( Notes:

Well, hasn't it been a nice... two and a half months since the last update? Well, hopefully I made the wait worth it. This chapter is roughly as long as Chapter 8, and this is the major shake-up chapter I've been harping on about for ages. It even depressed me a little bit; I think that's why it took so long for me to write it! Next time will feature an adaption of an actual episode, so hopefully that will be fun (and easier) to write!

Uh, so you know... there is a slightly mature scene around the last fourth of the chapter. I tried walking around it as best I could, but it's still quite heavily implied. No, it's not what you think it is (if you haven't already read the chapter before reading this or... haven't read my Livejournal or something). It's relatively pretty tame, but I'm not sure if it warrants an up in the overall rating in the fic. I highly doubt I'll ever come across that sort of scene again; this was just extra-evil/extra-drama that's been in the plans since the early summer. Maybe you guys can give me some input about the rating in your reviews?

Either way, this is the end of an era as far as the storyline goes. I have a sinking feeling it's going to be quite a different kind of story when Chapter 11 is finished, but hopefully the quality will still be retained! But no one has been written out, so in spite of what happens, don't think anyone's leaving the story for good... until I like, say that's the case. This isn't the case. Definitely not. Since I doubt I'll have Chapter 11 finished in two weeks (though stranger things have happened), happy early anniversary for this fic...? It'll have been one year since I posted the first chapter on November 2nd. I honestly don't think I've ever pulled off ten whole chapters in just one year.

But, well, I won't keep you. This mama is long, so bring a full dinner before you read! Enjoy~!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"If that's the case, why do you think he entered?" Maylene asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janelle frowned at being insulted, but smiled approvingly at Paul's offer. "Certainly. Mina, explain it to him."

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

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

Paul scoffed. "You say that as if I'll miss your company."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Say cheese…"

"Wh-what…? Aah!!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Fine, I'll bite," she conceded, rolling her eyes. "What are you watching and why?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Because I'm a girl?" Then it hit her. "Oh wait… you mean…?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And to my left, from Veilstone City… it's Conway!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's time," Mina told Paul, who immediately sat up from his seat in the waiting room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both trainers immediately let out their Pokémon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Honchkrow, let's go!" he called out. "Aerial Ace!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It seems Honchkrow intends to pull the curtain on Crawdaunt early!" Marian noted. "Crawdaunt must be beside itself with the inability to stand out! But somehow, Paul knew how to make Honchkrow use this to his full advantage! Just look at Janelle's points fall!"

That prompted Janelle to look to the scoreboard and indeed looked horrified that her points were gradually lost as Paul kept up the routine. Just as her points made it to the halfway mark, so did the time limit.

"Alright, enough of this!" Janelle shouted. "You sadistic jerk… try getting out of this one! Crawdaunt, Avalanche! Get into position!"

Though it was immersed in a thick haze, Crawdaunt was still able to hear its trainer perfectly fine. Without restraint, it conjured up piles of snow, surrounding the whole field and dispersing most of the haze. What little that remained gave the falling snow an interesting affect, which turned Paul's own strategy against him. It cost him a good deal of his points, though he remained well ahead of Janelle in that department.

However, the Ice-type move hit Honchkrow rather hard. Completely defenseless in the air, it was soundly forced back to the ground halfway covered in snow. Oddly enough, Crawdaunt was nowhere to be seen.

"It seems both Coordinators favor to use their moves for stealth!" Marian announced after the snow had settled. "Where could Crawdaunt be?! The haze is no longer and play, and Paul paid the price for it!"

Paul glared down at the field, clearly uncomfortable with the situation. If it were a normal battle, he wouldn't have felt even remotely stressed out, but it was no ordinary battle. Only having one Contest battle to go by for experience, Paul was clearly feeling tense.

"Get up, Honchkrow!" he ordered. "Crawdaunt must be under the snow somewh-"

"Crawdaunt, Superpower!"

Not a second later, Crawdaunt burst out from under the snow and was much closer to the still-recovering Honchkrow than Paul had thought. There was no time to shout out an order, as Crawdaunt harshly rammed into the Big Boss Pokémon and sent it skidding along the field of snow. Just after that, Crawdaunt growled fiercely, flexing its claws and briefly glowing, as if to foreshadow an ominous ending forthcoming. Reflecting well off the bits of ice that shattered off both Pokémon after impact, Paul's points were hit hard once more, leaving him down to 40%. It was a very strong super-effective attack for Honchkrow to handle, evident when it had difficulty standing on two legs, much less being able to fly.

"How about that," Janelle mused. "I might just defeat him by technical knockout after all."

"Two super-effective attacks in a row are clearly making Honchkrow worse for wear!" Marian chimed in. "How will Paul respond to Janelle's-"

"Get airborne now, Honchkrow!" Paul shouted furiously. He had officially lost his patience. "We're running out of time!"

He was right about that, at least. A judgment would be made in less than a minute and Paul needed to act quickly if he were to succeed in defeating Janelle.

"There's no choice… this match will be determined within the next couple of moves," Paul acknowledged. "Honchkrow, this is it! Keep low to the ground and use Sky Attack! Listen for my signal!"

Honchkrow pulled itself together, readying itself for the final attack. It did as Paul instructed, keeping low to the ground while energy for the attack charged. By doing so, Honchkrow spread out the remaining snow on the field as it made a beeline toward Crawdaunt.

Janelle smirked at the last-ditch effort her opponent brought out. "I'm not falling for the same trick twice. Nice try. Crawdaunt, fight back with Superpower!"

Crawdaunt started to glow as well; fully ready to ram into Honchkrow and knock it out when the two would make contact.

"Twenty seconds left!" Marian cut in. "This move will determine who's going to the finals! It's anybody's game!"

Both trainers watched closely before their Pokémon collided. Just at the last moment, Paul smirked.

"Cancel Sky Attack!" he called out. "Veer left and strike back with Aerial Ace!"

That decision certainly threw Janelle for a loop. "Wait, what?!"

Massive energy was released as Sky Attack was nearing its peak just before Honchkrow canceled the move. In a split second, Honchkrow zoomed to Crawdaunt's left side just as it moved to ram into its opponent as Janelle planned. Having missed the target, said target spared no second to slam into Crawdaunt with Aerial Ace. With brightly-shining wings, Honchkrow sent Crawdaunt sprawling helplessly into the air.

Gracefully, Honchkrow landed at the center of the stage and posed valiantly, seeming to have acquired a taste in battling beautifully whilst Crawdaunt fell like a ton of bricks into the snow.

"Time's up!" Marian cried. Both competitors briefly froze in place before turning their attention to the announcer. "Oh, this is a close one," she said, looking up at the screen. "So who prevailed in the end…?"

Both Janelle and Paul looked up to see their progress on the screen, but their scores were so close that is was difficult to immediately tell. They didn't have time to truly see it for themselves before their question was already answered.

"It was Paul…! Paul and Honchkrow will advance to the finals!!" Marian revealed.

"Unbelievable," the cynical Paul muttered. "I train for this competition for not even a full day with no prior experience and I somehow land myself into the final round. What are the odds?"

Janelle was dumbfounded for a while, but even after snapping out of it, she could not form words. All she could express was her raw, unadulterated anger for losing a second consecutive time to someone she despised.

Just as Paul was about to make his way backstage, he noticed Janelle throwing a tantrum and likely making a spectacle of herself in doing so. After enjoying a couple of moments watching her squirm and whine, he decided to speak up and give out his final parting word to a girl he certainly had no desire to see again after this day.

"What did I tell you about the concept of beginner's luck?" Paul taunted, reminding her of the verbal exchange they had at the beginning of the battle. "It's total bull. What you actually experienced was something called beginner's skill. I suggest you look into that before you try to participate in any sort of competition again. It'll at least spare you from some of the embarrassment that you're surely getting today by being a sore loser."

Janelle glared at Paul as he fully turned around and walked away. Unfortunately for her, she couldn't think of anything witty or poignant to say; he had soundly defeated her fair and square and proved her wrong. She stormed off the opposite way, muttering unintelligible things under her breath. Paul smirked to himself just before he re-entered the waiting room.

"If nothing else, that ought to prevent her from trying to inflict first-degree burns on the people she wants as rivals," Paul said to himself, still somewhat enthralled by his victory. "Had she not done that to me, I wouldn't have felt the urgent need to defeat her. She very well may have cost herself the win due to acting like a spoiled brat. Oh well… the more you learn."

Upon returning to the waiting room, Paul first saw Mina gaping at the television monitor, still in shock of what she had seen. She snapped out of it when she noticed Paul had returned, seeming nervous.

"O-oh! Goodness… I certainly can't complain. You played the game well, Paul," Mina humbly said.

"It's a good thing you're more level-headed than your friend," Paul noted casually. "I think she wants to tear me limb from limb. By the way, I think it's your turn to get ready."

Mina smiled, though she looked nervous. "It's alright. I can see this Contest really was meant to showcase you boys… since Janelle lost, I don't really have a reason to-"

Paul decided not to let her finish that sentence and pushed her on ahead to the exit that would lead her to the front stage. "Don't even start with that. Get out there. Conway's not advancing to the finals that easily. If I had to work my way up, so will he."

The young girl still looked apprehensive. "But Janelle…"

"… Will have to suck it up and deal," Paul finished for her. "She can't make you forfeit."

"Actually, she's probably marching over here right now," Mina informed him. "You know, to drag me out of the competition…"

Paul looked back to the door on the opposite side of the room and nodded. "Thanks for letting me know. I'll take care of it."

"You're not really thinking of locking her out, are you?" Mina asked him, worried.

"No," Paul answered as he made his way to the other door. He promptly locked it and started looking for things to barricade it if she was really as fearsome as she seemed. "I am locking her out. There's a difference."

After turning around, Paul happened to look at the television and noticed the familiar woman in yellow was back on the screen. "I think they're about to start the next round now. Go on out there, and don't hesitate to make it hard on Conway, okay?"

Knowing it was time to compete for a spot in the finals and being allowed to do so in her own right, Mina nodded to Paul with a smile and left, appearing on the television screen soon afterwards. Paul sat down and watched the screen intently, as he knew it was important in his position as a finalist to study the battling techniques of his two would-be opponents.

This is something he did not plan on sleeping through, as he usually would do (or at least claim to do).

"Time's up!"

It was Marian's voice. Somehow, that energetic and youthful voice managed to bring Paul out of his slumber. He woke up to find that Conway and Mina were still on the screen, but had stopped their battle. Paul was too drowsy to understand the scoreboard, as at a first glance, it appeared to be too hard to tell. Both Conway's Slowking and Mina's Jumpluff were worn down from their brutal battle.

"Another close call!" Marian noted. "But the Coordinator who will be moving on to the finals is… Conway!!"

Paul's eyes widened. Though he had prepared himself for such a scenario, it was still a lot to take. After all, both of them had never entered a Contest before. With only basic training, Paul and Conway overcame the odds and escalated themselves to the finals, where one of them would come walking out of the Contest Hall with a ribbon in their hand.

"So our final match has been determined!" Marian announced, gesturing to the chart which displayed the full progress of the Plumeria Town Contest. "The Veilstone City boys, Paul and Conway, are our finalists who will battle for the coveted Plumeria Ribbon! We'll begin the final battle shortly after this brief intermission!"

Various members of the live viewing audience used this time to refill their drinks and restock their snack supply. Conway had already retreated to the waiting room opposite to Paul's, presumably to restore his Slowking before the final battle. Mina seemingly disappeared completely while Marian was talking. She never returned to the waiting room Paul was in, so it was anyone's guess as to her whereabouts after her loss. Still, it was safe to assume she reunited with Janelle and chances were low that either of them would remain in the Contest Hall any longer.

Then, it suddenly hit Paul: he had slept through most of the previous battle despite intending to watch it from beginning to end. A brutal instance of irony, it was. He didn't remember when exactly he dozed off or why, but Paul didn't have time to worry about that now: it was time to battle. With his Honchkrow at full health, Paul walked down the short hallway that would lead to the stage.

It had come down to this; either Conway would win and stand a good chance of parting with Paul for good after this Contest, or Paul would win and forever be haunted by the ribbon he would have to remember this day by. At this point, Paul honestly wasn't sure which result would be the lesser of the two evils. But to settle this bet once and for all, Paul knew he had to give it his all regardless, just as Conway planned to.

"And now, it's time!" Marian called out after the intermission had come and gone. "Only two Coordinators remain in this competition, and it's time to see which young man comes out on top, leaving this Contest Hall with the Plumeria Ribbon! Our finalists are both from Veilstone City, so one more time, let's welcome Conway and Paul…!"

Both competitors arrived on stage at the same time, coming from opposite ends. The sagely space warrior Conway looked quite comfortable and confident about his chances; he smirked upon finally seeing Paul for the first time since the battling rounds began. This was exactly what he planned for all along, and it tickled the nerd pink that it all worked out the way he wanted it to in the end.

The ninja of the dark arts, Paul, masked his insecurities with his typical stoic expressions. Normally, one would find him hard to read, but Paul was put off when he noticed Conway still looking calm and collected in the face of adversity.

"So, we meet again, at last," Conway told Paul; an eerie tone was present in his voice. "The circle is now complete. In the beginning, we were but the learners. And now… we have truly become the masters."

"Only masters of glorified beauty pageants, Conway," Paul countered, sounding irritated. "It's not nearly as prestigious as you make it out to be."

Conway nodded, grinning at his opponent. The lenses of his glasses briefly gleamed in the sunlight. "Our opinions may clash, but that's hardly the matter at hand now, correct? It is time for you and I to do battle and settle the score once and for all."

Just as Paul was about to retort, he thought maybe this was the time now to finally ask that question that had been tormenting him for this entire portion of the competition.

"Conway, there's something I need to ask you," Paul said stiffly, trying to keep his tone as neutral as he possibly could.

The older boy raised an eyebrow at his companion, now his adversary, and looked intrigued. "You wish to ask me a question?" he asked for the sake of clarification.

Paul nodded back to him. "It's important."

"Ask away," Conway offered. Casual as he seemed, he was quite interested in what sort of question was on Paul's mind, as his tone seemed oddly sincere.

After taking a deep breath, Paul mustered up the will to ask the question that was both incredulous and critical to him. "Conway," he started, sounding uneasy already; not a good sign for him. "About this final battle… if you win-"

"The clock is set, ladies and gentleman!" Marian suddenly interrupted. "In five minutes, the winner will be decided! Gentleman, take your positions and release your Pokémon!"

Conway shrugged at Paul, indeed helpless to fight against the way the show was run. "Guess you'll have to ask me later," he figured, waving to Paul before taking his position. "Remember, the Force is with you… always!"

Paul rolled his eyes and took his position on the stage, quick to take out Honchkrow's Pokéball. Though it frustrated him to no end that things yet again were not going his way, that anger did well enough to fuel his desire to battle.

He was the first one to send his Pokémon out. "Honchkrow, stand by for battle!"

Again, the Big Boss Pokémon flew out of a dark plume of smoke emerging from the Ball Capsule. It stood on the stage, primping its feathers and preparing for the final match.

"Come forth, Slowking!" Conway shouted, tossing his Pokéball out to unleash his strongest, most trusted partner onto the stage. A flurry of stars and musical notes from the seals on Slowking's Ball Capsule accompanied the Royal Pokémon as it proudly stood and sized up its opponent. That was quite a gutsy gesture, considering Slowking had a significant type disadvantage against the Dark-typed Honchkrow.

"It's Slowking versus Honchkrow!" Marian confirmed. "Who will walk out of here our winner today? Let's find out right now! Begin the battle…!"

The boys wasted no time going on the offensive just as the countdown began.

"Barrel roll your way over to Slowking and use Night Slash!" Paul ordered. He had practiced various flight maneuvers the previous day, testing out how well certain attacks would show up by putting little spins on them. This technique in particular was one of his favorites and saved it specifically for the final match. As Honchkrow's wings emanated with an eerie purple glow, streaks of that hue were left behind as it made its way over to the opponent.

With an attack like this, Paul expected that Slowking would use Protect and already had a backup plan on standby. However, he was surprised to see Slowking stand sturdily and take the full hit. The effective attack was powerful enough to knock the tall and heavy Pokémon back, though with one foot, he remained balanced and never hit the floor. Conway's points still slid down to 91%, but apparently presentation was important even when taking a hit.

"Slowking just stood there and took that hit without doing a thing!" Marian announced, apparently surprised herself. "But what concentration…! A hit like that should have sent it flying like its opponent, but even on one foot, it's perfectly in balance! It could have been much worse, but just what is this duo planning?!"

"He's up to something," Paul realized. "He might even know what I'm going to do next…"

After a short moment of bracing for whatever retaliation Conway had in mind, only to find he had none to give, Paul frowned and decided to change his plan. "Show them we mean business, Honchkrow! Cover the field with Haze!"

Like in the previous battle, Honchkrow filled the entire stage with a dark, obscuring smoke. Honchkrow flew well above it, able to be seen, but Slowking was completely obscured just as Crawdaunt once was.

"Hm," Conway remarked with amusement. "Paul, did you assume I did not watch your battle with Janelle? It seems rather foolhardy for you to repeat your strategy with me, because even without having seen it beforehand, I would catch on very quickly to your motives."

"Don't assume I would be so careless!" Paul shouted back. "You wanted effort, so I'm giving it to you! It's more than what you're doing, anyway!" He sharply looked to Honchkrow. "You need to strike with more power, Honchkrow. Dive down with Sky Attack!"

With a nod, Honchkrow glowed brightly and dove down into its self-made realm of darkness, easily standing out with great contrast. As the attack charged itself up, the speed and force of Honchkrow's movement was strong enough to briefly erase the precise area of Haze where Honchkrow had been, effectively blowing it off to the sides. The Big Boss Pokémon was even easier to see, and the execution of the move was already costing Conway points before the hit even connected.

Honchkrow steadily made its way closer and closer to Slowking, who remained still in the area of Haze that had not yet been removed. Paul grew increasingly concerned at Conway's silence, noticing his opponent's points now had an extra 10% or so shaven off. When Paul looked away, Conway finally decided to play.

"Now use Protect, Slowking," Conway allowed, as if he and his partner had a silent debate over what the first move would be earlier. Slowking happily obliged, covering itself in a field of energy. Due to still being obscured in Haze, Honchkrow itself did not notice the faint glow until it was too late. Honchkrow collided with the barrier, trying with all its might to break through with the extremely powerful Sky Attack, but that energy was simply reflected back to Honchkrow for being in such close proximity to begin with. Paul didn't even realize what was happening until he heard the initial collision, and by then it was already too late.

The collision itself shook away the Haze that had covered the scene, making it obvious to the viewers what had happened. With the same powerful energy, shining brightly, Honchkrow was thrown back across the entirety of the stage and skidded across the ground until it was right in front of Paul. The crowd reacted loudly to the unexpected twist, as did Marian.

"And Honchkrow goes down!" she said. "Looks like Slowking had it all planned out from the beginning! That's going to hurt for Paul and his points!"

"Huh?" Paul didn't even think to check, but he was more than a little intimidated upon realizing that single act had almost made him even with Conway's remaining points. Indeed, he had every reason to be concerned about Conway as an opponent here. His timing was impeccable.

"And now you'll wish you had never egged me on," Conway said ominously; his glasses flashing as he smirked. "Alright, Slowking! Let's get this main event rolling and use Water Pulse continuously!"

Slowking nodded and did as its trainer wished. Holding its hands up in the air, it began to conjure a shimmering ball of water. Since Conway said to keep it up, the ball was growing much larger than usual, and as Honchkrow started to recover from the last attack, Paul had a hard time keeping his eyes off of Slowking.

"He just keeps hitting hard…" Paul noted, very wary of his opponent's plans now. "Honchkrow, let's not allow him to finish that up. If we can screw up Slowking's concentration, that'll cost Conway a good deal of points. So get out there and use Aerial Ace!"

Now ready to fight back, Honchkrow nodded to its trainer and became airborne once again. Not bothering with time-consuming techniques this time, Honchkrow directly flew at its target with the move that couldn't be dodged.

"That's the way to do it; play right into my hands," Conway quietly coaxed, waiting until Honchkrow was at the ideal distance. "Now, unleash your attack, Slowking!"

Water Pulse had nearly become twice Slowking's size by the time the order was issued. Still, Slowking had no trouble lobbing the ball of water at the Big Boss Pokémon.

Seeing a collision was about to take place again, Paul decided to make his plan specific for his Pokémon. "Don't try to dodge it!" he mandated. "Fly right through it and keep going until you hit Slowking! That'll score us a hit and screw up his move!"

"The water may be denser than you think," Conway forewarned, chuckling to himself. "Slowking, you know what to do!"

He spoke as if he expected Paul to know what he had in mind, and had Paul watched Conway's match against Mina, he might have known what was coming. Instead, he was letting Honchkrow dive headfirst into an unknown danger… not that Paul hadn't ordered such a thing in the past, but now it seemed like an especially dumb move to make after Conway acknowledge Paul's motives. Still, Paul had no time to improvise; Honchkrow dove right into that sphere of water.

"Use Psychic around the water!" Conway commanded. "Quickly…!"

Before Honchkrow could exit from the other side of the Water Pulse attack (seemingly not that effected by the attack itself), an outline of blue energy enveloped the sphere. As a result, Honchkrow felt as if it just flew straight into a wall and was left suspended in the water. It was very disorienting for the victim Pokémon, and it was slightly disturbing for Paul to watch.

"Astounding!" Marian shouted. "Ladies and gentleman, I believe this is the combination Conway tried – and failed – against the previous battle with Mina! Her Grass-typed Jumpluff was able to resist the water and break out of this trap quickly, but will Honchkrow be able to do the same despite a lack of resistance to Water-type attacks?!"

Paul was paying for his dozing off in a big way. Honchkrow looked utterly helpless submerged in Conway's aquatic prison. Paul was losing points, but he wasn't even paying attention to that right now. His main priority was figuring out how to get Honchkrow out of that trap.

"Honchkrow may lack a resistance to Water-type attacks," Paul acknowledged. "But there is an immunity to Psychic-type attacks! All it should take is a well-focused Night Slash to get Honchkrow out of there, and then this combination will be useless!"

"You honestly think I'm going to make it that easy for you?" Conway asked him rhetorically. "Slowking, let us dazzle the crowd with your psychic abilities, shall we? That should keep Honchkrow from being able to focus until his oxygen runs out and we win by default."

Paul completely forgot to take Honchkrow's lack of ability to breathe underwater into account. His Pokémon was likely in a state of panic right now; immune or not, Honchkrow was trapped with no obvious way out and no way to breathe; it would be very difficult for it to even hear any command of Paul's this way.

Thinking of it now, this could almost be considered a little cruel by Conway's standards; such a plan seemed more suited to Paul's style. It was then Paul realized how much his presence around Conway must have influenced him just as much as Conway's presence influenced Paul himself over the past month they spent traveling together.

However, this was no time to dwell on their partnership; Paul needed to find a way to set his Pokémon free before he lost the Contest by knockout.

"Let's please the crowd, shall we?" Conway suggested to his partner Pokémon. "An ordinary sphere of water suspended in midair can only hold an audience for so long. Let's make some shapes! Continue with Psychic, please…!"

Slowking was more than happy to oblige; using its psychic powers, the water sphere's form began to morph into varying shapes. The audience was consistently amused with this mockery of Honchkrow while Paul's points were going down chunks at a time as the act went on.

"What an amazing display of power!" Marian said in awe. "But how long can Honchkrow last without any air?! If Honchkrow loses consciousness, this battle is over!"

"Tell me something I don't know," Paul muttered under his breath before glaring back at the precarious situation at hand. "Honchkrow, if you can hear me, use Night Slash!"

The lack of response on Honchkrow's part indicated that it was unable to hear its trainer's calls. There was nothing Paul could do for his Pokémon and it frustrated him. Honchkrow was still conscious, evident by its squirming and thrashing about underneath the water, but its energy was running out quickly.

Meanwhile, Conway was making it all the more difficult for Honchkrow to calm down by using Slowking's psychic abilities to elongate the thick shape of water into a thinner line shape; the reason for the larger-than-usual Water Pulse initially was obvious now. Conway needed the extra space to accommodate Honchkrow's size within the prison of water.

"Let's see if Honchkrow's up for a little jump rope," Conway suggested to Slowking, who understood the implication. The "rope" of water was now being swung about with psychic power in the movement of a jump rope, swirling Honchkrow about all the more. The crowd loved this display of psychic prowess and Paul's points continued to suffer for it.

"Come on, Honchkrow!" Paul urged, unable to think of what else to do in this situation. "Use Night Slash or we're going to lose this!"

Yet the Big Boss Pokémon was still unable to hear Paul's voice beyond the psychic wall and the water flowing rapidly within. This act had already brought Paul down to 25% of his points and there was still one minute and thirty seconds left on the clock. Conway's points were remained in the realm of 80%.

"It's true no one act can go on forever," Conway admitted. "Let's wrap this up so you can rest; does that sound good, Slowking?" He didn't need a response from Slowking to know said Pokémon was wearing itself out with this complicated combination.

Paul was offended by this. "You think this is over already, don't you?!"

"I know it is," Conway clarified, looking quite proud of himself. "You're in a tight spot and you can't deny it. But unlike you, I am rather merciful, so I'll end this tirade before your Honchkrow suffocates; I believe I've made my point in who the better man is in this competition, Paul." He nodded to Slowking. "Let's finish this up with a fantastic Power Gem!"

"Power Gem?!" Paul had learned of this move some time ago while studying up on strategy techniques. Though visually impressive, Power Gem was a simple move with no positive or negative added affect beyond the basic damage it brought… as a Rock-type move.

As Honchkrow had a weakness for that type added with the situation it was currently in, Paul knew Power Gem would stop him in his tracks for certain. He wanted Honchkrow out of there before the move would make contact, but there was no way out of this mess. Paul was about to lose, and he was going to lose by a landslide.

"It's over…" Paul acknowledged quietly as a brilliant sparkling ball of amber took form in the air above the Water Pulse/Psychic combination. The younger trainer bowed his head, already admitting defeat and hating every moment of doing so. He couldn't bring himself to watch the moment actually happen.

What everyone failed to take into account was the fact that Slowking was juggling three attacks at once at this point. Honchkrow was pushed to its limits, but so was Slowking just by an insane amount of multi-tasking. The Royal Pokémon could handle this, but there was something it couldn't handle:

A plan not following the way it was supposed to.

Just before Power Gem made contact with the bird Pokémon in the ball of water, Honchkrow itself became consumed in a dark aura of energy, prompting the audience (and Conway) to gasp. The audience knew what to expect with Conway's plans, so Paul was prompted to look back up at the scene as well.

The entirety of Water Pulse (and Psychic along with it) practically exploded all it once as Honchkrow shot straight out of its confinement as if the barriers were made of thin paper. The visuals of this watery, magical burst of energy were well enough to save Paul's points from dipping into single digits and for Conway to finally suffer some point loss for his precious combination failing him at last.

With dark energy still trailing behind the Big Boss Pokémon, Honchkrow zoomed straight up the short distance between its position in the water and the Power Gem attack and with a powerful swipe of its wing, thrust the attack up and back at the sender, covering Power Gem itself with dark energy.

In an instant, Slowking was slammed back by a Dark-typed variant of its own attack and was sent flying onto its back while Conway's points took another big hit.

"I-it can't be," Conway stuttered, purely in disbelief. "That move isn't learned normally…"

Paul was every bit as shocked as Conway, and he was the one with the advantage. "Then Honchkrow learned…"

"Sucker Punch!" Marian confirmed to everyone. "In a moment of crisis, Honchkrow summoned its energy, willpower, and determination to learn Sucker Punch in spite of its situation! Wow, you don't see that every day!"

"You certainly don't," Conway remarked, adjusting his glasses with his eyes widened. "Being backed into a corner like that… Honchkrow must really be something…"

Paul, however, knew that this wasn't over yet and the clock was still ticking. He had under a minute left to fell his opponent and his work was cut out for him. Conway proved to be a tricky opponent even in spite of type disadvantages.

"Very touching, but the fight isn't over yet!" Paul reminded everyone; especially Honchkrow. "We've got some catching up to do, Honchkrow!"

Running purely on adrenaline, Honchkrow knew what needed to be done. This was one instance where having very little time left was a good thing; otherwise Honchkrow's adrenaline alone wouldn't be enough to keep the Pokémon going for the remainder of the battle if it dragged out.

"While Slowking's still out of it, let's take it down with Night Slash!" Paul commanded, and Honchkrow carried it out.

"Nngh! Slowking! Get up!" Conway wailed, waving his hands at his Pokémon in a panic. "Hurry, before Honchkrow reaches our side and…!"

Too late; Honchkrow side-swiped the partially-Psychic Pokémon and promptly u-turned back to its side after connecting the hit. The blazing streak of purple light sat very well with the viewers and helped preserve what little remained of Paul's points while Conway's were dragged down again.

"You're not done yet," Paul sternly reminded. "Honchkrow, go back over there right now and use Sky Attack!"

Honchkrow already looked to be sick of this, but obeyed its trainer nonetheless and went back the way it came, charging up the attack.

Slowking was quickly looking worse for wear due to sheer exhaustion as well, but Conway wasn't having any of it. "Use Power Gem again, Slowking! It'll reach Honchkrow before it comes at us with its attack!"

Indeed, the crystalline amber ball Slowking formed and sent out quickly flew in Honchkrow's way, but Paul knew how to counter this now.

"Send it right back!" Paul commanded. "Cancel Sky Attack and use Sucker Punch!"

Just like before, a single darkness-imbued wing of Honchkrow's flawlessly knocked back the Power Gem attack as if it was a cotton ball and was sent back flying right at Slowking's face.

"We're not falling for that again!" Conway shouted. "Slowking, Protect!"

The barrier Slowking formed held up against the onslaught, which shattered around it into millions of sparkling pieces. Both Paul and Conway lost points as a result of the nature of the exchanges.

But there was no time to sit back and admire the aesthetics if one was Paul or Conway.

"Slowking, Water Pulse!" Conway cried out in desperation; there was no ulterior motive this time, as the tenuousness of the situation left Conway in mental distraught. All he knew is that this move wouldn't be a waste of time to use against Honchkrow like Psychic would now.

"Dodge and use Aerial Ace!" Paul also quickly commanded, opting for the speediest result rather than choosing to rely on Sky Attack again.

Honchkrow managed to dodge Slowking's Water Pulse with relative ease, and Conway's points suffered for Honchkrow's fancy dodging techniques; at this point, the backlash on Conway for his previous teasing were sending his remaining points in the danger zone.

"Protect, Protect!" Conway panicked, but only freaked out more when he realized it failed to work this time and Slowking was completely subject to yet another hit. Honchkrow faced down the Royal Pokémon from its aerial position and swung down its shining wing.

"Time's up!"

Both Conway and Paul gasped simultaneously as Honchkrow's attack finished connecting and sent Slowking on the ground; down, but not out. Both competitors were so absorbed in the fight that it had been a while since either of them checked the status of their points.

"What a fight," Marian remarked. "Intense and beautiful! These two Coordinators definitely battled down to the wire; just look how close the scores were: both in relation to each other and how close both were to running out completely!"

Indeed, both Paul and Conway's points only barely hovered above zero, each with only a tiny sliver left shown on the screen.

"But when all's said and done, the winner is… Conway!!"

Both trainers promptly fell to their knees after hearing the news. The crowd roared with enthusiasm, showing their appreciation for a long, hard battle on both ends. Excitement was in the air and everyone in the Contest Hall could feel it. Even through the television, Reggie and Maylene were every bit as psyched as the live audience. It seemed only Saturn remained calm as the finals ended. Even though his cousin came out the winner, none of that really mattered to him. All this meant was that his plan would very soon be carried out by his coworker. Saturn looked forward to seeing those results, if nothing else.

"You mean I won…?" Conway asked no one in particular with a distant voice. "I really, really won…?"

"He won…" Paul acknowledged, also to no one but himself. "He really, really won…"

Both Slowking and Honchkrow were simply glad this battle was behind them now. It was going to take a while for the shock to wear off on Conway, but Paul recovered more quickly and got back on his feet. As usual, he gave his Pokémon no words of encouragement (or any words at all, really) before returning it back to its Pokéball.

"So that's how it is…" Paul said in a quiet voice. "Conway wins the Contest just like he wanted to… this was the best possible result," he decided. Or at least, he tried convincing himself that was the case, but now he really wasn't sure deep down. "It's not like I wanted to win this stupid thing for real… Contests are pointless."

Still, he couldn't resist smiling weakly at his companion, who was in tears with happiness now and gratuitously thanking his Slowking for a job well done.

"But for something so pointless, I guess it can mean something from another view," Paul figured. "One man's trash is another man's treasure."

Once Conway was finally brought down to reality, the award ceremony swiftly followed the battle. Mister Contesta, Sukizo, and Nurse Joy were all lined up while Conway, Castform, and Slowking stood on a podium with Marian on one side and Paul at the other.

"And now, here's Chief of the Pokémon Activities Committee, Mister Contesta!" Marian introduced one last time. "He has the distinct honor of presenting the Plumeria Ribbon to Conway!"

Conway looked eager as Mister Contesta came forward and presented the case containing the twilight lavender-colored ribbon he just earned.

"Congratulations again, sir, and much luck in the future," Contesta wished the young man as he held out the case for Conway to reach over and pluck out the ribbon inside.

"Oh, thanks so much!" Conway said graciously, bowing to his elder before taking what was now his: The Plumeria Ribbon. A day like this only used to come in his dreams… he only prayed Dawn was watching this moment right now and truly appreciating him for what he was: a talented competitor and a worthy rival, should the two ever meet in a Contest someday. He admired the sight of the golden medal with the two purple-hued strands hanging from it, but knew the best thing to do was to relish in his victory and hold the Plumeria Ribbon up for all to see. "How about that?! I just won the Plumeria Ribbon! My very first one and I earned it all by myself…!"

"Cast, caaaast!" Castform cheered alongside its trainer.

"Slowking, slow!" Slowking agreed in kind.

Paul just smirked and shook his head. "You're really taking all the credit for yourself, Conway?"

Upon hearing that humbling statement, Conway smiled sheepishly and scratched his head. "Well, you did play an integral role to my inspiration," he admitted. "You're like my male Dawn in a way!"

That was not a response Paul expected, and he backed away a little from Conway as a result. "Please don't ever say that again."

"Sorry!" Conway apologized, though he laughed soon after. "It's just so exciting, you know? I'm not even paying attention to what I'm saying! This is even better than when I won the Cobble Badge!"

Paul nodded. "Well, not just because you're doing this to impress that girl, Conway," he said nonchalantly, which made Conway pause and look at him inquisitively. "Maylene is not that talented a trainer, whereas I am. Don't you think you got a more worthwhile battle out of me overall?"

"Maybe," Conway said, smirking and purposely sounding uncertain. "But I did have a three-on-three Gym Battle with her, compared to the one-on-one battle I just had with you. It's not such an easy comparison to make. The combination of finally getting to experience Dawn's field of expertise and having you as a rival is what makes this so special, Paul!"

To that, Paul just groaned. "Even when we agree, it still somehow manages to be such a headache…"

After a brief pause of silence, Conway smiled more sincerely at his companion. "Hey," he called out, getting Paul's attention. "We had fun, didn't we?"

"Not a chance," Paul stubbornly denied, though he smiled in spite of his tone. "I'm relieved I'm finally past this horrible obligation. I performed to your standards, didn't I?"

"You went above and beyond, my friend," Conway humbly admitted. "If the time hadn't run out before your last attack went through, you very well could have defeated me after all."

Holding his hands up, Paul looked repulsed by the prospect. "Don't even joke about that, Conway. I never wanted that ribbon; I'm glad it's your responsibility."

Paul just got a knowing look in response from the Contest's winner. "You did have fun."

"Mowing down those girls was satisfying, at least," Paul admitted. "But I still only did this because I'm not one who goes back on my word like a spineless coward."

"You had fun," Conway insisted, shaking his head at the younger trainer. It was lucky for Paul that suddenly the press was in on this fresh victory, freeing him from the obligation of having to reply to Conway.

Conway himself looked surprised to see a video camera aimed at him by a professional cameraman while Marian turned her attention to the scene.

"So, Conway! As the Plumeria Contest winner, do you have any thoughts you'd like to share?" Marian asked him. "The people would like to know!"

After a moment, Conway's starstruck expressions sobered down into a devious smirk. Paul couldn't help but wonder what Conway was up to as he approached the camera with confidence.

"As a matter of fact, I would," Conway replied calmly, before digging into his pocket and pulling out another small trinket: the Cobble Badge.

Now Paul was even more confused. "What are you-"

"IN YOUR FACE!" Conway shouted aloud to the camera, stunning everyone. "Are you watching this, Franny?! In. Your. Face! Just check this out…!" He thrust both the badge and the ribbon towards the camera. "I've now won my first Gym Battle and my first Contest all in under a month! What have you done lately that didn't involve sitting your butt down on the couch and reading a book, huh? Oh, that's right! Nothing!"

This left everyone but Paul confused. "Franny…?" Marian asked if she heard that correctly, a bit put off by Conway's enthusiasm.

"My big sister, of course," Conway answered. "All my life she put me down for being a nobody who wouldn't amount to anything, but she doesn't have a Gym Badge or a Contest Ribbon to show for all of her hot air! She doesn't even have a job!"

Even Paul was quite shocked at the trash-talk he was witnessing. He perhaps wondered if he rubbed off on Conway a little too much…

"So I've officially surpassed you, Franny!" Conway shouted at the camera, pointing dramatically. "You can't argue your way out of this one! Sloan's not going to want to hire you after he sees this, now will he?!"

Back at Galactic Headquarters, Saturn raised an eyebrow in reaction to hearing his given name on live television. He was generally a little embarrassed to come from this gene pool, but watching something like this made him wish he belonged to an entirely different family.

Meanwhile, at Veilstone City in the luxury house of Conway's family, Franny was indeed watching this Contest as per her brother's request over the phone and was gaping in shock for several reasons. This was definitely not a good time to have inattentive parents, because Franny definitely needed some to scold her brother for this dastardly deed.

Further away in the same town, Maylene and Reggie were rendered speechless. Reggie wondered if this sort of wrath from a younger sibling was really how things came off between him and Paul when their relations soured. He certainly hoped that wasn't the case.

"Well, uh, thanks for sharing your thoughts!" Marian said awkwardly, hoping to cut him off quickly.

"My pleasure, Marian!" Conway assured, moving close up to the camera one last time. "Much love to you, Dawn, wherever you are! Win that Grand Festival for both of us…!"

Marian was more than eager to segue to officially closing the show. "And with that, ladies and gentleman, one more action-packed Contest has gone down on the record books! As we bring down the curtain today on the Plumeria Town Contest, I wish you all farewell, and a hope that we see you again next time…!"

And with that, the Plumeria Town Contest was over, and now a past chapter in the lives of Paul and Conway.

The boys left the Contest Hall and went straight to the Pokémon Center to fully restore the health of Slowking and Honchkrow from the last battle. Both were packed up and eager to finally leave town.

"Here you are, boys!" Nurse Joy confirmed, giving them each their respective Pokéball. "Slowking and Honchkrow are as good as new. You both put on quite a Contest battle today; very impressive."

"Why, it was our pleasure, Nurse Joy!" Conway thanked, nudging Paul. "Wasn't it, Paul?"

Paul rolled his eyes as he stored Honchkrow's Pokéball with the others. "Yes, a riot and a half," he said tersely before bowing to Nurse Joy. "Thank you for your services." He then looked sharply to Conway. "Now let's get out of here."

Conway nodded to his companion as both turned towards the front door and started to leave. "Yes, we've done all we can here. If we hurry, we can reach Squallville before the sun goes down!"

"And where will that put us in relation to Snowpoint City?" Paul asked impatiently.

"Pretty close, believe it or not," Conway replied after checking the map. "We could be no more than a day or two away by the time we hit Squallville."

"Well, next time, don't sneak into any secret competitions before we leave," Paul warned. "You're very lucky that I was tied down to the obligation due to the fact that you won the bet, but I'm free of that now."

While Paul was right, Conway still smirked. "You're still not rid of me, unfortunately. And while you are free from the bet, I still wouldn't say you've truly repaid me for all I did for you since we hooked up in Canalave City… for that, you'd have to save my life. Twice."

Upon hearing that, Paul growled at his traveling companion. "Don't say we 'hooked up', Conway! That makes it sound like we're going out or something."

"But we are going out," Conway insisted, but couldn't resist a small laugh. "Of town, that is!"

That earned him a slap against the head. It felt good for Paul to finally inflict a little violence on Conway.

Just before either of them could exit through the front doors, Nurse Joy approached the boys.

"Oh, excuse me!" she called out, sounding humbled. "I'm so sorry to bother you on your way out, but you have a phone call from Veilstone City, Paul."

"Veilstone City?!" both Paul and Conway shouted in unison.

Nurse Joy nodded, oblivious to the nature of their reactions. "A young man named Reggie… your brother, perhaps? He does look very much like you, Paul…"

Conway began to look nervous. "You don't suppose he saw that Contest, do you…?"

"It… could be a coincidence," Paul tried telling himself, but he was thinking exactly what Conway was thinking nonetheless. "Either way, we'd better not risk it."

"You're rejecting the call?" Conway asked, understanding the implication. "Just leaving Reggie in the dark like that…?"

Paul shook his head vehemently. "I'm definitely not in the mood to chat about this now if that is why he called," he explained, looking to Nurse Joy. "Tell him I just stepped out. I'll call him later on my own time once I reach Squallville."

Reluctantly, Nurse Joy nodded. "Of course, if that's what you want…"

"It is," Paul coldly assured. He expectantly looked to Conway. "Let's go."

Looking just as uneasy, Conway nodded to Paul and turned to leave, but paused briefly. "Nurse Joy, were there any calls for me while I was out…?"

"I'm sorry to say that isn't the case," Nurse Joy reported. "Were you expecting one, Conway?"

"Sort of," he said softly, smiling yet looking depressed. "I thought maybe my cousin would have called by now to congratulate me… but he's probably busy as usual. Maybe he'll call later. Don't worry about it, Nurse Joy."

Nurse Joy bowed to the boys somberly. "If you say so… good luck for the rest of your journey, you two."

"Thanks," Paul said before dragging Conway out of the Pokémon Center with him. "Come on, we're behind schedule enough as it is!"

Now, Plumeria Town as a whole was behind them.

Later that day, Paul and Conway made steady progress towards Squallville. The route they took required them both to pass through a few miles of frozen tundra before reaching the windy path that would take them to town, but luckily both were well-suited for the weather this time. Conway had bought Paul a thick hooded coat; a darker blue than his jacket, with a pair of cadet blue gloves. Since Paul was otherwise well-suited enough for the weather, that was all he needed. Conway, however, required a full change of wardrobe. Even his glasses were replaced by a pair of prescription goggles that functioned as glasses that wouldn't fog up on him. His thick forest green scarf warmed his neck while his olive-colored coat kept the rest of his body nice and toasty. His gloves matched the color of his scarf while his legs were protected with a thick pair of dark brown pants and black snow boots.

"Nice and warm now, aren't we?" Conway taunted as they hiked their way up a mountain path. Deep snow surrounded them both, as that sort of weather was common in this area.

Even now, snow was falling steadily and the wind was beginning to pick up, likely meaning a blizzard was coming in their direction. Unlike last time, however, Paul and Conway were well-equipped for the weather and wouldn't need to seek shelter for hours. As long as they could still see the road, they were fine.

"Shut up," Paul spat back. "You look ridiculous with those things on, you know."

"Hey, you know I'm blind as a Zubat without my glasses!" Conway complained. "And if they fog up, I might as well not have them at all. You didn't want me to hold you back, so I came prepared."

Paul just shrugged. "I didn't know goggles like that even existed."

"They're quite expensive," Conway noted. "That's probably why you don't hear about them much."

Ready to change the subject already, Paul sighed. "I can't believe you're still with me after all this time…"

"You can't change it now, Paul!" Conway retorted cheerfully. "We're in this together through thick and thin! Nothing's tearing us apart! Besides, Reggie asked me to do this. I can't possibly let him down after being treated so kindly by him."

There was an awkward pause before Paul could talk back. "… Is that the only reason why you're still here? Because he told you to stick with me?"

"What kind of question is that, Paul?" Conway asked him rhetorically. "I was with you well before he asked me to help out! I'm psyched he asked, because you probably would have found a way to get rid of me by now if you weren't so tied down to his word yourself. But to be perfectly honest, Paul, I've enjoyed our time together. And if I hadn't met you again, I wouldn't have a Gym Badge or a Contest Ribbon right now! You've done more for me than you realize."

Paul never thought of it that way, really, but he still looked skeptical. "You won the Contest, though. You proved yourself to be a competent Coordinator, but as far as I'm concerned, we're not going anywhere near a Contest ever again."

Conway just smiled contentedly. "I figured as much."

"But don't you want to keep doing Contests?" Paul asked, finding it hard to believe that Conway was fine with being held back. "You like them, you're determined to win over that girl through them… but you're never going to achieve any of that with me."

"There's always next year," Conway brought up, not sounding bothered at all. "I wouldn't have made it to the Grand Festival this late in the game, anyway. Did you really think I was going to up and leave you now of all times just because I won a ribbon?"

"Sort of," Paul admitted. "It's a logical conclusion, I mean."

Conway nodded in agreement. "I suppose it is…" Then he smirked. "You didn't want me to leave, did you?"

"I expected you to leave!" Paul insisted, looking flustered. "I only fought as hard as I did because that was part of the deal I had with you to begin with!"

"Honchkrow learned a new move through this experience," Conway mentioned; Paul nearly forgot about that. "You can't say you came out of this Contest with absolutely nothing."

To randomly change the main topic like that, Paul was suspicious. "What are you implying?"

Apparently, Conway noticed the uncertainties of his companion, because he still remained calm in the face of accusation. "Nothing, really," he said. "Nothing more than that we've both gained a lot through our experiences together. Maybe at some point we'll come to that fork in the road in our lives, but right now, I can't imagine anywhere else I'd rather be than at your side."

"That girl's side would be one such place," Paul was quick to bring up.

"Touché," Conway conceded. "Though who knows if she would tolerate me for long periods of time the way you do, Paul…"

"Tolerate? What an overstatement," Paul said, blowing off the compliment. "You're extremely fortunate that I let you follow me around at all. I've just run into quite a bit of bad luck because of you."

Conway simply wagged his finger at Paul. "There is a stigma attached to the Murkrow species, you know," he informed. "How long was it before yours evolved? You still had it in its basic stage during the Tag Battle Tournament, right?"

Paul nodded hesitantly. "Yes… it evolved to Honchkrow when I battled Maylene, so it's been that way for a while now. What's your point?"

"They say a Murkrow brings bad luck," Conway told him. "Perhaps yours started a chain reaction when you met me initially in that tournament."

"I won that tournament," Paul reminded him. "That isn't exactly bad luck."

"But… you were partnered with Ash the entire time," Conway countered. "And you met me, which you claim started a stream of bad luck that presumably lasts even today. Even if it was a delayed reaction…"

Paul shoved Conway aside in retaliation. "I'm not much of a believer in superstition, Conway. You can shut up anytime now."

Conway took it all in stride. After all, having won a Contest was more than enough to keep him happy for a week. Still being at Paul's side against the odds was even better. He knew in his heart that this was the perfect day he always asked for.

"You're right," he admitted. "Because the power's been inside us all this time… and it's our friendship that made this all work out."

For once, Paul didn't feel like arguing the "friendship" point. Somehow, he just felt content that he wouldn't be finishing this journey to Snowpoint City alone after all. Conway had proven his loyalty by giving up his chance to pursue Contests (and Dawn) just to continue to stay with Paul.

For the first time, Paul was truly impressed. Not that he would ever admit it, but he was impressed.

"Oh my gosh, Paul!" Conway suddenly shouted out. "Look! A Pokémon swarm!"

Indeed, it had been said on certain days, flocks of rare Pokémon would come by Route 216. Today in particular featured a group of Smoochum cheerfully making their way through the snow. This was their natural climate, so they seemed to rather enjoy their surroundings.

Suddenly, Paul felt that respect he had for Conway dwindling already. "So what?"

"Isn't it cool?" Conway asked him, obviously having not witnessed such an event before, however small it was.

"It's just a bunch of Smoochum," Paul tried to reason. "They're worthless and definitely not something that's going to put us further behind. Let's keep moving."

"But I want one…!" Conway whined. "Remember when I told you I would be really psyched to have one? Don't you?"

Paul sighed. "Save it for some other time. You really could do better, Conway. If you want an Ice-type that badly, I'll find you some actually worth catching later. But for now, we need to focus on reaching Squallville." He looked up at the sky with concern. "We have no idea just how rough the weather's going to get."

Logic was just one thing Conway could not fight in most cases. Giving the Smoochum one last glance, Conway hung his head and followed Paul past them. "I guess you're right… getting to Squallville is priority one."

The duo continued along their path, leaving the Smoochum behind and unbothered. One happened to be paying attention; however, as she looked on towards the pair of humans until they were completely out of sight. Resigned to the fact that they would likely never be seen again, she turned her attention back towards her group and continued onwards in a different direction.

Like clockwork, Paul and Conway came into Mars' sight just like Saturn said they would. She hid behind a small group of trees just in case anyone passed by who might recognize Team Galactic and start a confrontation. Mars knew she couldn't risk anything messing up her mission; a ton of pizza was on the line, and she was determined to have it no matter the cost.

Nearby was a fork in the road, prompting the boys to stop and debate on which path to take. The helicopter Mars used to arrive in this location was well hidden further behind her, and the weather had gotten blustery enough to draw away any attention towards the slightly-conspicuous method of transportation. A small group of grunts were on standby to start up whenever Mars gave the signal.

"If the left path is shorter, let's take it already," Paul complained at Conway. "Stop being such a coward and live a little."

"Did you really not learn from your last mishap?" Conway reminded him, very annoyed. "The shorter path is not always the best one to take. The road less-traveled always involves a risk."

"Life is full of risks," Paul grumbled. "You can't avoid them forever, Conway."

Conway then looked rather snooty. "Well, I'm the navigator and I insist we go right."

"Well, this is my journey and I say we go left," Paul countered, not intent on letting up this argument anytime soon.

"You're both right, but you're both wrong, too," said a new voice entering the conversation. Paul and Conway quickly turned around to see Mars standing right behind them.

As Mars was quite a looker in the eyes of many men, Conway was no exception. Dedicated as he was to Dawn, he couldn't help but appreciate a beauty. Paul, on the other hand, looked miffed that someone was meddling in their business.

"This doesn't involve you," Paul calmly told her. "If there's something you need, go ahead and say it. Otherwise, please go about your way."

"You're so rude, Paul," Conway muttered, shoving him aside and smiling to Mars. "I'm so sorry for my friend's behavior, ma'am! What can we do you for?"

Mars just looked amused with the argumentative youths. "I was trying to say that you're both right, because you'll reach your destination no matter what path you take. But you're both also wrong, because why hike up this mountain when you can fly over it instead?"

Slightly fearful, Conway looked up at the sky. "In this weather…? It would be just as risky as taking the left path."

"There's no risk with a helicopter, which I happen to have," Mars offered. She had no idea that Conway would have a companion with him, but she had no choice but to improvise. "You boys want a ride?"

"Do you take us for fools?" Paul asked her bluntly. "We don't know you. We're not going to haphazardly run into unknown danger for-"

He was shoved by Conway again. "Oh, have a little faith in mankind for once, Paul!" he urged, grinning back at Mars nervously. "We should be properly introduced, though!"

"Sure thing," Mars said with a sultry voice. "I'm Mars. And you're Conway, aren't you?"

That definitely took both boys by surprise.

"W-wait, you know who I am…?" Conway asked in a squeaky voice. "But… how?"

"Did you just watch the Plumeria Contest or something?" Paul asked much more casually.

"No," Mars responded. "But his cousin did."

Conway was even more surprised by this news. "Sloan watched the Contest after all?!" In a delayed reaction, he realized something else: "You know my cousin Sloan?!"

At first, Mars didn't answer. She never actually knew Saturn's given name, as they were all but forgotten memories in the workplace and were never discussed amongst coworkers. She was more than a little tickled to finally know Saturn's real name, but she held that down as best she could, since she had to pretend she knew this all along.

"He was right; you're quite the cutie when you're flustered," Mars flirted, making eyes at Conway, who definitely noticed the signs. "I'm one of Sloan's coworkers. He really wanted me to meet you, you know."

"I'm Paul in case you were wondering," Paul cut in, clearing his throat purposely.

"That's nice," Mars said, brushing him off and clearly uninterested in the unforeseeable variable in her scheme. "Sloan told me about your Contest victory, Conway. He's very impressed with your work ethic and really liked how you stuck it to your big sister."

Of course, that made Conway smirk. "Glad to know he saw that and liked it, then! I wonder why he didn't call, though…"

"He was so impressed that he sent me for you," Mars explained. "He wants to see you in person to congratulate you. He's also looking for a bit of help."

"Help?" Conway found that to be vague. "You don't mean he wants to hire me as the intern instead of my sister, right?!"

As far as Mars recalled, Saturn seemed to imply as much, but he still wanted the book above all else: Mars knew she couldn't neglect that detail.

"If you help him with this task, he certainly is thinking of hiring you," Mars said in an alluring tone. "I'd be more than happy to escort you."

"Mars is an unusual name to have, come to think of it…" Paul mused.

Simply scoffing at Paul, Mars refocused her sights on Conway, who looked as if he could burst with excitement; winning the Contest, sticking it to his sister, being praised by Sloan… potentially being hired by Sloan? It almost sounded too good to be true, but Conway had no desire to be negative about the prospects.

"Sloan's looking for a rare book on Uxie," Mars told him. "He said you were quite talented in finding and knowing about the rarest books in the region. Think you can help him find it?"

"Help him find it?" Conway said, gasping for breath out of excitement. "I… I have it right here!"

Just as Mars wanted it; Conway dug into his carryon bag and pulled out the book on Uxie that was now legally his. "The Canalave Library actually gave this to me as a gift! He can borrow it whenever he wants! Does this mean I'm hired?"

"Why do you need a book on a Legendary Pokémon so badly?" Paul interrogated, very much not trusting this woman as far as he could throw her. "What kind of work do you do, anyway? Even Conway couldn't tell me that whenever he wouldn't shut up about his cousin."

Mars simply smiled and gestured to the giant "G" on her uniform. "We work for the government, see? We do top-secret investigations. A lot of the work we do is confidential, so I'm afraid I can't say any more than that."

"But I'll get to find out when I get hired!" Conway cheered. "This is so the best day ever!"

"That's right," Mars said, forcing a grin. "So hand over the book and let's be on our way."

"I'd much rather give it to him personally," Conway gushed, hugging the book against his chest. "I really want to make a good first impression on the job!"

By now, Paul couldn't take this anymore. This woman was obviously sketchy in more ways than one, and the way she kept brushing him off in particular told Paul that there was more to this woman than what appeared to be.

"Conway, you're too young to work period," Paul argued. "Why would an alleged confidential sector of the government so easily hire a kid? Why couldn't Sloan come in person to meet you?"

"He's a very busy man," Mars assured him. "What are you, jealous?"

"Suspicious," Paul corrected. "You're practically stealing him away with all this sweet-talk. He can't join you anyway because he's obligated to stay with me."

Conway clung to Paul's arm; an act that, if Paul didn't find this situation potentially risky, he would have thrown Conway roughly on the ground by now. "Oh, Paul, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!" he begged. "You know how much I dreamed about this! Why would you want to take it away from me? I mean, you can come with me, and…"

"No, he can't," Mars interrupted. "Sorry, Conway. I didn't expect you'd have a little buddy with you, but due to the nature of our work, we can't let just anyone in."

"Except you're already doing so with him," Paul pointed out. "You found us out here in the middle of nowhere! Do you expect us to believe that was just a coincidence?"

Of course, Mars did this to prevent any interference from civilization itself. However, she was becoming annoyed at the fact that Paul was not at all taken in by her charms. Even more frustrating that Conway completely fell for it, but was being protected by Paul.

"Kid, you're getting on my nerves," Mars grunted, glaring at Paul and not caring at all what his name actually was. "You're a big boy; you can make this trip on your own. Several trainers your age do. But Conway has a date with destiny, and you of all people aren't going to interfere."

Conway was coming off his high at last, being dragged back down to reality: to see his cousin again and truly achieve superiority over his sister, he would have to leave Paul behind. He already gave up the chance to be a Coordinator with relative ease…

… This, however, was a little harder to let go.

Regardless… Conway gulped and finally spoke up. "I can't leave Paul behind," Conway decided. "That isn't the right thing to do. Is there no way to postpone this…?"

"Sloan needs that book right away!" Mars cried out dramatically (and falsely so). "Conway, don't inconvenience him! He just might lose his job…"

The moral woes weighed down on Conway like a tank. Now it wasn't just a matter of keeping Paul company and keeping him safe; Sloan's job was now on the line, too? He had no idea what to decide on now. Either choice was going to hurt someone he cared about.

But eventually, Conway decided on a middle ground.

"Take the book, then," Conway said glumly. "I'm going to stay with Paul, but if all Sloan needs is the book, then I don't have to come along."

It seemed Mars didn't care either way, because she immediately reached for the book that Conway offered her. She was so close to touching it, but then her hand was abruptly smacked away by Paul.

"You idiot!" Paul hollered right into Conway's face. "Do you not remember what my father was willing to go through to get that Regigigas book?! Didn't you say this book was rare, too?!"

"Th-the only copy in the Sinnoh region," Conway confirmed. "What's your point?"

As Mars glared at the duo, backing away, Paul matched her glare with his own. "My point is that you can't trust this woman even if she knows your cousin. You don't even know if your cousin has good intentions because he never talks to you! I fought tooth-and-nail to keep a rare book away from my father; I'm not about to let you be so weak, Conway. Can't you see this is a rouse?!"

"You insolent brat!" Mars snapped, unable to control her anger now. "Do I have to fight you to keep you away?!"

"W-wait, don't hurt Paul!" Conway begged, standing in front of him. "He's my friend! Even if he's rude, that's no excuse to fight him!"

"Stay out of this!" Mars sharply told Conway, now shifting her attention on the boy she ignored so much. "He's interfered enough! He's paying the price!"

Paul certainly looked ready to fight, but Conway still desired a truce and was shocked how quickly this sweet, cute woman turned into a temperamental witch. "But… I thought we could be friends!" Conway admitted, still with an ounce of hope in his voice. "Mars, don't do this!"

"We need that book," Mars simply said. "I won't let anything stand in my way!" She tossed out a Pokéball, ready to do battle. "Purugly, show him what you're made of!"

The portly Tiger Cat Pokémon came forth, eager to take out any opponent; human or Pokémon.

However, Paul smirked at the sight. "That's all you've got? I can handle that." He took out his Pokéball… "Torterra, stand by for-"

"Purugly, Iron Tail!" Mars interrupted loudly, not about to let Paul finish up. In a split second, Paul cried out in pain as Purugly knocked out the Pokéball containing Torterra right out of his hand in quite a forceful way.

Paul was in too much pain to respond, grasping his bleeding, and injured hand. Torterra was never properly released, and so the Pokéball simply fell into the deep snow.

"You're actually willing to attack defenseless people with your Pokémon…" Conway acknowledged, now looking almost numb at the sight. "Just to get this book…?"

"It's amazing what we would kill to get," Mars replied snidely. "Now, are you going to hand it over or what?"

Conway looked hard at Mars for a long time before quickly stuffing the book safely under his shirt within his coat. He then glared. "I can see what Paul was talking about… you can't be trusted after all!"

"Then you're my opponent as well," Mars decided, nodding to Purugly.

"You're not getting the better of me!" Conway shouted, determined as he drew out his Pokéball. "Come forth, Slowk-"

"Iron Tail!"

Just like Paul, Conway's hand was struck dead-on with Purugly's lightning-quick attack. Slowking was not released in time, therefore the Pokéball dropped uselessly into the snow. Conway too was reeling in pain with Paul with a severely damaged hand.

Mars just smiled and shook her head. "You kids need to work on how quickly you react to adversity. A weakness like that could cost you your life one day. As if I would waste time battling either of you… I'll just take what I want and leave. Let's see if working out during my break for the past few months amounted to anything… hah!"

Coincidentally, Paul and Conway were close and right beside each other, still in a great deal of pain from their hands alone. Even their gloves couldn't endure the Iron Tail attack and it went straight into their skin. Mars saw this positioning, however, as an opportunity screamed to be taken advantage of. She rushed towards the boys; both arms held out at her sides so she could rush past Paul and Conway and club both their heads simultaneously with her surprisingly strong arms.

Both Paul and Conway were hit dead-on, unaware of what she was really going to do. The blows to their head were enough to knock them both to the point where they lost consciousness.

They were sitting ducks now; completely at Mars' mercy. However, Mars never was one to stick around for long, and simply decided to get what she wanted while the "getting" was good. Unfortunately… what she wanted was now deeply lodged within Conway's clothing.

But then Mars realized this was actually ideal: Conway was taken out, therefore could not struggle or attempt to reclaim his book. With the book securely inside his coat, Mars could take both and leave without incident, killing two birds with one stone.

Getting Conway meant Mars stood a good chance of getting a bonus reward from Saturn, and when it was this easy, of course she was going to go for it.

With no trouble whatsoever, Mars secured her targets within her grasp. Both she and her Purugly sped off to the helicopter while Paul was left unconscious in the snow.

It didn't take long for Paul to recover, at least. But he was rather horrified when he came to and realized both Mars and Conway were gone. Mars had even taken the liberty of scattering both of their Pokéballs across the snow, as if to mean to slow Paul down if he were to wake up in time to chase after them.

At the most inappropriate time, it hit Paul what he was actually doing when he scrambled to find his Pokéballs containing Honchkrow and Gliscor; knowing Mars was going to exit via helicopter, Paul knew his only chance at stopping her was via his Flying-typed Pokémon. But more importantly, Paul realized he was actually planning to rescue Conway. After all this time of Conway bailing him out, Paul finally meant to do him the same favor, and his automatic reaction for once was to not treat the situation as if it didn't matter.

Paul couldn't deny it anymore; Conway mattered to him. Much as he said he hated Conway, the truth was that, especially after Conway proved his loyalty twice today, Paul didn't want to lose someone like that to some wicked woman who by all means would do nothing but use and abuse him.

He had to do something; he was too far away from civilization to call upon their help. It was his duty and his alone to rescue his… friend.

After the shock wore away, Paul found the Pokéballs and scrambled to his feet, following the footprints in the snow and banked on the chance that he wasn't too late to save Conway. The weather, suitably, was taking a turn for the worse.

But Paul didn't care; he was getting Conway back no matter what. He would not lose against this wintery weather a second time.

The captive himself awoke in a much warmer area. It didn't take him long to realize he was no longer outside. He looked around, dazed, acknowledging that he was in some sort of machine that made a lot of noise.

The slight turbulence he was suddenly experiencing due to the outside weather told him he was actually airborne.

And it hit him: he was in that fabled helicopter that Mars woman told him about.

"Wha… what is this place?" Conway wondered dully, as he still felt dazed. He had been sitting up the whole time, but backed against a wall. "Wait, where's… where's Paul…?"

"There is no Paul; only Mars," said an extremely seductive voice. Conway turned his head in that direction and was very spooked to see Mars right in front of him, knelt down and invading his private space.

"You…" Conway whispered in a vengeful voice. "What did you do to him?"

Mars smirked. "He's fine. He's not here, but he's fine… but he also doesn't matter, because you're not seeing him again."

Being told such a thing only angered Conway… after all this time, after feeling a real connection, he wasn't about to abandon it. "You're not the one who decides that, no matter how pretty you are!"

That was the opening Mars needed to complete her job. "So," she said, consistently keeping up that sultry tone. "You think I'm cute…"

"That… that doesn't matter!" Conway claimed, shaking his head and obviously a little flustered. He never had a woman so close to him before, and that was quickly becoming more and more of a distraction for him. "You're a terrible person, and that's what matters!"

"If it weren't for that kid, we'd already be good friends, Conway," Mars told him, inching closer and closer towards him. "See, there you go, being flustered again… that's when you're at your cutest."

"You're just using me," Conway acknowledged sadly, now feeling ridiculously stupid for falling for her tricks in the first place. "I want to talk to my cousin."

Mars shook her head, resting both arms against the wall Conway leaned against, allowing her to sink closer towards his face. "You'll see him soon; I promise. We're on our way towards him now. But we've got a little time, you know…"

Now worried, Conway looked up towards her, finding that in spite of what his mind warned him of, he couldn't keep his eyes off this woman now.

"Time for what…?" he asked.

This was it: a perfect opening. He was vulnerable in spite of not having fully fallen for her. Unattractive as he was, Mars kept her eyes on the prize: the pizza. The pizza she yearned for, fought for, stole for… certainly she was willing to manipulate others for it as well, even if the prospect grossed her out.

"This is for the pizza… all that pizza…" Mars whispered to herself, trying to imagine Conway as a giant pizza himself. That didn't exactly work out, but it wasn't for a lack of effort, certainly. Nonetheless, Mars bit the bullet and went for it.

She kissed him.

A single tear slipped from Conway's eye; the initial reaction was that while this was his first kiss… this wasn't how he wanted it. Every night, he yearned for Dawn to be his first kiss. He restrained himself at every opportunity to get a girl otherwise just for the sake of having a chance at Dawn, and now… his dream was shattered.

The grunts who occupied the same room simply looked away and minded their own business; this was nothing out of the ordinary for a Mars mission, after all. Though they were pretty sure she never before roped in someone so young, they were in no position to complain about certain legal matters; Team Galactic in general was illegal.

Mars was a little surprised seeing Conway cry a little in reaction to his first kiss. Still, she smiled at him. "What, didn't you like it?"

"Dawn…" Conway uttered, sounding miserable. "I wanted Dawn to be my first… this isn't fair…"

"I'll be your Dawn," Mars casually offered. "You want to call me Dawn? Call me Dawn. I really don't care."

Conway winced, choking back a sob. "I-it's not that simple…" And in spite of his sorrow, he was feeling weird… a good kind of weird. That only confused the poor teenager more.

"It's easier than you think," Mars told him. "I think you want more…"

Conway both did and didn't at the same time; not like it mattered, because he was getting it anyway. The euphoria stunned Conway, making him unable to fight back. The hopelessness of the situation was also getting to him, as he somehow felt that things might not be so great when he could finally see Sloan after all. Reality was a harsh demon now, but what Mars was giving him was helping him forget that and relax.

By all means, this was a nerd's dream come true; a beautiful woman hovering over him, practically straddling him now, and showering his lips with full, sensual kisses. Conway was unable to truly see this woman as Dawn for his own sanity's sake, so the other option was just to block her out completely. Conway had no energy left to fight his body's desires and hope he could still retain a shred of dignity after this.

He would be shamed to realize he even completely forgot about Paul by the time his resistance faded and he was kissing her back. This sort of pleasure was addictive and Conway was beginning to understand the thrills of the darker side of life. He didn't have to agree with it… but he understood it.

It intrigued him how he gained such a sense of clarity by giving in to his desires and merely kissing a woman. Such rewards made him want more of her, whether she was Dawn or not.

Mars was gradually adjusting to this, though it frustrated her how slow Conway was at picking up the signs and following along. She pressed her body against his, ready to move on to the next step.

The reason for all this? More than just seduction to the side of Team Galactic… that Uxie book was still lodged somewhere underneath Conway's clothes and Mars was determined to have it in her hands. She was awkward about the prospect of undressing him, especially out in the snow and while he was unconscious. She liked getting familiar with her victims, knowing that there's no chance they would turn on her and strike back (thereby ruining her missions) if she could earn their trust and/or adoration through intimacy.

"You're quite the gentleman," Mars told him as she pulled away from him momentarily. "But I think you would like to take this to another level…"

"Another level…" Conway almost sounded brainwashed; he was that overcome by his hormonal reactions.

"That's right," Mars affirmed, unbuttoning his coat. "Another level…"

Conway had a feeling he knew where this was going, and he wasn't sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. His body was all for it, but his mind and integrity still existed amidst all of his passion. Regardless of that, Mars resumed making out with him after finally unbuttoning his jacket completely, leaving her hands free to explore his clothes. Mars could tell by feeling around that Conway had shoved the book underneath all of his layers of clothing and it rested awkwardly against his chest.

Nervousness was present in Conway's voice when he felt her hands touch his bare skin. "Wait… what are you…?"

"I know what I'm doing," Mars insisted, grinning as she finally felt the book underneath him. Conway was simply too overwhelmed to understand what she was really doing; all he cared about was the irritation between his legs.

Her fingers wrapped around the book, ready to slide it out from underneath Conway's shirt, but found that it wasn't that simple, exactly. Both of Conway's arms had been wrapped around the book protectively. It was his last bastion of sanity at this point; if he gave that book up, there was no going back for him. Mars could sense that last shred of dignity holding that book in place. She was well beyond tired trying to break Conway into the group at her usual pace.

As a professional in this sort of work, Mars knew what else was bothering Conway and decided to "help" him out. Some of the grunts began to look uncomfortable with the associated moaning that now took place. After flinching upon hearing Conway cry out before virtually fainting on the spot, a female grunt was surprised when a certain book was tossed into her hands.

"Mission accomplished," Mars said smugly, quick to stand up and move away from the boy she just tainted with her ways. "Secure that book well until we reach our destination," she ordered, which the grunts collectively agreed to. "Tonight, we're totally having a pizza party."

Just before the other grunts could break out of their formalities to celebrate the occasion, a sudden crashing sound was heard from the other side of the helicopter. It was roughly pushed in another direction, sending everyone crashing into the walls.

"What's going on now?!" Mars cried out.

Paul was amazed he hadn't collapsed due to asphyxiation yet as long as he had been running, desperate to keep up with the getaway helicopter and the two Pokémon he sent out to trash it. Paul couldn't remember the last time he felt this scorned, but whenever it happened, he played hardball. He didn't care what happened if the helicopter crashed, as long as Conway made it out okay.

Much as he wanted to shout commands, Paul lacked the strength to do so, and he was much too far away from Honchkrow and Gliscor to be heard anyway. He simply had to trust that they knew what they were doing by attacking the helicopter relentlessly.

One Dark Pulse from Honchkrow later, a hole was blown into the helicopter as it struggled to stay in the air. The hatch was blasted open and left the helicopter bare and ready to be torn to bits. Both Gliscor and Honchkrow were too busy attacking the enemy helicopter that neither realized that Conway had been resting very close to where the helicopter was blasted. That did well enough to wake him up, but he was now in grave danger.

"Commander, he's going to fall off!" the female grunt holding the book warned. "We have to…!"

"I've got this!" Mars assured, carefully inching over to the precarious area. "We're not losing our pizza party over a couple of sky rats…! Release the Golbat!!"

The grunts did as commanded, unleashing a hoard of Golbat to combat Gliscor and Honchkrow. Conway was too busy hanging on for dear life to understand what was going on, and Paul's two Pokémon being distracted did not leave him with many options as far as rescue was concerned. He still failed to recognize the helicopter's attackers as Paul's form of a rescue procedure, but as he was dangerously close to falling to his death, this might be understandable.

Conway failed to realize Mars was reaching out for him, trying her best to secure their new Team Galactic crony however she could. The blizzard was rough, the Pokémon were rougher, and the helicopter was too badly damaged to take much more punishment.

"Commander!" shouted the pilot, who was struggling to even stay in his seat, much less control the helicopter. "We have to shake those Pokémon or we're going down…!"

"Then do it already!" Mars ordered. "We'll be lucky to make it back in this shape as it is…!"

The pilot did as he was commanded; the Golbat were recalled and the helicopter swerved right and left viciously to get Honchkrow and Gliscor off the body of the machine; Gliscor especially weighed down the helicopter to the point where it was in danger of hitting treetops.

Still, the plot worked. They were shaken off and the still-swerving body (now losing control) smashed harshly into both Honchkrow and Gliscor, knocking both out and sending them careening into the snowy depths below.

Paul was shocked to see both his Pokémon falling from the sky. He knew they were both doing a great deal of damage by noticing the debris falling around all sides of him as he ran, but he wondered just how good a job they did. The helicopter was still airborne, but highly unstable. Paul recalled both Honchkrow and Gliscor back into their Pokéballs before they hit the ground; it was fortunate he could do that, at least, but now there was nothing he could do for Conway. Paul believed he had failed him.

But that was anything but true; the damage Paul's Pokémon inflicted on the helicopter was too much for Team Galactic to handle alongside Conway. Mars felt herself nearly slip off the edge and clung for dear life as the relief from Gliscor's weight made the helicopter climb up in altitude again. Falling from the height they were at, it would spell instant death for any of them.

A traumatizing ordeal followed by a life-threatening one was simply too much for Conway to handle any longer. He had no idea what was going on and frankly, the stress was becoming too much for him to bear.

Mars gasped as she saw Conway practically give up; she reached out for him, but could go no further herself without risking her life. Helplessly, she watched Conway fall from the sky. The furious blizzard prevented Mars from actually seeing him crash to the ground, but she knew that was not necessary. The rich young man from Veilstone City had no hope of survival.

But there was one thing she didn't count on. That wasn't just Mars not knowing the situation down below, but no one in The Know would have seen this coming:

Paul becoming a hero at the very last second. Seeing Conway falling from the sky, he instinctively ran over to where he was destined to land. Knowing this was a massive risk in itself, Paul sucked it up - his fears, his insecurities, and his skepticism – by becoming the human cushion for Conway's crash-landing.

Of course, the sheer force from Conway's landing did pretty much what Paul expected it would do: crush him. He was pretty sure he heard something in his chest crack upon impact, but he endured the pain and survived.

This was by no means a comfy landing for Conway; body-to-body impact was no laughing matter. He still couldn't register what happened at all, having been rendered nearly catatonic from so many drastic things happening at once. He experienced so many intense highs and lows in this day alone that Conway was certain he would die from that itself, never mind the falling for hundreds of thousands of feet to his imminent demise.

And of all people, Paul saved him.

The rescuer himself found himself coughing up small amounts of blood shortly afterward. He didn't know what this impact did to him, but his pain was nigh unbearable now. Knowing what he did now, registering it… he felt both relieved and angered all at once. At least he knew not to completely blame Conway for this; he came to his senses before he was knocked out and kidnapped. Surely he remained strong on his own and stuck to his word by keeping that Uxie book from that woman…

Paul moved Conway off of his body once he gathered enough strength and promptly shivered as he sat up, hugging himself and trying his hardest to outlast the initial pain. What mattered was that Conway survived, after all…

Conway couldn't bring himself to speak as he used this downtime to calm himself and realize what all happened in such a short amount of time. Fairly injured himself, he rose up and looked to Paul, gaping as he realized why he wasn't a corpse right now.

"P-Paul, you…" Conway started, immediately trailing off as he realized how much his fall injured his friend. Not only had he failed Paul in moral spirit, but he physically harmed him as well.

What Paul wanted to avoid was looking weak in front of Conway. He hated appearing as such in general, but with Conway, who had become a major part of his life now, Paul felt he needed to stay strong in situations like this for both their sakes… even if his ribs were aching terribly. "Don't… look too deeply into this, Conway. In spite of everything, I… I wouldn't just let you die."

"You saved my life," Conway told him, smiling as well as crying. "Just when I lost all hope…"

There were no signs of a crash from the helicopter, Paul noticed. That disappointed him; he wanted to repay Mars back tenfold for what she put him and Conway through. "I should have been able to destroy that thing completely…"

Much as Conway shared those sentiments, he felt the need to express to Paul just how thankful he was by giving him a big hug. Of course, this was the wrong move to make for two obvious reasons, though Paul was too exhausted to shove him off now. Instead, he grumbled discontentedly.

"Paul, I don't care… what matters is that you saved my life! I didn't think you would…" Conway admitted. "I knew there was good in you all along!"

"Conway, uh… mind my ribs," Paul quietly requested. "My chest is…"

Conway backed off instantly upon hearing that, momentarily forgetting how he noticed how injured Paul looked moments earlier. "Oh, gosh! I'm sorry! Paul, if you're really bad off, we need to hurry and get to Squallville so we can get you looked at by a-"

"What's with you?" Paul interrupted. "Don't get all panicky… we should both be fine. I must have been running for miles before I finally got you out of that helicopter… we're going to have to backtrack anyway since that woman scattered our Pokéballs all over the snow. I only had time to get two of mine to chase that woman down."

That woman, Mars…

All of a sudden, Conway sputtered into a crying fit. The past events moments ago were already haunting him, and they could certainly haunt his dreams for years to come. Paul was surprised that Conway would choose that time in particular to emotionally break down, as he hadn't said anything that would normally spur it on. It didn't take long for Paul to guess what triggered this reaction, though…

"Conway, crying isn't going to solve our problem," Paul urged, not exactly being nasty about how he said this. "I know she kidnapped you, but it wasn't for that long. What could have possibly happened in a short amount of time that would-"

Conway's crying got louder. He was losing it.

"Will you calm down already?!" Paul growled at him. "This isn't helping!"

"I-I'm sorry," Conway apologized, sniffling but still in tears. "I… I just can't help it…"

"You're such a baby," Paul said a sigh, finally summoning the strength to stand up on both feet. "Come on. It's starting to get dark."

Yet Conway would not move from his position.

"What are you waiting for?" the impatient Paul complained. "So you were kidnapped! Typical rich-people phobia, right? You lived and we still have the book! All things considered, I think we came out on top!"

The book; the final thing that kept Conway together. What was rightfully his… and what was Paul's symbol of trust for his companion was now in the hands of that woman and he didn't realize it yet. The fact that he brought it up proved to Conway that Paul was very serious about not letting that book be taken away, and in the end, that's exactly what Conway let happen.

Conway's silence was telling enough for Paul. He grasped his forehead, looking away for a moment for that all to sink in. "She took it from you while you were unconscious, didn't she?"

If only it were that simple. Much as Conway wanted to use that excuse, he knew it would do no good to lie to Paul. Eventually, it would bite him back and he would regret it more than anything. Still, he couldn't bring himself to face his friend. "That's… not exactly how it happened…"

"What are you talking about?" Paul inquired, soon getting tired of Conway's antics. He grasped Conway's chin, forcing his elder friend to look him in the eyes, which is what Conway wanted to avoid.

"I…" Conway couldn't form the words in his mouth; that piercing look in Paul's eyes meant he was near his highest level of anger. But what was apparent on Conway was the blush across his face. One would say it was due to the cold, but… Conway's expressions combined with said embarrassment told the story for Paul.

And when Paul realized it, he gasped and immediately let go of Conway, stepping back. He analyzed his companion fully, only just then noticing that Conway's coat had been unbuttoned completely. His shirt underneath was wrinkled… and most notably, his pants were undone. That was the detail that bothered Paul the most, especially after scrutinizing the area and finding stains on his pants.

"Conway…" Paul whispered, taking another step back. He was disgusted, abhorred, and most of all disillusioned. He had finally put his trust in this young man… and immediately, it got them both into a cataclysmic mess.

"Th-this isn't what it looks like, Paul!" Conway cried out, now terrified that Paul had found out on his own before Conway could admit the truth. "I hated it! I really, really hated every second of it! There was nothing I could do…!"

"Shut up," Paul darkly ordered him. "Don't talk. In fact… don't bother talking to me ever again, you traitor."

Conway was beside himself with guilt, but suddenly found the energy to stand on his own when he realized Paul had started walking off. "Paul, I'm telling you the truth! Do you think I would be crying right now if I liked it?!"

But Paul could not bring himself to respond. Conway lost the book… that trust between them… all for a moment of intimacy that ultimately amounted to nothing. Consorting with the enemy, even… Paul felt so stupid for daring to believe in Conway's integrity. The boy was shady from day one, and Paul still fell for it, he thought. He didn't believe he would ever be able to live this down.

"Paul, please don't do this!" Conway begged him, only to be shoved away every time he got too close. "You've got to believe me! I hate myself for losing the book, too! I wanted Dawn to be my first kiss, I swear! I'm never going to get that back! Can't you see this isn't what I wanted?!"

The direction Paul had been walking towards was that fork in the road where they were first accosted by Mars in order to retrieve the rest of his Pokéballs. By now, enough time had passed and enough snow had fallen that the tracks were very hard to make out, making it difficult for Paul to ascertain where they should be. He was completely uninterested in Conway's excuses; however it happened, it happened. That's all he cared about.

"Mars took my first kiss from me!" Conway wailed. "My innocence! My book! Don't make it so that she took you away from me, too! I swear I'll make this up to you… I mean, you saved my life!"

Paul's eyes widened, realizing that. "… Then the debt has been repaid."

That made Conway stop short in his tracks. Thankfully, they were close to where they were originally now, thus Paul stopped as well to dig up his Pokéballs from the snow. "I beg your pardon…?" he asked with a sniffle.

"You started following me around originally because you saved my life," Paul reminded him, finally able to look him in the face now. However, he had never before looked colder. "I've now returned the favor… that means we're even, Conway. You no longer have any reason to follow me."

"What are you talking about?!" Conway cried out in disbelief of what Paul insinuated. "I have every reason to follow you! We're partners; friends! Besides, Reggie asked me to do this and I saved your life twice, you know!"

Neglecting to mention that it was technically his fault that Conway was in danger of losing his life by falling out of the helicopter his Pokémon nearly destroyed, Paul found a loophole. "If you want to get technical about it, I actually saved your life twice today."

"What?!" Conway couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Explain yourself! That's impossible!"

"It's true," Paul insisted. "I saved you from that woman, who very likely would have killed you in the long run. If she was willing to kill me over a book, you know her standards aren't that high when it comes to excuses for taking lives. You turned on her before she kidnapped you, so she would have done you in to keep you quiet. Then I saved your life by cushioning your fall from the helicopter. That makes two saves. We are completely and totally even."

Conway didn't really want to argue (or even talk) about Mars anymore. And he could see where Paul was making his point, but still… "What about Reggie, then?! You're just going to disobey him and go to Snowpoint City alone?!"

"It seems I have no choice," Paul decided. "Though it's not like I haven't disobeyed my brother before. Besides, what can he really do if I ditch you? He's hundreds of miles away from us and has no real power over anything. His word isn't law and you shouldn't treat it as such, Conway."

That was another good point. Conway would just be a hypocrite to judge Paul for mistreating his brother like that; even Paul never insulted his brother on live national television.

"Then what about our friendship?" Conway asked him; that was the last of his ammunition, too. The least-reliable one, but still, he felt he had truly gotten through to Paul for good earlier today… "Isn't that worth anything to you?! After everything we've been through, you want to call it quits?!"

Paul gestured to the background behind him. "Unless I'm mistaken, this is a fork in the road. Remember when you said we'd encounter one in our lives when it was time for us to part ways in the future?"

"That was a figure of speech, for goodness' sake!" Conway groaned. He was beyond frustrated that Paul was willing to go such depths to break up the duo. "Now you're just being ridiculous!"

"You're the ridiculous one for ever thinking we were friends in the first place," Paul snapped back. He had now collected the rest of his Pokéballs and was ready to resume his journey… the way he went about it originally: alone. "Now don't follow me. I'd be happy never to see your traitorous, untrustworthy face again. If you try, I won't hesitate blasting you until there's nothing left."

"Paul…" Conway quietly pleaded, falling to his knees. "Think about what you're doing here! Do you even realize what happened to me?! Don't leave me alone…!" He bowed his head and started crying again, resting the palms of his hands on the snowy terrain as his head sunk below his shoulders in shame. "I… I don't think I could take it right now, Paul! I'll do anything you want; just don't do this to me right now!"

Traitor or not, Conway was upset and Paul couldn't ignore this. Paul was only making it worse with such cold and heartless treatment, but at this stage, he couldn't have cared less. The moment his hard-earned trust was compromised, Paul always felt his lowest. Someone was going to pay; Mars had fled the scene… that only left the one who let him down in the first place.

All his life, since that fateful day when Reggie lost against his father at the Battle Pyramid and gave up his life as a trainer, Paul's whole world had been shattered and it never quite recovered afterward. He had finally put his trust in Conway, and almost immediately, he regretted ever doing so… because giving Conway his trust allowed Conway to ruin Paul's world all over again.

Not that Paul was ever going to actually tell Conway this…

"You only have yourself to blame," Paul responded, turning away and walking off. "You did this to yourself. You don't deserve my company and you know it."

"I can't do anything to change your mind…?" Conway asked him, purely desperate. "Nothing at all?"

"The only thing I want you to do is stay away from me," Paul spat, never again looking back at the mess he left behind. "You're dead to me, Conway."

And that statement said it all: as Paul continued to walk his way towards Squallville, nothing Conway said ever reached his former partner again. Conway felt like a ghost to him, now. But there was nothing he could do… nothing he could say to make this right, apparently. Conway knew he wasn't totally innocent in all this, either, but he used every last ounce of his willpower to disallow Mars' influence from sinking into him permanently. Now he wondered if just succumbing to her would have been a less-painful option after all.

… Another blow followed that thought: Conway's cousin apparently arranged for all this to happen. He had to ask himself if Sloan would really care about his grievances. All his life, he idolized his older cousin. Now, Conway felt as if his whole life was a lie.

It was a miracle that Conway had the willpower to gather his Pokéballs, stand up, and start walking opposite the way of Paul. His so-called "perfect day" just turned out to be the worst day of his life.

Meanwhile, Paul was going it alone. He knew he could face whatever dangers the great white north could unleash upon him all along; with or without Conway. From now on, he decided to only look out for himself. He reached Squallville with no further incident plaguing his progress.

No matter what happened from now on, Paul knew in his heart nothing would ever top what happened today.

Unfortunately for him, he had no idea at the time that a certain trio – one that annoyed him to no end – was headed for the same destination. Soon enough, sparks would fly again.

( TBC )