All eyes were locked on Chimchar as the light gradually changed the shape of its appearance. It grew in size, but still remained relatively small. The most notable changes were the lengthy tail and the frizzy collar around its neck. The light eventually faded, and a mighty screech of "Monferno!" was heard shortly after. Brock was absolutely correct; Chimchar was no more. After many arduous months of training both from Paul and Ash, Monferno had finally come into existence.
"That's great!" Ash cried out, nearly in disbelief that such a miraculous event would happen now of all times. "You evolved into Monferno!"
Smiling at this milestone of Ash and Chimchar's lives, Dawn took out her PokéDex again to scan the recently-evolved Pokémon.
"Monferno, the Playful Pokémon and the evolved form of Chimchar. It controls its flaming tail to keep its opponent at an ideal distance when battling."
Seeing this certainly reminded Reggie of the time years back when his own Chimchar first evolved. "Amazing; Chimchar answered Ash's call and gained new power in order to rise to the challenge. The trust between Ash and his Pokémon is being demonstrated right before our eyes."
This was precisely why Reggie worked so hard the past ten days with Paul in order to get him to fully trust and care for all of his Pokémon. He knew all along the connections did exist in most cases; Paul's breakdown made that obvious enough. But because Paul went out of his way to suppress his feelings and distanced himself from his team, the connections between Paul and his Pokémon were tenuous at best… it really wasn't all that different from his shaky camaraderie with Conway. Now Paul understood at this moment why Reggie made him focus on creating bonds with his Pokémon. His refusal to open up to Chimchar and even for a moment treat him as a true member over the team made it impossible for Paul to bring out the true power Chimchar possessed. At first Paul couldn't have cared less; convinced that Chimchar was nothing more than a fluke and a waste of time. Then when Blaze was inadvertently brought out some months later when Ash battled Paul, he realized the potential in Chimchar was there after all. But because Paul maintained a low opinion of Ash and his training skills, he doubted Ash would be able to control this raw power and use it properly. Consequently, he figured Chimchar would never evolve due to this. Ash already seemed to be rather slow with evolving his Pokémon as far as Paul had seen, and Ash's refusal to evolve Pikachu was interpreted as letting his emotions impede his Pokémon's ability to reach their maximum potential.
But now, yet again, Paul's perception of the world and the people in his life was put into question by seeing this stronger, confident Monferno standing before him this very moment. After so many times of going into this kind of shock, Paul wished he'd be used to it by now. Just seeing Monferno hopping around, punching the air rapidly and sending an air current straight at Paul with the force of these punches (which was no doubt intentional on Monferno's end) made the struggling trainer bitter to the core. He kept himself under control; Paul would never allow himself to blow up in the middle of battle like he did to Brandon ever again. But still, for all his self-restraint, it was just too hard for Paul to hide the intense jealousy shown on his disdainful face.
"Wow, Monferno!" Ash exclaimed after seeing the wind blow straight past his rival. "You learned Mach Punch, and that's a brand new move!"
Hearing that was nothing more than twisting the knife in the wound that stabbed deeply into Paul's pride. Monferno was literally doing backflips, ecstatic for the new, stronger form it gained that its former trainer swore it would never achieve. Paul was done with silently stewing in his anger over his new development; it was time to continue the match.
"Electabuzz, stand by for battle!" Even though his face conveyed anger, that emotion was not obvious in Paul's voice. Of all his Pokémon who participated in this battle, no doubt Electabuzz was the one who spent very little time getting its hands dirty… though that was due to its unique role for the entirety of this full battle. Where Ursaring was the muscle and the one-Pokémon cleanup crew of offensive dominant force, Electabuzz was the provider of stable, long-lasting special defense (that Ash was dense enough to keep forgetting about) and in most cases had its own protection from any attack by its liberal use of Protect. Keeping Light Screen active did much to keep the rest of Paul's team in good shape, but now it was time to switch the Electric Pokémon to an offensive approach. With the emergence of Monferno, Ash's final Pokémon gained dual-type status with Fire and Fighting. Now that Paul had seen Monferno learning Mach Punch, it was natural to assume Ash would make sure to make a lot of use of it. It was a physical attack, as was Dig (another smart assumption as to what move Ash would favor in this match), meaning Light Screen would no longer be useful. But that didn't deter Paul; even if the so-called "impossible" happened, the fact remained that Monferno was all Ash had left to stay alive in this game. Even if Electabuzz couldn't pull this off, Paul still had Torterra, Honchkrow, and Magmortar to finish the job if needed. Hopefully, it wouldn't come to that… Paul was ready to wipe the smiles off his opponents' faces now and for good. If he couldn't win here, the mental turmoil would be far too much for Paul to bear; could he really muster the will to keep going after a loss like this?
Well, worrying about the repercussions of losing to Ash would have to wait; Paul needed to be completely focused on decimating Ash and Monferno. Miracle occurrences like these seemed to be tailored for people like Ash. Paul had seen Ash win out from lucky breaks far too many times to disregard this one.
Out on the battlefield, Electabuzz was understandably taken aback as it hadn't expected to come face-to-face with a Monferno. As with most of Monferno's former teammates, Electabuzz was quite familiar with the Pokémon who was now its opponent; its enemy. However, their last battle had them battling alongside each other in the Hearthome Tag Battle finals – shortly after Chimchar underwent a change in ownership. After the shock wore off, Electabuzz found Monferno giving it a cocky grin, which the Electric Pokémon gladly returned in kind. This was bound to be a much more interesting challenge and Electabuzz was eager to finally take on an offensive role after so many quick switch-outs for it to reinforce Light Screen.
Seeing those two Pokémon in particular facing off was a bit of a déjŕ vu trip for Brock and especially Dawn, who had to battle them along with Conway way back when… if Dawn hadn't been so emotionally invested in the battle, she might have wondered what Conway was up to right now. But the truth would be far beyond her imagination, regardless…
"Chimchar wasn't really compatible with Paul's training style," Reggie suddenly said out loud, quickly getting Brock and Dawn's attention. "I could tell since he first introduced me to Chimchar… I even told him that he'd have to approach Chimchar differently if he wanted results, but naturally Paul was determined to prove to me… prove to everybody… that he could make it work his way. And… well, I'm sure you two can tell how that turned out."
"He should've listened to you," Dawn said.
Brock shook his head. "Or maybe it just wasn't meant to be."
"Right; it's too late for the woulda-shoulda-coulda," Reggie agreed. "And sometimes, incompatibility just can't be fixed. Paul and Chimchar were simply a mismatched pair from the beginning… but with Ash's training style, it's a perfect fit… simple as that."
"Now that I think back on it, I can't think of any Pokémon Paul had besides Chimchar that suffered the same way," Brock realized. "This battle here… it's like Paul and his Pokémon are perfectly synced up with no compatibility issues at all. And the previous battles we've seen…"
Dawn let out a small gasp as she took those words in. "You're… you're right, Brock. But how can they… withstand the way Paul trains them? Not that we've really… seen that much of him training his other Pokémon… except maybe Electabuzz a couple of times."
"Paul's normally pretty good about picking the kind of Pokémon that compliment his personality," Reggie told the young Coordinator with a smile. "Chimchar was a bit of a rushed decision for personal reasons, but otherwise Paul knows a Pokémon he can respect and mesh with when he sees one." Reggie couldn't help but chuckle at the irony of what he said. "Though the funny thing is, it's really an act of Paul's subconscious. He understands the importance of bonding with his Pokémon now – don't be surprised if he denies it if you ask him – but for a long time he didn't believe in that."
"Even so, I can tell he has certain preferences," Brock pointed out. "He emphasizes on defense and chooses to wait, watch, and listen before going on the attack; a fundamental reverse of Ash's battling style. That's why he prefers Pokémon who are sturdy and can take a lot of damage before going down…"
"… Which explains why he and Chimchar didn't work out so well," Dawn clumsily postulated. "Uh, isn't that right? Because Chimchar can kinda go down quickly unless Blaze gets activated, based on what we've seen so far. What about Monferno?"
Reggie shook his head. "As Monferno, it becomes stronger than its previous form all around… but even if Paul did manage to evolve Chimchar on his own, I doubt the two would have meshed any better. And Ash needs to be careful here; Monferno can get overly eager and make careless mistakes if Ash can't keep it in line."
"You know, I'd go on a limb and say it wasn't just Ash's efforts alone that invoked this evolution," Brock speculated. "The last time these two faced off, Staravia evolved to Staraptor… before that, Turtwig evolved to Grotle."
"Hm… good point," Reggie conceded. "Even separated, Chimchar's past with Paul won't just disappear like that. Evolution can happen under many circumstances, but now that you mention it, Brock, I'm sure this happened because Chimchar is Ash's only hope of winning this battle and it really wants to prove Paul wrong… here and now. Even if Ash loses this battle, Paul still has to face the fact… that he underestimated Chimchar. The raw power Paul wanted from it for so long is finally here, but Paul can't have it under his control now… or ever."
Dawn couldn't help but crack a tiny smirk at that. "And won't that be hard to live down…"
Again, Reggie couldn't take offense to Dawn's little jab; knowing Paul, he probably deserved it. "This is definitely a huge learning experience for both him and Ash," he said. "Like I said, just as some Pokémon have compatibility issues with each other, there can be the same issues between Pokémon and trainer. And Chimchar's evolution is a great example."
"Well, no matter who wins or loses, Paul's gonna have to face the facts and admit he's been totally wrong," Dawn muttered. "He was wrong to fight Brandon and think he could win with nothing but willpower, he was wrong about how important it is to bond with your Pokémon, and he's definitely dead wrong about saying that Chimchar was a pathetic waste of time!" Her voice rose dramatically towards the end of her tirade, prompting Dawn to cover her mouth before she could insert her foot there again. It was hard to explain, but Dawn's perceptions of Paul have been quite warped since she saw Paul battle Brandon.
"It's not a matter of right or wrong," Reggie calmly told her. "This battle has both Ash and Paul's pride on the line. That's why this battle with make both trainers and Pokémon stronger in the long run."
Brock looked over to Reggie. "Hey… that's why you wanted a full battle."
Reggie smiled and nodded to Brock with nothing more than a simple "Mmhm".
"Alright, Monferno! Use Mach Punch!"
Dumbstruck with Monferno's greatly increased speed and power from its evolution, Electabuzz ended up with a swift punch in its gut before it even had a chance to do anything. The power behind the punch was enough to send Electabuzz flying back, where it eventually crashed into a rock and shattered it upon impact.
"Alright!" Ash felt on top of the world now. Never mind his relatively unchanged predicament; this evolution was more than enough to take his mind off that problem for the time being. This was a time to bask in the glory of seeing the fruits of his hard labor at long last. Thanks to Paul messing things up, it was no easy feat for Ash to restore Chimchar to a functional state, and Ash suffered plenty of abuse for his troubles. But his resolve was strong; he had cared for this Pokémon since he first laid eyes on it, though back then Ash never would have guessed that he'd end up having the long-suffering Fire-type on his side eventually. As always, Ash's efforts would pay off in the long run… and Ash hadn't been this happy to reach that breakthrough since he'd gotten his ill-tempered Charizard under control years ago.
"Wow! Monferno's super-fast, Piplup!" Dawn gushed with excitement; Piplup itself was equally ecstatic.
The shock from seeing Electabuzz smacked back so effortlessly was short-lived for Paul; all this truly did was reaffirm that he was right after all about Monferno's true potential. What was once his trump card in the making was now shaping itself up to be one of his greatest threats in the near future. Still, Paul wouldn't give his rival the satisfaction of knowing how scorned he felt deep down; regardless of this miracle, Ash was still bound to lose this battle and Paul would do everything in his power to make sure that happened. "Thunder!"
From its antennae, the Electric Pokémon charged and fired a large blast of lightning straight at Monferno. Monferno probably could have dodged it, but being newly-evolved before its abusive former trainer made the Playful Pokémon rather intent on proving its newfound strength. Truly, Ash's disdain for Paul was nothing compared to Monferno's bitter, spiteful loathing. So instead, Monferno opted to cross its arms together, holding them up to buffer the attack as best it could. By no means was Monferno a tank like the majority of Paul's Pokémon, but its renewed resolve brought about a fierce adrenaline rush. It was no simple feat, but Monferno managed to absorb the Thunder attack without sustaining the all of the damage. The attack still forced Monferno back across the field regardless, and after a while the Playful Pokémon was nearing its limit of resistance, howling out as electric sparks coursed through its body.
"Monferno, hang in there!" Ash called to it, not liking his final Pokémon being forced into a defensive position. That wasn't going to help him win, so Ash went right back to calling out whatever move came to his mind at the moment. "Use Flame Wheel, now!"
Following orders to a ***, Monferno curled itself into its Flame Wheel position and charged straight for Electabuzz; the attack looked considerably more menacing with Monferno's enhanced power fueling it.
Paul wasn't about to take any chances. "Use Protect!"
Since Ash knew it was actually possible to break the Protect barrier – having seen Regirock do this with ease against Electabuzz – he decided he'd try for the same thing despite not having a legendary Pokémon on hand. Unsurprisingly, Monferno's Flame Wheel could not break the Protect barrier. The harder Monferno tried, the barrier was ever more resistant and eventually Monferno was rebounded up into the air, having tried too hard to break Protect. However, this position was usually good for Ash to use for an aerial attack; Monferno knew this as it canceled its Flame Wheel and prepared itself for Ash's next command.
"Now, Flamethrower from up there!"
"ThunderPunch, quick!" Paul followed up as he watched the flames spewed from Monferno start to rain down.
Electabuzz managed to dodge Flamethrower while its fist charged its own attack. Leaping up in Monferno's direction, it prepared to land a devastating blow. However, Monferno managed to dodge it.
Ash was elated to see Monferno instinctively dodging without him having to tell it to do so. "Monferno, Dig!" He knew this was a good time to utilize a super-effective move against the Electric Pokémon; so far Paul's Pokémon hadn't been very good about detecting Monferno (as Chimchar) while it was underground. Ash identified that as a weak point that he'd take advantage of and hopefully turn the tides of this battle.
Just as planned, Monferno burrowed itself deep into the ground before Electabuzz landed. Before Paul or Electabuzz had a chance to guess at where Monferno was and how to deal with it, Monferno emerged from the ground and gave Electabuzz a devastating uppercut. If anyone were to blink during this time, they would have missed what just happened for certain.
"Now, Flame Wheel!" Keeping a beat ahead of Paul each turn worked well against Ursaring, and Ash wasn't about to try to fix what wasn't broken. If he could maintain this lead, then perhaps there was hope for Ash and Monferno to take down another one of Paul's Pokémon.
"Thunder!" Paul was still keeping up, however. Even with a stronger Flame Wheel in Monferno's arsenal, Electabuzz was likely to overpower it if their attacks were to clash now; Electabuzz had evolved months ago and was accustomed to the changes brought about from it. Monferno only just now evolved: this was a matter of experience.
Thankfully, this did cross Ash's mind as he tried his best to keep a steady pace ahead of his rival. To combat a more experienced attack, he'd need more firepower… literally. "Use Flamethrower!"
While still in its Flame Wheel, Monferno used Flamethrower to create a spherical barrier of fire surrounding it. It was very reminiscent of what one might see in Pokémon Contest appeals; obviously Ash's training with Dawn over the months resulted in her influence even outside of the Ice Aqua Jet technique. The sphere of fire acted as a makeshift shield, absorbing the Thunder attack for a while… however, so much power colliding at once triggered another explosion loud enough to pop the ears of every spectator in the area. Only Paul remained stoic and unfazed by the magnificent clash of the elements as they waged war against one another.
Eventually, the area went quiet as smoke obscured the battlefield once more. Paul saw Electabuzz land on the ground, seeming to have made it through the clash without sustaining any real damage. Monferno was still somewhere within the dark clouds, which proved to be to its advantage when it suddenly shot out from the smoke. In an instant, Monferno – still in its Flame Wheel position – landed a devastating blow on the Electric Pokémon. It was a brilliant strategic move on Monferno's part, and here Paul thought he'd never see the day that Ash would be capable of building such a strategy. Electabuzz was clearly in pain, but its trainer was not worried; to him, this was merely a "lucky shot". Ash seemed to be guaranteed a few of those each time they battled.
"Keep it up, Monferno…!" Ash had to keep pressing himself to be positive no matter how grim his situation was. It was positive reinforcement that allowed this Pokémon to blossom into the powerful being it was always meant to be; Ash felt he owed it to Monferno to keep his spirits as high as possible. It was gradually becoming easier for him to truly believe he could turn this battle around after all… but he'd soon find that believing in himself could only go so far; something Paul already learned the hard way long before this.
"All Paul can do right now is defend," Reggie calmly noted; his eyes still glued to the battle. "Ash isn't giving him any opportunity to counterattack. He's reacting much quicker now…"
Brock nodded. "You're right. I imagine this evolution happening just now is still leaving an impression on Paul and Electabuzz as well… and because of that, their reaction time isn't up to par to how it was earlier."
"Ash got his momentum back because of Monferno's unbelievable speed!" Dawn exclaimed, so enthusiastic that her hands were tightening into fists. "There's nothing Paul has that can outspeed Monferno now!" There was some truth to this; the only Pokémon of Paul's that could outpace Monferno would have been Weavile, who was long since eliminated in addition to having a massive type disadvantage against a Fire/Fighting-type.
"Mach Punch; go!" Ash wanted to get this over with; he wanted to knock Electabuzz out and move on to the next Pokémon he'd have to defeat. He only hoped Monferno would have the stamina to keep up the pace to defeat three more Pokémon after this.
"Protect!" Paul was still putting great emphasis on defense, which was the smart thing to do in this situation. Again, Monferno was unable to break the barrier of light Electabuzz formed around itself and the punch was repelled. As Monferno reeled back, Paul spotted a tiny window of opportunity to finally fight back. "Thunder!"
That was the moment Paul needed; Thunder struck Monferno directly and inflicted a great deal of damage.
"Monferno, no…!" Ash couldn't help but get emotional every time his Pokémon sustained a hit. This was only working to his disadvantage, as he spent time he could have used to counter-counter attack to worry about Monferno's wellbeing. Paul identified this as the Achilles Heel of Ash's battling style, as he exploited it so many times in the past that resulted in victory for him and utter shame for his rival.
"Quickly switching gears between Protect and attacks shows how impressive Paul's Electabuzz is," Brock said as he analyzed the Electric Pokémon. Though long since removed from his days as a Gym Leader, Brock still possessed the knowledge and mindset of his former title and saw the same window of opportunity that Paul did… additionally, he knew Ash was making a mistake by focusing too much on his Pokémon and too little on his opponent.
"Yeah, I guess you could say Electabuzz is Paul's ongoing project for this year," Reggie affirmed. "Every time Paul starts out in a new region, he captures a Pokémon early on and makes it the center of his battling style and strategy. Nidoking was Paul's project for Kanto, for example."
Dawn looked over to Reggie curiously. "Yeah, come to think of it… Nidoking was the only Pokémon that did pretty well against Brandon if I remember right."
"And Paul told me he battled Ash with Electabuzz back when it was still a freshly-caught Elekid when they first met," Reggie recalled. "Since then, Paul's made a habit of keeping Electabuzz around without rotating him with his reserves much. You've both seen already how Electabuzz is expertly balancing defense and offense in this battle; I think that's what Paul's going for here."
"Makes sense," Brock concurred. "Most of Paul's Pokémon that we've seen are more suited for a defensive style of battling. He doesn't often use Pokémon that are lacking in defense or anything that's along the lines of what Ash prefers. Even the species they share have distinctly different battling styles."
"That's right. You already saw how Weavile didn't last long in this battle," Reggie reminded them. "Paul has a clear and steady preference, but he also knows variety in a team is important. That's why he's chosen Electabuzz to be part of his project; it's one of the few balanced Pokémon on his team."
Meanwhile, Monferno managed to bounce its way back to its side of the battlefield, though its fatigue was visibly obvious. Once it was back in its original spot a mere few feet away from Ash, the Playful Pokémon fell to its knees and slumped forward; Monferno was in pain. The cause for this was soon made apparent when electricity sparks surged briefly over its body.
"Monferno, are you alright?!" Ash didn't like the sight of those tiny bolts harming his Pokémon. The last thing he wanted was another situation with a Pokémon afflicted with ongoing status problems during the battle as poor Pikachu did. "Hold on…" Thinking back on Pikachu's burned status and seeing the state Monferno was in now was a cause for concern. Thankfully, Ash's overwhelming love and concern for his Pokémon did allow him to think some things through before charging in head-on into danger. He decided he'd test Monferno before trying something risky against Electabuzz. "Monferno, use Flamethrower, now!"
Monferno struggled to get back on its feet, not about to let Ash down. It charged up the energy necessary to spew flames from its mouth, but the static sparks made their presence known again and gave Monferno's body a brutal shock. This rendered Monferno unable to deploy its attack.
"I knew it; it's paralyzed!" Ash exclaimed, unable to hold back the slight grimace on his face.
"It can be an added effect of Thunder," Brock acknowledged solemnly. "This isn't good. As if the paralysis itself wasn't enough, it's also going to put a huge dent in Monferno's speed."
Dawn was horrified. "How could it happen now? Monferno needs that speed to beat Electabuzz…!"
By snuffing out Ash's only true advantage in this battle, Paul smirked. He knew the end was near, as did Electabuzz. It truly satisfied him to see Ash looking utterly helpless and lost, just as Paul himself had felt for so many weeks. No matter how much Paul changed for the better, his spiteful side would not recede so easily.
However, his cocky expression soon changed to one of curiosity as a sudden change sparked within Monferno – most likely in reaction to what was now a hopeless situation. Ash was beside himself with the inevitable cold, hard truth that he'd lose this battle… Monferno could feel its trainer's anguish. Fueled by its undying determination to prove a point to its former trainer, Monferno suddenly let out a raging cry that echoed throughout the Lake Acuity area. Despite its paralysis, Monferno found the strength to swing its arms about; hands formed into fists and throwing a tantrum not unlike the kind Ursaring had when its Guts ability activated.
But Monferno had no such ability… Paul's eyes widened as he watched the fire at the end of Monferno's tail grow in size and intensity; the flames shot out in multiple directions and radiated heat strong enough to be felt by both challengers and the spectators. It was as if someone had just poured jet fuel on Monferno's tail, but Paul suddenly remembered that a similar phenomenon happened when Chimchar's Blaze ability was inadvertently invoked by Ash during a battle they had months ago. The rage, the out-of-control behavior, and the considerable growth of its natural flames… all signs were pointing to Monferno reaching the point Paul could never achieve.
This was a cause for concern, but Paul regained his self-restraint, though he remained visibly concerned. Ash, on the other hand, didn't hold back the utter shock he felt upon seeing Monferno cry out in rage. The similarity to this scenario and the first time Ash saw the staggering power of Blaze gave the desperate young trainer more than enough reason to panic at the sight.
"Oh no, is that Blaze?" Dawn asked out loud the question that was on everyone's mind.
Everyone except the smirking, self-assured Reggie, that is. "That's not Blaze; it's Monferno's determination not to be beaten manifesting in its flames."
Reggie of all people would know how to tell the difference, having raised a Chimchar to an Infernape as his very first Pokémon. Anyone who owned a Chimchar or any regional Fire-type starter was bound to be challenged by the overwhelming power of Blaze at some point in their lives, though the same can be said for those with Water-type or Grass-type starters facing the daunting prospects of Torrent and Overgrow, respectively.
Monferno continued its defiant screeching meant for Electabuzz and Paul as the flames emitting from its tail grew even more intense. The not-so Playful Pokémon raised both arms and set itself in a fighting stance. Finally, Ash was able to see that Monferno was in control of itself after all and this thankfully wouldn't be a repeat of the previous incident. He had overheard Reggie and was able to believe the breeder's words once it was made obvious that Monferno had no intention to go on a rampage at everything it saw – only Electabuzz. Ash felt eagerness swell up inside him again; the desire to prove Paul wrong to the highest degree and the belief that he could do that today burned more brightly than ever before. With this power, Ash knew this was his time… it was Monferno's time… it was their time to prove their selves worthy of the title Pokémon and Pokémon Trainer.
"That's right, Monferno! We're not gonna give up no matter what!" Ash proclaimed, feeling the dread and harsh realities inflicted on him by Paul melt away with the pure-hearted desires he possessed since he was a young child; the excitement he felt when he was ten years old and starting his journey. All of his experience over those past four years built up to this moment and he could feel this battle was nearing its end. He resolved to have Monferno take down Electabuzz in one final spectacular attack.
"Alright Monferno, Mach Punch!"
Paul watched the hollering Monferno make a grand final charge at his Pokémon. Knowing Ash's tendency to get lucky with his words of encouragement (which Paul still thought was a fishy tactic, if it could even be called that) was what influenced Paul's decision on how to handle this. He could either defend and neutralize the attack, or he could take a chance and have Electabuzz intrude on the assault with its own power.
To go on the offensive or defensive… that was the question. Monferno's attack would land first regardless, but Paul trusted Electabuzz would be able to withstand it. Paul remembered how utterly green Ash's Grotle was in battle when it first evolved; nothing unusual from freshly-evolved Pokémon engaged in a battle. Monferno seemed to be adapting much better than its Grass-type teammate, but Paul knew there had to be an opening for him to take advantage of. Ash was obviously going for an all-or-nothing attack here… afterwards, Monferno would be utterly vulnerable and a sitting Psyduck if Electabuzz could withstand the Playful Pokémon's fury.
Paul considered every option, but wouldn't let himself get lost in thought at a time like this. The decision was difficult… however, Paul still retained his own philosophy about making decisions. Right or wrong, making a decision was better than not making one at all.
Whatever the case, Paul could at least afford to be wrong here. He had three Pokémon left to finish the job if this didn't go the way he wanted. Still, he'd be much more satisfied to know if his first choice was the right one, so that he would be able to trust his instincts again.
The Electric Pokémon charged at Monferno with just as much fury as its opponent. It was well aware of its status as Paul's prodigy Pokémon and was determined to prove to Paul that he made the right choice with it.
Both Pokémon were set to collide at the very center of the battlefield; Mach Punch and ThunderPunch were both fully charged and made contact; naturally, their collision triggered a massive explosion much larger than any other in this battle.
The spectators were speechless as they witnessed the blinding colliding energies consuming the battlefield. Paul remained calm yet cautious as he remained still and stoic as his own first Pokémon while the elements raged on before his eyes. Ash looked on, obviously worried. Silently, he prayed that his Monferno would be alright after this… regardless of who would win this clash. The lengthy duration of the explosion meant it would take a while for the thick, black smoke to clear out and reveal the outcome of the battle.
All those present in witnessing the battle were shocked when the dissipating smoke and dust clouds upon seeing the result: both Monferno and Electabuzz were still standing. After everything that happened, at a first glance it was as if the clash had never happened.
Both Pokémon were in close proximity to each other; both Ash and Paul knew that some devastating blows on both sides had been exchanged while they were blinded by the raw, unbridled energy of their Pokémon.
This was it: one Pokémon was about to fall.
Electabuzz was heard murmuring its name, though its smirking indicated that it successfully endured the final strike. It could be inferred that Electabuzz was also able to connect its own attack with its opponent. How or when, however, would never be figured out.
Monferno, who had done its very best, who earned its long yearned for evolution and did everything in its power to represent Ash and his ideals in this battle…
… Had met its match. Upon seeing the weary, pained Monferno fall face-first into the battle-torn dirt and hearing the shrill cry of its trainer, Paul unexpectedly had mixed feelings about what he was seeing. It seemed so surreal, though this was what he wanted…
"Monferno is unable to battle and the winner is Electabuzz!" Olivier gestured to the right side of the battlefield. "Which means that the victor is Paul!"
And with that, the battle was finally over.
Dawn was the only one able to utter a single word during the immediate aftermath of the battle. Despite her loyalty to Ash, even the cheerful Dawn couldn't ignore the position Ash's mistakes landed her friend in and how it ultimately cost him the battle. Like Brock and Reggie, she eventually started to look at the battle from a realistic point of view rather than her usual idealistic mindset. But despite that, it made Dawn no less upset of the battle's outcome. She couldn't imagine the kind of pain Ash was going through now, though she was no stranger to being a victim of damaged pride. Still, this scenario was nothing like Dawn's deal with her rivals. The aspiring Coordinator couldn't have been more thankful to end up with pleasant, civil long-term rivals… because when Dawn imagined a certain what-if scenario, she knew Paul would metaphorically eat her for lunch if they were rivals.
If only Dawn knew of the irony from such an imagination.
For all their complaining for the hard work, the Team Rocket trio were respectfully silent and somber; utterly heartbroken to see their favorite underdog defeated this way. Needless to say, not a single one of them had the heart to break in with an inappropriate Team Rocket motto and kidnap Pikachu this time. These days, Team Rocket knew better about when this was not their business to intrude upon. After all, there would always be a next time.
The battle indeed had gone on for hours; the sun was setting on the western horizon and the group was long overdue for a proper dinner. However, hunger was the last thing on anyone's mind at this time.
Both Brock and Reggie felt this would be the result for a long time after seeing Ash act so carelessly since the battle started. Brock hated to be this cynical, but he couldn't ignore the truth right in front of his face. However, the battle wasn't the only thing on the breeder-to-be's mind… the incident from ten days ago was still fresh in his mind and all of the words of wisdom shared by Reggie today convinced Brock that there was something important behind all this… something he wasn't telling anyone for whatever reason. Brandon had been mentioned so frequently, Brock refused to believe that it was a mere coincidence that the Frontier Brain's presence had such a profound effect both on Paul and Reggie.
Consoling Ash would have to wait; more likely than not he'd want to be alone at this point anyway. For the moment, Brock was determined to have a serious talk with Reggie before this day was over. If he didn't take this opportunity now, Brock knew there was a good chance he and the others would never cross paths with Reggie again. He had to do this today… when the time was right.
Ash eventually made his way towards the defeated Monferno, kneeling down to cradle the weary Pokémon in his arms. The sting of defeat was tormenting Ash, but his selflessness nature never failed to buffer that pain, so that Ash could do the most important thing a trainer needed to do in this situation. Whatever pain Ash felt, no doubt Monferno suffered it a hundredfold.
Feeling the warm arms of its caring trainer, Monferno managed to crack open its eyes to see Ash Ketchum forcing the biggest smile he ever faked in his life. No doubt the lowly Fire-type was overwhelmed with disappointment for its failure and still remembered how it was ruthlessly punished for failing anything regardless of how hard it tried. Though Monferno knew Ash could be trusted and would never follow its former trainer's example, the depression brought about by failing even with its newly unlocked powers took precedence over everything else.
Some mannerisms brought about by Paul's influence were harder to shake than others; Monferno actually felt that it should be punished for causing Ash to lose on such a great scale. It could tell plain as day that Ash wasn't as happy as he appeared on the outside. For all the unconditional kind things Ash had done for Monferno in the past, it pained the Playful Pokémon deep down in its heart to face the gracious trainer after inadvertently bringing down his own spirit. For bringing Ash down this hard… Monferno had no desire to forgive itself. Not yet, at least.
"Monferno… thank you," was all Ash had to say. Or rather, that was all he could say at this time. At times like this Ash was grateful to be wearing a cap almost all the time; it was very useful for hiding expressions Ash didn't want others seeing from him, such as the urge to cry that he felt then and there when he saw Monferno smile back at him, whispering a whimper to its trainer as it to assure Ash that Monferno wasn't blaming him for this. That was all well and fine, but it didn't stop Ash from blaming himself.
Before Paul recalled the victorious – yet exhausted – Electabuzz back to its Pokéball for a well-earned rest (not that Paul would ever say that out loud; he never saw the point in it), he took note o f Electabuzz's condition. Though pretending to be alright, Paul noticed the Electric Pokémon being a bit weak in the knees as if it were doing everything in its power to remain on its feet. Electabuzz looked directly into Paul's eyes while keeping its paws covered over the left side of its abdomen. Its large appendages well covered up whatever it was favoring, but Paul could tell that was likely the area of Electabuzz's body where Monferno landed its final Mach Punch hit.
The match was indeed much closer than Paul would have liked it to be… but with no desire to dwell on it in front of all these people, Paul silently returned Electabuzz to its ball. Meanwhile, everyone who watched the battle (excluding Team Rocket, whom all slinked away into obscurity) came over to speak with the two battle-weary trainers.
"That was a spectacular battle, you two. Many thanks," Reggie congratulated. It pained him seeing Ash holding his beaten and battered Monferno; it was almost like looking at a mirror from years past whenever Reggie lost a match. Still, as a master of suppressing his emotions, Reggie seemed unfazed as usual.
Hearing the honest words from his older brother, who had trashed him in every battle they had leading up to this day did much to calm whatever negative feelings that dwelled within Paul at that very moment. "Yeah, it sure was," he replied, giving his brother the privilege of seeing a rare occurrence: an earnest smile. There was nothing malicious behind it at all, to the surprise of many.
This prompted Ash to avert his gaze from Monferno towards his rival. Ash expected a number of spiteful, rude, slanderous taunts from the trainer who had just beaten him 2-6; Paul always had the perfect, vicious quip to deter Ash from reaching his goal every time he won a battle so far, and for Paul to trash him efficiently in a full battle… needless to say Ash was preparing himself for the worst, as he was already feeling like dirt just from losing and letting Monferno (and all of his Pokémon) down.
Somehow, Paul being civil in this instance was almost as nerve-wracking as his usual rudeness. Ash couldn't help but grit his teeth in aggravation of Paul seemingly messing with his head, but he resisted the urge to make a single sound. As if that weren't enough, Paul was now behaving as if Ash wasn't even there at all. Was that it? Did this mean the rivalry truly was only real to Ash after all?
Then again, Paul did honestly enjoy the battle… but was it because it was genuinely challenging or because Paul had the pleasure of slaughtering Ash's team as if they were nothing?
Ash had no idea what sort of inner turmoil simmered within his rival; something wasn't right here, but he couldn't put his finger on it. If he knew the truth, perhaps he'd be more understanding. But Paul had no intention of ever letting Ash know the troubles of his personal life; that he got to see the obvious animosity between an estranged father and a bitter son was way too much as it was, in Paul's opinion.
For now and always, Ash would remain oblivious to just how complicated Paul's life really was… and why this battle was treated so differently from all the others they had in the past.
"It's been a while since I've seen that look on your face," Reggie told Paul, delighted and proud to see the nice, pleasant smile he always knew his brother was capable of making. After dealing with a miserable little brother who was on the verge of already giving up for over a week, the fruits of Reggie's labor were now shown before him. He couldn't remember the last time he was this happy with Paul, but it was truly a milestone he was honored to witness. Reggie didn't know the whole truth about the grand scheme of Paul's problems, but this smile was the first step towards his brother's recovery.
At long last, Paul's losing streak was over.
"I'll send you my Pokémon," Paul told Reggie. Though feeling on top of the world, Paul still lacked the desire to hang around and make small talk with people he honestly didn't care for. He especially didn't want to talk about his feelings, either.
"Got it, Paul," Reggie understood, nodding to him as Paul immediately started walking to resume his journey. The breeder was about to stop him and offer a ride in his van, as Paul's next destination was obvious to him: Snowpoint City. Now that Paul had made a full recovery and regained his confidence as a Pokémon Trainer, he felt he was ready to follow up on that rematch he promised Candice. It had taken him far longer than he wanted to get his seventh badge, but finally the distractions had come to an end and it was time to get back to business.
Reggie held back on insisting to give Paul a ride as he recalled the words of his father, said nine days ago when their training had just started:
"There are times, son… where we need to be alone. Let the kid pull himself back together. If you do all the work, he'll feel worthless and codependent."
Paul seemed alright now, but Reggie knew inherently that his brother still possessed internal struggles that he needed to overcome. The fact that Paul never could defeat Reggie was one such hurdle. Reggie was fairly sure Paul had a certain person on his mind at this moment, too; a person who clearly left a positive influence on his training and battling style… not that Paul would ever admit it.
And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Reggie's attention turned towards the source of the voice who spoke up: Dawn. It was softly spoken, as she didn't want to come off as patronizing to Ash, who suffered quite a heavy loss today. Sadly, there was no way for this battle to conclude with both sides in happy spirits. Reggie could see the reason for Dawn's concern: Ash was facing way from everyone, only intent on watching Paul walk off towards the sunset until he was no longer in viewing range, still carefully holding the injured Monferno in his arms.
Looking more closely at Ash, Reggie saw the occasional twitch and slight shaking. Ash wasn't making a sound, but it was obvious that he was fighting the urge to cry and was losing that battle as well.
Wisely, Reggie decided he'd apply his father's wisdom to Ash as well; smothering him with attention at this point would do the boy no good, and luckily Brock and Dawn were able to see it that way as well.
However, before Reggie could make a move to start packing up and heading home (which he'd been away from far longer than he expected to be; no doubt he felt immensely guilty for making Maylene take over the daycare in addition to her Gym Leader duties), he felt a hand on his shoulder.
Reggie looked down at the hand, then back towards the one who stopped him: Brock.
A short period of awkward silence followed as Olivier made his preparations to leave, Ash entrusted Dawn with his Pokémon that all needed to be taken back to the Pokémon Center to heal their battle wounds, and Ash himself went off to isolate himself and reflect on today's events.
"What's up, Brock?" Reggie finally asked.
"Reggie…" Brock did feel a bit guilty to insist on the prodding he was about to do with Reggie's personal life, but in order to understand where Paul was coming from and the rivalry wit h Ash, Reggie was his best hope for achieving that enlightenment. "We need to talk," he insisted, looking around to see no one nearby at the moment. "Privately, if you don't mind…?"
That ominous, sinking feeling Reggie had in his gut was not unwarranted; he knew Brock to be the quiet, studious type and there had been a lot of odd things for him to observe over the past ten days. Against his better judgment, he nodded. "Sure, no problem… is everything okay?"
"You could say that," Brock cryptically answered. "But I'd like to clear the air here once and for all… because the last thing I want to do is make unfounded assumptions." He looked over the lakeside before pointing to a secluded spot. "Over there."
At long last, Brock was about to get some answers.