( Notes: So... 1 year and 11 months since the last update. What can I say to that...? Well, being an adult sucks, hormones suck, Best Wishes REALLY sucks, and when things get me down in the dumps or angry, I can't write. At the very least, there's a great amount of Best Wishes SPITE going on in this chapter if you look closely enough. My other drive was to make this gym battle better than all of the Best Wishes gym battles combined. At the risk of coming off as overly haughty, I like to think I succeeded there.
This here chapter is primarily focused on battling after the first scene here. Major things are getting set up, because major things are gonna be happening in chapter 20. Awesome things. Things that will be far easier to write than gym battles, so be optimistic that chapter 20 won't take a year to come out! That was sorta the other roadblock for me finishing this chapter: GYM BATTLES ARE HARD TO WRITE. At least when you try to make them overly epic like I did. How in the hell did I manage to write the Byron gym battle so neat and succinctly...?
Well, anyway, this chapter marks the end of an era for the story. The final chapter in which Paul is stuck in Snowpoint City/areas near Snowpoint City!
Still, I really am sorry to all of you for this ungodly long gap between chapter updates. I keep saying this fic is not dead, and I certainly mean it! Now enjoy your very belated wall of text some call a "story"! )
"First of all, I just wanted to say thanks for agreeing to this, Reggie. I… think you already know what I want to talk with you about."
Reggie resisted the urge to avoid eye contact with Brock as he took a seat on the same grassy hill he sat on earlier in the afternoon before the full battle commenced. The breeder-to-be himself had already taken a seat close by.
"Well, I guess you're probably right," Reggie said, forcing his easygoing and pleasant tone out. "You're really perceptive for your age… Ash is definitely in good hands with you."
Brock smiled and nodded, but quickly resumed his serious expression. "He's come so far that he won't need my help to overcome this loss, hopefully," he expressed. "But that's not what I need to talk to you about."
"Of course," Reggie understood, finding it harder and harder to feign both his innocence and obliviousness.
"For the record, I'm not holding this against you if my suspicions are correct," Brock wanted to make that perfectly clear first and foremost. "But there's been something on my mind the past ten days…"
The gradually darkening sky proved to be a nice visual distraction for Reggie as he endured the beginning of this interrogation. "Since Paul battled Brandon, huh…"
"Normally I wouldn't prod… because I know even now it's really none of my business," Brock admitted. "But Paul's been such an enigma from the beginning… not just to Ash, but to Dawn and myself as well. Since we learned about you, it made me even more curious about how Paul came to be what he is today. He's a tough nut to crack for sure, but with a diplomatic approach I've gotten some information out of him from time to time. But what little he's given me hasn't really fallen into place… until that day."
"You actually got him to talk about himself?" Reggie was impressed; even he had trouble getting Paul to open up just asking how his day was, much less anything deeper than that.
"Only bits and pieces," Brock humbly replied. "But from what I've learned both from his testimonies and studying his behavior along with what you've told us… I think I'm finally beginning to understand what's going on here. Most of all, I can relate to your position, Reggie."
This certainly wasn't some sort of strict, no-nonsense interrogating that Reggie dreaded would be in store for him. It wasn't exactly a logical thing to expect from Brock of all people, but Reggie had been spending much of his time with the kind of people who would've made this scenario uncomfortable to him.
"I'm the eldest child of my family," Brock told him. "Though I have several brothers and sisters, the fact remains that I had to be their pillar of support every step of the way. I had to take care of them both at home and financially. You see, I was a Gym Leader once upon a time."
Now Reggie could see how Brock could sympathize with him, but he had to ask… "You? Doing all that work by yourself? But what about your-"
"That's what I wanted to ask you when we first met months ago," Brock cut him off. "My parents… both went through a period where they just didn't feel like being parents. They had no right to take off when they did…" The aspiring breeder paused himself, regaining his professional composure. Even with his family situation for the most part mended, Brock still had difficulty forgiving his parents for the trouble and inconvenience they brought upon him personally to this very day. "But they did eventually come back… they're still irritating at times, but they've seem to have gotten the midlife crisis out of their systems now. They're back to being parents and one of my brothers is minding the Pewter Gym so I could go out and pursue my dreams. It's not exactly what you'd call a normal family situation, I guess," Brock uneasily figured. "But… I could tell you're in a similar position with Paul and all the young Pokémon you raise back home."
"Huh, you're right," Reggie said, amused at the similarities of their lives' mishaps. "It's no easy task minding over so many young ones… especially my brother. But I wouldn't have it any other way." Reggie didn't like lying through his teeth like this; he could already feel the burn of guilt, but he felt he had no right to whine and moan to anyone, much less someone younger than him who (in Reggie's opinion) must have had a much harder time living a normal life with so many little siblings.
That was the opening Brock sought after to segue into his true interrogation. "So, is it true you and Paul don't have a good relationship with your parents?"
Reggie froze momentarily, but Brock figured he wouldn't get an answer right away. There had to have been a good reason for both brothers to avoid the topic of their mother and father at every corner and turn.
"Sensitive topic, huh?" Brock correctly assumed. "Sorry…"
"N-no," Reggie interrupted, not wanting to offend Brock or make him feel as if he did something wrong. Even if the parent topic was a sensitive one for Reggie to delve into, a part of him felt the need to keep the conversation going. If Paul were still here, no doubt he would have cut Reggie off completely and made a hasty exit at this point. But even with Paul's desires to keep their family business confidential not being forgotten by Reggie, the elder brother still wanted to maintain his right to vent. Already, Reggie knew Brock would be one of the best people to open up to. It wasn't every day Reggie would meet somebody other than his brother who could comprehend the kind of pain he felt on a daily basis. There was Roark to fall back on, though by now even his family had made amends, both to Reggie's joy and envy. "It's… it's okay, Brock. Paul's not here to dictate my every word… as long as this just stays between us…"
Brock nodded, showing no hesitation at all. "So you have been holding back, and he was the reason just as I thought. You have my word, Reggie; I'm not doing this for Ash's sake, anyway. I really do want to come to an understanding with Paul and you for my own personal reasons."
"I don't often get to talk about this kind of thing," Reggie admitted with a heavy heart. "Mostly I don't want to bother anyone with my problems, and it's not like most people would really get it anyway… but it sounds like you understand exactly where I'm coming from."
"As long as you're willing," Brock assured him. "I'd be more than happy to help out. I think the best place to start is whatever situation you have with your parents. Are they separated?"
It was a fair question… one Reggie had heard many times in the past when people inquired of his mother's whereabouts in the past, due to her reputation as Veilstone City's best Pokémon Breeder. Even if this brought back less than pleasant memories, Reggie knew deep down talking this through with Brock would be for his own best interest. Now that Paul seemed rather content and free of his problems for the time being, Reggie would allow himself at least one night where he focused on his own needs.
"They are… and they aren't," Reggie answered; his tone still uneasy as he subconsciously grasped at blades of grass between his fingers. "We started out as an average four-person family… Mom and Dad really did love each other. But that was almost eight years ago… since then, we lost Mom… she'd been very sick all her life."
Brock felt himself tense; one of the first things he wondered about when he tried to figure Paul out was what kind of mother would raise such a cold and abrasive son. He couldn't imagine what such a mother would be like, but the possibility of Paul being raised without a mother at all did cross his mind. Whether she was divorced with Paul being under his father's custody or simply passed on before her time, Brock could tell there was a lack of motherly influence in Paul's life. Obviously Reggie was trying his best to compensate, but that would only go so far.
"Sorry for your loss," Brock quietly said, trying not to make eye contact with Reggie at that time. "I can't imagine what it must be like having to grow up without a mother…"
"It's the hardest thing in the world," Reggie said with the utmost certainty. "Though I was lucky to have been old enough to remember her. Everything she taught me, I committed to memory. She was a Pokémon Breeder, too. That's why I eventually decided to follow in her footsteps instead of my father's," he explained before letting out a sigh. "But Paul… he was only five years old when our mother died. So he doesn't really remember Mom at all; anything he knows of her now is through me."
"What about your father?" Brock asked. "He'd remember her better than either of you. I figured there was something missing in Paul, and the lack of a motherly influence in his life makes a lot of sense based on his behavior. But… your father is still alive, right?"
The way Brock asked the question made it sound almost rhetorical in nature; Reggie wasn't certain whether or not to consider that a bad thing. This was crossing into territory that would betray his little brother's wishes, but if Brock could keep it to himself, then it shouldn't be that big of a deal. Though Reggie rarely paid mind to his own needs, subjects like this were where the breeder was willing to make an exception. Besides, Paul only really cared that Ash didn't find out; so long as Brock kept Ash out of this, then there would be no need for a conflict.
"He's alive," Reggie affirmed, trying his best to hide the bitterness in his tone. "But he's never really around. Mom was the breadwinner of our family, so Dad needed a job that would cover for the whole family after she passed on. He found one, but it was based in another region. So it's not like he had a choice…"
"It must have been a tough decision to make," Brock noted, obviously taking this information as proof of his suspicions. "So raising your brother has been solely your duty…"
"I did the best I could," Reggie blurted out. "I know I wasn't perfect, and I know it's probably my fault that Paul ended up the way he did today… I just wasn't good enough…"
Brock waved dismissively at Reggie while shaking his head. "To be perfectly honest with you, Reggie, I don't think you can be faulted for the way Paul turned out. You two are so different… Ash and Dawn couldn't believe you were brothers at first. Zoey was just as shocked… but I've seen how good of a breeder you are, Reggie," he commended. "You inspire me to do even more to further my own goal as the best Pokémon Breeder."
"Ah… thanks," Reggie said with a slight laugh, feeling flushed. "I'm really just going off how I remember Mom doing it… in a way, I feel like a parent to all the Pokémon I take care of. And since Paul started traveling with me, I felt like I had to do whatever I could to make sure Paul still had a parental figure he could look up to. Somehow, I had to be both a mother and father figure for him while still being his big brother."
"Which nobody could have pulled off with complete success," Brock told him. "That's why you shouldn't be so hard on yourself for how Paul turned out. Just because your father was in another region didn't mean he couldn't still be in your lives…"
"I used to believe that," Reggie muttered, now unable to hide his bitter sentiments. "Once we got to Kanto, we were both really excited. Eventually we'd get to see him again after four years of barely hearing from him at all… but after I was approved to challenge the Battle Frontier after competing in the Indigo League and Paul rejoined me after getting his Turtwig in Sinnoh… well. The reunion was nothing like we imagined it would be."
The mention of Kanto made Brock dead certain that his suspicions were true now, beyond a reasonable doubt. "That must have been hard for you both," he sympathized. "I've got to ask this directly, Reggie… I think we've skirted around the subject long enough. It's Brandon, isn't it?"
Though Reggie had suspected Brock likely figured this out a while back, it was still shocking for him to hear the fellow breeder confront him with the truth verbally. All of the thoughtful gestures Brock made both during today's battle and the battle from ten days ago that Reggie noticed were indeed for the reasons he suspected. It took him a few moments to find his voice again, but Reggie resigned his attempts to dodge the subject and let out a defeated sigh.
"… Yeah. He's the one," Reggie confirmed, looking to Brock with pleading eyes. "Brock, I'm begging you, don't ever tell-"
"I already promised to keep this to myself," Brock assured. "Like I said, I'm not doing this for Ash. I've had the opportunity to speak with Paul one-on-one a couple of times before. The last time we spoke, I mentioned you… that seemed to let his guard down. I remembered seeing all your earned Gym Badges and Symbols in your house back when we visited you in Veilstone City, and while I didn't ask you about it back then, I noticed you had all but one of the Kanto Battle Frontier Symbols. It made me wonder why you'd quit after putting so much work into earning the others. When I mentioned it to Paul, his demeanor changed. Normally he's withdrawn and standoffish even when he does give me the time of day, but once I told him about the missing Brave Symbol in your collection, he suddenly became embittered and angry."
Reggie nodded, not surprised to hear this. "Normally Paul's good about putting up that "strong" front of his, but anything connected to Dad will set him off if he doesn't know when to expect it."
"That's when he told me he was determined to never be like you," Brock mentioned. "It was the first time I'd seen Paul react so strongly to anything in all the time I've known him. So if I could figure out why the Brave Symbol was such a sensitive topic for him, then…"
"Then you'd be able to figure him out," Reggie finished for him. "But even I feel like I don't know everything about him sometimes," he confessed. "And I should… what kind of brother doesn't-"
"Reggie, don't," Brock urged. "You've been there for your brother as much as you possibly could; I can tell how committed you've been. But Brandon…"
Unable to resist his own bitter sentiments, Reggie shook his head. "Since Mom died, I think he's been… feeling lost. But since he's so much like Paul…"
"I could tell," Brock cut in. "Their mannerisms are identical; the way Paul carried himself in today's battle was just like Brandon's disposition in the battle ten days ago."
"What's weird is that it's subconscious on Paul's end," Reggie told him. "I'm sure you could tell that he's not exactly on good terms with Brandon. He's hated me since I gave up being a trainer, but Paul's really gone out of his way to spite Brandon at every opportunity. Not that it changes anything… they're still really a lot alike."
Brock looked up at the sky thoughtfully, thinking of the not-so distant past events of his experience with the Kanto Battle Frontier. "Ash and I didn't start on the right foot with Brandon, either. He was much more stoic and reserved than the other Frontier Brains we met, and he was very quick to criticize Ash… Paul was the same way when we first met him."
"They're both pretty quick to judge a book by its cover," Reggie said with a hollow laugh. "Dad's always made a habit of pushing us both to our limits. His expectations were high, and though he believes we both have a lot of potential… he's usually not the encouraging type. I remember him being at least a little different before Mom died, but even then he was drawn more to Paul than he ever was to me."
"Favoritism," Brock acknowledged. "That's never a good thing…"
"I don't think he meant to do it on purpose," Reggie postulated; ever the forgiving type. "Besides, Mom was the same way, only she was closer to me. But we all loved each other the same … even Paul. Brandon raised him to be mean-spirited and aloof, but Paul was still very attached to both him and Mom. I did what I could to, well, "re-program" Paul's attitude once I was taking care of him, but…"
Brock looked to the side, taking everything in as it came. "It would be easier said than done," he finished for his acquaintance. "Brandon's got a powerful personality; since Paul was really young and impressionable while the family was still together, it would be almost impossible to change the course years after."
"It's my fault," Reggie blurted out, always ready and willing to take the blame for everything. "Paul's cruelty was bred by my failure to live up to Brandon's expectations. He thought I was too soft as a kid; he still thinks I'm too soft now… and that's what drove him to mold Paul into his ideal son. He did that so Paul wouldn't grow up to be like me."
This was progressively harder for Brock to listen to, and he attempted to stop the self-hating tangent by uttering Reggie's name, but the elder Pokémon Breeder continued on.
"And it worked; Paul grew up antagonizing his own big brother. Even though I was physically stronger, faster, and more resilient than him, Paul went out of his way to bully me around and was even crueler to anyone outside the family." Reggie was sounding more upset the longer he continued on; finally his own emotional restraints were breaking down under the pressure. "I did whatever I could to get him on the right track after we lost Mom… it seemed he was finally learning from me, but then I ruined everything I worked so hard for when we met Brandon again."
Though he wanted to urge Reggie to calm down, Brock had a feeling the breeder wouldn't heed his words. They had crossed some very sensitive territory now – territory that even Reggie couldn't withstand. "Was it really just the two of you alone taking care of each other since your mother died, Reggie?"
"We don't have any living extended family," Reggie said tiredly. "That's what Dad said, anyway. He had no choice but to move to Kanto to financially support us, but Paul and I… didn't want to leave Mom behind… if you know what I mean." Brock nodded, understanding the sentiments and allowed Reggie to continue. "I was on the last leg of my first journey when that happened, so Paul and I went through many regions far from home anyway, but… we always went back to Sinnoh after every League Conference. We knew Sinnoh was still our home… and I wanted to find a way to revive my mother's business somehow. I figured I'd find the answer once I conquered the Battle Frontier and defeated Dad. I wanted to close the book on that conflict and get him to see me as the worthy son he always wanted…"
"Which didn't work out," Brock recalled. "But if you wanted so badly to resolve your conflict with Brandon, why did you give up and retire after he beat you only once?"
"That question," Reggie answered; his expressions darkening. "Remember what he asked Paul during their battle, right before Paul completely lost his self-control?"
The will-breaking, stunning question the Pyramid King posed to his son at the midpoint of their battle…
"All wrapped up in the past… But then why do you walk the Pokémon path in the first place? Tell me, why do you battle?"
How could Brock forget?
"Tell me right now… what are you fighting for?"
"He… asked you the same question when you battled him, right?" Brock figured. When Reggie nodded back to him, the aspiring breeder took a moment for that to sink in. "I see. You didn't have an answer for him either, did you?"
"Not the answer he wanted," Reggie said, filled with regret. "It's a mystery how he's able to read me and Paul so well when he hardly spends time with us, but he was right to ask us what our purpose was. For anything you do, there's got to be a reason for it; something that drives you…"
Brock nodded in agreement. "I want to be a Pokémon Breeder because I knew I wasn't happy being the Pewter City Gym Leader," he confessed, though it wasn't surprising given how Brock described his life before Ash became part of it. "And while it was difficult taking care of all my siblings, it made me happy to see them happy… growing… prospering… and it's the same way for my Pokémon. But my future isn't set in stone," he realized. "Maybe one day I'll feel that being a Pokémon Breeder isn't the best possible career route for me, and something else may come along that will suit my talent better. But I'm not going to worry about that right now; I'll just stay the course until I achieve my goal or something more suitable comes my way."
"That's the right way to go about it," Reggie commended. "And I'm sure your friends and family will support you every step of the way no matter what happens."
"I'm thankful for that," Brock said with a smile. "But it sounds like you don't quite have that luxury."
While Reggie didn't want to make his family out to be terrible people, he couldn't hold back on the wretched truth after coming this far. "I was raised accepting that I'd have to live up to Dad's high expectations," he admitted. "We both were, but Paul was always an aggressive kid. Battling seemed to be a pretty obvious fit for him… sure, I may have been decent at it, but I was doing it for the wrong reasons. That didn't occur to me while I was young, because back then I was determined to make Dad proud of me. Even before he became part of the Battle Frontier, Brandon was a notoriously strong trainer with a huge reputation in Sinnoh."
"So there was a lot of pressure on you and Paul to live up to the family name," Brock presumed. "Yeah, I can see where that would be misleading."
"That was what drove me from the beginning, but things changed a little after Mom passed on… that was the part that I was called out on, which really shocked me. Dad didn't stick around long after that happened, so I figured there was no way he could have known how my motivations changed..."
Examining Reggie's words carefully, Brock had only one question to ask. "How did they change?"
"I did still want to prove myself worthy to my father," Reggie was certain to make that much clear. "But after Mom was gone… it took a while for Paul to recover from that. He was only five when the family he grew up with was ripped apart. I was the only one left to care for him, and… I knew I had to make the best of it. So once Paul was under my care, he sort of… became my whole world. His morale kept me battling, but other than that…"
"You lost focus of your own needs," Brock deduced. "And you became oblivious of how your journey affected your own life. So you were just going through the motions of your battling years without thinking about what you really wanted to do for yourself."
"Yeah," Reggie affirmed; his voice becoming hollow. "And ever since Mom passed on, I'd often think about the fate of her business. All those baby Pokémon she cared for that no one else could… I didn't want the business to die with her. I was always thinking about how to save it… so I really was going through the motions for those four years. But it wasn't until after I traveled through four regions, qualified for each League Conference, and got through almost the entire Kanto Battle Frontier that I finally took a long, hard look at my own life… and I saw that Brandon was absolutely right. I had no business challenging the likes of him… because my true inner strength, that he wanted so badly to see from me… it had nothing to do with all that battling I did over the years, and it never would be."
It was disheartening for Brock to see Reggie still putting himself at fault for why his family life became even more complicated. But at the same time, it was a struggle for Brock to find an answer that would fix this mess and absolve Reggie of the guilt he felt.
But that didn't stop him from trying his best. "Reggie… I know earning your father's approval is very important to you. But I think you're not giving yourself enough credit. See, I have a friend who went through a similar scenario back when Ash and I traveled through Hoenn." Though the circumstances weren't nearly as dire with May, who was pushed into being a Pokémon Trainer by her Gym Leader father but ultimately chose to pursue Pokémon Contests instead, it was still a fitting example to compare with Reggie's problem. "For a while her only motivation was her love of traveling and she didn't care much for Pokémon at all; she was just willing to endure that part of the journey to travel to her heart's desire. Of course, her feelings changed drastically over time and now she's fully dedicated to her Pokémon and realized what her true calling was. Even though her desires didn't match up with her father's, who was a Gym Leader, he was still supportive of her decision. Without hesitation, her parents supported her however they could… because they understood that the needs of their daughter were greater than what they thought was best for her."
"They… sound like really good parents," Reggie quietly muttered, feeling his often-repressed jealousy well up within him. "I'm glad everything worked out well for your friend… she must have been under a lot of pressure at first."
"That's right," Brock affirmed. "The reason I'm telling you this is because I honestly believe you're not deserving of all the blame you've put on yourself. You think you made a mistake by giving up on defeating Brandon because of how that affected Paul, but do you really believe things would have turned out better if you forced yourself to continue down the path that you know makes you unhappy? Who's to say Paul would have turned out any better…?"
"Guess there's no way to know for sure," Reggie figured; he hadn't really thought of the matter from this perspective before. "Not unless I did challenge Dad again and defeated him." After an awkward pause, Reggie decided to concede another truth to Brock that Paul wouldn't have allowed. "And actually… my training with Paul wasn't just for his sake. It was also for mine."
Brock wasn't following quite yet. "Yours? But… how?"
"About two months ago, Dad sent me a letter," Reggie told him. "He very rarely makes contact with me or Paul; only when something big is happening with his life. Like when he caught Regirock, Registeel, and Regice… this time he was going after Regigigas. He wanted to celebrate by giving me another chance to defeat him once he captured Regigigas, and he gave Paul a similar invitation."
"Even after you put your foot down and made your choice about which path you were taking with your life, Brandon still insisted that you should battle him?" To Brock, this seemed like a very insensitive thing for the Pyramid King to do.
Reggie shook his head. "It's not like that… I think Dad had my best interests in mind. I've chosen my path, but… I still regret not being able to give my father the great battle he deserved to see from his son. For all the harsh decisions he's made that's made my life and Paul's so difficult… Dad's still hurting, too. I want to do what I can to remind him that he isn't alone in this… and…"
Brock remained firm as he listened. "And?"
"I know it's sort of selfish on my part, but… I want closure," Reggie confessed. "I want to show Dad that I can be what he wants me to be, even if that's not what I want and won't conform to. Every time I see my accomplishments on the mantle at home, it… bothers me. My incomplete set of Frontier Symbols has been stuck in the back of my mind for years… and I think there's only one way to handle it."
"So you still want to win the Brave Symbol," Brock understood. "After all these years…"
"Just to close the book on that part of my life for good," Reggie clarified, feeling he had to force the words out of his mouth. "One more battle, this time I'll win, and then I'm returning to my life… and I'll never have to look back again."
Brock took a moment for this to sink in. As he suspected, there truly were more complexities to Paul and Reggie's life than he could have possibly anticipated. At the very least, Brock was satisfied to know what exactly troubled Paul so much; it gave him hope that perhaps Ash and his rival could come to an understanding someday despite their differences. Though now Brock could see how truly different Ash and Paul were. Even more than their clashing philosophies on Pokémon, their very lives were at opposites. Perhaps, then, the two rivals coming to a mutual understanding would be harder than he thought. But it certainly didn't seem to be impossible, and that was enough for Brock.
"In that case… I wish you the best, Reggie," Brock said; his sincerity in his statement well apparent. "You're strong enough to not let your father or brother's expectations run your life anymore, and settling your unfinished business with Brandon is a very admirable thing to do. I know it won't be easy."
"Definitely," Reggie concurred. "Especially after seeing the battle between him and Paul… Dad hasn't changed a bit. He's much stronger now than when I battled him years back, but that's the only difference. So to even stand a chance, I have to get back into the mindset of the kind of trainer I used to be. On top of that, I've got to go beyond my prime, because that wasn't nearly enough to faze Dad four years ago."
"There's no way of knowing just how much further you have to go," Brock realized. "Brandon will keep getting stronger right along with you." A thought hit the aspiring Pokémon Breeder as he mumbled, "Though without his Regis…" He looked to Reggie and spoke up again. "Did Brandon tell you about what happened to his Pokémon?"
Reggie nodded, somber as he easily remembered that day barely over a week ago and how worried he was for his father's safety before finding out what had happened. "Yeah," he quietly replied. "Paul and I actually spotted pillars of smoke rising up from around where we had just come from while we were driving back to Snowpoint City. We turned around to figure out what happened, but we were too late to be of any help. Dad told us everything that night…" He decided against telling Brock of the drama that followed this confession, mainly stemming from Paul, but rightly so as the incident threatened the family's future financial stability. After everything Reggie had confessed to this point, he felt there was no need to continue needlessly piling his problems onto Brock.
"Then you know that Regirock, Registeel, Regice, and Regigigas are no longer a concern for you," Brock pointed out.
"That doesn't make Dad any less of a challenge," Reggie countered, shaking his head. "Believe me, for all the decades he's been a trainer, I know for a fact he has other Pokémon that can match the power of the Regis. How do you think Dad managed to capture them in the first place?"
Apparently Brock hadn't thought of that; so much for his logical attempt to reassure Reggie of his chances. "Good point," he conceded. "You wouldn't happen to know what else he has that could have captured them, do you? His Ninjask, Solrock, and Dusclops didn't seem like they were on par with the Regis, even though I've seen how strong they were when Ash battled them."
"There's only one Pokémon of his I know of that is definitely equal to the level of the Regis beyond a shadow of a doubt," Reggie said, "That would be his first."
"His starter," Brock realized. "Of course. But which-"
"I'll let you figure that one out on your own," Reggie decided, smirking as he stood up. "But I'll say this much: Dad's starter had a pretty easy time weakening two of the three Regis. Only the last one gave him some trouble, mostly because Dad was at a big disadvantage. My starter might stand a chance against his for that same reason, but the odds are evened out through a certain advantage his starter has over mine that's not as obvious. So I'd better keep my guard up and not make the mistake of underestimating that opponent if it comes down to our first Pokémon."
Brock nodded as he stood up moments later. "If you insist. I'll sleep on it and figure it out one of these days. Say, if your rematch happens after the Sinnoh League, Ash and I might just be in the neighborhood. Assuming your rematch will take place where your original battle started, that is."
Reggie nodded, putting on an earnest smile. "If it's convenient for you, by all means, you're invited to come to the Battle Frontier and watch. I'm sure Dad would enjoy seeing you again, and having witnesses to our battle would be all the better." He winked just then. "And even if Paul says no, you're welcome to watch his rematch, too."
"Sounds good," Brock agreed. "I'm interested to see how well you both do, and I'm sure Ash would never pass up the chance to see either of you in action. You can count on us being there to cheer you both on."
"I appreciate it, really," Reggie thanked, finally starting to head off towards his car. "Until that time, I guess it's goodbye for now. We'll look forward to seeing you guys… and do tell Ash that I wish him luck in the Sinnoh League. I know he'll bounce back from this for sure, and I'd love to see him and Paul battle again."
Brock was more than happy to comply. "Will do. And I promise I won't tell a soul about everything you wanted to keep confidential."
Reggie nodded, easily finding the aspiring breeder trustworthy. "Thanks. I'd better start heading back to Veilstone City now. I've been gone far too long; much longer than I planned to."
"At this hour?" Brock wondered quietly to himself, noticing the star-covered dark sky above them. But if Reggie was pressed for time, he could understand why there was an urgent need to begin the long journey back home. He was well aware just how far away they were from Veilstone City right now. "Alright; be safe, Reggie," Brock said with a smile.
With the reassuring smile returned, Reggie waved a farewell to the first person he could confide in for years. "Same to you guys. Until next time…"
Brock waved back as Reggie turned away and finally walked off, strolling straight towards his van while mentally preparing himself for a long drive back home. The Breeder-to-be sighed to himself, feeling content with how the conversation went.
"I knew there had to be more to Paul and Reggie than they were letting on," Brock said to himself. Though he hadn't quite anticipated such a heavy, complicated load of information that explained why Paul was the way he was, Brock couldn't be too surprised about that. He was simply satisfied to have his suspicions confirmed, so the aspiring breeder would no longer have to occupy his mind wondering about them. At a time like this, Brock knew he needed to focus on Ash now.
Looking briefly towards Lake Acuity one more time, Brock turned around to make his way back to the Pokémon Center where Ash and Dawn were spending the night. "Knowing is half the battle…" was the last thing Brock said to himself before leaving the area.
Just after Brock left, however, a gentle glow of a golden hue emitted from underneath Lake Acuity's waters. A peculiar creature – certainly a Pokémon – slowly and quietly emerged from the depths to stare at an object of its sudden and particular interest: the teenager who was now barely within visible range.
It had heard the entire discussion; the soft sounds disrupting its dormant state. As a creature of wisdom, it was engrossed in the nearby conversation. Its extraordinary mental prowess enabled the tiny being to hear every word clearly despite being several feet underwater. As the object of this Pokémon's interest vanished in the distance, the mystical creature itself slowly descended into Lake Acuity once more. Though uncertain of how or why, this Pokémon felt a unique bond with the human and remained intrigued.
The tiny guardian of Lake Acuity somehow knew it would see Brock again in the near future; hence it returned to its slumber underneath the water until that time would come.
The following day, while Ash busied himself licking the wounds of his shattered ego from the full battle, Paul's self-confidence was born anew. As much as a disaster most of his time in Snowpoint City had been, Paul had learned many valuable lessons… most were learned the hard way, but the important thing was that Paul would be able to better himself as a trainer and a human being through those lessons.
He knew now that there was no point in fighting against something he could do nothing about – his illness. Paul wasn't going to distract himself (for now) with hoping some miracle would be bestowed upon him and eradicate the ailment; he simply had to accept and learn to live with it. When the time was right, he would tell his family the truth, but until then, Paul saw no reason to make his brother or father fret over something they were powerless against. The enlightened trainer would from now on take care of himself like he should have done in the first place and not stubbornly defy his fate by taking unnecessary risks. Paul promised himself that he would no longer use his disease as an excuse for his own careless mistakes.
While not expecting this to be a problem, Paul realized through his father that he couldn't afford to let his emotions run wild in the midst of battle. He had spent so much time suppressing his emotions all the time that his guard became easy to break in tight situations. Paul might have taken the lesson a bit too literally, not yet seeing the faults of having no emotion whatsoever in a battle since it worked so well against Ash, but with time perhaps he'd find a medium. Similarly related, Paul learned that he did not hate his father – not completely, anyway. Despite all the pent-up rage he expressed towards Brandon, simply spending time with him made Paul feel at ease. He didn't feel this at all when Brandon first appeared in Sinnoh to be with Reggie in his time of need. However, back then Brandon made it clear that his return to Sinnoh was purely for business purposes and would be back in Kanto once that business was finished. Reuniting with the family was entirely circumstantial, as he likely wouldn't have paid his sons a visit if Byron hadn't told him what happened. Knowing this, Paul only held contempt against the Pyramid King for seeming to assume one quick visit to his family for the first time in seven years (as their meeting four years prior was also purely for business and really had nothing to do with Paul himself) would make up for his absence in their lives when even the one visit didn't last more than a few hours. Brandon even humiliated him in public just for the sake of business then in regards to the Regigigas book Paul was intentionally keeping away from him.
Paul remembered being surprised when Brandon conceded to a battle if they would be able to meet in Snowpoint City during his business trip. He masked that surprise with more indignation, but he was determined to make this battle happen no matter what. Though the resulting battle nearly broke Paul's spirit, thinking back on it, Paul felt slightly appreciated that Brandon would put his business on hold even when he was within grasp of his long-sought after goal just to battle with his son, who by official means didn't even earn the right to do so. Though his loss was the most devastating one he ever felt, hearing Brandon actually praise him afterwards had a major effect: normally Brandon wouldn't praise how well his challenger trained their Pokémon and the like, but the Pyramid King was compelled to make up for the mental warfare he waged on his son to easily win the battle, after all this time of not being there for his son to tell him how he really thought about his progression. The biggest challenge of that battle for Brandon was to communicate that in a way that didn't give away their relation; another thing he did solely because Paul didn't want the spectators to know that secret he was keeping from them.
His father had been so unreliable over the years that Paul struggled to bring himself to trust the man, but keeping the secret safe and giving Paul some professional fatherly advice no other challenger would have received to that extent made the embittered son subconsciously realize that Brandon really did care for him. While it was rough dealing with the still unresolved matter of what drove Paul to battle that didn't relate to his desire to prove a point to his family and surpass them, Paul understood this was something he needed to realize and take some time to re-evaluate what drove him to become a Pokémon Trainer. When he and Reggie realized something had gone wrong with Brandon's mission at the Snowpoint Temple, Paul found himself worrying about his father's wellbeing; he didn't even try to hide it. He was visibly upset upon finding out about the risks Brandon was taking if his mission failed (which it did), and despite the Frontier Brain's instruction, Paul continued to worry about what his father was going to do from here. He couldn't help it; there were severe potential ramifications on the family's stability if Brandon couldn't find an alternative to please the Battle Frontier committee.
But Paul knew he couldn't let this issue cloud his mind and distract him from his own mission. Things hadn't turned for the worst just yet; there was still time, and even Paul couldn't deny that Brandon was an incredibly gifted person who could turn any kind of situation around. As long as there was still an opportunity for Brandon to make things work out, then Paul simply had to trust his father would be able to do so. It was now much easier for Paul to have faith in his father; the ten-day period in which he trained for his upcoming battle with Ash had a major impact on how Paul viewed the Pyramid King now. The two managed to have a civil one-on-one conversation and Brandon was even around a few times to monitor his son's progress. He was even there for moral support, during the first day of training when Paul could no longer suppress the agony and stress he held within himself for so many weeks and broke out into a miserable sobbing fit. Brandon normally would have scolded his son for being so weak to actually cry, but he couldn't bring himself to do so this time. He didn't utter any comforting words, either, but he didn't really need to. Just being there for Paul when he was at his lowest was enough for his youngest son; it reminded him that he wasn't alone, even though it usually felt that way with his family being fragmented as it was. When the family came together and business had nothing to do with it, Paul was able to feel the love. He felt the comfort he had longed for after all of the misfortunes that befell him. There were still unresolved matters Paul had to figure out on his own, and he actually hadn't fully forgiven his father just yet, but the family made a major collective step forward in the process of mending the ties between them all.
He had learned many things through Reggie while being here in the frigid northern tip of Sinnoh. Through battle, Paul had realized that Reggie already surpassed him in skill and strength. The harsh defeat Paul's Torterra suffered against Reggie's Infernape proved that the younger brother needed serious work on connecting with his Pokémon on a deeper level; a level he was uncomfortable to experience. Paul avoided getting too close with his Pokémon for years, based on spite to do everything his brother didn't do and his seemingly phobic aversion to the concept of being close with anyone besides his brother (whom he still kept at a distance most of the time). Upon meeting Ash, whose methods were very similar to Reggie's, Paul was even less inclined to really get to know his Pokémon on anything other than a professional level. Finding out about Ash's victory over Kanto's Battle Frontier (including defeating his father; all this happening before they even met) was still a hard revelation for Paul to swallow. The frustration that stemmed from his incompatibility with the Chimchar he once owned didn't help matters either, and while Paul was able to not let the matter of Ash now having his Chimchar bother him, the battles following the switch in ownership seemed to be giving Paul a subtle warning. Seeing Ash trigger Chimchar's hidden powers within its Blaze ability (which Paul could never once do) and now witnessing its long-awaited evolution to Monferno during their full battle, Paul could no longer deny that Ash was making progress with the troubled little Fire-type and felt that all the mistreatment he inflicted upon that Pokémon would come back with some dire consequences, courtesy of bad karma.
Somehow, Paul's recent struggles didn't feel like a consequence of that karma; simply misfortune. But perhaps another form of karma had a role in it involving someone else Paul had wronged along the journey through his home region: a witty traveling companion named Conway. A fellow teen Pokémon Trainer who was once considered a friend, whom Paul left stranded on a desolate, blizzard-ravaged route. All simply because he jumped to a conclusion without even giving his companion the opportunity to get a word in edgewise. Paul wanted to think he did the right thing, betrayed as he felt by Conway failing him just like everyone else close to him had failed him in the past. Despite the strong, indignant front Paul put up against Conway, on the inside he was deeply hurt; he couldn't control his emotions to listen to reason.
… In a way, these lessons are all connected together. The disease, the PokéRinger competition, and the treacherous journey to Snowpoint City (including the embarrassing failure of a Gym Battle) kept Paul's mind off of Conway for the most part, because some part of him began to wonder if his actions were truly justified. While Paul was good about pushing those doubts to the very back of his mind, the thoughts in retrospect actually considering the circumstances of Conway's dilemma (namely the trauma of being kidnapped, dubious consent of unspeakable acts with the enemy, and the near brush with untimely death all happening to him within the span of less than an hour) would not fade away no matter how much Paul tried to take the matter off his mind. Becoming extremely sick and marred with injuries, Paul became irrational and attempted to turn those feelings of doubt into spite. The battle against Candice proved this was a bad move.
Only by confessing the truth of their separation to Reggie did Paul come to accept that he had done something horrible. He had wronged Conway, the first human being Paul regarded as a friend. Having accepted that he was in the wrong, Paul felt he needed to make it up to Conway. He wasn't sure how, had no idea where he was or what he was doing at this point two weeks after the separation, but Paul's mind was made up.
Once he defeated Candice and earned his seventh badge, Paul decided to look for Conway while heading for his final Gym Battle destination on the other side of the region. It wouldn't be easy, but Paul felt he owed it to Conway to at least try to find him and make amends. And to think, Paul was completely oblivious to what had happened to Conway after their separation and what he was doing now.
But for now, Paul had to focus. With Conway's master strategy in hand, Paul looked it over one last time before entering the Snowpoint Gym. Instead of rebelling against Conway's advice, he would follow and honor it.
Candice was already informed ahead of time of when Paul would reschedule their rematch, so she was immediately available to perform her duty as Gym Leader. The two trainers' greetings toward each other were brief, as both were eager to begin the true battle Paul intended to have since he came to Snowpoint City. The competitors took their places at the opposite ends of the icy battlefield, Pokéballs in hand as they waited for the formalities from the referee, Mr. Honcho, to conclude.
"The rematch between Gym Leader Candice and Veilstone City's Paul is ready to begin!" he announced. "A four-on-four match; the victor will be determined when one side's Pokémon are all defeated! There is no time limit and only the challenger may substitute Pokémon. With that said, let the battle be-"
A desperate shrill voice echoed from the hallway of the Snowpoint Gym, disrupting the referee and catching the attention of both contenders. Paul found the sound of the voice familiar as he turned around to confirm his suspicion. Candice also recognized the voice, but smiled brightly to contrast Paul's frowning.
"So slow, Zozo," Candice teased. "I was about to think you were gonna forget about the battle you asked me if you could watch!"
Not minding the playful chiding, Zoey took a moment to slump over to catch her breath before facing the battlefield. "Sorry, Miss Senior," she apologized. "I lost track of time while I was packing my things; I told you I was going back out to travel today, didn't I?"
"Ah, right! I remember now," the Gym Leader affirmed. "Hard to believe it's been two weeks already since you came back. You'll totally be missed for sure, but it's alright. Next time you come back, it'll be as a Top Coordinator, right?"
The vote of confidence brought a smile out of Zoey. "Definitely," she agreed. "I've rested up long enough; now nobody's gonna stop me from making it to the Grand Festival." Then she turned her attention to the clearly annoyed Paul. "And what's your deal? I haven't even said anything to you yet."
"Why are you here?" Paul's question was straightforward, par for the course whenever he was annoyed and/or impatient.
While Zoey came to learn that Paul wasn't quite as bad as he seemed to be the day she met him, in her opinion, he was still pretty bad. Based on what she learned about Paul from Dawn and her friends, Zoey cared too much for her childhood friend to disregard this battle. Brock wasn't the only one interested in finding out what made Paul tick, after all.
"I'm here because she's my best friend," she sternly replied, gesturing to the Gym Leader. "And since I ran into you over a week ago, there was something about you I really didn't like. I'll admit you're pretty skilled at battling, but after that blow-up you had with Brandon… well, let's just say I'm here to make sure your anger issues don't go out of control again and take it out on Miss Senor here."
Zoey didn't really explain her intentions to Candice, hence the spunky Ice-type specialist quietly chuckled, clearly flattered. "Oh, Zozo. There you go worrying again! Believe me, you've got nothing to worry about," she assured with a wink. Candice was not worried in the least, of course, because she had gotten to know Paul on her own time that she faithfully kept to herself. While Paul's behavior during his battle with Brandon startled her, Candice knew those outbursts of rage weren't the signs of a troublemaker. No, Paul was simply a troubled person. Being one of the few to know of the lethal burden Paul had to carry for the rest of his life and witnessing his behavior before and after he had to accept said burden, Candice could tell this young man was not a bad person.
"There's no reason for you to be here," Paul followed up. "If you've got your own journey to resume, stop wasting your time here and get going."
"Yeah right; as if the battle's gonna last that long before Candice defeats you," Zoey said; a smug smirk on her face now apparent. "That's something I still want to see before I go, even if there is nothing to worry about."
"You don't mind, do you, Paul?" Candice asked, feeling a little guilty for not informing her challenger about this ahead of time. Then again, based on Paul's reactions in the past regarding others who wanted to see his battle, it seemed he couldn't have cared less whether there were any witnesses to his battle or not.
Normally that was true, but this time Paul simply wasn't in the mood for a peanut gallery. Still, by now Paul felt this had been dragged out long enough and he wanted his seventh badge earned today, no matter what. If that meant having to deal with the company of a girl he didn't care for, then Paul was willing to tolerate her company as best he could.
"Do what you want," Paul answered. Though his tone was neutral, the cold and callous nuances remained audible. "It's your gym; I'm just here to battle. Nothing else matters."
Candice smiled uneasily before nodding to Zoey. "Guess that means you're free to stay, Zozo. Go ahead and take a seat."
"Got it," Zoey said, smirking as she made her way over to choose a seat. Naturally, she was inclined to sit at Candice's end of the stadium, but the aspiring Pokémon Coordinator continued to keep a close eye on Paul. "Kick his butt, Miss Senior!"
"We'll see about that," Candice said, making no promises. "Time for a real kiai battle! You ready, Paul?"
Paul nodded as he took out his first Pokéball, silently staring at it for a moment to recall Conway's strategy before looking to Mr. Honcho. "Anything else you needed to say?"
"Only one thing," the referee said as he shook his head. "Challenger, the first move is yours."
With the battle officially underway, Paul set his eyes on Candice before throwing his Pokéball. Since the spunky Gym Leader was taking him seriously this time, Paul assumed she wouldn't throw out her Abomasnow first like before. It was fairly obvious then that Abomasnow was her signature, so Paul had the advantage of knowing exactly what Candice's trump card was and how to counter it. Still, it was him underestimating Candice in the first place that led to the disastrous loss from their first battle, so Paul set himself on taking all of his opponent's Pokémon seriously.
"Very well. Honchkrow, stand by for battle!"
Candice couldn't resist smirking at the sight of the Big Boss Pokémon seeking redemption from its own losing streak. It had lost to Conway in the final Contest battle, to Ash at the PokéRinger competition, and to Candice after taking only three hits of damage. On top of that, it had lost numerous times to various members of Reggie's team during the ten-day period in which the brothers trained in preparation for the full battle with Ash. It was going to take more than one good performance from there to make up for its mistakes, and Honchkrow knew this. Luckily, Honchkrow's strength and resilience was much improved thanks to the training, so this and remembering way back when Weavile – a Pokémon with much more pitiful defenses than it – managed to pull out a win against Steel-typed Pokémon that otherwise would have torn it in half, the weakness to Ice-type Pokémon Honchkrow was about to face didn't seem nearly as daunting as it once did. Of course, it was also reassuring to be aware that Paul actually knew what he was doing here, unlike the last time.
It was hard to resist making a comment on the fact that Paul was using Honchkrow again, but Candice was not one to ever break a promise if she could help it. Even if it meant keeping a secret from her closest friend, Candice knew the circumstances of Paul's situation warranted that. Instead, she settled on making similar comments like she did before. "A Flying-type, huh? I don't see those being used here against me very much," she coyly said. "Good thing I like surprises."
"Surprise is right," Zoey mumbled to herself while peering down at the plump black bird on the field. "Does he really think Miss Senior's gonna be that easy to beat?"
Paul refused to respond, keeping himself evened out and level-headed as he awaited what else Candice had up her sleeve besides Abomasnow.
"Alright, alright, I gotcha," Candice understood. "Time to get down for business! " She threw her first Pokéball accordingly. "Sneasel, let's get going…!"
As expected, Candice did not send out Abomasnow first this time. While Zoey smirked at the sight of this match-up, knowing full well her friend had this Sneasel and was likely to use it in response to a Dark/Flying-typed opponent. Paul refrained from making any sort of gesture and expected to be at a disadvantage here; naturally, since the Gym Leader had the element of surprise on her side, it would only make sense for Candice to make use of it. However, inwardly, Paul was struck with a small surprise; one of how unexpectedly familiar this felt.
It didn't take long for Paul to realize why he felt that sense of déjà vu: Candice had actually revealed this Pokémon to him before. The circumstances of the Gym Leader doing this weren't the usual kind; this happened a short while after Paul lost to her in their first battle. Right after losing, Paul's disease finally outclassed the power of his self-control and had to be admitted to the city's hospital immediately. It was there when Paul had nowhere to run from facing his grim own grim reality, which caused him to go AWOL the second he had the strength to do so. He took refuge in a bathroom stall, needing the peace and quiet and solitude in order to come to terms with this life-changing news. That moment of meditation was interrupted by a pity-driven Candice, who had come to visit Paul (naturally worried for him given the state he was in after their battle).
Paul had no patience for the teenage girl who had just humiliated him in battle (even if she had good intentions for visiting) and was now involved with the people in the hospital who sought to take him away from his little refuge and force him back into the world of chaos now wreaked upon him. He resorted to drastic measures – feigning suicidal behavior – to get rid of the Gym Leader. It partially worked; the hollow threats did get Candice to leave the area and allow Paul a few more moments of peace and solitude before he was finally apprehended by the hospital staff. However, since Candice believed in Paul's ruse, she was too fearful to truly leave him on his own and the two settled on a compromise before she left… and that was to leave the only Pokémon quick enough to intercept an attempt at suicide: her Sneasel.
Thankfully for Sneasel, it never needed to stop Paul from doing anything crazy. So the entire time, Paul and Candice's Sneasel remained in close quarters, but separated by a bathroom stall; the two never even got a proper look at each other. Luckily for Paul, he didn't need to get to know Candice's Sneasel. His own Weavile was caught in its pre-evolved form and remained a Sneasel until Paul's twelfth birthday when Brandon gave his son a Razor Claw. That gave Paul plenty of time during his Johto journey to learn the differences between the two related species.
The only thing that stood out in Candice's Sneasel was the short, stubby red feather protruding from its left ear. Paul remembered his Sneasel's feather being much larger and longer, resembling a full wing. This made one detail clear right away: Candice's Sneasel was female. Paul only hoped this Sneasel didn't know the move Attract; a simple status move like that had the potential of making the entire plan Conway constructed null and void and effectively dooming Paul's team of all-male Pokémon. Flirtatious girls like Candice seemed to have preferences for moves that matched their nature, so Paul felt this to be a genuine concern. Hopefully luck would work in his favor this time… the past couple of months or so brought enough bad luck to Paul to cover the rest of the year.
With that revelation out of the way, it was time to finally start the battle.
"Honchkrow, use Haze!" Following Conway's written suggestions, the first order of business was to buffer the disadvantage as much as possible in order to even out the odds. Paul at first disagreed with such an idea, but not so much nowadays, having grown all the wiser after a string of disheartening defeats. Admittedly the first draft of Conway's plan involved entirely different move sets for the majority of Paul's Pokémon, but the strategy was tweaked accordingly throughout the entire time the two traveled together, which naturally resulted in alterations to the set of moves that were planned to be used in this scenario. At the time Paul found it annoying of Conway to nitpick at an already-completed strategy, but it became clear to him now that this was a sign showing how much Conway valued their friendship. Paul had always judged him on how useful he would be to him as a traveling companion.
Only now did Paul realize how short-sighted and selfish that was of him. Conway knew it all along, but rather than calling his friend out on his behavior, he catered to Paul's wishes with nary a complaint; that was how much friendship mattered to Conway. He was the one who understood what the word "friendship" actually meant. Now it was time for Paul to come to terms with the concept, which was why he decided to rely on his former companion's instructions rather than go by his own instinct again.
As Honchkrow obscured most of the battlefield with thick black smoke, Zoey grumbled in frustration as she squinted in an attempt to see through it. "Sure," she muttered. "Make it so that I can't even see the fight. Nice one, Paul."
That wasn't Paul's intention, but he'd have preferred to not have Zoey here at all, so preventing her from being able to view the battle was fine by him. Honchkrow's Haze was so thick that the two trainers could not see each other, meaning Paul was not able to see the smirk on Candice's face as she and her Sneasel stood their ground.
"Pretty clever move to use," the Gym Leader remarked. "If you were facing any Pokémon other than Sneasel, that is."
"Keep it up, Honchkrow," Paul commanded briefly before addressing Candice. "You're going to explain something, aren't you?"
Sneasel still hadn't moved from its stationary position, waiting for Candice's order, but knew why Candice hadn't ordered an attack yet.
"I can see you're having Honchkrow use Haze to lower the visibility on the field. Believe me, where I live, I've dealt with blizzards and fog so thick I could hardly see the back of my own hand!" Candice sounded proud of that, but her bubbly demeanor sobered down into sheer confidence that Paul was making a major mistake here. "Yeah, it's a good plan to make it harder for my Pokémon to hit yours given your disadvantage. But trying to do that with Sneasel is a waste of time because…"
Paul grew tired of the talkative Gym Leader quickly; no wonder he underestimated her before. "Because…"
"Sneasel's ability is Keen Eye!" Candice shouted out suddenly. "You can't affect its accuracy in any way!"
Not even giving Paul a second to react, Candice finally went on the offensive. "Sneasel, use Ice Beam!"
Indeed, despite the low visibility range across the battlefield, Sneasel's aim was precise and struck Honchkrow with a super-effective stream of ice. Honchkrow's continued Haze was cut off as the Big Boss Pokémon was tossed back to its side of the battlefield and set on a collision course towards the solid ice terrain not too far away from where Paul stood.
Paul grimaced at the sight, but refused to let this setback shake him. Ideally he would have wanted Honchkrow to dodge the attack, but knowing his choice Flying-type was built more for bulk and strength rather than speed and agility (especially compared to other Flying-types like Ash's Staraptor) made this outcome inevitable. With Honchkrow knocked down, the massive Haze cloud would dissipate before long. It was a bit of a mistake on Paul's part to forget about Sneasel's ability; something he normally wouldn't let escape his memory since he raised the same species. However, abilities within certain Pokémon changed upon evolving, and Weavile was such a case, as its ability was now Pressure – a far less useful ability, in Paul's opinion. That and thoughtlessly following through with Conway's plan without taking time to account for potential counters resulted in this error… although, there was another reason to abuse Haze this early on; it would just have to clear out before it could be seen that the move served in its secondary function.
"Sorry to waste your efforts there!" Candice cheerfully apologized. "But you're not gonna defeat Sneasel with eye tricks. If you wanna beat me, you're gonna have to do it head-on with all your kiai might!"
By now Honchkrow had recovered from the hit it took and took flight again, awaiting Paul's next order.
Sky Attack was a very strong move that would quickly cripple Sneasel, but it required a charge time and wouldn't have the opportunity to launch before the Sharp Claw Pokémon would intercept the attack with its own. Paul had another move in mind, but decided to hold off until later for it since it would likely be the best Honchkrow could do against its opponent short of a successful hit from Sky Attack. That left only one option, and not a very attractive one given the type it was. However, Paul knew both Sneasel and Weavile had terrible defenses, especially in special defense. Even if it wouldn't be effective, chipping down even small bits of Sneasel's health would be a good way as any to start out.
"Alright, Honchkrow," Paul calmly told his Pokémon as he made his decision. "Use Shadow Ball!"
Without hesitation, the Big Boss Pokémon fired off the Ghost-type attack with accurate precision despite the still-lingering Haze. However…
"Sneasel, dodge it!"
Candice's Pokémon was definitely trained to make the best use of its incredible speed and dodged the ball of energy with ease. The attack instead collided into one of the ice stalagmites that protruded from the solid-ice battlefield. The stalagmite shattered into pieces upon impact; with Haze losing its potency each passing second, Paul was able to faintly see the large amount of debris Shadow Ball left in its wake. It wasn't because of the lingering traces of Haze that made the debris hard to see – rather, it was due to the fact that the debris closely matched the color of the field it was scattered over: black.
Paul smirked. This was exactly what he was counting on; if Haze couldn't affect Sneasel's accuracy, it could at least affect the coloration of the ice if it was consistently used, which it had been. Untainted, ice refracted light quite well. That was why it was so easy to distinguish the stalagmites, other structures, and even small pieces of debris made of ice from the floor even though all pure forms of ice like the kind used in Candice's gym was colorless. Light was still able to pass through ice, giving off the illusion of color, and the stadium lights that hung high over the battlefield were more than powerful enough to make every bit of the stadium well-lit.
However, the black mist emitting from Honchkrow's Haze had a component of water within it, and ice was literally water itself, only solid. This made it easy for Haze to actually stick on any ice it made contact with. A dark color like black, if it was saturated well enough into the ice, could prevent any light from passing through at all.
It was from this that Paul finally had a true strategy to work with despite his disadvantage.
"Oh, gross," Candice remarked with disgust. "You're tainting my battlefield! It's like the roads of Snowpoint City at rush hour during a snowstorm. Those polluting cars and the dirty roads make the snow all dark and slushy… and then that nasty stuff freezes over the roads afterwards and makes it a danger zone for anyone driving over it!"
"You're talking about black ice," Paul noted with a smirk. "Honchkrow, keep using Shadow Ball!"
Candice hadn't quite seen the writing on the wall yet and stuck with her usual strategy. "Sneasel, keep dodging!"
Sneasel continued skating along the ice regardless of what was being done to it from Haze, bobbing and weaving between the remaining ice boulders and stalagmites which became the eventual targets of Honchkrow's attacks. One by one, they shattered into thousands of pieces, eventually littering the entire battlefield with icy debris. Though coated black on the outside, the broken bits of the structures showed the pure, untainted ice that the Haze could not permeate. Once everything had been destroyed with a Shadow Ball attack, there remained only one final step to complete his plan.
"That Honchkrow of yours might be a crack shot against most Pokémon, but it's got nothing on my Sneasel!" Candice coyly taunted.
Paul chose to ignore it. "Now, use Haze one more time!"
As the Big Boss Pokémon scattered its black mist across the entire battlefield as a finishing touch to Paul's plan, Zoey watched on looking every bit as confused as her mentor. "What kind of plan is this?" she wondered out loud. "He knows there's no point in using that move when Sneasel's on the field. It doesn't matter how thick that mist gets; Sneasel's gonna see right through it!"
After a moment, Candice came to a conclusion and smiled, nodding her head. "I see. You're out of options, aren't you? Just biding your time like every other trainer who brings in a Flying-type against me… you do remember you're free to switch out, right?"
"Of course," Paul replied, sounding every bit as smug as his opponent. "Now's a good time to do that." He took out Honchkrow's Pokéball and held it up high. "Honchkrow, return!"
This was another lesson of humility Paul had learned the hard way between his battle with Byron and the battle he was having right now. Even after forcing a type disadvantage on his whole team, Paul refused to switch out any of his Pokémon at any given time despite being allowed to. Since Conway witnessed this battle, he made a note in his written strategy for Paul that he shouldn't be so proudly stubborn like he was back then, and allow for his team to switch out when the circumstances called for it.
Conway's directions had nothing regarding Paul's plan on affecting the battlefield with Haze, however. That was entirely Paul's idea; Conway wouldn't have known how to make a strategy based around affecting a battlefield he's never seen before. This was a comfortable medium for Paul to be in: he was being humble and considerate by being faithful to the plans Conway worked hard to make for his friend – at the same time not being entirely reliant on it. Paul was still allowed to put his own spin on an idea depending on the situation, which was how doing the gym battle this way became much easier for Paul to bear.
"Finally," Zoey grumbled while Honchkrow was recalled. "What was even the point of all that, anyway? His next Pokémon better actually start the battle… this just turned out to be a Contest Appeal gone horribly wrong."
Even if Zoey had been speaking loud enough to be heard, Paul would have tuned her out anyway. He threw the next Pokéball… "Ursaring, stand by for battle!"
The Hibernator Pokémon landed onto the black ice, slightly cracking the spot of icy battlefield it landed on with its 277 pounds of girth. Ursaring was Paul's biggest offensive weapon in this battle, having no weakness to Ice-type moves while packing super-effective-to-Ice moves like Hammer Arm and Focus Blast. It was still susceptible to being frozen by Ice-type moves, however, as it had been rendered useless this way in two battles before now. Both instances were gym battles, no less. Sneasel still had a massive speed and agility advantage over Ursaring as well; something Paul hoped his first plan would affect to better his chances of overcoming the Sharp Claw Pokémon.
"Ooh, this might be trouble!" Candice hollered with enthusiasm. "Well, it would be if that huge Normal-type could catch us!" She winked at Paul. "Think you can do that?"
The only response Candice got for her taunting was a frown – one that showed the Gym Leader that her opponent was not fooling around here. "Bulk Up, let's go."
Ursaring growled, pumping its paws into fists as a red aura overcame the beast, raising its offense and defense simultaneously. Candice looked intrigued.
"Alright, that's all the leeway you get, Paul," she said. "Because it's time for this kiai battle to finally start! Let's do it, Sneasel!"
Sneasel was pumped up and ready to take off. "Make that meanie pay for messing up our gym's battlefield! Use Metal Claw!"
Paul just smirked at his opponent's remark; Candice remained oblivious to his plans. He imagined he was expected to have Ursaring use a move that would increase its speed based on what the Gym Leader had said earlier. But… in all his years of favoring Pokémon of bulky, tank-like builds above all others, speed was rarely a concern of his; especially in cases like this where such efforts would be futile anyway, given the notoriously speedy opponent that Ursaring could never outpace even at top speed, as well as the terrain that only the opponent could use to aid in its acceleration. Only amateurs would actually attempt to beat Pokémon like Sneasel in terms of speed using large, lumbering Pokémon like Ursaring, who would be unable to maintain good footing on a sheet of solid ice, Paul thought.
Besides, when Candice was more than happy to have Sneasel go on the offense at a close range, the young trainer saw no reason to have his Pokémon move any more than what was absolutely necessary.
Without hesitation, Paul allowed Ursaring to be hit with the attack, though its naturally high defenses coupled with the boost in Bulk Up easily allowed for the Hibernation Pokémon to take Metal Claw with little to no visible indication that the attack even affected it.
"Not dodging, huh?" Candice noted with a grumble, nodding to Sneasel to continue its rapid assault of the same physical attack. "This isn't really the kiai battle I was looking for, Paul. You are planning to fight back, right?"
"Maybe," was Paul's deadpan cryptic answer; truly, he enjoyed being able to rile up any Gym Leader, as it was proof of his ability to outwit them. Candice did make a fool out of him in their last encounter, but Paul was intent proving here and now that only this battle mattered, as this was the only real battle with Candice that would show the full extent of Paul's strength as a Pokémon Trainer. Any Gym Leader worth their salt would agree with him: a Pokémon battle is only as valid as the evidence that both sides gave it their all regardless of the end result or how it all played out. Last time, Paul simply wasn't in the condition to perform to his usual standards. By the end of today, he was going to make sure Candice would forget about his horrendous first impression and only leave with her the proof that he was able to defeat her against the odds… despite both his self-imposed type disadvantage and his own personal disadvantage with which he was forever cursed.
Zoey grimaced at that statement. "Maybe?" she echoed, mimicking the smug tone of the trainer who said it first. "Careful, Miss Senior!" she called out to Candice. "He probably wants Sneasel to keep attacking; that'll leave it wide open for a counterattack!"
Paul was comfortable enough with his current situation to actually acknowledge Zoey's comments, looking fully annoyed as he glared straight up at her. "So, Candice. Do real Gym Leaders just let their friends come in and guide them through the entire battle holding their hand?" Zoey glared at the remark, but Paul did not relent. "Well, do they?"
Candice let out an awkward grin, knowing Zoey was just wanting to help her friend (and the Coordinator certainly made it no secret that she disliked Paul enough to go out of her way and delay her own journey just to watch him lose), but also couldn't let Paul's question fall on deaf ears. On her honor as a Gym Leader, though she knew Zoey would likely hold a grudge that would test the boundaries of their longstanding friendship, Candice had to side with her opponent here.
"They don't," she conceded; nodding to Paul before following his gaze towards her best friend. "I'm sorry, Zozo; I know you're really rooting for me and I appreciate that a lot, but in all good conscience I can't accept anything more than your moral support for this battle. You should know my role as a Gym Leader doesn't revolve around me beating every challenger."
Zoey already knew where her mentor was going with this and let out a sigh, turning up her nose as she looked away from the battlefield as she did her best to resist giving Paul a nasty retort. "Right, right. I get it. I'm just insulting you by shouting advice like that. I'm sorry, okay?"
"You can apologize when the battle's done," Paul rudely interjected, though he felt that was justified since Zoey had been nothing but rude to him since she barged in. Not even interested in seeing the flustered Coordinator turn her nose up at him in frustration to hide her shame, Paul settled back down to business.
"Keep going, Sneasel! More Metal Claw!" Candice cheered on, moving past the awkward interruption with ease. The Sharp Claw Pokémon continued its close-range assault on the much larger opponent. Despite Zoey's warning, Candice was not all that concerned with keeping her Pokémon within Ursaring's reach, confident that her Sneasel's speed would allow it to dodge any attack the Hibernator Pokémon could throw in retaliation.
Paul did his best to withhold the devious smirk that slipped through a few times when he last battled Ash; this was the perfect opportunity to land Ursaring's first and probably only needed attack. "Hammer Arm, now!"
Candice gulped when she heard that attack being called. Before she could even tell Sneasel to get out of there, Ursaring's glowing fist of fury landed point-blank over Sneasel's skull. Hammer Arm was a Fighting-type move, of course; a powerful one that honed in on Sneasel's greatest weakness. By keeping movements to a minimum with the added buff of Bulk Up, Paul's Ursaring had the energy to spare to make this blow swift and even more devastating than it usually was – on the flipside, Candice's Sneasel had been expending much of its energy dodging all of Paul's attacks up to this point, as well as relentlessly attacking. Add in Sneasel's naturally weak defenses against most attacks, especially of a type it would be critically weak to regardless of its condition, and that allowed for a perfectly calculated win made in one single attack.
"No way, no way!" the Gym Leader wailed as the force of Hammer Arm turned Sneasel into a figurative puddle of mush over a crater made in the blackened ice.
"Sneasel is unable to battle!" Mr. Honcho declared, gesturing to the challenger's side of the field. "So Ursaring is the winner!"
For such a well-planned and methodical victory, Paul finally allowed himself to smirk, already in a better mood seeing how much better this battle with Candice was going opposed to last time's. He patiently waited for Candice to give her encouraging words to Sneasel before recalling it to its Pokéball; something he never really understood the point of doing.
"Guess the joke's on me, huh?" Candice said with a chuckle as she pocketed her Pokéball away and brought out another. "You must've had this planned from the start! And here I thought you were stalling. You sure know how to time your attacks, Paul!"
Zoey's eyes were glued on the battlefield, baffled at how calm and composed Paul was. Granted, he did just get the first win of the battle, but there was definitely a change in him from last time. "Guess he has a reason for the things he does after all," she figured. "I don't know how he can stand just letting his Pokémon take all those hits before doing anything, though…"
Paul did allow himself to smile smugly after receiving the compliment from his opponent. "I'll have Ursaring stick around for now," he said. "If all your Ice-types are as vulnerable as your Sneasel, I won't need to make another exchange for the rest of this battle."
Now it was Candice's turn to smirk. "Well, I wouldn't say all my Ice-types are vulnerable," she calmly replied with a subtle, devious tone. "But that Ursaring will definitely be a problem for most of them. I think it's time to kick this battle up a notch so you can see that you and Ash aren't the only ones who can stray from what's normally expected in a battle against an Ice-type specialist!"
"So she's using that one again," Zoey mused with a chuckle. "That sure knocked Ash for a loop when he battled Miss Senior; it's gonna be even worse for Paul."
"Alright, it's time to bring out the wild card," Candice decided as she took out her next Pokéball and held it closely to herself with both hands, as if she were trying to channel her mind and spirit into it. "A master of the way of kiai battling!" she shouted as threw the Pokéball. "Let's do it, Medicham!"
Paul could not hide the shock on his face when he watched the limber Meditation Pokémon gracefully land on the darkened ice field. "What the…?!"
What a wild card indeed; for all the time Paul and Conway invested into making a solid strategy to combat Candice, the one thing neither of them even once considered was the possibility of the Gym Leader having a Pokémon that was not an Ice-type at all! This was not unheard of, though, as Paul had faced a handful of Gym Leaders across Kanto, Johto, and Hoenn that had at least one Pokémon that was not of their specialty type.
But that was not the case at all in Sinnoh: Roark, Maylene, Crasher Wake, Fantina, Gardenia, and Byron all used Pokémon that were at least partially of their specialized type. After six consecutive Gym Battles like this, Paul had forgotten to take into account the possibility that one of Candice's Pokémon would not even be an Ice-type. But even if he had, Paul likely would have discounted the possibility based on the fact that all of his Sinnoh Gym Battles to this point had no such element to them. Even if Conway were here now, no doubt he would be freaking out because he wouldn't have planned for this; improvisation was not Conway's forte.
Fortunately, Paul was not nearly as helpless as Conway when faced with a challenge that completely went against what he prepared for. However, this was still bad news as Medicham was a Psychic/Fighting-type – the latter type of which would cause problems for Ursaring. Even worse, none of the Hibernation Pokémon's moves would do much damage; Focus Blast, Hammer Arm, and Slash were all resisted by Medicham's dual typing. Paul could have Ursaring relentlessly use Bulk Up so it could withstand the opponent's attacks while chipping away its health with boosted attack power, but that would be a very arduous and lengthy process.
Even that would likely not work out from beginning to end, though, as Paul had a field disadvantage once more. While not as speedy as Sneasel, Medicham could still easily run circles around Ursaring; should Ursaring try to move around too much on the ice, it risked slipping up and becoming completely vulnerable.
"Still gonna stick with Ursaring now?" Candice asked her challenger, being rather coy – but for good reason. She had effectively made Paul eat his words; the Gym Leader could make that assessment based on the fact that Paul let his emotions slip for just a moment after she revealed Medicham. That much told her Paul had no real way to deal with her Pokémon with what he had now. Either he would suck up his pride and make an exchange now to even the odds, or stubbornly take an inevitable loss.
It was a tough choice for Paul to make, but he did not forget his former traveling companion's advice to not be too caught up in his pride and make stupid mistakes. Obviously he wasn't going to keep Ursaring in for much longer, but he thought up at least one useful thing for it to do before the Hibernation Pokémon would be forced to return.
"Use Hammer Arm, on the field this time!" Paul ordered, glad he had stopped a moment to think this through; otherwise Ursaring would have been utterly wasted here. Its powerful glowing fists slammed down hard on the ice terrain. Thanks to Bulk Up's power boost, the attack was more than enough to not only make a steep crater in the area of impact, but also leave a seismic shockwave in its wake. The entire floor, even outside the battlefield of ice experienced minor tremors – tremors even Zoey could slightly feel as she sat and watched on.
"That's intense," Zoey muttered, gritting her teeth as she paid close attention to the details of this battle. "But why would Paul make Ursaring aim the floor and not—" Just then, she became alarmed as the ice beyond Hammer Arm's impact site started to shake and split apart, which quickly created a deep fissure that would eventually bisect the entire field in a vertical line, starting from Paul's position and ending with Candice's.
"—That's why!" the Coordinator realized, quickly to panic. "He really is trying to trash the whole battlefield!" First it was the abuse of Haze to color the ice, then Shadow Ball to create masses of chunky ice debris across the field. Now Hammer Arm had effectively carved the field in half; something Paul was quite satisfied with.
Candice wasn't going to wait around for the impending trench to reach her Pokémon, of course. "Medicham, get out of there! And let's take this fight to Ursaring – now!"
It wasn't hard for Medicham to dodge the fissure and it landed with grace away from the domino effect of Hammer Arm's impact on the ice. Once set on the frozen floor again, Medicham nimbly skated its way towards its much larger opponent. However, the Meditation Pokémon's momentum was inhibited by the large amounts of debris that it had to go out of its way to move over or around. This was exactly what Paul hoped for, as it gave him just enough time to recall his Pokémon before Candice ordered a Fire Punch attack. Ursaring was sent back into its Pokéball mere seconds before Medicham slammed into the spot it previously stood, making a crater of its own as the ice was melted. Steam rose up from all sides of Medicham, who quickly backflipped to land several feet away from its landing spot.
Though the attack missed, Candice was breathing a sigh of relief, knowing it would have been much worse for her if she had called out a certain other attack instead of Fire Punch.
Paul was left conflicted as to how he would truly counter Medicham. This Pokémon put a serious kink in the plans he and Conway made for this battle, forcing Paul to consider which of his chosen four would be best suited to this agile Psychic/Fighting-type. Ursaring was obviously not an option to be used until Medicham could be defeated; Torterra lacked the effective move set to compensate for its inevitable struggle against Medicham's speed and mobility advantage, Gliscor was only a slightly better option since it had X-Scissor to work with (but Paul didn't count on getting this lucky with his recalling time again, and Gliscor would be having the toughest time against of the rest of Candice's Pokémon if the rest truly were Ice-types)… which left his already battle-worn Honchkrow. Its exhaustion aside, Honchkrow was the best defensive counter, and even if it couldn't take Medicham down, Paul knew the Big Boss Pokémon would be able to weaken it considerably. Besides that, it looked as if the battlefield could use another coat or two of Haze. It seemed, realistically, that this was the only viable option for now.
"Now, Honchkrow! Stand by for battle!" Paul sent out his weary bird, though thankfully it had gotten a small amount of rest since it was first recalled. If Honchkrow couldn't be the one to take Medicham out, then Paul really would be facing a big problem, and none of Conway's battle plans were going to be relevant for this opponent. This round would truly test Paul's ability to make the right decisions in battle on his own – without an old friend's reference guide or a personal grudge against the opponent to drive him to do this right.
Candice nodded approvingly at the choice. "Clever pick, Paul. I hope that Honchkrow's able to stay in this long enough to turn the tables like you're hoping! Alright, Medicham, let's try that Fire Punch again!"
"Dodge it and use Haze!" Paul quickly ordered; Haze had a double benefit of giving the ice a fresh coat of black as well as lowering the visibility range in the field, consequently causing Medicham's Fire Punch to miss.
Zoey raised an eyebrow at what she just witnessed. "Using Haze again? Hasn't he messed up the field enough?"
When Medicham carefully landed back on the tattered and tainted field, Candice was shown looking visibly annoyed. "Just what do you have against my gym's battlefield, huh?!"
Paul chose not to answer or explain; he simply smirked as he called for Honchkrow's next move. This time said move was going to prove to be far more useful in combat: "Shadow Ball!"
"Erk!" In all her excitement, Candice had momentarily forgotten Honchkrow had that move, mainly because it was never used offensively against her Sneasel at the time; its sole purpose was to litter the battlefield with icy chunks of debris. Now Paul had an unexpected use for it, since Ghost-type moves were one of Medicham's two weaknesses. "Dodge, Medicham, dodge!"
Although graceful, Medicham had to take extra precious moments to make sure it could make a clean landing; the icy debris, the blackened color of the ice making it harder to find a clear landing spot, and the notable crevice that carved the field in half all posed a threat to maintaining balance. If Medicham were to slip over the frozen chunks or fall into the crevice, that would give Paul quite an opening to attack it while it was rendered defenseless.
Those moments would prove being costly to Medicham, as Shadow Ball slammed into the Meditation Pokémon just as it started to jump to a safe location. The field of the gym had gone through so much direct punishment by this point; being coated in a dark color, chunks of debris varying in size littering the entire area, several impact craters… and of course, the makeshift trench splitting the frozen floor right down the middle. Something else came as a consequence of that, made obvious to both trainers when Medicham skid across the floor: many areas had begun to melt, leaving shallow pools of black water. This was owed both to the heat from the impact of the attacks that hit the field rather than a Pokémon and a particular element of science coming into play.
Medicham ended up in one of these black puddles, staining itself in the process. While Paul took a moment to look up at the strong lights that hung above the stadium, Candice formulated a little plan to make the entirety of Paul's efforts backfire. It was no secret to her that Paul was focusing on trashing her gym's arena for a reason – his mention of black ice made her realize the challenger's goal here. By coating everything black and preventing the ice from refracting light, Paul was eliminating Candice's field advantage (as naturally most her Pokémon were trained specifically to master the art of sliding and skating the ice with precision to befuddle her opponents). Evidenced by Medicham's hesitation to dodge immediately from the last attack, the black color made many of the obstacles on the field made earlier much harder to see. If Candice didn't want Medicham to be prone to getting constantly hit by Honchkrow's attacks, she would have to risk getting Medicham into a jam via an obstacle she could no longer see, which would make the Meditation Pokémon wide open for another attack right away. And this was a complete non-issue for Paul's Flying-type that would spend very little time on the field's surface.
"I can play dirty too, ya know!" Candice suddenly proclaimed, snapping Paul out of his own thoughts as he redirected his attentions to the Gym Leader. She wondered for a moment why Paul was looking up for so long, but brushed it off in favor of shaking him up with her brilliant counter to his strategy. "Yeah, eyes over here, Paul! If you wanna mess up the floor of my gym so badly, you're gonna have to face the consequences!"
"Oh yeah?" Paul said as he crossed his arms. He looked intrigued about what counter Candice had to his plans.
"You bet," Candice assured with a wink. "Medicham, give yourself a nice little bath in that nasty puddle you slid into. Then, I want you to use Power Trick!"
Paul grimaced a bit when he heard the name of that move, for he was no stranger to it. The bright colors of Medicham were dulled significantly with the dark, dirty water coating it. What contrasted that was a coat of sparkling light in several different colors which covered Medicham for a moment while its attack and defensive powers were swapped. For certain Pokémon that had superb stats in one area while severely lacking in another, a move like this could change the whole game if an opponent was not prepared to deal with the consequences of said change… and of course, assuming the trainer ordering the move knew how to best make use of it. Medicham, however, didn't have much in the way of lopsided statistics, and Paul hadn't studied the species enough to know right away which boost the Meditation Pokémon was getting here.
But then he quickly remembered Candice's order before using Power Trick: to coat her Pokémon in the black liquid puddle. There was only one good reason for the Gym Leader to opt for this, and Paul was quick to catch on: Medicham's bright colors were dulled significantly after being doused in the black pool. It no longer stuck out like a sore thumb in a blackened battlefield, impeding both the trainer and Pokémon's ability to keep an eye on it. Thankfully there wasn't much in the way of anything for Medicham to hide behind since Paul's Pokémon had obliterated those obstacles to pieces, but this camouflage would still hamper the accuracy of Honchkrow's attacks.
Candice smiled sweetly upon seeing Paul's uncertainty. "I guess you already know my Medicham's attack and defense power got switched with that move," she correctly assumed. "But… then you're not sure what angle I'm getting at with this, are you?"
Zoey nodded as she mumbled to herself in reflection of these past few turns. "Medicham's a pretty balanced Pokémon, so it's not obvious right away if its attack power was boosted or its defense. But Miss Senior's clearly going for a camouflage route to keep Honchkrow from landing any more hits on Medicham… it could go either way." She looked to Paul's Honchkrow. "Paul's got a big type advantage right now, but Miss Senior still has plenty of ways to take his Honchkrow out. It comes down to what Miss Senior thinks is the best way to handle it – enhanced power while using the camouflage to make up for its downgraded defenses – or using camouflage and a stronger defense together to wear Honchkrow down so it can strike back at just the right moment. Honchkrow's taken a lot of damage already from Sneasel; even with a decrease in attack power, it wouldn't take Medicham long to take it down. It's a tough call to make."
"It doesn't really matter," Paul finally answered. "Whichever way you've settled on your strategy, that Medicham is history." He looked to his Pokémon, ready to issue a command. "Now, Honchkrow! Use Sky Attack!"
Sky Attack posed a real threat to Medicham, but Candice wasn't the least bit concerned. An attack that powerful required a charge time – something her Medicham could easily intercept. "Let's do it, Medicham! Hi Jump Kick!"
Tricky as it was to spot a blackened Medicham in a black battlefield, it was made doubly difficult for one such as Honchkrow who had the aerial view of the arena; an angle in which there was no way to discern topography, meaning everything looked flat and blended in even more so.
Medicham leaped into the air, landing a harsh, critical hit on Honchkrow. This was a great inconvenience for Paul, as the attack not only did a good chunk of damage, but it was powerful enough to knock the Big Boss Pokémon out of the air and onto the ice, effectively canceling the Sky Attack.
"Alright!" Candice cheered in triumph, pumping her fist into the air. "Let's keep our kiai mojo going, Medicham! Fire Punch!"
"Honchkrow, move!" Paul shouted, not wanting to risk Honchkrow taking much more damage. If he couldn't defeat Candice's Medicham with Honchkrow here, then there would be major problems for the rest of the Pokémon he had left to use. He was visibly relieved when Honchkrow managed to back away in time before Medicham landed its blazing fist on its intended target, once more making a steaming black puddle of water where Honchkrow used to be.
"I gotta hand it to Miss Senior; she's definitely making the best of her disadvantage this round," Zoey noted. "She's got Paul on the ropes, all while only having two moves to use against Honchkrow for the whole battle." This much was true – with Power Trick not being an offensive move and Honchkrow's typing making it immune to Confusion, her options were limited to Hi Jump Kick and Fire Punch. "As long as she chooses just the right moment to use Hi Jump Kick, Miss Senior's got this in the bag."
That was why Candice was so relieved when her Medicham's Fire Punch missed back when Paul recalled Ursaring: Hi Jump Kick's incredible power came at the trade-off of damaging the user of the move if it should miss the target. It wasn't a matter of small recoil damage either (such as Ash's Pikachu's Volt Tackle, or his Staraptor's Brave Bird); it only took a couple of missed Hi Jump Kicks to render the user unable to battle. Had Candice chosen that move back then, odds are her Medicham would have already been incapacitated from the damage Honchkrow dealt by this point.
Paul was fully aware of how risky Hi Jump Kick was and noticed Candice was only using it when she knew odds were very low for it to miss, such as when Honchkrow was charging for Sky Attack. That explained why the Gym Leader didn't opt to swiftly take out Ursaring with that move – with the overwhelming disadvantage, she knew Ursaring wouldn't be staying on the field for very long. Paul was forced to accept he would have to cut down on close-ranged attacks if he wished for Honchkrow to stay in this long enough to finish the job. He couldn't simply keep Honchkrow up in the air lobbing endless Shadow Ball attacks either; he learned from his battle with Ash that getting too comfortable mentally with a battle's progress would leave himself open to the determined Candice who would be waiting for Paul to get lazy with his strategy.
At the very least, it was advantageous to his master plan for Medicham to keep using Fire Punch. He could tell Honchkrow was close to reaching its limit – his Flying-type was getting visibly tired just staying airborne. Dodging would be harder and harder to pull off… but there was still one more move Honchkrow had that Paul hadn't utilized yet. It was a very handy move for the current situation, but Honchkrow was so damaged that he could only risk using it once he was sure it would defeat the Meditation Pokémon.
Then it hit Paul: the perfect way to defeat Medicham. Though a risky plan in of itself, Paul knew there was no better or more fitting way of achieving victory. He couldn't help smiling; something that perplexed Candice.
"You're still up to something," she noted. "That's good; it means you're still gonna make this interesting."
"If you really knew what I was up to, you would've won by now," Paul challenged, opting to mess with Candice's head similar to how he did after their first battle. "But go on, keep attacking. Honchkrow can outpace Medicham at every turn – so be careful about which move you tell Medicham to use."
"He's nuts if he thinks Honchkrow's got the energy to dodge all of Medicham's attacks," Zoey remarked, bewildered by Paul's statement. "Even I can tell that poor Pokémon's about to keel over… but what else could I expect from a guy like Paul? Of course he's gonna run his Pokémon to the ground."
It pleased Paul that even Zoey was falling for his act. A trainer's way with words could prove to be crucial to how a battle turned out, and Paul already knew from one certain past experience that, while sharp-minded, Candice had difficulty with bluffs and fake-outs. He never would have known to do this if he hadn't gotten sick – how bizarre it was that Paul would credit his crippling disease to his victory in this battle!
"I'll be careful," Candice assured. "But don't expect this to play out the way you want it to." She looked to her Pokémon. "Let's go, Medicham! Maximum kiai power! See how Honchkrow likes a row of Fire Punches!"
"Keep dodging!" Paul instructed, though he knew it was unlikely that the Big Boss Pokémon would be able to dodge them all. He turned out to be correct; Honchkrow outmaneuvered its opponent for the first few strikes, but its waning stamina eventually allowed Medicham to land in a strike, sending Honchkrow back into the ice. The impact of landing was rough, as evidenced by Honchkrow twitching as it tried in vain to stretch out its wings to fly. It was getting close to time to seal the deal with a final Hi Jump Kick – but Candice held back. Even with Medicham's camouflage and better condition, the Gym Leader had a feeling there was a reason why Paul opted to have his Pokémon dodge instead of counterattack.
Only Candice truly knew what exactly Power Trick did for the Meditation Pokémon – its offensive power was raised a notch in exchange for becoming a bit more vulnerable. Though the power boost was not particularly drastic by any means, it was obviously enough to make Medicham's attacks knock Honchkrow clear out of the sky, which was a notable improvement from what the attacks were doing before Power Trick was used. However, one or two more direct hits from Honchkrow would be enough to put Medicham out of commission now, and thanks to that partial Dark-typing, Medicham had only two close-ranged moves to work with. Honchkrow looked to be wide open for a follow-up attack, but Candice had a feeling this was a trap.
That was exactly what Paul wanted Candice to think. "Well, obviously there's not much left that you can do, Honchkrow," he said to his Pokémon. "Looks like you've failed me again."
Though Paul's tone sounded harsh and demoralizing as it normally did, the Big Boss Pokémon took note of the particular intense look in its trainer's eyes; normally when Paul gave up on one of his Pokémon, he would refuse to look them in the eye. That was not the case at all here.
"What a jerk," Zoey grumbled, glaring down at the challenger. "He's got no problem letting his Pokémon get creamed at all! And how can he think it's okay to just tell Honchkrow it's useless after all the hard work it's done? Man, just when I thought he couldn't be more opposite of Ash…"
"Is that a forfeit?" Candice asked Paul, finding it peculiar that he might do such a thing when last time he clung to the bitter end no matter how hopeless it got for him.
"No, it's not," Paul replied, still stern as ever. "I'm just making sure Honchkrow recognizes how much it failed to take out a Pokémon it should have defeated easily. But I'm not one to give up until the end… so do what you have to do."
Honchkrow was still unable to move from its position; no longer capable of flying. It didn't appear Paul had any tricks left up his sleeve, but Candice wondered if that's what Paul intended. Medicham would have to rush right towards it to deliver a final blow regardless, but just because Honchkrow was rendered earthbound from this point on didn't mean it couldn't attack. A point-blank ranged Shadow Ball would be more than enough to defeat Medicham, so Candice had to be absolutely sure Honchkrow would be unable to defend or counter in order to land the coup de grace on her opponent.
"That's the kiai spirit," Candice commended. "Never going down without a fight! Alright, Medicham, let's see if we can clinch this win with Fire Punch!"
The way the Gym Leader worded this commend told Paul that this was not truly a final attack; she was anticipating him to counter, so that she would know to get Medicham to evade the attack and squander the last of Honchkrow's energy before landing the real final blow of the match: Hi Jump Kick.
Paul decided to play along with this. He briefly looked to Honchkrow and shook his head; a gesture his Pokémon seemed to understand, before being issued a command: "Use Shadow Ball, with whatever strength you've got left!"
The attack certainly didn't look like Honchkrow was putting its all into it; this particular Shadow Ball was much smaller and flickering.
"Hah, that's all you've got?" Candice laughed out. "Medicham, forget the attack and dodge it!" She really didn't want to have Medicham use Fire Punch if it didn't have to, knowing it was contributing to the mess of her battlefield. The pitiful little Shadow Ball was much more slowly executed, and thus easily dodged.
Paul tightened his fists and grimaced; his reaction to the missed attack and the weak execution of the attack in general told Candice that was his last chance to win the match. If that was the best Honchkrow could muster, then it had nothing left, offensively or defensively.
"Awesome!" Zoey cheered. "Paul took a huge gamble and missed out big time! Bet he feels foolish for thinking he could beat Medicham just through a type advantage, hah!"
In truth, just like his last battle with Ash, Paul was not thinking just about type advantages. Some things went his way in this battle, while others backfired terribly. Regardless of this back-and-forth, Paul knew the battle here would be decided the next time Candice called a move.
Candice was unable to stop smirking; Honchkrow had to have been entirely spent after that last attack. It lacked the energy to fly, and by now, was completely stationary in its position. She knew there wouldn't be a better opportunity to use her trump card, so she went for it.
"Medicham, let's close the book on this match," she enthusiastically told her Pokémon. Though it had taken its fair share of damage as well, the Meditation Pokémon retained its spunk and gave Candice a thumbs-up in agreement. "There's no escape now! Hi Jump Kick, let's go!"
Paul watched the opponent Pokémon jump high into the air, obviously intent on making the final blow a devastating and decisive one. Honchkrow wearily looked up before glancing back to its trainer. When Medicham made its descent with one leg charged with much of its energy, that was Paul's cue to take a real gamble.
"Honchkrow, Sucker Punch!"
Candice could only gawk as she watched quite a scene unfold. Just as her Medicham was about to land a direct, critical hit with Hi Jump Kick, one of Honchkrow's wings glowed with a dismal black and purple energy. Only needing to raise this single wing to get the job done, Honchkrow effortlessly smacked Medicham away.
Candice could only look on in horror as her Medicham was flung back to her side of the field. It crashed into the tainted ice; a plume of smoke rose up from the harsh impact. Both the Gym Leader and her best friend fixed their gaze on the impact site, waiting for the smoke to clear…
Moments later, when the smoke dissipated, the reactions between the two girls differed: Zoey was perplexed, as from her position in the stadium she had trouble seeing where Medicham was. She squinted in hopes of seeing the details, but all she really needed to see was Candice's face to know what the end result of this clash was.
The Meditation Pokémon lied in the center of a deep crater made in the floor of ice; Medicham was at least a few feet deep. It was also quite thoroughly knocked out, made evident with the swirls in its eyes.
"Medicham…!" Candice rushed over to pull her Pokémon out of the crevice. Now everyone could see what happened, meaning it was Mr. Honcho's cue.
"Medicham is unable to battle; the winner is Honchkrow!"
"H-how…?" Zoey gasped. "I thought Honchkrow had no energy left to fight or defend… how could that one attack cause this?"
Paul smirked as he recalled Honchkrow to its Pokéball, knowing it could use a good rest after that slugfest. "Sounds like you don't know much about Sucker Punch," he said, finally addressing Zoey.
"I know it's a Dark-type move!" Zoey grumbled, easy to take offense to Paul's words. "But that shouldn't have been enough to knock Medicham out!"
"Maybe your friend can explain it to you in words even you can understand," Paul mused, allowing himself to be smug with his tone. After all, he not only pulled off quite a comeback stunt, but there was a special meaning behind it as well.
Candice still had her Medicham cradled in her arms while she carefully pulled out its Pokéball. "You were nothing short of excellent, Medicham," she assured her fallen friend. "Even with that huge disadvantage, you held your own out there. Get some rest; you deserve it." With that, Medicham was returned to its Pokéball. She had heard Zoey and Paul's exchange in the meantime, and looked to them both after she had her Pokémon taken care of.
"What's the deal, Miss Senior?" Zoey asked, sounding confused rather than angry. "There's no way Medicham could've lost to just one move like that; not when Honchkrow was so weak!"
Candice bowed her head, smiling humbly and chuckling to herself; both from amusement of Zoey's obvious disdain for Paul and the fact that he won the match and acknowledging that Paul had defeated her not just in the Pokémon battle, but also in a battle of wits.
"Well, Zozo, there was a lot more than just Sucker Punch that caused my defeat," she said. "You see, Sucker Punch is a move that automatically intercepts all attacks, meaning it will always hit first regardless of how fast the opponent is. And judging how far that move knocked Medicham back, I think a certain ability kicked in to boost its power."
"Super Luck," Paul affirmed with a nod.
Zoey remained skeptical. "And that alone was strong enough to send Medicham crashing through the ice? That hole looked pretty deep if you had to reach down as far as you did to get Medicham out…"
"Nope, there's even more to it than that," Candice replied, in an oddly cheerful tone despite her defeat. "Medicham's own power backfired against it; you know why Hi Jump Kick is such a risky move, right?"
"Yeah, if Hi Jump Kick misses the target, the power charged up for the move seriously damages the Pokémon using it," Zoey recalled, before double-taking as she realized she inadvertently answered her own question. "—Oh! Because Hi Jump Kick didn't hit Honchkrow, then…"
"That's right," Candice said, glancing down at the deep hole her Medicham made on the battlefield. "Medicham lost that gamble and paid the price for it. It was the critical hit from Sucker Punch and the damage caused by a failed Hi Jump Kick that cost me this match." The Gym Leader looked to Paul, beaming at her opponent as she addressed him. "None of this would've been possible if I saw through Paul's bluffing, though. He knew I wouldn't risk Medicham using Hi Jump Kick unless I was sure Honchkrow couldn't dodge it! Isn't that right, Paul?"
Really, she wanted to commend Paul for showing his true colors as a battler today, opposed to how he battled her over a week ago. Candice knew this was the true Paul she was battling, and she felt it was worth the wait to finally have the opportunity to experience his true skill. With Zoey in attendance, however, Candice refused to break the confidentiality agreement she swore to Paul. Being one of the few individuals to know Paul's deepest, darkest secret, it warmed Candice's heart to see the young man standing strong in the face of his many adversities.
"There's more to a battle than just how the Pokémon fight," Paul affirmed, managing to stay calm all the while during this battle. "The ability to communicate with your Pokémon without words and confuse your opponent is an invaluable skill to have."
This was where his ten-day training routine with Reggie truly paid off: once Paul came to terms with his weak connection with his Pokémon on the first day, that became the ultimate hurdle the young trainer strived to overcome. He refused to be overt and sappy like Ash, his friends, or his brother. Still, Paul knew he would be stuck in a rut unless he could learn to truly bond with his Pokémon. Shaking his head while addressing Honchkrow directly towards the end of the battle was in fact a signal for Honchkrow to intentionally make its Shadow Ball attack as weak as possible – not only to give off the illusion that Honchkrow had no energy left to attack or defend, but to preserve what power it did have left in order to make Sucker Punch strong enough to end the battle.
"And that is why I'm honored to have you as an opponent!" Candice commended as she brought out another Pokéball. "So, Paul, you ready to keep this party going?"
Paul nodded as he withdrew his next Pokéball. Though Candice was down two Pokémon while Paul hadn't lost any yet, he was definitely bound to suffer some losses for the next round. Honchkrow had taken a severe amount of damage from Sneasel and Medicham, while Ursaring withstood a notable amount of damage from Sneasel as well. His only remaining fresh Pokémon were the two that suffered a devastating weakness to Ice-type moves; while Medicham was the obvious wildcard of her roster, it was safe for Paul to assume he would be dealing with Ice-type Pokémon for the rest of this challenge. Abomasnow was a given; very likely to be Candice's final choice, which left one unknown opponent that would be coming up next.
Before he threw the Pokéball, however, Paul looked back behind him to where he left his backpack sitting. The climax of the last battle was owed to Sucker Punch, a move Paul's Honchkrow learned in a pinch during his last battle with former companion Conway. Though it ultimately wasn't enough to give Paul the win, it proved to be a useful move that Paul associated with Conway ever since. Since the two parted ways, Paul forbade his Pokémon from ever using the move again, purely out of spite. Now that Paul had accepted that what he did was wrong, he had a change of heart about the move. It was Paul's intention all along to make use of Sucker Punch for his rematch against Candice, in addition to applying the strategies and techniques Conway came up with just for his friend's benefit. Now, Paul felt a calm glow of warmth throughout his body… because he felt his homage to Conway was perfectly executed. Sucker Punch was not used frivolously, but rather became the deciding factor of a win Paul otherwise would not have achieved.
He really, truly wished Conway was here right now to see it.
Upon hearing the Gym Leader call out his name out of concern (to Candice and Zoey, it looked as if Paul had zoned out), Paul eventually turned around to face his opponent… but just before that, he faintly whispered something to himself; something no one else inside the Snowpoint Gym could hear. But it even if they did hear it, they wouldn't have understood what Paul was saying. Paul was now completely calm and serene; he knew even if his words weren't heard by the right person that the last shreds of his spiteful sentiments against his friend dissipated with three simple, yet liberating words:
"Thank you, Conway."
Meanwhile, much further south in the Sinnoh region, an important battle was already underway in Eterna City's gym. While Zoey was little more than an unwarranted annoyance to Paul for his battle, it truly was a blessing compared to the "support" poor Conway had as he struggled against Grass-type specialist Gardenia.
"Oh, come on! What kind of move was that, huh? You'd never see me making dumb mistakes like that in a battle, no sir! What's your excuse, Mister Secret Agent?!"
Conway had the patience of a saint to withstand Barry's so-called "tough love" approach of coaching – not that Conway felt he really needed coaching, let alone coaching from a simpleton. Gardenia surprisingly proved to be quite a challenge for Conway, who had very few Pokémon that could counter Grass-types well. He did at least acquire a Shuckle – a Bug/Rock-type – between his trek from Hearthome City to Eterna City. However, Conway had little time to train this obscure Pokémon, and for this battle Conway really wanted Smoochum to shine after her not-so stellar performance against Barry's Staraptor. Smoochum was also an Ice-type – Conway hoped her Powder Snow move could make up for her lacking experience and extremely weak defenses, but Gardenia's Pokémon were surprisingly sturdy.
This was the final match of the battle: Smoochum versus Cacnea. Heracross was Conway's best hope for this battle, but it ran into some bad luck when Gardenia's Roserade managed to poison Heracross very early on. Heracross was strong enough to eventually take out Roserade, but succumbed to the ongoing poison before Gardenia's next Pokémon, Turtwig, could make its first move. Turtwig versus Shuckle ended up dragging out for a while due to Shuckle's nigh-incomparable defenses (needless to say this was the point that Barry flew into a rage and resorted to backseat battling that persisted to this very moment). However, once Turtwig used Leech Seed, it was inevitable that Shuckle would lose out in a battle of endurance, especially since Turtwig was bombarding it almost constantly with Leaf Storm thanks to its unnaturally high speed. However, Shuckle did manage to do some significant damage to Turtwig before it was no longer able to battle; by buying time in having Shuckle use Withdraw to enhance its defense, Conway took advantage of the sheer gap between Shuckle and Turtwig's speed by having Shuckle use Gyro Ball multiple times to wear Turtwig down. This allowed Smoochum to finish what Shuckle started after it was knocked out, and now it all came down to this single match-up.
"Aw, ease up on the poor guy," Gardenia addressed the peanut gallery, though as usual she was consistently lighthearted and upbeat even with her chiding. "We all make mistakes eventually," she said with a smirk as she eyed the blonde boy in the stands. "Isn't that right, Barry?" Her own teasing statement was punctuated with a wink towards an abruptly defensive trainer.
"H-hey! I still won, didn't I?!" Barry squawked at the Gym Leader, knowing she was referencing the critical point of their own battle where Cacnea surprisingly gave Barry's Empoleon a hard time with its Drain Punch attack. Barry made mistake after mistake throughout his Gym Battle; Gardenia found it quite miraculous that her challenger managed to pull through in the end despite the comedy of errors. "And since I won, I think that gives me the right to point out when the know-it-all nerd makes a stupid mistake!"
"If you want to harp on my errors that badly, Barry, I request that you hold off on your criticisms until the battle is over," Conway suggested – and though he sounded relatively calm given his stressful circumstances at the moment, truthfully the young man who tried to walk the path of nonviolence as best he could held back a very strong desire to leap into the stands and beat his traveling companion senseless. "I will need to be able to concentrate in order to prevent future missteps, and I find it quite impossible accomplish that when all I can hear is your complaining."
But it was too much to ask for Barry to actually let that simple message get through to him; not when he thought his so-called "helpful advice" was being snubbed. "Why I oughta–!" he growled, standing up and stepping over the stands while rolling up his sleeves as if he really intended to march right down to the battlefield and give Conway a piece of his mind.
"Alright, alright, that's enough, now!" Gardenia called out, somehow authoritative yet lighthearted in her tone. "You're getting pretty riled up there, Barry! Just settle down or I'll have to see to it that you get some much-needed acupuncture therapy with Cacnea here!" The Gym Leader winked as she said this; while seemingly a threat, Gardenia thought this sort of thing was genuinely divine and relaxing – something she felt the high-strung Barry desperately needed right now.
That was all she really needed to say to get Barry to shut up and sit back down, which brought out quite a smug smile in Conway that thankfully Barry couldn't see. Conway made a mental note to himself to take a page out of Gardenia's book the next time he wanted Barry to hush up and simmer down.
With that taken care of, it was back to the battle. While Smoochum was able to take out Turtwig without too much trouble thanks to Shuckle wearing it down beforehand, she still sustained some damage before rendering the Tiny Leaf Pokémon unable to battle. This made for an extremely tense final confrontation; by now Conway could tell battling was not really where Smoochum's true strength lied. Her nature and execution of her moves made it obvious that Smoochum was definitely more of a Coordinator's Pokémon – something Conway would have loved to give her, but simply couldn't right now with circumstances as they were now.
"We're ready to continue?" Conway asked, masking his concern with a casual tone. He really wished if Barry insisted on breaking the flow of the battle with his many complaints and protests that he could somehow do so in a way that would enable Conway to make use of that time to rethink his strategy. Smoochum's set of moves were sadly limited and rather gimmicky. Powder Snow was the only consistently useful move, which Gardenia was getting better and better at predicting when it was coming so that the move would miss. It didn't help that Powder Snow itself was relatively weak for an Ice-type move, either; Ice Beam or Blizzard would have been much more effective. The Gym Leader was much better than Barry at handling Confusion as well; Conway would have much preferred the much stronger upgrade, Psychic, by now, but Smoochum was not yet ready to learn moves that powerful. This was the same reason Smoochum didn't have a stronger Ice-type move. That left two non-damaging status moves: Sweet Kiss for confusing, and Sing for putting to sleep. Conway had tried both moves at least once on Turtwig and Shuckle, resulting either in total failure (Sing) or not lasting long enough to make a difference (Sweet Kiss).
"You bet!" Gardenia affirmed; her smirk indicative that she knew exactly what to expect out of her opponent at this stage of the battle. "Alright Cacnea, Needle Arm!"
"Dodge that!" Conway's order came just in time, allowing the Kiss Pokémon to evade Cacnea's glowing arm, which slammed into the ground where she once was. Luckily for Conway, his talent of observation and paying attention (a skill that he still chided Barry for lacking) allowed him to get a feel for the pattern Gardenia was settling into. In particular, Gardenia easily could have chosen a better move to use; Faint Attack and Pin Missile were both super-effective and Drain Punch – which Smoochum could not resist thanks to her partial Ice-typing – was Cacnea's ace in the hole. So long as Cacnea could land that move successfully, it would be impossible to defeat. The nature of Drain Punch was to damage the opponent, then turn that damage into replenishing health for the user.
It was quite disheartening for Smoochum to have such limited offensive options while Cacnea had many, especially since Smoochum's defenses were still quite terrible. But Conway knew that couldn't really be helped; similar to Paul's Weavile's issues in the same area, this was just how the species was built. Powder Snow was still effective against Cacnea, but Conway knew it was only safe to go on the offensive if it was unlikely for Cacnea to land a successful counterattack right afterwards; he really wasn't sure just how much more damage Smoochum could take. At this moment, however, Conway took notice that Cacnea was struggling with something. Without putting much thought into why, he took that opportunity to strike.
"Make some distance, Smoochum, then use Powder Snow!" he commanded, not wanting to take any risks. Smoochum blew the chilly attack at her opponent; while it was successful in hitting Cacnea, Conway was more interested in what happened moments before Powder Snow connected: Cacnea triumphantly pulling its arm up with chunks of earth popping out, which quickly brought Conway to one conclusion: the Needle Arm attack was executed a bit too harshly, which led to its prickly arm getting caught in the ground it struck, hence the cause for the Cactus Pokémon's struggle.
Now that it was freed and still standing after taking a hit, Conway issued a strategic retreat. "Run for it, Smoochum! Into the trees!" It clicked almost instantly within the intellectual trainer's mind to take advantage of the terrain the battle took place on; the Eterna Gym was fairly unique in that its battlefield was not in a more traditional format that most gyms of the world, but instead suited a Grass-type specialist's true domain and took the form of an actual clearing in a natural forest, despite the entire area still being within an indoor gym. Normally this terrain would mainly serve better for Gardenia's Pokémon, but having just witnessed Cacnea's proneness to stick to something provided it hits hard enough, Conway pinpointed a weakness that he could actually exploit. After all, it was either this or a futile game of chance in dodging every attack from now on, which was bound to wear Smoochum out and consequently lose her trainer this challenge.
Conway figured if Cacnea was using this much power in its attacks that both it and its trainer were ready to end this battle. This meant it was likely Cacnea would be putting more and more of its power into its attacks, thus expending its own energy. It also meant a greater chance of Cacnea getting itself stuck again, which Conway was counting on.
"Let's go after it!" Gardenia shouted, keeping a sharp eye on Smoochum's movements. "And use Pin Missile!"
Cacnea threw forth both arms after jumping onto the tree's lowest hanging branch with the spikes all over its body glowing with energy. Once the Cactus Pokémon felt it had a good shot at its opponent, it fired a barrage of spikes towards the fleeing Smoochum, who just barely evaded the attack. This left a series of large spikes sticking into the tree trunk; without needing this pointed out to by its trainer, Cacnea quickly knew to make use of the remnants of its missed attack as makeshift footholds. Consequently, it was gaining on Smoochum's trail. Conway too noticed this as the gap between the Pokémon narrowed quite suddenly.
He knew he couldn't keep Smoochum running away forever… it was time to fight back. "Smoochum, try and hold it back! Use Confusion!"
Similar to how Barry's Staraptor was manipulated in the battle that occurred shortly after the two trainers met, Smoochum was able to halt Cacnea's movements completely with her psychic energy. Unlike Slowking, however, Smoochum was too inexperienced to utilize a more powerful move like Psychic to control an opponent, much less juggle two attacks at once as Conway's first Pokémon could do with relative ease. Cacnea was kept at bay, but it was inevitable that Smoochum would wear out. Conway's mind rushed to think of how to make good use of this situation within Smoochum's limited range of ability.
"Come on, Cacnea! You gotta break out!" Gardenia called out, knowing Cacnea was helpless as long as it was contained within Confusion's power. However, she didn't seem too concerned; mainly because she had noticed that while Cacnea was rendered immobile, Smoochum also had to remain stationary in order to focus her power. She had a feeling once Cacnea could break out of Confusion that Smoochum would be exhausted and left wide open for an attack.
"Do something, already!" Barry barked out, ready to interrupt again despite having not forgotten Gardenia's words from before. "Toss it, throw it, whatever! You love displaying your stupid gravity rules, don't you?!"
"Hm… that's right," Conway realized, smiling at the revelation and the fact that Barry had for once provided some useful commentary. "Smoochum, it's time to throw down! –And I do mean that literally!"
The Kiss Pokémon knew what to do from there. She raised her arms, straining to keep Confusion's power running, but ultimately managed to manipulate the psychic energy to toss her opponent off the tree entirely. Everything looked well and fine… until Confusion wore off in mid-fall.
Gardenia was quick to take action the very moment that happened. "Hang on, Cacnea! No one sticks to things as well as you!"
That prompted a gulp from Conway as he witnessed the Cactus Pokémon using its prickly arms to hug the trunk of the tree to prevent its fall to the ground far below.
"Man," Barry grumbled at the sight. "Why did he bother choosing Smoochum for this, anyway? Even with a type advantage it couldn't beat my Staraptor, so how could it do any better against a Gym Leader? Slowking would've been a much better choice; it's actually useful." Both Conway and Smoochum heard this demoralizing banter, though for once Barry was simply musing to himself out loud rather than actively harassing his friend. "What'd be really rich is if Paul was here to see this! He'd totally think this is a majorly pathetic display of battling, and he'd be right on the money there!"
Hearing Paul's name made Conway freeze up; his expression darkened upon acknowledging that despite Barry never having met Paul, his prediction for what Paul would have to say for this battle was exactly how Conway would have imagined it. Despite the length time that had passed since Paul and Conway last saw each other, Conway could effortlessly visualize Paul in the stands right where Barry sat, watching the battle with a most disapproving, indignant look on his face.
He could hear the words in Paul's own voice; what Conway knew his former traveling companion would be saying to him right now…
"Pathetic. Just pathetic. I'll never understand how someone like you, who loves to learn about everything, can still end up like this where you clearly learned nothing at all since we started traveling together. I told you getting that pathetic Pokémon was nothing but a waste of time. Can you tell me with a straight face that I was wrong, Conway?"
"I… I…" Conway was frozen in his own imagination, unable to think of how he would answer his own interpretation of Paul. As Gardenia cheered for Cacnea, who was slowly making its way up the tree towards the weary Smoochum, more negative reinforcement flooded through Conway's mind with the unmistakable voice of his former friend.
"You're such a flake, it sickens me! But what else could I expect from someone like you? Someone who's so quick to break his promises in favor of that cousin you worshipped as a hero, even though he turned out to be nothing more than total scum…"
The matter of cousin Sloan would always be a sensitive one, no matter how dedicated Conway was to bring him down now. He bowed his head and stared at the vibrant grass, still trapped within his own psyche. "No…"
Barry had no idea what was going on, and Gardenia wasn't paying attention (still focused on making sure Cacnea had the strength to make the full climb back up the tree). "Oh geez," Barry moaned. "Don't tell me you're gonna surrender…!"
"Even if I didn't ditch you like the trash that you are, you wouldn't have honored your promise to Reggie if we ran into that girl you liked, would you? Don't you dare act like you were doing anything but using me to further your own purposes! Remember how quick you were to forget about the agreement we made just because that redheaded woman was flirting with you? Let alone what you let her do to you… Not once did you ever take me seriously. You're just like Ash and everyone else! You never listened to me before and you're not listening now!"
"That's not true—!" Conway wailed out, wincing and shaking his head over and over. "It's not, it's not!"
"You think I lied to you when I told you that Smoochum was nothing but a waste of time? It must be easy to have me as a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong with your life now. Tell me, then! Tell me ONE thing that pathetic little Pokémon's done for you! Out with it, Conway!"
Just like that, it all became clear. Conway remembered exactly why he held this Smoochum so dear.
"That Smoochum saved my life!" Conway proclaimed, eliciting shock and confusion from both Barry and Gardenia. But all this time, well before Conway called her out by name, Smoochum had been listening intently to her trainer, reading his feelings and sympathizing with him. "Just like I saved your life… and just like your own Pokémon saved your life when you wouldn't take me seriously! It doesn't matter whether or not a Pokémon's naturally gifted; how can any Pokémon that goes out of their way to save your life be anything less than special? This little Smoochum possesses bravery that your own father would be jealous of, and that has to be worth something! I'll prove it to you, here and now, just how much you underestimate this Pokémon you think is pathetic!"
This internal battle was about to end on a reassuring note, but it all abruptly dissipated when Gardenia's voice broke through. "… Who are you talking to?"
Just like that, the image of Paul and the sound of his voice vanished as Conway snapped out of his trance, as he looked up and immediately became embarrassed to see Gardenia staring at him as if he had gone crazy. A moment's glance upwards at the stands showed Barry looking equally bewildered.
Conway was about to stutter out some awkward excuse, but as he turned his gaze back to the battlefield, he noticed a change in his Pokémon. Previously exhausted from the trials she endured since she was sent out to battle, Smoochum now glowed with a radiant energy; her determined expression proved she had been connected with Conway's thoughts and emotions the whole time. Consequently, she was the only one who understood what Conway had just experienced. Despite never truly knowing Paul, Smoochum was fully dedicated to proving that apparition of the negative trainer wrong… not only for her trainer's sake, but to assure her own self-worth as well.
This gave Conway the courage to tell the truth. "A voice in my head!" was his eventual answer; blunt and honest. "I apologize for that, Gardenia," he said earnestly. "But I'm ready to finish this battle. Get ready, Smoochum!"
Smoochum chirped out energetically in agreement, but was cut off when Cacnea, who had since made a successful climb back up to Smoochum's level, made a sudden frightful attack upon Gardenia's command: "Faint Attack!"
The Dark-typed move left some serious damage on the Kiss Pokémon, the power strong enough to knock her off the branch. Thankfully for the challengers, there was another branch not far below that was sturdy enough to maintain Smoochum's weight, but Conway grew rightfully concerned. One more hit like that and Smoochum would be unable to battle, no matter how determined she was to prove her strength. Despite taking the hit, though, the glowing energy surrounding Smoochum had not dissipated.
"Smoochum!" Conway called out before realizing the oddity of the lingering aura. "What in the world…?" He had assumed that was just some symbolic way of showing that he and Smoochum were on the same page, but now he was genuinely clueless.
"Now what is that?" Barry wondered out loud, squinting at the tiny Pokémon recovering on the lower branch. "Some kind of energy for sure..." he mused before pausing, doing a double-take, and then slapping his palm over his forehead. "Aww! Now come on! Don't tell me that little thing's gonna evolve and turn the battle around that way! That's so cliché! The only one who can pull a dumb twist like that and make it cool is Paul!"
Gardenia, however, had a different interpretation. "No, I don't think Smoochum's evolving," she said with caution in her tone. "This looks more like sheer determination… like powering up some kind of super-charged move or something. But which move…" She quickly assumed it would be Powder Snow, Smoochum's only true effective move, and decided to take action before it came to that. "Cacnea, Drain Punch! Let's go!"
Before Conway could even fully call out a command to dodge, Smoochum did so of her own accord. She leaped to a higher branch, which left the Cactus Pokémon with nothing to smash its fist into. The fist still glowed, however, showing that it had not spent the attack.
"Try it again!" Gardenia called out. She displayed some incredibly sharp reflexes as the battle approached its climax. Cacnea jumped towards the higher branch Smoochum landed on, but once again, before Conway could even get out two full words for a command, the Kiss Pokémon acted independently, faking a turn towards the trunk of the tree before veering off in the other direction at the last second. Consequently, this put Cacnea in the position Conway wanted it: the Cactus Pokémon's own overabundance of power becoming its weak point as its prickly arm became stuck in the trunk.
"It's like Smoochum's reading my mind," Conway quietly noted to himself, unsure if he should be ecstatic that his Pokémon got her second wind or if he should be worried that his commands were suddenly no longer being taken into consideration. She was doing what Conway would have commanded regardless, which made it hard to tell whether or not Smoochum was truly acting on her own.
Meanwhile, Gardenia flailed about as she soon found Cacnea completely helpless like this. "Oh no, oh no! Cacnea, please please please shake yourself free! Come on, now!"
It was easier said than done, as Cacnea had stuck its arm in a rather inconvenient spot in the tree. There was no comfy branch to land on below it, nor were there any of its spikes from its Pin Missile attacks to grab onto.
This was it; now or never, Conway had to use this opening to get the final decisive blow. "Now's your chance, Smoochum! Powder Sn—"
Smoochum used Sing instead.
"—Or Sing, whatever floats your boat," the confused trainer muttered. Luckily for both of them, Sing worked its magic this time and Cacnea was lulled into a deep sleep. Gardenia could only look on helplessly, Barry watched with morbid interest in Smoochum suddenly not listening to her trainer, and Conway just tried to roll with it as best he could. "Um, alright, Cacnea's asleep now. Good job. Now, about that Powder Snow…"
There was still no Powder Snow. The overflow of energy radiating from Smoochum's entire being was still very much present, however, leaving everyone clueless as to what this truly meant. But now the power the Kiss Pokémon had been holding within her started to come out in a way that no one could have predicted: a translucent apparition of Smoochum, something like a shadow, emerging from the true Pokémon in the flesh. Smoochum held her stubby little arms out wide as the shadow flew out of the host body and straight towards the sleeping Cacnea. Everyone gaped as the shadow flew straight through Cacnea's body like a ghost. Though it was already asleep, it was apparent that Cacnea was visibly tormented, as if its own energy was being sucked dry from its body. That much was confirmed when the others saw Smoochum receive an abundance of energy after her shadow had passed through Cacnea, resulting in her looking almost completely refreshed, whereas Cacnea, still with an arm stuck in the tree, obviously had nothing left to give. The swirl patterns of its eyes told that much.
Yoko, one of Gardenia's assistants of the Eterna Gym and acting referee for this match adjusted her glasses at the scene before making her call, "Cacnea is unable to battle! Smoochum wins this round, so Colin the challenger wins!"
"Unbelievable!" Barry exclaimed as slammed his hands down on his seat before standing up. "What just happened?!"
"I… I won…?" Conway was still dumbfounded, even after the renewed Smoochum slid down the tree and hopped right into her trainer's arms, cheering and celebrating all the while. "But what just happened…?"
"Hey, don't steal my line, bub!" Barry barked out at Conway. "I oughta fine you for that… in fact, I think I will!"
Gardenia didn't address her challenger until she successfully returned Cacnea to its Pokéball and gave it some encouraging words for all its effort. She looked up at the befuddled Conway with a smile, finding it endearing that even after earning a victory, the young man's concerns first and foremost lied within how exactly he won and what happened to Smoochum to make things turn out the way they did, rather than reveling in his win over a Gym Leader. "Well, Colin, if you and Barry want to figure out what happened, review the details! By process of elimination, I'm sure you'll reach a conclusion," she suggested. Though she had a strong idea of what happened already, she liked giving the extra challenge of making her opponents figure things out on their own.
"Uh, right," Conway stammered, looking down at his lively Smoochum while Barry made his way down to the battlefield to meet up with his traveling companion. "Well, whatever was glowing around Smoochum disappeared once Cacnea was knocked out…"
"That definitely wasn't a Powder Snow, Sweet Kiss, or Confusion attack," Barry deduced, still quite skeptical about this win Conway earned. "So the move was totally a new one."
"I realized that much right away," Conway said with a sneer, not caring for Barry's intrusion. "That was the easy part."
Gardenia cheerfully interjected before Barry could blow up at his friend again. "Right! So think about the kind of moves Smoochum can learn, and maybe think of anything strange that happened before the move was used."
"I'll tell you what's strange!" Barry blurted out. "That Smoochum had to make a big deal out of this when it could've just taken out Cacnea with a Powder Snow while it was stuck. Why bother with Sing? Cacnea was already helpless."
Conway shook his head. "Smoochum wouldn't have done that for no reason. There is a move that requires the opponent to be asleep in order to work, but…" He paused just then, gaping at his still cheerful Pokémon. "No way. Don't tell me that was Dream Eater!"
"That's what I figured it was," Gardenia piped up while Smoochum nodded happily to her trainer. "A really strong Psychic-type move for sure!"
"One of the strongest…" Conway uttered as he tried to process this. "But as I recall, that's not a move Smoochum learns naturally; it has to be taught and trained in order to use it."
Gardenia shrugged. "Sometimes in life, stuff happens and it doesn't make much sense at first. But I'll share a little secret with you guys: event though I had to train Cacnea a lot in order for it to master Drain Punch, the moment it was first able to use the move happened all on its own. That's when I knew Cacnea was a really special Pokémon. I think if your bond with your Pokémon is strong enough, you'll get rewarded with surprises like this whenever your Pokémon's in a pinch!"
That was when Conway realized he witnessed such a phenomenon before: during his last battle with Paul, when Paul's Honchkrow learned Sucker Punch at the height of its tension. Back then, Conway knew such an occurrence was an oddity and never actually figured out how that happened. Now it finally made sense; Conway had been around Paul long enough to learn that there was indeed a bond between Paul and his Pokémon – solidly proven when Conway found them all surrounding their trainer in the frozen depths of Route 216, keeping him warm and alive long enough to be rescued. Nearly all of them sustained damage from the harsh elements because of this, but not one of Paul's Pokémon regretted their decision to stay by his side. Conway saw right through the façade of Paul pretending he couldn't care less for his Pokémon… yet another reminder for the intellectual that his former companion was not really a bad person despite his actions.
Part of him wished Paul was here to witness this victory (especially after suffering a mental episode of Paul haunting him)… not only to redeem himself for his past blunders, but to see Paul have to eat his words. The sentiments were both endearing and spiteful.
"Thank you for putting that into perspective, Gardenia," Conway said to the Gym Leader. "I think I see what you're talking about, and that's quite amazing. You helped bring out Smoochum's full potential… I feel indebted to you, honestly."
"You wanna know what you could do to make us even?" Gardenia asked her humble challenger.
Conway shrugged. "Of course."
And then, the beast within was unleashed.
"Show me one of your Grass-type Pokémon! Any Grass-type will do; I'm not picky! Please, I must see any Grass-type you have…!"
The seemingly calm, rational, and informative Gardenia suddenly transformed into something… far less professional – and borderline psychotic.
"Well, um," Conway stammered, taking a cautious step back away from the raving Gym Leader. This put him in a very awkward position. "I'm sorry, but I don't have any Grass-type Pokémon yet."
"HUH?!" Gardenia immediately looked heartbroken, giving the young trainer the most disturbing puppy dog eyes. "Say it isn't so! How can you not have a Grass-type?! They're so wonderful! That's what I was looking forward to the most, you know! Not the battle, but the opportunity to meet another trainer's Grass-type Pokémon! Come on, tell me you're joking!"
That warranted another step back away from the Grass-type enthusiast. "Unfortunately, I'm not," Conway admitted. "Besides the three Pokémon I battled you with, all I have is Slowking, Aggron, Castform, and Lickilicky."
"And for all those Pokémon captures you made, you never once thought that maybe you should catch a Grass-type?!" Gardenia wailed.
"I haven't exactly had the time to think much about Grass-types specifically," was Conway's excuse. It was true, at least. Taking care of Paul for a month, then undertaking a mission to expose his cousin for his nefarious deeds left Conway with not much time to fancy what Pokémon he'd like to capture after his fated meeting with Smoochum. Lickilicky and Shuckle were captures purely for strategic purposes as Conway went from Gym Leader to Gym Leader. "But, um, how about I bring you one the next time I come to Eterna City? Depending on which Gym Leader I take on next, I might just be in need of a Grass-type after all…"
With an overly dramatic sigh of resignation, Gardenia hung her head with disappointment and despair. "Okay… I guess there's not much you can do if you really don't have one to show me…" If she didn't come off as so utterly bonkers, Conway would've felt sorry for her.
"But all hope is not lost just yet!" Gardenia suddenly proclaimed; her eyes beaming with hope and joy. She looked to Conway's annoyed and impatient companion. "Barry, you still have your Roserade, right?"
Now it was Barry's turn to be put in an awkward spot. "Uh, yeah…"
"Let me see it! Let me see it!" Gardenia begged as if she were a young child bothering her mother for candy or a new toy. "I'd love to see how much your Roserade's grown since I last saw it! Ooh, if mine wasn't worn out right now I'd so have our Roserades battle! You know, to see which one is the most powerful!"
"Well, it's obvious my Roserade would win," Barry said matter-of-factly, despite his unease around the Gym Leader. "But fine, you can see it." For once Barry wasn't going to be difficult about this, if only because the threat/promise of acupuncture Gardenia made to him remained fresh in his mind… and he's witnessed said "acupuncture therapy" from Gardenia's Cacnea done to herself. It looked horrifying and anything but therapeutic.
Conway wisely decided not to speak up as he heard the auburn-haired teen squeal with joy. He watched Barry reluctantly toss up one of his Pokéballs, which brought out his Roserade.
"Alright, just a quick look at Roserade," Barry wanted to set some ground rules as soon as possible. Conway figured Barry's first meeting with Gardenia left some mental scars that had yet to fade if he was being so uncharacteristically cautious, yet firm. "And no funny business, got that? We're running on a tight schedule, y'know!"
"I understand; you two must be awfully busy if you're trying to get eight badges before the Sinnoh League rolls around," Gardenia acknowledged, wasting no time in cuddling Barry's Roserade. "So Colin, once I give you the Forest Badge, how many more do you need before you qualify?"
Conway opened up his badge case, eyeing the empty slot that would soon be filled by the Forest Badge. "Your badge will be my fourth, so that officially puts me at the halfway point."
"You realize we're gonna have to step up our pace if we're both gonna have eight badges before it's time for the League," Barry reminded. "And you're nuts if you think I'm gonna let you hold me back."
"Well, from here, there's a number of different ways you could go for your next badge," Gardenia informed them. "Depending on which ones you have already, that is."
Figuring it would be helpful to get a solid idea of where to go next (as he had a habit of being indecisive at times) without having to waste time going back to Hearthome City solely for Barry's sake, Conway showed Gardenia his badge case with the Cobble, Fen, and Relic Badges. "I've already defeated Maylene, Crasher Wake, and Fantina," he informed her.
"Well, I'm gonna beat Fantina real soon!" Barry interjected, showing off his own badge case. "She's just hard to track down, you know?" Conway resisted the urge to throw in a remark that Barry also lost against her twice. "See, I got your Forest Badge, Byron's Mine Badge, Amber's Flare Badge, and Mako's Virus Badge! I'm on a roll and Fantina's number is gonna be up soon enough!"
"Wow, you must've been all over Sinnoh already to get those badges," Gardenia remarked, clearly impressed as she took a gander at Barry's orange badge case. "Byron's Gym is pretty far out there, even from where we are now. I remember Domino City being tricky to get to; did you take the ferry through Sea Route 220 to challenge Amber?"
Barry shrugged nonchalantly. "No biggie; for a boat ride it wasn't too bad. Besides, I always wanted to see Pal Park. And being the master of managing my time, I waited until after I beat Byron to challenge Mako."
"That's the Cronobane City Gym, right?" Conway asked for clarification. "Which, as I recall, is on Waning Moon Island… the best way to get there would be from Canalave City's port…"
"Right," Barry affirmed. "So the moral of the story is that I'm awesome!"
"Of course," Conway mumbled, rolling his eyes. He turned to Gardenia, who wisely chose not to make a remark to Barry's ego-stroking statement. "So what gym would you suggest for the fifth Badge, Gardenia?"
The Gym Leader had turned to Yoko, who had left to retrieve Conway's reward. The assistant handed over the small casing, which Gardenia smiled and nodded to Yoko in silent gratification before addressing her challenger. "Well, Colin, it's hard to say," she admitted. "If you and Barry are traveling together, you'll need to pick a way that's convenient for both of you; a gym that neither of you have challenged yet." Then an idea suddenly came to her, "How about stopping by the Pokémon Center before you go? Colin's Pokémon could use the rest, and Nurse Joy's usually good for consultation as to where to go next in your journey."
"Fair enough, but we better not stick around too long!" Barry warned. "We're on a tight schedule, y'know!"
Gardenia approached Conway, presenting him the case bearing the metallic green badge in the very center. "Then, Colin, as proof of your victory today, I'd like you to accept the Forest Badge! I trust you'll take good care of it."
Conway nodded, quite enthusiastic as he plucked the badge out and placed it in his badge case. "Marvelous! I now have the Forest Badge," he exclaimed. "Four badges down; four to go!"
"Fantastic, good for you," Barry muttered, not nearly as excited for Conway's progress. "Now let's get out of here already!"
"Aw," Gardenia whined, somehow already down on her knees on the ground with Barry's Roserade right behind her. "Not even one more Poison Jab for the road…?"
Though Conway was making excellent progress despite his late start, Paul was not able to revel in victory just yet. Even though he was doing much better against Candice this time than his last attempt, the spunky Gym Leader proved to be tough customer – just as Reggie said she would be.
This time, it was Candice's Snover versus Paul's Gliscor. With Honchkrow and Ursaring barely being of any use after the punishment they took from Candice's last two Pokémon, Paul was left resting his hopes on his last two Pokémon. However, both of them suffered the most devastating weakness to ice due to their dual typing, meaning neither would last long if they took too many direct hits from Ice-type attacks. Unfortunately, Paul's specialty in battling was having Pokémon that excelled in taking hits just as well as they could attack… meaning Paul had no choice but to deviate from his usual formula to earn that long-awaited win.
Thankfully, Gliscor was the most mobile of Paul's chosen team next to Honchkrow, and since Paul made the effort to ensure that Candice would only have a minimal advantage on her icy field (which was more and more looking like a giant black mess with the dark pools of melted water steadily growing in size), the Fang Scorp Pokémon had no trouble dodging most of Snover's moves.
"Now, Gliscor! Use Fire Fang!" Paul ordered the moment he saw an opening, knowing Fire-type moves were to Snover as Ice-type moves were to his own Pokémon. The writhing of the Frost Tree Pokémon was a good sign – it meant Gliscor scored a valuable direct hit.
Candice grimaced slightly, though only briefly. She was in full business mode from here on out, knowing her last two Pokémon would have to make short work Paul's if she wanted to be on a more even level with him. While happy that Paul was performing to his standards, Candice herself would be feeling very inadequate as a Gym Leader if she happened to be completely shut out without scoring a single win.
"We feel the burn!" Candice declared as she pointed directly towards the battle. "It's too close to dodge now; Ice Beam, Snover!"
She was right; Fire Fang was a close-ranged attack. Snover did not hesitate to cease the burning agony by shooting Ice Beam straight at the problem. Combined with the flames of the Fang Scorp Pokémon's attack, the collision resulted in a blast of steam, followed by an explosion that sent both Pokémon sliding back against the especially slick battlefield. Gliscor too suffered a direct hit from the element it was most vulnerable to, and Paul grew increasingly concerned with his chances in this match-up. Gliscor had otherwise performed quite well, especially with its weight and ferocity aiding in the continued assault on the battlefield. However, the margin for error in this overall challenge slimmed nearly to zero; Gliscor wouldn't be able to take more than a couple of hits from Ice-type attacks, and the neutral Grass-type moves Snover had chipped away at its strength even more.
The problems were bound to escalate if Paul had to resort to using Torterra. Despite his personal alterations to Conway's strategic suggestions, Paul fully intended to remain faithful to one instruction Conway wrote down: only use Torterra if there are no other options. Despite being Paul's strongest Pokémon, it was undoubtedly the biggest weakness of his team for this specific challenge. Ursaring possessed no weakness to the ice and had many useful moves to counter it; Honchkrow was vulnerable to ice, but it too had a variety of moves to make up the difference and was the biggest player in Paul's scheme to decimate the battlefield. Plus, it helped that Honchkrow was the most agile of this particular selection, and being airborne did have its advantages. Gliscor had at least that and a good number of moves that were more than capable of turning the tables despite its crippling ice vulnerability.
Now that Paul knew exactly what he would be up against for the rest of the challenge (Abomasnow was a given from the start, after all), he realized Torterra would have its work cut out for it if the Continent Pokémon became Paul's only hope for defeating Candice. Along with the devastating ice weakness, Torterra wouldn't be doing much moving at all – leaving the matter of dodging attacks out of the question. Worst of all, against a Grass/Ice-type Pokémon (which Snover and Abomasnow both were), Torterra only had one move that would prove effective. To utilize Torterra safely, Paul needed Candice on the ropes.
"Steel Wing; let's go!" Paul did not want to miss a beat here. Gliscor recovered and flew straight past Snover, letting its empowered wings graze the Frost Tree Pokémon as it passed by.
"Icy Wind!" Candice was also focused; intent on not wasting a single opportunity. Snover felt the hit from Steel Wing, but recovered in time to turn around and blast its opponent with a fierce, frigid current before said opponent could get too far away. Gliscor's attempt to ascend into the air was blocked as Icy Wind took its toll on the battle-worn Pokémon, as it fell to the ground with a loud thud.
Paul's hands balled into fists as he tried his hardest to control his emotions. "Get up, Gliscor!"
Gliscor was still able to battle, evident as it managed to stand up on its own. However, when trying to balance itself on its tail (a common habit of the species), Gliscor was unable to maintain form and fell back to its feet. This visibly worried Paul. "Come on, Gliscor! Why can't you…" Then it struck him, once he paid attention to his Pokémon.
Gliscor's wings were stiff. Even more alarming were the patches of ice that coated its wings.
"Playing with ice is just like playing with fire," Candice taunted, knowing exactly what happened. "If you aren't careful, you'll get burned… or in Gliscor's case, frozen!" Paul grimaced at having to face the situation. "Let's see how you manage with that extra handicap! Snover, use Bullet Seed!"
"Block it!" This was all Paul knew to do in a scenario like this for the moment. Luckily the Fang Scorp Pokémon's large claws were more than capable of sustaining the blow, but the fact that Candice called for Bullet Seed and not an Ice-type move told Paul she was making him realize his situation before she would finish off this battle.
Zoey had been getting into these battles more and more as she observed both trainers' strategies and how they were executed. Still, she couldn't hide her smirk whenever Candice got the upper-hand. "Well, that's one match for Miss Senior in the bag," she figured. "Having that aerial mobility was the only way Gliscor managed to land all its attacks without getting hit back too much. If Gliscor can't fly, then it's finished."
"You'd better hope Gliscor can block ice attacks as well as it can with Bullet Seed!" Candice called out with a smirk. "Snover, I think it's time for another Ice Beam!"
Paul's eyes snapped wide open as he heard the call. There was another detail Paul took note of while Candice coyly taunted him, and it was his only hope to get an opening to fix this mess. "Counter it! X-Scissor!"
Gliscor's blocking maneuver involved the Fang Scorp Pokémon crossing its arms over its body; this happened to be the exact position to execute X-Scissor. Having already taken the form inadvertently, Gliscor was able to use X-Scissor quickly enough to intercept Ice Beam.
The resulting explosion sent both Pokémon sliding away from each other over the ice. Now that the Pokémon were quite distanced from each other, Paul had an opportunity to turn this battle around. However, one problem remained: Gliscor's wings were still frozen. In order to land any attack well, Gliscor would have to be right next to Snover, left wide open for a dangerous counterattack. Paul glared at the frozen wings of his Pokémon as Gliscor looked back to its trainer for the next command.
Just then, Paul was fortunate enough to be struck with another idea; this time one that would remedy Gliscor's situation. However… it would be quite the controversial move and Paul knew he would be getting a lot of flak for even issuing the command.
Luckily for Paul, he didn't really care what anyone else thought of him or his methods. "Alright, Gliscor, listen up. I want you to use Fire Fang… on yourself." Gliscor tensed up as expected to be issued such a command, but it quickly understood why it had to be done.
"What?!" an infuriated Zoey shouted; obviously she didn't immediately realize why anyone would do this. "What kind of trainer would make their Pokémon do such a thing?! Only a monster!"
"Zozo…" Candice quietly mumbled; the controversial command distracting her as she tried her best not to judge Paul outright as her friend just did. That was one benefit to this choice Paul made; it would go off without a hitch because of its controversial nature that would make anyone else double-take.
The other benefit – the important one – eventually became apparent to both the Coordinator and the Gym Leader as they watched Gliscor follow its order; specifically, Gliscor's flaming fangs bite down into its wings. Paul's Pokémon couldn't help whining in pain of its own self-inflicted attack, but both it and Paul knew the pain was worth it: the steam and drops of water pouring down the wings were proof that the sketchy technique was a success: Gliscor's wings were no longer frozen.
"Wow, talk about a blow to the mind," Candice remarked, resting a hand on her forehead. "I never would have come up with that…"
"So that was his angle," Zoey murmured, still quite sour that this happened at all. "What a guy; he'd do just anything to win."
Paul paid no mind to the comments, seizing his opportunity to clinch this match. "Gliscor, Guillotine!"
A simultaneous "Uh-oh!" came from both Candice and Zoey once the call was made. Gliscor shook off its lingering pain and lunged forward with one arm extended towards the intended target. Paul didn't need to tell Gliscor to be quick and flawless in this execution of the move; the Fang Scorp Pokémon knew very well the risk it was taking, but there was no better time to give it a shot.
Candice was unable to make a full call before witnessing her Snover being scooped up with Gliscor's massive claw and swept high up into the air. So far so good for Paul; he rarely had Gliscor use Guillotine, and for good reason: it was a very difficult move to pull off with an extremely wide margin for error. Should it go off without a hitch, the battle would immediately be over – whether the victim was weak and inexperienced like Ash's Gligar was, or any one of Cynthia's magnificent Pokémon, they would be instantly knocked out.
"Use Ice Beam to break yourself free!" Candice was determined to not let this happen. Both she and Zoey knew exactly what the Guillotine move was about, and the Gym Leader fully intended to exploit the relative ease of making the move fail. It was especially a breeze considering the massive type advantage she had along with the fact that Gliscor was in close range again and had no way to dodge any of Snover's moves now. The Frost Tree Pokémon was fully capable of shooting an Ice Beam in point-blank range before Gliscor had a chance to slam it down.
And that was all that needed to be done; Gliscor suffered a critical hit from its greatest elemental weakness, which was more than enough to break its concentration as well as its hold on Snover. Gliscor was sent careening into the field next to Paul while Snover safely landed on the opposite side. This was the worst possible way for this plan to fail, and Paul couldn't help growling in frustration as he turned his attention to where his Pokémon landed. "No…!"
"Whew, that was a close one," Candice sighed as she wiped her brow. "This battle sure has been full of surprises; too bad Gliscor's down for the count. I would've liked to try more ways to counter all those awesome moves it has."
"Gliscor's not done yet!" Paul retorted, glaring at her. Though definitely hanging by a thread by this point, Gliscor indeed managed to rise to its feet. Despite surviving such a devastating blow, everyone soon noticed the consequences of taking that risky move: Gliscor was no longer able to get airborne again.
"Gliscor definitely looks done," Zoey noted. "It can't fly again; why go through the trouble of damaging your own Pokémon if it was just going to get its wings frozen again a minute later?"
Candice shook her head as she closely examined her challenger's Pokémon. "No, its wings didn't freeze again… Snover hit Gliscor in the front with Ice Beam this time." She watched Paul hopelessly mutter Gliscor's name as it continued its futile attempts to fly before tiring itself out and resigned any further tries.
It was clear as day to Paul what was wrong with Gliscor; not willing to have his Pokémon take any more senseless risks, he pulled out Gliscor's Pokéball and recalled it without saying a word.
Zoey was still cross at Paul, but she nodded in agreement to his current decision. "If its wings were fine, then the only other explanation is that Gliscor's so worn out that it doesn't have the energy to fly. So that just put Paul back at square one; nice to see even he has his limits when it comes to overworking his Pokémon."
The Coordinator was correct: Paul saw no sense in keeping Gliscor out there in its current condition. The gamble Paul took backfired big time, which left him with precious few options for what to do from here. Thankfully, Candice's Snover was far from being in top form after all the damage it sustained from Gliscor's extremely effective attacks. This was the primary reason for Paul deciding against simply leaving Gliscor out to get clobbered on the next move.
As he drew out another Pokéball, Paul closed his eyes in resignation that this next move of his would likely not hold out as he wanted it to… as well as bring about the inevitable rebuking he would be hearing from his opinionated observer. "Honchkrow, stand by for battle!"
A short time's rest was better than no rest at all, but that didn't change the fact that the Big Boss Pokémon came out looking extremely worn down and barely in any condition to battle.
"I should've known he'd pull something like this if I granted him a compliment," Zoey growled as quietly as she could. "How could he do that to Honchkrow after everything it's been through?!"
At first, Candice was visibly concerned to see Honchkrow back on the field so soon, but the Gym Leader managed a smile upon seeing the resolve in the bird's eyes. "Paul, you've definitely raised your Pokémon well; don't let anybody else tell you different. I can see just from looking at Honchkrow that its kiai flame is not easy to snuff out, even after it's taken quite the beating!" She looked up at Paul and smirked. "Having said that, though, I'm gonna be honest with you: I see your angle here. I know it'd be super awesome to have Honchkrow get its second wind and save the day, but you and I both know that's just not gonna happen."
Paul did not reply. Candice catching on so quickly to his motive wasn't much of a surprise at all, and he was not about to delude himself into thinking Honchkrow was going to come out on top of this match despite having less of a handicap than Gliscor. Someone like Ash might be deluded enough to believe such a thing, but a staunch realist like Paul knew better than to set himself up for disappointment.
Instead, he opted to cut straight to the chase. "Honchkrow! Sky Attack; let's go!"
Despite being quite the blabbermouth in her own right, Candice did prefer her opponents to be less about talking and more about action, and she had the quick reaction time to keep up the pace with them. "Think again! Snover, use Icy Wind!"
It was inevitable that Icy Wind would hit first due to Sky Attack's mandatory charge time, but Paul threw caution to the wind in spite of this obstacle, silently urging his Pokémon to pull through despite the inevitable pain that would come of it. The concept of pain abruptly became the center of Paul's life now – he would be struggling with pain every day for the rest of his life – and he was not the only one who wished for his Pokémon to understand this. Each of Paul's Pokémon were fully aware of Paul's ailment; through the course of the ten-day training session, they all admired Paul's resolve that not only kept him from giving up, but was maintained perfectly enough to keep his secrecy from his family over the matter. The suffering and struggling Paul endured made all of his Pokémon desire the same strength, and Honchkrow was no exception.
Honchkrow didn't need a verbal command from Paul to know what to do; in its current state, the Big Boss Pokémon knew the only reason it was sent out to battle again despite is severely battered condition was that Paul was desperate. Honchkrow knew it was meant to go out with a bang, not only to prove its own worth, but to aid its comrades.
Candice's bravado gave way to sheer tension as she saw the plump bird force its way through her Snover's Icy Wind barrage – the nearly blinding white aura of energy surrounding Honchkrow allowing it to persevere against the harsh elements – and plow itself straight into Snover. The clash of energies triggered another explosion; a strong, hot one that consequently kicked up a great deal of steaming fog from the battlefield. Visibility for all human beings in attendance was hindered, and they had no choice but to wait for it to clear to see what became of the two Pokémon in the heart of the blast.
Sadly, yet unsurprisingly, Honchkrow was seen on the field, huddled over and unmoving. Snover was also knocked over, able to at least sit up. Still, it was quite worse for wear after taking such a powerful attack. It was hard to say whether or not Honchkrow's ability Super Luck came into effect here (though Paul believed if it had, Snover would have been knocked out cold), but the damage was clear to all those witnessing the battle.
"Honchkrow is unable to battle," Mr. Honcho announced. "The winner is Snover!"
Paul held in a sigh as he reached for Honchkrow's Pokéball and returned his fallen Pokémon to get some substantial rest. Though this didn't buy nearly enough time that Paul wanted, he was grateful for what Honchkrow managed to do – especially since it had the roughest time in this battle, being the only Pokémon who had faced all of Candice's so far.
Candice freely sighed out her relief that Snover pulled through against the odds. "Definitely too close for my comfort," she admitted without hesitation. "Way to hang in there, Snover. At least we're making progress now; I was starting to get a little embarrassed!"
Naturally, she was referring to this match being her first actual victory over Paul after she had already lost half of her team. While she felt more at ease, Paul's condition was the opposite. He had been in the lead the entire time, but was stuck in a position where he could easily fall behind.
"Snover, you're still in this with me, right?" Candice kindly asked her battered Pokémon, to which Snover replied with a stern nod as it rose to its feet. There wasn't much fuel left in the tank, but seeing the way Honchkrow went out deterred it from choosing the coward's way out (not that Candice would condone it, anyway).
Now it was time for Paul to weigh his options. Both girls looked over to him with intrigue as Paul now held a Pokéball in each hand, looking back and forth from one to the other and trying to decide which route to take from here. It was no secret to anyone that Snover wasn't set to last much longer on the field; the internal debate waging war in Paul's mind was how Snover should be dispatched. Gliscor had the moves that were more than capable of defeating Snover in a single hit, but Gliscor itself was badly damaged, highly susceptible to being defeated by one mere attack itself, and had very little downtime in order to recover some of its lost stamina. It was very possible that Gliscor – if it was sent out again right now – wouldn't be capable of taking Snover out before the Frost Tree Pokémon did the same in kind to it.
On the surface, Ursaring was a much more attractive option. It had taken a great deal of damage earlier in the battle, but also had a significantly greater amount of time in which to rest up. It was unlikely that Snover would be able to defeat it since it lacked a weakness to Ice-type moves, but that didn't mean Snover would be incapable of landing a scratch on Ursaring, either. In truth, Paul was seeing Ursaring for a more long-term investment: Candice's Abomasnow. It was sure to be the most challenging opponent and Ursaring was likely the best chance Paul had in defeating it… but that was far from a certainty, and if Paul used the Hibernation Pokémon to take care of Snover, then chances were high that it wouldn't be able to last against Abomasnow for very long… and that would leave the entire responsibility of winning this match up to Torterra. That was a scenario Paul did not want to have to face; he'd much rather not have to use Torterra at all if he could help it.
It wasn't just the strategic suggestions left by Conway that deterred Paul from using his starter any time sooner than when it was absolutely necessary; just thinking about a worst-case scenario where Torterra would be pitted against a relatively fresh Abomasnow gave Paul nasty memories of the training sessions with Reggie over a week ago. In all that time, it still shook Paul up every time he thought back to how easily Reggie's Infernape knocked his Torterra a mile back with a single Blast Burn attack. Paul had his emotions under much better control now, but the last thing he wanted was for history to repeat itself this soon and make all of the progress made in this battle inconsequential. If a Fire-type attack had the capability of wrecking Torterra's usually strong defenses, then an Ice-type attack would be all the worse. Unlike Gliscor, Torterra didn't have the luxury of dodging attacks, either. Once it came down to Torterra, Paul would be fighting a battle of sheer attrition that he was sure to lose.
Decisions like these were what distinguished Paul from most other trainers; even now, Paul was thinking two steps ahead rather than making calls on sheer impulse. Since Candice was certain by now what Paul's fourth Pokémon would eventually be, she felt no need to rush him in the decision-making process. She was actually quite proud of seeing Paul taking this battle so seriously, unlike their first encounter. It was a clear sign that he was taking her seriously as a Gym Leader now.
Just then, Paul pocketed away one of the Pokéballs, having made his decision as he threw the one he still held. "Gliscor, stand by for battle!"
"Welcome back, Gliscor," Candice greeted, though her smug expression betrayed the sweet tone of her voice. "Gosh, it's like you've hardly been away at all!"
"Seriously?!" Zoey exclaimed with predictable disbelief. "Paul, who do you think you are, pulling stuff like this?! You'd think you'd learn from the mistake you just made with Honchkrow a minute ago!"
While Paul just shook his head, not willing to waste any more energy or concentration on the Coordinator's biting commentary, Candice decided to speak for him – an action that was both for her challenger's benefit as well as to shake him up when she revealed how easily she read into Paul's strategy. "Now, now, Zozo," she gently said in hopes of calming her best friend. "Even if Gliscor's taken a lot of damage, what matters is that it's still willing and able to battle. It's obvious Gliscor wants to get back into the fray no matter how grim its chances are of staying in this for much longer. Paul's just playing smart about this and reserving his better-conditioned Pokémon for the real fight up ahead." The Gym Leader then faced her challenger with a most devious smile, which was quite unnerving. "Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, Paul!"
The sour look on Paul's face was all that Candice needed to know she was right. Rightfully so, Paul worried that if his tactics were becoming easier to read that his chances of coming out of the challenge on top would be next to impossible. Just like when Ash and Paul battled at Lake Acuity, Paul was quite set with his strategy once he learned what Ash's full team was. The last thing Paul wanted as to be the Ash of the battle he was currently engaged in.
"Don't waste your energy flying," Paul quietly warned his Pokémon. "This ice field is for Candice's Pokémon's benefit, but you can make use of it too. Keep your wings spread out and you should have no problem running circles around Snover."
This was very useful advice Gliscor wouldn't have come up with on its own. It winked to Paul as it got into position, balancing itself using its tail (as per usual for the species).
"Stay on defense until you find an opening," Paul added. "That way Snover won't have any time to dodge an X-Scissor attack." Of course, he was referencing an earlier point in the battle where Gliscor taking up the defensive stance of crossing its arms left it able to fire off said attack in an instant. This seemed to be the optimal route to defeating Snover for good.
"In any case, this won't take long either!" Candice said with glee. "We're on the road to evening up the score, Snover, so fight with your kiai might – whatever you've got left!" Her Snover heeded the call and prepared itself for another attack. "Now, charge ahead and use Ice Beam!"
Since Gliscor looked terribly worn out and wasn't even trying to fly this time, Candice figured the Fang Scorp Pokémon would be a sitting duck. Little did she realize Paul's plan to make the best of what he had, and was shocked to see Gliscor skating on the ice with its tail, with its wings spread out like makeshift sails on a ship to help control which way Gliscor wanted to go. With one veer to the right, Snover's Ice Beam was averted. This unusual dodging maneuver even got Zoey's attention as she studied Gliscor's moves intently.
"You're not getting away that easily!" Candice assured, sternly looking to her Pokémon. "Snover, Bullet Seed!"
"Keep dodging!" was Paul's simple command. It pleased the trainer seeing Gliscor swerving from side to side in order to avoid the barrage of Snover's attack, leaving only the ice itself to be Bullet Seed's victim. More and more, Candice's once-glorious battlefield resembled something unspeakably ugly; stained black almost everywhere, the ice formations shattered into rubble, which made the terrain much trickier to skate over in addition to the heat and impact of the numerous attacks throughout the battle making the terrain increasingly unstable. Cracks were becoming widespread and the dark puddles were only growing in size, but were not imminently noticeable due to the black coating from Haze making everything harder to make out. Luckily for Gliscor, its thick tail had no problem mowing over the debris it crossed over.
"Icy Wind, let's go…!" Candice was getting desperate, ordering Snover to fire off an attack at every possible opportunity, knowing that thanks to the debris and Snover's lacking stamina to skate across the ice in its own way, that there was no sensible way to chase Gliscor.
Zoey shook her head, growing concerned for her mentor. "I wish I could say something," she said to herself. "Miss Senior's having Snover attack Gliscor where it is, instead of where it's going to be… this battle must really be getting to her if she hasn't noticed that."
With his talent in defensive-styled battling, Paul knew the best way to handle this scenario was to let Snover expend its energy on attacks while Gliscor's graceful ice-gliding made all of those efforts futile. Just as he expected, Snover tired itself out and had to take a quick breather before resuming the onslaught: this was the opening Paul was looking for.
"Now!" Paul shouted to his Pokémon. "Use X-Scissor!"
Before Candice could recover from her shock long enough to issue another attack, it was already too late. Gliscor collided into Snover with a direct hit from the Bug-type move. A small plume of smoke came from the area of impact, though Gliscor was soon seen sliding past it and successfully making its way back to Paul, where it finally stopped. Though still barely able to battle, the ice skating maneuver and letting the air guide the path was much less taxing on Gliscor's stamina compared to Snover's barrage of attacks. It wasn't long before the smoke cleared, and sure enough, Snover was seen lying on its back, not moving an inch.
With one look at Snover's eyes, Mr. Honcho made it official. "Snover is unable to battle; Gliscor is the winner!"
The Fang Scorp Pokémon was absolutely ecstatic, though could barely express those feelings given its own condition. It looked up to its trainer… and for once, Paul smiled (a smug one rather than an earnest one, if only to keep up appearances) and nodded to Gliscor without saying a word. This plan worked beautifully; much better than Paul had expected it to.
It seemed unusual for Candice to have a lapse in her judgment at this stage of a challenge, but Zoey soon had an idea why that was the case. "Man, a lot's happened in this battle since the beginning," she noted. "It's hard to get a read on what Paul's ultimate strategy is because he's done so many different things with each of his Pokémon. And the way he's trashed the battlefield… why he's gone this far to do it, it still doesn't make any sense. Poor Miss Senior must still be trying to find out what Paul's true motive is for that; it hasn't really made a drastic difference in how these battles played out so far. Add that to all the other strange moves he's pulled since, and…" Zoey groaned just trying to think about it. "I give up; this is making my head hurt."
"Good job, Snover," Candice congratulated as she returned Snover to its Pokéball. "You just focus on getting a good rest right now, okay? Your comrade's gonna make sure your sacrifice wasn't in vain!"
The allusion to the impending challenge of Abomasnow did much to sober down Paul's smugness. Even though he had three Pokémon (two badly injured and one major liability) to Candice's final one, it still felt like victory was a distant reach away. Despite Paul being both sick and not right in the head the last time he challenged Candice, he knew better than to believe those reasons were the sole cause of the total shut-out loss from Abomasnow alone. Paul understood how gravely he underestimated both Candice and her Pokémon last time – by this point, thankfully, Paul learned to take them seriously. With that hurdle overcome, the final obstacle between Paul and his seventh Sinnoh badge was upon him. Now that Candice established herself as a solid Pokémon Trainer, it was up to Paul to best her in spite of his self-imposed disadvantage.
"It all comes down to you, old friend," Candice said to her final Pokéball. "I'm counting on you!" She looked to Paul, and though she was the one losing so far (if only numbers were concerned, anyway), the Gym Leader remained in confident, high spirits. "Well, Paul, you're definitely showing your true colors as a trainer today. This battle's given me a lot of new ideas for my next classes with my students, so thanks for the inspiration!"
Paul remained silent and resigned himself to just take the compliment.
"But now it's time to get super serious," the Gym Leader continued as her arm pulled back, in position to toss the Pokéball. "Time to show your stuff, Abomasnow…!" Candice called out as she threw the Pokéball, and once again, Paul and his Pokémon were met face-to-face with the frigid beast that humiliated him last time.
"Miss Senior's trump card!" Zoey cheered, excited to see her mentor's strongest Pokémon finally up to bat. "It's sure to even the odds!"
The uncertain and battle-worn Gliscor glanced back to its trainer. Paul knew there was no point in recalling Gliscor now; it simply lacked the strength to be of any use as a back-up or a stall for time. "There's nothing you can do but give it your best shot," Paul bluntly told his Pokémon. He didn't intend to come off as mean by saying this, and the Fang Scorp Pokémon knew its trainer was simply being honest. "Whether or not you land a hit on Abomasnow, no one's going to say you didn't do everything you could to pull through."
Paul looked to Abomasnow just then, who looked as if it would attack at ay moment, before giving his last order to Gliscor. "When you get close, use Fire Fang," he muttered before resuming his upright stance to stare down his opponents. "Now go, Gliscor!"
With its wings spread out and its tail acting as a makeshift skating utility like the last battle, Gliscor made a beeline for Abomasnow.
"Right, we got this," Candice said with certainty. "You ready, Abomasnow?"
The Frost Tree Pokémon uttered a low grumble in response before going back to keep a sharp eye on Gliscor's movements. As Gliscor swiftly closed the gap between it and Abomasnow, that was Paul's cue to give the signal. "Fire Fang!"
The Fang Scorp Pokémon opened its mouth with flames spewing out, alerting the much larger opponent that it was time to act. Candice wanted to face Paul's last two Pokémon with Abomasnow as fresh as possible, so she wasn't about to let her opponents get a freebie just for kicks; especially when said freebie was an extremely devastating Fire-type move. "Not a chance!" she exclaimed. "Abomasnow, use Wood Hammer! Stop Gliscor cold in its tracks!"
Abomasnow raised a hefty arm – the green end of it glowed with energy of a deep turquoise hue – and with flawless timing, slammed its appendage over the back of Gliscor's neck… where it was literally inches away from chomping down on Abomasnow's frosty body. A powerful blow like that hitting a vital, vulnerable point on Gliscor's body stopped it cold; Fire Fang was diminished, and shortly after the Pokémon itself collapsed before the mighty beast of northern Sinnoh.
"Gliscor is unable to battle, and the winner is Abomasnow!"
Rather than being concerned for Gliscor, Paul was concerned with a detail most trainers wouldn't think to take notice to: Abomasnow not flinching or showing any signs of damage after using Wood Hammer – a move that gives recoil damage to the user after damaging an opponent, similar to Brave Bird and Volt Tackle. This was a sign that Abomasnow was not only immensely powerful, but quite the tank despite its myriad of elemental weaknesses thanks to its typing.
"Heh, that sure didn't last long," Zoey said with a wry smile. "Abomasnow's as powerful as ever." Seeing it take down Paul's Pokémon at least helped the Coordinator feel better about the outcome of her own battle with Candice that took place shortly after Paul and Brandon's battle several days ago in this very gym. Despite her skill, Candice's Abomasnow made short work of Zoey's Glameow.
This Abomasnow was a menace to Pokémon Trainers and Coordinators alike.
"Gliscor, return," Paul muttered as Gliscor was recalled to its Pokéball. It wasn't Gliscor losing to Abomasnow that had him so downtrodden, of course, but rather the new information about his opponent that he had to face. Having almost died the last time he faced off against this Abomasnow, the details of this Pokémon were somewhat of a blur in Paul's memory. He remembered his Pokémon going down in no less than four hits… taking that into consideration now, Paul cursed himself for not realizing earlier that Candice's strongest Pokémon would not be taken out with raw power alone, unlike the other opponents he defeated. Paul had excelled in countering speedy (but much frailer) Pokémon like Ash's, but when it came to bulky defensive types with extraordinary stamina like many of his own… it was clear Paul had his work cut out for him even more than he had initially thought.
Though Gliscor failed to land a hit on Abomasnow, it served its purpose well in surviving long enough to prevent any other Pokémon from having to dispatch Snover before facing its evolved form. With only two options left to use, Paul thought the most sensible approach was to have Abomasnow's defenses chipped away as much as possible in order to land any devastating blows. In order to pull that off, he needed a bulky Pokémon that would be able to handle the counterattacks from the Frost Tree Pokémon. Thankfully, both Ursaring and Torterra fit the bill – but between the two, there was no doubt which Paul was going to rest his hopes of winning with.
"Ursaring, stand by for battle!"
The Hibernation Pokémon emerged, landing on the tainted and increasingly fragile ice with a mighty thud. It had much more time to recover from its wounds sustained by Sneasel near the beginning of the challenge and was more than capable of taking a few hits from Ice-type attacks, so Paul had a good feeling about his chances here. Though Ursaring let out a quiet grunt as it found it much more difficult to maintain good footing on the ice since it was last active on the field, its trainer brushed off the minor detail and paid no mind to it – not realizing he was making the same critical mistake Ash did during their full battle.
"Smart choice," Candice commended her challenger. "Of course, it's only natural that your most valuable Pokémon would be saved for my last, especially after I surprised you with my Medicham."
Zoey raised an eyebrow at the remark. "How is Miss Senior so sure that Ursaring is the MVP of Paul's team? She hasn't even seen his fourth yet…"
But she had, of course. Candice knew Torterra was Paul's fourth Pokémon; that was the only way to rationalize Paul's hesitance to use it even now; opting to use his battle-worn Pokémon instead. The Gym Leader also figured since Paul had used Honchkrow, Gliscor, and Ursaring in the first battle with her that he wouldn't switch out his own starter despite the type disadvantage. This rematch was about more than Paul proving to Candice his own competence as a Pokémon Trainer, but also to prove the strength of his Pokémon, even under the most unfavorable of conditions. If it could be done against Byron, Paul still felt he could do this to any Gym Leader he chose… though by this point he was definitely reconsidering to go back to his traditional methods once he reached the eighth Gym Leader.
"Alright! Abomasnow and I totally got this!" Candice proudly declared, twirling around as she pointed to her opponent's Pokémon. "Abomasnow, greet our friend with a nice Blizzard!"
With a powerful breath, Abomasnow attacked Ursaring from the opposite side of the field. Bone-chilling gusts of wind blew through Ursaring, who thankfully had plenty of fur to withstand that, as well as the clumps of snow that pelted it. It didn't seem like too much of a big deal, until Candice called for a nasty surprise. "Follow up with Ice Shard!"
Paul's eye's narrowed, as Ice Shard was sure to be a problem. It was a priority move like Quick Attack, so there was nothing Ursaring could do to evade it… but that did leave another option. "Quick! Use Slash!"
The command was just barely timed right; the Hibernation Pokémon managed to swipe at the menacing projectile just before it made contact with its target. Ursaring snorted with a cocky gesture as the glittering remains of Ice Shard floated about in the air around it.
"Quick thinking," Candice muttered. "Attacking from a distance doesn't really give us much of an advantage, so obviously we're gonna have to dive headfirst into the fray!" She smirked to her Abomasnow. "We want to make this a quick one, now don't we?"
Abomasnow agreed wholeheartedly, but only had time to get into position to move closer by the time Paul issued a retaliation shot. "Ursaring, use Focus Blast!" Moments later, a menacing blue ball of energy was sent flying Abomasnow's way, but Candice was not nearly as concerned as Paul wanted her to be.
"Time to go skating!" Candice decided. "Dodge it and close that gap, Abomasnow!"
Though not nearly as mobile as Candice's smaller Pokémon, the towering Ice-type menace still managed to use the advantage of its home field to evade the attack, leaving the field itself as the only recipient of the attack. That was one more crater, puddle, and mess of cracks to add to the collection the battlefield was assembling, but Candice thought nothing of it and focused entirely on putting Ursaring out of commission quickly. "Time for the test of kiai might!" Candice exclaimed with glee. "Abomasnow, give our guest a friendly nudge!"
"Use Slash when it gets close!" Paul ordered, not about to just let Ursaring get pushed around without the offender suffering a consequence. Much to his chagrin, however, his Pokémon was doomed to never regain its full strength despite the time it had to rest… this put a severe dent in its reaction time. Though it was able to lay out a Slash attack once Abomasnow was in its personal space, Abomasnow easily blocked the attack with its bulky arms and successfully shoved Ursaring from its position.
The Hibernation Pokémon simply was not meant to have good traction on icy terrain; the shove Abomasnow gave it forced Ursaring to slip and slide about before friction would finally let it slow to a stop.
Paul knew this was bound to be a problem with Ursaring, but he was determined to not let this setback completely negate everything he worked for. "Keep it steady, Ursaring!" he demanded; harsh but firm. The young trainer had so far maintained control of his emotions exceptionally well during this battle… but that would become much harder to do if he lost Ursaring here, especially if it was unable to land any significant damage on Abomasnow. The Frost Tree Pokémon casually made its way over to Ursaring; Paul could see Candice ready to call an attack any second now, and he knew he had to beat her to the punch.
"Ursaring, Hammer Arm!"
"Abomasnow, Ice Punch!"
They both called their Pokémon to attack at the same time, triggering a mighty clash of the titans: Abomasnow and Ursaring were using both arms charged with energy to make their attacks as devastating as possible, only for their massive forearms to clash with each other. Both Pokémon were locked into a battle of endurance now; each one holding their position in hopes of overwhelming one another with their still-active attacks. Hammer Arm was a Fighting-type move, effective against Ice-type moves just as well against Ice-type Pokémon – but Abomasnow's natural affinity for ice allowed its Ice Punch to persevere under the pressure of Hammer Arm.
"Keep it up, Abomasnow!" Candice cheered. "We know those kiai is the strongest here!"
"Don't you dare give in!" Paul warned Ursaring. "Your Hammer Arm should be overpowering Ice Punch easily; what's wrong with you?!"
What Paul failed to consider was certain smaller details that kept this struggle a stalemate: Abomasnow was taller and heavier than Ursaring, so the Frost Tree Pokémon had an advantage in forcing this clash of power to turn in its favor. Traction on the ice once again proved to be a factor, as Ursaring's balance on the ice became compromised the more Abomasnow forced it down – and naturally, Abomasnow had no such issues to begin with.
"We got 'em on the ropes!" Candice noted with absolute certainty. "Alright, Abomasnow! Power up that Ice Punch and win this test of might!"
Since Abomasnow already had the advantage in stature, girth, and force, it could afford to channel more power into its Ice Punch. Ursaring had no such luck, having to focus most of its energy on making sure it didn't crumble beneath its opponent's sheer power of will. Paul grit his teeth with a most sour look on his face before the collision of powers triggered an explosion.
Abomasnow slid back a few feet from the impact, but otherwise looked fine. Ursaring, however, was left face-first on the field. Thankfully, Ursaring was quick enough to raise itself up (though only on its hands and knees as best) before Mr. Honcho could rule this match a knockout. The Hibernation Pokémon looked positively livid – which Paul saw as a good thing. Ursaring often was at its best while angry, and the adrenaline rush that came with such rage would hopefully be enough for this ornery Pokémon to get the job done. That's what Paul wanted to believe, anyway. It was only a pity that Paul wouldn't be able to take advantage of Ursaring's ability for this match, which would have helped his chances immensely… however, as Paul had seen numerous times before, there was literally nothing Ursaring could do if it were frozen in ice, and that was the only status effect that could be inflicted here.
"Ice Beam, let's go!" Candice was quite the opportunist, actively seizing any moment she could get her hands on to go on the offensive. Her Abomasnow was more than ready to follow up on the command, firing its attack straight at the still-recovering opponent.
Knowing there was no time for Ursaring to charge up a Focus Blast to cancel it out, Paul was forced to get creative. "Ursaring, use Slash and don't stop!" The furious Pokémon stood its ground; its anger fueled its many Slash attacks as its mighty claws tore into the attack to prevent it from landing a proper hit. While that part was a success, Ursaring's paws were both numbingly cold and partially encrusted with ice. Better its paws than the entirety of its body, Paul figured, but he had a feeling this side-effect of his hastily-made plan would be a persisting detriment to Ursaring's combat ability.
"So, Paul," Candice addressed her challenger. "Just between you and me, I really like battles where there's action beyond just firing off attacks. Maybe Zozo's rubbed off on me over the years, but I made my battlefield an ice rink for a reason." Zoey smiled at the kudos she was given and knew what Candice was implying.
"If it's a skating contest you want, then forget it," Paul adamantly denied her. "Gliscor should've been more than enough to satisfy you there, and we both know a Pokémon like Ursaring isn't built for using this kind of field. We're not here to impress you with special effects; we're here to win."
Candice giggled at her party pooper of a challenger. "Well, I guess you have a point. Guess that means more fun for me!" And just like that, she was back in serious mode. "Alright, then. Let's see how your Ursaring can handle a little technique me and Zozo practiced back in the day: Abomasnow, Ice Shard barrage…!"
"What?!" Paul did not like the sound of that. Abomasnow skated smoothly along the ice (the hundreds of thousands of pine needles that made up its body acting as a makeshift broom to sweep away the chunks of debris that gave other Pokémon trouble earlier on) before stopping to spin in place. It only took a moment for Abomasnow to spin fast enough to appear only as a massive green and white blur to the audience – unfortunately for Paul, that moment he could have used to attack instead had to serve as an opportunity for Ursaring to crack the ice off its paws.
Once that was dealt with, Abomasnow had already initiated its attack; with expert precision, the Frost Tree Pokémon blew a series of large ice chunks each time it made a full revolution to its starting position where it faced Ursaring. Ice Shard of course was a priority attack no matter how many times it was fired off, and being deployed at this exceptionally high velocity meant Ursaring had no hope of dodging nor blocking the barrage.
Paul flinched, shielding himself from the icy shrapnel that flew his way every time an Ice Shard attack collided into Ursaring. His beastly Pokémon roared in anger and agony each time it was hit, trying its best to swat away the frigid projectiles but continuing to get injured in the process. It occurred to Paul that this was Candice's way of showing him the consequences of not playing the game her way. Abomasnow definitely looked like it could keep this up all day, and unless Ursaring started moving around like the Gym Leader wanted, then it would simply get pelted into submission by long-range attacks. For once, Paul could not afford to be stubborn.
"I get your point," he grunted before looking to his Pokémon. "Get out of there, Ursaring! Then go straight for Abomasnow!"
Ursaring was more than willing to go through with this plan; it slid across the ice outside the firing range and stumbled to swerve around and charge straight at Abomasnow. The larger Pokémon was still spinning and thus did not notice Ursaring had left until Candice shouted to him. "Stop, Abomasnow! Stop! Ursaring's coming right your way!"
But even Abomasnow was not able to recover immediately after rapidly spinning for so long; it was clearly disoriented when it managed to stop and was completely unaware of Ursaring swiftly encroaching upon it.
"Perfect," Paul murmured to himself, feeling his confidence and smugness resurface in his expression. "Now, Ursaring! Focus Blast!"
Zoey's hands tightened into fists as she watched the scene unfold, but then… something unexpected. At first she was tense; now she was just pleasantly surprised.
Ursaring indeed was on the right path to Abomasnow, and Abomasnow remained too dazed to act in accordance to Candice's wishes. Focus Blast was charged up, and it seemed inevitable that Abomasnow was due for a harsh collision from the Hibernation Pokémon followed by a critical hit from a super-effective attack.
What changed, then? Ursaring tripped over the ice no more than a yard away from Abomasnow. It wasn't the debris that caused Ursaring to lose its footing, but rather the large fissure in the ice that bisected the field… made by none other than Urasring itself. In all the excitement and the dark coloration of the ice masking a great deal of the more dangerous areas on the battleground, Paul had completely forgotten about that menacing obstacle. The fissure wasn't nearly wide enough to engulf the massive Hibernation Pokémon, but it could still immobilize a large target by getting at least one limb caught in the crevice. This stopped Ursaring dead in its tracks. A deafening roar of pain and rage echoed throughout the Snowpoint Gym, almost immediately followed up with a thud when the rest of Ursaring's body was forced to fall. The rumbling aftershock from the impact was felt even by Zoey up in the stands.
Judging by Paul's horrified expression, Candice could tell he didn't mean for this to happen. Whatever plan he had for this crevice, it certainly seemed to backfire on him… meaning there was no better time to end this battle now.
"Looks like Ursaring's not going anywhere for a while," she mused, looking to her signature Pokémon (who had since recovered from its last move). "Time to send it packing, then! Abomasnow, user Wood Hammer!"
"No–!" Paul knew it was a waste of time to order for a move now; but he didn't want it to end like this. He had counted on Ursaring being his saving grace of this entire challenge; to take out Abomasnow itself… or at the very least, rough it up enough so that his final Pokémon would be able to mop up what was left.
One thunderous explosion and a moment of steam clearing later, only one thing needed to be said. "Ursaring is unable to battle, and the winner is Abomasnow!"
Now Paul was faced with a much more daunting task. As he recalled Ursaring back to its Pokéball, the trainer found it much harder to look steady or confident. It was important for him to maintain his cool; not only to throw off Candice's perceptions of how he fared against her, but to also steel himself against his body's urges to crumble under the pressure. Now that he was sick, it was much easier for him to succumb to panic attacks and various (much worse) side effects. The last thing Paul wanted was for this Gym Battle to end with him puking up blood and/or falling unconscious again; this was exactly how his win against Byron and loss against Candice ended. More than anything, Paul wanted to mark this rematch with Candice as the end of that dark era. But, he figured he should have learned by now that nothing worth achieving ever came easy. He was notably somber when he stored away Ursaring's Pokéball and pulled out the final one.
"Finally, they're evened up," Zoey expressed with excitement. "And Abomasnow barely broke a sweat taking out Gliscor and Ursaring. Now we'll finally get to see what Paul's been holding back on us all this time and–"
"Torterra, stand by for battle!"
Just like that, the Coordinator's expression changed from eager to utterly bewildered as she watched the quadruped of nearly 700 pounds appear on the battlefield. Even more audible cracks were heard as the brittle ice struggled to not completely crumble under such massive weight. "W-wait… that's his last Pokémon?!"
Of course, Candice knew all along that facing Torterra again was inevitable. "Well, you officially topped Ash when it comes to surprising me, Paul," she commented in good jest. "Congratulations! Those are awesome bragging rights to have."
Both Paul and Candice looked up to the source of the shrill cry: a very infuriated Zoey. "That's right!" she declared, pointing directly at Paul. "I'm talking to you! You think I forgot how rude and nasty you were to Ash back when we met, when you insulted him just because he used Grotle in a Gym Battle against Miss Senior here?!"
Honestly, Paul had expected Zoey to have better things to do than memorize every little detail of a conversation that had nothing to do with her… especially when said conversation happened well over a week ago. Like most things he deemed asinine, Paul refused to dignify Dawn's rival with an answer… though being ignored wasn't nearly enough to deter Zoey from running her mouth.
"Using a Grass-type in an Ice-type Gym? I guess you chalked that up to blind faith," Zoey recited, speaking these exact words using her own personal (and intentionally exaggerated) impression of Paul. "Yet here you are, doing the exact same thing! Even worse, really! At least Grotle isn't as weak to Ice-type moves as Torterra is!"
Not even a mockery of his tone could push Paul into giving this girl the time of day. Luckily for him, Candice was there to douse the flames coming from the fiery redhead. "Now now, Zozo," she gently urged. "Even though I wasn't there whenever Paul allegedly said that, it doesn't really matter now. We know Paul and Ash are rivals now, right?" Loathe as Paul was to admit that, still. "I think I can see what's going on, and it's actually pretty admirable."
Zoey's cheeks puffed up in aggravation, not liking it one bit that Candice was taking Paul's side. "Oh yeah? What's so admirable about being a hypocrite, Miss Senior?"
"Look at it from another angle," the Gym Leader urged. "Paul's getting ready to battle me, but finds out his rival beat him to the punch, and then he learns that Ash won against me with some pretty big disadvantages across most of his team. If Paul came in today with a team that's made to totally obliterate Ice-type Pokémon, he'd probably feel like the weaker trainer for using that crutch to win against me when Ash didn't need much of an advantage! So he figures, well, if Ash was crazy enough to use Grotle against an Ice-type expert and still win, then he'll do one better and beat me using a Pokémon with an even bigger Ice-type weakness!" Candice looked to Paul with burning eyes of raw passion after going on such a tangent. "That's what this is really all about, isn't it, Paul?"
Paul really didn't want to get into this, but since Candice went out of her way to vouch for him (on top of all the other favors she did for him since they met), he reluctantly played along while saying the fewest amount of words possible. "… Right."
"See, Zozo?" Candice didn't enjoy defending Paul at her best friend's expense, certainly, but the Gym Leader learned over the years how it was better to make the best out of everything – even scenarios like this where Zoey painted a very negative picture of Paul, only for Candice to interpret the perspective the opposite way. "Even a Coordinator should learn how to look at things from all sorts of different perspectives. Who knows? It might be something you'll have to do if you wanna win the Grand Festival," she said with a wink.
Zoey couldn't deny that Candice was making sense, of course. She understood what her mentor was trying to convey. She slumped back into her seat with a sigh of resignation; the Coordinator had no fuel left in her for any future outbursts for the rest of the battle. "I gotcha, Miss Senior… loud and clear." She resisted her urge to glare at Paul from the side – as far as Zoey was concerned, no amount of common sense would make her like that guy. It was a miracle in of itself that she could even have a shred of respect for him.
"Excellent," Candice said, satisfied to have that potential conflict nullified. She turned her attention back to her challenger. "So this is it, Paul: my best Pokémon against your best Pokémon. It's the final showdown."
Torterra looked back to its trainer for some kind of instruction. Experienced as it was, this scenario was hardly the usual kind Torterra was tasked with handling. But the starter Pokémon knew one thing was for certain, based on Candice's words and the fact that it was sent out to battle at all: it was Paul's last chance for winning this Gym Battle. Its comrades had already been taken out, which forced this most unfavorable matchup. Normally, Torterra was Paul's ace-in-the-hole for winning against Gym Leaders. But… this time was different. Judging from Paul's tense, apprehensive expression, Torterra could feel its trainer lacked faith in his first Pokémon being able to finish the job. The Continent Pokémon knew those feelings were not unfounded, based on the type disadvantage, the field disadvantage, and the fact that dodging any kind of attack was out of the question – this was going to be nothing more than a battle of attrition; one that went against Torterra in every possible way.
Even so… Torterra silently begged for Paul's faith and support. It had personally seen Paul sink to his lowest several days back when his training with Reggie had just started. Recovering from Infernape's Blast Burn took a while, but Torterra was determined to heal up as quickly as it could so it could resume training. Though it was painful to see Paul at rock bottom, Torterra welcomed the huge breakthrough that came of it; now the bond between Paul and Torterra was not flimsy as it was before. Paul still didn't want to play favorites with his Pokémon, but he no longer felt ashamed and weak to care about Torterra.
What convinced Torterra that its trainer changed for the better? It wasn't really the fact that it witnessed Paul breaking down into a sobbing fit after seeing his first Pokémon get blown back a mile away; it was what happened after that… the real reason Torterra wanted to recover so quickly after that attack.
Paul never left Torterra's side until it recovered. He missed out on a day and a half's worth of training because of that, but he simply told the rest of his Pokémon to train on their own terms while he chose to sit with his first Pokémon and not budge from his spot until Torterra recuperated from its injuries. Literally the only time Paul left his Pokémon's side was to use the bathroom, and even then he was reluctant to do so unless someone else could watch Torterra in his place until he returned. Reggie delivered meals to his brother as well as blankets once Paul fell asleep; needless to say it warmed the elder brother's heart to see Paul this dedicated to his Torterra. He was finally accepting responsibility for his own shortcomings and caring for his Pokémon… and Reggie was the first to tell Torterra how loyal and protective its trainer had been for the entire recovery process. He apologized for not having a proper handle on his own strength that incapacitated Torterra to begin with, but of course the Continent Pokémon had no hard feelings on the matter, and both agreed that something like this needed to happen… so that Paul would finally understand what he had been lacking as a Pokémon Trainer this whole time.
And the rest was history. Now that Paul had finally opened his heart to Torterra, it was only appropriate for Torterra to show that Paul was not wrong nor weak for doing so, and reward its trainer's newfound kindness and devotion by winning this battle… no matter how close to impossible it felt.
"It looks bad; I know," Paul finally said, quietly speaking to his Pokémon. "And to be honest… I wanted to replace you with some other Pokémon for this battle," he admitted, which did not surprise Torterra in the least. "What stopped me from doing that… it wasn't because I wanted to stick to the original plan." Well, that was at least partially a deciding factor, but only for Conway's sake rather than Paul just being stubborn. "I kept you in this because…"
He still had trouble speaking from his heart, unsurprisingly. Luckily for Paul, Torterra's upward gaze towards its trainer seemed to indicate that it already knew what Paul was trying to say.
"Right," Paul understood, nodding with a faint (if uneasy) smile. "You already know what I mean… we both have something to prove here, don't we?"
The "Terra!" his Pokémon uttered in reply sounded gruff as usual, but oddly uplifting and inspired as well.
"So!" a familiar, high-pitched upbeat voice interrupted. "Are we all ready to start off this clash of ultimate kiai might?"
"We're ready," Paul replied, back to sounding cold and confident again. Once more, he looked down to Torterra to whisper some advice, as many plans had been set into motion since the battle started – yet very few of them had actually come into play. "Stone Edge is pivotal to our success, but for now, don't worry too much about actually hitting the opponent." He emphasized that last word as he gestured to the broken, blackened mess of a once-pristine ice battlefield. "If Abomasnow gets too close, you've got plenty of options to handle that. Hold it in place, replenish your energy, or push it back. The harder the impact, the better; just don't waste energy moving around unless you're trying to push it back, got that?"
The Continent Pokémon was admittedly curious as to how the battlefield ended up like this – it remembered how it looked when it battled here during Paul's first attempt, so it quickly gathered that its comrades did quite a number on the terrain, and there had to be a reason for that. Torterra had no desire to move around anyway; with its massive weight over ice that was badly worn down, cracked, partially melted, et cetera, one wrong move would put Torterra in a very bad place. By standing firm, Torterra could only hope the ice underneath it would withstand 700 pounds of pressure long enough for the final battle's duration.
"Then here we go!" Candice announced. "Abomasnow, use Blizzard!"
"Use Stone Edge to block it!" Blizzard was the move to avoid or disrupt at all costs as far as Paul was concerned. It was the strongest of Abomasnow's Ice-type moves, but also the easiest to intercept due to how difficult it was for most Pokémon to make Blizzard hit a target accurately. Torterra summoned several small, glowing rocks that orbited around its body like the rings of Saturn (the planet – not the person). Stone Edge was undeniably the move Paul had Torterra practice the most during the ten-day training period, if its execution in the full battle against Ash was any indication. Torterra had full control of how fast or slow the rocks could go as well as which direction they went. For now, Torterra opted to use Stone Edge as a shield; a Rock-type move held up well against Blizzard. While some sharp drafts of wind and snow slipped through the barrier, Torterra resisted the urge to flinch as it felt chilled to the bone by just a fraction of that single attack.
"Very impressive," Candice complimented her challenger. "A creative way of blocking Abomasnow's Blizzard! It's almost as if you're thinking like a Coordinator, Paul!"
That comment made Paul openly cringe. Regardless of how he felt about making amends with Conway, the Pokémon Contest he was forced into would continue to give Paul nightmares for the rest of his life. Never again, he decided. "It's coincidental… nothing more."
"If you say so!" Candice conceded with a shrug. "Alright, Abomasnow, let's see if they can block your Ice Shard attack!"
"—Stone Edge, again!" Paul had to stay quick on his feet here; Candice seemed to like wedging in surprise attacks between her silly small talk. Once again, Reggie wasn't lying when he said Candice was a tough opponent.
This time, Torterra used Stone Edge as a direct counter to Ice Shard, as the floating stones ceased acting as a shield and instead flew in a steady, condensed line to collide into Abomasnow's attack well before it could reach its target. The power of both attacks appeared to be even for a moment, but eventually Stone Edge won out and triggered an explosion in the center of the field; neither Pokémon was caught up in it, at least.
"Wow," Candice uttered in genuine amazement after squinting past the quickly-receding dust cloud that came from the explosion. "I had no idea Stone Edge could be used in so many ways. Looks like as long as we've got that move to deal with, long-range attacks won't be any good." She looked to Abomasnow, who looked fine, but… "Eventually Abomasnow's gonna get worn down if it keeps using a bunch of moves that don't do any damage…"
"Abomasnow looks pretty good for a Pokémon that just took out two others," Zoey remarked; her concern matching Candice's. "But Torterra's a fresh Pokémon with a lot of stamina. If Miss Senior relies on attacks from a distance all the time, she's gonna leave Abomasnow wide open for a nasty counterattack."
"It looks like there's only one way to settle this," Candice determined. "A straight-up, all-out brawl! The best way to see whose kiai is the strongest, naturally. So, Abomasnow, let's rush 'em and use Ice Punch!"
That move was up there with Blizzard as a threat factor; Paul knew this is where his true might (as well as Torterra's) would be tested. Torterra was not built for dodging anything, so the Continent Pokémon had no choice but to take the hit. The hefty tortoise held in its pained grunt as best it could; not wanting to worry Paul more than the situation itself had already.
Shaking off the fear of losing the battle, Paul quickly called for the next move. "Crunch!"
This was easy enough for Torterra to pull off with Abomasnow being right next to it. The Frost Tree Pokémon yelped as it felt Torterra's mighty jaws clamp down on its foot. People like Ash and Paul suffered just with having their Turtwigs chomp on various parts of their bodies… but at full force, their fully-evolved brethren could bite whole limbs clean off. Obviously, this wasn't going to be the case for a much sturdier being like Abomasnow, but it was extremely painful nonetheless.
"There's no need for that, Paul," Candice teased while shaking her head. Even her Abomasnow howling in pain didn't faze her self-assured disposition. "It's not like Abomasnow's going anywhere."
"Everything we do is for a reason," an adamant Paul told her. "I'll leave it at that. Torterra, use Giga Drain!"
"Not good!" Zoey quietly exclaimed, back to keeping her commentary to herself. "Giga Drain's one of the strongest moves that saps a Pokémon's energy and converts it to energy for the user," she recalled as the large spikes on Torterra's shell glowed a bright green color – which then emitted light beams of the same color to wrap around Abomasnow, doing just as Zoey said. "Although…" the Coordinator smirked a little as she paid close attention to Abomasnow, who still seemed to be reeling from the pain of Crunch more than the current attack affecting it. "Abomasnow being part Grass-type means Giga Drain shouldn't work that well on it. If Paul's trying to get Torterra to last longer in the battle, he should've picked a better method. Man, how in the world did this guy ever beat Ash?"
Paul knew Giga Drain wouldn't work very well against Abomasnow, but it was better than not having a health recovery option at all. Holding an opponent in place with Crunch and using Giga Drain to get the most out of draining its energy worked well enough on Ash's Gliscor; Paul didn't think this technique would work quite as well against Candice, but again, it was his best hope to get any worthwhile use out of Giga Drain. At times like this, Paul wished he had listened to Conway and taught Torterra Iron Head instead of Crunch…
"Well, we may be down a leg, but that's not a huge loss," Candice noted, seeming perpetually cheerful now. She was very tempted to remind Paul that his Torterra succumbed to her Abomasnow after only four hits when they first battled, but with Zoey in attendance, the Gym Leader once again remained faithful to the confidentiality agreement. One reason worthy of note for why Candice seemed so upbeat – even by her own standards – was just seeing Paul in relatively good health today. When they met, Paul seemed to be the living embodiment of the worst possible kind of misery. While he was far from a ray of sunshine today, Candice had yet to hear a nasty cough from her challenger; no signs of a fever, no exhaustion or overexertion, and best of all… no blood.
Though Candice was well aware that Paul was not totally healthy now (and never would be for the rest of his life), it was heartwarming to see her challenger had recovered this well… because he was that determined to battle her properly. That was all the more reason Candice had to give nothing but her absolute best for this battle.
"We still have arms, after all! Abomasnow, break out of Giga Drain and give our friend another Ice Punch!"
Since its typing hampered Giga Drain's power, Abomasnow easily ripped its arms free from the binding beams of energy and delivered another chilling blow over Torterra's massive shell. Though the Continent Pokémon lucked out and wasn't completely frozen from the attack, a layer of frost was left in Ice Punch's wake over the tip top of the shell. One of the stones protruding from Torterra's organic armor sparkled with the thin coat of ice, and the trunk of the small tree that grew over the shell was halfway engulfed in a frigid white color. Torterra couldn't bite back its groan of pain this time… its only consolation was that Paul was clearly not thinking less of his Pokémon for expressing its pain; in fact, Paul was obviously growing more concerned for Torterra. If Paul hadn't resolved to keep his mind focused on his Pokémon and the battle, he would no doubt be mentally preoccupied with hating himself for forcing Torterra into this kind of battle not once, but twice.
But Paul knew he would never win if he wasted time feeling sorry for himself. His reflex to play defensively this turn also aided his offense. "Torterra, use Stone Edge and knock Abomasnow back…!"
At point-blank range, Abomasnow had no chance of evading this attack. Rather than wasting time with fancy orbiting ring formations, Torterra rapid-fired dozens upon dozens of small (but sharp) directly into the opponent's torso. The Frost Tree Pokémon cut off its own moan of pain with another, then another after that, and so on as it was hit multiple times in rapid succession by the super-effective attack. It was forced to back away from Torterra, though it did so slowly – flinching from the pain all the while.
"Just move around it, Abomasnow!" Candice called out. "Then show 'em we mean business with Blizzard!"
Abomasnow used the ice (much of it now slushy and watery at the surface from the heat of battle amongst other things) to slide a short distance to the left of Torterra's attack, getting its much-desired reprieve from the onslaught. As it opened its mouth to unleash its wintery fury upon Torterra, Paul issued an unusual command.
"Huh?" Candice was most surprised when the concentrated stream of Stone Edge actually curved around and, like a boomerang, came flying right back to its target. "Ack! Abomasnow, look out!"
Abomasnow turned its head, but it was too late. Its broad, wide back was a large enough target for every rock to hit some part of the unsuspecting Pokémon. Its Blizzard was interrupted, though unfortunately not before it reached Torterra. Slowly but surely, frost was accumulating in scattered areas over Torterra's body. In turn, Torterra's own attack was cut short; the pain from the powerful Ice-type attack was just too much for Torterra to sustain.
Paul couldn't help but cringe at seeing the cosmetic damage on Torterra, knowing his starter's sturdy expression belied the excruciating pain it was going through despite only taking one full hit of damage so far. Stone Edge had done well in weakening the effectiveness of the other hits, but Candice was well on to his strategy of using Stone Edge offensively and defensively – sooner or later she would find a way around it. Even worse, Candice could afford having her Abomasnow get hit with Stone Edge more times than Paul could get by with letting Torterra get hit by most of Abomasnow's attacks.
So that left Paul with precious few options to win this fight. He knew that soon, Plan B would be his only hope for achieving victory here… but it would be risky. The sound of ice crackling under the pressure of the stationary Torterra's weight was a warning sign for Paul. With the battlefield worn and torn as it was, Paul had figured out the perfect finishing blow to this battle… but it could very easily backfire, just as the crevice did to Ursaring.
Urgent as the situation was, Paul and Torterra opted to wait… and listen. Only then would the duo know when to attack.
"Back on the offensive, Abomasnow!" Candice shouted. "Kiai power, MAXIMUM! Ram Torterra with your best Ice Punch!"
"Brace yourself!" Paul instructed his Pokémon, grimacing as he witnessed his first Pokémon stand there and let itself get bashed with another Ice Punch attack. Torterra howled in pain as Abomasnow threw itself against it, trying to push it out of the spot it had been sitting in since it was summoned, while bashing its fist against the Continent Pokémon's shell once again.
Paul clenched his fists, resisting his urge to call out for Torterra (a habit he had repressed years ago); instead he paid close attention to the details of the clash: Abomasnow was unable to budge Torterra from its spot. Very few Pokémon had the strength to manage 700 pounds of a sturdy, stubborn Pokémon like Torterra.
While that was good news for the team of Paul and Torterra, nothing was ever meant to entirely go their way. The crackling of the ice suddenly grew much louder, alerting Paul to witness a most terrible twist he had not thought was possible.
The pressure Abomasnow applied against Torterra made the ice underneath it give way. All human beings present in the Snowpoint Gym squinted and turned away in shock – besides Paul, whose eyes were wide open as he watched his first Pokémon sink under the battlefield – at least six inches or so – and while thankfully the entire area of ice had not caved in on the Continent Pokémon, all four of its legs were now deeply submerged within the increasingly unstable ice. Now Torterra really couldn't move, even if it wanted to.
"Whoa…! I've never had that happen in my gym before!" Candice exclaimed; her tone mixed with abject horror and forced optimism. "Looks pretty dangerous… Abomasnow, you'd best get out of there, post-haste!"
This time, Abomasnow opted to step back carefully rather than slide away; it was not oblivious to the horrendous mess the battlefield had become, and with Torterra's legs sunk into the ice, the rather hefty (though not nearly as much as its opponent) Abomasnow erred on the side of caution as it inched away.
"No…!" Paul growled, shaking his head. He didn't want Abomasnow to get away again; with Torterra effectively stuck in the ice, Stone Edge was the only way it would be able to attack its opponent, and in a situation like this where the terrain was finally falling apart, Paul no longer wanted to add on any more damage. "Torterra, you can't let it get away! Use…!" Paul's mind rushed for a move to call… "Use Giga Drain, and drag it back!"
Torterra was far from comfortable; its legs already numb from being submerged in the ice. Black water from Honchkrow's gratuitous use of Haze and the heat of battle (among other things) melting the ice everywhere on the field started to flow into the gaps made by Torterra's legs, adding to the discomfort. Despite that, the Continent Pokémon remained firm; its shell was cold and brittle from the Ice Punches it sustained and much of its body was dusted with frost from the Blizzard attacks… but Torterra was determined to not let its trainer down. Ice was the worst kind of pain any Torterra could endure, but the pain was a constant reminder of its own trainer's pain. Paul's constant pain, which would never go away… the pain Paul himself was suppressing now with all his might so that he could best utilize his Pokémon for battle. For a brief moment, Torterra looked to Paul… and though the callous teen didn't say a single word of encouragement or profess his belief in Torterra's abilities – something Ash Ketchum always did – the tortoise could read Paul's true feelings just by looking at him.
Torterra knew Paul was desperate to win… it even knew Paul was feeling regret and guilt for putting his first Pokémon through this torture. It had witnessed Paul losing battles left and right for weeks on end; the nightmare finally ending when its trainer battled Ash. Torterra knew despite Paul overcoming the most difficult hurdle of his life yet, he was afraid. He was afraid to lose again! It was Candice who put him in his place before… Torterra understood what this battle really meant, beyond earning another badge.
This battle was about putting the past to rest. By winning this battle, Paul would know for sure he could move on. The symbolism of this battle, the inner struggle of Paul, the circumstances that were regretful yet couldn't be changed… and even Paul's attempt to rekindle his bond with Conway… even though Conway himself was hundreds of miles away from this place… all of this, Torterra knew.
And because Torterra knew the true meaning of this battle, thereby being connected to its own trainer… it brought about a frightful second wind. Torterra roared, though not out of pain – but out of determination.
Paul was taken aback by his Pokémon's fired-up battle cry; he was even more surprised when he witnessed Torterra suddenly glowing with a strong green aura.
"Beautiful," Zoey whispered in amazement. The action of the battle had kept her quiet for a while, but she was quick to pick up on an amazing aesthetic. "But don't tell me that's…"
"… Overgrow," Paul inadvertently finished for her; completely focused on his Pokémon. It had been a long time since Torterra's ability activated in a casual battle. Unlike Chimchar/Monferno's Blaze ability, however, Paul had Torterra trained to have total control over its ability that was akin to his former Fire-type's.
With the renewed vigor and boost of power, Torterra followed through with Paul's command. The streams of energy that emerged from the frost-covered spikes of Torterra's shell suddenly grew to three times its normal size and swiftly extended out towards the still cautiously-retreating Abomasnow. The Frost Tree Pokémon soon found itself bound tightly by the energy… and moments later felt much weaker as Torterra consumed its stamina through the binds of green energy. And just as Paul instructed, the helpless Abomasnow was dragged back to its opponent.
"Hm…" For once, Candice was not so quick to make a call for her Pokémon. She finally understood the meaning of Paul's Pokémon wrecking her battlefield… and she was also aware of something else. "Overgrow can be trouble for sure," she acknowledged. "But it only triggers when Torterra's taken a lot of damage. If Abomasnow can aim the next attack just right…" Then it would be over for Torterra for certain.
Even with a power boost, Giga Drain wasn't quite as effective as it would normally be thanks to Abomasnow's typing, but it did not struggle as it was dragged by force back to Torterra. Though Abomasnow was getting worn down gradually and seemed to be getting pulled toward its doom, Abomasnow trusted Candice would make the right call to get it out of this mess.
"A gutsy move, bringing my Abomasnow right back to you," Candice told Paul with a smirk. "You still want a straight-up brawl even though your Torterra can't move? Well, I'm happy to oblige!" The Gym Leader looked to Abomasnow (now no more than a foot away from Torterra) with a confident nod. "Time for one of us to go out in a blaze of glory, Paul! Abomasnow, put everything into your last Ice Punch!"
Being so close to Torterra, and easily breaking free of Giga Drain's hold, Abomasnow's icy fist was thrust towards Torterra's head with blinding speed…
The strongest Grass-type move… the move that could only be learned by a starter Pokémon who was bonded with its trainer…
Torterra abruptly rose up on its hind legs, the force of which knocked back Abomasnow's Ice Punch. Its renewed strength allowed Torterra to rise; its front legs shattering the ice they had sunk in…. and for a brief moment, all in attendance at the Snowpoint Gym watched in awe of the mighty Torterra finally moving of its own accord, standing on its hind legs with its front legs dangling in the air; Torterra's head rose to let loose a vicious, nearly deafening roar.
Then it dropped back down; a rumbling thud that shook the entire facility and shattering nearing all of the blackened ice on the battlefield. Torterra summoned massive tree roots that tore through the icy battlefield like a herd of crazed wooden sharks. The roots were massive both in size and numbers due to the power boost from Overgrow, and though they indiscriminately crushed through everything in their path, their ultimate target was one and the same: Abomasnow.
There was no escape. Candice cried out her Pokémon's name, but it was too little, too late. The roots of a power-boosted Frenzy Plant came together and struck Abomasnow hard. Then they struck again… and again...
Until finally, the roots ended the onslaught by tossing Abomasnow high into the air. Paul, Candice, and Zoey looked up in awe as the Frost Tree Pokémon was tossed some twenty feet in the air like a ragdoll.
And then, the roots receded. The battlefield became even more torn than before, and shortly afterward another loud, thunderous thud echoed throughout the Snowpoint Gym: Abomasnow had landed.
That was it; that had to be it. Paul only wanted Torterra to use Frenzy Plant as a finishing move because of the consequence of using the move: Torterra became immobile. The green aura still outlined the massive Pokémon, but the quadruped's audible heaving for air indicated that it was exhausted. But that didn't matter now.
Surely that was the end of it.
"Come on, Abomasnow! Get up! I know you can do it; I believe in you! No Pokémon has more passion and kiai than you…!"
Abomasnow, by some unknown means, had managed to climb to its feet. By no means was it in a good condition, of course, as it wobbled and swayed whenever it tried to move. Regardless, Candice was ecstatic that her motivational words brought new life to her Pokémon. "You did it!" she cried out.
But the triumph was short-lived. Before Paul could resign himself to defeat, he and everyone else present at the scene heard yet another sharp sound of ice beginning to crack. Abomasnow was too weary to pay any mind to it.
That ended up being a costly mistake; Candice was unable to utter a word to her Pokémon before the thin, brittle ice gave way under the mighty Frost Tree Pokémon's weight. Unlike Torterra, who was stable enough to only have its feet wedged into the ice, Abomasnow fell into a much wider and deeper pit, to the point that it was barely visible to anybody. Dark water and various shards of ice fell into the hole over Abomasnow, which was gradually widening.
"Abomasnow!" Candice instinctively raced over the ice towards her Pokémon, but found herself stuck in the middle as she realized the entire field had become a hazard to anyone's safety; the Gym Leader easily could've been the next one to be a victim of thin ice.
"Miss Senior, it's not safe!" Zoey called out, worried sick for her mentor. "Get out of there!" She was beginning to hate Paul all over again; this catastrophe was his fault, after all.
"I have to make sure Abomasnow's alright!" Candice replied in defiance, making more careful deliberate steps towards the largest crater made in her gym. She was especially cautious when she reached the area, peering down to see her Abomasnow quite knocked for a loop. Its eyes were swirled to signify it was no longer able to battle, but still muttered syllables of its own name to let Candice know it wasn't seriously injured. She smiled and let out a nervous chuckle once she was certain Abomasnow would be alright. She took out Abomasnow's Pokéball and nodded to Mr. Honcho; the silent gesture told the referee that the battle was over.
"Abomasnow is unable to battle," he announced. "Torterra is the winner, which makes Paul the challenger the victor!"
While Paul was visibly stunned that he had finally defeated Candice, the beaten Gym Leader smiled again, humble and noble as all Gym Leaders should be. "Abomasnow, return," she said as her trademark Pokémon was recalled back to its Pokéball to get some much needed rest. "You were amazing as always, Abomasnow. For hanging in there after taking a beating like that… I'm awful proud of you. Now rest up while I take care of business." Pocketing away her Pokéball, Candice looked to her challenger… beaming with pride and relief that Paul gave her the battle he wanted to give since the day he met her.
"You sure made a mess, Paul," Candice pointed out, looking around at her once pristine battlefield that now looked like a disaster area. "But you didn't hold back; you proved to me your kiai prowess can best mine. Congratulations, Paul!"
The victor of the battle just barely registered Candice's words.
Paul hadn't been this stunned by winning a battle since his rookie days in the Hoenn region.
But he won. Finally… finally, Paul defeated Candice. The past was officially behind him now.
All that remained was a certain bespectacled friend of his, to whom Paul owed much for his victory.
Once again, Paul's mind wandered… thinking of Conway; where he was and what he was doing.
If nothing else, Paul had a new objective now besides gaining his final badge: Conway.
Much later in the day, everyone had exited the Snowpoint Gym and assembled outside in front of it.
"Here you go, Paul: the Icicle Badge! Believe me, you earned it," Candice said, presenting a case with the small, shiny token that forever represented Paul's victory over the Snowpoint City Gym. "It's been a long wait for you, but I'm sure it was worth it."
Paul simply nodded to the Gym Leader and accepted the Icicle Badge, only taking a moment to look at this small milestone; the symbol of the end of an era for Paul, as it were, before placing it in his badge case. Only one empty spot in the case remained. "It was very much worth it. Thank you."
"You're lucky Miss Senior's easy to forgive your trespasses, Paul," Zoey muttered, obviously bitter over her dear friend losing the battle. "If you were battling me for the Icicle Badge, I sure wouldn't have given it to you. Not after you cleaned up the mess you made in the gym, at least."
"Oh, Zozo, I think you've antagonized him enough for one day," Candice chided the Coordinator. "Sure, if he messed up my battlefield for no reason like I initially thought, then yeah, I'd probably be ticked. But Paul had a reason for everything he did, just like he said to me during the battle." She looked to Paul briefly with a wink. "Besides, I think it's natural for a challenger to want to even the odds given the nature of my gym's battlefield. I doubt anyone would've made a plan as elaborate as Paul's, though! That battle was definitely far from the norm, and I mean that in a good way, of course!"
Zoey was miffed that Candice would defend Paul after everything he did, but she just rolled her eyes. "I guess… it just seemed a bit much, in my opinion."
"I hadn't completely figured it out until the battle was almost over," Candice admitted. "It was a lot to process and a lot to worry about… I like to think that was part of Paul's strategy; to overwhelm me with a lot of stuff." She looked to her young challenger. "Isn't that right?"
Paul nodded to her. He really didn't want to stay and chat, but for everything Candice had done for him since his arrival in Snowpoint City, he figured he owed it to her to heed her words of wisdom. It was nice having his plans acknowledged and respected, at least – even if part of those plans were made by his former companion.
"Well, he had Honchkrow obliterate all of the ice structures on the field to make it harder to skate around," Zoey recalled. "Then he turned the whole place black. It made things harder to see, but was that really worth all the trouble when Honchkrow could have been attacking instead?"
"The ultimate plan was to make the ice unstable," Paul spoke up. "Making everything black was part of that plan; not just to make things harder to see, but to speed up the ice melting process."
Zoey raised an eyebrow at Paul. "Ice melting process?"
"It's kind of a science thing," Candice explained. "But you should get this: Zozo, why do our neighbors here wear dark clothes when it gets really cold?"
"Because the sun's rays absorb dark colors which helps to keep people warm," Zoey answered. A moment later, she realized the connection at last. "Oh… the lights in your gym are really strong, so it's like a makeshift sun…"
Candice nodded. "Exactly! With the ice blackened, combined with the heat of all the attacks throughout the battle and the impacts, Paul was able to make my whole ice field just as hazardous to me as it was for him. Sure, it won't be any fun to clean up, but for the awesome battle I just had, Zozo, it was totally worth it."
"It sure was intense," Zoey admitted. "You were really great, Miss Senior."
"And how about Paul?" the Gym Leader asked coyly.
Zoey grumbled, knowing her mentor was going to make her acknowledge her challenger's efforts regardless of how much she still disliked him. Still, by this point Zoey couldn't delude herself into believing Paul was a bad trainer or a bad person. Much as she loathed his attitude, the Coordinator sighed and decided to take the high road.
"He… was really good too," she admitted with a low grumble. "I can see why Ash wants to prove himself to this guy, at least."
"Hmph." Paul was only vaguely amused at Zoey's forced compliment. "Maybe I'd say the same for you, but I don't watch Contests. Speaking of which, shouldn't you have continued on your journey by now?"
"Sheesh, even after winning you're a huge grump," Zoey grumbled, though deep down she knew Paul had a point: she wouldn't be getting very far in her journey today due to the lengthy battle she insisted on watching. "I just wanted to see this through to the end; this'll be the last time for a while that I'll get to see Miss Senior battle, after all."
Candice smiled as she gave her friend a nice pat on the back. "It won't be the same here without you, Zozo. But I understand… you said you'd come back here as Top Coordinator, and I know that's just what'll happen. Next time you come back, you'd better be ready to party! I'll throw a huge celebration in your honor."
"Aw, you don't have to do that," Zoey said, humbly blushing at the prospect. "But I know you're the type who'll go and do it anyway no matter what I say… so I'll look forward to it, Miss Senior!"
"Good!" Candice was pleased; the great promise of her own best friend and student coming home as a Top Coordinator excited her enough to not be saddened by Zoey's imminent departure. "Now go on out there and get your last ribbon!"
"You got it!" Zoey assured her mentor, giving her a thumbs-up gesture before turning away to continue her journey. "I guess I'd better get going while it's still daylight out. Gotta find the nearest Pokémon Center outside of town; it's no picnic camping out in this area."
Candice fully agreed, especially after having seen what roughing it in the most dangerous areas of northern Sinnoh did to Paul. Keeping that in mind, she handed Zoey one of her own Pokéballs. "Just to be on the safe side, I'd like you to take my Dodrio so you can cover more ground. You can return it to me when you reach the nearest Pokémon Center, okay?"
"That's very thoughtful of you, Miss Senior," Zoey remarked, accepting Candice's Pokéball with mild hesitance. "I'll be sure to return it tonight… thank you." With that, she tossed the Pokéball and out came Candice's favored mode of transport. "You got all that, Dodrio?" Zoey asked the three-headed bird just to be sure it knew why it was suddenly in her hands.
The Triple Bird Pokémon squawked in affirmation. With nothing left to do or talk about in Snowpoint City, Zoey was quick to mount herself on Dodrio and hung on tightly. "Thanks again for the loan, Miss Senior! I'll see you around!"
"Make sure you give me a call now and then!" Candice called out as Zoey started her ride out into the big world beyond her backyard. The Gym Leader happily waved goodbye to her dear childhood friend. "And good luck…!"
Candice continued waving until Zoey and Dodrio were no longer in sight. Then, she caught Paul trying to sneak away… and of course placed a hand over his shoulder to stop him in his tracks. To this, Paul let out a quiet sigh… he was really off his game these days when it came to his usual disappearing act.
"I think we're both due for a visit to the Pokémon Center," the Gym Leader proposed with a sly tone. "Don't you think?"
Having considered the brutal damage both his and her Pokémon sustained through their gym battle… Paul couldn't argue against Candice's proposal.
"You have a point," Paul calmly conceded. "Let's go." He followed Candice to the Snowpoint City Pokémon Center. Along the way, Paul felt the exchange he and Candice had was very reminiscent of another encounter he had with a very strong female trainer many months ago: the day when he foolishly challenged Cynthia, when after their short-lived, one-sided battle, the Champion of Sinnoh stopped the stubborn Paul with her calm, yet stern words… when she insisted Paul to go to the Pokémon Center. On top of that, Cynthia reminded Paul that it was his responsibility as a Pokémon Trainer to give his Pokémon the care they needed… a trait Paul later learned he lacked.
But that was in the past; the past Paul had put to rest as of today. Without a single complaint or a disconcerting expression on his face, the pair of trainers made their way to the Pokémon Center.
While waiting for Nurse Joy to finish rejuvenating eight battle-worn Pokémon, Paul and Candice sat at a nearby table; both had a beverage in hand. Obviously, Candice had more than one reason to take Paul to the Pokémon Center with her. With only Nurse Joy in the vicinity (this particular one already knowing Paul's dark secret – being the first to learn of it, no less), Candice could finally say everything that was on her mind.
"Well, Paul… it's just you and me now," the Gym Leader told him. "Can I drop the act?"
Paul closed his eyes and sighed. "Yeah. No more annoying eavesdroppers are around…"
"Great!" Candice exclaimed, looking oh-so eager. "I can finally speak candidly with you!" An ingenious but corny epiphany hit her just then. "Hah! Smile, Paul! You're on Candid Candice!"
Unfortunately, Paul was not a fan of silly puns. He just stared silently at Candice, as if he was silently scolding her for her silliness.
"… Geez, you could stand to lighten up," Candice muttered before suddenly looking quite guilty for saying that. "I mean… even with your situation, it would do you good to loosen up a bit and have fun once in a while."
"You know I don't have that kind of time," Paul retorted. Although that wasn't quite true; for being terminally ill, twenty years was plenty of time to have at least a little fun. Regardless, Paul felt that wasn't the case… most likely because it had been many years since he dabbled in anything "fun".
"Let's not get into this," Candice implored. "Paul, I just wanted to say… you were right about what you said before."
"Before?" Paul blinked at her, confused.
"When you told me to forget about our previous battle, because that wasn't the true you battling me then," Candice explained. "I'm really glad I was able to battle you today… the real you. And you even used the same Pokémon against me this time. It was amazing to see how your Pokémon adapted to an environment and opponents that they were really weak against. You wanted to give them all a chance to redeem themselves, didn't you?"
Normally when Gym Leaders imparted some wisdom to Paul after he defeated them, their words were easily forgotten or just generic common sense. The perpetually grumpy trainer actually felt flattered at Candice's words. "It wasn't the only reason," Paul confessed. "Ever since I defeated Byron with type disadvantages across my whole team, I felt like I had to push myself to the limit and challenge the rest of the Sinnoh Gym Leaders that way. A… friend of mine actually helped in building my strategy against you, even though we didn't know much about you back then; much less what Pokémon you'd be using."
That was a weird experience for Paul; actually saying out loud – though being vague about it – that Conway was his friend.
"That was very thoughtful of your friend," Candice noted. "So how much of that strategy actually went into play during our battle?"
"I made him build a strategy based around the four Pokémon I personally chose," Paul exposited. "He complained about it at first, naturally… but he had some really good ideas and smart choices as to which Pokémon I should use first and which Pokémon I should save for just the right moment. That much, I did follow… but my friend had no idea what your gym was like. A lot of things I did, I improvised on the spot. I'd say the tactics I used for our battle was fifty-fifty, between his advice and my own ideas." Paul looked to the side, out the large window the pair sat near. Seeing the terrain Snowpoint City was named for reminded Paul of something important.
"I guess I should be glad I fell in that snow pit the day I first arrived in Snowpoint City," Paul said rather absent-mindedly… he didn't mean to actually say that out loud.
"Hey, yeah… I remember that. That's how I met you!" Candice realized. "But talking from experience here, being a native to Snowpoint and all, it's a major pain getting caught in those pits. Why're you glad you fell in one?"
Paul managed to smile a bit. "I was about to throw my friend's strategy notes away; we're not exactly on good terms right now. Falling into the pit stopped me from doing that, because then I met you and… with the way things escalated, I forgot to throw them away."
"I see," Candice understood. "That really was fortunate for you after all. But I've got a feeling… even if you and your friend are having an issue right now, I bet he'd be proud of you for what you did today."
Paul solemnly tilted his head down, facing the table rather than Candice. "I'll let him know… if I run into him again."
"I'm sure you will," Candice assured him. "Fate or destiny will bring companions back together in some way or another; just wait and see. In any case, Paul, I gotta say I'm in awe of you."
That made Paul look up at her; obviously surprised. "What…?"
"You not only treated me to a truly great battle where your true colors shined, but you did so without your condition affecting you. You look a lot better now than you did the last few times I saw you, Paul," Candice confessed. "Whatever you're doing to suppress your symptoms, please keep it up! And please, take good care of yourself."
Paul nearly thanked Candice for her kind words, but scoffed at the end of her speech. "This must be what a mother sounds like…"
"I'm serious, Paul!" the Gym Leader shot back, indeed looking like an authoritative figure. "It's not easy for me to keep your condition a secret from everyone, especially people who are near and dear to you like your brother Reggie." Her expressions softened just then. "And I want to be sure you've really changed. I mean, you have changed for the better since I last saw you, but I want to be sure you're not still totally reckless and constantly risking your life just to get some thrills. Please, promise me you'll take the safe way out of Snowpoint City when you leave…"
"I've already decided to do that," Paul calmly informed her, though he was visibly awkward with Candice's abundance of concern. When he passed out (and nearly passed away) after vomiting blood in her gym, that obviously left a serious impact on Candice. It was possibly a traumatic experience; though she was hiding it fairly well if that was the case.
Upon hearing Paul abruptly agree with her, Candice did a double-take. "You– you have?"
"Right," Paul affirmed. "I've been through a lot since I came to Snowpoint City. By now I understand why the things I did beforehand were crazy and stupid… and after all the training and battling I've done for the past couple of weeks here, I'd really welcome a rest before I move on to earn my final badge. Once my Pokémon are healed, I'm going to make some exchanges to make sure I get out of here safely. Weavile's been very helpful in getting around these areas, and Magmortar should cover the rest. Is that enough to convince you?"
Candice smiled sweetly at the young trainer. "It sure is. I guess you've got enough people in your life worrying about you… I must be annoying you with all my gabbing."
"A little," Paul honestly told her, though his tone was soft and casual. "But I appreciate what you've been telling me about the battle and how I've changed. That's what I've been trying to do ever since I was released from the hospital… it's good to know my efforts really amounted to something."
"Keep it up and you'll go so far you'll reach the stars!" Candice encouraged him. "I definitely wanna see how far you get in the Sinnoh League. But before that… if you don't mind me asking, who're you going to challenge for your eighth badge?"
Paul crossed his arms, back to his usual grim expression. "I'm challenging all the gyms Reggie beat back in his day," he explained. "He earned his seventh badge defeating Hale, your predecessor. The last badge he won in Sinnoh was the Beacon Badge, when he defeated Shakira at the Sunyshore Gym."
"Ah, right, I remember when Reggie won his Icicle Badge," Candice recalled with a giggle. "He had to beat me before he could get to challenge Hale. But I suppose you're aware that Shakira was transferred to another faraway region a few years ago, right?"
"Yeah; Sunyshore Gym's being run by a guy named Volkner now," Paul stated. "Reggie sort of knows the guy from years back. So I'll be challenging him next."
"I'll wish you good luck with that, then," Candice somewhat nervously said. "In more ways than one…"
Paul was about to ask Candice what she meant by that, but he was cut off by the trademark jingle of all Pokémon Centers ringing throughout the facility. The pair was soon after approached by the Nurse Joy of Snowpoint City – who naturally recognized Paul, being the one to confirm his diagnosis to the doctors of the hospital so that they would know what to do to save his life. In each hand, Nurse Joy carried a tray containing four Pokéballs.
"Sorry for the wait," Nurse Joy apologized. "Candice, Paul, your Pokémon are fully restored."
They both thanked Nurse Joy and took their Pokéballs. Nurse Joy smiled at Paul, also noticing his improved condition. "I'm glad to see you're doing better, Paul."
"Thanks," Paul said. "And I'm sorry I was being difficult with you when I first came here. I appreciate what you've done for me…" He looked down to Candice as he stood up from his seat. "Both of you."
"I was just doing my duty," Nurse Joy said, looking quite bashful. "All the trouble was worth seeing you looking well again; I hope you'll look this healthy for the rest of your journey. I trust you'll take good care of yourself now."
"So, is this goodbye?" Candice asked Paul, watching him step sideways to get out from behind the table.
"Once I make my exchanges, it will be," Paul answered as he headed towards the video phone station.
Paul made a point to make the call quick; Maylene was still answering for the home phone number, which meant Reggie was still on the road making his way back to Veilstone City. It wasn't just Paul's general dislike of Maylene that made the call brief; his jaw was actually getting exhausted with all of this talking he'd done today – it felt like at least three times as much as he talked on average per day. He noticed Maylene was looking more and more frantic with taking up all these extra duties for Reggie (along with some other matter Maylene tried to communicate with Paul, only to get rudely cut off), but he didn't bother asking about her. Paul got his Weavile and Magmortar in his possession, trading out Gliscor and Ursaring.
He was set to finally continue his journey.
"See you around," he softly bid Candice farewell; not facing her, he preferred to just extend a single hand out to her – the lazy, half-hearted version of a wave.
"Looking forward to it!" Candice called out to him. "Take care, and good luck…!"
Once Paul left the Pokémon Center, in what felt like no time at all, he found himself at the edge of the city limits. As he promised, Paul was taking a different route southbound; the way most trainers went. To his surprise, he felt no less "alive" by taking the mundane pathway.
Seven badges down, one to go. Sunyshore City was very far away from Snowpoint City, so Paul expected there would be several pit stops along the way… as well as some rest back home in Veilstone City. It felt like Paul had been up in the frozen north forever; he was more than ready for a change of scenery. His father was still up there, of course, still intent on rebuilding the Snowpoint Temple. Hopefully Reggie would continue his training once he returned home…
And maybe, with any luck, Paul would find out what became of Conway.
"Reggie…" Paul looked down at the long trail he had yet to travel across. "Conway…" He looked eastward, seeing the outline of the dangerous path to Snowpoint City that he took. "Candice…" Paul looked back to Snowpoint City, which was gradually becoming harder to see the further down the trail Paul went.
"… Dad…" Looking northwestward where the Snowpoint Temple was several miles away. Calling Brandon "Dad" was a first for Paul.
"… Mom." He looked up to the sky, just as he had the night after he defeated Ash at Lake Acuity.
Paul managed an earnest smile, thinking of all the people in his life that truly cared about him, helped him in his times of need, and made good company if nothing else. Traveling alone now left Paul feeling a bit empty, but…
"Thank you… all of you."
Just knowing he'd been blessed by having this many people care for him when Paul barely cared enough for himself… he no longer felt lonely.
Little did Paul know that all in good time… he would never be alone again.
( TBC )