Like the previous day, Paul made sure to wake up earlier than he usually did. He didn't want his family interrogating him about the medication he was mandated to take at least twice a day on a daily basis. Thankfully, Paul did have a considerably better sleep. His mental state was still a mess, but exhaustion finally took priority and forced the cold-hearted trainer into a deep sleep. It helped that the bed he slept on was extremely comfortable. If there weren't so many other things on Paul's mind now, he'd probably be rather indignant of the fact that Brandon had such high-quality beds while he and Reggie were left with mere ordinary standards.
This was also the first time in years that Paul and Reggie slept in the same bed. By the time Paul turned ten, he was adamant about wanting his own bedroom separate from Reggie; quite typical of a boy that age. Since Brandon was never home, Reggie managed to grant his little brother that wish by converting Brandon's desolate bedroom into his own, leaving Paul with the one they shared.
Really, Paul was too tired to protest sharing a bedroom with Reggie again now. Given his condition and his conflicted feelings of wanting to be alone, yet needing a shoulder to lean on the night before, Paul was thankful in a way to have Reggie right by him. It was even more apparent when Paul ended up snuggling against his brother while he slept; that was something that embarrassed Paul deeply when he woke up, and it made it a bit more difficult for him to get out of bed without disturbing Reggie's slumber. He succeeded despite some close calls.
Paul wandered through the halls after taking his medication and getting dressed up. He made his way to the main hub of the Battle Pyramid – this was his first time actually seeing the controls made to pilot the oddly-shaped vessel. Call it a feeling, but Paul correctly assumed that he'd find his father awake, stoic and stiff, standing before the massive windshield that displayed the outside world. The way the Battle Pyramid landed was perfect for watching the sunrise.
Due to the travesty that was his battle with Brandon, Paul was still hesitant to directly confront him. Sure, he freely barked out at him when he found out about Brandon's financial risks, but that was hard to control. After all, the possibility of Brandon failing to capture Regigigas and the consequences behind it were never once on Paul's mind. He was dead certain the Pyramid King would succeed in his mission. There was no such thing as failure whenever Brandon was involved (unless it's some sort of fatherly task); that's what Paul believed.
This belief; this certainty had now shattered, much to Paul's horror. Just like how Paul's assumption that Ash would never surpass him fell to pieces yesterday, more and more Paul became uncertain of his own judgment. What was true? What was false? What was a universal constant, and what was subject to change? On top of all that, Paul didn't know what drove him to become a Pokémon Trainer. There was revenge, but nothing else apparent. Brandon hated having to resort to forcing that reality on Paul, as this was what Brandon did to make Reggie question his own motives. That resulted in Reggie's retirement. Though Paul was horribly confused and drowning in his own mental turmoil, he had no desire to give up. This had nothing to do with spite or Paul's conscious decision to be everything his brother wasn't: Paul just didn't want to throw in the towel. He didn't know why exactly, but the point is that Brandon's harsh lessons, though virtually identical in nature to both Reggie and Paul's cases, produced different reactions from his sons. Brandon hoped that would be the case; he prayed at least one son wouldn't be a quitter, and it comforted him to see that Paul was indeed the one he could still have faith in. It had worn thin by now, but it still existed.
Eventually, Paul forced himself to move forward and watch the break of dawn with his father. Though Brandon wanted a moment of peaceful solitude before dealing with everyone involved in his life today, it warmed his heart to see his youngest son standing right by his side, doing as he did. Neither made any attempt at conversation, choosing to focus on the beautiful scenery in front of him. Paul especially made sure to absorb as much of the sight as best he could; he knew soon enough that one day he wouldn't rise with the sun ever again. Never before was Paul so grateful to be able to wake up, though it wasn't apparent in his behavior. Something did seem off about the young trainer to Brandon, but he couldn't really put his finger on it. He had so many other issues to deal with, so his ability to focus on one slight oddity was greatly limited.
"Thank you," Brandon finally said in the softest tone he could muster. "I wouldn't have expected your unconditional company at this hour."
Paul couldn't bring himself to say "you're welcome". The remains of his pride held strong against the enemy. "I… just needed to think," Paul excused; though his uneasy tone made it obvious he was lying. "That's what you're doing, anyway."
Brandon smiled proudly as he gazed at the sky. "Like it or not, you are your father's son for certain. I would have claimed such an obvious lie at your age."
That prompted Paul to look over at Brandon curiously. Yes, much as he hated to be considered Brandon Junior, this had to have been the first time Brandon ever spoke of his childhood. "I don't understand," Paul admitted. "How you're able to read me this well when you haven't spent any time with us until now… you read Reggie like a book too," he added. "Like you knew him better than he knew himself four years ago. How do you do it?"
This was an interesting topic to start with, given the more pressing issues surrounding them all. Still, it was early in the morning and it was just the two of them… Brandon welcomed an off-topic break. "It pays off to be very attentive to details," he said, mirroring the philosophy of someone else in Paul's life. "Your brother has gotten better about it over time, but at your age, he never did anything for himself. He was so absorbed in everyone's problems but his own… that blinded him for years. He became a trainer, and he battled because I expected him to follow my example. If he had even taken a moment to think for himself, he'd have realized long ago that his passion for battling is nonexistent. I knew early on that it would be difficult to get your brother to utilize the strengths he was gifted with. Unfortunately, he's made his decision to squander his talents. After our battle, his true potential may never be seen again."
Brandon had hit the nail right on the head, and that was startling for Paul. He couldn't argue it; Brandon's thoughts about Reggie were almost exactly like his own. "Didn't you do the same thing?" Paul asked him, though in a civil tone. "You wanted to be Sinnoh's Champion… you're strong enough by now. Why do you keep doing this, then?"
"Being a Frontier Brain, you mean?" Brandon asked for clarification. Paul nodded back. "It may seem similar, but it was more of a sacrifice in my case rather than just giving up. In theory, I could make another attempt like I did years ago… but not only is it not a guarantee that I'll succeed, the risks and consequences of abandoning the Battle Frontier indefinitely outweighed all the positives of such an action. Your mother is no longer around to take the financial fall for me."
Paul's expressions hardened as he interpreted this in his own way. "You're saying it's our fault, then," he assumed. "Reggie and I are holding you back."
"Never say that again," Brandon darkly commanded. Chaotic as things were in the past when Andrea passed away, the Pyramid King absolutely refused to blame either son of his for what happened in the aftermath. "It was my decision and mine alone to go to the Battle Frontier. And no adult in their right mind would make scapegoats out of children, much less their own."
"Does that make what I said any less true?" Paul honestly asked him. "You could have tried again… but you were stuck raising both of us after mother died. Face it: if we weren't a factor, you would have kept trying until you got into the Elite Four."
This was becoming too much for Brandon to bear. Paul was technically right; Brandon's responsibilities as a parent came first before his dreams. If he didn't have Paul and Reggie depending on him, Brandon wouldn't have so hastily tried to find employment.
"We will discuss this matter no further," Brandon coldly said to his son. He was quite stern about this, which Paul took notice of. "Last night, you were quite adamant about focusing on the more pressing matters we have now, were you not?"
Paul could admit to himself that this was getting a bit off-topic. He wasn't even sure why he felt so inclined to even lend his father an ear, much less actively converse with him. But he felt oddly content to stand his place, father by his side, watching the morning come. "You? Following up with your promise? That's a first."
A bratty statement like that normally would have earned Paul a slap upside the head; more often than not he deserved that. But Brandon was in no mood to quarrel. He was certain that something was odd about Paul's behavior; never before had Brandon witnessed Paul actually attempt to take the blame for an incident. Guilt was something rarely seen in the young trainer, even less so for Brandon.
"Listen well," the Pyramid King instructed. "I'm certain you recall it, but yesterday I told you that we will battle again someday… once you're able to tame your emotions when it comes time to battle. You know that battle was simply my giving an example to you of what's to come when we truly clash."
Paul looked to the side, feeling uneasy. "About that…" His tone was flat and stale. "You challenged me and Reggie to battle after we've done what we're supposed to do. We assumed you'd capture Regigigas… so then we'd have to battle it and the other Regis. That makes up over half of your battling team. But now you don't have any of them. Once you leave this place, you're leaving them behind. So how is that going to affect our true battle?"
"I'd be lying if I said our future battles will be unaffected by this," Brandon admitted. "It is a great loss, but you ought to know I have captured many Pokémon since I started my journey decades before you were born. I will easily be able to fill the void and provide you with a full battle, with or without the Regis."
"But then we're not really beating you at the peak of your power," Paul pointed out. "You have other Pokémon, but they aren't legends. This won't be the battle we're destined to have."
Brandon shook his head. "Do not sell my other Pokémon short. Just because they aren't legendary does not mean they aren't powerful. I'd even go as far to say that my starter is on par with the Regis… even Regice."
Paul was taken off-guard by that statement. He had no idea why Brandon would bring up Regice out of left field, but the identity of Brandon's first Pokémon was a complete mystery to Paul. He had hardly even thought about this before. "Your starter…? But which one's…?"
"You'll find out," Brandon said with a grin. Of course he was going to keep Paul in the dark, as he knew how shocked his son would be once the mystery was finally solved. "But know this: the very day I received my starter, I knew I was destined for great things."
"Is that some kind of hint?" Paul asked as he mentally ran through what could possibly fit as Brandon's starter. He knew most likely it was one of the three Sinnoh starters, but knowing a traveler like Brandon, it could be anything.
It pleased Brandon to see that Paul was actually getting a little worked up over this. "Not at all; merely a sign of destiny that had to be recognized. It could apply to any Pokémon you start with. Byron and Palmer experienced the same destiny as I did when they got their starters as well."
"Your old friends," Paul muttered in acknowledgement. "So from the beginning, you say you were destined for greatness. And now you're head of the first Battle Frontier… Byron's one of Sinnoh's strongest Gym Leaders…" Paul was speaking from experience here. "And Palmer's…" he kept forgetting who exactly Palmer was.
"Palmer managed to defeat me in battle not long ago," Brandon told him, which surprised Paul. He wondered why Brandon didn't speak of Palmer as often as Byron, but if Palmer defeated him, Paul figured Brandon was rather bitter over the loss. "In doing so, he became a Frontier Brain… but I decided, instead of uprooting him from Sinnoh and separating him from his son, he would become head of the new Battle Frontier here in Sinnoh as the Tower Tycoon."
Paul widened his eyes as he realized something. "Right… Sinnoh has a Battle Frontier now…." He looked up at Brandon, almost glaring at him. "So why don't you just transfer out to here, then? Your facility is mobile; it wouldn't be that hard!"
"Interesting as that would be, my place is in Kanto," Brandon said with a subtle tone of resign. "I helped found the first Battle Frontier; it wouldn't be right for me to abandon it until I'm unable to carry on my duties." Paul's suggestion was actually giving Brandon some new ideas, however…
Paul growled in frustration. He knew he was supposed to be controlling this better, but Brandon made it impossibly hard sometimes. "You're loyal to your work… it's a shame Reggie and I never see this kind of effort from you when it comes to our family."
That struck Brandon rather hard, mostly because it was completely true. He always went above and beyond to further his career. Meanwhile, he was nearly forgetting his sons' birthdays and made no attempt of his own to solidify the ties between his separated family. "I promised to change that," Brandon reminded him. "You were there when I made that vow to Reggie."
"Speaking of…" Paul muttered, just realizing something. "You just referred to Reggie by name. And you did it yesterday, too. He hasn't battled you yet… and you said you'd never truly see either of us as your flesh and blood until we defeated you. What's up with that?"
"Ah, you picked up on that, did you?" Brandon asked him with a smile.
Paul shook his head. "Reggie did, just as we were leaving yesterday. He nearly had a seizure of sheer happiness over that. But still, it doesn't make sense."
"I'll admit, part of it was due to my assigned role – assigned by you, kid – as a professional familiar to him," Brandon explained. "But the time has come and passed… Reggie is now eighteen years old. Regardless of what he's accomplished, reaching that age is an informal rite of passage in a man's life."
Raising an eyebrow in confusion, Paul just had to ask. "And that means…?"
"It means Reggie has become an adult," Brandon clarified. "Or the first form of an adult – still with freedom with the direction his life is going. He'll settle in fully as an adult whenever he sires my grandchildren." Because Brandon had a strong doubt of Paul being the one to bring about the next generation… at least while he was alive, anyway. Reggie, on the other hand, had become a natural-born mom despite his gender. He was already taking care of babies, as that was in a Pokémon Breeder's job description. Brandon figured once Reggie found a girlfriend, it wouldn't take long for his first son to settle down and have some children of his own to dote on… because he couldn't baby Paul for much longer and the Pokémon were merely filling a void for him.
Even if it seemed pretty inevitable – Paul also felt this way – the youngest member of the family was a bit uncomfortable with the prospect of Reggie moving on to the next stage. Most likely this was because there was only one girl Paul could imagine snatching Reggie away to make babies: a certain pink-haired local Gym Leader, whom he loathed. Maylene as a sister-in-law? Paul felt ill just thinking about it.
"So he's an adult now; I get it," Paul replied. "That's all it takes for you to address us by name otherwise?"
"Well, since he's a full-grown man now, it's a bit inappropriate to call Reggie a boy or kid," Brandon admitted, chuckling a little at the thought. "I could attempt it, but I wouldn't be able to hold in a straight face. He'll always be my son, but I must recognize his maturity. This does not necessarily mean he's earned my respect; that can only be gained through defeating me in battle."
Paul nodded; this sort of made sense to him. Brandon was such a straight and narrow man who very rarely joked around, and calling his full-grown son a child in public was a little silly. "So the same applies to me?"
"What I hope for more than anything is that you defeat me before you enter that rite of passage," Brandon challenged. "You have a little under five years left, and you have as much experience as a Pokémon Trainer as your brother by now… roughly."
"I am catching up to him," Paul claimed. It wasn't an unfair claim to make; the younger brother was just two Gym Badges, one League Conference, and one Battle Frontier short of matching Reggie's accomplishments exactly. "We'll see how we match up when we start training for today."
"Ah, thank you for reminding me," Brandon reacted, moving away slightly to reach for one of his traveling packs to take out six Pokéballs. Paul looked on, completely confused. "I took the liberty of getting your six Pokémon from yesterday healed up; Sam has made some amazing technological improvements to the Battle Pyramid. So you were just spared a lengthy trip to Snowpoint City's Pokémon Center. I'll have to thank him later today."
Paul stared at Brandon as he clumsily accepted his six Pokéballs back. "You… didn't have to do that…"
"Of course I did," Brandon insisted. "I'm the one responsible for your team's condition… as well as your own. Bear in mind, though, I want you to focus only on battling Ash for the next ten days. Unless it's for supplies, I don't want to see you take one step into Snowpoint City until this battle has come and gone."
"No problem," Paul muttered. "I have no intention of facing Candice before battling that guy."
"One more thing," Brandon announced. "Those Pokéballs you're holding… the Pokémon contained in them are yours, but I swapped most of them out for ones you didn't use against me. I want you to specifically use these six Pokémon I hand-picked for you to defeat that Kanto boy."
That was mildly surprising. Brandon was getting really involved in this battle Reggie set up… it was a bit of a surreal experience for Paul. "Any particular reason why you picked… whatever you picked?" he asked his father. This was pleasant and off-putting at the same time for him.
"I'll admit I'm curious to see where your true strengths lie," Brandon told him. "Something seemed off about the team you used against me yesterday… and I couldn't help but notice that you kept Torterra out of this, even though its type combination is ideal against two of the three Regis and happens to be your strongest Pokémon."
"I'm saving Torterra for the real battle," Paul said in an adamant tone. "And I decided to use it against Candice as well… in this environment, it's risky to overwork Torterra."
Brandon nodded in agreement. "Even though you know the last thing a Torterra should face is an Ice-type specialist's Pokémon. Do you enjoy making it harder for yourself and your Pokémon?"
It would never cease to disturb Paul how well Brandon could read him. He couldn't even get out of this with a lie, because Brandon would negate them all with his intuitive skills. "I have the experience; I can afford to challenge myself. Reggie never did this… I already know how it pays off. I defeated Byron with type disadvantages across my entire team – since I know it's possible, I'm going to defeat the last two Gym Leaders this way as well. Whatever it takes to get ahead of the competition."
Brandon recalled when he first arrived in Sinnoh and ran into Byron, who had been defeated by his son just the day prior. Byron filled Brandon in on the details. The Frontier Brain wondered if it was a coincidence or a pattern, but it was now confirmed to be a pattern. This was actually a relief for Brandon: he knew this way of thinking was much like any future Champion's. Going above and beyond to do the impossible… Paul was in that mindset. It seemed there was hope after all… but Brandon saw it fit to give his son a very important tip in this realm of thought.
"You have the right approach to this, kid," Brandon commended. "But the mistakes you're making will cost you. If you insist on challenging yourself, consider the level of your opponent first. Regardless of your experience, if your opponent's strength is equal or greater to yours, the only sensible thing to do is make a strategy with the absolute strongest attacks and Pokémon. I'll admit I was surprised that against me of all people, you would challenge me to a full battle with half your chosen team not even fully evolved."
This was a good point; something that reflected the lack of thought Paul put into making his team in haste yesterday. Electabuzz, Magmar, and Lairon were all in their middle stage of evolution. Lairon was hardly even used by Paul these days; it was just a harebrained idea of his that he might finally get it to evolve to Aggron through that battle. But of course that backfired: Lairon was taken out before it even got to attack.
"It made sense at the time," Paul claimed. It sort of did, but… then again, he really was too preoccupied and didn't have enough time to really make sense of anything yesterday.
"Oh?" Brandon seemed to know Paul was making things up as he went along already. Not that it took a genius mind to comprehend that, but obviously Paul was going to have to lie better than that to convince his father. "Enlighten me."
But Paul really didn't feel like trying today… not when he could tell right off that Brandon didn't believe him. From there, the battle was uphill and nigh impossible. It was far too early to be expending his own energy on a mere lie.
"I don't want to talk about it."
The rest of the world started waking up at last. Not about to miss out on a potential chance to battle, Conway patiently waited by the front door of the Hearthome Gym. Later on in the day there would be a long line of trainers, all wanting a shot at the foreign Gym Leader. There was no telling whether or not she was even in town today, as there were no signs or notices to indicate that she wouldn't be.
Barry, of course, could not stand this. Soon enough he was marching in angry circles around Conway, who amusedly let his companion do as he wished. For being such a nice guy and footing the entire breakfast bill, Conway thought this was a nice way to even out the odds.
"Getting dizzy yet?" Conway asked after a while, trying to keep a straight face. Barry did not stop, shaking his head in frustration.
"I am way too focused and way too mad to be dizzy right now!" he proclaimed. "This lady is gonna get the biggest fine ever made, I tell you wha-…"
Barry's tangent distracted him from his circle pattern; his frantic legs strayed from the circle away from Conway and inadvertently lead Barry to march right into the Hearthome Gym's outer walls. He fell over promptly on his back. Conway was greatly entertained by this stunt, unable to help cracking a smile now as he peered down at his blond sidekick. "Perhaps your brain should be coordinating your legs better, then," he teased. "They definitely looked dizzy to me."
Something about that statement made Barry snap. Not even properly responding to Conway, Barry roared out a holler as he pushed himself up, hopping from one foot to another and forming fists, shaking with superficial rage. He started beating on the walls, continuously making a racket and making a scene. Thankfully, the streets were rather deserted this time of day, but that didn't embarrass Conway any less.
He took a mental note there and then: never take Barry along on any stealth missions.
"I know you're in there, Fantina!" Barry cried out, now taking his frustrations out on the front door. The last thing Conway wanted was to make a bad first impression; he wanted to rip his partner away from the building, but he also knew better than to get between Barry and the target of his frustrations. "Now come out of there and fight like a man! I'm gonna beat you this time!"
Conway sighed and reached into his carryon bag, pulling out a square piece of deluxe chocolate. He had a particular liking for imported (and thus ridiculously overpriced) chocolates – something he feuded over often in the past with Paul, who couldn't afford such luxuries. Barry was much more supportive of Conway squandering money over silly things, but he was also rather greedy when it came to sharing the spoils. To Conway, these pieces of chocolate were his portable happy places.
Just as Conway was about to take a bite, Barry looked over behind him and eyed the chocolate. As usual, Barry forgot about the tangent he was on and focused on the treat Conway planned on enjoying to cope with the madness going on around him. "Hey!! You said you were out of those when I asked you for one earlier! What's the deal?!"
"It was a tactical lie," Conway straightforwardly admitted. Seeing that Barry had an eye for his chocolate, he was quick to take a bite. The Razz Berry filling presented itself from the chunk of chocolate Conway hadn't yet devoured, making Barry turn around completely from the door. "If I told you I still had some, you would have devoured them all by now… and the last thing you need is more sugar in your system," he scolded. "Just look at you now."
"Don't mess around with me, man!" Barry warned, making his way over towards Conway… who admittedly couldn't help but be a little intimidated. Sure, Barry wasn't the brightest crayon in the box, but he was still fully capable of beating Conway to a pulp just like anyone else. "I won't stand for you holding out on me!"
"Oh? You want this?" After Conway devoured the last of his Choco-Razz square, he pulled out another for Barry's viewing pleasure. "This right here?"
"Yes, I want that," Barry barked out. "Now hand it over!"
One of Conway's favorite things about being with Barry? The fact that the Twinleaf Town trainer made it too easy.
"You're absolutely certain?" Conway asked mockingly. Seeing Barry nod while in utter panic brought him such sadistic joy… now he knew Paul had been a bad influence on him.
"Come on, already!" Barry cried. "This isn't funny, you know! Only I know how to be funny!"
Well, after that much torture, Conway thought it was only fair to give Barry what he wanted… but only if his new friend humiliated himself in the process. "Fetch, boy!" Yes, Conway actually threw the chocolate piece several feet away from him. It landed right on the hardly-sanitary ground, but that didn't deter Barry from chasing after it without question. Conway had to hold back in a laugh as the desperate blond proceeded to pick up and eat the chocolate without even dusting it off first.
"Mon dieu, what is that 'orrible noise out there?" a new and accent-heavy voice asked all of a sudden. Conway turned himself around to find Hearthome City's Gym Leader standing right outside the front door of the facility she so often abandoned. Despite it being so early in the morning, Fantina was fully dressed for the day in her usual gown with her hair done up in its usual style… something that must have taken well over an hour to do each day. She had heard Barry shouting at her but couldn't make out his threats. Never before had Fantina endured such rowdy challengers; she was mostly in disbelief, but she was even more shocked when she finally came outside just in time to watch Barry eat something from the sidewalk. "Parbleu! You should not be eating anyt'ing from t'ere, mon cher!"
"Huh?" Barry looked up, only to fall over on his behind in shock as he pointed his shaking finger at the woman. "Aha! So the coward finally shows herself!" He quickly picked himself up from the pavement. "Prepare to go down, Fantina!"
"Eh?" Fantina was momentarily confused, but gasped when she gave her prospective challenger a closer look. "Wait a minute… you are Barry, the boy from Twinleaf Town, n'ętes-vous pas…?"
Conway raised an eyebrow at the Gym Leader. "You remember this guy?" Though it wasn't beyond Conway's imagination, given his acquaintance's brash demeanor…
"Of course she remembers me!" Barry proudly affirmed. "I left the biggest impression on her than any other challenger; isn't that obvious?"
Fantina wisely chose not to make a remark to Barry's obvious overstatement. Instead, she looked to the other person in her presence. "One familiar face," she acknowledged. "But I do not believe I 'ave seen you around before."
"You certainly have not," Conway said with a humble bow. "Con-… er, Colin from Celestic Town; Pokémon trainer and hopefully future challenger of yours," he said with a quick save. Prior to meeting Barry, he had no problem referring to himself under his pseudonym only (as well as his chosen fake hometown). But since the two had spent a while together and Barry had quickly busted Conway's ruse, it was easy for him to make a slip like this, and he knew he had to be more careful about this in the future. "Enchanté, Mademoiselle."
It wasn't every day that Fantina got prospective challengers that could speak her native tongue. She glowed with joy and shook Conway's hand; this was a rare treat for her, after all. "Oh, what a well-mannered young man we 'ave here! Welcome, welcome!"
"Hey wait a minute!" Barry objected, marching over to Conway while looking rather indignant. "You didn't come from there and that's not your na- OW!!"
Naturally, Conway wasn't going to let Barry finish that sentence. He could have sworn he went over this with his companion already, but evidently instructions were something Barry couldn't remember to follow completely until he'd been run through them at least fifteen times. So all in all, Conway didn't feel too bad when, in the most subtle way he could manage, he waited for Barry to get close enough so he could stomp on his foot with all his strength. It wasn't much, but definitely enough for Barry to feel it; it helped that Conway did this without warning. Fantina didn't notice the slightly elder boy flattening his cohort's foot, and recalling the kind of person Barry was from previous meetings allowed her to believe the blond just stubbed his toe on something instead.
"Ah, I see someone still 'as not learned the value of patience and paying attention." Fantina chided. "Barry, you will not be defeating me anytime soon if you do not shape yourself right."
Barry's rage was only focused on Conway now. "You-! You dirty little…!"
"Barry, non," Fantina cut him off, scolding him like a preschool teacher would one of her students. "T'is behavior is not acceptable; you know t'is. The way you are behaving is not like a Pokémon Trainer, but rather a… ah…." She hesitated, suddenly unable to think of the right word. "What you of Sinnoh would call, a…"
Before Barry could cut her off in return, Conway gave a humble suggestion in the smuggest tone he could muster. "Un garçon inculte peu?"
"Ah, précisément!" Fantina agreed with delight. "What a worldly young challenger I 'ave before me today! Would you be so kind to treat moi to une bataille?"
"It would be an honor," Conway accepted, gleeful that the art of sucking up was working wonders for him on this woman. Going against nothing but Ghost-type Pokémon would be no walk in the park, even without the phasmophobia. With it, however, there was the added challenge of conquering a fear that ruled Conway for the majority of his life. It was something Conway could no longer afford to have; failure was not an option here.
This decision was not quite unanimous, however. Barry recovered in time to protest. "Now wait a second here!!" Conway never thought he'd hear such words in that order spill out of that boy's mouth. "I thought I made it clear that I was gonna take Fantina on first!"
Conway shrugged, feigning helplessness. "Well, in the end, I think it's not up to us," he supposed. "It's up to her, right?"
"Even so!" Barry called out of spite. "Fantina knows who I am! She knew I was gonna challenge her to a rematch! Why should I have to wait?"
"T'ink of it as a lesson of sorts," Fantina suggested. "You were the naughty one making that fuss outside my door, non? Barry, you do know better. Clearly, you are in need of… what do you call it, a "time-out"? I will battle you today when you 'ave done as I asked."
Barry grasped at his hair in frustration. "Y-you've gotta be kidding me!"
"I don't think she's kidding," Conway remarked, continuing to look like the perfect angel in this situation. "You can still watch our battle, though. That ought to give you some time to finalize your strategy."
"Hey! I've got total faith in my strategy as it is now!" Barry shot back. That was one more thing that Conway saw in contrast to how it used to be when Paul was his traveling partner instead. At least Paul didn't throw tantrums that never failed to disrupt and destroy the intellectual's inner peace and Zen, but it was still a bit refreshing to be in the presence of someone who would take a chance on blind faith. Conway's fellow Veilstone City trainer was so rigidly against such optimism that he was honestly a downer to be around for most of the time.
By this point, the group of three had entered the Hearthome Gym and made a beeline for the stage where the battles would be had.
"I do look forward to combating you once more, Barry," Fantina assured. "Surely you must 'ave the strategy to defeat me at last."
"You'd better believe it," Barry warned. "Just know this: I'm the main event. This guy here's just gonna be your warm-up match!"
On the other hand, Barry was arguably worse about insulting Conway than Paul was. Or at least Paul wasn't so desperate and petty to do it every other minute like Barry did. It was obvious to Conway that Barry was just jealous now, though. After all, Barry was so certain he'd beat this nerd to the punch in Hearthome City, but his erratic and childish behavior ended up backfiring on him. To Conway, this was sweet poetic justice at its best.
"Well, monsieur Colin, I 'ope you are more t'an what Barry claims of you," Fantina said, just as the battling arena was within sight. "For defeating me will be no easy task. Wit' any luck, though, it should not take you t'ree attempts like it will notre ami persistante."
While relieved that his patience rewarded him with what would soon be his third Sinnoh Gym Badge, Conway's inherent phasmophobia was coming to the fore now that he was actually within Fantina's domain. It was only to be expected of a dedicated part-time Coordinator who thusly placed great importance on aesthetics, be it her Pokémon, herself, or even her own Gym. But since Fantina specialized in Ghost-types, Conway didn't take his surroundings into consideration until he found himself overwhelmed with the dark and spooky atmosphere the Hearthome Gym's interior exuded.
"I assure you I will give it my all," Conway promised, though his feelings of discomfort were well-noted by both the Gym Leader and his traveling partner. It was a little ironic, in a way, that a young man who was notorious for his "creepy" moments and startling sudden appearances could be so easily intimidated. "It's just… despite doing the necessary research and knowing your area of specialty, I can't help but notice your Gym's…. interior… contrasts greatly with its outside appearance." While they continued walking, Fantina looked back to Conway with a puzzled look on her face as an awkward silence followed that comment. Quick to save face, Conway waved both hands to the side, "brushing off" said comments he just made in desperation. "Not that I find it a problem, of course!" he assured. "Your interior design is impeccable! It was just the difference of styles in the transition from outside to inside that surprised me…!"
He certainly didn't mean to come off as offensive or needlessly critical, much less let on to his opponent that her atmosphere was succeeding in freaking him out. Outside, the building was so brightly-colored and fit in perfectly with the pleasant surroundings that made Hearthome City such a popular place in the Sinnoh region. The gigantic sculpted Drifblim that sat on top of the Gym's roof made the place seem even more inviting; though Drifblim by nature could be fearsome, it was also perfectly capable of looking harmless and fun, as shown by the positioning of the sculpture on Hearthome's Gym where its flowing extensions were reminiscent of some sort of carnival attraction. Given how lively, social, and overall pleasant Fantina was compared to most other Ghost-type specialists, it was a bit jarring for most trainers once they actually went inside the Hearthome Gym and found the facility overall to be a bit poorly-lit compared to others. The battle arena was visible enough, but the muted hues of the lighting made even that area a bit disconcerting. The walls were dark; ancient and ornate relics such as century-old chandeliers and candle-lit hallways did well to darken the mood. Barry was a bit distracted with all this during his first visit to this place (shortly before he met Ash Ketchum, no less), but by now this was nothing new for him. Conway, on the other hand, had to take all of this in and still retain his composure. It was especially difficult for him, given his fear of the supernatural from beyond the grave.
Thankfully for Conway, Fantina was still a little slow picking up the nuances of her non-native language when people like Conway gratuitously used complex or uncommonly-used words and phrases. Not wanting to think too much about it, she simply reassured Conway with a smile as the group reached the stage where they were to battle. "You 'ave such a way wit' words, Colin," Fantina complimented as she quickened her pace slightly to stop in front of the boys. "Now, if you would be so kind as to wait a moment or deux, I must prepare. It will not take long; please be patient."
"Of course; take as much time as you need," Conway assured with a hesitant nod. As Fantina took her leave, Barry muttered out a complaint.
"Not too much time; we've had to wait for this lady for way too long now," he grumbled, crossing his arms and tapping his feet as his impatience was quick to build itself back up.
Conway let out a half-amused, half-exasperated semblance of a laugh at Barry's statement. Amusing as Barry's mannerisms were, he was still more interested in taking in his surroundings. Since he had to battle Maylene outdoors in a mere neighborhood backyard, this was really only Conway's third time being inside an official Pokémon Gym (counting the Canalave Gym back when he watched Paul's battle with Byron over a month ago). The unique water-based battlefield in Crasher Wake's Gym in Pastoria City versus the rocky terrain of Byron's led Conway to believe that these particular Gyms were self-contained independent environments that vastly differed from the surroundings of the town or city they were stationed in. Given the opportunity to take in the full view of Fantina's deceptive battleground; the poor or unusual lighting, the small, stained-glass windows that allowed for very little natural light to get inside the Gym (so any Pokémon that would be relying on a strategy based on Morning Sun or Synthesis for recovery purposes – i.e. Ash's Grotle, would be out of luck here), the large, cathedral-styled walls and the ornate furniture decorating much of the place… Conway had no doubt in his mind that Pokémon Gyms had no guidelines or instruction from the Pokémon League to even try to keep things streamlined and uniform. Perhaps that was part of the challenge prospective trainers had to face on their way to qualifying for the big leagues? It made sense, but it still came off as a humorous irony to Conway, who knew thanks to the jobs his parents had that most professional areas of work were very keen on doing the opposite of what these Pokémon Gyms did.
Still… this particular case would be giving Conway an additional issue to endure as he strove to earn his Relic Badge. He was all for expressions of creativity, but overcoming the fear of ghosts would be made even harder if Conway would have to do battle in what was essentially a haunted house. Everything in here made Conway feel on edge – the least of which not being those decorative Duskull-shaped lamps. If there hadn't been such a powerful driving force (in the form of Saturn) behind Conway's motivations, the relatively fresh Pokémon Trainer had a feeling he wouldn't have had a chance to defeat Fantina on the first try. Barry's track record against her was showing enough: though Barry was by no means a "strong" trainer in Conway's eyes (definitely not up to par with Paul, anyway), the blond was still perfectly capable of surprising the guy who thought he already had it all figured out. He wasn't completely inept despite his demeanor. Knowing that, and now knowing Barry's had an especially difficult time defeating the alluring, soulful dancer told Conway that the challenge just ahead would be much greater than the ones presented by Maylene the newbie and Crasher Wake the powerhouse.
This was where believing in yourself came in handy; Conway wasn't going to beat Fantina with low self-esteem for certain.
"You know it's too late to back out now," Barry taunted after noticing his companion had gone a while without saying anything. Though it hadn't been that long since they teamed up, Barry was familiar enough with Conway already to find it odd that he hadn't been gabbed to near death with useless factoids and observations. Conway more than made up for Barry's lack of academic aptitude and was determined to cram as much information into that inattentive head of his as he could. This was a perfect opportunity and Barry was actually expecting it; the look on the silent Conway, however, told the story itself. "If you're having second thoughts, maybe you'd better let me take Fantina on first after all, huh?"
Such taunting was a tactic Conway usually used on Paul. Surprisingly, his fellow Veilstone resident was susceptible to any threat to his abilities and would do anything just to prove Conway wrong. The elder trainer thought he knew better than to fall in the same trap, but there was just something about the way it was said… or more likely who was saying it to him, that made him throw logic out the window in favor of making Barry look even more like a fool by proving him wrong.
"If you continue to make such shallow observations, you'll be the one to fall in battle today, Barry," Conway warned, doing well to keep his anger to a minimum. "I know a strong competitor when I see one, so I'd prefer not to waste my concentration before the battle prattling on with the likes of you."
"Say what you want, but you look totally terrified right now," Barry pointed out… and he was absolutely right for once. "You'd better shape up if you think you're gonna beat her in one go. Sure, this place is weird, but it's not that scary. Maybe if we were like four years old it'd be scary…"
In many ways, Barry was indeed Conway's biggest adversary yet. It was in one specific area, however: the fair-headed Pokémon Trainer was nothing less than a seasoned pro in the art of rattling an opponent's nerves. Often it felt like Barry was hardly even giving Conway room to breathe; how Conway was going to deal with Barry for the rest of Sinnoh would be the ultimate challenge here. More than the rest of the Sinnoh Gym Leaders, more than possibly facing hundreds of Pokémon Trainers in the Sinnoh League Conference… possibly even more than his cousin Saturn.
"If I didn't know any better, I'd say you're going out of your way to sabotage me," Conway calmly accused. "I'll have you know I'm not so easy to scare, however. You're best off not to waste your-"
Conway shrieked immediately, cowering away before finding himself instantly enraged upon hearing the roaring laughter of his so-called friend. "Barry!"
That reaction was far too priceless, and Barry thought it was well-deserved after Conway made him out to be a simpleton a few hours earlier. "Calm down, man," he teased. "I'm just helping you prepare for the battle! Fantina's gonna have you screaming like a girl the whole battle if you get scared this easily!" Now it was his turn to look smug and condescending. "You're so lucky to have a guy like me to learn from – because I know all about the tricks and terrors Fantina's got up her sleeve. Looks like we have just enough time for a little crash course before you face your doom, too!"
This was not reassuring in the least for the intellectual young man of the duo. More and more Barry's antics made Conway miss Paul's company with each passing day. That really was saying something, given the cruelty his abusive acquaintance inflicted on him in the past.