Downstairs, Steven ushered the still-fuming Ren into a car not unlike the one that had brought him to Devon Corp. This time, however, Roxanne was nowhere to be seen. The car ride was silent, frostily so. Ren spent the journey looking moodily out the tinted window as Steven looked on, a slight twist of amusement in the set of his lips.
When the car finally rolled to a stop, Ren stepped out unwillingly. On the other side of the pavement stood a low metal fence, painted green, beyond which stretched a picturesque expanse of grass, dotted with trees and patches of flowers arranged in seemingly random patterns. Under a tree some distance into the park, people were dashing around frantically, setting up a table, chairs and an enormous array of cameras, microphones and portable computers. Leads were being run from the site to a van parked near where Ren was standing, and in the midst of it all was standing a man Ren recognised instantly: Richard Andrews, the host of Hoenn Buzz.
Steven stepped over the fence and beckoned Ren to do the same. As they approached the hubbub, Ren examined the man who he had seen so many times on television, interviewing hapless celebrities and smarmy politicians for the whole Hoenn region to see. Richard Andrews was a tall man with a healthy crop of black hair, tied back in a short ponytail. His skin was a dark olive tone, bringing out his green eyes and white teeth. As the two Trainers approached, Andrews was engaged in conversation with a very pretty young lady who looked vaguely familiar to Ren.
As Steven and Ren drew near, Andrews noticed them and strode towards them, beaming, with arms wide. He embraced Steven like an old friend. “Steven Stone, you old rascal! It's been a while since I had you on the show.”
“Only since last year's Conference,” Steven said, smiling. Ren was slightly taken aback by his genuineness as he slapped Andrews on the back.
“Far too long, old buddy! Far too long,” Andrews said jovially, releasing Steven and approaching Ren. Ren instinctively took half a step back; he hadn't realised quite how tall Andrews was on television. The man was well over six feet tall. “This must be Mr. Goodwin, then?”
Ren nodded, before finding his voice. “Yes, Mr Andrews. Nice to meet you.”
Andrews guffawed loudly, slapping Ren on the back with such force that he just about fell over. “You hear this kid? 'Mr Andrews'? Ha! You call me Richard, kid – everyone does! And I mean that.”
“All right . . . Richard,” Ren said, swallowing. It felt strange to be in the presence of such a recognisable figure.
“Good stuff! And it's a damn fine pleasure to meet you too, kid! Say, s'all good if I call you Ren, right?” Richard put out his hand, grinning.
Ren took it cautiously and just about had his arm pulled off as Richard shook it energetically. “That's fine,” he said quietly.
“Right on! Now, if you'll excuse me, folks, I have to go make a phone call. Back in just a minute!” With that, he saluted Steven with two fingers and jogged off towards the van.
Ren blinked, quite overwhelmed. It was as if a hurricane had just torn through the area, leaving just as quickly as it had appeared.
Steven chuckled and patted Ren on the shoulder. “You get used to him soon enough,” he said. “He's a good man, Richard. He's not just friendly because he's on TV all the time. That's just how he is with everybody.”
“Really? He was certainly . . . energetic,” Ren said. Now that Richard had moved on, he remembered where he was. The show was due to go live in little more than an hour.
“That's one word for it,” Steven agreed. He seemed a little more cheerful than before.
“Steven Stone,” said a teasing voice from Ren's left. “Are you going to keep ignoring me?”
The speaker turned out to be the attractive young woman Richard had been talking to when they arrived. She was tall and slim, with gently tanned skin and deep blue eyes. Her brown hair barely touched her shoulders, exhibiting tasteful blonde highlights. Steven smiled and kissed her on the cheek. “Bella! So nice to see you! It's been a while.”
“Hasn't it just? You must've been so busy lately! What have you been up to?”
“Ah, I'm sure you've heard,” Steven said, scratching his head. “I was busy losing my title to this gentleman here. Ren, meet Bella Bianchi, singer, actress and a good friend of mine.”
“Nice to meet you,” Ren said, nodding politely. He didn't feel up to cheek-kissing. He probably wouldn't be able to reach, in any case. “I . . . do believe I've heard of you.”
“I would be surprised if you hadn't,” Steven said. “Bella is one of the most prolific actors this year, for starters.”
“Oh, come on, Steven. You can't expect everybody to know me!” Bella laughed. “But yes, that's me. Since I've had my introduction stolen from me, I'll have to settle for hearing yours.” Her voice carried a slightly foreign lilt, pleasing to the ear.
“I'm . . . Ren Goodwin. Hoenn League Champion.” With a start, Ren realised that it was the first time he had introduced himself with his new title. It felt strange, like it wasn't quite part of him yet.
“So I take it you're on the show tonight as well?” Steven addressed Bella.
Ren blinked, but quickly realised he was intruding. Nodding to Bella, he removed himself slightly and dropped onto a park bench, out of the way of the setup for the show. Already, he could see a few curious bystanders gathering around the border of the park. Hoenn Buzz
was filmed with a live audience, no matter where it was broadcast from, he remembered. The thought of sitting in front of such a large group of people as the Champion was quite frightening; he had thought that being televised would be bad enough.
Yawning, Ren pushed his hands through his hair, messing it up even further. Although it wasn't as if he'd been up at the crack of dawn, it had still been a tiring day. He hoped he'd get to sleep before too long.
The Dreamlight was still cold against Ren's chest as he cast his mind back to his conversation with Steven. It had been pushed aside by the whirl of activity in the last forty-five minutes or so, but now it returned in full force, bringing with it all the confusion it had had before, and then some. Steven obviously expected something to happen when he went to sleep that night, but what, he had no idea. The only clue he had was the name of the pendant resting just below his collarbone – the Dreamlight. Was he going to have a dream? But that wouldn't tell him anything, surely. In his experience, dreams were notoriously unreliable informants. The last dream Ren remembered having was the one with the Glameow with an afro. The feline Pokemon had led him through a maze of candy canes and lollipops before finally turning on him and trying to eat him.
Yeah. Dreams don't make sense. They don't mean anything.
What had Steven been talking about? As much as he hated the prospect, he was forced to resign himself to the fact that he was just going to have to suck it up and wait. He knew that it would nag at him all evening, but at the same time he knew that he had more pressing troubles to deal with. TV . . . I don't want to be on TV.
Ren wasn't a shy person by nature. He knew that. There was still, however, something painfully intimidating about exposing himself in such a way. Ever since he had become the Champion, he had suddenly become recognisable. It was only his third day holding the position, but the strain was already starting to become too much.
Was it a bad idea after all?
Becoming the Champion had been a glittering, golden dream for years, always hovering at the edge of his consciousness, tempting and enticing him. But now that he had actually achieved it . . . was it actually worth it?
Ren saw no change in the future. If anything, it would get worse and worse. He was the Champion, and the Champion, as Steven had said, was as much a media personality as he was anything else. He would have to keep doing this. He would keep appearing on TV, and on the radio, and in newspapers. Sure, perhaps the hype would die down after a while, but it would always be there. He wouldn't be able to go out in public without being accosted by someone who recognised him, and he didn't think he could deal with that.
“Are you all right, Ren?” said a voice near his right ear. Ren jumped, his heart pounding.
“Jeez!” he exclaimed. “Don't do that!”
“Ah, I'm sorry.” It was Bella Bianchi, Steven's movie star friend. “Were you thinking about something important? Should I leave?”
“A . . . little,” Ren said. “And it's fine. I just wasn't paying attention.”
“You seem a little distracted,” Bella said, leaning back on the bench and stretching. Ren noticed that despite her impending TV appearance, she was dressed relatively casually, in a golden, sparkly top and black jeans. “Are you feeling all right?”
“I . . . what makes you think there's something wrong with me?” Ren didn't think that he had been looking particularly out of it. In fact, he had made sure to keep his face carefully neutral just to avoid this exact discussion with anyone who happened to pass by.
Bella smiled gently. “Ren, I've made a career out of putting on different faces at will and pretending to feel emotions I don't feel. After a while, it's not too hard to tell when someone else is doing the same.”
“Oh,” Ren said blankly. Glancing around, he added, “Where's Steven?”
“He's talking with Richard about the show,” Bella said. She snapped her fingers playfully in front of Ren's face. “But hey! Stop trying to distract me. What's wrong with you? There's obviously something.”
Ren took a deep breath, trying to decide how to put it into words, and indeed, whether he even should. He'd only just met Bella, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to burden her with his problems. Still, it'd be nice to tell someone other than Steven
, he reasoned. He couldn't rely on the ex-Champion for sympathy. “I suppose . . . it's just that I'm not used to all of this
,” he said, waving his hand at the milieu of TV cameras and rapidly growing group of curious members of the public.
“It's the same for everyone who comes into some kind of fame,” Bella said. “It's especially hard for those who become famous overnight.”
“I can imagine that,” Ren said. “Still, that doesn't make it any easier to swallow now. I still feel so lost when somebody stops me and says 'Hey, you're that new Champion kid!' I just start to panic . . .”
“I see,” said Bella, tapping her chin with a manicured finger. “Tell me . . . how do you deal with it at the moment?”
“Well, it's only happened a few times so far,” Ren said. “Mostly I just smile and try to get away from them as quickly as I can without being rude. If they want an autograph or something, I'll sign it, but it's just hard to not freak out.”
“When I started getting a bit more well-known, it was much the same for me. Soon, though, I realised that I couldn't just run away from everybody.”
“I know that!” Ren said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “But still, when I think about getting up on TV and talking to Richard . . . it makes me feel sick.”
“Haven't you done some of this already? Interviews and such, I mean?”
“Well, yeah,” Ren admitted. “But it was just with reporters, or for five minutes on a radio talk show. Then there was that one press conference, but Steven did all the talking there. It was bad, but . . . this is something else. This is TV. This is everybody
“That's what Richard's job is, though. He understands how you feel about this, and he'll make it easy for you. He'll start off with some easy questions, and then build it up a little bit at a time. He's really good at making people feel comfortable when they're in the chair. And Steven will be there with you as well, I understand. He won't leave you high and dry.”
“It's not like I have stage fright or anything! Or . . . at least, I don't think so. It's more . . . the concept of it that bothers me. A little voice in my head is sitting there and asking 'Do these people really have nothing better to do than fawn over someone they saw on TV?'. I know it's horrible, but it's really bothering me. I feel like . . . I'm being turned into an object. Like I'm not going to be a person any longer if I keep it up. Do you know what I mean?”
Bella nodded slowly. “I think I actually do see now. And it makes it easier, if anything. When people are just scared of being in the public eye, it can take ages to get over. I've seen it in other people in my line of work. But when your problem is that loss of individuality . . . well, it's a far more serious problem with a far simpler solution.”
“Really? There's something I can do?” Ren asked eagerly.
She laughed lightly. “Yep. All you have to do is give it a little while. It might sound hard, but just go with it for a few weeks. Throw yourself into every challenge you come up against, heart and soul. That way, you don't forget who you are. Your problem is that you've let what you
people think about you affect what you actually
think about yourself
“I . . . don't follow,” Ren said, blinking. “What I think . . . what?”
“Maybe that was a bit confusing,” Bella admitted. “Basically, what I mean is that you're not looking at people's impressions of you. You're making assumptions based on what they say to you, and that's colouring your impression of how they view you. To them, you're still a person, even if you're a strange one. A kid as the Champion? It hasn't happened for a while, so naturally you're a fascination. But you're not an object. OK?”
Ren wished it was. “I see what you mean, but . . . I doubt it'll make a difference. I mean, I'll try, but . . . I'm somehow not convinced. I'm sorry.”
“No worries. All you have to do is keep thinking about it, OK? I think you can get over this really easily. I won't push you, but just think about it, yeah?”
“. . . Yeah. Thanks, Bella.”
“Aha!” she said triumphantly, standing up and tapping him on the nose. “Gotcha!”
“Huh? What? What did I do?”
“You called me by my name,” she said happily. “You hadn't done that yet!”
“Ah . . . didn't I? I'm sorry.”
“Oh, stop apologising for everything, Ren,” she said. “You're going to get all wrinkly if you keep frowning like that.”
“Um . . . sor- I mean – I see. All right.” Stretching, he stood up and took a deep breath. Although the air was cool, the sun was still quite high, showing through the buildings, dead west along the main street.
“Smile!” Bella said brightly. “I know you can, and you're not going to have any fun tonight if you keep worrying.”
Ren tried to draw his lips into some semblance of a grin, but it still felt unnatural and a bit awkward. “You're being awfully nice to me,” he said. “Why's that?”
“You looked down. What more reason do I need?” Bella smiled and spun around on the spot, looking up at the sky. “I think you and I could be friends, Ren. What do you think?”
“I . . . think that could be nice,” said Ren, and with the admission came a realisation. It had been a long time since he'd had anyone he could call a friend. Sure, he had met hundreds of Trainers on his quest to become Champion. Some of them had been bad sorts, others good. Some had travelled together with him for a period of time, but that couldn't last forever. Friends had come and gone over the last five years, but none with any permanence had appeared. “I'd like that.”
“Hey, hey, Hoenn! This is your man Richard Andrews and this . . . is Hoenn Buzz! Tonight, we're coming to you live from the picturesque Rustboro City, and man, have I got a lineup for you! First up on the show tonight we have Hoenn's favourite diva, the star of the upcoming blockbuster One Flew Over the Swellow's Nest
. She also has three singles in this week's Top 40, including one that's charting in Johto and Unova as well. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you . . . Bella Bianchi!”
Ren watched in awe as Bella strode confidently in front of the cameras, laughing and waving as if the audience were old friends. She seemed so natural, so at home, as Richard stood up and bowed dramatically. She took her seat on one of the large red chairs set up next to Richard's desk, and the interview began – except that it didn't so much feel like an interview as it did a casual conversation.
She was masterful. Bella Bianchi played the scene with ease and grace, laughing at Richard's jokes and keeping the momentum going for the full fifteen minutes she was on the stage. When she finally left, blowing a cheeky kiss towards the cameras, the audience applauded wildly. “Game face on!” she whispered in Ren's ear as she passed. His mind was blank as he vaguely registered what Richard was saying.
“We're going to break for commercials now, ladies and gentlemen, but don't go anywhere, because right after this, I am bringing you Steven Stone – until recently, the Hoenn League Champion – and the gentleman who toppled him from that position, Ren Goodwin!” After the cameras cut out, Richard bounded out from behind his desk and hustled over to where Steven and Ren were waiting, out of the cameras' range. “All ready to go, guys?”
Steven nodded. “I'm ready.” He seemed completely unfazed. “Ren?”
Ren took a deep, shaky breath. “I th- yeah. Yeah, I'm ready.”
“Jeez, don't blow me away with your enthusiasm, guys!” Richard laughed. “Nah, I'm just screwing with ya. Let's get this on. I'll cue you on after the introduction, alright?” With that, he hurried back to his desk again.
It was a quarter to six, and the sun was starting to creep towards the horizon, but the orange-tinged rays were still falling straight down the main street, offering plenty of light, and technicians were standing by with extra lighting just in case. The two red chairs were adjusted, and the producer counted down the seconds until the show went live again. The cameras started rolling again, and at a cue Ren couldn't see, the audience rose to their feet, applauding enthusiastically as Richard took a deep breath and shuffled his papers before finally opening his mouth to speak.
Aaand you're gonna have to wait until the weekend to find out how it goes. Ohoho I'm so evil
and really kind of an arse.