pikachu was equally enthused, but was taken aback in shock when Paul suddenly returned Torterra back to its Pokéball.

Ash's eagerness was shot down brutally as he couldn't comprehend a single thing Paul was doing. "What the?! Switchin' again?!"

Deep down, Paul did feel interested in the prospect of Starter versus Starter, especially since he had enough strategies in mind to take Pikachu down despite its superior speed. However, this entire battle was testing Paul's resolve; whether or not he could maintain his professional, neutral attitude for the duration of the battle. He was determined to keep his emotions suppressed, just as his father did, and win this battle. It was time to get rid of Pikachu, he decided. He wanted to take it out in the most brutal manner possible, mirroring the hatred he felt for Ash. There was only one Pokémon on this current team that matched his desire for ruthless, unforgiving destruction…

"Ursaring, stand by for battle!"

Team Rocket angrily got to work for the umpteenth time to update the scoreboard. While Jessie and Meowth muttered inaudible curses, James was heard wailing, "Fickle-minded twerps are by far the worst twerps of all…!"

But Paul was far from fickle-minded; he was merely being efficient with his work. He had no interest in toying around. Ash glared at Paul's Pokémon, trying to decipher his rival's battling style. He vaguely remembered the importance of unique battling styles when Brandon was among them ten days ago… how Reggie lacked a unique battling style, which consequently made Paul obsessed with making his own style of battling. What Brandon said was taken to heart by Paul; that much was obvious to Ash now. This change in Paul's demeanor was linked to what happened to him that day… and now Paul was bringing nothing but his best effort for this battle. Ash realized he'd been pretty careless so far and not giving Paul the battle he wanted. But with Pikachu back in play, Ash was self-assured that he would truly impress Paul and leave an impact – something stronger than the fleeting moment of awe when Ash revealed his Counter Shield technique.

Pikachu looked questioningly to its partner, who had been quiet far too long without giving a command. "Pikapi?"

Ash snapped out of it, looking to Pikachu… he was more determined now than ever. "Mm, this is mine," he proclaimed. "Pikachu, Quick Attack!"

"Use Hammer Arm!" Paul knew Pikachu would land the hit first – that's how Quick Attack worked, after all – but afterwards there was only a small window of opportunity for Pikachu to escape the range of Ursaring's clutches. Pikachu landed a direct hit on Ursaring's midsection; just as Paul expected. The strong and sturdy Ursaring took Quick Attack and stood its ground, not even being pushed back by the force of Pikachu's attack. With ease, Ursaring quickly charged up energy within its fit and jabbed Pikachu hard in the gut.

Pikachu felt as if its eyes nearly popped out when it felt the impact. Ursaring swatted Pikachu away like a fly, causing Dawn and Piplup to cry out for it. Being knocked back so far into the air allowed Pikachu to recover in time, much to Ash's relief.

"Yes! Good one!" Ash called in recognition of Pikachu's ability to recover after taking such a painful critical hit. "Now use Iron Tail!"

As Pikachu dived down for Ursaring, twirling and charging its tail, Paul was not concerned. He'd seen this move executed so many times that he figured there'd be no problem in countering it. "Quick, Focus Blast!"

Ursaring attempted to gather the energy necessary for the attack, but suddenly it flinched back, seemingly in pain. Electricity sparks surged throughout the Hibernation Pokémon's body.

"What the?!" Paul lost his composure for a brief moment. The last thing he wanted was to lose control of this battle; even the slightest mistake could turn the whole battle around for all he knew. Though calm and self-assured on the outside, Paul was a nervous, desperate boy utterly deprived of self-esteem. With things mostly going his way in the battle, it was easier to keep up the front, but if Ash were to win…

… No, Paul wouldn't let that happen. He couldn't let that happen. After all the losses he suffered, all the humiliation that came with it, and the clock of his life ticking down ever-so closer to his untimely demise…

But then, Paul found his happy place again. Shaking aside his worries and doubts, he'd almost forgotten his alternative plan with Ursaring – something that spelled doom for Ash's team if it went into effect.

"Is that what I think…?" Dawn asked as she watched, her eyes widened with amazement.

"Right; that's Pikachu's Static ability," Brock confirmed.

"Static can cause your opponent to be paralyzed when using a move that makes direct physical contact," Reggie said, deciding to expand on Brock's answer. "So now it looks like Pikachu's got the upper-hand. Paralysis can really slow the victim down as well, and Ursaring is already a lot slower than Pikachu even without the paralysis. On the other hand… hm…"

Brock and Dawn looked to Reggie again, expecting him to continue, but both were soon focused back on the battle when they heard a loud and brutal impact; Pikachu landed its Iron Tail attack directly on top of Ursaring's head, forcing the giant Pokémon to slump down from the sheer force of Pikachu's tail. This time, Pikachu knew better to get as far away from Ursaring as possible after landing the attack and successfully made its way to the field, bouncing back gracefully. Dawn and Brock looked relieved to see this, but went into shock when Pikachu suddenly cried out in pain. The cause was the same as before: spontaneous flames consuming Pikachu's body, burning it further and sapping its health away.

"Pikachu still has the Burn effect from Flame Body!" Dawn realized.

"That's right; it won't be going away anytime soon," Brock told her. "Not until Pikachu gets taken care of after this battle…"

Reggie's expressions hardened again. "Yeah, and there's the other downside to being burned… it doesn't just do damage to Pikachu at minute intervals." He looked to Dawn. "Remember what Brock said about it earlier?"

"Y-yeah, I think so," Dawn said, sounding uneasy. "Pikachu can't fight with its full power under the Burn effect. So even if Pikachu's attacks are hitting Ursaring, it's not doing as much damage as it looks."

"Precisely," Reggie affirmed. "And it's about to get worse from here, I think…"

Before Dawn could ask what Reggie meant by that, Ursaring managed to attract everyone's attention by growling in a low, almost sinister manner. While still afflicted with paralysis, Ursaring's eyes glowed a shining, menacing red color.

While this was a frightening image to behold, Paul merely smirked at the sight. "Finally," he said, pleased to have his trump card activated.

Ash was speechless and overcome with shock. The other spectators were not much better off, collectively jaw-dropping at what was happening.

Except for Reggie. "Look out," he warned.

The weary Pikachu was able to straighten itself out after being burned again, only to see the towering, terrifying monster standing a mere few feet away. Now its whole body was consumed with a red aura, and the electric sparks from its paralysis only made Ursaring even more intimidating. It looked like it was about to fly into a rage, and Paul was more than willing to grant his Pokémon that privilege.

"Now, Hammer Arm!"

Now more frightening than ever, Ursaring raised both arms, charged with energy and ready to flatten Pikachu like a pancake.

Ash snapped out of the shock and realized he needed Pikachu to make some distance and cancel out that attack. "It's comin'! Thunderbolt - go!" It was here that Ash threw strategy out the proverbial window; his instincts took over as his worry for Pikachu intensified.

Pikachu charged and fired another ground-ripping Thunderbolt, making a direct hit on Ursaring. Pikachu kept the charge up, figuring if it could prevent Ursaring from moving that it could take a chance on staying in place as Ursaring was forced to endure a continuous zap of electricity that was none too pleasant for the Hibernation Pokémon to bear.

What no one but Paul (and perhaps Reggie) expected was that Ursaring was still able to charge and execute its own attack while still being thrashed with the ongoing Thunderbolt. With Pikachu having to stand in place to keep its own attack going, it was a complete and total sitting Psyduck.

"Where's that power comin' from?!" Ash cried out, completely at a loss for what was going on.

"It hasn't even used Bulk Up…!" Dawn pointed out, equally confused. "This isn't making any sense!"

Ursaring put both arms together, delivering a powerful whack at Pikachu from the side. There was definitely an unusual amount of power coming from the impact of this attack, as Pikachu was sent flying – far too fast for it to recover in midair this time – straight out of the battlefield and towards Lake Acuity itself. Pikachu ultimately landed in the shallow end of the lake as Ash screamed "Pikachu…!" at the top of his lungs. Electric sparks burst from the water after Pikachu was submerged, but they quickly shorted out.

Not even wanting to wait to see if Pikachu could make it out on its own, Ash dashed right off the battlefield and into the lake, nervously approaching the area where Pikachu landed as he slowly waded through the water. Dawn was worried enough to actually stand up from her seat, but she didn't move an inch after that. She simply looked on at Ash trying to recover his first Pokémon, worried sick that this fight finally went too far. Ursaring raging almost uncontrollably in the background didn't make things any less tense, either.

"Pikachu…" Dawn whispered, hoping her fears wouldn't become reality.

"Ursaring's Guts ability has been activated," Brock realized. "Its attack stat is boosted when affected by things like paralysis, poison, and other status effects as well."

"I'll bet you Paul was just waiting for that ability to get activated all along," Reggie assumed (correctly), remembering the smirk on Paul's face the very moment Ursaring's Guts ability was triggered.

Paul was quite satisfied with how things turned out. Upon hearing bubbles of air emerge from the lake, he looked over to see the water mildly rippling right in front of Ash. Pikachu finally emerged, and Paul was admittedly impressed that Pikachu still had enough energy left to come up on its own. Immensely relieved, Ash approached Pikachu and kneeled down to tend to its needs… but Paul knew that even if Pikachu was capable of recovering enough to not drown in the lake it was thrown into, there was no way Pikachu would be able to put up a fight after so many devastating blows from his Ursaring.

"Pikachu, are you alright…?" Ash cautiously asked his first Pokémon. Though Pikachu gave its trainer a reassuring smile in response, it was short-lived. Its final bit of energy diminished, leaving Pikachu to fall face-first back into the water – almost. Ash was there to catch Pikachu; overcome with grief, Ash held Pikachu close to him as gently as possible.

From a distance, Ash could hear the official statement from Olivier. "Pikachu is unable to battle! The winner is Ursaring!"

"No way," Jessie quietly uttered in dismay. The Pikachu who had sent her and her friends blasting off so many times that she lost count years ago had been felled.

"Even Pikachu got pummeled," Meowth lamented, still finding it hard to believe.

"Ursaring's got brute to burn," James noted. "I never thought I would see it come to this…"

Ash somberly returned to the battlefield, cradling Pikachu in his arms and not minding at all the fact that his jeans were drenched. "Thanks, Pikachu. You battled really hard," he quietly commended his companion, who regained consciousness fairly quickly, though it was still in no condition to battle now. Ash just smiled reassuringly at Pikachu's regretful "Pikapika…" that made it obvious even to Ash that Pikachu wished it could have done more. Being the most powerful Pokémon on Ash's team meant that Pikachu felt a greater deal of responsibility to uphold. It felt the need to meet and/or exceed Ash's expectations every time (even if Ash was normally a very lenient trainer) and set an example for Ash's other Pokémon, no matter what region they were in.

This wasn't a trait unique to Pikachu; Paul's Torterra was the exact same way, though Torterra didn't have the luxury of getting praised for every single thing it did. Though Paul had always cared for Torterra, he forced himself to suppress those feelings as much as he could to prevent his first Pokémon from getting any special treatment. The differences in these training methods could be traced back to the different ways Ash and Paul were raised in their families. Paul was the second child, thus his entire childhood centered on overcoming his big brother and his father encouraged both his behavior and his point of view. Not only that, but Paul and Reggie's parents inadvertently played favorites often; this lead to Reggie being closer to his mother while Paul was closer to his father. Special treatment from one end of the family resulted in conflicts from the other side. Though Paul barely knew his mother, he could tell from Reggie's motivations that the two were very close before her death.

Paul understood that it was normal to not remember his mother well since he was only five when she died. However, he did believe that he might have remembered her better if she'd spent more time with him. After all, Reggie remembered both of his parents very well, and though he did love Brandon for better or worse, Paul could tell the two weren't close. Reggie cared more about carrying on his mother's dreams as a breeder than he ever did for succeeding Brandon's much more prestigious role in life.

Favoritism was a bit of a problem for Paul's family life. Consequently, when Paul went on to train Pokémon, he had a strict (if slightly distorted) moral code he followed and every Pokémon he captured adhered to it. No one was even allowed to pursue any sort of romantic interest with any other Pokémon, as Paul feared it may result in his Pokémon breeding and siring their own children. Paul was vehemently against the idea of forcing his Pokémon to abandon their children, so he would not hesitate to automatically release any Pokémon of his if this were to happen… not only out of anger for disrespecting him as a trainer, but because Paul would insist that the Pokémon stay behind and raise their young, rather than abandoning them by continuing along Paul's journey.

The way Ash grew up couldn't be more different. He was an only child, and though he rarely saw (and thus barely knew) his father, his mother more than made up for his absence. Ash was smothered with love and enjoyed a much more relaxed, carefree childhood where his only opposition was his neighbor, Gary Oak… but they were also best friends, so there was never any true animosity between them. Being raised to enjoy life and make the best of every day, Ash's pure-hearted nature spread to his Pokémon, even if they weren't naturally as friendly as Ash himself. For the most part, Ash was good about giving all his Pokémon the attention and love they deserved and wasn't as rigid as Paul was about favoritism. He simply couldn't pretend he wasn't closest to his Pikachu, and yet his Pokémon all flourished in their own unique ways despite that.

Normally, Ash's training methods proved effective when it came time to battle. Today, however, was the exception. It wasn't Ash's philosophy that was the problem here, though… it was Ash himself, who failed to apply Brandon's words of wisdom to his training and leadership skills. And admittedly, having defeated Paul in a PokéRinger match and seeing him fail miserably against Brandon (whom Ash had already defeated) did make Ash just a bit too comfortable coming into this battle. He meant to take it seriously, as Ash did with any battle against Paul. But Ash failed to assert his authority when Pokémon he knew weren't strong enough to continue battling convinced him otherwise with flimsy optimism, and he second-guessed himself during critical moments of the battle. In situations where Paul clearly had a plan in motion and his Pokémon were becoming greater threats, Ash simply brushed them off and assumed he was capable of outsmarting Paul just by believing in himself.

"You sit back and watch; I'll nail it this time." Ash promised. Though he sounded quite sure of himself, one glance at the scoreboard sent Ash right back into a state of fear, uncertainty, and frustration.

Thanks to Ursaring's rampaging, Ash was down to only one usable Pokémon left: Chimchar. Paul still had five of his six Pokémon able to battle. The previous few losses Ash had went by so quickly that he had lost track, completely unaware of the metaphorical hole he just dug himself into. Even his unyielding optimism couldn't ignore the high improbability of beating five Pokémon with just one. He tried desperately to find a bright side, and surprisingly he found one.

"Paul's Pokémon have all taken damage," he recalled, especially remembering the immeasurable amounts of punishment Torterra took. "It's not over yet. We can still do this!" Ash subconsciously geared his mindset towards that dim flicker of hope as he held out his last Pokéball. "It's up to you, Chimchar." He sent out his final Pokémon accordingly.

Pikachu wanted to feel that same optimism, but it simply couldn't ignore the reality of this situation. The group of spectators were just as cynical about the idea of Ash winning this battle.

"It's going to be really tough to beat all five of Paul's Pokémon with just Chimchar," Brock said with a heavy heart.

"It is a lot like that battle from ten days ago," Dawn admitted. "I wanna say I still think he can do it, but… from what you guys have said, it sounds like he's made way too many mistakes to recover enough to actually pull off a miracle."

Reggie nodded. "You're right; this won't last for much longer. If Chimchar was fresh, I might be more inclined to believe there's still hope for Ash here. But even though all five of Paul's Pokémon have taken damage, Chimchar's the same way. I think we're nearing the end…"

"Chimchar, let's show 'em how powerful you can be!" Ash cheered for his Pokémon, adamant about maintaining a positive attitude. "Use Flame Wheel!"

For once, it was a good time to be Paul. The fact that the odds were stacked highly in his favor during the homestretch of this full battle wasn't lost on him, but he promised himself to keep his emotions in check at least until this battle ended. For all the times he'd lost, he still wasn't going to take any chances no matter how good this looked for him; Paul had been extremely paranoid from the start and he saw no reason to let down his guard now. "Ursaring, use Slash!"

Thanks to the strength boost from Guts, Ursaring had no problem swatting Chimchar away like a fly. Painful as it was, Chimchar managed to retain its attack form even while reeling from the attack.

Ash decided to change things up a bit. "Chimchar, Flamethrower!"

Already with a lot of fire charged up from Flame Wheel that was still available for Chimchar to use, it quickly shifted out of the Flame Wheel and used the extra fire to make its Flamethrower execution even more powerful than usual. Ursaring was a big target, so Paul rarely tried to get the Hibernation Pokémon to dodge anything. It took the brunt of the attack; the extra power helped make this hit critical.

"Now use Dig…!" Ash shouted, not wanting Paul to get a word in edgewise. In a way, Ash was pretty paranoid as well.

Chimchar burrowed itself underground. Paul had no way of telling where Chimchar was, but he trusted that Ursaring would know since it was closer to the source of the movements of Chimchar burrowing underground. "Use Hammer Arm on the ground!"

Ursaring indeed could feel exactly where Chimchar was. It took its time to charge both arms with the attack, but taking time proved to be a mistake as Chimchar burst from the ground right where Ursaring expected it to be and charged into its much larger foe.

"Keep it up!" Ash was getting eager. If he could take out Ursaring, that would take a lot of weight off his shoulders. "Now use Flamethrower!"

With another direct hit, the force was enough to push Ursaring back a considerable distance. It had taken a great deal of damage since before Chimchar was sent out, but the species was meant for this defensive style. But even for a bulky Pokémon, eventually it would reach a point where it simply couldn't take another hit just like any other, and Ursaring had hit its limit. The fact that it could be pushed back when previous Pokémon had great difficulty pushing it back more than a few inches was evident to Paul that Ursaring was no longer useful to him for this battle. But even as he watched his Pokémon be overcome by Chimchar's attack and consequently was knocked over on its back, Paul couldn't bring himself to be harsh for this loss. Ursaring had been the most useful member of his team here, literally taking out half of Ash's team within the blink of an eye.

Dust clouds were kicked up upon Ursaring's impact with the ground, but Paul already knew there was no point in waiting for Ursaring to get up. He heard Olivier shout "Ursaring is unable to battle! The winner is Chimchar!" as the dust cleared and the sound of the scoreboard being updated to reflect the elimination.

Ash was utterly thrilled to hear the referee's words. "Chimchar, you were awesome!" he congratulated, riding out the afterglow of victory as Chimchar literally jumped for joy several times, having overcome a former teammate whom Paul often used to attempt to bring out Chimchar's Blaze power… or in other words, relentlessly abuse it. Paul found this celebrating annoying at best, but he decided not to protest it. In a way it was more fulfilling to see Ash make a big deal over a decidedly minor victory. Sure, Ash took down one of his most powerful Pokémon, but only after said Pokémon wiped out half of Ash's team. Paul knew soon enough Ash would realize just how pointless his cheers of victory were.

It wasn't just Ash who was celebrating. The hard-working trio of ambiguous morality were moved to tears by Chimchar's performance.

"Wow, our Chimmy's a champ!" Meowth said with genuine adoration for the Chimp Pokémon.

"That Pokémon's second to none!" James proclaimed.

"It's that kind of inspiration that gives hard work a good name!" Jessie said with pride. No doubt all three were riding on Chimchar to win the whole competition, however improbable it was.

Paul recalled the defeated Ursaring back into its Pokéball. Once again, he showed absolutely no emotion for this loss. Ash meanwhile heaved out a sigh of relief; getting Ursaring out of the picture definitely got him to relax, but when he saw his rival completely unaffected by the loss, Ash straightened himself out and forcibly brought himself back to the reality of his situation. It was time to keep moving, and to keep a step ahead of Paul however best he and Chimchar could.

"Thanks, Chimchar. You rocked," Ash told his Pokémon, who blossomed with the praise. "So, let's keep this goin'! Let's turn it around!"

Chimchar nodded in agreement, and surprisingly it was suddenly enveloped by a bright white glow. Paul, Pikachu, and Ash immediately took notice to this, while the spectators followed a mere beat later.

"Chimchar's evolving…!" Brock exclaimed, recognizing this phenomenon all too well.

All eyes were locked on Chimchar as the light gradually changed the shape of its appearance. It grew in size, but still remained relatively small. The most notable changes were the lengthy tail and the frizzy collar around its neck. The light eventually faded, and a mighty screech of "Monferno!" was heard shortly after. Brock was absolutely correct; Chimchar was no more. After many arduous months of training both from Paul and Ash, Monferno had finally come into existence.

"That's great!" Ash cried out, nearly in disbelief that such a miraculous event would happen now of all times. "You evolved into Monferno!"

Smiling at this milestone of Ash and Chimchar's lives, Dawn took out her PokéDex again to scan the recently-evolved Pokémon.

"Monferno, the Playful Pokémon and the evolved form of Chimchar. It controls its flaming tail to keep its opponent at an ideal distance when battling."

Seeing this certainly reminded Reggie of the time years back when his own Chimchar first evolved. "Amazing; Chimchar answered Ash's call and gained new power in order to rise to the challenge. The trust between Ash and his Pokémon is being demonstrated right before our eyes."

This was precisely why Reggie worked so hard the past ten days with Paul in order to get him to fully trust and care for all of his Pokémon. He knew all along the connections did exist in most cases; Paul's breakdown made that obvious enough. But because Paul went out of his way to suppress his feelings and distanced himself from his team, the connections between Paul and his Pokémon were tenuous at best… it really wasn't all that different from his shaky camaraderie with Conway. Now Paul understood at this moment why Reggie made him focus on creating bonds with his Pokémon. His refusal to open up to Chimchar and even for a moment treat him as a true member over the team made it impossible for Paul to bring out the true power Chimchar possessed. At first Paul couldn't have cared less; convinced that Chimchar was nothing more than a fluke and a waste of time. Then when Blaze was inadvertently brought out some months later when Ash battled Paul, he realized the potential in Chimchar was there after all. But because Paul maintained a low opinion of Ash and his training skills, he doubted Ash would be able to control this raw power and use it properly. Consequently, he figured Chimchar would never evolve due to this. Ash already seemed to be rather slow with evolving his Pokémon as far as Paul had seen, and Ash's refusal to evolve Pikachu was interpreted as letting his emotions impede his Pokémon's ability to reach their maximum potential.

But now, yet again, Paul's perception of the world and the people in his life was put into question by seeing this stronger, confident Monferno standing before him this very moment. After so many times of going into this kind of shock, Paul wished he'd be used to it by now. Just seeing Monferno hopping around, punching the air rapidly and sending an air current straight at Paul with the force of these punches (which was no doubt intentional on Monferno's end) made the struggling trainer bitter to the core. He kept himself under control; Paul would never allow himself to blow up in the middle of battle like he did to Brandon ever again. But still, for all his self-restraint, it was just too hard for Paul to hide the intense jealousy shown on his disdainful face.

"Wow, Monferno!" Ash exclaimed after seeing the wind blow straight past his rival. "You learned Mach Punch, and that's a brand new move!"

Hearing that was nothing more than twisting the knife in the wound that stabbed deeply into Paul's pride. Monferno was literally doing backflips, ecstatic for the new, stronger form it gained that its former trainer swore it would never achieve. Paul was done with silently stewing in his anger over his new development; it was time to continue the match.

"Electabuzz, stand by for battle!" Even though his face conveyed anger, that emotion was not obvious in Paul's voice. Of all his Pokémon who participated in this battle, no doubt Electabuzz was the one who spent very little time getting its hands dirty… though that was due to its unique role for the entirety of this full battle. Where Ursaring was the muscle and the one-Pokémon cleanup crew of offensive dominant force, Electabuzz was the provider of stable, long-lasting special defense (that Ash was dense enough to keep forgetting about) and in most cases had its own protection from any attack by its liberal use of Protect. Keeping Light Screen active did much to keep the rest of Paul's team in good shape, but now it was time to switch the Electric Pokémon to an offensive approach. With the emergence of Monferno, Ash's final Pokémon gained dual-type status with Fire and Fighting. Now that Paul had seen Monferno learning Mach Punch, it was natural to assume Ash would make sure to make a lot of use of it. It was a physical attack, as was Dig (another smart assumption as to what move Ash would favor in this match), meaning Light Screen would no longer be useful. But that didn't deter Paul; even if the so-called "impossible" happened, the fact remained that Monferno was all Ash had left to stay alive in this game. Even if Electabuzz couldn't pull this off, Paul still had Torterra, Honchkrow, and Magmortar to finish the job if needed. Hopefully, it wouldn't come to that… Paul was ready to wipe the smiles off his opponents' faces now and for good. If he couldn't win here, the mental turmoil would be far too much for Paul to bear; could he really muster the will to keep going after a loss like this?

Well, worrying about the repercussions of losing to Ash would have to wait; Paul needed to be completely focused on decimating Ash and Monferno. Miracle occurrences like these seemed to be tailored for people like Ash. Paul had seen Ash win out from lucky breaks far too many times to disregard this one.

Out on the battlefield, Electabuzz was understandably taken aback as it hadn't expected to come face-to-face with a Monferno. As with most of Monferno's former teammates, Electabuzz was quite familiar with the Pokémon who was now its opponent; its enemy. However, their last battle had them battling alongside each other in the Hearthome Tag Battle finals – shortly after Chimchar underwent a change in ownership. After the shock wore off, Electabuzz found Monferno giving it a cocky grin, which the Electric Pokémon gladly returned in kind. This was bound to be a much more interesting challenge and Electabuzz was eager to finally take on an offensive role after so many quick switch-outs for it to reinforce Light Screen.

Seeing those two Pokémon in particular facing off was a bit of a déjà vu trip for Brock and especially Dawn, who had to battle them along with Conway way back when… if Dawn hadn't been so emotionally invested in the battle, she might have wondered what Conway was up to right now. But the truth would be far beyond her imagination, regardless…

"Chimchar wasn't really compatible with Paul's training style," Reggie suddenly said out loud, quickly getting Brock and Dawn's attention. "I could tell since he first introduced me to Chimchar… I even told him that he'd have to approach Chimchar differently if he wanted results, but naturally Paul was determined to prove to me… prove to everybody… that he could make it work his way. And… well, I'm sure you two can tell how that turned out."

"He should've listened to you," Dawn said.

Brock shook his head. "Or maybe it just wasn't meant to be."

"Right; it's too late for the woulda-shoulda-coulda," Reggie agreed. "And sometimes, incompatibility just can't be fixed. Paul and Chimchar were simply a mismatched pair from the beginning… but with Ash's training style, it's a perfect fit… simple as that."

"Now that I think back on it, I can't think of any Pokémon Paul had besides Chimchar that suffered the same way," Brock realized. "This battle here… it's like Paul and his Pokémon are perfectly synced up with no compatibility issues at all. And the previous battles we've seen…"

Dawn let out a small gasp as she took those words in. "You're… you're right, Brock. But how can they… withstand the way Paul trains them? Not that we've really… seen that much of him training his other Pokémon… except maybe Electabuzz a couple of times."

"Paul's normally pretty good about picking the kind of Pokémon that compliment his personality," Reggie told the young Coordinator with a smile. "Chimchar was a bit of a rushed decision for personal reasons, but otherwise Paul knows a Pokémon he can respect and mesh with when he sees one." Reggie couldn't help but chuckle at the irony of what he said. "Though the funny thing is, it's really an act of Paul's subconscious. He understands the importance of bonding with his Pokémon now – don't be surprised if he denies it if you ask him – but for a long time he didn't believe in that."

"Even so, I can tell he has certain preferences," Brock pointed out. "He emphasizes on defense and chooses to wait, watch, and listen before going on the attack; a fundamental reverse of Ash's battling style. That's why he prefers Pokémon who are sturdy and can take a lot of damage before going down…"

"… Which explains why he and Chimchar didn't work out so well," Dawn clumsily postulated. "Uh, isn't that right? Because Chimchar can kinda go down quickly unless Blaze gets activated, based on what we've seen so far. What about Monferno?"

Reggie shook his head. "As Monferno, it becomes stronger than its previous form all around… but even if Paul did manage to evolve Chimchar on his own, I doubt the two would have meshed any better. And Ash needs to be careful here; Monferno can get overly eager and make careless mistakes if Ash can't keep it in line."

"You know, I'd go on a limb and say it wasn't just Ash's efforts alone that invoked this evolution," Brock speculated. "The last time these two faced off, Staravia evolved to Staraptor… before that, Turtwig evolved to Grotle."

"Hm… good point," Reggie conceded. "Even separated, Chimchar's past with Paul won't just disappear like that. Evolution can happen under many circumstances, but now that you mention it, Brock, I'm sure this happened because Chimchar is Ash's only hope of winning this battle and it really wants to prove Paul wrong… here and now. Even if Ash loses this battle, Paul still has to face the fact… that he underestimated Chimchar. The raw power Paul wanted from it for so long is finally here, but Paul can't have it under his control now… or ever."

Dawn couldn't help but crack a tiny smirk at that. "And won't that be hard to live down…"

Again, Reggie couldn't take offense to Dawn's little jab; knowing Paul, he probably deserved it. "This is definitely a huge learning experience for both him and Ash," he said. "Like I said, just as some Pokémon have compatibility issues with each other, there can be the same issues between Pokémon and trainer. And Chimchar's evolution is a great example."

"Well, no matter who wins or loses, Paul's gonna have to face the facts and admit he's been totally wrong," Dawn muttered. "He was wrong to fight Brandon and think he could win with nothing but willpower, he was wrong about how important it is to bond with your Pokémon, and he's definitely dead wrong about saying that Chimchar was a pathetic waste of time!" Her voice rose dramatically towards the end of her tirade, prompting Dawn to cover her mouth before she could insert her foot there again. It was hard to explain, but Dawn's perceptions of Paul have been quite warped since she saw Paul battle Brandon.

"It's not a matter of right or wrong," Reggie calmly told her. "This battle has both Ash and Paul's pride on the line. That's why this battle with make both trainers and Pokémon stronger in the long run."

Brock looked over to Reggie. "Hey… that's why you wanted a full battle."

Reggie smiled and nodded to Brock with nothing more than a simple "Mmhm".

"Alright, Monferno! Use Mach Punch!"

Dumbstruck with Monferno's greatly increased speed and power from its evolution, Electabuzz ended up with a swift punch in its gut before it even had a chance to do anything. The power behind the punch was enough to send Electabuzz flying back, where it eventually crashed into a rock and shattered it upon impact.

"Alright!" Ash felt on top of the world now. Never mind his relatively unchanged predicament; this evolution was more than enough to take his mind off that problem for the time being. This was a time to bask in the glory of seeing the fruits of his hard labor at long last. Thanks to Paul messing things up, it was no easy feat for Ash to restore Chimchar to a functional state, and Ash suffered plenty of abuse for his troubles. But his resolve was strong; he had cared for this Pokémon since he first laid eyes on it, though back then Ash never would have guessed that he'd end up having the long-suffering Fire-type on his side eventually. As always, Ash's efforts would pay off in the long run… and Ash hadn't been this happy to reach that breakthrough since he'd gotten his ill-tempered Charizard under control years ago.

"Wow! Monferno's super-fast, Piplup!" Dawn gushed with excitement; Piplup itself was equally ecstatic.

The shock from seeing Electabuzz smacked back so effortlessly was short-lived for Paul; all this truly did was reaffirm that he was right after all about Monferno's true potential. What was once his trump card in the making was now shaping itself up to be one of his greatest threats in the near future. Still, Paul wouldn't give his rival the satisfaction of knowing how scorned he felt deep down; regardless of this miracle, Ash was still bound to lose this battle and Paul would do everything in his power to make sure that happened. "Thunder!"

From its antennae, the Electric Pokémon charged and fired a large blast of lightning straight at Monferno. Monferno probably could have dodged it, but being newly-evolved before its abusive former trainer made the Playful Pokémon rather intent on proving its newfound strength. Truly, Ash's disdain for Paul was nothing compared to Monferno's bitter, spiteful loathing. So instead, Monferno opted to cross its arms together, holding them up to buffer the attack as best it could. By no means was Monferno a tank like the majority of Paul's Pokémon, but its renewed resolve brought about a fierce adrenaline rush. It was no simple feat, but Monferno managed to absorb the Thunder attack without sustaining the all of the damage. The attack still forced Monferno back across the field regardless, and after a while the Playful Pokémon was nearing its limit of resistance, howling out as electric sparks coursed through its body.

"Monferno, hang in there!" Ash called to it, not liking his final Pokémon being forced into a defensive position. That wasn't going to help him win, so Ash went right back to calling out whatever move came to his mind at the moment. "Use Flame Wheel, now!"

Following orders to a tee, Monferno curled itself into its Flame Wheel position and charged straight for Electabuzz; the attack looked considerably more menacing with Monferno's enhanced power fueling it.

Paul wasn't about to take any chances. "Use Protect!"

Since Ash knew it was actually possible to break the Protect barrier – having seen Regirock do this with ease against Electabuzz – he decided he'd try for the same thing despite not having a legendary Pokémon on hand. Unsurprisingly, Monferno's Flame Wheel could not break the Protect barrier. The harder Monferno tried, the barrier was ever more resistant and eventually Monferno was rebounded up into the air, having tried too hard to break Protect. However, this position was usually good for Ash to use for an aerial attack; Monferno knew this as it canceled its Flame Wheel and prepared itself for Ash's next command.

"Now, Flamethrower from up there!"

"ThunderPunch, quick!" Paul followed up as he watched the flames spewed from Monferno start to rain down.

Electabuzz managed to dodge Flamethrower while its fist charged its own attack. Leaping up in Monferno's direction, it prepared to land a devastating blow. However, Monferno managed to dodge it.

Ash was elated to see Monferno instinctively dodging without him having to tell it to do so. "Monferno, Dig!" He knew this was a good time to utilize a super-effective move against the Electric Pokémon; so far Paul's Pokémon hadn't been very good about detecting Monferno (as Chimchar) while it was underground. Ash identified that as a weak point that he'd take advantage of and hopefully turn the tides of this battle.

Just as planned, Monferno burrowed itself deep into the ground before Electabuzz landed. Before Paul or Electabuzz had a chance to guess at where Monferno was and how to deal with it, Monferno emerged from the ground and gave Electabuzz a devastating uppercut. If anyone were to blink during this time, they would have missed what just happened for certain.

"Now, Flame Wheel!" Keeping a beat ahead of Paul each turn worked well against Ursaring, and Ash wasn't about to try to fix what wasn't broken. If he could maintain this lead, then perhaps there was hope for Ash and Monferno to take down another one of Paul's Pokémon.

"Thunder!" Paul was still keeping up, however. Even with a stronger Flame Wheel in Monferno's arsenal, Electabuzz was likely to overpower it if their attacks were to clash now; Electabuzz had evolved months ago and was accustomed to the changes brought about from it. Monferno only just now evolved: this was a matter of experience.

Thankfully, this did cross Ash's mind as he tried his best to keep a steady pace ahead of his rival. To combat a more experienced attack, he'd need more firepower… literally. "Use Flamethrower!"

While still in its Flame Wheel, Monferno used Flamethrower to create a spherical barrier of fire surrounding it. It was very reminiscent of what one might see in Pokémon Contest appeals; obviously Ash's training with Dawn over the months resulted in her influence even outside of the Ice Aqua Jet technique. The sphere of fire acted as a makeshift shield, absorbing the Thunder attack for a while… however, so much power colliding at once triggered another explosion loud enough to pop the ears of every spectator in the area. Only Paul remained stoic and unfazed by the magnificent clash of the elements as they waged war against one another.

Eventually, the area went quiet as smoke obscured the battlefield once more. Paul saw Electabuzz land on the ground, seeming to have made it through the clash without sustaining any real damage. Monferno was still somewhere within the dark clouds, which proved to be to its advantage when it suddenly shot out from the smoke. In an instant, Monferno – still in its Flame Wheel position – landed a devastating blow on the Electric Pokémon. It was a brilliant strategic move on Monferno's part, and here Paul thought he'd never see the day that Ash would be capable of building such a strategy. Electabuzz was clearly in pain, but its trainer was not worried; to him, this was merely a "lucky shot". Ash seemed to be guaranteed a few of those each time they battled.

"Keep it up, Monferno…!" Ash had to keep pressing himself to be positive no matter how grim his situation was. It was positive reinforcement that allowed this Pokémon to blossom into the powerful being it was always meant to be; Ash felt he owed it to Monferno to keep his spirits as high as possible. It was gradually becoming easier for him to truly believe he could turn this battle around after all… but he'd soon find that believing in himself could only go so far; something Paul already learned the hard way long before this.

"All Paul can do right now is defend," Reggie calmly noted; his eyes still glued to the battle. "Ash isn't giving him any opportunity to counterattack. He's reacting much quicker now…"

Brock nodded. "You're right. I imagine this evolution happening just now is still leaving an impression on Paul and Electabuzz as well… and because of that, their reaction time isn't up to par to how it was earlier."

"Ash got his momentum back because of Monferno's unbelievable speed!" Dawn exclaimed, so enthusiastic that her hands were tightening into fists. "There's nothing Paul has that can outspeed Monferno now!" There was some truth to this; the only Pokémon of Paul's that could outpace Monferno would have been Weavile, who was long since eliminated in addition to having a massive type disadvantage against a Fire/Fighting-type.

"Mach Punch; go!" Ash wanted to get this over with; he wanted to knock Electabuzz out and move on to the next Pokémon he'd have to defeat. He only hoped Monferno would have the stamina to keep up the pace to defeat three more Pokémon after this.

"Protect!" Paul was still putting great emphasis on defense, which was the smart thing to do in this situation. Again, Monferno was unable to break the barrier of light Electabuzz formed around itself and the punch was repelled. As Monferno reeled back, Paul spotted a tiny window of opportunity to finally fight back. "Thunder!"

That was the moment Paul needed; Thunder struck Monferno directly and inflicted a great deal of damage.

"Monferno, no…!" Ash couldn't help but get emotional every time his Pokémon sustained a hit. This was only working to his disadvantage, as he spent time he could have used to counter-counter attack to worry about Monferno's wellbeing. Paul identified this as the Achilles Heel of Ash's battling style, as he exploited it so many times in the past that resulted in victory for him and utter shame for his rival.

"Quickly switching gears between Protect and attacks shows how impressive Paul's Electabuzz is," Brock said as he analyzed the Electric Pokémon. Though long since removed from his days as a Gym Leader, Brock still possessed the knowledge and mindset of his former title and saw the same window of opportunity that Paul did… additionally, he knew Ash was making a mistake by focusing too much on his Pokémon and too little on his opponent.

"Yeah, I guess you could say Electabuzz is Paul's ongoing project for this year," Reggie affirmed. "Every time Paul starts out in a new region, he captures a Pokémon early on and makes it the center of his battling style and strategy. Nidoking was Paul's project for Kanto, for example."

Dawn looked over to Reggie curiously. "Yeah, come to think of it… Nidoking was the only Pokémon that did pretty well against Brandon if I remember right."

"And Paul told me he battled Ash with Electabuzz back when it was still a freshly-caught Elekid when they first met," Reggie recalled. "Since then, Paul's made a habit of keeping Electabuzz around without rotating him with his reserves much. You've both seen already how Electabuzz is expertly balancing defense and offense in this battle; I think that's what Paul's going for here."

"Makes sense," Brock concurred. "Most of Paul's Pokémon that we've seen are more suited for a defensive style of battling. He doesn't often use Pokémon that are lacking in defense or anything that's along the lines of what Ash prefers. Even the species they share have distinctly different battling styles."

"That's right. You already saw how Weavile didn't last long in this battle," Reggie reminded them. "Paul has a clear and steady preference, but he also knows variety in a team is important. That's why he's chosen Electabuzz to be part of his project; it's one of the few balanced Pokémon on his team."

Meanwhile, Monferno managed to bounce its way back to its side of the battlefield, though its fatigue was visibly obvious. Once it was back in its original spot a mere few feet away from Ash, the Playful Pokémon fell to its knees and slumped forward; Monferno was in pain. The cause for this was soon made apparent when electricity sparks surged briefly over its body.

"Monferno, are you alright?!" Ash didn't like the sight of those tiny bolts harming his Pokémon. The last thing he wanted was another situation with a Pokémon afflicted with ongoing status problems during the battle as poor Pikachu did. "Hold on…" Thinking back on Pikachu's burned status and seeing the state Monferno was in now was a cause for concern. Thankfully, Ash's overwhelming love and concern for his Pokémon did allow him to think some things through before charging in head-on into danger. He decided he'd test Monferno before trying something risky against Electabuzz. "Monferno, use Flamethrower, now!"

Monferno struggled to get back on its feet, not about to let Ash down. It charged up the energy necessary to spew flames from its mouth, but the static sparks made their presence known again and gave Monferno's body a brutal shock. This rendered Monferno unable to deploy its attack.

"I knew it; it's paralyzed!" Ash exclaimed, unable to hold back the slight grimace on his face.

"It can be an added effect of Thunder," Brock acknowledged solemnly. "This isn't good. As if the paralysis itself wasn't enough, it's also going to put a huge dent in Monferno's speed."

Dawn was horrified. "How could it happen now? Monferno needs that speed to beat Electabuzz…!"

By snuffing out Ash's only true advantage in this battle, Paul smirked. He knew the end was near, as did Electabuzz. It truly satisfied him to see Ash looking utterly helpless and lost, just as Paul himself had felt for so many weeks. No matter how much Paul changed for the better, his spiteful side would not recede so easily.

However, his cocky expression soon changed to one of curiosity as a sudden change sparked within Monferno – most likely in reaction to what was now a hopeless situation. Ash was beside himself with the inevitable cold, hard truth that he'd lose this battle… Monferno could feel its trainer's anguish. Fueled by its undying determination to prove a point to its former trainer, Monferno suddenly let out a raging cry that echoed throughout the Lake Acuity area. Despite its paralysis, Monferno found the strength to swing its arms about; hands formed into fists and throwing a tantrum not unlike the kind Ursaring had when its Guts ability activated.

But Monferno had no such ability… Paul's eyes widened as he watched the fire at the end of Monferno's tail grow in size and intensity; the flames shot out in multiple directions and radiated heat strong enough to be felt by both challengers and the spectators. It was as if someone had just poured jet fuel on Monferno's tail, but Paul suddenly remembered that a similar phenomenon happened when Chimchar's Blaze ability was inadvertently invoked by Ash during a battle they had months ago. The rage, the out-of-control behavior, and the considerable growth of its natural flames… all signs were pointing to Monferno reaching the point Paul could never achieve.

This was a cause for concern, but Paul regained his self-restraint, though he remained visibly concerned. Ash, on the other hand, didn't hold back the utter shock he felt upon seeing Monferno cry out in rage. The similarity to this scenario and the first time Ash saw the staggering power of Blaze gave the desperate young trainer more than enough reason to panic at the sight.

"Oh no, is that Blaze?" Dawn asked out loud the question that was on everyone's mind.

Everyone except the smirking, self-assured Reggie, that is. "That's not Blaze; it's Monferno's determination not to be beaten manifesting in its flames."

Reggie of all people would know how to tell the difference, having raised a Chimchar to an Infernape as his very first Pokémon. Anyone who owned a Chimchar or any regional Fire-type starter was bound to be challenged by the overwhelming power of Blaze at some point in their lives, though the same can be said for those with Water-type or Grass-type starters facing the daunting prospects of Torrent and Overgrow, respectively.

Monferno continued its defiant screeching meant for Electabuzz and Paul as the flames emitting from its tail grew even more intense. The not-so Playful Pokémon raised both arms and set itself in a fighting stance. Finally, Ash was able to see that Monferno was in control of itself after all and this thankfully wouldn't be a repeat of the previous incident. He had overheard Reggie and was able to believe the breeder's words once it was made obvious that Monferno had no intention to go on a rampage at everything it saw – only Electabuzz. Ash felt eagerness swell up inside him again; the desire to prove Paul wrong to the highest degree and the belief that he could do that today burned more brightly than ever before. With this power, Ash knew this was his time… it was Monferno's time… it was their time to prove their selves worthy of the title Pokémon and Pokémon Trainer.

"That's right, Monferno! We're not gonna give up no matter what!" Ash proclaimed, feeling the dread and harsh realities inflicted on him by Paul melt away with the pure-hearted desires he possessed since he was a young child; the excitement he felt when he was ten years old and starting his journey. All of his experience over those past four years built up to this moment and he could feel this battle was nearing its end. He resolved to have Monferno take down Electabuzz in one final spectacular attack.

"Alright Monferno, Mach Punch!"

Paul watched the hollering Monferno make a grand final charge at his Pokémon. Knowing Ash's tendency to get lucky with his words of encouragement (which Paul still thought was a fishy tactic, if it could even be called that) was what influenced Paul's decision on how to handle this. He could either defend and neutralize the attack, or he could take a chance and have Electabuzz intrude on the assault with its own power.

To go on the offensive or defensive… that was the question. Monferno's attack would land first regardless, but Paul trusted Electabuzz would be able to withstand it. Paul remembered how utterly green Ash's Grotle was in battle when it first evolved; nothing unusual from freshly-evolved Pokémon engaged in a battle. Monferno seemed to be adapting much better than its Grass-type teammate, but Paul knew there had to be an opening for him to take advantage of. Ash was obviously going for an all-or-nothing attack here… afterwards, Monferno would be utterly vulnerable and a sitting Psyduck if Electabuzz could withstand the Playful Pokémon's fury.

Paul considered every option, but wouldn't let himself get lost in thought at a time like this. The decision was difficult… however, Paul still retained his own philosophy about making decisions. Right or wrong, making a decision was better than not making one at all.

Whatever the case, Paul could at least afford to be wrong here. He had three Pokémon left to finish the job if this didn't go the way he wanted. Still, he'd be much more satisfied to know if his first choice was the right one, so that he would be able to trust his instincts again.

"Electabuzz, ThunderPunch!"

The Electric Pokémon charged at Monferno with just as much fury as its opponent. It was well aware of its status as Paul's prodigy Pokémon and was determined to prove to Paul that he made the right choice with it.

Both Pokémon were set to collide at the very center of the battlefield; Mach Punch and ThunderPunch were both fully charged and made contact; naturally, their collision triggered a massive explosion much larger than any other in this battle.

The spectators were speechless as they witnessed the blinding colliding energies consuming the battlefield. Paul remained calm yet cautious as he remained still and stoic as his own first Pokémon while the elements raged on before his eyes. Ash looked on, obviously worried. Silently, he prayed that his Monferno would be alright after this… regardless of who would win this clash. The lengthy duration of the explosion meant it would take a while for the thick, black smoke to clear out and reveal the outcome of the battle.

All those present in witnessing the battle were shocked when the dissipating smoke and dust clouds upon seeing the result: both Monferno and Electabuzz were still standing. After everything that happened, at a first glance it was as if the clash had never happened.

Both Pokémon were in close proximity to each other; both Ash and Paul knew that some devastating blows on both sides had been exchanged while they were blinded by the raw, unbridled energy of their Pokémon.

This was it: one Pokémon was about to fall.

Electabuzz was heard murmuring its name, though its smirking indicated that it successfully endured the final strike. It could be inferred that Electabuzz was also able to connect its own attack with its opponent. How or when, however, would never be figured out.

Monferno, who had done its very best, who earned its long yearned for evolution and did everything in its power to represent Ash and his ideals in this battle…


… Had met its match. Upon seeing the weary, pained Monferno fall face-first into the battle-torn dirt and hearing the shrill cry of its trainer, Paul unexpectedly had mixed feelings about what he was seeing. It seemed so surreal, though this was what he wanted…

"Monferno is unable to battle and the winner is Electabuzz!" Olivier gestured to the right side of the battlefield. "Which means that the victor is Paul!"

And with that, the battle was finally over.

"Oh no…"

Dawn was the only one able to utter a single word during the immediate aftermath of the battle. Despite her loyalty to Ash, even the cheerful Dawn couldn't ignore the position Ash's mistakes landed her friend in and how it ultimately cost him the battle. Like Brock and Reggie, she eventually started to look at the battle from a realistic point of view rather than her usual idealistic mindset. But despite that, it made Dawn no less upset of the battle's outcome. She couldn't imagine the kind of pain Ash was going through now, though she was no stranger to being a victim of damaged pride. Still, this scenario was nothing like Dawn's deal with her rivals. The aspiring Coordinator couldn't have been more thankful to end up with pleasant, civil long-term rivals… because when Dawn imagined a certain what-if scenario, she knew Paul would metaphorically eat her for lunch if they were rivals.

If only Dawn knew of the irony from such an imagination.

For all their complaining for the hard work, the Team Rocket trio were respectfully silent and somber; utterly heartbroken to see their favorite underdog defeated this way. Needless to say, not a single one of them had the heart to break in with an inappropriate Team Rocket motto and kidnap Pikachu this time. These days, Team Rocket knew better about when this was not their business to intrude upon. After all, there would always be a next time.

The battle indeed had gone on for hours; the sun was setting on the western horizon and the group was long overdue for a proper dinner. However, hunger was the last thing on anyone's mind at this time.

Both Brock and Reggie felt this would be the result for a long time after seeing Ash act so carelessly since the battle started. Brock hated to be this cynical, but he couldn't ignore the truth right in front of his face. However, the battle wasn't the only thing on the breeder-to-be's mind… the incident from ten days ago was still fresh in his mind and all of the words of wisdom shared by Reggie today convinced Brock that there was something important behind all this… something he wasn't telling anyone for whatever reason. Brandon had been mentioned so frequently, Brock refused to believe that it was a mere coincidence that the Frontier Brain's presence had such a profound effect both on Paul and Reggie.

Consoling Ash would have to wait; more likely than not he'd want to be alone at this point anyway. For the moment, Brock was determined to have a serious talk with Reggie before this day was over. If he didn't take this opportunity now, Brock knew there was a good chance he and the others would never cross paths with Reggie again. He had to do this today… when the time was right.

Ash eventually made his way towards the defeated Monferno, kneeling down to cradle the weary Pokémon in his arms. The sting of defeat was tormenting Ash, but his selflessness nature never failed to buffer that pain, so that Ash could do the most important thing a trainer needed to do in this situation. Whatever pain Ash felt, no doubt Monferno suffered it a hundredfold.

Feeling the warm arms of its caring trainer, Monferno managed to crack open its eyes to see Ash Ketchum forcing the biggest smile he ever faked in his life. No doubt the lowly Fire-type was overwhelmed with disappointment for its failure and still remembered how it was ruthlessly punished for failing anything regardless of how hard it tried. Though Monferno knew Ash could be trusted and would never follow its former trainer's example, the depression brought about by failing even with its newly unlocked powers took precedence over everything else.

Some mannerisms brought about by Paul's influence were harder to shake than others; Monferno actually felt that it should be punished for causing Ash to lose on such a great scale. It could tell plain as day that Ash wasn't as happy as he appeared on the outside. For all the unconditional kind things Ash had done for Monferno in the past, it pained the Playful Pokémon deep down in its heart to face the gracious trainer after inadvertently bringing down his own spirit. For bringing Ash down this hard… Monferno had no desire to forgive itself. Not yet, at least.

"Monferno… thank you," was all Ash had to say. Or rather, that was all he could say at this time. At times like this Ash was grateful to be wearing a cap almost all the time; it was very useful for hiding expressions Ash didn't want others seeing from him, such as the urge to cry that he felt then and there when he saw Monferno smile back at him, whispering a whimper to its trainer as it to assure Ash that Monferno wasn't blaming him for this. That was all well and fine, but it didn't stop Ash from blaming himself.

Before Paul recalled the victorious – yet exhausted – Electabuzz back to its Pokéball for a well-earned rest (not that Paul would ever say that out loud; he never saw the point in it), he took note o f Electabuzz's condition. Though pretending to be alright, Paul noticed the Electric Pokémon being a bit weak in the knees as if it were doing everything in its power to remain on its feet. Electabuzz looked directly into Paul's eyes while keeping its paws covered over the left side of its abdomen. Its large appendages well covered up whatever it was favoring, but Paul could tell that was likely the area of Electabuzz's body where Monferno landed its final Mach Punch hit.

The match was indeed much closer than Paul would have liked it to be… but with no desire to dwell on it in front of all these people, Paul silently returned Electabuzz to its ball. Meanwhile, everyone who watched the battle (excluding Team Rocket, whom all slinked away into obscurity) came over to speak with the two battle-weary trainers.

"That was a spectacular battle, you two. Many thanks," Reggie congratulated. It pained him seeing Ash holding his beaten and battered Monferno; it was almost like looking at a mirror from years past whenever Reggie lost a match. Still, as a master of suppressing his emotions, Reggie seemed unfazed as usual.

Hearing the honest words from his older brother, who had trashed him in every battle they had leading up to this day did much to calm whatever negative feelings that dwelled within Paul at that very moment. "Yeah, it sure was," he replied, giving his brother the privilege of seeing a rare occurrence: an earnest smile. There was nothing malicious behind it at all, to the surprise of many.

This prompted Ash to avert his gaze from Monferno towards his rival. Ash expected a number of spiteful, rude, slanderous taunts from the trainer who had just beaten him 2-6; Paul always had the perfect, vicious quip to deter Ash from reaching his goal every time he won a battle so far, and for Paul to trash him efficiently in a full battle… needless to say Ash was preparing himself for the worst, as he was already feeling like dirt just from losing and letting Monferno (and all of his Pokémon) down.

Somehow, Paul being civil in this instance was almost as nerve-wracking as his usual rudeness. Ash couldn't help but grit his teeth in aggravation of Paul seemingly messing with his head, but he resisted the urge to make a single sound. As if that weren't enough, Paul was now behaving as if Ash wasn't even there at all. Was that it? Did this mean the rivalry truly was only real to Ash after all?

Then again, Paul did honestly enjoy the battle… but was it because it was genuinely challenging or because Paul had the pleasure of slaughtering Ash's team as if they were nothing?

Ash had no idea what sort of inner turmoil simmered within his rival; something wasn't right here, but he couldn't put his finger on it. If he knew the truth, perhaps he'd be more understanding. But Paul had no intention of ever letting Ash know the troubles of his personal life; that he got to see the obvious animosity between an estranged father and a bitter son was way too much as it was, in Paul's opinion.

For now and always, Ash would remain oblivious to just how complicated Paul's life really was… and why this battle was treated so differently from all the others they had in the past.

"It's been a while since I've seen that look on your face," Reggie told Paul, delighted and proud to see the nice, pleasant smile he always knew his brother was capable of making. After dealing with a miserable little brother who was on the verge of already giving up for over a week, the fruits of Reggie's labor were now shown before him. He couldn't remember the last time he was this happy with Paul, but it was truly a milestone he was honored to witness. Reggie didn't know the whole truth about the grand scheme of Paul's problems, but this smile was the first step towards his brother's recovery.

At long last, Paul's losing streak was over.

"I'll send you my Pokémon," Paul told Reggie. Though feeling on top of the world, Paul still lacked the desire to hang around and make small talk with people he honestly didn't care for. He especially didn't want to talk about his feelings, either.

"Got it, Paul," Reggie understood, nodding to him as Paul immediately started walking to resume his journey. The breeder was about to stop him and offer a ride in his van, as Paul's next destination was obvious to him: Snowpoint City. Now that Paul had made a full recovery and regained his confidence as a Pokémon Trainer, he felt he was ready to follow up on that rematch he promised Candice. It had taken him far longer than he wanted to get his seventh badge, but finally the distractions had come to an end and it was time to get back to business.

Reggie held back on insisting to give Paul a ride as he recalled the words of his father, said nine days ago when their training had just started:

"There are times, son… where we need to be alone. Let the kid pull himself back together. If you do all the work, he'll feel worthless and codependent."

Paul seemed alright now, but Reggie knew inherently that his brother still possessed internal struggles that he needed to overcome. The fact that Paul never could defeat Reggie was one such hurdle. Reggie was fairly sure Paul had a certain person on his mind at this moment, too; a person who clearly left a positive influence on his training and battling style… not that Paul would ever admit it.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

"Oh, Ash…"

Reggie's attention turned towards the source of the voice who spoke up: Dawn. It was softly spoken, as she didn't want to come off as patronizing to Ash, who suffered quite a heavy loss today. Sadly, there was no way for this battle to conclude with both sides in happy spirits. Reggie could see the reason for Dawn's concern: Ash was facing way from everyone, only intent on watching Paul walk off towards the sunset until he was no longer in viewing range, still carefully holding the injured Monferno in his arms.

Looking more closely at Ash, Reggie saw the occasional twitch and slight shaking. Ash wasn't making a sound, but it was obvious that he was fighting the urge to cry and was losing that battle as well.

Wisely, Reggie decided he'd apply his father's wisdom to Ash as well; smothering him with attention at this point would do the boy no good, and luckily Brock and Dawn were able to see it that way as well.

However, before Reggie could make a move to start packing up and heading home (which he'd been away from far longer than he expected to be; no doubt he felt immensely guilty for making Maylene take over the daycare in addition to her Gym Leader duties), he felt a hand on his shoulder.

Reggie looked down at the hand, then back towards the one who stopped him: Brock.

A short period of awkward silence followed as Olivier made his preparations to leave, Ash entrusted Dawn with his Pokémon that all needed to be taken back to the Pokémon Center to heal their battle wounds, and Ash himself went off to isolate himself and reflect on today's events.

"What's up, Brock?" Reggie finally asked.

"Reggie…" Brock did feel a bit guilty to insist on the prodding he was about to do with Reggie's personal life, but in order to understand where Paul was coming from and the rivalry wit h Ash, Reggie was his best hope for achieving that enlightenment. "We need to talk," he insisted, looking around to see no one nearby at the moment. "Privately, if you don't mind…?"

That ominous, sinking feeling Reggie had in his gut was not unwarranted; he knew Brock to be the quiet, studious type and there had been a lot of odd things for him to observe over the past ten days. Against his better judgment, he nodded. "Sure, no problem… is everything okay?"

"You could say that," Brock cryptically answered. "But I'd like to clear the air here once and for all… because the last thing I want to do is make unfounded assumptions." He looked over the lakeside before pointing to a secluded spot. "Over there."

At long last, Brock was about to get some answers.

"I finally did it… I broke the losing streak. There's… there's a way to prevent it from holding me back after all."

Paul was leaning against a tree as he said this to no one in particular; utterly exhausted from the intensity of the full battle he just took part in. He could see several dots of light making up the frigid settlement known as Snowpoint City just ahead of him.

"I thought being sick would prevent me from being able to be a Pokémon Trainer," Paul admitted to himself; being all alone allowed himself to let down his guard and sound as emotional as he truly felt. "I thought I'd never win again… but I finally did it."

He looked up at the night sky, shimmering with stars from across the galaxy. "That's how you managed to live as long as you did… mother. You didn't give up, no matter how many times you were shut down… I just wish I knew more. But I don't hate you for this… even if I don't really know you, I couldn't hold something like this against you."

Being surrounded by people for so long made Paul overwhelmed with things he wanted to say out loud but couldn't, be it due to not wanting to admit he had a disease or just not wanting anyone knowing how he truly felt, as Paul was naturally aloof like that.

"You were probably a lot stronger than I'd give you credit for," Paul said to the sky. "But I promise I won't let this disease rule my life anymore. It didn't stop you from starting a family… from being a Pokémon Breeder… so there's no reason it should stop me from doing what I set out to do from the beginning. I get it now… nothing good came of pretending it didn't exist. And I didn't get anywhere using it as an excuse to let my skills deteriorate… no matter how much I want to get rid of it… find a cure and get to live a normal life like everyone else… you wanted that, too. But you pressed on with your life… you made a name for yourself and everything."

Paul raised his hands, tightened into fists of determination. "And that's what I want. So please don't think less of me for not telling anyone right now. Everyone has to see me for who I truly am: Paul the Pokémon Trainer, someday the Champion… not Paul the terminally ill. You know how fussy Reggie can be… that's not a risk I'm willing to take. But when the time's right… I'll tell them the truth. Isn't that what you did?"

Of course, Paul didn't expect an answer. But through this disease, Paul finally had a link to his mother; something he could relate to her with. Even though she was long gone, never to live again, Paul was able to see life a bit differently after spending time with the remnants of his struggling family. He had finally grown to respect his mother, even if she was a breeder. Even if she didn't battle with her Pokémon, living with a crippling terminal disease and being unafraid to live her life to the fullest in spite of that showed the true warrior's spirit within her. The desire to fight against opposition burned strongly within her… it was one of the reasons why Brandon grew to love her in the first place, and finally Paul could see why his mother was so adored by his family. Paul assumed his lack of personal memories of her meant she was nothing special (in addition to him being only five when she died), but now he understood through her life experiences why she was to be remembered fondly.

And through her life experiences, Paul finally came to accept his own life's situation. Maybe a cure would finally be discovered within his lifetime… and maybe it wouldn't. Either way, Paul knew now it shouldn't impede his ability to live his life to the fullest. While he still had no answer for Brandon's very important question, Paul did have a vague feel for what may be his answer in the future when he battles Brandon again.

But all of that was a long time from now… Paul set his mind on the rematch with Candice, who knew exactly how sick he was.

"I'll show Candice that it'll take more than a terminal disease to make me give up," Paul said; his resolve stronger than ever before. He continued his walk towards Snowpoint City, but eventually he stopped, realizing something important.

"… I still don't have a strategy," he realized. "But I'm not going to prove her right by using Pokémon that would make the battle easier." His stubbornness hadn't changed a bit.

Quickly finding a bench next to a street light, Paul sat down and dug through his backpack, scrambling to find a notepad and a pencil in order to jot down strategy ideas. However, his eyes widened when he felt an unusual texture of paper within his backpack. After getting a solid grip on it and managing to pull it out without tearing the paper, Paul was aghast at what he pulled out.

"… The strategy Conway made for me…"

He never threw it away. Various distractions prevented him from doing so when he originally attempted to toss it, and since then he completely forgot about it. On the other side of the bench, there was a convenient trash can a couple of feet away. Paul gazed at it for a moment before looking down at the paper.

Now that Reggie had sufficiently guilt-tripped him over what happened, Paul was finally able to see where he'd been so needlessly cruel to someone who had nothing but good intentions for him. Over the ten-day training period, Paul did inadvertently apply some of Conway's techniques to his training, some of which were used in the full battle. Much as Paul didn't like to think about it, he couldn't deny the truth any longer.

He missed Conway.

The more Paul looked at the strategy, the more lonely and guilt-ridden he felt. He had no idea where Conway was now and only assumed he was okay. Things were admittedly pretty crazy when they split up, but he hoped Conway had good sense to stay away from that freakish red-haired woman. If Paul knew where to start looking, he would have considered doing so after he got his seventh badge out of the way, but especially after so much time had passed since Paul last saw him, Conway could literally be anywhere in the Sinnoh region. Maybe he could've even gone to another region by now.

Paul knew this would be tormenting his moral conscience until he did something about it, so he decided he'd start at the most logical place to find answers about Conway: their shared hometown of Veilstone City. He'd pass by home once his business was finished here and hopefully stumble into some clues to

Conway's whereabouts, apologize, and make things right again. After all, Paul did have Conway to thank for still being alive today, rather than being killed in a stupid stunt to catch a cruise vessel due to his impatience.

Until then, however, Paul settled on doing the next best thing for his former acquaintance.

"Well, Conway, you sounded pretty sure of yourself about this strategy working out when you made it," Paul said with a slight smirk as he studied the details of the wrinkled paper.

"Tomorrow, I'll put it to the test."

( TBC )
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Wow. I've read every single chapter of Travels of the Trifecta and its simply mind blowing. This is easily the best Pokemon fanfic that I've ever written. I can't wait for the next chapter. You write every character with depth and skill that I could only wish to ever be able to do.

I can't wait for chapter nineteen! I'm going to really enjoy Paul's reaction to Conway's 'death.' I have a feeling he's going to blame himself for it.
Yeah, I already knew about this; KP and I are total bros. ♥ She was a darling to make this for me. She's trying to get through the monstrosity that is the length of my fic. XD When I get home I'll have to remember to add this to the fanart collection on the OP.

I know it's been forever - again - since the last chapter. I've sort of fallen out of my writing habit. That's not to say I don't care for the fic itself anymore because I still love it and think about it every day, but I've gotten in a rut where I can't force myself to write at the moment. Very inconvenient timing. @_@

However, I WOULD love to have something out by my birthday (the 11th next month) and it just so happens that this week there's going to be a maximum of five people at work (only three counting me showed up today). Manager won't even be here. So with the quietness and lack of people peeping in at my cubicle, that may be the thing to get me past this first scene I'm still on in chapter 19 and the following holiday weekend just might get the operation going again! Especially since I've about given up on trying to build a legit battle team on White and my AR is already messing up said game as it is. Now I REALLY feel inclined to give the fic a try once more.

Feel free to yell at me; that would probably help in this situation. My readers are far too patient than what I deserve. XD
It is officially your birthday, Shin, so I can officially post these.



Titled "In Which Paul Realizes That Reggie Is Scary As Hell". With a subtitle of "what are tones and how do I use them", written by "oh god this program is so hard to use".

This is a joint review that @Madame Pika and I have worked on for "Travels of the Trifecta." Hope you enjoy it ^_^

Trifecta Review

In a series that is as long and beloved as Pokémon, it is easy for a fanfic to get lost in the shuffle. It’s not often that one as beautifully well-written and perfectly flowing as “Travels of the Trifecta” comes around, if ever. The characters, both the official and the original, are written so well that it is effortless to believe that we are reading their actual thoughts, and it is at that point that “Trifecta” excels the most. The story flow, the atmosphere and humour is beautiful amongst so many great things in this fanfic. There are so many things that I don't even usually consider hoping for in fanfic that I can find here: humanity, great battles and reread value.

It helps that you really have focused and created some amazing chemistry. I love Conway and Paul's friendship in particular. I'm sure you're aware of how unusual it is to see a friendship properly focused on and a non canon/overly played one at that. Plus it's fun seeing how other characters take their friendship from the 'like a married couple' comments to Reggie making them travel together. Their break up being a real misunderstanding was also done in a nice refreshing way, especially with the way that it's played back in later and changes both of them. Conway ending up being the only one to blame himself yet barley mentioning it is such a strong idea. The relationships with the family are also excellent. Right from the beginning you show the tension between Paul and Reggie so right that it feels cannon then you've built into their so many little ways of differing love and anger. I'm saying these two in particular since my ideas for both of them was quite different. The fact that you're willing to have Reggie take his place as a parental side yet show Paul's resentment, is so touching.

Reiji isn't a character who has loads of things to go off in the anime and particularly only a few seconds of screen time with his brother. Hence it is amazing that anyone can write him interacting with his brother without it feeling forced. You however have shown their relationship in immaculate detail. Reggie feels like his own person with such a developed personality that is unseen in the anime, yet feels completely right, and that he is just as compelling as Paul, a very impressive feat given that Shinji is a much more popular and established character in the series canon. Not a mere extension of Shinji's back story (as he often does in fanfic or even summaries of episodes someone’s). It's the sort of thing that truly proves how much character expansion is one of your strengths. It's also worth noting his relationship with Maylene. I don't know if it's just the fact that I don't like the ship that is saying this but I really like how you're willing to give alternatives to the hints you provide. Since it's pretty clear (from the listing on your FF.net profile) that this will end with Curtain shipping, it really adds flavour.

For example, even though Brandon is not ever confirmed to be Paul and Reggie’s father in the actual anime, you’ve written it in such a way that not only does it make sense, but it also feels right, as though there should never have been any doubt about that fact. By placing Brandon into a sympathetic, widower father role, you’ve made him more likeable and interesting than anything the anime or games have ever gotten close to, and have in return also added another dimension to the personalities and emotional state of Paul and Reggie.

In some ways, the use of original characters is even more surprisingly well-handled. Andrea, though never present in living form, is a powerful presence in the lives of those she left behind. Despite the fact that she is an original character, Andrea truly feels like an integrated part of Paul, Reggie, and Brandon’s lives, and never feels intrusive or out-of-place when mentioned. In fact, Brandon is all the better for having been given the grief that he feels over his wife’s death. Franny is another wonderful original character, giving a never before seen amount of depth to Conway. While these original characters are great in their own right, it’s the effect that they have on existing characters that makes them most impressive.

Unlike in the anime, death and near-death experiences are featured with prominence in “Trifecta.” Despite the fact that such things are barely ever touched upon in the anime, you’ve created scenarios and situations where it fits perfectly, and makes the characters seem more human in that they are only mortal. As early as chapter two there is a near-death experience, in which Paul nearly drowns, only to be saved by Conway. It is the first of numerous occasions where a character faces a perilous situation. This isn't played in a soppy way that gets in the way of the humour or feel like 'emotional blackmail'. In fact it adds to the sense of fantasy on a level that many professional writers fail to pull off. I hate stories where Shinji softens but here Paul doesn't become a wuss. Also I hated it when people give him a soppy back story yet here I'm completely wrapped up in the idea of how his mother's death effected both him and Reggie.

In fact the sheer number of advanced skills you show with Trifecta like subtlety and with it effective foreshadowing. It never seems forced or too obvious, but just right. For instance, there are many moments before the big reveal that seem to hint that Paul has a terminal illness. However, it is always subtle enough that readers don’t know for sure what the case really is until the time is right. This is shown again with your use of pop culture references during Conway's funeral. I did not notice many of the things I have mentioned here until later rereads.

There has never been a fanfic that I enjoyed this much, or looked forward to reading every time a new chapter was posted. With the way you write characters, I wonder who you find the hardest? Also, how come (as awesome as the plot point is) does Paul have medical fees to worry about? I always assumed that health care was free in the Pokemon World. It's amazing both as a fanfiction and as a story in its own right and would recommend it anyone with the sense to enjoy it.
Ohohoh, that was an overwhelmingly awesome review and I applaud the effort you two put in making this just for me. :') And I did happen to see you two discussing it in VMs a while back, which really made my day too. ♥ Thank you much for your thoughts!

As for characters that give me the most trouble to write, it's not too easy to pick just one. Reggie was often tricky for me to write at times because writing for Paul came so naturally to me, and Reggie's fundamentally everything Paul isn't (with very few exceptions). It actually took me forever to get through the first scene of this-coming chapter because it was a lengthy conversation with Reggie and Brock, both of which gave me trouble because the two have interacted minimally and you'll see in the 15 or so pages that comprises of this conversation that it's much deeper than one that would normally be happening in the show.

Then again, Brandon also gave me major problems in chapter 17, since that was the first really huge chapter that had him featured in the majority of it. He's more of an enigma, although I have a lot of his backstory as a child/teen/young adult mapped out that will explain why he's the man he is in the present day. I've been wanting to write that out, but Trifecta's so packed with events dealing with present-day Paul/Reggie/Brandon's issues that there's no space to insert them. So I decided a while back I'd eventually make a sister fic for Trifecta (still haven't settled on a name) that would focus on short stories (how the hell I'll manage to make short stories at this point is a mystery) from the distant past, the not-so distant past, and eventually even the future. It won't pertain only to Brandon, though he's the one I have the most backstory planned for in this concept. Once I get myself back into a state of consistent writing, I'll have to figure out a way to juggle the two separate stories simultaneously, but I do think the sister fic will be a nice way for me to take a break from the huge-ass chapters Trifecta seems to be locked into for the long run. And once I actually get Brandon's backstory out of my head and into writing, he'll be a much easier character to write for.

So depending on the situation, I would say both Reggie and Brandon are the hardest for me to write. Admittedly Maylene doesn't come very naturally either, but luckily canon gave her enough of a personality that I can just wing it and make her sound convincing. And Ash/Brock/Dawn are pretty simplistic compared to Trifecta's main cast, so besides what'll be going down in the next chapter, they're not too hard to make dialog for, especially since all their appearances so far have had canon lines for me to reference to whenever I give them unique dialog in the story. Guess that explains why it was such a bitch to write Brock for chapter 19; there's no more canon dialog to go by for what's in store for him, so composing all of his dialog on my own was much of a chore, worsened with having to write Reggie who doesn't come off as very natural to me.

As for the matter of health care... eh, most of the Pokemon world's economics either aren't explained or don't make much sense. I assume places like the Pokemon Center (and probably the Battle Club in Unova) are government-funded facilities, which is why they offer free services. But the Pokemon Center deals with Pokemon-related ailments, not humans. I honestly don't recall any regular hospitals or other medical facilities meant for humans in the series, but I'm not one to assume the entirety of the Pokemon world is a utopian society where money is completely irrelevant. I assume Gym Leaders, Champions, Elite Four members, Frontier Brains and the like all get a salary. With cases like Paul, where he'll have to be monitored and treated on a regular basis for the rest of his life because of his condition, that would require a lot of resources that in real life would be quite costly, even if there was an insurance buffer. But, he's not the one who's going to have to pay for it, of course; that responsibility would fall on Brandon. Once he starts receiving those bills out of nowhere, Paul's gonna have some 'splaining to dooo, plus the potential financial crisis caused by Brandon's rash decisions adds on more drama to the scenario.

I don't think I ever explained this in the story, but a few years back I also plotted out that Veilstone City is a rather costly place to live (as most major cities are in real life; Veilstone's one of the biggest ones in Sinnoh) with high tax rates (gotta keep government-funded things like Pokemon Centers running somehow!), which plays into why Reggie isn't making much of a living on his job alone. Paul's family is pretty much lower middle-class, but if they didn't have Brandon's money to live on, they'd be so dirt poor.

Things like that enabled some of the fun back-and-forths, such as Conway's family being filthy rich and whatnot. If the anime's not gonna explain their economic system, I'll just make one up for the hell of it since it's handy for the humor and the drama. Utopian society just kills those opportunities.

I should go ahead and say that I greatly appreciate everybody's patience. ♥ It's been a dreadful ten months since the last update. The fic is periodically being worked on, but it's bit-by-bit at a time and by now it's not a writing burnout, but just a general life burnout. Full-time job has been sucking the life out of me (it's a wonderful job, but it really wears me down), but thankfully my 2-year probationary period has passed and I have finally scheduled myself a full week's vacation, starting the week of the 21st this month. I haven't had a true vacation since starting the job, so I plan on using that time to relax and work on the chapter as much as I can once I reach that state of bliss again. Ideally, I'd like to have the chapter finished before that week ends. It is currently 17 pages/~12,000 words in, so reaching a state of completion is indeed viable.

I've been keeping my passion for the fic alive mostly through doodling. Mostly stuff that won't happen until the very end of the story (hint: it involves a future generation), but it's stuff I may post out if I can make it presentable enough.

Anyway, thanks again to everyone who's been giving me all this love and self-esteem boosting for all this time. The fic is most definitely not dead! Just the author, almost. :') Real life is a cruel, cruel mistress.
Re: Travels of the Trifecta! (Anime, PG-13)

(Hah! Bet you never thought you'd see this thread updated again, did you? I didn't lie; the fic is not dead! See the ff.net version of the fic for more details on why this took so freaking long - 1 year and 11 months to be exact - and some other deep stuff.

But I will say this chapter is "sponsored" by the Best Wishes anime series. My goal for this chapter was to make a battle better than all of the Unova gym battles combined! You tell me whether or not I succeeded in that attempt. :p Now enjoy some tl;dring.)

"First of all, I just wanted to say thanks for agreeing to this, Reggie. I… think you already know what I want to talk with you about."

Reggie resisted the urge to avoid eye contact with Brock as he took a seat on the same grassy hill he sat on earlier in the afternoon before the full battle commenced. The breeder-to-be himself had already taken a seat close by.

"Well, I guess you're probably right," Reggie said, forcing his easygoing and pleasant tone out. "You're really perceptive for your age… Ash is definitely in good hands with you."

Brock smiled and nodded, but quickly resumed his serious expression. "He's come so far that he won't need my help to overcome this loss, hopefully," he expressed. "But that's not what I need to talk to you about."

"Of course," Reggie understood, finding it harder and harder to feign both his innocence and obliviousness.

"For the record, I'm not holding this against you if my suspicions are correct," Brock wanted to make that perfectly clear first and foremost. "But there's been something on my mind the past ten days…"

The gradually darkening sky proved to be a nice visual distraction for Reggie as he endured the beginning of this interrogation. "Since Paul battled Brandon, huh…"

"Normally I wouldn't prod… because I know even now it's really none of my business," Brock admitted. "But Paul's been such an enigma from the beginning… not just to Ash, but to Dawn and myself as well. Since we learned about you, it made me even more curious about how Paul came to be what he is today. He's a tough nut to crack for sure, but with a diplomatic approach I've gotten some information out of him from time to time. But what little he's given me hasn't really fallen into place… until that day."

"You actually got him to talk about himself?" Reggie was impressed; even he had trouble getting Paul to open up just asking how his day was, much less anything deeper than that.

"Only bits and pieces," Brock humbly replied. "But from what I've learned both from his testimonies and studying his behavior along with what you've told us… I think I'm finally beginning to understand what's going on here. Most of all, I can relate to your position, Reggie."

This certainly wasn't some sort of strict, no-nonsense interrogating that Reggie dreaded would be in store for him. It wasn't exactly a logical thing to expect from Brock of all people, but Reggie had been spending much of his time with the kind of people who would've made this scenario uncomfortable to him.

"You can…?"

"I'm the eldest child of my family," Brock told him. "Though I have several brothers and sisters, the fact remains that I had to be their pillar of support every step of the way. I had to take care of them both at home and financially. You see, I was a Gym Leader once upon a time."

Now Reggie could see how Brock could sympathize with him, but he had to ask… "You? Doing all that work by yourself? But what about your-"

"That's what I wanted to ask you when we first met months ago," Brock cut him off. "My parents… both went through a period where they just didn't feel like being parents. They had no right to take off when they did…" The aspiring breeder paused himself, regaining his professional composure. Even with his family situation for the most part mended, Brock still had difficulty forgiving his parents for the trouble and inconvenience they brought upon him personally to this very day. "But they did eventually come back… they're still irritating at times, but they've seem to have gotten the midlife crisis out of their systems now. They're back to being parents and one of my brothers is minding the Pewter Gym so I could go out and pursue my dreams. It's not exactly what you'd call a normal family situation, I guess," Brock uneasily figured. "But… I could tell you're in a similar position with Paul and all the young Pokémon you raise back home."

"Huh, you're right," Reggie said, amused at the similarities of their lives' mishaps. "It's no easy task minding over so many young ones… especially my brother. But I wouldn't have it any other way." Reggie didn't like lying through his teeth like this; he could already feel the burn of guilt, but he felt he had no right to whine and moan to anyone, much less someone younger than him who (in Reggie's opinion) must have had a much harder time living a normal life with so many little siblings.

That was the opening Brock sought after to segue into his true interrogation. "So, is it true you and Paul don't have a good relationship with your parents?"

Reggie froze momentarily, but Brock figured he wouldn't get an answer right away. There had to have been a good reason for both brothers to avoid the topic of their mother and father at every corner and turn.

"Sensitive topic, huh?" Brock correctly assumed. "Sorry…"

"N-no," Reggie interrupted, not wanting to offend Brock or make him feel as if he did something wrong. Even if the parent topic was a sensitive one for Reggie to delve into, a part of him felt the need to keep the conversation going. If Paul were still here, no doubt he would have cut Reggie off completely and made a hasty exit at this point. But even with Paul's desires to keep their family business confidential not being forgotten by Reggie, the elder brother still wanted to maintain his right to vent. Already, Reggie knew Brock would be one of the best people to open up to. It wasn't every day Reggie would meet somebody other than his brother who could comprehend the kind of pain he felt on a daily basis. There was Roark to fall back on, though by now even his family had made amends, both to Reggie's joy and envy. "It's… it's okay, Brock. Paul's not here to dictate my every word… as long as this just stays between us…"

Brock nodded, showing no hesitation at all. "So you have been holding back, and he was the reason just as I thought. You have my word, Reggie; I'm not doing this for Ash's sake, anyway. I really do want to come to an understanding with Paul and you for my own personal reasons."

"I don't often get to talk about this kind of thing," Reggie admitted with a heavy heart. "Mostly I don't want to bother anyone with my problems, and it's not like most people would really get it anyway… but it sounds like you understand exactly where I'm coming from."

"As long as you're willing," Brock assured him. "I'd be more than happy to help out. I think the best place to start is whatever situation you have with your parents. Are they separated?"

It was a fair question… one Reggie had heard many times in the past when people inquired of his mother's whereabouts in the past, due to her reputation as Veilstone City's best Pokémon Breeder. Even if this brought back less than pleasant memories, Reggie knew deep down talking this through with Brock would be for his own best interest. Now that Paul seemed rather content and free of his problems for the time being, Reggie would allow himself at least one night where he focused on his own needs.

"They are… and they aren't," Reggie answered; his tone still uneasy as he subconsciously grasped at blades of grass between his fingers. "We started out as an average four-person family… Mom and Dad really did love each other. But that was almost eight years ago… since then, we lost Mom… she'd been very sick all her life."

Brock felt himself tense; one of the first things he wondered about when he tried to figure Paul out was what kind of mother would raise such a cold and abrasive son. He couldn't imagine what such a mother would be like, but the possibility of Paul being raised without a mother at all did cross his mind. Whether she was divorced with Paul being under his father's custody or simply passed on before her time, Brock could tell there was a lack of motherly influence in Paul's life. Obviously Reggie was trying his best to compensate, but that would only go so far.

"Sorry for your loss," Brock quietly said, trying not to make eye contact with Reggie at that time. "I can't imagine what it must be like having to grow up without a mother…"

"It's the hardest thing in the world," Reggie said with the utmost certainty. "Though I was lucky to have been old enough to remember her. Everything she taught me, I committed to memory. She was a Pokémon Breeder, too. That's why I eventually decided to follow in her footsteps instead of my father's," he explained before letting out a sigh. "But Paul… he was only five years old when our mother died. So he doesn't really remember Mom at all; anything he knows of her now is through me."

"What about your father?" Brock asked. "He'd remember her better than either of you. I figured there was something missing in Paul, and the lack of a motherly influence in his life makes a lot of sense based on his behavior. But… your father is still alive, right?"

The way Brock asked the question made it sound almost rhetorical in nature; Reggie wasn't certain whether or not to consider that a bad thing. This was crossing into territory that would betray his little brother's wishes, but if Brock could keep it to himself, then it shouldn't be that big of a deal. Though Reggie rarely paid mind to his own needs, subjects like this were where the breeder was willing to make an exception. Besides, Paul only really cared that Ash didn't find out; so long as Brock kept Ash out of this, then there would be no need for a conflict.

"He's alive," Reggie affirmed, trying his best to hide the bitterness in his tone. "But he's never really around. Mom was the breadwinner of our family, so Dad needed a job that would cover for the whole family after she passed on. He found one, but it was based in another region. So it's not like he had a choice…"

"It must have been a tough decision to make," Brock noted, obviously taking this information as proof of his suspicions. "So raising your brother has been solely your duty…"

"I did the best I could," Reggie blurted out. "I know I wasn't perfect, and I know it's probably my fault that Paul ended up the way he did today… I just wasn't good enough…"

Brock waved dismissively at Reggie while shaking his head. "To be perfectly honest with you, Reggie, I don't think you can be faulted for the way Paul turned out. You two are so different… Ash and Dawn couldn't believe you were brothers at first. Zoey was just as shocked… but I've seen how good of a breeder you are, Reggie," he commended. "You inspire me to do even more to further my own goal as the best Pokémon Breeder."

"Ah… thanks," Reggie said with a slight laugh, feeling flushed. "I'm really just going off how I remember Mom doing it… in a way, I feel like a parent to all the Pokémon I take care of. And since Paul started traveling with me, I felt like I had to do whatever I could to make sure Paul still had a parental figure he could look up to. Somehow, I had to be both a mother and father figure for him while still being his big brother."

"Which nobody could have pulled off with complete success," Brock told him. "That's why you shouldn't be so hard on yourself for how Paul turned out. Just because your father was in another region didn't mean he couldn't still be in your lives…"

"I used to believe that," Reggie muttered, now unable to hide his bitter sentiments. "Once we got to Kanto, we were both really excited. Eventually we'd get to see him again after four years of barely hearing from him at all… but after I was approved to challenge the Battle Frontier after competing in the Indigo League and Paul rejoined me after getting his Turtwig in Sinnoh… well. The reunion was nothing like we imagined it would be."

The mention of Kanto made Brock dead certain that his suspicions were true now, beyond a reasonable doubt. "That must have been hard for you both," he sympathized. "I've got to ask this directly, Reggie… I think we've skirted around the subject long enough. It's Brandon, isn't it?"

Though Reggie had suspected Brock likely figured this out a while back, it was still shocking for him to hear the fellow breeder confront him with the truth verbally. All of the thoughtful gestures Brock made both during today's battle and the battle from ten days ago that Reggie noticed were indeed for the reasons he suspected. It took him a few moments to find his voice again, but Reggie resigned his attempts to dodge the subject and let out a defeated sigh.

"… Yeah. He's the one," Reggie confirmed, looking to Brock with pleading eyes. "Brock, I'm begging you, don't ever tell-"

"I already promised to keep this to myself," Brock assured. "Like I said, I'm not doing this for Ash. I've had the opportunity to speak with Paul one-on-one a couple of times before. The last time we spoke, I mentioned you… that seemed to let his guard down. I remembered seeing all your earned Gym Badges and Symbols in your house back when we visited you in Veilstone City, and while I didn't ask you about it back then, I noticed you had all but one of the Kanto Battle Frontier Symbols. It made me wonder why you'd quit after putting so much work into earning the others. When I mentioned it to Paul, his demeanor changed. Normally he's withdrawn and standoffish even when he does give me the time of day, but once I told him about the missing Brave Symbol in your collection, he suddenly became embittered and angry."

Reggie nodded, not surprised to hear this. "Normally Paul's good about putting up that "strong" front of his, but anything connected to Dad will set him off if he doesn't know when to expect it."

"That's when he told me he was determined to never be like you," Brock mentioned. "It was the first time I'd seen Paul react so strongly to anything in all the time I've known him. So if I could figure out why the Brave Symbol was such a sensitive topic for him, then…"

"Then you'd be able to figure him out," Reggie finished for him. "But even I feel like I don't know everything about him sometimes," he confessed. "And I should… what kind of brother doesn't-"

"Reggie, don't," Brock urged. "You've been there for your brother as much as you possibly could; I can tell how committed you've been. But Brandon…"

Unable to resist his own bitter sentiments, Reggie shook his head. "Since Mom died, I think he's been… feeling lost. But since he's so much like Paul…"

"I could tell," Brock cut in. "Their mannerisms are identical; the way Paul carried himself in today's battle was just like Brandon's disposition in the battle ten days ago."

"What's weird is that it's subconscious on Paul's end," Reggie told him. "I'm sure you could tell that he's not exactly on good terms with Brandon. He's hated me since I gave up being a trainer, but Paul's really gone out of his way to spite Brandon at every opportunity. Not that it changes anything… they're still really a lot alike."

Brock looked up at the sky thoughtfully, thinking of the not-so distant past events of his experience with the Kanto Battle Frontier. "Ash and I didn't start on the right foot with Brandon, either. He was much more stoic and reserved than the other Frontier Brains we met, and he was very quick to criticize Ash… Paul was the same way when we first met him."

"They're both pretty quick to judge a book by its cover," Reggie said with a hollow laugh. "Dad's always made a habit of pushing us both to our limits. His expectations were high, and though he believes we both have a lot of potential… he's usually not the encouraging type. I remember him being at least a little different before Mom died, but even then he was drawn more to Paul than he ever was to me."

"Favoritism," Brock acknowledged. "That's never a good thing…"

"I don't think he meant to do it on purpose," Reggie postulated; ever the forgiving type. "Besides, Mom was the same way, only she was closer to me. But we all loved each other the same … even Paul. Brandon raised him to be mean-spirited and aloof, but Paul was still very attached to both him and Mom. I did what I could to, well, "re-program" Paul's attitude once I was taking care of him, but…"

Brock looked to the side, taking everything in as it came. "It would be easier said than done," he finished for his acquaintance. "Brandon's got a powerful personality; since Paul was really young and impressionable while the family was still together, it would be almost impossible to change the course years after."

"It's my fault," Reggie blurted out, always ready and willing to take the blame for everything. "Paul's cruelty was bred by my failure to live up to Brandon's expectations. He thought I was too soft as a kid; he still thinks I'm too soft now… and that's what drove him to mold Paul into his ideal son. He did that so Paul wouldn't grow up to be like me."

This was progressively harder for Brock to listen to, and he attempted to stop the self-hating tangent by uttering Reggie's name, but the elder Pokémon Breeder continued on.

"And it worked; Paul grew up antagonizing his own big brother. Even though I was physically stronger, faster, and more resilient than him, Paul went out of his way to bully me around and was even crueler to anyone outside the family." Reggie was sounding more upset the longer he continued on; finally his own emotional restraints were breaking down under the pressure. "I did whatever I could to get him on the right track after we lost Mom… it seemed he was finally learning from me, but then I ruined everything I worked so hard for when we met Brandon again."

Though he wanted to urge Reggie to calm down, Brock had a feeling the breeder wouldn't heed his words. They had crossed some very sensitive territory now – territory that even Reggie couldn't withstand. "Was it really just the two of you alone taking care of each other since your mother died, Reggie?"

"We don't have any living extended family," Reggie said tiredly. "That's what Dad said, anyway. He had no choice but to move to Kanto to financially support us, but Paul and I… didn't want to leave Mom behind… if you know what I mean." Brock nodded, understanding the sentiments and allowed Reggie to continue. "I was on the last leg of my first journey when that happened, so Paul and I went through many regions far from home anyway, but… we always went back to Sinnoh after every League Conference. We knew Sinnoh was still our home… and I wanted to find a way to revive my mother's business somehow. I figured I'd find the answer once I conquered the Battle Frontier and defeated Dad. I wanted to close the book on that conflict and get him to see me as the worthy son he always wanted…"

"Which didn't work out," Brock recalled. "But if you wanted so badly to resolve your conflict with Brandon, why did you give up and retire after he beat you only once?"

"That question," Reggie answered; his expressions darkening. "Remember what he asked Paul during their battle, right before Paul completely lost his self-control?"

The will-breaking, stunning question the Pyramid King posed to his son at the midpoint of their battle…

"All wrapped up in the past… But then why do you walk the Pokémon path in the first place? Tell me, why do you battle?"

How could Brock forget?

"Tell me right now… what are you fighting for?"

"He… asked you the same question when you battled him, right?" Brock figured. When Reggie nodded back to him, the aspiring breeder took a moment for that to sink in. "I see. You didn't have an answer for him either, did you?"

"Not the answer he wanted," Reggie said, filled with regret. "It's a mystery how he's able to read me and Paul so well when he hardly spends time with us, but he was right to ask us what our purpose was. For anything you do, there's got to be a reason for it; something that drives you…"

Brock nodded in agreement. "I want to be a Pokémon Breeder because I knew I wasn't happy being the Pewter City Gym Leader," he confessed, though it wasn't surprising given how Brock described his life before Ash became part of it. "And while it was difficult taking care of all my siblings, it made me happy to see them happy… growing… prospering… and it's the same way for my Pokémon. But my future isn't set in stone," he realized. "Maybe one day I'll feel that being a Pokémon Breeder isn't the best possible career route for me, and something else may come along that will suit my talent better. But I'm not going to worry about that right now; I'll just stay the course until I achieve my goal or something more suitable comes my way."

"That's the right way to go about it," Reggie commended. "And I'm sure your friends and family will support you every step of the way no matter what happens."

"I'm thankful for that," Brock said with a smile. "But it sounds like you don't quite have that luxury."

While Reggie didn't want to make his family out to be terrible people, he couldn't hold back on the wretched truth after coming this far. "I was raised accepting that I'd have to live up to Dad's high expectations," he admitted. "We both were, but Paul was always an aggressive kid. Battling seemed to be a pretty obvious fit for him… sure, I may have been decent at it, but I was doing it for the wrong reasons. That didn't occur to me while I was young, because back then I was determined to make Dad proud of me. Even before he became part of the Battle Frontier, Brandon was a notoriously strong trainer with a huge reputation in Sinnoh."

"So there was a lot of pressure on you and Paul to live up to the family name," Brock presumed. "Yeah, I can see where that would be misleading."

"That was what drove me from the beginning, but things changed a little after Mom passed on… that was the part that I was called out on, which really shocked me. Dad didn't stick around long after that happened, so I figured there was no way he could have known how my motivations changed..."

Examining Reggie's words carefully, Brock had only one question to ask. "How did they change?"

"I did still want to prove myself worthy to my father," Reggie was certain to make that much clear. "But after Mom was gone… it took a while for Paul to recover from that. He was only five when the family he grew up with was ripped apart. I was the only one left to care for him, and… I knew I had to make the best of it. So once Paul was under my care, he sort of… became my whole world. His morale kept me battling, but other than that…"

"You lost focus of your own needs," Brock deduced. "And you became oblivious of how your journey affected your own life. So you were just going through the motions of your battling years without thinking about what you really wanted to do for yourself."

"Yeah," Reggie affirmed; his voice becoming hollow. "And ever since Mom passed on, I'd often think about the fate of her business. All those baby Pokémon she cared for that no one else could… I didn't want the business to die with her. I was always thinking about how to save it… so I really was going through the motions for those four years. But it wasn't until after I traveled through four regions, qualified for each League Conference, and got through almost the entire Kanto Battle Frontier that I finally took a long, hard look at my own life… and I saw that Brandon was absolutely right. I had no business challenging the likes of him… because my true inner strength, that he wanted so badly to see from me… it had nothing to do with all that battling I did over the years, and it never would be."

It was disheartening for Brock to see Reggie still putting himself at fault for why his family life became even more complicated. But at the same time, it was a struggle for Brock to find an answer that would fix this mess and absolve Reggie of the guilt he felt.

But that didn't stop him from trying his best. "Reggie… I know earning your father's approval is very important to you. But I think you're not giving yourself enough credit. See, I have a friend who went through a similar scenario back when Ash and I traveled through Hoenn." Though the circumstances weren't nearly as dire with May, who was pushed into being a Pokémon Trainer by her Gym Leader father but ultimately chose to pursue Pokémon Contests instead, it was still a fitting example to compare with Reggie's problem. "For a while her only motivation was her love of traveling and she didn't care much for Pokémon at all; she was just willing to endure that part of the journey to travel to her heart's desire. Of course, her feelings changed drastically over time and now she's fully dedicated to her Pokémon and realized what her true calling was. Even though her desires didn't match up with her father's, who was a Gym Leader, he was still supportive of her decision. Without hesitation, her parents supported her however they could… because they understood that the needs of their daughter were greater than what they thought was best for her."

"They… sound like really good parents," Reggie quietly muttered, feeling his often-repressed jealousy well up within him. "I'm glad everything worked out well for your friend… she must have been under a lot of pressure at first."

"That's right," Brock affirmed. "The reason I'm telling you this is because I honestly believe you're not deserving of all the blame you've put on yourself. You think you made a mistake by giving up on defeating Brandon because of how that affected Paul, but do you really believe things would have turned out better if you forced yourself to continue down the path that you know makes you unhappy? Who's to say Paul would have turned out any better…?"

"Guess there's no way to know for sure," Reggie figured; he hadn't really thought of the matter from this perspective before. "Not unless I did challenge Dad again and defeated him." After an awkward pause, Reggie decided to concede another truth to Brock that Paul wouldn't have allowed. "And actually… my training with Paul wasn't just for his sake. It was also for mine."

Brock wasn't following quite yet. "Yours? But… how?"

"About two months ago, Dad sent me a letter," Reggie told him. "He very rarely makes contact with me or Paul; only when something big is happening with his life. Like when he caught Regirock, Registeel, and Regice… this time he was going after Regigigas. He wanted to celebrate by giving me another chance to defeat him once he captured Regigigas, and he gave Paul a similar invitation."

"Even after you put your foot down and made your choice about which path you were taking with your life, Brandon still insisted that you should battle him?" To Brock, this seemed like a very insensitive thing for the Pyramid King to do.

Reggie shook his head. "It's not like that… I think Dad had my best interests in mind. I've chosen my path, but… I still regret not being able to give my father the great battle he deserved to see from his son. For all the harsh decisions he's made that's made my life and Paul's so difficult… Dad's still hurting, too. I want to do what I can to remind him that he isn't alone in this… and…"

Brock remained firm as he listened. "And?"

"I know it's sort of selfish on my part, but… I want closure," Reggie confessed. "I want to show Dad that I can be what he wants me to be, even if that's not what I want and won't conform to. Every time I see my accomplishments on the mantle at home, it… bothers me. My incomplete set of Frontier Symbols has been stuck in the back of my mind for years… and I think there's only one way to handle it."

"So you still want to win the Brave Symbol," Brock understood. "After all these years…"

"Just to close the book on that part of my life for good," Reggie clarified, feeling he had to force the words out of his mouth. "One more battle, this time I'll win, and then I'm returning to my life… and I'll never have to look back again."

Brock took a moment for this to sink in. As he suspected, there truly were more complexities to Paul and Reggie's life than he could have possibly anticipated. At the very least, Brock was satisfied to know what exactly troubled Paul so much; it gave him hope that perhaps Ash and his rival could come to an understanding someday despite their differences. Though now Brock could see how truly different Ash and Paul were. Even more than their clashing philosophies on Pokémon, their very lives were at opposites. Perhaps, then, the two rivals coming to a mutual understanding would be harder than he thought. But it certainly didn't seem to be impossible, and that was enough for Brock.

"In that case… I wish you the best, Reggie," Brock said; his sincerity in his statement well apparent. "You're strong enough to not let your father or brother's expectations run your life anymore, and settling your unfinished business with Brandon is a very admirable thing to do. I know it won't be easy."

"Definitely," Reggie concurred. "Especially after seeing the battle between him and Paul… Dad hasn't changed a bit. He's much stronger now than when I battled him years back, but that's the only difference. So to even stand a chance, I have to get back into the mindset of the kind of trainer I used to be. On top of that, I've got to go beyond my prime, because that wasn't nearly enough to faze Dad four years ago."

"There's no way of knowing just how much further you have to go," Brock realized. "Brandon will keep getting stronger right along with you." A thought hit the aspiring Pokémon Breeder as he mumbled, "Though without his Regis…" He looked to Reggie and spoke up again. "Did Brandon tell you about what happened to his Pokémon?"

Reggie nodded, somber as he easily remembered that day barely over a week ago and how worried he was for his father's safety before finding out what had happened. "Yeah," he quietly replied. "Paul and I actually spotted pillars of smoke rising up from around where we had just come from while we were driving back to Snowpoint City. We turned around to figure out what happened, but we were too late to be of any help. Dad told us everything that night…" He decided against telling Brock of the drama that followed this confession, mainly stemming from Paul, but rightly so as the incident threatened the family's future financial stability. After everything Reggie had confessed to this point, he felt there was no need to continue needlessly piling his problems onto Brock.

"Then you know that Regirock, Registeel, Regice, and Regigigas are no longer a concern for you," Brock pointed out.

"That doesn't make Dad any less of a challenge," Reggie countered, shaking his head. "Believe me, for all the decades he's been a trainer, I know for a fact he has other Pokémon that can match the power of the Regis. How do you think Dad managed to capture them in the first place?"

Apparently Brock hadn't thought of that; so much for his logical attempt to reassure Reggie of his chances. "Good point," he conceded. "You wouldn't happen to know what else he has that could have captured them, do you? His Ninjask, Solrock, and Dusclops didn't seem like they were on par with the Regis, even though I've seen how strong they were when Ash battled them."

"There's only one Pokémon of his I know of that is definitely equal to the level of the Regis beyond a shadow of a doubt," Reggie said, "That would be his first."

"His starter," Brock realized. "Of course. But which-"

"I'll let you figure that one out on your own," Reggie decided, smirking as he stood up. "But I'll say this much: Dad's starter had a pretty easy time weakening two of the three Regis. Only the last one gave him some trouble, mostly because Dad was at a big disadvantage. My starter might stand a chance against his for that same reason, but the odds are evened out through a certain advantage his starter has over mine that's not as obvious. So I'd better keep my guard up and not make the mistake of underestimating that opponent if it comes down to our first Pokémon."

Brock nodded as he stood up moments later. "If you insist. I'll sleep on it and figure it out one of these days. Say, if your rematch happens after the Sinnoh League, Ash and I might just be in the neighborhood. Assuming your rematch will take place where your original battle started, that is."

Reggie nodded, putting on an earnest smile. "If it's convenient for you, by all means, you're invited to come to the Battle Frontier and watch. I'm sure Dad would enjoy seeing you again, and having witnesses to our battle would be all the better." He winked just then. "And even if Paul says no, you're welcome to watch his rematch, too."

"Sounds good," Brock agreed. "I'm interested to see how well you both do, and I'm sure Ash would never pass up the chance to see either of you in action. You can count on us being there to cheer you both on."

"I appreciate it, really," Reggie thanked, finally starting to head off towards his car. "Until that time, I guess it's goodbye for now. We'll look forward to seeing you guys… and do tell Ash that I wish him luck in the Sinnoh League. I know he'll bounce back from this for sure, and I'd love to see him and Paul battle again."

Brock was more than happy to comply. "Will do. And I promise I won't tell a soul about everything you wanted to keep confidential."

Reggie nodded, easily finding the aspiring breeder trustworthy. "Thanks. I'd better start heading back to Veilstone City now. I've been gone far too long; much longer than I planned to."

"At this hour?" Brock wondered quietly to himself, noticing the star-covered dark sky above them. But if Reggie was pressed for time, he could understand why there was an urgent need to begin the long journey back home. He was well aware just how far away they were from Veilstone City right now. "Alright; be safe, Reggie," Brock said with a smile.

With the reassuring smile returned, Reggie waved a farewell to the first person he could confide in for years. "Same to you guys. Until next time…"

"Seeya, Reggie…"

Brock waved back as Reggie turned away and finally walked off, strolling straight towards his van while mentally preparing himself for a long drive back home. The Breeder-to-be sighed to himself, feeling content with how the conversation went.

"I knew there had to be more to Paul and Reggie than they were letting on," Brock said to himself. Though he hadn't quite anticipated such a heavy, complicated load of information that explained why Paul was the way he was, Brock couldn't be too surprised about that. He was simply satisfied to have his suspicions confirmed, so the aspiring breeder would no longer have to occupy his mind wondering about them. At a time like this, Brock knew he needed to focus on Ash now.

Looking briefly towards Lake Acuity one more time, Brock turned around to make his way back to the Pokémon Center where Ash and Dawn were spending the night. "Knowing is half the battle…" was the last thing Brock said to himself before leaving the area.

Just after Brock left, however, a gentle glow of a golden hue emitted from underneath Lake Acuity's waters. A peculiar creature – certainly a Pokémon – slowly and quietly emerged from the depths to stare at an object of its sudden and particular interest: the teenager who was now barely within visible range.

It had heard the entire discussion; the soft sounds disrupting its dormant state. As a creature of wisdom, it was engrossed in the nearby conversation. Its extraordinary mental prowess enabled the tiny being to hear every word clearly despite being several feet underwater. As the object of this Pokémon's interest vanished in the distance, the mystical creature itself slowly descended into Lake Acuity once more. Though uncertain of how or why, this Pokémon felt a unique bond with the human and remained intrigued.

The tiny guardian of Lake Acuity somehow knew it would see Brock again in the near future; hence it returned to its slumber underneath the water until that time would come.

The following day, while Ash busied himself licking the wounds of his shattered ego from the full battle, Paul's self-confidence was born anew. As much as a disaster most of his time in Snowpoint City had been, Paul had learned many valuable lessons… most were learned the hard way, but the important thing was that Paul would be able to better himself as a trainer and a human being through those lessons.

He knew now that there was no point in fighting against something he could do nothing about – his illness. Paul wasn't going to distract himself (for now) with hoping some miracle would be bestowed upon him and eradicate the ailment; he simply had to accept and learn to live with it. When the time was right, he would tell his family the truth, but until then, Paul saw no reason to make his brother or father fret over something they were powerless against. The enlightened trainer would from now on take care of himself like he should have done in the first place and not stubbornly defy his fate by taking unnecessary risks. Paul promised himself that he would no longer use his disease as an excuse for his own careless mistakes.

While not expecting this to be a problem, Paul realized through his father that he couldn't afford to let his emotions run wild in the midst of battle. He had spent so much time suppressing his emotions all the time that his guard became easy to break in tight situations. Paul might have taken the lesson a bit too literally, not yet seeing the faults of having no emotion whatsoever in a battle since it worked so well against Ash, but with time perhaps he'd find a medium. Similarly related, Paul learned that he did not hate his father – not completely, anyway. Despite all the pent-up rage he expressed towards Brandon, simply spending time with him made Paul feel at ease. He didn't feel this at all when Brandon first appeared in Sinnoh to be with Reggie in his time of need. However, back then Brandon made it clear that his return to Sinnoh was purely for business purposes and would be back in Kanto once that business was finished. Reuniting with the family was entirely circumstantial, as he likely wouldn't have paid his sons a visit if Byron hadn't told him what happened. Knowing this, Paul only held contempt against the Pyramid King for seeming to assume one quick visit to his family for the first time in seven years (as their meeting four years prior was also purely for business and really had nothing to do with Paul himself) would make up for his absence in their lives when even the one visit didn't last more than a few hours. Brandon even humiliated him in public just for the sake of business then in regards to the Regigigas book Paul was intentionally keeping away from him.

Paul remembered being surprised when Brandon conceded to a battle if they would be able to meet in Snowpoint City during his business trip. He masked that surprise with more indignation, but he was determined to make this battle happen no matter what. Though the resulting battle nearly broke Paul's spirit, thinking back on it, Paul felt slightly appreciated that Brandon would put his business on hold even when he was within grasp of his long-sought after goal just to battle with his son, who by official means didn't even earn the right to do so. Though his loss was the most devastating one he ever felt, hearing Brandon actually praise him afterwards had a major effect: normally Brandon wouldn't praise how well his challenger trained their Pokémon and the like, but the Pyramid King was compelled to make up for the mental warfare he waged on his son to easily win the battle, after all this time of not being there for his son to tell him how he really thought about his progression. The biggest challenge of that battle for Brandon was to communicate that in a way that didn't give away their relation; another thing he did solely because Paul didn't want the spectators to know that secret he was keeping from them.

His father had been so unreliable over the years that Paul struggled to bring himself to trust the man, but keeping the secret safe and giving Paul some professional fatherly advice no other challenger would have received to that extent made the embittered son subconsciously realize that Brandon really did care for him. While it was rough dealing with the still unresolved matter of what drove Paul to battle that didn't relate to his desire to prove a point to his family and surpass them, Paul understood this was something he needed to realize and take some time to re-evaluate what drove him to become a Pokémon Trainer. When he and Reggie realized something had gone wrong with Brandon's mission at the Snowpoint Temple, Paul found himself worrying about his father's wellbeing; he didn't even try to hide it. He was visibly upset upon finding out about the risks Brandon was taking if his mission failed (which it did), and despite the Frontier Brain's instruction, Paul continued to worry about what his father was going to do from here. He couldn't help it; there were severe potential ramifications on the family's stability if Brandon couldn't find an alternative to please the Battle Frontier committee.

But Paul knew he couldn't let this issue cloud his mind and distract him from his own mission. Things hadn't turned for the worst just yet; there was still time, and even Paul couldn't deny that Brandon was an incredibly gifted person who could turn any kind of situation around. As long as there was still an opportunity for Brandon to make things work out, then Paul simply had to trust his father would be able to do so. It was now much easier for Paul to have faith in his father; the ten-day period in which he trained for his upcoming battle with Ash had a major impact on how Paul viewed the Pyramid King now. The two managed to have a civil one-on-one conversation and Brandon was even around a few times to monitor his son's progress. He was even there for moral support, during the first day of training when Paul could no longer suppress the agony and stress he held within himself for so many weeks and broke out into a miserable sobbing fit. Brandon normally would have scolded his son for being so weak to actually cry, but he couldn't bring himself to do so this time. He didn't utter any comforting words, either, but he didn't really need to. Just being there for Paul when he was at his lowest was enough for his youngest son; it reminded him that he wasn't alone, even though it usually felt that way with his family being fragmented as it was. When the family came together and business had nothing to do with it, Paul was able to feel the love. He felt the comfort he had longed for after all of the misfortunes that befell him. There were still unresolved matters Paul had to figure out on his own, and he actually hadn't fully forgiven his father just yet, but the family made a major collective step forward in the process of mending the ties between them all.

He had learned many things through Reggie while being here in the frigid northern tip of Sinnoh. Through battle, Paul had realized that Reggie already surpassed him in skill and strength. The harsh defeat Paul's Torterra suffered against Reggie's Infernape proved that the younger brother needed serious work on connecting with his Pokémon on a deeper level; a level he was uncomfortable to experience. Paul avoided getting too close with his Pokémon for years, based on spite to do everything his brother didn't do and his seemingly phobic aversion to the concept of being close with anyone besides his brother (whom he still kept at a distance most of the time). Upon meeting Ash, whose methods were very similar to Reggie's, Paul was even less inclined to really get to know his Pokémon on anything other than a professional level. Finding out about Ash's victory over Kanto's Battle Frontier (including defeating his father; all this happening before they even met) was still a hard revelation for Paul to swallow. The frustration that stemmed from his incompatibility with the Chimchar he once owned didn't help matters either, and while Paul was able to not let the matter of Ash now having his Chimchar bother him, the battles following the switch in ownership seemed to be giving Paul a subtle warning. Seeing Ash trigger Chimchar's hidden powers within its Blaze ability (which Paul could never once do) and now witnessing its long-awaited evolution to Monferno during their full battle, Paul could no longer deny that Ash was making progress with the troubled little Fire-type and felt that all the mistreatment he inflicted upon that Pokémon would come back with some dire consequences, courtesy of bad karma.

Somehow, Paul's recent struggles didn't feel like a consequence of that karma; simply misfortune. But perhaps another form of karma had a role in it involving someone else Paul had wronged along the journey through his home region: a witty traveling companion named Conway. A fellow teen Pokémon Trainer who was once considered a friend, whom Paul left stranded on a desolate, blizzard-ravaged route. All simply because he jumped to a conclusion without even giving his companion the opportunity to get a word in edgewise. Paul wanted to think he did the right thing, betrayed as he felt by Conway failing him just like everyone else close to him had failed him in the past. Despite the strong, indignant front Paul put up against Conway, on the inside he was deeply hurt; he couldn't control his emotions to listen to reason.

… In a way, these lessons are all connected together. The disease, the PokéRinger competition, and the treacherous journey to Snowpoint City (including the embarrassing failure of a Gym Battle) kept Paul's mind off of Conway for the most part, because some part of him began to wonder if his actions were truly justified. While Paul was good about pushing those doubts to the very back of his mind, the thoughts in retrospect actually considering the circumstances of Conway's dilemma (namely the trauma of being kidnapped, dubious consent of unspeakable acts with the enemy, and the near brush with untimely death all happening to him within the span of less than an hour) would not fade away no matter how much Paul tried to take the matter off his mind. Becoming extremely sick and marred with injuries, Paul became irrational and attempted to turn those feelings of doubt into spite. The battle against Candice proved this was a bad move.

Only by confessing the truth of their separation to Reggie did Paul come to accept that he had done something horrible. He had wronged Conway, the first human being Paul regarded as a friend. Having accepted that he was in the wrong, Paul felt he needed to make it up to Conway. He wasn't sure how, had no idea where he was or what he was doing at this point two weeks after the separation, but Paul's mind was made up.

Once he defeated Candice and earned his seventh badge, Paul decided to look for Conway while heading for his final Gym Battle destination on the other side of the region. It wouldn't be easy, but Paul felt he owed it to Conway to at least try to find him and make amends. And to think, Paul was completely oblivious to what had happened to Conway after their separation and what he was doing now.

But for now, Paul had to focus. With Conway's master strategy in hand, Paul looked it over one last time before entering the Snowpoint Gym. Instead of rebelling against Conway's advice, he would follow and honor it.

Candice was already informed ahead of time of when Paul would reschedule their rematch, so she was immediately available to perform her duty as Gym Leader. The two trainers' greetings toward each other were brief, as both were eager to begin the true battle Paul intended to have since he came to Snowpoint City. The competitors took their places at the opposite ends of the icy battlefield, Pokéballs in hand as they waited for the formalities from the referee, Mr. Honcho, to conclude.

"The rematch between Gym Leader Candice and Veilstone City's Paul is ready to begin!" he announced. "A four-on-four match; the victor will be determined when one side's Pokémon are all defeated! There is no time limit and only the challenger may substitute Pokémon. With that said, let the battle be-"


A desperate shrill voice echoed from the hallway of the Snowpoint Gym, disrupting the referee and catching the attention of both contenders. Paul found the sound of the voice familiar as he turned around to confirm his suspicion. Candice also recognized the voice, but smiled brightly to contrast Paul's frowning.

"So slow, Zozo," Candice teased. "I was about to think you were gonna forget about the battle you asked me if you could watch!"

Not minding the playful chiding, Zoey took a moment to slump over to catch her breath before facing the battlefield. "Sorry, Miss Senior," she apologized. "I lost track of time while I was packing my things; I told you I was going back out to travel today, didn't I?"

"Ah, right! I remember now," the Gym Leader affirmed. "Hard to believe it's been two weeks already since you came back. You'll totally be missed for sure, but it's alright. Next time you come back, it'll be as a Top Coordinator, right?"

The vote of confidence brought a smile out of Zoey. "Definitely," she agreed. "I've rested up long enough; now nobody's gonna stop me from making it to the Grand Festival." Then she turned her attention to the clearly annoyed Paul. "And what's your deal? I haven't even said anything to you yet."

"Why are you here?" Paul's question was straightforward, par for the course whenever he was annoyed and/or impatient.

While Zoey came to learn that Paul wasn't quite as bad as he seemed to be the day she met him, in her opinion, he was still pretty bad. Based on what she learned about Paul from Dawn and her friends, Zoey cared too much for her childhood friend to disregard this battle. Brock wasn't the only one interested in finding out what made Paul tick, after all.

"I'm here because she's my best friend," she sternly replied, gesturing to the Gym Leader. "And since I ran into you over a week ago, there was something about you I really didn't like. I'll admit you're pretty skilled at battling, but after that blow-up you had with Brandon… well, let's just say I'm here to make sure your anger issues don't go out of control again and take it out on Miss Senor here."

Zoey didn't really explain her intentions to Candice, hence the spunky Ice-type specialist quietly chuckled, clearly flattered. "Oh, Zozo. There you go worrying again! Believe me, you've got nothing to worry about," she assured with a wink. Candice was not worried in the least, of course, because she had gotten to know Paul on her own time that she faithfully kept to herself. While Paul's behavior during his battle with Brandon startled her, Candice knew those outbursts of rage weren't the signs of a troublemaker. No, Paul was simply a troubled person. Being one of the few to know of the lethal burden Paul had to carry for the rest of his life and witnessing his behavior before and after he had to accept said burden, Candice could tell this young man was not a bad person.

"There's no reason for you to be here," Paul followed up. "If you've got your own journey to resume, stop wasting your time here and get going."

"Yeah right; as if the battle's gonna last that long before Miss Senior defeats you," Zoey said; a smug smirk on her face now apparent. "That's something I still want to see before I go, even if there is nothing to worry about."

"You don't mind, do you, Paul?" Candice asked, feeling a little guilty for not informing her challenger about this ahead of time. Then again, based on Paul's reactions in the past regarding others who wanted to see his battle, it seemed he couldn't have cared less whether there were any witnesses to his battle or not.

Normally that was true, but this time Paul simply wasn't in the mood for a peanut gallery. Still, by now Paul felt this had been dragged out long enough and he wanted his seventh badge earned today, no matter what. If that meant having to deal with the company of a girl he didn't care for, then Paul was willing to tolerate her company as best he could.

"Do what you want," Paul answered. Though his tone was neutral, the cold and callous nuances remained audible. "It's your gym; I'm just here to battle. Nothing else matters."

Candice smiled uneasily before nodding to Zoey. "Guess that means you're free to stay, Zozo. Go ahead and take a seat."

"Got it," Zoey said, smirking as she made her way over to choose a seat. Naturally, she was inclined to sit at Candice's end of the stadium, but the aspiring Pokémon Coordinator continued to keep a close eye on Paul. "Kick his butt, Miss Senior!"

"We'll see about that," Candice said, making no promises. "Time for a real kiai battle! You ready, Paul?"

Paul nodded as he took out his first Pokéball, silently staring at it for a moment to recall Conway's strategy before looking to Mr. Honcho. "Anything else you needed to say?"

"Only one thing," the referee said as he shook his head. "Challenger, the first move is yours."

With the battle officially underway, Paul set his eyes on Candice before throwing his Pokéball. Since the spunky Gym Leader was taking him seriously this time, Paul assumed she wouldn't throw out her Abomasnow first like before. It was fairly obvious then that Abomasnow was her signature, so Paul had the advantage of knowing exactly what Candice's trump card was and how to counter it. Still, it was him underestimating Candice in the first place that led to the disastrous loss from their first battle, so Paul set himself on taking all of his opponent's Pokémon seriously.

"Very well. Honchkrow, stand by for battle!"

Candice couldn't resist smirking at the sight of the Big Boss Pokémon seeking redemption from its own losing streak. It had lost to Conway in the final Contest battle, to Ash at the PokéRinger competition, and to Candice after taking only three hits of damage. On top of that, it had lost numerous times to various members of Reggie's team during the ten-day period in which the brothers trained in preparation for the full battle with Ash. It was going to take more than one good performance from there to make up for its mistakes, and Honchkrow knew this. Luckily, Honchkrow's strength and resilience was much improved thanks to the training, so this and remembering way back when Weavile – a Pokémon with much more pitiful defenses than it – managed to pull out a win against Steel-typed Pokémon that otherwise would have torn it in half, the weakness to Ice-type Pokémon Honchkrow was about to face didn't seem nearly as daunting as it once did. Of course, it was also reassuring to be aware that Paul actually knew what he was doing here, unlike the last time.

It was hard to resist making a comment on the fact that Paul was using Honchkrow again, but Candice was not one to ever break a promise if she could help it. Even if it meant keeping a secret from her closest friend, Candice knew the circumstances of Paul's situation warranted that. Instead, she settled on making similar comments like she did before. "A Flying-type, huh? I don't see those being used here against me very much," she coyly said. "Good thing I like surprises."

"Surprise is right," Zoey mumbled to herself while peering down at the plump black bird on the field. "Does he really think Miss Senior's gonna be that easy to beat?"

Paul refused to respond, keeping himself evened out and level-headed as he awaited what else Candice had up her sleeve besides Abomasnow.

"Alright, alright, I gotcha," Candice understood. "Time to get down for business! " She threw her first Pokéball accordingly. "Sneasel, let's get going…!"

As expected, Candice did not send out Abomasnow first this time. While Zoey smirked at the sight of this match-up, knowing full well her friend had this Sneasel and was likely to use it in response to a Dark/Flying-typed opponent. Paul refrained from making any sort of gesture and expected to be at a disadvantage here; naturally, since the Gym Leader had the element of surprise on her side, it would only make sense for Candice to make use of it. However, inwardly, Paul was struck with a small surprise; one of how unexpectedly familiar this felt.

It didn't take long for Paul to realize why he felt that sense of déjà vu: Candice had actually revealed this Pokémon to him before. The circumstances of the Gym Leader doing this weren't the usual kind; this happened a short while after Paul lost to her in their first battle. Right after losing, Paul's disease finally outclassed the power of his self-control and had to be admitted to the city's hospital immediately. It was there when Paul had nowhere to run from facing his grim own grim reality, which caused him to go AWOL the second he had the strength to do so. He took refuge in a bathroom stall, needing the peace and quiet and solitude in order to come to terms with this life-changing news. That moment of meditation was interrupted by a pity-driven Candice, who had come to visit Paul (naturally worried for him given the state he was in after their battle).

Paul had no patience for the teenage girl who had just humiliated him in battle (even if she had good intentions for visiting) and was now involved with the people in the hospital who sought to take him away from his little refuge and force him back into the world of chaos now wreaked upon him. He resorted to drastic measures – feigning suicidal behavior – to get rid of the Gym Leader. It partially worked; the hollow threats did get Candice to leave the area and allow Paul a few more moments of peace and solitude before he was finally apprehended by the hospital staff. However, since Candice believed in Paul's ruse, she was too fearful to truly leave him on his own and the two settled on a compromise before she left… and that was to leave the only Pokémon quick enough to intercept an attempt at suicide: her Sneasel.

Thankfully for Sneasel, it never needed to stop Paul from doing anything crazy. So the entire time, Paul and Candice's Sneasel remained in close quarters, but separated by a bathroom stall; the two never even got a proper look at each other. Luckily for Paul, he didn't need to get to know Candice's Sneasel. His own Weavile was caught in its pre-evolved form and remained a Sneasel until Paul's twelfth birthday when Brandon gave his son a Razor Claw. That gave Paul plenty of time during his Johto journey to learn the differences between the two related species.

The only thing that stood out in Candice's Sneasel was the short, stubby red feather protruding from its left ear. Paul remembered his Sneasel's feather being much larger and longer, resembling a full wing. This made one detail clear right away: Candice's Sneasel was female. Paul only hoped this Sneasel didn't know the move Attract; a simple status move like that had the potential of making the entire plan Conway constructed null and void and effectively dooming Paul's team of all-male Pokémon. Flirtatious girls like Candice seemed to have preferences for moves that matched their nature, so Paul felt this to be a genuine concern. Hopefully luck would work in his favor this time… the past couple of months or so brought enough bad luck to Paul to cover the rest of the year.

With that revelation out of the way, it was time to finally start the battle.

"Honchkrow, use Haze!" Following Conway's written suggestions, the first order of business was to buffer the disadvantage as much as possible in order to even out the odds. Paul at first disagreed with such an idea, but not so much nowadays, having grown all the wiser after a string of disheartening defeats. Admittedly the first draft of Conway's plan involved entirely different move sets for the majority of Paul's Pokémon, but the strategy was tweaked accordingly throughout the entire time the two traveled together, which naturally resulted in alterations to the set of moves that were planned to be used in this scenario. At the time Paul found it annoying of Conway to nitpick at an already-completed strategy, but it became clear to him now that this was a sign showing how much Conway valued their friendship. Paul had always judged him on how useful he would be to him as a traveling companion.

Only now did Paul realize how short-sighted and selfish that was of him. Conway knew it all along, but rather than calling his friend out on his behavior, he catered to Paul's wishes with nary a complaint; that was how much friendship mattered to Conway. He was the one who understood what the word "friendship" actually meant. Now it was time for Paul to come to terms with the concept, which was why he decided to rely on his former companion's instructions rather than go by his own instinct again.

As Honchkrow obscured most of the battlefield with thick black smoke, Zoey grumbled in frustration as she squinted in an attempt to see through it. "Sure," she muttered. "Make it so that I can't even see the fight. Nice one, Paul."

That wasn't Paul's intention, but he'd have preferred to not have Zoey here at all, so preventing her from being able to view the battle was fine by him. Honchkrow's Haze was so thick that the two trainers could not see each other, meaning Paul was not able to see the smirk on Candice's face as she and her Sneasel stood their ground.

"Pretty clever move to use," the Gym Leader remarked. "If you were facing any Pokémon other than Sneasel, that is."

"Keep it up, Honchkrow," Paul commanded briefly before addressing Candice. "You're going to explain something, aren't you?"

Sneasel still hadn't moved from its stationary position, waiting for Candice's order, but knew why Candice hadn't ordered an attack yet.

"I can see you're having Honchkrow use Haze to lower the visibility on the field. Believe me, where I live, I've dealt with blizzards and fog so thick I could hardly see the back of my own hand!" Candice sounded proud of that, but her bubbly demeanor sobered down into sheer confidence that Paul was making a major mistake here. "Yeah, it's a good plan to make it harder for my Pokémon to hit yours given your disadvantage. But trying to do that with Sneasel is a waste of time because…"

Paul grew tired of the talkative Gym Leader quickly; no wonder he underestimated her before. "Because…"

"Sneasel's ability is Keen Eye!" Candice shouted out suddenly. "You can't affect its accuracy in any way!"

Not even giving Paul a second to react, Candice finally went on the offensive. "Sneasel, use Ice Beam!"

Indeed, despite the low visibility range across the battlefield, Sneasel's aim was precise and struck Honchkrow with a super-effective stream of ice. Honchkrow's continued Haze was cut off as the Big Boss Pokémon was tossed back to its side of the battlefield and set on a collision course towards the solid ice terrain not too far away from where Paul stood.

Paul grimaced at the sight, but refused to let this setback shake him. Ideally he would have wanted Honchkrow to dodge the attack, but knowing his choice Flying-type was built more for bulk and strength rather than speed and agility (especially compared to other Flying-types like Ash's Staraptor) made this outcome inevitable. With Honchkrow knocked down, the massive Haze cloud would dissipate before long. It was a bit of a mistake on Paul's part to forget about Sneasel's ability; something he normally wouldn't let escape his memory since he raised the same species. However, abilities within certain Pokémon changed upon evolving, and Weavile was such a case, as its ability was now Pressure – a far less useful ability, in Paul's opinion. That and thoughtlessly following through with Conway's plan without taking time to account for potential counters resulted in this error… although, there was another reason to abuse Haze this early on; it would just have to clear out before it could be seen that the move served in its secondary function.

"Sorry to waste your efforts there!" Candice cheerfully apologized. "But you're not gonna defeat Sneasel with eye tricks. If you wanna beat me, you're gonna have to do it head-on with all your kiai might!"

By now Honchkrow had recovered from the hit it took and took flight again, awaiting Paul's next order.

Sky Attack was a very strong move that would quickly cripple Sneasel, but it required a charge time and wouldn't have the opportunity to launch before the Sharp Claw Pokémon would intercept the attack with its own. Paul had another move in mind, but decided to hold off until later for it since it would likely be the best Honchkrow could do against its opponent short of a successful hit from Sky Attack. That left only one option, and not a very attractive one given the type it was. However, Paul knew both Sneasel and Weavile had terrible defenses, especially in special defense. Even if it wouldn't be effective, chipping down even small bits of Sneasel's health would be a good way as any to start out.

"Alright, Honchkrow," Paul calmly told his Pokémon as he made his decision. "Use Shadow Ball!"

Without hesitation, the Big Boss Pokémon fired off the Ghost-type attack with accurate precision despite the still-lingering Haze. However…

"Sneasel, dodge it!"

Candice's Pokémon was definitely trained to make the best use of its incredible speed and dodged the ball of energy with ease. The attack instead collided into one of the ice stalagmites that protruded from the solid-ice battlefield. The stalagmite shattered into pieces upon impact; with Haze losing its potency each passing second, Paul was able to faintly see the large amount of debris Shadow Ball left in its wake. It wasn't because of the lingering traces of Haze that made the debris hard to see – rather, it was due to the fact that the debris closely matched the color of the field it was scattered over: black.

Paul smirked. This was exactly what he was counting on; if Haze couldn't affect Sneasel's accuracy, it could at least affect the coloration of the ice if it was consistently used, which it had been. Untainted, ice refracted light quite well. That was why it was so easy to distinguish the stalagmites, other structures, and even small pieces of debris made of ice from the floor even though all pure forms of ice like the kind used in Candice's gym was colorless. Light was still able to pass through ice, giving off the illusion of color, and the stadium lights that hung high over the battlefield were more than powerful enough to make every bit of the stadium well-lit.

However, the black mist emitting from Honchkrow's Haze had a component of water within it, and ice was literally water itself, only solid. This made it easy for Haze to actually stick on any ice it made contact with. A dark color like black, if it was saturated well enough into the ice, could prevent any light from passing through at all.

It was from this that Paul finally had a true strategy to work with despite his disadvantage.

"Oh, gross," Candice remarked with disgust. "You're tainting my battlefield! It's like the roads of Snowpoint City at rush hour during a snowstorm. Those polluting cars and the dirty roads make the snow all dark and slushy… and then that nasty stuff freezes over the roads afterwards and makes it a danger zone for anyone driving over it!"

"You're talking about black ice," Paul noted with a smirk. "Honchkrow, keep using Shadow Ball!"

Candice hadn't quite seen the writing on the wall yet and stuck with her usual strategy. "Sneasel, keep dodging!"

Sneasel continued skating along the ice regardless of what was being done to it from Haze, bobbing and weaving between the remaining ice boulders and stalagmites which became the eventual targets of Honchkrow's attacks. One by one, they shattered into thousands of pieces, eventually littering the entire battlefield with icy debris. Though coated black on the outside, the broken bits of the structures showed the pure, untainted ice that the Haze could not permeate. Once everything had been destroyed with a Shadow Ball attack, there remained only one final step to complete his plan.

"That Honchkrow of yours might be a crack shot against most Pokémon, but it's got nothing on my Sneasel!" Candice coyly taunted.

Paul chose to ignore it. "Now, use Haze one more time!"

As the Big Boss Pokémon scattered its black mist across the entire battlefield as a finishing touch to Paul's plan, Zoey watched on looking every bit as confused as her mentor. "What kind of plan is this?" she wondered out loud. "He knows there's no point in using that move when Sneasel's on the field. It doesn't matter how thick that mist gets; Sneasel's gonna see right through it!"

After a moment, Candice came to a conclusion and smiled, nodding her head. "I see. You're out of options, aren't you? Just biding your time like every other trainer who brings in a Flying-type against me… you do remember you're free to switch out, right?"

"Of course," Paul replied, sounding every bit as smug as his opponent. "Now's a good time to do that." He took out Honchkrow's Pokéball and held it up high. "Honchkrow, return!"

This was another lesson of humility Paul had learned the hard way between his battle with Byron and the battle he was having right now. Even after forcing a type disadvantage on his whole team, Paul refused to switch out any of his Pokémon at any given time despite being allowed to. Since Conway witnessed this battle, he made a note in his written strategy for Paul that he shouldn't be so proudly stubborn like he was back then, and allow for his team to switch out when the circumstances called for it.

Conway's directions had nothing regarding Paul's plan on affecting the battlefield with Haze, however. That was entirely Paul's idea; Conway wouldn't have known how to make a strategy based around affecting a battlefield he's never seen before. This was a comfortable medium for Paul to be in: he was being humble and considerate by being faithful to the plans Conway worked hard to make for his friend – at the same time not being entirely reliant on it. Paul was still allowed to put his own spin on an idea depending on the situation, which was how doing the gym battle this way became much easier for Paul to bear.

"Finally," Zoey grumbled while Honchkrow was recalled. "What was even the point of all that, anyway? His next Pokémon better actually start the battle… this just turned out to be a Contest Appeal gone horribly wrong."

Even if Zoey had been speaking loud enough to be heard, Paul would have tuned her out anyway. He threw the next Pokéball… "Ursaring, stand by for battle!"

The Hibernator Pokémon landed onto the black ice, slightly cracking the spot of icy battlefield it landed on with its 277 pounds of girth. Ursaring was Paul's biggest offensive weapon in this battle, having no weakness to Ice-type moves while packing super-effective-to-Ice moves like Hammer Arm and Focus Blast. It was still susceptible to being frozen by Ice-type moves, however, as it had been rendered useless this way in two battles before now. Both instances were gym battles, no less. Sneasel still had a massive speed and agility advantage over Ursaring as well; something Paul hoped his first plan would affect to better his chances of overcoming the Sharp Claw Pokémon.

"Ooh, this might be trouble!" Candice hollered with enthusiasm. "Well, it would be if that huge Normal-type could catch us!" She winked at Paul. "Think you can do that?"

The only response Candice got for her taunting was a frown – one that showed the Gym Leader that her opponent was not fooling around here. "Bulk Up, let's go."

Ursaring growled, pumping its paws into fists as a red aura overcame the beast, raising its offense and defense simultaneously. Candice looked intrigued.

"Alright, that's all the leeway you get, Paul," she said. "Because it's time for this kiai battle to finally start! Let's do it, Sneasel!"

Sneasel was pumped up and ready to take off. "Make that meanie pay for messing up our gym's battlefield! Use Metal Claw!"

Paul just smirked at his opponent's remark; Candice remained oblivious to his plans. He imagined he was expected to have Ursaring use a move that would increase its speed based on what the Gym Leader had said earlier. But… in all his years of favoring Pokémon of bulky, tank-like builds above all others, speed was rarely a concern of his; especially in cases like this where such efforts would be futile anyway, given the notoriously speedy opponent that Ursaring could never outpace even at top speed, as well as the terrain that only the opponent could use to aid in its acceleration. Only amateurs would actually attempt to beat Pokémon like Sneasel in terms of speed using large, lumbering Pokémon like Ursaring, who would be unable to maintain good footing on a sheet of solid ice, Paul thought.

Besides, when Candice was more than happy to have Sneasel go on the offense at a close range, the young trainer saw no reason to have his Pokémon move any more than what was absolutely necessary.

Without hesitation, Paul allowed Ursaring to be hit with the attack, though its naturally high defenses coupled with the boost in Bulk Up easily allowed for the Hibernation Pokémon to take Metal Claw with little to no visible indication that the attack even affected it.

"Not dodging, huh?" Candice noted with a grumble, nodding to Sneasel to continue its rapid assault of the same physical attack. "This isn't really the kiai battle I was looking for, Paul. You are planning to fight back, right?"

"Maybe," was Paul's deadpan cryptic answer; truly, he enjoyed being able to rile up any Gym Leader, as it was proof of his ability to outwit them. Candice did make a fool out of him in their last encounter, but Paul was intent proving here and now that only this battle mattered, as this was the only real battle with Candice that would show the full extent of Paul's strength as a Pokémon Trainer. Any Gym Leader worth their salt would agree with him: a Pokémon battle is only as valid as the evidence that both sides gave it their all regardless of the end result or how it all played out. Last time, Paul simply wasn't in the condition to perform to his usual standards. By the end of today, he was going to make sure Candice would forget about his horrendous first impression and only leave with her the proof that he was able to defeat her against the odds… despite both his self-imposed type disadvantage and his own personal disadvantage with which he was forever cursed.

Zoey grimaced at that statement. "Maybe?" she echoed, mimicking the smug tone of the trainer who said it first. "Careful, Miss Senior!" she called out to Candice. "He probably wants Sneasel to keep attacking; that'll leave it wide open for a counterattack!"

Paul was comfortable enough with his current situation to actually acknowledge Zoey's comments, looking fully annoyed as he glared straight up at her. "So, Candice. Do real Gym Leaders just let their friends come in and guide them through the entire battle holding their hand?" Zoey glared at the remark, but Paul did not relent. "Well, do they?"

Candice let out an awkward grin, knowing Zoey was just wanting to help her friend (and the Coordinator certainly made it no secret that she disliked Paul enough to go out of her way and delay her own journey just to watch him lose), but also couldn't let Paul's question fall on deaf ears. On her honor as a Gym Leader, though she knew Zoey would likely hold a grudge that would test the boundaries of their longstanding friendship, Candice had to side with her opponent here.

"They don't," she conceded; nodding to Paul before following his gaze towards her best friend. "I'm sorry, Zozo; I know you're really rooting for me and I appreciate that a lot, but in all good conscience I can't accept anything more than your moral support for this battle. You should know my role as a Gym Leader doesn't revolve around me beating every challenger."

Zoey already knew where her mentor was going with this and let out a sigh, turning up her nose as she looked away from the battlefield as she did her best to resist giving Paul a nasty retort. "Right, right. I get it. I'm just insulting you by shouting advice like that. I'm sorry, okay?"

"You can apologize when the battle's done," Paul rudely interjected, though he felt that was justified since Zoey had been nothing but rude to him since she barged in. Not even interested in seeing the flustered Coordinator turn her nose up at him in frustration to hide her shame, Paul settled back down to business.

"Keep going, Sneasel! More Metal Claw!" Candice cheered on, moving past the awkward interruption with ease. The Sharp Claw Pokémon continued its close-range assault on the much larger opponent. Despite Zoey's warning, Candice was not all that concerned with keeping her Pokémon within Ursaring's reach, confident that her Sneasel's speed would allow it to dodge any attack the Hibernator Pokémon could throw in retaliation.

Paul did his best to withhold the devious smirk that slipped through a few times when he last battled Ash; this was the perfect opportunity to land Ursaring's first and probably only needed attack. "Hammer Arm, now!"

Candice gulped when she heard that attack being called. Before she could even tell Sneasel to get out of there, Ursaring's glowing fist of fury landed point-blank over Sneasel's skull. Hammer Arm was a Fighting-type move, of course; a powerful one that honed in on Sneasel's greatest weakness. By keeping movements to a minimum with the added buff of Bulk Up, Paul's Ursaring had the energy to spare to make this blow swift and even more devastating than it usually was – on the flipside, Candice's Sneasel had been expending much of its energy dodging all of Paul's attacks up to this point, as well as relentlessly attacking. Add in Sneasel's naturally weak defenses against most attacks, especially of a type it would be critically weak to regardless of its condition, and that allowed for a perfectly calculated win made in one single attack.

"No way, no way!" the Gym Leader wailed as the force of Hammer Arm turned Sneasel into a figurative puddle of mush over a crater made in the blackened ice.

"Sneasel is unable to battle!" Mr. Honcho declared, gesturing to the challenger's side of the field. "So Ursaring is the winner!"

For such a well-planned and methodical victory, Paul finally allowed himself to smirk, already in a better mood seeing how much better this battle with Candice was going opposed to last time's. He patiently waited for Candice to give her encouraging words to Sneasel before recalling it to its Pokéball; something he never really understood the point of doing.

"Guess the joke's on me, huh?" Candice said with a chuckle as she pocketed her Pokéball away and brought out another. "You must've had this planned from the start! And here I thought you were stalling. You sure know how to time your attacks, Paul!"

Zoey's eyes were glued on the battlefield, baffled at how calm and composed Paul was. Granted, he did just get the first win of the battle, but there was definitely a change in him from last time. "Guess he has a reason for the things he does after all," she figured. "I don't know how he can stand just letting his Pokémon take all those hits before doing anything, though…"

Paul did allow himself to smile smugly after receiving the compliment from his opponent. "I'll have Ursaring stick around for now," he said. "If all your Ice-types are as vulnerable as your Sneasel, I won't need to make another exchange for the rest of this battle."

Now it was Candice's turn to smirk. "Well, I wouldn't say all my Ice-types are vulnerable," she calmly replied with a subtle, devious tone. "But that Ursaring will definitely be a problem for most of them. I think it's time to kick this battle up a notch so you can see that you and Ash aren't the only ones who can stray from what's normally expected in a battle against an Ice-type specialist!"

"So she's using that one again," Zoey mused with a chuckle. "That sure knocked Ash for a loop when he battled Miss Senior; it's gonna be even worse for Paul."

"Alright, it's time to bring out the wild card," Candice decided as she took out her next Pokéball and held it closely to herself with both hands, as if she were trying to channel her mind and spirit into it. "A master of the way of kiai battling!" she shouted as threw the Pokéball. "Let's do it, Medicham!"

Paul could not hide the shock on his face when he watched the limber Meditation Pokémon gracefully land on the darkened ice field. "What the…?!"

What a wild card indeed; for all the time Paul and Conway invested into making a solid strategy to combat Candice, the one thing neither of them even once considered was the possibility of the Gym Leader having a Pokémon that was not an Ice-type at all! This was not unheard of, though, as Paul had faced a handful of Gym Leaders across Kanto, Johto, and Hoenn that had at least one Pokémon that was not of their specialty type.

But that was not the case at all in Sinnoh: Roark, Maylene, Crasher Wake, Fantina, Gardenia, and Byron all used Pokémon that were at least partially of their specialized type. After six consecutive Gym Battles like this, Paul had forgotten to take into account the possibility that one of Candice's Pokémon would not even be an Ice-type. But even if he had, Paul likely would have discounted the possibility based on the fact that all of his Sinnoh Gym Battles to this point had no such element to them. Even if Conway were here now, no doubt he would be freaking out because he wouldn't have planned for this; improvisation was not Conway's forte.

Fortunately, Paul was not nearly as helpless as Conway when faced with a challenge that completely went against what he prepared for. However, this was still bad news as Medicham was a Psychic/Fighting-type – the latter type of which would cause problems for Ursaring. Even worse, none of the Hibernation Pokémon's moves would do much damage; Focus Blast, Hammer Arm, and Slash were all resisted by Medicham's dual typing. Paul could have Ursaring relentlessly use Bulk Up so it could withstand the opponent's attacks while chipping away its health with boosted attack power, but that would be a very arduous and lengthy process.

Even that would likely not work out from beginning to end, though, as Paul had a field disadvantage once more. While not as speedy as Sneasel, Medicham could still easily run circles around Ursaring; should Ursaring try to move around too much on the ice, it risked slipping up and becoming completely vulnerable.

"Still gonna stick with Ursaring now?" Candice asked her challenger, being rather coy – but for good reason. She had effectively made Paul eat his words; the Gym Leader could make that assessment based on the fact that Paul let his emotions slip for just a moment after she revealed Medicham. That much told her Paul had no real way to deal with her Pokémon with what he had now. Either he would suck up his pride and make an exchange now to even the odds, or stubbornly take an inevitable loss.

It was a tough choice for Paul to make, but he did not forget his former traveling companion's advice to not be too caught up in his pride and make stupid mistakes. Obviously he wasn't going to keep Ursaring in for much longer, but he thought up at least one useful thing for it to do before the Hibernation Pokémon would be forced to return.

"Use Hammer Arm, on the field this time!" Paul ordered, glad he had stopped a moment to think this through; otherwise Ursaring would have been utterly wasted here. Its powerful glowing fists slammed down hard on the ice terrain. Thanks to Bulk Up's power boost, the attack was more than enough to not only make a steep crater in the area of impact, but also leave a seismic shockwave in its wake. The entire floor, even outside the battlefield of ice experienced minor tremors – tremors even Zoey could slightly feel as she sat and watched on.

"That's intense," Zoey muttered, gritting her teeth as she paid close attention to the details of this battle. "But why would Paul make Ursaring aim the floor and not—" Just then, she became alarmed as the ice beyond Hammer Arm's impact site started to shake and split apart, which quickly created a deep fissure that would eventually bisect the entire field in a vertical line, starting from Paul's position and ending with Candice's.

"—That's why!" the Coordinator realized, quickly to panic. "He really is trying to trash the whole battlefield!" First it was the abuse of Haze to color the ice, then Shadow Ball to create masses of chunky ice debris across the field. Now Hammer Arm had effectively carved the field in half; something Paul was quite satisfied with.

Candice wasn't going to wait around for the impending trench to reach her Pokémon, of course. "Medicham, get out of there! And let's take this fight to Ursaring – now!"

It wasn't hard for Medicham to dodge the fissure and it landed with grace away from the domino effect of Hammer Arm's impact on the ice. Once set on the frozen floor again, Medicham nimbly skated its way towards its much larger opponent. However, the Meditation Pokémon's momentum was inhibited by the large amounts of debris that it had to go out of its way to move over or around. This was exactly what Paul hoped for, as it gave him just enough time to recall his Pokémon before Candice ordered a Fire Punch attack. Ursaring was sent back into its Pokéball mere seconds before Medicham slammed into the spot it previously stood, making a crater of its own as the ice was melted. Steam rose up from all sides of Medicham, who quickly backflipped to land several feet away from its landing spot.

Though the attack missed, Candice was breathing a sigh of relief, knowing it would have been much worse for her if she had called out a certain other attack instead of Fire Punch.

Paul was left conflicted as to how he would truly counter Medicham. This Pokémon put a serious kink in the plans he and Conway made for this battle, forcing Paul to consider which of his chosen four would be best suited to this agile Psychic/Fighting-type. Ursaring was obviously not an option to be used until Medicham could be defeated; Torterra lacked the effective move set to compensate for its inevitable struggle against Medicham's speed and mobility advantage, Gliscor was only a slightly better option since it had X-Scissor to work with (but Paul didn't count on getting this lucky with his recalling time again, and Gliscor would be having the toughest time against of the rest of Candice's Pokémon if the rest truly were Ice-types)… which left his already battle-worn Honchkrow. Its exhaustion aside, Honchkrow was the best defensive counter, and even if it couldn't take Medicham down, Paul knew the Big Boss Pokémon would be able to weaken it considerably. Besides that, it looked as if the battlefield could use another coat or two of Haze. It seemed, realistically, that this was the only viable option for now.

"Now, Honchkrow! Stand by for battle!" Paul sent out his weary bird, though thankfully it had gotten a small amount of rest since it was first recalled. If Honchkrow couldn't be the one to take Medicham out, then Paul really would be facing a big problem, and none of Conway's battle plans were going to be relevant for this opponent. This round would truly test Paul's ability to make the right decisions in battle on his own – without an old friend's reference guide or a personal grudge against the opponent to drive him to do this right.

Candice nodded approvingly at the choice. "Clever pick, Paul. I hope that Honchkrow's able to stay in this long enough to turn the tables like you're hoping! Alright, Medicham, let's try that Fire Punch again!"

"Dodge it and use Haze!" Paul quickly ordered; Haze had a double benefit of giving the ice a fresh coat of black as well as lowering the visibility range in the field, consequently causing Medicham's Fire Punch to miss.

Zoey raised an eyebrow at what she just witnessed. "Using Haze again? Hasn't he messed up the field enough?"

When Medicham carefully landed back on the tattered and tainted field, Candice was shown looking visibly annoyed. "Just what do you have against my gym's battlefield, huh?!"

Paul chose not to answer or explain; he simply smirked as he called for Honchkrow's next move. This time said move was going to prove to be far more useful in combat: "Shadow Ball!"

"Erk!" In all her excitement, Candice had momentarily forgotten Honchkrow had that move, mainly because it was never used offensively against her Sneasel at the time; its sole purpose was to litter the battlefield with icy chunks of debris. Now Paul had an unexpected use for it, since Ghost-type moves were one of Medicham's two weaknesses. "Dodge, Medicham, dodge!"

Although graceful, Medicham had to take extra precious moments to make sure it could make a clean landing; the icy debris, the blackened color of the ice making it harder to find a clear landing spot, and the notable crevice that carved the field in half all posed a threat to maintaining balance. If Medicham were to slip over the frozen chunks or fall into the crevice, that would give Paul quite an opening to attack it while it was rendered defenseless.

Those moments would prove being costly to Medicham, as Shadow Ball slammed into the Meditation Pokémon just as it started to jump to a safe location. The field of the gym had gone through so much direct punishment by this point; being coated in a dark color, chunks of debris varying in size littering the entire area, several impact craters… and of course, the makeshift trench splitting the frozen floor right down the middle. Something else came as a consequence of that, made obvious to both trainers when Medicham skid across the floor: many areas had begun to melt, leaving shallow pools of black water. This was owed both to the heat from the impact of the attacks that hit the field rather than a Pokémon and a particular element of science coming into play.

Medicham ended up in one of these black puddles, staining itself in the process. While Paul took a moment to look up at the strong lights that hung above the stadium, Candice formulated a little plan to make the entirety of Paul's efforts backfire. It was no secret to her that Paul was focusing on trashing her gym's arena for a reason – his mention of black ice made her realize the challenger's goal here. By coating everything black and preventing the ice from refracting light, Paul was eliminating Candice's field advantage (as naturally most her Pokémon were trained specifically to master the art of sliding and skating the ice with precision to befuddle her opponents). Evidenced by Medicham's hesitation to dodge immediately from the last attack, the black color made many of the obstacles on the field made earlier much harder to see. If Candice didn't want Medicham to be prone to getting constantly hit by Honchkrow's attacks, she would have to risk getting Medicham into a jam via an obstacle she could no longer see, which would make the Meditation Pokémon wide open for another attack right away. And this was a complete non-issue for Paul's Flying-type that would spend very little time on the field's surface.

"I can play dirty too, ya know!" Candice suddenly proclaimed, snapping Paul out of his own thoughts as he redirected his attentions to the Gym Leader. She wondered for a moment why Paul was looking up for so long, but brushed it off in favor of shaking him up with her brilliant counter to his strategy. "Yeah, eyes over here, Paul! If you wanna mess up the floor of my gym so badly, you're gonna have to face the consequences!"

"Oh yeah?" Paul said as he crossed his arms. He looked intrigued about what counter Candice had to his plans.

"You bet," Candice assured with a wink. "Medicham, give yourself a nice little bath in that nasty puddle you slid into. Then, I want you to use Power Trick!"

Paul grimaced a bit when he heard the name of that move, for he was no stranger to it. The bright colors of Medicham were dulled significantly with the dark, dirty water coating it. What contrasted that was a coat of sparkling light in several different colors which covered Medicham for a moment while its attack and defensive powers were swapped. For certain Pokémon that had superb stats in one area while severely lacking in another, a move like this could change the whole game if an opponent was not prepared to deal with the consequences of said change… and of course, assuming the trainer ordering the move knew how to best make use of it. Medicham, however, didn't have much in the way of lopsided statistics, and Paul hadn't studied the species enough to know right away which boost the Meditation Pokémon was getting here.

But then he quickly remembered Candice's order before using Power Trick: to coat her Pokémon in the black liquid puddle. There was only one good reason for the Gym Leader to opt for this, and Paul was quick to catch on: Medicham's bright colors were dulled significantly after being doused in the black pool. It no longer stuck out like a sore thumb in a blackened battlefield, impeding both the trainer and Pokémon's ability to keep an eye on it. Thankfully there wasn't much in the way of anything for Medicham to hide behind since Paul's Pokémon had obliterated those obstacles to pieces, but this camouflage would still hamper the accuracy of Honchkrow's attacks.

Candice smiled sweetly upon seeing Paul's uncertainty. "I guess you already know my Medicham's attack and defense power got switched with that move," she correctly assumed. "But… then you're not sure what angle I'm getting at with this, are you?"

Zoey nodded as she mumbled to herself in reflection of these past few turns. "Medicham's a pretty balanced Pokémon, so it's not obvious right away if its attack power was boosted or its defense. But Miss Senior's clearly going for a camouflage route to keep Honchkrow from landing any more hits on Medicham… it could go either way." She looked to Paul's Honchkrow. "Paul's got a big type advantage right now, but Miss Senior still has plenty of ways to take his Honchkrow out. It comes down to what Miss Senior thinks is the best way to handle it – enhanced power while using the camouflage to make up for its downgraded defenses – or using camouflage and a stronger defense together to wear Honchkrow down so it can strike back at just the right moment. Honchkrow's taken a lot of damage already from Sneasel; even with a decrease in attack power, it wouldn't take Medicham long to take it down. It's a tough call to make."

"It doesn't really matter," Paul finally answered. "Whichever way you've settled on your strategy, that Medicham is history." He looked to his Pokémon, ready to issue a command. "Now, Honchkrow! Use Sky Attack!"

Sky Attack posed a real threat to Medicham, but Candice wasn't the least bit concerned. An attack that powerful required a charge time – something her Medicham could easily intercept. "Let's do it, Medicham! Hi Jump Kick!"

Tricky as it was to spot a blackened Medicham in a black battlefield, it was made doubly difficult for one such as Honchkrow who had the aerial view of the arena; an angle in which there was no way to discern topography, meaning everything looked flat and blended in even more so.

Medicham leaped into the air, landing a harsh, critical hit on Honchkrow. This was a great inconvenience for Paul, as the attack not only did a good chunk of damage, but it was powerful enough to knock the Big Boss Pokémon out of the air and onto the ice, effectively canceling the Sky Attack.

"Alright!" Candice cheered in triumph, pumping her fist into the air. "Let's keep our kiai mojo going, Medicham! Fire Punch!"

"Honchkrow, move!" Paul shouted, not wanting to risk Honchkrow taking much more damage. If he couldn't defeat Candice's Medicham with Honchkrow here, then there would be major problems for the rest of the Pokémon he had left to use. He was visibly relieved when Honchkrow managed to back away in time before Medicham landed its blazing fist on its intended target, once more making a steaming black puddle of water where Honchkrow used to be.

"I gotta hand it to Miss Senior; she's definitely making the best of her disadvantage this round," Zoey noted. "She's got Paul on the ropes, all while only having two moves to use against Honchkrow for the whole battle." This much was true – with Power Trick not being an offensive move and Honchkrow's typing making it immune to Confusion, her options were limited to Hi Jump Kick and Fire Punch. "As long as she chooses just the right moment to use Hi Jump Kick, Miss Senior's got this in the bag."

That was why Candice was so relieved when her Medicham's Fire Punch missed back when Paul recalled Ursaring: Hi Jump Kick's incredible power came at the trade-off of damaging the user of the move if it should miss the target. It wasn't a matter of small recoil damage either (such as Ash's Pikachu's Volt Tackle, or his Staraptor's Brave Bird); it only took a couple of missed Hi Jump Kicks to render the user unable to battle. Had Candice chosen that move back then, odds are her Medicham would have already been incapacitated from the damage Honchkrow dealt by this point.

Paul was fully aware of how risky Hi Jump Kick was and noticed Candice was only using it when she knew odds were very low for it to miss, such as when Honchkrow was charging for Sky Attack. That explained why the Gym Leader didn't opt to swiftly take out Ursaring with that move – with the overwhelming disadvantage, she knew Ursaring wouldn't be staying on the field for very long. Paul was forced to accept he would have to cut down on close-ranged attacks if he wished for Honchkrow to stay in this long enough to finish the job. He couldn't simply keep Honchkrow up in the air lobbing endless Shadow Ball attacks either; he learned from his battle with Ash that getting too comfortable mentally with a battle's progress would leave himself open to the determined Candice who would be waiting for Paul to get lazy with his strategy.

At the very least, it was advantageous to his master plan for Medicham to keep using Fire Punch. He could tell Honchkrow was close to reaching its limit – his Flying-type was getting visibly tired just staying airborne. Dodging would be harder and harder to pull off… but there was still one more move Honchkrow had that Paul hadn't utilized yet. It was a very handy move for the current situation, but Honchkrow was so damaged that he could only risk using it once he was sure it would defeat the Meditation Pokémon.

Then it hit Paul: the perfect way to defeat Medicham. Though a risky plan in of itself, Paul knew there was no better or more fitting way of achieving victory. He couldn't help smiling; something that perplexed Candice.

"You're still up to something," she noted. "That's good; it means you're still gonna make this interesting."

"If you really knew what I was up to, you would've won by now," Paul challenged, opting to mess with Candice's head similar to how he did after their first battle. "But go on, keep attacking. Honchkrow can outpace Medicham at every turn – so be careful about which move you tell Medicham to use."

"He's nuts if he thinks Honchkrow's got the energy to dodge all of Medicham's attacks," Zoey remarked, bewildered by Paul's statement. "Even I can tell that poor Pokémon's about to keel over… but what else could I expect from a guy like Paul? Of course he's gonna run his Pokémon to the ground."

It pleased Paul that even Zoey was falling for his act. A trainer's way with words could prove to be crucial to how a battle turned out, and Paul already knew from one certain past experience that, while sharp-minded, Candice had difficulty with bluffs and fake-outs. He never would have known to do this if he hadn't gotten sick – how bizarre it was that Paul would credit his crippling disease to his victory in this battle!

"I'll be careful," Candice assured. "But don't expect this to play out the way you want it to." She looked to her Pokémon. "Let's go, Medicham! Maximum kiai power! See how Honchkrow likes a row of Fire Punches!"

"Keep dodging!" Paul instructed, though he knew it was unlikely that the Big Boss Pokémon would be able to dodge them all. He turned out to be correct; Honchkrow outmaneuvered its opponent for the first few strikes, but its waning stamina eventually allowed Medicham to land in a strike, sending Honchkrow back into the ice. The impact of landing was rough, as evidenced by Honchkrow twitching as it tried in vain to stretch out its wings to fly. It was getting close to time to seal the deal with a final Hi Jump Kick – but Candice held back. Even with Medicham's camouflage and better condition, the Gym Leader had a feeling there was a reason why Paul opted to have his Pokémon dodge instead of counterattack.

Only Candice truly knew what exactly Power Trick did for the Meditation Pokémon – its offensive power was raised a notch in exchange for becoming a bit more vulnerable. Though the power boost was not particularly drastic by any means, it was obviously enough to make Medicham's attacks knock Honchkrow clear out of the sky, which was a notable improvement from what the attacks were doing before Power Trick was used. However, one or two more direct hits from Honchkrow would be enough to put Medicham out of commission now, and thanks to that partial Dark-typing, Medicham had only two close-ranged moves to work with. Honchkrow looked to be wide open for a follow-up attack, but Candice had a feeling this was a trap.

That was exactly what Paul wanted Candice to think. "Well, obviously there's not much left that you can do, Honchkrow," he said to his Pokémon. "Looks like you've failed me again."

Though Paul's tone sounded harsh and demoralizing as it normally did, the Big Boss Pokémon took note of the particular intense look in its trainer's eyes; normally when Paul gave up on one of his Pokémon, he would refuse to look them in the eye. That was not the case at all here.

"What a jerk," Zoey grumbled, glaring down at the challenger. "He's got no problem letting his Pokémon get creamed at all! And how can he think it's okay to just tell Honchkrow it's useless after all the hard work it's done? Man, just when I thought he couldn't be more opposite of Ash…"

"Is that a forfeit?" Candice asked Paul, finding it peculiar that he might do such a thing when last time he clung to the bitter end no matter how hopeless it got for him.

"No, it's not," Paul replied, still stern as ever. "I'm just making sure Honchkrow recognizes how much it failed to take out a Pokémon it should have defeated easily. But I'm not one to give up until the end… so do what you have to do."

Honchkrow was still unable to move from its position; no longer capable of flying. It didn't appear Paul had any tricks left up his sleeve, but Candice wondered if that's what Paul intended. Medicham would have to rush right towards it to deliver a final blow regardless, but just because Honchkrow was rendered earthbound from this point on didn't mean it couldn't attack. A point-blank ranged Shadow Ball would be more than enough to defeat Medicham, so Candice had to be absolutely sure Honchkrow would be unable to defend or counter in order to land the coup de grace on her opponent.

"That's the kiai spirit," Candice commended. "Never going down without a fight! Alright, Medicham, let's see if we can clinch this win with Fire Punch!"

The way the Gym Leader worded this commend told Paul that this was not truly a final attack; she was anticipating him to counter, so that she would know to get Medicham to evade the attack and squander the last of Honchkrow's energy before landing the real final blow of the match: Hi Jump Kick.

Paul decided to play along with this. He briefly looked to Honchkrow and shook his head; a gesture his Pokémon seemed to understand, before being issued a command: "Use Shadow Ball, with whatever strength you've got left!"

The attack certainly didn't look like Honchkrow was putting its all into it; this particular Shadow Ball was much smaller and flickering.

"Hah, that's all you've got?" Candice laughed out. "Medicham, forget the attack and dodge it!" She really didn't want to have Medicham use Fire Punch if it didn't have to, knowing it was contributing to the mess of her battlefield. The pitiful little Shadow Ball was much more slowly executed, and thus easily dodged.

Paul tightened his fists and grimaced; his reaction to the missed attack and the weak execution of the attack in general told Candice that was his last chance to win the match. If that was the best Honchkrow could muster, then it had nothing left, offensively or defensively.

"Awesome!" Zoey cheered. "Paul took a huge gamble and missed out big time! Bet he feels foolish for thinking he could beat Medicham just through a type advantage, hah!"

In truth, just like his last battle with Ash, Paul was not thinking just about type advantages. Some things went his way in this battle, while others backfired terribly. Regardless of this back-and-forth, Paul knew the battle here would be decided the next time Candice called a move.

Candice was unable to stop smirking; Honchkrow had to have been entirely spent after that last attack. It lacked the energy to fly, and by now, was completely stationary in its position. She knew there wouldn't be a better opportunity to use her trump card, so she went for it.

"Medicham, let's close the book on this match," she enthusiastically told her Pokémon. Though it had taken its fair share of damage as well, the Meditation Pokémon retained its spunk and gave Candice a thumbs-up in agreement. "There's no escape now! Hi Jump Kick, let's go!"

Paul watched the opponent Pokémon jump high into the air, obviously intent on making the final blow a devastating and decisive one. Honchkrow wearily looked up before glancing back to its trainer. When Medicham made its descent with one leg charged with much of its energy, that was Paul's cue to take a real gamble.

"Honchkrow, Sucker Punch!"


Candice could only gawk as she watched quite a scene unfold. Just as her Medicham was about to land a direct, critical hit with Hi Jump Kick, one of Honchkrow's wings glowed with a dismal black and purple energy. Only needing to raise this single wing to get the job done, Honchkrow effortlessly smacked Medicham away.

Candice could only look on in horror as her Medicham was flung back to her side of the field. It crashed into the tainted ice; a plume of smoke rose up from the harsh impact. Both the Gym Leader and her best friend fixed their gaze on the impact site, waiting for the smoke to clear…

Moments later, when the smoke dissipated, the reactions between the two girls differed: Zoey was perplexed, as from her position in the stadium she had trouble seeing where Medicham was. She squinted in hopes of seeing the details, but all she really needed to see was Candice's face to know what the end result of this clash was.

The Meditation Pokémon lied in the center of a deep crater made in the floor of ice; Medicham was at least a few feet deep. It was also quite thoroughly knocked out, made evident with the swirls in its eyes.

"Medicham…!" Candice rushed over to pull her Pokémon out of the crevice. Now everyone could see what happened, meaning it was Mr. Honcho's cue.

"Medicham is unable to battle; the winner is Honchkrow!"

"H-how…?" Zoey gasped. "I thought Honchkrow had no energy left to fight or defend… how could that one attack cause this?"

Paul smirked as he recalled Honchkrow to its Pokéball, knowing it could use a good rest after that slugfest. "Sounds like you don't know much about Sucker Punch," he said, finally addressing Zoey.

"I know it's a Dark-type move!" Zoey grumbled, easy to take offense to Paul's words. "But that shouldn't have been enough to knock Medicham out!"

"Maybe your friend can explain it to you in words even you can understand," Paul mused, allowing himself to be smug with his tone. After all, he not only pulled off quite a comeback stunt, but there was a special meaning behind it as well.

Candice still had her Medicham cradled in her arms while she carefully pulled out its Pokéball. "You were nothing short of excellent, Medicham," she assured her fallen friend. "Even with that huge disadvantage, you held your own out there. Get some rest; you deserve it." With that, Medicham was returned to its Pokéball. She had heard Zoey and Paul's exchange in the meantime, and looked to them both after she had her Pokémon taken care of.

"What's the deal, Miss Senior?" Zoey asked, sounding confused rather than angry. "There's no way Medicham could've lost to just one move like that; not when Honchkrow was so weak!"

Candice bowed her head, smiling humbly and chuckling to herself; both from amusement of Zoey's obvious disdain for Paul and the fact that he won the match and acknowledging that Paul had defeated her not just in the Pokémon battle, but also in a battle of wits.

"Well, Zozo, there was a lot more than just Sucker Punch that caused my defeat," she said. "You see, Sucker Punch is a move that automatically intercepts all attacks, meaning it will always hit first regardless of how fast the opponent is. And judging how far that move knocked Medicham back, I think a certain ability kicked in to boost its power."

"Super Luck," Paul affirmed with a nod.

Zoey remained skeptical. "And that alone was strong enough to send Medicham crashing through the ice? That hole looked pretty deep if you had to reach down as far as you did to get Medicham out…"

"Nope, there's even more to it than that," Candice replied, in an oddly cheerful tone despite her defeat. "Medicham's own power backfired against it; you know why Hi Jump Kick is such a risky move, right?"

"Yeah, if Hi Jump Kick misses the target, the power charged up for the move seriously damages the Pokémon using it," Zoey recalled, before double-taking as she realized she inadvertently answered her own question. "—Oh! Because Hi Jump Kick didn't hit Honchkrow, then…"

"That's right," Candice said, glancing down at the deep hole her Medicham made on the battlefield. "Medicham lost that gamble and paid the price for it. It was the critical hit from Sucker Punch and the damage caused by a failed Hi Jump Kick that cost me this match." The Gym Leader looked to Paul, beaming at her opponent as she addressed him. "None of this would've been possible if I saw through Paul's bluffing, though. He knew I wouldn't risk Medicham using Hi Jump Kick unless I was sure Honchkrow couldn't dodge it! Isn't that right, Paul?"

Really, she wanted to commend Paul for showing his true colors as a battler today, opposed to how he battled her over a week ago. Candice knew this was the true Paul she was battling, and she felt it was worth the wait to finally have the opportunity to experience his true skill. With Zoey in attendance, however, Candice refused to break the confidentiality agreement she swore to Paul. Being one of the few individuals to know Paul's deepest, darkest secret, it warmed Candice's heart to see the young man standing strong in the face of his many adversities.

"There's more to a battle than just how the Pokémon fight," Paul affirmed, managing to stay calm all the while during this battle. "The ability to communicate with your Pokémon without words and confuse your opponent is an invaluable skill to have."

This was where his ten-day training routine with Reggie truly paid off: once Paul came to terms with his weak connection with his Pokémon on the first day, that became the ultimate hurdle the young trainer strived to overcome. He refused to be overt and sappy like Ash, his friends, or his brother. Still, Paul knew he would be stuck in a rut unless he could learn to truly bond with his Pokémon. Shaking his head while addressing Honchkrow directly towards the end of the battle was in fact a signal for Honchkrow to intentionally make its Shadow Ball attack as weak as possible – not only to give off the illusion that Honchkrow had no energy left to attack or defend, but to preserve what power it did have left in order to make Sucker Punch strong enough to end the battle.

"And that is why I'm honored to have you as an opponent!" Candice commended as she brought out another Pokéball. "So, Paul, you ready to keep this party going?"

Paul nodded as he withdrew his next Pokéball. Though Candice was down two Pokémon while Paul hadn't lost any yet, he was definitely bound to suffer some losses for the next round. Honchkrow had taken a severe amount of damage from Sneasel and Medicham, while Ursaring withstood a notable amount of damage from Sneasel as well. His only remaining fresh Pokémon were the two that suffered a devastating weakness to Ice-type moves; while Medicham was the obvious wildcard of her roster, it was safe for Paul to assume he would be dealing with Ice-type Pokémon for the rest of this challenge. Abomasnow was a given; very likely to be Candice's final choice, which left one unknown opponent that would be coming up next.

Before he threw the Pokéball, however, Paul looked back behind him to where he left his backpack sitting. The climax of the last battle was owed to Sucker Punch, a move Paul's Honchkrow learned in a pinch during his last battle with former companion Conway. Though it ultimately wasn't enough to give Paul the win, it proved to be a useful move that Paul associated with Conway ever since. Since the two parted ways, Paul forbade his Pokémon from ever using the move again, purely out of spite. Now that Paul had accepted that what he did was wrong, he had a change of heart about the move. It was Paul's intention all along to make use of Sucker Punch for his rematch against Candice, in addition to applying the strategies and techniques Conway came up with just for his friend's benefit. Now, Paul felt a calm glow of warmth throughout his body… because he felt his homage to Conway was perfectly executed. Sucker Punch was not used frivolously, but rather became the deciding factor of a win Paul otherwise would not have achieved.

He really, truly wished Conway was here right now to see it.

Upon hearing the Gym Leader call out his name out of concern (to Candice and Zoey, it looked as if Paul had zoned out), Paul eventually turned around to face his opponent… but just before that, he faintly whispered something to himself; something no one else inside the Snowpoint Gym could hear. But it even if they did hear it, they wouldn't have understood what Paul was saying. Paul was now completely calm and serene; he knew even if his words weren't heard by the right person that the last shreds of his spiteful sentiments against his friend dissipated with three simple, yet liberating words:

"Thank you, Conway."

Meanwhile, much further south in the Sinnoh region, an important battle was already underway in Eterna City's gym. While Zoey was little more than an unwarranted annoyance to Paul for his battle, it truly was a blessing compared to the "support" poor Conway had as he struggled against Grass-type specialist Gardenia.

"Oh, come on! What kind of move was that, huh? You'd never see me making dumb mistakes like that in a battle, no sir! What's your excuse, Mister Secret Agent?!"

Conway had the patience of a saint to withstand Barry's so-called "tough love" approach of coaching – not that Conway felt he really needed coaching, let alone coaching from a simpleton. Gardenia surprisingly proved to be quite a challenge for Conway, who had very few Pokémon that could counter Grass-types well. He did at least acquire a Shuckle – a Bug/Rock-type – between his trek from Hearthome City to Eterna City. However, Conway had little time to train this obscure Pokémon, and for this battle Conway really wanted Smoochum to shine after her not-so stellar performance against Barry's Staraptor. Smoochum was also an Ice-type – Conway hoped her Powder Snow move could make up for her lacking experience and extremely weak defenses, but Gardenia's Pokémon were surprisingly sturdy.

This was the final match of the battle: Smoochum versus Cacnea. Heracross was Conway's best hope for this battle, but it ran into some bad luck when Gardenia's Roserade managed to poison Heracross very early on. Heracross was strong enough to eventually take out Roserade, but succumbed to the ongoing poison before Gardenia's next Pokémon, Turtwig, could make its first move. Turtwig versus Shuckle ended up dragging out for a while due to Shuckle's nigh-incomparable defenses (needless to say this was the point that Barry flew into a rage and resorted to backseat battling that persisted to this very moment). However, once Turtwig used Leech Seed, it was inevitable that Shuckle would lose out in a battle of endurance, especially since Turtwig was bombarding it almost constantly with Leaf Storm thanks to its unnaturally high speed. However, Shuckle did manage to do some significant damage to Turtwig before it was no longer able to battle; by buying time in having Shuckle use Withdraw to enhance its defense, Conway took advantage of the sheer gap between Shuckle and Turtwig's speed by having Shuckle use Gyro Ball multiple times to wear Turtwig down. This allowed Smoochum to finish what Shuckle started after it was knocked out, and now it all came down to this single match-up.

"Aw, ease up on the poor guy," Gardenia addressed the peanut gallery, though as usual she was consistently lighthearted and upbeat even with her chiding. "We all make mistakes eventually," she said with a smirk as she eyed the blonde boy in the stands. "Isn't that right, Barry?" Her own teasing statement was punctuated with a wink towards an abruptly defensive trainer.

"H-hey! I still won, didn't I?!" Barry squawked at the Gym Leader, knowing she was referencing the critical point of their own battle where Cacnea surprisingly gave Barry's Empoleon a hard time with its Drain Punch attack. Barry made mistake after mistake throughout his Gym Battle; Gardenia found it quite miraculous that her challenger managed to pull through in the end despite the comedy of errors. "And since I won, I think that gives me the right to point out when the know-it-all nerd makes a stupid mistake!"

"If you want to harp on my errors that badly, Barry, I request that you hold off on your criticisms until the battle is over," Conway suggested – and though he sounded relatively calm given his stressful circumstances at the moment, truthfully the young man who tried to walk the path of nonviolence as best he could held back a very strong desire to leap into the stands and beat his traveling companion senseless. "I will need to be able to concentrate in order to prevent future missteps, and I find it quite impossible accomplish that when all I can hear is your complaining."

But it was too much to ask for Barry to actually let that simple message get through to him; not when he thought his so-called "helpful advice" was being snubbed. "Why I oughta–!" he growled, standing up and stepping over the stands while rolling up his sleeves as if he really intended to march right down to the battlefield and give Conway a piece of his mind.

"Alright, alright, that's enough, now!" Gardenia called out, somehow authoritative yet lighthearted in her tone. "You're getting pretty riled up there, Barry! Just settle down or I'll have to see to it that you get some much-needed acupuncture therapy with Cacnea here!" The Gym Leader winked as she said this; while seemingly a threat, Gardenia thought this sort of thing was genuinely divine and relaxing – something she felt the high-strung Barry desperately needed right now.

That was all she really needed to say to get Barry to shut up and sit back down, which brought out quite a smug smile in Conway that thankfully Barry couldn't see. Conway made a mental note to himself to take a page out of Gardenia's book the next time he wanted Barry to hush up and simmer down.

With that taken care of, it was back to the battle. While Smoochum was able to take out Turtwig without too much trouble thanks to Shuckle wearing it down beforehand, she still sustained some damage before rendering the Tiny Leaf Pokémon unable to battle. This made for an extremely tense final confrontation; by now Conway could tell battling was not really where Smoochum's true strength lied. Her nature and execution of her moves made it obvious that Smoochum was definitely more of a Coordinator's Pokémon – something Conway would have loved to give her, but simply couldn't right now with circumstances as they were now.

"We're ready to continue?" Conway asked, masking his concern with a casual tone. He really wished if Barry insisted on breaking the flow of the battle with his many complaints and protests that he could somehow do so in a way that would enable Conway to make use of that time to rethink his strategy. Smoochum's set of moves were sadly limited and rather gimmicky. Powder Snow was the only consistently useful move, which Gardenia was getting better and better at predicting when it was coming so that the move would miss. It didn't help that Powder Snow itself was relatively weak for an Ice-type move, either; Ice Beam or Blizzard would have been much more effective. The Gym Leader was much better than Barry at handling Confusion as well; Conway would have much preferred the much stronger upgrade, Psychic, by now, but Smoochum was not yet ready to learn moves that powerful. This was the same reason Smoochum didn't have a stronger Ice-type move. That left two non-damaging status moves: Sweet Kiss for confusing, and Sing for putting to sleep. Conway had tried both moves at least once on Turtwig and Shuckle, resulting either in total failure (Sing) or not lasting long enough to make a difference (Sweet Kiss).

"You bet!" Gardenia affirmed; her smirk indicative that she knew exactly what to expect out of her opponent at this stage of the battle. "Alright Cacnea, Needle Arm!"

"Dodge that!" Conway's order came just in time, allowing the Kiss Pokémon to evade Cacnea's glowing arm, which slammed into the ground where she once was. Luckily for Conway, his talent of observation and paying attention (a skill that he still chided Barry for lacking) allowed him to get a feel for the pattern Gardenia was settling into. In particular, Gardenia easily could have chosen a better move to use; Faint Attack and Pin Missile were both super-effective and Drain Punch – which Smoochum could not resist thanks to her partial Ice-typing – was Cacnea's ace in the hole. So long as Cacnea could land that move successfully, it would be impossible to defeat. The nature of Drain Punch was to damage the opponent, then turn that damage into replenishing health for the user.

It was quite disheartening for Smoochum to have such limited offensive options while Cacnea had many, especially since Smoochum's defenses were still quite terrible. But Conway knew that couldn't really be helped; similar to Paul's Weavile's issues in the same area, this was just how the species was built. Powder Snow was still effective against Cacnea, but Conway knew it was only safe to go on the offensive if it was unlikely for Cacnea to land a successful counterattack right afterwards; he really wasn't sure just how much more damage Smoochum could take. At this moment, however, Conway took notice that Cacnea was struggling with something. Without putting much thought into why, he took that opportunity to strike.

"Make some distance, Smoochum, then use Powder Snow!" he commanded, not wanting to take any risks. Smoochum blew the chilly attack at her opponent; while it was successful in hitting Cacnea, Conway was more interested in what happened moments before Powder Snow connected: Cacnea triumphantly pulling its arm up with chunks of earth popping out, which quickly brought Conway to one conclusion: the Needle Arm attack was executed a bit too harshly, which led to its prickly arm getting caught in the ground it struck, hence the cause for the Cactus Pokémon's struggle.

Now that it was freed and still standing after taking a hit, Conway issued a strategic retreat. "Run for it, Smoochum! Into the trees!" It clicked almost instantly within the intellectual trainer's mind to take advantage of the terrain the battle took place on; the Eterna Gym was fairly unique in that its battlefield was not in a more traditional format that most gyms of the world, but instead suited a Grass-type specialist's true domain and took the form of an actual clearing in a natural forest, despite the entire area still being within an indoor gym. Normally this terrain would mainly serve better for Gardenia's Pokémon, but having just witnessed Cacnea's proneness to stick to something provided it hits hard enough, Conway pinpointed a weakness that he could actually exploit. After all, it was either this or a futile game of chance in dodging every attack from now on, which was bound to wear Smoochum out and consequently lose her trainer this challenge.

Conway figured if Cacnea was using this much power in its attacks that both it and its trainer were ready to end this battle. This meant it was likely Cacnea would be putting more and more of its power into its attacks, thus expending its own energy. It also meant a greater chance of Cacnea getting itself stuck again, which Conway was counting on.

"Let's go after it!" Gardenia shouted, keeping a sharp eye on Smoochum's movements. "And use Pin Missile!"

Cacnea threw forth both arms after jumping onto the tree's lowest hanging branch with the spikes all over its body glowing with energy. Once the Cactus Pokémon felt it had a good shot at its opponent, it fired a barrage of spikes towards the fleeing Smoochum, who just barely evaded the attack. This left a series of large spikes sticking into the tree trunk; without needing this pointed out to by its trainer, Cacnea quickly knew to make use of the remnants of its missed attack as makeshift footholds. Consequently, it was gaining on Smoochum's trail. Conway too noticed this as the gap between the Pokémon narrowed quite suddenly.

He knew he couldn't keep Smoochum running away forever… it was time to fight back. "Smoochum, try and hold it back! Use Confusion!"

Similar to how Barry's Staraptor was manipulated in the battle that occurred shortly after the two trainers met, Smoochum was able to halt Cacnea's movements completely with her psychic energy. Unlike Slowking, however, Smoochum was too inexperienced to utilize a more powerful move like Psychic to control an opponent, much less juggle two attacks at once as Conway's first Pokémon could do with relative ease. Cacnea was kept at bay, but it was inevitable that Smoochum would wear out. Conway's mind rushed to think of how to make good use of this situation within Smoochum's limited range of ability.

"Come on, Cacnea! You gotta break out!" Gardenia called out, knowing Cacnea was helpless as long as it was contained within Confusion's power. However, she didn't seem too concerned; mainly because she had noticed that while Cacnea was rendered immobile, Smoochum also had to remain stationary in order to focus her power. She had a feeling once Cacnea could break out of Confusion that Smoochum would be exhausted and left wide open for an attack.

"Do something, already!" Barry barked out, ready to interrupt again despite having not forgotten Gardenia's words from before. "Toss it, throw it, whatever! You love displaying your stupid gravity rules, don't you?!"

"Hm… that's right," Conway realized, smiling at the revelation and the fact that Barry had for once provided some useful commentary. "Smoochum, it's time to throw down! –And I do mean that literally!"

The Kiss Pokémon knew what to do from there. She raised her arms, straining to keep Confusion's power running, but ultimately managed to manipulate the psychic energy to toss her opponent off the tree entirely. Everything looked well and fine… until Confusion wore off in mid-fall.

Gardenia was quick to take action the very moment that happened. "Hang on, Cacnea! No one sticks to things as well as you!"

That prompted a gulp from Conway as he witnessed the Cactus Pokémon using its prickly arms to hug the trunk of the tree to prevent its fall to the ground far below.

"Man," Barry grumbled at the sight. "Why did he bother choosing Smoochum for this, anyway? Even with a type advantage it couldn't beat my Staraptor, so how could it do any better against a Gym Leader? Slowking would've been a much better choice; it's actually useful." Both Conway and Smoochum heard this demoralizing banter, though for once Barry was simply musing to himself out loud rather than actively harassing his friend. "What'd be really rich is if Paul was here to see this! He'd totally think this is a majorly pathetic display of battling, and he'd be right on the money there!"

Hearing Paul's name made Conway freeze up; his expression darkened upon acknowledging that despite Barry never having met Paul, his prediction for what Paul would have to say for this battle was exactly how Conway would have imagined it. Despite the length time that had passed since Paul and Conway last saw each other, Conway could effortlessly visualize Paul in the stands right where Barry sat, watching the battle with a most disapproving, indignant look on his face.

He could hear the words in Paul's own voice; what Conway knew his former traveling companion would be saying to him right now…

"Pathetic. Just pathetic. I'll never understand how someone like you, who loves to learn about everything, can still end up like this where you clearly learned nothing at all since we started traveling together. I told you getting that pathetic Pokémon was nothing but a waste of time. Can you tell me with a straight face that I was wrong, Conway?"

"I… I…" Conway was frozen in his own imagination, unable to think of how he would answer his own interpretation of Paul. As Gardenia cheered for Cacnea, who was slowly making its way up the tree towards the weary Smoochum, more negative reinforcement flooded through Conway's mind with the unmistakable voice of his former friend.

"You're such a flake, it sickens me! But what else could I expect from someone like you? Someone who's so quick to break his promises in favor of that cousin you worshipped as a hero, even though he turned out to be nothing more than total scum…"

The matter of cousin Sloan would always be a sensitive one, no matter how dedicated Conway was to bring him down now. He bowed his head and stared at the vibrant grass, still trapped within his own psyche. "No…"

Barry had no idea what was going on, and Gardenia wasn't paying attention (still focused on making sure Cacnea had the strength to make the full climb back up the tree). "Oh geez," Barry moaned. "Don't tell me you're gonna surrender…!"

"Even if I didn't ditch you like the trash that you are, you wouldn't have honored your promise to Reggie if we ran into that girl you liked, would you? Don't you dare act like you were doing anything but using me to further your own purposes! Remember how quick you were to forget about the agreement we made just because that redheaded woman was flirting with you? Let alone what you let her do to you… Not once did you ever take me seriously. You're just like Ash and everyone else! You never listened to me before and you're not listening now!"

"That's not true—!" Conway wailed out, wincing and shaking his head over and over. "It's not, it's not!"

"You think I lied to you when I told you that Smoochum was nothing but a waste of time? It must be easy to have me as a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong with your life now. Tell me, then! Tell me ONE thing that pathetic little Pokémon's done for you! Out with it, Conway!"

Just like that, it all became clear. Conway remembered exactly why he held this Smoochum so dear.

"That Smoochum saved my life!" Conway proclaimed, eliciting shock and confusion from both Barry and Gardenia. But all this time, well before Conway called her out by name, Smoochum had been listening intently to her trainer, reading his feelings and sympathizing with him. "Just like I saved your life… and just like your own Pokémon saved your life when you wouldn't take me seriously! It doesn't matter whether or not a Pokémon's naturally gifted; how can any Pokémon that goes out of their way to save your life be anything less than special? This little Smoochum possesses bravery that your own father would be jealous of, and that has to be worth something! I'll prove it to you, here and now, just how much you underestimate this Pokémon you think is pathetic!"

This internal battle was about to end on a reassuring note, but it all abruptly dissipated when Gardenia's voice broke through. "… Who are you talking to?"

Just like that, the image of Paul and the sound of his voice vanished as Conway snapped out of his trance, as he looked up and immediately became embarrassed to see Gardenia staring at him as if he had gone crazy. A moment's glance upwards at the stands showed Barry looking equally bewildered.

Conway was about to stutter out some awkward excuse, but as he turned his gaze back to the battlefield, he noticed a change in his Pokémon. Previously exhausted from the trials she endured since she was sent out to battle, Smoochum now glowed with a radiant energy; her determined expression proved she had been connected with Conway's thoughts and emotions the whole time. Consequently, she was the only one who understood what Conway had just experienced. Despite never truly knowing Paul, Smoochum was fully dedicated to proving that apparition of the negative trainer wrong… not only for her trainer's sake, but to assure her own self-worth as well.

This gave Conway the courage to tell the truth. "A voice in my head!" was his eventual answer; blunt and honest. "I apologize for that, Gardenia," he said earnestly. "But I'm ready to finish this battle. Get ready, Smoochum!"

Smoochum chirped out energetically in agreement, but was cut off when Cacnea, who had since made a successful climb back up to Smoochum's level, made a sudden frightful attack upon Gardenia's command: "Faint Attack!"

The Dark-typed move left some serious damage on the Kiss Pokémon, the power strong enough to knock her off the branch. Thankfully for the challengers, there was another branch not far below that was sturdy enough to maintain Smoochum's weight, but Conway grew rightfully concerned. One more hit like that and Smoochum would be unable to battle, no matter how determined she was to prove her strength. Despite taking the hit, though, the glowing energy surrounding Smoochum had not dissipated.

"Smoochum!" Conway called out before realizing the oddity of the lingering aura. "What in the world…?" He had assumed that was just some symbolic way of showing that he and Smoochum were on the same page, but now he was genuinely clueless.

"Now what is that?" Barry wondered out loud, squinting at the tiny Pokémon recovering on the lower branch. "Some kind of energy for sure..." he mused before pausing, doing a double-take, and then slapping his palm over his forehead. "Aww! Now come on! Don't tell me that little thing's gonna evolve and turn the battle around that way! That's so cliché! The only one who can pull a dumb twist like that and make it cool is Paul!"

Gardenia, however, had a different interpretation. "No, I don't think Smoochum's evolving," she said with caution in her tone. "This looks more like sheer determination… like powering up some kind of super-charged move or something. But which move…" She quickly assumed it would be Powder Snow, Smoochum's only true effective move, and decided to take action before it came to that. "Cacnea, Drain Punch! Let's go!"

Before Conway could even fully call out a command to dodge, Smoochum did so of her own accord. She leaped to a higher branch, which left the Cactus Pokémon with nothing to smash its fist into. The fist still glowed, however, showing that it had not spent the attack.

"Try it again!" Gardenia called out. She displayed some incredibly sharp reflexes as the battle approached its climax. Cacnea jumped towards the higher branch Smoochum landed on, but once again, before Conway could even get out two full words for a command, the Kiss Pokémon acted independently, faking a turn towards the trunk of the tree before veering off in the other direction at the last second. Consequently, this put Cacnea in the position Conway wanted it: the Cactus Pokémon's own overabundance of power becoming its weak point as its prickly arm became stuck in the trunk.

"It's like Smoochum's reading my mind," Conway quietly noted to himself, unsure if he should be ecstatic that his Pokémon got her second wind or if he should be worried that his commands were suddenly no longer being taken into consideration. She was doing what Conway would have commanded regardless, which made it hard to tell whether or not Smoochum was truly acting on her own.

Meanwhile, Gardenia flailed about as she soon found Cacnea completely helpless like this. "Oh no, oh no! Cacnea, please please please shake yourself free! Come on, now!"

It was easier said than done, as Cacnea had stuck its arm in a rather inconvenient spot in the tree. There was no comfy branch to land on below it, nor were there any of its spikes from its Pin Missile attacks to grab onto.

This was it; now or never, Conway had to use this opening to get the final decisive blow. "Now's your chance, Smoochum! Powder Sn—"

Smoochum used Sing instead.

"—Or Sing, whatever floats your boat," the confused trainer muttered. Luckily for both of them, Sing worked its magic this time and Cacnea was lulled into a deep sleep. Gardenia could only look on helplessly, Barry watched with morbid interest in Smoochum suddenly not listening to her trainer, and Conway just tried to roll with it as best he could. "Um, alright, Cacnea's asleep now. Good job. Now, about that Powder Snow…"

There was still no Powder Snow. The overflow of energy radiating from Smoochum's entire being was still very much present, however, leaving everyone clueless as to what this truly meant. But now the power the Kiss Pokémon had been holding within her started to come out in a way that no one could have predicted: a translucent apparition of Smoochum, something like a shadow, emerging from the true Pokémon in the flesh. Smoochum held her stubby little arms out wide as the shadow flew out of the host body and straight towards the sleeping Cacnea. Everyone gaped as the shadow flew straight through Cacnea's body like a ghost. Though it was already asleep, it was apparent that Cacnea was visibly tormented, as if its own energy was being sucked dry from its body. That much was confirmed when the others saw Smoochum receive an abundance of energy after her shadow had passed through Cacnea, resulting in her looking almost completely refreshed, whereas Cacnea, still with an arm stuck in the tree, obviously had nothing left to give. The swirl patterns of its eyes told that much.

Yoko, one of Gardenia's assistants of the Eterna Gym and acting referee for this match adjusted her glasses at the scene before making her call, "Cacnea is unable to battle! Smoochum wins this round, so Colin the challenger wins!"

"Unbelievable!" Barry exclaimed as slammed his hands down on his seat before standing up. "What just happened?!"

"I… I won…?" Conway was still dumbfounded, even after the renewed Smoochum slid down the tree and hopped right into her trainer's arms, cheering and celebrating all the while. "But what just happened…?"

"Hey, don't steal my line, bub!" Barry barked out at Conway. "I oughta fine you for that… in fact, I think I will!"

Gardenia didn't address her challenger until she successfully returned Cacnea to its Pokéball and gave it some encouraging words for all its effort. She looked up at the befuddled Conway with a smile, finding it endearing that even after earning a victory, the young man's concerns first and foremost lied within how exactly he won and what happened to Smoochum to make things turn out the way they did, rather than reveling in his win over a Gym Leader. "Well, Colin, if you and Barry want to figure out what happened, review the details! By process of elimination, I'm sure you'll reach a conclusion," she suggested. Though she had a strong idea of what happened already, she liked giving the extra challenge of making her opponents figure things out on their own.

"Uh, right," Conway stammered, looking down at his lively Smoochum while Barry made his way down to the battlefield to meet up with his traveling companion. "Well, whatever was glowing around Smoochum disappeared once Cacnea was knocked out…"

"That definitely wasn't a Powder Snow, Sweet Kiss, or Confusion attack," Barry deduced, still quite skeptical about this win Conway earned. "So the move was totally a new one."

"I realized that much right away," Conway said with a sneer, not caring for Barry's intrusion. "That was the easy part."

Gardenia cheerfully interjected before Barry could blow up at his friend again. "Right! So think about the kind of moves Smoochum can learn, and maybe think of anything strange that happened before the move was used."

"I'll tell you what's strange!" Barry blurted out. "That Smoochum had to make a big deal out of this when it could've just taken out Cacnea with a Powder Snow while it was stuck. Why bother with Sing? Cacnea was already helpless."

Conway shook his head. "Smoochum wouldn't have done that for no reason. There is a move that requires the opponent to be asleep in order to work, but…" He paused just then, gaping at his still cheerful Pokémon. "No way. Don't tell me that was Dream Eater!"

"That's what I figured it was," Gardenia piped up while Smoochum nodded happily to her trainer. "A really strong Psychic-type move for sure!"

"One of the strongest…" Conway uttered as he tried to process this. "But as I recall, that's not a move Smoochum learns naturally; it has to be taught and trained in order to use it."

Gardenia shrugged. "Sometimes in life, stuff happens and it doesn't make much sense at first. But I'll share a little secret with you guys: event though I had to train Cacnea a lot in order for it to master Drain Punch, the moment it was first able to use the move happened all on its own. That's when I knew Cacnea was a really special Pokémon. I think if your bond with your Pokémon is strong enough, you'll get rewarded with surprises like this whenever your Pokémon's in a pinch!"

That was when Conway realized he witnessed such a phenomenon before: during his last battle with Paul, when Paul's Honchkrow learned Sucker Punch at the height of its tension. Back then, Conway knew such an occurrence was an oddity and never actually figured out how that happened. Now it finally made sense; Conway had been around Paul long enough to learn that there was indeed a bond between Paul and his Pokémon – solidly proven when Conway found them all surrounding their trainer in the frozen depths of Route 216, keeping him warm and alive long enough to be rescued. Nearly all of them sustained damage from the harsh elements because of this, but not one of Paul's Pokémon regretted their decision to stay by his side. Conway saw right through the façade of Paul pretending he couldn't care less for his Pokémon… yet another reminder for the intellectual that his former companion was not really a bad person despite his actions.

Part of him wished Paul was here to witness this victory (especially after suffering a mental episode of Paul haunting him)… not only to redeem himself for his past blunders, but to see Paul have to eat his words. The sentiments were both endearing and spiteful.

"Thank you for putting that into perspective, Gardenia," Conway said to the Gym Leader. "I think I see what you're talking about, and that's quite amazing. You helped bring out Smoochum's full potential… I feel indebted to you, honestly."

"You wanna know what you could do to make us even?" Gardenia asked her humble challenger.

Conway shrugged. "Of course."

And then, the beast within was unleashed.

"Show me one of your Grass-type Pokémon! Any Grass-type will do; I'm not picky! Please, I must see any Grass-type you have…!"

The seemingly calm, rational, and informative Gardenia suddenly transformed into something… far less professional – and borderline psychotic.

"Well, um," Conway stammered, taking a cautious step back away from the raving Gym Leader. This put him in a very awkward position. "I'm sorry, but I don't have any Grass-type Pokémon yet."

"HUH?!" Gardenia immediately looked heartbroken, giving the young trainer the most disturbing puppy dog eyes. "Say it isn't so! How can you not have a Grass-type?! They're so wonderful! That's what I was looking forward to the most, you know! Not the battle, but the opportunity to meet another trainer's Grass-type Pokémon! Come on, tell me you're joking!"

That warranted another step back away from the Grass-type enthusiast. "Unfortunately, I'm not," Conway admitted. "Besides the three Pokémon I battled you with, all I have is Slowking, Aggron, Castform, and Lickilicky."

"And for all those Pokémon captures you made, you never once thought that maybe you should catch a Grass-type?!" Gardenia wailed.

"I haven't exactly had the time to think much about Grass-types specifically," was Conway's excuse. It was true, at least. Taking care of Paul for a month, then undertaking a mission to expose his cousin for his nefarious deeds left Conway with not much time to fancy what Pokémon he'd like to capture after his fated meeting with Smoochum. Lickilicky and Shuckle were captures purely for strategic purposes as Conway went from Gym Leader to Gym Leader. "But, um, how about I bring you one the next time I come to Eterna City? Depending on which Gym Leader I take on next, I might just be in need of a Grass-type after all…"

With an overly dramatic sigh of resignation, Gardenia hung her head with disappointment and despair. "Okay… I guess there's not much you can do if you really don't have one to show me…" If she didn't come off as so utterly bonkers, Conway would've felt sorry for her.

"But all hope is not lost just yet!" Gardenia suddenly proclaimed; her eyes beaming with hope and joy. She looked to Conway's annoyed and impatient companion. "Barry, you still have your Roserade, right?"

Now it was Barry's turn to be put in an awkward spot. "Uh, yeah…"

"Let me see it! Let me see it!" Gardenia begged as if she were a young child bothering her mother for candy or a new toy. "I'd love to see how much your Roserade's grown since I last saw it! Ooh, if mine wasn't worn out right now I'd so have our Roserades battle! You know, to see which one is the most powerful!"

"Well, it's obvious my Roserade would win," Barry said matter-of-factly, despite his unease around the Gym Leader. "But fine, you can see it." For once Barry wasn't going to be difficult about this, if only because the threat/promise of acupuncture Gardenia made to him remained fresh in his mind… and he's witnessed said "acupuncture therapy" from Gardenia's Cacnea done to herself. It looked horrifying and anything but therapeutic.

Conway wisely decided not to speak up as he heard the auburn-haired teen squeal with joy. He watched Barry reluctantly toss up one of his Pokéballs, which brought out his Roserade.

"Alright, just a quick look at Roserade," Barry wanted to set some ground rules as soon as possible. Conway figured Barry's first meeting with Gardenia left some mental scars that had yet to fade if he was being so uncharacteristically cautious, yet firm. "And no funny business, got that? We're running on a tight schedule, y'know!"

"I understand; you two must be awfully busy if you're trying to get eight badges before the Sinnoh League rolls around," Gardenia acknowledged, wasting no time in cuddling Barry's Roserade. "So Colin, once I give you the Forest Badge, how many more do you need before you qualify?"

Conway opened up his badge case, eyeing the empty slot that would soon be filled by the Forest Badge. "Your badge will be my fourth, so that officially puts me at the halfway point."

"You realize we're gonna have to step up our pace if we're both gonna have eight badges before it's time for the League," Barry reminded. "And you're nuts if you think I'm gonna let you hold me back."

"Well, from here, there's a number of different ways you could go for your next badge," Gardenia informed them. "Depending on which ones you have already, that is."

Figuring it would be helpful to get a solid idea of where to go next (as he had a habit of being indecisive at times) without having to waste time going back to Hearthome City solely for Barry's sake, Conway showed Gardenia his badge case with the Cobble, Fen, and Relic Badges. "I've already defeated Maylene, Crasher Wake, and Fantina," he informed her.

"Well, I'm gonna beat Fantina real soon!" Barry interjected, showing off his own badge case. "She's just hard to track down, you know?" Conway resisted the urge to throw in a remark that Barry also lost against her twice. "See, I got your Forest Badge, Byron's Mine Badge, Amber's Flare Badge, and Mako's Virus Badge! I'm on a roll and Fantina's number is gonna be up soon enough!"

"Wow, you must've been all over Sinnoh already to get those badges," Gardenia remarked, clearly impressed as she took a gander at Barry's orange badge case. "Byron's Gym is pretty far out there, even from where we are now. I remember Domino City being tricky to get to; did you take the ferry through Sea Route 220 to challenge Amber?"

Barry shrugged nonchalantly. "No biggie; for a boat ride it wasn't too bad. Besides, I always wanted to see Pal Park. And being the master of managing my time, I waited until after I beat Byron to challenge Mako."

"That's the Cronobane City Gym, right?" Conway asked for clarification. "Which, as I recall, is on Waning Moon Island… the best way to get there would be from Canalave City's port…"

"Right," Barry affirmed. "So the moral of the story is that I'm awesome!"

"Of course," Conway mumbled, rolling his eyes. He turned to Gardenia, who wisely chose not to make a remark to Barry's ego-stroking statement. "So what gym would you suggest for the fifth Badge, Gardenia?"

The Gym Leader had turned to Yoko, who had left to retrieve Conway's reward. The assistant handed over the small casing, which Gardenia smiled and nodded to Yoko in silent gratification before addressing her challenger. "Well, Colin, it's hard to say," she admitted. "If you and Barry are traveling together, you'll need to pick a way that's convenient for both of you; a gym that neither of you have challenged yet." Then an idea suddenly came to her, "How about stopping by the Pokémon Center before you go? Colin's Pokémon could use the rest, and Nurse Joy's usually good for consultation as to where to go next in your journey."

"Fair enough, but we better not stick around too long!" Barry warned. "We're on a tight schedule, y'know!"

Gardenia approached Conway, presenting him the case bearing the metallic green badge in the very center. "Then, Colin, as proof of your victory today, I'd like you to accept the Forest Badge! I trust you'll take good care of it."

Conway nodded, quite enthusiastic as he plucked the badge out and placed it in his badge case. "Marvelous! I now have the Forest Badge," he exclaimed. "Four badges down; four to go!"

"Fantastic, good for you," Barry muttered, not nearly as excited for Conway's progress. "Now let's get out of here already!"

"Aw," Gardenia whined, somehow already down on her knees on the ground with Barry's Roserade right behind her. "Not even one more Poison Jab for the road…?"


Though Conway was making excellent progress despite his late start, Paul was not able to revel in victory just yet. Even though he was doing much better against Candice this time than his last attempt, the spunky Gym Leader proved to be tough customer – just as Reggie said she would be.

This time, it was Candice's Snover versus Paul's Gliscor. With Honchkrow and Ursaring barely being of any use after the punishment they took from Candice's last two Pokémon, Paul was left resting his hopes on his last two Pokémon. However, both of them suffered the most devastating weakness to ice due to their dual typing, meaning neither would last long if they took too many direct hits from Ice-type attacks. Unfortunately, Paul's specialty in battling was having Pokémon that excelled in taking hits just as well as they could attack… meaning Paul had no choice but to deviate from his usual formula to earn that long-awaited win.

Thankfully, Gliscor was the most mobile of Paul's chosen team next to Honchkrow, and since Paul made the effort to ensure that Candice would only have a minimal advantage on her icy field (which was more and more looking like a giant black mess with the dark pools of melted water steadily growing in size), the Fang Scorp Pokémon had no trouble dodging most of Snover's moves.

"Now, Gliscor! Use Fire Fang!" Paul ordered the moment he saw an opening, knowing Fire-type moves were to Snover as Ice-type moves were to his own Pokémon. The writhing of the Frost Tree Pokémon was a good sign – it meant Gliscor scored a valuable direct hit.

Candice grimaced slightly, though only briefly. She was in full business mode from here on out, knowing her last two Pokémon would have to make short work Paul's if she wanted to be on a more even level with him. While happy that Paul was performing to his standards, Candice herself would be feeling very inadequate as a Gym Leader if she happened to be completely shut out without scoring a single win.

"We feel the burn!" Candice declared as she pointed directly towards the battle. "It's too close to dodge now; Ice Beam, Snover!"

She was right; Fire Fang was a close-ranged attack. Snover did not hesitate to cease the burning agony by shooting Ice Beam straight at the problem. Combined with the flames of the Fang Scorp Pokémon's attack, the collision resulted in a blast of steam, followed by an explosion that sent both Pokémon sliding back against the especially slick battlefield. Gliscor too suffered a direct hit from the element it was most vulnerable to, and Paul grew increasingly concerned with his chances in this match-up. Gliscor had otherwise performed quite well, especially with its weight and ferocity aiding in the continued assault on the battlefield. However, the margin for error in this overall challenge slimmed nearly to zero; Gliscor wouldn't be able to take more than a couple of hits from Ice-type attacks, and the neutral Grass-type moves Snover had chipped away at its strength even more.

The problems were bound to escalate if Paul had to resort to using Torterra. Despite his personal alterations to Conway's strategic suggestions, Paul fully intended to remain faithful to one instruction Conway wrote down: only use Torterra if there are no other options. Despite being Paul's strongest Pokémon, it was undoubtedly the biggest weakness of his team for this specific challenge. Ursaring possessed no weakness to the ice and had many useful moves to counter it; Honchkrow was vulnerable to ice, but it too had a variety of moves to make up the difference and was the biggest player in Paul's scheme to decimate the battlefield. Plus, it helped that Honchkrow was the most agile of this particular selection, and being airborne did have its advantages. Gliscor had at least that and a good number of moves that were more than capable of turning the tables despite its crippling ice vulnerability.

Now that Paul knew exactly what he would be up against for the rest of the challenge (Abomasnow was a given from the start, after all), he realized Torterra would have its work cut out for it if the Continent Pokémon became Paul's only hope for defeating Candice. Along with the devastating ice weakness, Torterra wouldn't be doing much moving at all – leaving the matter of dodging attacks out of the question. Worst of all, against a Grass/Ice-type Pokémon (which Snover and Abomasnow both were), Torterra only had one move that would prove effective. To utilize Torterra safely, Paul needed Candice on the ropes.

"Steel Wing; let's go!" Paul did not want to miss a beat here. Gliscor recovered and flew straight past Snover, letting its empowered wings graze the Frost Tree Pokémon as it passed by.

"Icy Wind!" Candice was also focused; intent on not wasting a single opportunity. Snover felt the hit from Steel Wing, but recovered in time to turn around and blast its opponent with a fierce, frigid current before said opponent could get too far away. Gliscor's attempt to ascend into the air was blocked as Icy Wind took its toll on the battle-worn Pokémon, as it fell to the ground with a loud thud.

Paul's hands balled into fists as he tried his hardest to control his emotions. "Get up, Gliscor!"

Gliscor was still able to battle, evident as it managed to stand up on its own. However, when trying to balance itself on its tail (a common habit of the species), Gliscor was unable to maintain form and fell back to its feet. This visibly worried Paul. "Come on, Gliscor! Why can't you…" Then it struck him, once he paid attention to his Pokémon.

Gliscor's wings were stiff. Even more alarming were the patches of ice that coated its wings.

"Playing with ice is just like playing with fire," Candice taunted, knowing exactly what happened. "If you aren't careful, you'll get burned… or in Gliscor's case, frozen!" Paul grimaced at having to face the situation. "Let's see how you manage with that extra handicap! Snover, use Bullet Seed!"

"Block it!" This was all Paul knew to do in a scenario like this for the moment. Luckily the Fang Scorp Pokémon's large claws were more than capable of sustaining the blow, but the fact that Candice called for Bullet Seed and not an Ice-type move told Paul she was making him realize his situation before she would finish off this battle.

Zoey had been getting into these battles more and more as she observed both trainers' strategies and how they were executed. Still, she couldn't hide her smirk whenever Candice got the upper-hand. "Well, that's one match for Miss Senior in the bag," she figured. "Having that aerial mobility was the only way Gliscor managed to land all its attacks without getting hit back too much. If Gliscor can't fly, then it's finished."

"You'd better hope Gliscor can block ice attacks as well as it can with Bullet Seed!" Candice called out with a smirk. "Snover, I think it's time for another Ice Beam!"

Paul's eyes snapped wide open as he heard the call. There was another detail Paul took note of while Candice coyly taunted him, and it was his only hope to get an opening to fix this mess. "Counter it! X-Scissor!"

Gliscor's blocking maneuver involved the Fang Scorp Pokémon crossing its arms over its body; this happened to be the exact position to execute X-Scissor. Having already taken the form inadvertently, Gliscor was able to use X-Scissor quickly enough to intercept Ice Beam.

The resulting explosion sent both Pokémon sliding away from each other over the ice. Now that the Pokémon were quite distanced from each other, Paul had an opportunity to turn this battle around. However, one problem remained: Gliscor's wings were still frozen. In order to land any attack well, Gliscor would have to be right next to Snover, left wide open for a dangerous counterattack. Paul glared at the frozen wings of his Pokémon as Gliscor looked back to its trainer for the next command.

Just then, Paul was fortunate enough to be struck with another idea; this time one that would remedy Gliscor's situation. However… it would be quite the controversial move and Paul knew he would be getting a lot of flak for even issuing the command.

Luckily for Paul, he didn't really care what anyone else thought of him or his methods. "Alright, Gliscor, listen up. I want you to use Fire Fang… on yourself." Gliscor tensed up as expected to be issued such a command, but it quickly understood why it had to be done.

"What?!" an infuriated Zoey shouted; obviously she didn't immediately realize why anyone would do this. "What kind of trainer would make their Pokémon do such a thing?! Only a monster!"

"Zozo…" Candice quietly mumbled; the controversial command distracting her as she tried her best not to judge Paul outright as her friend just did. That was one benefit to this choice Paul made; it would go off without a hitch because of its controversial nature that would make anyone else double-take.

The other benefit – the important one – eventually became apparent to both the Coordinator and the Gym Leader as they watched Gliscor follow its order; specifically, Gliscor's flaming fangs bite down into its wings. Paul's Pokémon couldn't help whining in pain of its own self-inflicted attack, but both it and Paul knew the pain was worth it: the steam and drops of water pouring down the wings were proof that the sketchy technique was a success: Gliscor's wings were no longer frozen.

"Wow, talk about a blow to the mind," Candice remarked, resting a hand on her forehead. "I never would have come up with that…"

"So that was his angle," Zoey murmured, still quite sour that this happened at all. "What a guy; he'd do just anything to win."

Paul paid no mind to the comments, seizing his opportunity to clinch this match. "Gliscor, Guillotine!"

A simultaneous "Uh-oh!" came from both Candice and Zoey once the call was made. Gliscor shook off its lingering pain and lunged forward with one arm extended towards the intended target. Paul didn't need to tell Gliscor to be quick and flawless in this execution of the move; the Fang Scorp Pokémon knew very well the risk it was taking, but there was no better time to give it a shot.

Candice was unable to make a full call before witnessing her Snover being scooped up with Gliscor's massive claw and swept high up into the air. So far so good for Paul; he rarely had Gliscor use Guillotine, and for good reason: it was a very difficult move to pull off with an extremely wide margin for error. Should it go off without a hitch, the battle would immediately be over – whether the victim was weak and inexperienced like Ash's Gligar was, or any one of Cynthia's magnificent Pokémon, they would be instantly knocked out.

"Use Ice Beam to break yourself free!" Candice was determined to not let this happen. Both she and Zoey knew exactly what the Guillotine move was about, and the Gym Leader fully intended to exploit the relative ease of making the move fail. It was especially a breeze considering the massive type advantage she had along with the fact that Gliscor was in close range again and had no way to dodge any of Snover's moves now. The Frost Tree Pokémon was fully capable of shooting an Ice Beam in point-blank range before Gliscor had a chance to slam it down.

And that was all that needed to be done; Gliscor suffered a critical hit from its greatest elemental weakness, which was more than enough to break its concentration as well as its hold on Snover. Gliscor was sent careening into the field next to Paul while Snover safely landed on the opposite side. This was the worst possible way for this plan to fail, and Paul couldn't help growling in frustration as he turned his attention to where his Pokémon landed. "No…!"

"Whew, that was a close one," Candice sighed as she wiped her brow. "This battle sure has been full of surprises; too bad Gliscor's down for the count. I would've liked to try more ways to counter all those awesome moves it has."

"Gliscor's not done yet!" Paul retorted, glaring at her. Though definitely hanging by a thread by this point, Gliscor indeed managed to rise to its feet. Despite surviving such a devastating blow, everyone soon noticed the consequences of taking that risky move: Gliscor was no longer able to get airborne again.

"Gliscor definitely looks done," Zoey noted. "It can't fly again; why go through the trouble of damaging your own Pokémon if it was just going to get its wings frozen again a minute later?"

Candice shook her head as she closely examined her challenger's Pokémon. "No, its wings didn't freeze again… Snover hit Gliscor in the front with Ice Beam this time." She watched Paul hopelessly mutter Gliscor's name as it continued its futile attempts to fly before tiring itself out and resigned any further tries.

It was clear as day to Paul what was wrong with Gliscor; not willing to have his Pokémon take any more senseless risks, he pulled out Gliscor's Pokéball and recalled it without saying a word.

Zoey was still cross at Paul, but she nodded in agreement to his current decision. "If its wings were fine, then the only other explanation is that Gliscor's so worn out that it doesn't have the energy to fly. So that just put Paul back at square one; nice to see even he has his limits when it comes to overworking his Pokémon."

The Coordinator was correct: Paul saw no sense in keeping Gliscor out there in its current condition. The gamble Paul took backfired big time, which left him with precious few options for what to do from here. Thankfully, Candice's Snover was far from being in top form after all the damage it sustained from Gliscor's extremely effective attacks. This was the primary reason for Paul deciding against simply leaving Gliscor out to get clobbered on the next move.

As he drew out another Pokéball, Paul closed his eyes in resignation that this next move of his would likely not hold out as he wanted it to… as well as bring about the inevitable rebuking he would be hearing from his opinionated observer. "Honchkrow, stand by for battle!"

A short time's rest was better than no rest at all, but that didn't change the fact that the Big Boss Pokémon came out looking extremely worn down and barely in any condition to battle.

"I should've known he'd pull something like this if I granted him a compliment," Zoey growled as quietly as she could. "How could he do that to Honchkrow after everything it's been through?!"

At first, Candice was visibly concerned to see Honchkrow back on the field so soon, but the Gym Leader managed a smile upon seeing the resolve in the bird's eyes. "Paul, you've definitely raised your Pokémon well; don't let anybody else tell you different. I can see just from looking at Honchkrow that its kiai flame is not easy to snuff out, even after it's taken quite the beating!" She looked up at Paul and smirked. "Having said that, though, I'm gonna be honest with you: I see your angle here. I know it'd be super awesome to have Honchkrow get its second wind and save the day, but you and I both know that's just not gonna happen."

Paul did not reply. Candice catching on so quickly to his motive wasn't much of a surprise at all, and he was not about to delude himself into thinking Honchkrow was going to come out on top of this match despite having less of a handicap than Gliscor. Someone like Ash might be deluded enough to believe such a thing, but a staunch realist like Paul knew better than to set himself up for disappointment.

Instead, he opted to cut straight to the chase. "Honchkrow! Sky Attack; let's go!"

Despite being quite the blabbermouth in her own right, Candice did prefer her opponents to be less about talking and more about action, and she had the quick reaction time to keep up the pace with them. "Think again! Snover, use Icy Wind!"

It was inevitable that Icy Wind would hit first due to Sky Attack's mandatory charge time, but Paul threw caution to the wind in spite of this obstacle, silently urging his Pokémon to pull through despite the inevitable pain that would come of it. The concept of pain abruptly became the center of Paul's life now – he would be struggling with pain every day for the rest of his life – and he was not the only one who wished for his Pokémon to understand this. Each of Paul's Pokémon were fully aware of Paul's ailment; through the course of the ten-day training session, they all admired Paul's resolve that not only kept him from giving up, but was maintained perfectly enough to keep his secrecy from his family over the matter. The suffering and struggling Paul endured made all of his Pokémon desire the same strength, and Honchkrow was no exception.

Honchkrow didn't need a verbal command from Paul to know what to do; in its current state, the Big Boss Pokémon knew the only reason it was sent out to battle again despite is severely battered condition was that Paul was desperate. Honchkrow knew it was meant to go out with a bang, not only to prove its own worth, but to aid its comrades.

Candice's bravado gave way to sheer tension as she saw the plump bird force its way through her Snover's Icy Wind barrage – the nearly blinding white aura of energy surrounding Honchkrow allowing it to persevere against the harsh elements – and plow itself straight into Snover. The clash of energies triggered another explosion; a strong, hot one that consequently kicked up a great deal of steaming fog from the battlefield. Visibility for all human beings in attendance was hindered, and they had no choice but to wait for it to clear to see what became of the two Pokémon in the heart of the blast.

Sadly, yet unsurprisingly, Honchkrow was seen on the field, huddled over and unmoving. Snover was also knocked over, able to at least sit up. Still, it was quite worse for wear after taking such a powerful attack. It was hard to say whether or not Honchkrow's ability Super Luck came into effect here (though Paul believed if it had, Snover would have been knocked out cold), but the damage was clear to all those witnessing the battle.

"Honchkrow is unable to battle," Mr. Honcho announced. "The winner is Snover!"

Paul held in a sigh as he reached for Honchkrow's Pokéball and returned his fallen Pokémon to get some substantial rest. Though this didn't buy nearly enough time that Paul wanted, he was grateful for what Honchkrow managed to do – especially since it had the roughest time in this battle, being the only Pokémon who had faced all of Candice's so far.

Candice freely sighed out her relief that Snover pulled through against the odds. "Definitely too close for my comfort," she admitted without hesitation. "Way to hang in there, Snover. At least we're making progress now; I was starting to get a little embarrassed!"

Naturally, she was referring to this match being her first actual victory over Paul after she had already lost half of her team. While she felt more at ease, Paul's condition was the opposite. He had been in the lead the entire time, but was stuck in a position where he could easily fall behind.

"Snover, you're still in this with me, right?" Candice kindly asked her battered Pokémon, to which Snover replied with a stern nod as it rose to its feet. There wasn't much fuel left in the tank, but seeing the way Honchkrow went out deterred it from choosing the coward's way out (not that Candice would condone it, anyway).

Now it was time for Paul to weigh his options. Both girls looked over to him with intrigue as Paul now held a Pokéball in each hand, looking back and forth from one to the other and trying to decide which route to take from here. It was no secret to anyone that Snover wasn't set to last much longer on the field; the internal debate waging war in Paul's mind was how Snover should be dispatched. Gliscor had the moves that were more than capable of defeating Snover in a single hit, but Gliscor itself was badly damaged, highly susceptible to being defeated by one mere attack itself, and had very little downtime in order to recover some of its lost stamina. It was very possible that Gliscor – if it was sent out again right now – wouldn't be capable of taking Snover out before the Frost Tree Pokémon did the same in kind to it.

On the surface, Ursaring was a much more attractive option. It had taken a great deal of damage earlier in the battle, but also had a significantly greater amount of time in which to rest up. It was unlikely that Snover would be able to defeat it since it lacked a weakness to Ice-type moves, but that didn't mean Snover would be incapable of landing a scratch on Ursaring, either. In truth, Paul was seeing Ursaring for a more long-term investment: Candice's Abomasnow. It was sure to be the most challenging opponent and Ursaring was likely the best chance Paul had in defeating it… but that was far from a certainty, and if Paul used the Hibernation Pokémon to take care of Snover, then chances were high that it wouldn't be able to last against Abomasnow for very long… and that would leave the entire responsibility of winning this match up to Torterra. That was a scenario Paul did not want to have to face; he'd much rather not have to use Torterra at all if he could help it.

It wasn't just the strategic suggestions left by Conway that deterred Paul from using his starter any time sooner than when it was absolutely necessary; just thinking about a worst-case scenario where Torterra would be pitted against a relatively fresh Abomasnow gave Paul nasty memories of the training sessions with Reggie over a week ago. In all that time, it still shook Paul up every time he thought back to how easily Reggie's Infernape knocked his Torterra a mile back with a single Blast Burn attack. Paul had his emotions under much better control now, but the last thing he wanted was for history to repeat itself this soon and make all of the progress made in this battle inconsequential. If a Fire-type attack had the capability of wrecking Torterra's usually strong defenses, then an Ice-type attack would be all the worse. Unlike Gliscor, Torterra didn't have the luxury of dodging attacks, either. Once it came down to Torterra, Paul would be fighting a battle of sheer attrition that he was sure to lose.

Decisions like these were what distinguished Paul from most other trainers; even now, Paul was thinking two steps ahead rather than making calls on sheer impulse. Since Candice was certain by now what Paul's fourth Pokémon would eventually be, she felt no need to rush him in the decision-making process. She was actually quite proud of seeing Paul taking this battle so seriously, unlike their first encounter. It was a clear sign that he was taking her seriously as a Gym Leader now.

Just then, Paul pocketed away one of the Pokéballs, having made his decision as he threw the one he still held. "Gliscor, stand by for battle!"

"Welcome back, Gliscor," Candice greeted, though her smug expression betrayed the sweet tone of her voice. "Gosh, it's like you've hardly been away at all!"

"Seriously?!" Zoey exclaimed with predictable disbelief. "Paul, who do you think you are, pulling stuff like this?! You'd think you'd learn from the mistake you just made with Honchkrow a minute ago!"

While Paul just shook his head, not willing to waste any more energy or concentration on the Coordinator's biting commentary, Candice decided to speak for him – an action that was both for her challenger's benefit as well as to shake him up when she revealed how easily she read into Paul's strategy. "Now, now, Zozo," she gently said in hopes of calming her best friend. "Even if Gliscor's taken a lot of damage, what matters is that it's still willing and able to battle. It's obvious Gliscor wants to get back into the fray no matter how grim its chances are of staying in this for much longer. Paul's just playing smart about this and reserving his better-conditioned Pokémon for the real fight up ahead." The Gym Leader then faced her challenger with a most devious smile, which was quite unnerving. "Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, Paul!"

The sour look on Paul's face was all that Candice needed to know she was right. Rightfully so, Paul worried that if his tactics were becoming easier to read that his chances of coming out of the challenge on top would be next to impossible. Just like when Ash and Paul battled at Lake Acuity, Paul was quite set with his strategy once he learned what Ash's full team was. The last thing Paul wanted as to be the Ash of the battle he was currently engaged in.

"Don't waste your energy flying," Paul quietly warned his Pokémon. "This ice field is for Candice's Pokémon's benefit, but you can make use of it too. Keep your wings spread out and you should have no problem running circles around Snover."

This was very useful advice Gliscor wouldn't have come up with on its own. It winked to Paul as it got into position, balancing itself using its tail (as per usual for the species).

"Stay on defense until you find an opening," Paul added. "That way Snover won't have any time to dodge an X-Scissor attack." Of course, he was referencing an earlier point in the battle where Gliscor taking up the defensive stance of crossing its arms left it able to fire off said attack in an instant. This seemed to be the optimal route to defeating Snover for good.

"In any case, this won't take long either!" Candice said with glee. "We're on the road to evening up the score, Snover, so fight with your kiai might – whatever you've got left!" Her Snover heeded the call and prepared itself for another attack. "Now, charge ahead and use Ice Beam!"

Since Gliscor looked terribly worn out and wasn't even trying to fly this time, Candice figured the Fang Scorp Pokémon would be a sitting duck. Little did she realize Paul's plan to make the best of what he had, and was shocked to see Gliscor skating on the ice with its tail, with its wings spread out like makeshift sails on a ship to help control which way Gliscor wanted to go. With one veer to the right, Snover's Ice Beam was averted. This unusual dodging maneuver even got Zoey's attention as she studied Gliscor's moves intently.

"You're not getting away that easily!" Candice assured, sternly looking to her Pokémon. "Snover, Bullet Seed!"

"Keep dodging!" was Paul's simple command. It pleased the trainer seeing Gliscor swerving from side to side in order to avoid the barrage of Snover's attack, leaving only the ice itself to be Bullet Seed's victim. More and more, Candice's once-glorious battlefield resembled something unspeakably ugly; stained black almost everywhere, the ice formations shattered into rubble, which made the terrain much trickier to skate over in addition to the heat and impact of the numerous attacks throughout the battle making the terrain increasingly unstable. Cracks were becoming widespread and the dark puddles were only growing in size, but were not imminently noticeable due to the black coating from Haze making everything harder to make out. Luckily for Gliscor, its thick tail had no problem mowing over the debris it crossed over.

"Icy Wind, let's go…!" Candice was getting desperate, ordering Snover to fire off an attack at every possible opportunity, knowing that thanks to the debris and Snover's lacking stamina to skate across the ice in its own way, that there was no sensible way to chase Gliscor.

Zoey shook her head, growing concerned for her mentor. "I wish I could say something," she said to herself. "Miss Senior's having Snover attack Gliscor where it is, instead of where it's going to be… this battle must really be getting to her if she hasn't noticed that."

With his talent in defensive-styled battling, Paul knew the best way to handle this scenario was to let Snover expend its energy on attacks while Gliscor's graceful ice-gliding made all of those efforts futile. Just as he expected, Snover tired itself out and had to take a quick breather before resuming the onslaught: this was the opening Paul was looking for.

"Now!" Paul shouted to his Pokémon. "Use X-Scissor!"

Before Candice could recover from her shock long enough to issue another attack, it was already too late. Gliscor collided into Snover with a direct hit from the Bug-type move. A small plume of smoke came from the area of impact, though Gliscor was soon seen sliding past it and successfully making its way back to Paul, where it finally stopped. Though still barely able to battle, the ice skating maneuver and letting the air guide the path was much less taxing on Gliscor's stamina compared to Snover's barrage of attacks. It wasn't long before the smoke cleared, and sure enough, Snover was seen lying on its back, not moving an inch.

With one look at Snover's eyes, Mr. Honcho made it official. "Snover is unable to battle; Gliscor is the winner!"

The Fang Scorp Pokémon was absolutely ecstatic, though could barely express those feelings given its own condition. It looked up to its trainer… and for once, Paul smiled (a smug one rather than an earnest one, if only to keep up appearances) and nodded to Gliscor without saying a word. This plan worked beautifully; much better than Paul had expected it to.

It seemed unusual for Candice to have a lapse in her judgment at this stage of a challenge, but Zoey soon had an idea why that was the case. "Man, a lot's happened in this battle since the beginning," she noted. "It's hard to get a read on what Paul's ultimate strategy is because he's done so many different things with each of his Pokémon. And the way he's trashed the battlefield… why he's gone this far to do it, it still doesn't make any sense. Poor Miss Senior must still be trying to find out what Paul's true motive is for that; it hasn't really made a drastic difference in how these battles played out so far. Add that to all the other strange moves he's pulled since, and…" Zoey groaned just trying to think about it. "I give up; this is making my head hurt."

"Good job, Snover," Candice congratulated as she returned Snover to its Pokéball. "You just focus on getting a good rest right now, okay? Your comrade's gonna make sure your sacrifice wasn't in vain!"

The allusion to the impending challenge of Abomasnow did much to sober down Paul's smugness. Even though he had three Pokémon (two badly injured and one major liability) to Candice's final one, it still felt like victory was a distant reach away. Despite Paul being both sick and not right in the head the last time he challenged Candice, he knew better than to believe those reasons were the sole cause of the total shut-out loss from Abomasnow alone. Paul understood how gravely he underestimated both Candice and her Pokémon last time – by this point, thankfully, Paul learned to take them seriously. With that hurdle overcome, the final obstacle between Paul and his seventh Sinnoh badge was upon him. Now that Candice established herself as a solid Pokémon Trainer, it was up to Paul to best her in spite of his self-imposed disadvantage.

"It all comes down to you, old friend," Candice said to her final Pokéball. "I'm counting on you!" She looked to Paul, and though she was the one losing so far (if only numbers were concerned, anyway), the Gym Leader remained in confident, high spirits. "Well, Paul, you're definitely showing your true colors as a trainer today. This battle's given me a lot of new ideas for my next classes with my students, so thanks for the inspiration!"

Paul remained silent and resigned himself to just take the compliment.

"But now it's time to get super serious," the Gym Leader continued as her arm pulled back, in position to toss the Pokéball. "Time to show your stuff, Abomasnow…!" Candice called out as she threw the Pokéball, and once again, Paul and his Pokémon were met face-to-face with the frigid beast that humiliated him last time.

"Miss Senior's trump card!" Zoey cheered, excited to see her mentor's strongest Pokémon finally up to bat. "It's sure to even the odds!"

The uncertain and battle-worn Gliscor glanced back to its trainer. Paul knew there was no point in recalling Gliscor now; it simply lacked the strength to be of any use as a back-up or a stall for time. "There's nothing you can do but give it your best shot," Paul bluntly told his Pokémon. He didn't intend to come off as mean by saying this, and the Fang Scorp Pokémon knew its trainer was simply being honest. "Whether or not you land a hit on Abomasnow, no one's going to say you didn't do everything you could to pull through."

Paul looked to Abomasnow just then, who looked as if it would attack at ay moment, before giving his last order to Gliscor. "When you get close, use Fire Fang," he muttered before resuming his upright stance to stare down his opponents. "Now go, Gliscor!"

With its wings spread out and its tail acting as a makeshift skating utility like the last battle, Gliscor made a beeline for Abomasnow.

"Right, we got this," Candice said with certainty. "You ready, Abomasnow?"

The Frost Tree Pokémon uttered a low grumble in response before going back to keep a sharp eye on Gliscor's movements. As Gliscor swiftly closed the gap between it and Abomasnow, that was Paul's cue to give the signal. "Fire Fang!"

The Fang Scorp Pokémon opened its mouth with flames spewing out, alerting the much larger opponent that it was time to act. Candice wanted to face Paul's last two Pokémon with Abomasnow as fresh as possible, so she wasn't about to let her opponents get a freebie just for kicks; especially when said freebie was an extremely devastating Fire-type move. "Not a chance!" she exclaimed. "Abomasnow, use Wood Hammer! Stop Gliscor cold in its tracks!"

Abomasnow raised a hefty arm – the green end of it glowed with energy of a deep turquoise hue – and with flawless timing, slammed its appendage over the back of Gliscor's neck… where it was literally inches away from chomping down on Abomasnow's frosty body. A powerful blow like that hitting a vital, vulnerable point on Gliscor's body stopped it cold; Fire Fang was diminished, and shortly after the Pokémon itself collapsed before the mighty beast of northern Sinnoh.

"Gliscor is unable to battle, and the winner is Abomasnow!"

Rather than being concerned for Gliscor, Paul was concerned with a detail most trainers wouldn't think to take notice to: Abomasnow not flinching or showing any signs of damage after using Wood Hammer – a move that gives recoil damage to the user after damaging an opponent, similar to Brave Bird and Volt Tackle. This was a sign that Abomasnow was not only immensely powerful, but quite the tank despite its myriad of elemental weaknesses thanks to its typing.

"Heh, that sure didn't last long," Zoey said with a wry smile. "Abomasnow's as powerful as ever." Seeing it take down Paul's Pokémon at least helped the Coordinator feel better about the outcome of her own battle with Candice that took place shortly after Paul and Brandon's battle several days ago in this very gym. Despite her skill, Candice's Abomasnow made short work of Zoey's Glameow.

This Abomasnow was a menace to Pokémon Trainers and Coordinators alike.

"Gliscor, return," Paul muttered as Gliscor was recalled to its Pokéball. It wasn't Gliscor losing to Abomasnow that had him so downtrodden, of course, but rather the new information about his opponent that he had to face. Having almost died the last time he faced off against this Abomasnow, the details of this Pokémon were somewhat of a blur in Paul's memory. He remembered his Pokémon going down in no less than four hits… taking that into consideration now, Paul cursed himself for not realizing earlier that Candice's strongest Pokémon would not be taken out with raw power alone, unlike the other opponents he defeated. Paul had excelled in countering speedy (but much frailer) Pokémon like Ash's, but when it came to bulky defensive types with extraordinary stamina like many of his own… it was clear Paul had his work cut out for him even more than he had initially thought.

Though Gliscor failed to land a hit on Abomasnow, it served its purpose well in surviving long enough to prevent any other Pokémon from having to dispatch Snover before facing its evolved form. With only two options left to use, Paul thought the most sensible approach was to have Abomasnow's defenses chipped away as much as possible in order to land any devastating blows. In order to pull that off, he needed a bulky Pokémon that would be able to handle the counterattacks from the Frost Tree Pokémon. Thankfully, both Ursaring and Torterra fit the bill – but between the two, there was no doubt which Paul was going to rest his hopes of winning with.

"Ursaring, stand by for battle!"

The Hibernation Pokémon emerged, landing on the tainted and increasingly fragile ice with a mighty thud. It had much more time to recover from its wounds sustained by Sneasel near the beginning of the challenge and was more than capable of taking a few hits from Ice-type attacks, so Paul had a good feeling about his chances here. Though Ursaring let out a quiet grunt as it found it much more difficult to maintain good footing on the ice since it was last active on the field, its trainer brushed off the minor detail and paid no mind to it – not realizing he was making the same critical mistake Ash did during their full battle.

"Smart choice," Candice commended her challenger. "Of course, it's only natural that your most valuable Pokémon would be saved for my last, especially after I surprised you with my Medicham."

Zoey raised an eyebrow at the remark. "How is Miss Senior so sure that Ursaring is the MVP of Paul's team? She hasn't even seen his fourth yet…"

But she had, of course. Candice knew Torterra was Paul's fourth Pokémon; that was the only way to rationalize Paul's hesitance to use it even now; opting to use his battle-worn Pokémon instead. The Gym Leader also figured since Paul had used Honchkrow, Gliscor, and Ursaring in the first battle with her that he wouldn't switch out his own starter despite the type disadvantage. This rematch was about more than Paul proving to Candice his own competence as a Pokémon Trainer, but also to prove the strength of his Pokémon, even under the most unfavorable of conditions. If it could be done against Byron, Paul still felt he could do this to any Gym Leader he chose… though by this point he was definitely reconsidering to go back to his traditional methods once he reached the eighth Gym Leader.

"Alright! Abomasnow and I totally got this!" Candice proudly declared, twirling around as she pointed to her opponent's Pokémon. "Abomasnow, greet our friend with a nice Blizzard!"

With a powerful breath, Abomasnow attacked Ursaring from the opposite side of the field. Bone-chilling gusts of wind blew through Ursaring, who thankfully had plenty of fur to withstand that, as well as the clumps of snow that pelted it. It didn't seem like too much of a big deal, until Candice called for a nasty surprise. "Follow up with Ice Shard!"

Paul's eye's narrowed, as Ice Shard was sure to be a problem. It was a priority move like Quick Attack, so there was nothing Ursaring could do to evade it… but that did leave another option. "Quick! Use Slash!"

The command was just barely timed right; the Hibernation Pokémon managed to swipe at the menacing projectile just before it made contact with its target. Ursaring snorted with a cocky gesture as the glittering remains of Ice Shard floated about in the air around it.

"Quick thinking," Candice muttered. "Attacking from a distance doesn't really give us much of an advantage, so obviously we're gonna have to dive headfirst into the fray!" She smirked to her Abomasnow. "We want to make this a quick one, now don't we?"

Abomasnow agreed wholeheartedly, but only had time to get into position to move closer by the time Paul issued a retaliation shot. "Ursaring, use Focus Blast!" Moments later, a menacing blue ball of energy was sent flying Abomasnow's way, but Candice was not nearly as concerned as Paul wanted her to be.

"Time to go skating!" Candice decided. "Dodge it and close that gap, Abomasnow!"

Though not nearly as mobile as Candice's smaller Pokémon, the towering Ice-type menace still managed to use the advantage of its home field to evade the attack, leaving the field itself as the only recipient of the attack. That was one more crater, puddle, and mess of cracks to add to the collection the battlefield was assembling, but Candice thought nothing of it and focused entirely on putting Ursaring out of commission quickly. "Time for the test of kiai might!" Candice exclaimed with glee. "Abomasnow, give our guest a friendly nudge!"

"Use Slash when it gets close!" Paul ordered, not about to just let Ursaring get pushed around without the offender suffering a consequence. Much to his chagrin, however, his Pokémon was doomed to never regain its full strength despite the time it had to rest… this put a severe dent in its reaction time. Though it was able to lay out a Slash attack once Abomasnow was in its personal space, Abomasnow easily blocked the attack with its bulky arms and successfully shoved Ursaring from its position.

The Hibernation Pokémon simply was not meant to have good traction on icy terrain; the shove Abomasnow gave it forced Ursaring to slip and slide about before friction would finally let it slow to a stop.

Paul knew this was bound to be a problem with Ursaring, but he was determined to not let this setback completely negate everything he worked for. "Keep it steady, Ursaring!" he demanded; harsh but firm. The young trainer had so far maintained control of his emotions exceptionally well during this battle… but that would become much harder to do if he lost Ursaring here, especially if it was unable to land any significant damage on Abomasnow. The Frost Tree Pokémon casually made its way over to Ursaring; Paul could see Candice ready to call an attack any second now, and he knew he had to beat her to the punch.

"Ursaring, Hammer Arm!"

"Abomasnow, Ice Punch!"

They both called their Pokémon to attack at the same time, triggering a mighty clash of the titans: Abomasnow and Ursaring were using both arms charged with energy to make their attacks as devastating as possible, only for their massive forearms to clash with each other. Both Pokémon were locked into a battle of endurance now; each one holding their position in hopes of overwhelming one another with their still-active attacks. Hammer Arm was a Fighting-type move, effective against Ice-type moves just as well against Ice-type Pokémon – but Abomasnow's natural affinity for ice allowed its Ice Punch to persevere under the pressure of Hammer Arm.

"Keep it up, Abomasnow!" Candice cheered. "We know those kiai is the strongest here!"

"Don't you dare give in!" Paul warned Ursaring. "Your Hammer Arm should be overpowering Ice Punch easily; what's wrong with you?!"

What Paul failed to consider was certain smaller details that kept this struggle a stalemate: Abomasnow was taller and heavier than Ursaring, so the Frost Tree Pokémon had an advantage in forcing this clash of power to turn in its favor. Traction on the ice once again proved to be a factor, as Ursaring's balance on the ice became compromised the more Abomasnow forced it down – and naturally, Abomasnow had no such issues to begin with.

"We got 'em on the ropes!" Candice noted with absolute certainty. "Alright, Abomasnow! Power up that Ice Punch and win this test of might!"

Since Abomasnow already had the advantage in stature, girth, and force, it could afford to channel more power into its Ice Punch. Ursaring had no such luck, having to focus most of its energy on making sure it didn't crumble beneath its opponent's sheer power of will. Paul grit his teeth with a most sour look on his face before the collision of powers triggered an explosion.

Abomasnow slid back a few feet from the impact, but otherwise looked fine. Ursaring, however, was left face-first on the field. Thankfully, Ursaring was quick enough to raise itself up (though only on its hands and knees as best) before Mr. Honcho could rule this match a knockout. The Hibernation Pokémon looked positively livid – which Paul saw as a good thing. Ursaring often was at its best while angry, and the adrenaline rush that came with such rage would hopefully be enough for this ornery Pokémon to get the job done. That's what Paul wanted to believe, anyway. It was only a pity that Paul wouldn't be able to take advantage of Ursaring's ability for this match, which would have helped his chances immensely… however, as Paul had seen numerous times before, there was literally nothing Ursaring could do if it were frozen in ice, and that was the only status effect that could be inflicted here.

"Ice Beam, let's go!" Candice was quite the opportunist, actively seizing any moment she could get her hands on to go on the offensive. Her Abomasnow was more than ready to follow up on the command, firing its attack straight at the still-recovering opponent.

Knowing there was no time for Ursaring to charge up a Focus Blast to cancel it out, Paul was forced to get creative. "Ursaring, use Slash and don't stop!" The furious Pokémon stood its ground; its anger fueled its many Slash attacks as its mighty claws tore into the attack to prevent it from landing a proper hit. While that part was a success, Ursaring's paws were both numbingly cold and partially encrusted with ice. Better its paws than the entirety of its body, Paul figured, but he had a feeling this side-effect of his hastily-made plan would be a persisting detriment to Ursaring's combat ability.

"So, Paul," Candice addressed her challenger. "Just between you and me, I really like battles where there's action beyond just firing off attacks. Maybe Zozo's rubbed off on me over the years, but I made my battlefield an ice rink for a reason." Zoey smiled at the kudos she was given and knew what Candice was implying.

"If it's a skating contest you want, then forget it," Paul adamantly denied her. "Gliscor should've been more than enough to satisfy you there, and we both know a Pokémon like Ursaring isn't built for using this kind of field. We're not here to impress you with special effects; we're here to win."

Candice giggled at her party pooper of a challenger. "Well, I guess you have a point. Guess that means more fun for me!" And just like that, she was back in serious mode. "Alright, then. Let's see how your Ursaring can handle a little technique me and Zozo practiced back in the day: Abomasnow, Ice Shard barrage…!"

"What?!" Paul did not like the sound of that. Abomasnow skated smoothly along the ice (the hundreds of thousands of pine needles that made up its body acting as a makeshift broom to sweep away the chunks of debris that gave other Pokémon trouble earlier on) before stopping to spin in place. It only took a moment for Abomasnow to spin fast enough to appear only as a massive green and white blur to the audience – unfortunately for Paul, that moment he could have used to attack instead had to serve as an opportunity for Ursaring to crack the ice off its paws.

Once that was dealt with, Abomasnow had already initiated its attack; with expert precision, the Frost Tree Pokémon blew a series of large ice chunks each time it made a full revolution to its starting position where it faced Ursaring. Ice Shard of course was a priority attack no matter how many times it was fired off, and being deployed at this exceptionally high velocity meant Ursaring had no hope of dodging nor blocking the barrage.

Paul flinched, shielding himself from the icy shrapnel that flew his way every time an Ice Shard attack collided into Ursaring. His beastly Pokémon roared in anger and agony each time it was hit, trying its best to swat away the frigid projectiles but continuing to get injured in the process. It occurred to Paul that this was Candice's way of showing him the consequences of not playing the game her way. Abomasnow definitely looked like it could keep this up all day, and unless Ursaring started moving around like the Gym Leader wanted, then it would simply get pelted into submission by long-range attacks. For once, Paul could not afford to be stubborn.

"I get your point," he grunted before looking to his Pokémon. "Get out of there, Ursaring! Then go straight for Abomasnow!"

Ursaring was more than willing to go through with this plan; it slid across the ice outside the firing range and stumbled to swerve around and charge straight at Abomasnow. The larger Pokémon was still spinning and thus did not notice Ursaring had left until Candice shouted to him. "Stop, Abomasnow! Stop! Ursaring's coming right your way!"

But even Abomasnow was not able to recover immediately after rapidly spinning for so long; it was clearly disoriented when it managed to stop and was completely unaware of Ursaring swiftly encroaching upon it.

"Perfect," Paul murmured to himself, feeling his confidence and smugness resurface in his expression. "Now, Ursaring! Focus Blast!"

Zoey's hands tightened into fists as she watched the scene unfold, but then… something unexpected. At first she was tense; now she was just pleasantly surprised.

Ursaring indeed was on the right path to Abomasnow, and Abomasnow remained too dazed to act in accordance to Candice's wishes. Focus Blast was charged up, and it seemed inevitable that Abomasnow was due for a harsh collision from the Hibernation Pokémon followed by a critical hit from a super-effective attack.

What changed, then? Ursaring tripped over the ice no more than a yard away from Abomasnow. It wasn't the debris that caused Ursaring to lose its footing, but rather the large fissure in the ice that bisected the field… made by none other than Urasring itself. In all the excitement and the dark coloration of the ice masking a great deal of the more dangerous areas on the battleground, Paul had completely forgotten about that menacing obstacle. The fissure wasn't nearly wide enough to engulf the massive Hibernation Pokémon, but it could still immobilize a large target by getting at least one limb caught in the crevice. This stopped Ursaring dead in its tracks. A deafening roar of pain and rage echoed throughout the Snowpoint Gym, almost immediately followed up with a thud when the rest of Ursaring's body was forced to fall. The rumbling aftershock from the impact was felt even by Zoey up in the stands.

Judging by Paul's horrified expression, Candice could tell he didn't mean for this to happen. Whatever plan he had for this crevice, it certainly seemed to backfire on him… meaning there was no better time to end this battle now.

"Looks like Ursaring's not going anywhere for a while," she mused, looking to her signature Pokémon (who had since recovered from its last move). "Time to send it packing, then! Abomasnow, user Wood Hammer!"

"No–!" Paul knew it was a waste of time to order for a move now; but he didn't want it to end like this. He had counted on Ursaring being his saving grace of this entire challenge; to take out Abomasnow itself… or at the very least, rough it up enough so that his final Pokémon would be able to mop up what was left.

One thunderous explosion and a moment of steam clearing later, only one thing needed to be said. "Ursaring is unable to battle, and the winner is Abomasnow!"

Now Paul was faced with a much more daunting task. As he recalled Ursaring back to its Pokéball, the trainer found it much harder to look steady or confident. It was important for him to maintain his cool; not only to throw off Candice's perceptions of how he fared against her, but to also steel himself against his body's urges to crumble under the pressure. Now that he was sick, it was much easier for him to succumb to panic attacks and various (much worse) side effects. The last thing Paul wanted was for this Gym Battle to end with him puking up blood and/or falling unconscious again; this was exactly how his win against Byron and loss against Candice ended. More than anything, Paul wanted to mark this rematch with Candice as the end of that dark era. But, he figured he should have learned by now that nothing worth achieving ever came easy. He was notably somber when he stored away Ursaring's Pokéball and pulled out the final one.

"Finally, they're evened up," Zoey expressed with excitement. "And Abomasnow barely broke a sweat taking out Gliscor and Ursaring. Now we'll finally get to see what Paul's been holding back on us all this time and–"

"Torterra, stand by for battle!"

Just like that, the Coordinator's expression changed from eager to utterly bewildered as she watched the quadruped of nearly 700 pounds appear on the battlefield. Even more audible cracks were heard as the brittle ice struggled to not completely crumble under such massive weight. "W-wait… that's his last Pokémon?!"

Of course, Candice knew all along that facing Torterra again was inevitable. "Well, you officially topped Ash when it comes to surprising me, Paul," she commented in good jest. "Congratulations! Those are awesome bragging rights to have."

"You hypocrite!"

Both Paul and Candice looked up to the source of the shrill cry: a very infuriated Zoey. "That's right!" she declared, pointing directly at Paul. "I'm talking to you! You think I forgot how rude and nasty you were to Ash back when we met, when you insulted him just because he used Grotle in a Gym Battle against Miss Senior here?!"

Honestly, Paul had expected Zoey to have better things to do than memorize every little detail of a conversation that had nothing to do with her… especially when said conversation happened well over a week ago. Like most things he deemed asinine, Paul refused to dignify Dawn's rival with an answer… though being ignored wasn't nearly enough to deter Zoey from running her mouth.

"Using a Grass-type in an Ice-type Gym? I guess you chalked that up to blind faith," Zoey recited, speaking these exact words using her own personal (and intentionally exaggerated) impression of Paul. "Yet here you are, doing the exact same thing! Even worse, really! At least Grotle isn't as weak to Ice-type moves as Torterra is!"

Not even a mockery of his tone could push Paul into giving this girl the time of day. Luckily for him, Candice was there to douse the flames coming from the fiery redhead. "Now now, Zozo," she gently urged. "Even though I wasn't there whenever Paul allegedly said that, it doesn't really matter now. We know Paul and Ash are rivals now, right?" Loathe as Paul was to admit that, still. "I think I can see what's going on, and it's actually pretty admirable."

Zoey's cheeks puffed up in aggravation, not liking it one bit that Candice was taking Paul's side. "Oh yeah? What's so admirable about being a hypocrite, Miss Senior?"

"Look at it from another angle," the Gym Leader urged. "Paul's getting ready to battle me, but finds out his rival beat him to the punch, and then he learns that Ash won against me with some pretty big disadvantages across most of his team. If Paul came in today with a team that's made to totally obliterate Ice-type Pokémon, he'd probably feel like the weaker trainer for using that crutch to win against me when Ash didn't need much of an advantage! So he figures, well, if Ash was crazy enough to use Grotle against an Ice-type expert and still win, then he'll do one better and beat me using a Pokémon with an even bigger Ice-type weakness!" Candice looked to Paul with burning eyes of raw passion after going on such a tangent. "That's what this is really all about, isn't it, Paul?"

Paul really didn't want to get into this, but since Candice went out of her way to vouch for him (on top of all the other favors she did for him since they met), he reluctantly played along while saying the fewest amount of words possible. "… Right."

"See, Zozo?" Candice didn't enjoy defending Paul at her best friend's expense, certainly, but the Gym Leader learned over the years how it was better to make the best out of everything – even scenarios like this where Zoey painted a very negative picture of Paul, only for Candice to interpret the perspective the opposite way. "Even a Coordinator should learn how to look at things from all sorts of different perspectives. Who knows? It might be something you'll have to do if you wanna win the Grand Festival," she said with a wink.

Zoey couldn't deny that Candice was making sense, of course. She understood what her mentor was trying to convey. She slumped back into her seat with a sigh of resignation; the Coordinator had no fuel left in her for any future outbursts for the rest of the battle. "I gotcha, Miss Senior… loud and clear." She resisted her urge to glare at Paul from the side – as far as Zoey was concerned, no amount of common sense would make her like that guy. It was a miracle in of itself that she could even have a shred of respect for him.

"Excellent," Candice said, satisfied to have that potential conflict nullified. She turned her attention back to her challenger. "So this is it, Paul: my best Pokémon against your best Pokémon. It's the final showdown."

Torterra looked back to its trainer for some kind of instruction. Experienced as it was, this scenario was hardly the usual kind Torterra was tasked with handling. But the starter Pokémon knew one thing was for certain, based on Candice's words and the fact that it was sent out to battle at all: it was Paul's last chance for winning this Gym Battle. Its comrades had already been taken out, which forced this most unfavorable matchup. Normally, Torterra was Paul's ace-in-the-hole for winning against Gym Leaders. But… this time was different. Judging from Paul's tense, apprehensive expression, Torterra could feel its trainer lacked faith in his first Pokémon being able to finish the job. The Continent Pokémon knew those feelings were not unfounded, based on the type disadvantage, the field disadvantage, and the fact that dodging any kind of attack was out of the question – this was going to be nothing more than a battle of attrition; one that went against Torterra in every possible way.

Even so… Torterra silently begged for Paul's faith and support. It had personally seen Paul sink to his lowest several days back when his training with Reggie had just started. Recovering from Infernape's Blast Burn took a while, but Torterra was determined to heal up as quickly as it could so it could resume training. Though it was painful to see Paul at rock bottom, Torterra welcomed the huge breakthrough that came of it; now the bond between Paul and Torterra was not flimsy as it was before. Paul still didn't want to play favorites with his Pokémon, but he no longer felt ashamed and weak to care about Torterra.

What convinced Torterra that its trainer changed for the better? It wasn't really the fact that it witnessed Paul breaking down into a sobbing fit after seeing his first Pokémon get blown back a mile away; it was what happened after that… the real reason Torterra wanted to recover so quickly after that attack.

Paul never left Torterra's side until it recovered. He missed out on a day and a half's worth of training because of that, but he simply told the rest of his Pokémon to train on their own terms while he chose to sit with his first Pokémon and not budge from his spot until Torterra recuperated from its injuries. Literally the only time Paul left his Pokémon's side was to use the bathroom, and even then he was reluctant to do so unless someone else could watch Torterra in his place until he returned. Reggie delivered meals to his brother as well as blankets once Paul fell asleep; needless to say it warmed the elder brother's heart to see Paul this dedicated to his Torterra. He was finally accepting responsibility for his own shortcomings and caring for his Pokémon… and Reggie was the first to tell Torterra how loyal and protective its trainer had been for the entire recovery process. He apologized for not having a proper handle on his own strength that incapacitated Torterra to begin with, but of course the Continent Pokémon had no hard feelings on the matter, and both agreed that something like this needed to happen… so that Paul would finally understand what he had been lacking as a Pokémon Trainer this whole time.

And the rest was history. Now that Paul had finally opened his heart to Torterra, it was only appropriate for Torterra to show that Paul was not wrong nor weak for doing so, and reward its trainer's newfound kindness and devotion by winning this battle… no matter how close to impossible it felt.

"It looks bad; I know," Paul finally said, quietly speaking to his Pokémon. "And to be honest… I wanted to replace you with some other Pokémon for this battle," he admitted, which did not surprise Torterra in the least. "What stopped me from doing that… it wasn't because I wanted to stick to the original plan." Well, that was at least partially a deciding factor, but only for Conway's sake rather than Paul just being stubborn. "I kept you in this because…"

He still had trouble speaking from his heart, unsurprisingly. Luckily for Paul, Torterra's upward gaze towards its trainer seemed to indicate that it already knew what Paul was trying to say.

"Right," Paul understood, nodding with a faint (if uneasy) smile. "You already know what I mean… we both have something to prove here, don't we?"

The "Terra!" his Pokémon uttered in reply sounded gruff as usual, but oddly uplifting and inspired as well.

"So!" a familiar, high-pitched upbeat voice interrupted. "Are we all ready to start off this clash of ultimate kiai might?"

"We're ready," Paul replied, back to sounding cold and confident again. Once more, he looked down to Torterra to whisper some advice, as many plans had been set into motion since the battle started – yet very few of them had actually come into play. "Stone Edge is pivotal to our success, but for now, don't worry too much about actually hitting the opponent." He emphasized that last word as he gestured to the broken, blackened mess of a once-pristine ice battlefield. "If Abomasnow gets too close, you've got plenty of options to handle that. Hold it in place, replenish your energy, or push it back. The harder the impact, the better; just don't waste energy moving around unless you're trying to push it back, got that?"

The Continent Pokémon was admittedly curious as to how the battlefield ended up like this – it remembered how it looked when it battled here during Paul's first attempt, so it quickly gathered that its comrades did quite a number on the terrain, and there had to be a reason for that. Torterra had no desire to move around anyway; with its massive weight over ice that was badly worn down, cracked, partially melted, et cetera, one wrong move would put Torterra in a very bad place. By standing firm, Torterra could only hope the ice underneath it would withstand 700 pounds of pressure long enough for the final battle's duration.

"Then here we go!" Candice announced. "Abomasnow, use Blizzard!"

"Use Stone Edge to block it!" Blizzard was the move to avoid or disrupt at all costs as far as Paul was concerned. It was the strongest of Abomasnow's Ice-type moves, but also the easiest to intercept due to how difficult it was for most Pokémon to make Blizzard hit a target accurately. Torterra summoned several small, glowing rocks that orbited around its body like the rings of Saturn (the planet – not the person). Stone Edge was undeniably the move Paul had Torterra practice the most during the ten-day training period, if its execution in the full battle against Ash was any indication. Torterra had full control of how fast or slow the rocks could go as well as which direction they went. For now, Torterra opted to use Stone Edge as a shield; a Rock-type move held up well against Blizzard. While some sharp drafts of wind and snow slipped through the barrier, Torterra resisted the urge to flinch as it felt chilled to the bone by just a fraction of that single attack.

"Very impressive," Candice complimented her challenger. "A creative way of blocking Abomasnow's Blizzard! It's almost as if you're thinking like a Coordinator, Paul!"

That comment made Paul openly cringe. Regardless of how he felt about making amends with Conway, the Pokémon Contest he was forced into would continue to give Paul nightmares for the rest of his life. Never again, he decided. "It's coincidental… nothing more."

"If you say so!" Candice conceded with a shrug. "Alright, Abomasnow, let's see if they can block your Ice Shard attack!"

"—Stone Edge, again!" Paul had to stay quick on his feet here; Candice seemed to like wedging in surprise attacks between her silly small talk. Once again, Reggie wasn't lying when he said Candice was a tough opponent.

This time, Torterra used Stone Edge as a direct counter to Ice Shard, as the floating stones ceased acting as a shield and instead flew in a steady, condensed line to collide into Abomasnow's attack well before it could reach its target. The power of both attacks appeared to be even for a moment, but eventually Stone Edge won out and triggered an explosion in the center of the field; neither Pokémon was caught up in it, at least.

"Wow," Candice uttered in genuine amazement after squinting past the quickly-receding dust cloud that came from the explosion. "I had no idea Stone Edge could be used in so many ways. Looks like as long as we've got that move to deal with, long-range attacks won't be any good." She looked to Abomasnow, who looked fine, but… "Eventually Abomasnow's gonna get worn down if it keeps using a bunch of moves that don't do any damage…"

"Abomasnow looks pretty good for a Pokémon that just took out two others," Zoey remarked; her concern matching Candice's. "But Torterra's a fresh Pokémon with a lot of stamina. If Miss Senior relies on attacks from a distance all the time, she's gonna leave Abomasnow wide open for a nasty counterattack."

"It looks like there's only one way to settle this," Candice determined. "A straight-up, all-out brawl! The best way to see whose kiai is the strongest, naturally. So, Abomasnow, let's rush 'em and use Ice Punch!"

That move was up there with Blizzard as a threat factor; Paul knew this is where his true might (as well as Torterra's) would be tested. Torterra was not built for dodging anything, so the Continent Pokémon had no choice but to take the hit. The hefty tortoise held in its pained grunt as best it could; not wanting to worry Paul more than the situation itself had already.

Shaking off the fear of losing the battle, Paul quickly called for the next move. "Crunch!"

This was easy enough for Torterra to pull off with Abomasnow being right next to it. The Frost Tree Pokémon yelped as it felt Torterra's mighty jaws clamp down on its foot. People like Ash and Paul suffered just with having their Turtwigs chomp on various parts of their bodies… but at full force, their fully-evolved brethren could bite whole limbs clean off. Obviously, this wasn't going to be the case for a much sturdier being like Abomasnow, but it was extremely painful nonetheless.

"There's no need for that, Paul," Candice teased while shaking her head. Even her Abomasnow howling in pain didn't faze her self-assured disposition. "It's not like Abomasnow's going anywhere."

"Everything we do is for a reason," an adamant Paul told her. "I'll leave it at that. Torterra, use Giga Drain!"

"Not good!" Zoey quietly exclaimed, back to keeping her commentary to herself. "Giga Drain's one of the strongest moves that saps a Pokémon's energy and converts it to energy for the user," she recalled as the large spikes on Torterra's shell glowed a bright green color – which then emitted light beams of the same color to wrap around Abomasnow, doing just as Zoey said. "Although…" the Coordinator smirked a little as she paid close attention to Abomasnow, who still seemed to be reeling from the pain of Crunch more than the current attack affecting it. "Abomasnow being part Grass-type means Giga Drain shouldn't work that well on it. If Paul's trying to get Torterra to last longer in the battle, he should've picked a better method. Man, how in the world did this guy ever beat Ash?"

Paul knew Giga Drain wouldn't work very well against Abomasnow, but it was better than not having a health recovery option at all. Holding an opponent in place with Crunch and using Giga Drain to get the most out of draining its energy worked well enough on Ash's Gliscor; Paul didn't think this technique would work quite as well against Candice, but again, it was his best hope to get any worthwhile use out of Giga Drain. At times like this, Paul wished he had listened to Conway and taught Torterra Iron Head instead of Crunch…

"Well, we may be down a leg, but that's not a huge loss," Candice noted, seeming perpetually cheerful now. She was very tempted to remind Paul that his Torterra succumbed to her Abomasnow after only four hits when they first battled, but with Zoey in attendance, the Gym Leader once again remained faithful to the confidentiality agreement. One reason worthy of note for why Candice seemed so upbeat – even by her own standards – was just seeing Paul in relatively good health today. When they met, Paul seemed to be the living embodiment of the worst possible kind of misery. While he was far from a ray of sunshine today, Candice had yet to hear a nasty cough from her challenger; no signs of a fever, no exhaustion or overexertion, and best of all… no blood.

Though Candice was well aware that Paul was not totally healthy now (and never would be for the rest of his life), it was heartwarming to see her challenger had recovered this well… because he was that determined to battle her properly. That was all the more reason Candice had to give nothing but her absolute best for this battle.

"We still have arms, after all! Abomasnow, break out of Giga Drain and give our friend another Ice Punch!"

Since its typing hampered Giga Drain's power, Abomasnow easily ripped its arms free from the binding beams of energy and delivered another chilling blow over Torterra's massive shell. Though the Continent Pokémon lucked out and wasn't completely frozen from the attack, a layer of frost was left in Ice Punch's wake over the tip top of the shell. One of the stones protruding from Torterra's organic armor sparkled with the thin coat of ice, and the trunk of the small tree that grew over the shell was halfway engulfed in a frigid white color. Torterra couldn't bite back its groan of pain this time… its only consolation was that Paul was clearly not thinking less of his Pokémon for expressing its pain; in fact, Paul was obviously growing more concerned for Torterra. If Paul hadn't resolved to keep his mind focused on his Pokémon and the battle, he would no doubt be mentally preoccupied with hating himself for forcing Torterra into this kind of battle not once, but twice.

But Paul knew he would never win if he wasted time feeling sorry for himself. His reflex to play defensively this turn also aided his offense. "Torterra, use Stone Edge and knock Abomasnow back…!"

At point-blank range, Abomasnow had no chance of evading this attack. Rather than wasting time with fancy orbiting ring formations, Torterra rapid-fired dozens upon dozens of small (but sharp) directly into the opponent's torso. The Frost Tree Pokémon cut off its own moan of pain with another, then another after that, and so on as it was hit multiple times in rapid succession by the super-effective attack. It was forced to back away from Torterra, though it did so slowly – flinching from the pain all the while.

"Just move around it, Abomasnow!" Candice called out. "Then show 'em we mean business with Blizzard!"

Abomasnow used the ice (much of it now slushy and watery at the surface from the heat of battle amongst other things) to slide a short distance to the left of Torterra's attack, getting its much-desired reprieve from the onslaught. As it opened its mouth to unleash its wintery fury upon Torterra, Paul issued an unusual command.

"Change up!"

"Huh?" Candice was most surprised when the concentrated stream of Stone Edge actually curved around and, like a boomerang, came flying right back to its target. "Ack! Abomasnow, look out!"

Abomasnow turned its head, but it was too late. Its broad, wide back was a large enough target for every rock to hit some part of the unsuspecting Pokémon. Its Blizzard was interrupted, though unfortunately not before it reached Torterra. Slowly but surely, frost was accumulating in scattered areas over Torterra's body. In turn, Torterra's own attack was cut short; the pain from the powerful Ice-type attack was just too much for Torterra to sustain.

Paul couldn't help but cringe at seeing the cosmetic damage on Torterra, knowing his starter's sturdy expression belied the excruciating pain it was going through despite only taking one full hit of damage so far. Stone Edge had done well in weakening the effectiveness of the other hits, but Candice was well on to his strategy of using Stone Edge offensively and defensively – sooner or later she would find a way around it. Even worse, Candice could afford having her Abomasnow get hit with Stone Edge more times than Paul could get by with letting Torterra get hit by most of Abomasnow's attacks.

So that left Paul with precious few options to win this fight. He knew that soon, Plan B would be his only hope for achieving victory here… but it would be risky. The sound of ice crackling under the pressure of the stationary Torterra's weight was a warning sign for Paul. With the battlefield worn and torn as it was, Paul had figured out the perfect finishing blow to this battle… but it could very easily backfire, just as the crevice did to Ursaring.

Urgent as the situation was, Paul and Torterra opted to wait… and listen. Only then would the duo know when to attack.

"Back on the offensive, Abomasnow!" Candice shouted. "Kiai power, MAXIMUM! Ram Torterra with your best Ice Punch!"

"Brace yourself!" Paul instructed his Pokémon, grimacing as he witnessed his first Pokémon stand there and let itself get bashed with another Ice Punch attack. Torterra howled in pain as Abomasnow threw itself against it, trying to push it out of the spot it had been sitting in since it was summoned, while bashing its fist against the Continent Pokémon's shell once again.

Paul clenched his fists, resisting his urge to call out for Torterra (a habit he had repressed years ago); instead he paid close attention to the details of the clash: Abomasnow was unable to budge Torterra from its spot. Very few Pokémon had the strength to manage 700 pounds of a sturdy, stubborn Pokémon like Torterra.

While that was good news for the team of Paul and Torterra, nothing was ever meant to entirely go their way. The crackling of the ice suddenly grew much louder, alerting Paul to witness a most terrible twist he had not thought was possible.


The pressure Abomasnow applied against Torterra made the ice underneath it give way. All human beings present in the Snowpoint Gym squinted and turned away in shock – besides Paul, whose eyes were wide open as he watched his first Pokémon sink under the battlefield – at least six inches or so – and while thankfully the entire area of ice had not caved in on the Continent Pokémon, all four of its legs were now deeply submerged within the increasingly unstable ice. Now Torterra really couldn't move, even if it wanted to.

"Whoa…! I've never had that happen in my gym before!" Candice exclaimed; her tone mixed with abject horror and forced optimism. "Looks pretty dangerous… Abomasnow, you'd best get out of there, post-haste!"

This time, Abomasnow opted to step back carefully rather than slide away; it was not oblivious to the horrendous mess the battlefield had become, and with Torterra's legs sunk into the ice, the rather hefty (though not nearly as much as its opponent) Abomasnow erred on the side of caution as it inched away.

"No…!" Paul growled, shaking his head. He didn't want Abomasnow to get away again; with Torterra effectively stuck in the ice, Stone Edge was the only way it would be able to attack its opponent, and in a situation like this where the terrain was finally falling apart, Paul no longer wanted to add on any more damage. "Torterra, you can't let it get away! Use…!" Paul's mind rushed for a move to call… "Use Giga Drain, and drag it back!"

Torterra was far from comfortable; its legs already numb from being submerged in the ice. Black water from Honchkrow's gratuitous use of Haze and the heat of battle (among other things) melting the ice everywhere on the field started to flow into the gaps made by Torterra's legs, adding to the discomfort. Despite that, the Continent Pokémon remained firm; its shell was cold and brittle from the Ice Punches it sustained and much of its body was dusted with frost from the Blizzard attacks… but Torterra was determined to not let its trainer down. Ice was the worst kind of pain any Torterra could endure, but the pain was a constant reminder of its own trainer's pain. Paul's constant pain, which would never go away… the pain Paul himself was suppressing now with all his might so that he could best utilize his Pokémon for battle. For a brief moment, Torterra looked to Paul… and though the callous teen didn't say a single word of encouragement or profess his belief in Torterra's abilities – something Ash Ketchum always did – the tortoise could read Paul's true feelings just by looking at him.

Torterra knew Paul was desperate to win… it even knew Paul was feeling regret and guilt for putting his first Pokémon through this torture. It had witnessed Paul losing battles left and right for weeks on end; the nightmare finally ending when its trainer battled Ash. Torterra knew despite Paul overcoming the most difficult hurdle of his life yet, he was afraid. He was afraid to lose again! It was Candice who put him in his place before… Torterra understood what this battle really meant, beyond earning another badge.

This battle was about putting the past to rest. By winning this battle, Paul would know for sure he could move on. The symbolism of this battle, the inner struggle of Paul, the circumstances that were regretful yet couldn't be changed… and even Paul's attempt to rekindle his bond with Conway… even though Conway himself was hundreds of miles away from this place… all of this, Torterra knew.

And because Torterra knew the true meaning of this battle, thereby being connected to its own trainer… it brought about a frightful second wind. Torterra roared, though not out of pain – but out of determination.

Paul was taken aback by his Pokémon's fired-up battle cry; he was even more surprised when he witnessed Torterra suddenly glowing with a strong green aura.

"Beautiful," Zoey whispered in amazement. The action of the battle had kept her quiet for a while, but she was quick to pick up on an amazing aesthetic. "But don't tell me that's…"

"… Overgrow," Paul inadvertently finished for her; completely focused on his Pokémon. It had been a long time since Torterra's ability activated in a casual battle. Unlike Chimchar/Monferno's Blaze ability, however, Paul had Torterra trained to have total control over its ability that was akin to his former Fire-type's.

With the renewed vigor and boost of power, Torterra followed through with Paul's command. The streams of energy that emerged from the frost-covered spikes of Torterra's shell suddenly grew to three times its normal size and swiftly extended out towards the still cautiously-retreating Abomasnow. The Frost Tree Pokémon soon found itself bound tightly by the energy… and moments later felt much weaker as Torterra consumed its stamina through the binds of green energy. And just as Paul instructed, the helpless Abomasnow was dragged back to its opponent.

"Hm…" For once, Candice was not so quick to make a call for her Pokémon. She finally understood the meaning of Paul's Pokémon wrecking her battlefield… and she was also aware of something else. "Overgrow can be trouble for sure," she acknowledged. "But it only triggers when Torterra's taken a lot of damage. If Abomasnow can aim the next attack just right…" Then it would be over for Torterra for certain.

Even with a power boost, Giga Drain wasn't quite as effective as it would normally be thanks to Abomasnow's typing, but it did not struggle as it was dragged by force back to Torterra. Though Abomasnow was getting worn down gradually and seemed to be getting pulled toward its doom, Abomasnow trusted Candice would make the right call to get it out of this mess.

"A gutsy move, bringing my Abomasnow right back to you," Candice told Paul with a smirk. "You still want a straight-up brawl even though your Torterra can't move? Well, I'm happy to oblige!" The Gym Leader looked to Abomasnow (now no more than a foot away from Torterra) with a confident nod. "Time for one of us to go out in a blaze of glory, Paul! Abomasnow, put everything into your last Ice Punch!"

Being so close to Torterra, and easily breaking free of Giga Drain's hold, Abomasnow's icy fist was thrust towards Torterra's head with blinding speed…

"Frenzy Plant!"

The strongest Grass-type move… the move that could only be learned by a starter Pokémon who was bonded with its trainer…

Torterra abruptly rose up on its hind legs, the force of which knocked back Abomasnow's Ice Punch. Its renewed strength allowed Torterra to rise; its front legs shattering the ice they had sunk in…. and for a brief moment, all in attendance at the Snowpoint Gym watched in awe of the mighty Torterra finally moving of its own accord, standing on its hind legs with its front legs dangling in the air; Torterra's head rose to let loose a vicious, nearly deafening roar.

Then it dropped back down; a rumbling thud that shook the entire facility and shattering nearing all of the blackened ice on the battlefield. Torterra summoned massive tree roots that tore through the icy battlefield like a herd of crazed wooden sharks. The roots were massive both in size and numbers due to the power boost from Overgrow, and though they indiscriminately crushed through everything in their path, their ultimate target was one and the same: Abomasnow.

There was no escape. Candice cried out her Pokémon's name, but it was too little, too late. The roots of a power-boosted Frenzy Plant came together and struck Abomasnow hard. Then they struck again… and again...

Until finally, the roots ended the onslaught by tossing Abomasnow high into the air. Paul, Candice, and Zoey looked up in awe as the Frost Tree Pokémon was tossed some twenty feet in the air like a ragdoll.

And then, the roots receded. The battlefield became even more torn than before, and shortly afterward another loud, thunderous thud echoed throughout the Snowpoint Gym: Abomasnow had landed.

That was it; that had to be it. Paul only wanted Torterra to use Frenzy Plant as a finishing move because of the consequence of using the move: Torterra became immobile. The green aura still outlined the massive Pokémon, but the quadruped's audible heaving for air indicated that it was exhausted. But that didn't matter now.

Surely that was the end of it.


"Come on, Abomasnow! Get up! I know you can do it; I believe in you! No Pokémon has more passion and kiai than you…!"


Abomasnow, by some unknown means, had managed to climb to its feet. By no means was it in a good condition, of course, as it wobbled and swayed whenever it tried to move. Regardless, Candice was ecstatic that her motivational words brought new life to her Pokémon. "You did it!" she cried out.

But the triumph was short-lived. Before Paul could resign himself to defeat, he and everyone else present at the scene heard yet another sharp sound of ice beginning to crack. Abomasnow was too weary to pay any mind to it.

That ended up being a costly mistake; Candice was unable to utter a word to her Pokémon before the thin, brittle ice gave way under the mighty Frost Tree Pokémon's weight. Unlike Torterra, who was stable enough to only have its feet wedged into the ice, Abomasnow fell into a much wider and deeper pit, to the point that it was barely visible to anybody. Dark water and various shards of ice fell into the hole over Abomasnow, which was gradually widening.

"Abomasnow!" Candice instinctively raced over the ice towards her Pokémon, but found herself stuck in the middle as she realized the entire field had become a hazard to anyone's safety; the Gym Leader easily could've been the next one to be a victim of thin ice.

"Miss Senior, it's not safe!" Zoey called out, worried sick for her mentor. "Get out of there!" She was beginning to hate Paul all over again; this catastrophe was his fault, after all.

"I have to make sure Abomasnow's alright!" Candice replied in defiance, making more careful deliberate steps towards the largest crater made in her gym. She was especially cautious when she reached the area, peering down to see her Abomasnow quite knocked for a loop. Its eyes were swirled to signify it was no longer able to battle, but still muttered syllables of its own name to let Candice know it wasn't seriously injured. She smiled and let out a nervous chuckle once she was certain Abomasnow would be alright. She took out Abomasnow's Pokéball and nodded to Mr. Honcho; the silent gesture told the referee that the battle was over.

"Abomasnow is unable to battle," he announced. "Torterra is the winner, which makes Paul the challenger the victor!"

While Paul was visibly stunned that he had finally defeated Candice, the beaten Gym Leader smiled again, humble and noble as all Gym Leaders should be. "Abomasnow, return," she said as her trademark Pokémon was recalled back to its Pokéball to get some much needed rest. "You were amazing as always, Abomasnow. For hanging in there after taking a beating like that… I'm awful proud of you. Now rest up while I take care of business." Pocketing away her Pokéball, Candice looked to her challenger… beaming with pride and relief that Paul gave her the battle he wanted to give since the day he met her.

"You sure made a mess, Paul," Candice pointed out, looking around at her once pristine battlefield that now looked like a disaster area. "But you didn't hold back; you proved to me your kiai prowess can best mine. Congratulations, Paul!"

The victor of the battle just barely registered Candice's words.

Paul hadn't been this stunned by winning a battle since his rookie days in the Hoenn region.

But he won. Finally… finally, Paul defeated Candice. The past was officially behind him now.

All that remained was a certain bespectacled friend of his, to whom Paul owed much for his victory.

Once again, Paul's mind wandered… thinking of Conway; where he was and what he was doing.

If nothing else, Paul had a new objective now besides gaining his final badge: Conway.

Much later in the day, everyone had exited the Snowpoint Gym and assembled outside in front of it.

"Here you go, Paul: the Icicle Badge! Believe me, you earned it," Candice said, presenting a case with the small, shiny token that forever represented Paul's victory over the Snowpoint City Gym. "It's been a long wait for you, but I'm sure it was worth it."

Paul simply nodded to the Gym Leader and accepted the Icicle Badge, only taking a moment to look at this small milestone; the symbol of the end of an era for Paul, as it were, before placing it in his badge case. Only one empty spot in the case remained. "It was very much worth it. Thank you."

"You're lucky Miss Senior's easy to forgive your trespasses, Paul," Zoey muttered, obviously bitter over her dear friend losing the battle. "If you were battling me for the Icicle Badge, I sure wouldn't have given it to you. Not after you cleaned up the mess you made in the gym, at least."

"Oh, Zozo, I think you've antagonized him enough for one day," Candice chided the Coordinator. "Sure, if he messed up my battlefield for no reason like I initially thought, then yeah, I'd probably be ticked. But Paul had a reason for everything he did, just like he said to me during the battle." She looked to Paul briefly with a wink. "Besides, I think it's natural for a challenger to want to even the odds given the nature of my gym's battlefield. I doubt anyone would've made a plan as elaborate as Paul's, though! That battle was definitely far from the norm, and I mean that in a good way, of course!"

Zoey was miffed that Candice would defend Paul after everything he did, but she just rolled her eyes. "I guess… it just seemed a bit much, in my opinion."

"I hadn't completely figured it out until the battle was almost over," Candice admitted. "It was a lot to process and a lot to worry about… I like to think that was part of Paul's strategy; to overwhelm me with a lot of stuff." She looked to her young challenger. "Isn't that right?"

Paul nodded to her. He really didn't want to stay and chat, but for everything Candice had done for him since his arrival in Snowpoint City, he figured he owed it to her to heed her words of wisdom. It was nice having his plans acknowledged and respected, at least – even if part of those plans were made by his former companion.

"Well, he had Honchkrow obliterate all of the ice structures on the field to make it harder to skate around," Zoey recalled. "Then he turned the whole place black. It made things harder to see, but was that really worth all the trouble when Honchkrow could have been attacking instead?"

"The ultimate plan was to make the ice unstable," Paul spoke up. "Making everything black was part of that plan; not just to make things harder to see, but to speed up the ice melting process."

Zoey raised an eyebrow at Paul. "Ice melting process?"

"It's kind of a science thing," Candice explained. "But you should get this: Zozo, why do our neighbors here wear dark clothes when it gets really cold?"

"Because the sun's rays absorb dark colors which helps to keep people warm," Zoey answered. A moment later, she realized the connection at last. "Oh… the lights in your gym are really strong, so it's like a makeshift sun…"

Candice nodded. "Exactly! With the ice blackened, combined with the heat of all the attacks throughout the battle and the impacts, Paul was able to make my whole ice field just as hazardous to me as it was for him. Sure, it won't be any fun to clean up, but for the awesome battle I just had, Zozo, it was totally worth it."

"It sure was intense," Zoey admitted. "You were really great, Miss Senior."

"And how about Paul?" the Gym Leader asked coyly.

Zoey grumbled, knowing her mentor was going to make her acknowledge her challenger's efforts regardless of how much she still disliked him. Still, by this point Zoey couldn't delude herself into believing Paul was a bad trainer or a bad person. Much as she loathed his attitude, the Coordinator sighed and decided to take the high road.

"He… was really good too," she admitted with a low grumble. "I can see why Ash wants to prove himself to this guy, at least."

"Hmph." Paul was only vaguely amused at Zoey's forced compliment. "Maybe I'd say the same for you, but I don't watch Contests. Speaking of which, shouldn't you have continued on your journey by now?"

"Sheesh, even after winning you're a huge grump," Zoey grumbled, though deep down she knew Paul had a point: she wouldn't be getting very far in her journey today due to the lengthy battle she insisted on watching. "I just wanted to see this through to the end; this'll be the last time for a while that I'll get to see Miss Senior battle, after all."

Candice smiled as she gave her friend a nice pat on the back. "It won't be the same here without you, Zozo. But I understand… you said you'd come back here as Top Coordinator, and I know that's just what'll happen. Next time you come back, you'd better be ready to party! I'll throw a huge celebration in your honor."

"Aw, you don't have to do that," Zoey said, humbly blushing at the prospect. "But I know you're the type who'll go and do it anyway no matter what I say… so I'll look forward to it, Miss Senior!"

"Good!" Candice was pleased; the great promise of her own best friend and student coming home as a Top Coordinator excited her enough to not be saddened by Zoey's imminent departure. "Now go on out there and get your last ribbon!"

"You got it!" Zoey assured her mentor, giving her a thumbs-up gesture before turning away to continue her journey. "I guess I'd better get going while it's still daylight out. Gotta find the nearest Pokémon Center outside of town; it's no picnic camping out in this area."

Candice fully agreed, especially after having seen what roughing it in the most dangerous areas of northern Sinnoh did to Paul. Keeping that in mind, she handed Zoey one of her own Pokéballs. "Just to be on the safe side, I'd like you to take my Dodrio so you can cover more ground. You can return it to me when you reach the nearest Pokémon Center, okay?"

"That's very thoughtful of you, Miss Senior," Zoey remarked, accepting Candice's Pokéball with mild hesitance. "I'll be sure to return it tonight… thank you." With that, she tossed the Pokéball and out came Candice's favored mode of transport. "You got all that, Dodrio?" Zoey asked the three-headed bird just to be sure it knew why it was suddenly in her hands.

The Triple Bird Pokémon squawked in affirmation. With nothing left to do or talk about in Snowpoint City, Zoey was quick to mount herself on Dodrio and hung on tightly. "Thanks again for the loan, Miss Senior! I'll see you around!"

"Make sure you give me a call now and then!" Candice called out as Zoey started her ride out into the big world beyond her backyard. The Gym Leader happily waved goodbye to her dear childhood friend. "And good luck…!"

Candice continued waving until Zoey and Dodrio were no longer in sight. Then, she caught Paul trying to sneak away… and of course placed a hand over his shoulder to stop him in his tracks. To this, Paul let out a quiet sigh… he was really off his game these days when it came to his usual disappearing act.

"I think we're both due for a visit to the Pokémon Center," the Gym Leader proposed with a sly tone. "Don't you think?"

Having considered the brutal damage both his and her Pokémon sustained through their gym battle… Paul couldn't argue against Candice's proposal.

"You have a point," Paul calmly conceded. "Let's go." He followed Candice to the Snowpoint City Pokémon Center. Along the way, Paul felt the exchange he and Candice had was very reminiscent of another encounter he had with a very strong female trainer many months ago: the day when he foolishly challenged Cynthia, when after their short-lived, one-sided battle, the Champion of Sinnoh stopped the stubborn Paul with her calm, yet stern words… when she insisted Paul to go to the Pokémon Center. On top of that, Cynthia reminded Paul that it was his responsibility as a Pokémon Trainer to give his Pokémon the care they needed… a trait Paul later learned he lacked.

But that was in the past; the past Paul had put to rest as of today. Without a single complaint or a disconcerting expression on his face, the pair of trainers made their way to the Pokémon Center.

While waiting for Nurse Joy to finish rejuvenating eight battle-worn Pokémon, Paul and Candice sat at a nearby table; both had a beverage in hand. Obviously, Candice had more than one reason to take Paul to the Pokémon Center with her. With only Nurse Joy in the vicinity (this particular one already knowing Paul's dark secret – being the first to learn of it, no less), Candice could finally say everything that was on her mind.

"Well, Paul… it's just you and me now," the Gym Leader told him. "Can I drop the act?"

Paul closed his eyes and sighed. "Yeah. No more annoying eavesdroppers are around…"

"Great!" Candice exclaimed, looking oh-so eager. "I can finally speak candidly with you!" An ingenious but corny epiphany hit her just then. "Hah! Smile, Paul! You're on Candid Candice!"

Unfortunately, Paul was not a fan of silly puns. He just stared silently at Candice, as if he was silently scolding her for her silliness.

"… Geez, you could stand to lighten up," Candice muttered before suddenly looking quite guilty for saying that. "I mean… even with your situation, it would do you good to loosen up a bit and have fun once in a while."

"You know I don't have that kind of time," Paul retorted. Although that wasn't quite true; for being terminally ill, twenty years was plenty of time to have at least a little fun. Regardless, Paul felt that wasn't the case… most likely because it had been many years since he dabbled in anything "fun".

"Let's not get into this," Candice implored. "Paul, I just wanted to say… you were right about what you said before."

"Before?" Paul blinked at her, confused.

"When you told me to forget about our previous battle, because that wasn't the true you battling me then," Candice explained. "I'm really glad I was able to battle you today… the real you. And you even used the same Pokémon against me this time. It was amazing to see how your Pokémon adapted to an environment and opponents that they were really weak against. You wanted to give them all a chance to redeem themselves, didn't you?"

Normally when Gym Leaders imparted some wisdom to Paul after he defeated them, their words were easily forgotten or just generic common sense. The perpetually grumpy trainer actually felt flattered at Candice's words. "It wasn't the only reason," Paul confessed. "Ever since I defeated Byron with type disadvantages across my whole team, I felt like I had to push myself to the limit and challenge the rest of the Sinnoh Gym Leaders that way. A… friend of mine actually helped in building my strategy against you, even though we didn't know much about you back then; much less what Pokémon you'd be using."

That was a weird experience for Paul; actually saying out loud – though being vague about it – that Conway was his friend.

"That was very thoughtful of your friend," Candice noted. "So how much of that strategy actually went into play during our battle?"

"I made him build a strategy based around the four Pokémon I personally chose," Paul exposited. "He complained about it at first, naturally… but he had some really good ideas and smart choices as to which Pokémon I should use first and which Pokémon I should save for just the right moment. That much, I did follow… but my friend had no idea what your gym was like. A lot of things I did, I improvised on the spot. I'd say the tactics I used for our battle was fifty-fifty, between his advice and my own ideas." Paul looked to the side, out the large window the pair sat near. Seeing the terrain Snowpoint City was named for reminded Paul of something important.

"I guess I should be glad I fell in that snow pit the day I first arrived in Snowpoint City," Paul said rather absent-mindedly… he didn't mean to actually say that out loud.

"Hey, yeah… I remember that. That's how I met you!" Candice realized. "But talking from experience here, being a native to Snowpoint and all, it's a major pain getting caught in those pits. Why're you glad you fell in one?"

Paul managed to smile a bit. "I was about to throw my friend's strategy notes away; we're not exactly on good terms right now. Falling into the pit stopped me from doing that, because then I met you and… with the way things escalated, I forgot to throw them away."

"I see," Candice understood. "That really was fortunate for you after all. But I've got a feeling… even if you and your friend are having an issue right now, I bet he'd be proud of you for what you did today."

Paul solemnly tilted his head down, facing the table rather than Candice. "I'll let him know… if I run into him again."

"I'm sure you will," Candice assured him. "Fate or destiny will bring companions back together in some way or another; just wait and see. In any case, Paul, I gotta say I'm in awe of you."

That made Paul look up at her; obviously surprised. "What…?"

"You not only treated me to a truly great battle where your true colors shined, but you did so without your condition affecting you. You look a lot better now than you did the last few times I saw you, Paul," Candice confessed. "Whatever you're doing to suppress your symptoms, please keep it up! And please, take good care of yourself."

Paul nearly thanked Candice for her kind words, but scoffed at the end of her speech. "This must be what a mother sounds like…"

"I'm serious, Paul!" the Gym Leader shot back, indeed looking like an authoritative figure. "It's not easy for me to keep your condition a secret from everyone, especially people who are near and dear to you like your brother Reggie." Her expressions softened just then. "And I want to be sure you've really changed. I mean, you have changed for the better since I last saw you, but I want to be sure you're not still totally reckless and constantly risking your life just to get some thrills. Please, promise me you'll take the safe way out of Snowpoint City when you leave…"

"I've already decided to do that," Paul calmly informed her, though he was visibly awkward with Candice's abundance of concern. When he passed out (and nearly passed away) after vomiting blood in her gym, that obviously left a serious impact on Candice. It was possibly a traumatic experience; though she was hiding it fairly well if that was the case.

Upon hearing Paul abruptly agree with her, Candice did a double-take. "You– you have?"

"Right," Paul affirmed. "I've been through a lot since I came to Snowpoint City. By now I understand why the things I did beforehand were crazy and stupid… and after all the training and battling I've done for the past couple of weeks here, I'd really welcome a rest before I move on to earn my final badge. Once my Pokémon are healed, I'm going to make some exchanges to make sure I get out of here safely. Weavile's been very helpful in getting around these areas, and Magmortar should cover the rest. Is that enough to convince you?"

Candice smiled sweetly at the young trainer. "It sure is. I guess you've got enough people in your life worrying about you… I must be annoying you with all my gabbing."

"A little," Paul honestly told her, though his tone was soft and casual. "But I appreciate what you've been telling me about the battle and how I've changed. That's what I've been trying to do ever since I was released from the hospital… it's good to know my efforts really amounted to something."

"Keep it up and you'll go so far you'll reach the stars!" Candice encouraged him. "I definitely wanna see how far you get in the Sinnoh League. But before that… if you don't mind me asking, who're you going to challenge for your eighth badge?"

Paul crossed his arms, back to his usual grim expression. "I'm challenging all the gyms Reggie beat back in his day," he explained. "He earned his seventh badge defeating Hale, your predecessor. The last badge he won in Sinnoh was the Beacon Badge, when he defeated Shakira at the Sunyshore Gym."

"Ah, right, I remember when Reggie won his Icicle Badge," Candice recalled with a giggle. "He had to beat me before he could get to challenge Hale. But I suppose you're aware that Shakira was transferred to another faraway region a few years ago, right?"

"Yeah; Sunyshore Gym's being run by a guy named Volkner now," Paul stated. "Reggie sort of knows the guy from years back. So I'll be challenging him next."

"I'll wish you good luck with that, then," Candice somewhat nervously said. "In more ways than one…"

Paul was about to ask Candice what she meant by that, but he was cut off by the trademark jingle of all Pokémon Centers ringing throughout the facility. The pair was soon after approached by the Nurse Joy of Snowpoint City – who naturally recognized Paul, being the one to confirm his diagnosis to the doctors of the hospital so that they would know what to do to save his life. In each hand, Nurse Joy carried a tray containing four Pokéballs.

"Sorry for the wait," Nurse Joy apologized. "Candice, Paul, your Pokémon are fully restored."

They both thanked Nurse Joy and took their Pokéballs. Nurse Joy smiled at Paul, also noticing his improved condition. "I'm glad to see you're doing better, Paul."

"Thanks," Paul said. "And I'm sorry I was being difficult with you when I first came here. I appreciate what you've done for me…" He looked down to Candice as he stood up from his seat. "Both of you."

"I was just doing my duty," Nurse Joy said, looking quite bashful. "All the trouble was worth seeing you looking well again; I hope you'll look this healthy for the rest of your journey. I trust you'll take good care of yourself now."

"So, is this goodbye?" Candice asked Paul, watching him step sideways to get out from behind the table.

"Once I make my exchanges, it will be," Paul answered as he headed towards the video phone station.

Paul made a point to make the call quick; Maylene was still answering for the home phone number, which meant Reggie was still on the road making his way back to Veilstone City. It wasn't just Paul's general dislike of Maylene that made the call brief; his jaw was actually getting exhausted with all of this talking he'd done today – it felt like at least three times as much as he talked on average per day. He noticed Maylene was looking more and more frantic with taking up all these extra duties for Reggie (along with some other matter Maylene tried to communicate with Paul, only to get rudely cut off), but he didn't bother asking about her. Paul got his Weavile and Magmortar in his possession, trading out Gliscor and Ursaring.

He was set to finally continue his journey.

"See you around," he softly bid Candice farewell; not facing her, he preferred to just extend a single hand out to her – the lazy, half-hearted version of a wave.

"Looking forward to it!" Candice called out to him. "Take care, and good luck…!"

Once Paul left the Pokémon Center, in what felt like no time at all, he found himself at the edge of the city limits. As he promised, Paul was taking a different route southbound; the way most trainers went. To his surprise, he felt no less "alive" by taking the mundane pathway.

Seven badges down, one to go. Sunyshore City was very far away from Snowpoint City, so Paul expected there would be several pit stops along the way… as well as some rest back home in Veilstone City. It felt like Paul had been up in the frozen north forever; he was more than ready for a change of scenery. His father was still up there, of course, still intent on rebuilding the Snowpoint Temple. Hopefully Reggie would continue his training once he returned home…

And maybe, with any luck, Paul would find out what became of Conway.

"Reggie…" Paul looked down at the long trail he had yet to travel across. "Conway…" He looked eastward, seeing the outline of the dangerous path to Snowpoint City that he took. "Candice…" Paul looked back to Snowpoint City, which was gradually becoming harder to see the further down the trail Paul went.

"… Dad…" Looking northwestward where the Snowpoint Temple was several miles away. Calling Brandon "Dad" was a first for Paul.

"… Mom." He looked up to the sky, just as he had the night after he defeated Ash at Lake Acuity.

Paul managed an earnest smile, thinking of all the people in his life that truly cared about him, helped him in his times of need, and made good company if nothing else. Traveling alone now left Paul feeling a bit empty, but…

"Thank you… all of you."

Just knowing he'd been blessed by having this many people care for him when Paul barely cared enough for himself… he no longer felt lonely.

Little did Paul know that all in good time… he would never be alone again.

( TBC )
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